This everlasting month of January! It feels so much longer than other months, a month to get through, full of solving innumerable small problems, a month that, at the end, leaves me feeling a bit as if I’m just one month older without much to show for it.
It’s a month in which you measure how windy it is, in your tall metal home, by feeling the bed jiggle under you, or watching the water jiggle in your drinking glass, or listening to the building squeak and creak.
The building really sways back and forth. And the rain just keeps coming down.
Naturally, after Christmas, January is also spent unsubscribing from all the places from which I bought Christmas presents, who now bombard me daily with special offers I just cannot live without. Except that I can.
I bet you know exactly what I mean.
The best thing to do is to bundle up and get out of the house, see what secrets my new neighborhood can give up, to keep me cheerful. It doesn’t get much better than coming upon a kitty…
(serves lots, perhaps 6–8)
about 1 cup/250 grams orange, yellow or brown lentils
about 3 cups water
1 medium tomato
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
1 heaping tsp ground coriander
1 heaping tsp ground cumin
1 heaping tsp ground turmeric
1 heaping tsp chili powder
1 heaping tsp garam masala
1/2 cup/125 ml vegetable oil
1 medium onion, roughly sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 medium tomato
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
1/2 cup/125 ml plain yoghurt
fresh coriander/cilantro leaves to garnish
Pour the lentils into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover with water. You may need more water as they cook down. Into the lentils, coarsely chop the tomato, onion and garlic. My friend does this with a small, sharp knife, right from her hand into the pot. Sprinkle with all the spices. Bring to a simmer and cook until soft, adding more water if needed, about 30 minutes. Make sure the lentils are truly soft.
While they are cooking, heat the oil in a frying pan till very hot, then add the onions and garlic and fry until brown. This is absolutely crucial — continue to cook them past the level you would for any other recipe, except perhaps a biryani. They need to be fried nearly crisp, and you will find that they begin to stick together in clumps. This is perfect.
Now add them to the simmered lentils.
As the oily onions and garlic hit the wet lentils, they will make a crackling sound, very satisfying, which the Pakistanis believe mimics the sound of firecrackers, and the Urdu word for firecracker is “Tarka.” Hence “Tarka Daal,” since “Daal” is Urdu for “lentils.”
Stir thoroughly and add the second tomato. Cook just a bit. Season well and stir in half the yogurt. Serve topped with the remaining yogurt and the cilantro.
Why do I feel it’s been a grey two weeks since we returned from our Christmas holiday? I said so to myself this morning, adding something moanyish like, “Grey, as usual,” and then when I began gathering photographs to illustrate my point, the sky is actually blue much of the time! What gives?
January for me is always characterised by the reluctance to say goodbye to Christmas, family, friends, America, exhaustion from all of the above, and a vague sense that I ought to have a purpose, now the New Year has begun. Daily life, with all its attendant joys and sorrows, doesn’t seem quite enough to be going on with, in January.
Keechie, on the other hand, is just glad to have us back, AND she notices the sunshine.
Tacy, too, seeks a bit of warmth. I think they really missed us while we were away.
When I’m feeling a bit blue, the best thing to do is to think about someone besides myself. So when my friend Nora said she thought she might pack up her three boys and bring them for a visit to SE1, nothing could have been more welcome.
Aged five, three and several months, the boys cheered me up with their enthusiasm for our exotic, glassy home, so different from their cosy West London three-story house. They shouted down to the passersby on the sidewalk, delighted when they were able to get their attention.
“Hello down there!”
Otis submitted willingly to John’s ministrations with packing tape. “I bet you I can eat lunch without my arms, Mummy!”
We ate our macaroni and cheese, sausages and raspberries, and then decided to go for a walk. On the way out, nothing could be more fascinating than the construction site next door.
And then it was onto the Millennium Bridge. Now, I don’t ever take this magnificent view for granted, but even I could not match the boys’ enthusiasm for such a thrill. A bridge, a river! “Look, that boat is stopping and people are getting OFF AND ON! And there are seagulls!”
That evening, I made my way to my first ringing practice since before Christmas, feeling justifiably nervous. We rang something maddening (everything at my new tower is maddening!) called Bastow, or Little Bob Minimus. As I left in the frosty air, to lock the church door behind me, I was introduced to the tower’s adorable system of getting the keys back up to the ringers. A Toto basket, to be sure!
And Elizabeth came with her girls! They, too, were captivated by the views. We went all the way up to the 22nd Floor to get the true, rather sickening (for me) impression of the height and grandeur of this building.
The post has yielded a bit of excitement, this January. Next month will see us gaining our dual citizenship!
No more standing in the longest queue at Immigration, looking longingly at the OTHER queue. This is actually a bit of a metaphor, isn’t it? The grass being always greener, I mean. It’s not predictable, whether the American or the European line will be longer, so it will be interesting how it all appears when we’re clutching both passports in our hands and can make our own decision. Avery is already muttering about having to swear allegiance to the Queen. She will be the only one of us, however, fully prepared to sing “God Save the Queen” when the time comes, so I’d better hit the books.
Speaking of books, and hitting them, obviously the big event for us this month was taking Avery back to Oxford, for her second term. And far from being sad, as I’d anticipated (after a wondrous five-week holiday with her), the trip was actually an absolute joy. What a wonderful place Oxford is, to be sure! This is her quad.
This trip was a massive improvement on all others. When we first visited 18 months ago, we were like children on the wrong side of a candy shop window, only allowed to LOOK at all the sweet treats to be had.
Then, when we dropped her off in October, I was far too overwhelmed by emotion and significance to enjoy the sights. The day was a blur. And for her birthday, we’d planned to spend the night, but there was no room at the Inn (really). And it poured with cold rain, cutting short what might have been a touristy afternoon. And Avery was ill. Again.
So this week was our first chance really to revel in her happiness at being back, to settle her in her rooms, dashing to the Porters’ Lodge trying to find the three (“or were there four? I think there were four”) boxes of her belongings she’d stashed away in storage at Christmas. Yes, these poor kids are made to move OUT every single term, bringing lots of things home but also storing some away. Finally all was settled and she was cosy.
We were happy tourists! John’s mom had given me a night at the famous Randolph Hotel for my birthday present last year, and only now were we able to take advantage of it.
Now, look at that sky! Gloomy moods be gone.
We met up with my great friend JoAnn for her tour of the Bodleian Library, where she is a guide. Oh, the magnificence of the Divinity Room, with its 600-year-old ceiling. This will be where Avery gets dressed, JoAnn says, for her graduation ceremony.
In the 17th century, Christopher Wren designed the magnificent Sheldonian Building just opposite, to provide an unforgettable location for all the big ceremonies, including Avery’s matriculation in October. The view of the Sheldonian through the glass of the Divinity reminded me, inevitably, of the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from my new ringing tower. Wren is very consistent.
Did you know that in the 17th century, architecture was not even considered a profession? Jo explained that until Wren came along, buildings were designed by scientists and mathematicians. And how beautifully they did it, to be sure.
After our tour, we treated Jo to a well-deserved coffee at Blackwell’s bookshop. If I lived in Oxford, I would simply walk into Blackwell’s every morning and not leave until they closed. Avery joined us for conversation and a bit of chocolate pudding. We said goodbye to Jo and made the rounds of every useful shop in Oxford, kitting out Avery’s room a bit further with a printer, a mirror, some new dishes. Just walking along the street is a complete pleasure!
And then it was back to the Randolph to put our feet up, enjoy a cocktail, and revel in the perfection of the day. What a relief to see her settled, and to explore the town she loves and feels so comfortable in.
The Randolph is undergoing a renovation, in addition to recovering from a fire last year. If you decide to go, and you should, I’d wait until March when the staff say the project will be finished. For one thing, you’ll be able to enjoy the gorgeous facade currently under scaffolding, and they’ll have sorted out funny details like the music in the dining room — Kenny G on an I-Pod dock! But even now, it was charming. The staff are simply delightful, and the food at dinner unexpectedly gutsy and delicious — ox cheek of the tenderest, and just the right amount of horseradish in the mashed potatoes. We were happy.
In the morning we ambled back to Avery to work on her rooms a bit more, and then left her to her work while we played at being tourists a bit more. John discovered University Church.
“It’s a very narrow staircase,” warned a tourist before us. “Very narrow indeed.” He cannot possibly imagine how many sets of belfry stairs I have traversed in my time! A hundred? But these views were something out of a dream.
There was a map in the ringing chamber to show us what we were seeing, but I was perfectly happy just to walk around and gaze.
We peered down the High Street to see Avery’s college tucked away.
What a joy to look around and know that this is Avery’s home, and she is happy. We felt so pleased.
We popped in to see the newly-refurbished Weston wing of the Bodleian Library, and its fabulous shop, where I wanted one of everything. And then on to Jo’s to pick up our car, thank her, and head home, thoroughly happy.
