Friday, 31 May 2019

A funny thing happened on my way around the hill

Up on the hill early one morning this week, I was walking quietly around, minding my own business, when I noticed a billycan hanging from a tree trunk.

'Ooh, that's nice,' I thought. 'Someone's been up here with the children during half term and had a barbecue. But they've forgotten to take their rubbish home with them.'

I was just about unhook it off the tree when I turned the corner and noticed a tent in the shadows. And then a solitary, male figure emerged from inside, stretching his arms up to the sky as if he'd just got up.

I'd only that moment been thinking about an idea for a short story which had come to me after its fantastic title was kindly provided by the dictation facility on my phone's WhatsApp. This had completely misheard me when I said 'cattle escaped'. I'm not going to tell you what it typed, as I don't want you to use that as as the title for a short story which goes on to be the basis of a bestselling novel. That would never do.

Anyway, I was just thinking of how the story might progress when I saw the billycan, tent and then the stranger.

And it felt like one of those moments in a scary film where you just know that the next thing your leading character does will start the engine of the plot.

Don't do it, you say in your head. Don't be curious, don't stop to find out what it's all about.

But the characters in the scary drama - and they're often a lone woman - decide they must do just that, while you, the viewer, are shrieking inwardly turn around, don't do it! as you grip the edge of the sofa and hide behind a cushion.

And this action is the pivotal part of the whole plot. If the character didn't stop to find out more, there wouldn't be a story. You wouldn't be watching it. Because nothing would happen.

So what did I do?

I turned around and legged it with the dog.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Blue sky thinking

The sky is as blue as a sailor's trousers this morning. You could make hundreds - no, thousands - of pairs, if only you had the right scissors to cut through the heavens.

And you'd need a magic sewing machine. But there probably isn't thread that blue anywhere in the world.

All this blue sky gets me thinking. It's a bright, cobalt blue. It's absolutely stunning.

There are white, wispy angel wings hovering in the blue, too. They'll soon be dispersed by the vapour trails of aeroplanes heading here, there and everywhere.

Me, I'm heading for the hill, where the only way is up. Grey squirrels scamper up the trees as soon as they see the dog. The bluebells and the beech trees and the grass still look glorious, the morning light making the colours sing.

I make for the fir trees, just as I always do, to see if the sea is still out there, beyond Langdon Wood and Golden Cap to the south.

I can see the sea.

That's about it.

Love, Maddie x

Friday, 10 May 2019

A lush spring in Lush Places

It's been three weeks since I last posted on this blog.

Sorry, but, just like the rooks roosting in the ash tree next door, I've been busy.

Everything is so lush out there, what with a fantastic Easter followed by unseasonable chilly weather and rain. The fields and trees and wild flowers are just looking absolutely gorgeous.

All I've wanted to do, really, is to get out into the countryside and enjoy it, even in the showers. Everything is looking so fresh.

I'll endeavour to be a little less tardy in future and try to post every week. This landscape and place needs documenting on a regular basis.

In the meantime, here's some photos.

Spot the goblin.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Spring is in the air just in time for Easter

May is out and clouts have been casted.

Whatever clouts are, spring is well and truly here.

The daffodils are out and over, the primroses are running rampant and the bluebells won't be far behind them.

Up on the hill it's quiet in the mornings but like Piccadilly Circus as the day progresses. There are families with dogs, older people whose energetic grandchildren drag them up the slopes towards the rope swings.

Down in the fields, the sheep are safely grazing while young steers and heifers frolic among themselves when they spot a dog walker scurrying along rather too hurriedly. The best way to avoid their attention is to ignore them completely, although I have been known to stop, turn around then roar rather loudly if they get too close.

Mind you, I have been known to run down in my wellington boots at half past seven in the morning, singing at the top of the voice.

On those occasions, when I'm belting out Don't Fence Me In, the cattle generally shoot off in the other direction, which is a little bit harsh.

Oh, the joy of the open countryside. You just can't beat it.

Happy Easter!

