Archive for September, 2009

I’ve been back at work for three hours.  I think that’s enough, really, don’t you?

It’s such a rude re-introduction to the real world.  Hulking black PCs, lists and lists of menial tasks.  I can’t see the surface of my desk for the piles of shit on it.  Mostly it feels like an interruption of happy routine.  I like being able to read at midday, work on my book after lunch, write a blog post whenever I feel like it (so I’m writing this now just to spite the working world).

The funny thing about a really good holiday is the depression that sets in after.  This morning I threatened to avoid it altogether by nearly sleeping through all my alarms.  Now I’m staring with some chagrin at the huge map of Oxford across from my desk, thinking I probably should have slept through all my alarms, and thinking also that I’m nostalgic for something which is barely over.  The freedom.  The blue skies.  The delicious meals.  The cider.

On a more positive note, I’ve returned from holiday feeling spiritually refreshed (please contain your derisive snorts), and oddly empowered.  I have this niggling sense that I am, after all, in control of my future, and if I don’t want that future to necessarily include being paid to stare at a wall and occasionally file things, I may actually be able to do something about it.  It’s a good start, anyway, and until we can all move to a commune off the East Devon coast and sustain ourselves on creative endeavors and home-grown vegetables, it gives me incentive to keep going.

The other nice thing about coming back from a vacation is the lingering effect of “tourist eyes”.  When you go away–even if it’s just a few hours south of your usual haunt–your vision (both literally and metaphorically) is temporarily altered, and there’s a precious period of a few days after your return when you haven’t quite readjusted and you’re still seeing things in a holiday-way.  So I’m enjoying wandering through Oxford.  I’d forgotten quite how much I take it for granted.  Xander and I even dipped into the Natural History Museum on Saturday–just because we could–and spent a blissful half hour feeling like 19th century explorers.  (There is something, we find, irrevocably Victorian about a Natural History Museum).  We just don’t get that in our natural state of being.  It takes a trip–a big one, a small one, a physical one, an emotional or mental one–to make us remember our surroundings.


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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part five.  Ish.  The River Cottage Autumn Fair is over, but our adventures in Devon (and occasionally Dorset) continue…

Wednesday—Seaton & Beer

Sleepy doesn’t even begin to describe the town of Seaton.  It’s comatose.  And, like Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes, it’s woken up in an alternate-reality version of 1981.  A fact eerily alluded to in the handwritten “RIP Seaton” signs plastered about town.  There are shops selling antique tat, shops selling general tat, shops selling general tat and also some old records, a Costcutter and a Boots.  There are a few pubs, letters missing from their signs.  There are more fish and chip restaurants than anything else.  The colours are garish and the lettering almost universally ugly.

We decide the only thing to do be done is to have fish and chips in the wind on the beach, so we head to the seafront.  At “Frydays” (which advertises, as well as its various awards, that it’s on Google maps), we order cod and chips and then wait, watching the diners slowly finishing lunch.  We are the youngest people in the room by at least 50 years, and everyone appears to have ordered the exact same thing: cod and chips.


We take our boxes down to the edge of the water, nesting amongst the rocks with our backs against a concrete wall.  The beach is open and bland; the sea, pale and windswept, is beautiful, and a few swimmers bob near the shore.  My fish drips with grease and the mushy peas are especially mushy (pre-masticated, perhaps, for the benefit of the toothless senior citizens).  Vinegar, mayonnaise, the smell of sea salt in the air and the heat of the sun on our faces.  Surely this is a quintessential English experience.  After, we lie back exhausted on the stony beach, as if it’s been a great effort just to consume so much fat.  I wash my hands in the sea.  Our minds are heavy with sleep and our hearts drooping with a strange kind of sorrow for this dying town, and its dying population.  To the left and right, nothing but a stony beach; and handsome cliffs glinting in the sunlight, and a green-and-blue ocean full of fish but peaceful to the naked eye.

We make our way back to the car via a few shops.  One sells jewelery, old tables and chairs, fossils, used postcards, model cars, glass bottles.  I buy an edition of Browning’s poetry, English Essays, a volume of Modern English Usage from 1926.  Ben finds a book entirely devoted to the Dewey Decimal System, which once, a stamp inside informs us, belonged to the Sexey Boys’ School.  Then we move on to the record shop–“Soundbytes”–which also sells cassettes, video tapes, DVDs, and an odd assortment of useless objects (statuettes, old beer mats).  I wonder aloud if it’s coincidence that all the shops also sell wooden canes outside.

