Sunday, 8 December 2013


I was going to get loads done today, but instead I am crouching over my PC with a hangover, feebly flicking between Twitter, Amazon and Facebook, the unholy trinity of time-wasting.

The plan was to get up early(ish), drive over to Salisbury and get a car-full from the Cash & Carry, then perhaps saunter into town for a bite of lunch and a look at the Sunday Christmas market.  That's not happening.

What actually happened was rather less festive.  I woke up at 6am and  stumbled out to the bathroom, where I encountered Mr WithaY, pale and shuddering, red-eyed and hollow-voiced, possibly drinking water from the cold tap, I'm not too sure.  My eyes seemed to be somewhat defective. He announced that he had a hangover.  I said something vaguely sympathetic and went back to bed.  He then crashed out in the spare room, where I found him several hours later, supine and inarticulate.

I made us both cups of tea and bacon sandwiches, and made him drink a very large glass of water before he had anything to eat. He is now asleep on the sofa downstairs, the dog asleep on his feet.  This sudden malady might be explained by the excellent dinner party we were invited to last night, but I suspect Mr WithaY was already dehydrated.

Yesterday morning he decided to go over to the Ancient Technology Centre for their Medieval Day.  This entailed him scampering up into the loft (in his dressing gown, in high excitement) to retrieve the Medieval kit I made for him a while ago, and various other bits and pieces required to turn him into a fashionable Medieval crossbowman-about-town.

Off he went, clutching his boar spear*, his crossbow and a packed lunch, to spend the day wandering around in the rain, delighting visitors with his well-made jacket.

As usually happens when he is off doing this kind of thing - and yes, he does this kind of thing a fair bit - he failed to keep himself hydrated throughout the day, so when we went out for dinner last night, the finest wines known to humanity had a devastating effect on his delicate physiology.

As a result, this morning he is stretched out on the sofa like a Romantic poet on an opium binge, a glass of water at his elbow and cruddy daytime TV in the background.

I'd like to be smug about it, but I am not much better myself. We're supposed to be taking part in the pub quiz later this evening, but I'm not entirely sure we'd be up to our usual brilliant standard.

In other news: I have the date for my surgery. January 2nd, with the pre-op on Dec 23rd, neatly bookending the festive season.  The good thing about having it done so soon is that hopefully I will have recuperated fully by the time things start to get busy in the Spring, and before Mr WithaY has to be away a lot for work.

Before then, though, we've got a couple of large-ish catering events to deliver, as well as the Christmas stuff.  Lots going on.

*Not a euphemism

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Unexpected item in the bagging area

I popped in to the supermarket last night after work.

Scene: The checkout.

Cashier:  Hello!  Can I help you with your packing?

Me:  No, I'm fine thanks.  (Loads shopping onto conveyor belt.)

Cashier:  Ooh, sprats.  We don't see those often.

Me:  No?

Cashier:  Ooh, Ciabatta.  I love Ciabatta.

Me: Yes, me too.

Cashier:  Monkey nuts!  It's funny.  I never really thought of monkey nuts being a Halloween food thing.

Me: .....

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Dogs, Mice, People

This week I have mostly been making some biggish life decisions.  Well, one decision.  The last few weeks have been sad and stressful and strange, and I know that's not a good time to decide stuff which may impact on your future.  Best to wait until things are more settled and less emotional.   Despite knowing that, though, I did it anyway.

About 18 months ago I found a part time job as a cook at the care home in our village. Only for a few hours a week, and in the early evenings, so it fitted handily around other stuff I do.  Occasionally they asked me to come and cook lunch on the days when the full-time cooks were away, which I really enjoyed, as it is "proper" cooking.  Lots of home-made soups, cakes, puddings and meat and vegetable main courses.

It was all useful professional catering experience in a comparatively safe environment, as the menu is planned days in advance and there aren't huge numbers of people to feed.  The scope for failure is limited to service being a few minutes late if (for example) you forgot to make gravy. Getting positive feedback from the residents is lovely, and knowing that my apple cake, or cottage pie, or pea and ham soup has made them enjoy their day a bit more than they might have otherwise is a great feeling.

The experience we've had with father in law WithaY living in residential accommodation has really brought it home to me how important the food is in someone's day.  Sometimes lunch is a really big deal.

During the time I worked there, they built the huge new nursing home behind the old house. This was the place we moved Mr WithaY's dad to in May this year, and where he was able to enjoy the views, the top-of-the-range accommodation - he loved the hydro bath - and the interesting and well-made food.  I would say that, of course, but the team of chefs and cooks there are genuinely very good, and the quality of the food is brilliant.

Anyhoo, as a result of father in law's death, it now makes me very sad to go to work.  Walking up the drive, looking at his old home, it's a forcible reminder which means I go into work with a heavy heart.  I know it will pass, as everything does, but even so.

This is in itself not really enough of a reason to quit, but there have been a few other issues.  My upcoming surgery will mean I will have to take at least 3 months off work, which will be a nuisance.  The catering business is ramping up for Christmas, and a lot of the bookings are on days when I would be working at the care home.

Add to this the feeling I now have that the time I am at work is impinging on my life annoyingly - yes, it's only a few hours, but if Mr WithaY has been out all day, he arrives home almost exactly as I leave for work, and I value the "cup of tea and how was your day?" ritual we have - so I thought I'd hand in my notice.

If nothing else, it's a good incentive to make sure the Christmas fĂȘtes and bazaars we are taking part in with the catering company are a success.

It's surprising how easy it was to give notice.  I think over the last few years I have got better at major change. Leaving the MoD, then the Civil Service, starting a small business, learning to work in an entirely different profession, managing my time when I have so much more of it free than I have ever done in my life.  It's all good.

I think I'm going to find a course at the local college and learn something new this winter.  When we first moved here I went to Frome college and did an evening course in stained glass making, which was great fun.  I never managed anything really huge, like a window, but I made some nice smaller pieces for the house and for friends and family, and I still like looking at them and thinking "I did that."

Time to do something new.  I rather fancy learning how to make hats.

