Archive for the ‘London’ Category

More cool facts about Ham House

Last month, I did a mini factfile-type thing about Ham House, where I volunteer as a ‘historic baker’. About two weeks ago, I went on a guided tour of the house, specially organised for the volunteers. So this is inside info I’ve got for you here.

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Ok, first things first, the house was built in 1610 by a man called Sir Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshal to James I.

William Murray took over the lease in 1626. He was the whipping boy of Charles I and there is a painting of the king hanging in the Long Gallery, which was given to Murray by Charles.

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It was originally built in the shape of a H. As you can see in the picture above, it still resembles a H shape at the front. The back was filled in during the time of the Duchess of Lauderdale, in the late 1600s.

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(You can sort of see the back of the house here.)

After a time of popularity with influential politicians, the Duke of Lauderdale fell out of favour and the family found that they were no longer entertaining the large crowds that they had once accommodated in the banqueting hall, which ran the length of the middle of the H shape.

To allow more light into the hall downstairs, the Duchess had the floor opened up and created what is now the Round Gallery.

All the gardens were built in patterns which ran along straight lines as that was the fashion then. Order and symmetry was thought to be the most pleasing on the eye.

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The little statues in the walls at the front of the house were rescued when the original wall, which ran between Ham House and the river, was knocked down in the early 1800s.

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There are ghosts in Ham House! Tons, apparently. And quite a few in the kitchen, where I work. Apparently people have seen a dog running down the corridors which is thought to be the Duchess of Lauderdale’s dog as dogs are not actually allowed in the property as it is now.

And last but not least, when tea was first arriving on the scene in the UK, apparently it was drunk very often at Ham House.

Thank you, Ham House. Thank you for showing us the way.

Beekeeping (day 2)

Last Sunday was day 2 of the beekeeping course in London that I started the week before. And the second day was no less amazing than the week before.

We learned primarily about swarming and that is what I shall talk about here.

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A bee colony will naturally want to swarm because that is how they reproduce. One colony will split into two and they will each go on living their lives.

When a colony gets bigger, the bees at the outer edge will have less of the ‘queen bee substance’ as they are quite far away from her. If they get too far, they will think there is no queen and they will panic and start building queen cells. The queen is under instruction from the colony so will have to go and lay eggs there.

It is at this point that she gets ready to swarm, as she sees it is her time to leave (usually around the three year mark). Off she goes, taking all the flying (foraging) bees with her and we will deal with her in a moment.

Left behind are the ‘house bees’, who are worker bees who are not yet going out foraging and the queen bee cells. They will build more than one to give themselves a good chance that at least one will produce a queen. If the first queen emerges and she sees there are other queen bees developing in their cells, to get rid of the competition, she will go outside the cell, make a noise and if there is a response from inside, she knows there is a bee growing so she stings it to kill it.

If, however, one of these queen bees emerges and there are two in the hive, they will either have a full on fight to the death or the hive will choose sides and kill the unlucky one by crowding around her so the temperature rises and cooks her to death. Or they will sting her to death. Nice.

The half of the colony that left earlier, will hang out somewhere temporarily while you, the beekeeper, catch them (hopefully) and take them to a new hive. This can be a real headache if they’re in a neighbour’s garden or if they go somewhere high up and you can’t reach them or if you catch the colony but the queen bee is left behind so they will just fly back to her at the first opportunity. There are a whole host of potential problems.

But the clever beekeeper has a way of convincing them they have already swarmed by simply moving the whole hive about 400ft away and putting a new hive in the spot where the old hive was. You then take the frame which has the queen bee on it and put it into the the new hive. When the foraging bees go out to collect nectar and pollen, they will return to the new hive as it is where their old hive was. Thus, you have the queen bee and all the foraging bees in a new hive. And ta da! The bees think they have swarmed!

The bees left behind are the house bees and the eggs, which is how it would have been if there had been a natural swarm. Everyone is happy.

