Winter is the time to plan and dream. And over the first one at Palace road I read up on gardens and gardeners, great and small to get me going on the new garden I will dig with the help of Tommy and his gang later in the year. Alexander Popeís advice to the Earl of Burlington Ė that the gardener consult the genius of the place could certainly apply to my back garden as much as to the 18 century earlís sprawling acreage . The genius in this place is its spacious and leafy,suburban proportions. Where to start?
Last week while I was feeling the breeze in Barbados and reconnecting with long lost Bajan Cumberbatches (an extraordinary story of which I will write later ) the garden was busily bursting forth in an explosion of tulip colours. On the plane home, I was yearning for the Bajan sea colours which are of unspeakable beauty: gazing from the verandah each day at a glassy expanse of dark blues on the horizon, then ultramarine, and in the shallows, luminous turquoise flecked with white froth. But after battling against the early morning commuter flow at Clapham Junction and dragging my wheelie bag up and down the hill, my mood lifted as soon as I saw the floral beauty by my very own back door .
NB I planted the bulbs randomly and so not quite sure what is what, but know that that the varieties include: Lilac Perfection, Violet beauty, Fringed fancy frills, Lily flowering China Pink, Triumph ( the white and beetroot coloured ones) and blue parrot tulips, from Dejager
Crocus and Rose Cottage .
Spring nettle soup, home made granola, blazing fires, chairs to fall back and doze in and gorgeous beds make Ett Hem in Stockholm a luxurious home from home. I am hooked after spending the weekend in this intimate 12 bedroom hotel designed by Ilse Crawford.
Email with Silvana of the Foodie Bugle who`s finding it hard to track down artisan kitchenware made in Britain; too much manufacturing has gone East. I`m also on the case for home grown products such as this simple, functional pouring bowl I picked up at Herne Hill Farmer`s market by local potter Jan Pateman. (website coming but I have an email contact) Sheer beauty for 8.00, far too cheap really. Definitely, one for your shop Silvana!
The first snowdrops, on dogwalk at Lyte`s Cary, Somerset
Simple faux tongue and groove panelling painted with white emulsion knocked up by Keith the builder for a new bedroom at my location house.
Emma Prentice is the girl to go to if you want hip sari silk shirts in great colours.
Since writing a recent piece for Elle Decoration on Danish architect Pernille Arends` home with its` covetable retro Danish look I wouldn`t say no to eating my daily toast and jam beneath a classic PH Snowball lamp by Paul Henningsen from Louis Poulsen
Another family birthday, and therefore no excuse for buying flowers and making coffee cake.
Simple country inspired chair and geometric rug from British designer Matthew Hilton`s new collection.
Sourdough and other good bread for winter toast by The Old Post Office Bakery, from my local Sunday morning Brixton Farmers` Market
The New Craftsmen curates brilliant craftsmanship from the British Isles. Above, contemporary Orkney chair made by Dalston based furniture maker Gareth Neal, and traditional Orkney chair maker Kevin Gauld. Below, Gold plated dressmaking scissors from Ernest Wright
Photos by Tif Hunter
Below, Simple cotton prints from Fermoie by the duo behind Farrow & Ball
Yum! Malden oysters from Essex : a Saturday treat from Whittakers my local fishmonger,
Ceramic tealights from Maud and Mabel , pint sized Hampstead emporium where 99% of the stock is British
I`ve always liked a stripe or two or three, and thought they`d look good on my new range of Colour Band paper borders. Fiona and I spent happy sessions eating munching home made cake, and messing about with paint before coming up with eight colour ways. The next step was to find someone to hand print our designs so that they retained their chalky handmade quality. We eventually struck lucky and after a few stages of sample tweaking we took delivery of the first batch of Colour Bands.
The idea is that you can give your room a simple colour update by running the striped borders anywhere you please. Whether it`s to make a simple dado effect to break up an expanse of wall or to frame a doorway. Simply paste the border lengths with glue ( each 10 metre roll comes with paste flakes which you mix with water ) and position in place. The borders look great against white, but I will be showing you next how to combine them with other colour backgrounds. Watch this space!
See below: Pure Style Colour Bands reflect the Vogue for stripes in 2013!
Rose Petal: fuschia pink to border a door frame
Not just for walls: Fennel, lime green, Colour Band decorates a side table
Colour Bands in 8 Pure Style colours
Cake tin: a retro blue that makes a simple decorative trim all around a room
Colour Bands are easy to handle
Toast: simple trim around a chimney breast
Duck egg: dado effect in a bedroom
Marmalade : a splash of orange in the bathroom
Cornflower: kitchen colour
Quince: yellow trim looks good with blue detail.
Digging and musing, I think about a man I know and his mid life delusion: leaving home for an ex-council bedsit, smoking, the Affair. They say that clinging to the death throes of youth is a temporary fix - like Botox. What if the energy could be channeled into something really productive .......like gardening? Clubs even where you can ` Dig for a new lease of life` Nurturing a pumpkin patch could be so much more rewarding than lusting over Janet in Accounts. And pumpkins make good soup.
I stab the bramble roots at the thought of the colossal parking fine I paid after yesterday`s visit from the bailiffs. How so I didn`t see the previous warning letters? It`s not unusual for stylists on shoots to help themselves to my stuff for props in a shoot scene. Parking tickets lost in a Day in the life of British Gas or Moshi Monsters Christmas. Or is it just a case of me throwing them in the bin by mistake?
Fresh air, light, space. ... suburbia is the place to be. Screened-out I can tour the last rose buds, pick a green tomato, (see above) and fennel (see below) for fish, or check on the sweet pea seedlings in the shed to revive me. How I used to pace from room to room in our last flat high above the City where one fragile weed on the roof top opposite was the only spot of green. It`s only a bus and a tube ride away from the bright lights. Recent highlights: more al fresco swimming at the Oasis in Covent Garden followed by clams and razor clams at Barrafina as fresh and garlicky as they could be outside of an Andalucian beach bar; Tim Wright`s figurative paintings in Shoreditch and last night`s treat a groovy basement bar The Social with readings by Faber Man Booker authors, Adam Foulds, Deborah Levy and Sarah Hall .
Wouldn`t it be fun to create paint colours for each season. Autumn references of golden yellow, ,orange, earth brown are here, leaf confetti at my feet. And all in a morning`s dog walking across the dew grass in Brockwell Park.
Last week at the very inspiring Foodie Bugle Lectures held at Thyme at SouthropManor we ate divine nettle pesto ( amongst other delicious things such as frittata ,chocolate pud, and orange and apple cake). It`s nearly time, too, to do some foraging for wild garlic- and you can start in your own back garden if you`re lucky. Otherwise a trip to the woods is in order. This is a wild garlic soup recipe from the book for some more Spring inspiration 25g unsalted butter 2 leeks trimmed and roughly chopped 1.2 litres vegetable stock 1 kg potatoes peeled and roughly chopped generous handful of wild garlic leaves, well washed and roughly chopped 3-4 tbsp creme fraiche sea salt and freshly ground black pepper Melt the butter in a heavy based saucepan and cook the chopped lees gently for five minutes until soft. Add the stock and simmer on a medium heat for about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and simmer for a further 15-20 minutes, or until they are just cooked through. Blend half the soup , either in a liquidiser or with a hand-held blender , then pour back into the soup. This gives it a chunky consistency; for a smoother texture, liquidize the whole lot. Add the wild garlic and simmer for a few more minutes. Season to taste and serve with dollops of creme fraiche.
I did my bit too, at the Foodie Bugle Lectures ( Founders, Monika Linton of Brindisa and Chantal Coady of Rococo chocolates told mouthwatering stories of triumph over adversity ) and talked about Pure Style. How it is all about a slower, simpler and more realistic, sustainable way of living without spending a lot of money. It`s something, a mind set I suppose, that has evolved from when I was knee high and my mum taught me how to bake dough balls for the dolls, through to learning the design ropes on magazines, and putting ideas into practice at home. The first was the crumbling Spitalfields house in the mid eighties. Then there was no Farrow & Ball chart to coo over, or get very confused by 50 shades of white. I made do with soft muted colours from the very limited Dulux trade collection, and very good they were, too. (Hopsack, a lovely olive green was my favourite ) I hear that the artist Tracey Emin lives there now - I wonder how it looks. I`m beginning to get twitchy for another house project. Maybe it`s because I`ve also got something colourful on the boil - an idea I`ll be launching in early summer. Going to be redesigning the web site too- a task which makes me feel quite weak headed . Sun, sun, sun, the garden is pulsating now with life, and the Lilac Perfection tulips are first to bloom (see above ) I`m very happy with all the washing flapping on the line- it comes in toasty and smelling of fresh air (see below ).
