Tuesday 27 May 2014

One year on from everything changing

My sister, Mum and me
backstage at Plumpton Pantomime 
Dave pointed out this morning that today is the one year anniversary of us buying our caravan, the second momentous event in a very short space of time last May that led to Dave and I completely changing our lives. The first, as you may or may not already know, was my Mum dying as a result of lung cancer just the week before. I don't remember much about this time last year. Although we were all well prepared and it was a relief to know her suffering had ended, I must still have been in shock for a lot of the time.

The 18th of May was the anniversary of Mum's death. My sister, her husband and I commemorated the day by going to +Blackberry Farm with my niece and her young friend, and a couple of adult friends, one of whom has a young son. It was nice to be all together and the Farm is the perfect place for kids, especially as it was a hot sunny day, but I didn't really feel any connection to Mum. She would have enjoyed the family day out, but we had never been there with her.

By sad coincidence, Mum's birthday is the 25th of May, just a week later. I found the day this year more emotional than the anniversary and had a couple of wobbly moments. I texted my sister and my Dad, and Dave was very supportive when I needed him to just be there. My sister had said that at least we'd already coped with The Birthday last year and I suppose I did but it's more a blank than a memory. I do remember one year when, as children, we had excitedly gone off for a Whitsun week half-term holiday with our grandparents. We returned to an upset Mum because we had completely forgotten her birthday fell during the week. Thank goodness we had at least brought her a holiday present home!

I was chatting with a friend over brunch a few weeks ago. She had recently lost her grandfather and spoke about her comfort at knowing he is still somewhere watching over her. I don't follow this belief and, for me, Mum is simply gone. She did her time watching over us while she was alive and isn't hanging around anymore. It's interesting that, despite the myriad different belief systems in the world, many of them maintain that our ancestors stick around. I would love to know how this originated but it must have been so long ago that, even if the story of the first person to have the thought is still told, it will be hopelessly swirled in myth by now. I do remember feeling sudden lightness a couple of months after Mum had died when I was feeling guilty about something I had or hadn't said to her. Knowing me, it was probably something I had said but should have kept quiet! I realised that it doesn't matter anymore. Yes, I might have been stupid and selfish at the time, but it doesn't hurt her now. I can't change it anymore so there's no point in dwelling on the 'might have beens'. This simple realisation was so powerful that even writing about it is bringing back the sense of relief. I know this isn't a traditional attitude, but it was one of my big turning points in dealing with my grief.

The other thought that has been immensely helpful came from the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in his book Death by Black Hole. I'm paraphrasing wildly, but the gist of his words was that everything on this planet and in this universe is effectively recreated stardust. He and I agree that while there's no evidence for spiritual reincarnation, there certainly is for the physical variety. Mum's ashes were spread in her ancestral home village of Dovaston in Shropshire and by now she's going to be part of many things there, maybe in a daisy flower and a hen chick and a puddle for a kid to splash about. In a hundred years she might have travelled thousands of miles and be a brick in a school wall and the page of a book and a rare tree whose wood will make a concert piano. She might even be a Mum again. I like this way of thinking. Given enough time, we really can be absolutely anything!

I think years of looking forward to the 25th as a date to celebrate will take a lot of overcoming. Thoughts of Mum still jump into my head every day and probably always will. However, for commemoration, a Birth Day signifies what is to come in a life, not what has already gone so I shall try and let the 18th fade in favour of the 25th. 

Thursday 22 May 2014

Bread and butter pudding recipe

There was a small trolley-full of white Warburtons bread on special offer at my local +The Co-operative last weekend because it was practically at its sell-by date. 50p a loaf so I grabbed one! I've been meaning to make this pudding all week and as Dave's up to London visiting his daughter tonight, I've got the kitchen to myself.

