Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween or Guy Fawkes?

When we first moved to England, Halloween was not a celebrated holiday. Our American customs were just beginning to get known to the British, which resulted in some confusion. You see, only five days after Halloween is the one native British holiday: Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th (though you don't get off work to celebrate).

Guy Fawkes is renowned as a participant of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 in an attempt to return English rule to Catholicism. His capture on November 5th and later death are what's celebrated on Guy Fawkes Day. Traditionally, English children have made effigies of Guy and sat themselves with their Guys on the street, begging "A penny for the Guy" in the lead up to November 5th. On the day itself, at least in our early years in England, the Guys were paraded through the streets in a contest for the best Guy, then later added to a large bonfire structure which was lit in the evening along with a fireworks display.

Well, the advent of Halloween in Britain encouraged some children to start canvassing neighborhoods (neighbourhoods) two weeks in advance to collect sweets (candy), like collecting pennies for the Guy. With no sense that households may not have bought their goodies to hand out yet, the kids were turned away with nothing. Moreover, they had no idea of what the phrase "Trick or Treat" really meant: when we asked for a trick, they were dumbfounded.

With the cross-over of traditions in England, I was therefore surprised on a recent visit to the States to find that effigies are a big thing these days. So this 'Guy' sitting on the pumpkin could well have been taken onto the streets for collecting pennies -- though I think the real Guy, who called himself Guido while fighting for Spanish causes in the nether-lands, was a bit more sophisticated than the straw might imply.

So, Happy Halloween, and Happy Guy Fawkes Day -- the one English celebration that is not high church or purely commercial.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Autumn Colours

Cottonwood in full colour
In my “Northumbrian Voices” blog, I mentioned daydreaming under a cottonwood tree in my youth. Cottonwoods are glorious in the autumn, turning bright gold against the azure sky. These are the colors (colours) I grew up with.

When talking to an English friend recently how wonderful the fall colors are in the States, I couldn't believe it when he said “They're too bright; they hurt my eyes”!! Indeed, I once had a roll of film in my camera (those were the days), half of which I'd taken in Cambridge and half on an excursion to the Shetland Islands. Everyone talks about how the colours are brighter in the Shetlands, but I was amazed when I developed the film to find the first half in muted grey-greens and blue-grays and the second half in bright blues and clear yellows (it was autumn then, too). The gold colours of cottonwoods and aspens are as unlike the tarnished brassy colours of the horse chestnut as you can get. I used to deplore autumn in Cambridge when the leaves just turned brown and fell off the trees.

Rather than hurting my eyes, the golden colours of autumn trees inflitrate my body to the core, pull it apart and scatter it among the leaves. I am there among the twinkling aspen, and the cottonwoods fill my horizon. And the sweet small of wet fallen leaves is wonderful. The same experience can be had among the cherry trees of Japan, when one is enveloped by a cloud of pink. The best place is along Philosopher's Way (Tetsugaku-no-michi) in Kyoto, where cherries line a canal. Walking the canal path at the height of the season, one can only see pink. I suppose my friend would say it would be like being enveloped in candy floss (cotton candy) and equally undesireable. Maybe this is why everyone in London wears black and neutrals ("grey is the new black") -- no colour, no sense of colour, no sense of the fantastic energizing quality of colour. I love colour, I live colour and pity those without colour in their lives.

Note the tire swing in the cottonwood: great place to play!

Friday, 28 October 2011

A Trip to the Seaside

When I heard we were going to Gibraltar Point last weekend, I thought it was an awfully long way to go for a two-night stay. But it turned out not to be Gibraltar itself in the Mediterranean. Gibraltar Point (arrow on map) is in Lincolnshire, just south of Skegness  – one of the many coastal recreational towns in Britain. Usually these towns have a beach faced by B&B accommodation; a main street with common pinball-type entertainment shops, lots of small eateries and sweet shops; possibly a pier with more entertainment / refreshment facilities perched at its end; and sometimes a small circus area with rides for kids. I always find these towns rather 1930s in feel and somewhat forlorn – maybe because I don’t have the memories of having great fun there as a child.

A fifteen-minute taxi ride south of Skegness brings you to Gibraltar Point, a National Nature Reserve, and its old coastguard station which has been turned into a Visitor Centre and Wash Study Centre. These kinds of study centres, which host a variety of naturalist and school groups for day-trips or longer, are an exceptionally valuable feature of English life. While we were there, we encountered a group of schoolkids doing nature studies on the beach, a group of geography students with measuring poles and clipboards practicing surveying techniques, and of course, us birders. But the dunes along the coast brought many local people, their kids and dogs for walks on a last glorious sunny autumn day. The Study Centre also hosted an exhibition for UK Apple Day and a quiz walk through their heritage orchard.

The Point faces The Wash, an embayment of the North Sea that takes the outflow of three major rivers, the Great Ouse discharging near King’s Lynn in the southwest corner of The Wash being the most famous. Looking out from the Point to the east the first day, I saw land and thought, wow! France! But no, it was only Norfolk. The Wash & North Norfolk Coast is a Special Area of Conservation and European Marine Site: a great place to see seals and many sea and shore birds (and we were lucky to see the Chinese water deer, too). Many people also sail The Wash, as can be seen by the presence of the Skegness Yacht Club with yachts tied up in the ‘marina’ formed by a small tributary into The Wash. Well, I guess there are yacht clubs and there are yacht clubs....but it all goes with quaintness of a British seaside resort.

