Hut with a view

A recent article in the Guardian about the joys of living in huts and cabins reminded me of the various small dwellings I’ve stayed in and visited, from the huts belonging to my relatives in Wales and the Lakes to a tiny gem of a converted barn in Cornwall, and perhaps best of all, a bothy on a beach in Orkney, which had barely any furniture but a fire burning to warm any passing hikers.

However, one thing missing from my childhood was a beach hut. Whenever we went to the beach, I used to long for a hut of our own – although I was disappointed to learn you weren’t allowed to stay overnight in them, and subsequently struggled to understand what they were for.

If all you could do was sit in them during the day, and not have a fire on the beach at night, toasting marshmallows, before going back to drink hot chocolate and sleep in cosy bunks in your beach hut, what was the point?

Blinged beach hut, Felixstowe

Blinged beach hut, Felixstowe

On a recent trip to Suffolk, however, I was reminded, via the joys of the British summer, what the real purpose of a beach hut is. As we battled along the windy Felixstowe sea front, and eyed a dark cloud that threatened to break before we reached the nearest cafe, I saw smug people in beach huts who were able to brew tea on their Primus stoves, hide from the gusts behind wind breaks, and (if the clouds burst) retreat right inside to play cards or Cluedo, while those of us without beach huts had to pay to sit in a cafe and stare glumly at our smartphones.

Shoreside cabins and boats, Waldringfield

Shoreside cabins and boats, Waldringfield

In the nearby village of Waldringfield we saw even larger huts – proper cabins – with curtains at the windows, verandahs and everything, which presumably could be slept in overnight. (although we spotted one with a Portaloo cabin behind it, so evidently full plumbing is not part of the works).

What I was not able to photograph, without being too stalkerish, were the cabin interiors – but from the casual snooping I did as we walked past, I began to realise why the perennially popular ‘nautical style’ is so beloved (it’s not a design trend I’ve ever really understood).

Nautical flowers and cabins, Felixstowe Ferry

Nautical flowers and cabins, Felixstowe Ferry

The beach huts which are properly kitted out, not just used as a dumping ground for deckchairs, really are a joy – the snug little kitchen units straight out of a ship’s galley, the padded benches on opposite sides, the checked curtains at the window and the shelves of driftwood, shells and other seaside nicknacks would all look dreadfully twee if they were in Homes and Gardens or Elle Deco, but in a beach hut they look just right.

And for a really glamorous hut with a view, this one overlooking the estuary at Waldringfield, complete with sun deck and bunting, really got me drooling…

Hut with a view, Waldringfield

Hut with a view, Waldringfield

We were only there for an afternoon, but I was pleased to discover beach huts at Felixstowe are available to hire by the day – some council-owned, surprisingly – so anyone can become king or queen of their own beach hut for a day.

No, I won’t get my daydream of sleeping in a beach hut overnight and drinking hot chocolate while watching for shooting stars above the North Sea, but I can still be one of those people sheltering from the rain on a British summer’s day, brewing my own tea and eating my own sandy sandwiches, and you can bet I’ll be as smug as anything about it.

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If it’s not about the winning or the taking part, what about the enjoyment?

Since the Olympics delivered an unprecedented haul of shiny prizes for Team GB, followed by hand-wringing over the future of sports education in schools (seemingly boiling down to point-scoring between the Tories and Labour over who sold off the most playing fields), I’ve read some interesting blogs which got me thinking about my own experiences with sport at school and beyond.

Of course my experiences are just that – mine – and I don’t presume to prescribe what teachers should or shouldn’t do, and nor do I want to turn this into a poor-me rant (though it’s tempting…), but there are some things which have stuck in my mind down the years and might be worth sharing.

When I was at primary school, I was the classic geek child who was picked last in sports – or if not last, usually second from last. I could never hit the rounders ball (though I wasn’t bad at catching), and in netball, I was invariably made to play Goal Keeper, the most static position on the court, because I was tall for my age (then, not now, sadly!).

Fine, I was selected for the position I was most suited to, and at least by playing the same role every time I had a chance of improving at it, I suppose. Better to be really good at one thing than average at many, perhaps. Maybe that was the teacher’s rationale.

However, if I was tall, why not give me a chance to be Goal Shooter at the other end of the court? I had a netball goal in the garden at home so I had practice at scoring goals. Or let me be Goal Attack for a change, who has a similar function to Goal Keeper but can move around the court more freely?

It seems very odd, from this distance, that the teacher always put the same people in the best positions, or chose them as team captains every week – meaning they picked their friends first and me and my friends last. Didn’t it ever cross the teacher’s mind to let someone else take a turn at being first? Or did they assume that because I was quiet and bookish, I wasn’t interested in taking my turn at picking teams?

At the time, it felt horribly like the teacher (who was not my form teacher, by the way, but a local mum who came in purely to teach P.E.) was playing favourites. Or that those of us who were a bit more introverted were somehow invisible to her.

