I’ll be there for you…..

There can’t be many people that haven’t seen at least one episode of Friends. The song above was written partly by the producers of the TV series, although is played by and credited to The Rembrandts. It sounds like just the quick jolly intro for a comedy series that it is, but if you listen to the lyrics the sentiments of the song are actually pretty spot on.

I link to this song because I was thinking about a friend over the Christmas and New Year period. We have the kind of relationship where we don’t really see each other frequently, but I have have always been there for her when she is struggling. She has had quite a bit of health issues so I am always there for her if she needs me. She has also had a number of relationship and career problems that again have needed someone to listen too, and have a shoulder to cry on. I kind of see that as the most important part of a friendship. Of course it’s nice to go out with friends and do cool things, but really it’s about support through the hard times where friendships really count. I tried to reach out to her in the lead up to and over Christmas period, but didn’t really get very far. She has got a new partner, which is great so I can well understand why there’s less time for friends. But there’s always time to send a quick message even if not to make/return a call. The fact that she hasn’t bothered to get in touch has made me come to feel a little sad.

I have known her most of my life, although we haven’t lived near each other for years. Since we were teenagers in fact. We normally see each other once a year, and we did pop over to her town in the spring because she was having a rough time, but since then and despite me sending her a few ‘don’t be a stranger’ type messages she hasn’t been in touch. I don’t think this is a case of her trying to get rid of me, just that she knows that we have the kind of relationship that can be picked up again at any time. But I’m not sure what I can do to get her to initiate a message or a call. It would be nice for her to check that I am OK once in a while.

Any ideas would be gratefully received….

 

P.S There are some great sitcom theme tunes out there. I must do a post about them some time.

Nearly there

Well it is Christmas Eve Eve. I have finished work for the year. I was working last Christmas (on-call), so I get this year off completely. We were given this afternoon off from work as well which is nice. I was already planning on working from home today anyway to avoid the maniacs on the road hell-bent on driving at crazy speeds through the terrible weather and bad traffic to shave a minute or so off their journey. I do hope they actually make it to wherever they are going.

Tonight I will make the mince pies. My wife has already spent part of the day baking something up that I am not allowed to see. Classic FM has been pumping out the carols all day. We will pick up the meat and veg from the farmer’s market shortly and that’s us set. I will no doubt play a little more from the Nigel Hess Silent Nights book.

Once in Royal David's City - Nigel Hess;s arrangement from 'Silent Nights'

Once in Royal David’s City – Nigel Hess;s arrangement from ‘Silent Nights’

Christmas is a nice quiet one this year. Next week we are off to meet up with friends and we also have my parents come down for 3 days. It will be nice to see them, and I am hoping for decent weather as we won’t want to sit in the house all day. Especially since the countryside round here is so pretty.

Our chances of getting a white Christmas appear to be nil. which is a shame, but hey you can’t have everything. We got to see snow back in November on our Scotland trip. See the below photo from Ben Lawers:

The top of Ben Lawers

The top of Ben Lawers

Tonight we will start our annual board game Christmas championship with a game of Ticket to Ride.

Tomorrow we pick up the fresh fish, we will do a nice walk and have lunch out. We started the tradition a few years ago of getting lunch out on Christmas Eve, and this year we are planning on heading over to the Chapel in Abergavenny which we have had a brew in and admired the menu, but never tasted.

Last year I made a few new years resolutions. I didn’t stick to the scales practicing, nor have I memorized 10 pieces, but we did manage to swim 100km. (102.5km to be precise. Which i am very pleased about. I even have a graph (with a baseline) to prove it many thanks to a friend who is a whizz with excel.

2016-12-23-15_41_10-swimming-tracker-with-chart__ic-xlsx-excel

what are your Christmas/New year plans?

Christmas is definitely coming….

