Friday 28 February 2014

The Great War in Portraits

This morning I took myself off to see this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. 

It sets out to tell the story of the Great War using the portraits of those who endured it. As someone who enjoys the tiny detail of history and is fascinated by how the great events impacted on the small lives of ordinary people, I found the exhibition deeply moving. Like many of my generation I find the scale of the sacrifice difficult to fathom, and the nitty gritty of the politics that led the world to war even more so. But here in the faces of the sitters is a story of bravado and pathos, triumph and despair, sacrifice and suffering that anyone can read. 

Of course the Great War shouldn't just be remembered from the Allies' perspective, which is something that the exhibition recognises. They have also included material that speaks of the experience of some of those on the other side as well. We see German soldiers, maimed and wounded by the British artillery, struggling with improvised gas masks and broken by the shackles of a truly devastating war. It reminds us that the suffering was universal, and the pain felt pretty much the same whichever uniform you happened to be wearing at the time.

 They have also included portraits of some of the women such as Mata Hari and Edith Cavel whose extraordinary stories live on in the popular imagination. And for my money Mata Hari looks every bit as exotic and mysterious as you'd expect her to.

Technologically, socially and politically we've come a long way in the intervening century, but here and there you catch a glimpse of something that looks disturbingly contemporary. Sometimes it's in the brush strokes of a painter whose style feels thoroughly modern, or it's in the expression of a young man whose reaction is one with which we can empathise immediately. This isn't just some dry treatise on a long-forgotten saga; it's populated by real people, who have only just slipped outside the hand-chain of first-hand living memory, and with whom I could identify at once

On one wall there is a huge montage of individual photographs, where celebrated flying aces, famous war poets, nurses, spies, prisoners of war, men shot for supposed cowardice and men celebrated for their undoubted bravery stand shoulder to shoulder. Clearly it is a modern construction, but it allows each one the dignity of his or her own space on the wall with a short bio to tell his or her story. I found this wall mesmerising, and I could have spent hours looking into the faces of the people shown there and reflecting on their stories.

This photo (below) was one of many that touched me. The happy-looking, handsome, young man is Private William Cecil Tickle, who volunteered for service despite being underage. He was killed in action on the third day of the Battle of the Somme, and his remains were never recovered. The hand-written inscription shown on the photograph is by his mother.  Almost a century later I could still feel her grief when I read how she'd described him as 'Mother's Billie Boy ... age 18 years ... one of the very best'. What an ocean of sadness must lie behind that simple epitaph.

And here's another handsome young man with an incredible life story. This is Lt. Walter Tull, the 'first person of Afro-Caribbean heritage' to become an officer in the British Army. Walter was born in Folkstone in 1888. His grandfather had been a slave. He joined up when war broke out in 1914, served in the Somme and was promoted to lieutenant in 1917, despite military law proscribing anyone 'of colour' from becoming a commissioned officer. He must have been a truly amazing soldier, who had to fight a whole other battle against the prejudice of the day to win his promotion. Walter was killed in action on 25th March 1918, and his remains were never recovered either. 

Entrance to the exhibition is free, and it runs until 15th June, 2014. Do go if you get a chance. It's well worth the effort.

Bonny x

Wednesday 26 February 2014

The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared

by Jonas Jonasson is a very funny book: a laugh-out-loud-in-the-crowd sort of very funny book.

I bought it yesterday on a whim in the Oxfam second-hand bookshop on Ealing Green, and as I was sitting poolside "watching" Emi go through his repertoire of strokes at swim club it made me chortle so much that the other parents started to give me funny looks. 'What's up with her?' I heard someone whisper to their neighbour. And what was up with me was a ripping good read!

It's about a little one hundred year-old man who makes a run for it instead of going to his one hundredth birthday party, to which all the local bigwigs have been invited. He makes it to the bus station, where he decides to make off with a large, grey suitcase that a charmless, ill-mannered youth asks him to keep an eye on whilst he goes to the loo. Unbeknown to the little old man the suitcase is full of dirty money, which gets him started on an unlikely journey on which he is pursued by criminals who want their loot back, and an incompetent police force trying to find a missing pensioner. It's just the ticket for a wet February afternoon when good humour is in short supply.

As the adventure unfolds we learn more about the life of the little, old man, who as an explosives expert has played a critical role in some of the momentous events of the twentieth century. He's an unlikely, heart-warming hero, and, on the basis of what I've read, I recommend the book to you without reservation.


