Avoiding gluttony in an Autumn glut

grapes 4                Ironic that successful crops bring such mixed emotions.  Through summer and autumn I rejoice and enjoy raspberries, salads, courgettes and beans, and more beans, and more beans (how many recipes do you know for beans?).  And apples, so many apples this year.  But if I have too much of a particular crop to eat this week, so do most people who have gardens.  And if I lean over the gate to offer red apples to passing children I may be misunderstood.

My mother says, “Freeze, jam, store.”  And for years I did what I learned we should when I was a child; I made jams, jellies and chutneys, bottled and froze fruit and vegetables, found space to lay out apples and pears.  BUT.

But we are past the age of jam sandwiches, rarely eat jam-filled Victoria sponge or jam tarts. We are so worried about teeth, waistlines, health we try hard to pretend we don’t enjoy sugar, and keep the ration we allow ourselves for richer treats.  Preserving with sugar (or, as we did when I was young, salting shredded runner beans) doesn’t match the way we try to eat today.

And although frozen raspberries keep their flavour, I’d rather eat raspberries fresh from the garden every day, more than once a day, for a few weeks and enjoy the texture of the fresh fruit, which is lost in the freezer.  Only the youngest beans freeze well, but a mixture of sizes tastes great cooked fresh from the garden.  So I freeze complete cooked dishes, but not garden crops.

I come from a farming family.  There was always room to store produce.  But storing apples takes a lot of space.  And time, both to wrap and lay them out carefully, and weekly, to inspect and discard any that are spoiling.   I have no apple loft, and other ways to spend my time.

I know, I’m lucky.  I live in a time and place where I can go and buy fresh both in- and out-of-season produce all year round.  Or choose from a huge selection of frozen vegetables.  And I do save some apples and pears.  But I’m still wracked with guilt, can’t bear to waste such glorious food.  Which is why I’ve been searching for grape recipes.  Wonderful grapes this year, a bit slow to ripen, a little tart – but beautiful.grape biscuits

Grapes added to salads, grapes in a sauce over fish or chicken, and these savoury grape, rosemary and blue cheese shortbread biscuits. I adapted a recipe I found at ‘cooking with Caitlin’ 😦http://www.cookingwithcaitlin.com/recipes/rosemary-shortbread-appetizer).

Around 50 loose grapes, washed.

8 oz flour

3 oz blue cheese (I used stilton, if I’d used a sharper one, like Danish blue, I might reduce the amount of cheese and up the amount of butter).

5 oz butter

4 large sprigs rosemary, leaves stripped from stems

1 level tablespoon of sugar

Salt and pepper

Put everything except the grapes into a food processor and pulse at high speed until the mixture is a smooth, soft dough. (You could rub in the mix by hand, in which case you’d need to fine chop the rosemary).  Add more pepper to taste.

Switch on oven to 180oC.  Line 2 baking trays with non-stick paper (I use the heavy duty re-usable sheets, and wash them in the dishwasher).

Make walnut size balls of dough by rolling it between the palms of your hands, space out on baking sheets (between 20 and 24).

Press down on each ball with a fork, then press in 2 or 3 grapes. Add a sprinkle of salt.

Bake for 30 minutes (in my fan oven I reduced the temperature to 160oC), until biscuits are lightly coloured and grapes have just begun to burst.  Cool on rack.

They smell and taste brilliant, but I’d probably enjoy them just as much without the grapes.  (And in case you’re wondering, other people make much nicer wine than I can. I have tried).

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Cabbages or Butterflies?

Into the vegetable garden for a cabbage to make spicy cabbage and rice.  And yee-uch! My beautiful row of savoys is no more. I’ve been gloating over them for weeks, perfect tight globes securely swelling inside dark green, wavy edged, protectively tough, outer leaves. But the defence has been penetrated, the core s perforated.  Gardener’s hubris has been punished yet again.

perforated cabbage

I realise caterpillars have eaten through the outer leaves.  No – I didn’t keep checking for eggs.  And small slugs have slimed through the useful tunnels, and, oh yes, some still lurk just inside the mantle of the larder the green worlds so kindly provide.  Then, when I look for the fork to uproot and salvage what I can, I see the robin.

