Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pheasant fried

Throughout an English winter, oven-ready pheasants are readily available in the markets or butchers’ shops. And because the birds are shot in great numbers (sometimes, we are told, even buried during a glut) pheasant meat is very reasonably priced.
Pheasants mainly consist of breast meat, with a little on the thighs and a worthless, tendony bit on the lower leg.
So cut off the breasts with a sharp knife (keeping the skin on if you feel like it) and pare away any upper leg meat.
Now hold the breasts between thumb and fingers to locate and extract any shot that may have lodged in the flesh.
Cook or freeze the meat, and pressure-cook the rest to make game stock for soups or stews.
Keep the small leg pieces for adding to stews or pies, and deal with the breast meat in the following way.


You will need:
One side of a pheasant’s breast for each person
Garlic (optional)
Olive oil
Boiled potatoes
Pepper and salt
Watercress for presentation (optional)

Heat a good quantity of olive oil and butter in a frying pan. Add a little pressed garlic.
Coat the breasts well with pepper and salted flour.
Very gently fry the breasts in the oil/butter mixture for 10 minutes on each side. Set them aside.
In the remaining oil/butter fry 2 finely chopped shallots until just browning.
Add sliced boiled potatoes until just browning.
Add the cooked pheasant breasts.
Heat all through and serve, garnished with a few watercress fronds if there are any at hand.

Note: Should you be given feathered pheasants, slice through the skin down the peak of the breast and peel back the skin with its feathers attached. Now cut off the breasts for this dish and throw the rest away.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Perseverance, Application and Endurance

In the post-war Klees household, in Holland, it was thought that the two boys should go to University and the two (pretty) girls get married.
My wife, Margreet, the younger of the two girls, took a job in the E.E.C., and then progressed to the Dutch Foreign Service. There she worked in the Agricultural Department at postings in Africa and Europe, recently retiring as Agricultural Adviser at their London Embassy.
Margreet’s strengths were in writing, reporting, communication, and being a charming hostess and wonderful with people.
But throughout her working career she felt that not having a University degree was a great omission. She enrolled with the Open University, studying Social Sciences and the Arts. Occasionally she took periods off from studying. Her degree course was done in her spare time during full and exacting employment with the Dutch Government. And it was done in a foreign language – English.
When she had enough credits, she was able to embark on her final thesis. The project was “Europe: Culture and Identities, Inclusion and Exclusion in a Contested Continent”. For this she chose the artists Chagall and Pascin, then Chagall and Miró.
The results are through, and she has gained the Degree that she should have acquired in her youth, and with flying colours.
As close witness to her application and perseverance, I am lost in admiration for her – and immensely proud.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Garden, late summer 2011

Rain poured down in the summer, but pots on the ground still needed watering. And as nearly all my plants are in pots or plastic sacks, watering continued as usual.
Failures in the flower section have been few, with only impatiens failing after lots of spring and early summer colour. It seems that some disease or other has tackled them. So there may be a shortage of bedding plants next year.
I knew that pieris hates to be cut back severely, having once killed one with this treatment. But mine had to be cut back, which I did very gently. It should be all right in time. But it is angry with me.
Like treatment with my mahonia was accepted by the plant as a necessity.
An old pink fuchsia that was rather hidden by a new and very vigorous one, complained, and was given space and light. Its vigorous rival soars skyward and produces a profusion of red and purple flowers.
The two roses have fared well. Typhoon, as always, is unbeatable. And even the weaker Rev. P-R produced lots of flowers.
The camellia produced its column of springtime flowers, and a hydrangea and hibiscus, neither of which were particularly happy, were relegated to the dark passageway at the end of the garden. They have provided the required greenery, but have flowered reluctantly.
An agapanthus produced only one flower, so has been divided and re-potted for next year. But its blue flower head made the red pelargonium flowers around it seem more vibrant. Otherwise I might have scrapped it.
The pelargoniums mentioned, growing out of holes in a tall strawberry pot have been splendid, but I need to turn the pot every week to give the plants an equal amount of sunshine. Resting on top of the pot is a rustic bird bath, providing bath and drinking water for our birds.
To distribute water and nourishment to the pelargoniums in the strawberry pot, a plastic flower pot, through which I have drilled several well-positioned holes, has been sunk into the earth beneath the bird bath. This idea has been a success.
Hidcote lavender provided some flowers after over-severe pruning last winter. Its grey foliage has added a nice contrast to the greenery around it.
Near to this non-colour, cascade the scarlet flowers of Bolivian begonia, Firecracker. This has become one of our favourite plants. I will try to over-winter its corm, after failing to manage it before.
From the vegetable pots we harvested a good crop of Charlotte new potatoes. We will plant up another bucket of them next year in place of pink fir apple.
We have not come to a conclusion concerning the flavour and vigour of tomato varieties tried, but feel that after several experiments we will return to Gardener’s Delight and, perhaps, Moneymaker.
The spectacular success has been runner beans, grown over a constructed arbour of bamboos. We have had feasts of beans, harvesting them for the pot at only about 6” in length. Those beans missed among the foliage have grown too large for pleasant eating and have been allowed to grow for seed and beans. By regular cropping the beans have responded by desperately trying to form seed for their survival and have thus been very productive. We have even had enough to give to friends. Their added bonus has been that the many scarlet flowers have attracted bees, and helped to brighten up the garden.
The grape harvest was a strange one, with some bunches never ripening at all. But the quality of our first vinification of two gallons was with grapes in superb condition. The second harvest of one gallon included white and red grapes and will make a rather red rosé. So the quantity has been small, which means, usually, that the quality will be good. But we won’t know about the quality until we bottle and taste the wine just before Christmas.
Herbs have provided for our needs. And the asparagus tree (tied to a bamboo) gives frilly elegance to the garden.
Despite poor summer weather, our little garden has been a pleasure to the eye, and provided food for the kitchen.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


When we remember the dead of two World Wars, we should also remember those who survived and then died directly or indirectly of their wounds. My father was one of the latter. The following account I may have put on my blog in the past. If so, it is timely to repeat it.


The following is about my father’s part in the First World War – more specifically, his part in the Mesopotamia (now Iraq) campaign, described in his letters home to his mother.
Freddy Page-Roberts’s family lived in the 18th century Rectory, Stratfieldsaye, where his father (the great rosarian) was vicar to the Duke of Wellington. Freddy went to Marlborough, thence to Wye Agricultural College and on to Egypt as an employee of the British Government (Egypt was a Protectorate) to irrigate land with Nile water for agricultural purposes. In 1914, when working on these projects, war with the Germans seemed inevitable. So he returned to England as a Territorial to join his regiment, the 1st/4th Hampshires (although he had played cricket for the neighbouring county of Berkshire). After training on Salisbury Plain he was commissioned and sent to join the Indian Army in India.
In 1915, when the British army was engaged with the German army in trench warfare in France, and the Turks, in league with the Germans, ruled Mesopotamia, it was thought that to protect the allies’ oil supplies in the Persian Gulf, and to rule the Mediterranean waves, a force should occupy just southern Iraq. The Indians, who were to provide the soldiers, on the other hand, had in mind to conquer a Mesopotamia that had historically been a veritable Garden of Eden, colonise it with mass emigration, and return it to its productive state. And a conquered Mesopotamia would be a distant protection of its borders. Anyhow, the army were to beat back the Turks in this sector, about the same time as armies were to strike the Turk in the Dardenelles (where the Black Sea is linked to the Mediterranean).
To gain this foothold in southern Mesopotamia, an expeditionary force (IEFD – Indian Expeditionary Force D) was dispatched from India with mainly Indian soldiers and British officers (of which my father, now Captain FW Page-Roberts (age 25), was one).
The campaign was to be run from both the Empire’s HQ in London and the government in India, who provided the troops. With this divergent command structure and of separate national interests there was bound to be confusion and trouble.
After general chaos, without proper maps or understanding the terrain (mostly mud, water, many extremely vivid mirages and mosquito-infested reeds (let alone it being very cold by night and scorchingly hot by day), it came as rather a surprise that after some difficult fighting the Turks retreated northwards. Danders were up. Advance was almost unstoppable. Generals needed victories and glory.
The Turks were one thing, the indigenous Arabs quite another. The Turks fought like seasoned soldiers and were clearly the enemy. The tribal Arabs, on the other hand, whose allegiances were needed by both sides, resented occupation by both, and took advantage of both. Their method of fighting was to skirmish with stealth, shoot accurately, grab, and run. They were much feared as thieves, even causing the soldiers to sleep on their rifles for fear of them being stolen.
So it came about that my father was part of a force detailed to advance up the River Euphrates to take the strategic town of Nasariyah (sometimes spelt as Nasariyeh). This was to protect the western flank of the proposed operations. Maps and charts were useless, local boats, commandeered and weighed down by armour and guns, drew more than the general depth of water, so were a burden. Thick reeds had to be pushed through, scorching heat caused sunburn, no mosquito nets were available, the marsh Arabs skirmished, killed and stole, not to mention the wily Turk who defended from well-constructed positions and then retired strategically.
It is during this part of the campaign that my father wrote two letters home to his mother.

Near N……. (Nasariyah)
July 21st 1915
Just had mail of June 13th.

