Sunday, October 23

Dave

Last week I lost a friend.

Rapha'd up & grinning like a loon at the prospect of riding with his friends - this is how I'll remember Dave

Dave was 36 years old, just a few months my senior, rode more miles every week than anyone I know outside of professional cycling, and yet on Monday evening as he rode home from work his heart gave out.

It was a big heart, full of love.  Love for his beautiful wife Hannah and their three sons.  Love for riding bikes, whether it be the easy roll to the seaside with his boys or epic trips the length or breadth of the country.  Love for good food to fuel his rides.  Love for his friends, real-world and virtual.  Love for taking photographs, both snapshots to share on twitter and as an occasional wedding photographer.

I was first introduced to Dave (on Twitter, where else...) by Rich a little over a year ago. Dave and some friends were planning a fundraising ride from their hometown of Sunderland to London, and were looking for places to stop for meals along the way.  Rich suggested breakfast in York, and asked me to recommend a suitable venue.  A couple of weeks later they turned up at my work, where Dave greeted me like an old friend and enveloped me in a big, fabulous, sweaty, lycra-clad hug.

Over the months that followed we tweeted each other regularly, and became firm friends. It was Dave's habit to take conversations off the public feed and onto direct messaging, so even the most mundane chat felt intimate and special, and we'd have many a conversation while we were both preparing to go to work so horribly early on Saturday mornings that no-one else was up & online yet. Our chats encompassed everything from what we were having for breakfast to serious putting the world (and our respective lives) to rights, though often, of course, turned to bikes and riding. I got the following message in response to asking what on earth he was doing getting up to ride at 4 am, and it goes a long way to summing up what Dave was all about:
Well a) I love mornings & b) I really love people so getting the riding out the way means I get to train sans traffic and still see people

I was fortunate enough to get to ride with Dave on two occasions, the Great Up-North Twitter Ride and the York 100. For both I was by far the weakest rider in the group, and yet I almost always had company - and often that was Dave. Hanging back and chatting while we buzzed through the prettiest lanes in the Yorkshire Dales; offering to carry my jacket so I wouldn't overheat; taking photos to record our day; and the two moments that most stand out: as Rich and I ride up out of Kirkham Abbey, we catch up to the rest of the group, who are waiting close to the top of the climb. Suddenly, Dave drops his bike into the hedge and runs, cheering, alongside us and hands me a lollipop. And a little further on: Dave and I have been riding a little way behind the rest of the group, having a bit of a heart-to-heart. We turn a corner and are faced with a long, steep climb which has me dismounting almost immediately. I suggest that he goes on without me and I'll meet him, and everyone else, at the top, but he won't hear of it, instead riding slowly, slowly up alongside me, talking to me all the way, never showing any sign that he's frustrated or disappointed that I'm walking (though I am both!)  His support on that hill meant so much to me that when I found myself riding that way again a couple of weeks ago, and I managed to stay on the bike for all but the very steepest hundred meters or so I had to stop at the top to tweet him:
@roadbikedave thanks for staying with me while I walked up that hill on the york100. Just rode up it, had you there in spirit, kept me going. Couldn't have done it without you!
His reply was immediate - even in a café 100 miles away he was cheering for me:
@MrsBYork woah! Serious. You're welcome and that is a good achievement mrs B. Excellent riding!! I'm having a flat white for you
 One day I'm going to tame that hill, and I'll do it in remembrance of Dave, "cycling, strength training, coffee-drinking food-loving husband & dad of 3. striving to be a better me."

Tuesday, July 19

Heading for the hills...

 Could there be a nicer breakfast spot?

The sun is shining, there is good coffee and even better baked goods, and all you can hear is birdsong, lambs, bees buzzing among the herbs and the gentle snoring of an elderly cat.

I rode up here yesterday, 41 miles that steadily progressed from flat to rolling to hilly.  On the basis of a dreadful weather forecast I set out in 3/4 knicks and rainjacket, but it seems the gods were smiling on me for I had sunshine nearly all the way - and even more of a blessing, a tailwind on nearly every significant hill.


The view back towards York

I was less lucky on the way back to York - a torrential storm straight after breakfast delayed my departure, a second as I rolled into Kirkbymoorside necessitated a much longer cafe stop than I'd intended and a third as I approached York saw me soaked to the skin in minutes flat.
However, despite the hills and the weather, I had two days of great riding - and three things summed up all that is great about cycling for me:
  1. The moment when you crest a hill and click back though the gears just far enough to turn the pedals as you swoop down the other side
  2. The fact that I have all this glorious countryside waiting on my doorstep
  3. Whizzing by a two-mile traffic jam on my way back into town (though why there was a jam coming into town at 4.20 on a weekday is beyond me...more people should be on bikes!)
Things I learned on my ride:
  • That the highest point I reached before turning off Blakey moor is 319 feet higher than York.
  • That while I don't suppose I'll ever love hills, and they still hurt and sometimes make me want to cry, I am getting better at them!  It was only a nasty little 10%-er at mile 40 (into a headwind too) that had me off the bike - and that only for a hundred yards or so - on the outward journey.
  • That music is a great motivator.  Knowing that I was going to find parts of the ride tough I decided, unusually for me, to stick in my headphones (well, one anyway so I could still hear the traffic!) and hit shuffle... Weirdly, I have lots of music I didn't really recognise, and some I really don't like (can anyone tell me why Belle & bloody Sebastian are on my mp3 player??)
  •  Daft Punk make particularly good cycling music - that steady metronomic beat kept me going for the last few rainy miles!
  • Energy gels, while pretty rank, don't seem to have the catastrophic effect on my digestive system that a lot of people have mentioned to me.
  • When a caffeinated gel and the Akira soundtrack kick in at exactly the same time, the result is some very aggressive riding!
  • Nowhere feels like home like the North York Moors does.
  • A weasel is weasily wecognised, but a stoat's stotally different (stoats are a bit bigger than weasels and have a black-tipped tail, if you were wondering.
  • There's a whole lot more climbing on the way home...
  • I will not be voluntarily riding through Bulmer again - the descent is terrifying, the climb back up the other side painful and soul-destroying
  • Once you're wet, you're wet and there really isn't any point stopping to put on a jacket!

 The view from the top of my dad's drive... not the best way to start a ride!

The route: 
View Larger Map

Tuesday, July 5

Ah, Yorkshire on a summer's day...


It's been a glorious few days, weather-wise - in fact, almost too good, certainly too warm to do anything strenuous during the day.  I've had a few nice evening rides recently, and there's something utterly blissful about being out on quiet country lanes as dusk begins to fall, but today I woke in an up & at 'em frame of mind, and was breakfasted, dressed and ready to go by 10am. 