In other news, has anyone else been driven to FURY by those awful mini adverts that Channel 4 are showing around the Simpsons?  They're for some shop or other, I can't remember who, and feature a variety of pretend families. The plot runs thus:

Child (who looks at least 25, and who is seen lying on the sofa, or on their bed with a laptop) screams the word "Mum" or "Dad" continuously for the length of the snippet.  This in itself is fucking irritating.

Parent (dopey looking simpering doormat) then appears at the door of the room, summoned by the bellowing slightly younger person.

Child then demands a new item of clothing, presumably seen on a website on their laptop. No use of the word "please" is made. Not once.

Parent agrees. WITH A SMILE.

NOTHING about those adverts makes me want to use the product they are advertising. And whilst I understand the concept of targeted adverts - if you don't understand it, you're not the target market - I genuinely struggle to see who their target market is.  Is it the parents?  If so, portraying them as spineless walking wallets at the beck and call of their appalling offspring seems like a peculiar way to get them to buy into the concept.

If it's the children, why are they shown as being so old? My reaction to the bloody things (and this may be the point of course, some smart advertising concept person has come up with a way to make people sit up and take notice, even if it's only in fury) is to ask:

"Why doesn't that mother give that squawking great oaf of a son a clip around the ear for being such a bone idle, demanding, obnoxious bastard, instead of saying "Oh alright then..." with a simpering smile when he bellows at her and then orders her to get him new trainers?"


The obvious answer is to stop watching TV, of course.

What else has been going on?  Well, Mr WithaY and I went to the excellent Frome Super Market on Sunday. This is a monthly event held in the town centre, with all sorts of stalls selling foods, coffee, sausages inna bun, arty crafty stuff, dog treats, wooden doorstops, bunting and enamel baths. It's eclectic.

I bought some chocolate moulds from the organic Real Chocolate stall - most of what is sold is either Organic, Artisan or Hand Crafted.  Frome is a bit like that - and have been amusing myself making chocolate mice for the upcoming Christmas fairs.  Some have been more successful than others.

I made a batch of my delicious Chinese Style Plum Sauce, and am currently working on labelling that is more interesting and gift-friendly than my current style.  Unfortunately my handwriting is readable but dull, so hand-written labels might be off the agenda.  I might ask Mr WithaY to write them, as he can do gorgeous calligraphy, but that would take a lot of time, and time is money.  Hark at me.  That's a small business person right there.

I've also made a batch of mincemeat, and am planning to make some mini mince pies to take as free samples, in the hope that it will encourage people to buy the mincemeat.  And if not, at least they'll know we make lovely mince pies if they're thinking of having a Christmas party catered.

Oh, I bought a recipe book for treats for dogs too.  I know, via certain dog owners of my acquaintance, that people like to buy their dogs treats, and so I am going to make some festive dog biscuits and see if they sell.  I will ensure they are clearly labelled FOR DOGS even though they will be safe for human consumption.  The environmental health are funny about stuff like that.

Oh, and I bought a dog bed cover for Hester, from a company called Tuffies.  It arrived before they said it would, it fits perfectly, and the dog loves it.

So well done Tuffies, and if you'd like to send me a free dog bed in return for all this advertising, I'd like a large one in flame red please.  Ta.

Thursday, 31 October 2013


I was going to begin this with "Hey! I'm not dead! Hurrah!" but on reflection that seemed a bit crass, given the events of recent weeks.

We have suffered a bereavement here.

Mr WithaY's father died suddenly at the start of October, and despite the fact that he has been ill for a long time, it was a shock.  At the latter end of the summer he was diagnosed with an unusual form of chronic leukaemia, on top of the multiple severe health issues he already suffered with.  Mr WithaY went with him to the hospital in Bath and the various treatment options were discussed, but to be perfectly blunt, they picked the only practical one, which was to treat the illness without hoping to cure it.

Mr WithaY said that the oncologist was lovely, kind and helpful and considerate, and very anxious to make sure that all of the possible treatments were explained and understood.  The cure option involved some sort of radical gene therapy, but would have required frequent trips to the hospital, and massive bone marrow injections, which would have been cruelly invasive and uncomfortable for a frail, immobile old man.

Anyway, that crisis passed, and life continued as normal for all of us, with Mr WithaY and I popping in to see father in law at the nursing home as often as possible.  We bought him a new TV, as the one he had in his room was "too small, bloody hopeless, I can't hear the bloody thing," etcetera, which he liked.  I baked him caramel cookies, and he enjoyed those now and again, despite his diabetes.  He complained about the "bastard birds" avoiding his window-mounted feeder.

The glorious weather over the summer meant that the view from his room was truly beautiful, the hills and woods, trees, animals, birds and the old house in the foreground.  Father in law enjoyed sitting and looking out of his (thankfully floor to ceiling) window at people coming and going in the car park, it afforded him pleasure to see movement in the outside world after having spent so long in his previous care home without the ability to look outside except at the sky.

A worrying new development began, though.  He became rather confused, telling us things which made no sense.  In hindsight I think he was suffering a series of mini-strokes. At this time he became considerably more frail too, unwilling to leave his bed to sit and look out of the window.  He even stopped watching television, seeming to be content to doze, only really waking up to chat to the staff and any visitors as they came and went.

One Saturday afternoon - Mr WithaY was away working at a country show - I had a call from the senior nurse at the care home, telling me that father in law was poorly, and they had called an ambulance to take him to hospital for tests.  This was a concern, but he had suffered so many trips to hospital over the years that I wasn't particularly alarmed.  I left a message on Mr WithaY's mobile to tell him his father had been taken to hospital, and that I'd let him know how he got on.  We've left each other a lot of messages like that over the years, so neither of us panics early.

When the hospital rang me a couple of hours later to ask "Who is his next of kin?" I did begin to worry.  I answered the hospital's questions as best I could, and then I left another message for Mr WithaY, asking him to call me ASAP.

