Wednesday, 12 July 2017

You reap what you sow

Those neat little sprouts in my previous garden post are now great floppy plants, overflowing their boxes like leafy fountains.  Theo has been particularly keen on picking things, sometimes before they're ready!  So, what harvest have we had?

Peas


I was really pleased with the peas.  Every couple of days we could go out and grab a boxful of fat green pods - and it was fun popping them and seeing how many peas were inside.  The boys and their friends from next door happily ate them straight from the pod, and we had them raw in salads, cooked as a side, and even made into pea fritters.  Their season finished early so I've put some more carrots, onions and rocket in their place.



Strawberries


We only really had enough to pick a few and eat them one by one.  However, we went to Scaddows Farm and picked LOADS, so we haven't felt short of strawberries.

Carrots and spring onions



The spring onions have done well, and got lovely and fat.  Theo's been desperate to pull up the carrots, so we've thinned a few, but they are barely pencil-thick yet.

Tomatoes


They're growing tall, but none of the fruit has ripened yet.  The boys are keeping me updated on how big they're getting (but they are a cherry variety, so won't get huge).

And the what???


These were the things I thought were courgettes.  Well, they're clearly some kind of squash, but what kind I do not know.  One plant has green ones on, another has yellow - rounded, with a slight point at the bottom.  I have NO CLUE how they got into my garden.  But if they're edible, we will eat them.  Sometimes you get to reap what you don't sow!

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The changing map of Europe

I was eight when the Berlin Wall came down.



For many of my contemporaries, it was the first big political event they remember seeing on TV.  We didn't have a television then, so I don't even have that hazy recollection.  As I got older, I became aware that many European maps I looked at were no longer correct.  The big splodge on the right emblazoned with the ominous letters U.S.S.R. had now dissolved into smaller countries with unknown names: Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova.  Something called the Iron Curtain had disappeared.  And Germany was now one big country again, no longer split between East and West.

Our history lessons at school focussed heavily on the First and Second World Wars, with odd excursions to the Romans, or motte and bailey castles, or Henry the Eighth.  It wasn't until I studied German A-level that I heard about the Berlin airlift, and my first reaction was: "Why did no one ever tell me about this?!"  Up until then I had always vaguely assumed that Berlin must straddle the border between East and West Germany.  The story of the stranded city supplied only by plucky planes flying night and day to defeat the Soviets was like a fairy tale.  Far more interesting than endless re-runs of trench battles.

Later in the course I wrote an essay - in German, a feat which now astounds me - comparing the 1953 uprisings in East Germany, which were violently squashed, with the 1989 "Monday demonstrations", which were shortly followed by the fall of the Wall.  I dread to think what youthful liberties I took with the history of a country I had barely visited and whose language I hardly spoke, but I remember picking out a couple of decisive factors: the peacefulness and prayer of the demonstrators in the later event, and the new approach of Gorbachev, who encouraged the Eastern bloc countries to work out their own problems in their own way (without Russia sending in the tanks).

Since then I had given that period very little thought, until I picked up a fascinating book called The Year That Changed The World, by Michael Meyer.  As a Newsweek reporter based in Germany, he was in the thick of the action, dashing from Poland, where the Solidarity party ousted the Communists in democratic elections; to Hungary, where the leaders dismantled the border fence and practically ushered East Germans towards Austria; to Prague, where crowds filled Wenceslas Square for the Velvet Revolution.  Events came tumbling over each other, gathering momentum like a rockslide hurtling downhill, far faster than anyone expected.

Meyer does a fantastic job of conveying the determination and randomness of human history.  On the one hand, dozens of people were working tirelessly for change.  He argues that the fall of Communism was as much due to its own leaders realising that something had to be done, as to the people rising up and overthrowing the Party.  On the other hand, a seemingly tiny event can send the avalanche of history off in a completely different direction.  One of the best bits of the story is the reading of the press release on November 9th, 1989, with its one small word sofort - immediately - which sent East Berliners crowding to the wall.  If things had happened as intended - the next day, in a orderly fashion - would the wall have fallen as it did?