I decided to head west out of the city, helped along by a warm easterly wind (about 15kph, if Accuweather is to be believed) and sticking to the Sustrans bike path to get me out of town quickly and well away from traffic.  I don't know how much was down to the new bike and how much down to my improved fitness, but I found this loop so much easier than when I rode it with Rich last year, which is a nice feeling.  Three and a half hours of quality pottering, 57km - all in all, a Good Day on the bike!


Some of the things I saw today:
  • Planes taking off from RAF Linton-on-Ouse (which may not actually be the windiest place of earth, but it sure feels like it sometimes!)
  • A beautiful meadow of Yorkshire fog
  • At least three cyclists wearing jackets - in 20-odd degrees sunshine!
  • A kestrel hunting over the verge
  • A selection of truly awful cycling shorts in one of York's many local bike shops
  • The site of the battle of Marston Moor, with four beautiful classic cars parked up next to it

Monday, June 27

The Countdown to The Tour

Bradley Wiggins, our new national champion!


Next weekend, the Tour de France begins... and traditionally the weekend before the Tour is National Championship weekend, all around the world.  This year's British National Championships was held in Northumbria, with the start & finish in the pretty village of Stamfordham, just outside Newcastle - a bit of a trek from York, especially by public transport, but well worth the early start.

I arrived just in time to see Lizzie Armitstead (Most Beautiful Woman in Cycling, TM, according to every male cycling fan I know) take the women's title, with Nicole Cooke, Sharon Laws and Emma Pooley close on her tail.  The afternoon was spent basking in the sunshine with a bunch of my dear Twitter friends, drinking coffee from the mobile Rapha Cycle Club and taking a gentle stroll to the roadside every so often to watch the race come through.  It was clear from the start that Team Sky wanted the win, especially when it seemed like all of their riders went in the first break.  By lap three the field was in bits and the leading break was down to three men - Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh - with such a huge advantage that, barring disaster, the only question was what order they would appear on the podium.  There were some mutterings about the dominance of Sky over the domestic riders who race these roads day in, day out (Rob over at Reclaiming the Abandoned Bicycle sums it up pretty well) and while I would have loved to have seen Kristian House's super-strong ride result in a win, I also find it incredibly exciting that Britain now has riders who can compete at that next level - and to be able to see them in action on British roads is fantastic.  Velouk.net has a brief race report and lots of photos of the day.

Where there is cycling there also must be cake, of course, and as is my habit I did a big batch of baking to share with the lovely Rapha Condor Sharp boys... and at Jimmy McCallum's request here are the recipes:

Fudgy Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Martha Stewart Living)

3 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup plain flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 tsp sea salt
2 oz butter
8oz dark chocolate
1/4 cup creme fraiche

and (optional) 1/4 cup coffee-flavoured chocolate beans or 1/2 cup bottled cherries or 1/2 cup fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 180 degrees.

In a large ovenproof frying pan or hob-proof baking tin melt the butter and chocolate over a very low heat.  Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and sugar together, and in a separate bowl mix the flour, cocoa and salt.

Take the melted chocolate off the heat and stir the creme fraiche into it, then combine with the flour mixture and the egg mixture.  Stir in the chocolate or fruit, if using, pour the mixture back into the pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes - it should still be ever so slightly damp & fudgy in the centre.

Cool, cut into squares & enjoy with a very good cup of coffee (or a bidon of REGO!)

Chocolate & Peanut-butter Flapjacks

8oz porridge oats
3oz chocolate chunks
3oz demerara sugar
4fl oz golden syrup
4oz crunchy peanut butter
1oz butter
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 180 degrees & line a 9inch square (or similar) baking tin.

Melt the butter, golden syrup & sugar together over a low heat.  Once bubbling, remove from the heat and stir in the peanut butter and vanilla.

In a separate large bowl combine the oats and chocolate chips, then thoroughly mix in the peanut butter mixture.  Press into the lined tin with the back of a spoon & bake for 20 - 25 minutes, until golden brown on top.

Cut into slices while still warm.


One last thing to keep you occupied until the Tour starts on Saturday... The fabulous Rich Mitchelson has just released this year's Yorkshireman at the Tour de France colouring sheet - pop over to richmitch.co.uk to print your own picture of Ben Swift to colour in as you see fit!  I managed to grab Swifty for a quick chat after yesterday's race, he seemed absolutely thrilled to be riding his first Tour - I shall be cheering loudly for him, I hope you will too!

Tuesday, April 26

You're Better Off By Bike!




You know traffic is becoming a problem when you sail past a huge queue of traffic, turn off to go to the shop in the next street, lock up the bike, spend a few leisurely minutes deciding what you want, have a chat with the assistant, unlock the bike, ride a couple of hundred yards up to the next junction & rejoin the original road - only to find the last car you passed before you turned off still sitting there!

Sunday, April 17

Down by the River


Today's ride was long and slow, with much deep thinking and also much beautiful sunshine.  I took a few minutes to stand by the river and soak up the warmth. 


Tuesday, April 12

Tailwinds, Always... *

... Wouldn't that be nice? 

I didn't have a tailwind for all of today's ride, but it did help me out where it mattered - on the gentle, rolling hills which aren't a struggle as such but tire the legs; on the slow, draggy, coarse road through Great Ouseburn; on the boring stretch of "main" road through Shipton...

The route was the same as last Tuesday's, but done in fractionally less time - 2 hours 20, as opposed to 2 hours 35 (though that included about 10 minutes off the bike for various reasons.)  The title is my lovely local bike shop's motto, printed at the bottom of every receipt...

Arkendale

Looking over the Vale of York

  
Aldwark Toll Bridge
    
Always handy to know how far it is to Edinburgh...

Sunday, April 10

Urban Jungle


Just a few hundred yards from my front door lies a little patch of countryside.  St Nick's Fields is a Local Nature Reserve, established only seven years ago on a site with a fairly unpleasant past - a leper hospital, brickworks and town tip.  These days, although you probably wouldn't want to roam after dark, it's a beautiful green space, teeming with wildlife and criss-crossed by paths.



Now, I'm no mountain biker, but my everyday bike is, in name at least, a mountain bike. Although it isn't really. It's a kids' Bike-Shaped Object.  It is styled to resemble a mountain bike but that's about as close as it gets.  This afternoon I found that it's still great fun off-road though - even if my town tyres aren't really grippy enough for loose gravel or bark chippings.