Bonny x

Tuesday 25 February 2014

How to grow potatoes on your patio

Being Irish I have something of a potato obsession. I remember they were one of the first things that my mother taught me how to grow. She plants them in all sorts of old junk. She delights in using worn-out buckets with holes in, rusty 5 gallon oil drums, treadless tires, which she piles up on top of one another and then fills with soil and cow manure from the farm next door. It all lends a very quirky element to her garden design that may not win her many plaudits from the style police, but what the heck! It's fun! It's great to see life sprouting out of stuff that other people throw away.

And once you've harvested your first crop you'll understand what's so infectious about the whole potato-growing business.

Anyway, back to the project in hand, I bought these potatoes a while ago ...

... and left them to bud on an indoor window ledge. Old egg boxes make great holders for your seed potatoes whilst you're waiting for the buds to develop. Just take them out of the bag they've come in and place them in a dry sunny spot. Always position the eyes - the bits from which the shoots will grow - facing upwards.

After a couple of weeks they'll look a bit like this:

Now you need to choose the container that's going to be your potato plot. Choose a big one that allows enough space for your tubers to grow. The one pictured below is an old campaigner that's seen lots of action in a more prominent position on my patio. It has a 16"/ 40 cm diameter and stands 12'/ 30 cm tall, and I'm only going to plant one tuber in it. That way the potatoes will grow larger. As a rule each plant will need about 2.5 gallons/10 litres of soil. If you scrimp on your potato/ soil ratio you'll just end up with smaller potatoes.

The next thing to do is place some little stones and broken crocks in the bottom for drainage. I save broken crockery from the kitchen and broken terracotta from the garden to mix with small stones that I dig up from time to time. If you want to go spending money you can buy some vermiculite or gravel at the garden centre, but I'm all in favour or re-using broken stuff, conserving finances and saving the countryside from landfill! This is the mixture at the bottom of one of my potato pots:

Now put a layer of 3"/ 7.5 cm of organic composted manure on top of the stones, and then cover that with a couple of inches/ 5 cm of organic compost. On top of this place a seed potato with the shoot facing skywards.

Then cover it over with compost, being careful not to damage the shoot. On top pile on another 5"/ 13 cm of compost, and then water your soon-to-be bountiful potato garden.

All you have to do now is leave Mother Nature to work her magic, and come June/ July the container will be full of delicious potatoes. Watch over it carefully between now and then, watering it if it's in danger of drying out, and abracadabra - that's just about all there is to it! Some people add fertiliser, but I find that the composted manure is rich enough to keep the tubers growing. You can also top up with more soil as the plant grows to encourage it to grow tubers all the way to the top.

These potatoes will be ready to harvest early in the summer. As a result there's no need to worry about the dreaded potato blight, which tends to arrive later in the season.

It's a great project to get your little people involved in. My son, Emi, gets really excited about growing potatoes. He really, genuinely believes that old Mother Nature is magic. And you know what? The kid's not wrong!

Bonny x

Sunday 23 February 2014


I am an insomniac. It drives my husband mad. He could win a gold medal for Spain if they ever made sleeping a sport at the Olympics. But not me: I'd flunk right out of there.

Last night was a bad one. I just couldn't get to sleep. I tossed. I turned. I managed to wake everyone else up by tripping over on my way downstairs to raid the fridge. Even the dog was fed up with me in the end. He went out for a comfort break somewhere after 3:00 a.m., and decided that he wasn't in any hurry to come back inside.  Of course it was blowing a gale, raining, pitch black with the moon hidden behind heavy clouds, but I had to go chasing after him in my pyjamas which did very little to help my going-to-sleep issue.

Anyway, after I dragged him back inside, I settled down to burn the midnight oil reading The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul. It's not normally the sort of thing I'd pick up, but I'd bought it because I'd enjoyed The Kite Runner, and this was described 'as if Maeve Binchy had written the Kite Runner'. As it turns out it's a lot more Maeve Binchy than Kite Runner.

It's a well-paced tale about Sunny from Arkansas who runs a coffee shop in Kabul. She's a feisty, likeable character, who meets up with a cast of other extraordinary women in the course of running her business. There's Yasmina, whom Sunny rescues, a young Afghan girl, who is destitute, pregnant and abandoned to her fate on the streets of the city after her husband dies. Then there's Halajan, a 67 year-old Afghan lady who remembers happier days when things were more relaxed, and who yearns to follow her heart and be with the man she would have married half a lifetime ago if she'd been given the choice as a young girl. Candace, a wealthy American divorcee, and Isabel, a British journalist, complete the group.

