La Vie Ordinaire

We get back home on Monday afternoon and Nick is away at 6 the next morning for his ferry.  I’m due to follow in a week with my mother.  So it’s a week of chores interspersed with sociable interludes.  Even though the weather is still unusually warm I decide to sort my wardrobe.  I ought to have a life laundry but it’s not my bag.  However I put away all my summer clothes, restore winter items to the rail and arrange things in kind and colour.  It takes me a long time.  I take a few things to the charity shop.  This is as good as it gets.

I have lunch in Reading with Charlotte, Claire and some of the little folk on Friday.  On Saturday I endure a gruelling all day conchological meeting in London.  We eat together after, and that makes it feel a bit better.  Then it is countdown to Book Group on Monday evening.  We choose The Outcast by Sadie Jones as the next book and I’ve read it so come away with a glow that for once I’m in credit.  I’m away very early the next morning to collect my passenger and board the ferry for Cherbourg.

I forget to take my camera to France, which is griefsome, until I find I can borrow Nick’s.  First I must download his photos though.  Below is a gallery of pictures my spouse thought it worth recording 🙂 !

Hopping from One Hill to Another…

All too soon it is time to descend from the clouds and return to our Wey valley home.  Alex and Sarah slipped away very early on Sunday to return to Hackney.  When Nick and I presented for breakfast they had been on the road at least 2 hours.

It’s always good to make something of Sunday lunch and today we have a good excuse as Nick and I are going to celebrate a wedding anniversary.  Rob and Rosie have chosen a restaurant in Ilfracombe which will do very nicely.  Backed by Damien Hurst and owned by Simon Browne, The Quay sits right on the harbourside.

The Quay Restaurant and White Hart Bar is a culinary expedition by Damien Hirst and has been open for 4 years.  It is home to “a unique and substantial collection of the artist’s works with the Harbourside room dedicated to the Pharmacy theme and many other examples throughout using butterflies, fish and shells.” Click on the link above to get a flavour….

There are tasty things on the menu and included under main courses is the roast of the day at an everyday price.  We all opt for this, Rosie and I choose some crab claws to start.  It is a wet and windy day so the view through the windows shows a sea crashing against the rocks below.    Inside we can enjoy the circular plaques along the gallery in which we are eating.  These are painted in an assortment of paintbox colours, exotic shells are glued to the surfaces.   The effect is naive and very beautiful because shells can’t help themselves.

Back on the hill and time to rest…………

In the evening we eat up some soup for supper and play Scrabble.  We are getting along quite well until Nick blocks what I believe to be my only avenue for the round.  He tots up his score with glee and I smoulder.  It is then that I utter the words which bring the house down.  ” I do wish you wouldn’t be so unpleasantly triumphant….”  Whichever way I look at this after, I have to conclude I am a damn poor loser.

And so to bed and in the morning to rise and pack bags.  I have a number of plants to round up including two small orchids I bought in Value House in Barnstaple for £4.  I also bought various other bargains like planting bags for saladstuffs and the like, some miniature mousse moulds to make ‘amuse-bouches’, a job lot of small daffodil bulbs, a huge stainless steel lidded pan for cooking crustaceans (a snip at £8) and several Princess sticker books for the royal trio.

After breakfast we must get on the road.  So it’s a photo call in the courtyard and fond farewells till the next time.  On the way home we are going to detour to visit brother Paul and Viv who live on another hill near Lyme Regis.

Activities: a Mixed Bag

By Saturday the clearance operations started by Rob and Nick are well under way.  They have felled some medium-height leylandii bushes which were part of a screen for the garden shed.  But they were also obscuring a view into the top of the field where the climbing frame is, and beyond.  This cuts both ways, when you are standing in that field looking down to the house you can see it clearly through the long straight trunks of several mature trees which have now an identity of their own.  You also get a view east across the valley to Bratton Fleming.