I barely had time to draw breath before it was time for my much-anticipated reunion with my Barnes band of ringers! Ringing for a wedding, which is always a special joy. I packed up a nice warm apple and banana cake and made my way west. How wonderful to pop in for tea with Trisha and a thorough chat, then over to St Mary’s in the chilly afternoon air, through the festive wedding door.
Hugs from Eddie and Colin and Andrew. We rang successfully before the ceremony, then my dear Michael turned up just to spend the interval with me! To see Michael and Barbara, how wonderful.
My twins, my beloved boys Angus and Freddie turned up with their beautiful mum Claire, to give me a Christmas present and to accept theirs. Suddenly they can TALK! “Kristen, we have present for you.” They clutched at their presents with chilly hands in the dusk.
Michael took time to ring with us, after the wedding was finished, and the posh guests were spilling out with their hats and heels and morning coats. We were so happy to be together once again.
I walked home from Blackfriars, then, last night, feeling a sense of relief that I CAN go home again. Barnes and its wonderful friendships are still there, to be picked up again whenever I like.
This morning’s ringing at Foster Lane was as challenging as ever, for Sunday services. I thought about the contrasts between the two towers — Barnes busy, cosy, convivial, on the ground floor where we can be part of the congregation, the wedding guests, the sense of community. Foster Lane high above the street on the first floor, an austere white chamber, just a few ringers deeply intent on absolute perfection, then walking quickly through the scholastic pews sparsely filled with just a few parishioners. There is room in my life for both places.
Tomorrow is Monday. A fresh start to the week, with Avery gone once again, halfway through this challenging month of January, ready to see what London life in the New Year will bring.
Happy New Year!
I’ve been hearing that one of the 2016 concepts to watch is “de-cluttering.” Everyone is talking about clearing out, purging, simplifying life, by simplifying possessions.
Well, as you know all too well, our family didn’t have the luxury of waiting for a cultural trend to do all of the above. Having moved house nine times in 20 years, this last time scaling down to our smallest home ever, we have become professional de-clutterers.
We’ve brought with us nothing — as William Morris said — that we did not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Which is lovely, except that neither of those categories really admits the purely emotional belongings. The parts of your life you simply LOVE, with no rhyme or reason, no use or aesthetic value.
Which makes Red Gate Farm all the more necessary to our lives. All around us are the luxurious vestiges of the beloved past.
There is, adorably, this portion of the “measuring marks doorway” that charts the taller, older girls (and one Kai, a boy, last summer). Then, because Kate and Molly appeared so much later, they have their portion.
I remember how hard I tried not to think about leaving behind the “measuring marks closet” in our Manhattan loft, which we thought in 2000 would be our forever home. Avery’s marks from age 4 to age 9 were left behind, there.
We have left so much behind. When I think of the photographs, the toys, the high school musical costumes, the letters from France, the childhood books, the stuffed animals, records, that my mother still valiantly holds for me in my childhood bedroom closet! All these from Avery’s childhood have been left behind, with friends who had younger daughters, or have been put into storage for some later date. They aren’t part of our daily lives.
Thank goodness for Red Gate Farm. We found it when Avery was about seven, and there are parts of all our lives left here in precious living memory. I love every bit.
The nicest thing is that it’s not a memorial, or a morgue. It’s a living house where kid after kid has loved every bit of it. Just on New Year’s Eve the dollhouse was brought back out. Because it’s an old house with plenty of nooks and crannies, things can just LIVE. Things from the past, filled with memories of the fourth birthday when the dollhouse came into our lives.
There is a whole shelf full of picture books, more than one, probably, in all the bookshelves scattered over this house. I have read here to Avery, Jane, Molly, Kate-Across-the-Road, Abigail.
On New Year’s Eve, Abigail, her parents Mike and Lauren, and her little brother Gabriel came to dinner. Gabriel sat in Avery’s high chair, which has in between housed all the above children, their sticky fingers leaving prints to be scrubbed off after every dinner.
The two kids sat with their bowls of chocolate mousse at the table that’s moved with us from London to New York to Connecticut, a wedding present from John’s mom and Dad.
We all sat and observed London’s New Year’s Eve (at the lovely hour of 7 p.m. Red Gate Farm time!) in the leather chairs that have come with us from country to country, with the Christmas Tree skirt given to us the first holiday we had this house, by my mother, emblazoned “Red Gate Farm.”
The piano is never quiet here! Either my brother is deftly arranging the Peanuts Christmas song, or I’m trying to master some Debussy tune, or Jane and Molly are improvising a duet with Kate standing ready to take over. Abby and Gabe have taken their places in the tradition, with Rosemary’s laughing approval.
Gabriel made the acquaintance of my beloved hens, whom he christened “cockadoodledoos.” We convinced him to leave them upstairs in my bedroom so they could get some sleep. “Or else they won’t lay any eggs,” Abigail explained, conflating once and for all the relative identities of roosters and hens.
You could walk all through our new London flat and hardly know we had a child, so grownup is it and elegant. But at Red Gate Farm there are pictures of little Avery everywhere, suspended in a way in childhood. It feels right here.
After Christmas, we all spent a great deal of energy cleaning, polishing, rearranging, the belongings that crowd this old family house. Just look how welcoming the music room is, with its fresh coat of attention.
My new felt friends fit right in.
The dining room simmered on New Year’s Eve with its weight of the new candle holders Avery had given me for Christmas, and the old ones they joined. I give you two views, one into the house…
And one toward the front door, awaiting our guests.
I admit that I arrived at this little house this Christmas slightly nervous that our family’s allegiance, or attention, or future, had begun to swivel to our London dream home. And surely we are all very excited about our London lives, glittery as they are. But at the end of our Red Gate Farm holiday, we all leave just as in love with this house and our lives here as ever before, warmed by the past that we are allowed to have here, and by the future kids who will jump on the trampoline and pound on the piano and pore over the picture books just as Avery did. And revel in the warmth and joy of the kitchen, the heart of the home.
Gifts from the past are everywhere.
We’ve said goodbye to Avery, and to my family, and to Rosemary. It’s back, very shortly, to real life. It is such a heartening feeling, as all the changes happen in our English lives, with our grownup child, to know that Red Gate Farm is still here, holding our past and future safe and sound.
There’s one distinct advantage to moving house (and country) so very many times.
When you’re home, you know it.
Red Gate Farm has done its usual magic at Christmastime. We are home.
But I’m getting ahead — way ahead — of myself.
Ten days ago found us in our London flat with me fretting and fussing over leaving Avery there alone, to make her way to a DIFFERENT AIRPORT from the one we were departing from, to board a plane on her own (not that she hasn’t done that a hundred times, but you know what I mean — we were leaving from the same city to arrive in the same city, but not together. I freaked out a bit.).
We waved to her from the London pavement below our building, and made our way to Heathrow, while she made hers to Gatwick. And some seemingly million hours later, we met up, miraculously as it seemed to me, at the rental car agency at JFK and came home to Red Gate Farm, where we were met by Rosemary who had had a couple of quiet days here in the peace of this little house. A house surrounded entirely by a whole fall’s worth of leaves, as it turned out in the light of day!
“I guess I knew the lawn guys hadn’t come for the fall cleanup,” John said, “when Anne told us so, but I didn’t really picture this.”
It was kind of beautiful, in a neglected, Grey Gardens, abandoned-home type of way. Kate came from across the road to kick in the fragrant piles.
I myself enjoyed a bit of kicking, and the autumnal, Charlie Brown-y smell. All too quickly a new set of lawn guys turned up to blow them all away.
And then that was that.
Because it was Christmas, and leaves don’t feel very Christmassy.
The Leaf Men themselves were models of efficiency, energy and professionalism. The head guy came in to talk to John. “This is an awesome house,” he said, bending down to admire the floorboards, for which “random” oak is no exaggeration. You could lose a small pet between some of them.
“When I did my house, I laid concrete down first, then a layer of sheeting, then the floorboards, and sealed them between. It’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer.” Whereas we can see the light from the basement shining between our floorboards.
Jetlagged, we wandered around the property identifying buildings that were falling down more than other buildings that were falling down.
Mark came to feed and water the horses in the meadow, and we stood happily in the early-morning light, hearing about his autumn, most especially his new project of culling the local abundant deer population with — I’m not making this up — a bow and arrow. We readily gave our approval for him to use our acreage, and as a result he came by later in the day with a package of venison steaks from his latest triumph.
Quite simply the most delicious, tender meat I have ever eaten. I want lots more — to grind and make burgers and chilli, and can you imagine venison meatloaf? I can.
Oh, Mark, you are so cool. So American.
Avery traipsed off to Manhattan for a couple of days with a friend, so we went to the Laurel Diner for sustenance before a busy day of Christmas preparations. There is a new, completely delicious dish called the “Kiki.” Perfect hash browns, topped with sausages, Cheddar cheese and sour cream. Oh my.