It’s perched on the fork handle, head tilted one way then the other; hurry up, find something for me to eat.  I reach for the handle and the bird flutters just a yard away, perches on a tomato support where it can keep a close eye on what I dig up.

Useless bird!  It won’t eat slugs, snails or caterpillars.  Just watches for worms.  That’s all I see blackbirds and robins catching in our garden.  Feathered vandals hopping across the grass with beakfuls of worms.  And vandals isn’t too harsh.  Have you ever weeded and tidied a narrow border, before covering the soil in a generous layer of compost?  Maybe not Ritz standard but better than a Holiday Inn bed.  And then what do you see?  Blackbirds working along that same bed, busy beaks shovelling compost onto the path, hoicking out seedlings, scattering debris.  And removing earthworms.

I don’t want them to steal the worms!  How are all the nutrients in that carefully made compost going to be mixed into the soil without them?

But then… There’s birdsong, and the blackbird’s is one of the most beautiful. And I love to see butterflies, you can’t have butterflies without caterpillars.  And robins probably eat slug and snail eggs.  And anyway, what right do I have to take a utilitarian view of a bird’s existence?  I don’t like to picture myself in our conservatory, a Benthamite in her Panopticon, scrutinising the actions of garden inmates to ensure they are all working to my vision of the greater good. So I smile at the robin, turn over a couple of forkfuls of soil for him, then dig out a cabbage.  I throw all the looser leaves, plus a couple of outer tight-coiled layers, with their inmates, onto the compost heap.  And there’s still, untouched, nearly enough to make spicy cabbage and rice for two.  Especially if I add a handful of green beans, and it’s that time of year – every meal has to include green beans or courgettes. So here’s the recipe, for two people.  (It’s based on one I found at http://www.madhurasrecipe.com/veg-rice/Spicy-Cabbage-Rice , if you prefer to see the original).  It’s a very tolerant recipe – lots of variation is possible!

1 baby cup* long grain rice

A small cabbage, core discarded, leaves shredded.

Possibly a handful of green beans, chopped into short lengths,

Sunflower or similar light vegetable oil

1 tblespn Cashews or peanuts, roasted.

3 curry leaves, finely chopped

1 medium clove garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 med red chilli pepper, seeds removed, finely chopped

1 tsp coriander seeds, crushed

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ tsp turmeric powder

Juice of ½ a small lemon

Small bunch fresh coriander

Cook the rice in a covered non-stick saucepan with 2 ½ cups water until all the water is absorbed.  Pour a little oil into a non-stick frying pan, heat and add cumin, coriander, garlic, chilli and curry leaves. Cook on a medium heat until you can smell spices and garlic and chilli begin to colour.  Add mustard, turmeric, shredded cabbage and several grinds of black pepper, stir in and cover. Cook for about 5 mnutes until cabbage has wilted and begun to colour at edge.  Mix in cooked rice, beans if used (I microwaved mine for a minute first), nuts and lemon juice, recover and cook for further five minutes on low heat. Put into warm bowl and garnish with coriander leaves.

spicy cabbage and rice





Good as a side with a simple serving of meat or fish for a carnivorous husband, good as a main for his vegetarian wife. Enhanced by mango chutney.  Also goes well with egg, I think of it as a variant on bubble and squeak.




*Does everyone have a Peter Rabbit baby cup lurking in the back of the cupboard?  In case you don’t I checked – it’s 5 fl oz.

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You can’t blame the white chocolate and lemon curd wedding cake

A glorious summer afternoon, on my way to a river walk before tea and cake with my brother (I always bring the cake).  Spaniel and I enjoying the breeze with the top down for the swooping drive beside the South Downs towards the Arun.  And horror!  In the rear view window I see an untethered carrier bag fly from between the car seats, miss (thank God!) the windscreen of the car following and disappear into the hedgerow, concealed by foaming traveller’s joy and Queen Anne’s lace.

No chance to stop and retrieve it, we’re in a stream of traffic and there’s nowhere safe to park.  And in my head a stream of abject apology and self-justifying bluster:  “I don’t do things like that.  I don’t leave litter, I clear up litter.”   I collect discarded Styrofoam coffee cups while I walk the dog and join with my neighbours in condemning the customers of a certain drive-in takeaway burger bar.  It seems where we live is just the distance you drive before finishing your drink.  The cups are all the same (large) size, I wonder if there is another circle of roadside litter, closer to the takeaway, made up of smaller size cups?