As lower growing shrubs and ground cover are cleared other features are revealed.  What appeared to be a bank between the original garden and the field is actually a dry stone wall, probably of some maturity.  There was already a heap of assorted slabs and rocks in the top corner of the field, this has now been tidied up and a containing wall set around it.

Meanwhile Rosie and I take ourselves into South Molton where we wander through the covered market and also look in several of the arty-crafty gift/homeware shops along the main street.  Inevitably I buy some plants although I am trying to resist the temptation and rationalise what I already have in England and France. It really is a delightful centre and I am surprised that such a small town supports so many shops of that kind.

Before we drive back to the house we stop at the local health shop, Griffins Yard, which has a fine stock of wholesome foods.  I need to buy some fine oatmeal but end up buying several kinds of lentils – I love cooking with these, they’d be one of my Desert Island foods. We’ve overrun lunchtime so when we get back we make some sandwiches and 6 of us eat them in the warm sunshine on the lawn.

Work continues outside but Rosie and I have labour of a different kind.  The crab and lobster need dressing.  We tackle the crab first and because it is really no chore at all we sit at the kitchen table and take our time retrieving every last fibre of white meat from the inner carapace.  The lobster is altogether more straightforward and at the end of it I am surprised by the quantity of meat we have from it compared to that from the crab.  It’s been a useful exercise in itself – I have always assumed you get more from a crab than  a lobster, the difference is that there is more brown meat in the former.  As I shell the prawns Rosie rustles up a cream tea.

Later on we arrange the seafood on a platter and make a salad.  But before we sit to eat it we have a laverbread tasting.  The recipe is simple: you mix ¼ cup of oatmeal with one cup of seaweed.  It doesn’t look quite enough oatmeal so I add a bit more.  Seaweed is salty I think so don’t add seasoning.  Wrong.  The first ‘cake’ I fry in bacon fat is too bland so I season the rest of the mixture before shaping it into patties and frying them. Before we sit down in style to our seafood meal we eat the laverbread in the kitchen with a glass of champagne.  Everyone likes them.  They are quite ‘sticky’ as you might expect, the sensation in the mouth is not dissimilar to potato rosti when it is made with grated potato, as I was taught by a Swiss friend.

After supper 4 of us play Scrabble.  The previous evening 7 of us had played a game which was new to Nick and I.  Each person writes the names of 7 well-known people on slips of paper.  These are then put into a hat.  There are 2 teams and the names are drawn out successively.  There are 3 rounds using the same named slips and you have 45 minutes per round to do as many names as you can.  In round 1 you have to describe the person to your team-mates until they guess the name.  The names go back into the hat.  In round 2 you draw again and have to mime the person whose name is on your paper slip.  In round 3 you again draw a name slip from the hat then choose one word to help your team guess the name.  By this stage it obviously helps if you have a good memory!!  The points for each team are then totalled.  A lot of fun.

Friends in High Places

We set off on Wednesday morning after a protracted search for Nick’s mobile phone………… which never did turn up.  We drove to north Devon, to the home of long-standing friends.  Friends made during the days of pre-school children.  Teachers both, they are now retired and living in the lovely house they owned all through their time at Charterhouse.  It was a wonderful retreat for them and their family along the way, but now they occupy this house full-time and the house is flourishing.

Built from the 15th century it is an Open Hall House (a house consisting of a single storey hall with two storey domestic ranges attached to either one or both ends), sitting on top of a hill near Bratton Fleming.  To stay with Rob and Rosie is to enjoy hospitality of the warmest kind.  They hone these skills from time to time when they receive Bed and Breakfast guests in the bijou barn in the grounds. They have some of their children staying, and two grandchildren too, so Nick and I are invited to sleep in Rosehill Barn.

I’m keen to see the garden: the courtyard, the border round the lawn, but most of all the vegetable garden, with its associated greenhouse  into which much enthusiasm is invested.  During our stay we enjoy home grown produce: for one meal we have a panache of the last-of-the-crop vegetables with the smoked haddock pie one evening, the final pickings in these clement October days.

