Thursday, October 25, 2012

The compass swings to the north

Fallen leaves carpet the ground, the freezer is full of soup, the weather is forecast to turn much colder, and most sensible creatures are snuggling down where it’s warm and sheltered. So what is the Transit household doing in this situation? The answer is simple: busily packing for our autumn migration to the glorious far north-west of Scotland. As the winds from the arctic begin to blow, we are getting ready to head off at the weekend in the direction they are coming from, and what’s more, we’re looking forward to it.

As regular readers will know, we enjoy our twice-yearly visits to the north-west Highlands enormously and are keenly anticipating our arrival and the pleasant process of settling-in and seeing our friends again. Whilst there I will knit more socks at the weekly Knit’n Natter meetings, walk along the road to the little church with one of the best views in the world and appreciate yet again the wondrous variety of landscape our little offshore islands have to offer.

Naturally my trusty laptop will accompany us and I’ll catch up with you all when we arrive. Until then it’s back to the sorting and packing. I love it really…. J

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A childhood on foot

Since I retired, the alarm function of my bedside clock has had less and less use and so it was a shock to the system this morning to find that I must inadvertently have pressed the alarm button last night, with the result that it roused me far too early from a deep and satisfying sleep. With no pressing need to get out of my warm and comfortable bed (these late October mornings are much too chilly for my liking and I’m going to church this evening) I drifted into that pleasurable state between waking and sleeping which allows all sorts of odd memories to rise to the surface of the mind.

To my surprise I found myself retracing my childhood walk to school, a small church primary school in a little village on the western fringes of the Pennines in Lancashire. In my mind’s eye I climbed the slope from our cottage to the stile into the field in which our neighbouring farmer grazed his cows. Once through the stile (a swing-gate, not a ladder stile) I walked along the footpath by the stone wall which bordered the field, until I reached the stile at the far end leading into the centre of the village.

Post Office and shop
From the stile I turned right for a short distance until the lane met the main road through the village. Ahead of me, across the road, stood the village post-office and shop, next door to The Victoria Arms, one of the three village pubs, the other two being strung out along the road through our small, but very straggling community. Turning left at the junction, I passed on my left the second of our village shops, run throughout my childhood by two unmarried sisters, Bessie and Marion.

It was in this shop that my sisters and I bought our small weekly allowance of sweets and the choice was always fraught. For 3 (old) pence we could buy two ounces of a wide variety of tooth-rotting goodies, such as pear-drops or mint imperials, aniseed balls or dolly mixtures, jelly babies or humbugs. I could go on….

Alternatively we could opt for a number of individually priced items like liquorice straps or sherbet dabs or even (perish the thought nowadays) a packet of sweet cigarettes which would allow us to mimic our elders’ behaviour before eating the chewy little sticks one by one.

Once past the shop I left the village centre behind and continued along the road for a few hundred yards to the next group of buildings.  All but one were houses, but the exception also played a central role in our lives back then. It was the Sunday School building for the Congregational chapel we belonged to and was the scene of many of the most enjoyable events of my childhood.

Its large main room acted as a village hall and there we went regularly to chapel socials and concerts and of course the annual Christmas party, with the obligatory visit of Father Christmas and his tantalisingly bulging sack of presents. It was there that my sisters and I learned to perform in the concerts and played our part in the work involved in providing a sit-down tea for a hundred or more people. It was there that we learned dances like the valeta, the Gay Gordons, the Dashing White Sergeant and of course the inevitable hokey-cokey and where I realised that, as far as dancing is concerned, I was born with two left feet. 

Down the hill to school
Beyond the Sunday School building was a walk of another few hundred yards, before I reached the next pub, The Rock Inn, and turned left down the lane to our little two-teacher school. According to the wizardry of the path function on Google Earth, that was a walk of about three-quarters of a mile each way, which we did on our own and on foot, winter and summer, through rain, wind, snow and even sunshine, until we left that school and graduated to the luxury of a bus journey to the grammar school in the neighbouring town.

I’m sure that there must have been many times in bad weather when we wished we didn’t have to make that walk twice a day, but it had its compensations. The details of our daily route, the individual buildings we passed, the people we met and the wonderful distant views from the hillside road, are deeply embedded in my memory and in my heart in a way I don’t think any car journey would allow and I’m glad of it. Perhaps I ought to set my alarm by mistake more often…. 

