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Friday, 21 November 2014

Days of being a gongoozler

I bet I can guess what you're thinking ....what on earth is a gongoozler?

 Well my dears, it means that I am someone who's interested in canals and canal life , but who doesn't have a canal boat or live on a canal. It's thought that the word was slang used by canal workers to describe an observer standing apparently idle on the towpath.

But I do live very close to Foxton Locks, which in the canal world is quite something. It's a place on the Grand Union Canal in Leicestershire .There's ten locks here two staircases each with five locks, which makes Foxton the largest flight of staircase locks here on the English canal system.
 Staircase locks are used so that a canal can climb a steep hill. Really.

Anyway, Foxton Locks in the summer attracts visitors from miles around. The sun shining on lots of holidaymakers on canal boats, people out for a walk, for a drink, or a meal. I've been coming here since I was a child, usually in summertime. I've brought my own children here, family and friends from all over the world..and in winter too, when wrapped up warmly , it was the ideal place for the children to have an early afternoon walk, to see the swans, ducks, boats and the locks being worked.

But it's only recently I've been coming later in the day. I love it in late autumn and winter when the fading four o clock in the afternoon light brings out the shadows

And a walk on a weekday winter's afternoon means that you have the place to yourself apart from a few other dog walkers.

And a few people living on the canal....

It was cold yesterday afternoon, the sort of cold which you can taste....with a scent of wood smoke in the air

Remember I mentioned staircase locks? Here's what they look like from near their lowest point.....

They are an amazing feat of ingenuity, building and engineering, which were finished in 1814, when coal, wood, materials and feedstuffs were transported on the canals by donkeys or shire horses pulling the boats, when there was a working community along all of our canals. It's no wonder that the Locks are Grade 2 listed.

At the bottom of the locks, there's two pubs which in high summer are packed with people, both inside and outside, spilling out on the decks here at the Foxton Locks Inn and in the pub garden at Bridge 61.

We walked towards the twinkly lights of  Bridge 61, which serves real ales....


which has a timeless quality about it. Originally two large sheds built a hundred years after the locks, it's now a spit and sawdust sort of place, but with a lovely warm fire burning and the type of old cast iron radiators that I used to burn my bottom leaning against at school. Mr Thinking of the Days , Boo and I were the only customers and we had a lovely chat with the owner who's a fount of knowledge about the Locks, having been there for fifty years or so.

And out of the window, we could see across to the well lit Foxton Locks Inn ...and that was also virtually empty

One drink, and it was time to go, but there was a delicious sense of having played hookey on a November day at the bewitching hour between day and night  ....a chance to see the shapes and shadows changing as dusk fell.
On a weekday normally I don't get that chance back is firmly turned away from the windows at the other end of the newsroom at that time...hunched over my computer, headphones on, editing an interview, or furiously writing a cue for a feature on tomorrow's breakfast show. Being busy but missing the atmospheric end of an afternoon . 
And as we headed home, we looked at the lights on the boats and I wondered at those curled up inside who love their life on the waterways. In all my time as a gongoozler, perhaps it's time that I actually got myself on a canal boat, untied the rope and finally set off to find out more......

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Days of an abundance of apples Part 2 -pies versus crumbles

I don't know what camp you're in, but when it comes to apples and puddings, I've always preferred a crumble to a tart or pie.

The soft apples taste virtually the same, but I like the crunchy topping of a crumble. And it's so easy isn't it to make a crumble? If I'm really busy, I will throw in the flour, sugar and butter and sometimes oats into my food processor, press the whizz button, and hey presto , within a minute you have a crumble topping.
At other times, especially if I'm worrying or thinking about something, or I'm cooking in advance, I will mix the ingredients by hand. It can be quite therapeutic, the rhythmic  crumbling the butter into the flour and sugar.

But there's a new apple recipe on the block, for me, anyway. It's one  which is extremely vague to say the least, but it's a keeper. And it's changed my opinion of apple pie.

It's from my friend and colleague Ben Jackson . Ben is an absolute foodie, and on many a Monday morning we talk about what we've cooked and eaten at the weekend. Ben was telling me about his Granny's apple pie and how fabulous it was, how rich, sugary and caramelly it was. Yes I know it's not a proper word so don't get all hoity toity and het up...but it perfectly describes the unctuousness of the pie's topping , so there.....

