Saturday, 19 May 2018

Eurovision 2018

Hello, thank you for dropping in.  I'm always pleased to see you here and if you are kind enough to leave a comment, I'll reply.  May is turning out to be a bit lovely: we have had sunshine and warmth during the daytime and I am making the most of my summerhouse, but the nights have been cold, we even had a frost this week so I'm glad I haven't planted out any tender annuals yet. 

This time last week I was up to my elbows in egg custard.  Why?  The Eurovision Song Contest, of course!  If you've been visiting here for a while, you might remember that every year I celebrate this event with a bit of a party, with a buffet featuring recipes from the host nation, score cards and general merriment.  I explained how this has come about in this post three years ago but basically, I've been doing it for more than twenty years.  When Portugal won the contest last year my friend and I were delighted because we've never done Portuguese food before.  "Custard tarts!" I said.  "Salt cod!" she replied, and so the beginning of the menu was born.
We spent the previous week doing online research - neither of us has actually ever been to Portugal, so Thank Goodness for the internet.  We discovered that as well as custard tarts and salt cod, sardines and rice would be essential and the national vegetable seems to be kale.  On Friday I wrote out my recipes, which led to my shopping list, and sallied forth to buy provisions, which enabled me to spend all day Saturday in the kitchen, accompanied by  a profusion of Eurovision songs from past and present on the radio, including an Abba party. Oh, I couldn't have been happier!  I cooked up some sardine pate, corn bread, a warm salad of black-eyed beans and kale and ten custard tarts.  Meanwhile, at her house, my friend was preparing a tomato salad and cooking tomato rice, meatballs, chicken skewers, salt cod fritters and orange cakes.  In a very jolly mood, I packed up my car with food, a bottle of port and my husband and tootled round to her house.
We had a terrific evening in very good company - my friend's sister and her husband had travelled from Sussex on the train especially!   The food was delicious and I intend to make all of my recipes again - in fact, I have already made the bean and kale salad again.  Tom Kitten loved it.  I awarded each act marks for the song, the performance, choreography and costume.  My favourite was Denmark, a stirring Viking anthem backed by drums which was sung by men with long hair wearing long coats and boots and at the snowed!  Honestly, what's not to love about any of that?!  They came eighth.  Netta won for Israel with a quirky performance of a song about female empowerment.  "Avocados!"  I said.  "Hummus!" replied my friend. 
Of course, as a song competition, it doesn't really matter at all, which is just as well because it seems that the UK is unlikely to win it ever again, no matter how good the song or the performance and to be honest, I can't blame Europe for failing to vote for us when our country has voted to leave the European Union.  It's like saying, "We don't want to be friends with you but we want to play your game so please vote for us in your competition."  I don't think so!  I heard a BBC reporter say that it's not really a song contest but a festival of diversity and friendship.  I like that.  For one night a year I can celebrate being in communion with people from a whole host of other nations whilst unashamedly indulging my love of good food, pop music, glamorous costumes, cheesy choreography and... artificial snow.

 May I just return to those custard tarts for a minute?  They tasted divine, subtly flavoured with cinnamon and lemon and because I bought a box of puff pastry from the supermarket, they were not difficult to make.  I used this recipe and I heartily recommend it.  So does Tom Kitten.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

A Family Heirloom

Hello, thank you for calling in.  Is all well?  We are still enjoying warm weather and sunshine.  Isn't it lovely how everything feels better when the sun is shining?
A number of nice things happened during my unintended blogging break, things which I would like to share with you, and today I'm going to tell you about the nicest one of all.
When Alice's first grandchild was born in 1955, she commissioned her friend and neighbour, Betty, to knit a Christening gown for the baby, a girl, to wear.  Alice could knit herself, but Betty was a more skillful knitter and the gown she made of soft, white, 2 ply wool was beautiful, the lacework incredibly fine and even.  The gown was long, as is traditional, and lined with white satin and through the eyeholes was threaded a fine, white, organza ribbon.  Here is a photo of the gown, the baby and her mother in 1956.

