By continuing your visit to this site, you accept the use of cookies. These ensure the smooth running of our services. Learn more.

diaphania - Page 9

  • Pears in ginger

    75adc6e1811a472f91bbbfdb8035b91c.jpgNot so much a recipe, more a 'pudding idea'

    I can't imagine not planting a pear tree in the community orchard we are creating locally. Earlier today a neighbour kindly brought round a big bag of Williams pears. Even if you're not fortunate enough to be given them, there are bargains to be had in the shops where under-appreciated English pears are often priced at less than apples.

    Whilst Comice is certainly one of the finest eating varieties, Williams' Bon Chretien is superb for cooking. It is described in The Fruit Manual of 1860 as "melting, with a rich, sugary, and delicious flavour, and powerful musky aroma". Best picked when green and ripened indoors.


    Peel, core and chop four large pears and add three pieces of very finely sliced Chinese stem ginger in syrup (available from Waitrose and elsewhere). Pour over a couple of dessert spoons of the syrup and microwave in a covered glass dish for around 4 minutes, stir and cook for a further couple of minutes as needed. Delicious with a good vanilla ice cream.

  • Quince syllabub recipe

    Our quince tree had a particularly good year. Quinces have such a special flavour, unlike anything else I know. This pudding has a wonderfully fragrant richness about it.

    Peel and chop four large quince; microwave in a closed dish for 8 minutes.  Purée the quince and stir in three tablespoons of crème fraîche. Add one to two tablespoons of Limoncello*. Sweeten with flakes of jaggery**. Serve chilled in small glass dishes with a little lemon zest decoration.


    *Limoncello is the 30% proof liqueur made from lemons grown on the Amalfi coast – and if you’ve never tried it, it’s delicious chilled.
    **Jaggery is raw palm sugar with a rich toffee-like taste. It’s sold in blocks and is used in Indian cooking.

  • A Ravello cosmology

    d90bdef7d7adb48f05426defcccb2f3b.jpgViolet Trefusis urged: 'be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but live the gamut of human experiences: build, destroy, build up again! Let's live as none ever lived before, let's tread fearlessly where even the most intrepid have faltered and held back'

    Some of her wickedest and most intrepid moments may have been at the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Italian Amalfi coast, where I took a recent holiday.

    Trefusis (1894-1972) partied there with her lover Vita Sackville-West. Other guests in this medieval fantasy villa were Forster, Strachey, Keynes, Woolf, Lawrence, Henry Moore and TS Elliot - and even Garbo conducted an affair here. The marvellous garden is thought to be partly Sackville-West's work. Villa Cimbrone was built in 1905 by Ernest Beckett, 2nd Lord Grimthorpe, with the help of his tailor and valet, Nicola Mansi, who went on to become the village's mayor.

    d1de9a92f007692ce367b899482206e4.jpg Gide said Ravello was 'closer to the sky than the sea'. The centre of the village is perched on a ridge of volcanic tufa which rises 335m above the sea. Inside the duomo we saw a phial of St Pantaleone's blood. In a letter Cadinal Newman wrote in amazement that "the blood of St. Pantaloon... is not touched—but on his feast in June it liquefies. And more, there is an excommunication against those who bring portions of the True Cross into the Church. Why? Because the blood liquefies, whenever it is brought". In the garden at the Villa Cimbrone we took a long walk through tall umbrella pines - the 'Alleé of Immensity' - to the 'Belvedere of Infinity': a stone parapet with white statues and a dazzling view of the entire bay of Salerno. In 1917 Grimthorpe was buried close by, beneath the temple of Bacchus he created.

    Celebrity connections with Ravello don't stop at the Villa Cimbrone. On an inaccessible ridge directly below it is La Rondinaia, built in 1930 by Mansi for Grimthorpe's second daughter. Until infirmity forced him to move back to the US, it was Gore Vidal's home. A local told us how he used to sit in his wheelchair in Ravello's main square, entertaining visitors with his wisecracks and belying his local reputation for cantankerousness.