Ben's Granny is Dr.Eva Shirreffs, and she was one of the first female GPs.., practicing in the Second World War. Apparently she was a much loved family doctor, but I'm loving her recipe that's for sure.
Now there's no written recipe for this, it hasn't even got a proper name ,and I've adapted it slightly,  but here you go.....
Ben's Granny's Apple Pie
 or Dr Eva's Apple pie.......

shortcrust or sweet shortcrust pastry
6 apples
4 tablespoons of water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 or 3 tablespoons of goldren syrup
2 tablespoon Demerara sugar

1.Peel and core apples and slice. Put in an earthenware bowl with the 2 tablespoons of sugar and the water. Cover and microwave for 2 - 3minutes
2.Roll out some shortcrust  or sweet shortcrust pastry and line the bottom of  a pie dish or tart tin.
3.Put the apples on top, sprinkle with merest hint of cinnamon  and cover with pastry.
4. Drizzle the golden syrup over the top of the pastry and sprinkle the Demerara sugar on top's one I prepared earlier..... ready for the oven

5. Cook in the oven at gas mark 4,180 degs Celsius  for about 30 minutes
6. Serve with custard or a good dollop of cream.....I prefer cream.

It's simply gorgeous....sweet, comforting, warming with a crunchy top and a rich golden juice with the apples.

As I said, I adapted it slightly, because I believe Ben and his Granny put the apples into the dish without cooking first, and cooked for about 45 minutes in the oven. You can try either method. I also used puff pastry instead of shortcrust pastry once....but that's only because I took the wrong packet out of the freezer. A word to the wise....don't bother with the puff, just make sure you use shortcrust or even better , sweet shortcrust pastry.

It's been a hit in our house that's for sure......

Saturday, 8 November 2014

days of wondering....

I remember as a child thinking about things. Lots of things. I had questions too, lots of them.

Usually in those moments just after waking up...especially in winter when you didn't want to get out of a nice cosy bed. A bed of cotton sheets and blankets tightly tucked in...the days before duvets.
How did we manage before duvets? That was this morning's thought on opening my eyes.

But back to those moments Those questions usually began with a word beginning with w or h.......

I wonder why, I wonder how, I wonder when, what would happen if....

I'm still asking those questions the mornings as I lie in bed  and stare at the overhead beams in my bedroom, which have been here for four hundred and fifty years.

I think about all the people who have lain here and looked up at those same beams , and wonder about their lives.

Of course I'm always asking questions at's my job. Why did you do that? How do you feel? When were you aware of....? What do you think about...?

The moment I stop asking questions, I'll be in a box six feet under.

But until then, I'll continue. And it's a very important part of my life...those moments as I wake up and wonder and ponder.

Meanwhile, perhaps you can answer another question which I thought of this morning as I logged on here to my blog .

I could see how many people have been reading the blog over the last day....I can see where you come from....The UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, the Ukraine, The Netherlands...Brazil , South Africa, Germany,and one this morning from Mexico.

Hello, I thought , who in Mexico is reading this,...and how did you find me? It's interesting isn't it?

So, it's not compulsory but I would love to know who you all are ,wherever you live....and perhaps a glimpse of who you are and what you're doing, on  what is here in England, a cold and fairly bright Saturday morning.

Over to you....

First though, here's a song which has been swirling through my head, as I've been writing this post....
I'd always known the version by the Specials, but this is my favourite version, the original by Andy and Joey -and watch the wonderful dancing. on the it.


Saturday, 1 November 2014

days with an abundance of apples part 1

I'm not one to waste food. OK, but let's qualify that. I have got previous (as they say in English cop series) in that I've let some items lurk at the back of the fridge before now and then found they're past their sell by date. And yes, they may have been the odd, old manky courgette or carrot decaying at the bottom of the vegetable basket. But generally speaking, I like to find a use and a tasty recipe for everything that I pick, dig up or buy .

This year, the apples have just kept coming....for the last two months, I've been eating them raw, in Dorset apple cakes, apple crumbles, and there are pounds and pounds of slightly stewed apples in the freezer ready for more warming crumbles to come throughout the rest of autumn and winter.

I find the best way to preserve the apples for the freezer is to slice them and put into an earthenware bowl, dredge with lemon juice and perhaps two tablespoons of sugar, then add four tablespoons of water.

Stir and cover tautly with cling film

Stab the cling film twice, ( a task I always relish, especially when  I'm in  a bad mood) then bung the bowl in the microwave for three minutes.  Remove the cling film , then as soon as the apples have cooled properly put in freezer bags. They will keep for about 9 months.

 But still the apples keep a I've made six or seven pounds of apple and mint jelly. Now this is something I've been making for years, and in good years when the apples are in abundance, I make shedloads. It lasts for a good two years. I think I may have to make another batch pretty soon....if the mint in the courtyard keeps going that is.