An hour passed, the hospital called again, this time to tell me that "It might be best for the family to come in."   By now it was past 10pm, things sounded very serious.  I called Mr WithaY's brother and let him know, but as he lives at least 4 hours away, I said there was little point in him coming down that night.  Thankfully, Mr WithaY had managed to pick up my messages, and he rang to find out what the situation was. As soon as I told him what was happening, he said he was coming home.

So, by 1am we were both at the hospital, and were able to be with father in law.  It was peaceful, tranquil, dignified.  The nurses at Bath hospital were wonderful. They gave us privacy but checked in on him every half hour or so, brought Mr WithaY and I tea and biscuits, and offered sympathy and practical advice at the end.  We left the hospital at about 4.30am, walking out into a gloriously clear starry night. It seemed appropriate, somehow.

In the days which followed we learned about the administrative burden which a death confers on the nearest and dearest, on top of the sadness.  Mr WithaY's brother came down for a day or two and helped out, which was appreciated, and we set about organising a funeral, notifying those friends and former neighbours we had contact details for, and clearing out his remaining possessions from the nursing home.

The funeral was on Tuesday this week. It was simple, respectful and gentle, and, I hope, such that father in law would have wanted.  We buried him in a pretty little Dorset churchyard, where his mother was buried.  It's close enough that we can visit if we want to, but I don't imagine we will.  Visiting graves has never been something Mr WithaY or I have ever done, but I am glad it's in a lovely spot.

One thing which is comforting is that he saw almost all of his family in the weeks before his death,  and a few of his old friends had been to see him too.

Apparently he died of a stroke, simply going to sleep and not waking up.  We are very sad, but it is also a relief to know that he is not suffering under his many and irreversible medical problems, any more.

So.  A solemn start to this posting, but as it's been in my head for weeks, it seems right to share it here.

In  other news: I have to go and have some routine but possibly major surgery next year. I've been having a few problems, went to the doctor, was referred to have a scan, and as a result will be having an op (hopefully) in January next year. Nothing terrible, but I'm not looking forward to it much.

Gosh, what a medical post.  I promise to try and be back to my normal self soon.

Friday, 16 August 2013

In which I am self-indulgently reminiscent. Again.

It's A-level results week.  I still find it hard to think back to the day I got my A-level results (first attempt) with anything other than a chilly twinge of embarrassment.

I also find it hard to come to terms with the fact that I took my A-levels almost 30 years ago.  Lord above, how did I get to be this old, eh?  In my head I'm still a sprightly youngster, not a grouchy middle-aged woman with a knackered back and bifocals.

But results.

Back when I was a youngster, you had to go into the school to collect them.  The headmistress sat in her office, and handed them to you to read whilst she sat and watched your reaction.  She, of course, had already seen them.

I imagine it was a satisfying and cheering job for her, at least when she was dealing with the girlie swots who had got their predicted brilliant results and thus secured a place at the top University of their choice.

My school was not one of the ones which regularly sent girls to Oxbridge, but they did have a small group who were expected to get places at Exeter and Durham and Cardiff and other such second tier universities. They were the girls who took Latin and Italian as additional subjects while the rest of us were sent to the art class to learn to weave terrible pictures out of bits of string and nails hammered into fibreboard.

I remember that coterie of girls as being very short (but to be fair, most of the other girls at school seemed very short, as I was - and still am - significantly taller than the average female) with pale, earnest faces, neatly-pressed school uniforms, glasses and overly expensive shoes. One of them wore a pair of boots which, it was whispered in class, her mother had paid £150 for.  Bear in mind this was back in 1983, and the majority of her peers were wearing Clarks desert boots or sandals to school.

Also, they all used to sit at the front in class.  Every lesson.  Every classroom.  We kept the same configuration of who sat where almost without modification for the entire 7 years I was at that school.  Multiple changes of classroom, teacher, classmates, subject, and we still all retained the same positions relative to one another.

There were several girls in my class - for all those years - that I don't think I ever spoke to.  I didn't sit near them in lessons, we didn't spend time together at lunch or break-time, and as I was appalling at all manner of sports and games I was hardly ever on a sports team with them.  I can't imagine that now.  Spending so many hours a day with the same group of people in a small room, yet failing to interact with an entire chunk of the group.

Were all schools like that?

Looking back now, if I had spent more time sitting at the front in class, paying attention, and less time sitting at the left hand side at the back, idly staring out of the window, I might have passed more exams.

Some classes were allowed to put posters on the walls.  I used to hate sitting in certain lessons with dozens of tatty pictures of The Police and Adam and the Ants, torn from Smash Hits and Jackie magazine, plastered all over the walls around the blackboard.

I know it's probably wrong of me to try and shift some of the blame for my own idleness, but I also feel that if some of the teachers had been less keen on fostering up the nascent talent of the "good" girls at the front, the rest of us might have done a bit better.

Maths, for example.  I can't remember how many times my maths teacher shook her head sadly at me, saying "But you're top of the class in English.  Why are you doing so badly in MY class?"  When I shrugged in embarrassment and annoyance, she'd hand back my maths book, covered in reproachful comments in red pen, and return to the front of the class to continue encouraging her little gaggle of star pupils, leaving  the rest of us to carry on staring out of the windows, drawing pictures on our rough books and exchanging hilarious notes with one another.

God, we must have been tiresome.

Anyhoo.  Getting back to the results.  I can still remember the exasperated tone with which the headmistress said "No-one else in the ENTIRE SCHOOL has had results like you, Lucy."  She did not mean it as a compliment.

Turns out you can't just walk into an exam room, pick a selection of questions more or less at random, write for three hours about whatever occurs to you based on a few key words, and get a decent grade.  Who knew?

I passed two exams with flying colours, well, with A grades - we didn't have the fancy A* thing they have nowadays, pah, kids, they don't know they're born etc etc etc - and failed the other two horribly.  I mean really horribly.  One grade up from the "didn't bother to turn up to sit the exam" horribly.

It was a bit of a shock.  I had genuinely imagined that it would all be alright in the end, and that my native wit, charm, delightful smile and good teeth would ensure I passed with the grades I needed to get a place at any University I fancied, and that a few short weeks after being given my exam results (and possibly some sort of medal) I'd be on my way to a new life as a Student.

