Category Archives: Uncategorized

Herb garden

The garden is beginning to droop and it seems a shame to waste the herbs that have been so tastily adding to meals over the summer. Continuing the sustained fit of domestication and the surge towards middle age, I looked to preserve the end of the crop after a friend told me that she’d made the dried rose petal confetti at a wedding last weekend. I approved of this yet more when I learnt it was in protest at confetti costing an arm and a leg.

Ah lo, all it takes is some kitchen roll and a microwave. Why don’t they tell you it’s so easy?? It also preserves the colour and aroma of the herbs. What’s not to love?

1. Harvest your crop of leaves. Rinse them and dry them if you please.
2. Lay out on kitchen paper and put on microwaveable plate.


3. Cover with another piece of kitchen paper.
4. Zap for 30 second intervals until dry and crispy to touch.

5. Put in jars and look smug.



Elderflower: my new favourite thing

I grant that this post is past seasonal and the best of the elderflowers have, alas, continued on their berry journey, smelling briefly of cat piss in the process.

But I’m blaming the broken shoulder and the heat and the busy-ness and all manner of other things for the tardiness of this post. 

In my fracture-compelled confinement, time was freed up for a spot of foraging. So in an effort to distract me from lying on the sofa eating chocolate biscuits and kettle chips, my aunt and sister took me to The Downs for some elderflower foraging. 


Foraging might be a la mode at the moment, but my interest stems not from pikey or hipster tendencies but from seeing a carpet of wasted, rotting fruit over the pavement last autumn. It struck me that our grandparents would be *horrified* that I couldn’t even identify the spoiled goodness that was almost certainly edible. I can’t even identify basic trees any more and I’m sure we all could as kids. There’s a disconnect from nature and I want to fix mine. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the slightest clue what elderflowers even look like. Not a promising start. Luckily, Google did. Here they are, pretty, delicate little white flowers with tiny spheres exploding out of them. 




As in any good nursery rhyme, we collected three bags full. It’s not good form to sweep the bushes entirely of flower heads as it steals all the berries from later in the season (but you do want to pick the biggest and best). 



Then the magic can begin…

You will need:

– 1 bag of granulated sugar

– 2 unwaxed lemons

– 1 sachet of citric acid (available from pharmacies)

– 30 heads of elderflower

– 1.5 litres of water


1. Shake / wash the elderflowers and place them in large bowl.
2. Heat sugar in water. Bring to the boil and stir until dissolved. Stir in citric acid.
3. Part zest of lemons (thick) and put in with elderflowers. Slice lemons and add slices to bowl.
Pour over boiling syrup. Cover with cloth and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
4. Strain and store in sterlized bottle. (Here’s how to sterilize glass bottles.)

What to do if it starts to go mouldy… 

The point of processing food with lots of sugar was always to preserve it, so you can reasonably expect your elderflower cordial not to go mouldy. However, it does happen, likely because you haven’t sterilised the bottles properly. 

Don’t panic. All is not lost. Boil a jay cloth, restrain the elderflower through the sterilized cloth, reboil the cordial and then put the warm cordial back into the warm bottle. 


Elderflower wee

It might look like wee, but it tastes wonderful, with apple juice, or soda water, or in a crunch cake (lemon drizzle, ramped up), or whizzed up with cucumber into a spritzer. But most especially with gin. 


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Dragged into the 21st century

Until recently this was the SMS I received every time anyone sent me a picture message.

ImageI’ve had this old Dame of a phone for three years and have had no complaints. It is indestructible, it looks like a terrorist handset (on account of the Arabic letters), the battery lasts for nearly a week and no one wants to nick it. The crappy Nokia was like a badge of creative honour. All my freelance journalist, illustrator, artist and translator friends had them, chirping out the same Nokia ringtone with each text.

But things have started to change. One by one they began to see how imperative Angry Birds is to a fulfilled and functional life.

I resisted as far as possible, but when the Dame started to turn herself off at random and my neck started to hurt from multi-tasking the old fashioned way it was time.

So this arrived last week…Image

Maps wherever I go? Google on demand? A mobile camera? Apps? (Let’s look past the pitiful battery life and stealability.)