Now this is a jelly which goes extremely well with lamb and my lot vastly prefer it to mint sauce. It's also good with roast or poached chicken. So would you like the recipe?

You will need

5 pounds of cooking apples
about 5 large sprigs of mint
2 pints of distilled white vinegar
 another 8 -10 tablespoons of mint; chopped finely
(should make about six pounds of jelly)


1.Roughly chop the apples, cut out the bruised bits , but the good news is you don't have to peel them all!
2. Put the apples in a preserving pan with the sprigs of mint and about 2 pints of water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for about 40 minutes. Don't let the mixture catch - no sticky bottoms here thank you very much.
3.Add the vinegar and bring to the boil for a further 5 minutes. No longer, because the smell is so intense, I don't want you becoming overcome and falling face first into the preserving pan.
4. Make sure you open the kitchen windows...I hate the smell of boiling vinegar.

5. Spoon the hot apple pulp into a jelly bag which is suspended over a big bowl and leave overnight . When you wake up in the morning , you will have lots of fluid in the bowl..
6. For each pint of extract you have in the bowl, use a pound of sugar, and put everything in a preserving pan.
7.Stir while you heat it gently and make sure all the sugar is dissolved and then boil until setting point is reached...about 15 minutes for me.
8. Don't forget to remove the scum which forms on top .

7.Stir while you heat it gently and make sure all the sugar is dissolved and then boil until setting point is reached...about 15 minutes for me.
8. Don't forget to remove the scum which forms on top .
9.Now throw in the finely chopped mint  and cool.
After 15 minutes put the jelly in to sterilised  jam jars and cover.

I've just got to work out now what I'm going to do with the next batch of apples.....

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Puppy Days

Well, the last three weeks have passed in a blur...a blur in which our tiny new puppies

have grown and changed beyond recognition.

The two boys and one girl , who haven't been formally named yet, are lighting up my life as they learn new skills everyday.

Now their eyes are open and they can hear, they're discovering the world around them and their voices.....

Our little girl ,who is staying with us,  was a dainty little thing compared to her brothers

We don't know what her name is as yet. It's not that we haven't got any ideas....let's just say there's on going discussions and negotiations. I loved the idea of calling her "Tickety" ...well with a mum called Boo, it would have worked. Mr Thinking of the Days isn't convinced  and said so in no certain terms. Mind you, I'm not taken with his suggestion which is Fig. Yes, you read that correctly. I couldn't give a fig about that name to be honest. So, she will remain "Little girl" until a unilateral agreement can be reached....but she's beautiful , whatever her name will eventually be.

The boys are adorable too...

One will be named Rudi, but which one is yet to be determined. My daughter Lucy and her husband Harry are having one, but couldn't decide which one at only one week old. I think they were can you choose which one is the right one for you when they're deaf, blind, and can't move well?  Anyway , a visit is imminent to choose the right dog.

This one will be an escape artist....he' already trying to get out of the whelping  box....and very nearly made it.

Here's the other boy...

He's gorgeous too, and has the most delicious little growl.....

I love them all to bits....they are such snuggly puppies who love to be picked up and cuddled, and so far they have very placid natures. They are a real credit to Boo....

They are difficult to photograph though, and they don't look like their mother and father at all.....see for yourself...

Anyway, I took this video five days ago, when they were taking their first, drunken steps......and in  years to come, I will watch this, marvelling at how tiny they were, how absolutely gorgeous they were, and remembering these very special days with a box of puppies in the house.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

A day of saying goodbye to the summer


I can pinpoint exactly when we said goodbye to the summer this year. That last day of brilliant sunshine, heat and sheer joy to be sitting out on a Sunday and seeing friends and neighbours. It was four weeks ago today, and the weather has really changed since then.
It was the day of our village meet up...a new addition to the annual rhythm of village events. Apart from church services, normally there's four starting off with the Pancake Party, the Barn Dance in high summer, Harvest Supper and Carol Singing. Being a small village in the middle of the English countryside, we like to keep to the old traditions.
But this year Kate suggested a late September meet up , to be held on the village green. Nothing too fancy, a small marquee on the teeny green, everybody was to bring a picnic lunch, there would be a barrel of real manly ale for all the men in  the village and the women would bring their own wine. Oh, and Willie's band would be playing, and we would hire in a couple who serve gorgeous cream teas from their vintage Citroen van.
Well that was the plan, which so very nearly went according to plan, but there was a hiccup. The weather. Possible heavy rain was forecast, so we all decamped to Willie and Kate's courtyard. And what an inspired idea that was the perfect venue for a magical afternoon....


