Writing Portfolio


Brightening up the garden

On a Sunday lunchtime in London, what better thing to do than visit the flower market at Columbia Road? The main part of the market is on Columbia Road itself, a parade of Victorian shops off the Hackney Road. The market stalls are located in front of the shops, and the big crowds mean that it can get very crowded as everyone’s trying to walk through the narrow space in the middle.

We squeezed in among the crowd as the various sellers tried to attract attention by shouting about how their flowers were “fourpaaandabunch” and “freeefratenner”. We went for some early spring flowers – miniature daffodils, irises and snowdrops – along with bulbs for bluebells, crocuses and anemonies. Those last ones look like dried pellets of some sort. “You’ll need to soak those overnight,” we were told.

A couple of days later, I was out planting them in the front garden. There’s a part by the wall where the ivy wasn’t entirely cleared, so that job came first, along with cutting down a couple of bushes that had got out of control (one of which I hadn’t bothered with last year; it’s now a set of stumps) and some weeding in the flower-bed in front of the house. Let the 2016 gardening project commence!

The front part, which has some ground-cover that itsn’t grass but which can stay because it’s ground-cover, now has the flowers and the bulbs, apart from the anemonies which are in the flower bed. The front garden’s looking bright already, and soon it’ll look brighter still.

At the back, some vegetables have already been sown while the rosemary and mint plants have been trimmed back. Next to those are some radish seeds in the ground, while the black plastic troughs have been sown with broad beans and peas – in time, these will hopefully work their way up the trellises.


Baking with sourdough

How long can a sourdough starter go unused? That was what I wondered the other week when I happened across my own sourdough starter which had sat unused at the back of our second fridge (the one in the shed) for at least a year, perhaps longer.

My sourdough starter was created according to the recipe set out in Fergus Henderson’s second book which he co-wrote with his pastry chef (and also head baker) at St John, Justin Piers Gellatly (Beyond Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking: Part II). They call it the ‘Mother’; we call it the ‘Science Experiment’. I’ve used it before to make a sourdough loaf but there’s not much else that I’ve done with it. In their book, Henderson and Gellatly say that they started theirs “about five years ago”, and that was in 2007, but they use and replenish theirs on a regular basis. They do say that “you can leave it in the fridge without feeding for months” – but a year or more? Well, I followed their advice – “it will take a few days to restart it by feeding it … discard about a third and feed it equal parts flour and water. Repeat this until there are signs of fermentation.” When it’s ready, the starter “should be bubbly and smell strong and sour”.

After several days of reviving, it looked bubbly enough, and stank enough, to be used and so I made another sourdough loaf.

Only afterwards did I peruse my copy of Beyond Nose to Tail to see what else I could make, and I chanced across a recipe for raisin loaf. This required a few things that I didn’t have, so a trip to the shops was called for in order to get some raisins, currants, unsalted butter, more strong white flour (that sourdough loaf had used up the last of it) and fresh yeast.

Putting aside the fact that the whole point of sourdough bread is that you don’t need yeast, why would it need fresh yeast? And where could I buy that? I’ve only ever used the dried stuff, and for a while I did ponder the notion that, somewhere on the Inter-web, someone has probably come up with a chart that tells you how much of the dried stuff you should use when the recipe calls for fresh. Baking, though, is a bit of an exact science – in other forms of cooking, you can go a bit off-piste but you really can’t with baking – so I decided that I might as well get hold of some fresh yeast; although the recipe only called for half a teaspoon of it I was sure I could use it for something else.

My first port of call was a big branch of Morrison’s, where after initially being directed to where the dried stuff was in the baking section I was told that they did sell the fresh stuff, which could be found next to the butter. I found the label on the shelf all right, but no yeast – they were out of stock and hadn’t had any delivered for a while. I bought the rest of my goods and drove over to the nearest other supermarket – an even bigger Tesco. After looking in and around the butter section without success, I asked a passing worker and was told that I should “ask at the bakery counter, they might give you some”. They did, too – and for no charge (since I didn’t need to buy anything else there, I walked out as discreetly as I could, having for once got something for nothing). So there you have my baking lesson for the week: It’s possible to buy fresh yeast at Morrison’s, but Tesco will give you the stuff for free.