I have written in the past that we decorate the house on the 1st of December, but this year we were a bit cheeky. We weren’t able to pick the tree up on December’s first weekend as we were up north visiting family, so we got it on the 26th November. We have gone for a Nordmann fir again. They are fantastic trees that never drop their needles. Last year ours lasted 2 months. It had to; given that we collected it super early (the start of November) because it was needed for a Gardener’s World photoshoot. The magazine is out now by the way, so if you live in the UK then do check out the results of last years work.

nordmann fir

The ever dependable Nordmann Fir

The plan was to decorate the tree on Sunday the 4th December, but we caved in and did it on the 29th November. Only a few days early. We read a really snobby ‘etiquette’ article in the Sunday Times this weekend that said that the earlier the decorations go up the more downmarket the household is. Oh dear. Sorry everyone…

I have also made a start on the Christmas piano tunes. They are great because they are sight-readable by me. Mostly I am still using my Bumper Book of Christmas Songs, but I am interspersing it with other older carols that I ‘inherited’ from the person I bought the piano off. I am also trying some jazzy Christmas tunes. I have said in the past that I would like to play more jazz, so this is my nod to that.

Ideally this post would have been accompanied with a video of me playing I Wonder as I Wander. The Appalachian Christmas carol that I am still working on.  But I don’t feel that it is good enough to record just yet, so you will have to wait for that treat.

We have already done our Christmas shopping. We don’t spend a lot on each other as we already have enough ‘stuff’, but we do like the magic of opening presents. So have got each other quite a few small things. We have also carried on the tradition of getting a new decoration for the tree. A couple of years ago we got this hand painted star:

Hand painted in Kashmir

Hand painted in Kashmir

Last year we got the robin in the background. And this year we got the below. A needle-felted pheasant who appears to have a lot of character.

pheasant decorationWe have also bought a new board game it’s called Ticket to Ride. It was recommended to us by Dave Gorman, who once traveled the length of the UK playing strangers at board games. See the book about his exploits here. So his recommendation was taken seriously. Anyway we had a go at the game at the weekend and is a good one. It will definitely get a place in our usual Christmas games tournament, along with the usual family favourites.

What about you? Have you started Christmas already? What are your plans?

 

Leaving a sour taste?

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I have been baking bread now for the last decade. For the last 3 years I have been baking sourdough loafs; at least 3 a week. So I am pretty good at them. Back in August 2013 I wrote about how to make a sourdough loaf, but I thought I would expand on that given what I know now.

There are two methods that I use for making sourdough bread depending on whether I am at home or out and about on the day of baking.

If I am going to be away from the house during working hours then I will use the kneading method as mentioned in the previous post. However if I am going to be in the house I will use my preferred method which is the no-knead approach. This gives a more holey, slightly chewier textured loaf, and is outlined below.

In the morning pour 200g of your sourdough starter, 520g of bread flour, 270g of water and 10g of salt into a large mixing bowl. For my bread flour I always use organic. You don’t have to of course, but do make sure it is ‘strong’ flour. How much of each flour you use can be varied as much as you want so long as it all adds up to 520g. I typically use about 260g of strong white and then make the rest up with either strong wholemeal or wholemeal spelt, or a mixture of both. Of course for a stronger flavoured, but slightly denser loaf you could use less white and more wholemeal.

Give it a mix and then cover the bowl with cling film. About an hour or so later (no need to be precise) take the cling film off, stretch and fold the dough four times (once in each direction), put the cling film back on and give it another hour or so.

Repeat 3 times.

After the last lot of folds you can put the dough straight in a floured proving basket and then let it prove for 3 hours.

Put it in the oven for 45 minutes at 230 degrees and you will have the perfect tasting and looking loaf.

This is a wholemeal spelt loaf made with my no-knead method

This is a wholemeal spelt loaf made with my no-knead method

Note that it might sound like it has been lots of work, but if you add it all up its 3 minutes of mixing the ingredients together, and 1 minute of folding 4 times. That’s it. What could be easier?

I use a baking cloche nowadays so I put the cover on for the first 35 minutes in the oven and take it off for the final 10. If you don’t have one, keep an eye on it in the oven getting too coloured. If need be turn the oven down a bit.

 

A quick note on the starter. Loads of people will tell you about feeding and cossetting your starter. Ignore them. I leave mine permanently in the fridge. I take it out to use some of it in my mix, and just bung some more flour and water in to replace the 200g that came out. Then it is straight back into the fridge. It can be left completely alone in there from a few days to a few weeks without coming to any harm, and comes straight back to life after being mixed with some fresh flour.

