Persevering with preserves

It’s that time of year. The fruits of the year’s labours are filling up the kitchen, the fridge, the freezer and our tummies, and I’m looking towards this year’s Christmas hampers of homemade goodies!


So far this week, I’ve made elderberry vinegar and Elder Rob, mixed tomato chutney, apple chutney, blackberry jam and marigold jelly. The latter is something of an experiment: I’ve plenty of calendula oil warming through and a full jar of dried petals for future use, so have been looking for edible uses for these gorgeous, vibrant flowers. I found this recipe and, loving floral flavours, thought I’d give it a go. On my walk to the post office on Monday, the boughs overhead were laden with apples, and the pavement with windfalls! I filled two carrier bags with 2.7kg of cookers and 1.8kg of crab apples. The cookers formed the main part of the jelly! The recipe yielded four jars – one has made its way into the kitchen cupboard already!


And the crab apples? They’re soaking in vodka with sugar and cinnamon sticks for Yuletide liqueur! Roll on winter!


Stength in numbers

I had felt sure that this blog post would be very different. It was to be titled “So long, and thanks for all the fish” a reference to West Coast salmon and Abroath smokies. Perhaps it should still be titled such, referring instead to every red herring, every big fish story and every wet-fish-slap-around-the-face that Westminster has dealt to the rest of the UK over recent years.

I stayed up all night on Thursday, a night fraught with nerves and more than one tearful moment, to watch the results of the referendum come in. I spent Friday in a state of happiness, shared with family and friends, utterly relieved by the outcome.

I tell you this not to gloat or rub in the defeat. I tell you so that you understand how important Scotland is to the United Kingdom. I can’t speak for the rest of the UK, but here in the English Midlands there were Saltires flying all last week. The BBC showed interviews with folk in the street distraught at the thought of a line drawn across the North. The interviews since have demonstrated the importance of the decision, and the referendum, to people across the rest of the UK.

As for the changes promised by Westminster, I cannot but think that they will be forced to follow through by the sheer strength of our numbers. If Scotland had voted for independence, the English, at least, would have felt bitter. The knee-jerk reaction, even amongst Scotland-lovers like myself, was to say “Well, if you think you’re getting the Sterling you can think again!” We would certainly have reacted as we felt – as a jilted nation. The ill-feeling would have bred resentment and hatred where it had not existed. But because of the no vote, we once again feel solidarity. We are all in the same boat – we all hate Westminster, we all want a degree of devolution. Thanks to the Scots we actually have a chance to change the way our country runs.

A Yes voter on one of last week’s Newsnight programmes said that Britain wants to rule, whereas Scotland wants to lead. I think we have always been leaders in Great Britain. Many of the first world’s democracies are based on our model, and here we have a chance to create a brand-spanking new one! Once again we can show the world how a great nation can move forward without the need for division – something which, in light of issues in the Ukraine, in the Middle East, in a divided Syria and in the face of Islamic State, is much needed. We can demonstrate how a civilised country can effect change without inflicting violence on its own people. We can show, once again, that democracy can win – indeed, with an 84% turnout, has already won out amongst the Scottish people.

It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a LOT of work, and it’s going to cause some heartache. There’s no instant fix – to be calling for changes three days later is simply ludicrous! But I hope I am right in my belief that we can move forward together as a great nation once again.

So thank you Scotland. Thank you for staying with us. Thank you for returning our good will. And thank you for giving us all this great opportunity. Let’s make the next great leap forward – together.

Re-useful #2: pallet project the first

I was lucky enough to be offered a pile of pallets a few months ago. I’d had a few already, and used them to build my compost bin system, but I’d always fancied trialling a few of the ideas for pallet upcycling on pinterest. I asked for 10, maybe a dozen, and was delighted when the carpenter turned up with 17.

Three replaced the shoddy doors on the compost bins. Two will be raised beds in next year’s plot. The rest have been allocated future roles in and around the garden, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise by telling you what exactly they’ll be doing until my trusty drill-driver has been put to work!