And then onto Christmas tree-shopping. Which in Connecticut means AROMA. I wish I could convey it to you, the intensely piney, evocative, mysterious, perfect aroma.
Oh, why can’t it be Christmas all year round? Is there anything more beautiful than the evergreen?
Our friend Judy’s friend helped us choose, with the “bah humbug” assistance of young Kyle, whose contributions to the proceedings were variations on, “Whatever tree you want. This one is okay,” and “I don’t know. It isn’t going in my house.” But even he could not stay glum in the face of my extreme holiday happiness. We chose two trees.
On the way home through the grey landscape we came upon this fairytale vista. Sometimes in Connecticut you just look up and find a page from a calendar.
We set up the trees and put on the lights, preparatory to Avery’s arrival the next day to decorate. And for just a moment we all thought, “What decorations? Just lights are fine.”
Oh, the smell of the wreaths in the windows, the greenery on the table, the trees. Simply heavenly.
It was time to journey to Jill’s house to pick up the mountain of parcels poor Joel had been receiving since the autumn, and storing in his basement. I hope he doesn’t mind. Their house looked gorgeous, as always. What a tree!
Molly grabbed the camera and got a slightly fuzzy but absolutely perfect picture of Jane and Jill.
There were real live carolers!
Avery came home from Manhattan and we decorated. We remembered how much we love every single object, collected over so many years.
Everyone hangs ornaments, exclaiming over favorites.
The magic of Christmas is in the feeling that childhood has come back again, not complicated as it was in real life, but simple and perfect. The taste of a candy cane, the smell of a wood fire, the glittery of ornaments I remember hanging on my mother’s tree. The aroma of a tangerine at Christmas brings back the childhood feeling of sitting on my father’s hearth, eating an orange he’d been sent by a colleague who wintered in Florida. Fires, the beauty of a decorated house filled with people who have travelled great distances to be together, the smell of Rosemary’s cappuccino cookies, key lime cookies, little brownies tied up in red ribbon. Nostalgia, pure and simple.
The silver bell tree, so perfect. This year’s gift from Rosemary said “NEO Bankside,” and Avery’s “University College, Oxford.” That pretty much sums it up.
One afternoon when the temperature was somewhere between North Carolina and Florida, Rosemary and I got ambitious and decided to wash the downstairs windows, she on the inside and I on the outside. It was very satisfying to remove the grime and see the Christmas lights shining through.
Until, that is, my ladder slipped and went through an ancient pane.
Some days later a burly man, ex-Army, self-described NASCAR nut, came to repair it, with his blowtorch and putty knife and a diamond blade. He reminded me of my dad, so I kept him company while he got to work, explaining to me that he was removing all the old putty, which he could date to somewhere in the last 25 years based on its composition. Then quick as anything, the new pane was in place.
He’s coming back to do the barn windows later in the week, a long overdue job.
It occurred to me that there was a theme running through our holiday — hunter and firefighter Mark, the intrepid Leaf Men, Sam the Window Guy. There is something that I identify as a sort of quintessential American spirit: it’s to do with boundless energy, ingenuity, self-reliance, a positivity about the responsibilities of life. I know American women like this too. There’s my friend Anne-Across-the-Road, who never met an acre of land she didn’t intend to preserve, and Judy, my farmer friend, who can jell, can or pickle anything, whilst knitting sweaters with John Deer Tractors on them, and my friend Lauren, who is a granola-making, Haiti-volunteering pediatric nurse.
It was a wonderful reminder of the good and great things about the American character. I’d love to be one of those people, but I’m wise enough to know that my greatest strength is appreciating them, not trying to be one of them. They’re the kind of people you want on your side, the kind of people who actually welcome being grown-ups.
Christmas got more Christmassy when Anne’s family came back up from the city to celebrate. We got to go on a second tree-shopping trip, just to help them decide. I taught Kate the fine art of tree-sniffing, including getting one’s nose poked by needles.
She, Anne and David found the perfect tree.
We carried on to the grocery store to order my Christmas Eve oysters. “You want a GALLON of oysters?” the girl’s eyes were wide with astonishment.
We repaired to Kate’s house in the evening for s’mores in their ancient fireplace.
In a rare moment of exhaustion, I simply couldn’t face cooking dinner and so we ordered a pizza and collapsed in the living room with the tree sparkling and the Christmas books in a tempting pile. There is just nothing funnier than the “The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming.”
“And then they ate him.”
Oh, the favorite ornaments. This demure, hand-crossed lady.
The little blown-glass German ornaments remind us of all our Christmas trips to the antique shop up the road in Woodbury, every year.
I think the happy carolers might be my very favorite. To think of this ornament making its way from Germany probably just before the war, a symbol of all that was right in a country facing such dark times.
Everyone needs a shopping kitty.
And treasures from the London Christmas Fair, too. Such happy memories.
Because life is never perfect, no matter how hard you try, Avery made a very unpleasant discovery of mouse poison in her pillowcase! Subdued shrieks ensued and a father-rescue. Oh, Red Gate Farm.
She had picked up a nasty head cold from somewhere, so we journeyed to Jill’s once more without her, to see my beautiful mother and my brother! Finally, together after so many months.
Christmas Eve came, with bizarre sultry weather which made it possible, for once, to light all the candles on the hydrangea and watch them burn with perfect flickering flames.
We moved the gorgeous evergreen table decoration to the bench in the dining room — oh, so sparkly and beautiful.
The house looked just beautiful, waiting for everyone to arrive. It was a gloriously loud, delicious, crowded Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day dawned bright, sparkling and unseasonably warm, again. Presents were gleefully received. Avery loved her book of English Gothic art, a new passion.
I gave John a beautiful drawing, a plan of Potters Fields, from his beloved architect in Paris. He was very happy. I myself received a precious Kitchen Aid mixer! Rosemary pored over her photographs of Avery’s matriculation at Oxford. Avery and John gave me felt creatures.
We were off to Jill and Joel’s for the Christmas Day festivities, and gorgeous presents.
Of course I carried home the turkey carcass to concoct a pot of soup, with tiny turkey meatballs. What a welcome thing, with Avery coughing away. I wish I could share with you the savoury aroma.
Of course, the most delectable parts of Christmas aren’t things you can convey — you really can’t capture what you want to — the feeling of the candlelit living room with the glittering tree and the fire popping in the background…
There was the luxury of sitting for hours with my mom just chatting about the latest outlandish plots on Days of Our Lives, or our favorite mystery novel series. There is the smell of the wood fire coming from the chimney when you pop out to the shed on an errand and look up to see the full moon hovering over the meadow.
You can try to convey the feeling of “across the road” when you come home from s’mores to see the Red Gate Farm lit up like a little doll’s house, or the sheer loveliness of family, all together for such a brief time.
To console ourselves after my family’s departure, we drove through a spectral evening, admiring everyone’s Christmas decorations, to have dinner with Mike, Lauren, Abigail and Gabriel. Their house is such a haven of love and comfort and fun. Abigail and John bonded over picture books, and the contents of his wallet.
There was Cheddar cheese and chicken soup. And kitty Jessica, such a wonderful memory from little Avery days of kitten fostering!
And finally, in the middle of the night last night — it snowed. I happened to be up and grabbed my camera.
This morning all was wet, disconsolate drippiness, but still, indisputably, snowy!
Cisco enjoyed a chilly drink, unaware that he was posing for another of those accidental Connecticut calendar photographs.
And so our holiday winds itself down. The presents have been opened, the oyster stew enjoyed, friends and family have been reunited and then have said goodbye again. This evening Avery will make the long journey from the train station at Brewster to 125th Street, then in a cab to JFK, thence to Gatwick, and finally home to our glossy flat, all on her own. I’m still getting used to that idea, but it’s the future.
We will have one more party — a quiet little New Year’s Eve bash — and then Rosemary will make her way back to Iowa.
It’s been a wonderful Christmas. I hope very much that you and yours shared a beautiful one, too.
It’s Christmastime in our new home.
Before we moved into this flat, I would never have believed that glass, miles and miles of glass, is what you really want when you start to decorate for the holidays. I would have predicted that all the windows would make us feel rather exposed, or that it would be boring to live surrounded by so much reflective surface. But it’s just the opposite.
During these short, dark London days before Christmas, when the sun sets at about 4 o’clock, the glass takes on a life of its own, all the windows begin to act like their own, unintended bit of decoration. We have twice as many Christmas lights, because you see them all at least twice! I don’t know if you can tell here, but we have long strands of little red lights hanging at the seams of the windows, and each one is doubled by the glass.
The tree itself reflects in the glass, and then the glass doors at the edges of the office reflect it again. The lights on the bookshelves are reflected again, too. Everything glitters with cosy Christmas. I can hardly wait for it to get dark every day (and of course I don’t have to wait very long!).
