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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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:

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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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Carisbrooke Castle

“It is my earnest hope and desire that with the help and co-operation of others, I may be able to form a full collection of objects of historical interest connected with the Island.” ~ Princes Beatrice of Battenburg

When I first moved to the Isle of Wight, I thought it would be fun to volunteer at one of the National Trust properties on the island. Before they could respond to my application, a friend from my writing group asked if I would like to join the team at the Carisbrooke Castle museum. I said ‘yes please’ without a second thought.

I have loved castles since I was a child. We didn’t see a lot of castles in Australia – not real ones – so when I moved to England with my family, aged eight, I was very soon besotted with all things historical, and castles in particular. But if I’m honest, even the word museum makes my legs ache and my eyelids droop. Having visited more than my fair share when I was at school, I have tended to shy way from them ever since. But museums have come a long way since then, and the Carisbrooke Castle Museum is a perfect example of the new, improved variety. Information is clearly exhibited, display cases are full of some really interesting tidbits, and there is something for everyone: a clock designed by John Nash; a Victorian dolls house handmade from an old cupboard and decorated by two talented great aunts. The oldest working chamber organ in Britain plays the trumpet minuet by Alfred Hollins, and an Irish tune, Lillbulero, which you may recognize as the tune of Rockaby Baby; and at the entrance to the museum is a fascinating and detailed model of the castle in its heyday.

For more than a millennium, Carisbrooke Castle has stood on a hilltop above the town as a fortress, a garrison, a residence for local nobility, even a prison. Today, the castle is like a strudel: layer upon layer of history dating back to the Saxons, who built it as protection from Viking raids. It was reinforced by the Normans, and again by the Elizabethans, against the threat of Spanish and French invasions. Briefly, it was used to imprison Charles I, and afterwards, two of his children, Elizabeth and Henry.

Today, it is still a fine example of a Norman motte and bailey castle. It’s in such good shape that visitors can walk a complete circuit of the medieval castle walls and climb up the incredibly steep stone steps (seventy-one of them) to the unroofed keep, the last refuge of the inhabitants in the face of attack or siege. For the modern-day visitor, unthreatened by a French or Spanish invasion, the view from the walls, over Carisbrooke and the surrounding countryside, is simply fabulous. And there is plenty of space within the walls for a picnic lunch. Many locals have told me that they visited the castle as children and particularly remember the donkeys that were used to raise buckets of water from the well by walking inside the 16th century wheel. To this day, four castle donkeys take it in turns to show visitors how the huge oak wheel draws buckets of water from the depths of the castle well.

A small chapel in the castle grounds dates back only 115 years, but there has been a succession of chapels over the centuries on the spot where the present one now stands. Surprisingly plain on the outside, it is most beautifully decorated inside. The ceiling is particularly sumptuous, and the organ, with its colourful pipes, was donated by Edward VII. The elegant altar painting was commissioned by Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, the Princess Beatrice, and dedicated to her son Maurice, who was killed at Ypres in World War I. Over 1,500 names are inscribed on the walls in remembrance of all the islanders killed in the two world wars.

My favourite period of Carisbrooke’s long history is the thirteenth century, when Isabella de Forebus, a fiercely independent young widow, inherited the castle and the island on which it stood, from her brother Baldwin. She was only twenty-six, yet she was already a mother of six and a wealthy widow. She was named ‘Lady of the Isle’ and became one of the richest landholders in England, inheriting in her own right the Lordship of the Isle of Wight and the earldom and substantial land in Hampshire and Devon, as well as her husband’s vast estates in the north of England.