And no-one’s children have swarms on their bikes! Woop woop!

We also saw an extraction machine, which basically spins around the wax frame sheets, causing the honey to fly out and run off. We also tasted tons of different honeys, my favourite being the heather honey and the manuka.

My mind is blown. Yet again. Bees are my heroes.

The time I met Danda at the airport

A little while ago, Danda jetted off into the sun for some Portugal-based fun. I was supposed to be away at the same time but due to some nonsense rules in Texas prisons, I had to postpone it. So I was here and Danda went and had beach fun with family.

On the day Danda was due home, his flight was getting in at 23.15. I left the house at about 10pm and, anticipating boredom, took a Narnia book with me, Prince Caspian to be exact. Now Prince Caspian is a pretty good book, not very like the film apart from the basic story. There is no romance between Caspian and Susan and no rivalry between Caspian and Peter.

Anyway, there I was, on one train then the next, head in my book, wondering if Prince Caspian would beat Miraz and would Aslan come back and help by waking up the trees. There was a lot going on, you know?!

I got to Gatwick and took the shuttle from the South Terminal to the North, head in my book. I got to the North Terminal and looked on the arrivals screen. Danda’s plane had landed and the baggage was in the baggage hall. He’d be about fifteen minutes yet. I might as well chill for a few minutes.

There was a Costa coffee next to a doorway and a sign saying ‘UK arrivals’ above it. Well, I thought, he is arriving and we are in the UK. That must be where he’s coming out. I grabbed a bottle of water, sat within view of the doorway and got reading.

Then Danda called.

“Hi, have you landed?”

“Yeh, where are you?” Danda asked.

Now I’m a girl who loves doing surprises. I love them! I think that’s why I love Hide and Seek so much. And that’s why I said, “Just reading on the sofa.”

“Ok, I’ve just come out so I’ll be ages yet.”

O, he’s only just come off the plane so he’ll be a little while yet, I thought, whilst burying my head in my book again. Still, no-one had come out of the gate I was sitting by, which I thought was a bit wierd. I gave it another ten minutes, then thought something was up. I got up and walked to the arrivals screen and suddenly saw it… The international arrivals gate….

Ah, UK arrivals meant arrivals from other flights within the UK… Not just that we are in the UK. Of course we’re in the bloody UK. As if they would have specified where we are!? Hmm… Top dunce points to Laura.

So I needed to be at the international arrivals gate, not the UK arrivals gate… To be fair, they’re not that far apart so it’s not like I was miles away but I was all taken up with Prince Caspian so I was oblivious to it all.

I stood outside the international arrivals gate for a minute but felt something was wrong. There was no-one coming out. I had to give up my surprise fun and just call Danda…

“Danda, where are you?”

“I’m just on the bus to the car park to pick up the taxi. Why?”

“I’m standing at the international arrivals gate….”

“No! At Gatwick? You’re there?”

“Yes, I came to surprise you but I’ve missed you.”

“O no! Let me get the taxi and come back for you. Where exactly are you stand….. beeeeeeeep.

His phone died. I called back. Nothing. Just the answerphone. Again and again. Eventually I just had to go out to the road and hang about, hoping he would be able to find me.

So for ten minutes, I stood there, in front Gatwick airport, stranded and unsure whether I’d be picked up.

That’s right, I came to meet Danda at the airport and I ended up stranded, waiting for Danda to pick me up.

Well done, Laura. Well done.

*He found me quite easily and I invented a cover story about having just been at the toilet when he came out the gate. It made me sound less stupid.

My walk to Ham House

I do this walk once or twice a week when I go to Ham House to volunteer and I love it. Once I’ve got out of town, I hit the river and this is the best part of the walk….

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Through Buccleuch Gardens….

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Out the other side and along the edge of Petersham Meadows…

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Petersham Meadows on my left and the Thames on my right…

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Cows in Petersham Meadows…

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Ducks on the path…

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The Thames, behind a ton of forage-able dock leaves….

