Sunday, 28 November 2021

A Patch in the Forest by Elisabeth West (2001)



I bought this book years ago, but it is now out of print and second hand copies sell for 50 to 60 Euro's. The book has a few illustrations and no maps.

When Elizabeth West finished Garden in the Hills  she and Alan were preparing to leave their Hovel in the Hills because there was no way they could make a living there. Also they found that new roads and increased traffic meant they could no longer live there in peace. "We promised ourselves that one day, as soon as we were entitled to a state old-age pension, we would find another patch of land in a wild and lonely place and make another garden." In the early 90's, when they are both receiving pensions, the time has come to find a new place to live.

"Now that the time to make our plans had arrived we found that the passing years had modified our ideas. With old age ahead we didn't want our patch to be wild and lonely, nor did we reckon on coping with more than an acre of land. A place on the outskirts of a village or hamlet would be ideal - preferably on a no-through road and within a half-mile walk of a post office and bus service". After an 18 month search they buy a small house in the Forest of Dean. It has a garden with an enormous oak tree in it.


In 1993 they move in. The house was built in the early 1960's. Everywhere they look they find "workmanship of such incompetence that we almost begin to suspect malicious intent." So Alan does a lot of repairs. They create a kitchen and "back kitchen", remove some of the 24 doors, and rip out all the complicated water pipes and central heating, and "start again". They install an Aga in the kitchen, have an open fire in the living room and use electric heaters, when needed, in other rooms. They are allowed to gather brushwood in the forest and also buy locally dug coal.

The garden is about half an acre (on a slope). It does not get much direct sunlight, suffers from mists and frost and has bad soil (clay mixed with rubbish to level the site). Nevertheless they manage to create a beautiful garden there.  Their aim is to attract as much wildlife as possible. Part of the garden they leave "rough", part is a meadow (mown 3 or 4 times a year), there is a vegetable garden and a pond close to the house, with the rest of the garden given over to "flowers, shrubs and interesting plants." Strangely enough these include Japanese knotweed: "which we like, in spite of what the experts say." (Japanese knotweed is considered to be one of the most invasive species, which can displace many native plants).

Elizabeth describes all the vegetables they grow, stressing "this is how we do it and not suggesting how you should." They can be largely self-sufficient for most of the summer and autumn, but in winter they need the greengrocer. They grow (and dry) a lot of herbs, eat some weeds (like dandelion and chickweed), gather mushrooms and nuts.

Elizabeth and Alan clearly revel in living close to nature as becomes clear in the chapters on their observations of and encounters with birds, butterflies and other animals of the forest.

"Looking out for the birds that visit the garden is, of course, a non-stop activity in this household. We chat to them if they approach us and we mutter greetings if they are about their business in the hedge. If they are flying across the sky or soaring overhead we watch in silent admiration. This looking-out-for-the-birds activity continues even when the weather keeps us indoors, which means we spend a lot of time gazing from the windows."

"Our concern that butterflies should have food and appropiate facilities to carry out their complicated life cycles means that flowers are left to bloom for as long as they are useful and that plenty of rough grass, nettles and bramble thickets are available. We have noticed that chives are usually the earliest vegetable plants to bloom and they are very attractive to bees and butterlies. If we want to have plenty of chive leaves to eat we should really trim off the flower stalks, but we don't. The only answer is to have more chives."

Animals in the forest around them include deer, badgers, adders and squirrels. Elizabeth writes of the plans to introduce pine martens (a natural enemy to the grey squirrel) to the Forest, fearing it will mean a diminishing bird population (note: in 2019 18 pine martens were released in the Forest of Dean). Bats, frogs, toads and hedgehogs visit their garden.

"This invitation to our garden does not extend to that most ubiquitous Forest of Dean animal, the wandering sheep. " (...) "The men who own these sheep belong to a Commoner's Association through which they defend their rights to run sheep in the forest." Attempts to regulate grazing by sheep are not very successful (this still seems to be an issue today).

Elizabeth and Alan don't get many visitors, nor do they go away often. "Having spent most of our working lives engaged in various forms of humble employment (in between periods of unemployment) the need to earn a living had always occupied a lot of our time, thoughts and energies. But we no longer have to work for money, and the sense of freedom in exhilarating." They enjoy their own company, spending time in the garden, listening to music and reading. Elizabeth has become a fan of the bands and choirs in the Forest. And of course they often go for walks.

This book is a must for everyone who has enjoyed Hovel in the Hills and Garden in the Hills. Here's hoping Logastan Press will reprint!

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich (1942)

Who can resist a book with a cover like this?