Finding out that not only was I NOT going to University like all my friends, but that I was also going to have to go and resit those two subjects after an extra year at the local technology college was like the proverbial cold shower.

Not that it taught me much except that getting a nasty shock is, well, nasty.

So, a year or so of attending the local college, along with working at a local tea shop as a waitress, as I wasn't doing enough hours at college to be eligible for any kind of Government benefits, and THEN I got good enough results to get a place in tertiary education.

Mind you, having taken two attempts to pass my A levels meant that once again I received a slew of rejection letters from all the Universities I had applied to, and was left to the future horrors of Clearing. Lord, that was stressful enough the first time round.  I think the only offer I got was from the University of Ulster, to study politics.  I declined, having already enrolled to resit the A levels.

This time, however, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and went to talk to the Citizens Advice Bureau.  The young lady in there was attentive and kind, and when I had finished my (probably) rambling and anxious explanation - I was too lazy and careless to pass my exams first time round! I've passed them now, but I'm no longer a good bet for a University!  What do I do? - she said:

"Ok.  Well, I went to King Alfred's College in Winchester.  They were great, I'll give them a ring and see if they have any places left."

And she did.

And they did.

And two days later, a kind mate took me to Winchester on the back of his motorbike for my interview, where I was offered a place on one of their non-teacher training degree courses.  And three days after that I left home to go to college.

Talk about cutting it fine.

I'd like to say the whole experience made me a better person, but I don't think it did. It did make me take deadlines rather more seriously though, and I never assumed I'd automatically pass anything, or qualify for anything, or be selected for anything again.

Is there a moral to the story?  No.  But I am comforted by the thought that there is always something else that can be done; there is no need to consider one set of dodgy exam results as the End of Everything.  I mean, just look at me.

Actually, maybe best not.

Monday, 10 June 2013



Where the demons dwell.  And the banshees live.  And they do live well.*

Yes, last week I went to Stonehenge.  I know the Solstice celebrations aren't till the 21st but I like to be early.  Beat the traffic and all that.

Inevitably, I took a bazillion photos. Well, of course. It's a spectacular place, even more so on a glorious early morning in June.  We were fortunate to have been invited to go along as part of a small group by the English Heritage team with whom (posh grammar eh?) Mr WithaY has been working recently. So at 0730, bright and breezy, we rocked up in the car park and met the rest of the group.

It immediately became apparent that we had dressed over-optimistically for the trip, as a stiff wind was blowing, but being British we gritted our teeth and ignored it.  Take that, weather.

There are some semi-tame rooks living in the monument, some of which were interested enough to come and watch us.

This one is called Gerontius and is trained to peck out your eyes if you fail to return your audio tour.

We were given strict instruction not to touch the stones because the acids in our skin would damage the lichen, apparently.  Perhaps they had a bad experience with a visiting group of Geiger aliens.  We were also warned not to climb on the stones, deface them, lick them or try to push them over, or they'd set the rooks on us.

I've always thought Stonehenge was a tad unimpressive, to be honest. I know it's a world heritage site and all that jazz, but when viewed at 50mph from the A303, it seems underwhelming.  Even when I've paid to get in, and walked around the outside with the audio tour (which I was careful to return, for fear of Gerontius) it's felt a bit, well, commercial and dull.  Plus you're always surrounded by massive crowds of tourists, probably all feeling as disappointed as yourself.

Last week, though, it was very different.  The stones are HUGE.  Really, really big.  And when you stand next to them, you appreciate how incredibly hard it must have been to move them from where they were found, organise them into the correct alignment, and then stand them up.  And then, incredibly, somehow hoist the equally-massive lintels onto the tops of them.

The guide, bless him, tried to explain all about Stonehenge, but was hampered by the fact that he did not have answers to the burning questions we all wanted to ask, viz:

1)  What's it for?

2)  How was it built?

He gamely explained various theories, backed up by the archaeological evidence, but basically had to reply to many of our questions with a smiling "We're not sure..."

Here's one of the rooks, keeping a wary eye on the group:

We were there a few hours too late for sunrise, but it was still lovely to see the long shadows crossing the centre of the circle.

That's a view of the Heelstone between the central pillars, thankfully without any traffic passing by on the road behind it to ruin the atmosphere.

This is one of my favourite pictures which gives a sense of the circular-ness** of the monument from the inside.

And this is the view off to the north west, across Salisbury Plain.  Usually there would be a thick crowd of people in an unbroken line around the path, so it's gorgeous to just see the stones and the big sky.

When the new visitors centre is opened, it will be a very different experience, and I am looking forward to seeing the changes.

Mr WithaY and I amused ourselves as we walked around by quietly exchanging comments in the "Neolithic Accent" as seen on Armstrong and Miller's TV show.

One careers option I was made aware of that day, and never offered at school, is "Astro-archaeologist."  I demand to know why not.  Is it because it sounds like a load of made-up bollocks?  Or just that the people who write horoscopes AND have a keen interest in digging holes want to keep it secret from the rest of us?

The truth will out.

In other news, the catering business is making slow but steady growth, and I am selling more of my home-made chutneys to people.  Mr WithaY has been carving some beautiful wooden bowls recently, and I am trying to persuade him to sell them online.

We've been making the most of the last week of fabulous weather to get stuff done outside and have  replaced the roof of the shed, planted more fruit bushes, cleared a huge (and I mean HUGE) amount of assorted shite out of the garden, and planted a lot of mixed wildflower seeds.  I have high hopes that in a few weeks we will have more flowers.

This of course, is a celestial cue for torrential rain until September.

*I still adore Spinal Tap.

**Yes, it's a word.  Shut up.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

No Vikings Today

Yesterday was all about Doing Different Things.

Mr WithaY and I were in town early in the morning - dropping my car off for its MoT, which it passed without a hitch - and then went for a cup of coffee and a bun in a nice little cafe.  The cafe has adopted the quaint European "pavement culture" approach, which means that there are several tiny metal tables on the pavement, mere feet away from the traffic which rumbles through on the main road almost constantly.