Skegness Yacht Club marina
Skegness Yacht Club & warning
not to bring in animals from abroad

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Spotting Wild Animals

Speaking of animal-spotting, we had an extraordinary encounter with a Chinese water deer at a nature reserve in Lincolnshire last weekend. It was supposed to be an RSPB birding trip, but one of the first things we saw was this animal streaking through the coastal scrub straight towards us, then veering off and jumping down into a river. The thing looked like a barrel on short legs, scrambling through the brush like a rabbit more than a deer. You could see its fangs (unique to water deer), which made its snout kind of stubby-looking, like a pig. Someone said it was probably pregnant, it was so rotund.

The fauna book in the nature reserve library said it was an escapee ornamental import, only present in two counties when the book was published in 1964. But since then, it has obviously spread wider across the country. Interestingly, the next deer named in the book was the muntjac, also a Chinese import. I saw one once in a Cambridge college garden, fading into the hedge. The Chinese water deer is only 60cm high at the shoulder, and the muntjac is even smaller. What interesting wildlife can be seen in England if you're lucky.
A Frontier Airlines wood-duck tail

Then recently I passed through Denver (Colorado, not Denver of the Denver sluice in Norfolk), the hub for Frontier Airlines. Taking a page from the book I reported on earlier (Animal London: a Spotter's Guide), I spotted wild animals in art form. Frontier has painted a different animal on each of its airplanes' tails.

An exhibition in the Denver International Airport (DIA) terminal bridge just happened to have a presentation on the creativity of Denver and Colorado, allegedly the 5th most creative place in the US. Well, Frontier shows this spirit. I like the animals because they are humorous, unpretentious, and entertaining -- not like the pompous logos of many other airlines. Also, they bring the wild into daily life, reminding us that we are not alone in the world but there are others we must take care of.

More Frontier tails: from left, raccoon, bobcat, mountain lion and ?ermine

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Make Applesauce!!

If the UK has so many apple varieties that they want to save but are not supermarketable, then why not make applesauce out of them? I’ve never understood why applesauce is sold in such tiny jars in England. In the States, a typical jar of applesauce (pictured) is 25 ounces / 1 lb 9 oz / 708 grams or about 1 quart’s worth (that’s not imperial quarts, mind). The large jar weighs 50 oz / 3 bl 2 oz / 1.41 kg. And it’s not eaten by the spoonful as a condiment but by the bowl full like real fruit.

So in England, if you want to eat applesauce by the bowlful, then make your own. You don’t have to use Bramley apples but any kind will do, and it’s dead easy. And if you want all the healthy stuff in them (eating an apple a day is now scientifically proven to be healthwise), leave the skins on.

• core and cut up four larger apples into bitesize pieces
• boil them in an inch of water in a saucepan until soft, about 10 minutes (or longer if quite runny in order to boil off some of the fluid)
• remove from heat and mash up with a potato masher
• stir in ¼ cup of sugar and cinnamon to taste

Voila! You have made applesauce! Now, if everyone used UK apples in all their knobbly, blemished varieties to make applesauce, we would really be helping to keep our apple diversity alive. Then if the companies would follow suit and made larger jars of UK applesauce, we would really be on a roll.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Apple Day in the UK

I didn't know it until Saturday, but October 21st is National Apple Day in the UK. And well should UK apples be celebrated. Among 7500 varieties worldwide, there are over 300+ varieties of apples grown in the UK, but very few of them reach the national marketplaces. They are judged to be too unsightly or too varying in size by the supermarkets who peddle perfectly sized and shaped – and often tasteless – apples from France and New Zealand instead: the usual run of the mill Gala, Red Delicious, etc.
The Cox apple is the most popular of UK apples, the Bramley is the only specialized cooking apple: too tart to be eaten on its own. All Bramleys come from cuttings of a single tree, still alive in Southwell, Nottingshire after 200 years. See the original Bramley tree on BBC! National Apple Day aims to get local apples more widely known and appreciated, before this particular aspect of biodiversity disappears from the UK. Do your bit: now that it's autumn, buy British apples! And if you don't like their looks, make applesauce from them!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Animal Spotting

I like it! I like the idea anyway...haven't read the book because it hasn't yet been published:  "Animal London: a spotters' guide" (by Ianthe Ruthven, Random House UK, February 2012). This is about walking around London and looking at architecture, statuary, etc. to find the variety of animals depicted. It's always useful to look around you in London, especially upwards. Above the shopfronts (depressingly uniform) are often some lively architectural features, if not actually anthropomorphic or zoomorphic then amazing displays of craftsmanship and design. Just don't trip when you're looking up (in Camden, it's better because they've been replacing all the sidewalks (pavements) recently with evenly laid concrete tiles.

Once having learned about this idea of spotting animals in an urban setting, I tried it out in Durham. What I found was one lonely sign depicting a gull. Interesting though; this gull belonged to a group of volunteers who have organized what they call 'empty shops' – renting empty shop space as temporary galleries, exhibitions, and performances. Seeing as how up to 30% of high street shops are now vacant in some towns, this seems a good use of resources and a laudable thing to be doing in these recessionary times.