My dearest Mother,
It is some time since I wrote, but no boat has gone down from here, so it doesn’t make any difference.
We’ve had a very strenuous time. We went to the advanced trenches about a week ago. We went up by boat at night, landed, and after sundry jobs, got into the trenches at 12. p.m. Next morning we got up at 3.30 a.m., and they started shelling us at 4.30 and we had five or six hours under pretty heavy fire. My Company lost 2 killed and 3 wounded. We were in a very bad spot, as the night before one of the barges got stuck in the mud, and had to be left. This of course drew the enemy’s fire, and we happened to be in direct line about 50 yards short. It really wasn’t at all pleasant, especially as the third shot killed two. I thought we were in for a pretty bad time. If they had had high explosives, we should have been blown to bits, so the gunners say. We can’t dig trenches here, as water is just below ground. Meanwhile the 24th had gone out in boats on the left flank with some mountain guns to attack some sand hills, and had an awful time, five out of 13 officers killed and a hundred and thirty casualties.
Turks much stronger than expected, and hoards of Arabs. As a matter of fact, we all but went on that expedition, and if we had been a little stronger we should have gone. We buried a man called Birkbeck of the 24th Pujalies. Ask the Knights if he is a relation of the Farnham ones. Next day was quieter, but dreadfully hot, and we had to stay in marching order with no shade and no breeze. (I got a touch of the sun). In the evening at eight, we relieved the 76th in the advanced trenches, 600 yards from the Turks. We were lucky, and not fired on, till we settled in and were digging hard to improve cover, then they let loose.
Next day. Stood to arms at 3.15 a.m. and then started absolute torture till 7.39 p.m. Couldn’t move, not a breeze, and awful heat. Time goes very slowly, and we had severe heat strokes, one died. We had to dig for water, which was beastly. At 8.30 we were relieved and went back under a pretty heavy fire: got back all right, sweating like anything.
Next day I was feeling pretty rotten, and had a bit of temp., so came down here (hospital) at night, and am getting on all right. It’s only really an ambulance, with no attendance, and no food arrangements, but we get tents (double fly ones). Today it’s been 110 in the tent, so you can imagine what it was like under one waterproof sheet.
We may not be undergoing the hardships of France, but I should like to get the people who say we are having a picnic here. And put them out in our trenches.
More reinforcements have come up, and one aeroplane at last, which says the Turks are retiring to another position.
Hope we shall soon do something.
Love to all,
Your loving Freddy.

The next letter is headed Nasihirah, and dated July 27th, 1915.

My dearest Mother,
At last we are at Nasihirah, after nearly five weeks hard work and beastly heat. I believe the Indian Mutiny is the only other time that operations have been undertaken in an Asiatic summer. I am very disappointed, as I did not take part in the charge that turned the Turks out of their trenches on one side of the river, being still on the sick list. Three of us who were in Hospital joined the Battalion the night before the show, but were sent with the half-fit men in reserve on a barge, so missed the great show of this war. It was very annoying, but we were not fit, and wouldn’t have been much use for 24 hours of solid work. We started the shelling about 5 a.m., and about 7.30 we (only 120 strong and 9 officers) and the 7th Gurkhas left our advanced trenches for the enemy, and had a very hot time of it, and came under very heavy shell and rifle fire, and had to wait a bit, three quarters of an hour, under a wall before getting on. Meanwhile an iron barge was taken up to the creek we had to cross, about 200 yards from the Turks with sappers and miners and one of our companies. They had a very rough time, and the barge got practically blown to pieces and eventually sank. These men got off and lined the creek, covering the advance, while the sappers made bridges. The creek was supposed to be five feet deep, but turned out to be only three and quite fordable. Two of that Company were killed and most hit.
The Battalion and the Gurkhas then advanced and crossed the creek, cheered by the sappers and miners, and rushed to the trenches, from which the Turks were beginning to bolt, and by the time we got there were in full flight. Only about 20 of us, and 40 Gurkhas were up at first and cleared them out, 500 of them.
The W. Kents on the other side had gone like anything, straight at the trenches, and took them, but with pretty bad casualties. There were about 5000 Turks, and we had about 3000 at the most, our reserves were never used. Besides this they had a very strongly fortified position and excellent trenches. We got about 500 prisoners, and killed about 700, and took 16 guns. Not so bad.
Our casualties were about 350 all told.
We had Officers: 1 killed, 1 died of wounds, 3 wounded. Men: 8 killed, 1 died of wounds and 31 wounded. 44 in total.
Barton, our Adj. from the 2nd Battalion was killed soon after the start. He was one of the very best, and only married last August to an awfully nice girl. He will be a great loss to the Battalion.
Paul Simmons, of Basingstoke, died in the afternoon, hit through the liver. He was quite conscious about five minutes before he died. He was also one of the best, and I am awfully sorry about both of them. The Colonel was wounded, and rather lucky, as it just missed his lung, Osborn in chest, poor old fat Parsons broken arm.
This took place on the 24th of July (1915). We and the un-fit men spent the morning on the barge, and had shells pitching around. In the afternoon I did what I could for the wounded, and saw about burying the dead. At night the barge was towed up to the enemy’s trenches, where the men were, and next evening we came on to Nasihirah, and bivouacked, everyone tired out. Next morning I took 60 men to the barracks on the opposite bank to attend the salute of 21 guns, and the unfurling of the Union Jack. It is still very hot, but we can get some fresh meat and vegetables here, which is a great blessing.
The General came last night, and said we had done, with the Gurkhas (both very weak, 300 about) what a whole Battalion should have done, and we had done quite as well as regulars, and said we might be sent to India to join the rest, and recuperate a bit. I hope we shall go, as we are only about 100 strong, and rather worn out, and have had a good show. We’ve just heard Turkish reinforcements are about seven hours march away, but it’s not verified yet: we ought to give them a pretty warm time if they come.
Haven’t had mails for ages. Many thanks for chocolate. It’s rather melted, but when we get to ice, it will be all right, It’s very nice to be going strong, but I do wish I had been in the charge. Only 4 officers got there. My Company had 13 casualties out of 40.


Now comes a large gap when either letters did not arrive, or they were lost, I will fill in the rough details as I know them.
This next letter concerns the headlong push north up the Tigris toward Kut, where the advance army was besieged by the Turks. Later, in an attempt to raise this siege, my father would be badly wounded in the Battle of Hanna. The fighting now described was chaotic, partly due to the speedy advance outstripping the length of available telephone cable back to Headquarters, and an almost complete breakdown of communication between those in command on the battlefield.

Indian Expeditionary Force D
Jan 11th 1916

My dearest Mother,
I am still going strong, and as comfortable as can be expected under the circumstances. Have left Amarah by boat, on the 13th of December (did not see the New Year in) arrived at Ali Gharbi on 1st Jan. Joined up with D Coy (Hugh North etc) all quite fit.
We stayed there until the 6th and then had orders to march. We did a forced march to Calel (?) past part of the force that had gone on in front about 20 miles, and arrived in camp after dark, which made things very difficult. It rained in the night, which didn’t add to the comfort. We had seen shells bursting all morning and next day we went on again about five miles and caught up the first force. Waited for orders, crossed the bridge and advanced towards our right flank to represent heavy reinforcements. We came under rather heavy shrapnel which burst all round. Luckily we only had 5 casualties in my Company. We went on for about one and a half miles and then retired. Got into camp near river and then had orders to march at 9 p.m. to a point of concentration preparatory
to a night march round our right flank. We waited from 11 to 4.30 with no blankets. Bitterly cold. At 4.50 we started again and marched about 6 miles down stream, but eventually found no trace of Turks, and came back to the bridge.
Directly we got back we had to go out again to take up a position on our right flank. We again came under heavy shrapnel, which luckily burst too high. We then dug some good trenches. In the evening it rained and made the trenches perfectly beastly and cold. Next morning it was misty and damp and we found the Turks had gone in the night. About 1 p.m. we returned to bridgehead and thought we were going to advance but got orders to cross over and look after a hospital there. We crossed by boat but didn’t get off, and we slept in the saloon in some comfort and had the first wash and shave for about five days. Yesterday we crossed over again and came up river about 7 miles and joined up with the rest of the force. It took us from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. to do it as we had a lot of cow guns and carts to get along over a very bad road. Then we had to wait to 3 a.m. for our valises and men and blankets. There was a very heavy dew and it froze in the night, so it was pretty beastly. Good day today and I think we rest here for the present. The casualties were very heavy about four thousand five hundred on our side, some of the regiments just arrived got it very badly. At present we don’t know where the Turks have gone.
We’ve had no mail for some time now. Hope to get one soon.
Cheerio. Hope you’re all well. Freddy.

I.E.F. D
Jan 16th 1916
My dearest Mother,
Just a line as I hear mail goes out in about half an hour. There’s nothing much to say except that we are having rather an unpleasant time but no more casualties as yet. I think I last wrote about the 11th. We are not yet in Kut owing to the Turks putting up a very good show in the way of a rear guard action.
There was another scrap about 3 days ago, which just missed being a great success. We hovered about in reserve and on preparing for action advanced to find the wily Turk had gone. We had some very cold wet nights without bedding or covering of any sort. But I’m glad to say we are again at the river and water will give us a chance to get at our parent boat and tents.
The troops from France are beginning to find this not such a picnic as they thought, especially the little things like medical comforts which of course one can’t expect to be as good here, as there.
We had a service on the boat this morning.
We got a mail three days ago, which had been done a long time and dated Dec 7th (latest). While on treck it would be very nice to receive food and chocolate. Mess stores are not very plentiful.
All the officers except Foster are fit and well and full of life.
Glad to hear you’re all going strong. Please thank father for his letter. Love to all

Your loving Freddy.

