Monday, December 19, 2005

What a Week!

Gosh, it's been an exiting few days. It started last Tuesday when I headed off for London for the day. I had to take the long way round as I didn't want to head down the M1 and get involved in traffic delays around the big fire at Hemel Hempstead. It was a smashing day and I enjoyed the drive down through Ludlow, Cleobury Mortimer and Kidderminster. The countryside there is gorgeous. I joined the motorway system just south of Birmingham and steamed on down the M40 towards London. As usual, the highlight of the trip was the climb up and over the Chilterns where I counted 12 Red Kites circling around.

It took about 4 hours to get to Stanmore. As I drew close to my destination I could see the great black smoke plume billowing up from the remains of the fuel terminal at Hemel. The smoke drifted off to the southwest for miles and miles. Where it was forced to rise over the ridge at Stanmore the smoke particles were acting as condensation nucleii and the plume turned to a big black cumulus cloud. Thank goodness it didn't produce rain. It would have been a nasty, greasy, sooty mess!

I went down to London for a couple of reasons. One was to take flowers to Mum, Dad and Grannie's graves and the other was to visit my friend Eve. Eve is the kind lady who kept an eye on Mum and Dad when they were alive and on our London house when we left it unoccupied for 4 years. Eve loves to play the piano, but doesn't have room for one in her house, so I was delighted to be able to help out by giving her my keyboard. We plugged it in immediately, and had great fun playing with it and experimenting with all the voices and orchestrations it has - especially the percussion. I think Eve will get so much more enjoyment out of it than I did. It was difficult to tear ourselves away, but eventually we went off to a local hostelry and had a good dinner before I set off home. Having seen that the fire was not interfering with the roads, I came back the shorter way - motorway all the way to Shrewsbury and it only took just over 3 hours to get back. Needless to say I was pretty tired, but I felt that the driving was all good practice for my test which will probably happen in late January.

Then came the highlight of the week. Most of you know that it was my 60th birthday on Saturday because John wrote to everyone I know and told them about it. The result was a flood of cards, phone calls, flowers, e-mails and e-cards. So once again I am swamped. I'm determined to reply to everyone, but experience tells me that it could take a long time to do that. When I found out I had cancer the response to that was similar and I still haven't replied to all the e-mails I had then!

My birthday was a wonderful day. We got up rather earlier than usual and over our morning cuppa tea John gave me my first present. This was my senior rail card (!) which enables me to get a discount on the trains. We used it immediately to take a train to Swansea, riding the lovely, scenic Heart of Wales railway line. The weather was beautiful and it was lovely to roll through the countryside, watching the green hills go by, seeing the sheep in the lush green meadows, admiring the glint of sunlight on babbling brooks and stopping in villages with unpronouncable Welsh names.

Here's John on the train:

This is not our first trip on this train. We rode it first when we were undergraduates after a week of sleeping rough in a barn and mountain walking in North Wales, and we've taken the same line a couple of times since. Swansea, of course, is where we went to University and where we took our brief honeymoon, so it was a return to the haunts of our youth.

Here's me!

As we rocked along John produced a fabulous brunch and when that was done he had all sorts of wonderful presents which included a couple of trial horse riding lessons (I'm keen to try horse riding as this is really terrific country for it) and a day's session on a skid pan. I've always wanted to try the latter - I've had a couple of spectacular skids in my life and found them quite thrilling. I would have enjoyed them more if they had happened under controlled circumstances where I wasn't convinced that I was about to die!

Here I am getting the skid pan present:

We arrived in Swansea in the early afternoon and just had time for a bit of a wander around and a cup of tea and a piece of cake before it was time to come home. We came back on another line, along the coast through Cardiff to Newport and then heading north through Hereford and Leominster. Again, it was really lovely till it got too dark to see anything.

We had about an hour at home to get changed and washed up and then we walked down into the village for dinner at the local restaurant. It was a great meal, and we both over-indulged, so it was good to be able to walk home. By then it was quite chilly, but the stars were out and it was a brilliant end to a lovely day.