Meanwhile, I looked up spotter's guide (always singular) on the internet and was surprised to find it is a standard term for animal spotting. Lots of books, but mainly on spotting animals in the wild. One, however, told you how to do it in a zoo. Finally, I ran across an article in Time Out, the premier entertainment guide to London, which listed the wild animals one can see in London itself (including the Thames)*: badger, bats (16 species), Canada goose, common seal, damselflies, dragonflies, fallow deer, fox, grey heron, grey squirrels, Harris hawk, hedgehogs, mice, northern bottlenose whale, otter, pelicanperegrine falcon, ravens, rats, red deer, ring-necked parakeet, signal crayfish, sparrow, stag beetle, water vole. The emboldened ones I'm aware I've seen myself in London, but I must say, whoever made up this list isn't a bird-watcher! And what happened to butterflies?

* See the article for more detail on the animals and where to find them. They also ask for contributions to what you've seen. I'll do the same...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Chainsaw Art at Thornley Woods nr Newcastle

Thornley woodpecker
Otter from a tree stump
This past Sunday was a glorious autumn day, so we decided to go for a walk and hit on Thornley Woods near Newcastle. Never been before, but we happened to arrive after Tommy Cragg had just finished his series of chainsaw sculptures on dead trees along the trails leading away from the Thornley Woods information centre. Dead fascinating!
Red kite from a
tree stump
Rabbit at Thornley Woods
It turns out that Tommy Cragg, based near Consett, is well-known on the international chainsaw art

circuit, having competed in the Chainsaw Carving day at Chetwynd, BC in June 2011, winning overall Third Prize. And he won the 2008 APF Chainsaw Carving Competition sponsored by Echo in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.  His works adorn several venues around England; see his Gallery for the enormous range of artwork he does and where those works are located.  I must say, we were impressed; the artistry is astounding. And the fact that these sculptures are all on trees that are still rooted mean they will remain to be enjoyed many years. If you are interested in how these sculptures are done, see the 4 videos on YouTube of the Chetwynd competition.
   In addition to seeing Cragg's Red Kite, we also saw two red kites in the air, two dippers in the stream, and a grey heron (Ardea cinerea), relative of the North American great blue heron (Ardea herodias). The red kites are a real treat, as they have been reintroduced to England and are now thriving. On the wing, they are one of the most beautiful birds, flashing red, black and white in the sun.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Rooibos Earl Grey Tea

Speaking of tea, as in my last blog, I think it useful to advertise the fact that we have found a wonderful new herbal, caffine-free tea: rooibos. But not just any old rooibos, EARL GREY rooibos!
In America, plain ole rooibos, or red bush tea, is just catching on as of last June, according to Jessica Grose. Here, it has been known at least since Alexander McCall Smith's publication of his series on The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency – where we became familiar with red bush tea through its being the drink of the day at the Agency.

McCall Smith, a doctor by profession, spent a year in Botswana and apparently fell in love with the place. His re-creation of the slow life and concerns of the occupants of Gaborone, the Botswana capital, are heart-rending. His book series began in 1998; several were also read on BBC Radio 4 between 2004 and 2008, then a television series followed in 2008, with protagonist Detective Mma Ramotswe faithfully played by the American Jill Scott. We really enjoyed both the books and the TV series (which we had to watch elsewhere since we don't have a TV) and recommend them to everyone: a new book title is still appearing every year.

Anyway, we were quite surprised to see the addition of bergamot oil to the tea and offered as Early Grey Rooibos! But it is good, and we recommend this, too, to everyone.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Cappuccino is Cup of Tea??

Even in Korea, they know what a
cappucino is...nice persimmon
on top, eh?
Ordering a cup of tea in London can be tricky these days. So many of the wait staff in London are from foreign countries that one struggles to make oneself understood. "Hi, I'd like a cappuccino, please." "A cappa chee?" and indeed a cup of tea was served.

Since time immemorial (well, anyway, since tea arrived in these isles), the English have referred to "a nice cuppa tea". The word "nice" seems crucial.

One never orders "a nice cuppa tea". If it is an order or a choice, "Tea or coffee?", then it's just plain tea. "A nice cuppa tea" is only ever offered or suggested, "Let's have a nice cuppa tea" or "Let me make you a nice cuppa tea." Sometimes we wonder what a not-nice cup of tea is like... And also, why doesn't anyone ever refer to "a nice cuppa coffee"?

In the movie Notting Hill, Julia Roberts, having spent the night with Hugh Grant in his flat, opens the front door to find myriad papparazzi ready to report her latest romantic caper. She slams the door in panic. Never mind, says Hugh, how about "a nice cuppa tea"? Julia, an American, doesn't get the soothing significance of this offer of the ultimate English panacea and reacts with angry sarcasm: "A NICE cuppa tea?" An American in this situation needs "a drink", i.e. some serious alcohol.

But OK, let's focus on tea. An ongoing debate is whether to put the milk in the cup first and then the tea, or the milk after the tea.* People can get pretty het up about this. Most say it affects the flavour, but I heard the other day a most practical reason: pouring milk in the cup first saves the cup from breaking when the hot tea is poured in.

