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!    

Sunday, 13 June 2021

My New Forest Home by Irene Soper (1996)


I ordered this book knowing just the title. It turned out to be the story of Irene and her husband Arthur, both artists, who have lived in the New Forest for about 30 years.
The New Forest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in Southern England, covering southwest Hampshire and southeast Wiltshire. It was proclaimed a royal forest by William the Conqueror, featuring in the Domesday Book. It became a National Park in 2006
Irene and Arthur live in Abbots Well, near Frogham. In their garden is a small cottage, which used to serve as a home, lastly for herbalist and writer Juliette de Bairacli-Levy. They do up this cottage (including re-thatching), which they then use as a studio.
Irene’s garden is surrounded by the forest and is visited by many birds, rabbits, badgers, foxes and stoats.  
They become enthusiastic beekeepers. Irene writes that many people in the New Forest used to keep bees, and that at one time it was famed for mead. I knew mead was made with honey, but I had no idea the caps (cut off the honeycombs) and wild comb (pieces of wax made by bees to fill up gaps) were used as well.
This is her mead recipe: Place cappings and pieces of wild comb in a pan, add enough cold soft water or rainwater to cover, and bring to the boil. Simmer gently until the wax rises to the top. Allow to cool. Remove the wax, strain the remaining liquor into a covered vessel. When luke warm stir in one teaspoonful of mead yeast and put in a warm place to ferment. When bubbling has ceased, strain into a cask with air-lock and store for a year before bottling off.

They are also avid badger watchers. First around their house: Arthur even riggs up an alarm system so they know when a badger is entering their garden. Later they go out and discover badger setts and badger watch in the evening. This involves sitting or standing still for long periods dressed in mosquito proof clothing (wellies, leather gloves, net veil over the face).

They delight in exploring the surrounding forest.
Standing on the hill that mooring I realized just how much there was to explore - the Forest around Abbots Well offered great variety. There was open moorland with large stretches of furze (or gorse) and heather where many species of birds were to be seen and which gave cover to several foxes’ earths. There were wooden enclosures where badgers had their setts and deer grazed peacefuly beneath the shade of the leafy branches. Peat-stained streams meander their way through wooded glades and open moorland, here and there opening out to deep pools where small brown trout would lie. Treacherous bogs were numerous, deceptive in beauty with bright green moss, colorful flowers and rushes.
While searching for mushrooms they often come across fragments of Roman pottery. In certain places there is so much that moles throw it up when they dig and it can be found on top of their mounds.

The New Forest is famous for its ponies: Probably the picture which comes to mind at the mention of the New Forest is that of ponies. They appear on postcards and calendars and are the subject of very tourist’s snapshot. As they are running free the give the impression of being wild but each one has an owner and carries a brand-mark to prove it.
Spring is perhaps one of the best times for the ponies as they can enjoy the sunshine without the tormenting flies which come with the summer. In spring too the new foals arrive. It is always interesting to watch the mares leave the village in the evenings and make their way up Hampton Rudge to the open Forest where they spend the night, and to see them return again in the morning with perhaps a new foal born overnight running with them.

The Forest has many products to offer in one way or another: From olden times to this day the forester has taken advantage of this and turned them to good use. Apart from food, rabbits, hares, wild berries and fungi, which were all available to the peasant, there were materials such as heather, bracken, timber and peat.

Irene ends the book with tips for making a potpourri of forest finds to capture a tiny bit of the Forest to last you through the winter, using gorse petals, golden bracken, seeds, catkins, nuts, lichen, larch cones, pine needles,wood chippings, sloes, rose hips and bark.

I have not been able to find any information on Irene or Arthur Soper. The publisher (Ex Libris Press in Bradford on Avon) still exists, so I plan to contact them. Irene also wrote a cookbook: New Forest Cookery (1983).
Juliette de Bairacli-Levy wrote many books, among them Wanderers of the New Forest (1958).

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Glad Wild Rooster?



What's this? A new species? A new song by the Rolling Stones? No: it is " slippery cattle grid" in Dutch! We came across it on a recent cycle/camping trip. We went to Oostvoorne, a village on the coast south west of Rotterdam. Apart from a few stretches, we cycled on separate cycle lanes, like the ones in the pictures. After a very wet month of May we now have sunshine at last. As most local authorities don't mow the grass verges any more there were lots of wild flowers to admire and there was the wonderful smell of cow parsley, hawthorn and other plants I don't know the English names of. Best of all was the  bird concert we heard from dawn to dusk. Living in the centre of Rotterdam all we hear is a blackbird, pigeons, seagulls and magpies, so this was a real treat.

