Saturday, 26 December 2009

Where I was 2009

This is my annual round up of where my feet have taken me over the past twelve months. You can compare my footsteps in 2009 with previous years here and here.

It has been a good year, and quite a momentous one now that I look back at it.

I started the year, as I always do, working long, difficult hours at the bank for the whole of January putting together the financial year end.

Walking to work, January 2009

But nine months later I left work - happily - and January 2010 will not be anything like the previous twelve Januaries for me at all. I am looking forward to it. I don't know what 2010 will bring for me work-wise, but I have a few plans that I want to try. And I rather like not knowing how that part of my life will change. I like mysteries!

Leaving my office in the City for the last time. September 7th 2009.

My feet went on holiday a few times this year. We spent a week in the Isle of Wight in February for G's birthday where we walked along cliff tops and shorelines and blew away the last of the winter cobwebs.

Scrambling over rocks, Isle of Wight, February 2009
We went to France at the beginning of the summer holidays. We travelled by train and had a week in Paris and then a week in the South, staying with Mum & Dad.
G and me, outside Notre Dame, watching the children leap about in the sandpits on our first evening in Paris. July 2009.

An afternoon by myself at the Musee d'Orsay, looking at all my favourite Renoir paintings, July 2009.

In the Jardins de Luxembourg, Paris, with a good book, July 2009.

Hiding indoors from the midday heat, with my knitting. Tarn-et-Garonne, August 2009.

Watching my mother teach O to swim, Tarn-et-Garonne, August 2009.

And in September I grabbed myself a last minute bargain and whisked the children off to Aldeburgh in Suffolk for the final week of the summer holidays. We ate lots of fish and chips, I taught C to row on Thorpeness Mere, we caught loads of crabs, and we sat on the beaches and looked out to sea.

The best fish & chips in the world, Aldeburgh beach, September 2009.

We sneaked in a couple of camping trips as well. We went here in April, here in May and here in June.

The orchard campsite, Suffolk, April 2009.

Ashurst Campsite, the New Forest, May 2009.

Holidays are exciting, fun and refill us with enthusiasm - particularly camping holidays. But real life continues in between those high days and holidays. There are quiet, substantial moments of relaxation and happiness to be found in the most mundane of places.

One of the nicest aspects of not working is being able picking up the children from school every day. Here we are in October, in the garden of the local community centre, before O's ballet lesson.

Wanstead House, October 2009.

Long family walks are good for the soul, and a reliable and cheap day out when houshold finances have to be tightened. When we knew I was going to be leaving work, G and I bought ourselves a season ticket to Kew Gardens. Within just three trips it had paid for itself and it is now saving us money each time we go. I never tire of that place. It changes so dramatically with each season, and amazingly it is vast enough that I am still discovering parts of it for the first time with each new visit.

C and I making long shadows in Epping Forest, January 2009.

All of us in the Temperate House at Kew, March 2009.

Bare feet and daisies near the Pagoda at Kew, August 2009.

I taught myself to knit in 2009, and in April I went on a short six week course where I learnt how to use dpns and knit socks.

First sock finished! May 2009.

There were days out with friends throughout the year. In August, Miss Moss Stitch and I discovered the Horniman Museum.

C and T doing sudoku on the tube, August 2009.

There was a great deal of happy family news this year. In April my little sister married her soldier amongst the cherry blossom, in October we said hello to a new nephew, and a couple of weeks later my mother had a much needed hip replacement operation.

New nephew, Ben, October 2009. Photo by my sister-in-law.

And now here I am, about to start a new year and a new folder of photos. I never make New Year's resolutions, but I do have plans and ideas. I will keep you posted!

Sunshine in St Paul's Cathedral churchyard, September 2009.

Snow in London, December 2009.

A very happy New Year to you all.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Driving Home for Christmas

I thought for a while there that we wouldn't make it out of London.

But happily, the snow turned to slush overnight and the ice was cleared on the motorways just in time. The children and I made it to Oxford today where we saw:

  • one Great Grandma, recently arrived in the temperate south from the deep, deep snow of North Yorkshire.

  • three favourite cousins
  • one of whom is now smiling and cooing and even more captivating than when I last saw him

  • marzipan topped mince pies from Betty's Tearooms, which my brother declared to be the best mince pies he had ever eaten. They had come down south with Great Grandma the day before. There is nothing quite like a mince pie from Yorkshire to make me feel Christmassy.
  • an extremely sprightly Granny with no sticks and a big grin on her face. Who cooked lunch for ten and made me forget she had a full hip replacement operation just six weeks ago. "Wean yourself off the sticks," her consultant told her last week. So she tossed them aside.