I fell in love with English-style tea when I was a Tea Lady in Australia. A two-week fill-in job for somebody on holiday, and I didn't even know what a Tea Lady was. Turns out I had to work in the Philips electronic company and circulate the tea cart around to people at their desks twice a day. I was supposed to remember how each person liked their tea so I could serve them without asking; I wasn't too good at that, so I'm glad the job only lasted a fortnight.

Nevertheless, I grew to like tea with milk so much that I took a box of tea bags home with me to the States. It didn't taste anything like the same. I think the flavour was due to the milk (what the cows ate Down Under) and the water.

In England, there is a complicated social context for tea. Of course, it was first, in the days of the East India Tea Company, a drink of the upper classes who could afford the imports. Then it moved into the working class with a vengeance. "Builders' tea" is half milk and three sugars – they live on the stuff. Back in the 1980s, there used to be a Teasmade machine that people put on their night tables. Set to start working before you woke up, a cup of tea was ready for you when you opened your eyes, before getting out of bed. Many people still drink a cup of tea in bed first thing.

By the time we had come to Britain in 1981, coffee was gaining momentum. Going to a morning appointment, we were offered coffee at 11am; being a non-coffee drinker at that time, my companion asked for tea. No, not to be had, in the morning anyway. Only coffee in the morning; tea was served in the afternoon, at tea-time (another topic altogether). And neither could be had directly after lunch...

Of course, this is all ancient history as Britain is Starbucks-land just like everywhere else. But at least you can now get a cuppa tea any time of day you want.

*A friend informs me that a 'nice' cup of tea is made with milk in first, then teabag, then boiling water. Anything else is not nice.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Library DVDs are not bad!

The Blockbuster ticket logo on its old shop,
covered with a policing sign
presumably to deter break-ins
It's probably not news to report that our nearest DVD rental shops have both gone out of business. Blockbuster: busted!

I'd subscribe to Netflix if I could, but it isn't available in the UK. Maybe in 2012, says Which magazine... Meanwhile, I go to the library and check out DVDs for 50 pence each (that's about 80 cents). And what good films I've found, mostly true stories or at least based on historic incidents:

• "The Lives of Others", a 2006 German film about a Stasi agent who becomes disillusioned with his commitment to East German politics
• "K-19 Widowmaker", a 2002 Harrison Ford film about a Soviet nuclear sub disaster off the coast of Greenland in 1961, the story only becoming known after Glasnost
• "The Last Contract", a 1997 Swedish film about the killing of Olof Palme, the Prime Minister of Sweden
• "Kinsey", a 2004 film with Liam Neeson; a biography of the sex researcher
• Not to mention "A change of seasons", which was true to life if not true

The pickings are small at the library, but so far so good and can't fault the price! Too bad, though, that councils are closing libraries all over Britain in these austere times, despite arguments that they are community centres in and of themselves, with computer classes and literacy help groups – not to mention a warm daily refuge for the homeless. We can all petition to save the libraries, but maybe we should also donate books and DVDs, so that maybe the libraries can use some of their funds to stay open instead of buying more stock. Do you have any worthy ones to donate?

Friday, 14 October 2011

Houmous in all its varieties

Having recently written about "Beans on Toast", I suddenly realized that one of my favourite sandwiches is a Middle Eastern version of beans on toast: Houmous in Pitta Bread! There used to be a sandwich truck that came around my place of work to sell sammys (is that British slang? No, I looked it up on the internet [i.e. I googled it]* and all sorts of people claim it: Sicilians, Americans, and the DownUnders spell it sammie).

I gained quite a lot of weight eating plain houmous pittas or houmous & falafel pittas every day. That's why I don't eat sandwiches anymore...

Meanwhile, the varieties of houmous** sold in the UK are skyrocketing.*** We can get houmous flavoured with red pepper, roasted red pepper, caramelised onion, pesto, lemon & coriander, sweet chilli, jalapeno (without the tilde), garden herb, broad bean & asparagus, piri piri (hot chilli), or using Italian, Moroccan or Indian spices.

By official-ish definition, houmous is centred around mashed chick peas and tahini. However, though containing neither, the broad bean & asparagus item mentioned above was labelled 'houmous'. It appears that sometimes 'houmous' is just a term embracing a wide range of mashed legume 'dip' products in similar-shaped containers, intended for dipping raw veggies etc. The newest addition to this product range is correctly not referred to as houmous. This is Edamame Bean & Wasabi Dip, from Sainsbury's. Is contents are 26% soybeans, 15% peas, and spinach – the green elements. Wasabi powder claims 1%.

I wonder at the name, though. Edamame in Japanese are soybeans in the pod. Boiled in salty water, they make good beer snacks by sucking out the beans from the pod. The name of this product suggests the pods are ground up into the dip. That would have pleased my father, who once ate a whole plate of edamame, pods and all. You should have seen the look on the waitress's face as she glanced around to find the discarded pods to dispose of. Absolute puzzlement, then astonishment ("You ate them all???").

Back to houmous, the edamame dip is lovely, so it will join Moroccan and lemon & coriander on the shopping list as our favourites. Wonder what they will come up with next....

* I hate it when I ask someone about something and the first thing they say is "Google it". If I'd wanted to google it, I would have done it already, but I want the easy asking the person next to me when the question arises.

