Friday, 27 September 2013

Red Devils at St. Mary’s

The first apples and pears of our 2013 harvest were picked in September from the mediaeval churchyard of St Mary’s in Swathling.
Naturally, we got permission from the parish guardians first; then we popped down to the delightful little church with our pickers.
The children were keen to get stuck into the job and first set about getting as many pears as they could. These were only small fruits but nicely ripe and many had already fallen to the ground so there was a risk of getting a soft one on the head!
Gary, the previous Vicar, called the apples Red Devils, because of the fruits colour. They have a dusky bloom when first picked but they polish up beautifully. Interestingly, the ruby colouring of the skin carries through to the flesh of these apples; this adds an interesting pink tint to the juice when they are pressed.
The Red Devils are lovely, sweet fruit but some had pitting and there was not a great many to pick. So, it was a fast, pre-dinner foray and we were soon home again with our fresh fruit. After eating, we were treated to the first Blackberry and apple crumble of the year.
The apples in Fleming Park leisure centre car park, are currently weighing down the tree branches, and they have a similar pinkish flesh. Maybe we will nip over there and pick a couple of buckets full to make some rosy pink cider…

Friday, 20 September 2013

Hardy to Hellstone

We were making the most of the late-summer sun, camping at the lovely Ewleaze Farm in Dorset. I have always wanted to walk the whole South Dorset Ridgeway; it is a stunning prehistoric landscape, but past experience leads me to believe that the kids would collapse, without a constant supply of ice lollies.
Being a card-carrying Luddite, I don’t yet own a sat-nav but I do love paper maps, and often find interesting looking places and routes via the Ordinance Survey. We plumped for a short, but exciting walk from the Hardy monument to the Hellstone. I always like an accompanying legend to regale the kids with along the way, and the Hellstone’s Satanic designation comes from a local tale, telling of Lucifer Himself, hurling huge stone Quoits from Portland Pike! It is actually a Neolithic burial site.
The Hardy monument was constructed to commemorate Captain Hardy, of the good-ship Victory (Kiss me Hardy!), as opposed to the writer, Thomas Hardy, who also lived in Dorset. The monolithic tower commands spectacular views, with Chesil Bank and Portland Bill to the South, Maiden Castle to the East, and apparently five counties in other directions. A stiff wind was blowing off the sea, when we arrived, it was clear and sunny though, once the morning mist had burned off.
We checked our compass, with the friendly chap who was selling tea and him Mum’s tasty cakes, from a caravan in the car park. He directed us in a generally South-westerly direction and said it should be an easy trip, mostly down established footpaths. The wind was cut off as soon as we descended into the heather and bracken of the coastal path. Shortly everyone was stripping of layers and tying them round their waists or cramming them into my tiny rucksack; it wasn't long before we spotted our first sign.
The walk was rapidly turning into a sweltering stumble, so it was just as well that it wasn't too far. Fortunately the march was staggered (quite literally) by frequent pauses, to scoff copious amounts of Blackberries. We knew we were close but were short on clues, when my son stopped for a quick rest... Then we suddenly spotted a mossy stone carved with the epitaph, HELLSTONE ONLY.
Filled with renewed vigour, we scrambled over the wall and through the field, to our target. En route, I had told my son that treasure hunters had occasionally found gold or swords at sites of antiquities such as this, and as he scrambled on to the top of the Hellstone, he was duly delighted to discover £1.22 in coins that had fallen out of a previous visitor’s pocket.
We ate our picnic and before we headed back down the lovely path, I left a couple of coins on the top of the stones, in the hope that it might delight another caller to this haunting place. This was a pleasant, walk along established footpaths. The route leads through heath, farm and woodland, with just enough navigational and landscape challenge for the children. The Hellstone itself is a spectacular monument, tall enough for and adult to stand inside and craggy enough to enable kids to climb onto the roof. I always get a deep and romantic sense of ancient belonging when I visit these places. The remarkable Hellstone proved no exception.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Orchard Update