Clever and strong-willed, Isabella her extensive properties with care and dedication. Based at Carisbrooke, she transformed the castle from a fortress to a comfortable and prestigious residence for a wealthy noblewoman. Isabella was responsible for many renovations and extensions within the castle walls, including a small chapel at the south-eastern end of the Great Hall. As a wealthy widow, she was courted by some of the most powerful men in England, but she obstinately refused to marry any of them, preferring to retain her independence, rather than becoming the chattel of some well-heeled, grasping Lord. Such behaviour was a severe aggravation to the King, Henry III. The Isle of Wight was strategically important to England, and in his opinion, it was not safe in the hands of a mere woman. In 1268, he attempted to marry his son and heir, Edward, to the feisty Isabella, but she refused even this illustrious proposal, and offered her ten-year-old daughter in her place.

When Edward himself became King, he continued to put pressure on Isabella to sell him the island. She continued to refuse until she was on her deathbed, at which point she succumbed to his wishes. With no living heirs, she was induced to sell it to him for a pittance. The Isle of Wight and its castle passed into the hands of the Crown, where it remained for centuries.

The Great Hall

Carisbrooke Castle is currently in the care of English Heritage. The museum, however, is an independent venture, supported by a separate charitable trust. Princess Beatrice, who used the castle as her summer residence after her mother’s death at nearby Osborne House, first established it in the castle Gatehouse. Over the years, it became the repository of both castle and island memorabilia from every era of its history. It eventually expanded so much that it was moved from the Gatehouse to the Great Hall and its upper rooms.

Princess Beatrice

The Great Hall has been revamped and modified over the centuries, but the outline of Isabella’s medieval great hall remains. The huge 14th century fireplace, once hidden behind 17th century panelling, was rediscovered in 1856, as was Isabella’s chapel, which had been overlaid by a broad staircase to the second floor. Upstairs, a generous room with a huge glass window overlooking the courtyard is remembered as Charles I bedroom, for the brief time he was imprisoned here, before his execution at Whitehall in 1649. The building’s current layout and interior décor is largely due to Princess Beatrice’s renovations. It is a bit of a rabbit warren, but there is a map, and the various collections are a fascinating treasure trove of the island’s history.

Paintings in the museum include a watercolour of the castle gatehouse by J.M.W. Turner and a wonderfully symbolic painting by C.W. Cope of the death of the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Charles I, who died of pneumonia at Carisbrooke castle only a year after her father’s execution. She and her younger brother Henry had been separated from their parents and kept as prisoners of the Parliamentarians for eight years. Prince Henry was only returned to his mother, in France, two years later. Queen Victoria would eventually replace the simple, initialled headstone with a white marble sculptor of a much-airbrushed princess (she had apparently been severely deformed by rickets) and place her in Saint Thomas’s Church in Newport. A model of the sculpture can be seen at the museum. The sculptor, Carlo Marocchetti, was also responsible for the bronze lions at Trafalgar Square.

Other famous islanders are remembered in a display on the first floor, including Professor John Milne. Working in Japan during a particularly memorable earthquake in Yokohama in 1880, Milne was responsible for founding the Seismological Society of Japan and inventing the machine that could detect and measure the strength of earthquakes. He became renowned in Japan as the father of seismology, but remains undervalued and virtually unknown in his own country, or even on the Isle of Wight, where he died in 1913.

My favourite part of the museum is tucked away right under the roof on the fourth floor. In this shadowy room is a small library, a hidden gem full of history books relating to the Isle of Wight and its inhabitants.

Thus, Princess Beatrice’s initial plan for a substantial museum has come to pass. Today, the museum exhibits only a portion of its large collection of island memorabilia – some 30,000 items – but the upper rooms change their displays regularly, in order to show off different aspects and eras of the island’s history. The castle is fantastic, the museum, a jewel in the crown.

*With thanks to Google images and the Museum website for the photos I didn’t take myself.

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A Few of My Favourite Things

It sometimes happens that the town child is more alive to the fresh beauty of the country than a child who is country born. ~ Beatrix Potter

Hannah Dale’s ducks

I first came across Hannah Dale’s designs in a National Trust shop and immediately fell in love. Her rather tousled but joyfully animated wildlife are utterly heart-warming, and I have indulged in Wrendale cups, cards and books ever since. Dale provides the mouth-watering detail of British wild-life, that I once loved in Beatrix Potter’s child-sized books, but without Potter’s urge to anthropomorphize.

