January ramblings

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This has felt like the longest month ever. It seems like an age since the Christmas decorations were up and I was rather dreading taking them down, to plunge the house into January gloom. A horrible head cold floored me for what felt like forever, but I still managed to get out on the brighter days.

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The first two weeks were spent mainly lying low and getting some writing done, but a visit to the new Deal Kitchen café on the pier provided glorious views on a sunny day.

Mid-January I headed to Rye to meet a friend, visit the Ypres Tower and generally wander through the streets, admiring the buildings (and marvelling at the contrast with a previous visit on a sunny summer’s day years ago). The following day, after a muddy woodland walk, I had a welcome veggie curry at the Goods Shed in Canterbury.

Flowers inside and out helped to lift the January blues – some of the most beautiful roses I’ve ever received (a gift for storing logs and a chicken house for a neighbour…) brightened, and scented, the dining room. Outside, winter honeysuckle offered a few tentative blooms, as did the Daphne odora by the front door.

On a chilly afternoon I gave my first-ever library talk in Sandwich Library, full of nerves, but supported by friends and a lovely audience. There were at least three people there with Yorkshire connections (the books are set in west Yorkshire) and the questions I was asked at the end showed real interest and engagement. I came away feeling quite buoyed up – so good to have face-to-face contact with real people, rather than social media conversations.

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We had some spectacular sunrises, not always easy to catch via my phone camera, but this one was particularly special.

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Still on the subject of skies, the day leading up to the lunar eclipse (the last for 29 years?) was a chilly one. The moon over the sea was spectacular and I managed to catch a glimpse of the super blood wolf moon at 5am in all its glory. A small orange ball in the sky, I couldn’t photograph it, but at 7am it was a huge silver disc, vanishing over the horizon. And it gifted us a really sharp frost that took most of the day to lift.

A glorious sunny walk along the River Stour heading out of Sandwich towards the sea was followed by a day of snow, sleet and gloom.

I spotted my books on offer in The Works and I got my first statement via PLR from the libraries, showing 1200 books borrowed in around 5 months (mainly for one title), which felt like a real achievement. I did my second library talk, in Broadstairs, and was so flustered by arriving with only minutes to spare after unexpected road closures caused terrible traffic delays, that I failed to take any photos. But it was another great audience and a little less daunting than the first time!

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In the final days of January, a sunny walk in Deal was accompanied by a windchill of what felt like minus 5. But, with a trip to India just days away, I can hardly complain…

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December ramblings

Horse fieldIt felt as though December was rather a gloomy month, with lots of leaden skies, although looking back at my photos perhaps that mainly applied to the latter half – when I was also poorly. The month opened with me getting into the Christmas mood much earlier than usual, with a bit of shopping at an Open Studio weekend in Deal, quickly followed by putting up the new Christmas wreath, and decorating a large pot plant instead of a tree. A scented candle and a card from my lovely publishers added to the festive feel in my writing room.

There was sunshine to be seen in the first week, with a fiery sunrise one morning. A lovely crisp walk through the orchards and past the horses alarmed the blackbirds, thrushes and maybe redwings feasting on the fallen apples, causing them to take off in frenzied flocks. And the berries on the Asparagus (a new one on me…) added a welcome splash of colour when the skies turned grey.

The writing group I belong to produced an anthology, launched at the Astor Theatre in Deal with lots of lovely readings, and I now have three volumes to dip into, with the most beautiful covers.

Christmas week brought a bit of publicity for ‘Sarah’s Story’, my third book, in the local paper and a delicious lunch at Namaste in Sandwich – Goan fish curry and dum biryani in the photo – was a non-festive treat.

Christmas itself, and the weekend before, was spent with Ellis and family, who provided much joy – as well as a couple of viruses!

I’m writing this on New Year’s Day 2019, which began with some glorious sunshine. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a bright year ahead!

