Sunday, 7 May 2017

Reading progress: January-April

Although I'm not officially taking part in Year in Books this time, I did set myself a very modest target of reading at least a book a month. I'm doing much better than that though as I've already managed 6. What I haven't been so good at is reducing my stash which continues to grow and grow. I've also not been very good at keeping you updated with my progress so here goes with my first read of 2017.

I've read several of Carol Shield's books before, with Republic of Love being my favourite, and this meant I had high hopes for the Box Garden. Like most of her books, it's very much character-driven. Charlene - bored and dissatisfied with her life - is on her way to the wedding of her 70 year old mother with whom she has a difficult relationship.

The characters are strong and as well-drawn as always and I particularly enjoyed the 70s setting: her mother was getting married in cocoa-brown crimpeline! However, I found it less absorbing than her later novels and some of the plot lines felt far-fetched. This one will be going back to the charity shop. Don't let that put you off Carol Shields though: it was one of her first novels and I know she gets much better.

My next choice was Hold back the stars by Katie Khan. I saw a review in the newspaper and was intrigued. Max and Carys are floating in space with only 90 minutes of air left in their tanks. The story flits between their attempts to save themselves and flashbacks to their relationship in the future society of Europia.

I found the descriptions of Europia interesting: the continent is divided into vovoides and citizens rotate between them until their 30s when they're allowed to settle in one place and marry. It's a shame then that these aspects aren't explored in more depth as the book could have been so much more. Instead it all felt rather superficial and read very much like a Young Adult novel. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it - I did - but I just wasn't gripped.

After a couple of novels, I moved onto some non-fiction with Knickers Model's Own by Caroline Jones. After her mother died of cancer, she decided to raise money to support the charity that she and her mother had been involved with for several years, volunteering in one of their shops. For a year, she dressed only in clothes sourced from Cancer Research (and other charity) shops (apart from those knickers!) and the book documents the outfits she wore each day. She has a good eye and natural sense of style. Mind you, it does help that she clearly lives in an affluent area where there's a better class of donations. I particularly loved all the colourful shoes she wore! I do enjoy mooching around in charity shops for books and jigsaws but rarely give the clothes a glance. This did make me think I should give them more of a go and, in fact, I've since bought a dress, with original sales tag still on, for £2.49! Caroline still posts her outfits on Facebook if you want to learn more.

Crow Lake is the story of 7-year-old Kate Morrison who lives with her 2 teenage brothers and younger sister in a remote community in northern Canada. Early on in the novel, the family are orphaned and the boys take on the care of their sisters. The older Kate looks back on their struggles and the intense relationships and tragedies which continue to affect her life. It's a slow-burner of a novel which, for me, usually means boring but this is one I could barely put down. I couldn't even really say why except that the characters are so well-drawn you want to know what happens to them. I'll be looking out for more of Mary Lawson's books.

Broken Sky by LA Weatherly has been shortlisted for Lancashire Book of the Year. It's an award for Young Adult fiction, voted for completely by young people, and now in it's 31st year. When I heard about the shortlist, I decided to read a few of the titles.

Broken Sky is set in a future America but not a sci-fi kind of future. Instead, after much of the world was destroyed in a nuclear war, society has had to rebuild itself and is now more reminiscent of the 1940s. Armed conflict has been banned and disputes between countries are contested by aerial dogfights: the heroine, Amity, is one of the best pilots. Gradually, she uncovers a plot by the leader of the neighbouring country, a leader who believes his destiny comes from the power of astrology. There are clear echoes of Nazi Germany as Discordants, born under the wrong planetary alignments, are rounded up and sent to correction camps.

It's the first part of a trilogy which may explain why it's a bit slow to get going. Once it does though, it's tense and intriguing with twists and turns. I only wish there'd been more of a proper ending as even books in a series should be able to stand alone. However, I'll have to look out for the next in the trilogy to find out what happens next.

Another title shortlisted for Book of the Year is The Deepest Cut by Natalie Flynn.

Adam blames himself for his best friend's death. After attempting suicide, he is put in the care of a local mental facility. There, too traumatized to speak, he begins to write notebooks detailing the events leading up to Jake's murder.

