Variety is the spice of life, or why I can’t read one book at a time

 

For years, I thought it was just me.  Everyone else I knew seemed to read a book from start to finish, and then move on to the next one.  If asked them ‘what are you reading?’ the answer would be quite simple – one title.  Students, of course, would be reading a lot of books for essays, but their leisure reading seemed always to be done one book at a time.

I have never managed this!  I have always read a lot, although the nature of what I read depends on how I am feeling and what I am doing by way of work.  The more tired and stressed I am, the less likely I am to read anything very demanding, and you know things are bad when I can only manage magazines.  Usually, though, I read books.  Plural.  It’s not that I have a grasshopper brain – I can become engrossed in things for hours, missing meals, completely losing track of time.  But when it comes to reading, I find it very hard to have only one book on the go.

‘But don’t you lose track?’ I have been asked.  I can honestly say I don’t.  Within a paragraph I’m right back in the heart of whatever I was reading.  It’s only a problem if for some reason it’s weeks or months before I return to a book, but that rarely happens.  I usually have at least two, sometimes as many as four or five ‘leisure’ books on the go at once – plus ones that I am reading for research purposes in ‘work time’.  I like to have a range of different genres, or subject matter, so that when I sit down to read I can match the book to my mood or how much concentration I can muster.   It’s such a treat to be able to make a cuppa and retreat to my reading chair on the sunny landing, or curl up on the sofa, or settle into bed, ask myself ‘which book shall I read now?’ and know I have an inviting selection to choose from.

Recently, I have found I don’t want to read fiction at all.  Even my beloved whodunits are failing to entice me – I now have three new ones by favourite authors waiting to be read, and I can’t quite bring myself to open them.  I don’t know why – I can only suppose that our current circumstances are so surreal that my brain recoils from engaging with further imaginary universes just now.

At the moment, I am reading the following books for ‘leisure’:

On the Red Hill, by Mike Parker.  An intriguing blend of place writing, memoir and queer history, this is set in the hills of mid Wales, in a landscape that’s very familiar to me.  Lyrical nonfiction with a large element of social history, I’m finding it totally beguiling (and Mike Parker has written a history of the Ordnance Survey, which I must read next – regular readers may remember my map obsession!).

Walled Gardens, by Jules Hudson.  I have coveted this beautifully illustrated and pleasingly square book for ages, and when I was having a melancholy phase recently my partner thought she would cheer me up by contacting the author and requesting a signed copy.  I was very moved – both by her loving gesture, and also by Jules Hudson taking the time and trouble to pen such thoughtful words from one writer to another.  The book is not only a guide to walled gardens in the care of the National Trust, but also an overview of garden history and a considered exploration of the social history which provides a wider context.

Ghostland: in Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell.  Nonfiction again, this is a quirky but effective weaving together of ghost story, place writing, gothic and memoir which defies categorisation.  I met Edward last year at an event at the National Centre for Writing, and on the strength of that and Ghostland I am about to start a 12-week creative nonfiction course for which he is the tutor.

Writing this post has made me think that it might perhaps be worth, every couple of months, writing about what I am currently reading, with a short review of each book.  Occasionally the books I read are a chance discovery, but the majority have been recommended by someone else, and it’s good to be able to pass it on!

 

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Planting a herb garden – history, food and wellbeing

Now that there is some warmth in the spring sunshine, I have planted a herb garden.  It’s a very small herb garden – a vintage Belfast sink and a couple of pots – but it’s attractive and will serve my purposes.

The Belfast sink has been empty over the winter – when we moved house last autumn we emptied out the old herbs which were well past their best, ready for fresh ones this season.  It’s lovely to see it fully planted up, beside the back door so that it’s in easy reach of the kitchen, in a corner which is a suntrap.  The challenge is to remember the watering!

Colour photograph of a Belfast sink planted with herbs, and a green watering can.