There's two types of bread pudding - the heavy block one that's best eaten cold a few days after making, and this lighter one which retains some idea of the bread slices it used to be. The loaf I'm using - Crusty Premium White - has turned out to be a very light bread and I hoping it does just about have enough body to cope with being puddinged. The quantities below are enough for a 10x7 inch Le Creuset dish.
Bread and butter pudding 

4 slices of bread, buttered and quartered 
good handful of sultanas
3 eggs
1/2 pint of milk
1 tbsp white sugar
ground cinnamon
1 tbsp demerera sugar

Arrange the quartered bread slices in a shallow oven-proof dish. I far prefer to use butter than margarine for this, but either would work and it's not really worth splashing out especially on butter when the recipe uses so little. Sprinkle the sultanas over the top.

In a jug or bowl, beat the eggs together with the milk and the first tbsp of sugar. I used semi-skimmed milk, but the creamier the better for this recipe. Also, white sugar here will dissolve easier than brown. We've only got brown though and it's ok. Pour the egg/milk/sugar mixture over the bread and leave it to soak in for at least 30 minutes. Squish the bread down a bit with a fork if it's standing up too proud of the milk.

Preheat the oven to 170-180C.

Sprinkle the top of the pudding with the other tbsp of sugar and the ground cinnamon.

Place the pudding in the centre of the oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until the custard has set.

Serve hot or cold. It's lovely with proper yellow Bird's Eye custard.

Sunday 18 May 2014

New car, new job, good walk and an excellent scone

New car 
We went for our first walk together yesterday since the Via Verde at Navajas, that's eight weeks ago. So much has happened since then that it almost feels like eight months! The photo to the right is of our new car as described in Exciting Times and collected on Friday! I also heard on Friday that I was successful in my interview for a temporary contract at Wealden Council. I have a three month placement starting at the end of May which is a relief for the finances. Not working in this lovely sunshine is very relaxing but I could do with the cash! In the mean time, I've got one final week at The Move Team first.

We did a mix of an out-and-back and a loop walk on Saturday. It took just over an hour to get from our door to the turning point, The Wishing Well Tea Rooms on the Lewes Road heading out of Polegate. This was a new one for us. We've visited several local tea gardens over the years, but not made it here before. The garden is lovely, peaceful despite the traffic noise and beautifully kept. We had a lovely lunch - Brie Ploughman's for me and Chorizo & Asparagus Frittata for Dave. Both were accompanied by a crisp, fresh salad with a tasty dressing. My Ploughman's had a large wedge of good brie, but Dave was a bit disappointed that his Frittata was light on the headline ingredients. However, for dessert we had the best fruit scones, possibly ever! Deliciously light and definitely made with plenty of butter. Plus served with real clotted cream!

Our walk home took a different route, through Wilmington up to the Long Man and along the top of the Downs back towards Polegate. The hill up from the Long Man was surprisingly strenuous - I think all the good energy from the salad and the scones' sultanas was more than offset by the jam and cream. Or perhaps it was just the heat! We got there slowly but surely and were proud of ourselves for actually being out and about. Although the sky was hazy towards the horizon, we still managed to see pretty much as far as Hastings and lots of sea too.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Wholemeal Bread recipe for bread machines

Having now +eBayed my way through most of the under-stairs cupboard, I was able to dig out our bread maker today for the first time in several years. One of the things we most enjoyed about our caravan tour was getting fresh bread from local bakers, but not every campsite had the same quality of loaf so we had thought to try baking our own again once we got home. Our reasoning went that if we could make our own small loaves that would taste good and last at least a couple of days, then taking the bread maker with us would be worth the space/weight on our next expedition. We normally paid a set amount per night for electric hookup, regardless of usage, so we might as well make the most of the money spent!

There are a few recipes in the instruction leaflet for our Morphy Richards Breadmaker but I remembered when I had my bread making phase previously, these weren't great and I normally just used the machine to mix a dough, then kneaded and baked it separately - far more labour intensive! Fortunately, we kept a great little book that Mum had found for Dave: One Hundred Bread Machine Recipes by Vicki Smallwood. As well as many different loaves and breads - naan, cheese, pizza dough - the book also has recipes for hot cross buns, muffins, croissants, Dave's favourite pain au raisins, and things I've never even heard of before - lamachun, pissaladiere, grissini. Plus one Grandma often spoke of: Lardy Cake.