And, when I stumble over mattresses discarded in field entrances along the lanes of the South Downs, I have to remind myself how pleased I am not to live in a police state; lest I find myself wishing for CCTV on every gateway.  But I don’t leave litter, I tell myself.  Then the view of the soaring, tumbling carrier bag plays again in my brain.  And another thought.  David Sidaris lives very close to where I was driving.  Now I’m one of the antisocial litter louts he describes in his books and on the radio.  Total shame.  I’ve reached my brother’s when another thought hits me.  ‘Does it make things better or worse that it was a bag for life?’

Resolve to do better, and put the portion of white chocolate and lemon curd wedding cake that I’ve brought to chill while the spaniel dives in and out of the river.

wedding cake

The top two tiers were made using a recipe I adapted from the Epicurious website, so here’s a link to the original.  In fact I made 5 cakes altogether, 3 white, 2 dark chocolate, as the bride wanted to use the cake as dessert.  The quantities in the original recipe were for baking in three 9 inch tins, each of the tiered cakes was baked in a loose bottomed tin, I used 25 cm (just over 9 inches), and 20 cm.  The original recipe is from the US, so here are the quantities I used, smaller size cake in brackets.  Conversion factor is (20/25 = 0.8) squared = 0.64 to give cakes of same depth – hopefully!  To make the cake itself lemony I put the zest in the cake, rather than in the lemon curd.

11.5 oz (7.5 oz)                  SR flour

1              ( ½ ) teasp           baking powder

I omitted the recommended salt

4 oz        (2 ½ oz)                white chocolate

8 fl oz    (5 fl oz)                                 double cream

5 fl oz    (3 fl oz)                 milk

1              ( ½ ) teasp           vanilla extract

4 ½ oz    (3 oz)                     butter (softened but NOT runny)

14 oz      (9 oz)                     caster sugar

4              (3 and omit milk) large eggs, separated.

Zest from 4 (3) lemons

Assembling the cake took a while, so I switched on the oven when I was half way through – 350o F or 180oC if baking in 3 separate tins in which case the time was 35 minutes.  In one large tin I turned the temperature down to 160oC (fan oven) then 140 oC after 40 minutes, and the cakes took 1 ½ hours and 70 minutes respectively.  Lots of checking with metal skewer after ¾ time.

Grease and line tin(s) with non-stick paper.

Sift flour and baking powder twice.

Melt chocolate in half the cream.  I used microwave in 10 then 5 second bursts, stirring after each one.  White chocolate melts (and burns) so easily, warming it with the cream in a 1 pint plastic pudding basin is the most successful method I’ve ever found.

Stir in rest of cream, milk and vanilla extract.

I use a stand mixer so I beat the egg whites first (detail below), transfer to a clean bowl and save washing up.

Whip egg whites to soft peaks, add ½ the sugar continue beating until stiff bit not dry.

Put in large clean bowl, and swap beater to (in my case) ‘K’ beater.  If you haven’t switched the oven on yet, do it now.

Beat butter with lemon zest and rest of sugar until fluffy. Beat in yolks.

On slow speed add alternate flour and cream mixtures, beginning and ending with flour.

Fold in the beaten egg whites, by hand with large metal spoon.

Place in tin(s) and into centre of oven

When baked through, place upside down on rack and allow to cool. I put in freezer and set crumb before slicing horizontally twice to fill with white chocolate ganache (I used icing sugar in addition to the white chocolate to stiffen the ganache), and lemon curd. (This is also the time to put in pillars). I froze the filled cake to make it easier to handle before adding more ganache to the top and a scraping to the sides.  I froze everything to take to the wedding (150 miles away) and assembled it chilled before the reception, using white ganache as ‘glue’.

I made double quantities of the curd in the Epicurious recipe, it was enough for 3 cakes and some left over, but I did not top the cakes with curd.

wedding cake2

The bottom tier was a 12 inch dark chocolate sponge, with two layers of ganache, and coated with melted chocolate.  I made one spare dark chocolate sponge, 10 inch diameter.