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Horses came here recently!

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Marble Hill House on the opposite side of the river so I know Ham House is soon….

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When I see an open space in the trees ahead on the left, I know Ham House is only another minute away…

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Sure enough…

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The little bridge….

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The trees are hiding the house…

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Horses from the riding school next door….

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Almost….

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There it is!

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To the right of the front door, the windows you can see at the bottom here, those are the kitchen windows! I spend all day looking out at feet!

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I take the side gate around the building (that’s my kitchen window again, bottom left)…

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… Which brings me to the door the volunteers use to get in, the black one on the left….

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I then go down a few steps to the bathroom area….

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… Into the eerily quiet and empty downstairs, which contains the bathroom, the beer cellar, the kitchen and the mess rooms…

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Turning left, I get into the scullery, which then opens out into my favourite room in Ham House….

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The kitchen! This is where I spend all my time baking, the room I know most about and the place where I feel most comfortable, whilst working at the…

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Beautiful and huge old table, built in the kitchen in 1610 using elm wood from an elm tree on the estate. This table is my favourite thing in the house. And probably my favourite table of all the tables I have known.

Readers, if you do not yet have a favourite table, I suggest you get onto it.

And that is my journey, once or twice a week. It’s quite nice, as it happens.

Prepare to Bee amazed

Yesterday, my mind was blown. My mind was blown because I never realised how amazing bees are. I went on the first of a two day course in beekeeping at Walworth Garden Farm in central London.

In central London? I hear you say. Beekeeping and a farm garden? In central London.

Well, yes. Yes, indeed. Walworth Garden Farm is near Kennington tube station. Put your hands up if this means anything to you. If it doesn’t, think council estates, think bricks, think high apartment blocks. And you can see why a farm would seem out of place here. Yet there it is and it thrives in the midst of the concrete.

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The morning was spent getting to know each other and getting to grips with the basics of bees, which consisted of the following:

There are three types of bees – a queen bee, the worker bees and the drones. They are all interdependent on each other and cannot survive unless each is present.

The queen bee, after she has hatched, will take trips out of the hive for the first few weeks of her life. These trips are to find male bees to mate with (which they do in the air). The queen bee saves up all the sperm from this mating period, as she will never mate again in her life. Her life is spent laying eggs and she uses the sperm she has saved to fertilise them. If she is laying a drone egg, she doesn’t fertilise it. It becomes an exact copy of herself. When that drone then goes out and mates with another bee, the queen bees DNA continues on.

The way a queen bee knows whether to lay a fertilised egg (which will become a worker bee) or an unfertilised egg (which becomes a drone) is by measuring the size of the cell the bees have built. The bees build bigger cells for drones so when the queen bee measures it with her legs, if it is a bigger cell, she lays a drone egg.

(By this point in the day, I was overwhelmed. I never realised bees were so mindblowingly clever.)

Bees also each go and collect one of three things when they go out – nectar, pollen or propolis. No-one yet knows how they figure out who’s doing what so that they have the rights amounts of each thing.

To keep the temperature of the ‘brood’ (the growing eggs and larvae) at 30 degrees, if it is cold outside, they will huddle together and vibrate their wing muscles (shoulder muscles, if you will) to keep warm. If it is hot, they will fly out to find water, then create an indoor aid conditioning system by spitting/spraying the water out and flapping their wings. The bees will all flap their wings in a certain direction to circulate the air one way and cool everyone down.

After sitting around being amazed all morning, it was time for a quick lunch break and wander in the garden…

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Then for the afternoon, we were split into two groups, with half of us going to look at the beehives. Off we went, to get kitted out…

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The guy in the blue t-shirt, Ian, is Mr Beekeeper and his knowledge of bees and their habits is so vast. He went in with no kit on and took the lids off the hives and showed us the cells and the workers and the queen bee and the honey and….