    5b4a0aa366df70d6ef113767404b5fa1.jpgWe ate lunch in the garden of the Villa Maria, one of three hotels owned by Vicenzo Palumbo. The patron himself was in orange trousers, idly tending flowers while his staff ran the place for him. With two others he has bought La Rondinaia, reputedly for more than £10m, and plans to turn it into a Vidal museum and luxury hotel.

    Set below La Rondinaia is a church dedicated to the twin saints Cosmas & Damian. We visited on a long walk from Amalfi. I took no photos inside, since this was so evidently a living church: we passed two frail women walking with difficulty up the steps to the church for the evening service.

    Cosmas & Damian practised as doctors in Asia Minor in the third century, and taking no money for their cures, drew many to the faith. During Diocletian's persecutions they were tortured to death. Their relics became popular with pilgrims and in Ravello many have left ex-voto offerings in gratitude for medical cures attributed to the patron saints of medicine.

    e9f3ebaeac0ac4df25b61c2a63ccffe5.jpgHundreds of silver plaques represent every part of the body thought to have been healed by the saints: legs, and arms, teeth, and breasts, hearts and brains all cut out in silver and hanging on red silk in glass cases.

    Besides the Villa Cimbrone, Ravello's other jewel is the Villa Rufolo, also with gardens designed by a Briton. Rufolo is a half-ruined 13th-century palazzo, the venue for highly successful arts festivals. The garden inspired Wagner's dream of a magical garden in Parsifal.

    On our last night on the Amalfi coast we heard a clarinet and piano recital at the Villa before walking down the hillside to our accommodation in Minori, right by the sea. The twisting path took us down steps through lemon and olive groves, across the echoing porchways of several ancient churches and finally past Minori's necropolis, glimpsed through high gates, each decorated with skull and cross-bones.

    563082b9cbdfb6a7ea4df493b4ba66ff.jpgThe walled cemetery was bathed in blue light. Three terraces, one stone slab set into the wall for each family, lines of slabs stacked so high that a ladder is needed to look after the photos and flowers and the little electric light that burns night and day on each. With the scent of ripe figs and the tufa grey soil in the air we descended happily to the moonlit sea.

    One evening just before dusk I walked down to the beach at Minori. The passegiata would soon be in full swing: that special time in the evening when ordinary Italians dress up and go out for a stroll and to chat. On the beach a few kids kicked a football about, but I was the only swimmer. The sea was warm, the surface calm. I swam out 100 metres or more from the shore. Just above the town a blue neon cross marked the cemetery and beyond I saw the line of white lights - like a string of twinkling pearls - marking the path all the way up to Ravello. Higher up there were lights at SS Cosmas & Damiano, too - an orange glow that floodlit the cliff above. Higher still I could even see La Rondinaia - floodlit with a steady bright white light - and thought I caught a glimpse of the fabulous belvedere at the Villa Cimbrone.

    82cab754f31585c33b9a9565686f42c9.jpg On the beach, feeling a cool breeze, I showered and changed. Someone asked me if the water was cold. 'Not at all - it's warm!'. Feeling content, I suddenly remembered Homer's magical line about the 'wine-dark sea' and watched an almost full moon shimmering silver on its surface.

  • Crematorium loses organ


    On the other side of the river used to live a retired Doctor who made good money as a Crematorium Medical Referee. He gave permission for thousands of cremations until it was his turn to go up in smoke. A friend's father was a worker there, once the electrically operated curtain closed around the coffins. Another friend had a summer job at the Crematorium, cutting the grass on the remembrance lawns. He joked about the corpses rising out of coffins as the furnace lit, and the taste of ash in his mouth as the mower trimmed the grass. The crematorium is a smooth-running production line, twenty minute slots, one entrance for the bereaved, another exit, the next party already lined up outside.

    While some make their living out of it, most of us like to avoid thoughts of death. In plague-ravaged 15th century Europe people felt differently. Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying) was the most popular block-printed book. It gave simple instructions on how to meet death, avoid temptation, and make a triumphal entrance into Paradise.

