Cathedrals and Cakes: Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford

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Ah, the City of Dreaming Spires… how I adore Oxford. For its’ covered market, its’ beautiful college quadrangles steeped in history and prestige, its’ gorgeous selection of cafes and restaurants, the Botanical Gardens, afternoon tea at the Randolph and the park and ride (banal, I know, but it makes the experience!) If I could live anywhere but where I am, I’d love to live in Oxford. It has been a very great favourite of mine since I stayed there as a 19 year old in the home of my friends’ auntie. I never looked back but I’ve been going back regularly ever since which is not difficult as it’s very close by. Oh, how I adore Oxford. So, when my Cathedrals and Cakes associate and I were discussing our next cathedral and how it needed to be one fairly close to where we live owing to it being the first one on which the baby would be accompanying, it was with great pleasure that we decided upon Christchurch in Oxford. Huzzah!
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Owing to the fact that the cathedral would be closing at midday onward for a wedding (a wedding!) we decided to make hay while the sun shone and got there bright and early to explore the cathedral. We were lucky with the weather and were blessed with splendid views of the college before entering to seek out the cathedral itself. We were greeted by an absolutely lovely cathedral guide, an elderly lady who obviously knew her onions about more than a few things. What I loved most about her was her response to the fact that I am on a quest to visit all forty two Anglican cathedrals of England (and eat cake along the way!) Her reply was simply that she had completed the quest herself, many years previously when she was recently married to her husband. And not like I’m doing it, all piecemeal and when I can fit it in, no. She did it all in one big fat go. They hitched around the country with the sole purpose of visiting all forty two Anglican cathedrals! I was staggered. Usually I am greeted with wary glances and muttered disapproval when I reveal my project – but not this time! She was genuinely interested and enthused, and from that point on she was very helpful in pointing out some of the finer points of the cathedral and provided information of the lesser known variety, those tidbits of knowledge that only the insiders are privy to. When I’m old I want to be a cathedral guide and I too hope to bump into a younger version of myself to share my experiences of trudging round some of the most beautiful architecture known to God and man. What a lady she was. She was also very admiring of my baby daughter which always wins brownie points in my sphere. As an aside, Lily was asleep for most of the visit to the cathedral, but when the organist came in to warm up the pipes and started to thunderously practice and show off his talents, she was not impressed at all – and who would be with that cacophony going on?! I jest. I love organ music (have you ever listened to The Organist Entertains on Radio 2? Utterly mad and brilliant).
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The cathedral is very small, and very intimate. I forget if it is the smallest Anglican cathedral in England – I think it may be, being essentially a college chapel at its’ most basic level of usage. It feels a little more like an extremely impressive and large parish church rather than a cathedral, especially when compared with the grandeur and size of a Winchester or a Canterbury. However, size put to one side, this is one impressive little space and very much capable of inspiring more than a little awe in the humble believer. Small, compact and stunning are the few words I would use to describe this beautiful church. It is more than worth the visit because you get to walk around the grounds of a world class institution of education as well as seeing a breathtaking architectural masterpiece such as the cathedral, and take in Oxford town too, which is well worth a visit in itself with plenty of bustling shops and restaurants to whet most consumer appetites. Perhaps I should get a job at the Oxford Tourist Board – I reckon I’d do them justice!
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The real high points of the cathedral are the windows and the vaults. Particularly the windows. Edward Burne-Jones, one of my most favourite artists who had more than a penchant for the stained glass window, produced two absolute corkers for the cathedral. The St Frideswide window is brilliantly coloured and tells the story of the eponymous saint.The feature part of the window shows a ship of souls carrying St Frideswide to heaven – it is very beautiful and quite a sight to behold when the sun streamed through the glass. The other Burne-Jones is the St Catherine window. Beautiful as it is, the story behind it is more interesting. The face of Catherine was in life that of Edith Liddell, whose sister Alice was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. A portrait of Alice can be found within the Great Hall at Christchurch College. The window that really took my breath away however, was the Jonah window, with the city of Nineveh depicted in minute and meticulous detail. What is intriguing about the window is the only piece of stained glass in the whole thing is Jonah – the rest is painted glass, which is how the detail is achieved so painstakingly. The chancel vault is utterly gorgeous. It is made up of intricate star shaped patterns to achieve an image of heaven. Twelve beautiful pendants hang gracefully from it. Divine!
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Following our trip to the cathedral, we went to a cafe which came highly recommended, called Loco. It is fresh and modern inside, and had room for us to sit with a pushchair and the staff were accommodating of bottles and babies and bum changes! This is always the mark of a good cafe in my book. However, for me there was a little heart missing from the place. Yes, I enjoyed my cake and tea. I ordered good old English breakfast tea and some coffee and walnut cake. The cake was moist and tasty and had just the right amount of coffee to give a kick of flavour rather than a punch and the coffee butter-cream was lovely. The tea was great too. But the service, though attentive, was forced and one particular member of staff was just plain rude. This was disappointing. The actual place itself lacked atmosphere, and as I said before, heart. I had a nice time, but I wouldn’t recommend it vociferously to my friends. However! After leaving Loco, we went for a brief detour to the Bodleian Library then headed over to The Rose for lunch. Ah! What bliss is this?!
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The Rose is a completely different kettle of fish. This joint is pure class. It’s a classic place with a simple decor, and quite small and intimate, but we managed to find a table and managed to squeeze the baby in too. Again, staff were very accommodating, though this time you felt that they really meant it. They really wanted you there and not only that, they wanted you to have a really lovely experience eating in their restaurant. I loved that. The waitress was just lovely. The food was utterly gorgeous, cooked to perfection and extremely tasty. I had a goats cheese and caramelised onion sandwich followed by yet more cake. I was not let down. I would give The Rose ten out of ten for service and atmosphere and crank it up to eleven for food. I will most definitely be returning and could not rate it highly enough. All this, and the prices are modest. You feel that you have eaten in a top class restaurant (without any hint of pretension whatsoever) but for very reasonable, average prices. I wonder if any of you have eaten in The Rose on the High Street? What a fantastic little find!
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I can however say that my day was not complete without my companion, who is a dear friend I have known for many years, when we met working at the same educational institution on the University of Reading campus. He is a cultural kindred spirit and really gets my quest to see all the cathedrals. He is a silent partner in my Cathedrals and Cakes quest, but this makes him no less important in it. To him go my thanks for helping me on my way. And of course I must thank my husband, for allowing me to gallivant around the country with another man!
What a classic Cakes and Cathedrals it has been!
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On Walking

