Book club: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

If you’ve never read a ghost story, or have been extremely sceptical about this genre then this is the novel for you. Its not a bump-in-the-night, jump-out-of-your-skin kind of ghost story, but rather a chill that slowly creeps over your skin with every page turn. A blend of Nordic folklore with hints of Greek mythology, Dark Matter is a powerful spine-tingling thriller that put me on the edge of my seat.

The plot

Set in the late 30’s, working-class Jack jumps at the chance of escaping a pre-war Britain and can’t believe his luck when he is invited to participate in an Arctic research expedition as a wireless operator. The ill-fated group set out for Gruhuken, a fictitious snow-bound island in the vicinity of Svalbard, Norway with a team of huskys, crates of equipment and hope.

Despite the disguised warnings and with the beginnings of trepidation in the air, the group start to realise that all is not as it seems in the Arctic. Daylight becomes a thing of the past and the endless nights starts to increase the groups’ uneasiness. Jack sees a figure by the hut, but quickly dismisses it until he is out taking readings later one afternoon. I felt the skin on the back of my neck prick when I realised that Jack suspects he is not alone; a scraping, a dragging echoing around the Arctic waste. A wet head rises from the water. Intent. Dread. Jack makes a break for it back to the hut. Did he actually see it? Is it real or a trick of the light, or, worse, a trick of his mind?

Before long, Jack is alone as the other characters leave for the mainland. Staying in a routine Jack tries to keep the horrors of his mind at bay. But it nags at him. The isolation of the bleak Arctic stillness permeating every pore. A thud. Is the bear pole moving? The creeping dread. And again the figure, malevolence radiating out from it. Ghosts can’t open doors, can they?

As Jack’s paranoia climbs to new heights, he realises the figure is in the room with him. Stumbling around he tries to get outside, to get away from it. He forgets his boots and before long realises his fate: he will die in the Arctic wilderness. Whether from the figure or the extreme conditions, Jack will not last long…

Jack

Jack is not a particularly likeable character. Paver’s style of writing in the first half of the book made me feel as though I was running through the story, from the meeting in London to arriving at Gruhuken the short sentences did not help to build up Jack’s personality. If anything, it emphasised his bitterness and short temperament, despite other characters commenting on his visibly calm facade at times.

But whilst I did not feel that Jack himself was endearing, his declining mental state was excellently portrayed by Paver. The worry and anxiety in the face of being alone on Gruhuken for the rest of the winter, Jack tries to keep in a routine but seemingly cannot hide his fear from those he communicates with. His fall into dispair, without being able to recognise it himself, and his hopelessness is resounding. His downward spiral stalled only by his new-found love of Isaak, one of the huskys whom he previously despised, really helped the reader understand the true sense of Jack’s loneliness and his need for some sort of interaction.

Gruhuken

Paver created Gruhuken from her memories of travelling around Spitsbergen and, I must say, that does give me some relief! Knowing that the figure dwells in a fictional place does help me to sleep at night to say the least.

Paver is brilliant at setting the scene; her description of the lessening daylight, the stillness and never-ending wastelands of the Arctic archipelago are so life like I felt as though I was suffering through the same ordeal myself. The words Paver uses really installed a wariness in me; his cabin little bigger than a coffin, all helping to create an intense atmosphere.

Like adverts and films, most novels have an abundance of dialogue. You notice if one ad is silent and moody. Dark Matter is no different. The novel is written in a journalistic style with the reader only having access to Jack’s thoughts; the plot centred around his observations and anxieties with little conversation helping to aid the story along. Its not a style I usually enjoy, but the descriptions and depictions of the Arctic wilderness and one man’s impending sense of doom make this book un-put-downable.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And if you have any recommendations of other ghost stories I could try, do let me know!

Cosy country walks and baked goods: it must be Autumn

The crisp clear mornings, the crunch of leaves underfoot and the coolness in the air – it must be bobble hat and mittens time again!