Wednesday, April 6

30 Days of Biking!


Sometime in March, my good friend Mark started tweeting about something called 30 Days of Biking - intrigued, I took a look at their website & pretty swiftly signed up to their challenge: Ride your bike every day in April - it doesn't matter how far or how fast, just ride, then share your stories!

I ride most days anyway - my bikes are my only transport, and I ride the three-mile round trip to and from work four days a week, plus longer rides for fun, but that pledge to ride every day will challenge me a little - it's all too easy to get caught up in doing things at home on days off and not get the bike out of the shed.

Days one to three were quick dashes to and from town - for work on Friday and Saturday and some shopping on Sunday, a mile and a half each way, very routine, very dull (though oh boy, what a great way to wake up for a 7am shift - rolling through the local nature reserve just after sun-up!  The birdsong is deafening at that time of day, and you have to dodge the rabbits on the path!)


Day four was a pootle down Sustrans Route 66 to visit my friend Rich's new house - a twenty mile round trip, with much cleaning, bike chat and eating of brownies in the middle.


Day five was more of a fun ride.  I had to go to Harrogate for a meeting, and what better way to travel than by bike?


Not wanting to arrive at my meeting horribly grubby and sweaty I took the train there - the local service is pretty reliable and always has space for bikes.  Meeting done, I stripped off my smart trousers & cardigan in the bike shed (hey, doesn't everyone go to meetings in Rapha jerseys? They're a damn sight smarter than most of my other clothes!), clipped in headed off home...  The first five miles or so away from work's base on the outskirts of Harrogate are not much fun - busy roads, with drivers who apparently aren't used to seeing bikes about, coupled with some short, sharp hills.  There was a certain amount of cursing at both of those things, but having the wind at my back made it all a bit more bearable - as did this sign, which always makes me smile:


There is one little beast of a hill, just north of Knaresborough, that took the full brunt of my swearing - it's not the steepness that really bothers me, I could (just about!) drop into my lowest gear and cuss my way up, but the traffic is just too heavy and too fast to feel safe, so off I got and walked up (even on the verge there were some cars uncomfortably close to my elbow.)


Not long after that hill my route left the main road and tacked cross-country through gently rolling farmland and a string of impossibly pretty villages, dropping down into the Vale of York. 

A few of my favourite things:

  • Spotting a red kite soaring over the fields. I'd never seen these magnificent birds before - no surprise there, they're a threatened species after all.  I was absolutely stunned by how big it was.  It's obviously hard to judge the size of a bird flying high above you, but this was vast - at least three or four feet from one wing-tip to the other.
  • Fields full of lambs and verges full of flowers - it really does feel like spring is well underway now, I even rode in knicks and short sleeves for the first time this year!
  • Hearing lapwings.  Always, always magical.
  • Going fast on a bike.  My bike may be old and tatty, and I may be chomping at the bit for my new one, but it's still immense fun to freewheel down a big hill, or tuck my head down and sprint past the commuters on the final run-in to home!
  • Rumbling over Aldwark toll bridge - a wooden-decked bridge over the Ouse.  Best of all, bikes get priority over cars and don't have to pay!
  • Riding through the deerpark (though sadly lacking in deer) at Beningborough Hall

  • A quick farm-shop stop at Beningborough, and a chat with a friendly face:
  •  My new summer gloves: the cheapest gloves I've ever bought, at £2.99 from Lidl, but also the most comfortable by far.  Riding an all-steel bike on rough road surfaces often leaves my fingertips numb within ten miles, but with all the gel-padding in the palms of these gloves the only time I had a problem with road-buzz was on the very harsh surface through Beningborough.
  •  A hot bubble-bath and a good stretch when I got home, not to mention the amazing pork, black pudding & onion marmalade pie from the farm shop for supper!
Route map here: http://goo.gl/maps/14ry (though I actually used the bike path that runs parallel to the A19 from Shipton, as it's much safer and more pleasant!)

26 miles in 2 hours 35 mins, including walking up one hill, and stops to take pictures, shop and check that a broken-down mountain biker was OK!

Wednesday, March 16

Losing the Plot

I decided some months ago to give up my allotment - it was becoming more and more of a chore, the plot was too big and I often hadn't the time or energy to work it all, and the last two springs the weather, ill-health or just general busyness meant that I got off to a bad start.  But the real tipping point was vandalism.  Despite being at the "safer" end of the site, my shed was broken into several times - tools were stolen (though later dumped elsewhere on the site - no doubt after being used to damage someone else's plot), but mostly they just trashed the place, trampling plants and fences and throwing things about.  After the second time it happened I spent every walk or ride up to the site worrying about what I would find, and something that should have been all about relaxation was suddenly a huge cause of stress.

Having realised that if I was going to hand back my plot I'd have to clear out the shed and remove any plants I wanted to keep, Mr. B. and I headed up there on Monday afternoon - only to find the worst vandal attack yet: the waterbutt tipped over, someone else's spade dumped in one of the beds and every pane of glass in the shed and coldframe smashed.  There was much swearing - the pointlessness of it absolutely enraged me - but by the time I got home again I just wanted to cry.  I can't help but despair of a society where people have so little regard for each other that they will destroy property purely for their own amusement (nothing was taken, so I can't think why else anyone would have done it.)

I have carried home my tools, and the fruit trees my grandparents bought me for my birthday, and the herbs I grew from cuttings from my dad's garden, and after this week I won't be going back there.  And after this week, I'll be glad of that.



It is not my intention to put anyone off allotment gardening with this post - this is just my experience.  I hope - and expect - that the vast majority of allotment holders have a far more positive experience than this.  Indeed, I've had some wonderful times on my plot, it was my bolt-hole, my little piece of green when I lived in the centre of the city, and I'm sure it saved my sanity on more than one occasion!

Sunday, March 13

Giving up Rubbish for Lent

I always try to live as green a life as I can, and I've long been a fan of The Rubbish Diet blog - however, my own rubbish diet has slipped a little in recent months and I needed a bit of a kick up the bum to get going again.  So I've decided that, along with the rubbishy part of my actual diet (takeaways and ready-meals) I'm giving up throwing things away for Lent.  The lovely Karen over at The Rubbish Diet invited me to write a guest-post for her, which you can read here (and hello if you're joining me having read Karen's blog!)

I think I can do this - we're lucky enough to have pretty decent recycling facilities in York, and my new composter means I needn't put any food waste in the bin, but there are a few things I think I might have to throw away - unless anyone has any brilliant ideas!

