Mid January already, but for the first time in 2014 it really does feel like the start of a new year. Today the sun is shining: yes, really, even to the extent of having to close the top floor curtains in order to see the iMac screen.
Hardly earth shattering news: certainly not comparable to the continuing depressing events seen on our screens every day. But up here, in the submerged north, a morning without any precipitation, let alone one also with a glimpse of the sun, is something to sing about.
Halloween marked the end of our delightful and unexpected Indian summer; subsequently, there has literally not been a day without rain. Temperatures well into the high teens and water falling from the sky in biblical proportions, combined with entire days of almost total darkness, gave late autumn and early winter an apocalyptic feel.
Christmas came and went with barely a hint of frost, let alone a flake of snow and New Year heralded the return of the deluge to levels previously reached at the beginning of December.
Living with a major river flowing past the sitting room window, the fear of flooding has been a constant anxiety. Fortunately, so far, and touch wood, although an angry, caramel-coloured tide has thundered past, at times widening the river to three times its usual size and submerging the banks and overhanging trees with frightening ease, the drainage system has worked and the water has not risen any higher than the lowest-lying parts of the cycle path. Fingers crossed, the short term forecast will prove accurate and the next couple of weeks will bring some drier, colder conditions.
On the positive side, a brief, dry window yesterday morning allowed for a a quick survey round the garden and brought the welcome evidence of buds on the magnolia and acer, plus a scattering of bulbs across the front flower bed: small, but unmistakeable, signs that spring is on the horizon. Sunset is now a full 45 minutes later than in mid December and the beginning of spring – in seasonal terms – is only 46 days away!
But if you have to endure a British (or, even worse, Scottish) winter, then make sure you’re in a city, especially one where the bright lights, busy shops and wide variety of culture are more than adequate compensation for wet pavements and cold bus stops. Having a wonderful film theatre on the doorstep and world-class musical venues four stops along the train line really does hit the spot.
The Armadillo added an extra slice of atmosphere to Jools Holland’s ever-excellent winter tour and Celtic Connections looks mouth watering. After that, the film festival will run through February and Aye Write will arrive soon after..
Glasgow has always been renowned for its culture and innovation. Let’s finish with perhaps the most appropriate tribute to the musician who defined my adolescence at the venue that illuminated my childhood.
Autumn, as regular followers will remember is usually my least favourite season of the year. But at the end of the first full month of autumn 2015 my characteristic inflexibility might just be beginning to crumble.
Up here, in the draughty north, following a summer where rain hammered from the sky in biblical proportions, we have barely seen a hint of evaporation since mid August. Indeed yesterday, I gratefully accepted the kind offer of a pneumatic pump from the neighbourhood builders to relieve the misery of my parched pot plants. Perfect weather indeed for the seismic sunflower luxuriating in the sunshine along the terrace.
What’s more, the temperature at the time, 3pm on the penultimate afternoon in September, reached the giddy heights of 25 degrees centigrade; easily the hottest I have enjoyed since sometime in July 2014 in Staffordshire. Today, it took till nearly 11am for the mist to dissipate, but by mid afternoon, in full sun, the thermometer again climbed easily into the mid 20s.
But it’s not just the unusual heat of a true Indian summer that has made September 2015 one to linger in the memory. While the rapid fall in night time temperatures has been a sharp reminder that it is actually almost October, the resulting mist enveloping the river at dawn has been truly magical. Each morning as the pink watercolour sky in the east reddens and deepens it has gradually burned off the haze to reveal another sumptuously still September day.
And nature’s sky show hasn’t finished with the ever-earlier end of daylight. The last few days have provided the amazing spectacle of the most monstrous moons. From ruby red to copper through to LED bright white, each night a lunar light has fired the dark sky with an eerie, mystical beauty.
I doubt I will ever really love the autumn in the same way I long for the vivid freshness of early spring, but this amazing September has at least made me appreciate that there can be beauty among the dying embers of summer.