    People often say how quiet it is at night here, since we are less than three miles from Reading town. But the night is far from silent: aircraft into Heathrow, motorbikes along the main road, and late night trains, slicing the air, tearing down into Brunel's great cutting, four years to build and four lives lost.

    At around 3.30am these sounds fade. This is the 'dead of the night'. On a windless night, you may just hear the clock on the church tower strike the hour. Most nights there is only the river, falling five feet over the weir. This is white noise, indifferent and unchanging, seemingly endless - the roaring sum of all sound and the sound of nothing.

    In the crematorium chapel, there is a different kind of quiet, almost solid silence, stifling. Dark oak, the lectern and pews, and an organ. At my aunt's funeral a friend played Jerusalem for us at the end of the short service. William Blake's words, written in 1804 as a preface to his epic poem 'Milton'. Blake recalls the myth of a young Christ in Glastonbury and looks to a second coming when paradise will be attained. The music by Parry, for a rally of the votes for women campaign in 1918, with orchestral elaboration by Elgar.  The organ played loud and strong, drowning our voices, making our hearts pound, filling the silence, and for a moment, there was hope.

    What a pity it would be if the authorities were to strip out the organ and replace it with a juke box for hymns.

  • Walking away the past on Dartmoor

    4f0befed01ba6c68904076a87ee8b763.jpgThe three of us are walking on Dartmoor on a dull day in early September. We climb up from Burrator Reservoir, with its moss covered boulders and lichen covered trees, to a spot high on the bare moor where we picnic beside Crazy Well Pool.

    249e642156492e48a1cb7d7411c64854.jpgThe local legend says that the icy water is bottomless and that an attempt to plumb it once caused the loss of not only all the bell ropes of the local church (they had had been knotted together) but also of the church bell.

    Edward II's favourite Piers Gaveston is said to have concealed himself there: "Where lags the witch? / she willed me wait / Beside this mere at daybreak hour, / When mingling in the distance safe/ The forms of cloud and tor. She comes not yet; tis a wild place - / The turf is dank, the air is cold; / Sweeter I ween on kingly dais, / To kiss the circling gold;" (from a 19th century poem by the Revd John Johns). They also say that early in the 20th century a young soldier drowned in the Pool and that it whispers the name of the next person from the parish to die. No wonder that under a grey sky, the water looks uninviting, almost viscous, only faintly rippled by a strongish breeze.

    One of us remembers other times on Dartmoor. He’d taken countless parties of schoolchildren on this exact route. Once they'd been stalked for an hour or more by squaddies, playing a stealthy game of peekaboo behind the trees, always just out of sight behind them, until they’d revealed themselves at this very spot.

    Beyond the lake we walk along a fast running leat (or stream). The map shows it improbably following the hill's contour lines. This is part of a scheme started by Sir Francis Drake to provide Plymouth with drinking water. Channelled and embanked, the leat rushes down to an aquaduct before the water is directed through a pine wood to feed the reservoir in the flooded valley below.

    cdb528c56218b4cd6642e90ca8df27a0.jpgThe walk back breaks away from the stream and follows a roughly paved track through forest. There is a clearing where the River Meavy races over granite and limestone boulders beneath the ancient Leather Tor Bridge. Two massive slabs of granite form the bridge’s central pier, and like other clapper bridges, the whole structure is held together by its own weight. Roughly shaped boulders, some now locked together with iron staples, make a parapet. Where once there was a ford, there is a wide expanse of shallow water beside the bridge.

    As the afternoon light fades, the ex-teacher sits and remembers his last time at the bridge. Listening to the water rushing and gurgling, wrapping itself round the stones, it is almost as if he hears the children’s voices again. High cries as the kids dash across the bridge and down to sandy spot ideal for paddling. They’d been told not to go in the water – and of course they had. For the briefest of moments, the early evening’s uncertain light is transformed into bright sunshine, a dozen or more children seem to climb excitedly over the old stones of the bridge, calling to their friends in the water below.

    d465a6fe2c1d06c729f6591cf7de2330.jpgIn a draw somewhere, other photos record the scene: the children happily playing and the staff, freed of their charges, chatting in the sunshine. But now there is a faint chill in the air, and it is time to drive home.