 

 

 

Africa

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So, that’s Christmas* sorted then…..

On Sunday we had a friend over to ours for lunch and a walk. She is called J. and is the author behind the cotswoldsgirl blog. I have been following her blog for some time, but it is only recently that we have started to meet up. This was our second time, the first being back at the end of August, which I did start writing about but never finished the post. That time we met for a walk in the Malvern Hills which is within an hours drive of both of us. This time she came to our house so that a) we could feed her, b) we could show her the sights of our county and c) so that she could play on my piano – Humphry.

She is also a pianist, having had lessons as a child and has recently bought her own piano to go in her new house. It was actually through piano that we met. I was searching in wordpress against the piano tag, and a steamy post of hers which featured a piano popped up. We have stayed in touch through the blogs and given that we are similarly minded, both cool and fortunately fairly local we have started to meet up.  She very nicely brought some flowers, which was appreciated by my wife wellywoman, as she never receives flowers anymore, since she started growing them herself.

Along with the flowers she also brought some sheet music. Hence my initial statement. One of the books she brought was called The Most Requested Songs of the 80s the-most-requested-songs-of-the-80sThis is a fantastic book, which I have now requested as a Christmas present. I am not short of sheet music. It would take me at least a decade to learn all the music that I currently own, but that doesn’t stop me coveting new music. Especially books that contain all the classics seen below:

backofthe-most-requested-songs-of-the-80sWhen J. was over she treated us to a rendition of Africa by Toto. This worked really well for solo piano. I am under strict instructions from my wife to learn this one first, but to be honest there are loads of them that I want to play. We tried to play a few as duets, but I was a bit rubbish at sight-reading. So in the end we went with playing With or Without You by U2. I was playing the left-hand, as that was relatively straightforwards. In fact I felt a bit like Mr Bean playing Chariots of Fire in the London 2012 Olympic ceremony;

as the left hand was a bit repetitive. But the overall piece was a pretty good version of the original, and it is always lovely to play duets.

What do you think of the book? Is there anything you would like me to learn?

Another treat of the day was the walk. We took a wander along the towpath of the Brecon Canal. It’s quite a picturesque place to walk, and this time had the added bonus of a male kingfisher. He was quite shy, so every time we got close he flew off a bit further down the river. Even with a 300mm lens he was tiny in the resulting photos: close enough for me to identify him as male**, but not close enough to get a decent shot. We have seen them on this canal before, but not that frequently. So it was lovely to see that they are still around.

How was your weekend?

 

*sorry for using the C-word so early on.

**the way to tell male and female kingfishers apart is that the males have all black beaks, whereas the females have orange bottom beak and black on top.

A Highland Fling

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Do you ever take two week holidays? In 17 years of marriage my wife and I have only ever taken two. All the other years it just hasn’t felt feasible to take a full fortnight off. Our first 2 week holiday was 5 years ago. We spent 1 week on the Isle of Skye and 1 week on the Isle of Mull. Our second 2 week holiday finished this Sunday gone. Again we went up to Scotland. This time we went to near Inverness and near Perth.

The motivation for picking here was to see wildlife. For some time I have wanted to see the dolphins up by the Black Isle. There’s a point just north of Inverness where they come right up to the beach. The best place to see them is Chanory Point, which is at the mouth of the Moray Firth. The tide times weren’t in our favour, with low tide (1 hour after low tide is the best time to see them) being in the late afternoon, moving through to the evening as the week progressed. On the first Sunday we arrived by the beach late afternoon and sat near the beach for about an hour watching a seal bobbing around. Then the dolphins arrived. I was the first to spot one, then another 2 and then finally a 4th. We were game on! We got off the benches headed down the beach to the shoreline in anticipation of some fish feeding frenzy, or perhaps some water leaping action. Instead they swam off out to sea! I didn’t get a single photograph. OK it was nice to see them, but was such a brief view of a few dorsal fins, and an anticlimax after what we were expecting. Ah well, they are wild creatures after-all.