As we walked to the door, as we had sensibly decided to sit INSIDE with the buns, and not OUTSIDE with the traffic, something in the road caught my eye.  Coffees and buns bought, we settled down at our table and I leaned over to see what it was that I had spotted. An elderly man sat at one of the tiny metal tables, reading a newspaper, blocking my view of the road.

I stepped outside, walked briskly to the point where I had spotted the anomaly and took a photo.  The elderly man watched me from over the top of his newspaper.

Readers, this is what I photographed:

Is it a piece of raw veal?  Is it a large boiled sweet?  Is it a dog toy?  Why no, gentle reader.  It's the end of a big rubber cock.


Coffee and buns devoured, we walked through the town enjoying the sunshine.  Passing the tourist information office, I spotted a notice for the local history society's forthcoming programme of events.  There was a lecture on The Viking Invasion of Wessex listed.

"Ooh, that sounds like it might be interesting," I said.

"Mmm.  When is it?" asked Mr WithaY.

"Tonight!  Shall we go?"

"Yeah, why not?"

So it was a date.  Half past seven at the public library.  We drove home in high spirits, debating whether it would be inappropriate or not to go to the the lecture dressed as Vikings, carrying huge horns of mead and driving looted oxen before us*.

At seven that night we headed back into town, parked in the main car park and went and sat outside the front of the library, where all the doors were locked and there was no sign of anyone from the history society.  Time ticked on, and we were joined by a charming Australian man and a young chap who arrived in a taxi, both eager to hear about the Viking Invasion of Wessex.  Neither of them had dressed up, I was pleased to see.

After twenty minutes of waiting, the taxi driver said "I'll just go and see if the back doors are open."

Off he trotted, returning in a moment to let us know that "There's about 40 people in the back room all being talked to."

Well, arse.  We hurriedly made our way to the top secret BACK doors of the library, 10 minutes after the start of the lecture, and sheepishly sidled into the room.  Inside was a varied collection of local history enthusiasts sitting on little hard chairs facing an old man standing at the front of the room.  He smiled and paused in his talk to let us latecomers find somewhere to sit, which we did as unobtrusively as possible.

The chap taking the admission fees - £3 a head for non-members - bustled along the row of seats and handed Mr WithaY and I a photocopied piece of coloured paper each.

I looked at my paper in puzzlement.  There were two maps, side by side, one dated 1782, the other 1970, showing the same streets in town, with various buildings marked in red.

Were these locations where they had found Viking hoards?  Or perhaps the graves of notable Wessex Viking chieftains?  Or even just houses the Vikings had burned down?  Even with my somewhat rusty grasp of history, the Eighteenth Century seemed a bit late for Norse invaders.

I tried to imagine the scene - a Regency dandy strutting down the pavement, eyeglass in one hand, silver-topped cane in the other, hat at a jaunty angle, shining boots twinkling, only to be felled by a single mighty broadsword thrust from a shaggy bellowing Viking.


My wandering attention was yanked back to the old man at the front.  He had a small laptop, the screen facing the audience, and he was apologising for the fact that the overhead projector had failed to work properly, meaning that an entire roomful of people was trying to look at an image about the same size as a packet of cornflakes.  As if that wasn't bad enough, there were two or three bull-necked** chaps in the audience who interjected their own hilarious comments as the old chap spoke.

He kept forgetting names and street details, having to be prompted by the audience, and stammering in his nervousness.  I wasn't sure if the nerves were due to the failed projector, the interruptions from his cronies in the audience, or the fact that at least two of the people facing him were open-mouthed in horrified disbelief at his subject matter.

Instead of The Viking Invasion of Wessex, we were being treated to The History of Old Warminster, without visual aids, and with a Greek chorus of wise-cracking Wiltshire elderly men.

I started to feel a huge bubble of laughter rising inside, and had to bite my lip to stop myself from exploding aloud. Mr WithaY was sitting rigid in his chair, the photocopied map clutched in steely fingers, his jaw set in a manner which clearly stated "I am trapped, and must remain here until the end. I shall Do My Duty."

In desperation I stared fixedly at the pictures on the walls of the library, and then an image rose unbidden in my mind of Mr WithaY and I arriving in full Viking garb, hallooing and roaring through the doors, only to be stopped in our tracks by a convoluted, halting, timorous description of Eighteenth Century Warminster malthouse placement.

I had to bite my hand.

At the end of the lecture, the chap who had taken the entrance fee tried to persuade us to join for the rest of the season.  We said we'd think about it.

*We decided it might be.

**I could only see the backs of their heads

Thursday, 9 May 2013


I'm writing this today watching the wind blowing blossom past the window at 70mph.  Last week we had a glorious few days of late Spring weather - warm sun, gentle breezes, the occasional light shower of rain overnight - and it was like travelling to a different country.  A kinder, warmer country, where oranges grow freely in peoples gardens, and colourful birds sing in flowering trees all day long.  Narnia, possibly.

All that is over today though.  Ho yus.  Today it's all about high winds, rain and grey, leaden skies full of more rain.  Unfortunately, the fruit trees in my garden are currently heavily laden with their flowers, and I have a nasty feeling that a few days of this weather will shred them bare, leaving us with no crab apples, plums or cherries later in the year.

I make it sound like we have an orchard.  We don't.

We have a small but prolific crab apple in the front garden, and two teeny tiny plum and cherry trees in the middle of the front lawn.  Oh, and a gnarly old apple tree in the back garden which has good years and bad years.

The apples are perfect looking - red and green and big and round, like something out of a children's book - and smell delicious.  They taste delicious too, but unfortunately they rot with terrifying rapidity. They rot on the tree, and if you are lucky enough to find and pick one that is unblemished, eat it there and then, because by the next morning it will have festered into a half-liquid goo.

I think they're called Charles Ross, according to a nice man we asked at an Apple Day event once, an old Victorian breed developed from Cox's. They are lovely, but you have to be quick.

 I need to have lots of apples this year because I have discovered a fantastic recipe for marmalade jelly - I know that sounds like an oxymoron - which uses either the skins and cores of apples, or "windfall apples" along with citrus peel and various other goodies.  I used the recipe the other day to make Dandelion Marmalade Jelly, and the result, dear reader, was a soaraway success.

