It’s more like a month in pictures this time – I have no idea where January has gone. It’s been a whole month of not working for the first time in six years and despite the rain, snow and storms here, it’s been wonderful just to slow down, relax and breathe. I’ve had time to walk, to tidy up in the garden, bake bread and enjoy days with no pressing deadlines. Even my to-do lists have been leisurely. I’ve lost that general feeling of anxiety and guilt of not quite getting everything done at the end of day, of always feeling something left not quite complete.
In my wisdom though – in case I missed spending most of my days at a desk in front of a computer – I decided to redesign this blog. Despite posting somewhat sporadically for the past few years I enjoy it, but have recently been feeling like I want more options here on design and layout. I’ve got a fairly clear idea of what I want it to look like – cleaner, simpler without that wordpress banner on the top for example…So I took the plunge and have signed up to Squarespace and am currently working through putting together the pages. Stay tuned.
We had snow here two weeks ago – a brief flurry overnight which hung around for a few days on the mountain tops then melted. We got a walk in up to Sugar Loaf which was beautiful – we hardly saw anyone on the way up, then on the top it was like market day in Abergavenny.
We also went to Meilyr Jones. I’ve liked him since he was in Race Horses/Radio Luxembourg years ago but never got to see them live. A natural performer, after half an hour of technical delays and faffing, he stands up, announces ‘I’ve always wondered if I could change the atmosphere with a click of my fingers’, launches into full trumpets and strings, and blows the January cobwebs away.
So that was 2015. I started the year employed, I ended it unemployed and considering career changes. The garden saw plenty of activity – clearing, landscaping and seed sowing. We enjoyed just being in the cottage, sitting in front of the fire, cooking, listening to records.
We spent a calm and quiet New Year’s Eve here, but for the first time in over twenty years I didn’t even manage to stay awake until midnight. I woke on the first day of the New Year to a rare few hours of sunshine.
A few shots of the past week – clockwise from top left:
Still eating the Christmas cheese – Gorwydd and Perl Las here with charcoal biscuits.
New Year, New calendar. This is one I made with artifact uprising for my dad who lives on Anglesey, showing local shots I’ve taken over the past few years. January shows Biwmaris pier looking over to a snowy Snowdonia
Despite the rain the weather has been so mild here the grass is still growing and there’s been no real need to feed the sheep ewe rolls yet (despite the fact they gather round us when we go out, ready to be fed).
And finally, a Grey Trees from our Christmas hampers…here’s to 2016.
Yesterday I mentioned I’d been making Christmas hampers. There are several people in my life who are difficult to buy for – who never ask for anything specific and for whom there’s nothing I can immediately think they need (there’s always a few…). However, since we moved here two years ago we’ve discovered some lovely local shops and producers that I was keen to share with my family. So, this year pretty much everyone is getting a hamper. Because who doesn’t always love something good to eat and read? This is how I got on – local producers called out below.
For those who love baking
Unbleached strong white flour from Talgarth Mill – a restored flour mill which makes the best bread and has a great cafe attached. Their flours are currently fuelling my own sourdough obsession. Nom nom ridiculously good chocolate from Pembrokeshire.
For coffee and beer lovers
We’ve been loving Grey Trees JPR pale ale this year, but try their Caradog’s Bitter for something darker this winter. Coaltown Coffee Roasters have the best packaging and their Black Gold Signature Blend is ideal for mornings (afternoons, evenings…). Strong coffee and beer requires a good read, so here’s Richard Hell’s autobiography to accompany your drinking, and remind me of watching Television at Green Man this summer.
For those in search of something good to put on toast
Having eaten at Y Polyn a few years ago, I was intent upon going to Wright’s Food Emporium this year and a few months ago we headed over for a day trip to Carmarthenshire. It was 3pm on a rainy Saturday and Wright’s was heaving but we shopped for a few things and browsed Simon’s record collection whilst waiting. They sell their own range of produce – this plum and vanilla jam for example – and a careful selection of other producers like this honey from Coedcanlas. Sadly not available online, you’ll just have to visit yourselves – and try the rarebit with nduja whilst you’re there, I’m still dreaming about it.
For dark reading on dark nights
Admittedly, this would be one for me. This selection of iconic photos from Kevin Cummings came out a few years ago now, but remains on my coffee table/footstool for regular flicking through. Dark pictures on dark days require cosy scarf-shawls – this one from Number 46 in Abergavenny is ideal.