Today I've been making (and eating) Christmas cookies. This is not a tradition here, but I wanted to make something a little different for Christmas. I've done brownies and lemon bars so far and expect to make mince pies and almond macaroons tomorrow. I'm having to convert parts of my American recipes. I'm OK with cup and tablespoon measures because I have my American cups and tablespoons, but butter is measured in grams here and it doesn't come in conveniently sized sticks. Baking chocolate is in grams and milk comes in litres. Ther are three grades of white sugar. Granulated is coarser than American, caster suger is a bit finer than American granulated and icing sugar is the same as American confectioner's sugar. There are several different kinds of brown sugar too, so sometimes it's hard to decide just what to get for a given recipe.

I'm having a helluva time with my new oven, too. I've never cooked with a convection oven before - you have to cook for less time and at a lower temperature. Most of it is guesswork right now, and we'll be eating our mistakes! Of course, it's also calibrated in Centigrade so everything has to be converted. Thank-goodness for Google's wonderful conversion feature! If you don't know about that, you should try it. Try typing the following into the Google search text window "32 degrees F in C" (without the quotes). It should come back with: "32 degrees Fahrenheit = 0 degrees Centigrade". You can use if for feet to meters, pounds to kilograms, etc. etc.

Well, it's time to go. Thank you all for your messages of congratulation/commiseration - it's been lovely to hear from you all. Please keep the communication lines open - we LOVE to hear from you.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Update on Yard Birds

The only notable additions to our yard list came this week with a pair of long-tailed tits. (OH SHUT UP - no more jokes, please!!!!!). They've been flitting around in the trees, but don't come to the feeders.

The pheasants are still about - 3 males and 5 females, but there's a lot more feather ruffling, displaying (by both sexes) and chasing around so we think they're starting to think about territories, harems and SEX! Because they keep harems we started giving them eastern sounding names like Fatima and Farouk, but have given up on that. Now the males are called Fatty, Thinny and Darkie because of their relative sizes and the coloring of their feathers. We can't name the females because we haven't been able to tell them apart!

Fatty does a lot of posturing and walks around with his feathers fluffed up. This hasn't actually seemed to have any benefits where the females are concerned. Thinny has a lot of grey on his back as well as his wings. He seems to be the most successful in rounding up the ladies! Darkie is considerably darker than the other two because his chest is a purply brown, he has no grey on his back and just a few streaks of grey in his wings. There is no grey on the top of his head either, just a slightly lighter shade of green. I didn't realise there was so much variation, but I gather that many different varieties have been bred and imported into the U.K.

The female pheasants remind me of a group of "old gals" out on a spree. They wander up to a plant and spend a little time pecking the seeds off it, then they all seem to drift off together in one direction or another. Occasionally a squabble will burst out. There will be a ruffling of feathers and a bit of chasing about and then they all go back to pecking and drifting about the garden.

We still have the same crowd at the feeder - lots of coal, blue and great tits and a couple of nuthatches - with a few blackbirds and robins scratching about on the ground. We haven't seen the woodpecker for weeks inspite of keeping a steady supply of fat for him so I think he's off to find a less cold spot for the winter.

So this is enough of an update for now. I'll try to write again before Christmas.

Stay in touch, please ......

Engineering in the stream!

Remember how we all liked to play in streams or on the beach building and breaking dams and generally doing all sorts of waterworks? Well, I've been doing that today.

The weekend before Thanksgiving we had a tremendous cold snap. The temps in our valley never rose above freezing and we had frost on top of frost for five nights. Here's a picture I took:

The frost finally disappeared a couple of days before Thanksgiving, but it came back with snow on the day after the holiday. It was quite pretty and white when we woke up on Friday. And it put the whole town in a festive spirit for the Lighting of the Christmas tree in the town square on Saturday night. There was a childrens "fun-fair" consisting of some swings, a tombola and a roundabout; a parade led by the local fire engine, Bob the Builder and one of the Telly Tubbies, and carol singing in the square.

