Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Wet and Windy Weekend in Wales

While the rest of Europe basked in 30 degree sunshine, we managed to find Welsh rain in bucketfuls. A Year 11 daughter of a disorganised disposition had declared in no uncertain terms that WE MUST STAY AT HOME for half term in order for her TO STUDY; thus, despite my arguments that she could just as well study over there as it is a 'home from home', my plans for a blast of guaranteed hot sunshine in southwest France, following a grey and dreary summer there, were finally dashed. When similarly compromised friends from down south suggested a two day meet equidistant for us both, South Wales seemed an obvious choice. Pembrokeshire has always eluded me and I have long wished to enjoy its rugged salty charms. A boat trip to see seals on Ramsey Island was the final incentive to book up. 

And so we convened at 5.45pm at the Warpool Court Hotel in the village of St. David's, perched on the southwest tip of Wales before the vast expanse of the Atlantic opens up beyond the Irish Sea. 

The hour had changed and it was dark. We were given a short tour of the hotel and its origins as a choir school but had to wait with bated breath till morn to see the splendour of the much flaunted view.

The staff were charming, the rooms cosily old-fashioned and the food excellent. We were left by the fire in the lounge to finish our coffee and drinks while they bade us goodnight - and we retired to bed sated and content a short while later, blowing out the candles as we went.

Ripping open the curtains in the morning, full of expectation, I found it hard to distinguish between land and sea. The air was unseasonably warm but it was howling a gale with rain threatening. My eyes rested on the unheated outdoor/indoor pool in the garden below us but I was untempted. A cooked breakfast proved the greater allure. 

To work off all the culinary excellence we decided to walk the coast path which leads directly from the hotel. I did not look at the map as I knew I would be alarmed at the distance involved, especially in new walking boots and in fearsomely robust company, used as they are to yomping round the outer Hebrides for their summer holiday of choice. No beach basking for them, oh no. 

And so we struck off down the garden and towards the cliff edge, the Welsh winds stirring our follicles and troubling our ears. It was lusty weather indeed and quintessentially Welsh. Indeed I do believe that I have never seen Wales in anything other than a shroud of grey drizzle: the complete Tupperware box experience. No wonder the Celts were so gloomy and desperate to flee to sunnier climes. Aquitaine certainly seemed more appealing to me at that precise moment than this wind-whipped corner of the British Isles. 

The path was mercifully flat (I shouldn't be admitting that coming from the Peaks as I do - but it made a welcome change not to be gasping for breath at every laboured uphill footstep) and we stepped out quite briskly, making good progress. Before I knew it, in fact, we were stopping for coffee and hot chocolate at a little cafe in a creek, just hours before it was shutting down for the season. 