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But this was a no-brainer. I knew I needed some sort of potting station, and had the old TV cabinet set up already.

Screwing a couple of pallets together and to the worktop and sawing out a couple of slats to slot in a couple of Poundland picture frames with the backs removed took an hour tops. And it has worked really well, clearing the worktop of seedling trays so that I can actually work there once again.

What I wore for weekend shopping


Dress & belt: Dotty P’s; cardi & leggings: Matalan; shoes: New Look

More and more of my dresses are coming out to play again!

I have been finding wearing dresses something of a challenge when out and about with the boys. There’s a lot of bending lifting and carrying, and seldom a free hand to pull a skirt down, or defend against gusts of wayward wind. I wish I’d cottoned on to leggings at the start of the summer rather than towards the end – the whole season could have been much girlier!!

Garden update…

Just a quick garden update for you…


We’ve had a steady supply of tomatoes, patty pans and turnips over summer, plus lovely crunchy carrots and potatoes (not pictured). And I picked my first stash of sloes to pop in the freezer. I’m hoping to pick the majority later in autumn, after the frosts, but experience has taught me not to rely on these, no matter how laden the bushes – the birds are far to fond of them!


This was how my pumpkins were looking earlier this week, before a badger (we think) decided to try to dig between the pallet frame and the fence. The result was a flattened pallet and both pumpkins snapped from the plant. They are now sitting in our conservatory, where I’m hoping they’ll finish ripening. Annoyingly, these were my favourite calendula, and so the ones I was leaving to set seed – now lost under the weight of the crash!


My butterbush are looking good though!


As are my sunstripe toms. I did lose one of my gardener’s delight to a bacterial disease this week, but it was positively laden with fruit, so made me 6 jars of mixed tomato chutney. This was a major hit last year, so hopefully will be again…

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Radish, peppers and my hanging basket patty pans – an experiment I’ll definitely repeat for ease of care.

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And my nasturtiums. These have gone crazy, taking over the garden, despite my regular pulling up of over-enthusiastic plants (which are now doing spectacularly well in the compost bins!). As well as providing us with tasty salad leaves and regular colourful posies and fulfilling their main role as sacrificial plants for the caterpillars (they’re amazing for this – my broccoli have barely been touched, whilst the nasturtium have been infested!), they’ve set the most enormous seeds, and I’ve already collected more than I could possibly need next year! So if anyone fancies a few, do give me a shout… I personally like the African Queen colours, but if pastels are more your colour scheme, please feel free to take some Whirlybird off my hands!

Elsewhere I have collected blackberries and made a winter supply of jam, am in the process of making up elderberry vinegar (I’m told it makes a great substitute for a fruity balsamic) and have collected about two thirds of the elderberries I need to make up a traditional Elder Rob. This is a basic syrup which can be drizzled over ice cream or fruit salad, used to make a hot toddy, or taken by the spoonful, to prevent winter colds. Elderberries are currently the subject of medical research in both Scandinavia and Israel, as they prevent against more strains of the flu virus than Tamiflu – but with none of the harmful side effects! So if you’ve seen trees laden with berries somewhere nearby, it might be worthwhile picking a few and making up a syrup to see the family through winter…

What I wore for… a wedding in London!


Dress: Hell Bunny via Aspire; petticoat: House of Olivier; shoes: M&S;  cardi: Dotty P’s; sunglasses: Boots; white hold-ups (their first outing since my own wedding!): Charnos; wrist gloves and clutch: both vintage, from charity shops


Travelling outfit: mac: Primark; ballet flats: New Look; brolly: Matalan; overnight bag/satchel: a gift from my Mum’s new craft/gift shop! (More on that later…)

My first proper girly outing since the boys were born! Chrissie was my best mate at school, and as Sarah and I were the only “old skool” representatives there, we elected to leave the families behind and make a day of it! We met at Waterloo at noon, caught a train straight to Kingston and enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the waterfront whilst we caught up before making our way to the venue.