Rob and Nick spend the first day of our visit modifying the second compost bin into a triple-chambered model.  (Nick and Rob constructed the bins in July 2008).  In order to do this they first need to take the car into Barnstaple to round up their timber.  This involves driving the streets to find discarded pallets outside commercial premises.  Of course they ask first before they make off with their booty.

During the course of the afternoon the pallets are unpicked and new struts are fitted into the original structure.  Alex helps with this.  We are all outside variously building bins, weeding, dismantling bean frames or swinging on climbing frames.

On Friday Francesca, Poppy and Charlie must drive home.  Poppy and Nick have struck up a friendship:  he likes making up stories, she likes listening.   They sit at the kitchen table playing out their double act, whilst preparations for the journey home are made.

Another double act has been under way.  Alex’s wife Sarah likes doing cryptic crosswords and she and I have managed to complete the Indy puzzle the day before, so we are keen to buy the paper later when we go into Barnstaple for lunch and some shopping.

A table has been booked at The Custom House where there are good light lunching options.  After there are things to buy: wonderful local cheeses from a small shop in the street running alongside the covered market and we also want to get some seafood for Saturday evening.  Although it is well into the afternoon the small fish-shop, in the same parade as the cheese shop, has just what we need.  We buy a lobster, a brown crab and some prawns for a platter.  We are just about to pay for this when I spot some plastic bags with black contents.

I think it might be Laver, and it is.  This is a seaweed, Porphyra umbilicalis, which you can collect on many rocky shores in the British Isles.  I’ve eaten laverbread once before, when a fellow conchologist gathered some on a field trip and cooked it for a group of us as an appetiser.  I’m keen to have a go at making some so we buy a bag for the princely sum of £3.  Our total bill is £20 which is a real bargain.

We still haven’t managed to buy an Indy when we drive out of Barnstaple at the end of the afternoon, but third time lucky when we try at the petrol station on the way out of town.

Friends from our Salad Days

 We’ve had a brief sojourn in Cerne Abbas.  This is home to two long-standing friends who celebrated their Ruby Wedding Anniversary.  Before we were due to arrive there we took a short detour on to Weymouth to visit my mother and take her out to lunch.  There was a choice of possible venues but the Crab House Cafe which is sited more or less at the ‘gateway’ to Portland is a great little restaurant for dedicated piscivores such as Nick, Mum and me!

If you blink you might miss the turning for the track that leads to the wooden surf-shack which overlooks its own oyster farm on the Fleet which is a renowned international SSSI with an incredibly long list of fauna and flora.  Until recently it supported the only British Isles population of a tiny rare mollusc.  (Now some of us in Conch. Soc. have found 2 more populations in southern England.)

But to return to the shack, it sits amid a setting which has a slightly Caribbean feel, this being reinforced by the choice of music.  It has only been running for about 4 years and has always been busy when we are there.  There is a splendid array of fish sitting on chilled ice and the menu has many options.  We all choose grilled whole plaice. 

The sound of hammering at a neighbouring table draws my attention (I’m known as the Meerkat by my daughter) and four lunchers are enjoying half crabs Spicy Chinese Style.  Another time…………

Arriving at Cerne we find some guests have already arrived and there is a cream tea with coffee and walnut cake.  How glad I am not to have eaten a pudding!  Although there has been a ‘no gifts’ directive, one couple has had the brilliant idea of varying the idea of taking flowers to the hostess.   They have filled a basket with pots of deep deep red cyclamen, a red cabbage, a bunch of beetroot, red chicory, red potatoes.  It is a lovely arrangement….

The dinner to which Stuart and Angela treat their guests takes place at the New Inn, under relatively new management.  Nineteen of us enjoy tuna in tempura with a wasabi mayonnaise, then succulent slow cooked duck with lentils.  The dessert is a strawberry confection.  It is a convivial, lively evening and how great to cross the road, slip back indoors and so to bed…..