While I was walking the dog in one of the many gorgeous meadows nearby, I thought "there are an awful lot of dandelions here.  I bet they're useful for something."  Inspired by that thought, I took a poo bag (unused*) and wandered around the meadow picking dandelions.  A few here, a few there, always moving around to ensure a good mix of flowers.  The dog helped** by sticking her nose into the bag every time I bent down to pick a flower, or by racing around me in a circle, then trying to send me crashing to the ground by running into the backs of my knees at 40mph.

When I got home I Googled "Dandelion Recipes," and found several which looked promising.  I adapted the one that I liked the sound of the most, and hey presto, delicious golden dandelion marmalade jelly, which tastes of honey.  It's great on toast.

I've been busy with work, both my "day" job and the catering business, one way and another.  We've picked up a few more jobs, and whilst things are growing slowly, I am delighted that they are actually growing.  I'm also trying to get my preserves into a couple more retail outlets, and have been handing out freebies to people to try and lure them into buying more.  Fingers crossed.

Mr WithaY has spent most of the last 9 weeks busily building Neolithic houses at Old Sarum, as part of an English Heritage project.  They asked for volunteers to go and do "experimental archaeology" based on the remaining evidence found at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls.  This means they've been building houses based on the extant post-holes in the ground, a bit like designing a horse based on the hoofprints.

The result has been a small collection of wooden-built thatched huts, all different and all rather charming.  Mr WithaY has also been asked to carve some wooden items to dress the houses - bowls and such - which he has done, and English Heritage are using them as part of their display.

We went and looked at them last weekend, while it was still sunny, and I was very impressed.

In other news:  The hedge in the back garden has been removed, giving us about 6 extra feet of space.  There will be a funky new chestnut hurdle fence put in to replace it, which I am looking forward to very much.  At present, though, the dog has taken to standing and staring mournfully through the meagre chicken-wire fence which is all that remains, looking out into the meadow behind the house.  She probably wishes she was frolicking among the dandelions.

She frolicked in the garden all of last week, yeah, back when it was sunny, remember that? It was great, wasn't it?  She developed a habit of digging up a stick from the remains of the hedge roots, then collapsing theatrically on the lawn to gnaw at it.  This was fine, right up until she ate too many twig-gnawings, and sicked them all up onto her bed in the middle of the night.

So.  A new bed, and a closer watch on the dog to ensure she doesn't eat twigs any more.

*Hygiene is important in cooking.
**No, she really didn't.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Oil me up

I was hoping that by now I could be posting photos of the burgeoning Springtime, trees in early leaf, blossoms, tweeting birdies, flowers in the dell, all that stuff.  Instead, it is grey, cold and blowy outside. Also, dear readers, it is cold and grey (but less blowy) inside.


Because we have managed to run out of oil.  For those of you who live in towns and cities where things are all piped into your homes and you never have to worry about them (except paying the bills) allow me to explain.

Where we live, there are not a lot of mains services.  We have electricity  which does tend to fail at times, plunging the entire village into the Fourteenth Century.  We have running water, although that too has issues sometimes.  We have telephones, and therefore the Internet, thank goodness.  Other than that, we're on our own.

Thus our cooker runs on bottled gas, bought at huge expense, and our central heating and hot water run on oil, also bought at vast expense, stored in a tank in the garden.  When we had the oil tank installed about 12 years ago, we had a sensor fitted.  A little radio/wireless thingy that transmitted to a readout in the kitchen, telling us how much oil was in there. When it got to one bar (much like a mobile phone battery life indicator) you knew it was time to order more oil.  When the one bar started flashing and little icon of an oil pump lit up, you knew it was really time to order more oil, or to start panicking that the oil you had already ordered hadn't arrived yet.

There's always quite a wait. Sometimes three weeks, depending on the oil supplier, the time of year and whether the tanker driver can be arsed to come to our village.  Of course, to add to the complicated nature of this system, you have to shop around, as the price of oil varies considerably from supplier to supplier, so you seldom use the same supplier twice.

Oh, if you're bored with this story, imagine how it feels to have to LIVE it.

Anyhoo.  The oil tank sensor thingy failed last year sometime - the batteries ran out and you have to replace the whole thing, as apparently it's dangerous to dick about with batteries in a tank full of oil.  Cuh.  Lightweights. So, we bought a new one, exactly the same as the old one, and Mr WithaY installed it in the tank.


The sensor in the tank worked ok; it told us we had oil.  However, the receiver unit in the kitchen didn't do what it was supposed to.  It flashed up a random and annoying set of bars and icons, and then defiantly went blank.  On referral to the Internet, which as we know is never wrong, it seemed that the unit wasn't set up quite correctly.  Several months of tweaking, resetting and giving up in exasperation followed, leaving us with a receiver unit in the kitchen that was left permanently turned off in disgust, and a sensor in the oil tank which Mr WithaY went to check every so often.

Just before Easter I said "How much oil have we got?"  Mr WithaY went out to check the sensor, and came in to report that we were down to the last bar.  Time to order more.  The tiresome research was done, and the cheapest oil price was obtained, and we placed our order.  They told us it would probably take "up to two weeks" which was fine. We knew from experience that we had enough oil to last a few weeks, as we were only on the last bar, not the flashing "get more oil NOW" icon.

However.  On the Tuesday after Easter, Mr WithaY announced that the boiler had locked up. He went out and checked the tank - physically dipping it, rather than looking at the sensor - and it was empty. The sensor still showed one bar.  Arse.

Since Tuesday last week, therefore, we have had no heating or hot water, as we are still waiting for the oil delivery.  They've taken the money for it - over £500 - but of course we are still at the mercy of their delivery schedules, and they told us how long it was likely to take when we placed the order.


On the plus side, we have an open fire and plenty of logs, so are able to keep the house warm. The dishwasher and washing machine still work perfectly well, it's just getting ourselves washed which is inconvenient.  Thankfully, we have lovely neighbours* who have kindly invited us over to use their shower when we need to.  