The choice of herbs for sale was a bit limited so early in the year, but the plants were in very good condition, and there’s room to pop a couple more into the gaps later in the season if I find some.  I chose two purple sages, one oregano, and two thymes (one gold, one silver).  The sages will grow quite tall, so I put them at the back, with the oregano in the middle, and the thymes at the front.  They will spread, and be able to trail over the edge of the sink.  I also bought Moroccan mint, and a medium-sized rosemary – as mint is invasive and would take over the whole sink given half a chance, and as rosemary grows large and is long lived and will soon outgrow the sink, I have put each in a separate pot.  Ideally I’d also have some chives and some tarragon, although I’ve never had much luck with growing the latter, and maybe some flatleaf parsley (which I use where recipes call for coriander, which I don’t like).

Growing herbs has a long and venerable tradition.  Used for thousands of years for culinary, medicinal and ritual purposes, they have been an enduring part of human civilisation and their cultivation is an international phenomenon.  Much of what we know in the West about herbs and their uses was written down by medieval monks who grew herbs in the physic gardens of their abbeys, and a significant proportion of modern medicines have their origins in herbal compounds, so growing them today feels like connecting with the past.

So what of the herbs in my garden?  Let’s look at their history, uses and properties.

Sage

Its Latin name, Salvia, comes from salvare, to cure, so its medicinal reputation is long-established.  It has been used to treat sore throats and digestive problems.  Clinical trials in 2011 suggested that sage’s reputation of being helpful in the menopause may have scientific backing, as a trial reported its effectiveness in reducing hot flushes.  Originating in the Mediterranean area, sage is grown around the world, thriving in warm sunny locations – so my suntrap by the back door should suit it well.

Perhaps best known in Britain for its role in sage and onion stuffing, sage is strongly-flavoured and I use it a lot in casseroles, as well as torn up and tossed with buttered pasta.  Being a ‘lady of a certain age’, I also drink it as a tea (although as I’ve only had the plants a few weeks, it’s too early to report an improvement in symptoms!).

Oregano/marjoram

Another native of the Mediterranean (this time the Middle East), this is also a sun-lover.  Its antiseptic qualities made it a medieval cure-all, and the first settlers to New England took this herb with them.  I like it with chicken, fish, or pasta, and it is delicate enough not to swamp subtly-flavoured foods.  To me, this is a real sunshine herb – just crushing the leaves and sniffing your fingers will give you a lift.

Thyme

Prescribed by the 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper as a treatment for whooping cough in children, thyme has long been regarded as having antiseptic properties and being useful in respiratory conditions.  It’s a staple culinary herb (although incredibly fiddly to prepare, as you need to strip the tiny leaves from the woody stems) and gives a fresh, warm flavour which is hard to beat.  Pretty much all ‘mixed herbs’ include dried thyme, but it’s less potent when used fresh and partners well with rosemary, oregano and sage.

Mint

The Moroccan mint I’m growing is a kind of spearmint, so it’s warm in flavour rather than cool peppermint.  Its culinary uses are almost endless – salads, mint sauce, cakes, desserts, cold drinks, and mint tea, for example.  Humans have used mint for a long time – it has been found in Egyptian pyramids dating from 1000 BCE, and the Greeks and Romans used it – but curiously it only came into widespread use in Western Europe as late as the 18th century.  Medicinally, it has been used to aid digestion, and specifically to deal with wind, which may be the reason for the popularity of after dinner mints!

Rosemary

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” said Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Since antiquity rosemary has been believed to help strengthen the memory, and it is still used in Greece in the homes of those preparing for exams.  Another herb which likes hot, dry conditions, rosemary has a pungent, invigorating flavour and aroma – and the white, lilac or blue flowers are adored by bees and other insects.  I have always grown rosemary, and use it generously in cooking.  The traditional partner is, of course, roast lamb, but I use it (either as whole sprigs, removed before serving, or finely chopped) in almost anything that’s going to be cooked for a while – casseroles especially.

Photograph of a chopping board with chopped herbs and a large kitchen knife.