On the following day there is a morning walk followed by a buffet lunch chez Palmer.  This is a family affair, the girls are very competent cooks having been taught by Angela. 

Neighbours come in for drinks later on in the evening and the celebration continues.  Nick and I are privileged to stay on for two days more during which we take life at a leisurely pace which culminates in a late birthday dinner for Stuart at Le Petit Canard in Maiden Newton.  We recommend it warmly.

On Wednesday we leave the impeccable hospitality and comforts offered by our Cerne friends but knowing we will meet up soon in St Vaast for our cavalier wine-tasting week.  It is now onwards and upwards, quite literally to the folks who live on the hill.

Return of The Doran Child

Back in Godalming and we have visitor.  He is a plant taxonomist from the University of Berkeley and he has come to England to fulfil some lecturing engagements, and botanical curation commitments at his former school.  The museum is finding new homes for its collections which contain, by all accounts, some amazing artefacts.  During his brief time up at the school just now Andy meets a number of masters he remembers from his time there, including the colourful character who gave Andrew Doran his epithet.

Andy came into our lives 25 years ago when he fetched up in the same school house as Barns.  They became friends, something of an unholy alliance.  Andy appears to remember more of their escapades than Barns does.  This is what the then headmaster called ‘tunnelling’ and in his pep talk to parents of new boys he told us that our sons might do a lot of this, and there would be times when we wished our sons belonged to someone else…………..   Well we wouldn’t go that far, certainly not now!

During one of Andy’s visits to our house, when he already had qualifications in horticulture, he gazed out of our kitchen window and announced that we could do amazing things with our garden.  We listened and before we knew it there was a project and a team.

Some beautiful sketches and watercolours of what might be were produced by his sister Victoria.  We engaged the services of a fell-running Yorkshire stonemason who would carry out the hard landscaping and Andy, who was working part-time for a nursery and thus able to source an inspired collection of plants.  Nick toiled long and hard along with various friends of our sons who came to put in days of soil removal to skips.  We filled something like 20 in the end.

The story of our garden is contained in a journal with numerous photos.  One day we might convert it to an electronic version.  But not now.

Now Andy is escorting me round the garden and I have a list of what each shrub requires in the way of pruning, shaping and in some cases transplanting.  All in good time.  He also tells us how we should be trimming our Yew hedge which has grown very well since he planted it.  I learn that the lovely red berries it is sporting are called ‘arils’.  Our lawn is being torn to shreds by badger activity.  On the internet I see it might be that we have chafer grubs.  Badgers also like earthworms.  What to do?

Clearly the delightful walled garden at Sunbury suffers neither from badgers nor moles.  I meet Ted from nursery early one afternoon, we feed the ducks and pick up large shiny conkers, then cross the road to the walled garden that houses the Sunbury Millenium Embroidery and a little gem of a café which has a wonderful array of cakes.  I’ve brought Ted here off and on since he was born.

At 2 and a bit he is old enough, and has a sense of what is required when Granny takes him out to tea.  He drinks his juice, nibbles a muffin and arranges and counts all his conkers on the table, whilst I enjoy my carrot cake and a great little pot of tea.  Afterwards he runs around the box and lavender hedges and smells the roses then we go home and plant some tulip bulbs before his mother gets back from work.  This is a good Granny day.

I had another good Granny day with Lola earlier in the week.  She is starting at a new nursery and is doing half days for a couple of weeks.  Her working parents need some cover.  Dan and I take her in the morning and I am knocked back by the security hoops you must go through to come and go.  A sign of the times.  At midday I set off to collect her and after her nap we have a happy afternoon planting tulips which is just up my street, and making Princess pre-mix cakes which are a disaster.  Absolute non-starters when compared to the confections offered up by the Sunbury Embroidery Cafe.

