The sweet smell of rain…

We have enjoyed the most beautiful October here in the Westcountry, in fact, I think most of the country has too. The Autumn colours have been fabulous and it has been unseasonably warm and dry ensuring lots of lovely crisp leaves and breathtaking sunsets.

Today, we have had rain for what seems like the first time in months and, as I went outside, I was struck by the ‘smell’ of the rain. Seriously! It’s rather like that wonderful smell you get when you brush against geranium leaves, an earthy richness, a sense of, well… nature!

As is my way, I looked up ‘the smell of rain’ on the internet… and was delighted to find it has a name – petrichor! I am now working at dropping this word into casual conversation at least once a week! Petrichor is ‘the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil’. The word comes from Greek ‘petra’, meaning stone, and ‘ichor’, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology, all rather lovely I thought.

Before it hits the ground, rain is just water, it has no smell. But after the drops hit the ground and interact with soil, the fresh and almost sweet fragrance of rain is released. Now, scientists think they’ve identified the exact mechanism that releases this aroma into the environment. When a raindrop hits a porous surface it traps tiny pockets of air. These bubbles then speed upward, like bubbles in a glass of champagne (hic!), before breaking the drop’s surface and releasing microscopic particles, called aerosols, into the air. The researchers think it’s these aerosols that carry the ‘rain like’ aroma.

This set me thinking about a farmer friend who has a very sensitive nose (he does not like all the stinky cheeses I enjoy!) and he always says he can smell rain coming. Pah, I thought, a Devon farmer’s yarn… but no! Following on from my discovery of petrichor, it seems weather patterns really do produce distinctive odours that sensitive noses can sniff out.

Before the rain begins, one of the first odours we may smell, as winds pick up and clouds roll in, is a sweet, pungent zing in the nostrils. That’s the sharp, fresh aroma of ozone — a form of oxygen whose name comes from the Greek word ‘ozein’, to smell.

After a spell of heavy rain has passed, what’s often left is an earthy, musty whiff of wetness. This is the aroma of geosmin, a metabolic by-product of bacteria or blue-green algae. Ok, not quite so romantic, but interesting, nonetheless.

So, what’s the point of all these strange smells? As you may have guessed, Mother Nature doesn’t do anything without a reason and all these chemicals stirred up by the weather carry messages. Some biologists suspect that petrichor running into waterways acts as a cue to freshwater fish, signalling spawning time. Microbiologist think that geosmin’s fragrance may be a beacon, helping camels find their way to desert oases.

Although humans don’t appear to have a built in response to these odours, we do learn to associate them with our experiences. Flooding may forever scar us with moist, ‘mildewy’ memories, but for many of us, the smell of rain is cleansing and refreshing.

So, if I am spotted running around the car park outside the Create & Craft studios, skipping and shouting “Yippee!” in the rain, I haven’t gone mad, I am simply enjoying the scent of petrichor. Well, that’s what I shall tell everyone anyway!

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The Wheel of the Year forever turning…

wheelyearblackberriesAutumn has most definitely arrived and we’ve had some gorgeous misty mornings and dramatic sunsets. I’m not sure if it is my imagination but there seem to be huge quantities of blackberries in the hedgerows this year and the rowan trees are thick with their red berries… I do hope this isn’t a sign of a cold winter to come! I came across an article in a magazine that was talking about it being ‘Mabon’, which I had heard of but didn’t know much about, so I did some Googling…

Mabon is the Autumn Equinox, or Harvest, on Sept 21nd/22nd in the ‘Wheel of the Year’ as followed by practicing Pagans. All very ancient and traditional, I thought… but it seems not! The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by many modern Pagans.  It consists of either four or eight festivals: either the solstices and equinoxes, known as the ‘quarter days’, or the four midpoints between, known as the ‘cross quarter days’. and tThe term ‘Mabon’ was only introduced in the 1970s.

While many historical Pagan traditions celebrated the various equinoxes, solstices, and the days approximately midway, celebrating all eight festivals is a new departure and, you could say, a jolly good excuse for more partying!

Joking aside, I love the idea of celebrating the changes in the seasons, the fruits of nature and the changes in the weather. Mabon, which is basically Harvest Festival, is the Pagan ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth and recognition of the need to share them to secure the blessings of the Goddess and the God during the coming winter months.

The Festivals of the Wheel Of The Year represent the active and dormant states of nature, man and agriculture. Each of the festival days was ruled by a governing deity, with each region having its own associated deity. From planting to reaping to winter to summer… the seasons were of great importance to our ancestors, for their very existence depended upon good harvests, mild winters and enough rainfall.