So, the forecasters project we are in line for the warmest October on record and the pictures show sun worshippers and their deck chairs in central London. But, while most of the population eulogise about the mild weather and delightful russet hues, I’ve retreated into my annual hibernation, curled up against diminishing light and shortening days.
I hate autumn; an enmity first developed during the dreich Scottish autumns of childhood, festered further when required to work inflexible hours that conspired against any possible glimpses of daylight and remains today, albeit lessened recently by the privilege of a freelance life .
Normally, a walk, bike ride, a brief breath of air and the chance to enjoy a sight of some flora and fauna will raise my mood, even on the wettest, or bitterest days. So, why this antipathy to autumn, many people’s favourite season of the entire year?
Essentially, autumn is the dying season, the sanguine detritus of leaves and foliage represents the expiring of the natural year; clearly necessary for the reborn vibrant green of next spring, but for me, a time of sadness, not celebration.
Ultra-warm temperatures in late October are also, not only incongruous but a waste of a nice day: I mean, what’s the point of 20 degrees at four pm when it’s dark outside? This kind of warmth (particularly after the clock change) makes it morally impossible to light the fire at a time when there’s not enough daylight to enjoy a couple of hours in the garden.
Mid autumn is also the time for the two most abused and pointless ‘festivals’ of the calendar year: Halloween, now a gross, Americanisation of an important connection with both Christian and Pagan traditions, closely followed by the bizarre excuse to celebrate the torture and murder of a hapless plotter. Is it just me, or doesn’t Burn a Catholic Night seem increasing incongruous in today’s troubled world?
But – and, of course, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel – looking on the bright side, dismal, depressing autumn will soon be over, replaced by the bright, sharp days (well, at least when it’s not raining) of winter. The shortest days, with their cold, clear light are often the best time of the year for cycling and walking. They also provide the ideal excuse for layering up, slow cooking comfort food and recovering in front of a re-assuring open fire.
And, by the time we get Christmas over with, the days, gradually but inexorably, will begin to lengthen.
A couple of days early, perhaps, but as we prepare to wave goodbye – in calendar terms anyway – to the summer, the last three months have certainly produced a season of contrasts compared with flimsy summers of recent years.
As it’s Britain, we have to start with the weather and in keeping with the bizarre climate patterns of 2013, this summer certainly did not disappoint. Following one of the coldest, and certainly the latest, spring on record, it took only a couple of days into June before the harsh, east wind of the previous four months was suddenly replaced by still, warm days of glorious sunshine. And, with the exception of a few downpours – coinciding, of course with my cycling days out – it pretty much stayed like this for the next three months. Consistent temperatures around the mid 30 degrees mark created an almost Mediterranean atmosphere at times, and sitting out in the garden on long, balmy evenings was a long-forgotten pleasure.
The eccentric weather has been accurately reflected in the idiosyncratic growing patterns of plants in the garden. As I write, on the penultimate day of August, the geraniums are blooming as if it were still high summer and the mountainous Buddleia has retained its pristine white floresence long after its traditionally short flowering season in mid July. Deep crimson impatiens, which arrived as feeble little plugs in the cold spring, now cascade out of their tubs and the blackberries have already produced enough fruit for daily use, as well as for the freezer.
But the real highlight of the garden has been the return of the butterflies; in particular, after a sad absence of several years, the small tortoiseshell. After pessimistic reports forecasting the demise of the entire Lepidoptera species, waves of dazzling peacock butterflies arrived appeared in July, followed by their pretty small tortoiseshell cousins in August. And today, two gorgeous red admirals have now been spotted on the Buddleia.
June saw the arrival of a new member of the bike family – and what an appropriate debutant! The pastel blue of Poppy the Pashley has been perfectly at home amongst the summer blooms and the warm early evenings have provided ideal conditions for a passeggiato on wheels round the village.
