Tricksy September Pulls A Fast One

Morning sun through a hawthorn tree

Autumn is such a trickster.
The heating is busily burning ten pound notes, the electric blanket is on the bed and my Primark fleece pyjamas have already made an appearance. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s damp and it’s foggy. I had resigned myself to dog walks splattered with mud and flat, dull views.
And then this morning – a miserable Monday morning – my dreary duty dog walk became an almost spiritual experience.
First up, I was caught short by a field of sweetcorn garlanded with dew-iced cobwebs. The sun was just burning through the mist (see how I stopped calling it ‘fog’?) and lit up the dew.
Cobwebs in a corn field
These were no ordinary cobwebs, the kind that get in your mouth when you stumble out of the gate in the morning. These were picture-perfect Hallowe’en-ready cobwebs, as perfect as the ones you get in Poundland to stick on your window on October 31. And they looped from leaf to leaf like promenade fairy lights. So many cobwebs, so many strands of spun silver.
Leaving the cornfield behind, the sun shafted through a hawthorn tree in full berry and illuminated the mist beneath it, like a film set. Where was the fairy queen, dancing barefoot through the dew? This was too much loveliness to take on one walk.
AND THEN – I saw two deer run across the field and into some trees. DEER!
Alright Autumn, I’m sorry for dissing you. You turned me over good.

Roman Apples on Ermine Street

The Romans didn’t mess about with by-passes or planning permission. They wanted to get to a place; they just built a road right there. This doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone before, or since for that matter, in the UK at least.
That’s why these roads have lasted, forming the basis of our modern road network. Ermine Street was the York to London via Lincoln road, taking in the great muddy span of the Humber via a ferry.
The Scunthorpe to Lincoln section of Ermine Street has been replaced by the A15, a long, flat stretch of yawn-inducing single-carriageway that encourages suicidally-inclined drivers to overtake the ponderous lorries and frequent tractors that plough its length.

It was built just a hundred feet or so next to the original Ermine Street, and that road still remains. It is gated off at the top and serves as an access road for farmers, a great place to teach your children how to ride a bike and a good place to give the dog a run on a sunny Autumn morning.
It is also an excellent, if utterly bizarre, place to pick apples.

Pink apple

Better than a fried egg sandwich from a caravan in a layby?

Big ruddy apples, shining red and pink, so heavy they bow down the branches. Not just one apple tree either, at least half a dozen, edging the road for a few hundreds yards.
Who would plant apples beside a major road? A major Roman road?

Alright, I’m not daft enough to say these are Roman trees. Apparently neglected apple trees can last about fifty years, one hundred at a push. So chances are these trees are the result of a few discarded cores after a jolly 1930’s picnic. Maybe there was a layby here and folk used to pull in and unstrap the hamper from the back of the Austin 7. If you dig deep enough you will probably find a couple of old tartan blankets and a lot of fossilised tea leaves.

But there are a lot of them. And all in a row. So what if they are the descendants of Roman trees? The Oracle at Delphi (Google) tells me Romans introduced cultivated apple trees throughout their empire. Back in Italy, they feasted on olives, pomegranates and figs – none of which grow in the British climate. So it makes sense to plant big red apples alongside a drear stretch of road where your marching legions can pull in, grab a fresh snack, pass round the wineskin and compare sword lengths. Kinda like a Roman-style cheeky Nandos.
The original trees will have faded and died two millennia ago, but there is nothing stopping new ones growing in their place, over and over. So the apple I picked this morning could chart its lineage right back to Roman Britain, when there was no traffic noise, petrol fumes or tarmac and no neatly cultivated fields; just the same big sky and the same apples.

Don’t tell me its not possible, that the variety I saw has only been around for thirty years, that the government had some sort of apple-planting scheme for farmers after the war.
I want to believe that the roots of ancient Rome are still bearing fruits in a our over-processed, noisy modern world.