It isn't often that I cry when reading a book but this one moved me to tears several times. If I had to be picky, the parts which are meant to be his diary are written more like a novel than how someone would actually write. However, it's still beautifully written and the confusion and pain that Adam goes through is incredibly moving. A wonderful book.

Not a book but grebes! I had my first good look at the new babies today and there are three little grebelings. I sat for ages on the side of the lake watching them, usually tucked up on their parents' backs. There are a pair of moorhens nest building nearby so it looks like more babies are on the way. Oh, I just love spring!

Enjoy the remainder of your Sunday. Next time, I think I might share my latest crafty make. x

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Cookery calendar challenge: April

This year I'm taking part in the Cookery Calendar Challenge organised by Penny. The idea is simple: the first week of every month, choose a cookery book from your shelf and, over the course of a month, make two recipes from it that you've never made before. You can choose to take part each month or as the mood takes you!

My April pick was Diana Henry's Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons. I've already made several recipes from it and the recipe for prawn and feta pilaf is one of our favourites (this link is the closest I can get to that recipe). I generally find her recipes pretty reliable and with plenty of flavour.

My first choice was Chermoula-marinated tuna with pomegranate couscous which I  served with butternut squash slices using the same marinade. The chermoula itself is made from cumin, paprika, cinnamon, chilli, lime and garlic so you'd think there would be plenty of flavour. Well, Chickpea liked it more than me as I would have preferred more of the spice to come through. To be honest, I'm also not really keen on tuna steaks as I find them a bit dry, no matter how hard I try not to overcook them (and in this case they were still slightly pink). The butternut squash was lovely though so I might use the marinade again for other things. We really enjoyed the pomegranate couscous too.

Next was Chicken marinated in yoghurt with a Georgian plum sauce. This is definitely a weekend dish as the sauce needs making in advance and the chicken needs to marinate for a couple of hours. My sauce wasn't the glossy vibrant pink shown in the book but a rather unattractive sludge brown. Given that it included prunes and dark brown sugar, I think my version is probably a more accurate representation of what you should end up with. It definitely had a kick  but I may have been a little heavy-handed with the garlic and cayenne! I'm not sure I'd make the sauce again but the chicken was lovely and juicy and flavourful. Also, what you can't see here is the green salad on the side which breaks up the otherwise sea of brown!

Overall then, a couple of decent recipes to add to my repertoire, albeit with a few amendments. One thing I did enjoy about the challenge this month was looking back to see what I'd made from Crazy Water during my own challenge 3 years ago and rediscovering other recipes. On the same post which featured this book, I was reminded of a Nigel Slater recipe for chicken with mushrooms and lemongrass and just had to make it. It proved to be just as good as last time :) In fact, I think Chickpea's boyfriend would have licked the plate if we hadn't been in the room!

Next up is Hemsley and Hemsley's Good and Simple.

In other news, it was Chickpea's birthday yesterday. We went out for dinner and just look at the dessert counter! Applewood Farm is renowned for its desserts which is why she chose it. We were so full after the main course though that we had to bring home cakeaways.

And finally, the grebelings have hatched! I haven't been able to get a photo of the new babies yet so here's one from last year. I actually posted it on day 22 of 30 Days Wild which shows just how much earlier they are this year. I'll report back on how many of these stripey beauties there are when I get a better look :)

Have a lovely weekend everyone. xx

Monday, 1 May 2017

Bank Holiday weekend

Ah, bank holidays! Why can't every weekend have one? Ours has been a good mix of home and away, practical and pleasure.

It started on Friday evening with a charity belly dancing event. I wore this tunic which I found in a charity shop this week for a bargain £3! A lovely evening though maybe not what I was expecting. I definitely didn't expect to find that the only drinks were mint tea and water!

Saturday, I went to the theatre with two friends to see I capture the castle. It was a musical production and very good. Later, Chickpea and I watched the film as she'd missed the play because she was out being fitted for a bridesmaid dress. Yes she's being a bridesmaid for her best friend whose getting married in October.

