16 January 2012

January Hymn

I had a treat of a walk today. Got home from errand running at about 4pm and the sun was sinking fast, so I darted off through the fields for some air. It was freezing - the mossy ground frosted white and the air a cold blueish mist.

When I reached the lakes, the swans were stock still on the third pool down, harbouring in the reeds and the overhanging rhododendrons. Even they looked chilled to the bone.

Glancing up towards the hill I noticed that the wood at the top was still bathed in sunshine. The warmth had retreated out of the valley but could still be caught if I could muster the will to huff and puff my way through the chill to the top. I couldn't resist.

It was gloriously worth it. At the summit, the view down into the Welsh valley beyond was lit up by the last of the pale winter sun. I leaned against the trunk of a pine and let it warm me through.

It was absolutely still, not a breath of wind, and the only sounds were the pip-pips of tiny birds watching the sunset with me. 

I paused and felt that glow you get when you take the last ski lift to the top of a mountain and wait until everyone else has skied down before you set off for one last clear run down the deserted pistes.

The song humming in my ears was January Hymn by the Decemberists - click here to listen:

When I turned back down into the valley the sky had coloured sugary pink bleeding into smoky blue. The air was crystal clear and I drank it in as I sped back the cottage for tea and a roaring fire.

I found Dickie in a truculent mood:

Me: "Which of those three wines can I use for cooking? I'm going to stick it in a bolognese tomorrow."

Dickie: "The one in the middle. If you touch either of the other two I will literally drown you."

Me: "What, take me down to the river, tie me up in a sack and chuck me in like an unwanted kitten?"

Dickie: "No, I'll drown you in that wine in the middle. The cooking wine."

Happy days.

Final thought: I think I love Benedict Cumberbatch. It's been a slow burner, didn't see it at first, but has kind of crept up on me. Does a cross between BC and Monty Don exist? Hope so.

11 January 2012

Stumbling upon the 14 year old me in a dusty old exercise book...

As predicted in my first blog, it didn't last long, and two entries in I fell into a deep, ditch-like, writer's block. Pathetic. 

But I thought I'd just write as and when something worth recounting came to mind. So here I am again, several months on. 

Having spent the Autumn enjoying the sights and sounds of California, Paris and Blighty, I am once again ensconced in my parents' cosy cottage on the Welsh borders. 

By day, wandering the hills and fields, where I have made friends with a beautiful pair of icy swans who seem to be staying with us for the winter (see below - thank you for the photo Em). And, no, they don't seem to have any interest in attempting to break my arm.

By night, I mostly find myself huddling around a log fire, eating tons of cheese and drinking all of Dickie's fine wine. This is the life. 

February will see me wending my way back to London…but a new part of London for me. I am headed for the eclectic-ness of Bethnal Green, and am very much looking forward to the Sunday flowers and street singers of Columbia Road, the weekly celebration of food at Broadway Market, and generally appreciating all the benefits that come with living in a part of London that is getting the full Olympics treatment. 

In the meantime, needs must sort out piles of junk back in Herefordshire, having persuaded my long suffering parents to store some of my stuff here for the time being. The vision is to create a kind of magical shepherds-hut-slash-storage-solution for myself in the old pig's cot - replete with shabby chic writer's table, the odd inspirational set text and innumerable boxes of French wine. I will return to this Utopian cradle periodically, to escape the bustle and noise of city existence.

In reality, this means getting rid of all my old pap - mostly mouldy lever arch files bursting with miles of scrawl from school and university days. 

I started the cull today....and stumbled upon my Form 3 English exercise book. I think that would make me 14 years old, when I was charged with the assignment of writing a short story entitled 'My Week in Hospital', which follows here:

"You won't be in hospital for long, Laura. It won't take longer than a week," said my mother, as she tried to calm me down. 

"A week! A WEEK!" I cried. "That seems like a lifetime when you're in hospital."

I'd just had the results of the X-ray I'd had three weeks before. These results came with a note saying that I was to go to the Nuffield Hospital in Hereford, on Monday 3rd July. 

Today was the 29th June.

The X-ray was of my gums. I needed an operation because, inside the roof of my mouth, I'd got six teeth to fit into two spaces. Normally, people have two teeth for two spaces. 

If I didn't have the operation, the teeth would grow down out of the roof of my mouth.

I was hysterical. 

