Archive | March, 2012

Day out: Chedworth Roman Villa

30 Mar

Roman stuff is groovy.  I could pretend to be all fancy and tell you about studying classics and learning Latin and blahblahblah, but let’s be real.  It’s a gut thing.  Rome and the people of Rome hit me in my groovy spot, and make me want to dance.  Now that we’re in the UK and able to visit Roman sites near us, I can’t stop my feet from tapping.  Imagine the wild west … with Romans and Celts.  Our sleepy, relatively wealthy and certainly sedately settled Cotswold as the rough and tumble frontier.  The roads stretching, stretching, stretching like a funiculus umbilicalis (see? fancy) from this far outpost of empire all the way back to Rome itself.  Building up cities and trade over hundreds of years and then suddenly — poof.  Rome withdraws, you’re on your own, good luck.  It would be like The Day After.  Like a zombie apocalypse.  The end of Rome.  The End of the World.   And for some very hardy souls, the chance to grab, steal, consolidate, fight and build something totally new.

Errrr … I’m getting to the day out, really.

We’ve been waiting for the re-opening of the Chedworth Roman Villa (£23.50 for a family, free for National Trust members).  The National Trust has spent some money renovating this site.  Like many other National Trust and English Heritage sites, it just seems to rise up out of no-where.  One minute you’re driving down a one-track twisting lane with only the occasional red telephone box for company; next minute you’re standing over two-thousand year old mosaics.

Geometric patterns are for under the banquet table and chairs, figural panels are the ‘stage’ area for entertainment.

Our guidebook suggests that the baths in the private area of the home — the balnea –were built to impress guests.  To be frank, they still impress me.  These baths are far nicer than the ones at my new gym — for example — not that I’m jealous or anything — and the villa itself is an expansive mix of private, public, business, and agricultural enterprise.

Not on the scale of the baths in Bath, but well preserved and relatively compact and easy to absorb.  Sing along with me now, children (yes, I actually said this to my children): apodyterium, frigidarium, baptisterium, tepidarium, caldarium, laconicum, and of course the invention which made it all work, the hypocaust.  There are examples of three different kinds of under-floor heating systems here at the Villa — anyone have a groove for Roman architecture & engineering?  Come dance …

The floor would have sat on top of the stacks of stone you see, which were part of the hypocaust heating system.  Behind is one of the warm plunge pools.

Hm, my bathroom — undergoing renovation — looks exactly like this right now.

An actor discussing local wool and local dyes.  In the 60F spring sunshine she was complaining of the oppressive summer heat. That’s got to be an English thing.

Most remarkable, the spring which drew inhabitants to this spot for hundreds if not thousands of years before the building of the Villa remains, and remains fresh, and still sings and trickles out to soothe and inspire worshippers.

The view isn’t too bad, either.

An audio guide interested the children, while I walked along with the National Trust booklet.  I was struck by these creatures:

According to the booklet, the large Roman snail — Helix pomatia — was introduced to Britain by the Romans as an edible delicacy.  They are thought to have come orginally from the limestone foothills of the Alps.  Now “they thrive around the villa, hibernating in the crevices of the ancient walls.”  Once again my imagination takes off.  The Romans are long gone from Britain —  the official Roman presence in Britain ended in 410 CE — but they have left behind not only stone but living legacies to their life and influence here.

Remains found at the villa, including Roman glass.  Admit it, you always imagined Romans drinking from stone or pottery — nope!  They had glass cups and goblets as fine as any modern vessel.  Cool, huh?

A view from within the private apartments.  In the middle?  The unisex latrines.  Modern and posh for the time, with seating and flowing water to wash the, ahem, cleaning sponges.  Let’s call those spongia and pretend it’s fancy again, instead of a multi-user sponge on a stick to wipe your behind.  As far as I can tell, this is the only fact my children have truly and completely grasped about Roman daily living.

About 100 people may have lived here, living and working in around 50 rooms.  That’s the shrine to the spring up in the top corner.