Jemima Puddleduck

As an aside, Bill Bryson once wrote that Beatrix Potter’s books were too twee for words. He has obviously never opened a single book. Despite their bonnets and blue jackets, Potter’s characters live among the brutality of the natural world. Remember how Squirrel Nutkin loses his tail to Old Brown Owl, Tom Kitten is nearly consumed by rats, and the wily Mr. Tod attempts to put Jemima Puddleduck on his luncheon menu? It could be argued that this is too much reality for small children, despite the quaint illustrations and the book’s appealing size.

Dale’s paintings provide a different reality, and it is difficult not to consider becoming a vegetarian for the sake of her appealing illustrations. Particularly since my Hannah sent me her latest book ‘The Farmyard Set: a celebration of friends on the farm.’ I am, of course, smitten. Expanding from British wildlife to our favourite farm animals, she is now inspiring me to create my own hobby farm, by adopting as many real-life Hannah Dale animals as I can lay my hands on. Remember Tom and Barbara in ‘The Good Life,’ set in suburban Surbiton in the 1970s? Watch out Margot, here I come…

Of Dale’s plethora of delicious illustrations,one of my many favourites – honestly, it’s impossible to choose just one – is the Highland Cow. I fell in love with these gorgeous animals many years ago, when I first met them in Kent, where I was working for the National Trust at Winston Churchill’s old home at Chartwell. With their beautiful woolly coats in a myriad autumn colours, these long-horned cows originate from the highlands of Scotland – obviously! – and the Outer Hebrides. In the past 200 years, these Highland cattle have caught the travelling bug. They first migrated to Victoria, Australia in 1841 and discovered their way to Canada about the same time. These days, they are also wandering about in Denmark, Finland and the States. Apparently Queen Liz is mad about them too, and has kept a herd at Balmoral since 1954. Only the group noun is not ‘herd’ but ‘fold,’ after the stone lodgings that were built to keep them warm through winter nights.

Highland cattle are raised primarily for their lean and luscious meat – which tasty though that sounds, is almost enough to turn me off meat-eating forever. Have you seen their eyes? They also produce wonderfully creamy milk. And now, not only do I have one on my favourite coffee mug, but I have found several real ones roaming around the Isle of Wight.

Enough of cows. Back to wildlife. After six years in Manila, free of any wildlife bar the odd pigeon and a handful of feral cats, I am still getting a buzz out of bird song, wildflowers and native fauna. We regularly spot beautiful, tawny buzzards perching on fence posts or on hedges. Their numbers had been decimated by pesticide poisoning and human hunters, but they have recently been making a terrific comeback. On the other hand, Great White Egrets – a type of heron – are a rare sight here on the Isle of Wight, so we were very excited to see one wading through Brading Marshes recently, on elegantly long legs, pausing to pose haughtily for a couple of keen photographers. The Little White Egrets are more common and we often come across them paddling along the shoreline when we stroll down to the beach after dinner. Also, the solitary grey crane we used to chat with regularly on the Alzette in Luxemburg appears to have followed us here and taken up residence on the reef at Bembridge.

Cicely Mary Barker’s Bluebell Fairy

As well as indulging in some amateur bird watching, my childhood memories of Flower Fairies have come to the fore as we wander through water meadows dotted with bright yellow marsh marigolds and bird’s foot trefoil, pink campions and wild orchids, into woodlands carpeted in bluebells and wild garlic, and over the Downs thickly coated in gorse bushes smelling of Pina Colada or coconut suntan cream.