  • A castle in Provence

    fce4459d9be1719e7e3abcdec9432158.jpgThe heat fills the Provençal landscape. It is a tangible thing that sets the distant rocky ridge shimmering, across a deep valley from the terrace of the Château de Gourdon, high in the hills above Grasse. Inside the seventeenth century castle is a fabulous private collection of art deco treasures. Room after room pay homage to the greats of French design of the thirties to fifties: not just a Le Corbusier chair but the Le Corbusier chair: the original factory prototype. The dressing table Eileen Gray made for her own use; astonishing decorated lacquer furniture by Jean Dunand.

    On the château's 'Terrasse d'Honneur' lines of curving and swelling box seem to jostle one another. Their soft, rich greenness is a perfect contrast to the dazzling brightness of the limestone walls. Across the gardens and at a lower level, a Vivaldi recorder concerto sounds out from beside a large pool, just visible behind tall cypresses. Distant shouts from children playing by the water, as a gardener with a ponytail lackadaisically pulls weeds from a flower bed. From a little seat set into the wall I can look down on a private terrace. At the end of the terrace is a belvedere giving views on to the steep rocky valley below. On the stone table inside the belvedere there is water. Two youngish men sit at the table. One is tall, with longish dark hair, dressed all in white, the other shorter with light brown hair. In the sultry afternoon heat, a word or two of their gentle conversation drifts towards me.

    When the castle visit is over, I sit for a while on the low wall of the roadway that leads down to the village. The two young men appear outside high double gates which hide the castle's private gardens. The taller man has aquiline features, his complexion is clear and pale, his hair quite black; his friend has a rounder, more sunburnt face. They are still chatting. Both have an almost aristocratic air.

    Suddenly the taller man seems to catch sight of someone in my direction. He walks purposefully towards me - but stops halfway across the roadway beside a short and frail-looking woman with ginger-coloured hair. He gracefully kisses her on both cheeks. She seems pleasantly surprised at this unexpected compliment. The old lady and young man exchange a few words and he returns to his friend at the garden gate of the castle.

    The two of them now stand for a while, until I am certain the taller of the pair is looking directly towards me for a second time - and in that moment a look of understanding passes between us. Then the friends turn and close the castle gates behind them.

  • Glittering like gold on the Riviera

    26c2b84ee0429fce4028d019f0b9ffc9.jpg After a ferry crossing to Calais that threatened storms but turned out calm, then a short onward journey by train, Lille station was dimly lit and cavernous.

    The crowd clustered round the barrier waiting to board the overnight sleeper to Cannes. Like a guard of honour, the train crew lined up before us. Inside the sixties-built first class sleeper carriage it was dark. With a four person compartment to ouselves, we took a sleeping bag and pillow, a bottle of water, earplugs and other necessities, pulled down the blinds and made ourselves as comfortable as we could. As we lay on our bunks the train seemed to ride the track lightly, bucking and flexing over the steel rails beneath it. The carriages swayed rythmically over the tracks - as if the train was being rocked to sleep by the rails - then suddenly rattled on with a great thundrous clanging. On the doorway and panel above, luminous controls glowed in the half-light. I slept lightly until we arrived in bright sunshine at 10.15 in Cannes, 24 hours after my journey began.

    Prematurely sun-aged women in gold shoes and fussy peasant style white dresses, designer shops and gay boys sashaying it to the beach. Determined pleasure-seeking everywhere. After a confusing drive through twisting lanes we found our 'bastide' – once a grand Provençal farmhouse and now the holiday home of one of the City's most successful young investment bankers. Several dusty acres of what was once productive terracing lie behind a high fence and even higher electric gates. A long lavender-lined drive sweeps to improbably lush lawns at the foot of a lovely 3-storey cream building, with a grand balcony off the master bedroom and inside vast cool rough-tiled echoing corridors, a black Murano glass chandelier and a staircase sweeping to our rooms.