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Going native in the Brexit headwind

Over the past few years, I've avoided talking about Brexit, either online or in person.

The referendum nearly three years ago ended up with me being carted off in an ambulance to hospital with a heart attack.

Which ever way you voted (and I'm firmly in the 'Remain' camp), this whole debacle and the politicians' terrible handling of it has left everyone fuming.

And still it goes on, and it will do for years and years to come, whatever the outcome. We are a divided nation, although we have more in common than we think.

People are angry and intolerant and quick to take offence about everything, particularly online. It's as if being respectful and kind have been consigned into the bin of history, along with the Sinclair C5 and clackers.

I'm in Sir Oliver Letwin's West Dorset constituency. I had hoped his intervention in the Brexit pantomime might have sorted things out once and for all.

Oh no, it didn't. And, look, behind him are a bunch of lying, cheating colleagues jostling for position to bring us ever further down into the quicksand that the majority of the population did not vote for.

These days, I can only keep sane by going native every day to find solace in the little things. Small details like the early spring sunlight peeping through branches on a morning walk to the top of a hill.

The vivid red of a postbox against a bright green grass verge.

The way raindrops collect on the bars of a field gate.

Exquisite birdsong, damp and springy lichen on thick-set tree trunks. Squelching in deep mud in my wellies, the smell of cow dung on the fields, the feel of the rough bark of a beech on my cheek when I go to hug it.

Violets hiding in the hedgerows, primroses smiling in the grass.

The dog nuzzling up to me with a toy in her mouth, wanting me to throw it. Freshly-washed clothes billowing out with gusto on the line.

Small joys in an increasingly mad world. To be breathed in and soaked up before anyone can tell you otherwise.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Monday, 25 March 2019

Lady Day in Dorset

I'm up bright and early on Dorset's highest hill, looking out across the vale to a hazy coast, at around about twenty past seven.

This is a 'no filter' photo from my phone. It's wonderful up here this morning, with no-one else about.

On the top of the world, looking down on creation.

It's Lady Day today, and also my only brother's birthday. Two important events in my family's calendar over the years: the latter because he is the Golden Child, the only male in a gaggle of females, and the former because it's the traditional day for farm tenancies to change.

As children, we were brought up on a county council smallholding in Somerset, so Lady Day has always been part of my inner make up. It's the first of the four traditional English quarter days (the others being Midsummer, Michaelmas and Christmas Day). It's called Lady Day because it marks the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the Angel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that not only was she expecting a baby but that he was the Christ.

I've just looked up Lady Day on Wikipedia and it's fascinating:

In England, Lady Day was New Year's Day from 1155 until 1752, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted and with it the first of January as the official start of the year.[1] A vestige of this remains in the United Kingdom's tax year, which starts on 6 April, or "New Lady Day", i.e., Lady Day adjusted for the 11 lost days of the calendar change. Until this change Lady Day had been used as the start of the legal year. This should be distinguished from the liturgical and historical year. It appears that in England and Wales, from at least the late 14th century, New Year's Day was celebrated on 1 January as part of Yule.[2]
As a year-end and quarter day that conveniently did not fall within or between the seasons for ploughing and harvesting, Lady Day was a traditional day on which year-long contracts between landowners and tenant farmers would begin and end in England and nearby lands (although there were regional variations). Farmers' time of "entry" into new farms and onto new fields was often this day.[3][4] As a result, farming families who were changing farms would travel from the old farm to the new one on Lady Day. In 1752 England finally followed western Europe in switching to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar. The Julian lagged 11 days behind the Gregorian, and hence 25 March ("Old Lady Day") became 6 April ("New Lady Day"), which assumed the role of fiscal and contractual year-beginning. (The date is significant in some of the works of Thomas Hardy, such as Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd, and is discussed in his 1884 essay The Dorset Farm Labourer).
You learn something new every day.

So have a wonderful Lady Day and, if you're my brother, have a great birthday.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The first day of spring

In a poor imitation of Harry Secombe, I’m walking down through the field singing If I Ruled The World.

