Fresh from the garden an hour ago, and more snow to come. Nor are we alone. Temperatures in the northern hemisphere, and especially parts of North America have been plunging to record lows due to a shift of the polar vortex, the icy wind system that usually spends winter over the Arctic. It’s even been snowing in the Algerian Sahara – the fourth time this has happened in 42 years. My computer tells me it’s zero degrees celsius here in the UK, positively tropical compared to Chicago’s –26C with an added wind-chill factor of –53C. Stay warm, everyone.
Rooks in the ash trees, St. Bride’s Castle, Pembrokeshire
It’s a place for all seasons, and only a few minutes walk from our house. There are several approaches but I’ll take you up the Linden Walk that runs beside the old railway line. To the left lies the Linden aka Gaskell Field, now the town’s main recreation ground, and site of the annual Wenlock Olympian Games since the 1850s.
Near the top of the Linden Walk there is a parallel avenue of conifers. At the end turn left by the seat. In fact follow that chap in the brown coat. He knows where he’s going.
The path next takes you briefly along the wooded flanks of Shadwell Quarry. On the left as you go, at the top of the Linden Field, is a fine parade of oaks planted in the late nineteenth century to commemorate various Olympian Games doings. Watch out for the squirrels.
The path up the hill is quite steep. In winter the limestone meadow looks like this:
And like this:
But in early summer it’s a riot of orchids, lady’s bedstraw, clover, wild thyme, vetches, agrimony and St. John’s Wort:
And in late summer it’s the grasses’ turn to flower:
But whatever the season, if it’s not too windy, there’s a good place to sit and admire the view:
Until this last year I had not been an enthusiastic bread maker. But then with lockdown, needs must, and so kneading it was. Also during the warm summer weather the over-heating conservatory was an ideal spot for dough proving.
I was surprised at how well my wholemeal, spelt and kamut loaves turned out.
But with the cooler days, proving was taking longer and the bread never seemed to be ready when I wanted it. Enthusiasm waned. And then I remembered soda bread. Or rather I happened to see an old episode of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage wherein Ruby Wax, celebrity comedian but non-cook, had been charged to make soda bread. It looked so easy. And so quick. And even through the screen you knew the bread was delicious.
Next came some research. One stumbling block was obtaining a seeming key ingredient – butter milk. It was not to be found in Much Wenlock. Then I discovered natural live yogurt would do instead. Or even milk (dairy or non-dairy) plus a tablespoon of lemon juice or cider vinegar to activate the soda.
Some of the recipes seemed to have too much bicarb. I did not want to be able to taste it. And so here is the recipe I’ve come up with. It takes a few minutes to throw together, and a little over 30 minutes in the oven.
Oven (fan-assisted) 200 C
400 gms of flour: I use 260 gm wholemeal spelt flour and 140 gm of strong white bread flour;
1 very slightly rounded teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda;
1 level teaspoon of sea salt;
300 ml liquid: natural live yogurt:
OR milk (dairy or plant-based) with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice/cider vinegar; or a mixture of yogurt and milk and a good squeeze of lemon juice. I’ve also used slightly ‘gone off’ milk.
Mix it all together with a spatula, then shape into a round (not too much fiddling);
Place on floured baking sheet.
THEN THE MOST IMPORTANT BIT:
Slice a deep cross across the top of the loaf.
This may serve 3 purposes:
A) Let out the fairies;
B) Give protection from the devil:
C) Help the loaf to cook evenly.
Cook in a hot oven and check at around 30 mins. The bread is done when a knock on the bottom produces a good hollow sound.
Soda bread is best eaten fresh, but it will keep a couple of days in a cake tin, and it does make the most excellent toast. Delicious with homemade Seville marmalade or wild honey.
For a savoury version: 125 gms of grated strong cheese can be added to this recipe plus some herbs of choice.
It was definitely a case of trial and error. This wood pigeon was far too big and heavy to perch safely in our little crab apple tree AND snaffle the apples. Various approaches were attempted. Finally the down-under manoeuvre did the trick. Success!
Today Becky is using her magic crystal ball to do some conjuring.
This week Lisa wants to see ‘butts in the air’ bird life.
It is rather strange, but when you are wandering round Much Wenlock you are hardly ever aware of its upland surroundings. Yet it sits in a steep-sided bowl between the upthrust strata of Wenlock Edge and various residual hills and hummocks from Ice Age days. It is a place of natural springs and erstwhile saintly wells, with hints, too, from ancient finds that its waters may well have been venerated in Roman times. It was doubtless the reason why the Saxon Princess Milburga established her convent here around 670 CE, ‘cleanliness being next to godliness’ and so on. She was the subject of many local legends, most of them relating to her fleeing the unwanted attentions or lusty males, while conjuring protective streams and rivers to thwart her pursuers. The water from the town well named after her was believed to restore poor eyesight.