Autumn is truly my favourite time of year. I think spring and summer walks are really over-rated. I don’t want to trek for miles getting all hot and bothered when I could be kicking back with an iced lolly. For me, autumn and winter are much better times of year to be outside hiking and appreciating the countryside. I absolutely love seeing the change of seasons, and none is more magical then the beginning of autumn. Look at all the lovely gold, orange and copper tones:IMG_2775

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We are lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country. These photos were taken at Badbury Woods on the Oxfordshire border where you can enjoy many walks through the woods and across the fields.

The nights are drawing in quite quickly now. Its twilight by 4pm and dark by 5pm. I must admit – I love the early nights. I don’t feel guilty coming home, getting into my pjs and having a hot cup of tea in front of the telly. Soon, we will have a log burner and I can’t wait!

When we came in today I felt a bit of baking was needed. Now the house smells of doughy sweetness and Earl Grey; perfect, right?IMG_2787

Biscuit time

To make my super simple basic biscuit you’ll only need the following:

500g flour

150g caster sugar

250g butter

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbsp milk

To make biscuit-y goodness:

  1. Mix together the flour, butter and sugar. Using your fingers, rub it together until it forms a consistency similar to breadcrumbs.
  2. Add the vanilla extract and milk and mix some more.
  3. Lightly flour a surface and roll on the mixture to about 5mm thickness.
  4. Cut out your shapes and place on a non-stick baking tray.
  5. Bake for between 12-15 minutes at 180 degrees. I prefer to turn it to up 200g for the last couple of minutes as I prefer them slightly more golden, but its up to you.

Enjoy with a brew! A perfect quick treat.

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Deep-fill steak and mushroom pie

I’ve only made a few pies in my time, despite my overwhelming love of pie, and those have always been made using the go-to cheater’s guide to pastry: Jus’ roll. But this time, I thought I’d have a go myself.

I was aiming for puff pastry but I’m quite heavy handed so it turned into some form of shortcrust pastry. Either way, it was damned delicious and I’m never buying pre-fab pastry again.IMG_2739

To make my deep-fill pie, you will need:

225g plain flour

1/4 teaspoon of salt

250g salted butter (you could use unsalted, but why would you?)

150ml of cold water

Diced beef

Mushrooms, sliced

Beef stock

Making the pastry

  1. Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl then put in the fridge for a few minutes.
  2. Cut the butter into cubes, then add to the flour and mix until coated.
  3. Pour over the water slowly and mix together. It should form a rough dough. Place on a surface and form into a sausage shape, without kneading it. Wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for 20-30 minutes.
  4. Once chilled, lightly flour a surface and roll out the dough into a rectangle shape. You are now going to make a square out of a rectangle; fold one-third of the pastry into the middle, then last third into the middle. Press down at the edges.
  5. Now roll out again, and fold, twice more. Place in the fridge for an hour.

The filling

  1. Whilst the pastry is in the fridge, brown the beef on a high heat.
  2. Add the mushrooms, finely sliced, and stir.
  3. Finally, add some beef stock and remove from the heat.

Pie time!

  1. Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll out to fit your pie dish.
  2. Line your pie dish, leaving enough pastry for the lid.
  3. Add your filing. As I left my beef quite dry and made up some quick, thick gravy using granules and poured a little on top. If you have a wet mix, don’t do add any more gravy/water.
  4. Finish your pie by folding the pastry over at the edges and seal with some milk.
  5. Bake for approx. 30 minutes at 180-200 degrees.

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Book club: The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

Set in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, The Tea Planter’s Wife is an intriguing story of a young newlywed woman who leaves the comforts of her home in England to live with her new husband, the owner of a tea plantation.

Jefferies paints a charming picture of Ceylon; a revitalising mix of humidity and exotic wildlife, whilst capturing the political tumult facing the Tamils and the colonials at that time. The story is set in the 1920’s and 1930’s at the beginning of political strife and revolution; the novel depicts the rising anger with the British as well as the hopelessness they felt due to the reliance they had on their income and their reluctance to place their job in jeopardy.

The main character, Gwen, is quite a simple character, unquestioning of her surroundings for the most part and overly trusting of  her husband – whom she barely knows at the start of the novel. The relationship between husband and wife, never mind men and women as whole, was significantly different back then. Women were the homemakers, not permitted to meddle in their husband’s business affairs, so the reader has quite an insight into the somewhat mundane life of the ‘wife’.