Suitably refreshed, we marched onward, snaking past a group of geology students from Brighton University who were required to stare for hours at the dramatic rock strata and draw sketches thereof as the wind threatened to toss them into the leaden-coloured surf below. We also spied an intrepid group, clad in wetsuits and hard hats, who were thrashing about in the waves as they licked around the rocks they were attempting to mount. There's none so queer as folk.
The coast path took many twists and turns, affording delightful glimpses of shingle beaches, nooks, caves and crannies. Just at the point off which Ramsey Island lies - St David's Head - we spotted some seals frolicking in the waves (minus the hard hats) and some blubbery white baby seals splodged on the beaches and dry rocks of the coves, waiting for the tide to come and rescue them (or their parents to stop messing around in the sea and come and give them some bloomin' fish). In the middle distance, between the mainland and Ramsey Island, we spotted the tousled water that looked like a river in spate which is known locally as The Bitches. If I remember rightly, my blogging friend Mark Charlton has often canoed these salty rapids as recounted in his blog Views From the Bike Shed and in his book 'Counting Steps'. Remembering my canoeing days down rapids on the River Wye, I imagined it was fun - if somewhat alarming, not to say dangerous. The coast path seemed a safer bet despite a few dizzying drops which I chose not to get too near, reaffirming my nascent fear of heights.
The waters beyond the headland, sheltered from the North Atlantic Swell by Ramsey Island, were serene this autumnal morning. The bracken was toasty brown, warming and enlivening the landscape, while the calm sea was almost blue below. My ankles were giving me jip and having been taking photos and hobbling a little I found myself a straggler with just the Year 11 daughter for company. She complained a lot and asked if she could go to a party on Wednesday night. I was quite annoyed.
As we headed towards St Justinians a huge crane loomed, a slight blot on the landscape. Turns out they are building a new Life Boat House. It was here from which we would be taking the rib to Ramsey the following day. I could see the boat moored in the bay and I was looking forward to it hugely.
At St Justinians there was mutiny. The push on to Whitesands Bay was a push too far. The pub and lunch called harder. So we struck off inland down the lane that leads back to St David's, past the extraordinarily unexpected and beautiful edifice that is St David's Cathedral. An Italian friend rang me as we walked. It was weird to be in this very Celtic place jabbering away in Italian - a strange juxtaposition which reminded me of the diverse places I have had the fortune to live in my life. The Year 11 daughter said how 'cool' it was that I spoke Italian and wished she could do so too. She may well one day. She has time on her side and all it takes is to go and live there.
And so we tipped into the warm and inviting interior of The Bishops pub, shortly before 2.30pm. It had been a four hour walk which is plenty long enough for me, especially with compromised feet. A log fire was burning and filling the room with smoky scent, and there were piles of board games around the place - a pointer perhaps to the fact that the weather is often inclement in these parts and in such circumstances what better place to hunker down than in the cosy confines of the local pub.
Indeed, the following day proved true to Welsh form as the rain hammered down relentlessly. Vain hopes of our boat trip to Ramsey Island were soon swept away with the south-westerlies and we took comfort in the cathedral instead. What a magnificent creation it is, nestled in the green folds of this Welsh village. On a clear day the view beyond it of the blue ocean would be a magnificent context. I bought some celtic jewellery in the shop to remind me of my Welsh roots (paternal side, my maiden name is Samuel) and bobbed into the art exhibition.
From here we decided to head to Newgale Beach further down the coast, stopping at a pub on the way for a hearty lunch, before blowing away the cobwebs on the wide windswept stretch of sand. Lily was in her element. What a wonderful weekend she had had in this wild Welsh landscape. It may not have been the sun-drenched splendours of south-west France, but it had a monochrome beauty all of its own.
If you look closely, you might just spot the bodies around the rock in the middle of the sea...
Nooks and crannies

The creek where we had our refreshments

Wild welsh ponies


The coastal path to St David's Head

Adult seals splashing around in the waves (tricky to spot but they are there, promise!) with The Bitches in the distance

Beached baby seals

Anyone got any toast...?

Earthy colours and calm waters


The wonder of St David's Cathedral

The expansive beauty of Newgale Beach...

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Two New Fridge Food Posts

To let you know that I am still alive and kicking (just), I have published a couple of new posts over on Fridge Food. One is to do with a palate awakening light lunch involving lime, green chilli, garlic, ginger, black pepper, balsamic and mint; the other is a Greek twist on an classic Italian salad. Those golden days of September may now have receded, but the memories linger on...If you click on the links above, they'll take you straight there. Bon appetit!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Scotland divorcing the United Kingdom - For Better or For Worse?

This whole situation with Scotland is very sad. It is rather like one partner in a long-term marriage having a mid-life crisis and suddenly demanding a divorce. Now, we all know that divorces can be clean-cut when there are no children involved – but in the Scotland versus United Kindgom case there are millions i.e the population of both countries combined. And we also know that divorces involving children can get very messy indeed – and very expensive. The only winner, usually, is the lawyer.

Imagine that Alex Salmond is the lawyer; then that his Scottish National Party is one parent and the UK is the other. Let's also imagine that the children are the 64 million individuals who reside in these islands. The parents are making a set of decisions and the children are being asked to take sides, without necessarily understanding the full picture. Everyone should really be all one happy family where loyalty, unity and history are the glue which holds it together, but the reality seems to be that familiarity is instead breeding contempt. 

The pages of history are speckled with moments where one man (or woman) has defined the future. Nothing has happened in the past which hasn’t led to where we are today. And one person can change the course of events for better or worse – especially when that person is a political leader. Think Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela – or Hitler and Stalin.

