Sunday, 29 June 2014

Sarah Raven's Garden at Perch Hill - Battleaxe is not a proper lady.

Earlier in the week Battleaxe went on a Women's Institute outing to Sarah Raven's garden at Perch Hill Farm, in Brightling, which is in the depths of the country miles from anywhere between Battle and Robertsbridge.
     Battleaxe organises our WI Gardening Group, and this was one of our scheduled garden visits.
     I'd never really heard of Sarah Raven, but turns out she writes a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. (Only the Guardian gets across this threshold). She is married to Adam Nicolson, and now, apparently, they live at Sissinghurst. She has published many glossy and expensive books, most of which were on display in the shop at Perch Hill, which is the base for her cookery and flower-arranging school.
The Sarah Raven Lifestyle experience
     Not being a proper lady, Battleaxe does not do flower-arranging, but I was struck by the set-up on our table in the coffee place, one or two blooms in a collection of little mismatched bottles on a big plate. The photo is not very good. I had to crop most of it because I had managed to include a view straight down the front of one of my friend's dresses over the top of the flowers. I'll maybe collect some bottles, the only empty one in the kitchen now is a Budweiser World Cup Special Edition bottle - not quite the desired look, I feel.
I could do that
     Anyway, back to the start. Getting a group of women in different cars to the same place at the same time is always slightly hit and miss.  I issued maps, but that didn't seem to help much. I was driving with four others in the Yeti - we had almost arrived at the garden only to meet another car full of our colleagues belting briskly past us in the wrong direction. There was much shrieking and scrambling for mobiles and numbers, but the only woman whose number we could find had her phone turned off.....
      We all got there eventually, paid our £5 entrance, and a further £5 for coffee and a piece of cake.
      The garden was pretty, but not very big. It is primarily a cutting garden for flower-arranging, so there were beautiful drifts of one type of flower. The vegetables were also excellent.
Sweet peas


Cornflowers - I love them

Astrantia, cornflowers and some white thing....
       There were many Telegraph reading types drifting about - lots of laydees in flowing linen and big hats. Not to say we don't have stylish laydees in our group, of course. Battleaxe has never been a lady. I'm too sweary, for a start. I don't make cakes, and I don't knit or sew.
       In the shop, the packeted seeds were at least £2.50, and everything else seemed a bit expensive.
       I enjoyed the outing, and I hope our gang did too, but I kept on getting Not Value For Money messages flashing across my brain, and I sense that S Raven Enterprises Inc. is a mean money-generating machine.
       Never mind that, what puzzles me in this life is why so much in my garden is either stunted, dried up or eaten by snails, while plants in the gardens we visit are huge, thick, lush and free from nibbling and holes. Sarah R says no pesticides are used, but perhaps the staff are out there with industrial-size vats of chemicals as soon as the public's back is turned.
       I am out in our garden day after day with the hose, but it is so dry. The snails this year have overwintered, and are as big as golf-balls. I collected a whole flower-pot full the other day, and went to chuck them over the back, but my foot slipped and they ended up back in our garden again.
Our lettuces would never look like this....
      We also have lily beetles, which I pick off whenever I see one, but my canna lily looks like a lace doily. I am trying to make our front garden a bit Great Dixter-ish, so I planted a cardoon this year. It has grown well, but the developing flowers are now home to a colony of aphids, assiduously farmed by a gang of ants. Those ants must burn much energy running up and down the tall stems. Why have I got them, and not Great Dixter?
      Now, here's a question to finish up with. How do specialist pests, like lily beetles, carrot flies etc. know that you have got the relevant foodstuff? Last year we were visited by a gooseberry saw-fly and one of our new bushes turned into a skeleton overnight. None of the neighbours have gooseberries, so how did the fly know to call on us? We were watching Monty Don, and he said that carrot flies only fly a couple of feet off the ground. So how do they get over high fences into gardens in the first place?