There were 73 guests, and ½ one dark cake and the smallest white chocolate tier left over, which I refroze.  It tasted fine when I checked before giving portions to those who missed the day.  And I didn’t mention the carrier bag to my brother.

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Roses all the way

It was to be a summer wedding, in an old tythe barn.  A country wedding, meadow flowers, cottage garden blossoms, hessian, twine and lanterns. No actual milkmaids, but old zinc buckets, churns and lanterns.  An illusional setting in the tradition of Le Petit Trianon, Sunday evening TV Hardy adaptations, but hopefully much happier outcomes than either.

rose 3

And we needed roses, not in bouquets nor formal arrangements, but for their scent.  And their romance.

Le Roman de la Rose.  The title promises to explain everything, in a guide to courtly love that was written nearly eight hundred years ago, steeped in tradition and myth dating from more than a thousand years before that.  The rose, symbol of love and commitment in Persian tradition, symbol of beauty, passion and sacrifice to ancient Greeks and Romans.  And source of a perfume used by Cleopatra to ensure Marc Antony could never forget her.

That fragrance!  Unlike so many of our flowers, whose sere pressed petals smell faintly of hay, but little more; dried rose petals keep their scent.  Run your hands through a bowl of them and the fragrance rises, a transport to summer gardens.  So there were to be baskets of rose petals, ribbons of petals strewn around the home baked cakes that were an alternative to canapés.

And rose petals have a flavour like their perfume.  As a sugared petal dissolves on the tongue, at first the only taste is sweetness, and then, elusive but unmistakable, it is rose.  So the wedding cake was to be decorated with drifts of sugared rose petals.

roses 7

The roses in our garden bloom profusely in the last two weeks of May and throughout June.  But not all the roses last so long, and we needed those with the strongest scents, like Rose de Dijon.  And it took two attempts to convince me that dried, sugared, yellow petals nearly always looked too much like potato crisps for them to enhance a wedding cake.  These, and the deeper pinks and reds, were best simply dried.  As always then, less time to do everything than I thought.

I picked flowers when they appeared dry and fresh, no dew, and before any petals began to shrivel. Picked off the petals (it felt cruel) and spread them on wicker trays to dry in the sunny conservatory.  One very hot day showed me that they mustn’t dry too fast, or you’re left with tiny, shrivelled, scentless litter.  I stored dried petals in wicker picnic hampers, out of the light but so that air could still circulate.  It’s important not to mix fresh and dry petals – or they will all rot.

roses 4

I thought I knew about how to sugar flowers, I’d decorated a ninetieth birthday cake with primroses, and it was simple enough.  But compared to fragile rose petals primroses are EASY!  Not only are they smaller and easier to handle, you can leave the stalks on until they dry so they have useful handles.  Rose petals took more care.

It was best to have an assembly line process.  I needed one bowl of lightly fork-beaten egg white, not frothy, just beaten enough to make it less gloopy so it would spread thinly on the petal.  A saucer of caster sugar. Another saucer, a large dinner plate, a paintbrush and a dessert spoon.  Sometimes I used tweezers to hold the petals.  Other days I couldn’t find them in time.  And as the photos show, I usually worked outside (it was warm, and not windy).  An umbrella food cover to keep flying insects away from sugary petals.

Put some sugar into the empty saucer.

Cover the petal with egg white (I used a mixture of dipping and painting).

Put the petal convex side down into the sugar.

Sprinkle more sugar from the full saucer over the concave surface.

Lift the sugared petal carefully onto the plate (the spoon is useful here).

Repeat until the plate is covered with petals, not touching each other.

The sugar can be poured back and forward between the saucers, unless you’ve used too much egg white.  If it clumps then throw it away and use fresh.

Cover the plate with the food cover and leave to dry. (About 24 hours in a sunny conservatory).

The dried sugar petals were quite robust, I stored them in airtight plastic boxes in the fridge. Some ‘leftovers’ were fine a couple of months later.

roses 8

Rose petals, no hidden thorns, no sharp surprises.  Sweet, beautiful, yielding – no wonder Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi was created from rose petals.  And certainly none of William Blake’s invisible worms in our creations.   A year after his triumphal welcome, the sweetness of the roses was only a memory for Browning’s patriot , but today I opened a wicker hamper, stirred its contents, and inhaled last summer’s wedding.