Hospital, Basra.
Feb. 2nd 1916

My dearest Mother,
I’ afraid you haven’t had a regular supply of letters lately, but we have been wandering about all over the country, and I really haven’t had any letters between the 9th and 27th of December. One is somewhere up river and the other went down on the Persia. I hope Nan (?) Crane wasn’t on it.
I hope you got the telegram about me being hit all right. After being in reserve the lst two shows and only coming under shell fire, we were supporting the attack on 21st over an absolutely open piece of ground with a long way to go, and the poor old Regiment got cut about badly, all the officers except I were hit and about 90% of the men. A good many are missing as we got into their trenches but couldn’t stay there. Next day there was an armistice but a lot were not found.
I expect (SS Varela, Feb5) you saw the casualty list so I won’t write them all over again, but the Turks managed to pick out the very best of the bunch. All my friends in the Regiment are gone or else up in Kut and now the Colonel has gone. I don’t know about what will become of us. Absolutely the very best of the officers were killed or missing, and I’m afraid there’s not much hope for the missing.
Poor old Hugh was killed instantaneously which is better than it might have been.
I am very glad to hear you are going strong and had a successful operation at last. You seem to have been well looked after by all the doctors. I expect that by the time you get this you will be about again.
As to my wound, I got hit about 200 yards from their trenches high up on the left thigh and couloid (?) nerve. They potted at me all day but luckily didn’t get me again. I was hit about 8 am and lay out that day and night till about 3.30 next morning when some stretcher bearers luckily came along, and after a very adventurous journey (as it had been raining all the time and the place was a mass of mud and ditches full of water) I got to an ambulance about 7 am. I lay in the mud there after having some rum till about 10 am, and got onto a boat at about 12 pm and into some dry blankets.
On the 24th I got onto another boat going down stream, full of British casualties who made a beastly noise all night. Of course it rained and the water poured onto my bed. We dined on bully and biscuits most of the way down and eventually got to Basra on the 28th and into a bed in hospital and had a decent meal.
On Feb 3rd we got onto the hospital ship Varela and are now on our way to Bombay, thank goodness.
I think after 11 months of Mesopotamia one wants a bit of a change.
The bullet must have hit the bone but very luckily didn’t break it, but cut the nerves. And I can’t at present move my left foot or leg below the knee much.
I don’t know if it will be a long job or not. If I get any convalescent leave I shall try to get to Cashmere for a bit. I’m afraid there’s not much chance of getting to England.
The food on board is top hole and I’ve had the first decent meal since we arrived in this country 11 months ago. Quite a change after picnicking for so long, and very hard not to overeat.
They’ve got some nursing sisters out now from India at Basra which makes a lot of difference to the running of the hospital, as the orderlies are only picked up from regiments in the country. We have got a lot of men doing orderlies who’ve had practically no training. A few RAMC men did come with the troops from France.

Colaha Hospital. Bombay Feb 10th 1916
We arrived here last night after a very good trip with only one morning at all rough.
We got off Bombay Harbour about 11 am, took some time to get into docks and I eventually got into an ambulance at about 6.30. And so to the Hospital about 20 minutes run. It’s a very fine hospital on the sea, but unfortunately I can’t see out.
My ward is quite nice and high and airy. 18 beds, not all full.
The Major examined me this afternoon and says they’ll explore the nerve (sciatic) to see what’s wrong, and that I shall probably be sent to England as it will be rather a long job.
It will be top hole getting back for a bit.
I heard from Mrs. Bowker who is at Poona and of course very upset about the Colonel. I am sorry for her. I think she’s nursing at a Poona Hospital. If I do stay in India I hope I go there.
I can’t hear many details about my Company. A lot got down river before I got in, and are now all over India.
I believe I was reported killed in the Indian papers. I hope you got the wires I sent all right.
Well I hope I shall soon be home and find everyone fit.
Love to all.
Your loving Freddy

My father doesn’t mention the blood loss, pain, being left for dead among the dead, building a coffin of mud around him for protection and the rain filling this coffin with bloody water, twice falling off the stretcher on the bearer’s three and a half hour treck to an ambulance station, or the unsprung cart that then transported his wounded body to the river Tigris. But he was lucky to have escaped death at Hanna, where 3,600 of his comrades were killed.
He never really recovered from this dreadful experience, living his life as a barely successful chicken and mushroom farmer through the great depression, and with his foot held up by a spring connected to a collar around his leg.
Desperate for good health, he took the great elixir of the time discovered by Madame Curie – radium. This destroyed his blood, and he died in 1938, aged 48.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Plundered Roofs

A house in our street that had been converted from garages sported downstairs door and window projections covered with lead sheeting. These protuberances broke up the otherwise dull façade, and the lead/grey rooflets added a mellow charm to the frontage.
This fine covering should have lasted for many a lifetime. But one morning, after some 15 or more years of the building’s life, the lead had gone – ripped off in the night by thieves.
The ragged bits of lead flashing remained attached to the walls, turning the building into an ugly mess – stripped of its charm.
The thieves were brave, as in front and around were occupied homes, all beneath street lights, where anyone witnessing the nocturnal event could have called the police.
The owner of the house then had the projections covered with slates and dark, quarry, ridge tiles. The result was adequate, but now rather clumsily heavy compared with the original lead.
In a remote way, and many years ago, I may have been party to such lead theft.
I was sculpting in lead, melting it on my kitchen stove and casting the poisonous liquid metal in home-made casts of plaster-coated wood.
In those days I lived in London’s dockland, well before its elevated development took place.
The correct way then, in that area of the East End, was to make it known in a now non-existent pub that was frequented by police and criminals, what commodity one wanted. As if by magic it soon arrived – to be paid for in cash, of course.
You did not ask questions about the origin of anything that came one’s way. For all I knew, my lead came from people like those who stole the lead here in Hammersmith.
When that lead was stolen not far down our street, I was made aware that over the porches of each of our six terraced houses was also lead covering, secured mostly by its weight and a few very inadequate nails.
So I went to the screw box and secured the lead roofing on my porch with four screws (now rusting and very visible) on each side. And I knocked in a few wide-headed galvanised nails in between – just to make sure.
A day or two ago I left my house shortly after 7 o’clock in the morning to collect the paper, and on returning was astounded to see that the lead on my neighbour’s porch roof had been ripped away in the night. Only the contorted flashing attached to the brickwork’s pointing remained.
The thieves had also tried to lever away my own lead covering, but to no avail.
I have spoken to others in our terrace, and some have now secured their porch roofing with screws.
What kind of thieves would risk judicial punishment by stealing such a small quantity of lead, right beneath a street light and with people around?
It was certainly a quiet job, as, on a still night, none of us heard a thing.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dieppe Autumn 2011

I have written a lot about Dieppe in this blog. I write once more because of the changes there since we last visited this delightful French port more than a year ago.
It is, as usual, our favourite “abroad” place for a few days of complete change, gastronomic delights (mainly fish) and a source for acquiring good wine at a reasonable price. The saving on our car-full of wine pays for our break. Could one ask for more?
I have pretty well squeezed everything I wanted from a few drawings on postcards made at the International Kite Festival there in 2008. These will appear, in bright pastel form, in A4 and A1 size, in due course. The only kite flying during our visit this time was in the shape of an octopus. It was of no interest to me as kites like it, and many other exotic ones, had already reached my canvasses.
My kites are compositions of shape and colour, set in simple landscape. I doubt if any would actually fly. But pictorial representation is not what I am about in art.
I had never noticed before, and certainly not remarked upon, that the ground floors of at least two large shops in Dieppe undulated. To shop there entailed walking gently up and down hill. Floors are usually flat.
Shops change in Dieppe with some regularity. Those that do are mostly clothes shops. Department stores, food and vegetable shops stay the same - as does the smaller twice-weekly market and the large one on Saturdays. A shop where we once bought wine equipment and Pro-Ven-Di soap (soap on a chromium stick, bolted to the wall above a basin) was closed. But we had already managed (in England) to buy that soap, from France, through the Internet.
We discovered this time that it is best to shop early at the large out-of-town supermarket. There are then assistants available to help, and empty wine boxes to use. “Early”, in Dieppe, is before 10 o’clock, when shops open. Around 9.30 appeared to be an ideal time to visit the supermarket, when shelves were being re-stocked and those empty wine boxes available. We need the boxes to make the best use of space when filling the back of our car – to the brim.
A film was being made at the yachting harbour quay. Just whether one of the car ferries was involved we did not discover. But it left the inner port, wandered around off-shore, and came back to moor all night and brightly lit where vessels generally offload sand and gravel for the building industry.
Margreet estimated that the cost of food and goods had risen by 30% in just over a year. But we know where we can still eat lunch splendidly and cheaply, with unlimited red wine and cider. We sit with workmen (no women there), which does give us a direct link with France and the French. I can usually make myself understood, but Margreet, with her command of languages, has to translate the replies to me.
For the first time we were short changed (£5) after eating at the popular Tout Va Bien brasserie, where the harbour stops and the main street starts. The brasserie was under new management. Margreet soon sorted that matter out. The waiter knew exactly what he had done.
A most horrible bronze sculpture, forming part of a roundabout outside the brasserie has been dispensed with. But it had been replaced by another that was almost as offensive.
Dog mess, always a hazard in Dieppe in the past, has been considerably reduced – thank havens. One can now look forward and upward when walking – well, most of the time.
But for me the greatest and most welcome change in Dieppe has been one of convenience. It is that having virtually abolished the pissoire in France, Dieppe, most sensibly, has re-installed them – two, one in the main square and market place, and another near to where fresh fish is sold from stalls by the yachting harbour. Hooray for good sense – and less pollution.
The car ferry is underused out of season, and makes the less than four hour crossing more pleasant. And queuing through the system does give one a chance to talk with strangers. One man supplied organic vegetables to major supermarkets, which is a multi million pound operation. And a motorcycle enthusiast’s BMW fell over in the Austrian Alps, which cost the manufacturer a great deal of money in lodgings, replacement and repair, as it was still under warranty.
He was about to take one of his old bikes on a rally of vintage machinery in northern Spain. We once travelled back by ship from there with the same group of enthusiasts. So we asked if he would give our regards to someone who helped us out with a starting problem. This man could hardly be missed as he rode a bike with his wife in the sidecar. But what was more unique was the fact that he had adapted the bike so that he could manage to ride it one-handed – having lost an arm in an accident.
By talking to people you can make an otherwise boring trip quite good fun.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Village Life

