Making scent of it all…

OK, I admit it, I am old enough (just!) to remember steam trains. I am also now of an age to get nostalgic about pretty much anything from my childhood.

We are lucky to have a couple of steam railways near us down here in Devon. One skirts the coast and goes from Paignton to Kingswear – just across the water from the lovely harbour town of Dartmouth. The other, the South Devon Railway, runs beside the river Dart between Ashburton and the town of Totnes. When the river is high, roaring over rocks and surging under bridges it is quite an exciting ride!

When I went on it recently, the smell of the steam engine and the leather of the upholstery transported me instantly back to my childhood in Buckinghamshire and the steam trains that puffed back and forth along the Thames Valley. Steam trains also make those wonderful rhythmical sounds, clanks and bangs and little snorts that all add up to make them seem friendly, almost human, with characters of their own, something the poor old diesel trains never had a hope of achieving.

But thinking about the lovely smell of the steam (I suppose it’s the soot really!), it set me thinking about how evocative smells can be. A particular scent can instantly recall long-forgotten memories as if it were only yesterday. Mostly, the memories are happy but some, often floral, remind me of someone I’ve lost and while it is sad, it’s also good to pause every now and then in our hectic lives, and remember them, and smile.

And so, here are some of the other smells that ‘set me off’:

  • Freshly mown grass – school sports days, ugh!
  • Two-stroke petrol engines – an early boyfriend!
  • Geranium leaves – fresh, earthiness in a damp garden.
  • Gunpowder – Guy Fawkes night and the joy of childhood…

What about you? What smells bring memories surging back? Let’s hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile… happy Easter and don’t eat too many eggs!

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Wine in the Westcountry…

I am fortunate to live in a county rich in locally grown and produced foods. Devon is unique in England in having a coastline on both its northern and southern edges and it’s an area where farming livestock is still an important part of the economy. We are also blessed with lots of artisan cheese makers, bakers and vintners, our climate being suited to all sorts of exciting foody businesses. Through my blog I’m going to take the opportunity to introduce you to some of our local producers and I hope you will be inspired to try their produce and their recipes!

I introduced you to the rather exotic Devon Chilli Farm a few weeks ago and now, equally surprising, I’m going to talk about Devon vineyards. There are no less than NINE in the county and some of the wines they produce are winning awards worldwide.

Internationally, I think Britain is probably more famous for producing gin and beer than wine but in fact, we have been producing wine since Roman times. Historically though, English wines were seen as a bit of a joke, with people making their own peculiar brews such a potato or parsnip wine (remember Reggie Perrin?) while commercially the quality and consistency was very variable. But, since about 1970 – and particularly at the beginning of the 21st Century – things have improved dramatically.

It seems that Devon, and Cornwall too, enjoys an ideal mix of soil and climate making them suitable areas for growing vines. The latitude and longitude are very similar to the well-known wine growing regions of France so it’s not too hard to see why this area is proving successful.

There’s a vineyard just down the road from our village that produces four types of wine, a white, red, rosé and sparkling. Rather unromantically, these days there are no peasants trampling round in great vats of grapes pressing out the juice with their feet (actually, that always put me off a bit!), today it is all stainless steel tanks and white coats, but the wine they produce is excellent.

The best-known vineyard in this part of the world is Sharpham. They also happen to make excellent cheeses, but that’s another blog altogether! Their Sharpham Sparkling Reserve NV recently won the ‘Best International’ trophy at the World Sparkling Wine Competition, beating French champagnes in the process!

If you are in this neck of the woods, the Sharpham estate is well worth a visit. There’s a lovely café on site for lunch before you walk through the vineyards that go right down to the banks of the river Dart and the wine tastings are inexpensive and very enjoyable!!

For more information, do have a look at the Sharpham wine website at www.sharpham.com

 

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Marvellous Mr Badger!

Why do so many of us see badgers as sweet and appealing creatures? I think, for me, it comes from reading ‘Wind in the Willows’ as a child and adoring Ratty, Mole and Badger. Mr Badger, in his dressing gown and slippers was rather grumpy, but wonderfully solid and dependable. Or maybe it’s just their lovely stripy faces that we like? They always look so characterful. 

Badgers are nocturnal and elusive. We have a great many of them in this part of the world and, driving home of an evening, we will sometimes see a badger lumbering along the side of the road. They are quite big creatures, with short, powerful legs and they amble along with a swaying gait like proper old men! They will often turn to look at the car lights before they disappear into the hedgerow and you get the lovely flash of their white-striped faces before they vanish. 

