Seals!

I went camping for the weekend. We thought that S needed her spare room back for guests, and I desperately wanted to see the sea. I felt guilty spending the money but I bought a tent and a cheap camping stove and reasoned it was the most cost effective way of achieving a quick holiday. I decided on Norfolk because after blasting through all of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series earlier in the year, I’ve been wanting to see salt marshes. I booked a camping pitch for £15 a night, checked the weather and was hugely relieved to see it looked several degrees cooler at the coast.

As it was a back to basics weekend, I navigated via road atlas, which actually worked pretty well. I just needed to remember the names of the key destinations and road numbers along the way: Evesham (A46) – Stratford – Warwick – Coventry (M6) – Thrapston (A605) – Peterborough (A14) – Wisbech – King’s Lynn (A169) – Cromer. In this age of Satnav, does anyone still plan their route any more? When I can, I like to make the journey part of the trip rather than just a means to an end. This was not the prettiest route but there’s a kind of magic to a list of unfamiliar place names. Now I have the geography of another part of the country roughly laid out in my head for when I need it again. It also meant that I could listen to Everyone Brave is Forgiven without Siri interrupting me.

The heat has been so oppressive around here that when I stepped out of the car into a breeze, I barely recognised it. Suddenly, the sunshine was beneficent again. Plus, I love being on my own in places where no one knows me. It’s like being invisible and you just know you aren’t going to have to talk to anyone at a level beyond the transactional for days. I don’t know if that’s an introvert thing, but I find it really relaxing. After 5 hours of travelling, I was reinvigorated.

Even so, there’s not a lot to be done with Cromer, but I found the second hand bookshop and the first two Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Reginald Hill has been on my TBR list since I heard Mick Herron recommend him at the Oxford Literary Festival.

I’ve been camping plenty of times, but never on my own before. And tents are a lot easier these days but still come with exactly the sort of instructions that make no sense to me whatsoever. I had one tricky moment, then I figured it out and suddenly, I had a sturdy blue bolthole for the weekend! After which, I was overcome with laziness and decided to settle in with the default camping foods: Dairylea slices, bread rolls, red wine. I hung my torch up in the tent and read A Clubbable Woman. 

2018-07-06 17.34.03
My tent was definitely the smallest on site. Even the guy on the motorbike had a pop up tent that was bigger.

Now, admittedly an air mattress might have made sleep a more comfortable proposition, but it was ok for a couple of nights. Besides which, there was coffee. That little camping stove was amazing. I mean yes, it took a while to boil a litre of water, but it got there. And it was a gorgeous morning, so I was happy to wait.

2018-07-07 06.58.34
That was Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that S brought me back from the US.

Since it wasn’t a thousand degrees, I’d decided I’d try walking from Holkham Beach to Wells-next-the-Sea. The website said it would be a couple of hours each way, but I thought I could pick up the Peddar’s Way for the route back and get some shade in the pine trees.

2018-07-07 10.11.28
Holkham

Holkham Beach was a sight to lift the heart. I paddled all the way to Wells and there were barely any people. Turned out, they were all at Wells. By the time I got there and remembered why it’s called Wells-next-the-Sea not Wells-on-Sea, that last mile inland nearly broiled me. I bailed on the walk back and got the bus instead. Peddar’s Way will have to wait for next time.

Empty beaches were a theme. But I was warned by the locals that out of term time, everywhere gets mobbed and is horrible, so I guess I was lucky with my timing. This was Sheringham beach, I got in and out on Sunday morning ahead of their world record attempt for the largest number of Morris Dancers in one place at the same time. Shudder. I had idly wondered why I kept seeing lone Morris Dancers around.

2018-07-08 09.06.20

I don’t even remember where this one was (Cley?) but only a few miles away up the coast from Holkham, the sand shifted to shingle.

2018-07-08 09.45.19

Sunday was all about the seals, though. I was expecting a pleasant boat trip and maybe a few seal heads bobbing around in the sea at a distance. I’d booked my boat trip with Ptarmigan, based on nothing more than picking up their leaflet at the shop on the campsite.

They were great, one of the smaller boat trip companies so we had to wait for several boat loads of Bean’s Boat Trips to get out of the way first. But the boats all take the same route out to Blakeney Point – thankfully not open sea because I get seasick really easily. Not that I can tell port from starboard but I like boats and the seasickness banishes all Patrick O’Brien induced fantasies of sailing holidays, or even any kind of long trip. I barely made it to Block Island.