For lovers of Welsh art and craft
Every time I visit family on Anglesey I always visit Oriel Ynys Mon in Llangefni, Wales’ national collection of Kyffin Williams paintings. This beautiful book is a curation of his portraits with annotation and anecdotes on each by the artist. Fforest is a place I’ve wanted to stay at for a long time (one of their granary lofts in Cardigan please) but until then I’ll settle for one of their blankets.
So that’s my selection, I’m off to finish my wrapping.
It’s been a busy few weeks – preparing for Christmas, finishing off at work and wading through all the rain we’ve been having. No floods here thankfully, but weekend after weekend of rain. On Instagram this week I was asked how many words there are for rain in Welsh. I didn’t know how many, but there are a lot, and all describe quite specific states of rain. All in all it has been doing everything from pigo (spotting) to piso (no translation required there) here most days. The land is sodden and walking is difficult – literally wading through mud. My favourite rain phrase though is mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn – it’s raining old women and sticks. Makes as much sense as raining cats and dogs, I suppose.
An early Christmas present was a copy of Jack Thurston’s lovely Lost Lanes Wales. I spent a few pleasant hours reading through it, particularly the rides around here – beautifully described and photographed, it covers our local Iron Mountain (the Blorenge), the three peaks of the Skirrid, Blorenge and Sugar Loaf, then heads further along to the Valleys before continuing all around Wales and the Borders. When January comes I’ll need some things to keep me busy. There is even a local wild swimming spot near here that I didn’t know about – one to find next summer.
Finally, a night out in Cardiff seeing Euros Childs. The third time we’ve seen him in the past twelve months – second with the full Roogie Boogie Band – and he/they just get better. Cardiff was the last night of the current tour and it was good to see him on home turf.
I’ve also been finishing Christmas hampers of (largely) Welsh produce. Check back tomorrow for updates!
It’s been grey, wet and ever so windy here over the past two weeks. We attempted a walk up Corn Du and Pen y Fan only to to find it so blustery on the top of Corn Du we didn’t get any further. Pen y Fan stayed tantalisingly out of reach, even though it would have only been another ten minutes’ walk on, but we decided it wasn’t the day for it. Whilst we were making that decision a fell runner passed us, leaping up among the rocks on the top with just a pair of shorts and a single long sleeved top on. He was hardier than us in our full walking gear. The Pen y Fan itch will have to be scratched on a better, calmer day.
No, it’s been the weather for staying in, baking and life decisions. I finally attempted some bara brith, after much complaining that they just don’t make it down here like they do where I grew up in North Wales. It turned out beautifully from just five ingredients: fruit soaked overnight in strong tea, allspice, flour, sugar and one egg.
Heading towards Christmas and the end of the year always makes me reflective. What have I achieved this year? How do I feel about another year passing? It’s been stormy weather at work this year too. Lots of changes, uncertainty, stress. Somewhere on those hills or in my kitchen I took a decision that has been a long time coming. It’s a decision that puts me back in control and firmly says ‘Don’t like it? Change it’. So I did. After nearly six years in my present job, I resigned. I leave at Christmas and start the New Year with a blank slate.
I haven’t talked about my job on here as it feels far removed from my life here in the valley. It’s a metropolitan career steeped in cities and politics, which I leave behind as I drive towards the hills. I soak overnight in the peace and utter quietness here ready for another day of what often just feels like fire-fighting. I’d like to find a way to better blend the two next year – I’m not sure yet what that could be, but I am sure of one thing: brighter days are ahead.
P.S. For all logophiles and nature lovers out there, Robert McFarlane’s Landmarks is a lovely read, charting the (often disappearing) words we use to describe our natural world. Ideal for broadening the vocabulary on Christmas walks.
Just a quick update this week – seasons of mists in the garden and on walks around the valley. Blaenavon Ironworks is just over the mountain from us – it is now a musuem and part of the World Heritage Site. The road over the mountain – The Tumble – is a cyclists’ paradise and has featured in many Tours of Britain. 6km long with a steady gradient of 10% the above middle picture shows it, deceptively, as it flattens out over the top. Halloween passed us by in the valley last Saturday night – we’re too remote to have any trick or treaters and the (very few) local children are teenagers.
We’ve been celebrating the dank evenings and log fires by catching up with the new series of Y Gwyll/HInterland, which has started again on S4C in Welsh. Produced bilingually in Welsh then English, it’s a dark story of rural crime and long-held secrets set in the bleak but beautiful mountains around Aberystwyth. If you haven’t seen it catch up here.
So, when I redesigned the blog I promised some more posts about the cottage. Let’s start with some background about the house before I move on the details.
We don’t know exactly how old the cottage is, but neighbours tell us it was probably built sometime in the early nineteenth century so could be up to 200 years old.