**There are a lot of spellings of houmous on the internet (yes, I googled it). I'll go with Sainsbury's spelling since that's where I buy it. The 'ou' must be British English, like 'favourite', 'labour'; but those words just add a 'u'. Here an 'o' is added, otherwise we'd spell it 'hummus' like the ever-reliable Wikipedia does...

***Ha, ha, ha, I scooped the Daily Mail on this topic, by one day. See Amanda Cable's column on "Dippy about houmous" in the Saturday October 15th issue. Since it's longer than my blog, it has more info – interesting!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A wildflower mistake in my garden

My summer wildflower garden: too many feverfew
I hardly need to say how popular gardening is among the British. People happily spend all their free time (especially after retirement) toiling away in their allotments to grow veggies, or planning their flowerbeds for the best seasonal sequence. One thing they don't have to do is mow a lot of grass, for few houses have that much land attached. So the American male competition of growing the best lawn is unknown here.
An autumnal indulgence
For someone who grew up in an arid climate, the British garden is quite a change. I was once (age 13) given leave by my mother to plant some zinnias – wherever I wanted. I chose a nice shady spot under a pine tree. So much for my self-induction to gardening, in 95°F and 5% humidity, the plants wilted and collapsed. Here it rains so much that a large part of gardening is merely removing unwanted
biomass from shrubs that grow too large and weeds that infiltrate everywhere, and seasonal clean-up tasks.

My attitude this past summer was "let a hundred flowers bloom" – meaning feverfew in my front garden. Volunteer wild flowers, I thought, how nice! Actually, feverfew spreads everywhere and I'm rather sorry because the thousands of seeds dropped when I rooted it all out are going to come back to haunt me next spring. Meanwhile, I made one concession to the autumn season: I bought a container plant of small chrysanthemums, guaranteed to bloom until the first frost. But they have to be watered because even the rain doesn't penetrate the healthy head of leaves and buds.

When I first started gardening in England, I treasured every plant bought as if it were a child (20-year investment). But through years of buying plants and watching them die on me, I treat them now more as I do food: buy, consume, buy more.... I now have mainly perennials outside and house plants that can survive on my feast-or-famine watering schedule: do or die...

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Music at Ye Old Elm Tree

The Elm Tree pub has been listed as the "best pub in Durham" – why, we don't know. This was in the advertising booklet published for Newcastle tourism and handed out to Durham University students last week as they all arrived back in town for the new term.
It is one of a few pubs in Durham offering sessions in traditional folk music. It's British-Irish at the Elm Tree on Monday and Tuesday nights. On Wednesdays there is the DUFS student group' practicing its tunebook repertoire at the Market Tavern, and a different session at the Shakespeare, while Thursdays have Northumbrian music at the Dun Cow and a singing session at the Tap & Spile. So entertainment is never hard to find on week nights here in Durham. And I finally understand the attraction of going down to the pub and seeing friends – without prior arrangement.
While Monday night at the Elm Tree is pretty high-powered and difficult to join in, the Tuesday night session is very flexible and welcoming, especially to us relative beginners. There are some regulars who come in to hear us play, while foreign guests of musicians are occasional visitors. Last night a group of five Japanese professors were there to listen in. So although rather isolated here in the North of England, and Durham being too small a town for some, you can't say it isn't connected and interesting!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Ridge & Furrow at St Oswalds Golf Course

Yesterday we took a walk down the footpaths that enclose the northern part (Holes 9-18) of St Oswalds Golf Course in Durham. This northern part preserves a ridge & furrow field system – a system which has a millennium of history behind it. It could date back to Anglo-Saxon times and was characteristic of the pre-enclosure agriculture system of medieval age, but continued in modified form through the 19th century. Technically, as David Hall states in his enlightening article, the strict date of the field is when it was last
plowed (ploughed) – usually coinciding with its enclosure.

Each ridge in the system belonged to a specific farmer, and typically the farmer would cultivate ridge strips in different areas of the village's holding to maximize (maximise) the odds of successful yields. He would plow (plough) it with a single-direction plough in a clockwise fashion starting from the center (centre) of the strip. This would intentionally throw up the soil towards the center of the ridge and create a furrow between the ridges. The ridge would then forming a well-drained seedbed which was planted in 3-year crop rotation: wheat and barley, then beans and peas, then left fallow for a year.

   The size and shape of the ridges are characteristic of time and place: early ridges were about 8m wide and 1000m long (that's a kilometer!). But the fenland ridges were 15m wide x 1500m long. In the 19th century, some ridges grew to 20m wide in the southeast, or narrowed to 2-3m in the northwest. The ones at St Oswalds are about 2-3m wide; they are deemed to be post-medieval 19th-century fields.
   Ridge & furrow only survive in areas that haven't been subsequently plowed after the enclosure act; most are pasture and many can be seen in the north on the train ride from London to Durham. The examples at St Oswalds might be seeing the end of their days, as a big development company is wanting to turn the golf course into housing for 1000 students, 72 executive homes and 150-250 homes for plebs. 

Hall, David (1998) "Medieval fields in their many forms." British Archaeology 33
Durham County Council "Durham City greenbelt site assessment, part 2: site 7".