Mopping up a trail of the teenager`s false tan splodges (the new floors really are tough) is my friday night treat, this, and finally putting the house back together again after it`s paint and brush up. There`s time to post these shots from my short break to Olhao a couple of weeks ago. Spring is springing here on the Algarve. The fizz of candy floss almond blossom, flapping storks and grilled sardine smells are my kind of exotica. The house is stone cold but a small discomfort when you can step out first thing into the street all sunny and blue. My thoughts are ferry and beach and this is where we head to sprawl on the sand and, even swim. I skip like a child in the shallows. It is bliss, like an icy rinsing and sloughing-off of winter.
We eat one of our typical Olhao beach picnics: crusty buns filled with chicken and coriander. Handfuls of dried figs and almonds are also perfect picnic finger food.
Waiting by the pier for the ferry home I watch seagulls bob around looking for an opportunity, and fisherman swill out their boats and grease engines. Their ropes and nets are organised in artful heaps. Old ways can survive in the age of plastic.
The Saturday market is also a stylist`s dream, so vibrant and rich in its everydayness. See below bunches of herbs tied with string, bundles of wild asparagus, clementines, and thick wedges of pumpkin laid out like a Melendez still life. This bustling outdoor visual and edible feast is so much a part of Olhao`s heart and soul.
The best thing about Valentine`s Day is Rachmaninov`s Piano Concerto No 2 on Radio 4. I almost fly the A303 in fifth gear to the same crashing bars and waves of musical emotion that speak the stifled passions of Celia Johnson`s and Trevor Howard`s lovers in Brief Encounter. Back in town, there`s more romance with couples holding hands and cellophane wrapped roses.
I can`t ignore the scuff marks on the walls and the wet dog paw effect which make the white floors look pallid and under the weather. Everything is in need of a lick of white paint and a good spring clean. So decorators Bob and Keith have set up camp with paint pots, wads of sandpaper, ghetto blaster, and saucer of used teabags. I am on my knees, housemaid-style, scrubbing the kitchen floor to get it prepared for coats of white floor paint. Everyone`s saying, "Mum, how can you have white floors in the kitchen (we have plain oak boards) they`ll get dirty ? "We have them everywhere else" I retort and think, but don`t say (Idov quite a lot of this) that apart from Lina on Saturdays I am the only one to have a one to one with the floor mop.
Ten degrees warmer than last weekend. It feels like summer in comparison and so I have a little wander in the garden. The wallflowers, globe artichoke and agapanthus lie in limp and soggy frost damaged clumps. But alliums, tulips and blue bells shoots are pushing through and the fennel`s delicate fronds have proved to be astonishingly hardy.
It`s mild enough and motivating enough to unwrap the willow sticks with which I will make twiggy wigwams to support the beans. PS My 13 year old godson and I laugh at the slapstick in Comedy of Errors at the Olivier.
on Twitter I see that one British cookery writer has been told by his publisher not to publish recipes online. I guess they feel that people would see no reason to buy the book itself. Of course it would be daft to post great quantities of any book, for free, but I think that giving readers a taste of what lies between the pages is a rather good thing: like a film trailer at the cinema. The wider issue I suppose is the threat that the internet, e-readers and so on, pose to the sales of books in their traditional form. I think there`s room for all kinds of reading media, but I could not be without my collection of sometimes dog eared and kitchen worn cook books. Together with the familiarity of its and looks and touch (flicking through pages is part of the experience) a beautifully written and put together book, gives me the same sense of pleasure as wearing a favourite frock. So, here`s a another glimpse of deliciousness from my new book, a sponge recipe for birthday cake. (It`s in the Summer section, filled with jam and cream and decorated with rose petals.) This one is a chocolate covered version, my daughter`s 18th Birthday request, and I happen to have a couple of roses left over from a shoot so can do the rose petal idea, too. sponge 250g butter 250g caster sugar 5 large eggs beaten 250 g self raising flour ch0colate butter cream 150g butter cut into chunks 200g icing sugar, sifted 200g good plain chocolate broken into pieces
Whilst I measure out, beat and stir, Gulliver`s travels is on radio 4, and I imagine that my cake would amount to the proportions of a small house it if were in Lilliput. Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy; beat in the eggs fold in the flour with a metal spoon. Pour the mixture into 2 well greased 18cm tins ) and place in the middle of a preheated oven, 180C, for about 40 minutes. Test with a skewer , if it comes out clean, it is done
Turn the cakes out onto a cooling rack and leave to cool. For the chocolate butter cream gently melt the butter and chocolate in a pan and stir in the icing sugar. Beat until smooth, and add a few drops of water if very stiff . Sandwich the sponges together with a layer of chocolate buttercream and use a palette knife to smooth it over the outside. Decorate with rose petals.- they`re edible, of course.
Friends say they don`t know how I put up with a disrupting stream of photo shoots at home. I suppose, like anything it`s how you choose to look at it. For the most part, the family are cool about the shoots, plus they know that it means income. The childrens` rooms and my husband`s study are off limits and so there`s enough private space. I`ve been a home worker for so long anyway and am used to combining an office with mashing the potatoes. In a way we`re living over the shop, or, as when I was a child, living over my father`s surgery. It is important though to be laid back enough to let strangers waft around the house shooting mail order catalogues, or Christmas cakes from the Great British Bake off. There`d be no point if I twitched every time a cup and saucer were moved. Actually, quite a number of clients, photographers and stylists aren`t strangers at all but long lost faces from my magazine days. `Still hanging on in there, we rib each other`. I also meet new faces - and it`s a chance to chat and brainstorm. And when you know that it`s not your stuff but someone else`s monkey then even days of rooms piled high with boxes and camera equipment don`t raise the blood pressure. Apart from the odd set painter who doesn`t know how to control a paint brush, the most stressful thing is when a domestic drama is being played out behind a closed door. This generally involves two siblings warring over some item of clothing that one has pinched from the other without permission. "Be quiet we have a shoot "I hiss, and barr the way to the flouncy behaviour spreading further - more Miss Trunchbull than the smiley location house owner that the clients meet at the front door. One rather wonderful advantage of the shoots is seeing all sorts of wallpapers, fabrics, paints and things, here in the flesh - window shopping chez nous. I am sighing over this beautiful yellow printed linen from Bennison Fabrics that is playing a leading role in a magazine story currently being photographed. I have managed to sneak a little sample to show you how rich and mustardy it is, and the perfect colour to go with something blue .
Even the shoot leftovers can be inspiring. My compost bin last week looked a picture, see below, with the floral remnants from a summer flower catalogue job. And, of course the house smelt rather lovely and garden borderish, too.
I feel the air miles when a man with a festive beer in a plastic cup offers a seat on the packed late train to Ronkonkoma and questions with some incredulity " You`ve come all the way from England for Thanksgiving ?" I have and it`s my first. The blazing fire, turkey with a turkey flavour from a North Fork organic farm and the warmth of the Foley family to whose Long Island Thanksgiving I am invited the next day will meet all of my expectations and more.
With my body clock somewhere after lunch, I wake rather suddenly to the crack of gun shots from the duck hunters across the lake. ( It is never wise to think the countryside is peaceful) But it`s tranquil enough, absolutely blissful in fact, drinking hot coffee on the porch ,watching the melting pale pink early morning sky and all around the earthy woodiness of damp leaves. I`m at the white house, the simple white wood clad home (and location space) of Trish Foley the American queen of white and natural decorating. Her first book the Natural Home published in 1995 was ahead of its time, and is as inspirational today.
Trish`s 3rd pop up shop event for her New General Store takes place with soup cider and cookies over the Thanksgiving weekend. It features white and natural home ideas on sale in Trish`s studio and white cabin tucked amongst the surrounding winter thin woods.
There`s a gang of us to pull the last minute threads together: stirring the spicy pumpkin soup (cumin, coriander, chilli, toasted pine nuts and croutons make this a particularly delectable pumpkin idea), wiping down the thick glassy beads of overnight dew from the outdoor benches and sweeping leaves off the huge outdoor plank table. The sun feels warm again on my face, a remnant of summer and as in London, everyone is saying how unseasonable the temperatures are.
Matthew Mead sets up his stall in the White Shop, and signs copies of Holiday magazine- his brilliant and visually inspiring take on crafting and making that comes out quarterly.