As we’ve wandered the coastal path, strolled along the Medina or the Yar, meandered through hidden valleys or clambered up on the Downs, we have also spotted many a well-fed bunny and a couple of foxes. And recently, on our way home from the pub, we were overtaken by a pair of galloping badgers. Yes, really! The sturdy, short-legged badger, like the wombat, can run surprisingly fast when necessary – a solid competitor for the 100 metre dash, if not for long distance marathons – and they careered past us in tandem before disappearing into a nearby garden. Our neighbour says he once had a sett of fifteen badgers in the garden until they started digging up his lawn and he politely encouraged them to move into the overgrown garden next door!

My One & Only now has his own Hannah Dale mug featuring a cuddly looking grey and white badger. (It was once known locally as ‘Old Brock,’ the Celtic word for grey.) Despite their disruptive penchant for excavation, culling badgers has become wildly unpopular in the UK, where the badger is now considered an iconic British species, although sadly, it is rarely seen as more than roadkill due to its nocturnal habits and its underground living quarters.

‘Human language is lit with animal life: we play cats-cradle or have hare-brained ideas; we speak of badgering, or outfoxing someone; to squirrel something away and to ferret it out.’ ~ Jay Griffiths

Perhaps the badger’s high profile has grown from its regular appearance in children’s literature. Remember the grumpy Mr. Badger from ‘Wind in the Willows?’ A stoic and solitary character who lives in the Wild Wood, he is considered learned and wise by the other animals, and works hard to reform the impetuous, irresponsible Mr Toad. In T.H. White’s children’s classic cum Disney movie, The Sword and the Stone, the wizard, Merlyn transforms Arthur into a small brock, so he may learn lessons in kingship from a wise old badger. JK Rowling may have remembered these characters when she endowed Hufflepuff House with the emblem of a badger: the house whose students are known for their patience, hard work and loyalty.

Another popular animal in children’s fiction is the red squirrel. Neat and petite, with russet fur, bottlebrush tail and tufted ears, it can be hard to find, as it prefers to stay hidden high in the canopy of broadleaf woodland. Native to Britain, it has been bullied almost out of existence by the imported grey squirrel. Today, it is seen very rarely in England, although it is still reasonably common in Scotland, and, much to my surprise, here on the Isle of Wight, too, where it is protected from everything but cars, and where the grey squirrel has failed to swim across the Solent. We have managed to spot a few, for a fleeting moment, as they skibble up the trunk of an oak tree or dash along a fence line. There are many signs around the island asking drivers to go slowly, and be aware of the local red squirrels, and their presence has also been widely publicized by the IOW Red Squirrel Trust dedicated to protecting both them and their habitat. In a lovely little church in Newtown, I donated to the charity box and came home with a very sweet knitted squirrel in a crocheted yellow dress and bonnet. Very Beatrix Potter.

Every walk we take, whether it’s a short stroll down to the beach, a strenuous hike along the cliffs, or a meander through the marshes, we are constantly pausing to watch the ducks or the moorhens, bending down to photograph an unknown wildflower or identifying a pretty, floral moon jellyfish that has washed up on the sand. Today, it’s hard to imagine a world on the thirty ninth floor, bereft of wildlife beyond an episode of Life on Earth on the telly.

*With thanks, yet again, to Google, and to the Wrendale website for the lovely photos.

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The Glories of Garlic

“Garlic used as it should be used is the soul, the divine essence, of cookery. The cook who can employ it successfully will be found to possess the delicacy of perception, the accuracy of judgment, and the dexterity of hand which go to the formation of a great artist.” – Mrs. W. G. Waters

As Spring finally arrives, wild garlic has been proliferating all over the Isle of Wight, the multitude of white flowering heads sprinkled thick as snow through woodlands, along the verges and across fields. The National Trust are even using it for wild garlic soup, and apparently the leaves are great in a salad.

I have seen the Garlic Farm mentioned in numerous Isle of Wight publications. Unable to fathom why I would want to visit a farm immersed in the nose-crinkling aroma of garlic, I heard on the grapevine that it has one of the nicest restaurants on the island for lunch. Then I read that it is far more than a mere farm, but a feast of entertainment and education, too. Left to my own devices for a couple of days, while the One & Only trekked up to London, I passed the sign on a quiet country lane and, on a whim, decided to drop in for a visit.

