Road Trip


I have just returned from a road trip to Melbourne, to reacquaint myself with the Australian landscape. In my shiny new, burnt orange Toyota Corolla that I have baptized Bruce, I have chewed up the miles with glee, driving through the Adelaide Hills and across the Murray, along the Coorong to Robe and down the Glenelg Highway to Buninyong. (Isn’t that a lovely, lyrical name?) Then east to Heidelberg, around Port Philip Bay to the Bellarine and back to Adelaide via Ballarat and Penola. Past paddocks and vineyards, countless gum trees, an abundance of inimitable Aussie birds and the inevitable, innumerable sheep. And I drove through a surprising amount of rain for a country that has been despairing over drought and bush fires further north. This land of immense horizons and ‘boundless plains’ has felt a very, very long way from England’s ‘clouded hills,’ its ‘green and pleasant lands.’ And while the contrast has been startling, it has also been a wonderful re-awakening to a very different kind of beauty…

Signs to the Coorong tempt me off the highway, but I know I will pass this way again for a closer look. So, its onward to Robe – an old favourite – where I pause for a couple of days to soak up the scents of sea and saltbush, bury my toes in the sand, find an old friend, and dine on fabulous local fish. A couple of days later, I find myself drifting through Saint Kilda for a slap-up brunch with my brother and his family, where the trams brush past my elbow, and ladies dash by in high heels and fascinators, running late for a Melbourne Cup luncheon. I drop in to see a cousin’s new home among the gumtrees, its high, wide windows overlooking the Yarra River in the gully below. As we nibble on onion tarts fresh from the oven, we chat of wombats at the bottom of the garden and our children’s aspirations.

Before I move on from Melbourne, I grab an hour and a bowl of gnocchi with an old mate in Toorak. I long for a glass of red wine to go with it. If only I wasn’t having to navigate my way across city afterwards…

A seaside town, a stone’s throw from Geelong, full of stately stone buildings, churches and old-fashioned shop fronts. A morning tea by the sea that includes Portuguese tarts. Popular in Luxembourg bakeries due to a large Portuguese workforce, these custard tarts are now popular with me, too, my sweet treat of choice, whenever, wherever I can find one. Who would have thought I could find one here in Queenscliff, so many eons from the Douro or the Alzette? Yet here I sit, on a cushioned bench by the fire, with a coffee and a Portuguese tart, resenting an unseasonable cold burst that has laid waste to my light summer wardrobe, one I packed after several stifling days in Adelaide. Why am I never prepared for the unexpected weather changes? After all this practice, it beggars belief that I could pack so poorly, as yet again I amuse my One & Only with despairing tales of my chilled and coatless state.

Luckily, I can borrow extra layers from the hospitable friends who have acquiesced most cheerfully to my last-minute invasion. I have never travelled this way before, and I am taken aback, after hours weaving through city streets, suburban roads, and eight-lane highways, to discover Curlewis, an unexpected pocket of green paddocks and boutique vineyards on a quiet stretch of Port Philip Bay. I am happy to drift off the beaten track, keen to explore. Over the following days, we stroll along blustery beaches, drop into a neighbourhood winery for a bottle of bubbles, eat endlessly, and occasionally pause to snuggle up by the fire and catch up on family news and favourite books. Gazing towards the bay one afternoon, we spot a giant double rainbow, almost close enough to touch, one tiptoeing among a grove of gum trees at the far side of the paddock, the other dipping its toes in the sea.

Then it’s time to head out for a light dinner at the Dunes, on the edge of Ocean Grove, a shiny new restaurant predictably perched above the beach, with polished concrete floors and a vast expanse of glass through which we squint at the setting sun, sip wine, and fill ourselves to the brim with vegetables and lamb, served on shared platters like tapas, before dashing off to book club and a realm of indigenous writers I am only now discovering after so many years abroad.

A final lunch together on the Barwon River, where we mix the cultures – seafood with an Asian twist and an affogato for dessert – and then I am heading north west towards Ballarat, past another clutch of wineries, before turning off to Buninyong and a Thai feast mixed with Aussie wines, politics and birthday candles. Did I mention I am eating way too much..?

My final stop is Penola, where I realize it has been a journey interlaced with a thousand wineries. An old school friend in Wrattonbully provides iconic Australian entertainment in the form of a balletic Kelpie and a barbecue, while a welcome G&T helps to lubricate several jolly hours of hectic, happy chatter before I turn for bed…

And then homewards, through Naracoorte and Keith, with a short break in Tintinara for a meat pie in the company of a hungry magpie, to a city whose streets are lined with jacarandas in exactly the same shade of blue as an English bluebell. As I cruise back along the Western Highway, the bleached paddocks are truly a far cry from the verdant fields of Hampshire. Yet this stark landscape has its own, elusive beauty. And it has been a joy to revive some wonderful memories of a youth spent exploring the hinterland of Victoria and the South Australian coastline. To revive old friendships, too, garnered from all over the globe. My heart, as ever, is divided between the ear-splitting shriek of cockatoos among the scented branches of the eucalyptus and the gentle twitter of wrens and robins hidden deep within brambly hedgerows; between the deep blue, painfully bright skies of inland Australia and the hazy, washed denim heavens above the Solent. How lucky am I, to know and love two such different, yet glorious countries, to keep a piece of each in my heart?
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Paella with a Pinch

Moments away from packing our bags and heading home to Australia, we first needed to fulfill a promise made in Rome over two years ago, to meet our dear friends in the south of Spain. Airbnb provided a super little nest among the tiled rooftops of the old town, the glorious dome of a nearby church clearly visible from our balcony, the walls around us laced in bougainvillea. Yet there was no time to stop and ponder the philosophies of life in our little eyrie. We were booked into a cooking class across the river and although it didn’t start till 9.30 am, that is still dawn in Spanish terms.

On the west side of the Gudalquivir is Triana, an attractive and ancient quarter of Seville that once thronged with fishmongers and carpenters. Today, it is bursting at the seams with ceramic shops and tapas bars. We wandered over Puenta de Isabella II – or Puenta Triana, whichever you prefer – to the Mercado de Triana, that was built over the remains of Castillo Santo Jorge, a medieval fortress that was also used as the headquarters and prison for the Spanish Inquisition. It was demolished in the 19th century, but some of its walls and cobblestones have been excavated since, and can be seen below the floor of the market, where there is a museum that focuses on the history of the castle, including three centuries of religious repression in Spain.

Once an intermittent open-air market where fishermen sold their wares fresh from the river, it is now a permanent, roofed structure with a plethora of stalls brimming with fish and pork, fruit and vegetables, coffee and a cooking school: Taller Andaluz de Cocina. We meet up with our guide, Clara, as the market opens on a bright and sunny Saturday morning. Joining a multi-national group of wannabe chefs, we follow, meek as lambs, as Clara takes us past the Pescados y Mariacos, the Charcuteria, and the Semilleria. At a Frutus Y Verdurus, I am thrilled to find a colourful display of fruit we haven’t tasted since we left Manila – custard apples, pineapples, pomegranates – as well as local oranges, bitter and perfect for marmalade, whose scented trees line many of the city streets. A round, yellow melon – the galia – is apparently hugely popular with the locals, although not particularly flavourful, Clara admits. We admire the purple skinned Spanish garlic, so much stronger and sweeter than the white, Chinese variety. And we learn that Spain produces 45% of the world’s olive oil. (Next week, our friends will travel by car to Granada, passing through mile upon mile of olive orchards that feed this significant industry.) At a fish stall, we pondered how best to cook cuttlefish and dogfish, sea snails and obas, or cuttlefish roe. Any thoughts?

We are introduced to Queso Payoyo, a local goat’s cheese from the Andalusian mountains, as well as the more familiar and firmer Manchego, made from sheep’s milk. Clara tells us all about the free-range black pigs fed on ten kilograms acorns per day in order to produce the perfect Iberian ham: pata negra or Jamón ibérico de Bellota in Spanish. Salted and hung out to air dry for anything from 12 – 48 months. Last year, my sister and I stayed in the remote town of Jabugo, which is almost entirely devoted to the production of Jamón ibérico. Here, vast, silent hangars house the famous pork shoulders that have been popular since Roman times. The specific appellations are distinctions that will be strictly adhered to and protected by the region and the EU.

