Friday, 28 September 2012

Hell's Kitchen

We had just returned home, after a gorgeous long Sunday walk and managed to get our weary offspring up to bed.
I could not face the trauma of watching the new season of Downton Abbey and so I set about conjuring up a new batch of Elderberry Port.
Our once clean kitchen, soon resembled a Hammer Horror mash-up; in the opening scene, I seemed to be playing Damien Hurst, a role that deftly segued into something between Count Dracula, and Dr. Frankenstein.
I took my assorted bags of Elderberries out of the freezer and the first thing I did (by way of scientific preparation) was to empty one of them, partly onto the floor but mostly into the cutlery drawer!
I cleaned up, as quickly as I could, before the Head Chef spotted the blood red evidence spattered all about the place and continued to further create crimson chaos with my home made chemistry set.
First I boiled up the Elderberries; a process that does rather resemble a seething visit to Satan’s scullery. The smell is intoxicating and as I enthused the archaic brew onward, I’m sure something ancient also stirred, deep within my bones.
Then, after wiping a slightly maniacal grin of my face, I proceeded to sieve off the pulp. I poured the potent liquid onto the sugar and some currents (the recipe said raisins but I was improvising by this stage) and then stirred some more.
I had previously set the yeast to start, and by this time it was looking suitably active. So, after cooling the potion to "body" temperature, the final ingredient was added (with a pinch of wicked cackling). The demonic concoction was then drafted into demijohns and bubblers were added.
By the following morning my toils were no trouble, everything was Hubble Bubble. The rest is simply a matter of being patient…

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Walnuts & Water Walk

A Big, Fat, Green Walnut
This is a lovely walk that we did with family and friends, the children coped well and there was lots for them to do along the way. The route is approximately five and a half miles through fields, footpaths and bridleways.

I planned this route chiefly because I was inquisitive about Walnut trees. On a previous adventure (last year), we found a proliferation of Walnuts on St. Catherine’s Hill and I had heard rumours of further trees along the Pilgrim’s Path, we were not disappointed.
We counted well over 20 Walnut trees over the course of our exploratory search! Some were small and many were massive. Lots of people seem fascinated by these versatile and healthy nuts, so now you'll be able to spot some.
A Tiny Hedgrow Walnut Tree
We parked our car at the foot of Shawford Down (a great place for sledging in the snowy weather). You can get a train to Shawford station.

A Massive Mature Walnut
We set off from near the Bridge Inn, the footpath heads North, up the Itchen Navigation Canal from Shawford.

Lovely Shawford Lock
When you reach Shawford Lock, you can always stop to cool your feet (or even more of you) in the river. It is a most delightful spot and when I was a boy, my friends and I used to cycle here to go swimming during the long, hot summer holidays.
A Fat, Green Walnut - Almost Ripe
We crossed a small wooden bridge and headed NE, over a field, on a footpath.
After crossing the Itchen River via a bridge, we headed up the road to Twyford village. We crossed the main road as we reached it and carried on up a track leading to a farm. Part of the way up this track we bared left onto a path that crossed it and headed North over Twyford Down. This is a bridleway that edges around Hockley golf course.
Along this path we collected and ate enough Blackberries to sustain an army of ramblers. There was even a danger that the children might not be hungry enough to eat the picnic. Eventually though, the route joins the Pilgrims Path at a crossroads. At this junction, we stopped for our picnic as it seemed about halfway.
Twyford Pumping Station
We turned right and headed South, on the Pilgrim’s Path, all the way down to Hazeley Road. We then turned right and headed roughly West for a while along Hazeley Road. You pass, on your left, the Twyford Pumping Station, an imposing Victorian brick building with a large, square chimney left over from the days of steam power. This station has frequent open days and still supplies a lot of the local water from subterranean aquifers.
Evidence of an Indian Summer - Unseasonal Elderflowers
Eventually we noticed a footpath way-marker, which indicated a diagonal route over a corn field, this was known as the Kingfisher’s Path. The corn had been harvested recently and there was lots of straw left in the field, so a hay fight was almost inevitable… The path continues past and even through some gardens and on into Twyford village, where we crossed the main road and headed down Church Lane (opposite).
Guess Who's Going To Look Like Wurzle Gummidge Shortly?
Just before the river we found two large Sarsen stones on the left of the track. These were originally part of a  circle of twelve standing stones; local lore has it that this ancient place of worship was built by a druidic tribe in the Pre-Roman era. The remains of the circle are now mostly buried beneath the foundations of Twyford’s Virgin Mary Church. These two sole survivors are all that remain visible now, by the roadside.
A Small Pagan, Possibly
We then discovered a rope swing over the river Itchen and once we had managed to prise the children off it, we headed back across the fields to Shawford Lock.
Shawford Lock Open-Air Gym
We sat by the lock for a while, to rest our weary soles and soak up the late summer atmosphere, before finally trotting back down the Itchen Navigation to Shawford. In Shawford village, if you deserve it, you can get a drink of ale or food at the Bridge Inn.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Apples of the Equinox