The priory ruins and parish church you see in these photos date from six and more centuries after Milburga, belonging mostly to the Norman era wherein the invaders sought to dominate the local populace with overbearing architecture. Wenlockians, though, knew how to take some advantage from the situation. It was said that the best ale in town was brewed from rainwater collected from the church roof.
This month Jude at Travel Words is asking us to consider the beauty of BROWN – earth colours.
In 2012 Much Wenlock’s Olympian Games Committee commissioned a series of five artworks to mark the town’s founding connections with the modern Olympic Games[**].
You might describe them as stone ‘tuffets’, though they are rather larger and lumpier than Miss Muffet’s seating arrangements. Local school children contributed creative notions and designs for the tops. This one now sits in the town square (after a few years getting grubby on the Linden Field) and is my favourite. Cultivate our hidden talents, it says, and if we can – plant a tree.
[**] see earlier post on Wenlock’s connection with the revival of the Olympian Games HERE
This photo records my first close encounter with lion-kind. I still find it hard to believe I was there. I’d not long arrived in Kenya, not so much tourist as camp-follower to Graham who was out there on a short-term consultancy. He had recently returned from Mexico where he’d been studying the habits of the Larger Grain Borer (LGB), a tiny maize-devouring beetle which had been imported into Africa from the Americas in a cargo of food aid. The alien beastie had by the 1990s spread across the continent along the lines of rail and road and was busy infesting grain stores in Taita near the Tanzanian border and also in Ukambani in southern Kenya.
Graham was there to provide technical support to a British funded project that was planning to introduce a predator-specific beetle to control the LGB spread. For several months we had no home base. Instead there was an endless back and forth along the Mombasa highway between Nairobi and the coast, Graham spending two or three days at a time at research sites in Kiboko, Taita Hills and Mombasa. I went along for the ride.
At the coast we stayed in beach cottages. At Taita there was a rest house in the hills, but when it was booked up, we stayed at the extraordinary Taita Hills Hilton, a four-star safari lodge in the middle of nowhere. It came with its own private small game reserve, a former colonial sisal plantation run back to bush. (For anyone who’s read William Boyd’s An Ice cream War this was the territory – between the Mombasa railway and the Taveta border).
And so, one Saturday afternoon when Graham had finished working, we took ourselves for a game viewing drive around the Taita reserve. Left to our own devices we would not have seen the lions. But some rangers on patrol stopped us. ‘Have you seen the lions,’ they said. No? ‘Come. Follow us.’ They hived off into the bush in their sturdy truck. We followed (carefully) in the works’ Peugeot 307 saloon (!) And there they were, two lions under a thorn bush. Who’d have thought it!
These photos are from our last trip to the Maasai Mara before we left Kenya – this after nearly eight years as ‘displaced persons’. It was late December and our family from the UK had come out to join us in millennium celebrations. Everywhere there was talk of the ‘dreaded bug’ – mass panic of how on the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve 1999 all world intercommunications and computer functions would be scuppered. At such times one definitely knew there was more common sense to found among animal kind than with humanity.
We had left camp on an early morning game drive. Dan our driver-guide had brought a picnic breakfast of mammoth proportions and it was he who decided to stop the truck and break into the hard boiled eggs and pastries just as a large herd of elephants was passing by. They came so softly, footfalls ever muffled by the large cushions of fat that elephants have in their heels. You could smell them though – the musky, muddy smell that is like nothing else. The adults seemed to be moving as one, a measured ambling pace with no deviation. Only the children weren’t quite coming to heel.
For most of the year female elephants and young live in small matriarchal groups while the adult males pursue a separate existence in their own loose-knit herds. But come the rainy season, all these small groups may gather into a single large herd as they set out looking for fresh vegetation.
They couldn’t have cared less about us; gave not one sign that they had even registered our presence. Later, as it was going dark and we were returning to camp, we met the herd again. Dan stopped the truck and the herd moved around us, close enough to touch. They moved like shadow-ships through the Mara twilight. At such moments you tend to find that you’ve forgotten to breathe.
Looks like Owl has been on a festive-season bender and is yet to recover his wits (as in wits-de-woo?). He’s supposed to be on duty seeing off pigeons, and every now and then a human climbs the church tower to put him in a fresh, deemed intimidating pose. Clearly he’s not seeing much from under his Santa hat. Even Weather Cock is giving him the cold shoulder. Even the local doves are having a good laugh – hoo-hoo-hoo, they chortle. I caught them at it just a few minutes ago as I walked back from a trip to the shop.
Well! The things that go on in Much Wenlock. One could faint with the excitement of it all.