Whilst the whole ‘grow your own’ phenomenon may require more space, time and energy than many of us have available in 21st century Britain, it’s possible to have a herb garden in the smallest of spaces – in a pot or in a window box, or even indoors on a windowsill at a pinch.  And nothing beats the pleasure of cooking with herbs that you have grown and harvested yourself.

 

Norfolk Lavender – where farming meets fragrance

If you drive along the A149 near Heacham in north-west Norfolk during June and July, remember to wind down your windows as you approach the traffic lights.  Not only will you see row upon row, field upon field, of purple lavender, but the fragrance will fill your car and your senses.

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You would be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to the lavender fields of Grasse in France.  But here, amid the wheat of East Anglia, is Norfolk Lavender, the UK’s largest commercial lavender grower, with nearly 100 acres under production, and it’s been here since 1932.  Lavender growing had almost died out after the First World War, when demand had peaked due to the use of lavender oil in dressings because of its antiseptic properties.  Local nurseryman and florist Linn Chilvers had a dream to establish a lavender farm, and in partnership with landowner Francis Dusgate he planted the first six acres with 13,000 plants.  In 1936 they bought vintage French stills dating from 1874, and began to distil lavender oil.  Those same stills were in use until 2009!

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When I visited earlier this week, I was shown how the current still is used to extract the oil from the lavender harvest.  Maurice, who has worked at Norfolk Lavender for six years, explained that the 2019 harvest is about a month late because of the wet June.

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Maurice talked me through the process.  First, the harvested lavender is loaded into the boiler.  The whole crop is used – stems as well as flower heads – in order to allow air pockets for the steam to circulate.  If only the flower heads are used, it becomes compacted and the steam wouldn’t be able to vaporise the oil.

The steam circulates through the lavender in the boiler, vaporising the oil and rising into the condenser.  At this stage, the steam/oil is cooled, turning into a liquid mixture of water and oil.  This goes into the separator, where the oil floats on the water, ready to tap off.

One boiler-full (roughly a ‘dumpy bag’ full) can yield between 100 and 700ml of lavender oil, depending on the variety.  On that day, Maurice was processing a variety called Maillette, which is high yielding and produces oil which is used in the company’s candle production.

After distillation, the oil has to mature for up to two years – rather like fine wine or cheese!  Maurice handed me a sample of the freshly distilled oil to sniff.  It has a quite ‘green’ or ‘vegetable’ fragrance, with a suggestion of mown grass, definitely lavender but not the deep, warm fragrance we are used to in lavender essential oil.  This depth and complexity develops with maturation.

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Maurice told me that they have already sold out of the essential oil from the harvest two years ago.  Demand for lavender is increasing, especially amongst younger customers, as a new generation rediscovers the beneficial properties of lavender.

So, what’s so special about lavender?  Its use goes back to at least Roman times, when it was used medicinally, in massage, and in worship.  In fact, its name (lavandum) is associated with the Latin for ‘washing’, as lavender was used in the hot water of Roman baths.

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Lavender was a staple of the medieval ‘physic garden’, where it was grown for its medicinal properties.  By the sixteenth century, it was being used as a moth repellent, air freshener and toothpaste (mixed with charcoal – maybe not to the taste of 21st century consumers).  It was also believed to help keep the plague at bay, and demand for it was therefore high!

By the nineteenth century, lavender’s appeal was mostly its fragrance, and it was widely used in perfumery.  Modern fans, however, also appreciate its reputed properties in reducing stress, inducing calm, and promoting sleep.  Lavender is widely used in aromatherapy, and in a wide range of products – many of which are made by Norfolk Lavender.

As part of its commitment to the continuity and heritage of lavender growing in the UK, Norfolk Lavender is also home to a National Collection of lavenders, with over a hundred varieties of lavender, many of which are available to buy in the Plant Centre.