It's just as well no-one else is about. It's not a very good imitation, especially the high bits. Even the dog is cowering.

But the song just popped into my head. And this has nothing to do with Brexit, Bercow or people jostling for positions in the forthcoming local government reorganisation here in Dorset. It'st because the second line is ‘every day would be the first day of spring’.

It’s feeling very spring-like this morning, despite ribbons of mist in the valley and grey skies overpowering the blue. Despite natural and man-made disasters around the world, despite climate change, plastic pollution and our materialistic culture. Despite bickering politicians, sleaze and crime.

In my world, there are woodpeckers drilling for England, pigeons cooing their plaintive call and grey squirrels scampering through the skeletal branches of beech.

Up on the hill, there are clumps of bluebells just biding their time before bursting forth their sweet, sweet, sweetness.

Mud and cow dung give a satisfying slurp as I wade through in my wellies. This morning, the phantom gate leaver opener has failed to strike and the cattle are lowing in the field in which they're meant to be lowing.

A horse chestnut tree is budding, the cherries are in blossom and my wallflowers having been giving the village a good show since well before Christmas. In the verges there are violets, primroses, celandines and daisies.

The world is still turning, just.

Today marks the Spring Equinox, a magical time when the days are as long as the nights. There is a change in the seasons, a sign of new hope.

Today, I'm wearing my Star Wars T-shirt and wishing the world were a better place. Like Harry's, if I were in charge, my world would wear a smile on its face.

I've just logged out of Twitter, where inane chattering does my head in, but not before I discovered that as well as it being the first day of spring, it's also the International Day of Happiness. Who knew?

This year's theme is Happier Together, focusing on what we have in common, rather than what divides us.

Amen to that.

That's about it.

Love, Maddie x

Monday, 11 March 2019

An evening out at River Cottage HQ

We wait in the car as the rain pours down outside.

There's a shelter opposite and a few people in there are enjoying a hot drink. We put the windscreen wipers on and we see steam coming from the cups.

We make a dash for it and squeeze into the shed as more people arrive. The hot drink is mulled apple juice and it's very fine indeed.

Our names are ticked off by a lady with a clipboard, and then the tractor and covered trailer arrives and we're squashed inside it next to complete strangers and they're all animated in their excitement.

River Cottage celebrates its 20th birthday this month. We've seen Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's baby from the very beginning and watched it grow. Mr Grigg is in one of the early episodes of the television series, captaining the peasants' cricket team against the toffs.

It's become part of what West Dorset (and East Devon more recently) is known for. Most people here this evening are from away and are staying locally in hotels, guest houses and B&Bs. We must be the only locals.

Both my children have sampled its delights and thanks to a Build and Bake course taken by Mr Grigg, we now have a clay oven out in the garden called Jabba the Pizza Hut. It's even made from clay from a local field. And now I've finally made it here, too.

And we're all set for a superb evening.

Down the hill in the trailer we go and there's lots of babbling and chatter from the twenty-five or so people on board. At the bottom, we're ushered into a large yurt with a log fire in the middle and enjoy elderlflower champagne and some rather spiffing canapes. There's farmhouse rarebit, cauliflower hummus on rye cracker and then, down in the barn, purple sprouting broccoli with blood orange hollandaise sauce.

By now we've been joined by the second trailer load and the place is buzzing. We're sitting next to complete strangers again, whose names we have memorised from the seating plan.

This is a place that excels in cooking beautiful dishes using local produce. And, for us, the Dorset theme continues with a tall glass of smooth Black Cow Vodka and tonic for me while Mr Grigg enjoys a nice G&T, with Conker Gin with our canapes.

More dishes arrive and I struggle to write down the ingredients that were rattled off earlier. I'm writing the old fashioned way, shorthand in my notebook, while the young chap next to me is tapping it all into his phone. By the end of the evening, we compare notes and this is an approximation of what comes next:

Air dried beef, rendered down pork dripping with onion, house pickles, radish salad.