I have my eyes, on white pots filled with bulbs and moss, but can`t exactly see getting past airport security A narcissus- scented candle will do very nicely instead. And there is a gorgeous collection of vintage white Ironstone china, platters, cups and bowls, that I could also happily pack to take home - if only.
We say clothes pegs you say clothes pins.
As well as delicious flavoured vinegars and olive oils, there`s flowery and scented Rugosa Rose jelly made by The Taste of the North Fork. I have some dollops of it on toast with butter for breakfast to keep me going.
I am on duty signing books in the studio, suffused with the scent of flowering paper white narcissi, and bathed in the long low sunlight pouring through the south facing wall of glass window panes. It`s good to meet the New York/Long Island crowd and find that there`s common ground - simpler living is as much on the agenda in the economic downturn as it is at home. I`m glad that all my favourite things: parrot tulips, rhubarb, roses, chestnuts and lemon meringue pie seem to be appreciated across the pond. The books are a sell out and so I celebrate with walnut shortbread baked by Michael Jones.
The next day I`m 0n the road again, heading to my next signing at Loaves and Fishes, in Bridgehampton. This is a wonderful treasure trove of a cook shop with the best of its type, from coffee making machine and shellfish picker to sharp knife and dinner plate. Run by the charming and welcoming Sybille van Kempen Loaves and Fishes is also noted for its food shop and cookery school and is as much a Hamptons landmark as all the gorgeous beach houses*. It`s Sunday lunchtime, and so my samples of chocolate and chestnut cake are a great crowd drawer, and another of the book`s recipes that seems to travel rather well. * Ralph Lauren designer, Ellen O`Neill`s heavenly red and white house ( American country house style meets Bloomsbury ) is another Long Island location shoot`s dream.
Time for some R and R and I head off to the City via the Long Island Rail Road ( it`s all so American- the toot tooting of the train when it passes the unmanned barriers reminds me of every cowboy movie I`ve ever seen) and Penn Station. The avenues of Manhattan await me and my wheelie bag.
I wanted to show you this great piece on my home that`s just gone live with Design Sponge. Thanks so much to Keiko for taking such glamorous pictures!
More brilliant ideas from the Pure Style design files.
Mellow yellow: simple Daisy pattern wallpaper from The art of wallpaper. Also comes in a good sludgy blue, brick red, and charcoal.
The clocks will be going back soon and there will be a great excuse for investing in a really good desk lamp - I love this one from Anglepoise.
Blue and white striped Cornishware mugs feature in all the kitchens that I have lived in over the years. I love their utilitarian cheerful feel. From recently rescued TG Green Ė and also in red.
Indian summerís over Ė itís time for tea and toast. This smart glass jar comes with spiced fig jam, from Toast. Recycle it for your own jam making efforts.
More autumn leaf yellows (THE colour this season) in wool knit by Danish company Kvadrat cover this 50ís Scandinavian style easy char in oak, from Healís. It also comes in leather, but Iím not so sure that works so well.
Yes I know linen sheets almost need a mortgage, but treat them like investment dressing and save up for a set from Volga Linen to last and last.
I love the way denim fades when you wash it. Get the look with this squashy bean bag made in the UK and covered with indigo denim woven in Lancashire, from Ian Mankin.
This is my new weekly post where I share inspiring pictures and ideas from the Pure Style design files.
Retro look for keeping warm this winter: wool blanket ĎMadison Goldí from Melin Tregwynt.
With 20% off from 1st October Scottish fabric designer Donna Wilsonís Eadie armchairs at SCP are potentially more than just a textile-dream.
Just launched at the London Design Festival is Studioilseís Companions bedside table in oiled chestnut and cork for De La Espada.
This olive oil crushed from Arbequina olives, by Spanish food specialist Brindisa is really mellow and nutty - I think itís brilliant for making mayonnaise.
Iíve had my Le Creuset cast iron casserole pans for over 20 years - but wouldnít mind adding a cream coloured one to my kitchen kit.
Feathery white parrot tulips are essential in my spring garden. Definitely putting in another order this season from Crocus.
Itís time for dealing with the fading roses. Great for pruning are Swiss made Felco secateurs.
Suffused in pools of light and shade this May afternoon the garden seems to take on an air of secrecy and serenity. It is my place of shelter and repose from the roaring traffic and sirens on the South Circular, just two streets away. I turn on the hose and give everything a good drink (drought conditions continue, and gardeners are being asked to create mud pools so the house martins and swifts can build their clay like nests). The arc of water plays like a silver stream over the last tulips, rosemary, alliums and clumps of purple chives. It leads my thoughts to a piece I have read about Islamic gardens, and how we owe a huge debt in the West to the Muslim ideal of paradise. This is encapsulated in the design of the Persian `chahar bah . This enclosed garden has a central fountain which flows into water rills which represent the four rivers of Paradise. Famous examples include the Taj Mahal garden in India and the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra, Granada. In his book` Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition`- the academic Robert Pogue Harrison argues that it also provides a key to understanding Islam in the modern world. He suggests that where paradise is imagined as a garden of perfect tranquility our incurable Western agitation takes on a diabolical quality. It would be wonderful to have world peace and understanding through gardening.
On a personal level, working in my garden takes me away from just about every mental annoyance that happens to be swirling around. I enter a calm non judging head space when having to concentrate on the delicate and precise task of lifting fragile radish and bean seedlings into position for the next stage of development. My senses are energised: bad or dull feelings float away with the smells of damp earth as the hose plays across the beds, and I feel more in touch with the elements as my legs are lightly tickled by lavender that has spilled voluputously over the brick path.
The Constance Sprys, are in themselves a vision of petally paradise, tumbling luscious pink blooms over on both garden fences. Not only visual balm, but with a scent that is so light and sweetly fragrant that I feel I want to drink it .
Then there are the equally fabulous frilled and frothy pink peonies, (below) the ones I lifted and divided from my childhood suburban garden after my mum died. It is reassuring that she lives on, in a way, through this yearly renewal in the garden.
I`m always coming up with ideas for Pure Style this and that - one dream is a heavenly little hotel with a walled garden and bright white bedrooms. If there was to be a Pure Style scent, of course `rose` would get a first look in, but I have to say that if anyone could help me bottle the delicate vanilla fragrance of my wallflowers this spring( see below) I am sure we could be on to a winner, too.
An advance copy of my new book has just arrived and here are a few sample pages for you to look at! It is packed with simple seasonal ideas for home cooking and living, from a spring feast to Christmas treats. For me a good meal is as much about where it is eaten as what is on the plate, so every recipe suits an occasion. In the summer chapter, for example, there`s easy tortilla for a picnic, spicy chicken piri piri for a barbeque, holiday inspired Portuguese fish and potato soup, and lemon ice cream for a long hot afternoon. Also just posted is my latest utube which shows you how to make the delicious pan con tomate as seen above on the cover!
I love to eat asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli in spring, and it tastes even better with some homemade hollandaise.
My mum taught me how to bake cakes and biscuits. Shortbread is one of my favourites and really really easy to make.
As you know, I have a vegetable patch and grow simple things such as climbing beans, and radishes which are brilliant to dip in salt and eat with other summer salad treats.
I wake early with the encouraging limpid blue of an English Spring sky. Since I`ve been away in Olhao the apple tree has blossomed in a candy floss of fluffy pale pink petals.
The morning sun warms the worn red brick paving tiles and spills across the newly opened array of tulips. I can`t remember planting quite so many gorgeous varieties. (Not that surprising because when I did so, the garden was coated in a thick white icy coat of snow and it was all I could do to force the bulbs randomly into snow rimmed earth holes before it all became too cold and unpleasant and I had to scurry inside, toes and fingers numb.) It is so exciting to watch this blast of petally colour unfold.
See above from left to right: Spring Green; Black Parrot ( a straggler from bulbs that I planted three years ago ); Lilac Perfection.
The purple and white striped `Triumph` tulip reminds me of the purple and white colourings of red onions; it has to be the most stylish of my tulip flock.
Hardly have the bags been unpacked and the weeds attended to, then our spring jaunt continues with a large family get together in Suffolk. By now the air feels midsummer balmy and the weather people are in high excitement about the early heatwave that is hitting northern Europe. Whilst I am ambling along dewy lanes, alive with cuckoo song , lilac, and wild asparagus (see above), a subdued text from our tenant in Olhao describes great winds and rains and a request for wet day activities in the area. Wow, we had a narrow climatic escape.