Bank holidays usually mean baking and this one was no exception. One of my all-time favourite recipes, Delia's ginger cake with lemon icing. Yum! And even better the day after when the ginger has had more time to develop.

Less successful were the waffles made in my new cast iron pans. The mixture stuck and burned. Back to the drawing board and the internet to find out how to use the pans properly as the instructions on the box were clearly no help.

This seems to be one of my most common positions on bank holidays: constantly washing up! All that baking and scrubbing of burnt pans. And yes, I still use the old-fashioned method. No dishwashers here.

Water of a different kind in my latest jigsaw. Not my usual subject but I enjoyed this one with all the patterns and colours. I always have a jigsaw on the go and have already started the next one - with a picture of ice cream!

More water and the grebes are back! I was really hoping they'd return after raising two beautiful stripey babies last summer. They're much earlier this year though as it was towards the end of 30 days wild in June when the babies hatched last year. She's been on the nest a couple of weeks now so it looks like we'll be having grebelings before long. So exciting!

There are already babies on the lake though - the first ducklings of the year born earlier this week. Eight here but she only had seven yesterday. I never get tired of watching ducklings.

And so to today and a walk in the woods. Carpets of wild garlic...

...and bluebells.

And smaller patches of wood anemones. My favourite time of year to be in the woods.

Especially when being entertained by water-loving dogs bounding around and chasing sticks.

Back home, I've put up a hanging basket bracket this afternoon from which I'll be hanging bird feeders. I only had a fat ball to hand until I can get a feeder. If you look closely you might be able to see a yellow daffodil in the background. That's also a feeder but the birds have steadfastly refused to have anything to do with it. There are sparrows nesting in next door's eaves and they pop by each evening for a dust bath before bed, squabbling over the best spots. So cute!

And that was our weekend. The cherry blossom has almost blown away now but it's been absolutely glorious this spring.

Hope you had a lovely weekend too. Not long until the next one! xx

Monday, 17 April 2017

Elizabeth Gaskell's Knutsford

Have you had a lovely Easter? We've had a relatively quiet one with lots of gentle pottering and catching up. On Saturday though, we headed out to the small town of Knutsford in Cheshire to follow the Elizabeth Gaskell trail. Officially it's called the Cranford Trail as she based many of the fictional characters on people and buildings in the town. I didn't watch Cranford but did love the mini-series, North and South, based on another of her novels (Richard Armitage - sigh!). Knutsford is a lovely place anyway, even if you're not a Gaskell fan and, last summer, we also did the town trail, following their 'Museum in the Street' signs. This post and photos are mostly the Gaskell/Cranford trail with a bit of the town trail mixed in - apologies in advance that it's pretty long as there's so much to see!

The starting point of the trail is Canute Place where there's a mosaic of King Canute. It's believed that Knutsford is named after him and is the place he built a ford - Canute's ford.

Walking down Canute Square to our next destination, you pass the 16th century White Bear which supposedly takes its name from an incident in 1617 when a bear was taken onto the pulpit of the Chapel of Ease in King Street (photo of that later). It also used to be the departure point of the stagecoach to London.

Heathwaite House, in Gaskell Avenue, was the childhood home of Elizabeth Gaskell. She was born in 1810 in London but her mother died only a year after her birth. She was sent to live with her mother's family, the Hollands, and brought up by her Aunt Lumb ('my more-than-mother').

The house overlooks the Heath, an area of common land. In Elizabeth's day it was the site of a racecourse.

Further along the street is Heath House which in Cranford was the home of the snobbish Mrs Jamieson. In real life, in the 18th century, it belonged to the notorious Edward 'Highwayman' Higgins.

Walking back to town we passed this row of pretty Georgian town houses. We loved the ironwork in the windows above the doors and the little balconies.

Back now in the town centre, we're walking along Princess Street which was the High Street in Cranford. Either the NFU or WHSmith building used to be a teashop ie a shop which sold tea.

At the end of Princess Street is the Old Town Hall, dating from 1871. It's recently been restored and opened as a restaurant and has some really beautiful brickwork.