Monday, 10 October 2011

Peregrines at the Tate Modern and Other Bird Life

The birds on this blog page are one of the offered templates. I'm too lazy to customize, and I like the birds anyway. Birds are a big part of our life: with feeders in the backyard we have all the garden birds of England: great tits, blue tits, coal tits, robins, wren (occasionally), greenfinches, bullfinches, goldfinches, dunnocks, blackbirds, ring-necked doves, song thrush (rarely these days), sometimes a fly-through of long-tailed tits, and jackdaws and woodpigeons. The last two are unwelcome guests as they hoover through the feed too fast. But I don't mind fattening up the woodpigeons – we might have to make a meal of them some day the way the economy is going.

The birds seem to like it when we come to the table to eat. Perhaps they can see us through the patio door windows, but our presence must be reassuring because when we eat, the birds come in to eat, too. Maybe they think we keep away the neighborhood cats, who have at times been found to be lurking in the nearby bushes.

A recent trip to the Tate Modern was to see the peregrines that often roost on the tower. The RSPB* had set up a viewing stand with two tripod binoculars. The peregrines are one of several pairs now nesting around London and like high ledges on which to roost. The day we saw the peregrine, it looked like a feathery humpty dumpty – just a half-oval shape plunked on the ledge. Not the regal hunting bird I was expecting. Still, it was nice to spot it.

A friend with a very black eye thought he looked like a peregrine with its black face mask. Do you think so, too?

*The Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Selenium, Brazil Nuts & Ginger

They say that British soils lack selenium (Se), a metalloid element essential for our health. Selenium deficiency causes selenosis (damage to hair and nails), skin lesions, and neurological problems. One has to be careful, however, because selenium can be toxic to humans at high doses. So how much is enough but not too much, and how can we make up for the lack of selenium in British agricultural products?

The current WHO recommended intake is 33-34 micrograms of selenium per day for men and 25-26mcg for non-lactating women. Selenosis can manifest itself with an intake of 910mcg/day, but up to 450mcg/day is deemed ok. Jane Clarke, a nutritionist, advocates eating Brazil nuts as daily snacks to make up for this Se deficiency. Brazil nuts have 1530mcg of selenium per 100 grams (there are 140g of Brazils in an 8-oz cup); eating this many grams of Brazil nuts is clearly unwise as it exceeds the toxicity threshold. If the ok value is 450mcg (29% of the amount of selenium in 100 grams), then about 29 grams of nuts (about 1 oz) is allowable. Brazil nuts weigh 4g each on average, so a small handful (7 or so) would suffice. 
However, Brazil nuts are high in calories; an ounce (28g) is about 190 calories. So we have decided one-nut-a-day is a good policy as insurance, since selenium (110mcg) is also in our multi-vitamins. Jane Clarke mentioned raisins as a good companion to Brazil nuts, but how about a piece of crystallized ginger? Both the nuts and ginger have important medicinal properties, the latter supposedly preventing colds. Well, it didn't keep my husband from catching a zinger last weekend, but the combination of Brazil nut and ginger is a tasty treat anyway and worth eating just for its yum-factor.

Environment Agency (2009) "Soil guideline values for selenium in soil." Science Report SC050021/Selenium SGV
Kirschmann, J.D. & Nutrition Search, Inc.(2007) Nutrition Almanac. New York: McGraw Hill

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Medieval Market in Durham

This weekend the Durham marketplace is hosting an outdoor Medieval Market. The advertisement boasted various food and craft stalls, so I went with friends to take a look. What a lot of hype! The market wasn't all that different from what they call International Markets, with Spanish paella, German sausages, and British roast pork sandwiches comprising the food stalls. Perhaps the only one with a medieval claim was the Noodle Bar, which we rationalized was a product of Marco Polo's tour.

Other foodstuffs being sold were honey, cheese and fudge.

As for the craft stalls, there were the usual trinkets from India, Sri Lanka and Morocco, but one exceptional stall was Lumina Jewellery, run by Sara & Picky Saund. The stones were wide-ranging semi-precious and geological stones (a ring made from labradorite) with truly beautiful and creative silver settings. Moreover, the stallkeeper, presumably Picky himself, seemed a knowledgeable and conscientious vendor, phasing out shell jewelry because of the toxic agents used in finishing the shells for mounting. The Saunds don't have a permanent outlet, but they can be found attending various markets in the Northeast.

-Anyway, we ate hog roast sandwiches (be sure to order the small bits instead of the pork slices) and sat in the sunny cold wind in the newly refurbished Durham Marketplace. A jester with a fake ferret was making the rounds, belching in an uncouth (medieval?) manner, while an armored knight was mounted on what looked like a Shire plowhorse, accompanied by a drummer. The banners and signboards were supposed to lend a Medieval air to the offerings, but they tried too hard with the trappings while lacking in content. I hope they draw a larger crowd on the weekend; it was a pretty desultory attendance, and few people, including me, were buying anything.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Musings on Sun, Rain and Mountains

I stepped out of the house yesterday noon into bright sunshine, and it was raining! And freezing: the temperature was only 48° (9°C). I guess our heat wave has ended... It rained two more times today while the sun was shining. Needless to say, the wind was blowing as well. Crazy weather! I guess it's due to Hurricane Philippe in the North Atlantic (but isn't that supposed to bring warm air from the south?).

A friend says there is a saying in Korean for when the sun shines as it rains: "Horangi changga kanun nal". A direct translation says "A day when the tiger gets married", meaning a rare occasion indeed!