So there's plenty of experimentation opportunities ahead, but for today I kept it simple and made a loaf of wholemeal bread. The recipe below is pretty much as per the Granary recipe in One Hundred Bread Machine Recipes except +The Co-operative in Polegate only had wholemeal or white flour, and I substituted olive oil for the melted butter.

Fresh wholemeal bread 
1/2 cup tepid water
1/2 cup tepid milk (I used semi-skimmed)
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp olive oil
1 egg, beaten
3 1/2 cups wholemeal flour
1 sachet of dried yeast (not sure exactly how much but it's +The Co-operative own brand, 8 sachets to a box!)

Bung all the ingredients into the bread machine pan in the order stated above. Remember to put the wretched paddle on the spindle first (guess who forgot!)
I set the bread maker for a 2lb loaf with a dark crust on the wholemeal setting and left it to do its thing for 3 hours and 40 minutes. At the end, out popped the delicious bread pictured above!

OK, there is is room for improvement but overall I was happy with the result. The flavour could have done with a bit more salt. I only put in about half a teaspoon because it looked a lot, but in hindsight a whole teaspoon-full is right. Also, the bread maker has light/medium/dark crust settings and dark is very crunchy so medium would have been the better choice. The beaten egg, which I'd never seen in a bread recipe before, obviously worked though I'm not really sure how it affects the consistency. The finished loaf is quite dense but not too heavy. It's not really a sandwich loaf, but would be perfect thickly sliced with a strong goat's cheese, pickle and an apple for a country ploughman's lunch.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Cuckoo Trail walk

I had a job interview at Wealden Council yesterday and the weather was good so I thought I'd walk into Hailsham along the Cuckoo Trail. As well as being a nice walk in its own right, it's also a reason for me to try out putting maps onto this blog. I wanted to add our walking routes while we were away but couldn't figure out how. Now either +Google Maps has made its interface more user-friendly or my brain has made the leap to understanding!

Map below and 'what I saw on my walk' below that ...

If you don't already know it, the Cuckoo Trail is a 14 mile disused railway line which goes from Heathfield to Polegate and has an additional section on into Eastbourne. It is popular with walkers, cyclists and horse riders and can get quite busy, especially on sunny weekends. Today it was pretty quiet and I only saw a couple of cyclists and a smattering of dog walkers.

Mouse on the Cuckoo Trail 
As soon as I got onto the Trail proper, I saw a grey squirrel. It also saw me and shot off up a tree. I also saw a small rabbit partly hidden in undergrowth, a robin, a great tit, several blackbirds and, especially exciting, a tiny brown mouse which must have thought it was well enough hidden to be safe because it stayed just by the edge of the path long enough for me to grab my phone and take a couple of photos. I don't think it's a particularly rare mouse though! Towards the Hailsham end of the walk I heard and then saw a field of ewes with very young lambs. It felt odd seeing them now as we saw new-born lambs in Portugal towards the end of last year. My seasons are all mixed up. I also heard a weird noise that almost sounded like a cat crying. Looking up, it was another squirrel high up in a tree yelling out a warning because there was indeed a large cat prowling around. I don't think I'd ever heard a squirrel being so loud before.

I've shown the route going to +Chapter 12 Wine Bar because I got to Hailsham much more quickly than I expected so stopped in for a good pot of red tea and to gather my thoughts before the interview. +Chapter 12 Wine Bar has several book exchange shelves so I indulged in a spot of BookCrossing too. I left Tears Of The Giraffe and West Side Story so if you fancy reading either, go get 'em!

I didn't get to walk back because the heavens suddenly opened when it was time to return and I jumped on a bus instead. I think the interview went well. I was certainly happy with how I answered the questions and should hear via +Sammons by the end of this week if I have been successful. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki / The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss / The P45 Diaries by Ben Hatch

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my WorldReads from Canada

Buy the audiobook download from Audible via Amazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

I listened to the audio version of A Tale For The Time Being which is nicely read by Ruth Ozeki herself. There is an interesting few minutes after the novel finishes when she talks about the differences between the print and audio versions and I'm confident I chose the right one this time!
The novel is made up of several story strands and I found the Japanese characters fascinating. Nao and her family allows the reader to discover life in contemporary Japan, her great-uncles' letters and diary illuminate WW2 Japan, her great-great-aunt is a Buddhist nun in a temple. By contrast, the other side of the tale, Ruth and Oliver living on a Canadian island, I found irritating and, certainly in Oliver's case, pompous. He came across as a device to explain factual information the reader needed to know and Ruth as a bit of a dimwit on the receiving end of his lectures.