I don’t know the name of this flower.  I like to imagine a little Roman girl leaning down to examine it, seventeen hundred years ago or so.  Maybe she came with her parents from Corinium for a long spring break vacation with friends …

Get your dancing feet to the Chedworth Roman Villa and be amazed. There’s a small cafe, the inevitable gift/book shop, and some beautiful walks nearby.  Also just a few minutes away we found a good-sized local pub with decent food and outdoor seating so the kids could run outside playing Romans while we ate.  A perfect day out.

The international symbol for ROCK ON

28 Mar

On Monday:


Imagine me, legs braced, head back, hands thrown out in the international sign for rock on, mouth wide, screaming: WHOOOOOO-HOOOOOOOO!

Blossoming trees are pretty exciting.

In other news, I must thank Lisa at United Cakedom for nominating me for a Liebster Award; Lizzy at the eponymous Lizzy Bradbury for nominating me for a Versatile Blogger Award, and The Foreigner  at Living Life as an Expat Parent (among others unknown — was it you?) for nominating me for a BritMums Brilliance in Blogging Award where I made the shortlist in category “GO!”.  Apparently you can vote for me.  Or check it out and vote for some other brilliant blogger.  It’s all good, man.


Sol Invictus

26 Mar

Back in the days of darkness, I woke up in the dark, and drove the kids to school in the dark, and went just little bit mad in the dark.  Nearing 8 am in the middle of December, the sky looked like this:

Post-solstice, when the sun started to rise that small bit earlier, I rejoiced.

A few weeks later, and dawn has been clocking in much earlier.  It’s brighter before 6am than it used to be at 8am.

By mid June, we’re going to start seeing that pre-dawn brightness at 4am, and seeing the last of twilight past 10pm.  For those of you back in the US — at least back in my home area of Maryland — pre-dawn lightening won’t show up until 5am in July, and you’ll be nice and dark for fireworks at 9pm.

I honestly don’t know how to cope with this wide swing of sunshine.  I’m genetically tuned to soak up as much sun as possible, and if that means waking up at 4 am and not going to sleep until midnight, I have a feeling that is what’s going to happen.

Does it seem strange that I’m obsessed with this?  The sun, sunshine, brightness, warmth — it’s a whole aspect of living in Britain that I didn’t sufficiently understand or prepare to experience.  Maybe it’s like childbirth, or running a marathon, or baking bread: you just have to be there to get what it’s about.

For some reason people keep telling me to enjoy the weather and the sun this end-of-March and early-April, because this is summer.  This “heat” we’re having now — 60F — is as good as it is going to get.  Later the sun will be out for much of each 24 hour day, the children will never sleep, and it will rain all the time and get cold again.  Like, in July.  To those people, I say: please don’t make me punch you in the face.

It is gorgeous and blue and bright and golden outside today.  And it will stay this way.  Forever.

The joy of pancakes

24 Mar

I didn’t post about pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, aka stuff your face full of pancakes day.  (Although: we did.)  But this morning when I woke up at 5am — I’ll tell you about my ongoing love/hate relationship with the sun later —  it just seemed natural to make up a batch of our favorite pancakes.

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: my favorite cookbook is the Joy of Cooking.  When my great aunt passed away she left a house full of odds and ends, and somehow I ended up with her well-loved edition of the Joy of Cooking.  I must have been a pre-teen at the time, with no particular thought for cooking, much less the “joy of”.  But here I am, thirty-some years later, having brought this cookbook with me from state to state to country to country.  It’s my go-to for everything from how to skin a rabbit (seriously, see page 514) to how to make classic french sauces to how to develop a menu to, well, pancakes.  So here you are, courtesy of Irma Rombauer and M’tante Lucy:

Sift before measuring:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Resift with:
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1 or 2 slightly beaten whole eggs
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 to 1 1/4 cups milk
Mix the liquid ingredients quickly into the dry ingredients.  [Here the recipe directs you to see the page — yes there is a whole page — on testing the griddle and cooking the cakes.  I’m going to hope you can figure that out, or find a copy of this lovely classic for yourself.]  This recipe makes about fourteen 4-inch cakes, and suggests serving with sausages and syrup.

