Rabbits On The Roof

Listening to the squirrels scampering on our roof this morning reminded me of those in the loft of Lindum House in Newark who sounded as if they were wearing hob-nailed boots.  It is amazing how much noise they make.  This also gives me an excuse to tell a Soho story.

During the middle years of the 1970s we lived in Horse and Dolphin Yard in Soho.  Between Gerrard Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, this was a little-known mews where we had a flat in a Westminster City Council property.  Michael, in his early teens decided to keep and breed rabbits.  Now, there isn’t much room in Chinatown, so there was nothing for it but a rooftop farm.  Michael, always inventive, built a runway across the roofs in the Yard, using ladders to circumvent the different heights of the various roofs he had to pass before reaching his chosen site.  This was the flat roof of a music publisher’s offices. The staff there, incredibly, had no problem with what was happening. In those days produce for the myriad of chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street came in wooden boxes which were discarded and left for the binmen.  These boxes made good firewood, but Michael had other uses for them.  He used them to build rabbit hutches and to make a safety barrier for his pets around the perimeter of the roof.

An elderly woman in an upper floor of a block of flats overlooking the area got so much pleasure  from watching the rabbits frolicking in the sunlight that she took to leaving vegetable scraps on our doorstep to supplement their diet.

One of the ladders reaching from our roof to the next one spanned a skylight which was so begrimed as to be invisible.  That is why, when one of Michael’s friends decided to jump instead of using the ladder which Michael had carefully placed to avoid such an eventuality, he went clean through it.  I was summoned, peered through the window, and saw Simon in the clutches of a gentleman who had no intention of letting him go.  I rushed round into Gerrard Street, managed to work out in which building the boy was being held, searched through the warren of rooms until I came to the right one, and persuaded the man to release him.

I kid you not.  Every word of this is true.

Later in the morning, getting back in good time for a supervision session at midday, I made a long tour of Morden Hall Park.  In one of the areas where the heady scent of cow parsley is all pervading I stopped and chatted to a National Trust volunteer, armed with a grabber and a black bag, ‘litter-picking’.  He told me that there is a team of ‘litter-pickers each allocated a different area of the park.  We were standing in The North Meadow.  This explains why there is a marked difference litter-wise once one crosses the tramline into the local authority managed area of The Wandle Trail.  He suggested I needed a little dog for my daily walks.  I said I was quite satisfied with the Jack Russells belonging to my son and daughter.  Further on I met one of his colleagues.

The aroma in the rose garden was of horse shit.

This evening we had a wonderful steak pie by The Real Pie Shop of Crawley, bought at The Greens Farm Shop in Ockley.  As one of the vegetables I made my first ever braised red cabbage.  As Delia’s recipes are sometimes rather bland for me I may have been a bit heavy handed with the spices.  This might explain why Jackie said it tasted more like apple pie than red cabbage.

The Chicken Roundabout

In writing of roundabouts yesterday I forgot to mention the other chicken roundabout I know.  This is situated on the A143 between Ditchinham in Norfolk and Bungay in Suffolk where my friend Don lives.  For many years it was home to a variety of feral chickens.  These consisted of many different varieties, some quite exotic.  There is uncertainty about their origin but one local story is that the original ones were abandoned by a chicken farmer who had been forced to move.  Others had certainly been added by local people who didn’t want them any more.  Someone locally was feeding them.  In recent years they have been removed by groups concerned for their safety.  I believe the roundabout retains its name.

Roundabouts

Jackie and I had another drive into the Surrey countryside today, this time to Ockley for lunch at The King’s Arms where we had honeymooned in 1968.

Whilst passing the roundabout just outside Dorking which bears a sculpture of a giant chicken, I was reminded of the roundabouts in France.  Certainly in the area I am familiar with, around Bergerac in the Dordogne, there are numerous roundabouts carrying structures reflecting something of significance to the area.  One of those in Bergerac (the decision makers presumably having resisted the temptation to erect yet another statue of Cyrano),  contains seafaring figures pulling on ropes, an artificial beach, and running water.  This is situated on the riverside and speaks of the ancient barge-going traffic.  One in Les Landes has a huge chair which, upon investigation, turns out to be celebrating furniture makers of centuries ago.  A few more of these on our overcrowded roads would brighten up traffic queues.  (Except for The Chicken Roundabout on the A143).