Sometimes there is low cloud cover all day in Durham. The clouds sit over the coastal plains but not over the Pennines to the west. (They say the Pennines are mountains, but they look more like the Appalachians than the Rockies...) So there is a wee* gap between the clouds and the hills, and just before sunset, the sun will come out in that gap. The late evening sunshine is exquisite at 10.30 at night in the summer...

The cloud gap over Durham when the sun shines as it sets,
but in winter...

In fact, the Pennines and Appalachians are related: both were formed during the same mountain-building event (the Hercynian orogeny) 240 million years ago, and they have been worn down since then by erosion. At least the Appalachians are covered with trees. Here, the Pennines are mostly agricultural or high moor populated by heather, looking something like tundra (well, look at our latitude!). So they resemble the Rocky Mountains after all, but only above treeline! You can walk straight down the Pennines north to south along the Pennine Way, something like the Appalachian Trail. But don't expect to find any hotels along the path – just high, bleak, rainy moor. It would be like walking the Continental Divide.

*Durham at times was contested by Scotland, another topic

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Northumbrian Music at Market Tavern

More than thirty musicians and who knows how many onlookers gathered at the Market Tavern in Durham's Market Square Wednesday night for the first session of DUFS (Durham University Folk Society). A new tunebook was handed out, and the experienced student musicians tore through the pieces until we asked them to slow down a bit for us newcomers/beginners. There were 15 fifteen fiddlers alone (and a bassoon)! Lots of music played but the drink didn't flow too freely as these students are skint (the dictionary says "lacking funds") — one reason why the session was moved this year from the Court Inn over to Market Tavern: the drinks are supposed to be cheaper.

However, the hordes expected out Thursday night to play pub golf can't be broke if they are expected to do 9 or 18 holes (pubs) drinking, like, a pint of Guinness at each in three straw sucks! Apparently this is a tradition on the first Thursday of term here, but it's the first I've heard of it...I guess I'd been working too hard at the beginning of classes...
The Folk Society not only holds sessions, where students (even I am a student of the pennywhistle) bring their instruments and play out of the tunebook, it also holds singing nights, and fields a Morris Team, a Rapper Team and a Ceilidh Band. Those are, in order, a team that dances Morris dances, the traditional spring fertility dance of English farmers; a 5-person team that dances with "bendy" swords; and a band with caller that plays for ceilidh dances. Their brochure states that a ceilidh (Irish Gaelic, pronounced kay-lee, and I can never spell it right) is like "a barn dance, but much more fun, with better music".

Now, I remember barn dances from my university days, and the beer did flow freely — don't remember the music, wonder why...

The things I learned tonight in addition to virtually all new tunes, are that in Irish music, a piece is usually played twice before progressing to the next of a set of three tunes; however, in the north of England, following the Northumbrian tradition, pieces are played three times before progressing. If only I could have heard our session boss yell out "change" when it was time to change tunes, I wouldn't have had to count...

And here is a recent recording of a session in the newly refurbished Market Tavern (28 Feb 2013)!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Beans on Toast

After thirty years here, I finally broke down and fixed baked beans on toast for lunch – out of desperation for something to eat in a bare larder. I always thought the combination sounded awful and refused to try it. For one thing, tinned (canned) baked beans don't hold a candle to homemade Boston Baked Beans and its crusty sauce. In fact, though, I was pleasantly surprised! I have a feeling it was due to the toast, though – yummy Burgen bread – and the fact that it was the heel (crust, mimi [meaning 'ear' in Japanese]), giving the meal some chewy substance.

   Sorry to say, our local Sainsbury's has stopped stocking Burgen bread...will have to find another source. But their baked beans actually have a picture on the tin (can) showing beans on toast as a "serving suggestion".
Well, since beans and toast are legumes + wheat (complementary proteins), perhaps we should eat it more often – at least every time we start or finish a bread loaf. You see, if you keep a loaf in the freezer, you should keep the heels on both ends to keep the moisture in as you take slices out of the middle to pop into the toaster. Then you end up with two heels when the loaf is eaten (beans on toast for two people, of course).

    When we were students in Japan, we used to go to the local bakery and collect free bags of mimi, cut off because the Japanese don't like heels on their bread loaves. Too bad they don't stock tins of baked beans; you could live really cheaply there if they did...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Flipping the Bird, English-style

A couple nights ago, we watched a DVD of "A Change of Seasons", produced in 1980, which we had somehow missed at that time. It starred Anthony Hopkins as the philandering professor. It was fascinating to see Hopkins as a youngish man, still staid, with many of his same facial mannerisms as his older self. His Englishness came out not only in his accent but in his gestures. He used his extended third finger to push up his glasses, "flipping the bird" to the audience several times in the film.
   This gesture is commonly seen in Britain when people push up their glasses, oblivious to its American meaning of "giving the finger". Instead, the British use the backhanded V-peace-sign, called "the two finger salute", to mean the same thing; I guess it doubles the meaning of the third finger. But I can never remember which way round it goes. Think of Churchill giving the Victory sign. Then turn your hand backwards and give a back-handed peace sign (actually, Churchill sometimes got it wrong, see the Reuters blog below).  It's often hard to catch at a glimpse – you don't know whether you're being encouraged or discouraged. Anyway, I just avoid the peace sign altogether to be safe. It's like road rage. Don't incite anybody!

