Sweet, sweet chestnuts

Have you ever foraged for sweet chestnuts? For me they are deeply associated with memories of my Dad. My Grandparents lived in a house on the Broadmoor estate (they were both nurses in the secure hospital) and right behind it was a little area of woodland where lots of sweet chestnut trees grew amongst the pines. I loved going into the woods with my Dad. It seems to me that it was something that we did together, without my Mum, a bit like sledging. Dad loved to tell me all about his boyhood, playing in those woods. I envied him that freedom even thirty years ago. I thought it must have been so exciting to escape into your own woodland playground with your friends to build dens and play hide and seek.

I always felt a frisson of fear in those woods too. They were not far from the forbidding walls of the Victorian hospital which housed some of the most notorious criminals of the last few decades. I knew very well that Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper was in there and, despite my youth, I had a fair idea of what he had done. Occasional thoughts used to flit through my brain along the lines of “What if someone escapes while we are out in these woods”? I must have voiced these concerns to my Dad because I remember him reassuring me that if anyone escaped, they would want to get as far away as possible. I wasn’t so sure. After all, weren’t the inmates locked up because they were mad?

We visited my Grandparents in the October holidays of 1982. I would have been seven years old. I know this because we gathered and ate a lot of sweet chestnuts that year. The following spring, my baby brother arrived with a head of dark brown hair. Clearly (according to my Grandparents) the result of all the chestnuts my Mum ate. I seem to remember Grandad having a sack full of them and every evening some more would be cooked. In fact, I think that sack of chestnuts was still in evidence when we returned at Christmas.

I can’t remember exactly how Grandad cooked them but I think they might have been done in the oven. Actually, it’s probably much more likely that my Grandma cooked them. I seem to remember that they eventually took to doing them in the microwave, piercing the tough shells and putting them in a covered bowl with a small amount of water. I loved them. There’s nothing nicer than fresh, hot  chestnuts, especially if you don’t have to peel them.

However, the best way to enjoy them is with your Dad, in the woods, over an open fire. Dad and I shared a slight pyromaniac tendency over the years and I think my first taste of it was during that October holiday. Dad must have built a little fireplace from stones and found an old upturned paint tin lid (there was a bit of a tendency to dump rubbish around the woods from time to time). He had no problem lighting the fire because in those days he was still a smoker so he had matches to hand. I felt like I had escaped into some sort of adventure story and we were surviving on our foraging skills. I also knew that Dad trusted me around the fire and that made me feel extremely grown up.

We never found any sweet chestnut trees in Teesside. I have a theory about this and it is all to do with Romans. They were the ones who introduced the sweet chestnut to Britain. A Romans road existed through the area that is now near Crowthorne, where Dad grew up, so perhaps that explains why they were so common there. Dad did start to grow a sapling from a nut he brought home once. Mum tells me she’s still got it in a pot in the garden but I haven’t spotted it for a while. The nearest Dad and I got to chestnuts in later years was peeling them for Christmas stuffing.

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Fast forward thirty-one years and my children are visiting their paternal grandparents during October half-term. My eldest is just a little bit older than I was when I went chestnut foraging with my Dad. We decided to have a walk up Penrith Beacon, a hill on the edge of town.

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We hadn’t been on the path long before I spotted the distinctive leaves and spiky cases of sweet chestnuts littering the ground. I immediately sent The Husband back to the car for a bag so I could gather some.

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IMG_3790I was so excited to have found chestnuts. It wasn’t really about wanting to eat them (because I still haven’t – oops) it was purely about me recreating memories. Dad would have been as excited as me about finding them. We didn’t actually gather any until we were on our way back. It seemed silly to carry them up the Beacon and back again. The rest of our walk was lovely. The weather was mild and bright. The sun shone through the leaves and there were lots of other things to spot along the way.

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The view from the top wasn’t as fabulous as we might have hoped. Trees obscured the view in most directions making the beautiful guide to the fells and landmarks pretty much obsolete.

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We could see Penrith, and a few of the fells beyond, through one little gap in the trees.

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When we got to the bottom of the path everyone else went ahead while I gathered chestnuts. I made a few mistakes in my foraging. The best, ripest nuts are the ones in the cases that have just split open. I picked up quite a few cases that were still intact and the nuts inside them were disappointingly pale. Obviously it’s been too long since I foraged for chestnuts.

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Once I got them home I wasted no time in ‘de-shelling’ them. You really need a tough pair of gloves for this job if you don’t want to get spiked. Most of them had one decent sized nut and a couple of ‘runts’ that weren’t worth keeping.

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I took far too many photos. The variety in their ripeness and the fact that they popped out so easily when they were ready got me thinking about babies and due dates. But that is a whole other rant blog post. I’ll let you ponder on that one.

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IMG_3804So beautiful. I really must get around to actually eating them.

And what about my theory? It is well known that Romans lived around Penrith. There was a Roman road in the area that connected Penrith to Carlisle and Manchester. Teesside was also subject to Roman rule and there is plenty of evidence for Roman occupation but according to this:

‘The people living in the Teesside area during the Roman occupation were native Britons or ‘Celts’. Teesside probably saw no large-scale movements of population following the Roman invasion or any great influx of new immigrants. Indeed in many parts of Britain there is little evidence for the adoption of Roman culture or beliefs among the majority of the population.’

Is that why we don’t have chestnut trees in abundance here? Or is it just that we don’t have the right kind of soil? I don’t know but if anyone has an answer, I’d be pleased to hear it.