It went on and on and it was fascinating. I could have stayed there all day, in my unflattering beige suit, looking at the bees.

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Anyway, after some more bee chat, some of which is mentioned above, we called it a day and will be back next Sunday to find out about how to extract honey from hives and what to do with leftover wax.

Watch this space for more bee facts. I feel another post coming on tomorrow.

The course instructors were amazing yesterday. Everyone knows their stuff inside out and is passionate about what they do and about sharing their knowledge. If you can get to beekeeping course near you, I can fully recommend it, not necessarily to become a beekeeper, more to understand and appreciate how these fabulous little creatures help us and how they work. They are very, very interesting little things.

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To the left, to the left

Yesterday evening, something unexpected happened. Out of the blue, I was invited (persuaded) to go to a concert to raise money for different women’s rights causes. Names were thrown at me to entice me – “J.Lo’s going to be there,” “Madonna’s putting in an appearance,” “Rihanna is performing.”

In the face of such strong persuasion (and the accusation that I’ve become quite boring and must go, to inject some liveliness and optimism into my life), I agreed to go. With stout British stiff upper-lip-ness, though, I told myself it was ‘not really my scene’ and I’m not even into J.Lo and I was simply going to keep a friend company.

We found our seats without too much trouble and watched while a crew of Zumba dancers gave it their all for a little while, to keep us all entertained.

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We knew the big names would be headlining so were surprised to see Jessie J walk on first. I was also surprised to see that looked like a sickly anorexic teenager. The new shaved head she is sporting doesn’t help, it makes her look really skeletal. But about her singing, I was pleasantly surprised. Her Olympics closing ceremony performance last year hurt my ears and I hadn’t high hopes for her live singing but she was good. Hats off to you, Jessie.

Then a gal in a pretty red dress and flowing blond locks and typical high school beauty looks performed some strange loud crashy rap songs. The energy fell a little flat and we sat smiling politely and clapping along a bit. As she did her second and third songs, we feigned polite interest, as one would with a boring guest at a dinner party. Not wanting to break out and yell, “GET OFF! WE ONLY CAME TO SEE BEYONCE,” we tolerated her disjointed noise then sighed with relief when she left the stage.

The next few acts were an Italian woman (the beat was funky, we clapped and wooped and waved our hands – then she started singing in a foreign language and we lost interest and went for a toilet break), Florence and The Machine (long flowy dress made me think of Lord Of The Rings and elfin beauties for the whole time) and John Legend (he was alright on his own songs but murdered Bridge Over Troubled Waters, which upset me).

Then a group of three girls came on and played guitars and bashed on drums and sang/shouted and made funny faces and I found the whole thing quite confusing.

Then Madonna came on! (We had blagged our way to some seats closer to the stage by then.)

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“WOOOOO!” said we.

“We’re all here today because we care about women and we know how important education is in the empowerment of women,” said Madonna.

“I CAME FOR J.LO AND BEYONCE! I COULDN’T CARE LESS ABOUT THE WOMEN!” someone yelled. I don’t know who. Just, ahem, someone.

“I’m going to tell you about a woman in Afghanistan,” said Madonna.

“WOOOOOO!” said we.

“Her name is….”

“WOOOOO! WE LOVE YOU!”

“Listen to me,” Madonna said, earnestly.

“WOOOOO! WOO! WOO! WOO!”

Listen to me!

Silence.

“Sorry, Madonna. Sorry,” we mumbled, and listened obediently while she talked about education.

Next up was Ellie Goulding. She wore little shorts and trainers and looked the picture of effortless cool. She bounced around on stage and had a whale of a time. Then Timberland came on with (wait for it) Simon Le Bon! Tinberland proceeded to do a few of his biggest tracks, replacing Justin Timberlake’s smooth gentle voice with his rather shouty one. He really went for it, giving it his all, performing his heart out. We rewarded him with a typically British response. We wiggled around a little doing sitting-down-dancing in our seats and held our cups of tea aloft and hoo-rahhed his efforts.

