Monday, 14 March 2011

My Family and Other Books!

TODAY I was a guest blogger on the Vulpes Libris site, writing about my family's bookish eccentricities, which was very exciting, and provoked huge respose - I was really touched by the number of people who visited the wonderful VP site ( and left a comment. So, a big THANK YOU to everyone who took a look, and to the guys at Vulpes Libris for inviting me.

Anyway, since I was in writing mood, and since I can't review my current reading matter because I haven't finished it yet, I have been writing about writing ... but you will have to turn to my other blog...

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Let's Drink a Toast - to Tea!

TODAY, let’s drink a toast to... tea! Or, to be more precise, to Charles Grey, the second Earl of Howick, who was born on this day in 1764 and after whom Earl Grey tea was named. However, although he is best known for this delicate, fragrant brew, Earl Gray deserves recognition for his other achievements, which were far more important.

A Whig politician, he became Prime Minister in 1830, serving a four-year term of office. During that time he was responsible for the introduction of the Reform Act, which gave the vote to most British men, and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.

According to one story, while he was PM a member of a diplomatic mission to China saved the life of a Mandarin – who was so grateful he sent the Earl a specially scented tea. The blend was copied, became extremely popular in Britain, and came to be known as Earl Grey tea. Other legends claim it was the Mandarin’s son who was saved, and give an earlier date for the gift.
Not only is there dispute about the Earl Gray’s origin, but there is also argument about the type of tea which should be used - some people claim it is not Chinese at all, but a mix of Indian and Ceylon. However, Jacksons of Piccadilly claim that Lord Grey gave the original recipe to them, and maintain it should be made from black Chinese leaves.

What is not in doubt is the flavouring which gives this beverage its unique taste. Bergamot oil is the magical ingredient, obtained not from the English garden herb, but from a bitter citrus fruit known as the bergamot orange.

Earl Grey tea can take a little getting accustomed to, especially if you favour the kind of brew which makes the spoon stand upright. Chinese tea has a very delicate flavour, and the addition of bergamot gives it a lovely lemony, flowery kind of taste – and the fragrant aroma is quite heavenly. It smells of summer and sunshine, and conjures up pictures of tea on the lawn in a bygone era, with damask table cloths, crustless sandwiches and tiny cakes, while bees buzz among the flower borders.

If you’re feeling down, a sure-fire way to lift your spirits is to make Earl Grey (preferably with loose leaves, not tea bags), in a ‘proper’ china pot (sadly, I dropped mine, so am making do with a glass ne instead) let it brew for a few minutes, pour it out (don’t forget the tea strainer!) into a beautiful china cup, with a matching saucer… shut your eyes, take a deep breath, then open your eyes (it’s never a good idea to consume hot drinks while your eyes are closed), take a sip – and enjoy.

You can drink it as it is, with milk or, better still, with a slice of fresh lemon – and a home-made shortbread biscuit. It may sound a long-winded way of brewing a ‘cuppa’ but, believe me, Earl Gray tea is something special, and the ritual involved in making it just adds to the magic.

If you need more detailed advice, then the late Douglas Adams wrote a brilliant piece on making Earl Gray tea (aimed at visiting Americans) which you can find at

Failing that, you could boldly go and follow the example of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, by firmly uttering the words : “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” You may not have a replicator at hand to dispense the required beverage, but hopefully one of your nearest and dearest may obey orders and march to the kitchen to switch the kettle on.

Anyway, what better way to celebrate the man who abolished slavery and reformed the British voting system than to raise a cup and drink a toast with the brew named after him – Earl Gray.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Cathedrals, Bookshops and Tea

CATHEDRALS, bookshops, tea and friendship illuminated my day. A friend and I went to Birmingham, where we visited both branches of Waterstones, both cathedrals (the Anglican and the Catholic) - and sat down a couple of times to rest our feet and enjoy a hot drink (coffee for her and tea for me).

Bookshops, obviously, are always a joy, especially as Tamworth doesn't possess a proper bookshop. I went intending to buy another copy of Seamus Heaney's Burial at Thebes since, much to my annoyance, I lost the copy I bought recently and desperately need a replacement as it is part of my OU course. Unfortunately neither branch had a copy, but helpful staff at the New Street store have arranged to get one sent over from another shop - so I bought an edition of Sophocles' Antigone instead.