Baked celeriac puree, pear, crispy kale, pumpkin seeds, preserved lemons, sage, tamari and olive oil and goats cheese with rosemary.

Beetroot, soft-boiled egg, anchovy and garlic. tamari and balsamic vinegar, parsley, chives and chervil.

Leg of lamb, chargrilled and finished in butter, in a red wine sauce with cubes of haggis made from the offal, parsnip puree, whole red onion and a salad of red Russian kale, pickled brine and garlic and spicy dressing.

Fennel and bay pannacotta with blood orange, raw rhubarb and gingernut crumble.

Then there is coffee or tea with sweets. I'm so stuffed by this stage I don't eat them and I've lost the will to write down what they are.

This is all washed down by an excellent selection of reasonably-priced wine.

With two really warm and interesting couples either side of us, both of whom are staying locally, the evening passes by really quickly. By the end of it, they're not complete strangers at all.

The food, ambience, service and ethos has been fantastic.

So thank you, River Cottage and Mr Grigg, for a wonderful evening. It was everything I hoped for, and more.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Someone's left the gate open...

When I stand at the top of the hill I'm often tempted to break out into song, especially first thing in the morning when there's nobody else about.

Something along the lines of Woody Guthrie's 'This Land Is Your Land' but adapted to fit west Dorset.

'This land was made for you and me'.

Up the top, this land belongs to The National Trust (so it is your land, and mine too) but, lower down, it belongs to the farmer. And whilst a footpath runs through it, which gives us the right to walk through the field, it doesn't give us the right to leave the gates open.

Respect, protect, enjoy - that's what the Countryside Code says.

I was up with the lark again this morning to find a herd of young cattle enjoying unfettered access to a newly-seeded field because some idiot had done just that.

It happens a lot during the school holidays, apparently.

I messaged the farmer from high up on the hill.

'Are the cattle meant to be in here?' I asked, sending him a photo. If only I knew the field names (now there's a local history project to get my teeth into) I could have given him a more accurate location.

'No they're not!' he replied, with some ripe, farming-type language thrown in for good measure.

'Well,' I messaged back. 'They seem to be having a bit of a party.'

'I'm on my way,' he said,

From up on the hill, the dog and I could hear cowboy-type whoops and hollers as the farmer yelled down in the field below, rounding up the cattle and bringing them back on the right side of the hedge.

The dog and I walked right to the top to look out across the vale, to check if the sea was still in the distance. And then we made our way back down, the cattle now back in the correct field and staring at us like teenagers whose illicit activity had been cut short.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Silence on the hill now that the squirrel shooters have gone

 Up on the hill on Valentine's Day, the sun is breaking through the mist.

It's magical up here at this time of the morning.

The dog's done her business (carefully picked up and bagged to drop off later) and she's now off snuffling around for deer and rabbits.

Grey squirrels scuttle through the top branches of the beech trees, like flying foxes in a David Attenborough wildlife programme.

A few weeks ago, there were mystery huntsmen up here on a Sunday morning, shooting in trees at the squirrels which, in many rural quarters, are considered fluffy-tailed vermin, having invaded our land and practically wiped out their protected Squirrel Nutkin red cousins.

It's not illegal to kill them but only if it's done humanely, and you have to have the landowner's permission to shoot on their land.

The guns' activity spooked the dog, who ran off to find out what was going on. She came back later and I found out that a fellow dog walker from the village had seen her and thought she was something to do with the hunters, who got short shrift for shooting on National Trust land.

It came out in a conversation we had in the snow when the dog ran off to jump up at a snowman and ate its carrot nose. I wish I'd got a picture of that but she was just too quick.

Here's one of a snow scene up on the hill instead.

But there's no sign of the hunters today, no sign of anyone. It's just me and the dog.

Through the trees, I can see the flat top of Langdon Wood and Golden Cap rising above the mist like the land in Narnia.