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Hastings Battleaxe: living with Seagulls

Many Hastingas don't like seagulls. Battleaxe is quite fond of them, even though our life now has a constant background accompaniment of screaming, squawking, screeching and chattering.
On the Hastings Stade

Gulls on the net huts
     We spent our first ever night in Hastings in 2008, in the lovely Swan House in the Old Town. It was, and clearly still is, a fabulous, atmospheric place to stay. However, a gang of gulls were partying right outside our window.
     Fortunately, the racket did not put us off. On the contrary, our stay led us to fall in love with Hastings, and we soon rented our first little house, in Plynlimmon Road on the West Hill. Gulls were nesting on the chimney, and the 'peep peep' of the babies and the squawks and rattles of the parents echoed down the chimney into our bedroom.
     We soon learned that hosting a seagull family meant drama. First, one baby fell off the roof and a fox got it. Next, Philosopher made the mistake of trying to return another fallen baby to the roof. As he climbed the ladder, clutching the squeaking chick in a towel, the mother dived down and attacked him, raking his bare head with her claws.
     A few days later we saw one of the locals on a similar mission, climbing his ladder with the baby in a carrier bag over his arm, while holding an open umbrella above his head to fend off the irate parents. Respect.
Our gull family on the chimney in Plynlimmon Road
     Presumably, so many gulls live in Hastings because of the fishing activity, but also because of the rows of Victorian villas with their high chimneys which make good nesting spots.
     Up here at the top of Clive Vale, a colony of gulls regard the roofs of our little group of 70s houses as prime nesting and people-watching territory. There is a flat roof above our bedroom, and the gulls love to bathe in the little pool of rain water that accumulates up there.
     Herring gulls can live up to 50 years, but I read that urban gulls who live off discarded junk food live for only about half that time. Shows what it does to our human innards. I suspect 'our' gulls hang out near KFC and the chippie in Ore Village. No healthy fish diet for them.
     We have one dominant 'resident' gull who is very interested in the food we put out for other wild birds. Clearly, he can't hang off the nut feeders or the fat squares, but we have invested in a cage which keeps him away from the food we put down for ground feeding birds. He can usually stretch his neck in and retrieve one or two scraps, but spends much time walking round and round the cage in the vain hope that some of the food will move itself within range. He also likes the bird bath, both to drink from and to bathe in - this immediately empties all the water out.
Walking hopefully round the cage

Too big for the bird bath
     Gulls mate for life, and return to the same nesting sites year after year. In the spring one partner arrives first, and then waits and watches anxiously for their mate.When the other arrives, there is a cacophony of shrieking and chattering as they catch up on the year's news.
     This year, we have three babies on the roof of the house next door, assiduously tended by their  hard-working parents.
      Herring gull eggs take four weeks to incubate, during which time the parents have to be constantly on watch for magpies and crows who try to steal the eggs. The harsh, raucous chattering of our local magpies, met by the outraged screams of the parent gulls, woke us day after day at about 5am until the chicks hatched. Now, the babies will be dependent on their parents for at least twelve weeks, and possibly for as long as six months.
      We saw an amazing sight last week. Late in the evening, when everyone was indoors watching the football, a fox appeared, wandering idly up the road. Immediately, the parent gulls, together with a couple of their friends, swooped down like fighter planes to dive bomb the predator. The fox cowered and cringed on his belly in the face of repeated savage attacks. Eventually he gave up and slunk away into the bushes.
Looking a bit bedraggled after a rain shower...

Begging for food
    Our babies are now getting adventurous, and spend much time paddling up and down the planes of the roof. The biggest danger to them is falling off - fox, badger or even Digby the cat would be happy to make a meal of one of them.
    Assuming they all survive, we will soon see them making their halting first flights between the roofs of the houses, and then they will head off down to the Old Town to join the flocks of brown-speckled adolescents hanging round the chip shops and the amusement arcades.
Exploring the roof
Adolescent gull still begging from its parent down on the Stade
     Like most of the locals, Philosopher and Battleaxe have largely ceased to hear the noise of the gulls. I can even sleep through them calling and chattering on the flat dormer roof right outside our bedroom window. However, I do think I'll always find them interesting.....