Then we headed off for the St Philip's, the Anglican Cathedral, with its fabulous Burne-Jones windows, their glowing colours so intense that on first viewing they almost shock. The windows were donated by the artist, who was born nearby and was baptised in the church. Originally built as a parish church in the early 18th century, St Philip's didn't become a cathedral until 1905, so lacks the ancient feel of places like Lichfield or Chichester, and is quite small - it is, apparently the third smallest cathedral in England (I sometimes how statistics of this type are collected and analysed, and who carries out the work - does someone travel around the country with a tape measure checking out the size of cathedrals and historic budilings?)

Anyway, although the building is described as Baroque, which I always think of as being very decorative, it seems almost plain, despite the imposing columns, the gilding and the beautiful wrought iron altar rail. But it is a lovely, friendly place, providing an oasis of calm in the middle of a busy city, and it plays an active role in the community for as well as being a place of worship it hosts a packed programme of concerts and is also involved in a project to help the homeless.

St Chad's, Birmingham's Roman Catholic cathedral, is very different. Designed by Augustus Pugin the greatest exponent of the Gothic Revival, it is incredibly ornate. The impact of the exterior is a little lost now, with a constant stream of vehicles passing by, and modern buildings crowding in, so nothing prepared me for the blaze colour and decoration as I walked inside. Tiles, floors, doors, windows and ceiling - everything is carved and painted and gilded and patterned within an inch of its life. It could be tacky, but it is absolutely glorious, and I could only marvel at the genius of its creator, for Pugin not only designed the exterior, but also the interior, as well as the church furnishings and vestements for the clergy.

Later alterations and additions were carried out by three of sons and, later still, by his grandson, who all held true to his ideals. Even though the building is based on Medieval churches, it remains irretrievably modern - because, presumably, it has not yet had time to fade and weather - but it's worth remembering that in the Middle Ages, before the Reformation, many English churches would have been brightly painted and decorated.

We browsed in the cathedral's excellent bookshop before heading back home - where we relaxed over more tea and discussions about favourite books and poems... all in all in was a lovely and interesting day.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

It's Pancake Day!

TODAY is Shrove Tuesday - better known as Pancake Day - which is the day before the start of Lent, when Medieval Christians used to make their pre-Lenten confessions, or 'shrifts' (from which the day takes its name) and could then be shriven, which means they received absolution for their sins. It was the feast before the fast, a day of feasting when people sized the chance to eat any luxury food that was still left before the Lenten fasting period kicked in, so things like eggs were mixed flour and turned into pancakes, a tradition which continues to this day in many parts of Europe.

Fairs and carnivals, like the Mardi Gras, are still held in many place, while some also stage pancake races and Shrove Tuesday Ball Games, like the ones held at Atherstone, in Warwickhire, or Ashbourne in Derbyshire. The Atherstone game has few rules, and involves teams scrambling for the ball as the mass of bodies surges up and down the main street. Whoever is left holding the specially-made ball when the final klaxon sounds is the winner, and is accorded iconic status by the townsfolk.

The game has been held every year since King John offered a bag of gold to the victors in a match between the Warwickshire Lads and the Leicestershire Lads but, according to local historian John Austin it may owe its origins to the camp football played by Roman soldiers at nearby Mancetter.

Shrove Tuesday is always 47 days before Easter Sunday, and Lent - the run-up to Easter - represents the 40 days Jesus spent in the wildnerness (but Sundays are not counted). Traditionally, Christians marked Lent with sprayer, fasting and almsgiving, and many people still follow this custom by giving up something they enjoy during this period, whether it is a personal choice to abstain from chocolate, or a community decision to hold events like Lenten Lunches, which make us think those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

You may not be a Christian. You may not be religious. But it is always good to puse and reflect on life, and Lent is a good a time to think about the world and your place in it. However, the emphasis of Lenten traditions seems somehow to be on the negative, rather than the positive; they are about 'not doing' rather than 'doing'. Perhaps, instead of using it as a period of abstention we should think more about how to improve the quality of life, for ourselves and far others. Something as simple as smiling at someone you pass in the street, or thanking a bus driver or shop assistant could make their day better.

Christian Aid, which runs its main fund-raising campaign during Lent, is urging us all Count Your Blessings and has drawn up a list of daily actions which will not only make you do that, but will also help provide practical assistance for those in need. The charity is using modern technology to get the message across - there is a website at and a pdf showing what you can do to help at ( In addition you can follow the Count Your Blessings journey and read about the daily actions on Twitter, by going to and searching for#cyblessings.