Coddling Winkles

As things turn out our tide on Strollamus turns out to be the seashore highlight.  With deteriorating weather, time on the beach becomes more of a challenge and I adopt my supermarket approach to fieldwork.  You just have to rush in, fill your trolley (buckets) with what you need and dash out again.  The luxury of wandering over the shore looking for shells lying around, or lifting rocks to peer underneath is nothing like so enjoyable when you have rain dripping off the hood of your jacket onto your nose, and you have no windscreen-wipers on your spectacles.

Nevertheless on the last shore day I learn a new trick.  Julia is well versed in the finding and identifying of nudibranchs, otherwise known as sea-slugs.  I’ve said it before but to appreciate the beauty of this Order of gastropod molluscs you should check out Jim Anderson’s website Scottish Nudibranchs.  Some of them are so minute you barely see them with a naked eye, but you can know where to look and in the matter of Doto, Julia does.

Most seaslugs have very specific food requirements.  They may feed exclusively on a kind of bryozoan or hydroid.  If you find the food you can look, and often find, the feeder.  I am shown a hydroid that grows on the common brown seaweeds (Fucus species) on the shore.  They are covered with dainty, spiky fronds that look like fine threads.  These are the hydroid Dynamena. One species of Doto feeds on this organism and indeed with a handlens you can see the hydroid is covered with the tiny slugs and their egg masses.  By kind permission Peter allows me to post a snapshot of this small assemblage below.

And talking of food, our final evening when we expect to empty the fridge of ‘left-overs’ turns into an innovative feast.  We use up eggs, bacon, potatoes, cheese, pasta, curry, tomatoes, celery, strawberries, cream ………. and centre stage on the table goes to a colander of winkles we gathered from the shore at Braes that afternoon.  Bas has already experimented earlier on the trip with a new approach to cooking clams.  This does not involve boiling them to death.  He applies his theory to cooking winkles (as one might coddle an egg) and the result is tender, tasty snippets of protein.  Here is what he does:

A >  Scrub and rinse the shells.
B >  Place them in a layer only one or at most two shells deep in a pan or bowl.
C >  Pour on boiling water about three times as deep as the shells (i.e. lots of water in relation to the amount of shell, so that they heat up quickly).
D >  Leave for 10-15 minutes.
E >  Pour the hot water off, remove meat from the shells with a pin, and eat.

It’s probably even more important than usual to make sure that the place you collect the shells isn’t polluted, as the shellfish are cooked relatively lightly; and for the same reason it’s probably best not to use it on very large shells as they may not cook right through.

The same method works well also with clams; and even better if you start by lightly frying an onion in butter in a saucepan, pouring on a little white wine, then turning the plate off, adding the shells as in B above, and then pouring on boiling water etc. as in C-E.

I am grateful to Bas for allowing me to reproduce his recipe here and also to my fellow workers on the trip who have allowed me to use their photographs in the Skye galleries.

Three of us set out on Tuesday morning for our journey south.  The weather is still moist and overcast but we are blessed with a wonderful rainbow on our way to Fort William.  We are all quiet and, I think, wrapped up in many thoughts.  I am thinking about the sample pots I am taking home.

During our sorting sessions one of my compatriots looked through his microscope and uttered an expletive.  I peered down his eyepieces and saw that he had a point.  His petri dish was awash with small snails.  There were hardly any mineral grains or other beings.  He looked at his pot of residue and saw that it was uniformly the same.  We did a finger in the air calculation and worked out that his pot might contain 64,000 snails.  Fortunately they were nearly all specimens of less than a handful of species.  But the sample needs to be sorted because this is why we take samples of the weed faunas.  These are tiny molluscs, we are talking a pot the size of a plastic 35mm-film canister.  That’s just one sample and we have looked at 6 sites.

As we drive along I look out at the mountains on this misty morn and sigh.  So many snails……….. so little time.