Tuesday 22 July 2008

Saturday afternoon

On Saturday afternoon we decided to visit Monks House the country home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf in the beautiful village of Rodmell nestled in the Sussex Downs. We are lucky as this is such a short drive from us and have been able to visit this beautiful property many times. As it is a National Trust property photographs are not allowed in the house but if you look here you will find some of the rooms.

Just a few miles away from Charleston, the home of Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell, this lovely house was owned by the Woolfs until Leonard's death in 1969.

It provided a refuge for Virginia when the stresses of strains of London life became too much and they did move down here properly when their London property was bombed during the war.

Here is the entrance to her bedroom. It is separate from the house and to enter it you would leave the main building and walk a few steps across the garden - not so appealing in the cold winter months, It was apparently intended to be her writing room but she did not want to write in there, she loved the bright sunniness of the room and the views that opened out across the garden. It is a lovely room, quite self contained with beautiful tiles around the fireplace that were painted for her by her sister Vanessa Bell.

Virginia Woolf was able to walk across the Downs to visit her sister, across the water meadows that flanked the property and over the fields to Charleston.

Because Leonard continued to live on at Rodmell long after Virginia's death the house has been beautifully preserved and many villagers are still alive who have memories of the couple.

On Saturday we were fortunate to meet one of the stewards at the property who was the daughter of the Woolfs' gardener.

She told me that Leonard was very interested in her family and would often ask her as a little girl how she was getting on at school. He would always ask what she was reading and on one occasion, on hearing that she had nothing to read, he took her into the house and asked Virginia to help him find something for the little 9 year old to read.

As they had just moved down from London there were piles of books everywhere and eventually Virginia pulled out a book for her to read. On hearing that this little girl had done well in her exams Leonard gave her five shillings and would go on to be a referee for her when she applied to train as a teacher.

Apparently he would bring crates of apples from his orchard to the village school (maybe in the vain hope of stopping the boys scrumping them!).

She found Virginia to be quite formidable, I think I would have too.

There is a large vegetable plot which is now tended by the tenants and villagers.

When we were there we got talking (again!) to a villager who was digging up some veg and he asked the girls if they knew what the big tree was in front of them. They didn't know and he told them that it was a walnut tree planted by Leonard Woolf in 1930s.

He asked us if we liked pickled walnuts and then gave us a huge bagful to pickle. So we shall think of Monks House at Christmas when we eat our walnuts - does anyone have a good recipe for pickled walnuts - we need to do them justice!

In the garden stands Virginia's writing room, A modest little building with the village church behind it, their orchard to one side and the beautiful garden in front.

It is just a short walk from the house and must have provided her with the calm and solitude for her writing.

Although this house is far smaller than Charleston it does retain an atmosphere of a home. it was as Virginia said "an unpretending house" that had many writers visit and stay.

A home that seemed quiet and calm, a home where much reading and writing and entertaining was done and a garden that Leonard enjoyed for many years.

It is from this house that Virginia walked in 1941 leaving behind a suicide note to her husband and amongst the words were these : " I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been." Her ashes are scattered in the garden along with those of her husband.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Woman under a tree

Ever since I was a schoolgirl, I have always needed to choose a book or two to put aside for the summer holidays. If I'm going away for my holidays then books in the suitcase are as important to me as the suntan lotion. When I was younger I remember spending days upon days lying on a hammock at the back of the garden swinging to and fro with a book in my hand and a pile of books waiting on the ground below.

This summer's book has been chosen - Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann. I have two books on the go already and enjoying both of them but this book caught my eye in the charity shop and has been on my wishlist for a while now. It is Rosamond Lehmann's first novel and tells the story of an only child, who spends her childhood dreaming in her house by the river, her relationship with a family that move in next door and her experiences at Cambridge after the First World War. It's ticking lots of boxes for me already and the cover of this old penguin edition is delicious - "Woman under a Tree" by Walter Bayes.

This leads me on to my secret little fantasy. It all started a few weeks ago when I found at the bottom of a pile of ironing (no I never reached the bottom, I just jiggled the clothes around a bit) a tub of unopened halva. It must have been left unused from a supper we were having with friends, probably a supper involving wine otherwise no other explanation can be given for it ending up amongst the ironing. As gorgeous, tasty and sticky as it is I always find halva just a tad too sweet on its own (this from the woman who has just written an entire post devoted entirely to sugar and its consumption). I prefer it with grapes or, better still, a cup of peppermint tea.

So in my mind I see myself sitting under my apple tree on a quiet, warm summer's afternoon, book in one hand and tea and halva in the other. A little blanket to keep me warm if necessary. As the photo shows, it's all taking shape. I've even made a new cushion cover for my chair! Not too much to ask for on a summer's wishlist. I actually thought I might bring it all forward and have a little read this afternoon. Just a bit of quiet and calm before the school holidays begin. Just two more days before the mayhem begins.

