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Saturday, 31 January 2015

Two Beautiful English Towns

This week I have been lucky enough to visit two beautiful English towns on consecutive days. On Thursday morning, in blinding sunshine, I drove my daughter to Stamford in Lincolnshire.

The town has been used as a backdrop for period costume dramas such as Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice.

For a time my friend Carol used to live in Stamford and we would meet up for lunch and a catch-up. My daughter had a day's work experience arranged at the local auctioneer's and, in an effort to get down to some uninterrupted work, I opted to take her, pick up the clocks we had dropped off earlier in January and then settle in at the local library. It worked a treat, much better than I expected. Despite there being a story-telling session in the children's space directly behind me I plunged into my story and got loads done. I'm actually thinking of taking myself to the local library so that I can avoid all of those domestic distractions which crop up when you work from home.

By lunchtime the weather had changed dramatically and as I browsed the shops looking for a birthday present, fat flakes of snow tumbled from the sky. It was the kind of snow which clings to your eyelashes and blankets your clothes as you walk. But, whatever the weather, Stamford is a gem, beautiful buildings, the renowned George Hotel, little cobbled streets...

...the graceful river Welland and lots of charming, independent shops. In 2013 a survey in the Sunday Times rated Stamford as the best place to live and it's easy to see why.

On Friday, the snow fortunately melting, I took a trip to Royal Leamington Spa. It was one of my oldest friend's birthdays. We hadn't seen each for months and it was time to put work aside and celebrate. Cathy and I have known each other for over forty years. We met as bewildered eleven year olds on our first day at boarding school and, bar a brief gap when our lives went in different directions, we have remained in touch ever since. We had a delicious lunch at a local restaurant and caught up on each other's news. Leamington too is beautiful but in a very different way. Its roads are wider, straighter, airier and tree lined, its architecture a delight of Georgian sophistication.

I have visited Stamford and Leamington many times over the years. But what adds to my love of them both is the fact that I can't think of Leamington without Cathy or Stamford without Carol; of  laughter shared and tears dried, of children growing, difficulties weathered and triumphs toasted. Two lovely towns, two amazing friends inextricably linked.

Thank-you for reading, have a lovely week and here is one last photograph of Stamford with the snow beginning to fall.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A Creative Challenge

I'm a firm believer in the restorative power of creative ventures. I believe that everyone possesses creative flair, although it can often be stamped out during our school years and take a lifetime to re-discover. When I was growing up, one of my favourite things was to draw. In my teens, when time seemed to stretch in every direction, I spent hours drawing and painting. It helped me to see the world in a different way. It helps you to marvel at the ordinary - a little like that feeling when you are first in love. Even when my children were young I found time to go to a watercolour class or to pick up my paints from time to time. Over the last few years I have promised myself repeatedly that I'll return to sketching but it hasn't happened. It's partly fear I think, that feeling that I won't be any good, that any small skill I possessed will have disappeared.

Last week we had one of our monthly reading group meetings. We are all children's writers except for Sue, who is a talented artist. On her walls are stunning, colourful pictures of daffodils, lilies and poppies. She got out her sketchbooks which contained studies of snails, sea shells and delicate traceries of leaves. It's all beautiful and inspiring. No wonder that we all marvelled at her skills.

Sometimes it's possible for one creative venture to take over to the exclusion of others. My writing fulfils a creative need but there should still be room for other, old creative friends. Sue has set us a task before the next reading group meeting. We are all to produce something artistic to take along and share with the group.

So yesterday, with a combination of misgiving and excitement, I bought a large sheet of paper for drawing. The next stage is to take out the brand new pencils and chalk pastels which my daughter bought for me a whole year ago. I have to accept that it's going to be a bit frustrating, that I'm probably not going to be at all happy with what I produce. But at least I'm going to do it. I've got to now. I can't turn up to our next meeting empty handed. Sometimes it takes a good friend to recognise what we need and give us a nudge. Hopefully this challenge will re-kindle my love affair with drawing and hopefully it will, once again, help me to see things in a slightly different way, to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Who knows, maybe there'll be a knock-on effect and my writing will benefit too.

Have a good week and I hope you find time for something creative too. Thank-you for reading.

Monday, 19 January 2015

A Cluster of Clocks

"What's that noise?" my two year old granddaughter asked the other day as she played in our bedroom.
"It's a clock," I replied.
In fact it's a travel alarm clock which my husband had at boarding school. We have recently ditched our radio clock alarm and brought the old wind-up clock out of retirement. Despite years of not being used it still works perfectly well and it has a medium sounding, quite fast tick which is probably why it tends to gain a little.

