Okehampton is the town just down the road that we pass through on our regular trips to Cornwall. It sits on the edge of Dartmoor, and perhaps it's because it's on our own back door that we've never really taken the trouble to explore it properly. Does that make sense ? Am I the only person who's got an irrational tendency to overlook what's within easy striking-distance of home in favour of gallivanting off to far-flung places? I guess far-away fields always look greener ... .
Now as it happens Okehampton is a town with a lot of things to boast about, but it's a modest place that doesn't really shout much about its attractions. There's a medieval motte and bailey castle, St. James' Church, a Tudor Chapel of Ease, there's a museum of Dartmoor life, a very fine 19th century railway bridge, the Meldon Viaduct, spanning the ravine of the Okement River and, just outside of town in the beautiful village of Sticklepath there's an amazing, fully working blacksmith's forge with all the latest water-powered kit from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. I've already written about it here: Finch Forge.
The other day we were keen to go exploring, but the weather didn't look great and, having got a good soaking on our supposedly rain-proof trip to the Levant Mine in Cornwall, we wanted to play things safe and not stray too far from home. So we decided to mosey on down the road to the pretty little village of Sticklepath, not far from Okehampton in Devon.
My father's grandfather (my great grandfather) was a blacksmith back in Ireland, so my father was interested to see the last working water-powered forge in England. And it proved to be a thing of wonder, which was way above and beyond anything that my ancestor ever operated.
The apples aren't ready to harvest yet, but things are shaping up for a good crop when the autumn comes. As we were admiring them the other day my mum suggested we pick a few of the Bramley apples for an early apple pie. We found a windfall or two to add to the mix as well, so that it didn't feel too sinful to harvest baby apples that haven't had a chance to reach their prime.
Every year when they're ready we have a glut of apples, way too many and all at the same time. So in a way it makes sense to use a few now to make an early season apple pie.
One of the many things I love about being in Devon in July is our after late evening stroll. We've got a lovely barley field just outside, which makes a great place to go to walk off our dinner-time excesses. As the sun sets, we enjoy the magical light of twilight. And whilst the weather hasn't been brilliant in recent days it always seems to get itself sorted out by dusk, allowing the sun to set in a relatively cloudless sky.
Yesterday morning started well, but clouded over in line with what the weathermen had told us would happen. We had set ourselves up, however, to outsmart the weather. Our rain-proof day out involved travelling down to Pendeen, near St. Just in Cornwall to see an ancient copper mine with a working steam engine, which had sounded really, really interesting ... to Emi and my father.
A mine (underground - and in this case one with workings that crept out for over a mile under the sea) a steam engine and lots of mine housings: what could possibly go wrong with our rain-proof plans?
The Giant's Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
The other day we walked in the footsteps of giants down at the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim. It's funny how many giant stories there are over here, but the one about Finn MacCool, the war-mongering giant, who decided to rely on his wits and not to fight is one of the better ones.
Back in the day Finn was the leader of the Fianna, a fearsome band of warriors, who ruled the roost in these parts. As leader of the pack old Finn boy developed quite a swagger. Some might say he became a belligerent bully. And like all bullies he nursed a serious chip on his shoulder. For reasons that few could ever understand Finn MacCool was a giant with something to prove.
Emi loves coming to my parents' house here amidst the rolling hills of south Tyrone. For me it's a pleasure to see him enjoy the simple pleasures that shaped my own childhood: the long country walks, the fragrant of vases of sweet pea that find their way into every room, the soft fruit ripening slowly under the July sun and the constant round of visits to friends and family with all the in-jokes and tall stories that invariably get told in the process.
I'm hoping that his Grandma's garden will make an impression that will last a lifetime for him. It's not that it's some fancy pants garden. It really isn't. It's just a country garden that's been my mother's pride and joy for almost half a century. She's spent a big chunk of her life in that garden, taking care of her precious plants, planning for next season, feeding her family from its bounty and enjoying its crazy, slightly chaotic colour.
Today it's full of scent: sweet peas, pinks, mock orange, sweet William, carnations and the most exquisite scented peony roses that I've ever beheld. I've put a photo of this last beauty below, and, believe me it's the most exquisite thing that's ever grown in a flower bed.
One thing that my mum has understood very clearly from the get-go is the importance of looking after her soil. It's been well nourished over the years with loads of rotted manure and her own home-made compost. If you step onto one of her flower beds you feel the slightly spongy sensation under foot of thick, well-aerated soil that's been hoed and hasn't compressed.
There are plants from just about everywhere she's visited. Some have been propagated from the odd seed pod that's surreptitiously found its way into her pocket. Others have come to their new home as slips, cuttings that have been carefully carried back in her handbag. And when it comes to buying her a present, well there's nothing that will bring a bigger smile to her face than something she can plant in her garden.
At the moment she's got an amazing display of poppies that came from a trip many years' ago to the Chelsea flower show, where someone sold her a few packets of mixed Himalayan poppies. They've grown and reseeded and kept the colour blooming faithfully every year for the better part of a decade.
And then there are her little feathered friends. She feeds them conscientiously, and they watch out for her from the hedgerows around the lawn. Sometimes they mistake me for my mum and follow me around the garden too, watching to see whether I've got some treats for them. It's a funny feeling being stalked by sparrows and blue tits.
We've never really got too bogged down with the highfalutin botanical names for the plants. The Mock Orange above is one of my favourites. It grows as an untidy looking shrub on an East-facing slope in the garden, but its fragrance is sublime. A friend who's a landscape gardener, always pulls an appalled expression when I mention how much I love this shrub. In her view it's an architectural disaster that looks like a badly constructed bird's nest. Harsh words, but for me the issue starts and finishes with its wonderful scent.