Ozeki explores a lot of theories, environmental and scientific, philosophical and religious. Some of these slot naturally into a story, others felt awkwardly shoehorned. Overall I thought this was a good book, unusual enough to keep my interest while walking my commutes and I'm glad to have heard it read by the author.

The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

I first read The Vesuvius Club seven years ago and it is still my favourite steampunk novel. Our hero, Lucifer Box, is wonderfully decadent and louche, his adventures as bizarre as the improbable names of his supporting cast. Allegedly set in early twentieth century London and Naples, I know other readers have criticised the writing for historical inaccuracies, but I think they've missed the point. The Vesuvius Club isn't a extensively researched historical novel, it's a fun, dark, fantasy sci-fi spy thriller or, as Mr Gatiss claims, A Bit Of Fluff. If you're into lightly depraved escapism, this is the book for you!

The P45 Diaries by Ben Hatch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk

I discovered the existence of The P45 Diaries from the author on twitter ( @BenHatch ). From publicity there, I got the impression that this would be a light, silly tale of a teenager failing to hold down a job. And this is certainly true. However, there's also a lot more to the novel as we discover why our anti-hero, Jay Golden, is quite so flippant about his future.

The P45 Diaries jumps back and forth a year in time, Jay's diary entries gradually revealing his family's helplessness as they watch his mother dying from cancer. Having lost my own mother last year from lung cancer, these passages rang uncannily true. From initially being annoyed by Jay's puerile attitude, I began to understand him and also identified a little with my own escapism recently.

I liked Ben Hatch's direct writing style and he has a great turn of phrase. His portrayal of a family struggling to stay together and of the father's sheer frustration is great. I think the contrast between Jay's professional stupidity and psychological pain is what gives the novel its poignancy. I will definitely be downloading more of Hatch's books in the future.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Monday 12 May 2014

Exciting Times!

House for sale in Polegate 
There's so much going on here at the moment that it's a good thing my work situation is pretty much non-existent. Firstly, I'm putting everything that's not tied down onto +eBay so I seem to set out on a trip to a +Post Office pretty much every day. we're lucky that there's three quite local to us and the one at Willingdon has a nice range of locally made jams - the Kiwi And Ginger is worth a try, as is the Whisky Marmalade!

Then, last Friday, we took a trip to A.C.Cars in Wych Cross with a view to replacing our beloved Berlingo. It did the best it could towing Bailey across Iberia but isn't really up to the job as far as hills are concerned. Dave's been researching extensively to find a suitable replacement and a Ford Mondeo estate looked to be the best option for us. There were two potentials at A.C.Cars - one older and cheaper and bright red, one newer with higher spec and dark blue. We've ended up going with the newer model but it was a tough decision. We go back this Friday to pick it up! (Note to self: Must replace the numberplate on the back of the caravan.)

I've saved the final part of our exciting news until last - building up to a big finish! Dave's put his house on the market. We weren't keen to repeat leaving it empty for a second winter away, primarily because it's not really fair on the people who kindly kept visiting to make sure it was OK. Plus Dave's been here now for the longest he's been anywhere so quite likes the idea of a change of scene. I just want to get back to the travelling life! We have gone with a local estate agent, Archers, (Keep It Local!) and the 'particulars' went online today. +Zoopla could only have had the details for a couple of hours when Archers called to say they already had someone wanting to view! How amazing is that! Dave's already shown the first people round, on the very first day. You can see our House For Sale in Polegate by clicking HERE.

I hope we don't have to move out too soon though. Some of my eBay auctions don't close until next week!

Wednesday 7 May 2014

What a tiny telly

There was something akin to disaster here yesterday evening when, as Dave pressed the buttons on the remote, absolutely nothing happened with our TV. Nothing! Nada! Nichts!