I have seen the future. Where do I get me a hover board?

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Facing 30

Everyone keeps banging on about this 3o milestone. Even my bank manager on the phone the other day was teasing me in a phone-call about my onset old age. I don’t know why. Wild [time travelling] horses couldn’t drag me back to my teens; twenties – meh. Bring it on, decade #4.

But still, these milestones do focus the mind for many. A friend, a few years advanced of me down the track of life, once told me the list he had sketched out of ‘things to achieve by the time I’m 30’. Have kids, own a property and have an established career were I think on there.

They’re not on mine. It’s much more banal. Wanna see? Here goes:

  • Cook a roast dinner. I’ve participated in the preparation, I’ve taken charge of roasties, but I’ve never cooked a full roast dinner in my life.
  • Run a marathon. Everyone needs goals. My next one is to do 10km in less than 45 minutes and run a marathon. Let’s not talk about the looming ultra.
  • Er… I think that’s it. Does that make me woefully unambitious or content?

Obviously this is distinct from the bucket list. That is a whole other kettle of fish (and has a lifelong deadline). Not that socially-engineered deadlines are any good for you, as Fraisse’s Psychology of Time conveniently tells.

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God, I miss Broadband

It’s been two weeks. Two long weeks since I’ve had ready internet access at home and – while I wish I could tell you it was liberating – it’s been a crippling short-coming.

It has, however, meant that I’ve established a list of my favourite places to go for wifi and endless coffee. So much coffee that I’ve had jitters and motor-mouth at various times.

Here’s a map for you:

I wasn’t the first. Mine isn’t comprehensive so if that leaves you hanging, try this one:

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Dream tents

Who says you can’t travel from the comfort of your own desk? Surely part of the joy of travel lies in the planning, the anticipation? I think so, which is why I spent some of today drooling over these ‘back to nature’ bubble tents in France.

Not for the faint-hearted, but a delicious way to envelope yourself in the forest, field, mountain or spring location you find them in. Attrap’Rêves (dream catcher) near Marseilles and Sky River outside Loir-et-Cher are two unique hotels that offer guests the chance to sleep under the stars in a small, cosy – well – bubble. Some are partially opaque, while true exhibitionists can enjoy fully transparent versions.

Following the modern trend for tents that aren’t really tents, the hoteliers have filled the interiors with plump beds and soft furnishings. Some even have jacuzzis. Their designer, frenchman Pierre Stephane Dumas, said they are ‘unusual huts for unusual nights’. They don’t come cheap at €189 upwards per night but they’re supposed to appeal to your eco side, leaving a minimal footprint on your surroundings.

All I can think about is the stars.

Bubble hotel, the ladylike version.

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Tube-based fun

This picture has popped up on the Tube, called Look For Longer. It contains pictorial puzzles of 70 tube stations. I spent a good five minutes shouting at the wall from the platform today. How many can you see?

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Inspirational madman

Last week I went to one of the Wilderness Lectures, a series of winter seminars in Bristol hosted by a small group of adventure fanatics with the purpose of bringing extreme and niche sports to the attention of likeminded locals.

Our audience ranges from armchair to active adventurers, from school-students to the retired. All are united by a sense of wonder and a willingness to open their minds to the experience of others; all are explorers in some way, whatever their age or background.

They’re well organised and often very impressive. It was Tim Emmett‘s turn, ‘TV presenter and extreme athlete’ in his words, to take to the stage. He described his two latest adventures to a packed out house and hushed reverence.


his ice climbing trip to Helmcken Falls in British Colombia, Canada where he and his equally insane pals continued to develop a pioneering form of ice climbing. Which essentially boils down to finding the biggest, slippiest ice cave and playing spiderman in it. Helmcken won out because it has a waterfall that plunges past at high volume all year, generating a constant light mist that freezes and coats the enormous cave behind with ice appropriate for their needs. They developed and climbed a seven-pitch ascent with ‘holds’ sometimes only 4mm big. That’s the width of two matchsticks.

This is what he was climbing. Icicles are apparently good. Looks terrifying to me.