Life is brighter anyway, and would be without decorations, because Avery’s home from Oxford. It is such a pleasure to have her around, telling tales, making cookies.
And getting a fancy, exciting haircut! Above is before, then this:
Of course it could be dyed blue and sticking up all over her head and we’d still find it a pleasure to look at her. Home is home again, now she’s here. It is a relief to know, just as everyone told me, that while you do have to say goodbye when they grow up, they come home again, too.
She turns out to have a real talent for baking Christmas cookies! The first experiment was a bit iffy, due mostly to our shared inability to follow instructions.
“It says here to refrigerate the dough for at least two hours, or overnight. How important can that be?”
“How close is this to a cup?”
The finished cookies had to dry on my precious tonkatsu racks, since I (no baker) had none of the ordinary kind. Avery and I felt they gained a lot of panache thereby.
The frosting was another potential minefield, one night close to midnight, John having long since gone to bed.
“Why does it look like drying camouflage?”
“It’s very… bitter. I think it’s too wet. Let’s add more icing sugar.” Finally she decided less was more, and really hit her stride.
The sledders are enthusiastic.
Christmas cards have begun to arrive, one of my old-fashioned seasonal pleasures. Put me out of my misery if I ever decide it’s too much trouble to send them, real cards, in the post.
Our autumnal centerpiece of apples has fulfilled our wishes for it, sending out lovely aromas as the apples age, but they don’t seem to rot. A spot of sparkle hits the spot.
You know me, I don’t have a very home-design instinct, but I do think my new way of arranging flowers is a good way — just the heads.
The Christmas tree baubles look even more antique and touching against the backdrop of the building across the way, filled with its office workers and stark furniture.
That building! It’s called the Blue Fin Building, designed by the firm of one of John’s architect friends, and it’s notably a pretty building, with beautiful interior wooden details, and the eponymous blue fins framing the windows.
It seems that every time we turn on our telly, a BBC drama — “Unforgotten,” “River,” “Capital” — is taking place within its walls. Often with a view through the windows to our building! We’re seriously not in Barnes anymore.
Yesterday, John and I got permission to go into the building next door to ours, in our development, to take this photograph, of our flat. What a funny feeling, peeking into our lives from the outside.
The reflections are just beautiful.
We had a brief, lovely flirtation with a tree skirt we cleverly fashioned from a simple length of Liberty fabric. Hermione was terrified of it at first, naturally.
But she settled down eventually.
Sadly in the morning it was discovered that someone (Keechie is the main suspect, based on past criminal behavior in this arena) had decided it was much nicer than using the litterbox. So no more tree skirt, unless someone has a brilliant idea about how to make her stop. Ah, it was pretty while it lasted.
What fun to wander around at night, looking at each ornament in turn, remembering where they came from (thank you, Alyssa…)
A treasure from Avery’s childhood…
Finally, after the stresses of the house move and a bit of time to recover, I’m back in the ringing chamber! Two of them, actually.
Sometimes you have to follow your heart. Very kindly, I had been introduced to two potential churches that, to look at a map, seemed to be the most natural places for me to ring, once I left behind my beloved St Mary’s, Barnes. And I think I will turn up at one or both of them, eventually. But what I think will be my “home” church, I found all on my own. I’ll explain.
Every evening, after dinner, John and I (and now Avery, who is thankfully home for the holidays) take a walk. It might be to the West along the river, to the blue twinkling lights and skateboarders of Southbank, or to the East past the Globe, toward Borough Market. But most often we walk across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s, and beyond. It was this trek that we took one very cold night, about two weeks ago, and as we passed St Paul’s, we heard the sound of bells. Following the sound, we came upon this lovely, dignified old church, with lights on in the ringing chamber from which the sounds emanated.
We counted six bells and noticed that it was close to 9 p.m., traditional ending time for nighttime practices, so we blew on our hands and hung around, shivering, until finally the bells were rung down, the sallies stored away, the lights turned off, and the door you can see at ground level opened.
I screwed up my courage and approached the ringers spilling out onto the pavement. “I’m a new neighbor, just across the bridge, and a ringer. Would I be welcome ringing with you?”
“Well, absolutely,” a woman said promptly, “here’s the Tower Captain; he can give you all the details.”
I was introduced to Tom, an intellectual-looking gentleman with a twinkle in his eye and a firm handshake. “Of course, come along next Monday if you like. Tied ringing from 6, open from 7.”
St Vedast-Alias-Foster, my new church!
On practice day, I was terribly nervous all afternoon (“why do I put myself through these things?” I kept asking myself), preparing something for us to eat when I got home, worrying over how I should present my skills. I emailed my great ringing friend Michael to express my fear and hesitation, and he of course responded with encouragement and good advice to greatly undersell my abilities! Finally it was time to go. As instructed, I pulled the little bell that hung out from the chamber, to alert them as to my arrival.
Of course there was nothing to worry about. Well, there was, but it wasn’t my welcome, which was warm from everyone. And what a charming ringing chamber, with six ropes (six different sallies!).
“Yes, they ARE all different, but there’s a method to the madness,” a Canadian ringer called Elizabeth assured me. “You see, each rope forms a pair with its partner across the room.”
So the sally that’s largely blue, with yellow stripes, is mirrored across the chamber with a sally that’s largely yellow, with blue stripes. Of course. That’s the way with ringers. Everything has a pattern.
Now the name of this church — St Vedast-Alias-Foster — is really mystifying, but I have tracked down a certain explanation. “St Vedast” is apparently a corruption of a French saint name “Vast,” which can be (and was) pronounced “Vaust,” much as a flower “vase” can be pronounced “vahs.” Then the further corruption of the “v” to an “f” led to “Fost,” and an extra syllable to make it possessive, “Fost’s,” led to the name “Foster.” Thereupon the lane where the church is located was named “Foster Lane,” sometime in the 14th century.
The church was then burned down in the Great Fire of London in September 1666, and was rebuilt by Christopher Wren’s office, who of course built St Paul’s Cathedral. The poor building was then bombed in the Blitz, and its supporters resisted a suggestion that it be left as a war memorial, just as it was. So it was rebuilt again, the bell tower being the only bit that survived all the disasters. This happens more often than you would think — when my old St Mary’s was burned by an arsonist in the 1970s, the bell tower survived.
So we rang! Their six bells are reputed to be the finest in the City of London, and certainly they are beautiful. I rang the 3, the 4, and the 5, getting a good feeling for the the experience. When I took a break and a sip of water, sitting on a bench under the window, this was my view.
Everyone was very friendly and supportive. I needed the support, as this band ring call changes in a very mysterious and challenging way. Bear with me: the call changes I’m used to are called by what is described as “bell numbers.” That is, if you’re standing holding the rope of the third bell in the ring, you are “ringing the 3,” following the 2 in what are called “rounds,” the primary way of ringing, the highest note down to the lowest note. When “call changes” begin, then, the conductor says, “3 to 4,” which means you are told to “change,” that is, to ring after the 4 instead of the 2. But you are still “the 3.”
Not at St Vedast! Tom has devised a fiendish method of ringing changes by POSITION. So you start out as “the 3,” and instead of calling “3 to 4,” he calls “third to fourth,” which means the bell ringing in the third position begins ringing in the fourth position, and is thereafter referred to as “fourth,” until another change is called.
Devilish! What this means is that you don’t just pay attention to where you are, and maybe where the bell you’re ringing after is, you pay attention to EVERYONE. You have to know the entire patterns of where everyone has been called. It was among the most challenging things I’ve ever done. The truly stunning thing is that whenever I ring at St Vedast, and changes are called, it will be to this method. I managed!
I bravely turned up the following Sunday, yesterday, to ring for Sunday services, for the first time since we moved house. It is a glorious place, St Vedast.
This interior is known as an “academic” style, as the pews are organised on the sides of the church with a central aisle, in the manner of school chapels.
We were only four at first, and so rang very simply, then at the very last minute a lovely young couple turned up and we were able to ring all six bells, quite well! I was astonished at how few ringers there were to ring for services, and asked Tom what sort of size the congregation was. “Well, not too bad, considering there are only five legal residents of the parish.” What? Yes, that’s what happens when the life of a neighborhood spans 700 years, evolving from a place where people build houses and raise their children and ring bells and go to church, into a place where giant glass high-rise buildings house office workers who go home at the end of the day. Five residents. Amazing, when I think of the hundreds that fill St Mary’s, Barnes, every Sunday. It makes it all the more sweet to “let the bells give tongue,” on a chilly December Sunday morning. And the organist and soloist bravely practiced for the very few who would hear them.
After we rang down, we repaired, in a very civilised tradition, to a local cafe for a convivial coffee in the time between St Vedast’s service and the next one at St James Garlickhythe.
I know, what a name; all my friends have been joking that I chose it for the garlic. Do you remember several years ago when the Queen’s Jubilee came along? Eight new shiny bells were cast in her honour and were installed on a golden barge, to be rung as they floated along the Thames. And afterward, they were delivered to St James Garlickhythe where all London ringers were invited to come and pull a rope, so I did! What a beautiful place.
