Monday, 30 December 2013

2013 - some best bits

A challenge to myself and to my usually gloomy outlook: to find and write about some best bits or favourite things from the past year.

I think the project of the year has to be Dad's Fair Isle jumper, I'm just coming to the end of the first sleeve, so it will not be finished this year, but it is the knitting I am most proud of.  The Jamieson Spindrift I am knitting the jumper in is undoubtedly my favourite yarn find of the year, I never thought I would be saying how soft Shetland yarn is but it has really grown on me.


Additionally I am pleased I managed to get my Pomme de Pin cardigan finished, it was another epic knit, but one I wear a lot, very snug and soft and warm despite its light lacy fabric.

Bumblebee on sunflower in my garden 1st September 2013 in Croydon

The recipe of the year has to be the apple and fruit cake I made for Dad's birthday, it was so, so moist and so simple and clever.  Again it was a recipe from Aunt Daisy dating back to the late 1940s; her books contain a rich seam of recipes to continue trying.  As a recipe it suited my energy levels and needing to pace myself because I could make the apple purée one day and the cake the next, a good while ahead of the party itself so that the cake could mature.  No need like a sponge to cook it that day or at most the day before.

Here is the recipe as it appears in the book, I baked it in a 23cm round tin, the cups are English although it would probably work in American cups and just be a slightly larger cake.  A moderate oven is around 180C though I may have used a slightly lower temperature as our oven can be a bit fierce.  It came out perfectly flat on top without so much as a dip.  When you first bake the cake it does look a bit dry and uninspiring, hold your nerve, wrap it up and pop it into a tin for at least two weeks and your patience will be rewarded.

Apple fruit cake – delicious
Do not cut this cake for a fortnight. Have ready 1 ½ cups stewed apple, sweetened with ½ cup sugar and with 1 tablespoon butter melted into it. Mix together 1 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon cocoa; 1 dessertspoon spice; ½ teaspoon baking soda; 2 large cups flour; lemon peel and dried fruit to taste (about 1 ½ to 2 cups). Add the apple mixture and a little milk if necessary. Line tin with greased paper. Bake in a moderate oven for about 1 ½ hours.


After much thought I think my album of the year has to be Seven Stars by Chris Haines.  It is a quiet, peaceful album soaked in the Bible and the past of the church.  Of all the songs the one that I love the most is "Strangers", about our true home, it is a peaceful, hopeful song that helps to put all the worries of today into perspective, speaking of the "colours undiscovered", the "sweet aromas" of heaven and how we will be home soon.  Throughout the year this song has helped me in times of despair or panic to find my bearings again and remember that this life is not forever, that a better life is forever.  You can listen to the album here on bandcamp and read the lyrics here.

Rend Collective Experiment's album Campfire has probably been my other album of the year, full of life and energy.  I am so looking forward to their new album.

My garden find of the year: Southover Grange in Lewes

Elizabeth Jane Howard was my book find of the year.  Radio 4's dramatisation of her Cazalet novels caught my attention and I started by reading her autobiography, Slipstream, in January; a tremendous work, lively and honest, one of the best autobiographies I have ever read.  After this I moved onto the Cazalet novels themselves and devoured them, I was so completely in their world and found myself, in the intervals of reading the world insists in inserting, wondering what was going to happen, utterly caught up in the lives of the characters.  They are more than the usual "family saga" novels, all the characters are real and engaging, no mean feat in a novel sequence about such a large family and there is a strong sense of place.


My reading has also branched out, inspired by Katherine Swift's Morville Hours, a book about the creation of a garden and so much more besides, don't just take my word for it, go and read it, now, go on!  So I have read more garden and countryside books, ideal if you cannot get out that much, to go to other places in books.  I have read my way through most of the Penguin English Journeys books, particular favourites were the volumes by Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville West on gardening and I plan to read more of both their books in the new year.  Some of Gertrude Jekyll's books are out of copyright and so available on line for free which is particularly handy.  The extracts from James Lees-Milne's diaries were amusing too and he has been added to the ever increasing list of books to read, along with more of Elizabeth Taylor's novels.

robin crop

Tomorrow I shall do some thinking on goals for the coming year as is traditional.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A Christmas Robin

Merry Christmas everyone, I hope you have had a joyful day however you have spent it.  Our robin has been on good form today, whether he knows it is Christmas or just liked the meal worms my dad put out for him, he was around a lot and stayed in the garden while we were out there, on the feeders and on the ground, watching us and happy for us to be around.  As I have mentioned before, I love that process of building up trust and getting to know a bird like that.  My sister got a lovely couple of shots of him and I have her permission to repost them here.