My worry with Alex Salmond is that he has his own personal legacy in his sights rather more than that of the people of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. His zeal for an independent Scotland is, I fear, more rooted in the fact that he will go down in those history books as The Man Who Created An Independent Scottish Nation on 18th September 2014 rather than in a full and proper understanding of the magnitude and implications of what he is actually doing. The course of history will be changed forever with currently unknown consequences.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I am not good at change. However, my thoughts here cast aside that acknowledged prejudice and, instead, are based entirely - I like to think - on common sense. I have witnessed too many friends heading for divorce not to observe how the one who wants out often (though certainly not always, I hasten to add) adjusts the past to fit the picture they are wanting to draw of the present. A veil of amnesia can be conveniently cast over the happy times that have gone before – the shared memories, the love, the friendship and, painfully, the children that have been created together. Sometimes all is swept aside in a polemic about how unhappy they have been in their marital union for years. To state the obvious, Scotland and the UK have been in a marriage for far far longer than the average couple - 300 years in fact - and I don't believe it's all been one hellish misery from the start. Is it really sensible to cast all that history and shared experience to the four winds in a moment of relatively egotistical petulance? Have the implications of the split really been thought through? Have many of the people who will be voting really lived long enough to understand the very complex situation they are making irrevocable decisions about?

I fear the answer is No. Undoing those hundreds of years of history and political and economic union does not come without a heavy price. In the vast majority of divorces, even ones which start off amicably, it can get nasty the moment the subject of money is raised. The economy of Scotland and the UK will be no exception should independence be declared later this week. Already people are taking their money out of Scottish banks due to the uncertainty of the situation. Currency union is a big issue, as yet undecided, and there are bound to be other myriad knock-on effects which many will not have thought about or even forseen. Such is the nature of divorce. You cannot control, let alone predict, other people's reactions to the split. Unpicking the stitching that attaches Scotland to the United Kingdom will be a long, involved and very complicated job.

Is that to say that it is not worth trying? Possibly not. Couples mature and grow apart and sometimes it proves to be better for all concerned that they part company. Though, in this case, I rather fear that there will be many who live to regret taking such a giant step in the heat of a political moment in time. Perhaps the more sensible thing to do is accept the differences and the niggles and enter into a more productive dialogue to try and improve the situation for Scotland. Perhaps it would be worth trying that before such a monumental decision is made as to the future of the two countries.

Indeed, if the divorce goes ahead, it will be only Time that will tell whether the original marriage was ultimately for better, or for worse.

Worth reading:-

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Story of Duck

Duck came into our lives on Sunday 1st June. There was a scuffle in the corner of the kitchen where we keep our trays and instead of the expected mouse, a small brown and yellow ball of fluff waddled out on oversized webbed feet, peep-peeping like a thing possessed. It is a noise that has become the fabric of my daily life. As has taking Duck for walks up the stream, digging for worms along the way, and watching her paddle around, ducking and diving (if you'll excuse the pun), all activities accompanied by the constant peep-peep escalating rapidly to a panicky screech whenever she thinks she's lost or been abandoned.

She was about two weeks old when she was first scuffling around the kitchen, dangerously close to the Aga (and becoming crispy duck) and the cat who seems strangely indifferent to her presence given she is the most likely reason Duck was in the kitchen in the first place. We think she came from an 11 duckling brood down the lane but by the time we found this out we were advised by a duck-rearing friend (and grand-daughter of the lady who has the brood in her herbaceous border) that it would not be a good idea to return ours to the family as the mother duck would likely be aggressive to it even after just a day or two's absence. So L got her wish and Duck became part of the family. 

In the intervening three weeks Duck has at least tripled in size and has progressed from her world existing in a large plastic storage box to the dog's travel cage and beyond. She gorges on duck crumb and earthworms and lots of other bits and pieces of insect and vegetation that she finds on her forages around the garden. She is just starting to develop proper feathers on her wings (they, appeared practically overnight) and she has a rather scrappier looking set of tail feathers of which she is remarkably proud. We are all pathetically in love with her despite her being the embodiment of the phrase 'mucky duck'. I have had to find time in my life for regular cleaning and discenfecting of cage (about 5 times a day), together with bathing, feeding and play routines. It has been like having a baby and toddler in quick succession and it will be a few weeks yet before she will be independent. She has already had a 'holiday' down with our duck-raising friend's ducklings and will be down there again when we are away in a week's time. It seemed to go off well enough and she appeared to be unfazed and happy to be back with us again too. I am trying to raise Duck to be adaptable. She seems happy in anyone's company - including the cat and dog's - and settles down quietly by herself for the night too. When the lights go out she knows it's time for bed.