At the Semilleria, there are open sacks of dried beans and lentils, and tiny boxes of saffron, which sell for 5,000 euros per kilo. Back in the kitchen, we will learn that saffron must always be the final touch to a dish, possibly roasted in tin foil, but never fried. I consider whether any of my friends will notice if I use a pinch of smoked paprika for a similar effect at a fraction of the price…

Saffron is one of the most precious spices in the world: the golden nugget in a purse of copper coins. It is even nicknamed ‘red gold,’ although it turns a dish yellow when added to the cooking pot. The Ancient Greeks used it in perfume, the Chinese found it medicinal, the Indians like it to dye their fabrics that distinctive marigold colour. Saffron is incredibly labour-intensive, which is what makes it so expensive: the red stigmas are hand-picked from the purple flower of the Crocus Sativa, and it takes thousands of stigmata to make a pound of saffron. About ninety five percent of the world’s saffron comes from Iran. With its aromatic, vaguely floral flavour, it is so intense you only need to toss a pinch into the cooking pot for that distinctive je ne sais quoi

Once the food stalls have been fully explored, we return to the cooking school to start our class. Clara swiftly hands over the reins to her partner, Victor, and dons an apron to become both sous-chef and chief bottle-washer, while Chef Victor explains the four-course menu and how we will all take a hand in preparing it.

Our first recipe originated in Cordoba. Quick and easy to make, Salmorejo is a salmon pink emulsion of tomato, bread and enough olive oil to make the average American decidedly nervous. We are soon chanting, ‘more, more, more’ like a pantomime crowd until the tomato puree has turned into an orange cream. Chilled for a couple of hours, it will then be garnished with hard-boiled egg and diced jamon. Salmojero is a rich and creamy soup, served cold, like gazpacho. Much to my surprise, Victor then explains that traditionally, gazpacho is not really a soup, but a Sevillian summer drink served from the fridge like water.

Next, we toss together a vegetarian dish of garbanzos (chickpeas) and spinach that contains enough cumin – ‘a Spanish pinch’ – to make it taste more Moroccan than Spanish, and uses fried bread and garlic as a thickener.

Clara then presents us with pitchers of cold Sangria, that fresh summer party drink concocted from Tempranillo and orange and lemon soda, then garnished with diced fruits and a cinnamon stick like a southern Pimms. Its name is believed to come from the Spanish word for blood: sangre. I am a little wary of alcohol this early in the day, but it certainly helps to enliven the culinary experience.

Suitably lubricated, we move on to the pièce de résistance – is there a Spanish word for that? – paella. Traditionally, paella is the pan, not the dish. Nor is it the seafood concoction the world is used to, but a country dish of rice, rabbit and chicken, runner beans, butter beans and artichokes in season. Originating in Valencia, it was made for the fieldworkers from whatever ingredients came to hand, which could include snails and duck. And according to our expert chef, it must not contain chorizo, however strong the temptation, as it will overpower the delicate flavour of the saffron and make the dish too greasy.

Although born in the north and bred in England, Victor is fierce about the honour of his Paella Balenciana. It must be fresh and simple, laced with garlic, paprika and a Spanish pinch of saffron. Simple ingredients maybe – but it requires practice to perfect a paella. Measurements and timing must be exact, to the last grain of rice and the moment to remove the pan from the heat. As he demonstrates how to fillet the chicken with a knife so sharp it cuts through the bird like butter, Chef cautions us to stay away from restaurant paella. It’s not the real deal, he claims scathingly, and is often a defrosted, reheated mockery of the traditional paella. Chef uses only the red meat for the paella, putting the breasts aside to use in another dish. All the other discarded parts then go into the pan to make the stock. To qualify as a true-blue paella, he says, as he neatly arranges the ingredients around the edge of the pan, it should be cooked on a charcoal fire made from orange trees. Most importantly, he declares, one must never stir the rice once all the ingredients have been added and evenly spread across the flat-bottomed paella. And he sternly warns us to hide the wooden spoon from any officious helpers. Meanwhile he tosses in a Spanish pinch of salt that looks like a tablespoon’s worth to the rest of us.

We are shown that the paella pan has handles held on with rivets, which cleverly help to quantify the amount of stock and rice. Once the ingredients have all been added, the heat is turned up for five minutes, then turned down for a further 12 minutes.

As the wine is poured and the paella served up, our mouths are watering eagerly, and all is silent for several minutes as we tuck in. After the plates are all but licked clean, Clara presents each of us with a champagne sorbet made from lemon sorbet and cava with a final Spanish pinch of mint. It’s a lovely, light palate cleanser to complete the meal. Our late lunch (it is now 3pm) has been a very jolly, utterly delicious affair. ¡Viva!

*With thanks to Sarah & Ian for sharing their photos… and their holiday!

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RIP Carlos Celdran

It was with real sadness that I read the news of the death of Carlos Celdran in Madrid this week. As the story broke, there was recognition and regret on the Facebook page of every friend I had in Manila, be (s)he Filipino or foreigner, who had ever had the good fortune to meet the Philippines’ very own National Treasure.

Consistently a thorn in the side of the Powers That Be, Celdran was renowned for his seductively sacrilegious tours of Intramuros, and his equally seditious, often scandalous and inevitably slanderous one-man show about the nation’s first lady Imelda Marcos. And how we laughed. This funny little man in the Turkish slippers with turned up toes, and top hat covered in stars and stripes like some unlikely Dr Seuss character, bravely turned a mirror on the history of his beloved country, daring to display its past, warts and all, yet with the humour and love that is only possible when we love someone without reservation or pretense. With mimicry and mockery, he spoke the unvarnished truth of a country mired in all the horrors of colonial occupation, dictatorship and religious oligarchy, while still exhibiting love and respect for the country to which he owed his allegiance with every ounce of his being.

Tour guide, cartoonist and writer, artist, actor and activist, Carlos has had a finger in many pies over the years. Promoting Philippine tourism through his walking tours, his theatre, and his writing, he was a passionate advocate for Manila, its history and culture. The last time I spoke to him, he was heavily involved supporting the Mayor of Manila to clean up and improve the city. Most recently I heard about his involvement in the art and cultural Manila Biennale in 2018 or as it was touted ‘bringing the soul back to the city.’ Set within the walls of Intramuros. An expansion of his own Intramuros walking tours, it was designed to expose the darker side of Manila’s history, while celebrating its creativity. And to make people think.

This review from Josephine Vi. Roque in ArtAsia Pacific, issue 108:

‘Filipinos are often criticized for their selective memory and collective forgetting that allows the son of a former dictator to run for the second-highest office in the country, and for corrupt politicians to return to public service. Controversial issues from the Second World War remain unresolved. The drug war continues unabated despite protests and an alleged death count of more than 12,000. Given this context, the biennial succeeded in exposing the horrors of past and present, no matter how painful. Perhaps this dialogue with history is enough to encourage change and question political systems. For what is the use of commemoration if not to save us from ourselves?

Loving the Philippines though he undoubtedly did, Celdran was nonetheless determined to expose its underbelly – those issues he felt should not be swept under the carpet and forgotten. Yet in bravely drawing attention to one such issue in 2010, he would find himself being forced into self-imposed exile in Spain – eight years after the publicity stunt he pulled at Manila Cathedral, to protest against the interference of the Catholic Church in the Reproductive Health Bill.

Despite popular support, the Supreme Court last year convicted Celdran of blasphemy and offending religious feelings. After an unsuccessful plea to overturn the penal code that convicted him as unconstitutional, he moved to Madrid to escape a potential prison term. Even in exile, he was irrepressible, continuing to work on his art and his writings. In August, he was quoted by journalist Luis H. Francia as saying, ‘The irony that an antiquated Spanish law somehow sent me to exile in Spain? It’s just part of the delicious absurdity of being Filipino.’