    A grand Empire style bed and a bathroom with an almost Moorish shower enclosure and a freestanding claw-footed bath. Stunning views over the countryside towards the sea. A deep 'L' shaped pool with the warmest, barely chlorinated water where I swam without a costume in the hot afternoon sunshine.

    Tonight we walked for 20 minutes past other impressively protected properties, to the centre of Mougins on the hilltop, where water rushes down a narrow channel from the door of the recently designer re-decorated church. The shops are either galleries, restaurants or estate agents. The well-heeled French are all around us, with the best shod of all at the 'Moulin de Mougins' – one of the best restaurants in France.

    Tomorrow perhaps a trip to Grasse, where visitors learn how to blend their own perfume, or more rest and idleness in the shade by the pool. It is strange being in such a marvelously wicked place without a lover.

  • Have they put the gaslights back on the gewgaw yet?

    8213a0c1c2226eea0fbff3be512c1a06.jpgSir Edward Simeon, who paid for the obelisk Sir John Soane designed for Reading's market place in 1804, doesn't get an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. This seems a pity, since he was a director of the Bank of England and much given to local munificence – even if in the case of the obelsisk, it was partly intended to prop up his brother's campaign to get re-elected as local MP.

    It has even been claimed that the monument's three lamps commemorated Simeon and his two brothers. Simeon also re-built the family home, Britwell Manor at Britwell Salome in Oxon – not Soane, although there is a monument to his parents there that makes me think of Soane's work. The house was later extensively restored by the designer David Hicks.

    Soane, needless to say, is rather better represented in the DNB. As John Swan (1753-1837) he was born in Whitchurch in Oxfordshire. His father was a brick-layer, humble origins Soane may have been trying to hide when he first changed his name to Soan and then added the final 'e'.

    His eccentricity and his highly original buildings, including his astonishing house in Lincoln's Inn (now a fascinating museum) mean he is well-cast for the role of romantic architect. He has been cited as an influence by many contemporary designers including Robert Venturi (Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery) and Philip Johnson (Chipendale-topped Sony building, New York).

    f909ecac669d943052f65be59b261898.jpgSoane built with clean lines, careful proportions and a skilled articulation of light that even inspired Sir Giles Gilbert Scott when he was asked to design the prototype British telephone box. Scott based the design on the mausoleum Soane built for his wife in old St Pancras churchyard.

    The Soane Museum holds drawings for both the obelisk and for Simmonds Brewery in Reading and they are now on show at a worthwile exhibition there. Pevsner attributed Seven Bridges House (now at the centre of the Oracle Shopping Centre in Bridge Street) to Soane, but this was a confusion with a house long since lost. Soane also designed a house for a Reading Mayor called Lancelot Austwick. It subsequently became Greyfrairs vicarage and was (some would say inevitably in Reading) demolished. Soane also designed alterations to South Hill Park in Bracknell (subsequently re-modelled) and to Wokefield Park near Mortimer.

    A history of the Reading municipal charities (Blandy, 1960) describes how Simeon gave the Corporation of Reading £1,000 to pay for the gas to supply the lights on the obelisk ("erected and lighted forever at the expence of Edward Simeon, Esq" according to the inscription) and for the illumination of the clock over the nearby corn exchange. Surplus was to be used to maintain the obelisk, a responsibility that was not taken very seriously by the town. The gas lights (which in fact replaced earlier oil lamps) went out before the first world war, and as the obelisk decayed it sprouted a number of 'ornaments' including (for many years) a large road sign which obscured it, two subterranean lavatories, a little shed and a ventilation stack one writer described as 'sprouting up behind it like a goofy kid brother'. John Piper and John Betjeman both railed against the neglect of the monument – but to no result.

    When it was built a contemporary letter writer to the Reading Mercury claimed the gift of the obelisk was "an attempt to bias the heads of the Borough in his favour by setting up in the market-place a paltry gewgaw thing without use or name". The lights did have the virtue of extending the working day at the very centre of the town, and no doubt deterred nefarious activities once the working day had ended. In the twentieth century other nefariousness – in the town that locked up Oscar Wilde – is assumed to have prompted the closure of the lavatories either side of the obelisk.