November ramblings

IMG-8663November already – I can’t begin to think how the year has flown by so fast…. The first of the month found me in London on a wet and gloomy day, lunching on amazing gnocchi at Bancone before wandering through Trafalgar Square to the Courtauld Institute exhibition of The Impressionists at the National Gallery.

There were poppies everywhere for Remembrance Sunday – these knitted ones are in Sandwich and just one of the amazing displays and moving events all around the country to commemorate the end of The Great War.

PoppiesThe Kent MOMI was a wonderful place to spend a few hours with family on a wet day – I absolutely loved the magic lantern slides.

The following week, a walk at Bishopsbourne yielded wonderful unspoilt countryside (top) and the surprise of a Burne Jones window in the local church.

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The month brought two or three lots of babyminding with the delight of lots of cuddles, some early reading and two trips to the park. Ellis wasn’t too sure about the swings but the see-saw was fine – with company.

Still in London, I went to the Romantic Novelists Association winter party in the Mechanics Institute Library. I failed to take any sensible photos – the one on the left is out of the back window onto an eerily quiet Westminster, which was odd because on the other side Parliament Square was full of  excitement on the day that the Brexit deal  finalised – possibly. The other is of Rachel from my publishers winning Publisher of the Year but clutching the only prize worth having – a knitted Poldark.

Off to Edinburgh and I was blessed with glorious weather – clear and sunny if a bit chilly. The city was a revelation, as I haven’t been there since I was about five years old. Walked up Calton Hill and then around central Edinburgh, having a Middle Eastern afternoon tea sitting outside a restaurant on the two-tier Victoria Street in the sunshine.

Then more walking,  around the castle and past a splendidly OTT fountain in Princes Gardens.

The following day was a day of culture – a Liberty exhibition at the Dovecot Gallery and beautiful Scottish Samplers at the National Museum of Scotland – where there were more great views of the city from the roof.

My final day found me at the hugely decorative and fascinating Rosslyn chapel – it’s full of intriguing puzzles, but no photos allowed inside…

Back home in Kent on a cold and sunny day there was another trip to Bishopsbourne church and more photos of the stained glass and beautiful altar decorations. This time, the visit was followed by tea and cakes at Tadpoles tea room.

The weather took a downturn and while family and friends were sending me photos from sunny Goa and Thailand, this was my view from the window on different days – although I managed to get out for a sunny walk after the mist had lifted.

Back in London at the end of the month I made a visit to the Burne Jones exhibition at Tate Britain. Tapestries and stained glass as well as paintings. I so loved his work when I was a student – and still do!

Then later in the day, some publishing events – drinks with fellow authors on the 5th floor of Waterstones in Piccadilly, followed by the Avon Books Christmas party in a cellar bar in Covent Garden, with a digital media training day in the News Building the next day. Managed to snatch a few photos of the wonderful views from 17th floor, in between bouts of hard concentration!

A busy month, and very little writing was done… although I did do a bit of planning for Book 5 and editing of Book 4, at least. Meanwhile, Ellis was loving his first trip to Goa, aged 9 months!

October ramblings

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The sunny skies continued into October, along with the mild weather. I escaped from my desk for a walk around Sandwich, when it looked as though I had the place to myself!

The quince was a bumper crop – at least twice as many as last year, but the fruit was smaller. I gave away half of them and made two batches of quince paste and jelly.

The glorious skies continued with this mackerel sky, which I was lucky enough to capture one evening from my garden, and some spectacular late afternoon light looking across the fields towards home.

Research took me back to Faversham to Stonebridge pond and Chart Mill, the oldest gunpowder mill of its kind still in existence, and then onto the Oare Gunpowder works country park, where lovely walks and history are combined on one site.

The sun was still shining for a trip back to Rochester and an exploration of the streets behind the castle, followed by a visit to the Chatham Naval Memorial park, with spectacular views over the Medway towns.

‘Sarah’s Story’ was released as a paperback, to join Ella and Alice on the bookshelves, and a visit to Sandwich library in Libraries week to arrange an author talk for next year also yielded a whole knitted world, created by some very talented local knitters.