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Good evening and long time no see. I have just emerged from under a laptop filled with scanned SATS papers waiting to be marked. The past month has passed by in a blur as all of my usual wondrous pursuits of crafting, reading, blogging, tea sipping and general cultural malingering have been abandoned to fulfil my temporary post as a National Curriculum Test Examiner. Here I am with a quick post to fill the monotony. I have been managing to do one thing of late, other than marking, and that is walking. Yes, I have been walking for EXERCISE. Usually after dinner and when the children are tucked up in bed, off I go to see where my legs will take me in my suburban wonderland.
Running? No thanks. Too tiring, too sweaty, too much damned effort. The gym? Too artificial. Too sweaty. Too expensive. Aerobics? ?????? Why would anyone do that to themselves? Cycling? Yes please, but not fit enough yet (and also not feeling very brave to face the increasing hostility of motorists!) But walking? Definitely. It is at a pace that I naturally find pleasing. It is free. It is outside. It does not result in sweat. I do not have to wear exercise clothing. And it is perfect for clearing out the cobwebs of my cluttered and tired mind.
Sometimes I walk at speed when I am feeling driven and want to beat a personal best on a particular route. At other times I go where my feet want to take me, meandering around the roads that turn into lanes and side streets until I decide to turn around when I realise I’ve gone quite far from home. Oftentimes I’ll just stroll slowly whilst I collect my thoughts and plan ahead for the future. My head is full of plans, challenges and racing thoughts. Walking is a great and rewarding way for me to sort out the mass of tangled thoughts in my head. Does anyone else find walking a meditative, helpful way of rationalising and dealing with their myriad thought processes? I know I do.
I also love walking for its’ beauty. Even on a suburban street where I live I can find beauty and calm and peace. The streets are lined with all manner of trees and shrubs, peoples’ gardens are eminently rewarding to peep into, and there are several dappled walkways and parks near where I live to satisfy my need for some green space. I walk alone, which is how I like it. My walks are my time. When I am walking I recharge and reboot, usually emerging from a walk with a renewed sense of purpose and drive, even if I left the house depleted of energy and tired from the day preceding it, I manage to reincarnate into my evening self, whereby I can indulge in all the things I love to do which are not possible by day.
Walking is energising and apparently as good for losing weight for you as running, and with less pressure and strain on the joints, of course. Having had a baby in late February, this is music to my ears, indeed! I think it is the most obvious but overlooked form of exercise and one that I feel I get the most out of.
I was saddened to see that I had missed the Moon Walk this year by about a week, and so have to wait until next May to complete it – it sounds like such brilliant fun and of course all for a good cause. I’m aiming to complete the half marathon challenge so I consider myself to be in training already, albeit in a very relaxed manner – no 10k walks for me – yet.
I wonder if anyone else out there enjoys a walk as much as I do? Do let me know your thoughts. One thing I was delighted to learn of recently in Stylist magazine was Emily over at emilybooks runs a walking book group in London. Well, what could be better than to combine two of life’s greatest pleasures – reading and walking (or should that be walking and talking about books?) Anyway, I think that my being in Caversham is a bit of a disadvantage for a group that meets on the Heath in Hampstead but I can imagine how much fun it must be. What a grand idea!
I hope to be back permanently in about a week as I have much to write about and share with you, including a trip to Oxford Cathedral and Jane Brocket’s rock buns – yum! See you soon.