Down the lush green lanes of the Isle of Wight, tucked away from the madding crowd in the glorious Arreton Valley, is a sign on a wall:

‘Stop and smell the garlic – that’s all you have to do’ ~ William Shatner

As I climbed out of the car, my assumptions were proved instantly wrong – there is no strong scent of garlic on the air at all. In the farm yard, old stone farm buildings have been converted into visitor-friendly spaces. There’s the cosy Allium café and a heritage centre that tells the history of the farm and the story of garlic. A large tasting room provides a cornucopia of garlic products, including a couple of unexpectedly spicy (as in achingly hot) offerings. There is even a garlic ice cream, which I may try when the weather is warmer.

Invited to taste the various condiments, I happily wallowed in pickles, chutneys, sauces and jams. Then I walked through the heritage centre and dipped deep into the history of the farm, and the ancient tale of garlic.
Like many foods now common to our tables and our supermarkets, garlic is not a native of England, but travelled west from Central Asia. Closely related to the onion, shallots, leeks and chives, garlic was popular with the Sumerians, and we’re talking three millennia BEFORE Christ. The Ancient Egyptians were aware of its health benefits, in the Talmud, it is believed to be an aphrodisiac. And, of course, it has been at the heart of French culinary culture for centuries. Long held in disdain by the English, we have long mocked our garlic eating neighbours for their strange taste. Today, we know better than to criticize, and English cooking can be grateful for the addition of garlic to a somewhat bland cuisine.

Back on the farm, the Boswell family planted its first garlic crop in 1972 in the kitchen garden. Seeing how well it took to the soil and the climate, Colin Boswell, travelled the world seeking out the history and origins of garlic. Meanwhile, his wife Jenny experimented in the farmhouse kitchen with different garlic varieties in pickles and chutneys. Colin’s travels unearthed some rare and interesting varieties of garlic, many of which are exhibited in a plot below the wildflower meadow. Studying the signs, I discovered that the garlic here comes from as far afield as Japan and China, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Turkey and Siberia, and as close as Italy and Spain. And, not surprisingly, there are several types from regional in France. Today, the Garlic Farm boasts at least fifteen varieties of peripatetic garlic and it has become the UK’s largest specialist garlic grower.

As we all know, garlic has a characteristic pungent, spicy flavor that mellows and sweetens – caramelizes almost -with cooking, particularly if you roast it. Garlic is essential to many cultures, and there are some six hundred varieties to choose from. It is popular across Asia, predominant in Arabic cooking, popular around the Mediterranean. Think hummus, shawarma, tzatziki, aioli…

In a nod to ancient British prejudices, the farm’s blog admits that ‘garlic does make your breath smell and although there are some ways to mitigate the effects, it’s not always possible to remove it completely.’ It seems there is a particular compound in garlic that our bodies find difficult to assimilate. That notoriously scented compound is therefore forced to exit via the breath, pores and perspiration. This may only be a problem for the English – other garlic-loving nations couldn’t seem to care less – but there are ways to reduce the effect on your breath if it bothers you:
• Drink plenty of water, as this will flush it quickly through the system
• Eat a chocolate coated coffee bean – and smell of coffee instead
• Chew on some fresh parsley, mint or apples
• Drink a glass of full cream milk

Do bear in mind that a little bad breath may just be worth the great flavour. After all, is it any worse than coffee or raw onions?
Not only does garlic improve the taste of a wide variety of dishes, but many claim it has medicinal value, too. During World War I – before penicillin – garlic was used as an antiseptic to clean wounds and prevent gangrene. It is commonly believed that garlic consumption can reduce some types of cancer, high blood pressure and blood clots, not to mention deterring vampires. It may improve cholesterol levels and boost the immune system to deter the common cold. Apparently, crushed garlic in warm water will heal mouth ulcers and prevent insomnia. Whether any of this has been proved, I haven’t been able to ascertain, but it is nonetheless heartening, if only as a placebo effect. On another level, garlic is also a natural fungicide that, if grown in tandem with other crops can repel many unwanted visitors such as aphids. Also, garlic, if allowed to flower, will attract bees.