We don’t hold out much hope for Beer.  Surely the novelty of the town will merely be in the name–but we feel we must go, anyhow, so that we can make all the requisite puns, so that we can say to our friends when we return that we had a beer in Beer, ha ha ha, so that we can laugh at all the signs (“Beer Social Club” etc).

Surprising, then, that Beer turns out to be lovely, a handsome village tucked into a hillside, with a steep ramp leading down to a beach teeming with fishermen and boats.  We buy two fresh plaice and spend a few minutes making plaice jokes (“looks like we’ll need plaice mats tonight,” I say).  We watch a pair of fishermen lug a dead conger eel the size of a sumo wrestler from their boat.  They dump it in a bucket, where its milky flesh is still apparent, and carry the bucket (struggling with the weight) down the beach, to an apparently random spot, where they dump the eel out and, watched by a gaggle of curious children, begin to gut the thing.


We have a few beers in a garden overlooking the sea, and remember our awkward youths.  We were uncomfortable, geeky kids: black painted nails, Doc Martens, computer games.  I recall with some chagrin a photograph of my 14-year-old self, in fishnet tights and dyed-maroon hair, staring seriously into the camera on the Fourth of July.

The sun sets slowly over Beer; we make a few more plaice puns.  How far we’ve come, I think, half-ironically.  How far we’ve come.

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Strolling the busy streets of Musbury.  Ben looking tipsy and Xander looking authoritative.  Neither was either.


Did I mention the band that opened for Ben was called “Itchy and Scratchy”?


Ben Walker vs. the River Cottage Chickens


A real, live, authentic River Cottage Chicken.




The man himself, Mr. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.


Down time with Xander and Ben.


He was a big hit with the kids.


Oh you know.  Just hanging out.


This handsome fennel-seed salami caused Ben a great deal of distress, and Xander and me a great deal of amusement.


Heading back to the cabin.


We’ve seen some fairly spectacular sunsets.

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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part four.  Ish.  The River Cottage Autumn Fair is over, but our adventures in Devon (and occasionally Dorset) continue…

Monday—Lyme Regis

On our stroll towards the Cobb we pass no fewer than seven old ladies doing the crossword.  Their husbands take naps under enormous straw hats.  Mostly they are all still in their cars, parked mysteriously close to the beach, doors open like an obstacle course.

Amongst the middle aged women, there seems to be an unwritten dress code: striped shirt, white linen trousers.  The men wear stiff nylon shorts and sandals and waddle, as if uncomfortable with the idea of dressing for leisure.  We are quite possibly the only people between the ages of 20 and 35 here.  The teenagers suckle on melted ice creams and try to look as cool as they can (skinny jeans, jaded jawlines) in the wake of their embarrassing families; the toddlers toddle, the babies yelp, the kids patiently hold hookfuls of rainbow-coloured fish up so their mums can take a photograph.

On the Cobb, Xander and I stroll arm-in-arm like a Victorian couple along the uneven stone while Ben takes a nap on a memorial bench.  The boats have names like Bilbo Baggins (which is a big hit with the crowds, who walk past it and laugh the name of the hobbit again and again) or Charlotte Claire.  The wind gives us both a flushed-cheeked, messy-haired look that Jack Wills models everywhere would envy.


We lunch at the delicious Town Mill Bakery, where coffee and free WiFi sucks us in and we overhear a University-bound boy, his voice thick with an exotic cold, recount his gap-year adventures to the eager waitress.  A bit later, I take a stroll round the town, wander into a bookshop.  As I’m flipping through Scouts in Bondage, a man rushes in, demanding to know where he might find books by Wilfred Owen.

The woman behind the counter, sleek-haired and elegantly composed over a book of her own, looks up.  “Sorry?” she says.

“Owen, Wilfred Owen,” the man says.  The mission sounds urgent.

“That would be in the poetry section,” she tells him.  He looks helpless, so she gets up and leads him to a corner in the room, shifts aside a few boxes and some sort of wooden tribal mask obfuscating the “J-P” section of the shelf.  Meanwhile, I giggle over Willie’s Great Adventure.


We go hunting for fossils.  Past the endless stream of caravan parks in Charmouth, we reach a rocky section of the Jurassic Coast renowned, Xander tells us, for its fossils.  They’re as common as pebbles, he says.  We’ll be stumbling over them.