There was only one thing to listen to as I purred up the motorway to Oxford to see them all. Perfect.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Podcast love

With so much Christmas sewing lately, I have been listening to a great many podcasts. I can hear them now that I have a fancy new, quiet machine!

What are my favourites on the iPod at the moment?
  • Americana on Radio 4. Well, for someone who got her degree in American Studies, this is a must-have. A wonderful, insightful, view of what is going on in America each week - from the beautiful buildings full of politicians in Washington DC to the small town world of middle America. Excellent.
  • Desert Island Discs on Radio 4. I LOVE this programme and have been wanting it to come out as a podcast for so long. Finally. All they need to do now is bring out I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue on podcast and my Radio 4 life will be complete. This week's castaway was Lord Coe, who is bringing the Olympics to my part of London in two and a half years time. He seems to know what he is talking about.
  • The Archers. This is not a new podcast - and I am not a new fan, but it is now podcast as a weekly omnibus edition as well as the daily 12 minute episodes, which may suit some poeple better. The story lines at the moment are excellent - Jazzer and Fallon...will they or won't they? (yes! go on Fallon!) Annette - how could she be so stoopid? and will the Grundy boys come to blows over the Christmas turkeys? Good stuff.
  • The Moth. A brilliantly simple podcast from America: true stories told live and without notes in front of an audience. Each episode is short (usually under 15 minutes) and quirky.
  • Another fantastic podcast from Radio 4 is Great Lives, hosted by Matthew Parris. Matthew Parris is a thoughtful, insightful presenter who discusses with his guest the life of a famous person who has been a great influence on the guest. It is a fabulously eclectic podcast; so far this month I've heard Paul Daniels talking about Harry Houdini, John Major on Rudyard Kipling and Kate Humble on the apartheid activist Miriam Makeba.
  • And there are of course many other old favourites: Woman's Hour, This American Life, Excess Baggage, Saturday Live and Guardian Books.

There's an enormous amount of Radio 4 in there. Maybe I should branch out a little. Do you have any suggestions?

Here are some of the Christmas presents I have been sewing. They are for someone who doesn't have a computer so I think it may be safe to show them off.

They are three simple lavender sachets, made with some leftover fabric scraps. Lavender sachets are something you could whip up very easily without a tutorial (sew pouch, stuff with lavender, close gap), but this tutorial from Checkout Girl really caught my imagination. I didn't do the applique because I was running out of time, but I did follow her suggestions on the size of the sachets and the fancy top stitching.

They are lovely. I am very pleased with them.

And what makes them even more special is that the lavender I stuffed them with came from a big bunch that Mum picked for me from her garden in France last summer. I have been drying the bunch carefully in my big jam pan (hanging from the ceiling in my kitchen) since August, and it now smells astonishingly powerful. If I had more lavender I'd be sewing these sachets for everyone I know (or maybe keeping them greedily for myself - they smell so good). I am going to see if I can pursuade Mum to plant a whole bed of lavender in France, that I can then harvest for sachets each year!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Friday night in the kitchen

At this time of year, just ten days before the solstice, it is dark by the time we get home from school. The kitchen is dim, but warm. It is a good place to be on a Friday night. Discussing maths with C, listening to O and her friend cackling with laughter as they play goodness knows what upstairs, and waiting for the sound of G's key in the front door.

C and I drink cups of tea as he does his homework. He rattles through his maths, as usual, and we're both glad that he only has to learn a poem for literacy.

There are two pans on the stove. I am cooking two suppers tonight. Pasta and meatballs for the children, nice and early because O has her friend over. Then later, when I've taken her friend home, G and I will have very spicy spinach and tomatoes with baked eggs, scooped out of bowls with chunks of hot bread.

The rest of my pans hang from an old drying rack on the kitchen ceiling. The jam pan is stuffed with two paper bags of lavender from France, drying out ready to be made into lavender sachets.

Our fridge is adorned with so much paper that we've no need for a noticeboard. There are:
  • vouchers for a triathlon shop,
  • a family calendar,
  • magnetic scissors,
  • a notepad,
  • tickets to see the Cuban ballet next April,
  • charts of swim times,
  • a packet of star stickers,
  • a party invitation,
  • school dinner menus.

Everything is fairly allocated between magnets. If I put just one ill-considered piece of paper in the wrong place, everything begins to slither slowly towards the floor.

The bread machine is on, as it is most days. I love the thud, thud as it kneads the bread. I'll be staying up late tonight as I am making wholemeal bread on a five hour setting, and I forgot to start it until I heard the pips on the radio for the 6 o'clock news.