Back then this valley was radically different to the quiet, peaceful place it is today. In the nineteenth century it would have been a hive of heavy industry, with quarries and mines fuelling the industrial revolution. These days, you can still see the remains of some of the old villages, the forges and tramways that were used to transport the iron to the outside world. This is the landscape where Alexander Cordell based his novel Rape of the Fair Country, charting the hardship of life in these communities and the increasing tensions between the ironmasters and trade unionists.
I talk about the ‘cottage’ in the singular, but actually the house started life as two small semi-detached cottages. You can just see in the picture that it looks like we have numerous front doors.
The cottages had gardens to the front and shared a well for their water (which is still there although pretty silted up – take a look at the picture below – not sure I would have wanted to navigate those steps every day). At the back there were pig sties which still remain, although they’re in need of some restoration too. The cottages sat – and still sit – surrounded by fields, and were originally part of a larger neighbouring farm.
We know the cottages were occupied until the early twentieth century but then laid empty for some fifty years. In the early seventies the then owners the rescued them from near ruin and – turning them into a single cottage for the first time – renovated them with a pretty light touch. I think it would have been at this point that the cottage got its first electricity, but as there’s no gas main out here, heating came from a solid fuel Rayburn installed into the kitchen. The same Rayburn that forty years later we’d come to battle with – unsuccessfully. Importantly though, they maintained the bones of the place – the flagstone floor in the dining room, the open beamed ceiling between the two floors, the tiny winding stone staircase that curves behind the fireplace.
When we bought the cottage two years ago, the time had come for a little updating. After forty years, the electricity needed rewiring and we decided to install some central heating. Both big jobs. We also wanted to install a kitchen as the previous one was freestanding and had been moved with the previous owners, leaving us with just a sink unit in the corner. The bathrooms also needed some updating.
So, now you’ve seen some of pictures from back when we moved in, let’s start on the before and afters! What would you like to see first?
It’s been a beautiful weekend here in Wales with morning mist and fog clearing to leave stunning blue skies and real warmth. Working in T-shirts in the garden in November! The heather is out in all its purple glory on the mountain and as the light fades in the evening the Blorenge is lit up […]
Whilst others hang out for the latest Toast collection, it’s the new Melin Tregwynt catalogue landing in the post that gets me excited. Beautifully designed Welsh tapestry fabric made into blankets, throws, cushions or available by the metre. There’s a new collection for autumn 2015, ‘Patrwm Patagonia’, inspired by the story of the pioneers from Wales who settled in South America 150 years ago and set up new Welsh-speaking communities which exist to this day.
However, it’s the St David’s Cross design that I really love. This reversible design is an historic pattern, based on eighteenth century Shaker design. You might remember the curtains I was planning, ooh, almost one year to the day ago now? Well, being nothing if not indecisive, I’m still planning. With winter coming however, I’m feeling a bit of pressure to now get these sorted.
So, I have two windows that need covering, both full-length French windows. For the first one in our living room, I’m planning something quite neutral in greys as we have a few big splashes of colour from a footstool and cushions already, so the St David’s Cross in Silver would be ideal in there:
For the second French door though I’m looking for something a bit more colourful. This is in our dining room and has replaced an old solid stable door that was so warped with damp that it didn’t open. We put in a glass door and the light now floods in. It does get a bit cold though in winter when you sit at the table with your back to it, so it needs a curtain to keep the heat in. The rest of the room is pretty neutral, so it can take some colour. I’m thinking of the St David’s Cross in this red colourway:
Just look how good it looks in ‘real life’ i.e. if I had a beautiful old oak settle:
Now all I have to do is get the fabric ordered and made. Stay tuned (don’t hold your breath).
A slightly longer Week in Pictures this week given the fantastic Abergavenny Food Festival last weekend. So, where to start? Well, we only had the Saturday this year to enjoy the festival as we couldn’t get there on Sunday. Turns out this was no bad thing as doing two days last year was exhausting, so we just made the most of the time we had.
I said this last year, and I might have said it again last weekend several times, but I can never get over how huge the festival is and how much of the town it covers. I know they say it’s one of the UK’s biggest (and best, of course) food festivals, but when you’re used to your local town half full even on a Saturday morning at its busiest, it’s still a (very pleasant) surprise to see it so packed. Let’s face it, Abergavenny is a town of two halves really – there are some lovely shops and places to eat, and there are very many empty shops and units. In that, it’s no different from any other rural/suburban high street hit by out of town development, changing shopping habits and decreasing footfall. But, what marks Abergavenny out as different is the motivation and energy a small bunch of people have to really make a difference to the town, bring people in and get them spending and enjoying the place.