The high temperatures may have been a little uncomfortable for cycling at times, but it sure more than made up for the below zero temperatures and Siberian winds of the early part of the year. The agreeable conditions also tempted me to get back on the Cannondale (thanks Patrick for the servicing) and experience, again, the exhilaration of cruising along dry roads with only a gentle breeze as your headwind. It’s also really encouraging to see how popular road cycling has become and, especially, how it now attracts people of all ages and genders.
The standout has to be the late afternoon of Sunday July 7 when Andy Murray finally overcame Novak Djokovic to win Wimbledon. I’ve watched the tournament each year since I was five and I never thought I would ever see a British man win the singles title: it was suitably historic and emotional. And, maybe as a result of that, I finally re-joined the local tennis club, bought a new pair of shoes and signed up for some coaching – very necessary after 20 years away from the courts – and, so far, pleased to say, it’s going well.
Even amongst the regular horror stories dominating the news these last few months there have been some uplifting examples of human courage and integrity: the local and national protestors against fracking deserve mention, as do the majority of decent and humane people throughout the country who continue to vehemently oppose the shameful and barbaric badger cull, and even the sensible majority of MPs who voted against any further war mongering in the Middle East. These may be small chinks of light, but are significant, nevertheless.
So, finally freed from the constraints of school holidays, I can look forward to spending some of September in Scotland. The unspoilt, undiscovered delights of Galloway (including, hopefully, the Wigton Book Festival) await, as does a return to Glasgow and its wonderful cafe society, plus the Trossachs, with possibly another circuit of Loch Katrine in its russet autumnal glory, on the cards.
It’s been a summer to remember, but now I can’t wait for the autumn.
Autumn is my least favourite season; this year, every year. Yes, I know most people rave about the colours, but as I aways associate them with dying leaves and foliage, I find it impossible to look beyond my default setting that autumn equals the dying season. A day like today doesn’t help, of course: pouring, barely light all day and not much to look at except a fat pigeon trying to source some scraps of food among the sodden leaves littered round the garden.
In many ways I actually prefer the winter, because at least once you reach the New Year, however cold it is, the nights do begin to lighten and there’s always spring to look forward to in the not too distant future.
But, before you start ringing the Samaritans on my behalf, there is one aspect of autumn that I have always looked forward to and that is spending some part of the season in the city.Everybody tries to escape the city in summer, with good cause, but autumn is different. Even early autumn, with its characteristic, sharp, bright days, is best enjoyed in the city. And as the days shorten and the light becomes more hazy, urban landscapes take on their own unique, murky beauty.
On a recent stay in London, I was struck by the ghostly allure of St Pancras Station looming out of the cold, raw air. On the same trip, I made sure I spent Sunday browsing the East End’s many markets; the damp day providing an ideal excuse to warm up with some delicious street food and too many cups of intense expresso. There is something about markets in cold weather that makes street shopping more rewarding than in the middle of summer. Maybe I’ve just read too many Victorian novels, but I still thrill to the Dickensian stalls of roasted chestnuts in the narrow, cobbled lanes.
I will even go so far to contend that cities can provide a better outdoor experience in the autumn than can the countryside. I appreciate that may sound totally incongruous, but the diminishing daylight can make it difficult for a full day out in the wilds and mud and killer leaves in rural roads often endanger autumn bike rides. Most of our cities boast attractive parks and it is perfectly possible to devise extensive walks and rides for all ages and levels of ability. You don’t have to look very far to see the amazing variety of wildlife that manages to survive in our urban areas and, of course, you’re never too far away from a welcoming cafe.
So, although I’ll never love the autumn, over the years I’ve learned to live with it and, sometimes, I can just about recognise something of its distinctive beauty: although for me that lies in the eerie outlines of urban spires and rooftops, rather than the dying foliage of hills and vales.