What a funny urban echo of my previous Sunday tradition of racing by car across the river to Chiswick to ring for our second service — this time we emerged from St Vedast into the shadow of St Paul’s, drank our sociable coffee, getting to know each other, then walked through the deserted City streets to Garlickhythe, which does indeed mean the “hill where garlic was sold,” in the days of the deliveries to countless repositories along the Thames.
I had popped along to the Garlickhythe practice on Thursday night, with the great Dickon Love in charge. He couldn’t be more charming and unassuming, for all his fame.
He has become well-known in London for identifying churches that need bells, fundraising for those bells, and installing them in the ancient towers. Garlickhythe is just the most recent recipient of his brilliance, and as a result, just look at one of the bells that live there now, after their adventure on the barge.
He and his band were very welcoming to me. In particular, a chap called Mark stood behind me in a bit of Plain Bob. “I’ve been doing this for 47 years, so I’ll just give you a bit of support.”
What lovely Jubilee-red sallies.
With great humor, Dickon asked me how comfortable I was on Plain Bob. “Well, not too bad, from the four,” I said cautiously. “Right, then, take the two.” Ringers always make you push your boundaries! I survived, then took a break to appreciate the holiday cheer in the tower.
Sunday morning was just as pleasant, ringing more of Tom’s diabolically challenging “position changes.” It’s funny — if you just suspend your confusion, and look around the tower, the ropes begin to speak to you. “Ring after me,” they say. If you listen, you can find your place. And the method forces you to pay attention to absolutely everything that’s going on around you, rather than comfortably resting in your own little position. I gave a little time to the beautiful peal board that celebrates both the peal on the Jubilee Barge, and the first peal in the Tower.
And so my ringing life continues. As is always true in the world of bells, teachers are generous, fellow ringers are supportive and friendly, churches are stunning pieces of English history, and the bells themselves intimidating, challenging new friends. Whether it’s in a leafy village or an urban valley of stone, ringing is a never-ending adventure.
I can’t believe it’s two weeks since I last had a chance to write. It turns out: it’s exhausting being a tourist, even in my own home town. London has changed for us!
SE1 is so different from SW13 that it’s not really living in the same city, at all. We have left a house on four floors, with a garden.
We’ve left a quiet, village life where I passed friends and neighbors in the leafy streets every day, and the sight of an empty black cab was noteworthy for its rarity. The river was peopled by rowers from St Paul’s boys’ and girls’ schools, being urged on by coaches with megaphones. Even more frequently, the river was empty and completely peaceful. And it was a daytime view, for us, because nothing much happened at night.
What we’ve got in exchange is a glassy, glossy, dramatic flat high above the street, with doormen who welcome us with smiles and parcels when we come in, tourists walk by with necks craned at the vision of the Tate Modern, lines of taxis are curled around the block. This section of the Thames is filled with the HMS Belfast, police boats, tour boats. Our nightly post-supper walk brings us within minutes to another St Paul’s, this time the Cathedral, looming out of the dark river.
Even our partner desk, so much a part of our lives in all our homes, has taken on a new coolness, as has John, sitting behind it.
Our new home sways gently in the wind, emitting slightly alarming creaking sounds as it does so. John assures me this is perfectly normal, and that our eventual dream home will do the same. It takes some getting used to!
The days have been filled with adventures each day, really: things we could easily have done all the time we’ve lived in London, but never bothered to do because our lives in SW something-or-other were so absorbing, centered on Avery’s school life, all these past ten years. Now the whole city seems to have opened up to us, with treats around every corner. Isn’t it funny to have replaced one St Paul’s with another?
The Cathedral dominates the view across the river as the icon it is, but the truly cool thing is to approach it from the ground, and see how the city has grown up around it. Last Sunday, we happened upon the bells ringing before services (as always, don’t click on this link if you have a sleeping baby beside you!).
It’s such a living, breathing church, welcoming tourists lighting votive candles while hymns are sung during an ordinary Sunday service. How I wish they allowed photographs inside!
We’ve ventured to a fantastic neighborhood called Smithfield, home to the world-famous Meat Market. It is open for tours from 7–8:30 a.m. Do you think I could ever get myself out of bed early enough to make my way there and see the place in business? Even with all the stalls closed, it is a beauty.
We popped into nearby St John Restaurant for lunch.
When Fergus Henderson opened this place in 1994, he was a pioneer in the “nose to tail” eating philosophy. Then a novel concept, the notion that if we’re going to kill an animal to eat it, we should eat ALL of it, has proved popular. But St John does it best: pigeon liver and kidney terrine (simply the best pate of any kind I’ve ever eaten), crispy pig’s ears with dandelion leaves, and John’s favorite — sauteed calf’s heart. You must go.
The Smithfield neighborhood itself is wonderfully diverse and full of energy, and gorgeous, quirky architecture.
I’d move there in a heartbeat, if I weren’t still traumatised by moving at all. There are lots of little clever touches, like this fantastic barber’s window. Read it aloud, for it to make sense.
Since I was obviously too late to take advantage of any special meats, we popped into Borough Market (as one does, if one is incredibly lucky) to pick up some absolutely luscious scallops, still in the shell, although thankfully cleaned (not my favorite job).
What a pleasure to concoct one of the oldest and most treasured recipes in my cookbook, scallops with spaghetti and parsley.
But it hasn’t all been about SE1. Following a promise he’d made to me over the summer, when the prospect of the house move was looming so awfully, my dear, dear bellringing friend Michael met me at Brown’s Hotel for tea last week, on a misty, beautiful late afternoon.
This is something every Londoner should do at least once, and I haven’t been for many years, so it was an incredible treat. I arrived early, so I wandered around Piccadilly, Christmas shopping at Hatchard’s (simply the best bookshop in the world), getting into the holiday spirit in the nearby arcades.
Michael and I lingered long over our tea and the accompanying gorgeous sandwiches: salt beef and gherkin, cheese and pickle, smoked salmon. We caught up with all the ringing gossip I’ve been missing, and I told him about Avery’s departure and the new flat. Altogether a real afternoon out of time, a perfect treat. As I approached our building in the chilly dark that evening, a new tradition was born. Hello, John!
We’ve visited a tiny local cafe, tucked away in a bricked alley. The Union Theatre cafe promises authentic “beigels,” brought in from Brick Lane, and they were delicious. We sat in the cold morning air, sampling egg and bacon bagels and salt-beef bagels, along with perfect cappucinos.
The two fellows who own the place are refreshingly down to earth and non-chainy, cheerfully washing up dishes as they go in a battered sink, listening to Radio Four, greeting well-known customers. These fellows intrigued me with their berets, waistcoats, foreign cigarettes and fully-dressed dog.
I ventured back to the old country twice this month, once to say good-bye finally to Home-Start.
Such a grotty old building with such terrible furnishings and lighting, because all the money is spent on providing services to the little kids and mums I have loved so much. It was very sad to climb the stairs for the last time, to have my last “supervision,” to say goodbye to the wonderful staffers who have taught me so much. I will seek out Home-Start Southwark, certainly, eventually, but this was the end of an era.
My next outing to South-West London was much more cheerful: my beloved twins’ birthday! Freddie and Angus have added so much to my life. Thank goodness we can stay friends — just a short train journey away. How can they possibly be two years old already? Freddie was his usual cheeky self.
Angus was impossibly handsome, as ever.
Just look at these darling little treats: a concoction of chocolate, marshmallow and English Smarties (totally different from American Smarties to be sure). They are a Northern Irish traditional birthday treat called Tophats. Their mum Claire is so clever. How on earth did she have time to do this when she was racing around after twin toddlers?
I am so lucky that Claire will share the boys with me, every once in awhile. Next we must get them to SE1, to see what they make of my new home.
One morning I braved my essential fear of heights and followed John to a building known as the “Walkie-Talkie Building,” officially called 20 Fenchurch.
It is the Marmite of architecture — people either love it or they hate it. Now, gazing upon it from across the river all these weeks, I’ve not had a strong opinion, but I felt vaguely sorry for it when it won the so-called Carbuncle Cup this year, an award for Britain’s worst building of 2015. So I was predisposed to feel kindly toward it when I arrived, and my sad association with skyscrapers, post September 11th, made me all the more sympathetic. These feelings were all that got me into the elevator and up to the Sky Garden. And then, this.
The day had seemed clear on the ground, but once we were gazing at the incredible views, it was just hazy enough to make the city seem like a dreamscape.
Now, just to orientate you, our little plot of land, our eventual home, is hiding just beyond the oval building to the right, which is City Hall. Seriously.
If you look closely at the tall building in the leftish centre of this photograph, you’ll see our current home. The tower in the centre is the Tate Modern, and we’re just behind it. Truly.