In August, the kids and I whizzed down to the Mansbridge Community Orchard, on our bikes.
We wanted to check out the progress of the apples and they are looking very good this year, we also wanted to pick some blackberries.
On arrival we set about filling our boxes with blackberries and this did not take long. All along the edges of the field the bramble bushes are covered in sweet fat fruit and the children were soon covered in juice.
We continued to check out the fruit trees, which seem to be benefiting from the extra care now being provided. This coming year we aim to start pruning some of the neglected trees properly. This will improve their health and yield  as part of our on-going plan.
We did spot some fly-tipped rubbish in the bushes, it is such a shame to see careless people spoiling the few parks and wild areas that we have left. Ruining your own environment is so stupid, if you can be bothered to carry your garbage to the park, why the hell can’t you get it to a bin or recycling area?
We got back on our bikes and carried on up the Monks Path, crossed the Monk’s Brook, (some idiot had thrown a bike in here). We saw some more nice apples at the delightful St. Mary’s church, before returning via Woodmill and a game of what we like to call (but probably no one else would) tennis, in the park.
Eventually it was time to get home and cook dinner. Tired and happy we headed back home; we had definitely had our recommended dose of daily exercise and sunshine. Needless to say, we had Blackberries for pudding…

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Iron Age Elderberries

It was the last Bank Holiday in August and the sun was still beaming it’s joyful rays onto the parched earth. 
Get Busy With the Fizzy
We decided to go to Danebury Iron Age Hill-fort for a summer picnic. We packed our bag, sandwiches, snacks and a bottle of vigorous home - made Elderflower Champagne and set off along the Test Way.
A Big, Fat Fish in the Test River

Danebury is the perfect spot for a run about with the children, but first we sat down to feed our poor starving mites and treated ourselves to some sparkling English Fizz, with one of the best views available in Hampshire.
and Relax...
After we had eaten, I set off with my son to hunt for Elderberries, I wanted to make port again; I have done this successfully for the past 2 years. As it turned out, we filled our boots with a sufficient quantity from the first small tree we came across. You can also make Elderberry cordial, jam and many other hedgerow recipes from this eldritch provider.
Later, we  found plenty of Blackberries and a crop of Raspberries, which we simply scoffed, as quickly as we could pick them. We also found loads of Juniper bushes, which was something of a revelation.
Ruby Red Raspberries
Juniper berries have a three year cycle (flowers, green berries, dark-blue berries) and they can all be present on one bush at the same time. These prickly bushes are related to Pine trees and the berries are actually tiny pine-cones.  The blue berries are used as herbs or spices when dried. They have many herbal uses and are also a significant part of the flavouring used in Gin!
Juniper Bushes
Sadly, like the Ash, Juniper bushes are currently under siege by a fungus, which is threatening their existence all over the country. Let’s hope that the arboricultural experts can do something to save all these trees. I’d hate to go through Summer without a cold G&T.
Ripe Juniper Berries
At one point the peaceful background hum of the countryside was shaken by the thumping of a Merlin engine and the iconic shape of a Spitfire roared into view across the trees. When it appeared, I had been thinking about the role of hill forts during the Roman invasion; the mysterious legend of the Angels of Mons crept into my mind. The plane vanished into the distance, like a ghost from the past, leaving nothing but blue sky. Looking back, the moment was so dreamlike and anachronistic that if I hadn't photographed it, I might doubt my own memory.
A Spitfire Over Danbury?

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Loads at the Allotment

When the Summer sun is shining, there’s nowhere better to be than deep in the UK countryside, and we were lucky to have a fantastic fortnight in Devon. After returning from our holiday we knew we had to get back up to our allotment, to see how the weeds were growing.
We were a tad concerned that no one had been available to water our vegetable plot during all that scorching hot weather. However, on arriving, we found to our delight, a burgeoning crop of Super veg; well we thought it was super (not too bad for our first year) but it wouldn't win any agricultural show prizes.
We rummaged through the undergrowth and found Squashes, Runner beans, Cucumbers, Potatoes, Beetroot, Onions and Courgettes, some of which had turned into massive Marrows. The fruit cage had a few raspberries available and there were masses of blackberries all over the place, not that we had propagated these.
One of the huge marrows was finally transformed by the Head Chef into six jars or scrummy Chilli and Courgette Chutney.
I also used the Raspberries and a couple of stray Blueberries to make another bottle of summer fruit liquor, which will be ready later on. So far I have tried Cherry Brandy, Sloe Gin, Mulberry Gin, Blackberry Vodka and Summer Fruit liquor. I’m not sure which will be my favourite but it should be good fun finding out…