Our lovely Sony telly has died - after only five years - and we couldn't watch Jools. Fortunately that's all we wanted to see and the bands will be on again on Friday so we weren't too distraught! We put the iPod on instead and listened to my still-new +Kris Delmhorst album, Blood Test (official launch next week, make sure you get your own copy, great album!). Having not missed TV for five months over the winter, I was surprised how easily we got back into the habit as soon as we were home again. Also, thinking about long-term caravanning, Dave wants a proper TV rather than a laptop for watching DVDs and he's right that the picture quality on a laptop is rubbish unless you're sitting at exactly the right angle. So we started looking at small TVs on the +Currys PC World website.

The major limiting factor is the width of the 'window' at the end of the bed in Bailey. If the TV is too wide, we'll lose the edges of the picture. We had planned to visit Bailey last weekend and measuring the aperture was one of the tasks on our list. However events overtook and we didn't get there, so I tried asking on the +CaravanTalk forums instead. A fellow caravanner answered to say they didn't know, but have a 19 inch Sony comfortably in their Orion. Dave would prefer a 22 inch.

I couldn't find any information online so rang the Bailey Caravans parts line this morning. The guy who answered was very helpful and for anyone else who wants to know, the window is 493mm wide by 485mm high. Back to the internet and of the two possibles, we decided on the Logik L22FED13 TV with DVD Player. It's 516mm wide but most of the overlap is the bezel so we should be able to see all the screen.

One quick trip to Currys later and we have our new TV. We've set it up at home for now and it seems so cute and tiny compared to the Sony. As everyone else is going up in size, we are going down! The Logik has good picture quality though and having a built-in DVD player means fewer black boxes too! I guess we'll be eBaying/Freegling the DVD player soon. 

And on that note, I'm still eBaying with a vengeance. This house will be empty soon! There's a widget at the end of the page with my current auctions. Do you need a huge beanbag chair? A wok for an induction hob? The mini candle chiminea pictured above?

Saturday 3 May 2014

Topping off a wonderful week

Birthday flowers 
It's my birthday today! Happy Birthday Me!

Dave and I spent a fantastical afternoon at the Matthew Bourne ballet, Swan Lake, at the New Wimbledon Theatre today. My sister kindly splashed out and has had the tickets since last summer! They were a bit faded but we all got in OK. The storyline is substantially different to the classical Swan Lake so I was quite baffled much of the time but the dancing was wonderful. The costumes and sets were amazing too. This is the second Matthew Bourne ballet we've seen in Wimbledon because we made the journey to see Sleeping Beauty last year too. I love the style of his work. Perhaps I would say that Sleeping Beauty was the stronger of the two ballets, but there's no way I'd take back this afternoon's performance.

It had already been a busy week for culture already and I'm well and truly shattered now! Good thing it's a Bank Holiday weekend. Monday evening we went to +Cineworld Cinemas in Eastbourne for the +Royal Opera House ballet The Winter's Tale. Created by the same choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, and composer, Joby Talbot, as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, we already had high expectations before the broadcast began, but I believe they were thoroughly surpassed. The dancing! The sets! The costumes! And OMG the music! The Winter's Tale is now my favourite ballet!

Tuesday saw us at +Eastbourne Theatres where I had won two tickets to Creative Cow's production of She Stoops To Conquer, a fun restoration comedy. It was low-key compared to the previous night, but none the worse for that and I loved the inventive use of large gilt picture frames throughout the play. The plot is entertainingly silly and all the actors played their roles with great enthusiasm and flair.

Then on Thursday evening we trooped back to +Cineworld Cinemas for more Shakespeare, this time the +National Theatre Live production of King Lear starring Simon Russell Beale who we last saw as a phenomenal Timon Of Athens. His Lear was to the same skyscraping standard and we both feel very lucky to have been able to see him. I hadn't seen King Lear before and so didn't realise quite how bloody a play it would be. A couple of the violent effects were so realistic that they made me queasy. The long run time flashed past though and it certainly didn't seem as though we were in the cinema for well over three hours. 

So that's that. Three late nights and a trip to London, all in six days. I think I'll have a couple of days quiet reading now, to recover!