Ptarmigan’s was a traditional clinker built boat, and the guide pointed out various other, locally built boats as we headed out to the seals. Blakeney used to be a major shipping harbour in the Middle Ages and was still going through to the 19th century. Now it’s heavily silted up and there’s just one commercial shipping boat, which goes after crab and lobster.

And then, seals! There are a couple of colonies of common seals and grey seals, so maybe 2,000-3,000 seals. They weren’t afraid of the boats, they were curious, but they kept their distance.

2018-07-08 13.15.53

Grey seals in the water could disappear as soon as they went under, even though it wasn’t that deep. They merged with the shadows.

2018-07-08 13.16.07

The grey seals are darker and have the longer faces, ‘like Labradors’ our guide said.

2018-07-08 13.17.58

After all that, I got home sunburnt, salty, tired and incredibly relaxed. Bring on more camping, more Norfolk and more seals.

Advertisements

Schaudenfreude

Ok, so everything is all friendly etc, and we went out to see Deadpool 2 and have pizza. Then we got home and I realised those are date like activities, and that, mwah ha ha ha ha, the soon-to-be-ex Will. Have. To. Date. Because, as I have explained in gentle, soothing tones, he isn’t going to meet his prospective future wife by hanging out at home watching videos about Porsches. Nope, he’s going to have to sign up to Flamr* or whatever, iron a shirt, shave, dig out the aftershave and go out and make polite conversation for a couple hours at a stretch. Possibly repeatedly.

I confess that as soon as I had this realisation, I started laughing not entirely sympathetically. Partly because being friendly and supportive only goes so far and I’m not a fucking saint, and partly because of the absolute horror of the contemporary dating scene.

In comparison, I have done my time. I’ve had so many boyfriends I couldn’t do a roll call, I’ve been married, I’ve had one night stands. I have earned my stripes and now I get to retire from active duty and sit in on Saturday nights until the end of time, wearing PJs by 7.30pm, with a bottle of wine, a box of Maltesers and Strictly.  Bring it.

*As far as I know, I just made up Flamr, but now think it’s a dating app for barbecue enthusiasts. Or arsonists.

 

Things I will do when I live on my own

I have had an offer on a house accepted, so now I’m working slowly through the strangely Dickensian conveyancing process. Sending documents via the post, really? Still, at the end of it, I will have a house. I realise that I’m supposed to be more excited than I am about this sudden achievement of a long held dream, but circumstance is rather against me. Buried deep, there is some excitement, it’s just that I have to excavate down through layers of sadness, tiredness, anxiety, dislike of paperwork, worry about my job, concern about how the cats will cope with another move… Inner me may be whooping it up with champagne, to which I say ‘You go, girl!’; but outer me is knackered.

As well, this reality of becoming a home owner is still incomprehensible to me. I realise that all my thinking about where I will live is short term and assumes precariousness. So presently, I’m fighting the impulse to rush to buy curtains or blinds, or think about paintwork, or organise built in shelves. Yes, all that will need to be addressed. No, it doesn’t have to be done immediately. I’m planning on being in this house for at least 5 years. I can take my time settling in before effecting its gradual transformation into Musings Towers.

Other thoughts that come unbidden are the small mental pop ups about the difference between now and then. Inevitably, when you live with someone, you both adapt your life’s natural patterns. I have early starts, I’m gone in the morning before my partner gets up and a weekend lie in for me is 7am. This isn’t to say that I resent the status quo. I wouldn’t get up early if I didn’t have to and I quite see that being disturbed several hours before you need to be is horrible. But, this is a sad parting of the ways, prompted by a single but insurmountable difference in life choices. Instead of focusing on that, I’d prefer to look at the small sources of contentment that will follow.

  1. I will put the lights on the morning when I get up. Well, not overhead lights because who can face that cruel blinding brightness at 5.30am? In fact, I might not have any overhead lights at all because I’ve always hated them. Give me the soft, reflected glow of uplighters. But the main thing is I will not be navigating around by torchlight.
  2. I will get a really good reading lamp in the bedroom, and stay up late at weekends, to read in bed.
  3. I will go back to bed on weekend mornings with a novel and a pot of coffee.
  4. Or, I will get all my cleaning done by 9am so it’s out of the way, and then I can sit down with the novel and the coffee.
  5. I will buy a beautiful, colourful rug. We have never managed to agree on a rug for this house, so there are none.
  6. I will have music throughout the house. Or The Archers. Or audiobooks.
  7. I will buy more pictures, and put them up on any walls that don’t have bookcases and I won’t have to leave space for a TV because there won’t be one.
  8. I will scent things my airing cupboard with lavender and rosemary.