We visit Walberswick, rather like an English east coat version of the Hamptons, on Long Island, all beautiful picturebook, wisteria-clad houses and cottages with immaculate picket fences. There is a village green with swings, well behaved children and a horizon with simple beach huts. We crunch along the pebbly beach and some of the party, plus the dog, embrace the unseasonal warmth and swim. Of course, the sea is still winter cold and we drive home with the heater full on to keep hypothermia at bay. I negociate a detour to Wootton`s nursery which has everything from agapanthus to old fashioned cottage garden plants, and the most amazing selection of auriculas (see above) all massed together in a light white greenhouse. I come away with a box of cat mint and lavender for the potager beds, blue geraniums for ground cover, and an exquisite lemon secented old perlagonium called Mabel Grey which I shall keep in a pot to sit on my desk through the winter.
Sufffolk (and going over into Norfolk) is also very blissful with its wide flat watermeadows around Harleston and Beccles, where cows swish their tails in the shade of ancient willows and the river Waveney is cool and meandering. We bike past hawthorn hedges frothing with white blossom and look over to into fields where hares leap across the furrows. The county`s vast field aspect can be overwhelming, as are the electric yellow swathes of rapeseed. Sometimes I catch the whiff of a more industrial and stinky smell than anything with more rural connections. There are clues in the anonymous green lorries thundering past gnarled greening oaks to what is probably hidden away landfill. We eat well on Suffolk honey, the new season`s asparagus, cod landed at Lowestoft and rhubarb for pudding. The Ship inn at Dunwich serves the best fish and chips of the week, and is also a only a few minutes walk to the beach , where it is said that divers can hear the ghostly clang of church bells that succumbed to the sea.
Arriving back in London through steamy streets where the thermometer is hitting 27C, I am almost bowled over by the riot of colour (see above and below) that that has taken over the garden. All the tulips are now full and voluptuous on leggy stems. I watch their cups open up lazily in the sunshine and close in the shade as as if to keep warm.
New this year to my bulb order are `Silver ` parrot tulips (see below right) which when they first came out weren`t in the least bit silver, more bright raspberry ripple. Now that they`ve matured, the pink has faded a little and is rather fabulous.
The garden is growing growing growing. The warmth and sun of the past week has kick started the spring juices and the little beds in the parterre/potager are greening and filling out fast. The tulips that started as a flop of leaves have developed slender stems with tight buds. The first to flower is the variety Lilac Perfection (see above) in fabulous bowls of fuschia pink petals.
This natural beauty in my backyard is a kind of antidote to all thatís commercial and mass market: ads that make us want more even though we donít need whatever is being pushed, or the TV mush of American teen soaps and celebrity dining shows. This, and my desire to live more simply and without so much fuss is also where I am at with my Pure Style philosophy. I think I must be on the right track when I read that my design hero Terence Conran has a buff label on his desk with the words ĎPlain, simple, useful` and says that we should apply this attitude to everything we own and use. I am also a fan of John Laneís Timeless Simplicity - in which he explains how to live more creatively in a consumer society.
It quite a revelation, to see that itís not the first time there has been a reaction to the consumerism in society. Go and see the V&A`s exhibition Escape into Style, `The cult of beauty: The aesthetic movement 1860-1900í which is about the late nineteenth century revolt against Victorian industrialism by artists and architects who wished to create a new ideal of beauty in wallpaper, painting, architecture, textiles and poetry. NB: Although it`s really all about middle class family angst - and a rather too close to home portrait of it too, I recommend the film, Archipelago, to see some truly mesmerising visuals of the natural beauty on the wild and windswept island of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly.
The new greens are in season. Whatever else might be thwarting my daily progress, young bean green shoots and fresh bright spring green grass are reassuringly sprouting and budding outside the kitchen window. I canít resist bunches of Ďmuscari Ď grape hyacinths (see above) delicate blue flowers on equally delicate lime green stems. They are packed fresh from the fields in a box propped up outside the florist with the logo, Cornish flowers on its base. At £1.25 a bunch I am surprised that by lunchtime the sales woman says that I am the first to buy some of these vibrant and colourful pieces of spring.
With its potent link to nature, green is one of my favourite colours to have about the home. (Have a look at the exciting greens for faux suede by Designers Guild). Its presence as a decoration tool can be as minimal, as a flash of a lime green painted flower pot to brighten up the bedroom, or as all encompassing, as our lime green painted loo. The latter idea is a very good way for me to incorporate a rich green colour in a house that needs to make its living being painted white almost all over! And I have also managed to make way for some muted greens in the tv room and garden shed as the shoots are very keen to use them for backdrops to simple and natural still lives. As soon as thereís a day with the faint burn of spring sunshine my thoughts turn to picnics. I like to head for that south facing spot on the tussocky slopes that frame our walks along the Somerset valley on visits to my father. Feta cheese, basil and cucumber is one of our favourite fillings in hunks of sourdough bread that come freshly baked via our local corner shop.
Ha Ha! I am right on trend in my several-seasons-old canary yellow buttoned J Crew cardigan, as the March issue of Vogue proclaims Ďfashionís new love for colourí. Of course we all know itís not really new, as fashion is all about an ongoing passion with colour in some form or other. But there is something particularly resonant about the newness and vibrancy that Spring brings to everything. A sense, too, of optimism and possibilities - from the leggy amaryllis by my kitchen window (see above) about to unfurl in a whirl of striped pink and white petals, to the Spring pages of fashion mags washed in bright shades of tangerine, raspberry and quince. (I look forward to the first swim of the season at the lido and have my eye on a hyacinth blue retro spot halterneck swimsuit in the Boden catalogue that plopped through my letter box last week.) When I havenít seen my children for a while and we meet after a fortnight away or longer, thereís a sense of seeing them as new people, almost like getting to know them all over again. Thatís how I feel, in a way, when I hold the neatly bound sections of the new book, all ready to be sent off to the printers in China. Is it really three months since I turned in the final acknowledgements? I am excited, because I now see the book with a fresh eye. Itís not tiring to scan the spreads that I checked over and over during the editing process. I hope it doesnít sound puffed up to say itís looking good!
Feeling buoyant I am inspired to revisit a piece of half finished patchwork that has been lying in my large turquoise canvas remnants bag for the last year or so. Itís made up of blue and white pieces cut from various sources: pairs of worn out childrenís pyjamas and tattered jeans. Thereís also a bit of floral Liberty print from a dress that I cut up because I grew tired of its shape. (Although quite expensive, I also like the idea of pre cut Liberty patchwork squares sold by the bundle.) Foot on the accelerator I motor along on the rather battered Elna Lotus SP that my parents gave me for my 21st birthday. The process of pinning and stitching, trying to steer not only a straight path but also fingers away from the dagger effects of the speeding needle, are all good for freeing the mind of muddle. As good as digging the garden, or beating egg whites to frothy peaks. Once everything is sewn together I hem the edges of what is to become a kind of patchwork loose cover for the seat of the chesterfield. I say, loose, because the dog, and the cat, are very fond of this surface, and it would soon look very sad, very quickly if I couldnít whip it off to be washed and revived. NB Must catch the British photographer E.O. Hoppeís modernistic portraits (Vita Sackville West, John Masefield) at The National Portrait Gallery. NNB I made pheasant and pea (frozen petit pois are delicious) risotto last night, with the leftovers and home made stock from a brace of pheasants from the Farmerís market. Itís good not to have to be a hunting shooting fishing type in order to enjoy the mildly gamey flavour, and lean texture of these inexpensive birds.
Iím in Olhao. Bliss. Itís winter, but the sun is blazing and I am blinking like a mole. The house has the heavy cold and dampness that comes from being not only just about at sea level, but also having been shut up for weeks. I sleep the first night, socks on and hugging a hot water bottle. First thing, after watching the slow red sunrise over towards the fishing port, I hang the musty bedclothes outside to air.
Other signs of the Algarve in winter are women chatting on their doorsteps in thick dressing gowns. And grass growing between the cobbles which are opaque and clean after months of rain. They have been stripped of the smooth, high shine that comes with the heat and dust and grease of summer. Itís a dry day and fleets of washing flap in the breeze on the white azoteca roof top terraces. From our flat roof I can see the white curved bell tower, and a pink fizz of almond blossom in a secret courtyard below. The blue as-far-as-you-can-see sky is filling with voluptuous and towering cumulus clouds. From all around my panoramic view comes a chorus of dog barks, the trilling of sparrows, and odd, but so completely right because itís Olhao, the clanging squealing and wheezing of the coastal train, that sounds more like a New York Subway service.