I must say that I found it hard to believe in either Candace or Isabel. Somehow the characterisation didn't quite work, and Candace especially didn't ring true as a real character. But, that aside in the small hours of the morning, when my grey cells were addled through lack of sleep,  I enjoyed the pace of the narrative, and the beautiful way in which the writer dealt with the setting. I felt that I was in the hands of a storyteller, who knew the country well. 

And it turns out that she does indeed know her stuff. Deborah Rodriquez arrived in Afghanistan in 2002, as a volunteer aid-worker. With her background in hairdressing she was enlisted to help setting up a beauty school for women amidst all the rubble and destruction. You can read about her here:

One of the things that surprised me about her account of life in Kabul was how people there were said to dislike dogs. I am very much of the 'man's best friend' school of thought on this point, but the Afghans are said to regard our canine friends with something bordering on disgust. Sandy, the lead character, is given the present of a retired drug dog to guard her car whilst she is out and about in the city. Tellingly Rodrigquez betrays her own sympathies on the issue by making Poppy, the drug dog, the only character in the book who is an infallible judge of people.

Anyway it's a good, light read if you're suffering the can't-go-to-sleep blues in the middle of the night.

All the best,

Bonny x

Friday 21 February 2014

The Exeter to Topsham canal path

Today we went for a walk along the historic Exeter to Topsham canal.

Way back when they had tall masted sailing ships and the woollen industry was the backbone of the West Country economy, Topsham, further down the Exe estuary, was the deep water port for Exeter. But slowly, slowly the upper reaches of the river, between the port and the city, silted over and became too shallow to allow the cargo to move through.

As a result they hit upon the brilliant idea of building their own canal. 'Big deal!' I hear you say, but, bear with me, this was back in 1500's. It first opened for shipping in 1566. Can you imagine what an effort of human sweat and tears and blood must have gone into building it? Can you picture the gangs of men, many of them no doubt Irish navvies, my countrymen, with picks and spades labouring in the sandy, red soil with teams of oxen and mules carrying away the earth that they had dug up? I wonder which songs they sang as they worked. I'll bet in winter it was too cold and miserable to do anything other than knuckle down and wish the job done.

We started off at the Exeter quay, and followed the signs for the canal basin. It was a glorious morning with a huge blue sky and loads of sunshine.

We saw lots of swans. These chaps were breakfasting on some scraps that another walker had brought along for them.

I don't know whether you've noticed or not, but there's a beer can floating just beside the bird on the left. I didn't notice it until I down-loaded the photo to my computer. Isn't it depressing how people throw their rubbish around?

And, at the risk of going into full rant, look what I saw floating by the bank ten paces further down river:

Someone's discarded Christmas tree!

How can they possibly have thought that it was ok to just chuck that into the River Exe?

Anyway, we carried on, and took the path along the canal.

We walked on to the double lock...

... where we stopped for coffee and bacon sandwiches at one of the loveliest pubs in Devon, the aptly named Double Locks Pub. Inside was warm and cosy with open fires burning in the grates, and riverside views that made me think of Ratty's riverbank home in AA Milne's Toad of Toad Hall. The coffees were fabulous, and the bacon sandwiches were delicious. There's a deck outside, where some braver souls were enjoying the weak rays of the winter sun. On a balmy summer day this place must really rock for a lazy Sunday lunch by the water.

We carried on downriver to the Exminster Marshes, before turning back. My husband had a work commitment that we had to get back for.

We decided to return via the flood plain of the River Exe. It wasn't flooded, and Maxi had great fun racing around and playing with the other dogs.

And we had some lovely views of Exeter Cathedral in the distance. Looks very regal, doesn't it?

By now the rain was catching up with us, and before very much longer it overtook us. When we finally arrived back at our car we were all a bit tired, slightly soggy and moderately muddy. We were pleased that we'd been able to make the most of the lovely, bright morning. After all that's what its' been all about recently: making the best of the breaks between the showers, and not minding too much when the clouds open.

If you fancy exploring the Exeter canal basin you can download a map showing the walking path here:

Have a great weekend!

Bonny x

Thursday 20 February 2014

Knitting a snood ...

We're enjoying country walks in between the showers. Today was pretty good. We managed two long hikes with only one change of clothes. For England, in February 2014, that's not a bad innings!

Anyway I've been wanting to make something that would be a bit more spring-like, but with the weather having been so spectacularly uncooperative I've not managed to stray very far away from warm and woolly. I like to think that the colour I've chosen is a little bit spring-like. I mean at least it's a pastel colour, which is supposed to be on-trend for spring, right?