In which there is a missing cat, a cat chase and a hopeful outcome

On Friday night, I called Charlie in from the garden and he came sprinting across the lawn to me, neatly avoiding Belle as she launched at him from the side. Later, there were odd scuffling noises in the night, which turned out to be Charlie scratching at the laundry basket as he nested amongst the pegs. So far, so normal.

I saw him in the basket in the morning, petted his head, and trotted happily off to London. Some few hours later I had three missed voicemails and a text: ‘You need to call me. Charlie has hurt his leg and I can’t get to him’. It turned out that Charlie was holding up one of his hind legs in a way that boded no good, but was so resistant to further examination that he’d run away to hide in an old outbuilding in the field next to the house. Outbuilding 1 is on the boundary line between our garden, the field and the neighbour’s garden. It doesn’t seem to have a door because it’s not in use, but it does have a cat sized hole in the rusted corrugated iron. And there Charlie stayed, just visible through the hole.

By the time I got home, he couldn’t be seen, so had either removed further into the outbuilding or moved on somewhere else. Either way, he wasn’t giving us any signs of his presence and there wasn’t much to be done but hope that he’d come in overnight.

He did not come in overnight. I’m all for the cats having some independence and some time to walk by themselves but I’m also in favour of them eating. We went to look for him and finally found him in Outbuilding 2, which did have a door. He had curled himself up on an old cement bag, and was looking very unhappy indeed. He ate a few bits of Whiskas, leveraged himself up and walked unsteadily away for some privacy and a bathroom break. I had the basket ready to put him in… and as soon as he saw it, he adopted a surprising turn of speed and bolted straight back into Outbuilding 1.

So we took the side of it down. This still left some fairly solid corrugated iron at the bottom but there was enough of a gap to get in, slide down some rubble and hope that either Charlie would run back out of the hole (and into the waiting cat carrier) or realise there was no escape and sit mildly. There was another hole at the far side of the outbuilding, but up a slope of rubble and surely a three legged cat couldn’t…?

Oh, but he could, and went to ground in the neighbour’s garden. They were out. I fumed inwardly at the English obsession with gardens, privacy and trespassing and we went home to wait for the neighbours’ return.

The neighbours came home and we trooped round, with the cat carrier, a large towel, and a pair of gardening gloves in lieu of gauntlets. Charlie had ensconced himself behind their large pile of grass cuttings and beneath a web of sticks and branches. I carefully moved the wood away, stroked him a bit to calm him down. And he legged it through the wire fence behind him and into yet another garden.

You would not think a three legged cat could be so agile. It’s amazing what fear and adrenaline will do. On to the next garden, by which time Charlie had managed to jump up a few feet back into our garden, where we finally trapped him without anyone losing a limb in the process. Though all this, Belle was nearby, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings as though making sure no more harm came to her brother.

Now he’s spending his second night at the vets, after being diagnosed with a broken femur and biting a nurse’s finger in gratitude. We have no idea how the break happened, but he has no other injuries so it’s unlikely he was hit by a car. This morning, he had his leg pinned and plated, and tomorrow he’ll be home. The vets have all been great. Charlie is actually doing well but they’re keeping him in to monitor his pain management. He’ll spend three weeks in a crate (which we’re renting from the vets) and then, hopefully, he’ll be out wreaking havoc on the local wildlife again.

In which I hit the re-set button

Mostly, by taking a week off and having a few days camping and hiking in Wales. The rest of the week I’ve been at home, balancing my time between pre-move fixes and chores around the house, and doing nothing. It’s simultaneously obvious and easily forgotten, how important it is to have time just to be.

The campsite was ideal. Yes, hot water; no, electricity. The downside was it rained and I had wet hair for two days (I shoved it under a hat). The upside was I mostly forgot about my phone. It wasn’t enough time away (is there such a thing as enough time away?), but it was a good start. Successful camping is all about getting the basics right, and they were.

And I hiked/scrambled/slogged up Snowdon, about which I’d been somewhat trepidatious. Much as I like walking, I don’t like going up. Snowdon was about going up in rain, into cloud. As neither of us is feeling at the peak of physical fitness, the deal was that if either of us wanted to stop, for any reason, we would. In the end, it wasn’t as tough physically as I thought it would be, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get to the top. I did wonder ‘But why am I bothering?’ and the answer came ‘Because there’s tea up there.’