And then finally, you could tell the Americans had landed when a massive explosion of glitter sparkles shot out of the stage accompanied by mini firework puffs and smoke machines. Out of this emerged J.Lo, skimpily clad in a black leotard thing and looking fabulous at 43. She flicked her hair and spent a lot of time at the front of the stage, looking into the wind machine and being glamorous and performing perfectly executed dance routines.
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There was a strong emphasis on loud drum beats and sometimes I didn’t know what she was singing but it didn’t seem to matter, cause she’s still, she’s still, Jenny from the block so I wooped and danced with the rest of them. Occasionally, there was a fast and a slow beat going on at the same time and I didn’t know what to do with myself so I bobbed around a bit and swung my arms enthusiastically at my sides. J.Lo finished her set by singing Come Together by The Beatles with Mary J Blige. That’s right. Mary J Blige. Two for the price of one.

Then some talking and videos etc happened, I didn’t really follow them.

And then… Beyonce entered.

And some kind of hysteria took hold of me. I gave a short scream and jumped up.

“YEHHHH!” I yelled.

“Are y’all having a good time tonight?” Beyonce asked us.

“YES, I AM, THANK YOU FOR ASKING!” I yelled. “ARE YOU?”

Someone then pointed out that she’s not actually asking us. It’s just a rhetorical question, to which the answer should always be, “WOOOOOO!”

“Are you ready to party, London?” she asked.

Forgetting myself, I said, “YES! I’M A BIT TIRED BUT I THINK I’LL BE OK.”

And she got down with her bad self. She sung, we sung with her. She waved her arms, we waved our arms with her. She wooped and held the microphone to the audience. We screamed with unashamed abandon and lapped up all her fancy sparkly confetti, her smoke machine, her wind machine, her funky dancing and drum beats and long flowing hair. We sang ‘To the left, to the left,” in unison and all pointed to the left and loved Beyonce and loved each other and looked in teary-eyed wonder at her amazing beauty and wondered if we’d ever love anyone as much as we loved her in that moment.

“If I were a boy…” she sang.

“WE LOVE YOU BEYONCE!”

“Even just for a day…”

“WE’LL DO ANYTHING YOU WANT!”

“I’d roll out of bed in the morning..”

“WE WANT TO BE YOU BEYONCE!”

“Put on what I wanted and go…”

“YOU LOOK GREAT IN EVERYTHING BEYONCE! YOU’RE GORGEOUS! WE LOVE YOU!”

And so it went on. Beyonce sang, we loved. She was golden haired and slim waisted and angel voiced.

And Jay-Z walked on and did himself a little rap on Crazy In Love and we didn’t know where to put ourselves. Our throats became hoarse from excited screaming.

Beyonce finished with a little tribute to Whitney, which morphed into Halo, which made me giggle because I used to play it to a guy I was going out with and look at him with my serious eyes and tell him it made me think of him. Vom.

And then she left us. She just said thanks, bye, and walked right out of our lives. And we were left, empty and helpless. Life would never be the same after Beyonce.

Then suddenly we remembered the time and that public transport and getting out was going to be a nightmare. And suddenly we were all trying to squash out of the exit, cursing one another for barging us or getting in our way and scrambling for the train stations and bus stops, as though Beyonce didn’t even exist. Beyonce who? Get outta my way! I need to get home!

A day in the life of a scullery maid

I’ve been volunteering at Ham House for a few weeks now so I thought I’d give you all a little insight to a typical day in the kitchen there.

I spend an hour or so in the morning, testing the recipe I’m doing that day so I’m prepared for any potential disasters. Depending on if I have spotted any, I will pack my bag of stuff to take and include things which may prevent anything going wrong, eg, a palate knife to save me fighting with a biscuit stuck on a tray in front of the visitors.