Soon Gwen is thinking about providing her husband, Lawrence, with children as she is expected to do. To her delight she is soon pregnant with twins and that is when the plot of this novel really starts to take shape. Gwen gives birth to two children, but one is white-skinned and one is dark-skinned. The remainder of the novel emotionally depicts Gwen’s maternal struggle with giving one child away, the secret she keeps from her husband for over 7 years and the coming together of husband and wife as equals in the wake of a new world following the crash of ’29.

The other two main characters, Lawrence and his sister Verity, are quite opposing in nature. Lawrence is calm, a business man but with deep familial ties to Ceylon and cares for Gwen deeply, in his own way. He is all-observing, tall and strong-willed but his personality never really shines through. He is aloof and could be developed more as a character and particularly his work on the plantation and his care of the workers.

Verity is a complex character and having finished the novel I still don’t feel that I entirely understand her composition; selfish and sly, argumentative and vengeful, her reasons for acting the way she does are never fully explored and she is a constant source of mystery – and frustration!

My heroine of the story by far is Gwen’s servant and nanny. A native to Ceylon, she has worked for the family for decades and helps to settle Gwen in to life in the country. She has a life of servitude, but I found myself hoping that she would somehow escape those confines and speak out about all that she had witnessed over the years, even though I knew in reality no person would have put their job at risk in such a way. Whilst her knowledge of what had gone before Gwen (no spoilers – sorry!) would undoubtedly have changed the course of the story, she is nonetheless an endearing character and a constant throughout the book.

However, the novel is not without its flaws. There are a couple of unfinished endings and questionable events, especially in the final chapters. It seemed a little as though Jefferies was trying to wrap the book up as soon as possible after the main plot had concluded, but it didn’t quite all add up. In particular, Gwen dwells about Savi, a male character, throughout the novel and the reader is lead to believe he is a charming yet unsavoury character. But then, as if by magic, she just starts talking to him again after all those years. It seems a little unbelievable at times.

However, the style of this book is excellent and there is a sufficient amount of both substance and depth to each of the characters to bring them to life. I found myself becoming tearful at one point (I read on the train during my commute each day and had to hurriedly wipe away a stray tear!) and if a novel can make me, un-emotional and cold-hearted, shed a tear, then it must be worth a read.

At its heart, The Tea Planter’s Wife is a love story, both romantic and platonic but interwoven with themes of racism and colonialism.

The author

Jefferies was born in Malaysia and lived there until she was 9 years old before moving to England. She only began writing in her 60’s and travelled to Sri Lanka to help give some realism to her book. The places Jefferies refers to are a mix of real-life places and fictional ones, based on a several locations amalgamated together.

I sincerely hope you enjoy this novel as much as I did – let me know your thoughts should you decide to read it!

 

 

Its all gone Pete Tong

I haven’t posted for a while because we’ve been going through a rather difficult time with our house purchase. It sounds silly doesn’t it – getting anxious about buying a house – though apparently its one of the most stressful transactions of your life.

We’ve been relatively calm if not downright excited about our house purchase and everything was going swimmingly well until 3 weeks ago.

Now, let me be clear – we aren’t jumping up and down because the sellers aren’t leaving their curtain poles or because we are missing a FENSA certificate for the windows (which we actually are missing as it turns out). No, we have had a shed-load of anxiety because one week before we were due to exchange contracts we found out that there are new regulations coming into force which stipulate where septic tanks can drain.

Its not a nice topic is it, septic tanks. But once you get over the lavatorial element of it, they are quite remarkable systems and the ‘science’ behind it is interesting.

The problem

Anyway, from 2020 any septic tanks that drain into a ditch or watercourse (which is defined within the regulations) are prohibited. So if you have a septic tank which does this, it needs to be replaced by 31st December 2019 or you face a massive fine by the Environment Agency – tens of thousands of pounds depending on the severity of the pollution.

Options

To be compliant with the regulations (known as the general binding rules) you can do the following:

  1. Install a small sewage treatment plant; or
  2. Re-route the pipework so that the tank drains into a drainage field (this option is likely to include a replacement/upgrade of your existing tank too)

You may need planning permission and building regulations consent, so check with the local authority and the Environment Agency if necessary.