Being who I am, I modify the recipe a bit.  A bit of lemon juice for a certain yummy tenderness, some vanilla extract for that delicious aroma, and, depending on mood, maybe some cinnamon.  I’ll also replace the all-purpose flour with bread flour for some extra poof, or replace some of the flour with whole wheat or whole grain flour for extra bite.  And here you go:

What could be better for a lazy, sunny Saturday morning?  We had ours with local bacon, confectioner’s sugar, and big cups of tea (for me) and hot chocolate (for the kids).  Now that’s some joy.  Happy weekend!

In the mirror darkly

23 Mar

So, someone asked me recently why I don’t take a lot of (read: any) photos of myself.  The world is just so interesting, you guys, and I already know what I look like.  Sure, when my kids look back at photos from their youth they’ll think they were raised by a floating camera, but I’m okay with that.  The way I figure it, I’m in the photo by virtue of authorship.  It’s easy enough to see me when you see the things I like to see.  Anyway, you’ve already seen me when I met the Queen, what more do you want?

Well, but … Sarah over at The Salad Days is running a fun self-portrait thingy.  (Yes, that is the technical term.)  And I happen to have just taken a self-portrait I sort of like.  So, I’m giving it a go.  You can join in, too, whether you have a blog or not — just follow her directions.  (I think she’s one of those organized people, who figure things out and know what they are doing and stuff.)

Me and my camera — the author of all the photos you see on this blog — a basic older-model Canon PowerShot Digital ELPH.  Hot pink, of course.  We’re in the Cirencester Parish Church of St John Baptist, looking up at a chandelier looking down at us.

So, what are you looking at today?  And who is looking at you?

Day out: Stoke-on-Trent potteries tour

20 Mar

This trip happened quite a few weeks ago, timed to match up with the semi-annual sales offered by the Stoke-on-Trent potteries.  If you’re saying “Stoke on who did what now?” —  read up about these famous English potteries here and maybe here.

Our first stop was the Royal Stafford Factory Shop.  To my admittedly untrained eye, this was not an encouraging start to the day.  The lone person in charge of the store seemed a bit overwhelmed by our arrival — a bus full of bargain shoppers and dilettantes breaking down her door first thing in the morning — and the product was laid out haphazardly and shown dusty.  However, coffee for a pound and a detailed booklet about different traditions of local pottery making gave me a good start on the rest of the day.

And who doesn’t love a nice jubilee egg cup?

An hour later, we entered the Burleigh factory shop.  Burleigh I knew a little about already, and I was excited to see as much for the history of the place — the oldest operating Victorian pottery — as for the pottery itself.  The shop had an aged-in-place feeling, along with a small fireplace, free coffee and biscuits, and the piles and piles of traditional patterns that left me a bit giggly.  What I really wanted was a tour of the factory, but instead I got a creamer in the shape of a cow, and a better knowledge of the traditional Burleigh patterns.

To my eye: classy, classic, and sweet.

Wedgwood was our next stop.   This very modern outlet store reminded me of the hundreds of identical outlet stores you might find on the Eastern shore, or in Pennsylvania or New Jersey or Kansas or anywhere in the US.  Not very exciting.  That aside, some of the Wedgwood pieces were pretty cool.

Dear Napoleon, why are you a pottery head?  Though I love you dearly, I cannot justify spending even your ‘bargain’ price of 80 pounds.  Hope you find a home, someday.

Among the more expert shoppers on the trip (that would be just about everyone but me) this was the place to find bargains and spend money — one travelling companion filled a large grocery cart (!) with her finds.

I brought home a small dish done in this style.  Exactly like this, really, except one thousand, five hundred and twenty-one pounds cheaper.

Emma Bridgewater – the spotty stop — was next.  Emma Bridgewater and Burleigh were the reasons I signed up for the trip in the first place.  The Emma Bridgewater shop does not disappoint.  The factory shop is split in to two sections, separated by a very comfortable cafe.  One side of the store is for ‘firsts’ and new patterns, and the other for seconds and some deep discounts.

Have OCD?  There’s a pattern for that.  And I looooooooove it.