It's also striking just how unexpected all these events were.  Even those who were implementing them, both the Communists and their challengers, thought change would occur gradually, over maybe the next 5-10 years.  As for the West, the leaders were mostly entrenched in a Cold War mentality, neither hoping nor working for major change.  But suddenly, in a matter of months, the world shifted.


The translation is rubbish but the footage is good!

One quote brought these historical events right up to date for me.  Gunter Schabowski, the East German offical who read that fateful press release, described his reaction to Hungary cutting a hole in its western border fence: "Here was Hungary... going off on its own and doing something which challenged the very existence of the bloc... And if there were no bloc, where would that leave us?"

The European Union is somewhat different to the Soviet bloc, of course.  But if history teaches us anything, it's that actions can have unintended and enormous consequences.  If a rockslide of events starts, there's not much you can do except try and keep on top.  And perhaps one day my son will be saying, "I was eight when..."

Photo attribution: Lear 21 at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 23 June 2017

A Trip to Norfolk


Belton House.  Biggest adventure playground ever.  Seriously.  You start at one end with the seesaw which pumps water for a splash pad, and go past the treehouse and rope bridges, and cross over the miniature railway, and discover the giant glockenspiel and spinning wheel, and hop over some stepping stones, and it still goes on.  We gave up and had lunch without ever finding the end, and went off to draw pictures in the beautiful gardens instead.

 


And that was only a short stop on the way to the real holiday in Norfolk.  We were headed to a little house in Heacham, just a few minutes from the beach.  It was a bit cool and breezy that first evening, but you've got to paddle and dig, haven't you?




The sun set beautifully over the sea, and we tucked Toby and Theo up into their bunk bed - which according to them, was the best bit of the whole holiday.



The next day we got a perfect beach day.  We drove to Wells-next-the-Sea, where the sea was so far away that it was more like being in a desert, trudging through endless waves of dry sifting sand.  The boys spent the day excavating tracks and tunnels, endlessly absorbed.  Gradually the tide turned, filling up the river channel and spreading swiftly across the flat banks.  The buoys re-floated and some seals came swimming in to bask on the shore.




Tuesday dawned grey but initially dry, so we took the boys out on their bikes along the sea wall.  Halfway back the air picked itself up and hurled itself at us, in a hammer-blow of wind and driving rain.  We staggered back to the cottage with our hoods flapping around our faces, soaked to the skin.  Once we realised it wasn't easing up, we scurried to the car and sloshed our way along country lanes to the intriguing experience of the Thursford Collection.  Ostensibly it's a steam engine museum, but when you walk in to the large dark hall, lit by sparkling trees and innumerable glints of polished brass on the restored engines, surrounded by the glorious facades of of a dozen enormous fairground organs, it feels more as if you have entered some surreal Victorian experience.


The organs come to life one by one, playing their mechanical tunes in turn, but the star of the show is the Mighty Wurlitzer on the platform.  Robert Wolfe has been playing it here since 1981, and his performance was well worth the entry fee all by itself.  His hands and feet simply danced over the three keyboards and foot pedals, flipping levers, pushing buttons, and creating an endless flow of astounding music.



On our final day the wind still blew but the sun shone.  We walked along the beach by the bi-coloured chalk cliff at Hunstanton - white above, orangey-red below - leaping rock pools, exploring an old wreck, and gathering shells.  In the town was a memorial to victims of a flood in 1953.  I'd never heard of that January night when the cold North Sea came sweeping in, killing hundreds around the UK and over a thousand in the low-lying Netherlands.  The local hero was a US airman stationed in Hunstanton, a 22-year-old named Reis Leming.  He went out into the freezing water again and again to rescue stranded people and was awarded the George Medal for his bravery.





Inspired, impressed, and covered with sand, we headed home.


Friday, 16 June 2017

The start of it all: Derbyshire's industrial heritage

Where would we be without the Industrial Revolution? 