So, we got in there early on Saturday morning and spent some time wandering around the stalls, planning what we would come back to and try, what was on our list to buy. Then we’d booked ourselves in for a sourdough class with the baker Alex Gooch from Hay-on-Wye. I’d tried Alex’s bread at the Hardwick, and had always commented on just how fantastic it was – chewy, with a great crust and a real depth of flavour.
Organised by the local cookery school, The Culinary Cottage, it was held in the Priory Hall in the centre of town and numbers were kept to around 16 to ensure we all had plenty of time with Alex. Now, I’ll admit – I find sourdough complicated. I don’t really understand the process for the starter, nor the feeding schedule, the temperatures, the whole complex, time-consuming business. Fortunately, Alex choose to do sourdough flatbreads which for a novice like me, is just about manageable. We put our pinnies on, mixed our ingredients, made a fantastic mess with the runny sourdough and eventually corralled the lot into an oiled bag to take home to bake. We then tried Alex’s ‘here’s one I made earlier’ version of flatbread – and my word, it’s worth the effort. Topped variously with garlic oil, Hafod cheddar, pickled chillies, cumin and coriander, I don’t think I need I’ll ever be buying supermarket pizza again (I know, all the class…).
The next day – after a spell lying dormant in the fridge – I got my dough out, coralled it back out of its oiled bag and started rolling and cooking. It’s not the easiest to work with, still being quite frankly a bit sloppier than other doughs I’ve worked with, but with plenty (and I mean plenty) of the polenta that Alex recommended, and after a bit of trial and error – seven of my very own flatbreads! In bad blogger style there are no photos of this process because at this point I was covered in a mixture of dough and polenta and couldn’t have picked up the camera if I’d wanted to. So, you’ll have to take my word for it – they were delicious (I didn’t eat all seven – I did have the restraint to freeze some of them). Alex sent us all away with with our very own 11 year old starter which is now resting in the fridge before I recover sufficiently to attempt to resuscitate it and make some bread.
Back to the festival. We headed back over to the Castle area for lunch. More dough based products at the woodfired pizza stall? Yes, I was tempted but managed to hold back enough to go for Cafe Spice Namaste‘s goan potato curry with rice and onion bhajis, eaten in the sunshine by the castle walls.
After that we wandered around the market area and the brewery yard. We had to make beeline back to the bara brith stand, Baked by Mel. For my overseas or over-border readers, bara brith is a traditional Welsh tea-loaf, made with dried fruits, baked and eaten either as is or toasted, butter optional (but good). A great bara brith might look small but legitimately weighs around two stone. It should be dense in the best possible sense of the word. I grew up on the stuff in North Wales, bought from the long-gone (and missed) Roberts’ bakery in Mold, requesting it to take back to university every term when I was a student. Since moving here however, I haven’t really found a good stand in. South Walian bara brith seems to be more cake-like, almost like a syrup sponge. Mel’s is different however. This is bara brith as it should be – chock full of fruit, and heavy as a millstone. Extra marks for the lovely packaging and Richard Llewelyn quote.
After all that, it was time to head home, have a quick change and go back out again. The festival also runs fringe events outside of the main town festival site, and this year Feast with a Chef was bringing Michelin-starred chef Matt Gillan to our local village hall. Yes, previously only known for it’s monthly film nights and location for the start of local fell races (other runners will know what I mean when I say race starts have a peculiar, yet unmistakeable, smell of embrocation, fear and toilets), it was perhaps not an auspicious beginning to a night. But, greeted by a glass of Ancre Hill sparkling and with the promise of a Michaelmas feast things were looking up. The village hall was decked out in bunting, with long tables laid communal-style, and importantly, no lingering smell of runners.
Michaelmas feasts are a tradition that we don’t seem to have widely retained here in the UK, but historically, it was the time after the harvest when farmers and tenants would pay their annual rents, often sweetening their landlords with the present of a goose. Hence, the traditional Michaelmas feast is goose-based, and apparently, goose is best eaten at this time of the year (rather than Christmas) as it is fat from feeding on the stubble of the harvest.
I’m not quite sure how they achieved it, but out of the small kitchen of the village hall came five courses of delicious food. Celery sorbet, seared tuna, the goose (all parts used except for the hiss), berry dessert – accompanied by local wines, beer and cider.
We ended the night walking the couple of miles back home, walking off the sourdough, the bara brith, the goose, the Ancre Hill, and reflecting on just what a difference one idea carried out with energy, ambition and enthusiasm can make to a town.