I on the other hand was terrified, and after dutifully taking these photographs for posterity, retreated inside.
I came home invigorated, happy to have survived my adventure in the sky, and determined to cook something new. The result was one of the best dishes we have had in ages. And so good for you! The elements that elevate this dish beyond just “fish and rice” are threefold: the “rice” is actually half cauliflower, the egg is an omelette in elegant slices instead of scramble, and the ginger is prepared using a vegetable peeler, for long shards rather than grated or chopped. Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients.
Sauteed Salmon with Cauliflower “Fried Rice”
4 salmon fillets
olive oil to drizzle
Fox Point seasoning to sprinkle over fish
1 head cauliflower
1 cup basmati rice
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
3 eggs, beaten lightly
1 2-inch knob ginger, peeled
1 further tbsp sesame oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red pepper, diced
1 orange pepper, diced
1 handful chestnut mushrooms, diced
1 further tbsp peanut oil
8 small radishes, thinly sliced
4 tbsps light soy sauce or Tamari
Drizzle the oil over the salmon and sprinkle with Fox Point, or other savoury herb blend. Roast at 220C/425F for about 12 minutes or until JUST cooked.
Meanwhile, break the cauliflower into large florets and pulse in your food processor until the consistency of rice. Set aside.
Steam the basmati rice and set aside.
Place the oils in a large, heavy frying pan and heat until ready to fry the eggs. Pour eggs into oil and cook gently until firm, then fold in half and slide eggs onto a cutting board. Slice thinly and set aside.
With a vegetable peeler, shave off about a dozen shavings of ginger from the knob. You won’t need the whole knob, but anything smaller than about a 2-inch piece is too difficult to shave.
Pour the additional sesame oil into the same pan and fry the ginger, garlic, peppers and mushrooms until just softened. Add the chopped cauliflower and steamed rice to the frying pan and sprinkle the additional peanut oil over everything and fry for 2 minutes, stirring thoroughly. Add the egg slices gently. Sprinkle with the soy sauce and stir again. Top with the radish slices.
Serve by placing a salmon fillet on a mound of the vegetables and rice.
It is hard to convey the joy of this dish! It has everything — the plump and satisfying fish, loads of light vegetables and rice, the umami of sesame and soy, the crunch of radish. You will love it.
Thanksgiving came and went, a very unusual one this year as Avery came to London, but had plans of her own, and so did we. We cooked all day and then packed up all the food — traditional stuffing, caramelised carrots, and “Becky” potatoes, all helpfully in the cookbook! — and travelled by train to Earlsfield to visit our beautiful friend Nora, her husband Tom, her aunt Catherine (one of my very favorite people), and Nora’s three little boys, the newest just shy of a month old. For all that there were three children under five in the house, everything was serene, warm, and beautiful. Catherine and I took turns with the children, now reading a story to the older boys, now cuddling a newborn. Heaven.
And then yesterday Catherine made her brave way to SE1, to visit Borough Market with me, and to join John for a tour of our plot of land. She experienced the usual, “Oh, my God, are you serious?” moment, from on high.
It’s important to keep going there, to show it to all our friends and family, to keep believing that it will happen, someday.
She acquired a tiny cake for her tiny newborn nephew’s 1-month birthday and she was off. Such a buoyant friend to bubble me along.
November has certainly been a month to remember, settling into our new lives with gusto. Let’s hope December continues the trend, as beautiful Christmas approaches.
I can’t remember a busier two weeks than the last two have been. It’s a bit of a relief to have Saturday come, a Saturday with no plans, such a contrast with my Barnes Saturdays that always involved at least a long morning bell-ringing practice, and a visit to the farmer’s market. This Saturday means staying home and watching the rain pour down our enormous windows, watching the traffic and tourists go by, feeling lucky to be inside. Yesterday I fell victim to a massive hailstorm with a badly functioning umbrella and bare ankles. Not a happy memory.
Someday, when Avery is home to translate the Latin inscription, we’ll have to find out who this fellow is down below.
Having lived with him standing stalwart on his pedestal for nearly three weeks now, it’s amazing that it wasn’t until yesterday’s windy hailstorm that I noticed his clothing MOVES. So does his head! What on earth are they made of.? I’ll let you know, when I find out.
We are beginning to emerge from the first days of insanity that is house-moving — unpacking boxes, settling in, deciding where to hang pictures, where to store razor blades, cat litter, suitcases, shoe polish, socks, spices and cutlery. In fact, one of the funniest parts of the whole process this time around involves those last two items. On the first night of moving in, I installed the cutlery and knives in two drawers behind a kitchen cabinet door, and all my spices in the top two drawers that looked the most accessible. Instantly this was experienced as a mistake.
“I can’t stand having to open a door, in order to open a drawer, in order to get a fork,” John complained, and I agreed. So early one morning not more than three days in the new place, he switched them around: spices to cutlery. And now neither of us can manage to get a fork without first opening the now-spices drawer. How did our brains manage to absorb this one piece of information so firmly in about 36 hours? I foresee that on the day we move out, we’ll still be looking for the celery salt where the spoons have been for three years.
Of course something had to give, so on the morning I had planned to go to my beloved “Spirit of Christmas” Fair with Sue, as we go every year to start our holiday shopping, I got sick. I struggled to get there to meet her, and because she is such a good friend, I confessed that I felt absolutely awful.
“Let’s have something to eat, and just chat, and see how you feel,” so we shared a bit of breakfast and one of our excellent chats, but then after purchasing just a few things, I simply had to go home and collapse, for a day of being cosseted by John: chicken soup, warm socks, naps on the sofa. It had to happen. Just as everyone tells a new mother that “you’ll think you feel quite normal, and then on Day Three, in the shower, you’ll burst into tears. It’s normal.” And so it happens during a house move. You power through the actual physical effort, and then congratulate yourself quite smugly that it’s all fine, it’s all behind you. Then you collapse. At least I do; John never seems to.
It was lucky I had that day to sit quietly, because then our New Life sprang into action. First up: ringing at Southwark Cathedral! Twelve bells, oh my.
Trisha, full of enthusiasm, met us outside in the frosty darkness and we gathered with the other ringers — there were more than 80 of us, we heard later! — to climb the many, many winding steps to the bell-chamber. Like St Paul’s, you climb and climb and then cross the nave to get to the chamber. This is the view from that crossover.
Then you walk essentially right under the roof:
The romance of it! These magical, secret places that most people, of course, will never see. And upwards to the ringing chamber, where we gathered with our hosts and waited our turn to ring. My heart was absolutely pounding.
“Take several deep breaths,” my local helper told me. “There’s no point in having the adrenaline make you crazy.” So I did, and ringing began. I didn’t need any help! But my goodness, you have to ring that bell with massive control, because waiting your turn in a circle of twelve bells ringing one after the other requires quite some strategy! If you can bear it, listen to the video below, but don’t hit “play” if you have a sleeping baby next to you.
(Before you shout at me, yes, I do chew gum whilst ringing.)
Since there were so many ringers waiting for their opportunity, we rang only briefly and then climbed up to the roof of the Cathedral for a heart-stopping experience. Oh, the romance of the ancient door, opened to the sky.
We could see our building in the distance! It’s one of the two in the very centre, with vertical lines of lighted windows running up and down.
What an experience.
And up in the morning to make our birthday visit to Avery in Oxford! We stopped in Sloane Square for a spot of shopping first, buying little treats for her, and some last-minute purchases for our flat, too. “It’s not Christmas,” I muttered at all the window decorations. Not until after Thanksgiving!
Once in Oxford, I texted Avery to say we were early, and then we did a bit more shopping before finally meeting her in her rooms. Such fun to give her her presents, and hear her stories.
“My dear, where are your plates and dishes?” I asked.
“Well, there might be a slight backlog in the washing-up,” she admitted. What a small task to be able to do for her, wash her few dishes in her tiny sink, in her new life.
We went out for a sandwich to her favorite shop, Olive’s, in the high street. Gorgeous pork rillettes, jambon and mozzarella. And the views… does she get used to it? This is Christ Church, surely what the writers mean when they refer to “The Dreaming Spires.”
Although she was a bit under the weather, she was pretty game, and as lovely to look at as ever.
Back home, over the weekend John wondered, “Where is our local cinema, do you suppose?” And it was the work of a moment to discover the Curzon Mondrian, in the hotel and bar of the same name, a gorgeous location we’d spied on the river on one of our post-dinner walks.
If you get a chance, you must see “Brooklyn,” with the lovely, talented Saoirse Ronan. What a nearly perfect film, about the mid-century Irish immigrant experience. Take your Kleenex, I warn you. I cried throughout, feeling especially emotional at the scenes of Ellis Island, since my paternal grandfather worked as an immigration attorney in just that decade. Perhaps he sat at one of those welcome desks, helping little Irish teenagers.