All images other than the first via Google. Some very old and of poor quality when magnified

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


What is it about soup? As soon as the days and nights reach that autumn point of equilibrium, my thoughts turn inexorably to the delights of the stockpot and the soup pan and I start to flick through my mental file of favourite recipes. DH and I are great fans of casseroles and stews, chilli and pasta, all the warm and comforting winter fillers, but for variety, economy and unfailing moreishness, there is simply nothing to beat soup.

I love it for its range of colour and taste and texture - the way it can be smooth and voluptuously creamy, or thin and delicate, or thick, chunky and satisfyingly filling. I love the fact that depending on the ingredients I have to hand, it can be simple and economical or luxuriously expensive. I love the knowledge that soup is forgiving, and difficult (though not impossible) to ruin completely, and that at its best it rises to a peak of perfection which is a joy to savour.

Like everyone I have my collection of tried-and-tested recipes, but one of the many wonderful things about soup is how inventive you can be with it, how easily you can take what you happen to have to hand and make something reassuringly familiar or deliciously different. The possible permutation of ingredients and flavours is vast and the resulting variety means DH and I are never bored when soup is on the menu.

Just think of the thick, slightly tart sweetness of parsnip and apple, or the luxurious creaminess of broccoli and Stilton, the warming earthiness of carrot and lentil or the savoury simplicity of French onion.

On a cold winter’s day, what could be better than satisfyingly tasty and filling ham and pea, made of course with a ham bone and proper marrowfat peas, and topped with dumplings? Split pea soup is lovely too, but not in the same league in my book. To be slightly more exotic, you could try the spicy richness of red bean and bacon, one of our longstanding favourites, crammed with tomatoes, onions and red peppers and tangy with paprika.

And whenever DH or I are under the weather and need cheering-up, we turn to the creamy comfort of chicken and rice, in our house made with the stock  from a traditional French poule au pot (chicken simmered with vegetables, herbs and garlic).

Of course, for the true soup addict there is no such thing as having enough recipes and I’m always open to new suggestions. These are a few of my favourites. Will you share  some of yours?

Image via Wylio

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Burning the midnight oil

Old habits die hard. Five years after I retired for the second time, I’m still faintly haunted by my mother’s adage that “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” The trouble is that this doesn’t come naturally to me and never has done. Fundamentally I’m an owl, not a lark.

Though I enjoy the early morning when forced to experience it, my normal instinct when I wake up early is to turn over, snuggle down and go back to sleep. In the evening the converse is true. While DH will happily head off to bed and to sleep after the 10 o’clock news, I find myself perking up again, ready to go back online for an hour or two and even read in bed after finally switching off the computer.

The one thing guaranteed to make me put the light off before the wee small hours is the knowledge that DH will wake me in the morning no later than 9. Not that I want him to, you understand, it’s just that we’ve decided that we simply can’t allow our respective body clocks to get too far out of line or life would become much too complicated. So he gets up when he’s ready to do so and wakes me when my morning porridge is ready. DH is no cook, but he can make a mean pan of porridge (it must be his Scottish ancestry) so on most mornings making breakfast is his province, not mine.

The snag comes when he is on a rare trip away without me, as he is at the moment. As I type he’s in the process of taking an elderly aunt home from a visit to his mother’s and has left me to my own devices for a couple of days. As soon as I know there is no-one around to keep me in line, I fall far too easily into bad ways, as I did last night.

Oh, I was good at first. The TV went off at 10 and the computer about an hour later. I told myself I was tired after a busy weekend and needed an early night. So I was in bed soon after 11 and decided to reward myself with the opening chapter (or two) of my latest library book: A Question of Belief  by the superlative Donna Leon.

Who was I trying to kid? There is no such thing as reading only a chapter or two of a Donna Leon novel. Her writing is so good, her settings so atmospheric and her characters so well-drawn that I instantly found myself drawn into the story and emerged to find that it was almost 3am, my eyelids were drooping from tiredness and I was two-thirds of the way through the book. 

Even then something in me urged me to make a night of it and finish the whole book, but from somewhere I found a remnant of commonsense and made myself switch off the light. From habit I woke just before 9, heavy-eyed and sluggish, but still full of the guilty joy of reading in bed until I could read no more. I still have the final third to read, but tonight DH will be home and I will be good again – until next time.

Image via Wylio