Sunday, 15 June 2014

A very English week with Hastings Battleaxe

This week there was a rumpus about the delivery of  22 million free 'English' editions of the Sun. What a waste of paper - I will post ours back using their Freepost if I can get round to it. However, it did make me think that for me, this has been a very English week - sun at the seaside, lush green countryside, strawberry sponge cake, roses in the garden and Women's Institute goings-on.
    I am also thinking English because in my personal identity I have been chosen to write a monthly post about our area for an American site for Anglophiles, 'Smitten by Britain'.  My first effort is only a gentle introduction....
    However, none of this has nothing to do with the World Cup. I do like seeing talented persons with tanned thighs run about scoring goals, but watching England is too painful. It's a bit like when friends or relatives are in amateur dramatic productions. Occasionally you are pleasantly surprised, but most of the time you just sit, cringing, peeping through your fingers, wishing they wouldn't do it.....
    The weather has been fabulous this week - real traditional Flaming June. The roses in Battleaxe's garden are lovely right now. We have been living in this house for exactly two years now, and am even thinking of entering the front garden as a 'new entrant' in the local 'Ore in Bloom' competition.
Roses in our garden
Front garden
 We are getting many birds coming to our feeders, and now have a metal cage on the lawn in the back garden which allows ground feeders in, but keeps Mr Seagull and his fat pigeon friends out.

Goldfinches on our feeders
      The seaside has been looking lovely too - we went down to Pett Level beach to collect pebbles to strew artistically round  a new garden water feature we have just acquired. I took some pictures:
Beach at Pett Level

View across the levels

Cottage Garden

      Philosopher also wanted to photograph a field of poppies near Winchelsea Station - worth the detour.
Beautiful poppies near Winchelsea

      Earlier in the week I had a meeting of the Writers' Group Committee and a meeting of the new Hastings poetry 'Stanza' group. These groups are run around the country by and for members of the Poetry Society. I think it is a bit advanced and challenging for Battleaxe, who is a beginner poet, but the people who set it up are very supportive, and so far I find it both useful and helpful.
      At the Women's Institute this month it was something called 'Show and Tell', where members are encouraged to share their interests, skills, life stories etc. We had lots of womanly crafts - quilts, embroidery, tapestry etc. I spoke about writing, because I seweth not, neither do I spin (the lilies of the field?). In addition, we had a coffee morning and a meeting of our reading group, where the strawberry sponge cake made an appearance.
       To finish off, here are some more pictures of sunny Hastings. Who'd live anywhere else when it looks like this?
Blue sea, blue sky....
Early evening

From the house - full moon rises over the Country Park

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Smallhythe Place, Ellen Terry - further Kent explorations.

After the caffeine-fuelled excitement of the Coffee places post, I thought I'd relax a little. Last weekend our friends John and Jan came to stay for a couple of days. John was brought up near Tenterden, so we decided to go on a nostalgia trip.
     First, we had lunch at the Two Sawyers in Pett. The sun had emerged unexpectedly, so we decided to sit outside.
     'No tabs in the garden' snapped the lady behind the bar. We quite understood why this should be, but her approach was a little off-putting. However, after some hissing amongst ourselves in the doorway, which I think the lady heard, we recovered and the food, as expected, was excellent.
     After, we drove via Rye to Smallhythe, a new destination for Philosopher and Battleaxe.
     It is hard to believe that what is now an isolated hamlet twelve miles from the sea was once an important ship-building port on the estuary of the River Rother. The last great ship to be built there was as recently as 1546, the 300 ton 'Great Gallyon' for Henry VIII. By then the river had already started to silt up, and in 1636 a great storm finally diverted its course away from Smallhythe.  Today, nothing remains.
     Smallhythe Place was the home of actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928) for the last thirty years of her life.  After the death, the house was preserved as a museum by her daughter before being taken on by the National Trust.
Ellen Terry
     It is a lovely old house, dating from the early sixteenth century, and the garden was looking very fine, particularly the roses. However, the weather was very hot, sultry and heavy, and the light was yellowish, almost sulphurous. Not the best for photos.