Back home after only three days, the plants on my balcony seemed to have exploded! You can see part of the watering system I bought last year. It is very nice having a large balcony and I do enjoy looking after the plants, but I felt I could no longer ask my neighbours to water them when we went away. It was a bit of a faff installing it, but now it works quite well. The hoses are attached to a timer on the tap, which turns the system on twice a day. As you can see I also have a water butt, but I use up all the water in a few days and it is now completely empty. Hoping for rain again! Some of the containers I found in the street: a large basket, rubbish bins, a laundry basket and a baby bath! They work just as well as regular plant containers (we drill holes in them) and are free.

Anyway: back to books! Next post will be about the New Forest.

Friday, 28 May 2021

My Small Country Living (1984) by Jeanine McMullen



Jeanine McMullen and I are complete opposites. I like animals, which is why I don’t have any. I think they are best left to themselves. Above all I do not think animals are humans in disguise. Jeanine McMullen feels a strong need to surround herself with animals, even though by her own account she is an amateur and is often not equipped to look after them. Most of het animals are „ characters”, who „plot against her or put on acts” (most of the humans she meets are larger than life too).
Having said that I must admit I enjoyed these books: she is a good writer. I especially liked the glimpses she gives of her early life in Australia, with her mother, who worked as a nurse in the Outback. I wish she had given us more of those and of her life before becoming a broadcaster. Her obituary states she was a teacher and dancer, too. It made me curious about the rest of her life.

In her first book she tells the story of the impulse buy of a smallholding on a visit to Wales, and of her efforts to interest her bosses at the BBC in a radio programme on the subject. At first she shares the farm with „The Artist” who moves to live there full time, while Jeanine works in London, traveling to Wales in the weekends.
In 1975 she and The Artist separate. Jeanine moves to the cottage permanently, and later her mother, known as Mrs P joins her.  Although friends advise her to sell the cottage, Jeanine decides to stick it out, which means years of struggling to pay the bills. She is fortunate in having extremely nice neighbours, one of whom even moves in a few months to help her.
At the start of the story she owns several dogs, then she rapidly acquires homing pigeons, a rabbit, hedgehogs, chickens, ducks, geese, goats, pigs and a cart horse. They all come with special instructions, so to speak. Like Dolores the goat who wreaks havoc everywhere she goes: „ She was in truth the embodiment of every prejudice against the goat and she committed every single crime that legend lays at its door. But she did it with such zest, with such glory in her own wickedness and with so much joy in the sheer wonder of being alive that it seems impossible there had ever been a time when she hadn’t been effectively wrecking our peace and property”.
She meets vet Bertie Ellis: „ a battered red Mini, dragging its exhaust pipe noisily behind it, came to a halt at the gate. A face, adorned with round, granny glasses and a pair of luxuriant mutton-chop whiskers, appeared out of the window: I’m Ellis, it announced”. On his first visit Bertie tells her that her horse Doli, despite displaying all the symptoms is not in foal. „ She’s been having you on, the old sod." (…) I didn’t know who to hate most, Doli or Bertie.
The cottage is damp and droughty, and difficult to heat. Jeanine does not see her way to making any improvements, partly because of her finances and partly, as she quotes C.S.Lewis, because „nature laid on me from birth the utter incapacity to make anything”. She just adapts to her primitive surroundings.
In one of the final chapters her pig Magnolia, ill with peritonitis,  is put down by vet Bertie, who uses a very strong anaesthetic. The pig is buried on the farm.
Some months later she finds her whippet Merlin in a coma. He only just survives. It turns out he had been eating from the dead pig, which was not buried deep enough.
Even though her free lance work has virtually dried up, Jeanine keeps hoping to produce her programme on country life: „ the single most important thing I had learned, though, was that everyone who actually survives country life has a story to tell. I no longer wanted to do a programme about the happy peasant tilling his soil; I wanted to get on tape people like the men who drive the massive machines along tortuous lanes and down suicidal slopes to collect garbage from remote villages and farms, or the postmen who struggle through floods and snow and over icy roads to get the latest circulars safely delivered (…) As I worked and worried and walked in the wood, ideas for the programme multiplied. At the the same time, however, the memory of me as a professional broadcaster was fading fast, along with my credibility for the producers. So, as the programme took firmer shape in my mind, it became more and more obvious that I could no longer afford to stay in the place which would have given it birth… My earnings had dropped to a level which wouldn’t even service the mortgage…"
A totally unexpected legacy from her father in Australia puts her back on her feet financially. A year later she once again pitches her idea for a programme and this time she gets to make it. It went on to become a very popular programme on Radio 4. She also wrote two more books (which I will cover in later posts).