Louise Dickinson Rich took to the woods during the 1930’s and wrote this book to answer the many questions her friends were always asking her.
During most of my adolescence  (…) I said, when asked what I was going to do with my life, that I was going to live alone in a cabin in the Maine woods and write.
She did end up in a cabin in Maine (though not on her own), but completely by accident: on a canoeing trip she met Ralph Rich who had recently moved  there.  Shortly after they were married. And so she moved to the Northwestern-most corner of Maine (with a resident population of about a dozen) where there are few roads and where the lakes are the main thoroughfares. This means that every autumn and spring they are cut off from the rest of the world for a few weeks. During the „fall freeze up” the ice is not yet strong enough to walk or drive on, during the „spring break up” the ice is too thin but boats can’t be used yet. During winter the place is hard to reach too, so all in all, except for summer when the visitors come, they live pretty isolated lives. And that's how Louise likes it. "Emily Dickinson once said of a little niece who had been shut up in a closet as punishment, and was discovered there hours later, perfectly composed and happy, "But no one could ever punish a Dickinson by shutting her up alone!" That applied to Emily herself. And it applies to this obscure Dickinson. It applies to my ability to be contented here, away from the world, and to the truth underlying Ralph's and my relationship: that being with Ralph is just exactly as good as being alone. Now that's written, it looks terrible; and I meant it to be the nicest thing I could say!




Like Helen Hoover, Louise has a Winter and a Summer House, plus various sheds and an outhouse, as there is no plumbing. Gerrish, the „hired help” works for them, he has his own house.
I would imagine that Louise writes the way she talks, so explaining what it is like to live in the woods means lots of stories: on being an official Maine Guide (Ralph), how Louise disliked school, on deer hunting, on searching for deer hunters lost in the woods, cutting ice, visiting lumberjacks, fire wardens and the annual log drive. Early in the book Louise mentions that Ralph had sold some patent rights before he came to live at Forest Lodge, so I assume he had some kind of income. Apart from that they make a living doing all kinds of work: transporting people and goods, taking in boarders, repairing the road, cooking, knitting, car trading (Ralph’s speciality) and writing.
Louise relishes living where she does and does not miss „outside”. She especially does not miss having to bother about clothes and gives us a list of her wardrobe:


I was interested in the prices Louise mentions:  adjusted for inflation, $1.00 in 1942 is equal to $16.80 in 2021.


As we learned from Helen Hoover’s book living in the woods is hard work, and the line between work and spare time is blurred. There is always something to do, like tending the vegetable garden, painting the boats or tapping trees for maple syrup. From November to January they cut wood (after the leaves fall, before the snow gets too deep). Then there is the problem of having enough supplies, as they never know when the "freeze up" will be. Every once in a while they are caught out and Louise will have to make something out of almost nothing in her kitchen.
Unlike the Hoovers Louise and Ralph seem to be completely at ease with and accepted by the people around them. They don’t believe in making wild animals pets, nor do they feed them in winter like the Hoovers did. Only one animal becomes their pet, by accident : ons day Ralph brings home an orphaned baby skunk. This animal becomes an unlikely but much loved pet named Rollo. Rollo is "raised" by Cookie, their dog, who had puppies at the time. When Rollo becomes angry he stamps his feet, but he only once makes a smell when he thinks the cat is stealing his food (the cat escapes and never returns).

The one thing that frightens them is the danger of a forest fire. They know exactly what they will take and where they will go if they have to evacuate. They are never sick („ we are living in a sort of reverse quarantine, which the germs locked out instead of in”). This is just as well, as they have no easy access to a doctor or a hospital. And just as well that baby Rufus arrives without incident. Louise, who had planned to go to hospital to have her baby, gives birth a few weeks early.  Her son Rufus was born with only Ralph in attendance on the 18th of December at 2.55 a.m. with the thermometer down to 10° F above zero (minus 12° C). To make things worse they were still in the (hard to heat) Summer House, Ralph having planned to move things to the Winter House while Louise was in hospital
I can see him now, with a wool cap pulled over his ears, his mackinaw collar turned up to meet it, and his mittens on, reading by lantern light a little book called „If Baby Comes Ahead of Doctor”. Perspiration was running down his face. You see, he knew the doctor couldn’t possibly get there for ten hours or more.” To quell Ralph’s nerves she gives him things to do, like heat lots of water (though she had no idea what for). Then he heats up a blanket and places it in the laundry basket. „ When he came back, five minutes later, he was a father”. 


We Took to the Woods is one of my favourites, not least because of the wonderful map. Sometimes Louise is a little long-winded. It made me wonder is any editor was involved or if the manuscript was just excepted as it was. Then again, it makes you feel Louise is just chatting to you. 

Louise went on to write many more books. I have ordered her biography and I will return to her in future posts.