I was born and lived my early years in an English country village. I was happy, despite the sibling difficulties that children are subjected to. There is a lot to be said for rural village life, which usually comes with appreciation of nature and fresh, home-produced food. But, by gosh, there are limitations to country village life.
These limitations are to do with class, snobbery, power, money, sociability and religion.
There is a strong element of “them” and “us” in country village life (I got into real trouble as a child by fishing for newts with village boys).
To fit in, you almost have to entertain and be entertained.
It soon becomes apparent on starting out in a village that there will be people with whom you “gel” and those with whom you don’t. But it is best to get on with every one if you can manage it, as gossip takes a major part in village life and you certainly don’t want enemies.
To be accepted takes time, and is best when not rushed. It was considered, when I was a boy, that it took 25 years to be properly accepted. So juggling with the social side of country living does take time. Be that as it may, for pleasure and ease of life you must fit in.
Weekenders, however they may try, are seldom a real part of village life. Their village is a weekend village. And everyone, except possibly themselves, knows it.
But they do provide impetus to village life, and often contribute to it in monetary terms.
If you are lucky, there is another kind of village life. It is town village life.
Before WW2 we had moved to London.
During that war there was little time for socialising. It was a time for survival. And it was a time that I knew only when on leave from my flying activities in the RAF, when entertainment meant night clubs, where one's bottle of spirits was marked and kept until your next visit (if you ever returned).
Since the war I have lived in London on several occasions.
The first was with young. And it was with them (like having dogs) that you meet up with people with whom you would not have done otherwise. So, living nearby to school and other parents makes you part of a town village and leads to friendships.
Or you may be very lucky and find yourself living in a town community where friendships are strong, and there is a residents association, and church.
Those who go to church have even stronger bonds in a village community, meeting each other on most Sundays with a meeting of minds.
But this religious bond in town, nowadays, is not nearly as strong as it was when I was a boy in the country, when everyone of standing – and some without – went to church, almost regardless of their beliefs.
The great advantage of village life in town is that you can be friendly and acknowledge every acquaintance in the street – friend or otherwise – and don’t have to entertain them, as you would almost have to have done in the country.
In my present town community there is an established form of getting together socially. It is 6 o’clock drinks. We offer, or are offered, wine and a “bite” or two (I now favour a cheese pancake, served hot and cut into small pieces). Start time is usually 6 or sometimes 6.30, and by 7.30, or 8 at the latest, we part for our evening meal. It is a time for talk in general, a little gossip perhaps, and an exchange of information concerning matters of neighbourhood interest. An hour or two is just enough – just the right time.
Yes, it’s the town village life for me – any day.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Travel. Age considerations and the internet

When you are young you want to travel. It is part of one’s self-education. You are brave – indestructible. And having travelled, sometimes dangerously, you are able, in later life, to hold your own in the company of those who have also travelled.
When you have been to a lot of places on the globe and become older, travel becomes more taxing. There are currencies and languages to contend with, beds and pillows that are quite different from those that you are used to, and with creatures and insects that annoy.
Many, of all ages, go away from the UK for sunshine, for the feeling of wellbeing – on land, sea and sand. This is understandable travel.
We once went away for foreign food. Now those foods are available in markets or on the internet. All can be enjoyed in restaurants or prepared at home – and generally cheaper.
For years I have had lists of things to buy in other countries (mainly France or Holland) that have been unavailable at home. Now most of the items on my shopping lists are obtainable near to home, or are traceable.
And even before taking into account the cost of hotels and food abroad, there is the ever-increasing price of car, ship, air travel and insurance to consider.
We have taken holidays-at-home. These have been periods of time when we have been self-indulgent with our relaxing time, wine choice, sightseeing and interesting restaurants. We have enjoyed these breaks immensely. And our entertainment has been convenient to our home.
So why do we leave for a few days in Dieppe once or twice a year? We go for “change”. Moreover, we return with wine, the savings on which virtually pay for our holiday. Short journeys abroad can still be viable.
But now, with almost all our pleasures abroad obtainable here, and the shops and internet able to provide the things that we used to go abroad to buy, I’m beginning to wonder if it is not the better bet to take all our holidays-at-home instead. We then have our own bed to sleep in, exotic food ingredients available in shops and markets, restaurants of every description around the corner, and a wonderful choice of theatres and galleries at hand.
So is foreign travel nowadays really worth it? Or is it just that I’m getting old? I suspect the latter.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wine Corks (probably again, as I go on about it)

I do not like to write about wine nowadays. I’m just an ordinary punter again.
When I had written masses of articles and 14 books, mainly on wine and vines, and was tasting some 2,000 wines a year, I knew, more or less, what I was about – especially with lower cost wines.
When I did write on the subject, I hope that I made it well known that you can learn almost as much about a wine from the bottle corks as from the labels stuck to the outside. That is still true.
A lot of wine is bottled with nondescript cork brands so that the bottles can be labelled and sold as wines that dealers think will sell. This not only applies to “plonk” but to wines in the highest bracket – as I learned once at an upper class white Burgundy tasting.
This cork business was brought to my notice of late when wines from Italy, Spain and France, bought in a supermarket that exists here and elsewhere in Europe, bore the same marked plastic corks.
These wines tasted of their origin, so must have been shipped in bulk to Germany and bottled there with “etiquettes” (labels, etc.) stuck on that may have been shipped along with the wine.
At this same supermarket I bought a test bottle of a wine made near Barcelona that was so “original” and delicious that Margreet and I rushed back to buy more. But I was fooled. It, too, had gone from Spain to Germany to be bottled and labelled there – though it was none the worse for this treatment. The plastic cork, though, was different, being longer and unmarked. The bottling must have been a special one for a better wine. “Corks can speak”.
I am not in favour of plastic corks in any form, and, because of them, conscious of the decline of cork forests and those who work in the cork industry. So I would like to see real corks back in the place of plastic. However, screw-top bottle closures for minor wines, or even major ones, make sense. They are convenient, easy to open and close, and save time.
When I started to write on wine in the early 1980s, wine writers were recommending wine in the top price bracket. So I had the jump on them by writing on supermarket wine – then at under £2 a bottle.
Now I notice that newspaper-recommended wines are, once more, in the upper bracket price range – often astronomically so. You do not have to buy expensive wine to enjoy good wine.
Judicious selection when visiting France is still an excellent way of buying wine – but beware the offloading of unsuccessful wine at Channel ports.
It is now an especially good time to buy in France, with 2009 and 2010 examples on the shelves.
But if tasting a bottle of wine before buying more – look at the cork. It will tell you so much.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Cheese and garlic pancake for drinks

Margaret Costa, the well-known cookery writer at the time, was coming to dinner and my then girl friend decided to make a gougère. It was not a success, being rather flat and solid. But our culinary guest loved the result. There must, I thought, be an easier and quicker way of making such a delicious failure. A taste-alike, quick-to-make equivalent was needed for times when people were invited for drinks on the spur of the moment. The following was the result. Everyone loves it - especially children. It is not just a Shrove Tuesday treat, but one to be enjoyed at any time of the year - especially with drinks. And as I am often asked for the recipe, here it is.


You will need:
Self-raising flour
Baking powder
Salt and pepper
Turmeric (for colour and optional)
Chilli powder (optional)
An Egg
Dijon mustard
Cheddar cheese (or a stronger kind)
Olive oil

Put plenty of olive oil into a frying pan. Into it press a clove or two of garlic, spreading it evenly around.. Heat up the pan until the garlic begins to turn colour. Turn off the heat.
Into a mixing bowl sieve 3 ½ heaped dessert spoons of self-raising flour, into which you have added salt, pepper, a level teaspoon of baking powder, 1/8 teaspoon of turmeric and 1/8 teaspoon of chilli powder.
Break a large egg so that its contents fall into a depression in the centre of the sifted flour. To it, add a good dollop of Dijon mustard.
Have ¼ pint of milk at the ready, as well as some grated Cheddar cheese.
Break the egg with a whisk and start to stir the egg and mustard from the centre outwards, adding the milk as you go. Keep stirring and beating until the batter is smooth and free of even the smallest lumps. Or I’m sure a blender would do the same job.
Now put maximum heat under the pan with its oil/garlic mix.
Add the grated Cheddar to your batter. Stir again.
Now pour in the mixture to coat the bottom of the pan evenly. The edges will just rise. Immediately reduce the heat to very low and wait until the bubbling mix begins to dry out on its upper surface. This will take about 20 to 25 minutes (depending on the heat and the pan),
It is now time to toss the pancake - or turn it over as best you can. Make sure the pancake is not stuck to the pan in any way. Shake the pan or use a spatula to be certain.
Tossed, with its brown and garlic side now uppermost, with the point of a knife cut small holes slits in the browned surface to allow steam to escape from within. For a moister interior, don’t bother.
Cooking will take about a further 10 minutes. Lift an edge to inspect the under side. When cooked and golden brown, turn off the heat and, if the guests have not yet arrived, allow the pancake to keep warm in the pan.
Turn the pancake on to a board. Cut it into small pieces.
With my frying pan, and with gas heat from a large ring at its lowest setting, the whole cooking process takes 30 - 35 minutes. So just over half an hour before guests arrive for drinks I start to cook the pancake.
If more convenient, the simple preparation can be accomplished hours before the pancake is needed. Then, note the time, add the liquid, whisk the mix, and cook as above.
It is a good idea to make quite a lot of the mixture if guests for a party will be arriving over the period of an hour or two. Then, as you leave the kitchen with the first hot pancake, add some more oil, garlic and mixture to the frying pan - and so on. The success of this delicious pancake will surprise you, and delight your guests. Children love it, too. But don’t tell the young about the garlic, as some don’t like the sound of it.
If children are present, get them to hand around these pancake squares. Reward them. Like dogs, if given a job to do, they (and you) will be happy.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Wasps and Drains

Jorgen, a grape-grower in our street, complained to me that wasps in large numbers were tackling his crop. Had I seen any nests?