  • Bottle tops - while the council collects bottles and jars for recycling, they don't take the lids.  Work is collecting milk bottle tops for a local charity, but what do I do with the ones that come off peanut-butter jars and bottles of beer?
  • Food wrappers - I usually stuff a cereal bar of some sort in my back pocket when I go out on the bike, and when I get home the wrapper goes in the bin.  Most of them are plastic, but some are foil-lined as well.  Can the plain plastic ones go for recycling with my old plastic bags?  Does anyone do cereal or energy bars in fully biodegradable wrappers?  Butter wrappers are an issue, too. Marks and Spencer's organic butter used to come in a paper wrapper but they changed to a foil laminate last year.
  • Feminine hygiene products - I've yet to make the big leap to Mooncup or washable liners, and don't see myself doing so imminently.
  • Plastic tubs - the cutting out of ready-meals & takeaways should minimise the number of these coming into the house, but the odd one will still sneak in - I usually get through at least one carton of crème fraîche a week, for example.
  • Blister-packs - the pain relief I use for my arthritis comes in blister-packs, and I don't know if I can get alternative packaging without getting the tablets on prescription (which is about four times more expensive!)
I shall try to update weekly on my progress - but in the meantime, wish me luck!

    Wednesday, March 9

    The Green Johanna


    Thanks to my voluntary work with York Rotters, I recently took delivery of a Green Johanna compost bin to try out.  The GJ is not your standard garden composter - it is a hot composter, and also designed to be rodent-resistant*, meaning that it is suitable for composting all types of food and garden waste - yes, including cooked food and meat and fish.  Having struggled with Bokashi composting in the past, but not wanting to throw our occasional cooked leftovers or chicken carcases in the bin (all else aside, with fortnightly collections the bin becomes horribly smelly) this sounded perfect.


    The instructions weren't terribly clear - but once I got the box open it was a simple enough process to put the thing together, just a matter of clearing a suitable patch of ground - the instructions specify that the composter should be placed directly onto soil, in a shady spot so that it doesn't overheat in summer (it was designed for year-round use in Sweden, so the average British winter shouldn't trouble it) then stacking the segments in the correct order.

    It even comes with a stirring device!




    With this little area between my bird feeders and bike shed cleared (nothing grows there anyway, it's too shady for most plants) I picked a spot for the base-plate and started stacking.  The Green Johanna goes together a bit like Lego, and screws are provided to make it all a bit more permanent.  Unfortunately, on mine none of the screw-holes quite matched up so I didn't bother - perhaps when I've a little more time on my hands I'll drill some new pilot-holes and fasten it all together.


    It's pretty imposing when it's built up, so I'm glad I tucked it away behind the wall!

    The last step of setting up is to prepare the Green Johanna for your kitchen and garden waste.  In order for air to circulate well the bottom 10 to 20cm needs to be filled with twiggy material - our hard winter has provided well for this, and I topped it off with my dried out Valentine's bouquet!  The next layer needs to be green garden waste - the instructions suggest grass-clippings, but as we've yet to mow the lawn this year I made do with as many weeds as I could pull up from the garden.  A third layer, of garden soil or well-rotted compost, is needed to add the micro-organisms that will do all the hard work for you, then you're ready to add your first kitchen scraps or garden waste proper!

    Super-simple, and now I need never throw food in the bin again!



    * The manufacturers claim that it is 100% rodent-proof, I am naturally cynical of such claims, having seen what rats can chew through if they've a mind to!

    Mrs B's Patented Cold-cure

    Following Sunday's ride, several of us seem to be suffering with colds.  This soup is my stand-by recipe for when I'm feeling rotten.  It's fresh, tasty, soothing, warming AND has antibacterial & antiviral ingredients - everything the cold-ridden body needs.  It's also super-easy to make!


    Carrot, Ginger and Lime soup

    A little oil
    A couple of small onions
    A thumb-sized piece of root ginger
    A clove or two of garlic (depending on how sociable you need to be afterwards!)
    A pound or so of carrots
    2 tbsp rice
    Real chicken stock (you can use veg if you prefer, but chicken broth has been shown to have anti-viral properties so is perfect when you're feeling ill)
    A lime

    Peel & roughly chop all the veg (you don't need to be too perfectionist here as the soup will be blended later) and gently fry the onion, garlic and ginger, adding a splash of water if they look like browning before they are properly soft.  Add the carrots, rice (it's there as a thickener - you could use a small potato instead if you prefer) and enough stock to cover generously and leave to simmer until the carrots are thoroughly cooked.  Blend to a smooth purée, stir in the juice of the lime and serve in big bowls while wrapped in your favourite blanket on the sofa.

    Tuesday, March 8

    One chicken, four meals

    On Saturday morning, as usual, I took my prospective Sunday dinner out of the freezer - on this occasion a whopper of a chicken from Swillington Farm.  My intention was to roast it when I got back from Skipton, but my late return and lack of appetite after such a hard ride meant that it was left in the fridge for Monday's supper instead.

    Come Monday, I got so caught up in other things that I didn't get into the kitchen until half past seven - far too late to start roasting a bird that big (it was over 5lb, so a good couple of hours cooking & resting time, never mind the preheating of the oven.)  I did, however, have an idea.  Our post-ride café in Skipton had, in classic greasy-spoon style, laminated cards pinned on the wall advertising the daily specials, one of which was smothered chicken - described as chicken cooked with bacon and barbecue sauce, topped with melted cheese.  It sounded good, but a little over-indulgent.  I jointed my chicken, had a bit of a ponder, and a rummage in the pantry, and came up with this:

     Barbecue-style braised chicken for a cold winter night

    A little oil
    1 chicken, jointed into breast & leg portions (the carcase can go in the stock-pot - there shall be soup on Wednesday!)
    5 slices of salami (about the thickness of a pound coin) sliced into matchsticks (alternatively, a couple of rashers-worth of smoked bacon lardons)
    1 large onion, sliced
    half a jar of grilled peppers, drained of their oil
    2 tbsp balsamic or sherry vinegar (I buy big bottles of Aspalls balsamic for cooking)
    2 cups tomato passata (or a tin of chopped tomatoes)
    1 cup chicken stock

    Preheat the oven to 190 degrees.  Heat the oil in a large frying or sauté pan, brown the chicken portions on both sides and remove them to a plate while you prepare the sauce.  In the same pan (adding a touch more oil if you need it - though you probably won't) gently fry the onions, adding the salami and peppers once they begin to soften.  Once the salami has turned golden, turn the heat to its lowest setting, deglaze the pan with the vinegar, add the passata and stock and stir together until hot.  Pour the sauce into a baking dish big enough to hold the chicken pieces, dip the chicken into the sauce skin-side down then arrange it skin-side up on top of the sauce.  Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, basting the top of the chicken pieces once or twice.