Most brought a picnic

But the cream tea van still did a roaring trade....

And there were so many quiet places to escape to and have a natter and a cup of tea...

There were games for the children, but most of them just wanted to run around the gardens,

or sit and watch the band.

Now Willie has a band, he plays guitar and harmonica, and sings, and that was one of the reasons the venue for the get together was changed. The band were going to play on the back of a cart and plug into  Barbara's house on the green. But no one wanted the band to be electrocuted during a heavy downpour...

Especially not when Greg Pearle, Willie's friend was singing. That's not to say we would have sacrificed the rest of the band you understand . But Greg....ah,  he's special.He was staying in the village  for a few weeks , he'd entranced us and had made us cry in church the week before with the gravelly passion and pathos of his voice . And he melted my heart again, that afternoon in the sunshine as he sang some of his own material and some covers..

And as the afternoon went into early evening, no one wanted to the afternoon to end....

besides there was still time to catch those last few golden moments

before it really was time to leave

So, the last day of summer....and it's only as I write this, I realise there's no photo of Kate, whose idea sparked off such a magical afternoon. Mind you, she was hither and thither and didn't stand still for a minute. I only hope she enjoyed it as much as we did.

Today's track has to be, must be,  from the wonderful Greg Pearle, .featured here with the amazing John Illsley from Dire Straits  -it's from the album they made together back in 2008. Sit back, and just enjoy "Shine".....I love it.


Monday, 13 October 2014

The day I went to a supper club

 If you happened to be in the Leicestershire town of Market Harborough on Thursday, you may have come across a woman pushing a wooden table on castors plus a couple of chairs on top down a hill. It wasn't a fundraising stunt come push for charity. No, it was Katie, one half of the Secret Supper Club, taking one of her tables to the venue for Friday's secret supper event.

It's been a while since Lauren and Katie have held such an event, and the Mexican themed night was a complete sell out.

I'm not surprised, what's there not to like about going somewhere completely different to a  secret supper or pop up restaurant ? You get a chance to have a really good meal with a different menu, you can take your own booze and as an added bonus, you get to have a good nosey at someone else's home .

I took three friends along, Laura, Suzie and Fiona...Fiona was the saint who drove us home. Arriving promptly , there was a warm welcome into Lauren's Victorian, possibly Edwardian newly and beautifully renovated home.

There was a "Wow"and instant kitchen envy from Laura and I as we entered the huge kitchen. When I say huge...there's not many kitchens where 25 people can be easily seated. And it's gorgeous....

There were home made nachos, sour cream, guacamole and a tomato salsa on the table to tuck into while other arrivals piled in...and our booze was put into a old tin trough full of ice.
The main course was served buffet style and queuing up gave those people on different tables a chance to chat, and get an eyeful of what we were about to receive and be truly grateful for.

I've never tasted grilled corn like this - topped off with chilli oil, salt, lime juice and Lancashire cheese, I had to have a second piece .There was pulled pork with almond mole, green rice, mixed bean chilli, spicy chicken wings and big, fat sweet potato wedges plus featherweight soft tortillas and a tomato salad.

And what's more , there was plenty more for those who had already polished off everything on their piled high plates.

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By now, the booze was flowing and the decibel levels in the kitchen were rising as everyone sat chatting

And then Lauren arrived with some tequila

I 've never tried tequila slammers before. I've watched others knock them back many times, but not done it myself after seeing the havoc caused afterwards. Most notably at my friend Karen's hen do about ten years ago. Everyone except me had several rounds of them.(I was driving) with great merriment as they licked the salt off their hand, slammed the tequila down their neck, and then sucked a quarter of lime.

Within minutes they were all uproariously drunk , dancing outrageously and inappropriately and I ended up having to virtually carry one of the group (Hello Helen) through the streets of Leicester while trying to hail a taxi without success at 2.30am. In the end I had to drive  about 15 miles out of my way to get Helen home, with the window wide open so she could throw up out of the window. I propped her up her outside her front door, rang the bell, got into my car, watched her husband open the door, giggled at his expression and drove away into the early hours .

So there was no way I was going to have a tequila.....

As you can see , I really enjoyed it....

At least I can say I've had one, but it's not something I shall do again. But one thing I will do, is book straight in for the very next supper club held here. Did I mention the rum and lime cake after the tequila?

Such a lovely relaxed yet buzzy atmosphere, as much food as we could eat at a very decent price, with lots of smiles all round, from the organisers to the very satisfied punters.

And apart from a raft of "thank you's and "goodnights"...the only question  on everyone's lips as we sailed off happily down the street was "When is the next one?"