Last week also saw the visit of Middle Nephew, who was unphased by the lack of showering facilities, merely complaining that he couldn't do his hair properly.  He declined the offer of a shower at the neighbour's, saying that he'd wait till he got home.  Ah, teenage boys.

Mr WithaY took Middle Nephew out in the Landrover one afternoon.  They managed to get stuck in the mud, and had to walk miles in the snow to a v posh house at the edge of the woods to ask for help.  Fortunately, as so often seems to be the case, the locals were friendly and willing to help; some of them towed the Landrover out of the mud, and they all went to the pub afterwards.  Middle Nephew was unimpressed by this, and decided not to go out in the woods again.

I went to see my lovely Mum at the weekend, as I took Middle Nephew home too, and was able to chill out, have a bath and enjoy a very relaxing visit.  We went out for a drive on Sunday, up onto the Trundle, home of Goodwood Racecourse, where I almost managed to drop my car down a steep incline after misjudging the angle of approach to a car park entrance.  A swift change of plan and a backwards hill-start onto the main road (not recommended, kids!) meant we escaped unscathed  but it was a little alarming.

Oh, that reminds me. There was an impressive car accident in the village the other week.  The road outside our house is remarkably lively, not least because there is a popular pub, a very busy petrol station, and several minor roads all joining it within about quarter of a mile.

One afternoon, a car came trundling down one of these minor roads, and the driver - newly qualified, apparently - didn't realise she was approaching a junction with a major road. She failed to stop, and sailed out into the path of a huge oncoming lorry.  The lorry hit the car, flipped it across the road, through a set of railings and down the pathway into the side of the pub.  Incredibly, nobody was hurt, although apparently the lady in the pub who was sitting on the other side of the wall which the car smashed into didn't stop screaming for some time.

Other news:  Dog still lovely.  Weather still shite, but improving slightly, although that might be my metabolism getting used to the cold, what with the "no heating" thing.  Mr WithaY has been working up at Old Sarum, constructing Neolithic roundhouses as part of an experimental archaeology project.  More on this anon.   Catering stuff still plodding along slowly but surely.  Work still going well.

How are things with you?

*Hello Sarah!

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Spanish oranges

You know this catering malarkey that I've started doing?  Well, it has pinged off in an unexpected and delightful direction, and I am going to tell you all about it.  Take a seat, get a drink, turn the TV off (or down, you need to concentrate) and let me whisk you off to a world full of marmalade...

As you may recall, partly because it's about the only bleeding thing I've blogged about in the last 6 months, I and a friend set up a small catering business at the back end of last year, and have been doing some events with a lot of enthusiasm and some moderate success.  We've got more work coming in, which is great, and have been evolving our ideas, sniffing out possible opportunities, spreading the word, and handing out business cards like they grow on trees.  It's been excellent, although we're not making much money at it yet.

At the pre-Christmas bazaar, a Twitter buddy came along, tried some of our sauces and chutneys, made all the right noises at our biscotti and didn't protest when we fed his little boy with more chocolate than was probably good for him.   In the course of this amusing meeting, he suggested we get in touch with the Country Markets organisation.

I had no idea who the Country Markets organisation were, so looked them up on that there Internet.

Turns out they are what used to be the W.I. Market, but some time ago they declared UDI and set themselves up as a separate business.  I read their information pages with glee.  It's almost Medieval in its set-up, which appealed hugely.  You pay 5p to join - five whole pence, yes - and become a member of what is effectively a national, co-operative business.  It's organised by county, so I have joined the Wiltshire faction, but given where I live I will also join Somerset and Dorset.  Once you are a member, you can go along to any market they run in "your" county and sell your produce.

They have strict rules about food hygiene, packaging, labelling and so on, but as long as you comply with those, you're away.  You have to show them your food hygiene certificate, so they know you won't spit in the cakes, of course.

So.  Initially I went along to the Shrewton market in February, where I sold some of my preserves and a few chocolates and things.  It was good fun, and allowed me to pick up a vast amount of helpful information from the longer-standing members there.   As I was packing up at the end of the morning, one of the ladies came and asked if I would be willing to come along to Salisbury market the following Saturday, as they needed more people who sold foodstuffs.

Reader, I agreed.

Well.  What an experience.  If you have never been to Salisbury market, I suggest you do so at the earliest opportunity. It's a proper old-fashioned outdoor market where they sell meat, fish, bread, cheese, clothing, pet food, flowers, Thai food, hot doughnuts in sugar, jigsaws, batteries, garden implements, duck eggs and questionable** pasties, and it shuts with an almost audible slam at about 2 in the afternoon, so get there early.  And of course it also sells delicious home-made goodies prepared by the many and varied members of the Country Markets organisation.

I turned up as soon after 0700* as I could, with a little basket packed with jars of preserves and some chocolate ginger, and a tremulous heart.  I didn't know what to expect, and was quite nervous.

It's remarkably well-organised, albeit in a charming old-fashioned Alan Bennet-y way.  And, like so many stalwart British institutions, it is almost solely powered by the voluntary efforts of Ladies Of A Certain Age.

On arrival, you have to check in your goods, which means one of the other ladies counts how many jars of jam, cakes etc. that you have brought, and makes out an invoice.  At the end of the market they count how many of your items are left on the stall and record the number of sales, by a process known as Subtraction.

Stay with me, it's not all this technical.

At the end of each month, you receive your money for goods sold, minus the percentage taken by the Country Markets organisation, a modest 6 - 10 percent, depending on the market.

It was bloody freezing.  I realised very rapidly that I was a rank amateur, having failed to wear thermal underwear (all the other ladies had thermal underwear), bring a flask of tea (all the other ladies had flasks of tea) or ensure I had a warm hat (all the other ladies had warm hats.)

I'd never been in a market so early before, and it was great.  You get to watch all the other traders setting up stalls, in the process of which you may hear Language.  I met the excellent Dog in a Van on the next stall, who sits there all day long, wagging his stumpy tail in wild excitement every time anyone walks past, being fed scraps of sandwich and sausage roll, and being made a huge fuss of.  Some of the market visitors seem to come into town expressly to rub his ears and scritch his tummy.  I'm hoping to pick up a similarly loyal following myself in due course.