The cost of the work is, quite frankly, as long as a piece of string. It could be £5,000 it could be £25,000. It all depends on the system you opt for, the land in question and any other issues unique to your property (such as distance from another dwelling or main road, which can be factors).

Unfortunately, if you are buying a house with a septic tank you are unlikely to know whether or not it is compliant with the general binding rules until about half way through the conveyancing process unless the sellers are already aware of the rules. We only have a very basic plan because the house we want to buy is so old, so we had to carry out a number of enquiries before we could establish that the septic tank was not compliant. For other properties it may be more obvious.

A drainage field is compliant (above); a pipe to a ditch/stream isn’t

Helpful links

If you think you may be caught by the new general binding rules, have a look through the government website here:

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/general-binding-rules-small-sewage-discharge-to-a-surface-water#enforcement-and-sanctions

I’ll update you all with how this plays out, but I can’t right now due to the sensitive nature of the issue and the ongoing conveyancing work.

Wish us luck!

Catching 40 winks

Sleep is literally one of the most important things in my life. Not because I obviously need it to function, but because there’s nothing quite like lying around, snuggled in a blanket all warm and fuzzy. I’ve found the best sleep comes after I’ve fallen asleep on the sofa in the evening (probably shortly after putting on a Netflix film) and then making my way up to bed in a drowsy one eye half-open state and collapsing on my bed. It only works, of course, if I’ve already de-make-uped and taken my lenses out otherwise I have an awful tantrum having to wake up again to do that!

I’m not as bad as the rest of my family though – my brother once fell asleep waiting for an elevator and we nearly left him behind!

I’ve always been a very light sleeper – I can wake up just from moving my arm, never minding turning over completely. But I’ve generally always found sleep easy. I could sleep most places; the car, the train, in public, it doesn’t bother me.

I love an early night, staying up til the wee hours just doesn’t interest me. I like to get into my pjs pretty much as soon as I get in from work, have some dinner, a cup of tea or three and then have an hour of down-time watching the telly. Whilst I’m sure I could go to bed at 8pm, the ‘adult’ in me insists on having some sort of evening so I usually head upstairs around 9pm unless there is an interesting post-watershed program I’m dying to watch.

On average, I reckon I fall asleep, properly fall asleep, one hour after I’ve gotten into bed. Say 10.30pm for argument’s sake.

I’m up at 6am for work, though lately I have been stretching this out until 6.30am, and then have a mad panic because I simply must leave the house by 7am or I’ll miss my train.

As that’s 7 ½ hours of sleep roughly, I didn’t think I was doing too badly. Many people want 8 or even 9 hours of sleep, but I imagine only a few are lucky enough to get that, especially during the working week.

The last 6 months for me have been quite bad. This weekend was the first weekend I’ve slept properly since April, and I certainly felt it. Back in April, I noticed that I was struggling to get to sleep and was waking up all hours of the night. I’d pop to the loo at 1am, feeling shattered but convinced my alarm was about to go off. I put it down to stress, though I couldn’t figure out what. I don’t get stressed that easily; I’m a lawyer and have a very stressful job per se, but I’ve learnt to compartmentalise my life which works well for me as otherwise I’d be worrying all the time. So if it wasn’t stress as such, was I worrying about something subconsciously? Well, if I am, 6 months on and I’ve let to figure out what it was.

By the summer I was waking every morning without fail at 5am. A whole hour before my alarm, but wide awake nonetheless. That’s the worst kind of rest – the lying there because you think you should and dreading the noise of your alarm kind of rest. I thought maybe I was getting too much sleep and waking up early as a result, but when I tried to get up I realised I was still shattered.

I tried reading in the evening before bed and had some herbal tea. It certainly helped, but as Sam is not a reader he tends to poke me or watch youtube videos in bed which distract me somewhat.

I’ve tried eating dinner earlier in the evening, and not eating as much; having fewer lamps on; drinking calming teas; having a lavender bath; having some peace and quiet; changing my pillows; sleeping the other end of the mattress; cuddling my stuffed bunny (don’t judge). Nothing really worked for more than one night.