It was a gorgeous wedding – the bride looked simply stunning in white lace, and the venue, aptly for Chrissie a rowing club, was decked out in home-made vintage-style bunting and stunning country floral arrangements. We enjoyed an afternoon tea made by the wedding party, served on tiered cake stands made from mismatched vintage china and vinyls. Our places were marked with luggage tags tied to tea cups, each of which was our personal wedding favour. After tea we danced, then enjoyed an informal supper of Pieminster pies with mash and mushy peas. Sarah and I caught the last train back to London in time to catch the last tube home to hers.



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As for what I wore, well, that’s a fun story in itself! Dapper and I went into Solihull the week before the wedding, to find him a pair of sandals in the sales. We were walking past Aspire and he suggested we have a quick look in the sale in case there was something I could wear. The only dress that jumped out and was available in a size 16 was this Hell Bunny dress. I duly tried it on, but… it was too big!! The 14 fit like a glove, and Dapper offered to buy it for me. On sale at £27.50 (half price) it was a definite bargain!

And the gloves? Well, I wanted to look polished as it was a wedding, but not to over the top, as a hat might. The weather was also a bit iffy, so, a sun hat might look out of place. I thought the gloves pulled my outfit together, but not in an obvious or unfitting way. And, y’know, I like wearing them!

Meanwhile, at home it seems the boys were having a whale of a time – Conall enjoyed a teddy bear’s picnic, before Hal rode in and slaughtered the teddy… great fun!

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On head and heart

This is a controversial topic, one that may flutter a few feathers, and one that most of my counterparts north of the border will say I have no right to weigh in on. But when has that ever stopped me? Exactly.

Just to be clear, this is not a political post. I have never been politically active and am not about to start blogging politics now. But I have always posted about the things that are bothering me at any given time, I’ve always found writing cathartic, and that hasn’t changed. Besides which, we’ve been over the facts and figures in exhausting detail. The numbers, statistics, and question of currency are of little weight to those voting with heart over head – yes voters will vote yes whether the numbers add up or no.

So, later this month Scotland decides. And we England-dwelling folk have heard surprisingly little about it! I mean, the last month we’ve seen a little more coverage, but before that, we were forced to follow the topic via on demand and the occasional late night/early morning First Minister’s Question Time on BBC Parliament.

You’ll notice that I refer to myself as “England-dwelling”, not English. That’s because I am British. I am English and Scottish and Irish. I have an extensive extended family in Scotland. So does my husband. I even lived in Stirling for a while. It was terrifying – from the day not long after I arrived when a rather scary-looking salon owner told me that I was by far the best candidate for her Saturday tea-girl job, but her customers wouldn’t want an English girl making their tea, to the afternoon when a local teen asked me the time, clocked my English accent and chased me home with a gang of schoolmates, pelting me with stones, (mostly) empty coke bottles, and anything else to hand. I quickly learned not to speak in certain public places, and got myself a weekend job in a far friendlier Edinburgh. Most people can’t get away with refusing someone a job based on their nationality, but it happened to me three times in Scotland, all told. I suppose on that evidence, I should be accustomed to being treated as the unwelcome relative by the North.

I have had an enormously emotive reaction to the entire campaign, and it was only this weekend, whilst examining my own heart, that I realised why. I feel rejected by Scotland. I feel abandoned by my own history. I feel personally victimised because my ancestors dared to interbreed. Or move for work. Or both. When I see anti-English and anti-British sentiment on the television, on the internet, on facebook it doesn’t annoy me. It doesn’t anger me or rile me. It hurts me. My eyes sting with tears. My chest aches. It is a racist attack aimed what, at the English but not at me? Rubbish. If it’s aimed at the English and you consider me English – no matter what I consider myself – it is directed at me. And that stings far more than those stones or bottles of coke in Stirling ever could.