So, as it is Mabon, here’s a lovely recipe using quince which, apart from having a beautiful name, is a magical autumn fruit. When stewed for a long time, it turns aromatic and gloriously pink. Its syrup makes an excellent base for a warming autumn cider punch.

Quince, apple & cider punch

Serves 6

  • 250ml apple juice
  • 225g soft brown sugar
  • 1 quince, peeled, quartered and cored
  • 1 vanilla pod, halved
  • 1 apple, cored and sliced
  • 500ml cider
  1. Put the apple juice in a pan with 250ml of water. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.
  2. Add the quince and the halved vanilla pod.
  3. Simmer for at least 30 minutes, or up to an hour if you want a stronger colour.
  4. Add in the apple slices and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the cider and remove from the heat.
  5. Serve immediately, making sure there are some slices of apple or quince in each glass.
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Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all!

widecombemare“Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all!”

…so goes the well-known Devon folk song about a man called Tom Pearce, whose poor old horse dies after someone borrows it to travel to the fair in Widecombe with his many, many friends. Although not at all funny for the grey mare, it is a humorous song and often performed by rowdy crowds (all NINE verses of it!) that have enjoyed a little too much cider! It’s such a well-known song that the term ‘Uncle Tom Cobley’ has come to be used as a colloquialism meaning “anyone and everyone”.

widecombehistoryPossibly because of the song both Widecombe and its Fair are famous throughout the country. Widecombe-in-the-Moor, to use its full name, is a picturesque village in the middle of Dartmoor, with a magnificent church (the interestingly named Church of Saint Pancras!), visible from all the surrounding hills and tors and known as ‘the cathedral of the moor’.

widecombeproduce

Widecombe Fair takes place annually on the second Tuesday in September, attracting thousands of visitors to the tiny Dartmoor village. It is still a traditional event full of farmers and local craftsmen and as popular with locals as visitors and well worth a visit. My partner in crime writing, Julia, went along this year to take some photos and soak up the rural tranquillity and a way of life that has gone on for centuries in the Dartmoor valleys.

widecombeanimals

There were sheep shearing competitions, cattle, sheep and pony classes, vintage cars and agricultural machinery and some stompingly good live folk music in the beer tent from morning through to midnight! The obligatory produce tent, crammed with huge vegetables, jams and flower arrangements (and you wonder where we get our inspiration for the Swaddlecombe books?!) is always worth a visit. There was also an interesting area dedicated to ‘Living History’, complete with thatchers and other traditional craftsmen demonstrating their skills. Add to this ferret and terrier racing and the intoxicating smell of steam engines and you have the perfect rural day out!

widecombeadam

Left to right: Was the Reverend Ruminant present at the Fair? Certainly looks like his car! Adam Henson and his BBC film crew… and a traditional bit of ferret racing!

Such is Wideombe Fair’s fame, Julia spotted Adam Henson, the farmer presented from BBC1’s ‘Countryfile’ programme, busy filming at the fair… so, if you keep your eyes peeled you might get to see it on TV!

 

 

 

 

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Phew! It’s a scorcher!

Deckchairs2I am always amused at the British enthusiasm for talking about ‘The Weather’ – it is always either too wet or too dry or too cold or too hot! The trains can’t run for leaves on the line, the wrong kind of snow, or as a few days ago, rails buckled due to the heat! In among all these weather stories online are pages and pages of hints and tips about how to manage this roaring British summer weather… But what is true and what is false? What is fact and what is fiction? We know the common advice for coping with the warm weather – stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day, drink plenty of water, use sunscreen when you’re outside. But what about all those other tips?

Wearing white cotton clothing is best

It is true that natural fabrics like linen and cotton absorb sweat and allow it to breathe. They’re much better than man-made fibres like polyester, which can trap the moisture against your skin, leaving you hot and uncomfortable. But when it comes to colour, things are a bit more complicated. White is good if you’re out in direct sunlight a lot – it will reflect the heat better than any other colour. But if you’re spending time in the shade, black is a more effective colour to wear as it radiates out heat into your environment, cooling you down.

ColdWaterDrinking hot drinks actually lowers your body temperature

Staying hydrated is very important. If you don’t drink lots of water and beverages like fruit juice, you can start to become unwell, with symptoms of headache and tiredness. It can lead to heat exhaustion and heatstroke. But can hot drinks help cool you down? I’m afraid we are back to sweat again… The thinking is, drinking a hot drink raises your body temperature, causing you to sweat. Sweating cools you down because as the moisture evaporates it takes away some of the heat of your body. But sweating also means that you are losing liquid from your body, meaning you need to take on more to stay hydrated! Why is life so complicated?!

Keep the curtains closed as they block out the sun

This is another one where there is no straight answer. If you have thick dark curtains then keep them open otherwise, the fabric can keep the heat trapped in the room. However, lighter curtains can help reflect the sun’s rays back out of the room, so keep them closed.