This week he died there, aged only forty six, reportedly of natural causes. He will be much missed in Manila, as a tourist attraction, a cultural icon and a rare soul prepared to stand up for what he believed in, whatever the consequences. Articulate, yet elusive, intense yet entertaining, quirky and spontaneous, Carlos Celdran was irrepressible, and forever passionate about the city of his birth. I feel blessed to have met him.

Posted in Local Culture, Philippines | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Changing Seasons

A one-time bandstand on the beachfront. Pale blue sky, wisps of cloud. Vast merchant ships line the horizon in orderly fashion, like a game of battleships. Wooden groins, dusted in mossy weed, are half submerged in a rising tide. The sea sparkles and softly licks the sand. White cliffs loom in the distance, topped with the fragile silhouettes of houses that may slip over the edge at any moment. Dogs pad calmly along the sand. A white coffee. Mushrooms on toast. Sunshine in my hair. All is well in my world.

Behind me, the hills slope steeply, verdant and fertile. Yet, barely a week into September, the harvesters are standing by to mow the fields, the leaves are beginning to turn brown and gold, and the heat has been sucked from the sun. No more buckets and spades and childish shrieks from the water’s edge. The beach has been swept clear of holiday detritus. The children have returned to their classrooms in shiny new shoes, with arms and faces flushed and healthy from myriad summer days.

The narrow lanes wind between hedgerows that are crowded with blackberry clusters. Once chock-a-block with too-wide caravans and campers that slow the cars to a crawl, now it is the torpid tractors and red-faced cyclists pedalling sluggishly up the precipitous ascents of the Downs that create snail-trails of traffic. The cafés, once raucous, are subdued now. Even the seagulls seem to know it’s the end of the season and have retreated to gossip in the barren fields. Somewhere above the island, three pairs of migrant sea eagles are learning the landscape of their new home. Rolls of hay, like fat buns, lie sedately on the earth.

Like the summer, I, too, am abandoning this glorious island to the brewing winds of winter. Reluctantly, plaintively, knowing the days are already closing in and the sun will soon be setting before the afternoon is over, knowing I must soon say goodbye to an eclectic bunch of warm and welcoming friends and neighbours from the croquet club, Carisbrooke castle, the Bembridge windmill and my prodigious writing group.

Every walk to the beach, or drive to town, creates a dolorous sense of loss deep in my chest. Is this the last time I will pass this way? Or this? I long to lock in every minuscule memory to recapture later, when the landscape has changed beyond belief and I am dwelling on a much larger island, the island of my other childhood, where the pert red squirrels and Watership-Down-rabbits will give way to larrikin possums and drowsy koalas; the Scottish magpies with their Thai silk sheen and rasping voices will withdraw in favour of their far less dainty antipodean cousins of the dulcet, gurgling chortle, while the Beatrix Potter hedgehogs and badgers will be usurped by Magic Puddin’ wombats and bandicoots.

There are new adventures ahead, but for now I am dwelling, achingly, in a present that I have adored for a handful of all-too-brief months, knowing it was never forever, that knowledge ensuring that nostalgia set in even as we unpacked our suitcases and hunted out the best coffee spots.

Post card images fill my head: a Norman castle, a modern lifeboat station, and an eighteenth-century windmill; a reef scattered with lanky, grey herons, little white egrets, oyster catchers in red stockings, and neat-petite black headed gulls. Watching a flotilla of softly-softly sailing boats on the Solent, or an eager-beaver hovercraft zipping industriously to the mainland like a zealous mosquito. Passing a row of lugubrious houseboats squatting on a lagoon of sulphurous seaweed. Strolling across Brading marshes, over stiles and through kissing gates, past curious heifers that lick my arm and swans that stand on tiptoe and flap their broad wings ostentatiously, then into the wildflower meadow that blossoms with wild orchids and butterflies. Picnicking on the foreshore overlooking Bembridge reef, or relaxing in a deck chair on Culver Down, enjoying an eagle-eye view over Sandown and Shanklin, Bembridge and Saint Helen’s, Brading and beyond…

New friends will soon to be swapped for older ones, recent experiences will be traded for childhood memories and the promise of novel new escapades. Isn’t it wonderful that I have room in my heart for them all?

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Windmills

Patience. The windmill never strays in search of the wind.’ Andy J. Sklivis

Bembridge Windmill by the One & Only

It’s been the perfect weather for ice-cream this past couple of weeks. The summer days have been long and gloriously warm. On our hill, 35 metres above the once-watery Bembridge Marshes, the breeze has kept the heat at bay. Still, the passers-by have systematically emptied the freezer of Magnums, Cornettos and tubs of local ice-cream. Standing on the hill at the back of Bembridge, our windmill looks across the valley to Bembridge Down and the Culver Inn, the sky between splashed with whispy cloud, tiny microlight planes, buzzards and swallows. Recently three pairs of Sea Eagles have been re-introduced to the island, but I’m yet to catch a glimpse.

This summer, I have been volunteering two days a week at the National Trust windmill, and I have become quite the anorak when it comes to its history and its workings. I have read all the literature, watched the documentary, and learned more from our visitors than all the rest put together. For instance, do you know why there are two pairs of grinding stones? Weighing half a ton each, the stones were made from either French Burr Stone, best for producing high quality flour, or Derbyshire Millstone Grit that was acceptable only for turning out rougher animal feed. The runner stone would be carved with a pattern of ‘furrows and lands’ designed to crush and cut the grain as it ran over the bed stone. This runner stone needed redressing every ten days, or after grinding about 400 tons of grain, whichever came first. As dressing the stones could take the stonemason many hours of work, a mill would generally have at least two pairs, so that one set could always be working while the other was being dressed. The current stones came from the Wootton Bridge water mill that closed down in 1945 and was demolished in 1962. But how does a watermill work? Another visitor was able to fill me in. There is also a miniature pair of stones with a handle like a pestle that can be turned by hand, so children can explore how real millstones grind the wheat into flour. (The kids also get to hunt for six small Homepride millers in their retro black bowler hats and find answers to the nature trail along the back fence.)

Fred the Flourman

Windmills became popular in Europe in the 14th century, and although they were never as popular as water wheels, they could be used in regions with little water. Or, like in Holland, where a level landscape prevents a strong flow of water. With the coming of the industrial revolution, both water and wind as a source of power were upstaged by steam and combustion engines. As an island that seems to have skipped the industrial revolution and remains largely rural to this day, it is hardly surprising that the Isle of Wight has a history of myriad mills: windmills, watermills, and tidal mills. All designed to use natural power to grind wheat into flour.

Bembridge Windmill is the only surviving windmill on the Isle of Wight. It is a tower mill –  a stone structure on which only the wooden cap and sails rotate – built in the early 18th century. Although no one is quite sure of the exact date, we know it was up and running from 1747, which date is engraved into a step. Developing on from the original wooden windmills, where the whole structure could turn on an axel? towers could be built higher – ours is 10m high – and sails (or sweeps as they are known locally) could be longer, and therefore pick up even the lightest breeze. For two hundred years Bembridge Mill was in constant use, despite the growth of steam powered mills on the mainland by the late 19th century. In 1913 it finally ground to a halt, and during the subsequent war years it became derelict, although serving as a lookout for the home guard.

Europe was once flush with mills, as so many landscape paintings testify. Dutch painters, understandably, seem to have painted little else. Then, think of Monet or Constable, who both displayed a bit of a fetish for a mill. Yet, as the industrial revolution took a firm grip on Europe, engineers learned to harness steam and coal instead of wind and water. By the early 20th century, many mills had fallen out of use. Without use or maintenance, these fine old structures gradually became derelict and hundreds were simply demolished. Also, flour is surprisingly combustible, so many wooden mills accidentally burnt to the ground. (It was also a visitor who explained how this happened and filled me in on any number of mill fires.)