Now it looks as though summer might finally have arrived, what better excuse to get out in the saddle and enjoy the long, sunny days. And, of course, that little bit of extra effort can fully justify a well-deserved stop en route for a refreshing drink and tempting slice of cake. The 15 mile stretch of Route 54 between Burton on Trent and Lichfield is an ideal ride at any time of year and the route is well endowed with welcoming cafes, tearooms and pubs. Here are some of our favourites, riding north to south.
Great little cafe right on the route and almost at the half way point between Burton and Lichfield. Quirky and friendly, with delicious sausage sandwiches and cakes, classy coffee and always interesting soundtracks from the musical owners. Very bike friendly with secure racks round the back. Popular with cyclists, particularly on Sunday mornings. Open every day 9-5 (Sunday 10-4).
There are also two attractive pubs in the village main street; the Middle Bellhttp://www.themiddlebell.co.uk and the Three Horseshoeshttp://www.3horseshoesbarton.co.uk Both serve excellent meals, welcome cyclists and have space in their gardens for bike storage. The Royal Oak, at the junction of The Green and Dogshead Lane is renowned for its beer.
An interesting stop, especially if you have the time to hand paint a piece of pottery from their large range of ceramics! Although it can get busy during school holidays, cyclists and non-artists are made very welcome. Tea cakes are particularly tasty. Some space against front wall where bikes can be left relatively safely. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10-5, plus Mondays during February and October half terms.
A welcome new addition to the village is this original shop, selling design-led gifts, jewellery and fair trade products. It also contains a small tea room. Untested, as yet, by the local Volunteer Rangers, it’s on our ‘to-do’ list for the summer. Open Monday-Saturday 9.45-5.30 and 10-4 on Sundays.
This historic building boasts one of the rare CTC Winged Wheel Plaques just above the front door. Landlord Graham welcomes all cyclists and you will be served with a good coffee any day from 11am, as well as the usual range of food and drink.
A short detour from the route will bring you to the picturesque Fradley Junction, where the Trent and Mersey and Coventry Canals merge. The Kingfisher Cafe is just past the pub and actively welcomes cyclists, with racks outside the front. Tea cakes are also good here too; there’s WiFi and the cafe encompasses a small shop selling basics. Open 10-5 weekends between November to February (same times everyday March to October).
You’re certainly spoilt for choice at Fradley Junction, with another cafe just across the canal. Again, there is plenty of space for cycles around the cafe. Full English breakfasts are rated highly here. Opening hours are 10-3.30 daily.
And with Route 54 passing right by Lichfield Cathedral, where better to admire this magnificent 12th century Gothic edifice than from the unique 13th century walled garden of the Chapters Restaurant in the Cathedral Close? There’s plenty of room inside too when the weather is inclement and Chapters always extends a warm welcome to cyclists, including Sustran’s local Volunteer Rangers for their monthly meetings. Open 9-4 (winter) 9-5 (summer) Monday to Saturday and 10-4 Sundays.
Now you’ve picked your hedgerow fruit, here are some suggestions as to what to do with it.
Firstly, and most importantly, remember to wash it: anything near a road is liable to pick up pollution from vehicles, but crop spraying in fields is perhaps a bigger hazard. Although it’s tempting to eat brambles straight away, it’s even more vital to wash these first as they will not be sterilised by high cooking temperatures.
Brambles (wild blackberries) are probably the best known and most versatile hedgerow fruit and can be used in crumbles, fruit tarts and various other desserts, as well as being ideal for pureeing. Substituting around 50g of pureed brambles for raspberries makes a richer and deeper coloured top layer for coconut ice.
Elderberries are one of our most common hedgerow fruits, but are routinely ignored. The berries are too bitter to eat, but when boiled and sweetened, make a deliciously rich jelly, with a unique flavour. The great thing about jelly making is that you don’t need to core, or de-seed the fruit before boiling it.
1. Cut the berries off the stocks, add some apples (the humble crab apple is best, but ordinary cookers will do), chopped roughly, with cores and skin.