Here's the wool I chose:

It's by quince&co, who say on the label that it's '100% American Wool'. I really must say that it's been a total delight to work with. It doesn't split easily, and the colour is just the business. Perfect for what I had in mind. It's called 'Bird's Egg' and the colour code is 106. I bought mine from the lovely Loop shop in Islington. They do a really good mail order service if you can't visit them in person. In any event you can find them here: Loop Knitting Shop

Talking of which, this is what I set out to create:

What do you think?

I'm really enjoying the warm, snugly simplicity of it!

You can wear it as a long single loop, which looks very laid back and casual. Or if you're facing a blistering northerly wind, you can double it up for extra warmth. Either way I think it's a great look.

If you'd like to make one it's easy-peasy. Here's what you need, and here's how to do it:


2 skeins/ 340 yards or 310 metres of Aran/ 10 ply wool
1 pair of American size 11 circular  needles (metric size 8 mm/ imperial size 0) with a cord of approximately 80 cm/ 31 inches between the two needles


Cast on 195 stitches and mark the end of the row with a piece of wool in a contrasting colour so that you know where each row ends. (This should produce a snood that measures about 48 inches/ 122 cm around, depending upon the tension of your work.)

1st row: *knit 3, bring the wool to the front of the needle as though you were about to do a purl stitch and slip a stitch, return yarn to other side*. Repeat from * to * across the row, end with knit 3.
2nd rowknit 1, *bring wool to the front as though you were about to do a purl stitch and slip a stitch, bring wool to other side and knit 3*. Repeat from * to * across the row until the final stitch. End with a slip 1, knit 1.

Repeat these two rows until your work measures whatever width you would like it to measure. I made mine 9 inches/ 23 cm wide, which is a good width for the doubling-up look as it doesn't become too bulky around the neck.

Cast off, weave in your ends and admire your snood.


Bonny x

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Hound Tor, Dartmoor, and a slow-cooker dinner

Yesterday we went to Hound Tor, which was as spectacular as it always is. Somehow, now that we have a hound of our own, it seemed apt.

I love the wildness of Dartmoor. There's something primitive, something truly primordial about it. And Hound Tor is one of the best bits. It's a wild, unforgiving place, where nature concedes nothing. They say that it inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write the Hound of the Baskervilles.

We strolled along the avenue that runs between the massive granite walls of the Tor.

Then we climbed the shoulder of the hill on which the Tor stands to admire the bleak landscape all around. 

Over the other side there is a little path that leads down through the bracken to a forgotten village, where no one has lived for over half a millennium. It's an eerie place comprising several houses and barns. No one knows exactly what happened, and why the people who once lived there left. One theory is that it was abandoned in about 1350 as a result of the infamous Black Death. Whatever the way of it, the site must have been a desolate, inhospitable place to have called home. Even on a warm sunny day, it feels sort of chilly there.

It's a tricky place to photograph and I only had a little point-and-shoot camera with me, which wasn't up to the job so I'll have to remember to do it justice next time.

After all that walking it was lovely to open the front door and immediately smell our dinner bubbling away in the slow-cooker. 

I'm a really big fan of my slow cooker. It's not an expensive, flashy model, but it's great for those days when we're out and I need to conjure up some food almost as soon as we get back home.

Here's my very simple recipe for: 

Sausage stew

12 good pork sausages
200 g/ 7 ounces of bacon lardons
400 ml/ 2 cups of good vegetable stock
2 medium onions - sliced
6 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced


1. Fry the sausages so that they have an attractive colour, but don't cook them right through.
2. Remove sausages from the frying pan and place in the bottom of the slow cooker pot.
3. Finely chop the onion and garlic and fry in the same saucepan as the sausages. When done, tip over the sausages in the pot, and add some chopped sage or a good shake of dry sage if you haven't got any of the fresh stuff to hand.
4. Fry the bacon lardons in the saucepan and sprinkle evenly over the sausage and onion mix in the pot.
5. Peel the potatoes, and finely chop. Then layer over the sausage mixture in the pot.
6. Pour 400 ml of hot, seasoned vegetable stock evenly over the potatoes. 
7. Place the lid on the pot and leave to cook for three and a half to four hours on the high setting.

Simple, hearty food! I served it up with some mushrooms fried in butter with spring onions and garlic, washed down with a nice glass of Rioja.

This recipe will feed 3 to 4 people, depending on the size of the servings: will you be wanting three sausages or four sausages per person? You can do the maths!

Anyway, tuck in and enjoy,

Bonny x

Monday 17 February 2014

Devon: the quiet after the storm ...