The photos were incredible. In one, viewed from above, the waterfall crashes though a plunge pool skimmed with iced. The hole is 300 feet across, the invisible pool beneath is 150m deep. It’s vast, but it looks like a delicate white version of a cosmic black hole. The ice creeps steadily across the pool during the coldest, minus 20 times of the year, edging closer and closer to the impact point. When the weather heats up, the waterfall is reinvigorated and smashes the encroaching ice back. The result is a formation that looks like crumpled sheets.

Here’s some other ice-cave climbing that he does. It looks like a giant glacier mint. I don’t know where you’d even begin.


Climbing is the first love of the Taunton-born adrenaline junkie, but not the only. Enter daring tale number two – wingsuits in Pakistan. It’s a progression from base jumping and therefore requires a high, straight cliff for optimum results. Where higher and straighter than Trango Tower in Baltistan, part of Himalayan Pakistan?

This is a wingsuit.


Tim has a new wingsuit which he called ‘the Daddy’ because it comes with inflatable bits, carbon fibre wands and general cleverness which means that this suit can travel 3.5m forward for each 1m down, contrasted with about 1.5m forward with the old suits. Technology continues to improve as the scientists look to glean clues from the bird world, though this is patently not flying, ‘it’s falling with style’. They’re experimenting, among other things, with different materials on each side of the wing to see if they can increase lift.

The only trouble with Trango is that it takes at least a week to get there –  flight, bus, Jeep and trek up to the remote base camp. Then you have to acclimatise, check the landing site (so I’ve learnt) a six-hour trek the other side of the mountain, and finally yomp up to ‘the exit point’. Getting to the top of the mountain isn’t even the end of it; then you have to climb or tunnel through another massive layer of snow, the technical term for which I forget.

Tim described his desperate attempt to get to the coveted jumping point, saying at one point he was “hanging by a hold about 3mm wide above a 7,000 foot cliff and wondering what the hell I was doing”.

“Fucking hell,” murmured a man to my left.


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Wonder bus

A posteriori, this is how the ‘luxury’ bus will likely look.

Just got wind of a new proposed bus service running from Birmingham, UK to Mirpur, Pakistan, some 6,500 kilometres away. Four luxury buses will [maybe] depart every fortnight, taking 12 days with stops in Tehran and Quetta, near the Afghan border. Essentially some of the most treacherous countries and passes in the world, even if Pakistani officials have dismissed security fears for the Quetta bit, thought to harbour a few Taliban commanders.

The cost? £130, contrasted with £600 for a flight.

From the Torygraph (Telegraph):

“It’s a great idea that will bring the two cities closer together and be a real life experience, particularly for younger people,” said Khalid Mahmood, a Labour M.P. whose family came from Mirpur.

Mohammed Nazam, a city councillor, recalled that in the old days people often travelled to Mirpur by road.

“In the 1970s and 1980s people would drive a van from the U.K. to Kashmir and it would take about 10 or 12 days of hard driving, day and night. Even in those days it was a real adventure. But the world isn’t as safe a place as it used to be,” he said.

Nazam’s right; it’s the classic 1970s hippy trail. Where else did all Portobello Road’s Afghan coats come from?

By Jove it’s tempting, even if doubtless foolhardy. There is a distinct impression of Pakistan as having a glut of weapons, Al Qaeda-minded folk and anti-Western sentiment. Although I’m sure this is only a very small minority, it does, as my brother-in-law pointed out, only take one lunatic to shoot you in the head.  Perhaps not the most sensible choice of holiday destination.

But Pakistan has captivated me for some time, precisely for these reasons (not to mention Bobby, the businessman who bought me diamonds). I’ve read a few accounts and find it fascinating: the post-Colonial split from India, how it buffers the West from perceived threat, the rise of madrassas, the USA’s massive cash injections, the corruption… I read Bhutto’s (grossly biased) account of the country’s modern politics with interest. Her family are now largely based in Dubai, so we’re practically family.

In one of Michael Palin’s earliest films – Himalaya – he toured the country and landed in a remote highland village where polo is the sport of choice. The Kalasha people are unusual for their startlingly green eyes and were rumoured to be descended from Alexander the Great. A likely story given the intermarriage and multiculturalist policies that formed a fundamental part of his imperial quest, even if genetic testing has disproved it.