Derby Silk Mill c.1910, via Wikimedia Commons

The development of factories changed our world beyond imagining.  People worked in different ways, ate different food, expected different lives, bought different possessions.  The effects were so wide-ranging that it's astounding to realise that it all came back to a few men in a few places on a small island in the North Sea.  Over the couple of centuries from 1750 to 1950, Great Britain burned coal, harnessed steam power, invented machines, built mills, and had an industrial output out of all proportion to its size.  Once you try and wrap your head around the magnitude of what happened here, it's just incredible.

And Derbyshire was in at the very beginning of all that.  The first factories, buildings made just to do one job, over and over again.  The development of the idea that one water wheel could drive all the machinery in that factory.  The employment of women and children to work to the rhythms of the machines, day and night.  The disputes between those who worked and those who pocketed the profits.  The heat.  The noise.  The injuries.  And the ideas which spread all over the world.


Most of the mills are quiet now.  Lumsdale Valley, near Matlock, is so tranquil that it's hard to imagine it ever being a hive of industry.  A cluster of stone buildings tumble down the slope beside a splashing stream.  Only their names hint at their previous existence: the paint mill, the bleaching works, the saw mill.  The earliest date back to the 1600s, probably; by 1780 things had really got going, and there were half a dozen small businesses drawing power off this one small section of the Bentley Brook.



A little further south, at Cromford, the entrepreneur Richard Arkwright also harnessed the power of falling water.  In 1772 he built the first successful cotton mill in the world.  His spinning machines ran 24 hours a day, attended by hundreds of women and children.  It made his fortune, and it made anyone else who was at all interested in this new technology sit up and take notice.  Everyone wanted a mill like Arkwright's mill.  And pretty soon, it must have seemed like everyone had one.



Meanwhile down in Derby, Lombe's silk mill had been running for years.  It was already a tourist attraction by the 1770s.  Making silk had been the Italians' closely guarded secret for a long time, but John Lombe had gone to work in the silk industry there, slipping downstairs at night to make drawings of the machinery, and come home to England to build his own silk mill.  The new building on the River Derwent, with its distinctive tower, was one of the first factories in Britain.  The Italians had their revenge, though: Lombe's death in 1722 was thought to be the work of an Italian assassin, sent to poison him.



Now the Lumsdale Valley is a pleasant walk, the Cromford Mills are a tourist attraction, and the Silk Mill is a museum, currently draped in poppies as a memorial to World War I.  The energy and the innovation of the Industrial Revolution has dissipated.  So has the smoke and the squalor.  But the legacy lasts, not only in these buildings, but in almost every way we live our lives.  Here was the start of it all.  And it hasn't ended yet.

Friday, 9 June 2017

It isn't that important to me...

When we went sailing a few weeks ago, I mentioned to one of the club members that I had tried sailing a topper as a teenager, and really enjoyed it.  He asked: "Why haven't you done any sailing since then?"

Well.

On the face of it, that's a perfectly reasonable question.  On the other hand, why don't we do all these many things that we would probably enjoy if we did them?

Because our weekends are already full. 
Because we don't know anyone else who does it. 
Because it will cost money. 
Because we're afraid it will take up all our time.
Because the kids don't want to.

Because, quite frankly, it isn't that important to us.

Which isn't really something you can say to someone who's been sailing for longer than you've been alive.  But that's pretty much what it comes down to.

That brief conversation, and a similar one with a tennis instructor, served to point out the difference between those who are "in" an activity - and can't understand why someone else wouldn't at least want to try it - and those who are "out", for whom the question, "Why not?" is answered by, "Why would I?"  When sailing is your whole life, it can be hard to comprehend that it's not even on someone else's radar.

Church, of course, is much more than a leisure activity - at least for those who are in it.  But there are certain similarities to a sailing club.  It's what you do at the weekend.  It's where you make friends with like-minded people.  It organises barbeques and breakfasts.  It will take over your life if you want it to (and possibly even if you don't).  It has branches all over the country.

And those who are "in" don't really understand why those who aren't, aren't.