See more at,
or type in "Churchill victory sign" to Google images and laugh at a bunch!

Monday, 3 October 2011

Gamelan Welcomes New International Students to Durham

The Durham University Gamelan Society played 3 hours of soothing background music in the café of the Calman Learning Centre last Friday as international students trooped up to the fourth floor to attend the International Students Fair. This event is not nearly so exciting as the Societies Fair this week aimed at undergraduates, where all the university societies recruit new members. The international students mostly got advice on, guess what, "Living in England": how to open a bank account, get a broadband provider, find out about religious services, and what the Durham Student Union does.
   Nevertheless, it was the second year of Javanese gamelan playing at this "international" event, which I think is a nice ethnic outreach showing we value other cultures and their musics; not like being faced with a string quartet or anything. Now, to get some of those international students playing in the gamelan, as this wayang golek puppet entices with his paper advertisement... (The group meets Wednesdays from about 2:30 to 5:30pm in the University Observatory, and welcomes new members. See
   This was the first public performance on the University's new pélog gamelan set - a different tuning system from the sléndro set that has been there for some 40 years. There are more than 80 sets of Indonesian gamelan instruments in the UK and Ireland at present.

(Ironic that this international students welcome event, attended by a large number of Asian and a few African students, was held in the Calman Learning Centre, named for recent Vice-Chancellor Sir Kenneth Calman. It was during Calman's autocratic reign that degree programmes in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and some other "non-Western" languages and subjects were terminated without any justification other than a desire to focus resources on the University's "core" interests, i.e. the West. [Additionally the Linguistics Department was "traded" to another university for theologians; Durham Theology encompasses Christian, Biblical and Jewish studies but ignores other religions - Buddhism, Islam, etc.] Calman later admitted regretting this course of events, and some East Asian language teaching is being revived. Too late to cancel the embarrassment to the University. Ironic also that the Durham business school now reportedly has some 900 students from China - but never mind, they all speak English, no need for anyone to learn Chinese in this modern world, is there? – dweeb)

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Northumbrian Voices

Fantastic concert Saturday night at The Sage music venue in Gateshead by Kathryn Tickell and her father Mike Tickell plus four more musicians. Kathryn has almost single-handedly revived interest among the young in the Northumbrian pipes – a far mellower and evocative instrument than the Scottish pipes. Her "Piper's lament" is plaintive enough to make you cry. Mike is a consummate story-teller and songster, keeping alive the vocal traditions of the north.
Kathryn, center, flanked by Hannah on right and Patsy on left,
with Mike on far left. Even singing, Kathryn cannot keep still!

The "voices" of the concert title were words from the mouths of relatives and older musicians in the North Tyne area, recorded by Kathryn over the years and reproduced by the group in read format, often in dialog, between tunes. They focussed on several themes: "The Fiddle", "Learning", "Getting Together", and "Hard Times" in Part 1, and "The Quadbike, Marts & Pubs", "The Feisty Gamecock", "Wildflowers and Grass", "Changes", and "It's Part of You" in Part 2.
The three fiddlers, caught in action with zoom lens
from 2nd balcony. Kathryn rocks!

I never did find out what 'marts' are, and it was a struggle sometimes to understand the dialect words and accents, but it was a wonderful production, so intimate, so revealing. I particularly liked Kathryn's mother's words of a affection for the landscape she grew up in, swelling the heart upon every viewing. I feel the same way about the Rocky Mountains I grew up near, but I don't think many people these days have such an identification with the natural world.

The other day I had to wait a half an hour for something; this was one of the hot days we are having here, so I found a patch of grass and lay down looking at the blue sky. The smell of the grass and the jetliner passing overhead reminded me of my childhood when I used to lie for hours under the cottonwood tree watching the clouds. Every once in a while, a small prop plane would fly overhead, someone going somewhere, doing something, and it made me think of my life – where would I be going, what would I be doing.... That's what I mean by the Tickell concert being intimate and evocative. Anyway now I know where I went and what I've done, and I will surely be going to the next Kathryn Tickell concert if I can.

Learn more about Kathryn at

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Walk along the Browney

So, yesterday was the hottest September 30th in a hundred years! It certainly felt good...and deserved a country walk. So we went down to the River Browney and immediately spotted a dipper (Cinclus cinclus), "scudding low over water on whirring wings", as the bird book says they do. But instead of disappearing around a corner as stated, it stopped on a point bar and showed us its white breast. The bird book also says that dippers are "best found by watching up and downstream from bridges over suitable waterways", which is where we were over the River Browney on the A690.
   Once in Colorado, we saw five dippers in a row scud past us at a picnic site along a river. We could hardly believe our eyes, and the local shopkeeper at the pet food (bird seed) store simply didn't believe us at all. But we know what we saw...

From the Browney bridge near the Honest Lawyer pup, we took a path along the river established by the Woodland Trust. Lined with oak trees, acorns crunched underfoot. The path led into fields which are being returned to woodland by the Trust. We saw the fruits of our labors last year when we helped plant trees there; they are now leafing beyond the tall grasses that have invaded the fields. A truly lovely day...And now we hear that October 1st also broke a heat record, with 30° in Yorkshire!!

Kightley, C. et al. (1998) Pocket Guide to the Birds of Britain and North-West Europe. Sussex: Pica, p. 205.