Monday, 4 October 2021

Along Came a Llama by Ruth Janette Ruck (1978)

Re-reading Along Came a Llama, I came across a passage in particular in this book that I liked, and it has nothing to do with llama's. I recently came across a new Dutch word coined by a writer : "eetlezen", literally "eat-reading", i.e. reading while you eat, which is one of my favourite passtimes.  Ruth and her family like it too:

"Reading was our main relaxation, hobby and perhaps vice. Paul, Beenie and I would read our way through most meals with our books balanced against the Golden Syrup or milk jug. Of course we did not read when we had visitors or at Saturday and Sunday dinner when the children were at home, or indeed in the school holidays. We felt that we should be setting such an appalling example and anyway, with five of us reading at the table, somebody's book or magazine would be sure to find it's way into the butter or the gravy. We confined our reading at meals to the times when there were just the three of us. There wasn't much point in keeping mealtimes for conversation. Mostly we had been working together all day and had had plenty of opportunity to say all we wanted to say."

I do like this. Sunday evening is my "eat-read" night as H. watches Studio Sport (Dutch equivalent of Match of the Day) and I read.

Anyway, llama's!

This is Ruth Janette Ruck's third and final book. Although there is a sad beginning there is plenty to smile at in this book. In the 1960's Ruth and her husband Paul move to the cottage of Ty Mawr, a few hundred yards from Carneddi, where her parents and sister Mary (who is very ill) live. In 1966 their daughter Ann is born, followed by a son, John, in 1968. Soon after, Ruth is diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis.  "Soon I decided that it was better to do something useful and feel ill than to nothing and still feel ill. Then, mercifully, I became much better and most of the sight returned to the affected eye (she had become blind in one eye). It was the beginning of a remission that lasted for a couple of years. There were to be other exacerbations but I did my best not to let them affect our lives and we all carried on as well as we could". Little mention is made of MS in the rest of the book.

Paul's sister Jean, known as Beenie, comes to live with them and proves to be a big help. During a short holiday the family visit Knaresborough Zoo, where they get to know a group of llamas.

As a child, Ruth wrote in her notebook "I want a llama" and she suddenly has the feeling that they will have one on their farm.  After her father dies suddenly,  her mother offers to pay for a llama, feeling they need something new and exciting to distract their minds from their father's death and Mary's illness. After another visit to the zoo the deal is struck and some time later 5 month old Annie, as she is called then, arrives in Wales.

Annie is renamed Ñusta, but often nicknamed The Um, after the noise she makes. She needs some time to settle in. ". . . she was curious about the room and inspected its contents, moving very carefully so as to do no damage. The inspection over, Ñusta moved to the hearth rug and then, as though taking her cue from us, she positioned her feet close together and sat down. She sat calmly and with dignity, like an invited guest - as indeed she was. (...) We were amazed by the extreme domestication of our beautiful animal, and her delicacy, cleanliness and good manners. We felt we had an aristocrat in the family."

In 1975 Ruth's sister Mary, who had been ill so long, dies. "Now my mother demonstrated to us that life must go on whatever sorrows there were. She set to work to rehabilitate her garden which had long been neglected. She had more time for her grandchildren. She took a renewed interest in the farm and pleasure in the llama. We all drew inspiration from her courage and unbreakable spirit."

The llama becomes a much loved pet, who seems to see the family as her herd. As this was a time when llama's were seldom seen in the British countryside many people are baffled when they see her. Nusta is always interested in visitors: "If she were near at hand she would hurry up to inspect them. This inspection was a sort of llama-style interview. She liked to look closely into the face of each person - and her head was now nearly on the level of most humans' - and to touch their hair lightly with her nose. Beards were also of great interest."

Finding information on how best to care for llamas is hard. Books on the subject are rare, and vets are not very familiar with the animal. "Our best authority so far was still Goldsmith's Animated Nature, published two hundred years earlier and written by a man who had, perhaps, never seen an llama." 


Ñusta can roam freely around the farm. "During the day she was busy about the farm, taking a llama's eye-view of all the activities and joining in whenever she could. (...) She was aware of the sound of the engine before anyone else could hear it. As I drove up the hill, I could usually see a small white face with dark eyes and long ears peeping inquiringly over the five-foot wall which ran along the crest of the spur. After a long look, the face would disappear and I knew that the Um was rushing along on the other side of the wall, to reach the yard gate at the same time that I did. When I stopped by the garage, a head and a very long neck would come in through the car window and the llama would toot an excited welcome."

The book ends with their decision to have Ñusta mated. For this they travel to Chester Zoo, where there is a small herd of llamas. And strangely this is were Ruth ends this very entertaining and well written tale: we don't know if Ñusta gets pregnant or what happens next.