Who would have thought there was so much to learn about garlic? And there’s more…

I also learned that there are two different garlic families: soft-necks and hard-necks. Soft-necks refer to the soft stem and these types do not flower, but produce smaller, tightly-packed cloves, and prefer living closer to the equator. The flowering kind produces a ‘scape’ or ‘rocambole’- a flowering head – that is generally picked off early to maximise the growth of the edible bulb. The scape can also be turned into a culinary treat: sautée it in butter or add it to soups or stews.

Tips on storing garlic include hanging them up in a dry place – do not refrigerate or seal in plastic. And there are methods to plait or ‘grappe’ your garlic cloves so they keep longer – and look prettier!

The Garlic Farm is quite the family business. Daughter Natasha has written two books on cooking with garlic and how to get the most of its amazing health benefits. Daughter Josephine and son Hugo run the Garlic Farm Field Kitchen, a mobile catering service for events, shows and music festivals where garlic is the star turn on the menu.

Fancy a farm holiday? There are six beautiful stone holiday cottages on the property to rent. And in the field above the restaurant, there is a terrific little playground for smaller kids which made me wish I was still three feet high. I followed a walking path through fields of wildflowers, past the pine plantation and into the woods, where I found a nursery: two Highland cows feeding their calves in the shade. I left them in peace to wanderback to the restaurant and shop. There are several options for longer walks which I will explore next time, but I was keen to explore the shop now, and my stomach was calling quite loudly for lunch…

In the extensive farm shop, I collected some terrific garlic products. There is also a wide selection of other Isle of Wight products here, such as cheeses and gins. Then, well-armed with gifts for my friends – and me – I decided it was time for coffee. I found a peaceful spot on the terrace, in the sun, and took the time to sip slowly and enjoy the ambiance and the view. Eventually, I ordered myself a glass of rosé and a bowl of garlic button mushrooms doused in garlic cream, accessorized with a colourful array of baby tomatoes and served with soft, fresh bread and butter. Ingredients have been locally sourced wherever possible, and of course garlic plays a prominent role in the menu.

I also read a great little handbook about growing your own garlic, where I was assured that growing garlic is easy and can be grown year-round in mild climates. In England, many varieties are planted in the autumn and harvested in late spring or early summer. (NB: plant them deep in the ground to keep them cosy and warm over winter. You don’t want them to freeze or they rot or go mouldy.) To save drowning you in detail here, the booklet is available in the shop.

If you need some inspiration for cooking with garlic, indulge in a cookbook. And in the meantime, here are a few simple suggestions :

• cut the top off the garlic bulb, coat the cloves by dribbling olive oil (or other oil-based seasoning) over them, and roast them in an oven. Garlic softens and can be extracted from the cloves by squeezing the (root) end of the bulb, or individually by squeezing one end of the clove. Spread on toast, mixed with freshly diced tomato for a Spanish style bruschetta.

• immature scapes are tender and edible. They are also known as “garlic spears”, “stems”, or “tops”. Scapes generally have a milder taste than the cloves. They are often used in stir frying or sautéed like asparagus.

• garlic leaves are a popular vegetable in many parts of Asia. The leaves are cut, cleaned, and then stir-fried with eggs, meat, or vegetables.

• peeled garlic cloves can be bottled in vinegar and stored in the fridge to create pickled garlic, and garlic infused oil is great to season pasta sauces and salads.

And if you are looking for something different to do in the summer, there is even a Garlic Festival here in August.

*With thanks to Google Pics for the images of the garlic flowers and the roast garlic. The Garlic farm snap is my own.

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