Its quite unnerving in a way, feeling your body going through a change you can’t explain. I suddenly realised just how much I can’t function without sleep, or having poor quality sleep. My headaches have increased from a few a week to pretty much everyday. I’m tired by 10am. I’ve taken more paracetamol in the last few months than I have in years.

Sam doesn’t think that this is normal. My headaches are a concern to him, but what with my lack of sleep and inability to drink more than tea during the day (and certainly not enough to fulfil my 2 litre daily quota), I’m sure the headaches are explainable.

Last weekend I slept for 9 hours straight one night, and nearly 10 hours the next. Uninterrupted. I didn’t wake once despite desperately needing the loo. I thought I’d turned a corner and my body had automatically corrected itself, but Sunday night and I was waking once again throughout the night.

Do I have insomnia? Probably not. But surviving on 5 hours sleep a night can be tough and I’m sure its going to start impacting on my work unless I can get it under control.

I’m desperate for ideas on how to get better quality sleep, and more of it. So if any of you have any tips, please share them! If its a phase, that’s fine. But if I’m in it for the long haul, I may have to stock pile some Nytol.insomnia

Learning to make healthy choices, for life

Ask anyone if they have a problem with food, and the honest answer will probably be ‘yes’. Whether its to lose weight or tone up, to meet society’s expectations or just to get a decent Instagram photo, countless numbers of people will have issues with food.

My issue isn’t environmental. It found me.

I’m lactose intolerant, and whilst this may seem pretty run of the mill nowadays given loads of people have some kind of GI, FODMAP, celiac problem, let me tell you it was not easy growing up with it. Being lactose intolerant was just not a ‘thing’ in the 90’s.

I started to become sick at the age of 3 from something as mundane as a bowl of cornflakes. For the following 7 years I would vomit approximately 3 times each evening, 4-5 evenings a week or more. That means I’ve been physically ill more times that many people will be in the course of their whole life times. The doctors thought my mother had munchausen by proxy syndrome because they couldn’t find anything wrong with me and that my mother was on some kind of attention-seeking trip. Just before my 10th birthday and very much a last ditch attempt, my mother took me to a see a private consultant miles away from our home. I can vaguely remember his kind face, crinkling with a smile as soon as he saw me. Before I had even sat down he told my mother that I was lactose intolerant and, sure enough, he was proved right. The doctor was Indian and I’m quite olive-skinned for an English person (more so when I was younger than now); nearly half the Indian population have some form of lactose intolerance and the doctor had recognised the sallowness in my skin.

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My modified carbonara. Find a way to work around your hangups to enjoy the food you love

It was remarkable and the diagnosis literally changed my life. Of course, now I don’t remember much of what my diet was pre-age 10, but I do know it included the usual milk on cereal, milk in tea, etc.

My mother and I were fascinated that a food could do this to me.

If I have a milk product, my body starts to shut down; within 20 minutes I will become very heady, soon after I will start to sweat and then the tummy ache kicks in. Its not like being sick from a hang over or  a tummy bug – then you are only sick from your stomach. With my intolerance I am sick from my small intestine which can be excruciating – everything basically has to go back the way it came from, re-enter my stomach and pick up stomach acids before coming out. Once the tummy aches start its hard to say how long it’ll be before I’m physically sick, each time is different, but I will know in myself whether it will be a short process or if I’m in it for the long haul. The tummy aches cause all the energy in my limbs to be sapped and to be ‘re-directed’ to my digestive system. I’ve lost count of the number of times I don’t have the energy to get out of bed, or have been slumped on the bathroom floor pressing my forehead against the cold tiles. The amount of times I’ve cried for a towel, some water and for my hair to be tied back.

My mother and I started looking into other food groups and were surprised that the power of food can have on our bodies. This was still back in the 90’s and our general understanding of food and how to stay healthy has vastly improved since then, but its always something I find myself coming back to. I watch every episode of the BBC Superfoods series with Kate Quilton and anything else that investigates the pros and cons of eating a particular food. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a health freak, but at the back of my mind there is always this subconscious nagging to eat well and to eat healthily.

Earlier in the year when I first started blogging I wrote about how I was having a bit of a health and fitness overhaul, the primary objective being to lose some weight.