While many mills burned down, others were converted into unusual homes. A few wise souls saw the worth of preserving this fascinating part of our rural heritage, with the help of photographs and drawings by the likes of architect J. Kenneth Major was an architect. Others sought simply to immortalize them with pen or paintbrush.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it became highly fashionable for the English aristocracy to travel around the Isle of Wight. Painters and writers came in droves, capturing much of the island landscape and lifestyle on canvas and paper. The pastoral landscape of the island remains today, but the coastal towns have changed dramatically since the nineteenth century, from small fishing villages to popular health spas and holiday resorts.

Bembridge Mill, towards Brading Haven, by JMW Turner

JMW Turner returned several times to the island, to sketch and paint. An original Turner oil painting of Carisbrooke Castle now hangs in the Great Hall there. His sketch book containing some two hundred and forty black and white sketches of his trips around the Isle of Wight still exists at the Tate, and beautifully captures a significant era of the island’s history. It includes at least one of our windmill, a copy of which hangs in the National Trust hut at the property.  

Currently, the sweeps lie on the ground against the fence, as they did in Turner’s sketch, while the Trust raises money for new ones. Unfortunately, even when the sweeps are fixed and turning, flour is no longer produced here. The nearest working National Trust mill is at Winchester, and we have sample bags of its flour for sale in our tiny shop, along with some recipe cards, and a lovely little cookery book chock-a-block with scone recipes for those with any skill for baking. I have to admit, after many disastrous experiments, that will never be me, but I did hear from a visitor yesterday that the cook at The Needles Battery makes the best scones she has ever tasted, so I’m off to the other end of the island for afternoon tea…

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Burnt Toast

‘My mother burns toast as surely as the sun rises each morning… I am nine now and I have never seen butter without black bits in it.’ ~ Nigel Slater

The Other Palace is a terrific little theatre only a stone’s throw from the real one on The Mall. The pub next door is buzzing when I wander past on Wednesday evening, in search of ‘Wagamama’s’ for a quick bite to eat before the show. It is still buzzing when I walk into the theatre an hour or so later…

I am early for once, the theatre almost empty, and I have a clear view of the stage set: a retro green, fifties kitchen complete with a brightly patterned, linoleum floor. On a narrow shelf, at the back of the stage I spot a Marguerite Patten’s ‘Cookery in Colour,’ and on the fridge, a red toaster in which a slice of bread waits patiently to be toasted. By the time I reach my seat in Row B, my foot is already tapping to the sound of the jaunty sixties sound track.

The Other Palace belongs to the illustrious Mr. Lloyd Webber, the latest acquisition in a stable of seven. This one only opened in 2017, but it reminds me distinctly of my adolescent years at The Space in the Adelaide Festival Centre. Sitting within spitting distance of the stage, at eye-level with the actors, this is my favourite spot in any theatre. I am almost on stage, but not quite, disbelief willingly suspended as I hover mere inches from the magic, waiting eagerly for the lights to dim.

‘Toast.’ I have read the book, seen the movie, and now there is a stage play, first developed for the Edinburgh Fringe, later polished and perfected for a London audience. The book was rather heavy going, but this abridged version turns out to have both a sparkle of humour among the pathos and a paciness that the book lacked.

Toast,’ originally penned by British food writer, Nigel Slater, and adapted for the stage by Henry Filloux-Bennett, is a poignant romp through the childhood of a wannabe chef whose taste buds are alerted to the culinary world by a diet of burnt toast, Angel Delight and mince pies. A talented and lively cast of five takes on multiple roles to tell the tale of a special mother-son relationship enhanced by time spent cooking together; a relationship cut short when his mother, struggling with asthma, finally gives up the fight, leaving her nine-year-old son in the clumsy, emotionally-challenged hands of his homophobic father. The boy’s grief over his mother’s death is assuaged by the joys of cooking, his coming of age highlighted by kitchen warfare – a battle to the death to out-bake his evil stepmother.

Mixing monologue and dance at a cracking pace, ‘Toast gives the audience a multi-sensory experience. Pink-striped paper bags of lollies, platters of fruit tarts and sexually deviant walnut whips are handed to the audience at intervals throughout the evening, the rustling of bags and wrappers interrupting the performance for a moment or two, as we see, hear, smell, touch and taste our way through a sixties childhood of lemon sherbet, lemon tarts and lemon meringue pie.

The drama takes place entirely in the Slater’s kitchen, where we meet young Nigel (Giles Cooper of ‘The Lady in the Van’), in schoolboy shorts and tie, devouring his mother’s one cookbook and describing his childhood through the Proustian medium of food memories. Suspending disbelief over the adult sized Nigel in schoolboy attire is sometimes tricky, but overall, Cooper convincingly portrays a young boy’s childish foibles, eccentricities and awakening sexuality.

Lizzie Muncy, as Nigel’s gentle, domestically challenged mother, softly breaks our hearts as we watch her struggle desperately to hide her illness from her precious son and her anxious, uptight husband. Mrs Slater’s sorrowful courage is palpable, her acute awareness that she will have to leave her sensitive son to the mercies of a cruel world and an inadequate father, had me almost in tears. But the play moved swiftly on and we were soon swept up in the strange and jealous battle, between Aunty Joan and Nigel, for Mr. Slater’s limited attention.

Stephen Ventura as Nigel’s father, Tony, is the archetypal, stiff-upper-lip Brit, who cannot bring himself to show his son any physical affection. Instead, recognizing Nigel’s penchant for lollies, he leaves marshmallow ‘kisses’ on his pillow every night. Quickly recognizing and fearing that his son is a ‘pansy,’ Tony’s inexpressible grief at his wife’s death lurches into angry violence against a son whose preference for ‘girly’ sweets he is unable to understand or tolerate.

Nigel’s first crush is the gardener, played most appealingly by Jake Ferretti, who appears for only one scene, but reappears in several other roles, including a back up dancer cheerfully strutting across the stage in a stylized, dream-sequence dance routine, gloriously camp in a frilly green apron.

Then along comes Marie Lawrence as the coquettish Aunty Joan, who goes from fanatical cleaner to evil stepmother with the swish of a duster and a flick of her ubiquitous cigarette, a wriggle of her hips and a pout of ruby red lips. Slater’s stepsisters were apparently horrified at the portrayal of their mother as an over-sexed, OCD cleaning lady, but Lawrence creates a strong character, full of Kardashian drama, sex-appeal and pizzazz.
Several lesser figures are woven into the main story line as all the actors, bar Cooper, snap in and out of character, cleverly and wittily adopting extra personae and different costumes to expand the cast and the story’s scope.

The Other Palace is a wonderfully intimate theatre. I feel as if I am watching the story unfold from an armchair by the window. As the cast frequently makes eye contact or directs cheeky asides into the auditorium, we are drawn willingly into the inner circle, passing lolly bags and crumpling our Walnut Whips wrappers in unison.

Although a decade older than I, Slater’s foodie tales of his mother’s famous flapjacks and his father’s ill-fated experiments with an exotic jar of Spaghetti Bolognese ring a carillon of bells. The 1960s was a novel period in the history of British cuisine, filled with unfamiliar but innovative cooking, as Britain emerged from an era of domestic staff and World War II rationing that extended well into the sixties. Middle class housewives faced domestic chores and family meals in horrified ignorance, and with enormous gratitude for the likes of Marguerite Patten, Delia Smith and Elizabeth David. As British palates slowly broadened to encompass unfamiliar ingredients and foreign recipes, there was a huge culinary leap from the stodgy, tasteless nursery food of past generations.

Entertaining, tasty and poignant in equal measure, ‘Toast’ provides a delicious menu of human emotions and childhood memories, handed out with brisk, unsentimental humour, as Nigel is forced to navigate a cold new world bereft of his mum. Seen through the eyes of a child, the play, perhaps more than either book or movie, clearly depicts a child’s fascination with food and its endless possibilities, as well as his egocentric sense of loss at his mother’s death. While lollies, cakes and puddings are the icing on Nigel’s food-oriented childhood, the ubiquitous lemony tartness of his favourite recipes reminds us that all is not sugar and spice even in the sweetest family saga. It is a gripping portrayal of an unhappy, resentful kid growing up in a dysfunctional adult world, as young Nigel gradually learns to focus his emotions and enthusiasms on developing his culinary skills and shaping his future without the guiding hand of his beloved mother.