A short walk away is the Sessions House. Built in 1818, the gaol which stood behind it once housed up to 700 prisoners.

Across the road is Hollingford House which was the home of Dr Peter Holland, Elizabeth's uncle.

Next door is St John the Baptist church where Elizabeth married William Gaskell in 1832. Although they were Unitarians, non-conformist chapels weren't allowed to hold weddings.

She wrote in her diary that the wedding was a happy occasion and most of the houses 'sanded' for the day (decorated the street with brightly coloured sand patterns). Sanding is still part of the Knutsford May Day celebrations.

We walked down the pretty cobbled street to King Street.

Walking to the right, number 15 was the home of Captain Henry Hill, a half pay officer who fought at Waterloo. He's thought to be the inspiration for Cranford's Captain Brown who was disapproved of because he spoke of being poor 'not behind closed curtains...but in the public street'!

There's a lovely row of 17th century whitewashed cottages at this end of the street.

Turning round and walking back towards the town centre, you pass the site of the former Chapel of Ease (mentioned earlier in the bear story) which was also a grammar school.

Over the Easter weekend though it was decorated with a bunny to show it as a site on the Bunny Hop trail. The whole town seemed to be out searching for bunnies that day!

There was also a lovely Victorian postbox outside. I read a fascinating article about old postboxes recently and all the different designs. Most of them have the ER logo for our current Queen but I've started looking out for the older ones now.

Next on the tour is Gaskell Tower, built in 1907 to commemorate the author.

On the side are engraved a list of her works. To be honest I think it's pretty ugly but, hey, I'd be happy to have a tower named after me!

This archway was the location of the Royal George Hotel.

Highwayman Higgins dined here and Queen Victoria visited in 1832. It also featured in both Cranford and Wives and Daughters as a place for dancing and playing cards.

On the opposite side of the road is the birthplace of Sir Henry Holland who was a doctor to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert amongst others and was also Elizabeth's cousin.

This building, currently a Chinese restaurant, was once a grocer and draper's.

Looking down King Street towards Tatton Park - marked by the burgundy sign in the distance.

A little further along is the entrance to a cafe which houses the  Penny Farthing Museum. The bikes hang from the ceiling and decorate the walls. The cafe is always incredibly busy and we've never yet been able to get a table.

Walking through the streets of Knutsford there are some lovely hidden corners including this one. The archway once led to the stables of an inn. The steps you can just make out behind the pink flowers were a mounting block.

My eye was also taken by this old bike with flower-filled baskets, outside an antiques shop.

Finally, at the end of King Street is this pretty blue and white house, the Old Vicarage. As well as featuring in Cranford as the home of the Matty family, it has also been the home of another famous female author. Alison Uttley, author of the Little Grey Rabbit books lived here in around 1910.

Just around the corner are the Ruskin Rooms completed in around 1902. The blue plaque notes that 'A Welcome Club for officers of the American Third Army was opened in this building by General George S Patton, Commanding Officer, on 25th April 1944 prior to the Liberation of Europe June 1944 to May 1945'. Look at the interesting chimney pots on the cottages next door too.

Beyond King Street is the entrance to Tatton Park which is mentioned as the home of the Cumnors in 'Wives and Daughters'. If you've read my blog a while, you'll know we visit Tatton often, though we usually enter by the main entrance at the other side of the park.

This point marked the end of the official trail. However, it seems more fitting to take you instead to a place we missed.

At the opposite end of town lies the Unitarian Brook Street Chapel. It is the oldest place of worship still in use in Knutsford and dates from around 1689. It was built at a time of great change in religious freedom so was built to look like a private house in case the right to worship here was withdrawn.

It is here, in a quiet corner of the small churchyard...

surrounded by her family...

that Elizabeth Gaskell was laid to rest in 1865.

I hope you enjoyed the tour. As you can see, Knutsford is a lovely place to visit with lots of historic buildings, independent shops and Tatton Park on its doorstep. Well worth a visit if you're in the area.

Enjoy what remains of the Easter weekend. Back to work for me tomorrow :( But I have a quilt workshop to look forward to next Saturday :) xx