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News that beavers were living close by on a special nature reserve took me on a walk in their direction, which yielded some lovely wildlife spots and a very unspoilt stream – but no beavers (by appointment only…) The flowers carried on blooming in the garden, while the berries around and about were spectacular.

Just before the temperature dropped by a good few degrees, I fitted in a lovely walk through the woods at St Margaret’s Bay and then on to the clifftop at the South Foreland lighthouse. There were sightings of some stunning raptors before it was back down to the water’s edge to bask in the sun eating lunch while people swam.

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An electrical storm, which I witnessed from Ramsgate as it headed over from the continent, woke me just before 2am on the night that the clocks changed. The most spectacular overhead combined lightning and thunder took out my TV aerial… And finally, the end of the month brought Halloween and a repeat gift of beautifully carved pumpkin lanterns. Of course, the month wouldn’t be complete without more photos of baby Ellis!

 

September ramblings

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September came in with some lovely weather, sunny and still warm but not too hot. My garden enjoyed it – the containers that had struggled all summer finally came into their own.

The weather wasn’t quite as kind when we went for a family weekend to the Cotswold Water Parks – not quite a theme park but a bit Truman Show… We stayed in a New England style house overlooking a water sports lake and we got off to a flying start on the first evening when we saw a sundog or parhelion (two suns shining in the sky!) as the sun went down.

It turned a bit cloudy after that but lunch and a walk for 10 of us across three generations on Saturday, and a Sunday lunch in a village pub on Sunday kept us entertained, as did Ellis who has just started to eat solids. You’ve never seen such excitement as when food appears!

The sun was out for the Deal Braderie and Sandwich Arts week the following weekend and, after a talk by the local writer Jane Gardam who has just turned 90, I got stuck into one of her books straight away in the garden when I got home.

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Later that week, the dahlias were looking splendid in the Salutation gardens but there were plenty of other delights, including some rather scary (and toxic) pokeroot berries.

And I had a surprise success with an orchid at home. In its second year with me, it produced flowers after a friend explained the correct way of watering.

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A research trip to Faversham museum, to look into the making of gunpowder in the area, set me off on the start of a few scenes for a new novel, even though I also had to re-work the last 15,000 words of a novel that is waiting to find a new home. The two are linked, so fingers crossed…

Then it was up to London, on a very wet weekend, to re-visit Hampstead, close to where I went to university, and for a lovely lunch with friends who went to uni with me. Much regret over not still living in that beautiful area! Also passed the spot where I had my wedding reception. The marriage didn’t last but the venue is still going strong! Then a quick trip to the university site, now all developed into luxury homes and flats. We had a  glimpse inside one of them, converted from halls of residence built in Victorian times and now over a million pounds for the smallest flat…

As the end of the month approached, the apple boxes were out in the orchards ready for picking the last of the crop and the last of the swallows gathered on the telegraph wires, ready to depart. A willow warbler kept me entertained as it searched the roses for flies, seemingly unconcerned that I was close by. A better camera than my phone might have done him justice – can you spot him?

The wind was brisk but the sun was out for my first, but hopefully not last, visit to Dumpton Gap. Tea and cake in the sun afterwards at the Italianate Greenhouse, with the agave flower stem poking through its fabulously ornate glass roof.

It was farewell to September on the last day of the month with a walk on the cliff top at Dover, to the lighthouse for lunch and back for tea, sun sparkling on the water and the ferries coming and going

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August ramblings

BroadstairsThe hot summer weather continued into early August. The Salutation garden in Sandwich was filled with hot colours, spectacular against the brilliant blue sky. And the newly opened Gazen Salts nature reserve, just recovered after an inundation with sea water a few years ago, was very peaceful. Buried at the heart of it I stumbled across a ‘green’ lake.

IMG-7554In Pegwell Bay the following day, the breeze off the sea made the heat much more tolerable and the fennel looked fabulous against the blue sky.