I walk to the river and take the pleasantest half hour commute I’ve ever known, alongside the Thames.

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When I get there, I’ve already worked out what I’ll need from the cafe kitchen so I head there, pick up my eggs and butter, leave my stuff in a locker in the main house then put on my apron and get a head start on my baking before the house opens to the public.

As the kitchen is at the end of the recommended walk around the house, I have 45 minutes or so to get my first batch done.
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During this 45 minutes, the other room guides and demonstrators will have followed their noses to the kitchen to try the biscuits/cakes and have a little chitchat.

Once the first visitors come downstairs to look around, I’m in it then. The questions are constant.

“What are in these biscuits?”
“Where did you find the recipe, they’re really good.”
“When would these have been eaten?”
“What would they have been eaten with?”
“How many servants would have been working in the kitchen?”
“Would they have eaten at this table too?”

And I love it. I totally get in the zone. I tell them the answers when I do know them and speculate on the possibilities when I don’t. Long discussions arise, about how much wine they drunk, whether they had a small digestive biscuit after dinner, whether they brewed tea in the dining room or whether it was brewed in the kitchen then taken up because surely it would have been cold by then and etc, etc.

And people say fabulous things before they leave the kitchen, the best being a variation on, “This really brings the history alive.” I love that I’ve taken part in a kind of ‘living history’ thing, where people become more interested or understand better the history of where they are because of something I have done or said.

The baking and the tasting and the chatting continues on for a few hours, when it starts to die down. As the remaining visitors walk around, I start packing up my stuff. Once the house is officially closed, I take everything back to the tea room except the butter and eggs, which I take to the cafe kitchen.

When I return from the cafe kitchen, everyone else has gone. There are only a few volunteers left upstairs, tidying things up for the evening. As I walk through the downstairs section and all the lights are off, I feel like an actual scullery maid from 1650 staying awake to keep the fire stoked overnight. I imagine what my life would have been like 400 years ago and what it was really like to work in a house like this.
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Some time after this, I stop daydreaming, change my smart clothes for comfy ones and walk home along the river. It is around this point that I realise what I brilliant day I have had and need to share it so Facebook something like, “What a brilliant day.” I’m so imaginative.

And that, my friends, is my typical day as a scullery maid in the Ham House kitchen. I would’ve done fabulously in Downton Abbey times. I wouldn’t be surprised if they called and asked me to be in the next series actually.

P is for…

POPULAR!

Ok, anyone who loves feeding people knows that, illogically, you feel that when people praise your food they are, by default, also praising you. I think that might be why I like feeding people so much.

Last Sunday, when I had my first day at Ham House, another volunteer who’s been there for 15 years was talking about his oven being broken. He said he would normally bring a cake in every Sunday to put in the tea room for when the volunteers have their breaks.

A ha! thought I. I see an opening for a new cake-baker and, potentially, a new most-popular volunteer.

With my sights set on one day inheriting Ham House (who wouldn’t want this as their holiday home?)…

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…and becoming the 3rd Countess of Ham (I’m sure that’s a thing), I thought I’d become temporary cake-provider.

Now, the night before, having made my fabulous plan, I went to my kitchen to bake a cake…. And found I was out of sugar. What a loser. Who lets themself run out of sugar?! So I made a loaf of bread with loads of different spices and seeds and took along one of the chutneys I made at the farm.

When I got to Ham House, I dropped the goodies in the tea room with a note before going to bake for the visitors.

I headed to the kitchen with the volunteer baker for that day, who I would be shadowing. We baked two different types of biscuits, using 17th century recipes that we didn’t change at all (apart from baking them in an electric oven, of course).

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One was a carraway and coriander biscuit. And could I stop calling it carrot and coriander when speaking to visitors? No, of course not! And they’d go, “O, carrot and coriander biscuits? Interesting!” And then I’d be like, “O no, sorry. Carraway and coriander.” And feel silly.