The dough, once mixed (with the currants and the raisins) was rather wet although Henderson and Gellatly had forewarned of this (“Your dough will be very wet and hard to handle, so good luck, and remember – try not to add too much flour”). I duly rolled it into a ball, left it in the fridge for an hour, then kneaded away and left the result in a warm place – in a bowl on top of a hot water bottle to be precise. They recommended leaving it for “about 3 hours, until it has risen a little”.

Mine had risen by more than a little within the hour, so I duly re-shaped and bunged the dough into my (buttered) loaf-tin and popped that back on the hot water bottle. After another rising, it went in the oven. The only odd part of the whole process came right at the end; after taking it out of the oven, Henderson and Gellatly said to “take the loaf out of the tin, lay it on its side on the oven shelf and bake for 5 minutes”, and then do the same for the other side. Well, if it’s in the instructions, that’s what you do, right?

The result: A delicious raisin loaf. Goes well with goat’s or ewe’s milk cheese, apparently.


The Capital Ring: Crystal Palace to Balham

I thought getting from East Finchley to Crystal Palace to resume my walking of the Capital Ring would be fairly straightforward, but I'd reckoned without the southbound section of the Northern Line being down. What had been planned as a mid-to-late morning start (the intention being to knock off two stages in one day by walking all the way to Wimbledon) became a lunchtime (well, shortly after midday) start by the time I made it to the big Victorian station (with 21st century lifts) that is Crystal Palace. I used the extended journey time to calculate how much of the Capital Ring I'd walked so far, and reached the happy answer that I had already done just over half of it.

After a quick lunch - crisps and a sausage roll from a newsagent - I was ready to commence Section 4 which is described in London: The Definitive Walking Guide by Colin Saunders (Cicerone, 2002) as a "rollercoaster of a walk among the ridges and valleys". Having previously visited the area twice while doing the Nightride, though, I was already aware of the hilly nature of the vicinity.

After crossing Anerley Hill the walk took me down, and then up, a side-street that made me wonder (not for the first time) what the people who live on the Capital Ring route think of it. Do they sometimes wonder about those occasional groups of people in hiking gear asking each other if they're sure this is the right way? Have they noticed, and perhaps wondered about, those little green arrows? Do they even know it exists?

Up another street, across a road and down through a park, then following another suburban road to a recreation ground boarded by big suburban semis and a primary school. I love that recreation grounds are still called by that name rather than just parks. Several aspects of this particular rec stuck out. A set of goal-posts on a notably sloping pitch, peopled by a father and son having a kick-about. A Victorian drinking-fountain (erected in 1891 by one Samuel Southgate) that didn't work; do any of them? A dog-walker who mouthed a silent 'hello' as we passed. A single-storey brick pavilion, door shuttered and what looked like mould on the inside of the windows which, as is the case with such buildings, were high up on the walls; when, I wondered, was that last used? A line of yellow providing some colour against the grass, on closer inspection a host of golden daffodils (no breeze for them to flutter and dance in, though).

From here I could see not one but two TV transmitters (the other one, South Norwood, is a back-up for the Crystal Palace one). After the rec I walked up another incline to a ridge on which ran the A215 (Beulah Hill). There were some big houses here, and it wasn't long before I found myself on a road called Biggin Hill (another hill!) which descended steeply past some allotments while affording a panoramic view of Croydon and the North Downs beyond.

The route diverted off the road just after the allotments, running through Biggin Wood which, like the previously-encountered Downham Woodland Walk (see the Falconwood-Beckenham section) is a remnant of the old Great North Wood. I'm rather enjoying these seemingly random occurrences of patches of woodland on the Capital Ring! Robins, Great Tits and Ring-neck Parakeets were seen.

There followed a street called Covingdon Way, named (according to Colin Saunders, in The Capital Ring this time) after "a very active local campaigner who did a great deal for the area". Passing the semis with their driveways (originally front gardens that, as with their counterparts in places like Edgware and Mill Hill, were probably paved over between the Seventies and Nineties as more and more families started to own more than one car), I was struck by some of the house names - South View (that one was on top of the hill), Craigwood, Red Roofs and No Junk Mail (a popular one, that). I wonder what prompts people in streets like these to opt for names rather than numbers, and whether they have to go through some sort of procedure with the Post Office to ensure that no-one else on the street hasn't already gone with the same name?