I don’t think making me team captain once in a while would suddenly have transformed me into an outstanding sportswoman, but it might have done wonders for my self-esteem. I didn’t particularly aspire to be good at sports, or feel motivated by the idea of winning games or scoring goals, but I desperately wanted to fit in with my more popular (naturally, sporty) classmates.

So to those, like the Tories, who sneer at the ‘all must win prizes’ mentality which they claim has pervaded British schools, I say – it’s not about prizes or winning, it’s about giving every pupil a chance to be in control every once in a while. Inclusiveness should mean just that – not a false level playing field so all participants can ‘win’, but making an effort to include those who are obviously and clearly being pushed to one side. No pupil should be made to feel, as I was, that they may as well have not bothered turning up.

***

Hmm. So much for P.E. What about outside school, though? If I’m not motivated by competitiveness (apart from pub quizzes) or the prospect of winning, what else could stimulate a teenager like I was to take part in sport? I had – and still have – one great resource at my disposal: my bike.

My faithful old Raleigh bike

Riding a bike had huge plus points over other sports – I could do it by myself, I could go to new places whenever I wanted (living in a village surrounded by pretty country lanes in a flat county was a great advantage. I’d do very well if I lived in Holland, believe me), and above all, it gave me time to think. I used to ride and ride every weekend, and think and think, and it was my absolute favourite thing in the world. I was working through ideas in my head, putting the world to rights and daydreaming (whilst keeping my eyes firmly on the road – I’m not that dippy, folks), and all the while, my legs were propelling me onwards. It was wonderful.

You’d think a girl on her bike on a quiet country lane would be doing no harm to anyone, would you? <gets a bit ranty here, sorry> I was minding my own business on a bike ride once when I heard a vehicle close behind me. I tried to pull over, but it was a narrow lane with a verge and deep ditch on my left. I tried to pedal faster, but the vehicle seemed to be getting closer. I turned back to have a look and realised what was happening – the vehicle behind me was a van, and the occupants were laughing at me, and trying to drive me into the ditch.

I managed to pull onto the verge without going into the ditch and shouted a few charming words in their direction as they sped past, still laughing. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to memorise the number plate, but I was shaken up and not really thinking straight. I do still remember, folks, that it was a British Gas van they were driving. If I had taken that number plate I would have done my best to get those scumbags fired, believe me.

All these years later, I still remember that moment with resentment and bitterness. I wasn’t trying to compete with anyone. I wasn’t trying to prove I was better than anyone else or show off. I was cycling by myself for pure enjoyment, and yet somehow I was still pigeonholed as a geek and sports no-hoper who deserved to be mocked and run off the road.

Fortunately, it would take a lot more than that to put me off cycling – these days, my main deterrents are London drivers and the ongoing saga of TfL/City Hall’s refusenik attitude to cycle lanes and general cyclist safety. I am not scared of being laughed at any more – adulthood has thickened my skin – but I am scared of accidents, and so my bike rides are restricted mainly to local parks where I can do circuits in peace, bar the odd roller blader or child on a scooter.

I’d like my daughter to be able to ride her bike without fear or restriction, but I fear she, like me, will mainly be confined to parks. She won’t have the freedom I had as a child to roam the fields or cycle cross country – so I hope when she does start school, there are still playing fields for her to play on, and if she turns out to be quiet and bookish like me, I will be making damn sure she has a chance to take part in sport without being laughed at, even if she’s not first across the line. We can’t all be winners, but we can all be part of the team.

A walk around…the Olympic Park

When I started to hear bits and pieces about the plans for the Olympic Park, one of the things which excited me was the mention of flower meadows which were going to surround the various sports venues.

Considering the park was being built along the river Lea, and there had been some concern about the impact on wildlife along the river, I was glad that some attention was being paid to conservation issues. I was also interested to see how the areas of green space and flowers would be fitted in around the park – where would there be space to sit in the shade, or wander along the river, or spread out a picnic mat?

I also had fond memories of visiting garden festivals in Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent and Ebbw Vale in my childhood, so I was keen to see whether a similar piece of urban regeneration in London could live up to my expectations.

North American wild flowers and aquatic centre

North American wild flowers and aquatic centre

The first flowers we saw were a surprise, as I had been expecting to see British wild flowers, and what I actually saw were black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia), echinacea and verbena, overlooking the aquatic centre (see above).

A sign next to the flowerbed explained that this was the ‘North America’ zone and all became clear.

We didn’t have much time for exploring more of the park, as our session in the stadium was about to start (decathlon, women’s hammer throw and 800m heats, men’s pole vault and 5k semi final), but after it was finished we wandered in the opposite direction in search of lunch.

Wild flowers

Carpet of wild flowers

Walking towards the dreaded ‘megastore’, which was selling all manner of Olympic tat, we passed a gorgeous carpet of flowers with silver birch trees sailing through them – I didn’t manage to find a sign for these and the only flower I recognised were the cornflowers. (Can anyone identify any of the above? Field marigolds perhaps, and Californian poppies?)