There are two lovely little apple trees by the junction of Dukes Rd and Thomas Lewis Way. I’ve often noticed them but every time someone picks all the apples very early in the season.
This year, after we noted the trees had been cropped, I returned to mop up the survivors. The original picker lacked either the tools or the determination to gather the hard to reach fruit.
I had to prune away some brambles in order to reach the apples but they were an interesting looking fruit and I gathered about 8 Kg. Sadly, I saw that some idiot had dumped and smashed a china basin by the tree; the effort required complete this criminal act would be about the same as disposing of it legally.
I did notice that some crab-apples were grafted onto one of the trees. I believe this old practice is intended to provide a small supply of more-tart fruit, to improve the cider making or cooking process. It is a sure sign that someone who knows their onions, once cared about the tree. I always grab a couple for good luck; I firmly believe in preserving arcane lore, especially when it comes to apple trees.
The Autumnal Equinox falls this weekend and I intend to pick a regular boot-full of apples (that’s a car boot, not a wellington), in Hedge End. The best fruit will be stored for the winter months and the less tasty crop will go toward the imminent cider making season!

Monday, 17 September 2012

By Bike to Mansbridge Community Orchard

During the summer holidays, I had been looking after the children and they wanted to go on a bike ride. I needed to visit the Post Office and do one or two chores, so I decided on a suitable route and set off. During the trip I decided to teach the kids how to perform the classic cyclist’s “Scoot Start” and the reverse action “Side Dismount”. Easier said than done but they began to pick it up eventually.
After a full mornings riding we returned for lunch but the kids insisted on going out on bikes again as soon as we had finished. I hadn’t visited the Mansbridge Community Orchard for a while, so I thought we would zoom down and check it out.
We took a route through Riverside Park, then on through Woodmill and along the banks of Itchen past the Pitch & Putt course up to the old stone bridge that gives Mansbridge its name.
After this it was on foot through the meadow and into the trees to explore. As we worked our way through this beautiful place, we did remove some brambles and ivy, in amongst the apple trees. Stinging nettles are growing strongly there too, so shorts and sandals were not ideal but we did our best with what we had with us.
Some of the trees have obviously suffered badly with the poor weather this Spring but several are looking as if they will have a very healthy crop. There are so many trees in the site, that even if some fail, others will make up for it. 
One visit was not enough to account for all the trees and we didn’t really get much of a look along the Monk’s Path, so we need to get down there again soon to see if there is any fruit ripening alongside the houses. We did pick and eat copious amounts of Blackberries though...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Elderberry Portal

During our recent Stonehenge walk, we noticed a lovely load of Elderberries hanging off a group of trees. Elder has a suitably ancient and mystical bent; it is occasionally known as the fairy tree.
The flowers arrive just in time to provide Summer drinks for picnics (or Pickniks). Later, around September, Elderberries ripen; they are poisonous raw but become very useful when processed.
A Positive Abundance of Elderberries but No Container!
Last year I made Elderberry Port and this has proved to be my best country wine to date. If I were a wine connoisseur I might describe it as eerily full bodied with a magical reminiscence of rubenesque berry fruits, a delightfully gay nose leaving a lingering unfathomable essence… It is proving very popular and I felt that it was high time to replenish our depleted wine cellar.
We decided to go to Southampton Common, to hunt for Elderberries. This is where we had gathered our Elder flowers earlier in the year but it seemed that the blackbirds had filled their boots before we arrived.
We fell back on picking Blackberries, which were very abundant and we were pleased to meet several other families doing the same thing. The Old Graveyard on the common seemed a specially popular spot too; we even discovered Raspberries there.
Butterflies seem to like Blackberries as much as Plums
I was beginning to think that we had left it too late for the Elderberries, but eventually had a fruitful forage in Hedge End during my lunch-hour. I ferried the berries home in my sandwich box each day and froze them in batches, until we had a sufficient amount.
We also picked a good amount on Danebury Iron Age hill fort (always a great spot for a picnic and run about).
Ready For Freezing
I'm now just waiting for my yeast to arrive in the post before going to work on this little hoard. Elderberries can also be used to make jam, syrup, wine, magical potions etc…