I’d noticed in August 2016 that I was getting rather tubby and felt increasingly uncomfortable in my clothes. I’d put on so much weight that my work wear was straining on me and that made me lack confidence.

I joined the gym in September and just started doing some basic work outs (I used to really be into fitness so I have some idea of what to do). I admit I wasn’t 100% committed, partly because, with hindsight, I was doing the same thing, day in, day out.

I would rush from the office to the gym, do 20 minutes on the cross-trainer, 10 minutes on the bike and then use some really easy assisted weights to improve muscle tone on my legs. Occasionally I’d use the rower.

Than about November time I got Instagram and came across a fitness fanatic called Kayla Itsines who advocates a wellness lifestyle, but from the comfort of your own room. I don’t particularly like paying for someone to tell me how to exercise and what to eat so I’ve never downloaded her program, but there was enough information and videos on her Instagram feed for me to take away a few pointers. The concept of exercising without having a gym membership or running (though I am partial to the odd run) was intriguing. Although, as I understand it, Itsines builds up the intensity of her programs, it starts by telling you to do a round of exercises that involve no equipment and could be done from your living room.

I carried on with my gym membership, but decided to build in some ‘floor work’ to my routine. I felt so self-conscious using the mats at the side of my gym, in full view of everyone, that I started using the area where they hold classes. I quickly realised there are a lot of people like me who feel uncomfortable struggling to do a sit up in front of everyone else! I started doing a mini-round of basic exercises: 10 squats, 25 sit-ups, 25 Russian twists, 10 leg lifts, 40 cycle sit-ups (I don’t know what they’re called!) and some stretches.

The sit-ups were the killer. For as long as I can remember I’ve never been able to do a sit-up without feeling faint or sick. But I persevered and after two weeks I could do 10 sit-ups without feeling like I was going to black out and that was a real achievement for me. I would still do my time on the cross-trainer and some assisted leg weight lifts, but otherwise I focused on my abs.

Our office Christmas party was in December and I remember being able to buy a size 10 skirt because my waist had gotten smaller. I was so chuffed, even though I had not lost  much weight from anywhere else. But it gave me the boost I needed to see me through Christmas and into the New Year if nothing else. From January through to June I was desperate to get back to how I’d been at university. I didn’t set myself any unrealistic goals, just a target weight that I knew was achievable whilst still allowing me to have the occasional treat. I bought a couple of new figure-hugging dresses ready for our holiday in June and I was over the moon that not only could I fit into them, but I actually looked good. I was proud to be me and, for once, wanted to show off my figure rather than hide away in jeans and baggy jumpers.

I must confess that I haven’t been to the gym much since we came back from holiday in July, and I stopped going altogether in August. I realised that it wasn’t the fitness that I was enjoying (though being half-way toned was quite pleasing!), but rather what I was fuelling my body with. I LOVE food and I could never restrict myself from eating carbs, or having no sugar or doing some weird paleo-diet. I’m a firm believer of everything in moderation.

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Food should be an enjoyable social occasion, not something to begrudge

I’ve always enjoyed cooking and I’m not afraid to throw a few odd ingredients into a meal to make up for an ingredient I’m lacking, but I think I became stuck in a rut. Do you buy the same items in your food shop every week? I was. Do you cook the same meals most weeks? I was. I was watching cooking programmes and thinking ‘that’s great, I’ll do that’, but would then never get round to it. And after over-analysing my food habits I’ve come to the conclusion that its all to do with vegetables.

I’m extremely partial to some mushrooms, garlic, chilli, red peppers (not any other colour), green beans, a cabbage and leek mix, a few potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, tomatoes etc. It sounds a fair amount, but when I look around the supermarket shelves I realise just how many different types of fruits and vegetables are out there that I don’t even consider. So, I still buy the same vegetables, but now I mix it up a little bit each week – substitute some potatoes for a butternut squash. Simple changes, but ones that excite me to come into the kitchen at the weekend to make something slightly different. I put whatever meat, fish or carbs I want with it, but planning a meal around a particular vegetable really makes it the centrepiece, rather than the add-on because I feel obliged to eat my 5 a-day!