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Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

249823This is a very funny book, and that is the main reason anyone would love it – it is laugh out loud funny in its’ observations of human nature and provincial life.

Of course it is well written, a classic such as this does not make it into the literary hall of fame without being a well-crafted and skillfully written piece. Being a diary, it is more centred on wit, observation and commentary than on plot and action, which being a little bit of an instant gratification type of person, I did, at times, find grating. However, this was more than made up for by the many many moments of hilarity and truth in what the Provincial Lady says (we never learn her actual name, I will hitherto refer to her endearingly as the PL).

The diary is narrated by the PL, but there are many other characters within the book, including her children, Robin and Vicky, her husband Robert,  the French governess, the cook and the maid (this is an upper-middle class family in the 1920s/30s), the Vicar and his wife, and my personal favourite, the acerbic Lady Boxe. Best of all though, is the PL herself, who it has been said is like an early twentieth century Bridget Jones in her somewhat hapless recounting of her equally hapless life.

I found Mademoiselle a struggle as she always speaks in her mother tongue. Though my French is competent, it is not of a standard to keep up with Mademoiselle’s ramblings and rantings. Robert is a very droll character, with his apparent disinterest in everything (particularly his wife and children!) except The Times.  I really enjoyed the way he would barely spare a moment to look up from his newspaper to make some kind of blank look to the PL, but equally I love his comments that leave more to the imagination than they say for themselves. His character is very cleverly drawn. Theirs is a happy but very separate co-existence. Robert and Vicky, being children (and at this point in time children tended to be ‘seen and not heard’), are not really properly developed characters and serve mainly to provide the PL with a platform to make lots of wry observations about having children, which are still very relevant, in today’s twenty-first century society:

(Query: Does motherhood lead to cynicism? This contrary to every convention of art, literature, or morality, but cannot altogether escape conviction that answer may be in the affirmative.)

She makes another astute statement about being a parent which rings true for me and perhaps for many others too:

(Mem.: Theory that mothers think their own children superior to others Absolute Nonsense. Can see only too plainly that Mickey easily surpasses Robin and Vicky in looks, charm and good manners – and am very much annoyed about it.)

One of the things I love most about the book is the way that so many of the themes resonate with me – such as being a mother. The state of motherhood clearly has not really changed that much as is evident when the PL makes the following comment:

(Query: mainly rhetorical: Why are non-professional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as ‘leisured’? Answer comes there none.)