2. Cover with just enough water and boil gently until it resembles a soft pulp.
3. Strain through a muslin bag (jelly bag) – a clean linen tea towel will do – and allow to drip overnight. Avoid touching or moving it, or the jelly will tend to become cloudy.
4. Measure the liquid – as a general rule you need the equivalent amount of sugar, eg, 1pt liquid = 1lb sugar (preserving traditionally uses imperial measurements) – and bring to boil.
5. Add the sugar, then continue to boil till setting point is reached – best way is to use a jam thermometer, but test by putting a spoonful on a cold saucer to see if it wrinkles when you draw your finger across it, as a back up.
6. Bottle and cover immediately – make sure jars/bottles have been sterilised and are hot, otherwise the jars may crack and anything other than scrupulously clean jars will attract mould.
Rosehips and rowans can also be used in hedgerow jellies, but be careful with the rosehips as they should be chopped before boiling and, as their inner fibres contain irritants, it’s best to do this in a processor and handle them wearing gloves.
Sloes are just coming into fruit and you can pick them well into November. They look like tiny purple damsons, but as they cling to blackthorns, take care when you pick them. They make a deliciously rich (and potent) liqueur type drink, the best recipe I’ve found being an adaptation of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s damson vodka. Make it now for drinking next Christmas (allowing yourself a taster or two on bottling, of course). Makes around 1.5 litres. 1kg sloes, washed500g sugar1 litre vodka
Prick each sloe several times with a pin, then transfer to a large, clean Kilner jar, demijohn or other suitable glass container with a tight-fitting lid or stopper.
Add the sugar, pour in the vodka, seal and leave in a cool place away from direct sunlight.
Every week or two, turn the jar on its head, then back again.
After six months, strain the liquid through several layers of muslin, then bottle and seal tightly.
Leave for at least another six months. It will be even better after two years – or more – provided you have the patience.
We all know that Sustrans routes are great for getting from A to B safely, healthily and scenically, helping you to keep fit and do your bit for for the environment at the same time. But, they also have other attractions, particularly at this time of year.
This hasn’t been the best of summers, but one of the few benefits of the rain and lack of sun in June and July is that the hedgerows are still heavy with fruit: brambles, rose hips and even elderberries that usually ripen six to eight weeks ago, are still there.
And as many Sustrans routes run along old railways and canal towpaths – ideal hunting grounds for hedgerow fruit – you’ll be spoilt for choice. Even when the route runs along a country lane, you’re still in the driving seat, so to speak, as you can cycle further away from the half a mile radius out of the villages and car parks, which is as far as most of the pedestrian and car driving fruit pickers get to.
Normally I find mid to late August as the best time for the blackberry harvest, but walking the West Highland Way (which shares Sustrans Route 7 for parts of the route) in early September I was amazed at how many wild brambles were still to ripen.
Nearer home, Route 54 between Burton and Lichfield, is (or was until I gathered the elderberries) ideal hedgerow territory, running parallel to the Trent and Mersey Canal for a few miles and then along some high-hedged lanes.
So, pack some plastic bags in your panniers and see what you can find in the hedgerows, – but hurry because as the sun weakens, any fruit that is left will rot quickly. Blackberries will be past their best, but slows are just beginning to ripen – add sugar and a bottle of vodka/gin, leave in a dark place for as long as you can – and they make a deliciously rich (and potent!) liqueur.
Elderberries make a full-bodied (and equally potent) wine, or can be boiled up with crab apples and rose hips to make a delicious jelly. (Recipes to follow in next post.) You can even use rowan berries, as well, but do take care and if you’re not too sure of your berries, err on the safe side with those you are familiar with.
So, in a few months time you can indulge in some mouthwatering jellies and agreeable drinks, without guilt, knowing you have picked, delivered and cooked them, all by your own efforts. Bon appetite!
Autumn, in particular October, is ideal for a short break. But perhaps time and money are a bit short and you can’t spare more than a few days away; not enough to enjoy some sunnier climes?