Although we missed out on great photos of dolphins, we did manage to see some other fantastic wildlife. Such as badgers:

A very close-up badger

A very close-up badger

Three badgers climbing a tree

Three badgers climbing a tree

and pine martens:

A very shy female pine marten.

A very shy female pine marten.

These were seen from a hide operated by Speyside Wildlife. The hide can take up to 12 people, but fortunately there were only 4 of us, so we had plenty of space to walk around to both sides of the hide and always get access to a window.

We also got to see some other wildlife in Scotland, such as Polar Bears,

pb2

Snow Leopard,

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

Great Grey Owl,

who are you calling twit?

who are you calling twit?

Wolverine,

Don't mess with me. I may look cute, but I can kill a polar bear given a chance

Don’t mess with me. I may look cute, but I can kill a polar bear given a chance

and Snow Monkeys.snow monkey

OK these were actually at the Highland Wildlife Park just outside Aviemore.

Back to the natives, we did manage to see loads of red squirrels and not just at feeding stations. We actually saw some wild ones in the woods. We saw loads of buzzards and absolutely no gold eagles  😦 We saw lots of red dear, and some little birds on the moors which turned out to be Ring Ouzels.

We ended up seeing quite a few waterfalls. Some very high, some wide. Plodda falls is very high and has a cool cantilevered platform jutting out above it so you can look vertically down the whole drop.

Plodda Falls as seen from the bottom

Plodda Falls as seen from the bottom

At the Rogie Falls not far outside Inverness we managed to see salmon leaping, which was a real treat.

This was one of many unsuccessful attempts.

This was one of many unsuccessful attempts.

Every time one leapt up the small crowd of onlookers cheered them on their way. Sometimes they made it, most times they fell back down to try again. If only the realized it there was a salmon ‘ladder’ put in place to bypass the waterfall, but we didn’t see any evidence of any fish using it instead.

So all in all we had a fantastic time. The fact that we didn’t get any photos of golden eagles or dolphins just gives us a perfect excuse to go back up again…..

Busking

We went to Bath on Saturday for a mooch around. It’s not an original thing to say but it really is a beautiful city. We go there fairly regularly, although would go much more frequently if it wasn’t for the scandalously huge Severn Bridge toll. Here’s a top tip for you. If you want to make an obscene amount of money, beyond what anyone could hope to gain, let alone spend in a lifetime then try building some infrastructure for the British government. Hospitals, schools, bridges, nuclear power stations, basically anything that the chancellor doesn’t want to put on the books to make his figures look bad. Offer to build it for him at hugeley inflated prices. You can make hundreds of millions of pounds if not billions off the British public and government will welcome you with open arms (and wallets).

Anyway, where was I? Oh Yes: Bath. Beloved of all the tourists, part of its charm is all the street entertainers. They tend to have a fairly high class of busker there. Opera singers, string quartets, etc…. Saturday we saw a violinist called Joel Grainger who used a loop pedal to build up a backing track for himself. Below is a video of him in Winchester playing a version of Pachelbel’s Canon. We got to hear him play this on Saturday, as well as a Coldplay inspired track.

Further down the high street was an amazing guitarist who sat down and started playing Romance de Amor. If you don’t know the name, you will definitely have heard the piece. I have no idea who the man was because he wasn’t also trying to flog a CD, however I was reminded of a feature that the BBC Culture Show used to run. They would send famous musicians out to busk on the streets to see how much money they could make. Sometimes they would have sneakily let their fans know and would have a huge crowd, but others would have played by the rules and be completely unrecognized. There are so many fantastic musicians out there that it is easy to see how people can walk past soem famous performer, mistaking them for ‘any old busker’. A similar thing happened in 2007 when the famous American violinist and conductor Joshua Bell performed in a Washington metro station. A few nights before he had played to a sellout concert where tickets cost $100. Here for free nobody really batted an eyelid, 7 people bothered to stop in the 45 minutes he was playing, and even then only for a minute or so.

So who knows perhaps the Bath guitarist was someone famous, perhaps I missed a John Williams performance…

How about you? Do you stop to watch street musicians?