A contentious issue today as much as it would have been in 1930. If not more so today – with stay at home mothers often treated as lazy, work-shy so-called ‘Yummy Mummies’ who spend much of their time at the gym and being ‘leisured’. I could go on but this is not Woman’s Hour, it’s a casual (and certainly not literary) book review. However, I felt that comment really struck a chord with me, and probably would with many other women of today, whether working parents or stay at home ones. Anyhoo, I digress.

The best bits of this book are the sizeable chunks that are filled with laughs. One of my personal favourites is where the PL has just about had it up to there with Lady Boxe saying that she could find out about ‘inexpensive pensions in the South of France for the PL when in almost Ally McBeal fashion:

Find myself indulging in rather melodramatic fantasy of Bentley crashing into enormous motor-bus and being splintered to atoms. Permit chauffeur to escape unharmed, but fate of Lady B. left uncertain…

I love the way in which the PL tries to keep up with what everyone is reading and watching, just as we do today. She’s always trying but failing to read the right books and see the right exhibitions and to have ready and erudite comments to hand. She has a very amusing encounter with a certain Miss Pankerton (Miss P):

Conversation very, very literary and academic, my own part in it being mostly confined to saying I haven’t yet read it, and, It’s down on my library list, but hasn’t come, so far. After what feels like some hours of this, Miss P. becomes personal, and says that I strike her as being a woman whose life has never known fulfilment. Have often thought exactly the same thing myself, but this does not prevent my feeling entirely furious with Miss P for saying so.

I’m sure we all know someone with whom we have to bite our tongue, and with whom we are trying to keep up with all the time. Sometimes it’s just easier to let them have their say and then let them be on their way. Unfortunately for the PL, she seems to know rather a few too many of this sort of person!

Overall, I enjoyed this particular Perspehone (I also have a beautiful Virago version of the book too, pictured below). I love the PL’s self-deprecating humour and her witticisms and at times cutting and sharp observations. The original illustrations of the characters that pepper the text also make for a special treat in amongst the sparkly writing. I would recommend this book to anyone who could do with a bit of light relief and a gentle, amusing read. If you’re hot on plot and action then perhaps look elsewhere. I didn’t love the Diary of a Provincial Lady, but I liked it rather a lot.

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Battenberg Cake

bbcbattenbergOh my very God. I am never making this cake again. They say ‘never say never’ but in this case, I totally mean it. It has been a complete and utter drama. The recipe is from Jane Brocket’s sublimely photographed Vintage Cakes, Tremendously Good Cakes for Sharing and Giving. I knew it would be a bit hard to make this cake, as it is in the ‘Posh Cakes’ section of the book, but man, I didn’t expect it to be such a trial by fire (and to result in so much swearing). This Brocket Bake was not a pleasure to make!

I say this because the start was actually rather promising, and dare I say it, fun! Making the actual cake batter was, as usual, a joy. I once again (as is now customary), involved my son in the production of the cake, with a little stirring here, a bit of mixing there, etc. It was jolly good fun.  A craic, even. The most fun part was mixing in this fantastic claret coloured colouring paste which was a birthday gift from my neighbour Emily. She bought it for me as this is not the first time I’ve had trouble making this dratted cake. The first time the cake didn’t even colour pink, as I used a very cheap and nasty Essential Waitrose natural food colouring which did diddly squat. So she purchased me a wondrous Sugarflair Colours food colouring paste and the results are stunning! So anyway, batter in tins, so far, so good.

battenburgrawInto the oven they popped. Out of the oven they popped. Hooray! The cake on the right is STILL pink! Result.

battenburgbakedThe next part of making this cake is where it all decided to go completely deranged and sent me deranged with it. The assembly of the cake is what gives Battenberg its tricksy reputation, and why so many contestants on the Great British Bake Off were confounded and/or completely frustrated by this cake!

Using apricot jam as an adhesive, you ‘glue’ the pieces of the cake together to form a checkerboard effect. This, too, wasn’t too bad and reasonably well executed, even if I do say so myself. It does one good to blow ones’ trumpet occasionally. Especially when the next part of your cake adventure is about to go utterly pear shaped.

Its the marzipan. The rotten, stick-to-everything, un-cooperative, gooey mess that is marzipan. It’s an absolute rotter and a cad. My first attempt at rolling out the marzipan was fine. i put the cake on top then attempted to carefully wrap the marzipan round the cake. It tore, it stuck to the counter despite copious amounts of icing sugar applied in the preparatory stage, and it generally turned into a disaster zone. Why did it all have to go wrong now, after so much time and effort had been spent?!