No problem, stay in Britain, make the most of the daylight before the clocks change, enjoy the changing autumn colours and, if the weather turns inclement, you can easily spend a day in a nearby city, or local attraction. Britain in autumn is perfect for a few days away where you can combine some cycling, walking, climbing, photography in the countryside, with a cultural, foodie, or chilled-out few days in the city.
One great advantage of our crowded island is that many of our major urban areas are cheek by jowl with national parks and areas of national beauty: think Sheffield/Manchester and the Peak District; Bristol and Exmoor; Glasgow and the Trossachs; Edinburgh and the Pentlands.
Even the sprawling West Midlands conurbation has the Malverns and the Cotswolds on its doorstep and woodland Surrey, the Chilterns and the south coast can be easily reached from Greater London.
But what to pack; particularly for us eco-conscious, self-sufficient travellers, who have to carry our needs for all eventualities on our backs, or bikes and on public transport? You need the footwear and outwear for protection in the great outdoors, but you don’t want to look like an outdoor gear geek as you sip your flat white in Convent Garden.
The key is, like with all packing, to try to take multi-purpose garments and, to be fair, the look, quality and weight of outdoor gear has improved immeasurably over the last few years. Merino wool tops, such as Icebreaker, look good enough to wear out or indoors, and merino also has the priceless asset of lasting several days without offensive odours. Similarly, ultra-lightweight down (and some man-made alternatives), like those by Rab, now are stylish enough, and in sufficiently pleasing shades, not to look out of place in city streets. And if it’s wet, wear your wet gear: if it throws it down, nobody cares much what you look like; hillside or city street.
This first “rule’ is generally to wear your “active” gear and footwear (usually because it’s the bulkiest) when you travel to your destination. This can result in some amusing scenarios: once, having secured a reasonably-priced first class ticket and resplendent in lycra and cycling helmet, I was initially blocked from entering the posh end of the train by an attendant who told me: “This is a first class coach madam.” When I replied that I had a first class reservation and offered to show him my ticket, he apologised and said: “I thought you were off on your bike, not travelling first class!”
So, other than specialised activity kit, what else to take?
Essentials: sleepwear, something to lounge about in, underwear and toiletries – if you’re staying in a hotel, b&b etc, it’s a good idea to check in advance what toiletries they provide as it can save considerable weight and bulk.
For trips of up to a week, I now organise my gear into: jeans/leggings, couple of tee shirts, tunic, sweater, comfortable lightweight shoes – obviously amend as appropriate.
These I can pack into a small, lightweight wheeled bag, with waterproofs, hat, gloves, water bottles and the like in a 20 litre backpack. Thus, I can carry my luggage easily and have enough adaptable gear to keep me dry and warm on the hills, but stylish enough to look reasonably cool in a cafe, or shop, museum or cinema.
Go ahead, take advantage of the autumn kaleidoscope in the woodlands, enjoy the hills and mountains before winter sets in.
Exeter and the Jurassic coast: the city’s beautiful St Peter’s Cathedral is well worth a visit http://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/ and the Bike Shed Theatre http://www.exeterviews.co.uk/whats-on/event/74/henry-v.html presents a critically-acclaimed production of Henry V on October 21st-22nd.
The city sits at the west end of the Jurassic coast: the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site is England’s first natural World Heritage Site – it covers 95 miles of truly stunning coastline from East Devon to Dorset, with rocks recording 185 million years of the Earth’s history http://www.jurassiccoastline.com/
Walk sections of the coastal path, visit the Swannery at Abbotsbury, marvel at Durdle Door rock arch, hunt for fossils on Charmouth beach, or take short detours to Bridport and Thomas Hardy’s Dorchester. And, you don’t need a car; instead use the excellent X53 bus that links Exeter with Poole at the easterly end of the coast http://lulworthcovebedandbreakfast.com/lulworth-cove/buses-jurassic-coast.htm