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Kale Side Dish

I served this with slow roasted duck, that had been stuffed with peeled cored eating apples, seasoned with chopped sage, lemon and garlic.  The quantities are variable – this served four generously.

½ butternut squash, peeled and cut into large cubes (2 cm side)

6 carrots, scraped

200g kale, thickest stems removed, finely chopped

Black pepper

Olive oil

Drizzle balsamic vinegar (optional)

Pine nuts – about a level tablespoon

I seasoned the squash and carrot with black pepper and roasted them (no oil) on non-stick liner on a flat tray when I had turned the fan oven up to 180 degrees C to start crisping the duck skin.  I took them out when they were tender, and the edges of the squash had begun to caramelise, (about 30 minutes).

In the oven space created I put a small metal dish with the pine nuts to toast, takes about 10 minutes.  If I try to do this on the hob I almost always burn them, the timing is not so critical in the oven.

I cut the carrots to a similar size to the squash and placed them both in a large microwave proof bowl, drizzled just enough olive oil to coat them. 10 minutes before serving time I added the washed kale, a spoonful of water, put a plastic plate over the bowl as a lid, and microwaved for 3 minutes on high.  (Worth checking the kale after 2 minutes to see how much time it needs).

I drained the lot in a colander, then tipped back into microwave bowl, then into serving dish so roasted vegetables on top.  Gave them a slight stir into the kale, a drizzle of vinegar and scattered the dish with pine nuts. Put into warming oven ready to serve.kale-side-dish

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Autumn Pork Casserole


Two giant pork chops, a tree laden with ripe red eating apples that don’t store well and an indeterminate eta for husband and supper led to this casserole, enough for 3 portions.
2 giant pork chops, each cut into three pieces
Seasoned flour – I used mustard powder and pepper and some dried herbs
I large onion – cut into thick slices
Oil – I used sunflower
Handful of fresh herbs, finely chopped – I used rosemary, thyme, marjoram plus 2 crumpled bay leaves
Teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Eating apples, unpeeled, cored and sliced fairly thickly – I used half a dozen, but they were quite small. It would have been half as many if I’d got the step ladder and climbed to reach the large ones.
Put an oven proof large frying pan or large base casserole that can stand a hot plate on the hob at a fairly high temperature while you mix the seasoned flour in a bowl or plastic bag. Use it to coat the pork portions.
Set the oven to a medium heat (about 180 degrees C).
When the pan is hot add a little oil to cover the base of the pan and put in the pork slices. Cook until brown on the base and then turn over.
If necessary add a little more oil for the onion before adding it to the pan – it depends how much fat has run out of your pork chops. Cook until onions begin to colour and the other side of the pork has browned.
Add sufficient water (or stock or cider, I had none so used more thyme than I might have done otherwise) to cover the meat and onion, the vinegar and the herbs. Use a spatula to ensure that the meat has not stuck to the base of the pan, and the browned flour is mixed into the liquid.
Arrange the sliced apple over the dish to cover it. These eating apples are really supersweet, but if the ones you have are very tart you could add a sprinkling of sugar.
Bake in the oven half an hour until the apples have coloured, check that the liquid does not need topping up, cover with a tightly fitting lid, turn the temperature down (to 140 degrees C) and let simmer for another ¾ of an hour. If supper is delayed further – reduce the temperature to just under 100 degrees C.
I served it with kale and crispy potatoes.

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Walking to Chanctonbury Ring

Visiting Chanctonbury Ring can form part of a longer walk, but if you only have 1 ½ to 2 hours to spare there is a convenient car park on the lane South of the A283, a mile or so East of Washington roundabout, opposite Water Lane that leads  to Wiston. For 25 years I drove to work past Wiston Post Office, and always felt compelled to check it was still standing. I learned a long time ago that you should not design a house with windows at the edges, brick or stone was necessary (before recent developments in strengthened glass) to support the building. I am delighted to say that the cottage, several centuries old, has not collapsed despite the windows at the North East corner of the building that worried me. Sadly the teashop based there has now closed.