Now, I’m rather adept at locating the homes of these little varmints, being given the task as a boy and when I worked on a farm. In those days Cyanide was the substance for destruction, which now seems incredible.

So I gave yet another look at gardens within sight of our own. There were no nests to be seen.

We were having 6 o’clock drinks in the garden of a partially sighted friend, Anne, in a nearby street, when Margreet, facing the garden, saw a lot of insect activity. It came from a wasp nest in the roof of the house extension. It was a huge nest, but unusual, inasmuch as there was no single entry and exit hole, but lots - all in between slates.

I volunteered to deal with the problem, returning when all the wasps had returned home for the night.

Nowadays, wasp killer comes as a white powder, and is easily applied from a plastic container.

So I climbed a ladder and squirted powder into the many cracks that I had seen used by the wasps.

The next day it rained in the early morning. Had my powder been effective?

In the light rain, all traces of the powder had been washed away. But there was not a wasp in sight. Sunny weather returned and I re-inspected the roof. The powder had been completely successful. Our district will at least be wasp-reduced for the remainder of the summer.

The rain that washed away my wasp-killing powder coincided with a blocked drain at the rear of our house. Something was preventing water from the roof, sink and washing machine from escaping to the main sewer. Where was this blockage? And what might it be? The use of caustic soda had no beneficial effect.

When our terrace of six houses was built in the 1830s there would have been no drainage. An alleyway was provided at the bottom of our gardens for night soil to be collected and dispensed with.

Later, a sewer was installed in the gardens, running the length of our terrace, which may have deposited the effluent in the nearby Thames. Then the Victorian sewer was built beneath the street outside. So now our waste liquid travels one way under our gardens at the rear and then turns right and right again to join the Victorian sewer to run back below and in front of our front doors. It is well-travelled sewage.

At one time the garden sewer for our houses became blocked, and we had to locate our inspection covers and open them - to view the overflowing liquid detritus before the blockage was dealt with and the drain cleared.

So when our sink water, etc. overflowed at the back of our house, the first thing to do was to see if there was, perhaps, another main blockage. But the pipes were seen to be clear when a retired doctor friend, Mike, at the end of the terrace, lifted the drain cover in his garden with the help of a sharp spade and lumps of wood.

So the blockage was local and belonging to our house.

Some water was extracted from the drain in a small jug. Then a flexible drain rod, borrowed from my sister June, was inserted into the drain, but proved to be ineffective.

Then Mike and I removed some flagstones in our garden to find and then lift off the cast-iron drain-inspection cover. The drain beneath was clear.

Therefore, somewhere between that sewer drain and the house was the blockage.

From where house drainpipes join the sewer, up the blocked pipe went the flexible drain rod for its full length, touching nothing. So the trouble must have been in the U-bend drain just outside the house.

There was only one thing to do. I rolled up my sleeve, lay on the wet and muddy earth and plunged my arm down the dark and caustic soda water to pull out handfuls of mostly white plaster – until, eureka, away flowed the murky liquid to where it should have gone in the first place. And it was bloody water, too, as I had somehow cut my hand in the operation.

We had had an extension made to the house 19 years before, when the plasterer must have thought that excess plaster would happily flush away if poured down this drain. It didn’t. But also it didn’t completely block the drain.

Gunge, over the years, must have been slowly building up on the plaster, now extracted and waiting in a pile nearby for disposal. But it won’t go back down the drain. That’s for sure.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I have written of my personally-recommended tour of London, and this has been welcomed by friends abroad. Now, with a day trip here from the continent so easy, and if booked early so reasonable, I have compiled a day tour for those in mainland Europe who live within easy reach of a Eurostar station. Here it is.

Arriving into St Pancras Station from the Eurostar platforms, turn right and then right again for the Piccadilly Line Underground. This you will find after almost leaving the station. Descend the escalator. Take the Westbound line.

Get off at Leicester Square Underground Station (7 minutes). Leave the station by Exit 2 that says to Leicester Square and Chinatown.

Turn left as you leave the station and pass by Newport Street to turn left into the alleyway called Newport Court. This leads to Newport Place (a square) which you leave at its top left corner to enter Gerrard Street beneath the Chinese arch. You are now in the heart of Chinatown.

Turn right into Macclesfield Street, passing de Hems Dutch pub, to cross Shaftesbury Avenue into Dean Street. You will come to Old Compton Street. Turn right and immediately on the left is Patisserie Valerie (25 minutes from Eurostar).

At Patisserie Valerie take coffee and relax to enjoy a mille feuille (custard-filled) or, for more substantial breakfast fare, eggs Benedict.

You are now in Soho.

Turn left as you leave the café, and then branch right into Moor Street (past rental bikes) to cross Cambridge Circus, bearing right into Charing Cross Road.

Pass Leicester Square Underground Station, from where you arrived, and Cranbourne Street (leading to Leicester Square and with the excellent wine bar, The Cork and Bottle, hidden away in a basement on the left).

Carry on down-hill to pass the National Portrait Gallery (free) to Trafalgar Square with St Martin’s in the Fields church on the left and the National Gallery on the right (free) (possibly to see the dog, about which I wrote recently in my blog). Nelson’s Column stands proudly in the middle of the square.

Turn left beside St Martin’s in the Fields church into Duncannon Street. Cross the Strand to the Charing Cross railway Station entrances, where you will turn left into the Strand and then almost immediately right into Villiers Street down-hill.

Walk down Villiers Street, passing Watergate Walk (through iron railings on the left), followed, also on the left, by imaginative Embankment Gardens, to pass through the Embankment Underground Station. Walk up the 42 steps to cross the Thames by pedestrian bridge toward the Festival Hall. This will give you a good view of London and the river. If not wanting to take a gondola trip around the “Eye”, this is a good point for return.

You will have seen the London Eye to the right. Walk to it.

To buy tickets enter a building, as directed, where you will have to queue (this took us 10 minutes in early August). In another 8 minutes you should be in a pod on your way aloft to see an overview of London. This trip around the wheel will take 32 minutes.

Now retrace your steps over the Thames to pass through Embankment Underground Station again and just a bit up Villiers Street, to turn right into Watergate Walk and down steps to enter Gordon’s Wine Bar through a hole in the wall. This is probably London’s oldest wine bar, with the house above it having been the abode at various times of Pepys, Kipling and Chesterton. Take a good look around the bar’s candle-lit subterranean interior before ordering cold dry sherry (from the bottle) (no beer) and some olives. This will be much needed refreshment, as you will have been on the go for some 2 ¾ hours.

Return to walk up Villiers Street, to cross the Strand again, then to take a quick left and right turn up Adelaide Street, with St Martin’s in the Fields church on your left.

Up the slope and almost directly in front of you is the rather small and insignificant Harp pub in Chandos Place. You are here for its English pub atmosphere, its English beer (Hophead recommended) and its splendid sausages in rolls. The information about the sausage fillings will be written up in chalk outside, and also inside on the wall to your right. Order your drink (it doesn’t have to be beer) and sausages. The latter will be brought to you. This is lunch. Try to find space on the ground floor where the action is, but there is more comfort in the duller part upstairs (near the Gents and Ladies).

Leaving the Harp doorway, turn left up Chandos Place toward Covent Garden, keeping to Chandos Place and then Maiden Lane, to pass Rules, London’s most English of restaurants. At the T- junction, turn left into Southampton Street with Covent Garden in front of you. Walk straight through, taking in the fun, the sights of humanity, the trinket stalls and street performers (having a break there if time permits). Continue into James Street to reach Covent Garden Underground Station.

From there take the eastern direction of the Piccadilly Line to King’s Cross/St Pancras – and Eurostar home.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Kingsford Smith and Co-Aviators

In the record books and from details taken from Kingsford Smith’s logbooks is the following:

1931 (24 September –16 December) Australia-England. First all-Australian airmail flight to England. Avro Ten trimotor Southern Star (VH - UMG). Co-pilot, Scotty Allen: engineer, Wyndham Hewitt. Time: 17 days. Route: Sydney – Brisbane – Cloncurry – Camooweal – Darwin – Kupang – Surabaya – Alur Setar – Bangkok – Rangoon – Calcutta – Gaya – Allahabad – Jhodpur – Karachi – Jask – Bushire – Bagdad – Aleppo – Athens – Rome – Lyon – Le Touquet (beach) – London.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, as he became, was a pioneer Australian aviator. He was the first to fly across the Pacific Ocean, and in both directions, crossed the Tasman Sea, and made the first successful westbound crossing of the Atlantic by air, mostly in a Fokker Trimotor (Avro built them under licence in England) that he called “my old bus”.
These were the days when aeroplanes were “stringbags”, flown by pilots and navigators “by the seat of their pants”. They were flimsy aircraft, unreliable, often dangerous, and with no navigational aids. It was also a time of opening up international air routes.
Kingsford Smith, surprisingly for a long-distance aviator, was terrified by the fear of the sea after a near drowning accident as a boy. He was also prone to panic attacks in the air and mysterious illnesses before epic flights – thought later to possibly be alcohol related.
He was a much loved international hero, especially so in Australia where crowds of 200,000 or more greeted him after his exploits in the air by hoisting him shoulder high in admiration and awe.
So who were those other two record-breaking aviators? “Scotty” Allen was also a famous Australian pilot, flying as reserve pilot with Kingsford Smith and Wyndham Hewitt (chief engineer) in the famous Avro trimotor Southern Cross - all, on one occasion, flying to Keepang, Timor, to collect air mail from England from the City of Cairo aircraft that had crashed there – a headline-breaking newspaper story of the time.
My own special interest in these early aviation days was that as a boy I was mad about aeroplanes and flying. In April 1932, at the age of 7, Kingsford Smith, a year after the aforementioned Australia-England record flight, was about to fly myself, brother and sister around London from the newly-opened Croydon Aerodrome in his ‘plane. Unfortunately the tail skid broke and a wooden replacement failed. So another pilot flew us around London in a Klemm Bat instead.
Why should Kingsford Smith volunteer to pilot us around London? It was because Wyndham Hewitt, the engineer on that epic flight was my uncle and friend of the great Australian aviator.
Wyndham, sent to South Africa after some misdemeanour or other, was next heard of in Australia. He was generally in trouble concerning women, cars and money, having kept a mistress in London in his schooldays (but those are other stories not for this blog). However, Wyn was a brilliant mechanic, completely at home with engines and their workings. So to Kingsford Smith he was invaluable when aircraft motors were unreliable and, in record-breaking exploits, under considerable stress for duration and ever-changing climatic conditions.
On the record occasion mentioned, The Southern Star and its three occupants landed at Croydon in record time with the Christmas mail from Australia, to be greeted by Sir Sefton Brancker (director of civil aviation), a congratulatory telegram from King George V, and jubilant crowds - aviation then being a new frontier to conquer and of enormous interest generally.
Although heralded as an all-Australian record trip, Wyndham Hewitt was English, which accounts for his name not featuring greatly, other than in the record books. Also not mentioned was that the aircraft had hit the top of a telegraph pole when landing in Darwin, nearly killing Kingsford Smith “and his engineer”.
Wyndham went on to found a successful engineering company and to race cars, dying in his 90s an unliked person, his several wives having been couture models and his cars the fastest models.
Kingsford Smith died, aged 38, crashing into the sea that he feared so much off Burma in 1935. He was attempting yet another England-Australia record.
I am proud to be in some remote way connected to so great an aviator as Kingsford Smith – even though he never did fly me around London from Croydon in 1932 or land in our field at Silchester where we had laid out sheets to indicate wind direction.
The truth is that Kingsford Smith was notoriously unreliable, and interested mainly in flying (of which he was a complete master), wenching and drink. However, he charmed everyone with his radiant personality and with his splendid songs accompanied by a ukulele.
Throughout his life he wanted to break records and, to make money, establish airlines. But, for the latter, other than using his name to good effect, the humdrum life as an executive and airline pilot bored him – so most were doomed to failure.
It was flying records he wanted and, appropriately I suppose, it was an attempted record that ended his life.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Faithful Friend

In 1657, Rembrandt’s pupil and close friend, Gerbrand van der Eeckhout, was commissioned to paint a group portrait of Four Officers of the Amsterdam Cooper’s and Wine-Rackers’ Guild. The four Amsterdam burghers sit at a table on which are important-looking books and a document with a round, red wax seal.
Three of these important men wear tall, wide-brimmed black hats, and except for the Master are dressed in black with broad, white collars. The Master, whose importance is accentuated by posing in front of a white background, also wears black clothing, but sports a white ruff – giving him a certain gravitas.
They are serious men, important and wealthy, secure in their positions of power in Holland’s Golden Age.
They are there to be recorded for posterity, and have succeeded in life. The proof of this success on the part of the artist and his sitters is that we are now able to admire the picture, hanging in room 22 of London’s National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square. But it is not the Officers that steal the show, it is a dog.
This small, long-legged creature with short ears sits at his master’s feet, the Master, in the lower left-hand corner of the painting. He has a small tail, is pale brown with areas of white, and is marked by a V-shaped white patch on his head.
Dogs are happy with a job to do, and this dog does it splendidly. His duty is to keep an eye on everyone who might upset his master in any way. So he watches you, trusting no one.
Stand in front of the painting, wherever you will, and his eyes are on you. Walk across in front of him and he will follow you with his attentive gaze. There is no escape from his beady eyes. He might well bite should you get too near.
So the rope around the painting is not for its safety, it is for yours.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

A Lost Weathervane

I wrote recently in this blog of a lost copper and wood 1962 sculpture, found with worm-eaten and rotten wood support sides in a neighbour’s garden. The piece has since been restored. Through that written account, another lost “sculpture” has surfaced. Let me explain.
In 1962, a completed studio house, that I designed and helped to build in downland north of Newbury in Berkshire, needed a weathervane. Clouds and weather conditions were once most important to me since my life would sometimes depend upon them when I flew aeroplanes in the war. I still take great interest in what happens in the sky.
So I designed and made this weathervane out of copper sheet, ironwork and balancing lead, to form the shape of a Reverend F. Page-Roberts rose.
Although I had done drawings of the house with its proposed weathervane, when I came to install it, the proportions were wrong. It was too large (2’ 10” x 4’ 9”).
So I took it down, and can not recall what happened to it, except that, due to its size, it was rather in the way.
A reader of my blog, Judy George, contacted me, having read my piece on a lost sculpture. The weathervane exists, and it is hers.
It seems that my then cottager neighbour, the charming Mrs Rampling, found the weathervane in a hedge and gave it to Bill and Judy George, who owned the house after Francis Bacon’s tenure there.
The weathervane no longer tells of the direction from which the wind blows, but hangs on a wall as decoration. It has found a home and a use. I am delighted.
I wonder: Are there any other sculpted pieces of mine hiding somewhere?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Suzanne Valadon

It was not easy to be a woman, let alone a woman artist, in the late 19th century and early 20th century. But in France there were four great women painters who rightly rose to fame despite the obstacles in their path. They were Mary Cassatt (actually American), Marie Laurencin, Berthe Morisot, and Suzanne Valadon.

I have never been over enthusiastic about the first three, but Suzanne Valadon could draw as no one else – and I have loved her drawings from an early age.

Suzanne Valadon (born Marie-Clémentine Valadon in 1865) was the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic sewing maid. And at that time illegitimacy was hardly acceptable (yet there must have been many such infants before the advent of modern contraception).

Suzanne was a self-sufficient tomboy, small, athletic and strong. She had no artistic background.

With a mother concentrating on survival in a hostile Paris, Suzanne had to live by her wits, with only a sympathetic grandmother to whom she could turn to in times of adversity.

Apprenticed as a seamstress, her first real employment was with a private circus, where she turned her hand to any needed task, graduating to become a circus performer. But, falling from a trapeze, she hurt her back and was unable to continue with circus life.

She was, however, by her late teens, very pretty and well fashioned. So, to become a model (mainly in the nude) for Montmartre artists beckoned. Moreover, she was able to hold a pose for long periods of time.

Posing for many artists, it was Puvis de Chavannes, then probably the most famous artist in France, who gave her regular employment. This provided her with temporary financial stability and the illuminating company of artists, their circle of friends, dealers and patrons.

Word soon spread of her ability, and lust for life. When she was not posing she drew, learning by observation.

When working for Degas, he chanced upon some of her drawings and was astounded by her decisive line and bold work, several examples of which he bought over the following years. He pinned some of her work to the wall in his studio and invited comment. This was most favourable, and by those who had no idea that the artist was unknown – and a woman. Degas promoted her interests and gave her instruction and advice.

Suzanne was a favourite model and companion, especially of Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, appearing in many of their paintings.

In 1883, she had an illegitimate son – father unknown. At that time she adopted her professional name of Suzanne Valadon.

Mainly because her son being frail and in poor health, she contemplated marriage with a rich suitor, who asked her the name of the boy’s father. She told him that it was either Puvis de Chavannes or Renoir. “Two fine artists,” he replied, and they were married. In fact, throughout her life she never divulged the name of her son’s father. It could have been several, but possibly a drunken sailor who raped her.

With marriage she virtually gave up her artistic work, but it was not long before she was hankering for the freedom and abandonment of her previous bohemian life in Montmartre.

Her son was the painter Maurice Utrillo, given the name of Utrillo by a Spanish journalist of that name who “acknowledged” Maurice as his son.

Maurice became an extreme alcoholic, drug addict, rabble-rouser and mental case. He was a drain on Suzanne’s purse and patience throughout most of her life, drunkenly fighting, or incarcerated in either jail, institutions, or even behind bars in his own home.

But under Suzanne’s guidance, in an effort to give him stability in life, he became an innovative painter, establishing a style of depicting the streets and alleyways of Montmartre that were much copied - as they still are today.

Then Suzanne fell in love for the first time with her son’s artist and womaniser friend, André Utter. He was some 21 years her junior. They married, just before he went to war against the Germans in 1915.

After the Great War, Utter, who had recovered from a bullet wound in the chest, exhibited successfully with Suzanne, and with Suzanne and Utrillo.

Utrillo continued with his volatile, alcoholic life, often paying barmen with his paintings when his debts had not been settled by Suzanne.

As Utrillo’s work now became famous and of considerable value, these barmen found themselves with valuable works to sell. They naturally encouraged his alcoholism – which hardly needed encouragement.

Suzanne, meanwhile, was at last accepted as an artist of note by dealers, gallery owners, and by those who controlled salons of importance. But her successful personal and professional liaison with Utter lasted for barely 12 years before they drifted apart. However, during that often tempestuous marriage, both Utrillo and Valadon reached dizzy heights of fame and fortune, with Valadon notorious for her extreme generosity.

In 1938 Suzanne Valadon, recognised as a great artist, collapsed at her easel and died in hospital.

Utrillo outlived her, having married and given up his wayward life.