After lunch, we stood on the edge of the World Square, looking back over the stadium, and beneath us was a beautiful shady dell filled with cow parsley, dotted with more cornflowers and poppies (so definitely British wild flowers, this time!). The effect of the little flashes of red and blue amongst the creamy white parsley flowers was simply stunning.

Cow parsley

Lovely lacy billows of cow parsley, dotted with poppies and cornflowers.

This loveliness only served to remind me how artificial the whole thing is – you’d never usually see cow parsley growing en masse like this, it would normally be spread out along a hedgerow or mixed in with grass – but the chance to see it growing in such large quantities did give me a new appreciation for what I’d previously considered a rather dull summer flower.

The other highly artificial element of the flowers in the park was the fact that they have all been grown, some out of season, to flower at exactly the same time and give a perfect display for two weeks only.

There were signs everywhere telling people not to damage the plants to ensure they could be left for ‘future visitors’ to enjoy – but if you came back to the Park in a year, would you see the same hot-housed plants flowering all together, or a more natural cycle of growth through the seasons? In which case, are they going to replant the beds with other plants to fill in some of the bare patches at other times of year, or let nature take its course?

To answer my earlier questions – was there enough shade and space to sit? – I’d have to say no and no. If there had been a lot more benches in the shade of all the trees they’d planted, we could have sat in peace to enjoy all the flowers – but I have to say we only saw a fraction of the park so perhaps there was more seating in other areas.

We had a train to catch and it was time to head out – stopping briefly to photograph agapanthus and red hot pokers near the water polo arena, so that covered Africa.

Agapanthus and red hot pokers

African bed – agapanthus and red hot pokers

I never did find the South American, Asian or Australian zones, so there will be plenty more to see when the Park re-opens to the public – or at least I hope the plants will all still be there.

The Park overall was a very impressive site – the stadium itself is a fine piece of architecture, the staff and Gamesmakers all friendly and helpful, queues for food and toilets minimal, and my only gripes were that they should have had more seating, more shade and more water fountains.

It was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come to the Olympics in my home city, but I hope to enjoy the Park and its facilities for many years to come – though don’t expect to see me diving off a 10m board any time soon…

Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s…tasty?

When I began planning my urban cottage garden, it went without saying I would be planting herbs.

Herbs, to me, are the classic cottage garden plant, and for those of us lacking the space or the skill to grow proper fruit or vegetables, it’s an easy way to grow something we can use for cooking, and subsequently feel all smug about in a Good Life kind of way. (Not that all herbs are easy to grow, as I’ve learned, but that’s a whole other blog post).

The first plant I grew in the garden was lavender, planted by the back door to get the full benefit of the beautiful scent, but unless I started making those little lavender bags which end up in the drawer with the tights that never fitted and that scarf which just doesn’t go with anything, there wasn’t really anything I could do with it.

Lavender and roses in a Dulwich garden – classic cottage garden style

I did like the idea of making lavender cupcakes, having tried them in posh cupcake shops over the years, but was put off by the rather complicated recipes I’d seen (and by the prospect of fiddling round with red and blue food colouring to get just the right shade of icing).

Then I was given this book, and found it had what looked like a very straightforward recipe. The lavender in the garden had just come into bloom, and I was going to a NCT mums meet-up where cake was going to feature heavily, so I thought I had better give it a go.

The recipe called for 6 lavender flower heads, but I threw caution to the wind and picked 8.

These were chopped up using my beloved mezzaluna (how Habitat catalogue circa 1988 am I?) and added to the cake batter. It felt a bit odd adding raw flowers straight from the garden to food (they had been washed first, I must stress!) but once mixed in, the batter looked pretty much as normal and the smell of lavender was not overpowering – to the extent I was a bit worried the flavour might end up a bit diluted.

After cooking, however, the cakes had a lovely lavendery scent and rose perfectly – always a worry when trying a recipe for the first time.

The icing was, as I predicted, the most fussy part of the recipe – why food colouring bottles aren’t made with droppers in the top any more, so you can add colour a drop at a time, I don’t know – and I ended up with blue fingernails in the attempt to get the perfect shade.

Cupcakes iced and finished with crystallised violets

The recipe called for glace rather than buttercream icing, which was at least easier to make, and flavoured with orange juice. I added crystallised violets as decoration – not strictly according to the recipe, but I love crystallised flowers (would it surprise you to learn the last cakes I made were flavoured with rose water and decorated with rose petals?) and, well, the colour matched.

As it turned out, the lavender flavour was just about perfect – not over-dominant, but not too subtle either, and even my husband, who probably doesn’t quite share my love of flowery cupcakes, liked them too.

My next plans? As the combination of orange and lavender seems to go so well together, I’d like to try them together in a shortbread biscuit…and I’m also keen to do some baking with rosemary, as my ever-hardy rosemary bush grows bigger and bigger, and I’m always looking for new ways to use it. Perhaps my book has a muffin recipe I could try out….