Jeanine does not give exact details as to the location of her cottage. Online, I found references to Llyn-y-Far-Fach.
Her obituary refers to her home in Llanddeusant.
She died  on 9th February 2010 at tha age of 73.The funeral was at the Parish Church of St Simon and St Jude, Llanddeusant.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Ruth Janette Ruck and Ty Mawr

You can have a look inside Ty Mawr (now a holiday let), Ruth Janette Ruck's former home here

The story of both house and inhabitants can be found here

The farm is now owned by her son, John Orkney-Work. 

This interesting community site offers a description of a walk taking you past Carneddi farm.

Friday, 14 May 2021


While cleaning containers I found two acorns, which must have been put there by birds. Intriguing, as I don't know of any oak trees near my home. Anyway, I now have two tiny ones in a pot!

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Hill Farm Story by Ruth Janette Ruck

Published five years after Place of Stones, this is a happy book.  While it remains hard to make a living on a small Welsh mountain farm (the first chapter is called „Making a Living Where a Rat Wouldn’t”), in her writing Ruth focuses on the joys of living where she does.
In one of the first chapters Ruth describes her wedding to Paul, who started working for the Ruck family some years before. It is a wonderful party, with the whole village taking part.
„In the first few days of married life I experienced a moment of panic. I wondered how to manage this small household, make good meals and keep the cottage clean, without expending extra time and money on doing it; there seems so little of either to spare. But Paul had no fixed ideas about what was women’s work and what was not. He could cook or wield a teacloth as the need arose and together we quickly finished the housework and were ready to go outside. Our expenses were few; there was paraffin for lighting and bottled gas for the stove, but the fire cost us next to nothing. The rates were only 6 pounds a year. We produced a good part of our own food and so we managed; my problem solved itself with a workable compromise.”


In the first chapter Ruth looks back on how she and her family started farming at Carneddi, copying other farmers’ work and relying on the help of two neighbours. One „took us under his wing and we were immensely grateful for the never-failing help and kindness which he gave. If he thought we were going wrong, he told us so: he hated to see mistakes and muddle, particularly where sheep were concerned. If we needed anything, from advice to a cup of tea or the loan of a plough, it was ours for the asking”.
She also tells the story of how she came to write her first book, filling exercise books when she can find the time. It takes nearly 3 years to finish. She is overjoyed to find it accepted by a publisher. After starting her second book their hen house is made into a writing hut.
She goes on to describe the day to day life on the farm: the sheep, the dogs, the decision to keep ponies and to enter them in shows;  and the joy Paul and Ruth find in mountain climbing.
They extend the farm by buying neighbouring farms and stock.


During the first months of 1963 the weather turns extremely cold:  "Washing froze stiff as a board within five minutes of its being hung on the line. The last of the kale in the field turned to green glass and shattered into fragments when we tried to cut it. The tap in the cowshed froze but we had given up swilling the floor several day earlier for fear of the cows slipping on the ice. I carried hatching eggs indoors in case they should freeze too.”
I was ten years old in 1963 and in The Netherlands the weather was similarly cold. Strangely I have no recollection of it, though our house must have been extremely cold as at that time we only had a heater in the living room. 1963 is also the winter that Dervla Murphy, one of my favourite authors, started her cycling trip to India. You can find the story in Full Tilt. I always wondered why she started her journey then, only to arrive in Pakistan and India in the extreme summer heat. She later said she had so often fantasized about this trip, that when she got her chance, she just could not wait.
Anyway, back to Ruth: she ends the book with a postscript: „It should be told because it gave a new perspective to our life. In the early summer of 1965 I began to wonder if I were pregnant”. She is, and Ann Jacquetta is born on 14 January. „ I look back on that time as one of the happiest of my life. (…) On January 24th, the day on which our baby was due to be born, we brought her home to the cottage in the mountains.


Wednesday, 28 April 2021


 I started this blog purely to write about books, but I would like to add a personal note. After all: it's my blog and I'll do what I want! 

My windowsills were covered in seedlings until yesterday. They were big enough to go outside, but alas: the night temperature kept going down to zero. Now I put them outside during the day, to acclimatize. "Outside" is a large balcony (15 by 2 meters), very sunny and sometimes windy. Today all "non-essential" shops re-opened, so I will be able to visit gardening centres too. But maybe I'd better wait as the temptation to buy is always great and I already have too many seedlings (they will go to neighbours and friends). Also cafes and restaurants will be allowed to open (outside seating only), so we will celebrate at our favourite lunch place.