It has been possible to fake Utrillos ever since he painted his groundbreaking scenes of the streets, steps, and picturesque paths of Montmartre. On the other hand, no one, but no one, could recreate a drawing with the power and strength of line of a Suzanne Valadon.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Sculpture's Life (so far)

In 1962, I was having difficulty in returning to painting after a year-long, round-the –world voyage of drawing, followed by the building of a studio house in the country (later bought by Francis Bacon).
          I just couldn’t get going again without the interest of artistic progression.
          I then struck upon the idea of help by creating simple collages of card with stuck-on coloured paper, paper combined with paint, paint alone in the form of collage, and sculpture of painted copper on wood that was also closely related to the said collages.
          And it worked. Interest and creativity returned and, incidentally, interest to others as well, as one of them sold at Christie’s in late 2010 to a collector who took down a Matisse to make room for it.
A small one of those sculptures in wood and painted copper I still own. It was exhibited in a cabinet at The Mayor Gallery, Cork Street, London, at the time of my successful show there of Aircraft Shadows.
My London neighbour, Wilma, recovered from a decline in her life, and decided to spruce up her house and to restore a back garden that had by then become a veritable jungle.
I looked out of a window to see what horticultural progress had been made. And there, beneath two prostrate builders’ ladders was one of my (7 ½” x 13”)1962 copper and wood sculptures. – a painted Uffington White Horse on a copper, olive/green downland setting with a cut-out painted figure.
I had completely forgotten about this particular sculpture, and could find no photograph, or a record of it in my files. How then was I to discover how it came to be next door and abandoned in the garden?
So, when my neighbour was standing outside her front door, I tackled her, telling of what I had seen and asking permission to photograph the piece.
Then, later that day, as Margreet was about to enter our house, the sculpture was given back to us as the neighbour was ridding herself of unnecessary clutter.
The shape and colour is as if it had never been exposed to the elements. But, for a decade or more, the woodwork had become delicious grub for many a hungry woodworm.
There is preservation and restoration to be done, with its patina of age hopefully retained (created in 1962 and restored by the artist in 2011). I relish the opportunity to do it.
It materialised that some time ago, when my neighbour broke her leg in the district of the Uffington White Horse, I had given the piece to her as a commemorative present.
So its title is now: Wilma and the Uffington White Horse.
Whether she will thank me for this description is problematical, as it clearly depicts the painted image of that famous downland white chalk horse, and the raised form in painted copper of a fulsome naked lady cavorting nearby over the historic grass.

Thursday, June 02, 2011


Simplicity is the key to happiness – in all aspects of life, electronics, cooking, art, and on it goes. With simplicity goes timesaving.

I cook as I breathe – always have done. And unless I have simplified the cooking of a dish down to its bare minimum of fuss, ingredients and time taken, I work on it – even if I think I can hardly improve on it.

Breadmaking is one of those dark arts that need to be brought into the light. After all, if you can eat a really good loaf at less than a third of the price of a bought, polystyrene-like object, why not make bread yourself, by hand – if you do not already have an expensive machine and use electricity to run it.

Every time I come to make bread, there will be a new slant on it – simplicity and time taken being the main variables.

So I write this after only one experiment because I am so pleased with what happened, and delighted with the result.

The basics are the same – 1 ½ kilos of bread flour, salt, a hint of turmeric (only for colour), sugar (I used to use honey but can taste no difference when using sugar), a dribble of olive oil (I don’t know why), some dried yeast, and 1 ½ pints of warm water.

Normally I make the mix, knead it, allow the dough to rise in a warm place (sometimes twice), knead again, divide it into three well-buttered bread tins (never letting the metal to go near water), wait for the dough to rise in the tins, then bake the result in a hot oven for 1/2 an hour, followed by another 1/2 an hour at a medium to low setting.

The dough-rising bit has, until this experiment, taken place on a small area that is of under-floor heated.

In winter this was ideal. But in summer the floor is cold and unsuitable. So where was I to find a warm place - in the oven, of course.

So, when kneading, I switched on the oven enough to warm it, divided the kneaded dough into three bread tins, and watched the dough rise to the top of the tins in the oven, checking and sometimes adjusting the warmth about every quarter of an hour. And there they were, ready to bake, with no fuss, no unnecessary movement of tins, and no trouble. The resulting bread was wonderful.

Actually, I make six loaves at a time, filling the oven, then freezing the bread that’s not wanted when it has cooled.

So to re-cap – for three loaves. Empty a 1 1/2 kilo bag of bread flour into a large bowl. Add some salt and a trace of turmeric. Stir it around.

Take a Pyrex pint glass measure. In it put a heaped teaspoon of sugar. Pour in boiling water to the half-pint mark. Melt the sugar. Add cold water up to the pint mark. Test it for blood-heat warmth. Stir in one and a half teaspoons of dried yeast.

Place this measuring jar of liquid in the centre of the flour in its bowl, and cover the surface of the yeasty liquid with a little of the surrounding flour.

In a while the yeast will react with the sugar and bubble up through the flour. Whisk it all together. A creamy foam will result.

Pour this yeast mixture into the flour, adding another half-pint of warmed water and a dribble of olive oil. Stir it together with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms into a rough ball that you can lift out and knead.

Knead the dough by using your fingers and the heel of your hands. The dough might be a little sticky to start with, but will firm up. Keep at it for about five minutes. This is a most satisfactory process.

Roll the dough with your hands into a sausage shape, divide into three, and put these into the buttered bread tins, scoring into the top of the dough from end to end with a knife.

Put the tins of dough into your warmed oven and proceed as directed above.

Tip out the baked loaves onto a wire mesh surface, allow the bread to cool, then eat one freshly baked and freeze the rest.

Friday, May 13, 2011

London bird life, spring 2011

Those in other countries may see garden birds as food for the table, but the British (the Irish used to kill wrens) treasure them for their song, friendliness in the case of robins and sometimes blackbirds, and the charm and mobility they provide for our gardens.

Because we love them, we feed them. And, in return, they grace us with their presence.

I have owned gardens that were the habitat of many birds. Some of these birds one got to know, like the swallows that returned annually to a stable, flying in and out through a partly opened window. Their return each spring, as with those dapper little birds, the house martins, heralded the oncoming summer.

Of course there were villains, like the magpies that perched and waited to see a parent returning to its nest with food for young, pounced, and made off with a chick in its beak to tear it apart on a branch or chimney pot.

A sparrow hawk would wait atop a post and chase a blue tit through the thickest of undergrowth to catch its prey – and then tear out the feathers before consuming it. Eventually I asked it to leave – and it did.

My smallest garden is my present London one. And although the variety of birds that inhabit it are far fewer than in the country, it does have the advantage that our resident birds become known to us.

We have our villains in town, too. The magpies lie in wait. And once a great spotted woodpecker (rarely seen) robbed a robin’s nest box on our house of all its young. (Afterwards the robins unmade their nest, throwing all of it to the ground.)

A hen blackbird inhabited our garden and enjoyed our offerings of Cheddar for, perhaps, 15 years. She once managed to escape the clutches of a cat (probably James May’s Fusker, who, when alive, was a great predator of birds) and could barely walk with a useless leg and hardly fly with many feathers missing. But she was a survivor, always producing two broods nearby each spring. Her successor has yet to gain confidence in us.

Robins have nested near at hand – usually in the house robin box – each year, except this one. And a tame robin (trained with morsels of cheese) has always been our intimate friend, summer and winter. They have eaten from my hand or on my knee, and given visiting children and adults much astonishment and pleasure – but not this year. One has passed through a couple of times, looked us over, and gone on.

But the absence of a fiercely territorial robin has at least allowed a pair of great tits to live unmolested as they nested in a box on the house and brought up a family of young. And, at the same time, a blue tit pair has done the same in a box above the great tit family.

Our garden is a small one of several in a row, much enclosed by houses. So, it is not what one might call ideal bird territory. But a few birds have chosen it. And because their number is small, we are much closer to them than those people offering more generous amenities. In that respect we are lucky indeed.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


The newspaper announcement of my cousin Fred Scott’s death was brief, and submitted by part of his family. It was headed: Freddy Scott (MC). There has since been an obituary in The Daily Telegraph (25 April 2011).

As a very junior officer, Fred landed in German-held Normandy (between Caen and the sea) on D-Day with his platoon in a Horsa glider.

The Germans, being an orderly race, had positioned anti-glider spikes in straight lines where he was to land.

His pilots were rank novices, so Fred, who knew about map-reading, directed them in. And noticing the spikes in straight lines, ordered a landing so that the wings of his glider broke off on the obstructions, leaving the fuselage and all inside, shaken but unscathed.

He went on to achieve his objectives, pushing through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, gaining rank and the Military Cross for valour (presented by Field Marshall Montgomery) en route. He ended in preventing the Russians from entering Denmark, mainly, in his account, by out-drinking them in vodka.

There are two stories about Fred that always please me.

When selling tobacco in Malaya for the company for which he worked before the war, his eccentric wife, Millie, was left a fine collection of pearls by her wealthy family in America.

Unable to receive them in the tropics, those in charge of this fine legacy were instructed to send them to Harrods, in London, for temporary safekeeping.

When Fred and Millie returned to England, they went to collect the goodies.

When the box was opened, all were aghast to find that due to being in a safe and unworn for many years, all were dead. Fred said that they looked absolutely horrible.

Harrods bought the many diamond clasps – and one string of dead pearls, just to show unbelievers what can happen to pearls that are locked away and not worn.

The other story I pared right down to send to the “Lives Remembered” column of The Times, should an obituary appear in that newspaper. It reads:

My cousin, Major Fred Scott MC, walked into a recruiting office and joined the wartime army as a Private soldier. He was put in charge of men who had passed through Courts of Justice and as punishment been given the choice of the mines or the army.

Fred was unable to open his locker as he had lost the key. He was given his own piece of wire and instructed by one of his charges in the art of how to gain entry.

His father, a Brigadier, newly stationed in the district, arranged to see his son. The Adjutant and others were dismissed from the room. Fred and his father were alone.

“And what have you learned in the army, Fred?”