However, this being real life I found out that Little Sister's school was closed due to strike action, the sun has been playing hide and seek all day and for once, this being the only time I can ever remember, there is no peppermint tea in the house! The garden is full of washing and rugs drying because at some point this morning I had the insane idea to wash them all and dry them in the same day.

Another book I want to be dipping into over the next few weeks is this old copy of "Profitable Hobbies and Handicrafts". I doubt whether it's going to solve any financial worries but it's a fun read and I'm hoping it'll get me going again on the crafting front. If you notice me making things from fish bones, silk stockings and breeding my cats, you'll know that I've taken it all a bit too much to heart.

As I write this in the evening, the rugs are still dripping in the garden, the washing has been taken from the line and there is a stillness in the air that has been absent all day, as dear old Hagrid would say "There's a storm coming Harry". Little Sister and I had a good day together, pottering around, chatting and enjoying each other's company. I think we both needed some quiet and a chance to be alone together. Hope you all have a good few days before the holidays begin , maybe a few moments of calm. As for me I'm psyching myself up for six weeks of trying to translate what my teenage daughter's talking about -
Kitchen table, supper time:
Big Sister: " Oh how nice, this looks like one of those places where they give you lemon"
Little Sister and I look at each other wondering what on earth she means this time
Big Sister, sensing our confusion and her brain just having caught up with what she's talking about: "You know, a restaurant..."

Friday 11 July 2008

Food for thought

I have had my nose buried in this book for the past few days. I've wanted a copy for a while now and have been waiting for it to be published in paperback. I love Nigel Slater's writing. Here is a book full of the idiosyncracies of the way we eat, the things we eat, the way we shop and the way we cook. But it is much more than this, it's a celebration of our food, our relationships with food and the way we view our food that is so particularly English. (and yes, it does cover our peculiar fascination with afternoon tea). This book has given me so much food for thought (excuse the pun).

After I wrote a recent post about a trip to the beach and the inevitable 99 on the way home, I was emailed by the lovely Anna who asked me to explain what I was talking about. Of course I took it for granted that she would know that a 99 was an ice cream in a cone with a chocolate flake stuck in. How could something that seemed to have been around throughout my childhood not be known by everybody else. I then realised that is these food references that cause puzzlement to us bloggers. I have read countless wonderful posts from Amercian bloggers with passing references to foods I've never heard of, that sound wonderful but I have no idea whether they're savoury, sweet or indeed edible. Isn't it strange that something we take so much for granted, something that has become so embedded in our culture is not universally shared. I remember always buying my 99s as a child from the ice cream van and asked Anna if they had them in USA? A rather naive question perhaps, but I really can't remember reading about them or seeing them anywhere else than over here. Yes was the answer and in a similar way Anna says she vividly remembers the sound of the ice cream van (truck) approaching. During our emails I suddenly realised that most of my childhood summer memories have the sound of an ice cream van in the background. It seemed to be the backdrop to so many summer evenings. You would have eaten your supper, the sun was still shining (it always seemed to be sunny in my memories too) and in the distance you would hear the magical sound of the ice cream van a few roads away. This gave you just enough time to find your mum, for her to find her purse and for you to be given some coins to rush out into the road and wait, sitting on the garden wall for the ice cream van to finally turn into your road. I would queue with my friends who lived in the road and we would look at all the photos of ice lollies, hoping that they hadn't sold out, but it was inevitably to the lure of the 99 that I succumbed.

Just yesterday I was emailing a friend and we were talking about The Famous Five and ended up, as you do, imagining summer picnics and lashings of ginger beer and Aunt Fanny's fruit cake. I can't remember ever having lashings of ginger beer as a child but I am oh so nostalgic about the food that the Famous Five would get through every time they were out on their jollys.
Another favourite book, Milly Molly Mandy is full of reference to home baking, cooking, cakes, blackberry picking and egg collecting - and it's these little snippets that I love. If I'm honest the scenes I love best in Harry Potter are those huge feasts at Hogwarts or the scenes when Mrs Weasley is preparing her meals for all her family. These were all reminders of those Enid Blyton stories I devoured when I was little.

A few weeks ago I watched The Supersizers go Seventies. It made us all laugh, particularly Big sister. It brought back so many memories, not just about the food but life how it was when I was little. Gosh the food was really unhealthy, fresh food was really lacking in this programme, the age of processed, packaged food was dawning. In our home I remember my mum introducing garlic powder for the first time (fresh garlic still scarcely available), chilli con carne (she always overdid the chilli) and my friend says that no camping trip for her family was complete without a Vesta Curry. I loved Arctic Roll, fish fingers, tinned peaches and cream, pear drops, sherbet pips, Blackjacks and my mum's Christmas trifle.