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PYO blackberries were a hit at the end of the summer

So since August I’ve focused on what I’m putting in to my body and I’m hoping to maintain the weight I lost for our holiday. I’ve put on a couple of pounds since July, but as I’ve been under the weather and I was away for a week with an extremely bad diet during that time, I think that’s understandable.

My parents are both vegetarian so although they allowed me to eat meat, I didn’t eat very much of it and even now I probably only have meat once or twice a week, and sometimes not at all. Its just not a big part of my life.

I’m also not a pudding person. Sweet treats just don’t grab me as much as the smell of a pie baking! My distaste for puds is mostly down to my intolerance as it can be very hard finding a sweet after-dinner treat that doesn’t involve some form of milk, cream, custard or the like. After years of not being able to have it, I honestly don’t really miss it.

I feel that I have reached a place of contentment in my life, with my food choices and with my body.

I hope to continue like this for many years to come. The satisfaction of eating right far outweighs the few minutes of eating too much cake! I’m not disillusioned – I know that life has its ups and downs and that my weight will fluctuate from over indulging some months, but I do believe that awareness is key. After all, how can you keep something in check if you don’t recognise when its going wrong? I’m excited to buy vegetables and that is something to be proud of in my book. For now, I just want to focus on making my body as healthy as it can reasonably be, without denying it anything. A balance: enabling your body to let you live life to its fullest.

We move house in a few short weeks and I’m going to start growing my own vegetables. I sincerely hope this will keep me on track but as I’m not a budding gardener it might be a bit trial and error for a while!

10 in 10

As I’m new to blogging I thought I’d share a little bit about me so you can all get to know me a bit better. I have a spare 10 minutes and thought I’d share 10 (interesting?) things you probably don’t already know:

  1. I’m a solicitor, for my sins. Its unlikely that I’ll ever write about my life as a lawyer or law generally as its bad enough doing it for a career never mind writing about it in my spare time.
  2. I can eat a whole loaf of bread in a day. I actually did this several times at university. I love bread, especially thick cut-it-yourself slices, and I’d rather cut my left arm off than be without a toaster.
  3. I can’t touch my toes. I’m 5’10” and no amount of flexibility as a youngster could get my fingers anywhere close to my toes.
  4. I have a 3 foot stuffed rabbit. I really want a dog, but what with Sam and I working really long hours, it just wouldn’t be fair on the fluffy. One day. For now, I cuddle a stuffed rabbit.
  5. I have a 3-year cycle with my hair. I’m in love with LOB haircuts (that’s a ‘long bob’ for those not in the know), but literally none of my family and friends think that the cut suits me. I first cut my hair off at 18, and pretty much every 3 years since then. My hair is currently the longest its been since I was 18 – its down to my waist – and I’ve been pinning a lot of LOB haircuts on Pinterest lately. I’ve already decided that if I cut my hair off again I will donate my hair to a cancer charity. Apparently 4 inches are lost in the knotting process, so the longer the hair the better.
  6. I’ve always wanted to run the Virgin London Marathon. I’ve watched it every year since I was 8 and always vowed that I’d run it with my dad one day. I’ve entered the ballot a couple of times, most recently this year (I’m still waiting to hear if I’ve been successful)
  7. I’m lactose intolerant.
  8. I hate technology. I’d quite happily throw my smart ‘phone in the canal. The chap who invented e-mail is on my metaphorical hit-list.
  9. I’d rather sit at home with a cup of tea, in my pjs, with a blanket, reading a good book than be out clubbing.
  10. Sam is the best thing to ever happen to me. I mean, I know I’m meant to say that because he’s my husband and all that, but he literally is the best person in the whole world. I’d be a very sad, angry person without him. He lights up my world in a way nobody else can. I love him with all my heart.

Tragus piercing : all you need to know

Ever since I was 13 years old I wanted my tragus pierced. I must have seen it on someone else and thought it was pretty cool. And before you say it, no, I wasn’t particularly ‘alternative’ or trying to rebel, I just thought it was nice.

But at 13 my mum was having none of it. She said ‘when you’re in college’. Well, a few years later when I was in college it was ‘you’re about to study law at university’, then when I finished university and law school it was ‘you’ll be having interviews for training contracts and jobs, you don’t want them to notice it do you?’