 

 

Confidence?

I have been super busy so feel I have neglected the blog. I have missed it. I have however still managed to find time for piano lessons. And have even started on a new piece:

I am playing it from my book The Piano Treasure of Classical Music. In this book the piece is called Confidence. However I have no idea where that name comes from. It isn’t a name that Mendelssohn used. It is actually from one of his Songs Without Words volumes.

I have to admit that I am not really familiar with Songs Without Words, although had vaguely heard of them. There is a a couple of bars in it that remind me of the old Hymn ‘My God Loves me’ which I remember singing at school.

I have been told to learn the second page first. Which is probably a good idea as normally I get pretty good at the start of a piece and then abandon it before I fully master it. Since I really like it I hope to not only learn to play it but also to memorize it.

How about you? Are you a Mendelssohn fan? Are you familiar with Songs Without Words?

On a different point I also got Humphry tuned. Unfortunately I will need to get the tuner back because there is one note: an G-sharp, which is actually sounding flat. I noticed it almost immediately, but wasn’t sure if it was just me. But now I have downloaded the free app Pano Tuner, and have been able to prove that the note is indeed flat. I just need to get in touch and tactfully ask him to return and try not to sound like I am insulting his work.

A new obsession

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I have a new obsession. The BBC are showing a TV programme at the moment called Springwatch. We watch it every year, as they highlight the wonderful wildlife around the UK. At the start of the series they showed some British moths. We have been thinking for a while how cool it would be to get up close to moths, so last Monday we ordered a moth trap from Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies. With my birthday coming up soon it seemed like a great gift. It came within 2 days, so we rigged it up straight away to use on the first night. With expectations set low, in case we caught nothing, we went down the next day to be pleasantly surprised.

We had actually caught quite a few. This gave me the opportunity to use my macro lens. My parents got me this for Christmas, and I am really grateful, as it has already had a lot of use. It is pretty much my go-to lens for any kind of plant portraits, and as the name suggests, comes into it’s own when you want to get ultra close-ups. The highlights from the first night were a:

Buff Ermine Moth

Buff Ermine Moth

Buff Ermine. These must be fairly common around here at this time of year as we caught quite a few on both nights. The one in the photograph is actually from the second night. By this time I had had the idea to place them on a log for prettier backgrounds than an egg-box.

Sallow Kitten

Sallow Kitten

I had no idea what this one was but uploaded it to twitter and someone helpfully identified it as a Sallow Kitten. What a cool name for a great looking creature.

Grey Dagger

Grey Dagger

The above it’s not a great photo, but a cool looking moth. A Grey Dagger. It didn’t stick around to long after we opened the trap.

Small Magpie

Small Magpie

This is a Small Magpie, again it didn’t stick around long.

Buff-tip

Buff-tip

This was from the second night and is my favourite by far. It is a Buff-tip. It has evolved to look like a twig, and is incredibly effective.

Lesser Swallow Prominent

Lesser Swallow Prominent

Below is a Lessor Swallow Prominent. Another favourite. I love the colour contrast between the whites, blacks and browns.

We also had a Poplar Grey, which as you would expect is very grey. By far the most common moth that we caught each night was the Heart and Dagger. We had these in double figures on both nights.

Heart and Dagger

Heart and Dagger

On Saturday we went to our local bookshop and bought the Field Guide to Moths of Great Britain and Ireland. It has illustrations and information on every single ‘macro’ moth seen in the UK. We have already used it to identify others that we caught. It is actually harder than you think to search the internet for a moth, as describing in words many of them can be very tricky. So hopefully it will be an invaluable resource.

Overnight showers have stopped us putting it out since Thursday night. But hopefully it will clear up soon so that we can keep collecting. The great thing is that you get different moths all year round so we should get a variety as the seasons progress. By the way we did manage to catch quite a few other moths some of which were so frisky that they flew off as soon as we opened the trap, so we will never know what they were. Those above that I photographed were the more docile ones. In fact most of them were still there in the afternoon, only flying off when it got dark.