At the weekend, in Walmer Castle Gardens, the borders and containers were thriving despite the weeks of heat and no rain.

A new ring was as an e-book publication day present to myself for book three, Sarah’s Story, and there were more treats in the form of flowers from the publisher and a visit from my daughter. We headed to Broadstairs and marvelled at the packed beaches (top), then went to the Bella Vista Tavern in Pegwell Bay, for drinks and the view. An Indian meal at Namaste in Sandwich – delicious, unusual and beautifully presented – rounded off the day.

Then the weather seemed to decide that it might be time for autumn, with the harvest already done. The orchards looked about ready for picking and there were misty mornings and spectacular sunsets.

Another visit from my daughter took us to Whitstable, on a pleasant and sunny afternoon, where we were both very taken with the houses along the front at West Beach, even if the beach appeared less appealing with the tide out.

An open-air performance of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in Walmer Castle Gardens was delightful, although there was a definite chill in the air as the evening progressed. Jumpers and blankets required! Then it was off to London for a spot of babysitting for Ellis and my first solo car journey with him – slightly nerve-wracking!

I drove back to Kent (without Ellis) through torrential rain and, after telling myself it was still August, had to give in and light the log burner – it was so cold and miserable.

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Puff balls on the lane, fallen plums and rosehips as fat as cherry tomatoes added to the impressions of autumn in August.

But there were sunny skies again for my first visit to Faversham – a lovely town to wander around – followed by a trip to Oare marshes and Dan’s jetty.

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The month ended with a lovely surprise – a delivery of copies of the paperback of Sarah’s Story, not due for release until October 18th.

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July ramblings

July was a hot month. It started hot, got even hotter, and ended with a dramatic storm. I made quite a few garden visits, starting with a friend’s garden open under the National Garden Scheme – such a beautiful potting shed! Then, the next day, a trip to Sissinghurst, where there was still colour in the borders despite the lack of rain. The view from the top of the tower was amazing, as was Vita Sackville-West’s study in the tower.

A couple of days later I was in London for the HarperCollins summer party, on a really very hot evening. It was in the John Madejski garden of the V & A, where we had a localised downpour for an hour – probably the only rain seen in London until the end of the month! The party retreated inside, amongst the marble statues and into the gift shop. All slightly surreal – but a spectacular evening.

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World Cup fever was all over shortly after – or at least, England’s chances were. I had the second visit of the month to Goodnestone, where the Magnolia grandiflora looked suitably splendid, the hydrangeas were out and the wild flower border was spectacular.

By mid July, the crops in the local fields were ready to harvest and the roses were bravely managing a second flush, by dint of watering every day, alternating front and back gardens. The grass, however, was dried to a crisp.

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It was lovely to have the grandson (and his Mum and Dad) here on his first visit. No need to worry about the weather – hot and sunny, perfect for an outing to Deal to pick up a bit of a sea breeze.

The sunny theme continued with the temperatures rising steadily, into the 30s, until a dramatic thunderstorm arrived. It rolled in across Pegwell Bay while we were enjoying music in the open air at the aptly named Belle Vue Tavern and sent us scurrying inside from the sandstorm whipped up by a fierce wind.

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The drive home had an apocalyptic feel and the storm carried on through the evening, but the rain was more than welcome. The next morning, I was off to the countryside near Milton Keynes, to another lovely garden. A walk around the garden was followed by lunch with friends of over thirty years, then a walk over the fields to make room for tea, cake and more food before it was time to take the motorway to London for a family lunch the next day – and grandson time.

Back home, it felt like a long time since I’d walked locally due to the heat, so I made a circuit via the orchards to see how the fruit was coping with the dry, hot weather. The pears looked to be doing well – the apples a little on the small side perhaps. And with no rain in the forecast for another couple of weeks it’s back to watering the garden again!