On our way back down the hill, I can see the vapour trail of an aeroplane heading for the sunrise.  Despite our solitude, we are not alone.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Sunday, 27 January 2019

A monumental week in Athens

On Thursday night in Athens I watch live webcam footage of Syntagma Square from our Airbnb, just a few streets away.

Protesters are demonstrating about the Greek government's plans to approve a name change for the neighbouring country of Macedonia (Greece has a region of the same name. There's a lot of history and fears tied up in all of this). 

From the balcony, we can hear the chanting in the distance. But we are safe and cosy up here on the top floor. Snug as bugs in rugs.

The apartment is clean, convenient and cheap. It's a brilliant location for exploring the centre of this sprawling city. You can book it by visiting this link.

When we arrived in the Greek capital on Monday evening, I nearly cried when I saw the view from our roof terrace. The acropolis was lit up like a Christmas tree. 

In Athens in January, there are oranges and lemons on the trees lining the streets. The traders in the market tempt you with fresh squid, John Dory and fish-like-a-bream. There are heads of sheep a-plenty and bits of animal you never see in the shrink-wrapped section of supermarket chillers. 

The glossy colours of aubergines, olives and tomatoes in the fruit and vegetable market cheer up a grey winter's day.

In the Mr Zoo pet shop window, there are puppies for sale. I want to buy them just to free these dear little creatures from their prisons. But I can't.

There are sales in shops all over the city. It's a great time to buy winter boots.

Men in coffee-coloured overalls unload sacks of coffee beans into the grinder.

The Evzones change guard with precision and elegance on the hour, every hour, outside the parliament building and the tomb of the unknown solider.

Athens is an edgy city, full of ancient history and modern magic, and well worth a visit. But Pericles, its famous leader during classical times, would be hard-pressed to recognise the place today.

The open-topped bus takes you here there and everywhere. It's a great way to move around with ease and get a handle on this vast place. We take a trip out to Piraeus, the biggest port in the Med, before heading back into the city again.

Museums are not to be missed, especially the archaeological museum, with its jewellery, statues and pottery.

On Friday we trundle our hand luggage suitcases across a rain-soaked Athens city centre, our underground station at Syntagma closed because of the demonstrations.

The vote was close and the protesters were not happy.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Monkeying around on the way to the airport

We're on the M5 when we pass a bus chuntering cheerfully along on the inside lane. It bears the livery of Gibbons Coach Holidays.

As we drive by, I peer as best I can into the windows, hoping to spot a posse of long-limbed monkeys swinging down from the luggage rack, and swiftly mooning in unison from the back window.

In my head I can hear the lar gibbons that used to sing and whoop, whoop, whoop across the courtyard and valley at Cricket St Thomas in the good old days when it was a wildlife park.

But we overtake before my imagination overtakes me. The next coach is Hatton Premier Class Travel and I envisage sedate, upmarket passengers, all wearing tiaras and monocles.

At the airport, I'm flabbergasted not to be searched, as, usually, I set off every alarm going. My laptop takes an age to come through security and I have a minor panic attack fearing that all my writing and photos have been wiped from the hard drive during the scanning process.

We weave our way through Duty Free, find a seat in the departures lounge and gather our thoughts. Over the tannoy, the announcer invites a Mr Routledge on the 1pm flight to Athens to check-in desk number twenty-one. And then I see a man who says he's Mr Routledge with Mrs Routledge (who sadly is not Patricia), at the information desk, asking what they should do as they've already come through the gates of hell that is security, had their bags checked and don't want to go through the trauma of it all over again.

Mr Grigg treats me to the £3.99 Meal Deal at W H Smith rather than pay an arm and a leg for something soft and unappetising on the plane. Customers are looking at the chill cabinet, mouths agape like confused gibbons. Calories are uppermost in my mind following the excesses of Christmas but I reject anything with chicken in it (probably factory farmed and pumped full of rubbish), ham (ditto), tuna (endangers dolphins), salmon (farmed and fed on a diet of chemicals). I think about egg and cress but it's not free range and, even if it were, an egg sandwich is not the most sociable thing to take on a plane because the smell of the pack being opened is like someone passing wind. There is no salad (probably sprayed with pesticide in any case) so I go for Wensleydale cheese and pickle, figuring that at least if it's a named cheese it might be made to a certain standard and with care.