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Operation Pied Piper

Remember the childhood fairy tale about a man with a flute, who lured all the children of the village away from their parents, after the townsfolk failed to honour their promise too him? With the best intentions in the world, something very similar happened to the children of Britain during World War II…

Last month, I was invited to take part in Evacuee Week.
Hosted by the Heritage Education Service at the Steam Railway in Havenstreet, each day was a re-enactment of the evacuation of over four thousand children from the mainland to the Isle of Wight, at the very beginning of WWII. The railway station became a set for local school kids to take a glimpse at the trials and tribulations of the war years, and specifically, what it must have felt like to be uprooted from their families and shipped off to strangers in the comparative safety of the English countryside. For four days in June, local schools, brownie packs, a group of enthusiastic home-schooled kids and more arrived at the station, eager to participate. Many dressed the part, in 1930s style clothes, carrying gas masks and small suitcases, and wearing large name tags pinned to their coats. Adult volunteers met them on the platform dressed as army officers, nursing staff, WI volunteers and land girls, to set the scene and welcome them to the island, encouraging them to imagine what life must have been like for children at the start of WWII.

Our resident dinner lady provided samples of some basic war-time snacks, such as potted-meat sandwiches and eggless cakes. Then she explained rationing, and there was many a gasp of horror at the thought of such limited amounts of food.  In another room, a WI volunteer showed them a selection ‘make-do-and-mend’ toys from the era – a common cry during the war for both toys and clothes – and suggested ways to create their own. As the factories had to focus on the war effort, building real guns, tanks and airplanes would take priority over the toy varieties. So this was a chance to get creative with glue and paper, wood, string and scissors. And the kids actually had a lot of old-fashioned fun with the skittles, quoits and a pinball machines made with wood, nails and marbles.

Yet another volunteer, posing as the local headmaster, took them through the drama of an air raid, marching them off to a temporary bomb shelter as the sound effect of enemy planes incited a very realistic air raid siren, while I found myself peering out of the window to catch sight of the bombers overhead.

At the end of the morning, the children boarded the steam train and were taken for a short ride, and imagined what it would have been like to head off on such an adventure without their parents. Despite our reminders that this was merely in play, we overheard several them taking it quite seriously about who they would be staying with that night. I was amused, but also inspired to read up more about the evacuation during WWII.

As a teenager, I remember reading two terrific novels about young evacuees during World War II. Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, is a beautifully created, semi-autobiographical tale of a brother and sister sent away to a run-down Welsh mining town to escape from the air raids over London. The evacuation, while not the story’s primary focus, provides the incentive to move the protagonists to an unfamiliar setting without their parents, in order to describe a poignant  coming-of-age drama, far from the safety and familiarity of home.

Popular children’s author, Michelle Magorian, has written several novels about the war and evacuees, including Goodnight Mister Tom, A Little Love Song and Back Home. The latter remains my favourite, although it can be quite heart-rending. Twelve-year-old Virginia, known as ‘Rusty’ because of her auburn hair, returns to the harsh reality of post-war Britain after spending the war years safely in America. The culture shock, the homesickness for her American childhood and family and the difficulty of reconnecting with her ‘real’ family were no doubt common emotions for those children sent abroad for the war. 

I loved these books, and they really gave me food for thought at a young age. What was it like to be sent away from your family, with no notion of where you were going, with whom you’d be living and when – or if – you would ever see your parents again? Can you imagine being those young kids, so far from home, who may never have seen a farm, a field or a cow in their lives? Huddled in a village hall, tired and confused, carrying only their gas masks and the bare minimum of clothes in cardboard cases, they would wait to be selected by their unknown host families. Everything was labelled, including the children themselves, to reduce the chances of losing anything or anyone. Remember Paddington Bear, turning up at Paddington staion like a lost package? All those novels had relatively happy endings, but there must have been plenty of sad, misplaced childhoods among the hordes of evacuees forced to leave their parents, often for years. 

As early as 1938, the British government had put together a plan to move legions of people, mostly children, from areas at high risk of enemy air raids, to safer locations. And this complex scheme was put into action days before Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on September 3rd1939.

Operation Pied Piper would be the biggest population migration in British history. Thousands of children from wealthier families, some with their parents, many without, were rapidly exported to distant destinations such as Australia, America or South Africa. Hundreds of thousands more were moved from vulnerable cities and ports to towns and villages further inland, to board with strangers, many for the duration of the war. In total, about 1.5 million people were transported across the country and around the world, and all this was achieved in a breath-takingly short time.

At the beginning of September, 1939 over 5,000 children were evacuated from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight. Building bomb shelters, attaching blackout curtains and relocating all those mainland children became an overnight priority. For the duration of the ‘Phoney War’ (the first few months from September 1939 to January 1940) the powers that be considered the Isle of Wight a safety zone, unlikely to be vulnerable to enemy attack. This, even though Portsmouth and Southampton, barely ten miles across the Solent, housed huge dockyards and factories building battleships and Spitfires, all of which would become prime targets for the Luftwaffe. There was even ship building and aircraft factories as close as Cowes.

By Christmas, after none of the expected bombings or gas attacks, most of the evacuees returned home, only to be re-evacuated in June 1940, when the Germans invaded France. In the end, some 820,000 school children and their teachers would be evacuated, along with half a million mothers and children under five and around 12,000 pregnant women.

Rationing was another pre-arranged government incentive that was first introduced in 1940 – and here comes the interesting angle on food. Introduced by the Ministry of Food, rationing was a scheme to monopolize the sale of food in Britain, to ensure every citizen was adequately fed and that no one – particularly the wealthy – could hoard supplies while others ran short.

As an island, heavily reliant on imports, Britain became increasingly vulnerable to German submarine attacks on ships bringing food into the country. Slogans such as ‘be thankful and never grumble’ and ‘never leave any food on your plate’ were pasted up everywhere, but didn’t do much to fill grumbling stomachs.

As soon as war was declared, every householder had to provide details of all the people living under his or her roof. Every person on that form was then given an identity card and a ration book. These books contained coupons that had to be signed or stamped by the shopkeeper each time rationed goods were bought, to ensure that people received only the specified allowance. ‘Retail Price Maintenance’ (RPM) was an essential part of the Government’s rationing policy, a practice which continued until the 1960s. The Ministry of Food also introduced unrationed school dinners in 1941, to ensure every child got at least one nutritious meal a day.

Initially, rationing only involved bacon, butter and sugar. By June, the list included jam, cheese, tea, margarine and eggs. Six months later, rice, dried fruit, tinned tomatoes and peas were added, and by the end of summer 1942, sweets, chocolate and biscuits were being rationed too. I couldn’t find specific figures for children, but an adult allowance included one egg per week, 4oz bacon or ham, 2oz margarine, 2oz tea, and 2oz cheese. Butter was saved for pregnant and nursing women, and children under five. Only bread, potatoes, and other home-grown vegetables were not rationed, although of course these were only available in season. Pamphlets about the modest spud provided recipes for cakes and bread made with potatoes and a whole meal made by filling a baked potato.

…with sugar from Australia!

These restrictions were not fully lifted until 4 July 1954 – almost ten years after the war had ended. The campaign to be careful and creative with the food available included many a dubious recipe designed to help ‘thrifty’ housewives feed their families with a severely limited pantry. Scrimping and saving became a way of life for decades. In 1947, for the royal wedding of the Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, ingredients were sent from all over the world for the wedding cake, including sugar from the Australian Girl Guides, as rationing was still in place in the UK. Apparently hundreds of people from across the UK even sent their clothing coupons to the princess to help with her wedding dress, although these had to be returned, as it would have been illegal to use them. It was, perhaps, an overtly extravagant cake at such a time – but perhaps it also provided a lacklustre, exhausted country with a symbol of hope for the future.