What fun to have such a beautiful local cinema, just a short and gorgeous walk away along the Thames.
Sunday evening found me with my friend Elizabeth at the equally local Royal Festival Hall for the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir’s Remembrance Sunday concert. Our host? Jim Carter, otherwise known as Mr Carson from Downton Abbey! Of course one could listen to that voice read the phone book (if such a thing still existed), but hearing him recite “For the Fallen” was simply spine-chilling, spell-binding. “They shall not grow old…”
“Please do make sure that your mobile phones are turned off,” he warned us, “but at the interval, you may use it to call your babysitters to make sure they are recording ‘Downton Abbey’ for you.”
On Monday, our lives were brightened by the arrival of a gorgeous, handmade ash screen, to be given the unglamorous task of hiding the kitties’ litter boxes.
How encouraging it is to meet someone so young and creative as Seb Cox, who has trained to make these beautiful handmade wooden objects. And how excited he in turn was to hear about our house project, so John brought out various samples of cross-laminated timber to show him, and also our plans. Seb was very pleased to think of his screen in our eventual home.
Conversations like that one help John to maintain the faith — our house will be built!
In the morning my dear friend Janet came, all the way from New York, to see our flat, to see me, to share lunch at the Albion downstairs (gorgeous crab and mackerel salad). As always when I see her, I remember the folly of having her living next door to us here in London, ten years ago, but not making real friends with her until she went back to New York! Our main point of friendship was Tacy the tortie’s daily visits to Janet, through her garden window. Now, she listened with glee to our plans, and admired our new life. “I love having a doorman, too,” she confessed.
That evening was a milestone: the first Neo dinner party! I invented a centrepiece.
Our absolutely fabulous landlords came: the ebullient, effervescent Gustavo and his partner, the elegant Yang-Soon. They came bearing bottles of vintage Moet, and simply the best smoked salmon blini I have ever eaten, the salmon ordered directly from Scotland, and then cut by YSL (as Yang-Soon likes to be known!) at home in thick little planks, rather than the ordinary thin slices.
“Now,” Yang-Soon pointed out, “I’ve made some of the blini with creme fraiche, and some with just the salmon, and some with black pepper and some without, because I didn’t know how you like them.”
“I like everything,” I assured him. We are kindred spirits in the kitchen and are determined to cook together very soon.
We went onto my chicken meatballs Pojarski and a great dish of tenderstem broccoli and courgette batons. The table looked so lovely, so urban, so different from our enormous long table that was the home of Lost Property lunches and Thanksgivings, and Avery’s schoolwork. This table is intimate and rather elegant. Here is the view into the apartment from our Winter Garden.
And here is the way the table looked facing out into the city streets.
They were quite the perfect guests, full of enthusiasm and appetite, admiration for the way we’ve done up the flat, great interest in Avery whom they’ve yet to meet. And when I explain about my method of guests serving themselves, rather than my serving them at the table (since I don’t want to seem to criticize hosts who do serve their guests), Gustavo said promptly, “How perfect, because then we can help ourselves to seconds.” And they did.
We stayed on forever at the table, getting to know each other in that effortless way you do with people who come prepared to have a good time. We smiled at all the ethnicities around the table — Colombian, Singaporean, American — and exchanged the kind of stories you do when you’re all expats of one kind or another, with friends and family scattered over the world. At the end, we enjoyed a massive bowl of fruit to close the meal, and felt grateful to have begun this new friendship.
The morning brought my friend Francesca from the Barnes Food Shed to visit, to check out this new life that had taken me from beloved Barnes and all the fun we had had there. We met at Potters Fields, to show her John’s baby.
As every time we find ourselves at our little plot of nettles, we marvel at the changes taking place all around, the buildings going up with such ambition on our doorstep. To think that someday soon, our own walls will be going up, between the ivy-laden walls in the foreground and the shrouded school building beyond.
Francesca was absolutely amazed, I think, at the absurdity of our owning this plot of land. She remembers working in our neighborhood 20 years ago when there was very little around but individual people living their lives. Now of course it is a tourist mecca of shopping and commerce, for better or worse. You can’t turn back from progress, I suppose, but it would have been fun to know SE1 back in the day of old-fashioned pubs and shops.
There’s nothing like showing your new life off to a friend from the old life, to throw into relief how lucky you are to have both the past to look back on and the future to look forward to. As saddened as I was to leave behind so much and so many people that I loved in Barnes, it is a bit exciting to embrace the change and look around for what might possibly be next.
And readers, you will be astonished to know that I did a bit of house-furnishings shopping! I know, I know, normally I cannot be bothered to choose even a new lampshade — as much as I love having a beautiful home, I like everything simply to fall into place without my having to make choices, and shops with large, overwhelming inventories make me want to get rid of everything I own and live in a cave. But it was time for new cushions for the sofa. What do you think? In this photograph they look a bit dark, but in different lights they change, and I think they pick up the colors in the old rug (not so much the old cat).
There has already been a bit of new cooking, inspired by Borough Market, to be sure. Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients in this dish; it’s really very easy.
Gingered Asian Pork Fillet with Carrots
1/3 cup/85ml dark soy sauce
1 lime, juice and zest
1 tbsp mirin
2 tbsps plum sauce
1 tbsp chili paste
2 star anises
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 lb/450g pork fillet, very thinly sliced across the grain in bite-sized pieces
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsps peanut oil
1 medium white onion, roughly sliced
2 large carrots, cut into matchsticks
1 two-inch knob ginger, peeled and cut into fine matchsticks
2 tbsps sesame oil
8 large leaves Chinese/Savoy cabbage, finely sliced
8 large leaves Boston/Little Gem lettuce
2 handfuls raw peanuts, roughly chopped
Mix all the ingredients up to and including the garlic in a large bowl. Stir in the pork and mix well. In a large frying pan, heat 1 tbsp sesame oil and fry the marinated pork until just barely cooked, then remove from pan to a large serving bowl.
In the same frying pan, heat the peanut oil and fry the onion, carrots and ginger until the carrots are slightly softened. Add the vegetables to the pork and toss well.
In the same frying pan, heat the further 2 tbsps sesame oil and fry the cabbage until softened.
To serve, pile the pork and vegetables onto lettuce leaves and sprinkle with peanuts. Serve with cabbage on the side, and lots of napkins! (And don’t eat the little star anises: just warn your guests to discard them when found.)
I can’t describe to you the savoriness of this dish! I had never cooked before with star anise, and its fragrant, spicy flavor is really something to celebrate. And there is so much ginger, it acts almost more as a vegetable than a seasoning.
My new absolute favorite, however, has to be the sort of ultimate fusion dish. We were happily watching the new Nigella Lawson series, “Simply Nigella,” when my ears perked up at the mention of Laurie Colwin, to my mind the best food writer of all time. Nigella described a dish that Colwin mentioned in her signature casual style, just listing ingredients, really, and maybe mentioning a temperature. Chicken with mustard and cinnamon of all things!
Nigella retained the combination of flavors but brilliantly turned the whole pieces of chicken into breasts, pounded flat, coated in cornflakes, and briefly fried. I immediately dug out my precious “tonkatsu” racks brought to me from Tokyo by our architect, after he introduced me to the Japanese delicacy in Paris this summer.
Chicken Tonkatsu with Mustard, Cinnamon and Cornflakes
4 chicken breast fillets
1/2 cup 180g Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, grated
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (fresh ground if you have one of those cool grinders)
fresh black pepper
3 cups/180g cornflakes
1 tbsp sweet paprika
3 tbsps olive oil
Mustard and cinnamon! It’s not unheard of in the world of cooking, but it’s not every day you see it, either. Adding the slight sweetness of your average cornflakes really sent my taste expectations reeling, but trust me. This is a wonderful set of flavor sensations.
Trim the chicken breasts completely of fat and sinew. One at a time, place them on a cutting board, cover them with plastic wrap, and with a mallet or rolling pin or anything heavy, flatten them to about 150% of their normal size. Set aside.
In a large dish big enough to accommodate all four breasts, mix the mustard, egg, garlic, cinnamon and pepper well. Dip the chicken breasts into the mixture and massage it in well, turning over to coat both sides completely.
Place cornflakes in a large shallow dish and scrunch them with your hands until they are the texture you like — not a fine powder, but fairly fine crumbs. Add the paprika and mix well. One by one, mash the chicken breasts into the cornflake mixture, turning over and over until completely coated, with a platter waiting to receive them all as they emerge.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan (nonstick works very well, but isn’t necessary). Fry the chicken on one side until crisp and browned, about 2–3 minutes depending on thickness, then turn and cook on second side. Drain on a wire rack just briefly before serving, or if you are lucky enough to have “tonkatsu” racks, slice the chicken into thick slices and place on racks, one on each plate.
This dish! Oh, I wish I had some right now. The flavors are terribly complex and yet familiar, the flavors of childhood really: mustard, cinnamon, cornflakes. But all together! Just brilliant. I served this with a spicy parslied yogurt dip, but you don’t have to.