My edition of this book is a 2020 reprint. Though Ruth thanks someone in the acknowledgements for preparing the photographs, there are none in the book (apart from a vague one on the back flap). 

I was surprised to find that this book was recently published in Dutch (as was a translation of Copsford).

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley (1939)

A few weeks ago, while looking for titles to buy for my e-reader (I'm stocking up because we are off on a trip again) I came across Simon's post on Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley. It is described as a novel and the subject matter sounded right up my street, so I ordered it. When I started reading I was confused because it felt like non fiction: very little plot and endless technical details of doing up a house and a boat. After reading articles on the website of the Leo Walmsley Society I understood it was a thinly disguised autobiography. It is the story of a young man and women with very little money who hire an old hut near a Cornwall village. They do up the house, create a garden and manage to scrape a living.  That's the basic story, really! I found it very entertaining. Simon mentioned there are sequels, so I will look out for them too. 

And yes, while the books were meant to read on holiday I have already read four of them, so I will have to find some more.  Anyone else find it hard to resist the temptation of a new book?

Sunday, 19 September 2021

The Forest Years by Helen Hoover, with pen-and-ink drawings by Adrian Hoover (1973)

This book was published five years after "A Place in the Woods" and it covers the 16 years Helen and Adrian Hoover spent in their cabin on Gunflint Lake, on the Canadian border in Minnesota. While the text on the book flap states that they spent those years happily and rewardingly this was not alway so and the book ends with their leaving the area.

On the one hand this is the story of how Helen and Adrian make the cabin their home and how they cope with living in northern Minnesota, with its harsh climate. On the other it is a record of the nature that surrounds them and the animals that come to visit.

As we learned in Helen's earlier book, living in the woods in hard work. Even in spring or summer things don't get much easier: "the mosquitos and black flies were out in full force, ready for their coming task of fertilizing the flowers, and they bit so ferociously that we gave up on outdoor work." They don't hunt or fish and the very short summer season makes it very difficult to grow vegetables. They do keep a few chickens (in a heated run in winter). But mostly they depend on mail order and deliveries of food and oil. Missing an oil truck delivery, or being snowed in with little food, are potential disasters. Their first years in the cabin are very hard, as they struggle to pay their bills. They earn just enough money selling notepaper printed with Adrian's designs and they live on such an unbalanced diet that at one time Helen even suffers from scurvy. 

 "Ade and I had come to the forest believing that we would have to work harder than we had ever worked and thinking the depression years had prepared us, but we discovered they had been relatively easy. We had been poor in the sense of having to cut corners during our first year and a half in the woods. Two years later we were poverty stricken - cold, hungry, ragged, sick and touched by flashes of paralyzing terror. This was not the fear of death but the fear of living, of never having some small pleasure or physical comfort of a moment free of worry so long as life should last. (...) And yet I warmed to the happy moments we were finding in this innocent forest. The wild creatures were our friends and companions, our teachers, our entertainers ..."

Gradually Helen starts to earn some money when she sells magazine articles and the hard years are over when she gets her first book contract.

"When the book was roughed out, I roamed the forest, burdened with two field guides that I carried around my neck in a two-pound clothespin bag, checking my reported observations for accuracy. (...) When I grew tired I sat at the base of a big pine or spruce, leaned back, and closed my eyes. My skin grew sensitive to the touch of the special air of spring, the drier air of summer. Faint creakings told me of branches rubbing together. One day my nose crinkled to an acrid scent, something like rancid oil, and I opened my eyes to see a black bear strolling toward me. I sat without moving while he came almost to my resting place, observed me with shifting eyes as I was observing him, sniffed and wandered away, presumably no longer curious."

Later in the book there a more encounters with (hungry) bears and one winter things become so dangerous, as bears could easily smash their doors and windows, that they go and spend some time in a motel.

While they still encounter a lot of kindness, they are also seen as weirdos, living without a car and refusing to have a power line put in (because it would mean cutting down lots of trees). They also refuse to cut down trees or use DDT during an infestion of budworms that takes a few years. In the end their policy of letting nature take care of itself pays off. 

A lot of animals, especially deer, come to the cabin in winter, in search of food.  They order food for animals but word gets round and this attract hunters, and some of the deer that have been visiting them for years are killed.

With the extra money they earn they do up their cabin and they can afford a few more luxuries, but things start to change: the road is repaired, more tourists come, the solitude they cherished is gone and they begin to feel uncomfortable where once they were so happy.

"Power, phone and road together attracted more and more people, which meant more and more building. This necessitated clearing, which increased run-off water and silting of the lakes, and the installation of many cesspools that released an effluent that stimulated algae growth in the clear water, as the privies of the old days had not done. More planes and boats to accommodate the larger number of people added their oil films to the lake."  