Parkland next, with the grounds of a mansion called Norwood Grove. Known locally as the White House (for obvious reasons), it dates from the 1840s although what's there today is merely the east wing of the original. The gardens of the house have a 'no dogs' rule; for those with dogs, the Capital Ring takes a short diversion and when the two branches rejoined the path was suddenly awash with dog-walkers, including a couple of people with four each!

A small stream marked both a municipal boundary (between the London Boroughs of Croydon and Lambeth) and the border between the grounds of Norwood Grove and Streatham Common. This marked the start of a new feature of the Capital Ring. "South-west London is blessed with a string of commons, most of which were saved from development by a variety of bodies during the 19th century," states Saunders (in The Capital Ring). "All these commons were once wild places, owned by the local squire, where people from the surrounding villages had certain rights, including grazing animals and collecting firewood, berries and nuts." The Capital Ring crosses four, of which Streatham is the first; the others are Tooting Bec, Wandsworth and Wimbledon. 

My first view of Streatham was of the church across the common - an almost village-like vista that belied the area's less-than-salubrious reputation. After noting a couple of pubs - one a former bank called the Bank, the other an old coaching inn called the Greyhound, I crossed the Brighton Road and, noting that there was more litter on the pavement than there had been elsewhere, turned down a road (big terraced townhouses divided up into flats) towards Streatham Common station.

This was the end of Stage 4, but I wasn't done yet. After heading along a road running alongside the railway line, I passed under it and then came across what looked like an eastern church or maybe a mosque, although it was in fact a Victorian water-pumping station. Imaginative people when it came to constructing utility company buildings, those Victorians!

Despite my slightly-later-than planned start, I was still feeling optimistic about making it to Wimbledon as I walked along a tree-lined avenue with big houses, quite a few of which looked like they needed a bit of TLC, most of which looked to have been converted into flats. But then I noticed a pain in my foot. No benches on residential back-roads, alas! 

I carried on to Tooting Bec Road, crossing over the railway bridge and into the London Borough of Wandsworth ("The Better Borough"), turning left onto Tooting Bec Common which thankfully had a bench where I was able to sit down and take my right shoe and sock off; I noticed a large-ish blister on the ball of my foot. Of all things! I've been walking for years and have hardly ever developed one of those, to the extent that I hadn't bothered to pack any plasters. 

Wimbledon was now out of the question; another time. The next station I would encounter would be Balham, which I vaguely recalled as being somewhere on the lower reaches of the Northern Line; at least getting home wouldn't be a problem!

Walking across my second common of the day, I saw plenty of Black-headed Gulls making use of the waterlogged pitches (most of them in their white-headed winter plumage although one had already gone brown). Starlings gathered in the trees.

There followed a slightly pained walk along Victorian streets prior to my emerging on Balham High Street opposite a large Art Deco apartment block, then a hundred or so yards to the station and the train home.


The Lent challenge

The month of January is not complete without stories of people attempting to do ‘Dry January’, that sometimes doomed attempt to last for the first 31 days of the year without drinking any alcoholic beverages. What better way to shake off the overindulgence of Christmas?

Well, I guess – as is the case with all of those new year’s resolutions about doing more exercise – it’s the thought that counts. Some manage it, some don’t – and I suspect that for those who don’t make it to the end of the month there may be mitigating circumstances, such as the facts that January is the coldest month of the year and the days are short, and as such maybe it is not the best of times to give up drinking. So, fair play to those who managed.

As you’ve probably guessed, I didn’t bother. But all the talk of it did get me thinking about other time periods over which my alcohol intake could be curtailed. Having missed the Dry January boat, I started wondering about giving up alcohol for Lent.

Occurring at the time when winter slowly begins to give way to spring, Lent takes place at a time of year when it is less cold than January (but not by much), although it does last longer (40 days, as opposed to 31). It also has the advantage of being a traditional period of self-denial in Christian countries; giving something up for Lent goes back a long way.

The idea is that Lent commemorates the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness – and it lasts from Ash Wednesday (that’s today) to Easter. Traditionally it was a period of fasting (no fats, eggs, red meat) although in some denominations this has changed to giving up something (booze, sweets, smoking) for the duration. As the date of Easter changes each year, the exact dates of Lent are subject to change on a year-by-year basis. However, I did a bit of checking on the calendar and I noticed that the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is in fact 46 days long. So what gives?