The air turned extremely blue as I uttered all manner of obscenities and abusive language, both at the cake and myself. And my husband too, when the poor man entered the kitchen to find out what all the fuss was about (not overly impressed when it turned out all the fuss was just over a silly cake). The cake was stuck to the counter, the marzipan sides were wrecked and I was actually crying all over the place. Crying. Over a goddamned cake. I ask you. Husband was by now rallied by the emotions and the drama and the time and effort invested in the cake, (and his time and effort in extracting the cake from the kitchen counter) so off he went to a large corporate food giant hypermarket to procure more marzipan to complete the cake.

This time, I learned my lesson and rolled out the marzipan on baking parchment, to stop aforementioned sticking from recurring. Worked like a charm. I’m sharing a slice with aforementioned Emily tomorrow morning for elevenses and I’m actually not shy about letting her see it, let alone eat it!

The cake is now recognisable as Battenberg, and although it looks a little ropey, I’m so glad that it is completed and looks at least passably edible, though not exactly as good as Jane Brocket’s photo in Vintage Cakes, nor as good as the BBC Food photo above. There’s one thing I am one hundred per cent sure of: in the words of Taylor Swift, we are never, ever, ever getting back together.

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Happy Birthday

audrey2Today would have been Audrey Hepburn’s 85th birthday. I’ve been slightly obsessed with Audrey since my early teens. Her sense of style, her brilliant films, and her simple, non-celeb approach to living her life all appealed to my younger self. I’m not sure exactly what it is about Audrey that fascinates people so much – her naivety? Her gentle nature? Her interesting and at times troubled life story, including her love life and her several miscarriages? Her collaborations with some of the most creative designers in history? Her non-threatening sexuality and cover girl looks? Her diverse film work? Her work with the sick and the needy? Who knows? Probably all of it rolled into one package.

audrey1What I love most about Audrey is her films. If I’m having a lousy day and need a bit of pure old fashioned escapism, I turn to her films for a bit of light-heated release. My favourite of her films is Roman Holiday, a true slice of fun, a romp through the capital of Italy with the gorgeous Gregory Peck in tow, as Audrey the princess tries to escape her own restricted and constrained life at court. The setting is of course, stunning, the story beguiling and the clothes divine. Funny Face is utterly charming, having the added bonus of being set in my favourite city outside England, Paris. It also has Fred Astaire and, of course, where there is Fred Astaire, there is dancing! Audrey was an accomplished dancer, having trained long before she became an actress. She even sings in this film too, which is a real treat (though not everyone would agree with me on that one). audrey3Sabrina is a real classic, with a bit more of a plot and the dialogue is clever and witty with the presence of William Holden and Humphrey Bogart to add some weight to the proceedings. My Fair Lady is pure poetry in the costume department and Breakfast at Tiffany’s is aching with style and pulls on the heartstrings. One of my favourite films of Audrey’s is, however, The Nun’s Story, which I have previously posted about, here. There are plenty of other Audrey films to whet the appetite, including War and Peace, Love in the Afternoon, Paris When it Sizzles, Charade (with the utterly sublime Cary Grant), and Always.

audrey4Audrey died at the age my mum is right now, 63. I can’t imagine losing my mum at so young an age. I wonder what Audrey would have gone on to achieve in her humanitarian work, had she lived longer. She died at home in her sleep on 20th January 1993 of appendiceal cancer. She will be remembered, for her beauty, her style and her eloquence for as long as we can watch and enjoy her films. She’ll be a part of my visual life for always.

Two days before Audrey’s birthday is mine. I have celebrated in style this weekend, having gone out for a wonderful, expensive and thoroughly delicious meal with my husband on Friday evening (for the first time in the nine weeks since our daughter was born!) and I also went for afternoon tea with my mum and sister on Saturday. We were treated to the most exquisitely tasty sandwiches, melt in the mouth scones with cream and jam (put on in that order – is it Devonshire style or Cornish style – I can never remember which way round it is?!), an amazing green macaroon, fruit tartlets and mini coffee eclairs to die for. Today we took the kids to a local craft fair and basked in the sun. What a fantastic weekend it has been. I hope you’ve all enjoyed your weekend too, and for those of you in the UK, I hope you have a wonderful Bank Holiday Monday planned for tomorrow. See you soon.