I learned a few things along the way. The views are amazing, but I don’t like scrambling for them. I can make it up a small mountain, but mountains are not my achievement. Tea is a great incentive. There is a place for fleece in my wardrobe, bought one morning when it was clear I didn’t have enough layers. Cheapshit waterproofs do not hack it in Snowdonia. It was good to move, to push it a bit, to have fresh air strongly laced with rain whipping my head clear. I need to make time for more of that.

Back at home, I’ve been trying not to lose my days to things I must do, because the working week is full of briars enough. Holiday is about what you want to do but I also needed to feel that it was strongly differentiated from work time. Days full of email and meetings rarely give you anything to show at the end of them. So I decided to enjoy the chores that had to be done. A couple of hours in the garden and it’s tidy again. A morning washing down exterior woodwork, in the sun, listening to the radio. I’ve replaced a shower hose – who knew it was that easy? Small tasks, small satisfactions but at the end of the day I can look around and see ‘I did that’. Good.

Hello? Hello? Is anyone still there?

Bit of an unexpected blogging break there, chaps. My laptop died unexpectedly, and it’s taken a few weeks to figure out what’s wrong and get it fixed. Back up your laptops, friends! I managed to upload my CV to Dropbox from email, but other than that, I wiped everything. I didn’t have much stored anyway, and really old photos are on my really old Mac, which still fires up if I can round up enough hamsters to power it, but still. Read my cautionary tale and be afeared! TimeMachine is synching with a shiny new external hard drive even as I type.

So, what’s been happening at Musings Towers, you cry? Well, in no particular order:

  1. The cats have killed the usual number of small birds and mammals, and memorably, one bloody huge pigeon. Belle made a valiant attempt to eat it, but after strewing feathers everywhere she gave up and slept for the rest of the day.
  2. I’m in shock (and anger, and disbelief and denial, and and and) about Brexit. Let’s just not go there.
  3. In partial response to the above, I started comfort reading fiction. I’m half way through A.S. Byatt’s Frederica quartet. I know I’d read The Virgin in the Garden and Babel Tower years ago, but I’ve never read the whole thing. Part of it was being read on R4 and it immediately became imperative to acquire the lot. Reading it has been interspersed with various other books, ranging from the last Terry Pratchet, to the latest Tessa Hadley, The Past. Fiction helps when the world’s gone mad, as it assuredly has.
  4. Not so much on the baking front, but this weekend I managed to make:
    1. Coconut macaroons that did not turn into coconut soup
    2. Some gluten free scones that didn’t rise at all, but to which all the baking powder (5tsp!) did impart a slightly metallic taste. I must be able to do better than that.
    3. Proper scones, to be eaten with proper jam and proper clotted cream.
  5. After several lovely years at this incarnation of Musing Towers, I’m moving. I will be sad to leave, but my landlords are getting on a bit and keeping the farm going is incredibly hard work, so they’re thinking about selling up and retiring into this house. I think my new place will be good, though. It’s in a village that has a shop, two pubs, a vets, a library and a doctor’s surgery. Inevitably, it also has a fair number of people in order to support all that but with any luck, I’ll never meet any of them. I’m moving over the Bank Holiday weekend in August, so I’m in that in between phase where I have to get all the moving out chores done here as well as planning packing and the purchasing of new bits & pieces for the house.
  6. After several years of being bored off my tits a lot of the time, I’ve finally knuckled down and registered for another OU course. I still can’t afford to do a PhD, and there’s no other classics stuff I can sensibly do, so I’ve taken a complete change of direction and gone for a degree in Psychology & Law instead. It will start in October, and I got very excited, anticipating the delivery of the usual OU box of readables I could dive into, but it turns out that this course is all online. Newfangled didactic methods, I never heard the like.
  7. In order to afford the OU course, I’m planning to give back my really quite nice convertible and swap it for something that isn’t a convertible and is therefore about half the price. I don’t much care what, because in my spoilt, princess way, if the roof doesn’t come down it’s not a proper car anyway, so who cares? Anyway, let’s hope that Mercedes-Benz will play along with the idea, ‘cos I don’t have a Plan B.
  8. Because some attempt at exercise was well overdue, I suffered through 5 personal training sessions. Every one of them left me aching, but I got stronger every time, too, and a decade plus old injury seems to have been fixed.  I’m definitely booking some more, and it’s beginning to seem inevitable that I’ll start running again, too.
  9. Bringing us right up to date, I drank a bit too much sparkling stuff at Battle Proms at Blenheim last night, and am slightly suffering for it today. But there were fireworks, and cannon and musket fire as well as the music, and if Land of Hope and Glory only sounds ironic at the moment? This too shall pass.