With basket in hand and my thick fishermanís sweater for insulation, I walk seawards. The gorgeous peeling paint in so many shades of faded green, and rose and cobalt blue is as much a part of Olhao as the sardines, but it is also a sign of neglect and decay. I do hope that architectural types will come to rescue more of the crumbling facades so much in need of love and attention. There arenít so many people about now. I like it. The old men by the fish market still play dominoes in a thick huddle and there are the usual weather beaten yaghties` in fleeces who drink long into the afternoon sunshine, but generally the streets are quiet. At six they are almost deserted as everyone goes home, to keep warm I should think.
In the market there are fat leafy cabbages, bursting it seems with iron and goodness, and plump oranges with a flat matt finish that is so much earthier and more appealing than the spray shined ones in the supermarket. With few tourists about, a necklace of red piri piri peppers is only a euro. And similarly pleasing, because the fish market is less frenzied than during the summer, there is more time to admire the simple yet beautiful displays of rigid mackerel, tuna, octopus and so on, all laid out on the gleaming and utilitarian flat stainless steel counters.
My mission is to sweep and refresh the house and to plan new awnings in heavy calico for the summer. At Pagapoco in the Avenida thereís fabric for a few euros a metre that will do very well. Some good news on the marvellous iPhone, which allows me to escape from a desktop HQ yet still keep operations ticking far away. It is Pete from Thames Water who is not only going to pay me the subsidy for repairing it, but almost as an afterthought he tells me that the wretched leak is officially noted as fixed. (Yes, their man with the special water leak detecting device, has obviously been loitering by the gate again.). Relief. One domestic drama that can leave my brain space and be forgotten about.
If I think too hard about writing I canít write, and similarly at the Zumba Latin beat dance class I part company with the group rhythm when I concentrate too hard on getting arms, legs, and body to co-ordinate. When I relax and let the beat take over I may not look like an extra from Dirty Dancing, but boy do I feel like it. Shaking oneís booty is a good way to dissipate the stress after talking with Pete from Thames Water who calls to let me know, a touch triumphantly perhaps?, that I still have a leaking water pipe. In as even a tone as I can muster, (Pete has the mildly pompous and intimidating air of a customs official so it is hard not to feel ruffled) I say Iíve spent nearly £1,000 for 20 metres of shiny blue plastic pipe, (and a mud strewn garden) to rectify the problem. The workman returns and confirms a miniscule drip where the new pipe meets the stopcock. I call Pete who says heís going to send out another engineer, to test the repaired repair. What happens, I wonder, if our waterís running when he does his secret testing by the front gate? Wonít this show up as leakage? Thames Water, you see, donít seem to Do appointments and check with the householder that their water supply is actually turned offÖÖ.. Not all is utterly frustrating. My successful domestic repairs are a replacement tile, cut perfectly to size by Adorn Tiling, for our Victorian tiled hall floor. And my daughterís Spanish riding boots, battered more by life on campus than anything horsey, which have been given a completely new lease of life with a new stitched sole and heels thanks to our local branch of Timpsons.
Happily itís time to bake a cake for my sonís birthday. I use my default Victoria sponge recipe of equal parts of self-raising flour, (some of the flour substituted with cocoa powder), caster sugar, eggs and butter.) I use an electric hand mixer for the sugar, butter and eggs, and then fold in the flour with a metal tablespoon for lightness. When the mixture is a gloopy paste I dollop it into three well greased round sandwich tins.
After half an hour or so I turn out the steaming and springy cakes and leave them to cool on my mumís wobbly pre war metal rack. I make chocolate butter icing Ė after sifting the icing sugar and combining it with sifted cocoa powder and softened unsalted butter. I add a little water and beat it with a fork to make it light and fluffy. I use a palette knife to smooth it over the cake. And then decorate it with silver balls. (NB Check out my definitive recipe for a good cake in my forthcoming new book.)
Nature is inspiring a kind of natural decoration guru all of her own. The cabbage is a case in point, all beautiful glowing green and purple frilling leaves Ė the chicest interior decorator couldnít do better. If you want your cabbage to retain its colour and texture remember to steam it lightly and only for a few minutes.
I hope to be buying my cabbages and other fresh-from-the-farm veg at our proposed new street market in West Norwood, which is following hard on the heels of the fabulous Sunday morning farmers market in Brixton. This is an uplifting project and positive stuff when all the papers are saturated with comment and data about Britainís increasing irrelevance on the world stage. I think about the future for my children. Eerily, these stories echo those that framed my teenage world Ė one in five young people unemployed, and lives strained to breaking point by shrinking state support Ė in the national decline that so gripped 1970s and early 1980ís Britain.
When people ask, how do you know what to chose when youíre putting together a new room or buying a piece of furniture ? I say that going with my instinct of what feels and looks right is usually successful. This is all very well, but if I am fussing or thinking about something else I may not always be properly alert to some wonderful new prospect that is staring me in the face. This is exactly what happens when I am cruising around the Brixton branch of the British Heart Foundationís chain of second-hand furniture and electrical shops. There it is, a magnificent upright and elegant wing chair. A touch elderly-aunt-like in its plush velvet cover but this can soon be sorted out with an update in a simple blue and white ticking. And my goodness itís only 20 quid. I clock it as Ďbrilliant, should buy it, a great piece for the location houseí but the detail is all made foggier in the domestic thought jumble. I am oblivious to precious minutes being lost as I fiddle with the messages on my iPhone. Too late! An eagle eyed young mum with child and a buggy also knows its potential value and snaps it up before Iíve even had the chance to press back to Menu.
You win some, you lose some. Happily, I return to form when I spot a pair of pretty armchairs (see above and below) lined up on the pavement outside the junk shop in Streatham Hill. Like the lost wing chair, they have promise in spite of unappealing covers. A quick barter with the fag-in- hand, peroxide blonde attendant and the chairs are mine for under 40.00. Their new home is the blue room where I think I have made them look a little more dashing with linen shawls from Volga linens. I find the use of a throw is a very handy trick to cover up ugly prints or threadbare seats, and to protect a more precious fabric from muddy paws or childrenís feet.
Also related to a too fast, too multi-tasking existence (as seen with wing chair experience above) I read in the newspaper that the emphasis on knowledge in our culture, is taking us further away from using our hands. Too right. I think itís so important to feel the physicality and satisfaction of creating something oneself. My main proviso is that nothing should be too complicated. One of the best ways, for example, to update a simple dining chair, is to give it a lick of paint. (For those who are like my friend Marjorie and think that being handy is an anathema, look at Howe London to see some clever ways with old-fashioned Windsor chairs.) My favourite colours for sprucing old chairs are duck egg blues or plain whites. This is how you do it: Sand the chair with a medium grain sand paper, and then again with a fine one. Remove all loose bits of old varnish or flakes of old paint to leave a smooth surface. Apply one coat of wood-primer or undercoat as evenly as possible. Allow to dry. Apply one layer of eggshell paint. Allow to dry thoroughly before applying a second coat of paint.
I also love the idea of rescuing worn out linen and blankets with the needles and thread from my desktop sewing kit. Itís a wonderful and practical distraction from the screen to repair a favourite blue and white check blanket that has lost some of its blanket stitch edging. (You can see lots more simple sewing examples in my book Sew Easy). It feels productive, and calms me. Just as an afternoon digging in the garden does, or stirring the aromatic golden marmalade which is on the list for this weekend. Oh yes, one other good thing is that although the garden has been left looking like a rugby pitch on a wet Saturday afternoon, the leak is mended and I no longer live in fear of Thames Water spying on our pipes in the early hours.
I squelch around the soggy garden mentally choosing new planting ideas for spring. Smooth red rosehips and little purple figs, relics of last summer, on the tree in a frost-cracked pot are just about the only other colours in a palette of greens and earth browns. In the long, low illuminating rays of a sunny winter`s afternoon it is clear that the house is in need of a good scrub. My tools are thick gloves, bucket of hot water, mild detergent, a good wooden scrubbing brush and elbow grease. With the Radio 4 play for company itís not too long before the white floorboards look less dingy and the bare pine boards in the kitchen feel smoother, and cleaner underfoot.