I have recently invested in a duck house (greatly daring as the last time I purchased a home for a rescued wild feathered friend it promptly died - remember the story of Bird?). It is actually billed by Pets At Home, from whence its provenance, as a Guinea Pig Mansion but it seemed to have the right credentials for ducks too. It was an ex-display, now discontinued model going cheap but we had to employ a friend with a van to get the bloody thing home having failed to get it into a car of our own.

My plan is for Duck to move into it on a permanent basis outside when she is ready and to allow her to potter around the garden at her leisure. If she decides to fly the nest then so be it. She may return she may not. Ultimately she will have to take her chances in life. In the meantime it has been a pleasure giving her a loving start - but how the tale will end has not yet been written. Indeed, it may turn out she's not a She after all, but on the basis of all her endless chat this has been my best guess so far as males are apparently notably quieter (in ducks as in humans so it would seem!). Time will tell. 

3 weeks old

5 weeks old and making herself at home (still not scared by proximity to oven!)

Sitting by me in the kitchen as I write, some water always nearby to dip her bill into.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Walking with my Dog

Dog has been depressed by Duck and Decorators this week. Frisbees in the garden were starting to pall. Time to take her out for a romp about the High Peak. Chose the Goyt Valley, my favourite local spot. Rushing streams, grouse moors, pine forests and reservoirs. Nothing better to lift the spirits - even when still unseasonably wet and cold. 

This bridge was moved to its current location in 1965 when they flooded the valley lower down.

As I walked alongside all this gushing water I mused on why it is that I love it so much. Still water can be calm and beautiful but I realise it is running water that I always seek out. The noise, the energy, the movement - it stimulates the senses at so many levels and was the life-affirming force that was required on this otherwise dank, lonely day. 

Friday, 16 May 2014


I feel incredibly sad. I have just come downstairs to find the dog staring at the cat staring at a dead swallow on the kitchen floor. I picked the beautiful creature up and it was still warm. Just yesterday I was so happy to come home in the evening and see them sweeping around the courtyard, flying in and out if the garage with incredible agility and precision, heralding summer and all good things to come. It is heartbreaking. So many thousands of miles flown to end up on my kitchen floor.

I have held it and blessed its incredible little body and taken it out into the wood to bury it under some dry leaves with the sound of birdsong all around. It is the best I can do for its little soul.

I hope tonight I will come home to find the other swallows still here, though I fear they may move on if one of the mates has gone and when I look at them I will feel sad anyway knowing they are missing one of their fellows.

I am not blaming the cat. She's a little old these days to be catching birds. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't. She obviously brought it inside to show me but perhaps it hit a window or something and she simply found it on the ground. I will never know the answer, like so many things in life.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Easter Holidays

The holidays began at my parents' house in West Sussex, in lovely soft spring sunshine with small reminders of Easter dotted around.
 Their woodland garden was looking so fresh and colourful.
From the lush, manicured greens of Sussex we were on soon on a plane and re-united with the wilder greens of our own garden in France, left to fend for itself for too much of the time. Yet breakfast outside is always a joy next to the straggling roses, the tumbling vine and the sounds of the spring bubbling away in the background...
From there to the wild expanses of the Atlantic coast, battered and bruised after a long winter of endless big storms. The worst damage to the beaches for decades and an appalling dumping of human detritus. What are we doing to our planet?
Half the sand on the beach has been removed by relentless Atlantic breakers...
On a day trip to St Jean de Luz, nestled on the Bay of Biscay at the foot of the Pyrenees, we found that the coastline had remained undamaged by the winter storms...
So after a lovely fishy beachside lunch...
...we enjoyed some time on the beach....
...and even had a dip....
...before taking a walk around the beautiful town and its port:






After ice-creams and an aperitivo we headed back up the coast a few kilometres to Biarritz for supper and sunset:

The following day saw friends arriving and more meals outside....

...and frivolities on the beach:


And then the friends were gone and we had a final day to ourselves...


....before the clouds arrived with perfect timing and sent us on our way back home to an Easter Sunday supper and a table laden with goodies:




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