Monday, 10 September 2012

Itchen River Trip

Living in the middle of the city it is sometimes easy to forget that Southampton has grown up around the estuaries of two gorgeous rivers, the Test and the Itchen (unless you happen to be stuck in a rush-hour bottleneck, crossing one of them).
Both of these chalk bedded rivers are famous for their trout and salmon fisheries and carefully managed natural surroundings.
A walk along either of these waterways is always a rewarding and relaxing experience but more often than not I find it even finer to row or paddle about in them.
Both our children can paddle a kayak reasonably competently and I am a member of St Deny’s Sailing and Rowing Club. It was a sunny day, so I took my daughter out in a kayak for a sunlit paddle up to Woodmill, which gave her an opportunity to practice her skills.
Walking back over Cobden Free Bridge we spotted a vast shoal of sullen Mullet cruising just under the glittering surface of the river. On occasional days you can see hundreds of these fish from the arch as well as swift, shimmering Sea Bass stalking their smaller, slower prey.
When I feel minded to, I have fished for and caught one or two of these tasty predators and taken the big enough ones for supper. I'm not a fisherman, I'm a rower who sometimes trails a line & lure and very rarely catches a fish to take home and eat.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Stonehenge the Senic Route

It has been a long time since I visited Stonehenge; I last did it via an illegal pop festival in the boot of my friend's Ford Cortina, in the early eighties...
Back to the present day and things have changed considerably, but I didn't want to just trail the children around the stones and then go back to a hot car. I wanted to see the surrounding countryside; so I took an Ordinance Survey map.
Rambling along the route we followed allows you to understand the context of this enigmatic monument within the landscape; there are several explanatory plaques along the way. The experience of the walk will greatly augment the information you receive when you inevitably join the masses, trudging around the stones.
This is stunning, quiet (apart from the military helicopters that use the Cursus as a landmark) countryside hike of about 4 miles; my 6 year old boy managed the route, aided by a picnic roughly halfway along. You will be walking through rough fields (some containing animals) and clambering over styles, so the route may seem more like 5 miles.
Start in the hideously busy visitor centre car park (if you must) parking and toilets are free. An alternative would be to park in Amesbury near the church or set off across country from Durrington walls / Woodhenge.
Walk over the fields to view the Cursus Barrows, a few other people will manage to do this with you. We saw lots of wildlife and only a couple of other people, after we reached the CursusGo through a gate or over a fence and walk through the field to the Cursus, hardly anyone else will bother going this far but it is well worth the effort. The Cursus is marked by a slightly raised bank on either side, walk along the Cursus from West to East.
Walking the Cursus you will pass a waterworks and cross a rough road via styles; about 3/4 of the way along, Stonehenge becomes visible on the horizon, putting it into perspective within the environment. You will also notice the shimmering mass of the car/coach park and (what looks like) a caged hoard of lemmings slavishly trudging toward the Stones, shop and back to their oven-like vehicles. If you do only this, you will surely miss out on the best possible experience.
Just past the Eastern end of the Cursus, head South - down the path until you see the Old Kings Barrows on your right.
Go West now until the path turns South again to the New Kings Barrows.
Chasing Thistledown
Just before the New Kings Barrows you will see a sign indicating the Avenue, which crosses the path you are currently on, East to West.
It's well worth visiting the New Kings Barrows, which are just past this point (we had to negotiate a flock of sheep occupying the path at this point, they were no trouble), then turn back and cross the field via a gate and walk along the Avenue in a Westerly-ish direction.
The Avenue is now an overgrown cow field and rarely walked but with a map and some good observation skills, you should be able to work out your route. The Avenue turns toward the Henge roughly in line with the corner of the trees by the Eastern end of the Cursus.
You will then be walking up-hill, through sheep, toward the Heel Stone and Stonehenge monument. You will now also be walking in the same direction that the sun would shine, as it rises at dawn on the Winter Solstice.
Go into the car park; there you can get yourself a well-earned cup of something or an ice cream. Finally, visit the Stones from here, along with the hordes; as you walk around the fenced off Stones; take care to look out at the various barrows, some of which you will have already experienced; they now all lie on the horizon of the various vistas, setting the iconic Stonehenge monument at the centre of this mysterious prehistoric landscape. 
It is just about possible, with careful camera positioning, to make the crowds of people vanish from your photos.
Hungry Starlings by the Cafe
Entrance to the monument is free for National Trust and English Heritage members.
The Obligatory Tourist Shot
The good news is that whole journey will soon be made far more agreeable because the visitor centre, shop and car park are going to be relocated more than a mile away and then screened by trees. The busy road and ugly 2m high chain-link fence that separates the Stones from the Cursus and the Avenue, are then going to be returned to grass.
The Rest of the Tourists
Why this was not done in the first place is almost as big a mystery as how and why Stonehenge was built in the first place!
Map of our Walk Route