Smallhythe Place
     Ellen Terry had an eventful, and in her day, shocking, personal life. She married the well-known painter George Frederick Watts when she was just 16 and he was 46 - the marriage lasted ten months. These days, he'd be all over the telly. (On that theme, Battleaxe has to say that she is fed up of constantly hearing the grisly details of some 70s entertainer's sex life as the first item on the early evening news. It is both tedious and inappropriate). Watts's paintings of the young Ellen helped establish her in the public eye.
'Choosing' by G F Watts, the young Ellen Terry
     When she was 21 she eloped with the well-known arts and crafts architect Edward Godwin, with whom she had two children. At 30, she married actor Charles Kelly, but he ran off with another woman. Shortly after, she formed a personal and professional partnership with Henry Irving which would last for twenty-five years, during which time they dominated the English stage. When she was 60, she married another actor, James Carew, aged 32, much to the outrage of her children. The marriage only lasted two years.
     One of her children, Edith Craig, lived next-door to Smallhythe Place as part of a lesbian menage-a-trois with painter Clare (Tony) Atwood and women's suffrage writer and activist Christabel Marshall (Christopher St John). Edith started her career as an actress but was better known as a theatrical director and designer.

The Priest's House, where Edith lived.

On the Terrace at the Priest's House, by one of the inhabitants, Clare Attwood
 After her mother's death, Edith converted the barn at Smallhythe into a small theatre, where plays are still staged.
     Inside the house, there is much theatrical memorabilia, including Ellen's costumes. We saw the dress covered in iridescent beetle's wings, which she wore to play Lady Macbeth in 1888, and which features in the famous painting by John Singer Sargent.
Beetle-wing dress, 1888

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, John Singer Sargent
     Like most National Trust places, Smallhythe has a tearoom, with tables in the garden.  The garden itself is quite small, but pretty. I like this picture of Achillea Mollis, or Lady's Mantle. I always love the way droplets of water catch in the leaves.

Achillea Mollis
     After Smallhythe, we drove into Tenterden via Morghew Farm, where John was brought up. His father was the farm manager on the estate, and with considerable chutzpah, we drove straight in, and found his old house. Braver still, John and Jan tackled the current owners and forged off to look round the house while Philosopher and I hung about.  The estate is a very pretty place, as can be seen from this picture. It seems to specialise in heritage potatoes now as well as huntin' and shootin'.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Best coffee places in Hastings, Battleaxe's favourites