I would not describe myself as house-proud - always fussing and tweaking the cushions in a Stepford Wives kind of way. But I do feel a certain self-consciousness on behalf of my home in its role as a location house - like the protective mother of a willowy model daughter at the mercy of fickle art directors. The other day, it was turned down because our beds were too ĎEuropeaní. I would be the wrong person for the job if I took this as a personal insult. All it means is that the space isnít right for that particular job. Getting the detail up to scratch is all-important. I overhear a comment about a clientís visit to a location, that was so shabby chic, the door handles were stuck on with sellotape. Feeling slightly like a child about to be caught in the act, I make a note to remedy our interior malfunctions. Preparation for photography means an enormous session with the washing machine. I love the dog and cat but not their muddy paws that decorate the white cotton sheets and covers as soon as Iíve made up fresh beds. So I am very strict and un-dog-and-cat-lover-like and banish them from the bedrooms until a shoot is over. All of the folding, ironing, and hot water and bucket work is not in vain, when the first client of the year announces that they would like to come and live here.
When the thigh-high reflective waders are pulled out I know the ongoing water leak situation is not so rosy. Soon the front garden is looking like a floodlit crime scene from a Henning Menkell thriller as Carl the plumber digs down in search of an elusive and broken water pipe. Neighbours pass by and look pityingly at our muddy excavations. Several more holes and mounds of earth later, the verdict is a whole run of replacement tubing and great expense. At least larder supplies are stable as the older two have returned to university. And I am no longer burning my fortune away in gas after discovering that the house was unbearably hot not because of the wonderful capabilities of the new boiler, which of course are undeniable, but because the thermostat had been turned up to 75C in order to quick dry a load of washing over radiators before the return to penniless student life. In between everything domestic, I am back at my desk writing Christmas thank yous with beautiful black and white cards Ė photographs of long gone North Devon rural life by James Ravilious from the Beaford Archive. (I must also tell you about the inspiring pictures on show at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery.) With many more evenings, and afternoons, of electric light before the clocks change, I am thinking of trying out what must be the first, and only stylish looking low energy light bulb: the Plumen bulb uses 80% less energy and lasts 8 times longer than incandescent bulbs. Meanwhile, it is good to see spring is advancing with my indoor pots of sprouting amaryllis and hyacinth bulbs.
I am woken in the ink of night by a rumbling on the stairs. The adrenalin washes away as I see the cat careering downwards in pursuit of a mouse. Next morning there are five blood spots where she has exercised the law of the suburban jungle. Sleep disturbances (there has been a teenage party, too) donít go well with my new year plans for super organisation and lists of things to get down. However, it is worth the numbing experience of a trip to Ikea to stock up on new white box files. Just lining them up on the office shelves, freshly folded and empty is enough to make me feel strong enough to tackle almost anything. Even the rather alarming threat from the water company that they will pursue legal action if I donít mend the small leak outside on the pavement within the new few days. Heavens, Iíve only just got over the drama of my boiler and British Gas.
This is the bother of long festive breaks, you have a wonderful time being cocooned with chocolates, fairy lights and going out to eat (Vietnamese noodles, seafood and mint at Battersea based Mientay) and a refreshing tapa of fennel, feta, and pomegranate seeds at Camberwellís Angels and Gipsies). Then, itís over, like the proverbial rug stripped from under your thick socks, and back to the grind to pay for it all. Still, thereís something rather appealing about returning to everyday duties. And even if it means sharing our house with the new seasonís sofas, a cotful of model babies, and photographers with caravans of staff and equipment, it is all part of an industrious rhythm that I seem to thrive on. Well, as long as it doesnít get too hectic....
With the pompoms back in the Christmas box stored up in the attic and the tree dismembered into aromatic kindling for the fire, the house returns to a feeling of calm simplicity that is really welcome after all the festive stuff. I know that white is my passion - white walls, white plates, white you-name -it - but I also couldnít live without the simple everyday qualities of blue and white striped ticking cotton (charcoal-coloured, seen here) much of it from Ian Mankin that I use as cushion and chair covers, and assorted tablecloths. Similarly visitors to the house will find all sorts of blue and white checks, for wool throws, for more cushions, and my favourite blue and white check mesh shopping bag from an old-fashioned Spanish hardware shop. This is the sort of everydayness that is as important to me as cloves of garlic and good olive oil for a simple salad dressing or a thick piece of buttered toast and tea. And I mustnít forget a good book too. Reading a Sunday review where publishers mope about the ones that got away, I can see thereís some rich material. The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips (Virago), and Deceptions by Rebecca Frayn (Simon&Schuster) look to be just two beguiling novels that will distract me from the new year paper piles and form filling.
From almost-hysterical queues to silhouettes of trees and church towers against white fields: this contrast from urban shopping frenzy to rural peace has been one of the best things about our Christmas, spent in the depths of Somerset. Charades, a melee of dogs plopped in front of the fire, and Blackadder on the TV are pretty good festive ingredients, too.
Thereís a feeling of relief that all the present searching and sorting is over. I am using the post Christmas calm to get stuck in to Before I Go To Sleep With a bizarre form of memory loss as its key theme, the story is a gripping psychological thriller which kept me up all night, because it was too tantalising to close the pages and not get to the clever ending. But enough of the adrenaline. I am thrilled with my copy of Second Nature: A Gardener`s Education by Michael Pollen who brilliantly promotes the garden rather than the wild as the most appropriate place for rethinking our relationship with nature. He says that a garden is the place for being in, rather than looking at. Lawns, for example are not part of Pollenís landscape: ďThe more serious about gardening I became, the more dubious lawns seemedĒ he writes and goes on to say ďFor however democratic a lawn may be with respect to oneís neighbours, with respect to nature it is authoritarianĒ. I know what he means, but you do have to tough it with nature too - Iím thinking of the groundelder and lemon balm that engulfs my summer garden, of which I have no qualms at hacking down to maintain order.
With more musing on my unseasonal train of thought I do so miss the summer herby lavender scents of my garden which is looking so spare and flattened now that there is a bit of a thaw in progress. The closest I can seem to get to a summer sensory experience at the moment is the gorgeous Primrose Facial Hydrating Cream with lavender, sage and rosemary from Aesop. I donít usually find huge words of praise for beauty treatments (having worked as a beauty editor some years ago and tried out products that came with extraordinary claims, even more extraordinary prices and yet didnít seem to be any better than E45 cream from the chemist) but this cream is delicious in fragrance and good to my frazzled winter skin. Whilst Iím on the subject of beautifying I shall keep you posted with the effects, if any, (who me, sounding a touch cynical?) of my Yuroll which bills itself as a jade facial massager Ė not unlike a small rolling pin on a long handle Ė and is supposed to ensure a ďlean re-contoured wonderfully unlined face: thoroughly toned and with improved elasticityĒ. I canít see anything, apart from a very large dose of Botox improving my Ďlaughterí lines and general wear and tear, much of which occurred when I sunbathed furiously in my teens. But, hey Iím going to give it a go!
Weíre all nursing extremely full stomachs, and yearning for something lighter and more fragrant than Christmas turkey fare. My sister in law gave me a jar of her preserved lemons, which I canít wait to add to a spicy tagine with some fluffy hot couscous. I must also pay a visit to Persepolis our local taste of Persia in Peckham, where there are many aromatic middle eastern delights. After an extremely bracing walk across Hampstead Heath, it wonít be over indulgent in this season of indulgency, to enjoy some ice cream at Marine Ices in Camden, a family tradition that goes back to when my children were small and seemed to disappear behind their two huge scoops of chocolate tottering on wafer cones.
The snow comes and the last roses are topped with fairy queen ice bonnets. I embrace the way the snow, the hoar frost, the cold, slows everything down: idling in front of a blazing fire to thaw out, or the ridiculously slow driving speeds needed to avoid the neighbourís brand new Fiat are all rather welcome. I crunch around the garden in Wellingtons and think it timely to invest in a pair of the recycled cashmere gloves that I spied on the nydesign room site. The dog loves the new white world and takes up goal post positions saving the snow balls we chuck in the air. ďLook at that dog jumpingĒ squeals a boy in the park and I feel the sort of maternal pride normally reserved for my children when they were young and doing some sort of athletic trick. I think she deserves a Liberty print collar even if itís not quite the butch streetwise look that most dogs sport around here.
The extreme weather conditions have encouraged the squirrels to excel at survival tactics. They line up on the garden fence, tails juddering, twitching and eyes greedily fixed as I attempt to plant the bulbs that didnít get dug in before the blizzard. I am not taking chances and put down barricades of wire netting to stop their mining efforts.