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The other was called a knot biscuit, because of how the dough was rolled into strips and twisted or knotted together. They had carraway, ground mace and fennel seeds in them.

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Here’s a close up of my prettiest knotting attempt.

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The baking smells brought visitors and other volunteers down to the room, following their noses. Although it was a much quieter day than the previous Sunday I had worked, we still had a decent amount of people come and linger, chatting about the history of the kitchen.

Every so often, I brushed a stray bit of flour off the beautiful elm wood table which, they think, has been there since the early 1600s and I’d think of the people who had worked at this table before me and think how interesting it would be if the table could talk.

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Once we’d finished baking, we stayed to the end to talk to people about the recipes and what 17th century food was like. It was good fun because food is a thing most people can connect with because most people cook so I ended up having some quite in-depth discussions, speculating on the occasions when the biscuits might have been eaten and what with and were they dipped into a hot drink or eaten after dinner as a digestive, etc etc.

When I popped to the tea room at the end of the day to check on the bread and chutney situation, the loaf was now a few crumbs on some napkins and the chutney was half empty. One of the gardeners was in there and she asked if I was the one who baked the bread and said the gardeners had loved it! They snaffled half of it in about ten minutes and loved the chutney! Even the lady I was shadowing on the baking said she had tasted it and enjoyed it!

So I think that means they love me too, surely? Isn’t that what that means? What to bake for next time though? Suggestions please.

Signing off, Laura Maisey, (future) 3rd Countess of Ham and Lady of the Manor at Ham House.

Wimbledon Common and I

One of my first encounters with Wimbledon was when I was asked to go and work there. I worked for a coffee company which had kiosks in train stations all over the country so I would often get sent somewhere else for a day. I had been to a bar in Wimbledon before, years ago, with a friend, but I knew I wouldn’t still recognise anything.

I cycled there because I had recently decided I was going to exercise more and had purchased one of those little fold up bikes. I lived ten minutes away from Wimbledon Common and knew that all I had to do was get onto it from my end, cycle across it, emerge on the Wimbledon side and find the train station. Simple, right?

This is what actually happened. I got onto the Common and started cycling. I realised that my little fold up bike with its mini wheels was ill-equipped for stones and grass. I was thrown about all over the place, which I blame for loss of concentration. It was summer too so when I cycled through a patch of low hanging trees, there was all this nature-stuff all over the place and sticking to me, petals and bits of leaf and spiderwebs.

I had allowed an hour to make the journey and by the time I was forty minutes in and still on the Common, I started to worry. I just couldn’t find my way to the edge! I’d follow one certain direction in a straight line, figuring I would have to reach the outside soon, then I’d see something in another direction that I was sure must lead to Wimbledon so start off in a different direction. I felt like perhaps I had entered an enchanted land which was huge and inescapable. The Common was like the wardrobe which led into Narnia.

Eventually, after about an hour, by which point I am definitely going to be late to work and am becoming frantic, I emerged from the trees onto a large rugby playing field and a road on the other side of it. The edge of the Common! I had found it. There was a man walking his dog and I bumped over there on my bike and asked him directions to Wimbledon. He indicated back into the trees and said going round by road would take far too long. He gave me directions so I took a deep breath and plunged back in.

And I was lost again. I cycled round helplessly, looking for the tree stump or the split in the path that he had told me about. I couldn’t see any of it. I was lost. Again.

Eventually, I saw some flat grass and two people playing golf. I peddled over, panting and panicking and covered in nature. They pointed the route out to me and said I was near.

As I turned to go, one of them, a guy a similar age to me, said, “Wait a minute.”

Ah! thought I. This is how it is in the films. A damsel in distress, a young gallant man, rescues her and falls in love with her. His heart strings are pulled by her youthful naivete. He will ask me for my phone number now. Be cool. Be calm.

I turned back to him, expectantly.