When she was looking through her photos my sister did comment that the robin likes posing and I think she is right to an extent, some of it is territorial behaviour though.

Last but not least, my favourite band, Rend Collective Experiment have released a Christmas video today, a version of Hark the Herald Angels Sing that is full of energy and joy, hope you like it.

Monday, 23 December 2013


When I was a child December seemed to stretch forever, day after day, marked out in little cardboard doors, tantalisingly keeping me from the apex of the excitement, the best day of the year: Christmas Day.  The air seemed almost to sparkle, there were endless excitements, carol concerts, plays, parties and treats, baking, decorations, pantomimes, a sense of goodwill seemed to pervade.  There were the yearly rituals, watching the Blue Peter team lighting the advent candles, helping to decorate the tree, going to the church to watch the familiar story acted out.  Then my one night of the year of excited insomnia before the Big Day with all its stockings and presents and turkey and crackers.

But Christmas now, where has the magic gone?  Now December seems a different sort of time-warp, the days falling over themselves in their rush to get away before Christmas looms.  Days full of lists of presents to be bought, cards to be sent, jobs to be done.  The reality of the work behind the sparkle hitting home.


Now instead there are small, quiet compensations for the onset of age, the satisfaction of choosing just the right present, the happiness of cards sent and appreciated, meeting old friends in the box of decorations, the heady spiced whiff of mixing Christmas cakes and puddings. While that feeling of Christmas joy and magic is more fleeting, glimpsed occasionally in a child's face or conjured up from turning on the Christmas lights at dusk and watching them make the glitter come to life in a quiet twinkling glow.  Light coming into the darkness.

Light coming into the darkness, that's what it is about in the end, hope coming into the world as the nights draw in.  Trying to find time, amidst the lists, to remember the first Christmas in all its ragged perfection.


Since I started this meditation a few days ago the weight of expectation and waiting has increased, I have slowed down (responding to the aide memoire of a two week headache) and the days seem to have joined me.  I am grateful for the slowing of the days and for the time to think, if not for the illness that creates this time.  The wind whistles and howls around the house with occasional breaks for glorious mild sunshiny winter days and a feeling of Christmastime has crept into the house on the heels of gingerbread and carols.  At the same time I have remembered some of the reality behind those painfully exciting childhood Christmasses, such as the year I slept so little on Christmas Eve that I was tearfully exhausted by seven and wasted precious hours of Christmas day in an early bedtime.  Christmases pile up memory and experience in layers, each bringing a part of themselves to each new Christmas; while my understanding grows and changes, of what Christmas meant and means.  I go again to the child in the manger and the light come into the world, and begin to ponder the Christ who will come again and the double waiting of Advent.

Charles Wesley's hymn Come Thou Long Expected Jesus is a current favourite, I especially love this version by a band called Kings Kaleidoscope
Come thou long expected Jesus
Born to set thy people free
From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in thee 
Israel’s strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth thou art
Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart 
Born thy people to deliver
Born a child and yet a king
Born to reign forever
Now thy gracious kingdom bring  
By thine own eternal spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone
By thine all sufficient merit
Raise us to thy glorious throne 
Come Lord Jesus, into this dark world, bring your light, your presence and your kingdom. Thank you for Christmas, in all its meanings, Amen

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Some knitting and more cake

Finally a finished piece of knitting to show off, a little jumper for a baby cousin, the pattern is Fiddlehead Pullover and the yarn Patons Fairytale Dreamtime 3ply.  Yes, you read right, 3ply.  I still have no idea when or how I ended up with this yarn, it is gorgeously soft, but knitting anything in it takes ages, especially when squeezing it in between a big Fair Isle project.  Talking of which, the jumper is now onto its sleeves, which are beginning to take shape after a shaky start.


Then there have been two more cakes made, one for the day of my Dad's birthday, a lightly spiced sponge and the other for the lunch party for his birthday, an apple and fruitcake, which matures for at least two weeks before cutting and becomes rich and moist in the process.  Both from the books I mentioned in my last post.  Where would we be without old cookbooks?

Spiced sponge, cake plate courtesy of my parents

Christmas seems to be rushing towards us at breakneck speed, how it has accelerated over the years.  When I was a child advent seemed to drag on forever and it seemed as though Christmas would never come!  So I am busy, or as busy as I can be, allowing for headaches and naps, my Christmas preparations only succeed by starting early and plodding along steadily, so on I go.

Fruit cake on left, Colin the Caterpillar cake from Marks and Spencer (which has long been one of Dad's favourites) on right.