On Sunday, Church Stretton had its annual Christmas Fayre with stalls in various locations around the town, along with a hog roast outside one of the local restaurants, mince pies and mulled wine at the Scout Hut and various puddings (desserts) at the community center. The grand finale was a short service in the Church followed by a lantern/candle lit parade around town with stops for the singing of carols.

Since then, the weather has been slowly warming and getting wetter and over the last 2 days we've had a lot of rain. Of course, our little stream is swollen again and this time it was blocked by a branch which was collecting debris and starting to form a dam. This afternoon I donned wellies and rain-coat and went paddling in the ice cold stream to get the rubbish out of it. I don't think it would have flooded and I could have left it for a day or two, but it was actually fun to get into the water and do a bit of engineering!

Well, that's enough about the weather. I think I'll just do one more post.

Thanksgiving in Church Stretton

I meant to send you all a wish for a Happy Thanksgiving last week, but I ended up rushing around and never managed to post anything. Anyway, I hope all our American friends feasted and enjoyed themselves in the traditional manner.

Over here we don't normally celebrate Thanksgiving - it's a purely North American holiday, of course. However, I was determined to do something as we both really enjoy a holiday where the only thing required is that we eat a lot! So I invited some friends and relatives and set out to re-create a Thanksgiving dinner.

I nearly came a cropper on the Turkey. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to find one, but I was looking around at the butcher's shop the week before and realised they didn't have any as it wasn't Christmas time. I could have gotten a frozen one from the supermarket, but I wanted a proper fresh one! I asked if they could get one and after a few phone calls the butcher said he'd have one for me on Tuesday. When I went in on Wednesday to pick it up he told me he'd sent it back because it was "blue". I imagined the worst, but he meant that it wasn't properly fattened and the skin had a bluish cast to it. He then told me that he'd sent his son off in the lorry to pick one up and his son would be back that evening.

I felt sorry that the blue turkey had met his end before his time, but was thrilled to be getting one at all. In the end I got a fine 14lb bird on Thursday morning. I thought it was really wonderful that they'd done all this just to get my Thanksgiving Turkey and I was profuse in my thanks when I stopped by on Friday! I think this bird had been dispatched rather quickly when the order came in as there were still a lot of feathers on it! We soon plucked them out with the needle nose pliers, though!!!!!

Raw cranberries weren't in evidence in the shops, either, so I had to settle for a jar of cranberry sauce. Still, it was tasty and added another layer of flavor to the lovely turkey with its cornbread and sausage stuffing.

Cornbread was another problem. There is no cornmeal to be had, as such. In the end, I took a risk and bought something labelled "Polenta". In the States, I think polenta would already be made up. The ingredients list of the packet I bought only contained one item: ground corn, so I took the risk. In the end, it made absolutely smashing cornbread. John and I scarfed a lot of it "just to test" and it was delicious so we had to make some more for the dinner!

I decided not make a green bean casserole and just did plain steamed green beans to which I added pine nuts and melted butter. Similarly, I didn't do glazed sweet potatoes, but cooked and sliced them and then added some crispy bacon bits and more melted butter.

One of our neighbours gave us a chunk of the huge pumpkin they had grown this summer (quite a rare veg/fruit for a Brit to grow in the first place) and I had pureed and frozen that some time ago. From this I was able to make a pie. Those of you who know me well know that I can't make pastry. Fortunately there is "jus-rol" frozen pie crust and I used that for the pumpkin and pecan pies. Pecans I found in the super-market, but of course there was no corn syrup. I used a very good substitute - maple flavored Tate and Lyles Golden Syrup.

So now you know more than you really needed to know about our Thanksgiving dinner. We had a good time. The food was good, the wine was uplifting, the company scintillating and the evening was a fine success. Next year, I think I'll invite more neighbours!

What a contrast!

Here we are at Ein Gedi beside the Dead Sea. It's early November and it's about 30 degrees C (90F).

Now, here we are in Church Stretton (this is the same old view from my study window) in late November and it's about 5 degrees C below zero (<25F).