But we don’t stumble over any.  We sift through the rocks; Xander scrapes them with his feet and sometimes picks up a likely candidate and splits it open against another rock, then sadly discards both halves.  A man in a wool hat with a pipe protruding from his mouth examines the face of the cliff with great interest, but makes no motion to touch it, and stays still for so long I wonder if he is actually a lifelike statue erected to commemorate the thousands of visitors who have peered at things here.  I find what might be Fool’s Gold, what might be a tiny ammonite, and a smooth amber-coloured rock that feels good in the palm of my hand.  Ben finds a grey stone which is most definitely not a fossil and then sits cross-legged in the middle of the beach.  Xander points out various impressions—this one looks like a fern, he says—and, with his particularly luxuriant beard, reminds me of a 19th century naturalist in 21st century clothing.


Back in the car park, our attention is arrested by a tiny shop selling vintage clothing of a certain flamboyant variety.  Ben tries on a glittery silver jacket, too short in the arms, to the great delight of the old ladies behind the counter, who titter and cackle as he dances to “At the Hop”.

Then we get back into the car and head to Whitchurch Canonicorum*.

*I could not possibly have made any of this up; but I especially could not have made the name “Whitchurch Canonicorum” up.

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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part three.


10.05            In the car.  My legs encased in heavy denier black stockings.  I say, “like sausages”; Xander says, “not like sausages.”  Again the day cannot decide if it’s hot or cold, and I will, as the hours pass, often remove and then replace these heavy denier black stockings.

10.39            Xander consumes an enormous, delicious, dripping bacon-and-egg bap.  I salivate and steal bites, and feel my own breakfast of sugary cereal to have been woefully inadequate.


11.07            Hugh rolls through the fair in his red truck, closely followed by that chip-shop smell which inevitably says, “I’m saving the world.”  Hi Ben, he says.  Hi Hugh, Ben says, mid-song.  Everybody watches him glide down the hill, and then the toddlers re-commence their dancing, the babies their smiling and shouting, the adults their various whiling-away-the-hours-till-cider-time activities.  The more hardcore, of course, already have a pint in hand.

12.56            A spider-bite.  An idle thought of serpents and adders.  A bluebottle on my blue dress.  I read British Poetry Sine 1945, my legs gathering warmth from the sun.  Half-seen smiles unmet like mist/maybe the touch of a hand/resembles dew.  The hungry insects have turned a leaf to lace.  Thin mums with McClaren prams promenade back and forth on the grass and girls bare their shoulders, their skinny bra straps showing, and children swing their hips to the music.  A brother and sister wrestle in a pool of shade.  If they were any older it would be inappropriate.

13.41            I hum to myself.  Is singing merely an act of vanity?  Well, if it is, then long live vanity!  I also sit in a field above the festival site.  It’s part of the extended nature walk; this is clever of them (that magic “them” who organized it all), for there is nothing one needs more at a festival, even a pleasant and tame one like this, than the chance, occasionally, to escape from the masses and lie in an open meadow with no one else about.


13.52            I return to the festival site.  Xander and I share a scone, with jam and cream.  God bless strawberry jam and all the different varieties…A wasp tries to commit suicide in the jam, but fails and flies away.

14.15            We watch the ferret races.  Which really means this: we watch one ferret make its lazy way to the end of a very short course while the other two sniff around at the starting gate and refuse to move.

15.19            A nap in the grass.  Sun, wind, and the occasional smell of sulfur, which I later learn is actually sewage being filtered through nearby reeds.

17.02            They’re taking down the festival now.

17.08            A twelve-year-old girl wearing muddy white socks tells Ben he smells, and can I borrow your guitar?  Her friend takes Ben’s business card.  “Why do you hate mornings?” she wants to know.  We can’t think of a decent answer, though “Em’s homemade cider” comes to mind.


18.33            In Axminster and environs, we come across no fewer than six banks and no open shops.  One restaurant also sells DVDs; it’s called Route 66: True American Spirit.  We see almost no one else about, and the shelves of the petrol station we dip into are bare.  The Chinese takeout gives off a sickly glow and the pubs with their heavy lidded eyes yawn, dispel a lonely customer, take an even lonelier one in.  Ah, these half-dead English towns.

18.49            We stop for a pair of very fat turkeys, who cross the lane at a pace somewhere between glacial and leisurely.  Through a gap in the hedge I see a rope swing, a rusty fence.  We pass a blacksmith’s cabin.  I stare at the pink of my own fingers as they squeeze the pen and concentrate.