*The picture is from the BBC ood Food website ( which has some lovely recipes, and really clear instructions on how to make pancakes.

Monday, 7 March 2011

A Birthday Girl

TODAY was Elder Daughter's birthday, and her celebrations seem set to go on all week. So far she's been partying since Friday, and shows no signs of easing off yet awhile! This is the fourth night running she's been out with friends, and she's had a Birthday Breakfast (I made her bacon and egg sarnies); a Birthday Cake and Birthday Dinners.
I won't reveal how old is she is, but I do remember that when she was born it was snowing, big flakes of snow drifting down outide the window, and when The Man of the House collected us to take us home great piles of snow were piled up each side of the road, and it was so icy I couldn't push her around without slipping over - it was three weeks before the weather cleared.
Today, by contrast, was like a spring day should be. It was warm, the sun shone from a cloudless blue sky, birds sang and flowers bloomed in gardens, parks, grass verges and roundabouts.
We celebrated by going for a coffee and looking for new dresses, but neither of us found anything we liked, so I bought some lovely cheerful material, red with spots, and plan to get the ewing machine out and have a go at making something. When I first started work I used to sew lots of my own clothes, and I made things for The Daughters when they were small - I was a dab hand at dunagrees on those days! I am not sure whether I can remember how to use a sewing machine, but I won't know unless I try - all I need is a pattern!
By the time we went out I had already been to town once, intending to buy cat food, loo paper and other essentials - but arrived back home with two bags of books! (Read about the on my other blog, The Book Trunk, at Then, of course, I had to buy the thing I forgot to get, so I seem to have been out and about all day, but it was so nice I didn't mind.
Anyway, as well as being Lucy's Birthday, today is also the Feast of St Easterwine, about whom ver little seems to be known, beyond the fact that he was a 7th or 8th century abbot of Wearmouth. But he has such a wonderful name I think we should celebrate him - perhaps by eating an Easter egg, or drinking wine - or both!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Breakfast with Windy Winnold

TODAY'S saint is Winnold, otherwise known as Winwaloe, Saint Winnol or Winwaloc who, as I said yesterday, is the subject of this charming rhyme: "First comes David, then comes Chad, And then comes Winnold, as if he were mad." It is, apparently, an allusion to the boistrous winds which often blow at this at this time of the year.

Unfortunately, although my trusty book of saints quotes this rhyme, it doesn't give any details about St Winnold, but searching online threw up some information ( It seems Winnold was a Breton abbot, who was trained by St Budoc on an island called Laurea, and later became a hermit on the island of Tibidy, off the Breton coast. Apparently he wore garments made from goat hair or goatskin, and fishes made their way to him when he rang a bell (though whether they came to pray or be eaten I am not sure!).

He was a popular saint in Norfolk, and a Benedictine Priory named after him was established at Wereham in 1199. In addition Downham Market used to hold a horse fair in Winnold's honour, and the town council marked his feast day with a civic breakfast in the town hall.

A special breakfast would be a good way to celebrate, but since it is a little late for that I guess supper would do just as well - perhaps a fishy recipe.

Soup for the Soul

I AM, as they say, on the horns of a dilemma, unable to decide what to write. I could expound upon the learning process and writing essays, or whinge about recycling and the rubbish collection or, as the days are drawing out and bulbs are beginning to bloom, I could wax lyrical about the joys of spring.

But I think I shall continue with yesterday's thoughts about saints and leeks. Today is St Chad's Day, when people used to plant their peas. One traditional old rhyme says: "St David and Chad, Sow peas, good or bad." However, it is still too cold to plant anything - and in any case the garden needs a major overhaul after the winter -I decided that cooking pea soup was a better way to mark the occasion. And, since I still had the leeks I didn't use yesterday, I thought I would try making a leek and pea soup - though a pea and leek risotto might have worked just as well.

I added an onion, some potato and celery to my my chopped leeks, swetaed everything in butter until it was soft, then added peas, water and stock powder, simmered gently for 20 mnutes or so and whizzed everything together with some mint. A dollop of cream would have been good, but in its absence I added a swirl of plain yogurt. And, for good measue, I threw in some pot barley while the soup was cooking, having discovered the following gem in my trusty boo of saints: "Upon St David's Day, Put oats and barley in the clay."