All Saints Church, Buncton is just South of the post office, with a parking lay-by on Water Lane. It is a tiny chapel of ease, almost 1000 years old. There is a narrow path through the trees, so that a visitor can move back through centuries as she approaches the building, to absorb the mixture of Saxon and Norman construction and decoration. Sadly, again, a unique carving has been erased in this century – after surviving for eight of those preceding ours.

But we have crossed to the South of the A283 then driven a kilometre or so up the narrow lane to the car park on the left. As we walked South we crossed the East-West track that runs along the North base of the Downs. To our left this track has huge iron gates with an impressive one for pedestrians at one side. We went on and started to climb past the reservoir and through the woods. This is a slippery path in the winter, I remember climbing it one afternoon when the children were young. When we came down again, in the dusk, we could hear owls hooting all around us – above and below, as the wooded slopes fell away. I maintained a matter of fact commentary to reassure the children, and hid my relief when we re-joined the wider track. When I read Robert Macfarlane’s account of camping at Chanctonbury Ring, and being disturbed by what he feared were ghosts I sympathised, then laughed when in a later book he wrote that the sounds were probably made by owls.

The atmosphere on a summer afternoon was very different. The spaniel and I met other walkers, enjoyed the dappled light through the trees and emerged to sunny pastures and blue skies. We turned right, following the South Downs Way to approach the ring. After the last gate, and a check that there were no sheep grazing about the ring, I released the dog and walked across the open grassland towards the ring of trees. It is nearly thirty years since the great storm that flattened so many of the beeches planted by Charles Goring in 1760. The trees that were planted to replace the casualties have grown to restore the outline we remember. Many of the fallen trees were left as nurse logs, and reminded us that trees are not immortal. The storm hastened the downfall (oops!) of thousands of trees in the South East, but that action did not destroy creations that would have lived for ever.

When I walked round the outside of the tree clump, the spaniel ran Spirograph circles, Ptolemaic secondary orbits based on my circuit of the ring. Overheated as we left the summit, she noticed the cattle trough at the top of the next rise and charged towards it. Standing up on her hind legs, with her forepaws on the rim while she reached to lap the water was not cooling enough. Suddenly the dog had scrambled into the trough and was swimming (doggy paddle of course) with just her head above the water.

We walked back down through the woods, the dog drying slowly, and paused to visit a favourite tree. The tree grows on a bank that has washed away, so that its roots are exposed. It resembles Yggdrasil, I expected to see the Norns weaving our fates but there are only the ashes of a campfire.


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Spring walk, North of Thakeham