And in this garden nothing goes to waste. Delivery crates are up-cycled into flower pots. Wellington boots with holes in that have no chance of keeping your toes dry any longer find a new lease of life as homes for geraniums.
I always come away with a serious case of delphinium envy. Aren't these blue beauties (above) stunning? They just won't grow like this for me in London.
At the back of the garden the lawn morphs into a pathway that leads on to the field beyond. There's lots of cow parsley, fox gloves and meadowsweet down there at this time of the year. It's a haven for wildlife. Occasionally they find a hedgehog cuddled into a nice cosy clump of dry elephant grass in the autumn.
And this (below) is Miss Blondie, my mum's dog, who guards the garden from any interfering pussy cats who might be tempted to come in and dig up the plants. She's a sweet old girl who's seen a fair few summers, and ranks well above the Wonder Dog in our little household pecking order. As the junior cadet he respectfully waits his turn, and generally does what he has to in order to stay on her good side.
The climate here is quite damp. Moss grows really well, as does lichen. Just look at the beautiful growth on this dead branch. I think it's got moss grown over with a couple of different types of lichen. It's really much too pretty to prune.
And that's about the size of it: nothing that's going to win us any RHS gold medals, but it's our very own little corner of garden heaven nonetheless.
Yesterday Emi, my father and I visited one of my favourite childhood haunts, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, just outside Ballycastle in County Antrim. I remember coming here as a little girl and being both scared out of my wits and exhilarated with the challenge of crossing the bridge. Reaching the other side safely always felt like a really big deal to my eight or nine year old self.
The wobbly bridge swings in the sea breeze between the mainland and Carrick-a-Rede island, some 100 foot or 30 metres above the waves spanning the 60 foot/ 20 metre chasm over the sea that makes Carrick-a-Rede an island. These days the nice people at the National Trust award Crossing the Bridge certificates to the brave folk who make it out and back again.
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, County Antrim
Carrick-a-Rede is an anglicisation of the Gaelic Carraig-a-Rade, which translates as rock in the road. The road here is the sea route of the Atlantic salmon, which follows a westward journey past the island, and the island is the rock in that road.
On Friday Emi, the Wonder Dog and I arrived in Holyhead six hours early for our ferry crossing to Dublin. I really hadn't intended to be quite so early, but with the vagaries of what the traffic might be like on the M6 we'd left London first thing in the morning to arrive in plenty of time. As luck would have it we encountered no problems on the roads, but arrived half an hour too late to make the earlier sailing. So what could we do with six hours to spare in Holyhead?
Last weekend the Fates were on my side, and
Mr B, who’d been delegated the task of picking the black currants down in Devon, came home with just over a kilo of wonderful, ripe fruit. I’d asked him to get
them for me never thinking that he’d actually follow through and deliver. But,
notwithstanding my skepticism, and against all the odds, Mr B found his way to
the black currant bushes, recognised them for what they were and harvested the
crop – or as much of it as was ripe for the picking. He promises me that there
are more yet to ripen in the not-so-very-hot Devon sunshine.
I decided to turn them into some black
currant cordial, which I can add to a glass of
Cava or still white wine on a hot summer evening. I have even been known to add
it an innocent glass of sparkling mineral water to turn it into a minor
It reminds me of my childhood. Growing up
in the north of Ireland there weren’t many fruit crops that we could consistently rely upon to deliver jam-making produce in our cool, damp summers. But our little black
currant bushes never failed us. As a consequence my mother and grandmothers
relied heavily on this rare bounty for making jams, jellies, cordials and pies.
They’re a real heritage crop. In the dark
days of the Second World War when the Nazi naval blockade was threatening the nation’s
nutrition the government seized upon the black currant crop as the only means
by which they could prevent an entire generation from being weakened by scurvy. The
currants are full to bursting with vitamin C, and, as part of the War Effort, they
were turned into syrup, which was then fed to the children to keep them
healthy. More recent studies have shown that consumption of black currants can also help reduce the effects of heart disease, diabetes and maybe even Alzheimer's. They're a bit of an all round superfood.
And I have to sing their praises for
today’s gardener. They fruit reliably every year. I've had very little to worry
about from either aphids or mildew - or anything else for that matter. They
don’t need much attention. You just plant them in a hole in the ground, mulch around the roots a bit and let them get on with it. Prune them towards the end of winter and that's about it. If you’re only going to grow one fruit crop in
your garden I strongly recommend that you chose this one.
And having packed all that fruity goodness
into my cordial the last thing I want is to include cavity-inducing,
tooth-rotting sugar, so I've substituted xylitol in place of regular sugar. If you wanted to use normal sugar that would work fine too.
Anyway if you’d like to make some cordial
here’s the recipe:
I’m having a rip roaring time at the moment. I’m knitting a summer cardigan using a 4-ply cotton yarn in
a lovely sea-blue colour that really makes my heart sing. As usual I couldn’t
find a pattern that gave me what I really wanted so I’ve set about designing my
own perfectcardi. Working out how to make it all hang together with
consistent pattern repeats has been pleasingly
mathematical, which isn’t to say that it’s all been plain sailing.
But, over the years, I've learnt a few tricks that help make the whole business a little bit easier, and help avoid some of the inevitable ripping. Here are my top
10 tips for saving your sanity and avoiding the grim ripper ...