    Serve with something starchy to soak up the excess sauce (I used couscous because it's so ridiculously quick and easy to prepare, but potatoes in almost any form, pasta or rice would do nicely too, even a chunk of nice bread) and something green, because it's good for you!

    As there are only two of us, I made this with the intention of having some leftovers - lunch today was a sandwich of thinly sliced chicken, with mayo on one side and swedish dill-mustard sauce on the other (and was very delicious) and tonight's supper will be my take on our favourite takeaway pizza (The James Whisky Night Special, No.21) - I'll reduce down the remaining sauce to pizza-topping consistency, add slices of the chicken and some mozzarella and a last drizzle of sauce on top before baking.  And on that note, I should go & mix up some dough!

    Monday, March 7

    The Great Up North Twitter Ride!

    Rich. Best riding buddy a girl could ask for!

    A couple of months ago I was chatting to Lou and Rich on Twitter, when an idea was born - a group ride, somewhere between York & Lancaster.  A date was set, our favourite tweeters were invited, a route suggested (thanks, Kat!) and at last, yesterday, the day came!  Ten of us converged on Skipton around ten o'clock on a chilly, grey Sunday morning, and after much coffee we rolled out of town.  There was a small problem, however - having all agreed that a flat route was needed so we could all stay together and keep it sociable, the first turn out of the car park led us onto what looked to me like a vertical wall!   

    It turned out to be the first of many - in fact, the first of 17 miles of hills.  I'm no hill-climber - I live, and ride, in the flatlands of the Vale of York, where I will always have at least five miles in my legs before I get to anything bigger than a railway bridge.  The first couple of hills hurt quite a lot, but by the time I got to the third my chest was giving me more trouble than my legs - my lungs seemed to be shrinking, not expanding, with every breath.  Pretty soon I was coughing every time I had to up my efforts, and by the time we reached our café stop in Grassington (having got off the bike and walked up at least three climbs) I was wheezing almost constantly.

    The café we chose was a good one - Café Maison towards the top of Main St.  They welcomed the ten of us - and our bikes - with open arms, set us up for the onward journey with tea, coffee and extremely generous slices of cake - my carrot cake was moist & delicious, with exactly the right proportion of cream-cheese icing to cake, and the coffee and walnut cake also got rave reviews.  When we set out again we decided to split into two groups, the faster riders taking a detour via Kettlewell while we slower types headed straight back to Skipton for a second cuppa.  The main road was a little busier than was ideal, but it was wide and mostly flat which made for a much easier roll home.

    Despite the pain and difficulty, it turned out to be a perfect day for a ride - the sun came out as we left Skipton and we were blessed with clear blue sky for the whole day.  The Yorkshire Dales are always beautiful, but bathed in spring sunshine, with the first new lambs in the fields and the verges crowded with snowdrops we quickly ran out of superlatives.  Rich and I caught a particularly special moment - having stopped to catch my breath, he pulled up with me just in time to hear the burbling call of a lapwing in its courtship dance, one of our most threatened birds and an utterly magical thing to hear and see. 

    While I was happy for the faster riders to go on ahead a little, I was even happier that I never has to ride alone - there was always someone to chat to, a wheel to sit on, an encouraging word just when I needed it, for the whole 22 miles.  I was the slowest by far, but never felt that was causing a huge problem for anyone - thanks guys, for your patience, friendship and support, I honestly couldn't have done it without you Rich, Jen, Carol, Dave, John, Dan, Andrew, Lou and Paul (in no particular order, by the way!)

    Dave


    Me, in one of the few moments my face didn't match my new red jersey! (photo by Dave)
    Waiting - for me, again!  Thanks guys!

    Hail! Hail! The gang's all here! Andrew, Dan, Carol, Paul, Dave, Rich (standing), me, John, Lou & Jen. Another of Dave's pictures.

    One of the odder sights of the day - moles hung on a fence!



    22 hilly miles,  Show on Google Maps

    Wednesday, February 23

    Bitten

    At the end of the solar system
    There's something in the cyclist's brain - some switch, that overrides the logical response to pain or effort, so instead of backing off or even quitting, they go harder.  Today I found my override switch.  I had set out with the express intention of taking it easy - a steady ride on a flat, traffic-free route just to get my legs turning over again after a couple of too-busy, too-arthritic, too-lazy weeks.  But once I got out there I found that every time my head said "slow down, enjoy the scenery, breathe in the fresh air" my legs would just go faster and faster and faster.  I knew it would wear me out before I was home, but I just couldn't help myself, I found myself chasing down and overtaking the most undeserving of competitors - kids, joggers, tourists on rented mountain bike.  I could take no pride in "beating" these people, yet again and again I found myself doing it.

    Maybe my subconscious was punishing me for so much time off the bike, maybe it was the result of watching some of the fastest riders in the world at the Track World Cup at the weekend - but more likely, it's that I've been well and truly bitten by the cycling bug, and like all my similarly bitten friends I just need to go harder, faster, further...


    (On the homeward leg, having worn myself out, I did manage to slow down enough to take in the first signs of spring - the goldfinches darting along the hedge, daffodils poking their heads up, hazel bushes covered in catkins, I even spotted a barn owl!)
    Winter aconites coming into flower on Route 65        

    Monday, January 24

    Curried Parsnip Soup, or - How to use up the veg box

    Like many people nowadays, we have a weekly veg box delivered by a local farm (SB Organics, if you're interested) - and like many people, by January we're getting a little bored with the endless supply of root vegetables.  Luckily, many, many years ago my dad taught me how to make curried parsnip soup - in fact, it was one of the first things I cooked by myself.  I've tweaked the recipe over the years, replaced the original potato with a little rice, as I have spare rice more often than spare potatoes (one or the other is fairly essential though to give a smooth soup) and adding some extra vegetables - the celeriac adds a wonderful depth of flavour (and is another regular veg box orphan in need of use!) but can be omitted if you haven't any, alternatively carrot and swede add sweetness and colour.

    Curried Parsnip Soup (serves 2 to 3)

    1 tbsp vegetable oil
    1 tbsp butter
    1 small onion, sliced
    1 clove of garlic, crushed with the flat of a knife
    an inch of fresh ginger, crushed with the flat of a knife
    2-3 medium parsnips, peeled & chopped
    1 small celeriac, peeled & chopped
    1 small apple, peeled, cored & chopped
    2 tsp curry powder
    2 tbsp rice
    2 pints stock or water

    Gently sauté the onion, garlic and ginger in a large saucepan. When they are softened & beginning to turn golden add the parsnip, celeriac, apple, rice and curry powder, stir well then pour on the stock.  Simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes (until all of the vegetables are soft) then blend until smooth.  Serve piping hot with crusty bread, and a swirl of yoghurt if you're feeling fancy.