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June ramblings

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It’s hard to remember the beginning of June, it seems so long ago now! The heat must have addled my brain. In fact, it was quite cool at the start of the month, which began for me with the re-laying of two patio areas and a path. I made the poor man who was laying them put out every single stone so that I could decide which ones looked best together. Of course, now they’re laid they all appear to be more or less the same colour!

The roses were loving it at the start of the month – the blooms looked so fresh then. Sadly they are all faded at the time of writing and I was deadheading them twice a day at one point.

I took a trip to one of my favourite gardens – Goodnestone – and I think I saw it at its best, with great spires of foxgloves and foxtail lilies in the borders and a wonderful profusion of hardy geraniums, roses, poppies and petunias.

 

It was my birthday in the first week and I had a surprise trip to the Coliseum in London to see the Kenneth Macmillan production of the ballet ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Fabulous costumes and set, and an equally fabulous setting! There were friend and family celebrations too, as well as quality time with the grandson  – and a family engagement!

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Then it was back home to a lovely coastal walk in Hawksdown and Walmer. The garden was looking at its best and the patios were finished in time for the sunshine.

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I popped into The Deal Bookshop to sign the paperback of ‘Alice’s Secret’ as well as ordering a stack of books for my TBR pile.

The middle of the month took me to a real hidden gem – Conyer creek, where there were two great walks: one out to the River Swale and a peaceful outlook to the Isle of Sheppey, surrounded by oystercatchers, skylarks and curlews. The second was an impromptu visit to the old brickworks site, home to some interesting widlflowers (stonecrop, viper’s bugloss and pyramid orchids) with the path progressing to take in more of the shoreline and countryside. A truly lovely day out.

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Another walk a few days later followed part of Jane Austen’s Serpentine walk on the Goodnestone estate, with fabulous views of the house, a very scary spider or caterpillar nesting tree, a holiday cottage to aspire too and more views of the beautiful borders in the gardens.

The Salutation garden in Sandwich was looking spectacular when I visited on a hot Friday afternoon, having the place almost to myself. Everything looked wonderful against those clear blue skies.

The next day I didn’t have to walk very far to do a bit of shopping at Jo Aylward’s Open Studio, and while I was there I couldn’t help but admire her beautiful table decorations (there was tea and cake, too…)

As the end of the month approached, it was time to explore further afield with a trip to Upnor Castle, on the Medway opposite Chatham. It’s a defensive fortification dating back to medieval times, with wonderful views inside and out, set at the end of one of the prettiest roads, once full of inns to serve the men garrisoned there. (It still has two, and it’s a short road.). As the tide began to go out there was a chance to walk along the Saxon Shore path to Hoo and take a look at some amazing houseboats, as well as a few abandoned ones.

The last day of the month marked the first day of a visit by my sister, so we took in the medieval streets of Sandwich before heading to Margate and the ‘Animals and Us’ exhibition at the Turner Gallery, with these rather special clay sculptures by Stephanie Quayle.

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May ramblings

Deal calm

After the cloudburst at the end of April came calm weather and spring blossoms – white lilac and quince in the garden.

The temperature soared for the first bank holiday in the month and I was in London, at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, doing a bit more book research and taking a look at an exhibition by The Lost Words artist, Jackie Morris.

And still on a book theme, the paperback copies of my second book, Alice’s Secret, arrived!

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After a cold start to spring the flowers picked up – my ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ narcissus, planted in memory of my mum, was the last of the bulbs to flower, and the first rose came out by mid-month. The hedgerows were bursting with May blossom and it was warm enough to open up the summer house and check on the spiders that had taken up residence there over the winter.

I spent a weekend in East Sussex, visiting Charleston and Virginia Woolf’s house, Monk’s House, at Rodmells in the pouring rain. No photography allowed inside Charleston, but both gardens looked lovely, even though it was so wet. And it was fascinating to see Virginia Woolf’s bookshelf and writing desk!

Later the same week, I visited Goodnestone in lovely sunshine – the surrounding landscape looked spectacular but the gardens were yet to hit their full glory.