Nigel Slater in his book says that Sarson's vinegar is the smell of Britain. Not sure if I would agree with this as I could think of a lot of other smells that could sit alongside it. But there's no denying it that there was always a bottle of Sarsons in our kitchen cupboard to go on our chips, just as there is in my home today, still taking pride of place on the table when the chips are served. Could you imagine sitting on the beach next to a fish and chip shop without the waft of vinegar mingling with the sea air?

I could go on forever about my food memories and this book has brought so many of them back to the surface again. So if you like teacakes, toast, toffee or tatties, have a passion for sweets, chocolates or cakes or simply just enjoy buying, cooking or eating food I'd get hold of a copy of this book, settle down on the sofa with a mug of tea and a packet of bourbons (or digestives, Rich Tea, Custard Creams, Jammie Dodgers, Club biscuits, kit kats, Jaffa Cakes, Gingernuts - I could go on ...)

Monday 7 July 2008

Kitchen views

I am so happy that I took these photos last week when summer remembered to come and visit. The views out from the house this morning are too dismal to share - grey, wet, windy and wintry. I have been tagged by Sian to share with you the views from my kitchen window. Our kitchen is at the back of our home and because we're on a hill, our garden is on a gentle slope with our kitchen sitting at the bottom of it. It is perhaps the room in the house that gets the least amount of sunshine and standing at the kitchen sink it is mainly the lower half of the garden that I can see. If you read this post here, there are some more photos too.

On days when the sun is shining and the flowers are in bloom these white painted steps that lead up to the main bit of the garden have quite a Mediterranean feel (good for those Shirley Valentine moments) and are in stark contrast to the softer planting around the lawn and trees beyond. A few weeks ago the poppies were out and their beautiful colours and petals really were a pretty sight.

To the left of the steps is a large flower bed with a wigwam waiting for the very lazy sweetpeas to bloom (have they just given up I wonder). This bed also contains tall foxgloves which a short while ago were standing majestically amongst some peonies and hellebores. Beyond this bed stands the old apple tree which is Little Sister''s favourite reading spot (thank you so much for all her birthday wishes, she had a great day) and where the cats leap up and down chasing after the squirrels.

If I could, I would love to put a window into the wall that stands next to the back door so that if I looked to the right of the sink I would look out on to our patio area. Hidden to the side of the house and below the garden is a suntrap of an area that we sit in whenever we can. My favourite part is this old brick wall that needs rendering but I love it the way it is. This would be my view of choice. I have covered the wall with an assortment of baskets and pots. The tumbling tomatoes are doing well enjoying the elusive afternoon sun, my swiss chard has miraculously survived the slugs and is thriving in some pots. My favourite plants down here are the scented leaf geraniums. Just brushing past their rose, lemon or chocolate fragrant leaves reminds me its summer.

In an old enamel tub the strawberries are waging war against the slugs (ssssh nobody tell them but I think they're fighting a losing battle).

In another corner stands an old painted table that I have placed a couple of trugs full of lobelia. Standing beside this in an old zinc container is some mint, that I use all the time for cooking. Alongside this and just out of the photo is an old chimney pot full of trailing purple busy lizzies that seem to thrive in this shady spot.

Before I forget, do you remember the post about my mini meadow? Well the campions, daisies and ragged robins have now been replaced by toadflax, I've never grown this plant before, it's very pretty.
If you would like to share your kitchen views please do. Any signs of summer sunshine would be very gratefully received.
On my kitchen windowsill I have a little collection of vintage food tins and these will have to be shoved up a bit as the lovely Julia has awarded me with this:

I love reading your blog Julia, so I'm really chuffed you should give this to me. It's now standing proudly to the left of an old tin of custard powder! To the left of an old tin of clotted cream stands this from Mrs Decker.

Thank You!! It's feeling a bit like my birthday. I won't go as far as saying that it doesn't really matter that the sun isn't shining, cos it does matter and that would be fibbing, but I would say that all your kind words and gestures make such a difference to me, thanks. Did you hear that thud? It was the sound of the awards being passed on through the ether and landing on all your kitchen windowsills too (wouldn't it be great to have a blogging tardis so that we could just pop into to say hello to each other? I don't want to get sidetracked but did you see Saturday"s edition of Dr Who? It was fab!). Now you must all go off in search of summer and if you find it please send it back over here to say hello. Have a good few days

Saturday 5 July 2008


Happy Birthday sweetpea!
Wishing you a magical year.

I like your eyes
I like your nose
I like your mouth.
Your ears, your hands, your toes
I like your face
It's really you

I like the things you say and do
There's not a single soul
Who sees the skies
The way you see them
Through your eyes
And aren't you glad
You should be glad
There's no one, no one
Exactly like you

Andra Willis Muhoberac

Love you xxx