It's interesting how you can know someone for ages and not know certain things about them. A couple of days ago I discovered that one of my friends doesn't like ticking clocks. We have two old clocks which need repairing and mentioned that we were taking them to a clock repairer in Stamford. My friend's husband asked us to take a clock of his. Once mended he is going to place it in his office where she can't hear the ticking!

I actually love the tick tock of a clock. When small I spent a lot of time at my grandparent's house and halfway along the long, narrow hall, which ran front to back right through the centre of the house, stood a stately, longcase clock. It's steady, reassuring tick was like a welcome as soon as you crossed the threshold. If I remember correctly it's chimes sang out on the quarter and were like a joyful 'hello' reverberating through the house. My grandfather, (not a fanciful man by any stretch of the imagination), once saw a ghost standing next to this clock.
"What are you doing?" he asked. "You don't belong here."
And the ghost disappeared, never to be spotted again.

At Stamford the front room contained quite a cluster of clocks. There were three longcase clocks, one whose face was decorated with pretty Norfolk scenes, an ormolu clock underneath a glass dome and several clocks on the walls. I have heard that when a collection of clocks are all together their ticking becomes synchronised. I can tell you it is not true! These clocks ticked away happily and individually, forming their own mellow melody.

"You've always got company with a ticking clock," another friend's mother used to say. And I think that's true. I'm missing my clocks and looking forward to bringing them home very soon.

Thank-you for reading and have a wonderful week.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Broccoli Soup

Sometimes you just need some comfort and one of the most comforting things for me is making soup. I try to make a big batch with whatever catches my eye or is on offer that week. The intention is always to freeze some so that we have home-made soup to hand on those days when everything is rushed or it has turned very cold and you really need something warm and nourishing. More often than not we eat all of the soup before it gets to the freezer stage!

I'd never made broccoli soup until about three years ago. For some reason it had never occurred to me and then I saw a programme with the lovely Rachel Allen and she was making this soup. I don't think there were any measurements and I have to admit that when I make soup I just use my judgement. We like thick soup, a meal in a bowl, so I always use a fair bit of potato, but if you prefer yours to be thinner you could just use less. I bought two large stalks of broccoli which cost the grand total of £1.20 and the resulting soup was enough to provide six large bowlfuls but if I'd thinned it down it could have made more.

This is all you need:-

Broccoli (or calabrese as it really should be known. This is not soup made from the purple or white headed variety of broccoli)
Vegetable or chicken stock
(Single cream/milk is optional)

Remove the florets from the broccoli and put on one side.

Chop the broccoli stalks, an onion or two depending on how much broccoli you are using and one or two medium sized potatoes.

Heat some oil in a heavy based pan and sweat all of this gently until it is beginning to soften. Rachel Allen placed some butter paper over hers which helps to intesify the flavours. My daughter is dairy free so I put some damp grease-proof over mine. When the vegetable are ready, remove the paper and add about one and half pints of hot stock. As I said this isn't an exact science so you could add more or less if you choose. Bring to the boil, add the broccoli florets and reduce to a simmer until they are tender which won't take very long. Blitz to a puree and season to taste. If you fancy a creamy soup you could add a little cream or milk at this stage.

There it is - incredibly easy and speedy, unbelievably economical and not only comforting to make but comforting to eat too. It will keep for several days in the fridge and freezes well.

Thank-you for reading and I wishing you a happy and peaceful week.

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year's Resolutions

To be honest I'm not sorry to have said goodbye to 2014. It wasn't a bad year but at times it wasn't particularly easy so I'm hoping that 2015 will be better and good for you too.

Just after Christmas we went for a walk in the country. It was a cold, sunny day and although the canal surface glistened with ice, the towpath was, in parts, churned up and deeply muddy. We had to watch where we put our feet at every step and by not looking ahead we almost missed a beautiful heron skimming the waterway.

There is much symbolism attached to the heron, including going with the flow and being present in the moment, both desirable goals, but I also need to plan for the future. Last year was a case of feeling as if I was chasing my tail all the time and I hate that. So this year my main resolution is to plan ahead more instead of rushing around doing things at the last minute. Birthday presents will be bought in plenty of time, food for the week will be thought about in advance and I shall look at the map more than two minutes before setting off on a journey to somewhere new!

My son has a good resolution too. Where possible he's going to deal with things as they arise, especially answering e-mails, making appointments etc., instead of putting them off to do later. I'm going to try this one too.

Will I manage to keep these resolutions? I hope so. I'll do my best. I'm sure that I'll get caught out occasionally but the key is not to give up if I fail occasionally. Hopefully the thought of time being freed up and life being calmer will be enough to help me stick to my resolutions.

Thank-you for dropping by. Wishing you all a very Happy New Year.