It has been such fun finding new places to shop, new things to cook, old and new friends to celebrate with. It feels right, in this new house, this November.
I’ve been sitting here for about twelve minutes simply staring at my screen, trying to decide where even to BEGIN in describing what’s been happening in my life lately.
My blog has always been my best ally in the effort to frame what happens as the days go by, each one important and precious in its own way. Annoyances can be made funny, patterns emerge in my friendships and alliances, comfort comes from creating a narrative — a way of weaving together events that on the surface look unconnected, random.
But events over the last two weeks stretch even my capacity for storytelling.
Two weeks ago we were firmly ensconced in our four-story Edwardian semi-detached house in leafy, idyllic Barnes Village. The river flowed by effortlessly. All was well.
It was time to say goodbye to everything in the carefully constructed life I had grown for myself over the five years I had spent in Barnes. The last Home-Start playgroup came and went, with fervent hugs and goodbyes from the 20 or so toddler twins I had met as newborns, two years ago. Goodbye to the space that had been the scene of so much play, learning and love, given and received.
I gave a last dinner party for my beloved bellringers. Trisha and I spent a happy afternoon together, gossiping and cooking: salmon, chicken, chocolate mousse. The ringers came and ate.
It was a wonderful evening of food and laughter, speeches and a few tears.
And then it came: the last service ringing on a beautiful Sunday morning. I will never forget the joys St Mary’s gave me: the friendships, the challenges, the beloved tradition of getting to the church each Sunday to “summon the faithful to worship.”
It’s so hard to believe I won’t be there, next weekend, to ring for Remembrance Sunday, around this beautiful memorial.
I hung my rope for the last time, on the spider.
Of course, I can come back any time I like. But the weekly ritual was finished. We crossed the river to beautiful Chiswick. How I have loved becoming a better ringer there, accomplished enough that I could begin to ring and look around me at the same time, at the ancient inscriptions.
The churchyard was an autumnal spectacle.
On Sunday evening, the reality of the big change coming could no longer be ignored. The movers had delivered a giant pile of empty boxes (recycled from a strawberry jam company’s latest move, with a few sticky patches), and the great bookshelf dismantle began.
The books came off the shelves in John’s carefully organised system of numbered boxes, keeping the alphabet relatively intact.
Just an hour later, it was done.
Sam came, that evening, to collect the leather sofa and armchairs which found such a good home in his flat in Bath.
In the morning, Vitsoe came yet one more time to take away the shelves. “Hello again! Gosh, what is this, the fifth time I’ve come to you?” the head shelf guy laughed, not realising how tantamount to traumatising that was for me. Not funny!
In desperation I rang up a pal and arranged a bizarre but life-sustaining business arrangement. “If I bring you two cookbooks, could I get some Xanax off you?” Desperate times.
“Run and see your twins,” John advised, “You’ll feel so much better.” So I rang up Claire, and sure enough, she was happy to share them for an hour or so. It was impossible to feel quite so desperate in the company of such bundles of sheer joy.
Then my friend Elizabeth, her dog Louis, and I went on one last walk down the Barnes towpath, scene of so many, many walks in Wellies, bike rides to Hammersmith, to the Food Bank, to see my friend Suzanne. The combination of the timeless river scene and Elizabeth’s wisdom were consoling.
“Don’t be too quick to fill up your new life with replacements for your old life, like bellringing and Home-Start. Leave some space there, to see what gets planted by your new life.” Such good advice.
At that moment, all I wanted was to keep the old life, where I had been so happy.
But change waits for no woman, so off the lorry went with all our belongings in it and we spent one last, rather miserable night at “home.” And up in the morning to begin our new lives, in SE1.
Now, you’ve all followed me through many house moves in these virtual pages. I’ve always told the story sequentially, in a sort of “this happened and then this happened” manner. I’m going to break from that tradition in order to provide a more time-lapse indication of just what hyper-fast, insanely productive misery we have lived through in the last frantic week. Room by room.
First, dear readers, here is our new home. Toto, we aren’t in Barnes anymore.
Our new landlords had left us a darling little gift of honey produced right here at Neo, as our new building is known. Somehow I cannot imagine a place in this urban wonderland that contains bees, but I imagine someday I will see it.
As always, the move-in process involves an astonishingly exhausting, chaotic, messy transition from empty and impersonal to packed-to-the-gills-with-our-stuff and very personal indeed. With an awful, long, long moment of sheer horror in between.
What a view it is. Toto, seriously!
This is the view from our bedroom.
Someday this will be a beautifully landscaped garden, sitting at the foot of the elaborate Tate Modern extension. Luckily, for all I loved the tranquillity of Barnes, I am an urban girl at heart and this sort of view gladdens me.
“I just don’t see how they’re going to do this in one business day,” I mused for the hundredth time.
“I agree with you, and I warned their bosses, but they claim it should be OK.”
“But it’s already four o’clock…”
And of course we, who between us have about ten people’s lifetime experience of moving house, were perfectly correct. The afternoon became evening, evening became night. Load after load of hideous cardboard boxes came up in the glass elevators, were rolled into the flat on trolleys, were unloaded onto the floor for us to unpack, increasingly unhappily.
“I feel like I did in labor,” I said, “feeling like it really can’t go on any longer, but knowing that somehow it will, until my spirit is completely broken.”
The movers finally left at midnight, and we sat down in exhausted silence to our traditional dinner, “Moving-In Day Chicken.” Dinner saved our lives.
The next three days were a completely mad experience. Just look at the kitchen, before:
The study before:
Avery’s room before:
Our room before:
But by far the most satisfying, to me, is the sitting room. Because it holds all my books, and therefore is really the heart of the house, it’s always the most exciting room to see transformed. Here it is completely empty, a week ago:
The bookshelf guys came amiably again, this time ready to re-install in the intensely professional way they do. (And they were darn cute, too, which helps.)
“I went home after we took down your shelves, and googled you. Your Kickstarter campaign for your cookbook was really cool,” the charming Australian kid said. The fact that I am easily old enough to be their mothers was a vaguely unpleasant but increasingly admitted fact. They took pity on my total lack of technological skill and re-installed the telly and all the cables.
I gave them copies of the cookbook (“This is my second signed cookbook. The first one was when we put in shelves for Gordon Ramsay.”).
Their departure overlapped with the kitties’ arrival!
Tacy immediately went to sleep in the sun.
Hermione was equally chilled.
John was in Paris for the day, so I squared my shoulders, ate a little plastic box full of watermelon, took a deep breath, and attacked the stacks of boxes full of books. Sixty-four of them to be exact. And six hours later, it was finished.
Now you’ll notice that there are gaping holes. These represent the breaks between categories — fiction, history, memoir and biography, children’s, cookbooks, John’s architecture books, Avery’s politics (that didn’t fit in her own bookshelves).
Just as I was simultaneously patting myself on the back for a job well done, swallowing a couple of aspirins for my back and pouring myself a stiff drink, the doorbell rang and it was Elizabeth! Bearing flowers and advice for ways to fill the empty spots in the shelves. Between her suggestions and John’s cleverness early the next morning, everything was gorgeous and the room quite perfect by lunchtime on Saturday. Just look!
It is so heavenly in there now.
Here is the view from the kitchen table to the front hall. Now, keep in mind that no art has been hung yet.
Perhaps you can see how the room — the space, really — works together. Unless you’re in a bedroom or a bathroom, you are in the one big space — kitchen, study, living room/library. It’s a good thing John and I really love each other’s company, because baby, there is NO PLACE TO HIDE in this flat. You see everything from everywhere.
And people see us! The adjacent building is a giant behemoth, filled top to bottom with hard-working people who get to their offices long before I raise my bedroom blinds, so I can’t wander around in my skivvies. Actually, though, I probably can, because no one over there seems to pay any attention to us at all.
Saturday! This meant that food shopping simply had to be done at my new local source for ingredients, Borough Market. That’s right, that’s my local market now. With Southwark Cathedral looming impressively behind.
It was Halloween. Can you tell?
We carved our pumpkins — one of them a gift from my friend Sue, who came the day after we moved in! — at dinner time, while pork belly and beetroots roasted, potatoes dauphinoise bubbled away.
Then on John’s inspiration, we carried our jack o’lanterns to the Thames to photograph them with St Paul’s Cathedral in the background. We’re seriously not in Barnes anymore.
The tourists along the way clearly thought we had lost our minds. Americans, they are so silly about Halloween.
So we have settled. We are gradually hanging paintings and drawings, buying things like teakettles, toasters and shoe racks.
Last night, on an awesomely and rather historically foggy night, like London Fogs gone by, we took a romantic walk across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s, and back again, to see the Tate Modern looming up mysteriously out of the fog. This new life, exhausting as it was to achieve, is beginning to look rather promising.