I did a bit of online research, and I wasn’t entirely surprised to find out that there are, give or take, almost as many different definitions of what actually constitutes Lent as there are denominations of the Christian faith (and, as there are different dates for Easter – it’s 27th March for Western Christians this year, while for the Eastern Orthodox it’s on 1st May – the Lenten period has different dates according to one’s denomination).

One definition I found was that the extra days are the Sundays that fall within the Lenten period; according to some churches, Sundays are not supposed to be fasting days and so don’t count as part of Lent, which leaves you with 40. In others, it’s the Saturdays that are exempt, while in others there are no exceptions and you’ve just got to fast until Easter. Alternative definitions have Lent beginning on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday and not allowing for any days off, which means that it ends on (I think) the day after Palm Sunday. Another definition has Lent beginning on the Monday before Ash Wednesday and lasting for 40 days straight, to be followed by a separate period of fasting for Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter). I’m not sure what happens with regards to the extra day when Lent begins in February when it’s a leap year. I am sure that I’m a little bit confused.

The idea of not including Sundays does have a certain appeal. All things considered, though, it feels like a bit of a cheat when I’m not intending to fast, merely give up drinking.

I, therefore, am defining Lent as 40 days starting with Ash Wednesday, with no days off. To put this into a bit of context, I am pretty sure that the longest I’ve gone without drinking alcohol in my adult life was the two weeks I spent in the Sudan, where it’s banned.

Challenge accepted…


Potato pancakes

It’s Pancake Day – traditionally the day when people cleared their cupboards of such things like eggs, sugar and fat prior to Lent, and probably the only day when it’s OK to throw food in the kitchen and crack jokes about being a tosser. As its date is determined by when Easter is, Pancake Day (or, to use the more old-fashioned name, Shrove Tuesday) is a moveable feast which can fall any time between early February and early March; this year, it’s somewhat earlier than usual – this is the earliest it’s been since 2008, and it won’t be this early again until 2027.

A favourite pancake recipe of ours is a savoury one – potato pancakes, which work really well as a side to the main meal. They’re really easy to make – all you need are a couple of potatoes, an egg, half an onion and some flour, milk and salt. Grate the potatoes and the onion. Mix these with an egg, a quarter-cup of flour, a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of milk to make the batter.

Fry approximately one large spoonful of the batter per pancake. Thanks to the grated potato and onion they’re thicker than regular pancakes, so it’s probably best to flip these rather than toss them. This recipe makes approximately six pancakes.

Serve with a dollop of crème fraiche. Bon appétit, and happy Pancake Day!


The ongoing story of the missing Earl

Over four decades after his disappearance, the seventh Earl of Lucan is still capable of generating newspaper headlines. This week it was announced that, as he is not known to have been alive for at least seven years, a death certificate has been issued under the terms of a recent law called the Presumption of Death Act; he had previously been declared dead for inheritance purposes in 1999. This has duly prompted The Times to (finally) publish his obituary, and it means that his son can now be referred to as Lucan’s eighth Earl. The story, though, does not end here.

The saga surrounding the Lucan case has many classic ingredients – a brutal murder in a domestic setting (of the sort that Orwell identified as being so fascinating to the English), a dramatic disappearance and, of course, that old British obsession that is the class system. Also involved in the saga are high-stakes gambling, a messy legal case, some tigers, various exotic locations, a fugitive MP and the whiff of an upper-class cover-up. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a subject of ongoing fascination and speculation for the press and public over the course of many years.

Lucan was as upper-class as they come – his ancestors included the man who issued the order for the Charge of the Light Brigade and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary. A tall, distinctive-looking man with slicked-back hair and a luxuriant moustache, he worked for a merchant bank and had a taste for gambling – initially for fun, but he left his job and became a professional gambler after a big win (which led to his nickname ‘Lucky’ – although in the long run he lost more than he won). Leading an extravagant lifestyle at the higher end of Sixties London society (he was a member of the Clermont Club, a potent mixture of aristocracy and new money), he was once rated as one of the best backgammon players in the world and is said to have been considered as a possible James Bond (the story goes that he was offered a screen test but turned it down).