It is increasingly hard to imagine such a time of frugality and scarcity in this era of over-abundance, when supermarkets are full of never-ending food supplies from all over the globe in all seasons. But it is perhaps a timely reminder that we can survive on far less than we may believe possible.

*All photos and images care of Google images, with thanks.

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Of Battenberg Cake & Coronation Chicken

I have spent a long morning immersed in English history in the Great Hall at Carisbrooke Castle, trying to untangle the web of European connections that is the British Royal Family. What better way, then, to blow away the cobwebs than at the Breeze Restaurant at Island Harbour Marina on the outskirts of Newport? Directed there by the chance remark of a colleague, I am now on the veranda overlooking a phalanx of masts, taste-testing a piece of Battenberg Cake with a caffè latte .

Bizarrely, this slice of cake is also related to my busy morning with Queen Victoria’s family tree. A chequered confection of pink and yellow squares pasted together with strawberry jam and enveloped in marzipan, the Battenberg was named for Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, another Victoria, who married Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884. Mother of Louis, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, grandmother of the Duke of Edinburgh, sister to Elizabeth, who became a Grand Duchess of Russia, and Alix, otherwise known as the Tsarina of Russia, Alexandra Feoderovna. And her brother-in-law, Prince Henri Battenberg, later married her Aunt Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter. I told you it was a tangled web.

The discovery of the Battenberg cake led me on to other foods named for royalty, often devised for a royal wedding or a state occasion, and it quickly became apparent that christening food after the aristocracy or a local celebrity was once very fashionable, particularly in the 19th century.   Although many of these regal dishes only had a moment or two of glory, some have survived the test of time. How about a Gateaux Alexandra, for Edward VII’s wife, Queen Alexandra? Or a consommé for her great-niece Alice? Edward VII, a renowned gourmand, had  a potato, an apple and a chicken dish stuffed with foie gras named after him. And the popular cocktail, Bloody Mary (vodka, Worcestershire sauce and tomato juice), got its name from that violent and vengeful English Queen, Mary Tudor.

Then there is the greengage plum, which derived its name from Sir William Gage, an early 18th century MP, who brought the fruit over to England from France, where it was known as Reine Claude, after the wife of the 16th century King Francis.

The Margherita pizza, in the colours of the freshly minted Italian flag, was named for Queen Margherita of Savoy (1851–1926), to commemorate her visit to Naples in 1889, while Stroganoff was a 19th century Russian count who became a beef and cream dish.  And Beef Wellington was reputedly named in honour of the Iron Duke, who led British forces to victory at the Battle of Waterloo.

Woolton pie  was made from root vegetables, created by the chefs at the Savoy to support Frederick Marquis, 1st Earl of Woolton, the British Minister of Food during World War II , who went to huge lengths to persuade people to eat more vegetables and less meat as part of the war effort.

Another cake, similar to the Battenberg (sponge cake and raspberry jam wrapped in green marzipan) was also named for a princess. Three princesses, in fact. Margaretha, Martha and Astrid were the daughters of a Scandinavian prince, who subsequently became the queens of Norway, Denmark and Belgium, and princess cake, invented by their nanny, was a firm favourite with the girls, apparently.  

More recently, Filet de Sole Mountbatten and Bombe Glacée Princess Elizabeth were served at the wedding of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. And let’s not forget that coronation chicken salad with mangoes and almonds was invented for her coronation in 1953. There was even a Soufflé Diana created by the chef at one of the Princess of Wales’ favourite restaurants.

Now, pick the celebrity in a Bismarck herring, Bonaparte’s ribs (a popular sweet in the 19th century), a Shirley Temple or a Chateaubriand, Peach Melba and Pavlova…

*

Queen Victoria was reputedly responsible for formalizing dining etiquette that lives on today, but at least you won’t be asked to join her for dinner. Renowned as a glutton (although no one would have dared to say it aloud) QV was known to eat so fast that many of her guests never had the chance to finish their meals. As everyone was served after the Queen, and plates were cleared away as soon as the monarch put down her knife and fork, those served last would barely have managed a spoonful. Luckily there were plenty of courses, so hopefully the odd mouthful made its way to her guests stomachs, despite her race to the finish line.

Royal banquets have always been formal affairs, in fact, from Charles II to Henry VIII and right back through the centuries to William the Conqueror. Such feasts would have been incredibly extravagant and elaborate, with multiple courses and hundreds of dishes. It was the perfect way to show off one’s wealth and privilege, not to mention one’s knowledge of civilized and sophisticated behaviour. Table settings became increasingly ostentatious, and there was a very strict code of etiquette, even before there were knives and forks to eat with. Burping at the table and messy eating, for example, were completely unacceptable. Seating was hierarchical, and it was a huge honour to sit close to the King, provided you didn’t take advantage and try to poison him – and there were special tasters of the royal food to make sure that didn’t happen.

All this talk about food has made me hungry. So what’s there to eat? Coronation chicken sandwiches perhaps? Or a slice of Victoria sponge?

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Back to Basics

Isla Wight

Dougal, Florence, Dylan, Zebby, Oliver and Compton. Old or new, all the campervans in the Fishbourne fleet have a name, many with a Magic Roundabout twist. In the beginning, there was an Ermentrude, too. Ours was Isla. As in Isla Wight. And she’s also white. Isla isn’t one of the classic models, but a 2013 version, with all the bells and whistles. She is also the only one we could take off the island, apart from Dylan who was otherwise occupied. The Oldies can’t hack the pace on the mainland motorways, apparently.

These gorgeous VW campervans are the pride and joy of Will & Jubee Samuelson, who own Isle of Wight Campers. As if we were borrowing one of their children, Will took us over every inch of the precious Isla before we were permitted to transfer our bags from Vivienne, our VW Tiguan, to Isla’s pristine interior. Then we had to examine every previous nudge and bump, before being warned, quite seriously, not to create any more. He didn’t quite say ‘on pain of death,’ but the implication was there.

And I can’t blame them for such parental anxiety, as I know I’d be exactly the same. There is something very anthropomorphic about a VW camper.  Growing up in England, we had Bella Bus, and she was as much a part of the family as anyone else. Also white, she was perhaps a tad less shiny and modern than Isla, and I have to give full credit to our parents for surviving four weeks camping round Europe with Bella, four smallish kids and a very large rain cloud. To this day, my parents love nothing better than to head off into the bush with their current campervan, fifty-odd years after they traipsed through Europe as newlyweds in an old Bedford van.

For years, we have talked of following in their footsteps, of buying a camper. Of the joyous freedom of a nomadic life with your own portable bed, kitchen and wardrobe. Of no longer dragging suitcases across acres of airports or drinking rubbish coffee. Of moving on whenever we felt the urge, and wherever the wind or the road took us, without all the usual palaver of packing boxes and removal companies.

We also knew we had to hire one first; to try it on for size, quite literally. With the One & Only clocking the height chart at 6’2” and Yours Truly being clumsiness personified at the best of times, we had to make sure we had enough room to manoeuvre comfortably, or bruising and claustrophobia would inevitably put the kibosh on any further escapades. And I have done enough camping in my youth to know that my own particular preoccupation (bordering on mania) is bathrooms and toilets, and how to survive without them. Thus, ‘try before you buy’ would be a vital part of the process.

For years, it had never been quite the right moment. And then, out of the blue, the perfect opportunity presented itself. We had a birthday party on the mainland, and we needed accommodation. Why not try a campervan rather than a hotel this time? William had a small window in his booking schedule for a few days before the Isle of Wight festival. It was exactly the time slot we wanted. We were in business…

We gleefully boarded the ferry at Cowes, thrilled to think that our first night’s dinner was ensconced in the pocket-sized fridge- -one I prepared earlier – while a couple of bottles of wine were tucked safely into the cupboard, along with everything else we could possibly need on this mini adventure, thanks to the foresight of Jubee and Will. Not for us a built-in icebox à la Bella Bus, which kept the milk merely tepid, squatting in a pool of melt-water, but the Real McCoy. And a gas stove! I love cooking on gas and we haven’t had a gas stove in years. As we drove through Southampton, the weather report promised a grizzly weekend of monsoonal rain; a veritable Noah’s Flood. Minus a few dry moments between deluges, that’s pretty much what we got. Nothing daunted, we took it on the chin and headed east towards Portsmouth, aiming for the South Downs and a campsite in the woods near Petworth, thanking God we wouldn’t have to erect – or disembowel – a tent in a storm.