In 1965 Alice's third grandchild was born, another girl - me.  Betty was fond of my mother so she knitted a shawl to match the gown she had knitted a decade earlier, a gift for the new baby.  I was Christened, wearing the gown and wrapped in the shawl, in the spring of that year.  

 In 1971 the gown was worn again by Alice's sixth grandchild, another girl.  Here she is, on the lap of her other grandmother.

And here is Alice with that baby on her knee, surrounded by one of her daughters and four more of her granddaughters.  That's me kneeling at the front on the right, wearing the pink dress!

On Mothering Sunday 1973 Alice's ninth grandchild, another girl, wore the gown for her Christening.   

After this, the gown was washed, carefully wrapped and stowed away for a generation until Mothering Sunday 1996, when The Mathematician wore it for her Thanksgiving.  "Let's have a look at the family heirloom," said my aunt.  So here I am, carefully holding my lovely girl in a way which shows off said heirloom while one of my sisters ensures it is properly draped.  (You've met my sisters earlier in this post!)

The gown was carefully wrapped and stowed away again for another generation. Last year, the gown was passed to me.  Oh, the responsibility!  When The Teacher asked me if Tom Kitten could wear it for his Thanksgiving in March, my heart skipped a little beat.  We unwrapped it together and were dismayed to see that it was yellowed and stained!  However, I did not stay daunted for long. After all, I earned my Laundress badge in the Girl Guides and that may have been in 1978 but wool is wool and the rules hold true - tepid water, no wringing or spinning, just gentle squeezing before wrapping in a thick towel.  I searched online for advice about stain removal and discovered that my usual products would eat the wool.  Yikes!  So, I approached the task very gently, with a specialist wool washing liquid and a couple of quick squirts of Vanish.  Hmm.  The result was an improvement, but not perfect.  I searched online again and sent the Best Beloved out to buy some distilled vinegar.  I soaked the gown in a solution of vinegar and water before rinsing it thoroughly and allowing it to dry.  This time, the result was much better - still not perfect, but much better.  We took out the stained organza ribbon and replaced it with new green ribbon, which hid the most obvious stain.  The Teacher was thrilled.

I was worried about Tom Kitten's head and his feet as early March can be very cold, so I used my mother's 1960s knitting patterns and knitted him a bonnet and some bootees in 3 ply wool.  I threaded them with more of the green ribbon and send the parcel over to The Teacher.

While the Best Beloved and I were driving to the church, The Teacher dressed Tom Kitten and sent me this photo.

And here we are, the six of us who have worn the family heirloom over the last sixty-two years, four granddaughters, one great-granddaughter and one great, great-grandson of Alice. 

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Weeping Window

Hello, thank you for being here.  I am glad to see you.  The sun has been shining and we seem to have leapt from winter straight to summer, bypassing spring completely!  Such are the vagaries of the British climate and I'm not complaining about it, I'm really not, I'm well aware that we wouldn't have such a green and pleasant land without it.  Also, we wouldn't have so much to talk about.
Do you remember that in 2014 a work of art entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red caught the public imagination when it was installed at the Tower of London to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War?  The work, by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, comprised 888,246 ceramic red poppies, one for each British or Colonial serviceman killed during the war, and was made up of three segments: Weeping Window, a cascade which seemed to pour down from a window in the tower, Wave, an arch around the Tower entrance, and the sea of poppies which filled the moat.  More than five million people went to see the installation and so it was agreed that Weeping Window and Wave should be bought for the nation while the rest of the poppies were sold off to raise money for six service charities. 
Weeping Window and Wave have been touring the country since 2015 and in March Weeping Window, comprising 5,500 poppies, was installed at Hereford Cathedral.  I planned to go and see it during the Easter holiday, but the weather was so poor that I kept putting it off, waiting for a brighter day which never came, and in the end the Best Beloved and I didn't get there until 29th April, its final day in Hereford.  The day was dry, which was a relief as some of my friends had seen it two days before in the pouring rain, but overcast and bitterly cold.  We walked through the gates and were greeted by this sight.
I found it almost overwhelming.  There was quite a crowd of people there, some perhaps passing through the Cathedral grounds on their way to somewhere else, some obviously walking their dogs, there were children running and laughing as they played beneath the trees, oblivious to the significance of the huge cascade in front of them.  It felt almost like an ordinary Sunday morning, except that it wasn't ordinary at all because we were there remembering the horrors of the First World War, obviously.  I had woken up that morning convinced that I needed to read some poetry while I was there, and so I did, aloud.  Please don't misunderstand me, this was a personal commemoration, not a public one so I didn't "declaim", I simply stood and read aloud in my ordinary conversational voice, and then I played The Last Post on my smartphone - that was an impulse, but I think it was a good one.  I read Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, The Death of Harry Patch by Sir Andrew Motion and Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the poem by an unknown soldier which Paul Cummins found while doing his preparatory research.  I am sure that the people who were close to me and heard me thought that I was bonkers but I can live with that; I paid my respects.