But what makes someone Scottish? This is where I really struggle. Is it just being born in Scotland? Because if this is the case, many of those voting are, in fact, English. Is it having Scottish ancestry? In that case where’s my vote? Is it genetic – red hair, fair skin, perhaps? Well, not really, as these were common traits in Saxons, like myself.  Blue eyes, cleft chins and a Viking jaw? Not really native, those marauding Vikings (Dapper and our sons). Perhaps you need the sharp features and dark hair of the Picts? Now watered down enough to be too easily mistaken for the dark-haired Normans and Irish, I’m afraid.

Of course, arguably the Scottish ARE Irish, and Irish are Scottish…  or at the very least, they’re all Gaelic. As are many of the northern French, as it turns out. (Not the Normans though, who were apparently… Vikings! On a linguistic side note, I’m no longer surprised by how much Gaelic survives in Modern French in grammatical structure – at first it astonished me!)

On which topic, Dapper speaks Gaelic. On Skye he ordered food and drink in Gaelic, and conversed with the locals. We go to Scottish Country Dancing with the local Scottish community every week, and whilst almost every last one was born in Scotland, only a handful can chat along with him – all Island born. Are the Islands Scottish? Shetland is certainly something of a grey area – until the 15th century it belonged to Norway and the Danes.

What about surnames. Can your name make you Scottish? My husband changed his name before we met, replacing the anglicised version of his grandfather’s generation with its rarer and much more traditional predecessor. Its exact meaning is difficult to pin down, just as the meaning of “Skye” could be Norse or Gaelic in origin, but roughly translates as “man of mists”, “cloud walker” or, most likely, “Man of Skye”.  His largely Viking genetics support a link between his surname and the Norse settlers on Skye at least. On his Grandmother’s side, the surname Spires turns out to be a Midlands derivation of Spiers, a Borders surname rooted in Spers, first recorded at the assizes at Scone during the 13th century reign of Alexander II of Scotland. The Borders folk were neither Scottish nor English, or more accurately, both – depending on which side was coming for tea! Famously, Border Reivers would wear a flag pinned to their lapel, English on one side, Scottish on the other, and simply turn it depending on which side approached. Many lords and ladies would deliberately divide their loyalties in order that one should always be in favour. My father’s ancestors are Northumbrian, and no doubt also considered themselves as “Borders Folk” above all.   

The most compelling argument for independence seems to have been for a break away from the monstrous Westminster.  I’m afraid that this is not a Scottish sentiment. We ALL hate Westminster. Everyone north of the Watford Gap feels maligned by London. How often is money lifted from central and northern budgets to supplement transport improvements in London? Too, often to count. This is an issue regularly raised by local MPs, and London’s eventual response (after years of complaint) is to introduce high speed rail links to help more folk to work in… LONDON. Trust me when I say that we all detest Westminster with equal measure. Scotland does NOT have the monopoly on this matter!   

My gut feeling now is that it doesn’t much matter to us, south of the border, whether Scotland votes for or against independence. The anti-English feeling is such that we, as a family, have little chance of fulfilling our life-long ambition of moving into the North. I’m already receiving alarming stories from friends and family north of the border about verbal and physical abuse aimed against them in the street, not to mention problems in business dealings. If things were bad for me in Stirling over 10 years ago, they are multiplied tenfold now. I cannot see us feeling safe bringing our sons into their ancestral homeland in the near future, independent or no.

If Scotland votes yes, so be it. I’m sure they’ll do just fine. I suspect a lot of Scots are expecting the inevitable financial difficulties associated with independence, but willing to last them out in order to give future generations their own chance at “freedom”. But let’s not forget who we are together. We have been united far too long for a line drawn in the sand to separate us. Ancestrally we are one. Let us not let the whims of politics sour the many great friendships and family bonds that have flowered amidst the rubble and ruins of an earlier troubled history. Strip the thorns from the roses and the spines from the thistles, and two hardy but beautiful flowers remain.