Customers arrived almost as soon as we had the stall open.  We're in a caravan, with windows on two sides, so we can set things out for public view (and purchase), and it means we have a cracking view of the world going by, as we are higher up than most of it.

The first week I went along, it was the first week that the stall had been there since a while before Christmas, so there were a lot of people delighted to see us.  One lady came over for a chat.

"I'm glad to see you," she said "But I wish I'd known you were coming.  I made a cake yesterday!"  The clear inference being that she'd had to BAKE when she didn't need to.  The horror.

Some customers were panic-buying honey and jam in case we vanished again.  At one point there were seven of us in the caravan at once.  I was reminded of that episode of Father Ted where they go on holiday, and end up crammed in a tiny caravan with Father Noel Fielding and his youth group, and I got the giggles.

Then it snowed.

I went and got a cup of tea from the nearby food van ("Ooh, hello, you're new!  You can have a proper mug, bring it back, mind, and do you want sugar in that love?  You look frozen!") and wandered around looking at the market for a bit.  I bought some excellent bread, drank my tea, gave the mug back and mooched back to the stall.  I was hungry, and thought it must be almost lunchtime.  On checking the time on my phone I was horrified to see it was only just after 10am.

Once more customers started coming, though, the time flew by.  I am pleased to report that I sold a few of my items, and last weekend I took along a lot of Seville marmalade, and sold all of it.  So much so, that people were asking if there'd be more this week.  Unfortunately the Seville orange season seems to have pretty much ended in the local shops, so I went online at the weekend and found a grower in Valencia.  I have ordered a box of oranges, and am in daily expectation of a delivery.  I am ridiculously excited at the idea of buying oranges direct from a farm in Spain.

In other news, it's been a rather sad few days as we had a death in the family, with the funeral earlier this week.  On the bright side, it was lovely to see cousins that I haven't seen in 30 years, and to catch up with Mum and my sisters.

Work is still going well, I am hoping to change my hours in the next month or so to give me more daytime work, and more evenings off, but even so, it's all good.  I'm waiting for a tax rebate, from my redundancy payment when I left the Ministry of Concrete. Once that arrives it will mean I can relax about money a bit, at least for a few months.

I'll let you know when my Spanish oranges arrive.

*Ten past eight.  Slacker.
**And delicious.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Just two points

No, I'm not dead. Hurrah!  Although I do have a cold/cough thing at the moment which is annoying.  It's the time of year, I suppose.

I'd love to be able to report on three months of thrilling activity, a varied and exciting tapestry of activity and adventure.  All I can offer is the following:

1)  Dog walking.  I've lost over a stone since we got the dog, and (cough and cold aside) have been thoroughly enjoying taking her for walks in the beautiful - if rain sodden - Wiltshire countryside.  It's far more pleasant to walk with a dog than on your own, and there's the thrill of wondering if she'll discover a body in the woods.   They used to say that on the news, didn't they?  When a body was found, it was always a "person out walking their dog" who made the grisly discovery.  So.  Other than that constant and nagging fear, dog walking is great.

2)  Working.  Christmas was busy.  We had a few catering jobs for friends with the fledgeling company, and we also did the bazaar which I banged on about in the last post.  Since then, I have been sorting out the various admin tasks which needed doing - proper labelling for the jars and so on, invoices, some sort of formal record of income and outgoings - and making STUFF to sell.  What kind of STUFF?  Well.  I have made:

Chinese Style Plum Sauce
Spicy Tomato Chutney
Hot Chilli Jelly
Traffic Light Chilli Dipping Sauce (so called as there are red, yellow and green chillies in it)
Mango Chutney
Lime Pickle
Redcurrant Jelly
Blueberry Jelly

I was given some excellent cook books for Christmas and birthday, and have been experimenting with various STUFF from those.  One of the books is all about sweeties, and has a recipe for rather excellent coconut ice, which (of course) has been covered in dark chocolate, and is marginally more addictive than heroin.  There's another batch of chocolate-covered ginger underway too.  That proved popular last time.

I've given up trying to make the bloody honeycomb stuff.  I just waste sugar trying to get it to the correct consistency, and end up throwing away 4 batches in 5.  I have no idea why it fails so often - I measure everything carefully, use a proper sugar thermometer, follow all instructions to the letter.  Bah.  Bollocks to it, I say.

Oh, I sold some of my tomato chutney to a new deli in town, which I was very pleased about.  I must pop back in and see if they've sold any of it, and more to the point, would they like any more.

There is a new blog purely for the business, linked from here, so feel free to pop over and take a peek if you can bear more food-related nonsense.

My other job is still going well, other than having to take time off when I have a cold, as I can't risk taking germs in and making everyone else there poorly.

3)  Good grief.  I can't think of a number three.  That's poor.  It seems my life has contracted to the point where cooking, going to work (and cooking) and messing about with the dog is all I do all day.  I suppose "reading Twitter," "watching TV" and "doing the ironing" don't count as lifestyle choices that anyone would be proud of.

I suppose that's one reason why this blog has become such a sad neglected little waif, withering away in a gloomy cobwebbed corner of the Internet, rather than the boisterous lively monster I liked to think it was a while ago.  On the other hand, I am far happier (mostly) than I was at that time.  It's easy to write about events when your entire day is made up of stressful arse-filled meetings, horrible commuting, shite food and not enough sleep.  No news is good news, in general, and the lack of eventful days is probably a good thing.

It feels deeply ungrateful to whinge about the occasional minor stuff that worries me - OhmyGod... I don'thaveaproperjobandnomoneywe'llbeoutonthestreetsin6months - because I still wake up most mornings knowing that there is very little about my life now that I would change.  In fact, apart from the whole "no money" thing, I can't think of anything that relates directly to me or Mr WithaY.  It would be lovely if everyone we care about was in perfect health, and so on, but just for the two of us, things are really not too bad at all.