    Monday, January 17

    Project 2011

    As well as my cycling goals and the January to-do list (which will be updated soon) I've a number of other projects bubbling under, waiting until I've a little more time or energy on my hands.
    • The allotment and garden - it is my intention this year to give up the allotment and plant up the front garden as a vegetable patch and cutting garden instead.  We got as far as turning over the lawn and digging out a few of the "keepers" from the allotment before the snow came, and until this week the ground has still been too frozen to do any more. I don't know how many of the uprooted plants will have survived the coldest winter in my lifetime, but watch this space for some garden planning posts!

    • Photography - As a student, I built up a portfolio of thousands of photographs, and I still have folders full of negatives tucked away in a box. After being reunited with the subjects of many of those photographs, the Haggis Horns, I realised that digitising the images was the way forward, making them easy to catalogue, sort and print.  MrB very kindly bought me a negative scanner for my birthday, but scanning and uploading so many images is going to be a big job and will have to wait until later in the year.

    • Study - my involvement in work's global responsibility inquiry has reignited my love of learning.  Coincidentally, the University of York is offering a set of part-time courses on the subject of sustainable food production, and while I'm too late to enrol this year I shall be looking out for the courses to run again in the next academic year.

    • Culture - As a student I spent an awful lot of time in art galleries and museums and at gigs.  Since moving from Leeds to York there has been much less culture - high and low - in my life, and that Haggis Horns gig last September reminded me just how much I love it.  This year I am determined that I will see a proper "event" exhibition, go to the theatre (a ballet or an opera would be my preference) and see at least a couple of bands that I love.  I've already got a few things in mind - Orquesta Buena Vista (an offshoot of the Buena Vista Social Club) are touring this spring and Opera North have a production of Carmen that I'd love to see.

    • Health - For over twenty years now, I've had problems with my knees,*  which has always made me shy away from exercise.  I've rediscovered cycling after a long break, which is doing wonders for my general fitness, but I'd quite like to try something else, too.  So this week (probably.  I reserve the right to chicken out!) I'm going to give yoga a go, in the hope that the stretching and flexibility aspects of it will help a little with the pain and stiffness in my joints.  Maybe it'll even, as all the alternative health people seem to claim, help me get pregnant.

    • Cooking - Like most people, my kitchen repertoire could use a little bit of expansion.  Most of my cooking is fundamentally British, Italian or French, with the odd curry or stir-fry thrown in, but there are a couple of cuisines that I have never really cooked, namely Spanish and Vietnamese.  I'm hoping that Them Apples' suggestion of Movida Rustica can help with the former, and if anyone knows of a good book on Vietnamese food I'm open to suggestions (or gifts!)
     So.  Six little things to do in 2011.  Someone remind me to come back and check on my progress later in the year!



    The Haggis Horns - funk-spirational!


    *I have fairly mild case of an inherited condition called "kissing patella," which isn't nearly as nice as it sounds, and has led to early-onset osteoarthritis in my knees and hips.

    Sunday, January 16

    Let the sunshine in!

    The prettiest day of the year, so far


    Friday was possibly the first sunny day of the year, and shattered, stiff & sore as I was after a couple of long work days and an arthritis flare-up it felt almost immoral to not go out & enjoy it.  I drank more coffee (always the answer) and got lycra-ed up - without waterproofs for the first time this year - and headed out into the wide blue yonder with the sun on my face and a song - this song, in fact - in my heart -


    (go on, turn it up, I challenge you to not smile at that refrain!)

    The music, the sunshine and the newly dry, ice-free roads kept me smiling through potholes (even the potholes have potholes around here), the bad drivers and even the little climb up to the A166.  A wrong turn at Dunnington meant that the new route I had intended to check out was off the agenda, but as I was running short on time and daylight that seemed to be for the best - and so it proved.  As dusk fell I pulled over to switch my lights on - and as I got back on the bike the chain came off.  I put it back on, it promptly came off again.  And again.  By this point it was getting too dark to closely examine the bike and try to work out just what had gone wrong, though a passing cyclist and various twitter pals had suggestions and advice, so I was faced with a three-mile-plus walk home (via an appointment at the University) in cleats and padded shorts - a revelation in bike-comfort but absolutely not designed for walking any great distance!

    One tiny little bolt, loosening its grip on one tiny little spring, equals a long walk home

    I eventually got the bike home and handed her over to my pet mechanic, who reckons I have a screw loose - it appears that all of those potholes have shaken loose the bolt that attaches the tension-spring to the derailleur - and no spring equals no tension equals no chain.  She's booked in for surgery in Mr's man-cave in the morning, and hopefully on Monday I'll be able to investigate that longer route...



    The route (clockwise.) The marker is the point where the mechanical occurred.

    Ride: 9 miles 
    Walk: 3 1/2 miles
    Total time: about 2 1/2 hours
    Painkillers on Saturday: 4 with breakfast, 4 with lunch
    Effectiveness of painkillers: Virtually zero

    Tuesday, January 11

    Good Housekeeping

    New, Improved National Cycle Network Route 65 -  makes me wanna get my head down & pedal!