Now I am not religious, but last year on Facebook I tied to find an interesting saint each day - and to think of a way celebrating, so this soup fits the bill for not just one, but two saints. And while it may be very green, it tasted jolly good, so in the months ahead I may re-instate by saintly calendar on this blog. Tomorrow , by the way, is St Winnold's Day, when accoding John Vince's Discovering Saints in Bitain: "First comes David, then comes Chad, And then comes Winnold, as if he were mad." But you will have to wait to find out more.

Anyway, Chad was a 7th century Bishop of Lichfield, who studied under St Aidan at the Celtic monastery in Lindisfarne. Much of what we know about him comes from A History of the English Church People, written by the monk the Venerable Bede's, who claimed to have spoken to people who actually knew him.

A page from the Lichfield Gospels.

He includes the tale of how Chad converted the Mercian Princes Wulfhad and Ruffin, but the boys wre slain by their father Wulfhere, who had lapsed back into paganism. Repenting, the King rushed off to beg forgiveness from Chad, saw the light and became a devout Christian.

Chad, whose three brothers were all involved with the church, became a saint almost immediately after his death and remained popular throughout the Medieval period, attracting pilgrims to Lichfield, initially to see his simple wooden tomb, and much later to view his ornate shrine. Over the centuries all kinds of healing miracles were recorded including, according to Bede, a that of a madman who sheltered in the church building overnight and was restored to his right mind the following morning.

His shrine and bones disappeared during the Reformation, but during recent excavations in the cathedral fragments from an Anglo-Saxon shrine chest were discovered, carved with the figure of an angel, and this is thought to be the saint's shrine. And bones preserved in a relinquary at St Chad's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham are believed to be those of St Cad.

You can still find reminders of him in and round Lichfield. By St Chad's Church, overlooking Stowe Pool, is the well (now housed in a special edifice) where Chad baptised people and is said to have stood and prayed.

And among the Cathedral's prized possessions are the Lichfield Gospels (also known as the St Chad Gospels), written in the 8th century, and known to have been kept at Lichfield from the 10th century, though whether they were actually written there is uncertain.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Lists, leeks and love stories

This is The Cat, looking all peaceful, but while I wrote this he woke up and ended the day, as he began it it, by demanding to be fed... so he may feature twice on tomorrow's task list.

TODAY I have a little list. I have written 'Tasks of the Day' in large red letters and beneath that I have inscribed the words 'I Must'. I case you wonder, I must feed The Cat, get dressed, ring my mother, finish OU essay, post letters for Younger Daughter, buy food, meet friend for lunch, dry washing, bring dustbin in, put recyling bin out

This last item is due to he fact that late last night, clad in nightie and dressing gown, I put the bin out, only to discover early this morning that today is blue bin day, not black bin day. Once upon a time we had a metal dustbin, into which all the rubbish went, and the dustmen, most obligingly, took it away without complaint. These days I spend hours sorting through our unwanted items to ensure they are placed in the correct receptacle - and haranguing my loved ones if they fail to get it right.

Anyway, back to the list. During the day items were ticked off, entries scratched out and chores added: make a leek and cheese bake, I wrote (after all, it is St David's Day, he is the patron saint of Wales, and one of the Welsh emblems is a leek). Go to bank was another reminder, along with water the house plants.

In the event I failed to dry the washing, I forgot to water the plants, I didn't cook a meal (the Man of the House fell asleep and The Daughters went out). Nor did I complete the OU essay - although I did print off a first draft, which is progress.

On the plus side I did feed The Cat, I did post Younger Daughter's letters, and I did get dressed (before I sorted the bins out, I hasten to add). I even found time to discover why the leek is a Welsh emblem. Apparently King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd, engaged in battle in a leek field, told his men to fix one of the vegetables to their helmet, so they would realise they were on the same side.

Best of all I kept my lunch appoinment and spent a lovely couple of hours with my novelist friend Phillipa Ashley, who has just teamed up with two fellow authors to produce an E-book of short love stories - well, romantic encounters at any rate. They really do need your support, so take a look at their website, and vote for which cover you want to see on their E-book by going to

Meanwhile, at her suggestion, I am writing another list. She has suggested a new approach in my search for a job so, on her advice, I am producing a list of things I enjoy doing, which should focus my thoughts and help me think of the types of work I could do.