I love a good cup of coffee and a nice piece of cake. Philosopher and I indulge most days.
     Back in November 2012, I wrote 'The Good Scone Guide to Hastings' for the Hastings Writers' Group Travel Writing competition. It won third prize but is now a bit out of date, and although scones are wonderful, a Battleaxe also wants cake.
     I am concentrating on coffee/teashops, not cafes where cooked food takes prominence, and I know I will have missed some gems. For this post I am only focusing on Hastings town centre and the Old Town.
     I need decent coffee and tea, nice cakes, pleasant service in a relaxing, comfortable environment, and good loos. Newspapers, preferably tabloids which we don't read at home, and outside tables for warm days are also desirable.
     Let's start with the town centre.
     The first thing that strikes me is how coffee drinking has taken root in this area. There are three coffee places on the three corners of the main junction - Cafe Nero, Costa and Jempson's, all with outside tables, and they seem just as busy as the grungy town centre pubs.  I am not bothering with chain places so I'll only say that Nero has particularly good sunny (too sunny - maybe some umbrellas or blinds?) people-watching tables, and I like their iced frappe latte. I love Jempson's doughnuts and gooey buns, but their coffee is not so good. All these places have poor loos - why? Nero's is best, but miles away upstairs, Costa's is both upstairs and dingy, Jempson's loos are cramped and grim.
Hastings town centre - Cafe Nero and Costa viewed from Jempsons
     Costa has another branch in Waterstones which is quieter. Also, don't forget the Debenhams cafe. The coffee and cakes are not the best, but it has great sea views.
     Moving on down Robertson Street, you first see the Rye Bay Kitchen. If our old friend +Joe Fearn is reading this in Hull - look away now. This place, next to the Creative Media Centre, was once the F-ish Gallery, where Joe worked, and he was upset when it closed. Now, it is an up-market kitchen shop with coffee place attached. The coffee is excellent, they do nice biscuits, the loos are good, and there are sitting-out tables, but it still feels a bit new and impersonal.
Rye Bay kitchen
     Across the road, Waterfalls gift shop has a coffee lounge above the shop, run by the same company as Rye Bay. This reminds me very much of the old-style genteel places one visited with one's mother - scones under glass domes, waitress service, Lloyd Loom wicker chairs, and ladies eating cake with little forks.  My mother would have just popped into the hairdresser for 'a comb-out, dear', or tried on a Windsmoor two-piece put aside for her at Maud's Modes. However, don't go to Waterfalls if you are in a hurry - the service can be slow.
     Just nearby is the very popular Cafe des Arts, one of the winners of Hastings Best Scone. It is a nice old building, run as a social enterprise to support people with autism, many of whom work in the cafe. The service can sometimes be a little wild, but it is comfortable, and the cakes, scones and coffee are excellent. It has outside seating, but without much sun, and the wind whipping up Robertson Street from the sea can be a trifle chilly.
Cafe des Arts
     Round the corner in Trinity Street is Tutti-Frutti's Tearoom. 1940s/50s themed, this looks a great little place, but Battleaxe has never been in it! If any readers care to comment, this would be welcome. Same applies to a new place, Harcourt's in Cambridge Road.
     Elsewhere in town, the long-established Mr Bean, at the Queens Road end of Priory Meadow, has the best sitting out area of all. Lots of space, wicker chairs and sofas, big umbrellas and free wifi. The only criticism I have is that all their cakes, buns and sandwiches are vast. The Belgian buns would feed four. I think they cater for the larger Hastingas with appetites to match. Again, loos are a steep climb upstairs.
Mr Bean - good for sitting out
     Moving along to the Old Town, make a detour via the West Hill funicular up to the West Hill Cafe, which must have one of the best views of any eating place in the country.  On a fine day, that terrace is simply fabulous, looking out to sea, across the West Hill, over to the Country Park.  I've mentioned this before but will say it again, that place is a potential gold-mine waiting to be snapped up by some gastro-foodie entrepreneur. As it is now, the decor is dated, outside plastic tables are cracked and wobbly, the jugs and pots pour their contents all over the table rather than in the cup, the loo is outside and chilly, the coffee is variable, but the date slices are fine if sometimes soggy. Still, even with all that, it is one of our most-visited places. Of course, if it was properly run, it would be heaving and you'd never get near it.
Looking down over the West Hill Cafe across the Old Town
    One of the downsides of Hastings (in my view) is the shortage of sea-view cafes. It is good to see one open in St Leonard's, but there need to be more on the sea side of the main road and along the front, like in Eastbourne, where cafes are built out onto the beach on decks.
     Eat@ The Stade is close, but all you see is that bleak open space. No sea. But it has a good sitting out area, and particularly good home-made biscuits. Inside, it is bright and modern with big windows, but tends to get full of screaming children.The same outfit also run the very nice cafe in Alexandra Park.
Eat@The Stade

     The best sea-view is from the cafe at the Jerwood Gallery. They do good coffee, nice cakes and biscuits but of course the downside is getting access to it. You can be a gallery member, which works out quite reasonably. Providing you visit relatively often, it adds about £1 to the cafe prices. Otherwise, you have to pay an entrance fee. Few would want to do this even for a coffee in nice surroundings and a luxury loo.
View from the Jerwood cafe - a wet day!
      The Land of Green Ginger, in the Old Town High Street, is nice. The coffee is excellent, served with spicy little home-made shortbread biscuits, and we like their ginger parkin, even though we are not vegan. Inside, the cafe can get crowded, hot and very steamy, but they also have a pretty little garden out the back, full of plants and flowers.
      George Street is full of pubs, cafes and eating places - it is hard to keep up with them.
      However, our absolute favourite is the Hanushka Coffee House. Cosy and comfortable, with book-lined walls, plenty of newspapers, good coffee, tasty cakes and sofas as well as tables, this is a real gem. It also has outside seating.  Thanks goodness it survived the recent bad fire in the Old Town. Sadly, the Rebel Gallery next door did not.

     I saw this card this morning in the Antiques Warehouse. How life has moved on!

     I think that is enough for now. Please comment on any omissions.