He married Veronica Duncan in 1963 and although they had three children the marriage was not a happy one. By the early Seventies the couple had separated, and Lucan lost custody of the children in an acrimonious and costly legal battle which came at a time when his gambling debts were spiralling out of control. He took to spying on his estranged wife in an attempt to find something with which to discredit her, and on the night of Thursday 7th November 1974 the family’s nanny, 29 year-old Sandra Rivett, was murdered at the Countess’s home in Belgravia.

The unfortunate Mrs Rivett really had been in the wrong place at the wrong time; she had been working for the Countess for several months and usually took Thursdays off, but that week she changed her hours and had taken the Wednesday off instead. Shortly before 9pm, she asked the Countess if she would like a cup of tea and headed to the basement kitchen to make one; there, she was bludgeoned to death with a piece of lead piping and her body hurriedly placed into a canvas mailbag.

When the Countess went to find out what was taking Mrs Rivett so long, she was herself attacked by the killer but she was able to escape and run, covered in blood and presumably in shock, to a nearby pub for help; she identified her estranged husband as her attacker. The general consensus was that Lucan had mistaken Mrs Rivett for his wife, and the evidence against him was so compelling that later, at the inquest, the jury would take the unusual step of naming him as the killer. By then, though, he had vanished. The last confirmed sighting of Lord Lucan was when he drove to the house of two of his friends in Sussex in the early hours of 8th November; he told them that he happened to have been walking past the Countess’s house when he heard a fight taking place inside; he had gone to her aid, but been accused of hiring a hitman to kill her (he also stated this in a letter that he wrote to his brother-in-law). His car was found abandoned in the Channel port of Newhaven.

Many believe that Lucan took his own life there and then – probably by drowning, either by jumping from a cross-Channel ferry or by borrowing a boat, taking it out to sea and deliberately sinking it. There’s also a more outlandish suicide theory – that after speaking with his friends and deciding that there was no way out, he was left alone in a room with a gun. After he shot himself, his body was fed to the tigers at the zoo owned by his high-rolling friend John Aspinall (who’d founded the Clermont Club). This story has featured in the papers recently – an old member of the Clermont Club who had been told this story years ago finally broke his silence – but it was suggested at the time of Lucan’s disappearance by Aspinall’s mother (who, in one of those familial coincidences that so abound among the upper classes, also happened to be the current Chancellor’s grandmother). This was denied by Aspinall himself, though, who said that his animals were only fed on the best cuts of meat and wouldn’t have wanted to eat “stringy old Lucky”.

Then there’s the theory that he used his powerful connections to disappear abroad – and this is where the story has ran and ran, “increasingly slipping the bonds of fact for the realms of fantasy” (to quote the obit in yesterday’s Times). Sightings of the missing Earl have abounded over the years, although one of the earliest took a turn for the bizarre when an Englishman was arrested in Australia on suspicion of being Lord Lucan in December 1974. He turned out to be John Stonehouse, the Labour MP and Czech spy, who had faked his own death the previous month; interesting times, the Seventies (Stonehouse, by the way, was returned to Britain and eventually sent to prison for fraud, with his spying activities being covered up at the time and not publicly revealed until many years after he had actually died).

The continuing sightings over the years that followed made Lord Lucan the most famous British fugitive from justice. He was ‘seen’ in Colombia (that one turned out to be an American businessman) and Paraguay (hanging out with ex-Nazis!), hiking on Mount Etna and working as a waiter in both San Francisco and Greece. For years, a homeless British expat in New Zealand had to deny claims that he was the Earl (despite being several inches shorter). It has been alleged that he was flown out of England in an aircraft piloted by the racing driver Graham Hill. It was claimed that people working for his friends took him to Switzerland, where they deemed him to be a liability and killed him. In 1982 a self-styled bounty hunter claimed that he’d tracked Lucan down to Cuba, although a tabloid newspaper subsequently found out that he was a hoaxer. A Rolex watch believed to have been the Earl’s surfaced in South Africa, lending credence to apparent sightings in a hotel bar in Bostwana and in a clinic in Johannesburg.