I hated the thought of operations, doctors, nurses, sharp knives, and most of all, the boredom of lying in a hospital bed for a week. 

My sister, Belinda, had exactly the same problem a couple of years back. She had the operation too. I remember thinking at the time, "I hope I don't have the same problem as Belinda has."

But here it was, and I must go to the hospital in FOUR DAYS.

The next four days flew by. 

Mum was busy preparing all of my clothes, nighties etc, for my trip to hospital. 

Then, at last, the dreaded morning dawned when I had to go into the hospital. One good thing was that Mum was going to stay with me while I was in hospital. 

When we arrived, Mum told a nurse who we were, and the nurse showed us to our room. 

I wasn't in a ward. I was in a quiet secluded room of my own. The room was pleasant enough: white walls, white bed, a chair for Mum, a television, a large window, a thick blue carpet and an en suite bathroom. It all smelt fresh and all the white made it look very clean. 

In the hall outside my room there was a large window. From here I could see a huge pond with weeping willows hanging over the clear water. Ducks and swans swam about on the pond. This scene consoled me a little. I didn't much fancy spending the first week of my summer holiday in the hospital though. 

I felt sorry for Mum. She had to sleep in the chair for a week. I thought it very mean of the hospital not to provide a bed for her. 

That evening, Mum and I watched Hansel and Gretel on the TV. That film frightened me and has always remained clear in my memory ever since.

The next morning, a kind nurse called Felicity came into my room and gave me one injection in my arm and one in my bottom. I tried to be brave, and I didn't make a sound until Felicity left. The moment that she shut the door I burst into tears and flung myself into Mum's arms. 

The day dragged on. 

I became tired of TV, and the only thing I liked to do was to watch the birds on the pond. 

In the afternoon, the time had come. 

Felicity came in again and said cheerfully, "Come on, Laura, let's go and visit Doctor Sheen."

My bed was on wheels, so she wheeled me away to the operating theatre.

At the door of the theatre, I had to let go of Mum's hand and leave her outside. This upset me very much. But I had no time to worry about it because I was wheeled into the theatre where Doctor Sheen was waiting. 

The name 'Sheen' suited him fittingly.

He was dressed all in white. He had dazzling white teeth and immaculately groomed and greased white hair. He smiled a lot. I think he did this to show off his marvellous white teeth. 

"Hello Laura," he said, beaming at me. "This minor, little operation isn't going to hurt you or damage you at all."

"Now," he added, "All I want you to do is count to ten and see how far you can get, when I say go."

"OK," I replied. 

He then gave me a quick jab with an injection and said, "GO."

So, I began. "One, two, three…" and I knew nothing more until the next morning when I woke up in my room at about 8am.

I felt terribly sick. 

My mouth was packed full of foul tasting plaster. It was set in around my gums to keep them from falling apart. It was also extremely painful and sore. 

The few days that followed passed slowly. 

When I got home all my family, including my sister, were very nice to me for the next few weeks. Until the plaster came off my gums, three weeks later, I ate lots of ice cream and liquidized food which was, indeed, very pleasant. 

My stay in hospital had been an unpleasant experience, but for a few weeks afterwards I had very good treatment, which wasn't too bad at all. 

8 September 2011


I'd neglected to tell most people that I'm on sabbatical, so I received a few emails in response to my first blog enquiring as to what on earth I think I'm doing…some curious, some faintly amused, some a little alarmed.

Sabbatical is a term I'm using very loosely, as I am in fact unemployed and taking some time off before launching into anything else. I finished my job at the end of July and, not knowing what the future might hold, I headed for the hills and I'm not sure if/when I will return from them. 

So what might this sabbathy season hold? So far, I've noticed I have a lot more time to attend to the finer details of everyday existence. 

I floss more, because I can, and I've even taken the time to wash behind my ears once or twice (I think I heard of doing that in some moralistic bedtime story long ago, but have never tried it up until now). Tomorrow I might even dust out my belly button, which takes naval gazing to a whole other level, no?

I read the paper every day - my parents subscribe to the Telegraph and I always find myself drifting inexorably towards the right of the political spectrum whenever I am at home for more than 3 consecutive days. It is worrying. But Boris is just so loveable and so amusing. Sometimes I slightly wish he was Prime Minister, and then I feel a little ashamed and start chanting "Clegg! Clegg! Clegg!" to myself to try and make up for it.