“You’ve got a spider on your top.”

I looked down to find that he was right. I did indeed have a spider on my top, just by my shoulder. Acting as though I wasn’t even bothered, I brushed it off and hurried away, embarrassed.

I came to a little road and went into it, until a stern lady came out and made it clear that this was a private road and I needed to go that way, the other way, anything to get me out of her road.

After another half an hour or so of cycling and looking and feeling helpless, I eventually emerged and found my way to the station, exhausted and traumatised. Later that night, I finished my shift and decided to confront the Common again, face my fears head on. It took all of ten minutes for me to somehow, do a semi circle and end up coming off the Common a stone’s throw away from where I had entered it. I gave up on the Common then.

As a P.S., when I eventually decided to tackle Wimbledon Common again and figured out the route across it, it took fifteen minutes maximum, to get from end to end. On the day mentioned above, it took me two and a half hours.

Wimbledon Hill and I

Wimbledon Hill has meant many things to me. It has defined my relationship with my bike. And with myself. There are hills that are difficult to get up… But I manage it most of the time. There are hills that only super-fit triathletes would attempt. One of these hills is on the cycle route from London out to Reading. I like to call it The Hill Of Resting because all you can do is get off your bike and rest.

But Wimbledon Hill is different. It is difficult. But not too difficult. If you get into the right thought process, you can just about get up it. If you think you won’t do it, then you might as well not try, because you’ll give up so quickly. But if you can talk yourself into believing you can do it, you’ve crossed the first hurdle.

There are a few things which need to happen to get up Wimbledon Hill.

1. You need to believe you will make it.

2. You need the traffic lights at the bottom of the hill to be on green.

3. You need to look down at the road and not look up to check your progress until you go past the second drain and are in sight of the Cath Kidson shop.

4. You need to stand up to approach the hill but sit down after the first drain.

5. You need to keep your speed up.

Once you have worked this out, you can attack the hill every time, because you have a method. But all it takes is the slightest inclination that your legs ache, or you feel lazy today, or you’ll never make it… and off you climb, feeling like a let down and convincing yourself that next time you’ll do it.

Life is a bit like Wimbledon Hill. Occasionally it is like the Hill Of Resting. Realistically, I will never alleviate world hunger single handedly. It is more than likely that I will end up pushing my bike up the hill, making small efforts here and there where I can but unable to attack the whole thing alone.

But sometimes it is like Wimbledon Hill. It’s hard but going for it and having a method could see you through, so long as you don’t hop off with a faux injury, saying you’ll do it next time.

My efforts to be greener have so far been a little more like a gentle incline, the long slow hill in Richmond Park from Roehampton Gate to Richmond Gate (minus the steep bit at the end, of course). I quite like Richmond Park and a gentle incline is at least heading in the right direction.

But the other day I decided to jump in with both feet and attempt a little Wimbledon Hill. I put my money where my mouth is. I went looking for things I care about, causes and projects that I feel passionately about. While I couldn’t be at the abolitionist march in Austin today, I donated some money to the organisation leading it. I also read up about the British Red Cross and, remembering someone in my neighbourhood who needs help, gave them some money too. I bought two books from the Friends of the Earth website. And in town last night, meeting a friend for dinner, I saw some street musicians and emptied my purse into their guitar case.

I may be a little short at the end of this month but I’m going to ride it out. I felt poorer financially but better for it. Lighter. Like I’d emptied my pockets and now I was more relaxed. The money had been given wisely and I was absolved of the responsibility of spending it.

And that was also my Wimbledon Hill, being ok with giving money away again. I used to do it loads when I didn’t have much, because I didn’t have anything to lose. But then after a while, the bank and the government wanted all that money back. And you have to keep hold of it. Think before you spend. Withhold frivolity. Watch the pennies.

And this past few days, for my one good thing every day, I have given money away in a useful way. And it has been fun. Try it.