I recently finished Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortensen’s a disputed book about making friends, building schools and promoting peace in Pakistan and, later, Afghanistan. With the mountainous country’s proximity to the trekking mecca of Nepal and Everest, I can see a lot of similarities between the characters described and some of the hardy, warm-hearted people I met on my trips to Kathmandu and Pokhara.

Subject to the toilets being acceptable (not a given), I could be tempted.

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More tea, vicar?

The local vicar of the Orthodox church had popped into the farm one Sunday with his wife to buy some flour. We got talking about mormons, as you do, and he was jokingly repenting for sinning on the Sabbath by drinking locally-brewed beer. I liked them a lot.

“Come and visit us at the church one day,” they said.

So we did.

Tornimae church in Saaremaa

Good door handle

When me Marju and the children arrived, Argo, the priest, was cutting the grass. “Cutting the grass is fun for the first five minutes and then so boring,” he told us as he uncurled his full 195cm height from the lawnmower to don his priestly robes and show us around the church. He and his lovely wife Marina sang a hymn for us, explaining that there is no instrumental ornamentation in Orthodox songs. Voices are considered enough. I have come to love the sound of the religious harmonies. Sing, sing on!

The Muur family joining in the song

Together with the kids, we lit some candles at the icon-covered screen on the dais dividing the church from the nave. Everything has significance in Orthodoxy. You have to place your candle in front of the saint, bishop, nun or holy figure that you think will best serve your needs. Obviously I went for the Big J trump. But…he was on the dias.

“You’re supposed to cross yourself as you step down,” they smiled. “Not everyone is allowed up there.”

Whoops. I reasoned that it isn’t a big deal for a non-believer to follow the rituals out of respect. At least, I wasn’t struck down so I’ll take that as a good sign. You hold your thumb and forefingers together – three fingers that signify the father, son and the holy ghost – and press the other two against your palm – signifying earthly Jesus and heavenly Jesus. Then you make the internationally famous cross sign: touch your head for God in your thoughts, your stomach for God in your heart (artistic licence) and your two shoulders for God in all your actions and deeds.

The full bow that he demonstrated looked a lot like Muslim prayer to me but that didn’t go down too well with Argo when I mentioned it. He also thinks that Mormonism is a joke. I think that it’s just a descendent of Christianity and only slightly more ridiculous but I kept that to myself. I am interested in religion, even if I’m a heathen. I can understand the concept and to my mind there is obviously a role for it in humanity.

“I was saved when I was 17. Not from a fire or anything; I mean that’s when I realised I loved God.”

Now, conversations like this often make me uncomfortable but somehow when the talk is so matter-of-fact and injected with humour, it is still interesting. I found the discussion about whether the Virgin Mary was getting any less comfortable. Don’t ask me how we got onto that subject. I think it stemmed from a casual remark from Argo about Jesus having a half or step-brother and how Mary was a distant cousin of Joseph’s (common practice in those times). In the same conversation he mentioned how it was tradition if a man died for his brother to take and care for his wife. “But what if all the brothers die,” Argo asked? “It was a question raised in the Bible. When they all get to heaven, whose wife is she?!” Big J did a classic Alistair Campbell swerve, saying that earthly relationships don’t count in heaven. Well played.

“Will you come for some tea?” they offered. Yes we would.

On the way across the garden we stopped in for a look at their antique sauna. Almost everyone in Estonia has a sauna – they used to function as bathrooms. If you don’t have one in your house, you nip round to your neighbour’s for a weekly(ish) scrub-together. The church has two buildings alongside it that were originally built for the priest and his assistant. When the Soviets came, they gave half the priest’s house to the local teacher so the current occupants have been ousted to the assistant’s house, comprising two rooms and a kitchen.

“What are these?” I asked, smoothing the large squares of wood leaning against one wall.

“Oh. I sew.” he replied. “I make all the robes and things for the church. Those are very good for cutting out patterns.” Of course he sews.

Tea and biscuits were served. We chatted.

“Are you a spy?” he laughed as Marju told him about the desert marathon and my recent trip to Russia.