 

 

 

 

 

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Vintage Ladybirds

ladybirdgoingtoschoolI passed an extremely enjoyable hour the other day watching a documentary I had recorded over the Christmas period. It was on BBC4 (love love love) and was all about the phenomenon that is the Ladybird book. More specifically, the vintage Ladybird book, which had its’ heyday between the 1950s and early 1970s. Ladybird still publish thousands of books today, however they lack the charm and individuality that the old school Ladybirds held for the millions of young readers who came to cherish them, as I did, and I’m sure many of you did too.ladybirdshoppingwithmotherOne of the things that the documentary explored in depth, and which made me realise one of the reasons why I love these books so much, was the art work. The pages of the books were very uniform in that they were printed on one large block of paper, upon which could be printed 52 pages of a ladybird book. The format was: the printed words on the left hand page, and the illustration on the right hand page. This was the standard ladybird way for many years. The illustrations were produced by actual established and often classically trained artists, who would paint the pictures and produce genuine, mini works of art. The only Ladybird I own now is ‘The Story of our Churches and Cathedrals’, illustrated by Robert Ayton who produced some stunning images of cathedrals in this little book. The artists were all extremely well respected in their field, and highly talented in producing the kind of images that fitted the books they illustrated. Some were specialists in drama and emotion, others were meticulous in their portrayal of detail, others more focused on action and movement. One of the most significant changes that were made to the books when they underwent an overhaul  in the late 70s (because they were looking ‘tired’ and ‘old hat’) was the artwork went. The traditional format also went. And thus, so did the quirky individuality of the original Ladybird book. What a shame.

ladybirdcinderellaI owned this copy of Cinderella and loved it (i.e. read it) to death. It literally died a death, so tattered, dog-eared and dirty were its’ pages, so ruined was the spine. One of the things I loved about it was that the fairy godmother was dressed more like a witch! Another endearing thing about the vintage ladybird book is that the language and the style of retelling the ‘well loved tales’ was very matter of fact. This was before the dawn of political correctness and was therefore very direct and had no discernible frills on. There is something very fresh about reading a ladybird book from this time – and it can be laugh out loud funny for that reason too. In the opening lines of Cinderella, we are told very matter of factly that Cinderella lived with her father because her mother was dead and that she had two frightfully ugly stepsisters. Nowadays, all of this is toned down, the language altered and more sympathetic, the facts less starkly represented.

ladybirdchickenlickenThe vintage ladybird is now of course, highly collectible. The 1980s saw a change in the ladybird book. This was when I was learning to read and blooming into a fluent reader with my well loved favourites, and so my ladybird library expanded during this time. Snow White and Rose Red was one of my most favourites, as I had never seen this retelling of the story before and loved the addition to the story of Rose Red. By the 1990s the vintage ladybird book was turning up at car boot sales and in charity shops, and going for a song – often for just 10p each! I know that it was at this time, in my late teens, that I was discarding my own ladybird books in a bid to feel more grown up, as I was replacing them with nineteenth century classics and modern cult novels. Ladybirds now go for a lot more than that as sellers have cottoned on to the vintage appeal of these lovely books. I wonder if any of you out there collect ladybirds? I think I might start! I found a lovely blog dedicated to old ladybird books and it has helped to reignite my love of these little hardback joys. You should check it out, it’s very thoughtfully written with a wry sense of humour.