On the wall, between the bread machine and the toaster, is stuck the little slip of paper that C wrote just after he started school. I smile at it when I'm waiting for the toast to pop in the mornings.

And there tucked in carefully between the salt pig and the ras-el-hanout (I love that spice so much that I'm stockpiling it) sit G and I. Preserved forever as we were on New Year's eve 1998. In a pub in Surbiton, after a few beers, basking in each other's company.

The weekend starts here.

Monday, 7 December 2009


Life seems to be in snippets at the moment. Small things, quick things, different things, a great many things.

Snippets from the past week:

  • The neighbours' grown-up son, who spent his redundancy money on a nine month trip around New Zealand, arrived back home this week. I looked out of my bedroom window at half past six on Thursday morning and saw a tall, tanned young man haul a backpack from the back of the taxi, pick his way through the puddles and smile to himself as he pushed open the gate to his parents' house.
  • C is officially Very Important and Senior now he is in Year 5. He ran the book stall at the school's Christmas bazaar. When I picked him up, the deputy head said to me how very helpful and useful C had been, and gave him a big bunch of mistletoe as a reward. Ten year old boys are not that impressed by bunches of mistletoe, but I like it very much.
  • A box of Moo cards arrived for me to make into gift tags and cards. I used photos of the holly bushes at Kew, which I took at half term.
  • I am reading Ballet Shoes to O for a bedtime story at the moment. It is fanning the flames of her long standing obsession with dance. When I come downstairs after I have tucked her up in bed I can hear the gentle rhythmic thuds of her getting out of bed and pirouetting around the room for ten minutes before she goes back to bed (to read ballet books like these). She doesn't know I know she does this.
  • There is a pile of almost finished, handmade Christmas presents on my desk. I like looking at this pile, but it needs to get bigger this week, and it needs more completely finished things and fewer nearly finished things.
  • The car misbehaved for me once too often and we have bought a new one. The horror of spending so much money, at a time when I am not working, is mixed with great delight at having a beautiful, new car that doesn't break down on three lane roundabouts and which has an MP3 jack.
  • G won a great big, shiny, silver cup at his triathlon club Christmas awards dinner last night. It looks rather wonderful on our mantelpiece.
  • C made mince pies yesterday. A batch of teeny, tiny, bite sized ones, plus four big personalised ones. I always use the mince pie pastry recipe from Nigella's Feast as it tastes beautiful, using orange juice for the liquid; it flakes wonderfully and is very forgiving and easy to roll out. Perfect for child chefs.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A very useful cake recipe

I'm still sewing, taking photos and saving them up to do one enormously impressive blog post in the New Year about how I managed to cut up some of my favourite fabrics, make them into things and them give them away. You're impressed already, aren't you?

In the meantime, I think we should have a recipe - haven't had too many of these around here lately. This is one of the most useful cake recipes I own. Infinitely adaptable, very easy, and devoured with pleasurable groaning by everyone who has a slice.

The List Writer's Fruit and Almond Cake
I love almonds, and the solid, fragrant dampness they give to cakes. Bakewell Tarts are one of my all time top five things to eat, but I don't often make them because they're a little bit too faffy. Pastry and sponge? No, I need my almond cake to be made very quickly, when the need for an almond hit strikes.

Everybody else around here loves these fruit and almond cakes too. The one I made on Thursday was gone by Sunday morning.

The last, lonely slice


  • 175g softened butter or marg
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 175g self raising flour
  • 75g ground almonds
  • 3 eggs
  • half a teaspoon almond extract (optional - leave it out if you're not an almond freak like me)
  • Chopped fruit - roughly enough to fill a cereal bowl

One of the most useful aspects of this cake is that it works with all kinds of fruit. For last week's cake I used big, red plums - six of them, stoned and cut into slices. For this week's version I used five eating apples, cored, peeled and sliced. Pears, fresh apricots, rhubarb, cherries and raspberries also work very well in this cake.

Put all the ingredients, apart from the fruit, into a food mixer and beat well for a few minutes until light and fluffy. You can do it by hand, or in a food processor if you do not have a mixer. Line the base of a loose bottomed cake tin with parchment paper. I use a 22cm springform tin. Tip the cake batter into the tin and spread out slightly towards the edges. Arrange the fruit on the top in any kind of pleasing arrangement. You should have enough fruit to pretty much cover the top completely.

Put in the centre of the oven at 180c or gas 4 for 45 to 50 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and cooked through. The cake will have risen up slightly around the fruit.

Allow to cool completely in the tin before removing. Serve with coffee, some Radio 4 podcasts and a pile of sewing on the side.