18.51             Now a horseback rider on her phone passes us by.  (I mean that she is both on her phone and on her horse).  And the hedges open up to reveal a sky ripe for stars.  I feel the cardboard blue of my notebook under my thumb.


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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part two.


I wake and sit on the swing in the garden.  Apples drop from branches behind me, and there is a curious braying in the distance, like children or cows.  Then, gradually, the sound of hooves, and a bugle.  The hunt glides past.  Over the hedge we see bowler hats.  We hear a man shouting “Wendy!  Wendy!  Come HERE, Wendy!”  Is Wendy his wife or his hound, we wonder?  Ultimately we decide that Wendy is probably the name of both his wife and his hound.

We set off for the Autumn Fair with two guitars and me in the back seat.  The day is still deciding how Autumnal it wants to be—is it enjoying the crispness of the wind, or does it feel already nostalgic for summer’s gentle breath?—so I wear a jumper and a sunhat.  We park in a field and take the Nature Walk down to the festival site.  Nature is thin on the ground (trees, trampled DSC03182grass) but the views are spectacular, and it’s like descending into an enchanted valley.  I expect fairies with little sparkly wings to greet us at the gate.  Devon, we sing.  I’m in De-von…

Instead of fairies we’re greeted by a cider tent and a queue about six miles long.  We join the queue, which doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, and, more interestingly, doesn’t appear to have any purpose (my instinct, as always, is to see if I can ignore the queue, but I’m flanked today by two well-bred English men, so I have no choice).  From our vantage point halfway up a hill, we can see that the line of humans simply peters out somewhere near the stage.

“What are we queuing for?” someone deigns to ask.

“I don’t know,” someone else says cheerily.  And that’s the end of the conversation.  Nobody moves.  We stand for some time, feet planted in the field, eyes squinting in the sunshine (definitely still summer, the day has decided).  It isn’t entirely unpleasant—just a little odd.

Presently we decide we’ve queued pointlessly for long enough, so we stroll down into the festival site.  And it’s like, as Ben has subsequently written, “the best Village Féte ever” (I’m using my imagination here—I’ve never been to a Village Féte, but it would be hard to imagine a better one than the River Cottage Autumn Fair).  At the centre of everything is a red-and-white striped tea tent, with cream teas and complimentary cordial.  People are already sucking on their cups of cider, and infants are doing that amazing things infants do which is constantly moving.  One particularly excited little girl simply runs around in circles like a puppy chasing her own tail.

(The queue, it turns out, is a premature book-signing line; a handwritten notice at the end of it promises that Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall himself will soon make an appearance.)

My attention is arrested by the “Border Collie and Duck Display” near the tea tent; we stand and watch for awhile as a lithe young border collie attempts to guide a gaggle of very upright black ducks into a wooden cage.

We join another queue for lunch (this is the great English pastime!).  This one actually does have a purpose, but it moves just as slowly as if it didn’t.  “No, you can’t just push to the front darling…” one mother is overheard telling her infant.  “…we’re British.”

DSC03205After Itchy and Scratchy, a two-man band, finish their set, Ben plays “Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall” to Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall himself, who spends at least an hour meticulously signing cookbooks and never looks weary of it.  Ben is a particularly big hit with the children, who form a group at the base of the stage and run around in more circles.  One girl, aged four, or maybe five, stands and simply gyrates her hips like some sort of zombie-R&B music video backup dancer.  “It gets increasingly sexual, doesn’t it?” her mother says to me, half nervous, half drunk with giggles.

We make the mistake of indulging in ‘Em’s Homemade Cider’, and half a pint down, we’re living in a hazy world.  Ben sings “We are the village green preservation societyGod save Donald duck, vaudeville and variety”. God save Indian summers and strong cider, too; and the salted snack salamis from the food tent, and the couple, beaming with sunburn and cider, who dance to every song.  Ben plays “Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall” again, and the crowd, loosened a little by Em’s cider, is persuaded to shout Hugh’s name during the chorus.

After the gates shut we linger for awhile on the grass, finishing our pints and trying to get the football scores from a wind-up radio.  Xander helps James the Butcher shift heavy boxes of meat, and we unpack the Sunday delivery of local Stinger Ale for the tea tent.  It is green and peaceful here, with the sun hovering over the fields and the smell of manure, fresh cut grass, beer, untainted air.DSC03244

Later, we stroll down the hill into Musbury for dinner.  We eat dry fish and chips in the pub and read the local paper, which is full of headlines like “Nymphos’ float built in just a week!” and “Nutters clean up!”  On the walk back, the sky is black and the wind rustles the hedges and invisible bats swoop over our heads.