I mean, we know, of course, that plenty of people don't go to church.  Or sail.  Or play tennis.  And we realise that this is for the same kind of reasons that we don't play bowls or join the local fishing club.  But it's still hard to get past the idea that if they just tried it, they would be there every week.

To a certain extent, that does work.  I mentioned before how impressed I was by the efforts the LTA is making to get people into tennis.  And you know what?  I could see us getting into tennis.  Not in a big way, but in a join a club, get a bit better at it, play a few fun games kind of a way.  And this is coming from someone who has never been into organised sport, and whose main memories from school are of repeatedly failing to hit the ball.  Ever.  In anything.  So they must be doing something right.

Likewise, sometimes all it takes is an invitation to church.  But it's still got to coincide with some recognition that this is important.  That it's worth the time and money that it takes.  That it provides something that is missing in our lives.

So.  Why not?  Want to give it a try?

See?  It's fun!

Monday, 29 May 2017

A free weekend (including Graham's birthday)

It's not often you get to do things for free, still less a whole weekend of them!  But a few weeks ago, for Graham's birthday, that's exactly what we managed to do.  Free sailing, tennis and swimming, accompanied by free desserts and strawberries and cream! 


Graham was working on Saturday morning, which gave the boys and me time to decorate his birthday cake.  We presented it to him at lunchtime, along with a little liquid refreshment.



For the afternoon, I thought it would be nice to do something a bit different.  Scanning the internet, I discovered that Burton Sailing Club had an open day, and we could go for a free ride on a sailing boat.  Perfect!  We headed down the road to Foremark Reservoir.  The very friendly club staff got us signed in and set up, and we all clambered into the motor boat to go catch a ride.  Unfortunately we'd picked the one moment of the day when the wind picked up and the rain came through.  Theo and I went first and missed the worst of the rain, but even so, the gusts made sailing a little too exciting for him, so we only had a short trip.  We switched with Toby and Graham, who had an even more exciting ride, with rain and a couple of mishaps (no one fell in!).  Straight after that, the sky cleared and the wind dropped right down, and we were back on shore watching all the boats peacefully drifting around in the sunshine.




For birthdays, we like to treat ourselves to dinner at a really high-class restaurant... so we went to McDonalds.  This decision was partly made because we had coupons to the value of three ice creams and a doughnut, so that was our free dessert.

In my search for things to do, I'd also discovered that it was a Great British Tennis Weekend.  Toby was very keen on this option, and barely managed to swallow his disappointment when Dad chose sailing instead.  So we decided that we could manage tennis after church on Sunday.  We went to the David Lloyd fitness club, which is one of those huge luxury gyms that you have to take out a mortgage to join.  It was warm and sunny and felt like we'd gone on holiday for the afternoon.

I'm very impressed by the efforts of the Lawn Tennis Association to get more people into tennis.  Last year Toby did a free six-week course; this year they have a couple of open weekends (the next is 22/23 July).  All the coaches we've met have been enthusiastic, friendly and professional, and it's resulted in us batting quite a few tennis balls around on the patch of grass at the end of our street.  This time Graham and I got a workout too, as we joined the adult coaching session and learned some of the basics of moving our feet and placing the ball.  Theo was noticeably youngest in the kids group, but he seemed to have fun and got some one-to-one attention.  Toby enjoyed being back on a court again too.

Afterwards we relaxed on the grass with a free bowl of strawberries and cream (an unexpected bonus!).  Then we had free run of the club's facilities for as long as we wanted.  We'd come prepared with swimming costumes, so we got changed and enjoyed the outdoor heated pool and jacuzzi.  We finally dragged ourselves out and headed home, sun-soaked and tired out by our free weekend!


Friday, 12 May 2017

How does your garden grow? Spring 2017

Isn't it exciting when little seeds you've planted start cautiously unfurling stalks and leaves, and turning into proper plants?  Most of my vegetable planting is now done for the spring, so I thought I'd update you with what's in this year.

I used some plastic sheets to turn my vegetable boxes into mini greenhouses, which I'd like to think helped with the germinating process.  One unexpected thing which sprouted were half a dozen courgette plants, which I assume are the same ones that never came up last year.  I transplanted them to some pots, where one has already been savaged by slugs.