Return to an old haunt

You know when you go back to an old childhood haunt and you realize that it wasn’t all that great. It was so appealing because you were young and on holiday.

Last weekend we took a trip to Anglesey, which had the potential to be one of the above cases. This is somewhere I know very well. As a child our family spent nearly every summer holiday in first tents, and then later caravans on the Isle of Anglesey. I remember bucolic days spent collecting shrimps and flatfish in tidal rivers; searching for adders amongst the sand dunes; and cooling down by swimming in the not so tropical Irish Sea.

Last year I suggested to my wife that we go on holiday there together. I had found a restaurant called Sosban and the Old Butchers who were making a name for themselves with their inventive tasting menu. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get up there in 2015, hence our visit this year instead. Initially she wasn’t too sure about the island. Our previous visits had been a day trip before we were married. We had spent a very wet weekend camping at the foot of Mount Snowdon. As a break from walking in the rain we took a drive in the rain to Anglesey. Unfortunately the weather meant that we couldn’t actually see anything, so the island in such a grey state didn’t make a good impression. Our only other visit had been a passing drive to the ferry port in Holyhead on the way to Ireland. Holyhead is not a pretty town. Somebody somewhere sold the place a job lot of pebbledash. Which is a bit of a shame, because it has a lot going for it in terms of location. But she is open-minded enough to give the place another try.

The weather forecast again wasn’t looking too good, but we headed up anyway. And boy are we glad that we did. Fortunately the worry that this would be another of the above cases of disappointment didn’t materialize. The predicted rain was replaced by lovely sunshine. We spent 3 glorious days watching wildlife and walking on long sandy beaches.

Can you see my nuts?

Can you see my nuts?

The first day we went to Newborough. This has to be one of the best beaches in the country. It has pretty much everything you would want: A long sandy beach, backing onto a huge pine forest which is filled with the loveably cute Red Squirrel, stunning views across to the rugged Snowdonia mountain range, a sheltered bay safe for swimming in and an island full of wildflowers and loads of one of the country’s most charismatic sea birds – the Oystercatcher.

South stack

South Stack

The next day we went to South Stack. Located right on the western tip of the island, this lighthouse is only reachable via a set of steep steps and a small footbridge across and is a great place to see seabirds. I couldn’t believe how busy the place was. So many people had come up to see the 8000 Guillemots and the 1000 Razorbills, and Fulmars that cling to the vertical cliffs. Apparently there are a small number of puffins too, but we missed seeing any. We took a trip up to the top of the lighthouse, where we did manage to spot a dolphin (or porpoise – my skills are not up to scratch yet to say definitively which it was). I saw it about 6 times before my wife managed to catch a view. I suspected that she was beginning to think I was making it up till she got her view of it breaking the surface. After here we went to Rhosneigr. This is another great long sandy beach. It also has some of the best rockpools in the country. Some of them are huge and stuffed with wildlife. I unsuccessfully chased an incredibly fast moving shoal of sand eels, but then caught some huge fish including our first ever pipefish.

Pipefish

Pipefish

Later we returned back to South Stack for the sunset, which unfortunately didn’t reach it’s full potential due to distant clouds. But I managed to get a few photos anyway.

Sunset over South Stack

Sunset over South Stack

Day three saw us return back to Newborough to watch the red squirrels and take a walk through the woods. We had picked up some OS 1:25,000 maps, this meant that we could wander round the woods without technology but also without getting lost. Although the geek in me likes the fact that you can now download the electronic version of any new OS map to an app on your phone. It’s certainly useful as a backup in case your map reading skills let you down (assuming you have enough charge).

As for food, we had a great lunch of lobster and chips at the Maram Grass Café, but more importantly the main reason that we went to the Island; Sosban and the Old Butchers. The food was absolutely fantastic. They don’t produce a menu; you get what arrives at the table. We had 7 courses of some of the tastiest most inventive food that I’ve had anywhere, and I am someone who likes their food. If you do get the chance to eat there then I cannot recommend it highly enough. Careful though, they are only open on Thursday and Friday evenings, along with Saturday lunch and dinner, currently booked up till September.

This is definitely somewhere we will be returning to.