We've come to our place in Devon for Emi's half term holidays, and yesterday was truly glorious - the quiet after the storm.

Our roof safely sheltered by the hill behind

I'm counting our blessings that we've still got a roof over our heads. Our house was cleverly built a long time ago on the shoulder of a hill, so that it is protected by the contours of the surrounding land from the worst of the weather. This sometimes results in the smoke being blown back down the chimney on those odd days when the wind comes over the hill, but mostly it's a very comfortable arrangement.

We did lots of dog-walking yesterday to make the most of the weather. And I've got to say that this is the best dog-walking county in England. People down here love their dogs. Maxi comes everywhere with us, and nobody minds. He joined us for a family dinner in our lovely, local pub on Saturday night. It was brilliant.

Our valley

What a difference a day makes: today we are back to rain, rain and more rain. My heart really goes out to all those poor folks whose houses are under water at the moment. It must be the very worst sort of invasion: smelly, cold grey water.

Today: back to the rain!

We've suffered the loss of four beautiful old trees in the storms. This one below was a fairly young ornamental cherry. I'm guessing that we'll have to fell it as it won't be stable after suffering this split.

And this splendid old beech tree came out by the roots. 

I'm kind of surprised that its root system didn't go wider and deeper. They seem very shallow and superficial for what was once a very tall, majestic tree, whose branches cast a huge shadow in the summer time.

Just look at how it's been split open by the storm. It's almost as though the wind, in its fury, tore the tree in half: an eloquent testimony to the violence of the weather.

Anyway, today I think we'll just hunker down and enjoy the warmth indoors as the wind whistles down the valley, and the rain batters the windowpanes.

Stay warm and safe wherever you are,

Bonny x

Friday 14 February 2014

Saint Valentine's Day ...

Happy Saint Valentine's Day!

My Mum used to tell me when I was a child that St. Valentine's was the day on which the little song birds in our garden chose their partners. We always had a bird-table, and we always took good care to leave them well-provided for in cold weather. As a result, we had hundreds of feathered friends: robins, blue tits, chaffinches, great tits, wagtails, black birds. You name them, and they'd be there in our garden. We'd watch them carefully through the window, and sure enough there were usually signs of nest-building not long after the magic day. And then, before very much longer, we'd spot a noisy brood of swallow chicks in the garage, and my father would start to get bent of shape about all the bird poo that was landing on his car.

When I was grown-up and single I used to enjoy the Valentine's Day suspense: would anyone think to send me roses? And it always felt like a not insignificant personal triumph when they did!

My husband is a lovely, eccentric man who comes from Barcelona. In his neck of the woods they don't do the whole hearts and flowers thing for the Feast of Saint Valentine.  February, 14th is just another day over there. Instead, they celebrate their amor on the Feast of Saint George, who is also their patron saint in Cataluña. And, what with rescuing damsels from fire-breathing dragons and
everything, maybe old Saint Geordie is a better, more swashbuckling patron saint for lovers anyway.

On his feast day (23rd April) it is traditional for a Catalan lover to bestow a single rose and a book on the object of his affections.

How lovely is that?

Giving someone the present of a book that they will enjoy is surely one of the most intimate gifts that any lover can give. It takes a real understanding of what makes the other person tick to choose correctly.

When someone gives me a book I'm always intrigued by the reverse psychology of why they've chosen that particular one for me. What does it say about how they view me? Eek! Maybe better not go there, on second thoughts... .

If you were to give your other half a book this Saint Valentine's Day, which one would you give?

The 'Don'ts for Wives' handbook from 1913 would probably not be a great choice for the chaps - unless they had their sights set on sleeping in the guest bedroom for the foreseeable future. CJ, one of my cousins, gave me this copy after I got married. I think she was being ironic.

Or how about this lovely book? R.D. Blackmore's 'Lorna Doone' 1913 Dulverton edition, beautifully bound with engraved end boards and coloured illustrations.

 'Lorna Doone' is such a classic, and I love, love, love  my copy. I bought it in a place called the Bookbarn, down in Somerset. They say that it's the the largest second hand book shop in the country, and I believe them. I've spent days of my life in there browsing happily. Anyway this dedication appears on the first page of my copy:

I think it's just grand how Misses Grimwood and Burgess were busy with the Brighton and Hove Rifle Club way back in the autumn of 1913. Good for them! But I also wonder what happened to them in the following years. Did they get involved in the war effort? Did they lose sweethearts/ husbands/ fathers/ sons on the front? Did they have any not insignificant personal triumphs on 14th February, 1914?

 Anyway, whatever you're doing, have a good one!

Bonny x