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A River Cottage Adventure

Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part one.


DSC03087Past Stonehenge, into Wiltshire, then Devon.  If Withnail and I had headed south, with slightly less booze, and a girl in the back seat, and two guitars, and several laptops, maybe this is what it would have looked like.  Unlike the unlucky film duo, we get sunshine all the way; it’s slow going near the strange standing stones but otherwise we make good time and by late afternoon we’ve started to move through villages with funny names.  “When you get out of Sea, make a left”; “when we get out of what?” “Sea–”; “oh, look, Lower Sea fields”.  We decide we’re lucky not to live in Chard, which is as bland as its vegetable equivalent, though the sunlight renders it almost poignant.  We pass car dealerships and pubs, a petrol station simply called “POWER”, a street called “The Street”.

Then Musbury.  I express disappointment that it is not spelled with a “z”; wouldn’t it be funnier, I say, if it were?  Maybe.  Past the Golden Hind we turn up into the hills, onto a single-track road lined with hedges and gates.  We’re met by Jo, wearing shorts and stockings, who tells us she’s celebrating 35 years of marriage tonight and shows us how to turn the hot water on.  A sign near the toilet warns us not to dye our hair, or bleach it, or to smoke, or flush anything untoward down the loo, or to deep-fat fry things.  She goes out into the garden, to take down some of the DSC03094laundry, and brings us a handful of blackberries.  Her husband of 35 years gives us a bag of homegrown tomatoes.  Have a nice time, they say.

We buy pasta and red wine at the village shop, which is also a post office, and then that honing device buried within the heart of every British male switches on and we’re heading towards the pub.  How do you know the pub is that way? I want to know.  It just is, you both say.

And it is.  Inside is 1956, minus the fog of cigarette smoke, and the bartender expresses mild and genial surprise at seeing three young people enter; more surprise still that the woman is the one to order and pay for the drinks.  We sit outside in the sun watching the pub sign swing on an evening wind.  “It’s Slumdog Millionaire tomorrow!” one of the patrons declares, and we all want to say, but, no, that’s a modern film, and you can’t possibly exist in the modern world.  The funny thing about the modern world, of course, is that they do, and so do we.

DSC03102We head back towards the car, following a man walking a dog, passing a cat lying in a lane, watching with intense concentration what appears to be an enormous pile of horse shit.  We take a photo of the cat watching the horse shit.

We drive up to River Cottage.  Well, we drive past the shop-post office, where the man with his dog is chatting to a thick-ankled old lady with a fluff of white hair and an Italian style housedress.

“Do you know the way to River Cottage?” we ask.  They ponder.

“Wot, the one in Dorset?” they say, as if naming some faraway city, like Kathmandu, foreign on the tongue.  We shrug, and name a street.  The man shakes his head—this is out of his realm of expertise, he seems to say, why, he’s only programmed to make it to the pub and back—but something clicks in the mind of the old lady, who has years of experience on him and perhaps in some distant and dusty memory took a train journey through the countryside.  With a lover, perhaps.  In 1956.  Escaping the pub, the village shop, the milk deliveries and the cider making.

“I think it’s up thataway somewhere,” she says, so we go thataway, and thirty seconds later we reach the street, and two minutes after that we reach River Cottage, and down there in the village, we think, is a man with a dog who thinks we’re somewhere in the depths of Dorset, a million miles away.

We’re looking for a girl called Cat, we say to a pair of men constructing what appears to be a small trebouchet (it may not actually be a trebouchet).  It may as well be the circus—canvas tents, a red-and-white striped dome, a gaggle of rusty tractors, a gypsy caravan.  They say they haven’t seen her, and go back to building their trebuchet, so we wander down past the pumpkin patch and the chicken coop and find a woman hanging scarves at a booth.  Have you seen Cat? we ask.  No, she says, but have you?  I’m looking for her, too.

We don’t see Cat, but we do see a white cat, which has followed us down and now weaves hungrily between our legs.  Are you Cat? we joke, and the cat, offended, scampers off into the trees.  We pass a painted sign saying “Butchery Boy Wanted.  Apply Here At 15:30!”  We find Cat behind the clay ovens, erecting a tent near the knitting and jam-making yurt.  She looks flushed and excited.  Have a look around, she says.  So we go and watch some chickens.  Then we stay for a long time, photographing the sunset and smelling the opposite of city.DSC03108

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