This walk has beautiful views over rolling countryside, and the chance to visit two interesting Sussex churches.
We start at the car park by Thakeham village hall, and use the track and footpath to skirt the building site that will become Abingworth Meadows. Left over the first stile and follow the footpath along the hedge. The bank below the hedge is riddled with rabbit holes, luckily the spaniel does no more than push her head into each one, leaving a view of inverted backside and enthusiastically wagging tail.
At the end of the hedge turn left to climb steps and stile, and walk along the headland of a field that is usually planted with maize. Another stile and turn right down the hill, where the cows walk from meadows to milking parlour. At the end there are gates, turn left along the path. Through the gate and cross to the next field and footpath opposite, passing the cattlegrid on your left.
If you have never visited Thakeham church, some parts of which (nave and transept) are almost 900 years old, this is a good moment for a detour. Inside the church much of the woodwork is over 500 years old, look at the door to the tower. The font is even older. It is awe-inspiring to stand and sit where people have come to pray for so long. If you sit at the front and see a Tudor rose on your pew, you know that you are sitting on an Elizabethan pew that has been in continuous use since the time of Drake and Raleigh, Shakespeare and Spenser.
Back on track we cross a small meadow to another gate and stile. Then down into a dingle and swing to the right to cross on a footbridge. Up the other side and into a bluebell wood, and pheasant haunt. The path up through the copse leads to another stile, where the route lies along the top of a pasture that slopes down steeply to your left. The grass is cropped short at all times of year – if you walk this way at either end of the day you will disturb the rabbits as they graze.
It is a steep drop to the gate and stile that leads into the lane from Warminghurst church, and it can be very muddy. The track is a continuation of Park Lane, for many years there has been an occupied caravan beside this pretty path, I love the idea that the address would sound like an expensive property on the Monopoly board. The track crosses and re-crosses a stream, and there are small pools to either side. In one pool, catching the sunlight I see the first kingcups (marsh marigolds) of the year. Their bright yellow, appearing like the celandines before the buttercups and dandelions of later spring remind me a mistake I made nearly 50 years ago.
One early spring on our farm, our herdsman left, and I agreed to help out by feeding the young calves. They were fed with buckets of reconstituted milk, and most needed help to learn to drink from a bucket, you had to hold your hand in the milk and they would suck the liquid through your fingers. Their soft warm muzzles would push into your hand, the smell of milk, calf and clean straw was all around, it was a good start to the day. In those days Farmers’ Weekly had a magazine section at the back for farmers’ wives, with a letters page. I thought I’d earn some money by sending in a letter (Cleopatra kept her skin soft by bathing in asses’ milk, so why after feeding the calves for a week or two are my hands rough, red and raw?). I made two mistakes. One – they did not pay for published letters. Two – they published the author’s name. So at the next few Young Farmers’ meetings I had a lot of interest in my rough, red hands. But what shamed me were the letters forwarded from the magazine from several kind ladies, who told me various recipes with which to make hand cream. The one I remember involved heating up Vaseline and pressing buttercup petals into it. And now when I see a buttercup or kingcup’s bright gold I still feel guilt that my frivolous story was believed and brought such a generous kind response from these ladies.
Back in the present, after passing through another pheasant copse we reach Clay’s lane and turn left. This is a very quiet road, leading back to Thakeham Church, but after a few hundred yards, after passing buildings converted for commercial use we see a large white house on the right. The footpath gate leads us into the grounds where we turn left between the garden and the stables. For several years this part of the walk was even more charming, and sometimes exciting. Donkeys who liked to be greeted lived in the stable, the path then passed through a field of curious goats and ferocious geese. And while you were distracted by the donkeys three huge (were they St Bernard’s or Pyrenean mountain dogs?), immensely friendly dogs would rush up and put their paws on your shoulders. Sadly the family have moved away, so crossing what was the goose enclosure we pass through another gate and into the field beyond.
Up the slope to a curious small enclosure, stiles to enter and leave it. There is quite a deep pond (excellent for cleaning a very muddy spaniel, who jumps in and swims round) on your left – maybe that is why it is fenced. Up the next pasture, to the gate on the right of the recently restored building. Follow the track between the hedge and the copse but do not turn left, keep straight and turn right to cross the school playing field. Keep the hedge to your left and at the end walk down the steps into Thakeham Street. As we are not stopping at the White Lion pub we turn right and walk along the road until the footpath sign on our left, and follow the path that leads high above the B2139 initially, down to the road, and then back to the turn for the Village Hall.

Walk north

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A slippery walk through muddy lanes and footpaths as a wet winter turns into a soggy spring.

A slippery walkStarting from Thakeham Village Hall we can appreciate the size and scale of the building site that is turning the old mushroom farm into housing. The area is protected by tall security fencing. Inside the barrier huge, powerful machinery terraforms the landscape. Enormous earthbanks have appeared, and one giant uprooted tree stump sits incongruously on the grass. We turn our back to the work to pass through the cut, leading through the hedge and beside the stream to the road, and turn left. We walk less than a quarter of a mile to a flight of steps opposite the entrance to the Abingworth Hall Hotel.

The steps take us up onto a narrow footpath high above the Jacket’s Hill cutting, reputedly made by prisoners taken in the Napoleonic wars. Wild garlic leaves have appeared, and some bluebells, but no flowers yet, and the trees are still bare. We stumble single file over the tree roots, and turn right to walk between a garden fence and a hedge. At the end of the high fence there is a fine view of the South Downs to the left, over the horse paddocks. But there are still plenty of unexpected tree roots, and the narrow path is slippery and flooded in places, so we spend more time looking at our feet.

Pheasants are calling down to our left as we reach the end of the paddocks and go right through a gap in the hedge to continue West. There is an electric fence to regulate the cow pastures, and keep walkers to the path. It is clear today, but hard to see in dim light. At the end of the hedge to our left we continue along the ridgeway. With no shelter the wind is fierce, but there are good clear views to North and South. They show how wooded Sussex still is, I’m happy that now I can’t see houses for the trees.