And so to The King’s Arms, where this Knight eagerly opened his arms in 1968.  Surprisingly neither the pub nor the village seems to have changed much in 44 years.  It is a beautiful area with fond memories.  As we were keen not to leave the four year old Michael we only had a break of 4 days whilst Jackie’s mother Vonnie cared for him.  The excitement engendered by a shed fire, which seemed to bring out the whole village to watch the firemen do their stuff, was nothing compared to that of being alone together for the first time.

This Sunday the food was excellent and the beer acceptable.  Jackie had first-rate roast pork and I had fish in tempura batter and chips which were very good.  As far as I can tell, having consulted Chambers on our return home, tempura simply means deep-fried.  It certainly was deep-fried.  We each had very tasty and spicy butternut squash soup and sticky toffee pudding.

I am indebted to my then elderly friend, Kenneth Lovell, for the discovery of Ockley.  As a teenager I had spent a short holiday one summer with Ken and his friend George at Ken’s house there.  Ken and I used to draw and paint alongside each other at his house in Raynes Park when I was a teenager.  Ken, an artist and illustrator, would be working on his illustrations for S. G. Hulme Beaman’s Toytown series of books (on one of which Ken gave me the honour of a minor collaborative role) , and I would be receiving the benefit of his observations on my juvenile efforts.

Chartwell

Today we had another family gathering, this time with Michael, Becky, and Matthew and their families.  We went to Winston Churchill’s former home, now a National Trust propery at Chartwell and afterwards to Michael’s for a meal involving starters of barbecued sausages followed by chicken, salads and finally Eton mess.

A minor panic was calmed by the arrival of Matthew and his dog Oddie some while after the rest of us.  The arrangement was that we would all congregate at Chartwell.  Matthew was to ring Becky if he got lost.  The only problem was that both Becky and I had left our mobile phones behind and noone else was sure of Mat’s number.  In any event there was no signal at Chartwell.  We are now so dependent on mobile phones that it becomes disastrous if anything goes awry with them.  Anyway, panic averted.

Oddie is quite an old Jack Russell terrier.  It has become more and more marked lately that this formerly black and white dog has hair on his head and face which is now almost completely white.  Speculating about this it occurred to me that the same thing has happened to me.  Why not also to a dog?

After a pleasant drive through the Surrey and into the Kent countryside, we arrived at Chartwell, near Westerham in Kent, on a fine spring afternoon and had an idyllic walk in the grounds before visiting the house.  The greens of the trees, shrubs and fields are bright and fresh at this time of the year, as are the rape fields.  Chartwell is set in a beautiful wooded valley in the Kentish Weald.  The house itself is perched on the hillside offering stunning uninterrupted views of the grounds and the slopes beyond.  It is easy to see why Sir Winston chose this spot.  As in all National Trust properties the gardens are beautifully maintained, the spring flowers and shrubs, particularly rhododendrons and a magnolia, being now at their peak.

The house itself is a museum of Churchill’s life.  We are reminded of his honours, his many talents, and his very exciting existence.  He truly was one of the greatest Englishmen.  In the grounds is a smaller building which was his studio and is still stocked with many of his paintings.  I had an interesting discussion with one of the attendants about his painting style.  This in fact was in the main house, rather than the studio.  It was Heidi who accompanied me in the house and we spoke to the custodian of the kitchen about the recipe for Amber Apple pudding which she was reading in the open period cookery book on the kitchen table.

Back at Michael’s house we spent a pleasant while talking and telling stories.  Inevitably these involve what are known as Soho stories.  These are from the time of Michael’s years from 10 to 18 when we lived in Horse and Dolphin Yard, SW1.  Emily, Oliver, Alice and Flo know these stories off by heart, although they all took place before they were born.  When appropriate I will weave some of them into these annals.