If you would like to see the poppies, Weeping Window will be at Carlisle Castle later this month and then Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent before arriving at its permanent home in the Imperial War Museum, London in October.  Wave is currently at the Royal Armouries in Fort Nelson in Portsmouth and later this year will move to the Imperial War Museum, North in Manchester, which will be its permanent home.  You can find out the details here.  The installations are free to view and I think you have already guessed that I recommend them. 
Just as we were about to leave, the sun came out for a few moments and I instructed asked the Best Beloved to whip out his camera and take some more photos.  He did.

Many people were taking selfies featuring the poppies behind them and I asked the Best Beloved if we should ask someone to take our photo with the installation as we are absolutely hopeless at selfies.  He was adamant that we should not; he thought it was disrespectful.  I love him for that.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x


Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Finding the Unexpected in Brithdir

Hello.  Thank you for dropping in, and if you've been dropping in for a while, looking to see if I have written a new post, thank you for your patience; you've been waiting for far longer than I intended.
Sometimes a blog post takes me in an unexpected direction and I end up in a different place from my intended destination.
"It says that it's on the B4416 at Brithdir," I said to the Best Beloved as we drove through the village, just outside Dogellau in the Snowdonia National Park, "There's Ty Glas Farm B&B so it's somewhere here on the left; if we get to the school, we've gone too far."  The Best Beloved spotted the noticeboard on the roadside and parked the car.  We had arrived at St Mark's Church, "one of the most remarkable Arts and Crafts churches in Britain" according to Simon Jenkins in his book Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles.  A rusting sign on the heavy gate announced that the rhododendrons in the churchyard, which had been collected by the botanist Mary Richards, were being pruned as part of a management scheme which would take several years.  I had never heard of Mary Richards - remember her name, I shall come back to her later - but I could see the rhododendron bushes, so many of them that I could barely see the church.  If I had driven past in June when the rhododendrons are in flower, they would have shown me where the church is. 
I pushed open the gate and found myself at the foot of a small flight of steps.  I love a flight of steps, they hold so much promise, enticing me up to whatever lies at the top.  This one looked as if it was not trodden very often and the abundance of moss, together with the rust on the aforementioned sign, which was only nine years old, told me that this churchyard receives more than its fair share of rain.
 Once at the top of the steps I could see the church peeping through the overgrown trees and shrubs.

Once up close, I found the stonework fascinating, the rain having persuaded the minerals to reveal their true colours in shades of red and green.  The architect apparently wanted the stone, which was quarried locally, to be left rough and undressed, as if the building had risen up out of the earth, but the builder couldn't bear to do it and made it smooth.  The north door was locked so we walked around the building to the south porch and realised that we had found the main entrance, with a carriage drive leading to it.  I turned the handle, gave the door a good shove, walked in and gasped.  This is why -
This is not what I expected to see in a remote Welsh village.  I certainly didn't expect to see an apse at the east end, because I had walked around that end of the building and there were definitely corners on the outside!  Would you like to see the view from the false apse, looking towards the west end? -