In the end they take a vacation, the last item on their list (see book flap below), and start looking for another place to live.



If you would like to read more about Helen Hoover, a very good article by David Hakense can be found here

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Baking Bread, and Household Hints

Bara Hafod

A lot of "my" writers bake their own bread. Here is Elizabeth West's recipe, from Garden in the Hills.

"Put into a jug: 4 rounded teaspoonfuls of dried yeast, 3 rounded teaspoonfuls of sugar and about 1/4 of lukewarm water. Give it a stir around, cover with a cloth, and put to one side. Whilst you are waiting for the yeast to get working, weigh up 2 lb of flour - either wholemeal or plain white, or a mixture (I usually mix 11/2 wholemeal with 1/2 white). Put this into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle into flour a teaspoonful of salt. Mix well. Grease and flour two 1-lb bread tins. 

Now go and look at your yeast in the jug. It should be at least a quarter way up the jug, frothing and bubbling.  If it's not, then it's probably due to the yeast being stale - not necessarily your fault, I have found stale yeast in a newly opened tin - so give it a bit longer. In fact, go and do something else for ten minutes. If it is still the same when you come back, never mind. Carry on and use it. It just means that your bread won't rise quite so well. 

Make up the contents of the jug to about one pint with lukewarm water, and pour this into your flour. Using the right hand only (it's just as well to keep one hand clean) work the mixture around, squeezing and kneading between your fingers. After a while it should be one moist, pliable lump in the middle of your bowl, with no flour sticking to the sides. If it feels to dry, add some more lukewarm water. If, on the other hand, it is all sticky and wet, add some more flour. Divide the dough into equal pieces and put into your tins. Put the tins to one side, cover with a cloth and leave for about one hour. The dough should rise to the top of the tins (leave for longer if necessary). Put bread into a moderately hot oven for about 40 minutes. By this time you should be able to "bounce" them out of their tins (if they won't come out easily, slip a knife around their sides). I then usually put the loaves back into the oven, upside down, in order to get them crisp all over.

Please note that none of these measurements is critical. I have written down what I do. Alan doesn't measure anything. He simply throws in what he thinks looks right. Don't take any notice of instructions to "put it in a warm place to rise". You are more likely to put it into too warm a place. The temperature of the room in which you are working is quite adequate."

I notice there is very little kneading and only one rise, making it a simple recipe. During lockdown I made a similar "no-knead bread", which was OK, but I had to have my oven on, on its highest setting, for an hour, which I felt was using way to much energy for one small loaf. Besides, unlike Elizabeth West, there are many shops where I can buy bread near my home. Her telling us to knead with one hand reminds me of a friend who went to domestic science school in the sixties. She used to say that the one thing she remembered being taught was: always knead with one hand only, because the telephone might ring.

Household hints

Louise Dickinson Rich (whose We took to the Woods will be covered in a future post) tells us exactly how she butchers and preserves deer meat, which I guess not many of us will get a chance to do.  But she has two tips which I thought worth sharing:

- .... a pane of window glass which I put over my open cook book. I'm a messy cook, splashing flour and milk and batter and egg yolk all over the table. If they splash on the book, the pages will stick together and you can't use that recipe again, as I have found to my sorrow. If they splash on the glass, that's all right. Glass washes. 

- .... a way to crumb fish or croquettes or cutlets or what-have-you easily and quickly. I put my crumbs or flour in a paper bag, drop in the object to be crumbed, close the bag and shake violently. This does not sound like much of an invention but it saves an awful lot of mess. When you're through you have nothing to clean up. You just shove the paper bag into the stove and burn up the scanty leavings.

I'm going to try the crumbing in a bag. I usually use a plate and end up with my fingers coated in egg and crumbs, looking like they are ready to be fried too.


Thursday, 26 August 2021

A Place in the Woods by Helen Hoover, illustrated by Adrian Hoover (1968)

After Adrian Hoover becomes ill he and Helen spend two months in northern Minnesota, but when the time comes to go home they decide to stay (this is in 1954). In Chicago Adrian worked as an art director of a publishing firm, and Helen was a research metallurgist in a laboratory.

Someone later tells Helen: ". . . but you might as well know that some people up here have been betting - really betting, I mean - that you won't stay the winter"

This is hardly surprising. While Adrian is the ultimate handyman, and it seems they have visited this area before, both Helen and he are strangely naive about living there. For instance, it seems it has not occurred to them that they might need warm clothes in winter.  Helen also hadn't realised she does not need a fridge or freezer: Adrian sat down and laughed till he choked. Finally: "How were you ever so good in science? Look:"He waved a hand at the window. "Out there everything is frozen and will stay that way, in the shade at least, until spring". I do like Helen for telling us all this.