Like humans, they are omnivorous, although unlike us, they eat several hundred earthworms every night! Badgers are social creatures and live together in large underground setts, made up of a series of interlocking tunnels with nest chambers, toilets and several entrances.

Unfortunately, badger pooh, always neatly piled up in the toilet areas, is seen as the Chanel No.5 of doggy perfumes! If you are unlucky, your dog will come home ‘wearing’ it, usually liberally applied around their shoulders and neck – ugh!! It is very unpleasant, extremely pungent and hard to remove! Our spaniel Welly, the dear boy, has tried this a few times, but he finds the cleaning up exercise (baths, shampoo, towel dry etc.) more trouble than it’s worth.

Again, rather like some humans, Badgers inherit these homes from their parents, while always expanding and refining them. The resulting huge tunnel systems are, in some cases, centuries old. I like to think of them discussing the addition of a new bedroom, or enlarging the lounge over a supper of worms before snuggling down for the night in their ancient abode. Apart from the worms… could almost be me and Richard!

 

 

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Beautiful shell boxes

Decorating boxes with shells has been a popular craft for centuries… possibly as long as humans have admire shells! I am a huge fan of Mary Delaney, who was born in 1700 but managed during her lifetime to create some of the most beautiful craft pieces I have ever seen. Mary loved decorating with shells but also created many paper decoupage works depicting flowers, so that gets several of my favourite crafts in one hit!

The boxes in the picture were actually made by my mother. As a young child we always collected tiny shells and treasures whenever we were on a beach and to this day (she was 84 this week), she has a big collection of beautiful shells in the bathroom and some tucked away in her craft room.

I believe to get the best effect when decorating objects with shells, the trick is to use smaller shells and arrange them artistically as opposed to sticking big blobby shells on randomly. Here you can see why you need tweezers to work on intricate patterns like these. Another crucial thing is a good glue that will dry clear – I use Pinflair Glue Gel but there are other makes that are just as good.

Inevitably you will get some unsightly gaps between the shells, no matter how you tweak and twist, shells simply won’t fit together like Lego! The way we have got round this is to gently sprinkle a little sand between the shells before the glue is dry. This stays in keeping with the theme but gives a neutral filler that is easy to find and quick to drizzle over your finished design!

Both of these boxes were ‘found’ items at either a car boot or a local giftware shop, so it’s worth keeping your eyes open for objects that would lend themselves to this lovely form of decoration.

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A picturesque landscape…

As we drive out of our village towards the motorway for another of our trips to TV land, we get a lovely view of the high tors of Dartmoor in the distance. For quite a few weeks in January, the tors were covered in snow, as was much of the moorland area and the communities within it.

One of the many attractions of this beautiful area are the Dartmoor ponies that roam the moorland alongside grazing cattle and sheep. They are incredibly sweet and you will often see young foals by the road, barely able to stand on their ludicrously long legs, with their hugely round mothers watching protectively nearby.

They are hardy animals and, unless snow cover is very deep and prolonged, they manage to forage quite well. Contrary to what most people think, the ponies on Dartmoor are not truly wild animals. They are all owned by farmers, who let them out on to the commons to graze for most of the year and this is where most visitors to Dartmoor come across them.

They are an integral part of the moorland landscape and are a part of the area’s cultural heritage and important for conservation grazing.

Dartmoor National Park is home to the native breed Dartmoor Pony. But not all the ponies on Dartmoor look the same. Importing other breeds has created various colours and shapes and some of them are absolutely gorgeous – I’ve seen a spotted one, just like a Dalmation!

The ponies live out on the moor all year round. They spend most of the time in small herds of mares with one adult stallion and young ponies. Local farmers who keep ponies get together to clear ponies off their particular common. These round ups are called ‘drifts’ and are held in late September and early October. Once, driving across the moor to Tavistock, we came across a drift, and stopped to watch. What a magical sight it was as all these ponies streamed down across the hillside, crossing the road in front of us, and then down to the collecting pens.

Once in the pens, ponies are separated into groups according to ownership. The health of all the animals is checked, and treatment is given where appropriate. After the drifts pony keepers decide which ponies to sell. The rest are returned to the moor until the following year. And so the cycle continues…

 

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