The striking colour scheme is the original one - in fact, the reason for the church's Grade 1 listing is that it is "A highly important and unaltered example of the work of Henry Wilson, a leading figure of the Arts and Crafts movement."  When Rev Charles Tooth died in 1894 his widow, Louisa, had this church at Brithdir built in his memory.  Charles was the founder of St Mark's English Church in Florence and Louisa wanted his memorial to reflect that Italian experience in its style.  She commissioned Henry Wilson, a London-based architect, designer and craftsman who was a member of the newly-established Art Workers' Guild, to build and furnish the church and work began in 1895.  Louisa took a keen interest in the work and over the three years it took to complete the church she wrote more than seventy letters to Henry.
So, would you like a little tour?  I'll begin with that altar: it was cast in copper by Henry and shows an Annunciation scene.  Mary is on the left, there's a child angel in the middle and on the right are two adults, one being Rev Charles Tooth himself and the other his guardian angel.  The reredos, that copper screen behind the altar, was also cast by Henry.  I've never seen anything like it before.
The pulpit, also designed by Henry, is made of beaten copper.
The choir stalls, made of Spanish chestnut, were designed by Henry but carved by Arthur Grove and there are beautiful animals on them.  I was very taken by the tortoise.

The font is the only lead font in Wales and was designed by Henry, modelled by Arthur and then actually cast at the Central School of Art and Design in London, where Henry was teaching from 1896.

The doors are made of oak and teak and inlaid with ebony and mother-of-pearl.
 There is no stained glass in the windows but they are intricately leaded, the one above the altar revealing a small heart.  I was taken by that, too, and I wondered about Henry's intention: was it to reflect God's love for his people, or Louisa's love for Charles, or both, or something else?

So there you are, one man's vision, from building to furnishings to colour scheme.  Henry actually wrote that "the chief merit of Brithdir is that it is personal... what is done at Brithdir must live, because it has come out of my own life."  St Mark's is now redundant and was adopted by the Friends of Friendless Churches in 2005, only 107 years after it was consecrated.  The church is open all the time for those who want to visit but the visitors' book confirmed that those steps were telling the truth, they were not trodden often. 

That evening, the Best Beloved and I were chatting with a local couple in a restaurant in Dolgellau (pronounced Doll-geth-lie).  They told us that the church belonged to Caerynwch and that they went to a carol service there a couple of Christmases ago.  I doubted this but they were quite sure, saying that "Andrew and Hilary" had recently sold the big house but may have retained the land, so when we got home, I started delving into the internet.  I should say that my first triumph was finding out how to spell Caerynwch, which they had pronounced "Carnook"!  I discovered that Louisa was a widow when she married Charles Tooth, her first husband having been Richard Meredydd Richards, owner of...the Caerynwch estate!  Louisa inherited both land and money from her father when he died and from her first husband, so she was a wealthy woman when she commissioned Henry Wilson to build St Mark's and gave the land to the Church.  Andrew Richards, the current owner of the Caerynwch estate, is Louisa's great-grandson, and he did indeed sell the house, although not the surrounding estate, three years ago - I found this link if you'd like to have a look (it's quite grand).  And do you remember Mary Richards, the botanist?  She was Louisa's daughter-in-law, Andrew's grandmother, awarded the MBE for services to botany in 1969.  She brought those rhododendrons back from China in the early years of the twentieth century.
I began with a visit to an Arts and Crafts church and ended up researching the history of the local estate.  I enjoyed the visit, and the journey.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