The seeds that I did expect were spring onions, carrots and rocket, which have duly come up in neat little rows.  I haven't tried carrots before; they're supposed to be good companions for spring onions in some mutually beneficial way, so I'll put in another couple of rows soon and see how they go.

tiny spring onions and carrots


tomatoes and rocket

Other plants have been bought in.  Someone in the village put a mini-greenhouse-full of tomato plants outside their house, with an honesty box for charity, so I acquired four for a good cause.  The peas were a garden centre bargain - £2 for a tray which contained far more than I needed.  I do hope they do well, as I rather fancy podding my own peas.  I can't remember when I last ate peas from a pod - can you?

dwarf peas

Last year I coaxed strawberry runners from my old plants into growing by themselves.  The old plants died off, but the new ones are doing well.  When I turned the compost out of the old strawberry pots, I discovered it was full of woodlouse larvae, which may have had something to do with the demise of the strawberries.  Are they bad for plants?  I suspect ants of living in the other pots, which I wouldn't have thought would be much good for the plants, but so far they don't seem to be doing any harm.

strawberry flowers
So that's my attempt at self-sustainability this year.  How about you?  Are you growing anything?

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Monthly Munch: April 2017

Looking back, it seems like lots of nice things have happened this month.  My diary records sunny afternoons with friends; discussions about 'what is poetry?' and 'what if Jesus hadn't been raised to life?'; visits to and from parents; a stop-off at Stratford-upon-Avon (nice town, even if you don't do anything Shakespearean); Easter bonnets, Easter biscuits, Easter church; parks, plants, parties; and my first attempt at ten-pin bowling in a long time.  (Since you ask: No.  I was awful.  But we had fun.)
Helping with a lock gate on the Stratford Canal

In the interests of keeping it real, this month has also included tantrums, whinging, fights, bleeding from the head, food on the floor, a screw in a car tyre, and me failing to get a job I interviewed for.  You didn't really think we had it that easy, did you?

Life goes up and down...


Toby



- got his silver award for achieving 600 Dojo [award] points.

- learned to do Sudoku puzzles with Grandpop.

They liked 'bouncing bubbles' from Grandma & Grandad

- is practising A and B on the recorder.

- wants us to time how fast he can do everything.

"Time me to run across the aqueduct and back!"

- carefully counts his money.  He's saving for more Lego.


Theo



- started going to preschool three mornings a week, and goes in without a backward glance.

- rarely needs the pushchair now, except for the 'double dash' where I have to cover the mile between school and preschool in 15 minutes.

Still likes sweets - and barbeques

- always has to help stir the dinner.  Doesn't mean he eats it, mind you!

Adding pepper to bean chilli


Thankful for:

 - Graham finding a garage to fit a new tyre half an hour before they shut for Easter weekend - and they gave us free Easter eggs!

- finding a beautiful new place to walk: Blithfield Reservoir, near Uttoxeter.

photo of a woodpecker from the bird hide at Blithfield


- a new net for our old trampoline (finally fitted after I ordered the wrong size and had to return it...)

Recipe of the Month: Orange and Ginger Cake with Marmalade Glaze



I adapted a recipe for marmalade cake, to try and use up a jar of chopped ginger in sugar syrup that has been sitting in my fridge for ages.  The result is not too orangey, not too gingery, just a light and delicate mix of both.

6 oz butter, softened
3 oz sugar
2 eggs
2 oz chopped ginger in syrup
5 oz marmalade, plus extra to glaze
10 oz self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
zest and juice of one orange

Preheat oven to 180°C.  Grease and base line a loaf tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar, then beat in the eggs, one at a time.  Add the remaining ingredients and mix well, adding more orange juice (or milk) if needed to give a soft consistency.

Scoop into the loaf tin and bake for about 45 minutes or until firm.  Leave to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then put a couple of teaspoons of marmalade on top of the warm cake, and smear it around so that it melts to form a glaze.  Remove the cake from the tin and let it cool on a wire rack.