The shoots are tramping in slush and so I rush round laying down covers hoping it doesnít seem too unfriendly. It is not a little disorientating to be watching TV on Monday in the sitting room painted in Duluxís aubergine vision for winter 2011, and then by Wednesday, itís spring again and all pale walls, tulips, and hyacinths for a magazine feature that includes a gorgeous arm chair upholstered in olive green from Laura Ashley. Another theme on all things British, includes very simple white jugs from Burleigh that are ideal for a Pure Style kitchen, and simple block printed fabrics from Tobias and the Angel.
This Christmas I am stocking up on Spanish fig and almond slices from Brindisa and more membrillo as book writing meant that I didnít get round to making it this autumn. For more Iberian pleasures such as simple woven Portuguese shopping baskets try Feitoria. For a present of simple everyday drinking glasses you canít beat the dumpy French Duralex ones from Labour and Wait. And any lover of English food history will have their head happily buried all over the festive period in a copy of Dorothy Hartleyís classic Food in England: A Complete Guide to the Food That Makes Us Who We are
I might think the moment for scented room candles could come and go forever if it werenít for Diptyque who make ones with authentic smells. My favourite is Oranger, and almost as aromatic as the real thing. The Christmas tree is going up tomorrow and with it woolly pom poms that are very satisfying to make with children because the effect is very quick to achieve. I also make rag balls with fabric strips from my remnants bag that are pinned to floral oasis. The look is simple and homespun.
Packing up for the holsí may be palpitation inducing: thundering down the motorway to take the dog for her summer billet with my sister, racing through a monthís paperwork in the early hours, and making the house ship shape for a magazine Christmas shoot . But boy itís worth it! Exchanging city shorts for beaten up espadrilles and t-shirts is as good for the soul as the summer diet based around grilled sardines and hunks of watermelon. Just scraping under the 20kg limit as usual, my suitcase is stuffed with books for long spells of reading under the beach umbrella. Favourites include The Surprising Life of Constance Spry by Sue Shephard; Outliers Ďthe story of successí by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Algarve Fish Book by Nic Boer and Andrea Sieber. Iím also inspired by Reinventing Letter Press by Charlotte Rivers, a stylish little book with fabulous printing ideas.
Along with the reading matter, thereís just enough room to slot in a few bars of Green and Blacks chocolate bars. It will head straight to the fridge as soon as possible after we meet the sauna temperatures of Olhao in August.
Iíve also tucked in the dolls house sized Indian terracotta pots that the returning traveller produced from her mighty backpack. Perfect for salt, pepper, and chopped herbs, they are also a tangible reminder of just how far my middle born has spread her wings in the last six months.,
1ím counting on the Spanish lodgers to nurture the courgettes and tomatoes all swelling nicely in the warmth and damp. One of them is a specialist ham carver, so I hope his talents for precision extend to the vegetable patch. Theyíre already under instructions to feed and water Miss Bea, the cat who will lord it over the sofas, spreading her black fluff, with the dog safely out of the way.. One last look around the flowerbeds, to enjoy the sweetly scented white nicotiana- another unexpected success from last yearís seeds, which in turn were produced from the previous yearís blooms that i collected. And even the agapanthus managed to defy the winterís ravages and has just put out some glorious blooms. Iíll miss the sweetpeas, too, their delicate soapy fragrance is so much part of an English summer garden. .
Before I snap the case shut I must tell you about three new finds: Feitoria.com.pt sells a cleverly edited collection of Portuguese accessories, such as leather slippers, donkey milk soap,(yes, honestly) and cork ice buckets - so much more inspiring than the usual souvenir stuff. Closer to home ther`re simple Welsh blankets and other celtic home ideas from Blodwen And molly-meg.co.uk sells stylish child sized chairs: a good idea for anyone want ing a nice bit of scaled down Ercol in the nursery.
Only a few piles of dog eared admin remain before we can escape to Olhao and the new room on top. On the way to the post office, mimosa and forsythia are fizzing with yellow. It seems a little wasteful to be leaving behind the first budding and greening signs of spring but the draw of sand between toes and sardines are tantalizing too. And after more technology malfunctions (I won`t even go there) parking ticket angst, missed train connections, and near hospitalisation involving clogs on a down escalator, I`m ready to walk there, let alone fly .
Just have to get in a session of dough making for pizza (artichoke hearts, green olives and parmesan, is my current favourite) and other homemade creations (see here my sister in law`s divine rye sourdough bread) to illustrate my new book. The four legged paparazzo is enjoying the cooking sessions too, hanging around the worktop for crumbs, and helping herself to the subject matter of a flapjack shot when no one`s looking. It`s all go putting together the pages, and the deadline is no tiny speck in the distance anymore. But that`s good, too, because it means the weeks are slipping away until the backpacker daughter returns.
When I`m back first stop will be gorgeous fabrics at the V&A exhibition, Quilts 1700-2010. Might even get round to a spot of quiltmaking with pretty seaweed prints from the museum`s collection of archive printed cotton. Check out more print ideas from Printand pattern.blogspot.com and Liberty prints at knockdown prices in the new range for American chain store Target .
Spring garden notes: Divide agapanthus: I have an extended family of agapanthus plants that came stashed in a suitcase from Spain and are now packed tightly in a pot like chocolate fish in a tin, which is how they like it. This year, though, division is necessary to keep the plants vigorous and I cut them down the middle with a fork and plant the new half in a fresh container. Feed shrubs and climbers: I started with the standard roses, and have now worked in more compost and bonemeal around the shrub and climbing roses, and gorgeous pale lilac wisteria at the front of the house. Sow seedlings half hardy under cover: Nicotiana and zinnia seeds saved from last year are germinating in a tray on the windowsill. Sow less than think as a pinch of seed goes a long way. Prepare trenches for beans and `chitted` potatoes and dig in muck or compost (on another sea salty note, I remember my grandmother lined her bean trenches with seaweed and newspaper to conserve moisture).
It has been a glorious Indian summer of an autumn: crisp golden leaves catching in my hair and tumbling across the grass as I walk in the park. But now the clouds have burst to soak the leaf fall which pastes the streets like papier mache. London is good at this time of year quieter, more mellow. In the deepening shadows the city squares and churchyards seem more secret, invitations into the past.
At weekends it`s hat, scarf and ribbed tights weather. Dark sunday afternoons are for eating cake and idling at an exhibition. I really really recommend the visual magic at The Museum of Everything, showing unseen artists, who create their work outside the eyes and ears of the art world. Take Judith Scott, who made sculpture from household objects entirely hidden by being wound-about over and over by wool and yarn. Scott had Down`s syndrome, and only communicated through these things. They`re very convincing, together with the spirit drawings of medium Madge Gill, and the ceramic recycled kingdom of Indian roads worker Nek Chand. The works are unintentional, delicate and profound. What a contrast at Tate Modern where Pop Life: Art in a Material World is billed as a foray into the world of the celebrity artist. It includes Andy Warhol wallpaper, Damien Hirst`s golden spot paintings, a reconstruction of Keith Harings`s Pop Shop and some unappealing top shelf stuff in the over 18s` room. The artist as commercial brand continues to flow into the shop where Tracey Emin white mugs are a whopping ¨®¨£15.00. It all left me feeling rather flat and anxious to go home and do something nourishing like collect the bean and nicotiana seeds from the pods I`ve been drying by the boiler.
I wake up to the door bell and a postman (something of a rarity during the recent post strikes) bearing a cardboard box with perforated holes from Crocus. It`s the tulip bulbs: Lilac Perfection, Tulipa White Parrot and Tulipa Violet Beauty. All to be planted asap. Six inches isn`t too deep too keep out the the foxes and squirrels who enjoy a crunchy bulb or two..or three....or more. By the way, bulbs are poisonous if eaten by humans and can be irritating to the skin.
A couple of weeks ago I planted up of bowls with specially forced bulbs of hyacinths, paper whites, and crocuses so we will hopefully be surrounded by gorgeous scent and colour over christmas.The secret is to keep them cool and in the dark to let them develop good roots before bringing them into the warmth and light.
Now for some trumpet blowing: Remodelista editor, Sarah Lonsdale has voted my blog as one of her top ten eclectic design blogs. And I`m `Queen of Simple`, no less, in Grazia magazine where there`s a piece on the house in Olhao. Speaking of which, hooray! hooray! almost a year to the day, we have the licence to start work on The Room on Top. Who knows what will be in store, once Mr Martinho`s gang arrive and start the heavy work? I will keep you posted.