January Celebrations

Hello.  Thank you for dropping in, it's lovely to see you here.  It's the last day of January and the sun is shining here, although it's cold enough for me to be wearing a scarf indoors.  January can be difficult, can't it, after the fun and sparkle of Christmas and New Year?  A time to get back into the old routines, made more dreary by cold, wet, grey days.  Everyone seems to be desperately searching for signs of spring - there are snowdrops aplenty on social media, labelled as spring flowers, but really they are winter flowers, aren't they?  The truth is that, astronomically speaking, we are not quite halfway through winter.  For me, it's a question of mindset, I have treated January as the winter month she is and, with no expectations of spring sunshine and warmth, it's been fine.  I have sat by the fire in the evenings, a blanket over my legs and a mug of hot chocolate in my hand, hunkering down in my nest, reading books, crocheting blankets and watching television.
However, this hibernation has been punctuated by celebrations which have definitely satisfied any longings we had for fun and sparkle .  First, there was The Mathematician's birthday: we filled up the car with family, cards, gifts, flowers, cake and love and drove over to Loughborough to spend the afternoon with her.  
I must tell you about this cake:  fifteen months ago we visited Portchester Castle with the Best Beloved's family.  The church which lies inside the castle walls operates a café and as the weather was kind for the time of year, we sat outside to drink our tea and coffee and eat cake in the sunshine.  Some of us had the ginger cake which was so extraordinarily good that others of us, who had eaten other cake, then bought ginger cake on our recommendation!  I mean, this cake made us gasp, it was sooooo good.  My niece went inside and asked for the recipe and was told that it was very strange and included fresh ginger, black pepper, water and oil.  Armed with that information, I hunted around the internet and eventually found the recipe here.  I'm not sure that I got the oven timings right - I made the usual adjustments for a fan oven but they weren't right and I think the instructions were actually written for a fan oven - and I know that my decorating skills are, ahem, "rustic" but, gentle readers, the cake was a triumph (she says, blushing modestly)!  Zingy ginger with a warm background of cinnamon, cloves and, of course, that black pepper, perfect on a wintry day.  It feeds ten people easily and I shall definitely be making it again. 
Our second celebration was a few days later, when we went to the University of Warwick to see The Teacher receive a Master of Arts degree.  I have been to several graduation ceremonies before but this one was special.  Please allow me this outburst of parental pride.
The third celebration was on the 24th January when I celebrated the life and works of Robert Burns in a Welsh household with some other English friends!  It's forty years since I went to a Burns Lunch and I've never been to a Burns Supper, and I don't really know why we were doing it on the wrong day, but I took with me some suitable Scottish postcards from my 1970s scrapbook and introduced my friends to the Selkirk Grace and the traditional Gaelic toast of "Slainte Mhath" (Good Health).  We ate haggis, neeps, tatties and carrots -
followed by cranachan -
and finished with cheese and biscuits.  This is Caboc, which was first made in Scotland in the fifteenth century and which I don't think I have eaten since I left there in 1979, but now that I have discovered that I can order it online and it will be delivered to my house the next day, I shan't be leaving it for another thirty-nine years before I eat it again!  It was just as delicious as I remembered it to be.
So that was January.  I almost wrote "I got through it" because I know that many people regard it as a month to be got through, but that seems a bit unfair on all the people who have birthdays this month (there are four of them in our family) and actually, I have done more than that, I have celebrated it. 
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Saturday, 13 January 2018

A Box of Delights

Happy New Year!  I was pleased to see the back of 2017 and am hoping for better things in 2018.  As ever, I am delighted that anyone is reading my witterings so Thank You for dropping in.
The Mathematician has gone back to university but before she left us, she went to Paris for a few days.  So grown up!  She brought back a gift for her father and me: this very beautiful cardboard box.

Isn't it gorgeous?  This colour is, apparently, Napoleon Blue (although some might call it Tiffany Blue) and the silver decoration "pays tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte style".  The box is small, not quite 15cm by 5cm, and all the decoration is silver.  It looks elegant, delicate and expensive, just like the other me, the me I could have been, and may once have aspired to be, but am not.  It currently sits by my bed so that I can look at it and daydream about the possibilities it conjures, and I can't help looking at it often.  Who would have thought that something as simple as a cardboard box could cast such a spell?  Have you heard of Laduree, fondee en 1862?  I hadn't but if you have, you probably know what was in the box.

Six perfect macarons were nestled within, encased in waxed paper.  These refined and delicious morsels were utterly worthy of such a box.  We cut them in half and shared them between us, swooning over each luxurious bite.  We felt properly spoilt.  Obviously, they deserved to be served on my best china, Royal Doulton's Sherbrooke, and here are three of them on a standard tea plate so that you can see just how small they were.