    Only when a centenary loomed and they received some lottery money and a grant of £20,000 from the Soane Monument Trust was the Borough provoked into action. The obelisk is about to be restored by local stonemasons AF Jones and not before time, an exhibition currently at the town's museum commemorates local man Soane's importance.

  • Flood blog 4

    50264a554dc6274dacbc33466fa065b6.jpgIt seems to have stopped rising. It has been so much worse in other places. So far the Environment Agency's prediction seems right: the peak was reached around midnight last night. The level is now at least 15" lower than the peak in the bad flood in January 2003 when around 10 houses locally took some water in.

    The meejah really have a field day. Both local radio and the nationals have exaggerated the difficulties here. They have been obsessed with river 'surges', when thanks to the flood-plain we have had just a steady rise. They have confused expected peak levels with the vital point at which the Thames 'breaks its banks' – essential if the flood-plains are to protect us from flooding. More building on the flood-plain – no thanks.

    The reporting really worried a lot of locals, several of whom have come back early from holiday. Sandbags are in places a raging torrent couldn't reach. One lady, whose house is at least 3' above the peak of 2003, filled her bath with water in case she was cut off. I'm reasonably confident it won't be needed.f3a68e7b25a74a5b0437c854f993e3d1.jpg

  • Flood blog 3

    befe3541251db49283179fdee24f7c2c.jpgThe 'phony war' continues. A forecast overnight rise of .36m with a peak at 9.30am just didn't happen. The rise was about .25 inch per hour, which has been consistent lately. About 4 inches more and it may come in the lowest part of my office in the garden - the river is flowing fast round the end of this building now.

    Last night I made a very good fish pie and went for a swim. Amusingly, they told me the pool was closed the previous night because of a shortage of water. We've now all got sand bags and the road may soon be impassable. This morning local radio had a reporter on the riverside, marveling at hotel guests being served breakfast a few feet from the floodwaters. The veg patch is now under water, but the runner beans are 'loving it'.

    We're keeping our fingers crossed that this time the peak really will be reached at around midnight before we get the heavy rain forecast for tomorrow.

  • Flood blog 2

    fcfeedc3e5912c84a4eb2ff5f9e69843.jpgFine sunshine this morning. The forecast 'surge' didn't happen and the Thames rose only about 2 inches overnight. There were dire warnings in Reading yesterday and at least one business in Caversham put up a 'closed due to flooding' sign. We moved furniture from the two lowest rooms last night; the promised sandbags haven't arrived but we haven't needed them either.

    The 'Environmental Agency' (as many unknowingly misname them) have pushed forward their estimate of the expected peak to later tomorrow morning. If there is no serious rain and the present rate of rise continues, it should be no worse than four years ago and the levels may even be lower. That might still mean some houses and roads locally will flood.

    If it rises more than 6 inches in the next day or so we will still have problems. 

  • Flood blog 1

    b22f24644e33fe6769b70a4c6d96954a.jpgMonday morning and I've been digging up the last of the new potatoes, which will soon be under water. There's quite a fast flowing stream just over the wall where there is usually field. The Thames is spreading out over its ancient floodplain, and into the back garden.

    After rain like I'd never seen it on Friday, and serious flooding north of here, the river has been steadily rising for the last 24 hours. The lock-keeper told me he'd spent Friday in the pouring rain hand-cranking the weir sluices so they let down as much water as possible. His reward was groin strain and the week off. He didn't think it was going to be as bad as 2003.

    Later, the Environment Agency 'Control Room' told me that the rise is not expected to peak here until Wednesday morning. Lock gates apparently have open sluices on the tidal Thames. They are predicting flooding to houses in Lower Caversham and therefore presumably here from around midnight Tuesday. They said it might be worse than 2003.

    I sent out an email pointing people to the local flood maps for a one in a hundred year event.

    I'll decide this evening about moving furniture upstairs from the lowest rooms.

    Local weather 

    Flood warnings on theThames 

    Listen to local radio