A room isn`t a room without Farrow and Ball`s `Teresa`s Green`, it`s my current passion, having just re-painted the tv room. A room isn`t a room without a dog, but unlike paint which can be painted over if you get fed up with it, a dog is for life. Should be, but round here `weapon` dogs roam the streets with hoodied youths who can`t look after themselves, let along something on four legs. We found a sad, abandoned and emaciated staffie with sores and trailing claws who clambered wearily into the back of the car and let me take her to Battersea Dogs Home. If you want to rescue her she is Brindle/White SBTX
What with all the leaves pouring off the trees it seems a little unseasonal to be to picking remnants of a summer flower garden: a few rose heads, nasturtiums and so on. I hope it`s not because of climate change. But then Pepys describes roses blooming in his London garden in the middle of December, and that was hundreds of years ago before we`d begun to stifle the planet. Anyway, it`s good to press the petals between the pages of the telephone directory for simple decorations that you can stick on your christmas cards.
The warm conditions followed by wet this autumn have been a fungi foragers dream. My family really got into searching for porcini, (penny buns) field mushrooms, chanterelles, blewitts and parasols when we lived in Spain. These are edible mushrooms that are quite easy to identify. The locals there were crafty so and sos and thought nothing of raiding their neighbours` fields before daylight.
On a stroll through Berkshire parkland we found parasols (actually umbrella shaped) poking up beneath gnarled trunked oak trees. They`re very tasty fried in a little butter with parsley, but as with all edible mushrooms you shouldn`t eat them in large quantities because they`re hard to digest.
Good news! Elle Decoration, July Issue, has voted my blog as one of the best style blogs on the web: " British style journalist Jane Cumberbatch`s blog is a feast of gorgeous photography and inspiring ideas, on everything from Ercol furniture to making shortbread. Her style is simple, relaxed and recession-friendly". I`m in sartorial male blog company too, from Mr Peacock who offers tips on how to customise an Ikea sofa, to James Andrew a NY designer who dresses as hip as his surroundings and Jonathan Adler who`s mad about blue. It`s sweatingly hot and steamy in the city but at Hampstead Ladies pond , spreading trees shade this North London oasis and swimmers become part of nature as they move between floating water lilies and small fleets of ducks with ducklings. It`s my first ever dip here, and it feels like heaven, so peaceful, and even though the dark water seems eerily bottomless, it is fresh and free from tangled weed. Ben and Jerry`s or Haagen Dazs might be what the teenagers prefer to spoon into their wafer cones, but I live in hope that student budgets or even ennui with the packaged stuff, might nudge them towards making their own ice cream. It`s dead easy. See my latest YouTube for proof.
As all bee experts will testify, the global bee population has recently entered a catastrophic decline, in a syndrome despairingly known as "Colony Collapse Disorder". Thriving bee farms are being turned overnight into ghost towns as workers mysteriously desert their queens and everyone is quoting Albert Einstein to the effect that if the bees go, the human race will perish four years later. Well you wouldn`t think there`s a buzz crisis in Tulse Hill the bees are positively crowding out my pom pom thistles and lavender bushes in their pollinating and honey making efforts. In fact, this year. Nevertheless, I`m going to do my bit and offer up a quiet spot by the shed to host a hive a brilliant initiative for urban beekeepers who need more space.
I`ve been communing with more bees at Das Kransbach spa where you can get stuck into some serious treatments or idle away the day in buzzing and knee tickling Alpine wild flower meadows. The boxy hives passed on the walk home are the source of sticky golden chunks of honeycomb for breakfast. Just as energising for the soul are the sublime rooms designed by Ilse Crawford and the simple back-to-nature saunas, and pools that lull guests into bliss. No spartan spa this is, either, with delicious cakes on trays at teatime.
Autumn`s performance continues to spellbind. The park is decorated like a natural film set, dressed in toning themes of yellow, golden brown and berry pink. Wading through layers of papery leaves is sensual, like eating a Bendicks Bittermint or lazing on hot sand.
It was good to get out in the fresh air as my kitchen was steamy and busy, booked for a team photographing food by Australian chef,
Bill Granger. I watched the refreshingly ego-and-expletive-free, maestro conjure up gorgeous baking one minute, then exotic oriental fish flavours the next. The dog had a field day escaping to lick up whatever tasty crumbs might fall. Bill`s take on chicken curry, with aromatic coconut and chilli, was among the divine leftovers that upped the ante on our everyday grub after the shoot departed in the evening.
The house has been working hard for its living. As soon as the cooking gang left, knitting heroine Debbie Bliss arrived to take pictures for the second issue of her smart new knitting magazine. My knitting skills are restricted to never-ending scarves in purl and plain, but I`m feeling inspired after drooling over Debbie`s fabulous ideas: I fancy the apricot coloured long cardigan, a groovy alternative to a dressing gown.
I`m laying down the dust sheets for the next job, a recycling ad that stars a dustbin, plus all the clobber and fuss that accompanies film making. Hey ho, all in a day`s work.
The fifties` were not all about kitsch. It was an era of high quality design classics that were meant to last. I have a passion for the simple elm stick back chairs and tables that Lucian Ercolani designed for his company Ercol . I grew up eating my mum`s sphag bol around an Ercol table. I must admit that Ercol didn`t make it into my first home; I was trying out new ideas and anything associated with parents was uncool. I re-discovered the simple shapes a few years ago in forays to junk shops (see an example above, with one of the paparazzi seated) and intensive searches on Ebay, one of which led me a garage in Bedfordshire and a set of Windsor table and chairs in fabulous condition. Even the flat tyre on the way home didn`t dim my excitement. For more fifties` ideas visit the exhibition, Designer Style: Home Decorating in the 1950s at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture. MORE JOBS
On gardening matters, I really must get out to finish the weeding, rose pruning, (remember: clean secateurs and slanted cuts to let rain run off and prevent infection) and bulb planting. The most important thing about bulbs is to make sure you plant them the right way up: the hairy root bit at the bottom, and the pointy shoot at the top. If in doubt plant them sideways as the shoot will find it`s way to the light. The next most important thing is keep the squirrels out and plant the bulbs at a depth of 10cm. I`m looking forward to seeing what these white and green flamed tulips bulbs from the local garden centre will look like next spring. On `the room on top` in Olhao, we`ve submitted the planning application to the camara. Now all I have to do is wait, and send out positive vibes so that the word from on high will be positive and in the not too distant distant future. I know that I`m supposed to be on the slow road to less instant gratification, but I can`t wait to get out the roller and finish the walls in pig fat and lime a tried and tested traditional recipe, would you believe, for lime wash. I sense, though, there will be one or two hurdles to leap before that day arrives. During my visit there a couple of weeks ago, the chestnut vendors had arrived with rickety metal wagons to sell paper twists of roast nuts from the smoking coals. Everyone from old men to young children are customers. We roast chestnuts over an open fire at home in winter by slitting them first and then tossing amongst the embers for a few minutes. One year a friend gave me a chestnut roaster, a pan with slotted holes that was much less messy, and more suitable if a novice.
Florals are back, proclaim the catwalk shows for autumn and winter 2008. As far as I`m concerned though they`ve never been out. My childhood bedroom was papered in a groovy sixties` daisy print, and as teenagers my friends and I wafted around in sprigged Laura Ashley smocks with Pink Floyd`s `Dark side of the moon` as the soundtrack.
I always have a dose of florals around the house: a fabulous flowery plastic cloth that looks good for teatime or faded floral print cushions to go with striped ticking on a sofa. You could take a tip from the society decorator Nancy Lancaster who let her chintzes weather in the sun and rain. Not so practical in the average back garden me thinks. I`d rather hunt for authentically aged florals in a secondhand shop. Oxfam might yield somebody`s cast-off Sanderson slip covers, or a pair of curtains,in a classic Colefax and Fowler motif.
Some of my favourite prints are Liberty tana lawns. They`re expensive but I think it`s worth splashing out on a few beautiful things. As a student I worked at Liberty and stockpiled remnants that we were allowed to buy on discount. I`ve used them over the years to make pillowcases, dresses for dolls, or scarves for the beach. The Hille chair below, another junk shop find, has been given a revamp with just one and half metres of Liberty print. See how to make this really simple slip-on cover in my book Sew Easy.
It may be early June but damp pavements and low skies don`t bode well for this week`s planned pool excursions. Never mind, I shall pretend that its like a hot morning in Spain and make toasted bread rubbed with garlic, oil and fresh tomato(scoop out and use the insides only). I use a really good nutty extra virgin olive oil which I keep in a little metal jug with a thin spout, a basic kitchen staple from any Spanish hardware shop. Photo by Vanessa Courtier.