Their time in the woods starts with a series of mishaps.The first cabin they buy, which is not very well made, is damaged by heavy rain and floods which wash away part of the basement (this coincides with a very scary visit by a bear when Helen is on her own). By one stroke of good luck they find someone to make repairs, and by another the neighbouring cabin is for sale. This looks much nicer, plus it comes with lots of furniture that they like. But there is one thing they haven't taken into account: this cabin is only built for summer use. So it is back to the first cabin again for winter, and they head into town (a three hour drive in good conditions) to buy provisions, warm winter clothes and to collect their mail order purchases, which include two stoves. On the way back to the cabin, they collide with another car. Running out of money, recovering from the accident and stuck in the cabin without a car, Adrian misses an appointment to sign a contract which could have earned him a lot of money. But as Helen says: "if he had been there on time to sign the contract we'd have had an easy life and another car. And it is very possible that I should never have written anything except letters to my friends". 

They adapt to life in the cabin, getting to know the land and the animals that live there. One morning Adrian calls Helen to come outside. "Frost, he said in an awestruck voice. "It's frost".  I've always thought of frost as something white sprinkled on grass like sugar, but this was a feathery miracle. Every twig was fringed by it, every branch festooned, every bud tufted. Delicate ice plumes hung inches long from our eaves. The windows were barley sugar and the cabin logs were netted over by tiny ice fans.

The snow stopped before dark, as suddenly as it had begun and Ade and I stepped out to look at the fresh white. The silence was so deep that I could hear my blood throbbing in my ears. The air carried a scent like the taste of snow. A feeling of being watched from the white forest was very strong. "They're all around us", I said. "The natives. We're a minority of two". During the winter they get to know some of those natives, among them mice, deer, birds, squirrels, weasels and an animal I had never heard of: the fisher (see picture below).

They need to find a way of making money and buy a mimeograph, which they use to produce note paper decorated by Adrian. This sells well. He also manages to sell woodwork. Another small source of income is taking care of a rain gauge for the US Weather Bureau. By the end of the book Helen has sold a few articles to magazines.

During the winter Adrian reads from David Copperfield while Helen crochets or embroiders. Copperfield was a fortunate selection because from it came the motto that for several years was tacked onto a log in the kitchen: SOMETHING WILL TURN UP.  J.Wilkins Micawber.

The winter passes. Helen looses track of time and is astonished it already is 19 February. I looked up and across the lake to the clear blue above the far hills and thought about my disorted time sense that seemd to have lost me three weeks. But it wasn't really distorted and I hadn't lost anything. I'd just been seeing things in a way that was new and different to me, a way that I'd probably known in early childhood and forgotten.

They are happy with what litle they have.

A Chicago friend wanted to know when we were coming back to civilazation. I looked out of the window and up through the bare lacework of a birch top to the blue, blue sky. I smelled the faint fragrance of balsam smoke from the stove. I listened to the querulous piping of some nuthatches. I thought of the woodpiles and my white ceiling and the stored groceries - all of the fall work behind and the winter chores ahead. Of the dim, tantalizing glimpses of possible independent careers. Civilization? We were as civilized in our forest setting as my friend was in het concrete beehive, but it would be useless to try to tell her so.

I could quote from this book endlessly. A recent acquisition and an instant favourite, it has everything:  domestic and financial detail, hardship, nature, animals, the kindness of strangers and of course a map. Helen wrote 7 books for adults (also some children's books). The Years of the Forest is another book about their cabin life, which I will cover in a future post.

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Back home again

Sorry for the poor lay out. Blogger is giving me a hard time with pages full of code. I hope they sort this out soon, so far I haven't had any response to my questions. Anyway, we are back from cycling to Berlin. Cheated a bit in the Harz: as the hills were a bit too steep for us we took the train! Now it is back to reading for the blog. I still have many titles to cover. Also I have received recommendations from Avis, who likes: The Shepherds Life by James Rebanks, Counting Sheep by Philip Walling, Corduroy by Adrian Bell, Glory Hill Farm by Clifton Reynolds, Fools Rush in by Tina Spencer-Knott, and books by AG Street. And Sue told me about these: Hope Bourne - Wild harvest, Neil Ansell - Deep Country, Denise Hall - Stones and Stars, Sally Borst - Self Deficiency, Daniel Butler -Urban Dreams, Rural Realities, Anne Cholawe - Island on the Edge, Patrick Rivers - Living on a Little Land, Katherine Stewart - Croft in the Hills, Hilary Burden - A Story of Seven Summers. Some of these I already own, others I will keep a lookout for. As it is I have a few shelves that I mean to cover in this blog first:
Back soon!