I am learning pilates, which seems to be the art of holding your tummy in whilst rolling around on the floor and hanging on to your ankles in an Ooompa-Loopma meets The Crankies pastiche. I am told it is brilliant for core strength.

I walk every day in the beautiful landscape of the English/Welsh borders. Yesterday, I trudged up a heart-thumpingly steep hill along the Offa's Dyke path, whilst being pelted with buckets of hostile Welsh rain (doesn't it know I was born in Llandrindod Wells? Hasn't it seen my passport?). As I squelched up the sludgy path, I was betting myself that the view from the top wouldn't be worth it. Willing it to disappoint. But it did not (sigh, land of my fathers). Despite being shrouded in moody grey rain clouds, the valley and far off hills of Wales shimmered magnificently in front of me. So verdant, so alive, so GREEN. Back over the border in Leintwardine the river has run dry in the drought - the stony bed of it exposed like the valley of dry bones. We pray for rain.

Yesterday I found an old shoe box full of letters and post cards from the summer after graduation in 1998 - letters from India, Mexico, Australia, Spain, Holland, France, Italy, New York, the Lake District (always the doggedly loyal northerner, JT). 

They are letters from a very particular time in life. Full of the tell tale signs of young souls groping in the dark for a life and a future they're not yet sure of or ready for. Letters marked by youthful carefreeness: "Hope you are having a good summer and getting up to lots with abandon";

Hungry globe trotting: "It's a big traveller commune here. I feel less comfortable surrounded by westerners than by Indians. I don't have the dread locks, strangely loose clothing or a faded rucksack. I suffered the ignoming (spell!) of the hotel receptionist saying in a crowded cafe 'You keep your passport in very good condition.' My traveller chill-out rating went through the floor";

Simple honest truth (there's no beating around the bush when you're 21): "Having a lovely time en France. I hope you are okay - its great here, but I don't want to write anymore now";

Post-university gossip: "I got a lovely letter from Tom a couple of days ago - he's so lovely and funny as well - he gave me a run down of Tim, who apparently went down on one knee for his boring (!) girlfriend and is now engaged" (names changed to obscure identities);

Philosophical musings on what might happen next if things don't work out as expected: "I didn't get my PhD so I'll be joining you all in London next year. Even if i don't get a job soon I should be able to sponge off the Soph" (by the way he now has the most glittering career of the lot of us and was not sponging for very long at all);

And of course restitution for botched endings: "On graduation evening at the ball, where I thought you might be, I felt very guilty for not saying goodbye to you. I'm really sorry. I love you so much. I just ran out of time. I'm going to miss you horrendously. I suppose Luke will be there, Nathan, God. All right, I might survive."

I miss letters. The onslaught of email, facebook, twitter (and blogs?!), has robbed us of the simple pleasure of sending and receiving letters. The grooved paper, the smudged ink, the unusual stamps, the exotic postmarks, the instantly recognisable handwriting of old friends. There is a weight and meaning to a letter, an aerogramme, a postcard, that cannot be replicated by any modern communication technique. 

So may this be a season of letter writing. I'm no more certain about what the future holds now than I was as I launched into the cold, icy waters of life in London during the summer after leaving university. Letters were an important part of my journey back then - full of encouragement, cheer, tenderness and prayer - and I think I'd like to add some more to that old shoe box in the weeks to come.

Snail mail address here: Stable Cottage, Brampton Bryan, Bucknell, Shropshire, SY7 0DH. Write me. 

6 September 2011


I tootled out of London for the summer back in early August. A rash of holidays, family gatherings, weddings and general celebration-making swiftly followed. 

Adventures included:

Hot tubbing in Cornwall: hence the word rash...

Mackerel fishing in Pembrokeshire: I caught one straight away and had only cast my line out again for about 30 seconds when Oliver, aged 3 and in a dark mood, declared "She's struggling now." His words struck a death knell over the whole endeavour. We caught no more fish that night. I still had the rash.

Tea at the Pump Rooms in Bath: "What will we do when we're 60 if we're already doing stuff like this now" wondered Sophie, with slightly more than a hint of desperation. I was too busy to answer as I stealthily scanned the room for my Mr Darcy, only to be sickened by the sight of wall-to-wall blue rinses and National Trust types. Happily, our disillusionment turned into wonderment and our wonderment turned into absolute fulfilment as we ploughed our way through a stack of scrumptious sandwiches, scones and smart little cakey things. Sadly, before we left, Sophie sheepishly pocketed two handfuls of sugar cubes to make cocktails that night. The shame...