“I’ve learned how to pick locks, sir.”

“Then open up that gas meter.”

Half crowns and florins fell to the floor.

“Now pick up those coins and lock it up again.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” replied Fred. “I have only learned to unpick locks.”

Saturday, April 23, 2011

London Garden Update, Spring 2011

The great advantage of growing most things in pots on a flagstone surface is that it is possible to create a much re-shaped garden each year. And a quantity of bricks and building blocks enables you to raise or lower tubs of flowers and vegetable crops.

A not-too-successful feature last year was a focal-point pot, designed with side apertures for growing strawberries. For strawberries it was somewhat of a failure. For trailing geraniums it was a modest success. Now, for real geraniums (actually pelargoniums) I have higher hopes. Before, I have planted flowers in its open top. This is now capped with a rustic pottery birdbath – one that used to lie on the ground.

When this bath was on the flagstones, and partly shielded by pots of rocket, herbs and busy lizzies, the bathing birds were vulnerable to surprise cat attack. Now, at the cost of privacy, they can have an all-round view when bathing, to see if predators lurk to pounce.

Another good reason for positioning the bath high up on its brick-based strawberry pot as the centre point, is that the more vigorous bathers, like blackbirds, spray the water down on to growing plants around it, instead of the useless watering of flagstones.

The pelargoniums, bought as small plants, are now growing in the place of strawberries, though very young, look happy already. I will rotate the pot during the summer, to give all plants in its circumference a measure of sunshine (our garden only getting morning sun).

The other major change this year is that we are growing more runner beans, having discovered that when harvested at under 6” long they are the tastiest and tenderest of beans.

For them this year I have constructed a bamboo arbour. The beans will grow up 9 bamboos on a wall, then move south over the top of the bamboo arbour, which, because of its asymmetry, looks not unlike the strings of a grand piano. The beans will then be harvested from below.

The “piano” is supported on one side by the 9 wall bamboos, and on the other by 6 vertical bamboos (making it asymmetrical) that rise from sacks of soil in which tomatoes will be grown. These are still in pots, having been grown indoors from seed since March.

The pieris (always our ever-changing and spectacular plant) had become a bit straggly over the years. It has been pruned right back, leaving a few branches of yellow/green leaves in the hope that new bushy growth will spring from low down.

The same treatment has been meted out to the mahonia – for the same reason – hoping for new bushy growth to appear.

It has been somewhat of a winter of violence, as major grapevine rods have been dispensed with, and the apple and pear trees (both in pots) have been cut back severely.

So this season will be one of re-growth for several specimens. Tulips are no longer grown. There are more carrots. And there is one bucket-experiment of main crop potatoes (pink fir apple), besides the successful two of past years for new potatoes (charlotte).

My large wooden sculpture in the garden of lovers was found to be standing on hardwood slats that had rotted. These supports have been replaced by angle aluminium (sprayed brown).

Inspection beneath the sculpture revealed much hidden rot. A lot of this has been extracted, and the wood hardened and treated. It was mainly the heartwood that had rotted. I took out as much of this crumbling rotted wood as I could, sticking my arm up, roughly in the way that we see vets on television doing at the nether regions of cows.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

(Delayed) travel blog to Dieppe in September 2010

Do you mind travelling with us again?

I often think how nice it would be to ask people on a Channel crossing who they were and why they were crossing.

The majority of passengers are in pairs, looking, at this time of year when schools have started again, like grandparents in need of a break and a rest. The couples look very much alike.

An elderly bald-headed man in rust coloured sweater reads a paper with deep concentration. His female companion has hair that stands up like bristles on a broom.

Their food tray is bereft of anything edible. The plastic sandwich cover lies open and empty. Several little milk pots rest where they fell near to two empty cups.

A pen and two spectacle cases lie on the table next to a dog-eared copy of a book of crossword puzzles.

Beside these items lies a new novel that has been partly read by a person who does not respect a book’s binding. So some of its pages look as if they have seen better days, and the unread part remains pristine as if direct from the publishers.

A part filled plastic bottle of water stands next to an open handbag made of fake ostrich skin.

The French coast has appeared on the horizon, but they are unaware of it.

There must be a draught falling down inside a large, rain-spattered sheet of glass behind them because she has donned a pullover/cardigan to add warmth to the rough-knitted under garment of many colours. This multi-coloured under-top confection looks not unlike cotton waste, used by engineers to wipe away grease.

Where are they going? Who knows.

Looking down over a balcony to the deck beneath, two travellers have laid out sleeping bags on the floor. Arab-looking, they appear as if they might wake up from their slumbers and start a fire to heat mint tea. Perhaps they are on their way to Morocco. But they are not there for long. Stewards have told them to behave and sit down.

A mackintosh-clad granny talks to a young girl dressed in blue jeans, orange top and fake fur jacket. They could be going home to France. They, too, have a crossword book open. It might be in French.

As one peers around, people look rather drab. Where are those elegant English we sometimes see on their way to a farmhouse in the Dordogne or villa in Provence? We see none aboard, even those with cabins for the journey who appear just before landing to await orders to regain their cars deep below.

In Dieppe we only see the unstylish and the dull – all black and brown. Where is this much-vaunted French chic? I did query this state of affairs once on Paris, to be told that the good-looking Parisienne ladies are not seen abroad, but are ferried to their shopping expeditions and smart homes by chauffeurs in grand cars.

In this new France I miss the past pungent smell of yellow Gitanes cigarettes and corridor and restaurant WCs, where one stood feet apart and hoped that nothing would drop into the large hole beneath and be lost to those famous French sewers.

BUT, fleas do still exist in France. Margreet was bitten almost as soon as we set foot in Dieppe.

We rather pride ourselves on locating good food in France at a reasonable price. We returned first to a favourite restaurant at the side of the yachting marina. But the waitress there had turned surly. There was none of the usual smiling service. How sad. The staff were angry with each other. And it showed. Of course, this attitude was reflected in their service. It rather spoiled our meal. But if one restaurant is crossed off our list, another is sure to appear to take its place. And there remains our favourite – and the cheapest – where we eat lunch early with scrubbed-up workmen. The meal consists of four courses and unlimited red wine and cider - for just over £10 a head. This shed-like eating place is in the bleak badlands of Dieppe, where the docks are sterile with only a pile of coal and some wind generator blades to hint of commerce.

But change does take place. A favourite restaurant of old was being taken over by new owners after many years of a lovely couple providing us with real French café/restaurant food. It will not be the same place without them, and being a little out of the way I don’t expect we will even give it a trial.

We chose to visit Dieppe this time just after the Retro festival of old cars, and before the International Kite Festival. Both are great fun but it is sometimes difficult to get a room during the festivities, and the port is crowded.

After many years (probably 60 for me) of staying in a room overlooking the town, we have now upgraded to one that overlooks the sea and any festival that is positioned on the enormous grass-covered plage. Because it is generally windy in Dieppe, there are usually kites flying between us and the sea. Moreover, on this occasion there was the added bonus sight from our panoramic windows of over a hundred geese flying south – in a rather ragged formation. And there were four late-migrating swallows jagging past our window – also going south. To the west the sun sets over the sea, creating glorious patterns and colours in the sky as it sinks below the horizon. When the sky is overcast, the colour of the sea is yellow near to the stony shore, changing to pale green, and then blue on the horizon. Sometimes all or some of this panorama disappears behind the rain from storm clouds. When we have eaten too much lunch we may have an evening picnic in our room, now with a fascinating and changing land and seascape as a backdrop.

For choice of restaurant food, I always pick at least one plateful of fruits de mer (mixed shellfish, cooked and raw), and being in a port famous for its fish, a fish of the day. Preferring carralet (plaice), I tried sea bream this time, but found it to have too many bones. Margreet often chooses steak, which, true to French custom, is tasty but chewy. We did once select an expensive wine, but the carafe white and red is always adequate. At least no one says “enjoy” when food is delivered to the table.

One of the main reasons for our short holiday trips across the Channel is to stock up on wine for home consumption. Whereas costs of most things in France escalate (and to worry about it would spoil a holiday break), wine is still splendid value. We buy a selection for £2.50 or less per bottle at one supermarket and even cheaper wine at another. To this we add some Normandy cider to feed the cider vinegar jar at home, and a selection of olive oil, though French oil is hard to come by.

On our last day, with little room left in the car, we bought freshly made Neufchâtel cheese from Olivier’s shop, and this time, some Pelure d’Oignon rosé from a supermarket at £1.50 a bottle. These items were squeezed in beneath the car’s seats.

It is seldom that we make a restaurant mistake. But before we left, and with time for lunch, we selected a place specialising in turbot. The fish was excellent, but the potatoes were rock hard. The chef had appeared late, we were told, but more probably drunk.

As we parked our car in readiness to leave France on the only ship now on the crossing, a van drew up alongside that was registered in England. I wanted to know about the possibility of renting a van for our wine-buying trips abroad. The renter of this van worked in England while his wife and son lived in Charante, in Cognac country, between Bordeaux and La Rochelle. The living there was much cheaper than in England, and having spent a lot of money doing up an old farmhouse he intended to retire to Charante and possibly return to England in old age.

This man had been a baker, so we talked about bread making, with him insisting that I knock down the dough to make the best bread. I mentioned that I never let water near to my bread tins, to which he replied that one should also never let water near to Yorkshire pudding tins either (something that I was unaware of).

He was on his way back having bought two wood-burning stoves in England for his French house, as they were much better and cheaper than in France. Surely, I queried, you don’t need heating so far south? I then learned that Charante is known for its extremes of temperature – freezing in winter and scorching in summer.

What, I asked, did he take back to France that is not possible to buy there. Baked beans and Cheddar cheese was the reply.

We return to England with wine and freshly-made Neufchatel cheese.