 

2016-07-16 21.46.26

2016-07-16 21.45.49

 

 

 

What’s been cooking?

Lots of different cooking activity lately, from which I have learned that you can do what you like with granola but you need decent sized flakes of desiccated coconut to make successful coconut macaroons. Seriously. I made extremely sweet coconut soup and even when I decided that treating it like cake mix and baking it in cases might work, it was still a bit wrong. Don’t go there.

Becky’s granola by way of Nigella who got it from Andy in Connecticut

I’ve started making my own granola, based on a Nigella recipe but with reduced sugary elements because just the thought of fruit compote + syrup + honey + sugar makes my teeth itch. But it’s kind of fun to mess around with the ingredients, and it means I get to skip the raisins (I have never understood the dependency of breakfast foods on raisins) and use what I prefer instead.

Today’s recipe was:

  • 225g oats
  • 60g white sesame seeds
  • 60g sunflower seeds
  • 60g light brown sugar
  • 125g whole almonds (I’d have preferred pecans with the maple syrup but didn’t have any)
  • 3 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp runny honey
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1/2 tsp Maldon sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • optional apple sauce or compote of choice
  • 125g dried apricots or dried fruit of your choice. I mean, I suppose you could use raisins. Freak.

Mix it all up, bang it in the oven on a couple of baking trays and leave it for about 20 mins or until golden brown. I will say that because I don’t put so much liquid in, the granola doesn’t clump as much as you might prefer. I don’t care, so I don’t worry about it, but if you do then throw in some apple sauce or similar.

Once it’s out of the oven and cool, add in the fruit. Don’t do what I did first time and bake the fruit with the rest of the mix, because then you end up with fruit that is caramelized if you’re lucky and plain old burnt if you’re not 🙂

Store in airtight jars and you’ve got a couple of weeks’ worth of breakfast. At least you get to start every day with a sense of achievement/smugness, before everyday working life beats it out of you.

Gluten free lemon meringue cake

I made lemon meringue cake to take into the office and it destroyed productivity for the entire morning. The whole cake was gone by 10am and my colleagues were on a sugar rush like kids at a party. This cake has now become the benchmark by which other baking is measured, although probs best if we don’t tell senior management about it.

So far, so good but it’s my friend S’s birthday in a couple of weeks and she is gluten intolerant. So, today I’m practicing a gluten free version, which means I’ve basically made up the ingredients for the sponge layer based on limited knowledge and guesswork. I even looked up the point of bicarbonate of soda so I knew whether I needed to keep it or not.

Lemon meringue cake is basically a fancy sandwich cake. The biggest problem I had with it was maintaining the structural integrity of the top layer of sponge + meringue while maneuvering it into position. I don’t particularly like the texture you get with gluten free flour and I don’t think it’ll be stable enough to hold together during that process, so I’m going with almond flour.

For the full on gluten version, it’s off to Nigella again.

Here’s what I’m trying as the alternative ingredients list, we’ll see what happens.

  • 125g butter
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 150g almond flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 1 lemon
  • 4tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp milk
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • good quality lemon curd
  • 150ml double cream for whipping

Lemon curd

Just in case this post isn’t hitting enough middle class keywords, I made my own lemon curd yesterday, specifically for use in the lemon meringue cake. It it is ridiculously easy, to the point that I’m kind of embarrassed I haven’t done it before.

  • 4 unwaxed lemons, juice and zest
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
  • 100g butter, cubed

Put the lemon juice and zest, sugar and butter and melt in a bowl over a pan of lightly simmering water. Usual caveats about bottom of bowl not touching water apply. Stir occasionally until all the butter has melted.

Meanwhile, lightly whisk the eggs. Once the butter has melted, slowly whisk the eggs into the lemon mixture, keeping it all over the heat. Leave to cook for 10-13 mins, stirring occasionally, until it’s thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Leave to cool, again stirring occasionally, then spoon into sterilized jars. Keep it in the fridge.

[I sterilised my jars by washing them in boiling, soapy water and then baking them at 170C for 20 minutes].