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The snow play and the lost hill

The met office finally got it right for my patch this weekend. We had lots of snow on Friday night and now it has all gone. It melted almost as fast as it arrived. Yesterday could have been our last opportunity of the season for snow related playtimes.IMG_1474IMG_1445 IMG_1449 IMG_1450 IMG_1451 IMG_1461These were some of out antics from last weekend.

If you live in a climate where living with snow is a regular occurrence the British obsession with it must seem strange. We pore over weather forecasts, worrying about driving to work and if the schools will be closed. Children (and -ahem- some adults) stay awake at night, constantly peeking out of the window to see if there are any flakes falling yet. We moan or get excited about it in equal measures. We don’t really cope with it well, and it’s not surprising really is it? Our snowfall is unpredictable, some years there is barely any. Hardly worth investing in special car tyres for example. We live on a crowded island too. Our roads only just cope with the volume of traffic at the best of times. Add a blizzard and a few crashes and there’s bound to be mayhem.

But, I still love snow. It’s one of those things that gives me a feeling of childish excitement even though I’m now a parent. I used to share this excitement with my Dad. He loved to get out and play in it and, unluckily for the rest of us, was a mean shot with a snowball. I could rely on my Dad to take me sledging whenever it snowed, even if it was a school night. I’m sure we must have been with my Mum and Brother but I don’t have memories of that. What I do have memories of is heading off to our local sledging spot, often in the dark.

Dad prided himself on finding the best spot. He didn’t necessarily want to go down a steep slope like most of the other people on our local golf course. For him it was all about how long you could spend going down hill. To be fair, he also avoided the crowds because he was a teacher in the local secondary school and didn’t really want to be among the pupils in his spare time! So Dad and I had our own private hill and it did seem like a good long ride down to the bottom. There was a pond near the bottom that you had to be aware of. Falling in to that would have been a disaster but, at the time, it just added to the adrenalin rush. Sometimes Dad would go down the hill on his own while I waited at the top but more often than not, he would lie on his front on the sledge and I would lie on top, holding on to his shoulders. Dad did the steering by sticking his toes into the snow and by leaning one way and another. It was such a thrill to be barrelling down hill, feeling as if I was teetering precariously on top of this speeding sledge. It is such a vivid memory for me.

Now that I am taking my own children sledging I wish I could find that hill. It can’t have changed. The little conifers that we used to pass through to get to it must be considerably bigger but it must still be there. Somehow I just can’t seem to work out which hill it was that we used to use. Yesterday, despite not being able to find the hill, I did resurrect Dad’s sledging technique. Going downhill fast with your face inches from the snow is really the only way to go sledging and I think I have passed on this family tradition to another generation.IMG_1587

 

To Drive the Cold Winter Away

There are weather warnings about today. Alas, there is no snow forecast for my neck of the woods, just high winds and rain. This time last year we had about 10 inches of snow and unusually cold temperatures. I really love snow, probably because the furthest I have to travel in a day is to the school or shops at the bottom of my road. I did that pulling a sledge quite  a lot last year. Thinking back, I must have looked quite a sight since I was over 34 weeks pregnant.

My Dad was a real lover of extreme weather and he has passed his sense of excitement about it on to me. It seems a bit sad that the two most severe winters we’ve had have been since he died.

January 2010

Despite the lack of snow, it’s been a festive day here today. I attended my second nativity show at my children’s school. Son number one had a starring role as lead shepherd. Unfortunately he looked really tired, every time I turned the video camera onto him there seemed to be a yawn escaping. He’s had a lot of trouble getting to sleep the last few nights. I put it down to general excitement and a developing cough.

After the school performance, I came home to a nice tidy house, thanks to my Mum who had been keeping an eye on babykins. I soon had a peaceful, tidy house as babykins had a lovely long nap. I climbed up to my CD collection which is now on a high shelf through lack of use and retrieved my ‘winter’ CD. This was given to me by my Aunt a few years ago and though I love it, I’ve probably listened to it less than ten times. It’s a very atmospheric recording, mainly of old sounding folk songs. The voice of the singer is beautifully pure and is accompanied by just a harp, accordion or whistle. On days when it’s wild outside, it really does ‘Drive The Cold Winter Away’.

I lit my vanilla candles, made cup of tea and got busy with the crochet hook. Actually, I started off by darning in the ends on all the stars I’d whipped up the other night.

I’ve been enjoying crocheting stars and snowflakes. I think I may have to keep doing them into the New Year so that I have enough to create something with next Christmas. The stars came from an Australian blog called The Royal Sisters. The pattern, called ‘The Grandma Twinkle’ is here. They are really easy, though I find that I need to use the edited final round in order to make them sit flatter. So far I’ve only made two snowflakes. One was my own design that I just made up as I went along

My own design

The next one was from the crochet snowflake tutorial at Attic 24 (thank you Lucy). Following Lucy’s pattern was much easier than making my own up.

Attic 24’s Snowflake

I also blocked out all my stars and snowflakes so that they will be much more pointy. I’ve used a couple of my foam yoga blocks, covered in a layer of muslin. They are ideal for pinning out these little beauties. I spray them with cheap laundry starch, available from Boyes store (source of all crafting materials in my town).

I’m hoping that I will be able to create a few more individual snowflakes, after all, ‘in the wild’ no two are really alike.

It’s still blowing a gale outside tonight. Time to go to bed and dream about snow. As I’ve been organised and bought a super new sledge and snow boots for the children It’s probably the nearest I’ll get this year. Mother Nature always has the last laugh.