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #1: Ripper Street

Housework – it’s come a long way, eh?
We no longer bash filthy old rugs with sticks or wipe windows down with vinegar and scrunched-up paper. Washing clothes doesn’t involve boiling a cauldron of water at four in the morning in the hope of being finished by midnight. With our Dysons and our Electroluxes and our Windolene and our microfibre cloths, housework is a breeze, leaving us with more time to do other stuff, like scoff biscuits and, y’know, write blogs.
Ironing hasn’t evolved at all. Apart from being able to plug the iron in (and get the flex wrapped around your elbow) nothing has changed since Roman times (I am making this up; I have no idea if Roman togas were crease-free or not).
I shove a load of filthy clothes in my washing machine with a mound of New! Improved! Biological powder and press some shiny buttons. An hour later I drag it out and make the onerous trip to the tumble dryer (I live in a dip. The sun doesn’t shine in our back garden and I can’t hang stuff out. DON’T JUDGE ME). Another hour and it is all warm and dry and fluffy. Then we step back in time and I am a hard-pressed laundry maid battling with cuffs and creases for hours and hours and hours.
What makes this bearable? Setting up the ironing board in front of the TV and watching all the programmes my husband can’t stand and are too sweary for my children. If there is nothing to watch, nothing gets ironed.
Thank the gods of 100% cotton that we live in a Golden Age of Television, and we have both Netflix and Amazon Prime as well as the BBC iPlayer (who needs Sky now Game of Thrones is finished until next year anyway?). So this is what I watch, and what I think about it.

Ripper Street Series Three (Episodes 1-5)

Lawdy, but I love Ripper Street. I love the language (“You and I be going a’coppering, my lad!” and – my personal favourite – “This lady has been recently and most energetically squired.”). I love the chipped paint on the doorframes, I love the food (chop ‘n’ chips, anyone?), I love the whiskers and I love the bloody ludicrous storylines.
It’s like a gothic Coronation Street gone back in time but with different accents and longer skirts. The very first episode of series three had a cataclysmic train crash – right at the door of stern-but-tortured Detective Inspector Edmund Reid’s beloved Leman Street Station. And who should be on that train, being all heroic, but his old sidekick Bennet Drake. And who was energetically squiring a young lady somewhere just around the corner? Only Captain Jackson! On top of this, sweet-but-ambitious Rose, one time lady-love of Drakes, happened to be a-wandering past just after it happened, as did Long Susan (although no-one calls her that anymore, unfortunately) so they can all stare at each other and look heartfelt and shocked and terse and stuff.
Soap-style storylines aside (we also have Reid’s missing daughter reappearing after five years – though we always suspected she would wash up somewhere, that was too good a storyline to abandon), now Amazon have taken up where the BBC left off and commissioned Ripper Street for another three more series (I hope I read that right) it seems we are in for a regular dose of fast-paced Victorian melodrama.
It is the dialogue and the acting that sets Ripper Street apart, and I would rather see our three waistcoat-clad heroes dashing down a gas-lit ally solving ‘orrible murders than delve too deeply into their personal lives. That’s when all semblance of authenticity starts to dissolve and we get mired down in dull old 21st century pyschobabble.
Mind you, as a journalist, I always had a soft spot for slimy reporter Fred Best, fake ear and all. In this series we see a chink in his armour, and he is starting to turn up with vital pieces of information for the coppers – none of whom can ever bring themselves to so much as give him a curt nod, let alone say thank-you.

Fred Best (played by David Dawson) keeping an ear open (BBC)

Fred Best (played by David Dawson) keeping an ear open (BBC)

During the first three episodes I was worried the whole series was going to be centred around the train crash, the missing daughter and purse-lipped Long Susan (with her very un-Victorian bright blonde pincurls), but the murder of a fake clairvoyant set everything ridiculously back on its feet again.
This is what Ripper Street does so well – present us with clever crimes, not repackaged CSI stuff with a couple of corsets and blood on the cobbles thrown in in the name of authenticity. In series two we had telegraph boys moonlighting as prostitutes, freak shows and opium dens. So far in series three there have been mudlarks scavenging for treasure on the Thames banks, pub landlords drowned in Burton ale and fake psychics being poisoned by unfaithful taxidermists. You don’t get that on Silent Witness.
It was also good to have an episode without Inspector Reid, so Drake and Jackson’s coppering skills come to the fore and young Constable Grace makes good use of Reid’s meticulous archiving. I really hope Grace doesn’t become one of those expendable guys with the phasers set to stun on Star Trek and end up dead in some cellar somewhere.