Passing The Badger and The Three Moles pubs – both names tempted us to pop in, for the sheer delight of their Wind-in-the-Willows monikers – we resisted temptation and drove on, down winding country lanes with their thick hawthorn ramparts, past an endless array of pretty stone cottages and forests. Eventually, unscathed by booze, badgers or hawthorn, we discovered the Graffham Club Campsite at the end of a single-lane farm track. It’s a fabulous campsite, wooded and shady, and we were cheerfully directed to a sandy parking spot, tucked up against a wall of rhododendrons. Despite our novice status, we soon had the roof raised, the deck chairs assembled and the wine poured. And, for the first night at least, we could eat al fresco, although the woodland fire rules forbade us to barbecue our IOW lamb chops. When at last the pasta was cooked, we had already emptied one bottle of Shiraz.

By bedtime, we had realized that the double bed wasn’t quite big enough for two – not the two of us anyway – but Will had provided enough bedding to make up the loft bed too. I suggested tossing a coin, but my chivalrous One & Only insisted that he was happy to clamber up to the top bunk, and who was I to argue? I woke sometime after midnight to the soft nattering of rain on the roof.

Night Two, and after a cultural day at Petworth House, we drove east to Crowborough, where I had located a campsite not far from the friends we were meeting for lunch the following day. Crowborough is situated seven miles south-west of Tunbridge Wells, on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, so I was also hoping to visit Pooh Corner and the Pooh Sticks bridge while we were in the area, but sadly, the unpredictable weather put us off the idea of trekking through a dripping and soggy forest. We got a lovely surprise at the campsite, though, which was located on a terraced hillside facing north, with glorious views over the Weald of Kent.

By now, we were experts at raising the roof, swivelling the front seat, turning on the gas, setting up the table and plugging in the electric cable. Dinner was underway in a matter of minutes, and the first glass of wine had been poured while we waited for the stew to warm up. After dinner, in an interlude between rain showers, we discovered a huge recreation park above the campsite, where the vast skies stretched to infinity and beyond, over this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We exclaimed at the space and the sky and the baby rabbits that had emerged from a coppice for silflay (xref ‘Watership Down’). The rain began again at nine thirty, but the sun was setting, and we were heading for bed anyway…

My long-held gripe with camping in tents or smaller camper vans is the somewhat sadistic tendency of park staff to send those of us without mobile bathrooms to the furthest reaches of the campsite, ensuring that a midnight call to the loo involves a long-distance marathon. And at my age, that has become a major aggravation. But so far so good. This trip we were able to ensure that the van was parked no more than 100 metres from the facilities, so that even in the rain, I could make it there and back without drowning.

Night Three, and we were even closer to a bathroom. Dropping by to visit our friends in Horsmonden, we defied the weather to attend the annual fair on the village green across the road. After some Morris Dancing, a sing-along with a ukulele band, and a bottle or two of wine – do you see a common theme here? – we ended up camping outside our friends’ front door, with the key in our possession for emergency access to the loo. This also meant we were virtually in the marquee with the local bands that played on merrily till midnight, which made for an unusual lullaby.

Night Four found us back on the South Downs. Neither woodland, nor township, we were now in a huge field below Ditchling Beacon. Our neighbours were few, but the rain was mizzling, so after a postprandial lap of the extensive and almost empty campsite, we retired early. It was my turn in the top bunk, after three nights grace on the firm but cosy bed below. At this point, admiration for the stoicism of my One & Only reached celestial heights. Now nesting right under the roof, the rain was suddenly thumping in my ears as if I were curled up beside last night’s drummer. And I know I’m a bit of a Princess when it comes to mattresses, but I like a soft mattress if I’m not going to wake up like a fierce and cranky Goldilocks. While there is plenty of room upstairs, I felt this upper bunk was better suited to more supple bones than mine. And more agile ones, too, as I almost propelled myself through the windscreen trying to clamber down in the dark for that midnight dash. Not surprising then, that our final night found me in my cousin’s spare bed with a hot water bottle, while the One & Only claimed the luxury of the bottom bunk and slept uncomplaining and cosy in the driveway…

So, while the weather wasn’t ideal, our test run was a great success, and really good fun. We learned an awful lot about the pros and cons of living in a campervan, and my childhood fantasy for the life of a gypsy is still alive and well. The layout of seating and cupboards proved excellent, and there was plenty of storage. We even got the hang of the front passenger seat that sashays around to face the back for dining. But I would definitely like a thicker mattress for the loft bed. And perhaps an annex of some sort, for housing wet coats and muddy boots in bad weather, and, ideally, a porta-potty!

Apart from these few simple adaptations, we are now inspired to invest in our own camper. We both love the flexibility and freedom a campervan provides, and we thoroughly enjoyed joining the ranks of the light-hearted, liberated and friendly camping community who showered us with encouragement, useful information, and wondrous tales of a truly nomadic life. Top marks, too, to all the campsites we stayed at, where the facilities were spotless and not at all the nasty experience I remember from my childhood camping trips. Adventuring with a VW campervan is so much easier – and warmer – than it was with the tent and numerous boxes of camping gear we lugged around last summer, and of course it’s a much dryer port in a storm. For several long moments we even forgot that we had to return dear Isla to her proud parents and considered heading off into the sunset – and possibly warmer climes – never to return. Maybe next time…

PS Both Isla & I returned to the island with no additional bumps or bruises, despite the flooded roads, some severely pot-holed lanes and minimal suspension. Not to mention having to scale the heights to reach the loft bed! In truth, I only knocked over the coffee pot once, when my elbows got in the way, and I think that’s a record. If you’d like to meet Isla and her friends, check out: www.isleofwightcampers.co.uk/

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Glorious Gardens

The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, Fighting Bucks c.1829 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Spring is rolling into summer, and although the weather may not be participating, the fields and hedgerows are lush and green – even more so, perhaps, thanks to days of heavy rain. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting though, for a long weekend in Sussex in mid June…

On the first day of our adventure on the mainland, we awoke to persistent drizzle. A long hike through the countryside promised nothing but damp heads, soggy feet and the onset of pneumonia. So, we changed course and headed to Petworth House. On the cusp of a pretty village of the same name, this imposing stately home lies in the heart of the South Downs National Park, in West Sussex. Once the country estate of the Earls of Northumberland, this treasure trove of art and history is now in the hands of the National Trust, along with a 700 acre deer park designed by the 18th century landscape architect Lancelot Brown. More commonly known as ‘Capability’ Brown, he was renowned for telling every potential client that his property had ‘capability’ for improvement.

Back in the 12th century, Petworth Estate was bequeathed to Joscelin of Louzain by his sister Adeliza, the widow of Henry I. Joscelin then married Elizabeth Percy, heiress to one of the most powerful noble families, adopting the Percy name and all its estates. IN 1377, his descendant, Henry Percy, was created Earl of Northumberland at Richard II’s coronation. Prominent throughout the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, several reckless – or audacious – Percys would spend their time both courting and yet miraculously dodging political and financial disaster. By 1750, they were one of the wealthiest families in England, but with the death of Algernon, 7th Duke of Somerset, the vast Percy estates and titles were divided between the Duke’s only surviving daughter and her first cousin. A branch of Percy descendants continue to live at Petworth House to this day, although there is barely any resemblance to the house Queen Adeliza gave to her younger brother almost a thousand years ago.

