Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year Resolution . . .

. . . Is not to leave so long between posts. So, spurred on by a kindly prod from Mary Addison [whose fascinating embroidery blog is much recommended],  here is a rapid catch up of what has been a wonderful year in lots of small ways. First of course, the new comer: Betsy Billings born 28 March, and now trying valiantly to walk as well as her big brother Lenny - seen right waiting to walk on as Father Christmas. After the long cold spring came one of the best summers for a long time - happily co-inciding with a wonderful new harbour for two-thirds of my Thames fleet - Wizard, a Mirror dinghy acquired with grandchildren in mind, and the good punt Dulcibella were conveniently ensconced at the end of Brian and Jean Carroll's garden, which runs down to the Thames just above Bablockhythe. Tilly, Tom and Meg made the most of her, while Dulcibella repaid her pretty mooring under a weeping willow by taking guests to the Carroll's daughter's post-wedding lunch for short cruises up the Thames.

 This year, I had a lazy time on the water, no great ambitions, just poling between Northmoor Lock and the Ferry Inn, where a nicely chilled half-pint of cider became a regular tradition, then mooring in a remote backwater for a swim and relaxed research with books to gather material for my forthcoming (April 2014) literary anthology Pleasures of the Garden. The trip to Lewis in April inspired me with an interest in geology, and I did an excellent weeklong afternoon course on Wiltshire's geology at Marlborough Summer School. Great opportunity to visit old haunts and old friends, and the course was an excellent mixture of theory and excursions, on which Leo could come too. I stopped to gaze at Clements Meadow, our home for ten years, and luckily was noticed by the lady of the house - when she heard we'd lived there, she invited me to look round - it is now immeasurably grand with indoor swimming pool and gym; the larder a loo, the butler's pantry a chintz banquette. And on the market, as it happened, for fifteen times what we sold it for. Still, no regrets.
Clements Meadow and its new owner
Funny seeing the 'Adam' pine fireplace we found in Kirkcudbright and painstakingly stripped and put in still ensconced, and sad that the dining-room panelling has all been taken out. But it needed much wealthier owners than we were, and it was great to see it so well looked after. I rather miss the printing presses - we had a Victoria treadle platen and a Columbian, complete with eagle rising and falling. Too big for our first Oxford house, this lived for many years in the barn of friends' cottage on the slopes of the Brecon Beacons, but was sold in the early 1990s. Pity: I now have room for it again, and it is tempting to take up letterpress printing once more. I still have a wooden block alphabet and lots of picture blocks, including some very rare ones by Robert Gibbings for his never published Erehwon.
But I digress, as one does when revisiting old haunts. There was quite a bit of that this year, including Brecon and (left) Claed-waen-hir [sp?] in June, and Cornwall and (right) Surfside in November. The view to Godrevy lighthouse was as miraculous as ever. I was disappointed of moonsets, but  loved the introduction of sand-yachts to the never-ending beach. Gwithian and Hayle Bay excellent on geological rock formations too, and more rockface work was offered by taking part in the scouring of the Uffington White Horse - which was so much fun that I am determined to make it an annual excursion. Another ancient monument was visited in July, when Henry Eliot, the enterprising re-enactor of the journey of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims form Southwark to Canterbury, appealed to me to get involved in a similar tour of sites mentioned in Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur.
We spent the night in Amesbury, where Guinevere is reputedly buried in the Abbey, then had a privileged early morning visit to Stonehenge, where Merlin and Meligraunce told their tales. On then to Camelot in the shape of Cadbury Castle, where more Knights of the Table Round
held forth to an admiring audience of us and a large but fortunately docile herd of Holstein heifers. Then on to Glastonbury, and moving accounts of the apparent death but hopeful resurrection of Rex Quondam Futurusque.
The warm and tranquil summer meant much rewarding gardening - bumper crops of red and blackcurrants, Borlotti beans, firapple potatoes and tomatoes. I discovered answer to glut of tomatoes: halve and spread in large roasting pan with drizzle of olive oil, and sprinklings of salt and sugar [essential] and leave to rot in bottom of Aga/slow oven for at least four hours. Sumptuous result to flavour most things, or just eat. There was also a magnificent quince harvest, resulting in much delicious quince jelly - easily the easiest way of coping with these concrete hard fruits. Cover with water and boil whole until soft enough to cut up, then let cook more slowly; strain through jelly bag ( a pillowcase will do) and add rather less than half as much weight of sugar.
In early September I treated myself to a week with Gillian Crampton Smith and Phil Tabor in Venice.
Lovely weather enabled us to eat both breakfast and supper on their twin roof terraces.
We also had a great day out to Vicenza, admiring Palladio's many villas, most of all the Villa Valmarano al Nani - the Villa of the Dwarfs. Apparently it was entirely staffed by dwarfs to prevent its young owner from realising that she was unusually limited in stature. Photographs showed that it was badly bombed in the war; now it is marvellously restored.
I'm not a Henley person but I did enjoy picnicking in John Eade's elegant punt tied up to the centre river boom right at the finish line.

It was also very good to rejoin Medley Sailing Club, undoubtedly the most congenial riverside sailing club imaginable, ghastly as the panda-faced Stalag Luft Seven buildings erected by the University at Castle Mill are. Roll on their being shortened, clad in timber, covered with vigorous creepers or, preferably, obliterated. But Gipsy, British Moth 852, is very happy to be back home,
September brought some lovely pictures from new young scholars - Fox on the left, Meg on the right: long may their enthusiasm last. Since then I've been immured in the garden fastness of my well-insulated workhut [much warmer than the house itself, especially when the sun floods in through its many windows, working on Alyce: Book of the Duchess. First draft is now being read by various daughters. I know it isn't good enough yet, but perhaps one day it will be. As to more realistic books, an advance copy of Pleasures of the Garden (to be published in April 2014) has just arrived, generously illustrated, and looking very handsome and substantial. It was great fun to comb great gardening writers to create a collection of horticultural gems, and it is wonderful to be able to make the most of the British Library's magnificent picture resources. The British Library have now commissioned a new literary anthology provisionally titled Pleasures of the Table – and Pleasures of Parenting may be on the horizon.