A Cultural Experience

Early this morning we think we spotted the foxes’ den.  Between the side fence of our garden and the back fences of a terrace of houses there is what was clearly once an access path.  Each end of this has been blocked off and there is now no through way.  It is so undisturbed that one of the residents has put a gate in his fence and extended his garden to the edge of ours.  He has put in a brick path and is growing runner beans, tomatoes, and flowers in carefully tended soil.  (More encroachment is detailed in a further post).  Further down the path is a fence-high heap of sticks, rather like a beaver’s lodge or the nest of a roc, which has gradually, mysteriously, appeared.  Sitting on top of this pile, having the occasional scratch, was a fox cub.  It seems foxes are like dogs, in that they go round and round in circles settling into a resting position that they find comfortable.  Not surprising really.

I suppose urban foxes don’t need to go to earth, because people think they are so cute.  Some time ago I was consultant to an adoption agency in Putney.  There the foxes lived in an Andersen shelter.  Every spring the staff gathered at the upstairs window to watch the cubs gambolling on the lawn.

Just after 11, leaving the fox on his pile, I walked the circuit of Morden Park.  The atmosphere there was quite eerie.  Apart from one young man having a rant into his mobile phone and an ancient, knackered, overweight dog which seemed to have lost its owner, I encountered no other being in this wooded amenity, a short walk from an underground terminal station, and which takes an hour to circumnavigate.  Apart from the rant and the dog’s laboured panting, the only sound, until I came to the stretch alongside London Road, was that of birdsong.  It was almost, only almost, a relief to hear the roar of the traffic.

On this same London Road, on the site of what was once the Express Dairy, lies ‘the largest mosque in Eastern Europe’. Thinking that there was something incongruous about the huge hoardings virtually alongside advertising  Matalan bikinis, I decided to visit it.  Despite their preparing for a special event and it not really being convenient for a visitor to come, I was made most welcome and given a complete tour of what is clearly ‘a multipurpose complex’, with the exception of the womens’ prayer and other rooms.  The area is vast.  Having visited smaller London mosques I was unprepared for this.  In addition to the huge public prayer rooms there are administrative and service blocks containing offices; meeting rooms; a free homeopathic medical centre, residential and eating facilities; a huge sports hall; a library and bookshop; their own television channel broadcasting services all over the world; and no doubt more I haven’t mentioned.  Everything on an extremely large scale.

In the bookshop I was given a copy of the Koran and a book on the philosophy of Islam.

Security was understandably tight, with systems which would grace any airport, but I was given unrestricted access and didn’t have to go through the detector which my artifical hip would undoubtedly have set ringing.  At the moment they are hosting teams from all over the world taking part in a 20-20 cricket competition.  The teams were all accommodated there.  I was shown their sleeping area and welcomed into the dining hall where a wonderfully aromatic curry was being served.  I was invited to partake, but, since I was to be cooking liver, bacon and onions tonight, I declined.  Sadly.

This mosque complex dominates the southern skyline.  It is quite the most elegant building in Morden, contrasting with the 1960s Civic Centre and the rather earlier Underground station.  I had come prepared to make a comparison between the physical nourishment provide by the Express Dairy and the spiritual nourishment to be found in a mosque.  There is no comparison to be made.  As far as I can see this environment provides everything.

Walking through to the centre of Morden and back to Links Avenue I contemplated what I had just experienced.  The dominant sense was one of peace.  In the vast prayer area a smattering of people were positioned for silent prayer.  Here was, however, one contrast.  All was even quieter than the deserted public park I had just walked through.  But there was nothing eerie about it.

Trams And Trolley Buses

This morning the year’s new fox cubs were basking on the lawn with their mother, de-fleaing herself and looking more mangy than last year.  What they were basking in I am not sure, because there was no sun.