“Yes. And I’m watching you…”

“Ha! I only ask because I used to be head of Intelligence in the Estonian military. I was in charge of a Brigade of 5,000 men.”

“Now he only has me to boss around,” added Marina. “I have to do the work of 5,000!”

This man fascinated me.

It turned out that after Gorbachev’s glasnost policies the religious factions has been emboldened and started to demonstrate in pursuit of religious freedom. Set in their ways, the Russian authorities did not like this and started to apply pressure. Argo and Marina escaped to Sweden with their four girls, where Marina stayed for five years. Argo, however, returned after two years when he judged it to be safe enough. He joined the fledgling military volunteers and helped to build the training force.

It saw him and the family move to America for a couple of years when he was appointed as an assistant to the Estonian president in NATO. While working at NATO he had met an Estonian who had escaped to the States under the Soviet invasion and had seen active service in Vietnam, some so unspeakable that he has never mentioned it again. He did, however, manage to access and pinch some high-level papers about interrogation techniques. Still a devoted Estonian at heart, he was delighted to meet Argo and duly passed the highly confidential papers to him in order to build Estonia’s proud military.

“Do you know how the Germans got information out of parachutists they captured during the Second World War?

“They had a stately home. They fed the prisoners very well each night. They gave them cognac and cigars each evening. After a while, they just gloated the information out. The Germans didn’t even have to try.

“Of course, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time. Then you just have to beat the man. Sometimes to death.”

We moved on to the subject of MDS training. “The fitness isn’t a problem,” he said. “It’s your feet that could break you. After that long, your skin will be so tender that you feet will be reduced to the lumps of meat that they actually are.”


He told me that I need to invest in military socks that wick moisture up the leg so it can dry and that I should stop every hour, take a ten minute break and change them. It’s the same advice that he would offer troops during training. “Those that followed it would make it and be ready to fight at the end. Those that thought they were hard and said ‘this is bullshit’ would be crying like babies at the end of the march and good for nothing.

“Get some like this,” he rolled up his trouser leg and pointed at his own pair. “I’ve been wearing these since 1994.”

“You should probably wash them.”

While we’re on the subject of churches, Poide church is also in the neighbourhood. It’s a church-cum-fortress and has been a site of worship since 1227. On the same day as the Soviet invasion (so I was told), lightening hit the steeple, burnt it off and fired an enormous crack down the side of the tower. You can still see it today.

Poide church. Pretty.


And how it used to look with a steeple

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Estonian animation

Met the guy behind this Estonian animation in the pub the other day. Check it out. Rustically good, and just one of a crop of slick animators working in the land of cyber.



Where next?

Only get 30 days in Russia and can’t easily extend it without feigning illness or flight difficulties. Question is, when I get to the other end, where the feck to go?

I’m in!

Ha! Take that you shiny-suited mean diplomat

Things I learnt at the Tower of London

Q: What is a Judas chair?

Judas Chair

A: Eeeevil torture. Balance your victim with their bum on the spike and, well. I think you can work it out. How do people come up with these? How could you do it to another person? Fascinates me.

Check out more inventive viciousness here –

Q: How does this suit of armour differ from your average?


Henry VIII's famous codpiece armour. I guess you need it when you piss off 6 wives. Unless you have the power to cut off their heads.

Russian Visa attempt

Going to have another crack at the Russian visa, this time from the Yook and through an agency who can deal with the alcoholic mentalists. 

Amusement from the application form, these amongst questions about entire life history, whether you’re trained to use deadly and chemical weapons and if you used to be a junkie:


Where in the world is Abkhazia??


For Arabs, Putin’s mates and Spanish Kings, I presume. 

All the H’s

Sarah came away from Hong Kong with a husband…

Sar's hubby (on the right)

I came away with a handbag…

Handbags and gladrags

Sure she chose well, but I think I win.

All scrubbed up

All scrubbed up and respectable for little sister's dramatically rainy wedding. Yes, I am holding a cuddly puffin.

Can’t show you the bride for her frock is still top secret til after the official reception.

In my dreams

I gave up bread for lent, not for any Jesus reasons but in my annual test of willpower.

I’ve been dreaming of sandwiches.