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Norfolk Lavender is next to the traffic lights at Heacham.  At the heart of the site is Caley Mill, a watermill built in 1837, which ground flour right up to 1923.  Most of the building is now offices and stores for Norfolk Lavender, but the old miller’s cottage has been converted into an excellent tea room (The Lavender Lounge).  Don’t miss the truly amazing lavender cake (complete with lavender-coloured icing!).  And in case you were wondering, no, it doesn’t taste like soap – it’s just fragrant and delicious.

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There’s also a large gift shop, which a seasonally changing selection of gifts as well as a large range of lavender-based products, including many of Norfolk Lavender’s own lines.   With the adjoining gardens to explore, and with Unique Gifts & Interiors, Walsingham Farm Shop, Farmer Fred’s Adventure Play Barn, and a rare breeds farm sharing the site, there’s something for everyone at Norfolk Lavender.  It’s good to see that this company, started from the vision of a local man with a dream, is thriving over 80 years later, providing a high quality visitor attraction and creating new generations of enthusiasts for lavender.

For more details of Norfolk Lavender, take a look at their website.

Where did the year go?! Sudden Autumn

After a brief Indian Summer, I am suddenly very aware that Autumn is here – the depth of colour in the trees is becoming distracting as I drive along country roads.  It will not be long before I am sweeping fallen leaves out of my newly-constructed pond.  This is, and always has been, by favourite time of year.  Somewhere around early September, usually, I am aware that the year has turned, and that the torpor of summer (even a nasty cold wet one like we’ve had) is about to give way to the excitement of Autumn.  At the other end of the year, the same thing happens in February as it suddenly becomes Spring.  But Spring has lots of fans, and does not need enthusiasts for its beauty and vivaciousness.  Autumn seems to have fewer acolytes, but I am definitely one.

Curiously, I find Autumn invigorating.  Not only is it the new year for academic courses, which have, one way or another, been a major feature of much of my life, but there is a sense of nature getting ready.  The swallows and the martins head off for summer quarters.  There is the prospect of the murmurations of starlings on the Somerset Levels to look forward to.  The boughs are laden with fruit and berries like a giant open-plan larder.  It feels as if they year is gathering in its supplies for the winter to come.

I’ve bought logs for the wood-burning stove.  I joined my neighbours in a collective apple juice pressing day which resulted in unfeasible numbers of bottles of wonderful juice.  I have pureed apples and frozen the results, to liven up porridge on winter mornings.  I have picked raspberries from the garden.

The garden – ah, yes.  The garden was supposed to be like a scene from The Good Life by now, but sadly I got flu in the Spring and lost 6 weeks of gardening time at a crucial time, and then engaged two consecutive gardeners to help me deal with the resulting jungle, only to have them not get back to me for, literally, months.  By high summer it was a seriously daunting project and way beyond me, but fortunately my lovely neighbour put me in touch with the delightful Jan from http://www.blueshedflowers.co.uk/ who has been doing her magic over the past couple of months, and I am now optimistic of being able to get the veg patch up and running for next year.  This garden has all manner of hidden treasures, so the year has not been completely a lost cause as I have had the chance to see what is here already – moving in during Jan/Feb meant I hadn’t a clue what I’d inherited.

One garden success has been the pond – a tiny pre-formed liner, intended as a wildlife pond.  I have to mention in dispatches here the heroic J who dug and installed it for me (with remarkably little bad language) on a muggy summer’s day.  The tiny frog which has already taken up residence in it is very appreciative too!  All manner of other creepy-crawlies have moved in as well, so I shall be interested to see what develops.  I built a bench and got a table for the garden during the summer, so next year I can sit and watch pond life in comfort!  I’ve been consciously planting for wildlife, with lavenders and buddleia, as well as for my own consumption in the herb bed.  I look forward to sharing pics of the first pickings from the vegetable patch next year – I’m looking at growing broad and dwarf beans, chard, salad leaves, garlic, spring onions, possibly some carrots and potatoes, and whatever else takes my fancy when I peruse the seed catalogues.  Meanwhile, in the next few weeks I need to plant up the big pots of tulips for the back doorstep, and alliums and fritillaria in the garden.  I got a bit overexcited about buying bulbs this year…