After watching the foxes for a while (I almost wrote ‘intruders’, but the fact is we are the intruders), I set off on foot for Wimbledon Village where I bought a birthday present in an antique shop I remembered from our year in the village.  Passing ‘Ely’s corner’ at the corner of Worple Road, I thought of the trolley buses of my childhood.  These were a post tram invention, utilising overhead wires providing the current which was fed to the buses through long connecting rods.  These were much longer than the links used by today’s Intercity trains.  Much delight was taken by all us children when the rods became dislodged.  It was a major undertaking to repair them, which was an entertainment in itself, and, of course, if it happened at the right time and in the right direction, the bus couldn’t take us to school.  In modern football parlance I’d say that was a result.

These buses just ran along Worple Road, providing a transport link between Wimbledon and Raynes Park.  Until the early 1950s Wimbledon sported both trolley buses and trams.

Having bought the present I walked back down the hill for a fry-up at the Mica, finally setting off back to Morden.

Whilst waiting on a red light at the ungated level crossing being approached by a tram in each direction I sensed that a young oriental jogger was going to continue on through the path of the trams.  She didn’t look from side to side and ignored the light.  I held up my hand indicating that she should stop. She took no apparent notice of me, glanced to her left, and ran on.  The tram that was the most dangerous missed her.  She was wearing specs with very thick lenses.  Maybe she couldn’t see.  Maybe she had confidence in her speed.

Today’s trams between Wimbledon and Croydon make use in part of disused railway tracks.  They do not run down Wimbledon Broadway as did the early trams of my boyhood.

This evening we ate gammon steaks, courtesy of LIdl, cooked by Jackie after I’d done the preparation.  This was after a telephone supervision session.  For those unfamiliar with Lidl I would say they are our most economical store providing food of excellent quality at very cheap prices.  In addition to the usual food supermarket offerings they have most interesting central aisles.  You never know what will be on offer there: perhaps a bathroom cabinet, a microwave oven, bikers’ gloves, socks, business suits, children’s toys; you name it you may, fleetingly, find it.  It’s better than a jumble sale because it’s all new and top quality.  When we first arrived in Morden, because my belongings are in four separate places, I found myself without underpants.  This was when I discovered that Morden does not have a mens’ clothes store.  ‘I know’, I thought, ‘I’ll try Lidl’.  And would you know, there they were, in the central aisle, two lovely pairs of Joop’s best.

The Deen City Farm

This morning having been the one for bin collection, the foxes had created their usual mayhem on the lawn.  I do wish our neighbours would double-wrap or rinse their waste food products.  Before I could get to the rubbish someone had again cleared it up.  Was it our helpful stranger and her toddler assistant?  Or perhaps helpful fairies?

I spent some little time revising a couple of clues for next week’s Independent cryptic crossword, and so went out later than usual for my walk.  I met Jackie coming to pick up the car for a visit to a client.  Again an encounter with her determined the direction of my walk.  She was going to the Phipp’s Bridge Estate in Mitcham.  I therefore travelled with her there and she dropped me on that side of Morden Hall Park so I could walk from there.  I took the path onto the Wandle trail and soon realised that I was close to the Deen City Farm which is situated alongside the trail.  I had often noticed the farm on my trips to Colliers Wood.  Today I decided to visit it.  It is a charitable community project and a godsend to the residents of Mitcham’s estates and beyond.

Passing the magnificent chickens and flamboyant turkeys, the visitor encounters preening waterfowl and sprawling rabbits, all huge specimens.  There are sheep, goats, llamas, cattle and horses.  Indeed, the farm also has a riding school.  The community garden is well stocked with flowers and a number of vegetables.

Those children there today were all pre-school and mostly accompanied by their mothers who had walked the same path from Phipp’s Bridge.  There is an ample car park for those who come from further afield.

There are a number of these community projects in our cities, ensuring that children who otherwise would have no experience of country life have the opportunity to gain such pleasure.  Some of my own grandchildren, who do eat well from natural produce and do visit the countryside, were once amazed to see me shelling peas.  They had never had any but frozen ones.  Not that there is anything wrong with Bird’s Eye, which are often fresher than those that have been in the shops or on the market stalls for a while.