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Holiday reading: recommended books

No farms today, instead I thought I'd list some of my favourite holiday reads. On holiday I like to read books that have lots of pages and, as they say in Dutch 'lezen als een trein' ('read like a train'), i.e. once you start you can't stop. Here are some books that I have enjoyed and can wholeheartedly recommend. I would love to hear what your favourites are.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: The Way the Crow Flies (2003, 810 p.) From the back flap: Both a head-spinning murder mystery and an exploration of morality, innocence lost, and the length to which parents and children will go to protect one another. Astonishing in its depth and breadth, The Way the Crow Flies artfully weaves one family's struggles into the fabric of the Cold War. This had me hooked from the start. When I got an inkling about the way the story would develop I stopped reading for a few days, because I cared so much about the characters. Just had to finish it though.

Norman Collins: London belongs to me (1945, 738 p.) I read a recommendation somewhere and ordered this book right away (it is a Penguin Modern Classic). This is the story of the inhabitants of a boarding house in Kennington in 1938. From the back flap: With deadpan humour, London Belongs to Me portrays a world of séances, shabby gentility, smoky pubs and ordinary lives in an extraordinary city. I took it with me when we were going to spend Christmas with friends. I became ill, spent a few days in bed and devoured this book. 

Catherine Fox: Acts and Omissions (Lindchester Chronicles part 1, 2014, 328 p.). Having read Catherine Fox's three novels I kept hoping for more. She has a way of making you love her characters, and you want to know what happens to them after the book finishes!  I knew that she had written novels about the Church of England, but I assumed they would not be my thing. But then I read somewhere that characters from her earlier novels return in these stories so I ordered them like a shot. I am so glad I did. I think Acts and Omissions (first written in instalments on Catherine's blog) is the best one: it is warm and witty and wise. Very funny, but some parts still bring tears to my eyes. I recommend this even if you know little about or have no interest in the Church of England: it is about people.

There are three more Lindchester Chronicles: Unseen Things Above, Realms of Glory, Tales from Lindford (this was blogged in instalments during 2020).

Dervla Murphy: Where the Indus is Young (1977, 266 p.) and On a Shoestring to Coorg (1976, 256 p.). I am a big Dervla Murphy fan and these two books are my favourites. Dervla had already published a few books on her travels when she had her daughter, Rachel. In On a Shoestring to Coorg she takes five year old Rachel to South India. This is " Rachel's apprenticeship to serious travelling. In effect, this decision meant not organising it; we would fly to Bombay and slowly wander south to Cape Comorin, planning our route on a day-to-day basis. As things turned out, these inconsequential ramblings had the happiest results" This is slow travel at is best. We see India through Dervla's and through Rachel's eyes. In Where the Indus is young Rachel and Dervla spend a winter in North Pakistan, travelling on foot with a mule to carry their luggage. I love Dervla's eye for the practical and the domestic: what is it like to keep house and cook in very primitive circumstances? These are details you don't often read about in other travel books.

I hope you will enjoy these books too. I would love to hear what your favourites are. I will be away from my desk for a while, so I may not be able to react at once. Have a great summer!

Friday, 16 July 2021

Copsford by Walter J.C.Murray (1948)


Little Toller Books have recently republished Copsford. From their website:
"The classic account of a young man’s life in rural Sussex, away from his city life – a year in which he rented a derelict cottage and scratched a living from selling dried herbs and wildflowers. Bearing comparison to Thoreau’s Walden, Murray’s intense feeling for his place is evident on every page. For all that it is no simple story of a rural idyll – life at Copsford was difficult and Murray does not shy away from the occasional terrors of a house that had its hauntings.

Walter J. C. Murray was born in Seaford, Sussex, a county where he spent most of his life. He served in the Merchant Navy and RAF during the First World War, after which he worked in London for a short time as a journalist. Disillusioned with city life, he moved to Horam and lived hand-to-mouth as a writer and collector of wild herbs and flowers, before becoming a teacher. In 1923, he founded a small school of which he remained the headmaster for forty years. Murray was also a well-known nature photographer, broadcaster and writer whose books include Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom (1946) and Copsford (1948)."