    I devoted a little time yesterday to revamping my weekly schedule.  Last year I set up a Google Calendar for all my household chores (and bike rides, of course!), with each room or task given a specific day and time and SMS alerts set to remind me when to do them.  Much as I wanted this system to work, I quickly discovered that it wasn't for me as I found it all too easy to ignore the reminders, or they'd come when I was out of the house and be forgotten before I got home.  So, the new system is this:
    • Monday is bike day - a long ride to push myself.  I also need to devote a little time to either cleaning the fridge or sorting the recycling in readiness for...
    • Tuesday, which is either bin day or recycling day (our council now collects on alternate weeks.)  Tuesday is also housework day.  By the time I've gone over the kitchen & bathroom I have a reasonably comprehensive shopping list, too, so I can spend the afternoon doing a shop.
    • Wednesday morning is when my veg box arrives, and as I don't usually start work until lunchtime there's a little time in the morning to plan my menu for the week.  In addition, as my commute takes me past the Household Waste Recycling Centre, once a month I'll load up my panniers with the bits that the recycling collection doesn't deal with. 
    • Thursday is a work day so I've tried not to commit to anything extra, though as it's also pay day it's a good day to get any extra bits of shopping done, especially the odd boring supermarket bits.
    • Friday I usually only work until lunchtime, making it a good day to get another ride in - lack of light will necessarily make it a shorter one for the next couple of months, and having to be on my feet all day Saturday means I need to take it a bit easier than on a Monday.  Also twice a month I need to pick up meat from the Community Supported Agriculture groups I'm part of, so my rides will have to come home via the collection point - and I'll have to remember to carry a rucksack!
    • Saturday is a work day (and the busiest of the week) so the only item on the schedule is a hot bubble bath when I get home!
    • Sunday always, always begins with a long lie-in, featuring breakfast in bed, the Archers omnibus and Saturday's papers.  Sunday being Sunday it's not a very structured day, the afternoon may involve a gentle social ride or just be spent watching old movies or pottering in the kitchen.  My aim is for it always to involve a proper Sunday dinner though.
    The rest of yesterday was given over to a ride - a slightly windswept loop north of town, taking in the newly improved NCN Route 65, Skelton, Sutton-on-the-Forest, Flaxton and an ill-advised stop at the new "improved" Evans Cycles store at Monks Cross (the less said about that the better!)

    Still a few icy spots.  This corner's tricky enough on a good day - 90 degree bend on a narrow path, at the bottom of a steep slope.  With the addition of ice & standing water I got off & walked.

    The first half of the ride was great fun - Route 65 has had its gates widened, so you no longer need to come to a complete stop to manoeuvre your bike through, and at long last the final off-road half mile (leading to the Overton road) has been paved.  Having that set of beautiful swooping bends (see pic, top) finally covered in race-track perfect asphalt instead of sticky mud and gravel put a grin on my face that lasted for miles!

     
    Song of the day.  For some reason this popped into my head somewhere around Clifton Ings & didn't go away.
     
    Almost every pedal-stroke was helped along by a gentle breeze from the south, making for swift progress, until I turned the corner to leave Sutton-on-the-Forest where the gentle tailwind become a stiff headwind - the sort that forces you to change down a gear even downhill.  After barrelling along at a pretty fun pace (I haven't yet got round to fitting a cycle-computer to my bike so I don't know how fast I was going) the remaining two-thirds of the loop was a tedious slog.  The fact that it was apparently heating oil delivery day didn't help, with three or four cold, mucky showers from passing tankers doing little to improve my day (though fortunately going out in full waterproofs saved me from the worst.)  There were some lighter moments on the homeward part of the loop, like discovering a village I'd never even heard of before, despite having lived in this area for almost all of my life.  I didn't quite make it all the way to Farlington, but it looks pretty on StreetView and has a pub so maybe it'll be the target of another ride soon. 

    Route map
    31.1 miles
    3 hours
    average speed 10.4 mph

    Friday, January 7

    I want to ride my bicycle...

    A week into the new year and I've managed three rides, but I'm going to have to put in a lot more miles to prepare for what's coming:
    1. Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting a bunch of crazy guys who were riding from Sunderland to London in 36 hours... and when they announced that they were planning to ride to Amsterdam for the last weekend in May I signed up to go with them.  It's an easy enough ride, pretty much completely flat, and the distances are manageable: about 35 miles to the ferry port at Hull, then 40 from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, with a night on the ferry in between.
    2. While organising my new year twitter ride with Rich, we got chatting to Louise, one of the north-western girls, & set to organising a "Ride of the Roses" somewhere between York & Lancaster.  Unfortunately, given my aversion to hills, most of the area between the two cities is taken up by the Pennines... We've more or less decided on the area around Settle - near enough to halfway, but mostly flat(ish!), on the first weekend of March, and at the last count had about half a dozen riders on the guest list.
    3. After reading Jen's blog I decided that I needed a real challenge to work up to - time to sign up for my first sportive!  I chose the York 100 mainly because it's local and on roads that I know, and because it raises money for a great charity, Action Medical Research, who fund research and support for sick babies and children.  There are two routes to choose from, 100 km and 100 miles, and I've signed up for the shorter one.  You can sponsor me here!  Within hours of announcing on Twitter that I would be doing the ride I'd heard from eight or nine others interested in joining me, so it looks like being a pretty fun day, despite a couple of scary climbs!
    So, having committed to all this, I reckon I need to get into the habit of riding regularly - at least twice weekly, regardless of weather, busyness and my riding buddies' availability.  Having been given an extra day off work today, I'd decided in advance that I'd use it to get out on the bike - then I woke up to a dusting of snow on the ground, temperatures hovering around zero and reports of blizzards coming in from various parts of the country.  Tempting as it was to just stay in bed I got layered up and rode off into the freezing rain.  We're very fortunate to live within 300 metres of a National Cycle Network route so the first mile or so of my ride was traffic-free, with much of the rest on quiet country lanes.  For reasons best known to the masochistic part of my subconscious, I found myself heading towards my nemesis - Northgate lane.  Now, it's not a big hill, the total elevation gain is only 20 metres or so, but it's steep and it catches me out every single time - just as you think you're about to crest it, it gets steeper. I'm clearly fitter than I was when I tackled it for the first time, last summer, as I got to the top on the bike and without crying, but it did make me swear a little bit (well, it would have done if I'd had breath to spare for swearing.)  Much as I hate this hill on the outbound part of my ride, it's a (relative) joy on the way home, a far easier climb followed by, in ideal conditions, a fast, straight descent*.  Today's conditions were far from ideal, sadly, with both this and my other favourite descent still icy in places, and a careful pottering descent isn't anything like as much fun as a flying one.

    Today's route

    17.5 miles
    90 minutes
    Average speed 11.7 mph
    Items of clothing: 10, excluding helmet & shoes!

    *In my head, descent is always pronounced, a la Magnus Backstedt, "dee-sent."  Much more Pro!

      The Pantry

      Neat, tidy, clean, organised (it'll never last....)