It was also claimed that he lived out his days on a beach in India. This was the pet theory of an ex-Scotland Yard detective who in 2003 published a book, Dead Lucky, which claimed that a British hippy known as ‘Jungle Barry’ who had died in Goa in 1996 was the missing Earl. It was, however, quickly established that said hippy was in fact a distinctly un-aristocratic pub musician from St Helens.

In 2004, thirty years after Mrs Rivett’s murder, the police released a computer-generated image of how Lord Lucan might have looked had he still been alive (by which time he would have been 69); this featured in a Channel Four documentary, The Hunt for Lord Lucan, which suggested that the 1974 murder enquiry had been flawed – the crime-scene had been contaminated, and the investigation had proceeded from the start on the assumption of Lucan’s guilt despite concerns over the Countess’s reliability as a witness – and featured an interview with the Earl’s son who claimed that his mother had been mistaken in identifying his father as the man who attacked her. The Countess, who refused to be interviewed for the programme and was by that time estranged from her children, stuck by her original story and has always believed that her husband drowned himself; in a rare newspaper interview, she claimed that her husband was “not the sort of Englishman to cope abroad”.

Claims of some sort of cover-up have continued. In 2012 a former personal assistant to Aspinall claimed in an interview with the BBC that she was involved in helping Lucan to set up a new life in the West African state of Gabon, and that Aspinall and the businessman James Goldsmith (another Clermont member) later arranged to have two of Lucan’s children sent out there on false passports so that the fugitive Earl could see them, albeit from a distance (the children denied this, and it is worth noting that this claim was only made in public after both Aspinall and Goldsmith had been dead for several years; the latter was notoriously litigious and won a libel case against Private Eye in 1976 after the magazine had alleged that he and Aspinall had met after Lucan’s disappearance to discuss how they could hamper the police enquiries). At the same time, one of the detectives who worked on the Lucan case during the Eighties claimed that there had been two very credible sightings of Lucan in that decade (one of them in Africa) but he was denied the funding to follow them up.

Detectives who’ve been involved in the case have published books on the subject over the years, with titles like Looking for Lucan and Lucan Lives. In the case of the latter, the author had once been convinced that Lucan had drowned himself (and had publicly said so in 1975) but later, in the course of his working on the book, he visited Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa in a bid to track the missing Earl down. It is perhaps with studies like this in mind that the eighth Earl once commented that: “I get a little tired when former Scotland Yard detectives at the end of their careers get commissions to write books which happen to send them to sunny locations around the world.”

Despite his having been declared to be the killer of Mrs Rivett by the coroner (a highly unusual occurrence which later led to a change in the law preventing killers from being named at inquests, for fear of prejudicing any future trial), the fact remains that Lucan never stood trial. The murder of Mrs Rivett has, therefore, never been solved. Most studies of the case, though, have worked on the assumption of Lucan’s guilt (although there has been a book with the intriguing title of Lucan: Not Guilty which makes the case for the defence).

One aspect of the story that always seems to have taken a back seat is the victim herself; for all the talk of the upper-class fugitive Earl not much is said of the working-class murdered nanny. The publicity surrounding the issuing of the death certificate has been unusual in that for once, a relative of hers has featured prominently. Neil Berriman, Mrs Rivett’s son (he was given up for adoption some time before the murder, and only learned who his mother was when he was an adult), has stated that he believes that Lucan planned to kill the Countess but hired a hitman to do it; the hitman, not Lucan, killed the wrong woman. He also claims to have seen a police document stating that Lucan was alive as recently as 2002 (the eighth Earl, by contrast, believes that his father died soon after the murder).

The story doesn’t end here. Mr Berriman, who has declined to produce the police document to which he referred, has stated that there are unnamed individuals “withholding evidence and not telling the truth … I do feel and hope that the Lucan mystery will be at a possible end in 12 to 14 months time through new evidence and lines on enquiry.” It seems that, even though Lucan’s family has now got legal closure with the death certificate, the saga surrounding Lord Lucan and the murder of Sandra Rivett has not finished yet.


The Date Walk

My latest published piece – another London walking route – is the Date Walk, which takes you along the Thames from Borough Market to the South Bank. There are plenty of pubs en route, along with a few escape routes that can be taken if the date isn’t going so well! All credit for devising the walk must go to Allison on this one!