Goodnestone

The weather had a downturn by mid month – the sun stayed out but a chill wind blew in off the sea. And my daughter arrived early, to surprise us all, on a visit from India! She left nearly 40 degrees behind and shivered in 14… But we had a great afternoon at the Sandwich Food Fayre, with an impressive array of food on offer, including vegetarian and vegan, and we picnicked on the grass outside St Peter’s Church. Deal looked fabulous in the sunshine, too.

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The following week was grey and gloomy and it was a real struggle not to put the heating back on. I gave in when Jules came back for an overnight visit, when we went to Sandwich Museum and the Court House to escape the rain and cold.

The garden did its own thing meanwhileand I spent a weekend, when the sun returned, doing battle with nettles almost as high as me. The garden centres were filled with temptation and the garden burst into the next stage of bloom, producing foxglove spires in all the borders, one glorious lupin and, by Chelsea week, roses everywhere.

The final bank holiday was another hot one and after two days of gardening and writing it was a relief to escape to Seasalter to enjoy the sea breeze and the stunning weather. And I can’t leave the month without another photo of the grandson – fast asleep on his first holiday abroad.

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Baking and writing

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This piece first featured on Shaz’s Book Blog, as part of the Alice’s Secret digital launch blog tour, but here it is again, this time with photos.

Cakes and baking play a major part in the modern-day narrative in Alice’s Secret. Alys, our contemporary heroine, has left London for Yorkshire to help her aunt run her café – the Celestial Cake Café. She wants to bring a few recipes of her own to the venture – lemon poppyseed cake is one that she is trying to perfect throughout the novel but you’ll also find chocolate chiffon cake, Victoria sponge, lemon drizzle, brownies (below) and flapjacks on the café’s cake stands.

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Baking was a big part of my own upbringing. Before my Mum went back to work full-time she use to bake once a week – I can remember gingerbread topped with toasted, flaked almonds; fruit loaf; walnut loaf; chocolate cake sandwiched with chocolate buttercream; scones and a kind of bakewell tart that she made in swiss roll tin and then cut into fingers. In addition, she always made puddings at the weekend – plum, rhubarb and apple crumbles and pies and, when she was back at work, a quick weekday trifle: slices of shop-bought swiss roll and tinned fruit with custard poured over the top, refrigerated. In those days, it was still considered a treat to have tinned fruit and evaporated milk as a dessert after Sunday tea.

When I was old enough, I wanted to bake too so I started out with packet mixes for what we called buns but are now known as fairy cakes, and chocolate and vanilla sponges. They were very light in texture when baked but I can still remember the odd, synthetic smell of the ingredients when you opened the packets. On Sundays I made ‘ice cream’ by boiling a tin of evaporated milk, whisking in sugar and flavouring using our new blue-and-white Kenwood mixer and then freezing the mixture.

When I left home, I graduated to ‘proper’ baking, making pastry, raspberry buns, coconut biscuits and Yorkshire curd cheesecake. On the pudding front, it was pecan pie, sticky toffee pudding and black cherry clafoutis.

The result of all this is a sweet tooth, of course! I can’t resist a slice of cake whenever I’m in a café and I’d happily skip a main course when I eat out, in favour of a starter and a dessert. I’m often disappointed by the café cakes, though – too dry, too sweet or sickly – but I struck lucky only last weekend with a simple and delicious un-iced chocolate sponge, sandwiched with buttercream and almost as good as the one Mum used to make!

Now, with my own children grown up and gone, I only make cakes and desserts to take along to friends and family otherwise the danger is that I would eat my way through the lot. Today’s baking repertoire consists of clementine cake, Nigella’s chocolate cloud cake, chocolate brownies and a vanilla sponge, usually filled with raspberries and cream and dusted with icing sugar.

If this listing of cakes has made you salivate, you’ll be pleased to know that the recipes for some of the cakes and biscuits that I’ve mentioned feature in Alice’s Secret, like the cardamom shortbread (below). Happy baking!

Shortbread

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