Over the fields to cross a holloway, another North-South lane tramped deep below the level of surrounding fields by long-dead drovers. Over the stile opposite, more views of the Downs to the left, and a pheasant rearing copse to the right. Across a stubble field, and at the end of the copse a slide down a slip of a path to the next stile. Directly across the busy road is a short private road, after passing between a couple of houses there is another public road to cross, then climb a short house drive and over a stile to the right. Again a stubble field (last year this crop was maize) with hedges to our left at first, then the path is once more an open ridgeway, with more pheasants shrieking below us in copses to right and left.

A stile at the far side of the field leads into a path between dogproof fences, next to horse pastures, that leads down almost to Hurston Lane. We swing right at the bottom to go North along a bridle path, at first downhill between high banks, where the path becomes a stream, then through rough grassland before we reach Heather Lane. Right again here, with the woods on our left. We take a detour this time and loop through paths in the woods, around the fenced grazing area.

Snowdrops drooped prettily – to be admired not picked, my mother insists – bringing snowdrops into the house will bring news of a death. She feels the same about mixing red and white flowers. I begin to list the other superstitions my mother taught me. I pretend to laugh at them, but if I crash the car it will be because I am distracted, looking for a second magpie (one for sorrow, two for joy). I reflect that most of her sayings are warnings, all portents were ominous: If thirteen sit at the table one of them will die soon; don’t put (even new) shoes on the table, it’ll bring bad luck; if two knives cross their blades when you are laying the table, slide the bottom one out carefully or there will be a quarrel; stir with a knife, stir up strife. I start to hope a black cat will cross our path, it’s the only promise of good luck I can remember.

Back onto Heather Lane and along this private road to Monkmead Lane, which we cross to a narrow path beside a stream. There is no footpath sign, but a ‘clean up dogmess’ warning implies that dogs are exercised along the track, for the mess to be created, so presumably walking is permitted. The path curves sharply between the high fences of West Chiltington gardens and we reach the road called Common Hill. Today we turn left and follow the pavement uphill a couple of hundred yards to Crossways, which we follow until it reaches Lordings Lane where we turn right. But in this tangled warp and weft of private roads and footpaths we could have crossed directly into Fir Tree Lane, perhaps that route means further to walk along a public road (Roundabout Lane) without a footpath beside it.

At the end of Lordings Lane we turn right and cross over. Immediately, to the left of the opening into Threales Lane, there is a well-marked path through the woods. After a very muddy stretch the path takes us across more rough pasture, and then into High Bar Lane, which leads us back to our starting point – about 1 ½ hours after leaving it.

When I get home I admire the show of snowdrops in our own garden. Time to cast superstition behind me I decide. I need flowers for the house and pick a bunch, they look charming on the study desk. An hour or so later my 90 year-old mother phones. A friend has died, will I take her to the funeral?


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Roast Beetroot Soup

Ingredients: 4 medium beetroot, 1 onion, 1 garlic clove, 1 inch ginger root, olive oil, 1/2 teasp grated nutmeg, 1 small orange, generous teasp horseradish sauce, salt, pepper, sour cream/creme fraiche or yoghurt to finish

Makes 4 bowls soup.

  1. Roast beetroot for approx 1 hour at 180 C – until knife slides in easily.
  2. Peel and chop onion and fry gently in olive oil to soften, not colour.
  3. Add peeled chopped garlic.
  4. Peel and chop beetroot (large chunks are fine), with peeled and chopped ginger, add to pan.
  5. Grate and add nutmeg, add sprinkling of ground pepper.
  6. Add sufficient water to cover, simmer gently for 10 minutes.
  7. While simmering add orange zest and flesh (I used Seville).
  8. Stir in horseradish (creamed or sauce).
  9. Blend to smooth puree (I use handheld blender).
  10. Add more water to give cream consistency, season to taste.
  11. The flavour develops if left for a while before reheating.
  12. Serve with a garnish of sour cream to be traditional. I’ve used creme fraiche and Greek yoghourt at different times. Both worked well.

beetroot soup

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