HotDogKeep windows open during summer to circulate the air

Surprisingly, this is another instance where there is no hard and fast rule. If the room you are in is actually cooler than the temperature outside (as in my old farmhouse) then keep the windows closed otherwise, all you are doing is letting hot air in. But if the room is warmer – and this is much more likely to be the case at night – then opening the windows will help cool your home down. Always consider home security and safety when it comes to leaving windows and doors open though.

There’s lots of advice online (some of it very strange) but to be sure you get sound advice, always go to an ‘official’ site. The NHS website has lots of useful advice on how to cope in hot weather. If all else fails, wear a knotted hanky on your head, and stick your feet in a bowl of cold water – always works for me!

 

 

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Tea please!

Top to bottom: Traditional Chinese tea. A ‘proper’ cup of British tea… but should it be milk or tea first? Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza, started the tea craze in this country and finally, tea smugglers!While rummaging around with the TV remote recently, I stumbled across a historical take on tea, starting with the origins of the tea cup, and I started thinking about the significant part it has played in our history.

Tea is often thought of as being a quintessentially British drink and, while we have been drinking it for over 350 years, the history of tea goes much further back. The story of tea begins in China where tea drinking became established many centuries before it had even been heard of in the west.

In the latter half of the sixteenth century there are the first brief mentions of tea as a drink among Europeans. These are mostly from Portuguese living in the East as traders and missionaries. But it was not the Portuguese who were the first to ship back tea as a commercial import. This was done by the Dutch, who in the last years of the sixteenth century, began to encroach on Portuguese trading routes in the East. Tea soon became a fashionable drink among the Dutch, and from there spread to other countries in continental western Europe.

A cup of char!
We Brits, always a little suspicious of continental trends, had yet to become the nation of tea drinkers that we are today. The first dated reference to tea in this country is from an advert in a London newspaper from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in the City… and that’s why people talk about a ‘cup of char’!

We owe it all to a Portuguese Princess
It was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza that was a turning point in the history of tea in Britain. She was a Portuguese princess, and a tea addict, and it was her love of the drink that established tea as a fashionable beverage first at court, and then among the wealthy classes as a whole. 

Milk in first or last?
Putting the milk in last was considered to be the ‘correct’ thing to do in refined social circles, but the real reason for this is often forgotten. In the early days of tea-drinking, poor-quality cups were inclined to crack when hot tea was poured into them, and putting the milk in first helped to prevent this. When finer and stronger materials came into use, this was no longer necessary – so putting the milk in last became a way of showing that one had the finest china on one’s table! Evelyn Waugh once recorded a friend using the phrase ‘rather milk-in-first’ to refer to a lower-class person, and the habit became a social divider that had little to do with the taste of the tea…

Tea smuggling and taxation
Tea became a popular drink in coffee houses, as much locations for the transaction of business as they were for relaxation or pleasure and were the preserve of middle and upper-class men. Women drank tea in their own homes, and as yet, tea was still too expensive to be widespread among the working classes. In part, its high price was due to a punitive system of taxation. The first tax on tea in the leaf, introduced in 1689, was so high at 25p in the pound that it almost stopped sales. It was reduced to 5p in the pound in 1692, and from then until as recently as 1964 (amazing!), when tea duties were finally abolished, politicians were forever tinkering with the exact rate and method of the taxation of tea.

One unforeseen consequence of the taxation of tea was the growth of methods to avoid taxation – smuggling and adulteration. By the eighteenth century many Britons wanted to drink tea but could not afford it, and their enthusiasm for the drink was matched by the enthusiasm of criminal gangs to smuggle it in. What began as a small time illegal trade, selling a few pounds of tea to personal contacts, developed by the late eighteenth century into an astonishing organised crime network, perhaps importing as much as 7 million pounds (weight) annually, compared to a legal import of 5 million pounds! Worse for the drinkers was that taxation also encouraged the adulteration of tea, particularly of smuggled tea which was not quality controlled through customs and excise. Leaves from other plants, or leaves which had already been brewed and then dried, were added to tea leaves. Sometimes the resulting colour was not convincing enough, so anything from sheep’s dung to poisonous copper carbonate was added to make it look more like tea – euw!

By 1784, the government realised that enough was enough, and that heavy taxation was creating more problems than it was worth. The new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, slashed the tax from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Suddenly legal tea was affordable, and smuggling stopped virtually overnight.

The topic of tea is huge and fascinating, I could go on… about when cups got their handles, why tea caddies were so important and, of course, the Boston Tea Party. But perhaps I will save that for another time. I’ll just nip off and have a cuppa now…

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