Louisa and Errol, near their home in Nottingham, have the White Posts Farm, to which Jessica and I took her and Sam when they were little; and Malachi had his third birthday party in the city farm in Hackney.

I made a beef curry this evening.  This went down well, especially accompanied by Cobra beer.

Susan’s Chicken

After another wet, wintry start to the day, by just before mid-day it had brightened up and I set off to the Civic Centre to take Jackie her lunch which she had left in the fridge. This decided the direction in which I would take my walk today and I headed on through Morden for Morden Hall Park. Such apparently insignificant events often determine our paths through life.  Although it was now sunny it was very cold and I had to step it out to get warm.

Ragged robin surrounding the entrances and a coot incubating eggs in a nest in the middle of a stream welcomed visitors to this National Trust park.  Buttercups and daisies sparkled in the lawns, everything having that post-rain clarity.  Roses were in bud.  May and horse chestnut trees were blossoming and cow parsley was abundant.

This evening we dined on Susan’s chicken.  No, there is no grief-stricken child mourning the loss of her pet.  The recipe for this dish is contained in Lizzie Collingham’s book ‘Curry: a biography’.  The author has this to say: ‘This recipe was given to me by an Indian lady from Madras who had spent much of her life in Zambia.’  The book was given to me by Louisa several Christmases ago.

It is a tasy dish, a fusion between African and Indian cooking.  It is the only recipe I have ever seen which calls for powdered aniseed.  For a long time I had to make do without the aniseed, until I tracked it down in the wonderful, comprehensive, Spice Shop in Blenheim Crescent off the famous Portobello Road in W2.

I washed my meal down with some Marques de Montina 2007 reserve rioja while Jackie had her customary Hoegarten Blanche.

The Martin Cafe

The cold, wet and windy weather is back.  Children’s recreation grounds on my walk to Raynes Park and back were deserted.  Silence rained where yesterday had resounded the cries of happy youngsters.  Even the birdsong was subdued.

My pit stop on this route was, as usual, the Martin Cafe.  I would like to explain why I consider it one of, if not the, best in London.  And, especially during ten years of road running, I became somewhat of a conoisseur of such establishments.  First of all it is frequented by builders (and at least one man who walks from Merton Civic centre shunning the myriad of eating places in Morden itself).  Builders and (in inner London taxi drivers) are a sure sign of good food, reasonable prices, and large helpings.

The Martin has it all.  I can only eat their breakfasts after a good hour’s walk, and I am no longer rash enough to take the chips option.  I stick to the three rashers, two eggs, large sausages, and loads of whatever else comes with my choice of their 10 breakfast options. There is never a trace of grease or fat on the enormous oval plates.  The bread is fresh, crusty, and what we used to call doorsteps.

So, if you want a good meal come down to the Martin in Martin Way, but take lots of exercise or starve yourself first.

This evening we had more of Jackie’s delicious beef stew and I finished the wine.

Jack

On another lovely spring day I walked through to Wimbledon and up the hill to Wimbledon Village and back.

In Mostyn Road a Range Rover was decanting a young family.  As the children spilled out a small boy admonished his sister with the words: ‘You’re wrecking my part of the car’.  This was reminiscent of the claim to a chair he had been sitting in previously by my grandson, Malachi when aged just 2 3/4. It  was further evidence of the importance of territory even very early in life.

Passing St. Mark’s Place at the bottom of Wimbledon Hill Road I embarked upon the long, steep climb up the hill thinking of Jack.  Jack was not one, but several successive generations of carthorse, similarly named, stationed in St. Mark’s Place for the first half of the 20th. century.  So difficult was the hill for horses pulling carts up that they needed assistance.  Jack was accordingly hitched to the wagons lending his muscle to the task. There is still a trough at the top of the hill, although it is many years since it saw any water.

This evening we had a beef casserole cooked by Jackie and I had half a bottle of Marques del Romeral 2005 reserve Rioja.