I bought this book years ago, and as the bookmark showed, did not get very far. I liked the first chapters in which Murray describes finding the cottage and doing up a room on the 1st floor to live in, including wallpapering it. Wallpaper! In a house with most of the rooftiles missing and no windows! I would think the house would have been pretty much unlivable in when it rained and snowed, but he only mentions stains in the wallpaper in a later chapter.
Trying to eradicate the rats who had taken up residence was also entertaining. But the chapters on collecting plants I found boring. This time I forced myself to finish the whole book.  Raynor Winn says in her introduction to the recent reprint: „Copsford has an innocence, a freedom in thought… Anyone who has dreamt of spending time alone in the natural environment will connect with Murray’s emotions.” Well, I enjoy spending time alone in nature, but reading about someone’s thoughts and emotions about it is really not my thing. So this is not my book, sorry. But I know many people like it so here are two recent reviews by bloggers who clearly did love it:
Notes for the Curious
Caught by the river

A film on finding the location of the house (no longer there) at Copsford (East Sussex) can be found here 

Tartarus Press have also republished Copsford.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Betty Dougherty continued and This and That

After writing the post on Betty Dougherty I found a 1980-82 Writers Directory on the Internet, listing Betty's address as 2 Mount Pleasant, Wades Lane, Lower Raydon, Ipswich. Postcode IP75QW. As Sue had already pointed out, Betty's house is still there, but with a hugh extension.

Here is a drawing I did not use in my earlier post. Betty demolished the remains of a bread oven outside her house. She found out from one of her neighbours what it used to look like.

In other news: some of the plants on my balcony have grown very tall. After a stormy day last week some of them just flopped over, so yesterday I tidied things up. Some nicotinia have ended up in a vase, giving out the most wonderful scent. But, just like the ones still in their containers, only in the evening.

And, hurray, the Sunday flea market in the square near our home has returned. I got a down winter coat for 6 euro's and a denim shirt for 1 euro. Very pleased!


Monday, 5 July 2021

Betty Dougherty: Green Gardener: Creating a Wild Garden (1975)

So far, I have gardened in two small gardens and on one large balcony. I hardly ever consult gardening books or the Internet: I just like to try out things and see how I get on.  On the other hand, I love books about how someone made a garden. One of the first „garden stories” I bought is this one. I bought it in 1977, I know that because back then I still made a note of the purchase date and place in my books. At the time I was a student living in a flat and I can’t remember having an interest in gardens. Still, something must have attracted me to the book. Having just reread it I think it must have been the story of the discovery, buying and developing of the house and garden rather than the information on plants (of which there is a lot). When she wrote the book Betty Dougherty was Head of the Graphic Design Section of the Design Council in London. I guess this must have been based in the Design Centre in Haymarket. During the 70’s and 80’s I used to visit London at least once a year. The first thing I always did was visit the Design Centre in Haymarket, followed by tea and cake at Patisserie Valerie in Soho (this was before it became a chain). Then one year, the Design Centre had vanished. A shame, they had some great exhibitions and a nice shop. I haven’t been able to find out much about Betty Dougherty. She seems to have written books on leatherwork and linocraft, assuming that is the same Betty Dougherty. A second volume of practical advice to gardeners (as mentioned on the cover of this book) does not seem to have materialized. In this book she describes how she buys a semi-detached cottage in Suffolk as a second home. 


At first all her time is spent doing up the cottage. Many friends come to help her. On the title page the subtitle is” How an amateur created a wild garden” and an amateur is what she is. In fact it seems as though at first she gives little thought to the fact that she had acquired a garden. However once renovation of the house is complete she is bitten by the bug and becomes a devoted gardener.
The plan of the garden is partly determined by trenches dug by laborers and by discoveries made by clearing out the garden. Thus a bed in the shape of a boat is made and a sunken paved garden is discovered. 


This is a great book for lovers of heathers and conifers as she becomes devoted to them.  She also discusses many other plants (there is an index) and her experiences, triumphs and mistakes. Challenges are the wind and rabbits. Reading it now I was astonished at the casual use of weed killers; perhaps this was normal in the 70’s?  I like how she describes how she falls into the trap of planting too much (haven’t we all?), without considering that plants will grow …. After a few years she is able to buy the second half of the house and to merge the gardens. Now she has enough room for all those extra plants! 


In the last chapter she mentions moving to the house permanently (nrs. 1 and 2 in the plan below).

I tried to find the house on Google maps /satellite view and as far as I can tell there are now two large new buildings and a golf course in its place.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Back home again


After a week away we came home to this colourful jungle. I have been using a new seed mix (to attract bees and butterflies) and I am very pleased with it. The sunflowers have surprised me, as the seedlings were very floppy and even needed support, as you can see here:

(I used cups from our favourite coffee place)

And now they look like this:

Sweet peas and morning glory are doing well, passionflowers are racing to the top of the pergola. I also have caterpillars eating the leaves of some shrubs, but, oh well, let's hope they turn into beautiful butterflies!

I hope to get around to posting about a book soon, but this being summer, there are many temptations outside. Maybe another cycling trip . . . I am very pleased to see more people are finding this blog.  Welcome everyone!