       Time for a progress report on that to-do list. December 30th was spent - yes, in its entirety - taking inventory of the food in the freezer and pantry. Many ancient jars and packets found their way to the compost heap and recycling bin, shelves and containers were wiped down, re-arranged and refilled, and the conclusion reached that, certain perishables aside, I probably don't need to shop for most of the month of January.
      The list itself ran to about five pages, so I won't be posting it in full, but here are some of the meals I am planning:
      • braised lamb with beans.  (had this on Sunday, served with carrot & swede mash & roast potatoes)
      • pumpkin & artichoke lasagne. 
      • lamb kebabs with naan bread (a quick & easy post-inventory supper)
      • Jansson's temptation. 
      • shepherd's pie. (made with leftover lamb & beans on Monday)
      • chicken stew & dumplings. 
      • roast chicken & stuffing. (coming up on Sunday when the family are here for lunch)
      • seafood linguine. 
      • macaroni cheese. (post-ride comfort food on New Year's day. Given the amount of cheese in the house this will be repeated often through the coming weeks!)
      • risotto. 
      • curry. 
      • kofte.
      • cheese-stuffed chicken breasts. 
      • sausage & black pudding bake. (Tuesday, with the remainder of Sunday's beans)
      • lamb chops & polenta. (with sherry-vinegar reduction & some brussels sprouts, a special New Year's eve dinner)
      • corned beef hash. 
      • nut roast. 
      • paella. 
      • tagine. 
      • pizza. (Tonight. Probably. If I get organised enough to make dough.)
      As for The List:
      • schedule some bike time  - and how! more to come on this later
      • catch up on the laundry, take inventory of my wardrobe & look to fill any gaps in the sales
      • write a workable chores schedule - and actually use it!
      • finish up the final bits of the guest room - frame & hang pictures, make the sheer curtains & swag, buy some new bedlinen - & share the results here.
      • sort out & tidy our bedroom, which became the dumping-ground for all the stuff that was in the spare room
      • wallpaper the stair risers, make curtains for the hall, hang pictures & buy lampshades. Again, a project to be photographed & shared!
      • make the second curtain for the bedroom (I'm ashamed to say that we've had one curtain & a blanket clothes-pegged to the rail for over a year now!)
      • tidy away all the Christmas decorations, wrapping paper etc.; find homes for the presents we received & dispose of anything that a new item is replacing
      • count the small change in the "penny jar" & bank it
      • take inventory of the pantry & freezer, write a shopping list to fill any gaps and plan meals for as far ahead as possible - can I do a month's worth of menus in one go?
      • prep for a work project & contact the people I need to speak to about it.

      Ride, January 3rd 2011

      A couple of years ago I discovered that Twitter was a good place to follow bike racing - it was during the Tour of California, and I had heard somewhere that Johan Bruyneel was live-tweeting the race from the team car.  I signed up, picked a few people to follow & sat down to "watch" the race.  Pretty soon, fellow cycling fans began to find me, and one of the first was a local guy, Rich, a.k.a. @hardboiled2006.  We chatted about the pros at first, who we were cheering for in California and then in the spring classics & the Giro; we moved on to discussing our own cycling (him: a regular rider putting in hundreds of miles a year on a flashy road bike; me: just taking it up again after 12 bikeless years, pottering about on a tatty old rescued-from-the-tip mountain bike.)  Often we just chatted, getting to know each other through an online presence of 140 characters or less.  Finally, a year or so later, we met, and when I got my first road bike we rode together.  We got in a couple of rides over the summer - easy, chatty social rides for him, which left me feeling pleasantly pushed (it's far too easy to relax & slow down when you're riding alone,) but when autumn came around life - and filthy weather - got in the way.

      Weeks went by when we half-heartedly agreed to arranged something, then a new year's eve coffee and a twitter-chat and the ride was on at last: something between 20 and 35 miles, a nice relaxed pace, the all-important coffee stop.  We met at the Minster on Monday morning, joined by Tom and another twitterer, Matt, and headed out of town for a 21 mile loop through some of the prettiest villages to the south of town.  We set off along the river to Bishopthorpe, then on to Appleton Roebuck through the middle of a pheasant shoot - I'm used to checking the road for hazards, less used to looking up and dodging falling wildfowl!  The one "hill" of the day was the double railway bridge at Colton, from where we crossed the A64 (lordy, how I hate that junction!) to Askham Bryan and back in to town to my favourite café, Gray's Court to refuel and thaw our toes.

      21 miles, plus to & from the city centre starting point
      1 hour 58 minutes riding, another hour or so drinking coffee

      Thursday, January 6

      Packing up Christmas

      Well, the festivities are over and twelfth night is upon up already - and with it, it's time for the decorations to come down.  I'm sure I can't be the only person who finds the prospect of an un-decorated house a little bleak, so I like to make a little ritual of putting everything away.  The tissue paper is smoothed out and stacked up and one by one I wrap the baubles, reminding myself of the story behind each one.

      The three tin Santa Clauses (or more properly Père Noëls) were discovered in a very chic Parisian homeware boutique.  Tom had surprised me with a weekend in Paris for my 29th birthday - he'd organised everything from Eurostar tickets to hotel to presenting me with a guidebook as we got on the train to London, and even arranged my time off work!  I spent much of the weekend half expecting him to propose (which he did, a year later, on a second trip to Paris.)  As it was October, I really didn't mean to start shopping for Christmas, but these guys were just too sweet to resist, and I'm so glad I didn't as every Christmas I have a special reminder of a wonderful trip.

      The beaded fruits were collected on trip to Italy.  One winter I took myself off to Rome to do my Christmas shopping.  I found a cosy bed and breakfast near the Porta Pia and spent four days walking all over the city, exploring the Colosseum and the Pantheon, buying delicious treats from the Christmas markets and little delis, refuelling on pizza, gelato and incredibly good espresso.  I was a single girl then and never bothered with a Christmas tree, instead I would pile a beautiful bowl with fruit and baubles, so when I found these in one of Rome's most glamorous department stores they seemed absolutely perfect for me.

      My Gnomies have been with me for as long as I can remember.  As I understand it, they are a German tradition, brought into our family through my Steiner education.  Every December, instead of an advent calendar, my mum and I would construct a Gnomie garden.  Moss would stand in for a lawn, some twigs & pine-cones became trees and a scrap of tinfoil made a shiny little pond.  The Gnomies would magically appear overnight (in reality, painstakingly handmade by mum from pipe-cleaners, felt & wool), and each night in Advent they would bring a new gift - something simple like a tiny purse, a pretty gemstone or a sugar mouse.  Although it's years since I made them a garden, I still like to bring the Gnomies out of hibernation each year.

      New decorations are added to our collection every year - the angels, snowflake and the handmade green glass bauble were gifts from my best friend and her parents, the tiny solid glass fruits were a sale find a couple of years ago - the boiled-sweet colours catch the light so beautifully - and the red mercury glass baubles were bought in the faded gentility of Jenners in Edinburgh, for the first Christmas after Tom and I moved in together.  And now they are all wrapped in tissue paper and cardboard and put away in the big box marked "Christmas," ready to come out again next December.