I ended up tickled to find some items in a Union Jack pattern that I’ve been drooling over since the week we first arrived here in the UK, and that I’ve since shown in some of my other posts.  I love it when I find something truly great.

Our penultimate stop was Portmeirion.  To be honest by this point I was ready to call it a day — how much shopping can any one person do?  Always more, apparently.  There’s a variety of names that fall under Portmeirion, including the classic Spode.  

Need 20 gallons of water?  Here’s your pitcher.

I found in a corner a stack of Diamond Jubilee numbered limited edition plates which I eagerly snagged, only to be told by the salesfolk that they were not for sale.  I was ready to throw down, when I remembered this was England, not the Jersey Shore.  I didn’t buy anything at Portmeirion, out of revenge. Taught them a lesson, didn’t I?

No problem, Portmeirion.

One of the bargain-hunters on the trip caught scent of a discount pottery across the street from Portmeirion, so several of us defied traffic to check it out.  I was disappointed in what turned out to be a shack full of obvious fakes, forgeries, and knock-offs.  Yes, it’s a teapot that looks like a Burleigh for only 3 pounds, but who cares?  A knock-off is still a knock-off, and it takes money away from the artists and workers who labor honestly to make a quality product.

I have a Gucci bag I’d like to sell you.

Aynsley was our last stop and truly I could have laid down here and died.  Not because I was particularly fond of the pottery, but because it was so freaking hot in the upstairs of the store, and so deadly cold in the basement, and I was so tired after hours and hours of shopping. The basement was a lot of fun, containing random pieces of old patterns and some legitimate finds — for the knowledgeable shopper, which I sadly am not.

Something about hundreds of china flowers all together has a hypnotic effect. This is something my grandmother would have liked, and it would have no place in my home whatsoever, and yet … Seen in a mass, they somehow become desirable.  But, since I couldn’t buy 200 faux flower pots, I didn’t get any.

There’s a certain sense of achievement in visiting six (and a half, if you count the knockoff hut) potteries in one day.  Boarding a bus before dawn, the seemingly endless rows of flowers, bugs, patterns, swirls, handles, lids, bells, platters, plates, and boxes, the exhausting ride home and the reveal of the small treasures found during the day — a unique experience for me.  But next time I go to Stoke-on-Trent, I want to see more of the history of the place, the museums, and see at least one or two factories behind-the-scenes, not just on the sales floor.

Small treasures.

Pumpkin streusel

17 Mar

I’m not ashamed to use a baking mix every now and then. Some mixes have special connections for me. Anything from King Arthur Flour reminds me of several happy years in New Hampshire, just over the river from the KAF bakery in Vermont. I think of Green Mountain Coffee; brilliant fall colors; ice storms; library stacks; bell towers; bonfires; early life as a married couple; maybe a bit of growing up. As we’ve moved around, I’ve continued to order from their drool-worthy catalogue, and I have a small (shrinking) stash here in the UK. I can’t help it: food is about love, and memory.

Which leads me to:

Pumpkin streusel.

Eggs, butter, sour cream, water, and pumpkin assembled, I got to work:

Look at the beautiful yellow yolk on that egg — eggs are superior here, no question in my mind.

I don’t have a proper bundt pan — SHOCKING — and picked up a savarin pan instead. I was a little worried as I layered in the batter and streusel.

It looked good coming out of the oven, but I was sure it would shred when I tried to release it from the pan.

Instead, I pulled out a perfect, giant, doughnut!

See yesterday’s post for a sense of scale.

Some homemade icing (confectioners sugar, butter, milk, cinnamon) and she’s all dressed up:

Like most KAF mixes, you’re still supplying most of the ingredients– to some extent, you’re really buying a recipe. I’ll sometimes try a new item using a KAF mix (like the first time I made biscotti, years ago), and then next time do the whole thing from scratch.

Anyway, I think it came out pretty well, and it’s worth doing again to make it better. Let’s take another look. (And yes, the comport is another Emma Bridgewater piece, a find from a day out to Stoke-on-Trent that I haven’t written about, yet.)