In the 17th century, the medieval country house was inherited by Lady Elizabeth Percy and her handsome husband, the conceited and vainglorious Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset. Seymour took to his exalted new life like a duck to water, and promptly proceeded to enlarge the house at Petworth in the manner of Versailles, retaining only the beautiful, medieval chapel as a favour to his wife, adding grandiose state rooms to display the family’s wealth, taste and royal connections.  Described by a contemporary as ‘a man in whom the pride of birth and rank amounted almost to a disease,’ he turned the original manor house into a palace, and employed the King’s own gardener to design structured, formal gardens at the front of the mansion, complete with ramparts, terraces, and ornamental gardens.

Petworth today

Barely fifty years later, Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont inherited Petworth, he commissioned Capability Brown to modernize the gardens, relegating the ostentatious French style to the rubbish heap and replacing it with Brown’s signature informality. Parterres, meticulously manicured lawns and hedges, elaborate fountains, sharp edges and symmetry gave way to ha-has and grassland as far as the eye could see, with soft curves from surrounding hillocks and a scattering of carefully tousled ever-green trees. This new form of landscape gardening – idealizing and styling the landscape so harmoniously to make it look as if it had been created naturally – became hugely popular with the British aristocracy, and the fashion spread back to France. Renowned water-colourist, J.M.W. Turner, was one of the Earl’s protégés. Amongst other things, the Earl commissioned him to paint several views of the park, which were then hung at eye level in the dining room, for the appreciation of those not facing the tall windows overlooking the park itself. These remain in situ, although they are currently owned by the Tate.

Capability Brown’s pastoral landscapes celebrate the dominion of mankind over nature, yet without too much primping or accessorizing. The scenes are peaceful and placid, depicting sweeping vistas of lawn or grassland, punctuated by stands of stately cedars and serpentine lakes. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, a reaction had set in against Capability Brown’s overly tidy and ‘facile compositions.’ Such natural simplicity no longer impressed. Apparently, a garden required more drama to be truly appealing. The Picturesque style began to emerge, and garden designers looked for uplifting drama and heightened allure. Ruins, follies and classical temples, adding a touch of mystery and charm, became all the rage.

Scotney, on the border of Kent and East Sussex, provides all these things by the barrowful. The original medieval manor house was built in about 1380. Tucked into a secluded valley, it sits on a small island, the surrounding moat fed from the little River Bewl. (One guide I spoke to suggested that the Bewl was once wide enough to transport large boats from the Medway to the castle, but given its meagre size today, I suspect this is apocryphal.)
The manor was fortified during the 14th century, when the 100 Years’ War brought the threat of a French invasion, and subsequent owners continued to enlarge and renovate the original manor. In 1778 it was purchased by London lawyer, Edward Hussey. Forty years later, Scotney was inherited in 1817 by his grandson, Edward Hussey III, after the tragic deaths of both his father and his grandfather in the same year. Still only a child, he was taken to live on the coast by his mother who, not surprisingly, had few happy memories of the secluded medieval manor house.

Scotney, old and new

As an adult, Edward Hussey III moved back to Scotney. Faced with the outdated, impractical and doubtless crumbling manor house, he decided to build an entirely new home on a terrace overlooking the old castle, quarrying the honey-coloured sandstone from the hillside below. In 1837, he commissioned architect Anthony Salvin to design it in the mock Elizabethan style popular at the time, while William Sawrey Gilpin took charge of creating the garden. As part of the surrounding landscaping, the remains of Scotney Castle were deliberately ravaged to make it a feature of the new garden; a picturesque folly in the glen. The quarry, too, was embellished and beautified with ferns, fuchsias, azaleas, magnolias. Today, the gardens overflow with colour from banks of spring daffodils, to the summery scented orange Ghent azaleas and deep blue hydrangeas, to the autumnal russets of liquidambars and Japanese acers. The ruins have been softened with honeysuckle, climbing roses and wisteria, and the moat is awash with water lilies, as prolific as those in Givenchy, its banks edged in yellow iris and marsh marigolds.

Instead of the once popular pastoral landscapes, this garden is a maze of winding woodland paths, mossy nooks and hidden gullies. It feels utterly magical. And when the sun, putting in a brief appearance, sparkles across the water, the castle’s round tower is reflected perfectly in the moat. During this brief hiatus in the pitiless rain, I feel the urge to go in search of Sleeping Beauty or possibly Rapunzel in the fairy-tale castle, so enchantingly tucked among the lush and lustrous rhododendrons, and framed by tall and elegant oak trees. And what about a picnic basket and a bottle of bubbles?

Pashley Manor

Only fifteen minutes down the road and across the border into Sussex, is Pashley Manor. Once upon a time, Pashley was a moated hunting lodge owned by the Bullen (or Boleyn) family. In 1540, the property was sold, and the new owner built a Tudor house on higher ground. In 1981, the Sellick family came to Pashley, and were faced with the monumental task of taming eleven acres of garden long neglected garden. Over a thousand trees were uprooted during the notorious storm of 1987, but this at least gave the Sellicks some space to recreate their exquisite English country garden. From the house, the focal point is the lake, or moat, and an arched bridge takes us over the water to a small island. Beneath the trees, where the old hunting lodge once stood, we found a temple beside a lovely statue of Anne Boleyn.

Wandering down a narrow woodland path, we come across wood nymphs galore, roughly hewn from gnarly old branches and nailed to living trees. Another area is scattered with statues of children tucked beneath a tree with a book or leap-frogging over a tree stump. A large stag stands forever at bay on the shore opposite. The walled kitchen garden has been revived and is now filled with a dense collection of artichokes and espaliered fig trees, vegetables, herbs, sweet peas and edible pansies. A terrace beside the café is draped in wisteria and provides the perfect place to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the views across the lawn to the moat, its island, and the fields beyond.

We then have the opportunity to accompany the lady of the manor through the multiple walled garden ‘rooms’ brimming with roses of every conceivable colour and variety – including some new blue ones which are yet to flower. While she leads the way, providing tips to gardening enthusiasts, I drop back to bury my nose in every bloom, the older varieties providing all the scent, the newer innovations providing longevity but little aroma. It is immediately apparent that much time, effort and love has been lavished on maintaining every inch of this beautiful garden. We leave reluctantly.

Attempting to take cover from the inevitable showers that have plagued us all weekend – English summer my welly boot! – we found yet another convenient National Trust property on our route, and yet another period in English horticultural history. Standen House, south of East Grinstead, has a well-established, 12 acre garden, but given the continuing deluge, we decide to head into the house, only to find that the textile designer and socialist William Morris had considerately brought the outdoors inside.

Standen House, built by Philip Webb in the 1890s, is literally embowered in William Morris designs. William Morris was mad about nature, a passion that was translated into interior decoration; his designs paper the walls, carpet the floors, frame the windows and cover the furniture with stylized sunflowers, ferns, rambling roses, larkspurs and poppies, often in single colours, occasionally in a broader palette.

Bringing nature into the home first became popular in Victorian England and would become highly fashionable among the followers of the new Arts & Crafts Movement. Essentially, the A&C aficionados were reacting against industrialization and its economies of scale and mechanized speed, which they believed lacked both quality and integrity, disconnecting its workers from both life and nature. Instead, the Arts & Crafts Movement supported traditional craftsmanship and the beauty of using natural motifs, focusing on small workshops and old-world techniques.

James Beale and his wife Margaret, having commissioned this illustrious team to build and decorate their new summer house in the depths of West Sussex, worked closely with both architect and interior designer to create a comfortable, modern family home. Today, immersed in an era of beige and monochrome symmetry, it is difficult to appreciate the overwhelmingly, almost epileptic fussiness of Morris’s designs and his total disregard for colour schemes, as walls and floors and furniture collide in a kaleidoscope of contrasting, conflicting, discordant colours and patterns. But it was definitely a thorough lesson in Arts & Crafts decor.

Morris in all his splendour

So, quite unintentionally, we enjoyed a fascinating journey through the development of the English country garden from the 17th to the 21st century. An unexpected treat indeed. Next time, though, I must remember my umbrella!

*With thanks to Google Pics and the National Trust for photos of Petworth and Standen, and to the One & Only for his panoramic view of Pashley.

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