This little gift cost 18 euros, or £16, which seems an awful lot of money for six small macarons but of course, what it really bought was an experience, the opportunity to imagine that I inhabit a different sort of life and a beautiful box full of promise.
I know, I am ridiculous!
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Saturday, 30 December 2017

On the Sixth Day of Christmas

Happy Christmas!  Are you still celebrating, or is it all over for you?  We begin our decorating and celebrating later than most people and I like to keep going for the whole twelve days.
Tradition is important to us at Christmas, the same rituals being performed year after year, reminding us of Christmases past and the shared memories cementing us together but as time moves on some things change and some rituals are discarded because they simply don't fit any more.  So, on the First Day of Christmas The Mathematician bounded into our bedroom to sit on our bed and open the small gifts which Father Christmas had left for her while she was sleeping, even though she is twenty-one years old.  There was the familiar clementine, the chocolate money, the small box of her favourite chocolates and the new treats which befit her age.  Later, she drove us to her sister's house where, in a break from tradition, we opened our gifts and shared the feast, set on a table laid with my great grandmother's tablecloth.  Everyone had a hand in preparing this feast but my only contribution was making stock with a chicken carcass the previous day which the Best Beloved then used to make the gravy which we took with us.  I got off pretty lightly and I am hugely grateful for a day in which I neither cooked nor washed up. 

On the Second Day of Christmas The Teacher, Tom Kitten and Flashman went to his parents' house and the Best Beloved, The Mathematician and I went to Blists Hill Victorian Town for a grown-up brunch in the Forest Glen Refreshment Pavilion.  We were greeted with fizz and canapés before eating a hot breakfast, then we indulged in croissants and bagels before finishing with chocolate tiffin and hot chocolate.  There were Christmas crackers, white linen tablecloths and a happy atmosphere and afterwards, beneath pale sunshine, we wandered around the museum for a while.  It was a new way for us to spend Boxing Day and we all enjoyed it.

The picture in the middle of this photo shows the Forest Glen in its original setting at the foot of The Wrekin.  The building was moved to Blists Hill in the early 1990s. 

I love these "paper" chains - they are made of felt and stitched together.


On the Third Day of Christmas we went to Cardiff to join the rest of my family, as we have done on this day for the last few years - my parents, my sisters, their partners and my niece and nephews.  There were twenty-one of us.  We always go to the theatre together in the afternoon on this day but this year, there was something important for us to do together first: we said our goodbyes to my grandparents.  It is several years since they died but we have been waiting for the right time and the right occasion, and this was it.  My father had bought two large planters for the garden and into each he tipped some compost, and then we added my grandparents' ashes.  One by one we came forward, first my parents, then me, my sisters and our children, and each of us shared a memory while using a trowel to add some of the ashes to the planters.  Some of the memories were funny, all were fond; when the youngest boy, born two years after my grandmother died, said, "But I didn't know Nanny," my father gently replied, "Then just come and say goodbye," and he did.  When all were done, we charged our glasses and raised a toast.  We would have like to sing but our hearts wouldn't let our voices rise.  It was beautiful, very moving and just right and although it may seem strange to have left it for years, those years meant that we were no longer overwhelmed by grief and could remember Nanny and Gramps as they were, rather than focus on our own loss. 
The theatre?  Miss Saigon and it was good, the helicopter was amazing, but I wish the singers' diction had been better so that I could have made out all the words. 

On the Fourth Day of Christmas we left Cardiff and my family and slowly drove home through heavy traffic.  We just made it to Birmingham Airport in time for The Mathematician to catch her flight to Paris, where she is spending the New Year.  She's so grown up!
On the Fifth Day of Christmas the Best Beloved and I gave ourselves a special gift: a day for just ourselves.  I really do love being with my family, especially at this time of year, and I loved spending lots of time with my friends during the week before Christmas, but I was ready for a quiet day.  I drank buckets of tea, ate some chocolate, did quite a lot of crochet, watched a film and didn't leave the house.  I enjoyed the lights on the Christmas tree and the candles on the mantelpiece.  I didn't speak to anyone except the Best Beloved and I thought about my grandparents a lot.  It was a refreshing, restorative day. 
I know that Christmas is a difficult time for some people and if you are one of those people, you are probably feeling relieved that it's over.  I've been there and I really do understand that.  However, for me this year, it's not over yet and I am cherishing these days of small treats when the pressures and distractions of day-to-day life are put aside.  Tonight we'll open a bottle of wine, light up the mantelpiece and the Christmas tree and count our blessings.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x