ladybiedsnowwhiteandrosered By the time I was a reader, ladybird books had changed quite significantly and were looking a little different, though I had many of the original ones in my modest library at home on my bookshelf made by my dad in his carpentry class at school some 25 years earlier. They were looking more like this, below. More modern, more up-to-date. More uniform and dull in my opinion, and gone was the beautiful artisan touch. Of course, I didn’t realise any of this at the time, and I dearly loved my ‘read it yourself’ books, of which I had many. But looking at the difference between the books now, it is clear that around this point in time, Ladybird lost its’ way a little by trying to repackage itself. Yes, in some respects, Ladybird needed to move on. Socially, things had changed from the 1950s lovely Ladybird Land. And yes, the fabric of society had by the 1970s torn to reveal a number of problems and divisions which just weren’t reflected in the books of the time. I understand why the books had to change. BUT. Aren’t books a means of escape from the real world? Aren’t books a means to aspire and dream? So what if my world doesn’t look like Ladybird Land? I don’t care. But I love it when I’m there, when I immerse myself into that world which no longer exists. I’m a little old-fashioned and don’t see the need for gritty realism in children’s books!ladybirdreadityourself

That’s another wonderful thing about the vintage Ladybird book. They were published way before even the age of the VHS recorder, let alone DVDs and the internet and ipads and computer games. You can tell. There is that quaint, old world charm about them. And that’s why you’ve got to love a Ladybird.

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Simnel Cake

crystallisedprimrosesLast Easter, I made my first Simnel Cake. I used the Jane Brocket recipe from Vintage Cakes, and to be perfectly frank, it was a total flop. It completely burnt on the crust and pretty much required the use of a hacksaw to cut into it. Undeterred, I decided this Easter to have another go!

This time I used the Mary Berry recipe. Very similar recipe to Brocket’s really, so not much in it. I really enjoyed making the cake, as I enlisted the very enthusiastic support of my three year old son, who is turning into quite the amateur baker. We had great fun mixing, folding, sieving and of course, licking the spoon and the bowl afterwards! I dispatched the cake mixture into the oven at the given temperature of 170 degrees for two and a half hours. So far, so good. Or so I thought!

Approximately one hour into the baking time, I could smell a faint whiff of burning. I dashed to the oven door, opened it without standing back to let the initial burst of intense heat emit from inside and promptly got face burn! Once I had recovered from this bout of stupidity on my part, I inspected the cake. It was indeed looking a little too baked, especially given how much time was left for it to remain in the oven! I covered the cake with foil and kept checking it every half an hour or so to make sure there was no further over-baking going on.

When we reached the two and a quarter hour mark, i could leave the cake in the oven no longer. It looked a healthy St Tropez colour and I was reasonably pleased that it wasn’t the charred mess of last year. However, after letting the cake cool for a time, I picked it up to put it on the cake stand and it felt like a two ton weight! It also felt extremely hard on the outside!

A little disheartened, but by no means defeated, I proceeded to decorate the cake in the usual manner with a pretty layer of marzipan, some crystallised flowers and a purple ribbon. I was determined that it would look good, even if it did taste like crap! I took it round to my in-laws house on Easter Saturday and everyone seemed to enjoy it and commented on how lovely it was. BUT, it definitely had a hard layer on the outside, and did not have that lovely moistness that I so love in a fruit cake. I saved a couple of slices for my parents, who were visiting on Easter Day. They both enjoyed the cake, but my dad is my harshest (but fairest and most honest) critic, and he confirmed that the cake was indeed dry and perhaps I should readjust my baking times to take into account the fact that I clearly have an oven that cooks hotter than the average…(confirmed by the fact that my Yorkshire puddings, the roast lamb and the bread and butter pudding were all also a little on the done side!)

So, I am yet to get a Simnel cake completely right. My other recent adventure in the kitchen also failed – I attempted to make a Battenburg cake only to discover on removing the cake from the oven that the pink side of the cake was as pink as the normal coloured side of the cake, despite putting lashings of pink food colouring into the cake mixture! Que?! Has anyone else had this problem, and what, prey tell, is the solution?!

Anyway, every cloud has a silver lining. I had great fun making the cake and it looked nice and well presented. What I most enjoyed was crystallising the primroses to go on the top of the cake. Such fun! Picking the primroses from the bottom of the garden, whisking up an egg white, meticulously painting each petal with the frothy foam, and immersing each flower into oodles of white caster sugar to finish them off. I loved every second of it! It is something I look forward to doing again in the future – so little effort for such a pretty final effect. Everyone commented on them and they really finished off the look of the cake, I thought. I shall leave you with a picture of the final version, the moment at which I was most pleased with it. Better luck next year!

simnelcake

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