To be honest, I'm still concerned about the Routledges as I make my choice, which probably explains why I pick up a packet of cheese and onion crisps with no thought to what's gone in them or how they've been made. And then I'm dumbfounded by the range of drinks in plastic bottles which, if they're not full of sugar, are instead stacked full of aspartame which more than likely will cause me to behave like a gibbon on the plane.

By the time I've chosen, Mr Grigg is already in the queue but my own purse is deep within the recesses of my hand luggage so I do the family whistle, he turns around and I'm met with sighs and a stern face when I ask him if he can take my selection as well. A twinkly old man who is two behind my husband in the queue smiles at me and winks.

At the self-service till, Mr Grigg is laden down with two lots of meal deals, an extra bottle of water, a newspaper and no bag. There are no manned tills and no space to put the goods before scanning. There are bloops and bleeps and Mr Grigg is still there when the twinkly man walks past me as I guard our hand luggage in an aisle featuring those toilet seat-shaped travel cushions. He gestures with his head towards Mr Grigg and says 'still grumpy'.

We stop for a coffee and go to Starbucks because there are no independent retailers from which to choose. The list of drinks is as long as a gibbon's arm. I go for a flat white and then change it to breakfast tea because I haven't yet had my morning cuppa and it's fast approaching lunchtime.

"And which tea would madam like?" Mr Grigg says.

And I don't know why but I'm tempted to whoop like a gibbon or at least laugh like Cheetah the chimp from Daktari and request PG Tips, in homage to my favourite adverts as a child but which these days would never be allowed.

Next stop, Athens. I'll keep you posted.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Monday, 14 January 2019

Happy 150th birthday to The People's Friend

150th souvenir issue, 12 January 2019
It's the 150th birthday of the longest-running woman's weekly magazine in the world.

Take a bow, The People's Friend.

I have the joy of writing the Maddie's World column each week from deep in rural Dorset. It's lovely to be able to share the goings on in my very special part of the world with 400,000 'Friend' readers all over the globe. 

When the 'Friend' was looking for a new columnist  four years ago and found me through this blog, I had to re-read the editor’s out-of-the-blue email to me at least three times. 

'For some time now, we've been mulling over the idea of introducing a weekly columnist, but we haven't been able to settle on the right person,' she said. 

'However, having looked at your blog, I think you might just be the writer we've been looking for! I like your ability to write with humour about the minutiae of daily life, but with a touch of emotional depth, too.'

If I had been able to do cartwheels, I would have also have done back flips all across the floor.

'I can hardly contain my excitement!' I told her. 'Of course, I can do a weekly column for you.'

When celebrity codswallop threatens to engulf our daily lives and parliamentary procedures fug up our brains to the point that we inwardly (or outwardly in my case) scream 'enough is enough!, the 'Friend' is a beacon of kindness in an often grim world.

So it's appropriate that the magazine is celebrating its 150th birthday with gusto.

The first issue, 13 January 1869

As I write this blog post, the 'Friend' editor, Angela Gilchrist is being interviewed on Radio Four's Woman's Hour. And this piece on the BBC's website gives a fascinating insight into the history of the grand old lady that is The People's Friend.

I love writing for The People’s Friend. I’ve been a writer all my life in some shape or form, having trained as a newspaper journalist after doing my A levels in 1979. 

To be able to write about the Dorset and the people I love for such a special magazine is a real privilege, and getting feedback from readers is just wonderful. When I started writing my columns, it was like being shown around one of those cosy, warm houses in lush countryside that you see on television programmes. It felt like I’d found my writing home. 

Many happy returns, The People’s Friend. Long may your warm words of wisdom continue.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

A funny thing happened on my way around the hill

Up on the hill early one morning this week, I was walking quietly around, minding my own business, when I noticed a billycan hanging from ...