Stuff to think about while I descale the iron:

Long Susan (Caitlin Swift) and her hair - how is this possible in the says before Babyliss and Elnett hairspray? (BBC)

Long Susan (MyAnna Buring) and her hair – how is this possible in the days before Babyliss and Elnett hairspray? (BBC)

  • Who does the women’s hair? All those tiny pintucks and not a Babyliss curling wand in sight.
  • And, while we’re on the subject, in the first episode, Captain Jackson wakes up next to an artfully tousled and naked Mimi when the train crashes, and five minutes later they are both out on the streets looking horrified but fully suited and booted. Who levered her into her corset and skirts, pinned up her hair and stuck that nice little hat on top? Captain Jackson? I don’t think so…
  • Who is doing Edmund Reid’s housekeeping? Cos after that miserable meal of a boiled potato and some pappy red cabbage they want speaking to quite sternly.
  • And for a top copper, no doubt with many enemies who would love to do his gaff over, he doesn’t lock up after himself. Inspector Reid’s moon-faced daughter managed to break in, wearing some sort of nylon nightie thing, without any sign of broken glass or picked locks.
  • Don’t you have to pay to go in Blewitt’s and watch saucy ballet dancers and lovely Rose? Drake and Jackson just wander in and out without so much as a shilling on the door, and they never stay to see a whole show.
  • And finally… what the blazes is going on with Long Susan? Covering up mass murders, raising poor folks’ rents, shooting Reid, abducting his daughter just so she can comb her frizzy hair and all for what? So half a dozen people can groan in her front-parlour hospital? It’s a scandal and no mistake.

Autumn Doesn’t Creep

How Autumn should look. But doesn't.

How Autumn should look. But doesn’t.

Spring arrives shyly, with pretty flowers, unfurling leaves, something new to look at every day until you realise it is all around you and everything is lovely. September, on the other hand, vomits in with a sickening splat.

How does Autumn know the summer is over? On September 1 the heating clicked on in the morning for the first time in two months because the air in House of Ice had plummeted below its usual summer temperature of mildly chilly. I picked up the flip-flops and sandals lined up in the kitchen, stuffed them in the back of the cupboard and tipped the spiders out of the boots and wellies instead. Yesterday we had soup for tea; today I wore my mile-long, inch-thick black scarf to walk the dog. No gentle downward stroll into golden days of soft sunlight and cool, sharp air. Within a week we will be knee-deep in mouldy leaves and house-spiders the size of dinner plates. No more getting away with picnic lunches of sausage rolls and pork pie – I’ll be boiling pails of hearty pasta sauce and picking mince out of my fingernails.

These things own the skirting boards (House-spider by DutchMogul

These things own the skirting boards

Alright, already – I know this is the time of year we are supposed to give thanks for a bountiful harvest (and I did make some diamond raspberry vodka with fruit from the Brownies’ allotment, thank-you Snowy Owl) but that is just a cunning trick. We need all that elderflower wine and sacks of potatoes to get us through the dark,damp days ahead.

(House-spider by DutchMogul

Ingenuity in the UK (Asylum Steampunk Festival)

Travelled to Lincoln last weekend to see a football match, and went early in order to sneak an hour at Bunty’s Tea Rooms on Steep Hill (purveyors of fine Earl Grey tea and dandelion and burdock cake – yes, that’s cake tasting of DANDELION AND BURDOCK POP!).

Parking in Lincoln is like sewing with a feather, so we crept around for twenty minutes looking for a space AND IT WAS LIKE ENTERING ANOTHER WORLD.

The loooong school holiday means I haven’t been aware anything much above playdates and Clarks shoe-shops, so had no idea that the Asylum Steampunk Festival was taking place almost on my doorstep (not on my doorstep – I live in a forgotten land, nothing is actually on my doorstep).

It was bloody wonderful. Never has so much tweed looked so fine. There was a man with a propeller on his back and a woman with antlers in her hair – antlers. Feathers, lace, pin-stripes, butterfly nets, whiskers, parasols, goggles, goggles and some more goggles (I think goggles are compulsory, no?).The weapons were stunning; I can’t think of a better use for old curtain poles and abandoned bits of plumbing. And nothing looked crummy. It may have been my rose-tinted goggles, but there was no tin-foil-and-a-stapler school play look about any of it.

I spent so much time gasping and pointing, Bunty’s was already full when we got there, so we went to the utterly appropriate Brown’s Pie Shop instead, where the food, the dim lighting and lack of wi-fi was perfectly in tune with the theme of the day. It looked as if someone was about to bring out a set of angel bones and ask for wagers on the next tile.

Lincoln is the ideal setting for such an event, which made for a fantastical and inspiring spectacle. There are few better reasons to invest in a pinstripe corset and buckled boots and take up pipe-smoking.

The football? Yeah, well, it was a moral victory. The referee needed goggles.