Starting and finishing "One Day" in one day: my overly rapid ingestion of the book was followed by a late night binge-dash to the cinema to see the film. Then I proceeded to panic wildly about all the chances of happiness I've screwed up in my life (with special thanks to Steve and JT for screwing up the rest for me), before finally getting a grip and re-establishing the faint but crucial line between fact and fiction, my life and Emma's. The whole experience was rather like eating my body weight in jelly beans then throwing them all up. But at least the rash had faded by now.

After all that considerable excitement, I eventually wound up at home in the beautiful shire. That's here:

Saiorse Pumar-Reid came by for a couple of days with her globe-trotting parents, Mike and Margo. We walked, we talked, and we made sixteen jolly jars of gloopy, purple chutney from the glut of plums in the kitchen garden: "Saiorse's Deadly Plum Chutney: it's to die for". The name and tag line were coined due to an extra ingredient which was tossed in at random, then panicked over as we web-searched to find out if it was poisonous. We didn't think so, and so far partakers of the noxious brew seem to have remained resolutely alive and well. 

On the whole we agreed that it was plummy good. It smells fruitily sweet, has an excellent texture and goes very nicely with a wedge of mature cheddar, lashings of salty butter and a Bath Oliver or two.

Recipe below, just in case you come across a few sour plums or rock hard damsons and feel like turning them into something good. Damsons and pearls...see!

Saiorse's Deadly Plum Chutney
  • 2.7 kg plums or damsons
  • 1 kilo cooking apples (cored and chopped fine)
  • 1 kilo onions (chopped fine)
  • 600g dried apricots (chopped smallish)
  • 400g raisins (chopped in half)
  • 900g soft brown sugar, or a bit less if the plums are already sweet 
  • 4 cloves of garlic (chopped fine)
  • 1 tsp of cayenne pepper
  • 4 tsp of salt
  • 2 tsp of allspice powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon powder
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1.5 litres white wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp of chilli flakes
  • 4 tsp of balsamic vinegar
  • A good handful of black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp of mustard seeds
  • 5 cardamon pods
  • One or two heads of lavender (not the leaves - they were the bits we thought might be poisonous)
Stone the plums and if big enough cut into slices. We stoned them by simmering them for 20 mins in 150ml of white wine vinegar (using some of the vinegar we went on to use in the chutney). After they've cooled you can just pull out the stones from the mulch. 

Chop the apples, onions, raisins and apricots. Put everything in a large heavy bottomed saucepan and bring slowly to a gentle boil. Turn the heat down and simmer very gently for five hours or until the mixture has broken down and thickens. Stir now and again, and a bit more often towards the end. When done, pour into sterilised jars, put wax discs on top of the chutney as it cools, then put the lids on when it's cold. 

Chutney complete...

And next up the Parmiters came to stay. We river swam, stalked crocodiles, played pooh sticks, walked a 10-yard section of the Offa's Dyke path (so energetic) and made plum crumble, or "crumb bumble" as Molly liked to call it as she scooped up the windfalls with her grubby little paws. 

Then it was my birthday. Parisian biscuits arrived in the post (thank you lovely Bee and Joe), an unsigned card plopped on to the doormat (adding a little whiff of mystery), and I began The Artist's Way on the recommendation of three esteemed friends...a 12 week course (at home, using a book, nothing fancy) in "discovering and recovering your creative self". Some bits I've liked so far:

Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music - the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.  Henry Miller
Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small it takes time - we haven't time - and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.  Georgia O'Keeffe

And just like that, one day into the 12 weeks, I felt like writing a blog. Never felt like it before...in fact I've always been quite stridently anti-blog, but the time feels ripe to me somehow (perhaps it's all the plums and sloes and blackberries bursting on to the branches outside). 

So here it is. If you're in the anti-blog camp I won't be in the slightest bit offended. So am I. Sort of. 

I don't know where it will go or what it will contain. Perhaps this post will remain solo, an epitaph to itself. Perhaps it will take the place of a round robin email, keeping my friends and relations up to date with what I'm up to for a while, other than having permanent 'sabbatical hair' (no update needed there).

I hope that in the rare time I have ahead to enjoy some outdoor space and rest and explore, it might provide me with a blank page on which to wonder and splurge and share a little of the journey.