So it wasn’t until last year, at the age of 27, that I decided to get my tragus pierced once and for all. I was no longer studying and had held down a job as a solicitor for a couple of years by that point, so I figured – what is there to lose? I debated about whether or not to tell my mum about my intention to get the piercing, but decided to in the end. I did it in a very off-hand, its a run-of-the-mill-thing kind of way. She didn’t say much, thankfully, though I knew she disapproved.

So on 30th September 2016 (I remember the date because I’ve been thinking about the after-care process ever since!) I trotted off to a local recommended piercer and had it done.IMG_1834

The piercing

I laid down on a bed and the piercer clamped my tragus with a metal tool, pulling it forward so it was 90 degrees to my head. Then she used some kind of needle to create the piercing, pushing from front to back, whilst threading the stud through at the same time. She then screwed the ball on the front and it was all done. Super quick – about 15 minutes in total.

Did it hurt? Well, yes. But it was very quick and sharp, causing me to flinch. It didn’t throb or ache much afterwards but, as you’d expect, there was a bit of blood. Only a few drops though.

I was told that it could take up to a year for the piercing to heal so I bought some cleaning oil to help the recovery process. Apparently a large majority of infections in a tragus piercing happen in the first couple of months, and they can look like this:Infected-Tragus-Piercing-Signs-Bump-Risks-How-to-Treat-Tragus-Piercing-Infection

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Ew! & I’ve left the really graphic ones out so as not to put you off your snacks!

I was very regimented and stuck to cleaning my ear twice a day with the oil. I put a t-shirt over my pillow and turned it around each day before replacing the shirt every third day (as I was told to do). At the beginning of November I thought ‘pah, this is easy. No infection what so ever! Bet its even healed, I could probably replace the jewellery now’.

The infection

It was a typical case of speaking too soon. Not long after that my ear started to develop a swollen red mark around the front of the hole. Just as I thought it was going down, it would appear at the back – but never on both sides (I have no idea why). Sometimes the jewellery would have a crust on it, which initially sounds gross but then we realised that it was where I was washing my hair and not rinsing in my ears enough and a residue was building up. You need to turn the pressure of the shower head down and then let the water drip in your ear for about 30 seconds or so, then ‘tip’ it out by turning your head the other way. I think if you had short hair and didn’t use as much shampoo you probably wouldn’t have to worry about this.IMG_8542 (2)

I carried on with the oil, but after a few weeks realised it wasn’t having any effect. I knew that most people used a saline solution but it had seemed a bit of a faff to make every day. By mid-November I realised that I needed to do something and salting my ear seemed to be the cheapest way to do it.

A saline solution is just salt and water, but you can’t use table salt as that salt can sometimes be treated before its sold, so you’re best off with regular sea salt. I ground about 1 ½ teaspoons of salt into a tumbler and added hot water. After leaving it for a few minutes to cool down, I then dabbed some folded paper towels into it and held it on the piercing. You are meant to do this for about 10 minutes but aside from being the slowest 10 minutes of your life, you will also find your arm hurts an awful lot!

I salted my ear for the following 2 months and it really did help. The red swelling subsided in fits and bursts, though always appeared again after a couple of days if I stopped salting. For Christmas Sam had bought me a hoop and a diamante ball-stud, so I decided that I would switch the jewellery just before my birthday in January. It had been 3 months by then and I was anxious to see how well the piercing was healing. We couldn’t get the original ball-stud out at first because it had been screwed tight by the piercer, so we bought some latex gloves (which give you a lot more grip) and Sam managed to unwind the ball-stud. We replaced it with a diamante stud.IMG_8421

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Its now been just over 1 year since the piercing. Most of the summer my ear was fine and not red but it has started to have a slight red swelling on it again the last few days. I don’t think it helped that I knocked it really badly a couple of weeks ago, causing it to bleed. But otherwise it has gotten better, albeit it is a slow process.

Thinking about it?

Although I’ve had a bit of trouble with my tragus piercing, which seems to be ongoing, I would definitely recommend getting it done if you are thinking about it. The chances of you have such a bad reaction as the people in the horror stories above is pretty slim – unless either you have not gone to a recommended piercer, or your post-piercing cleaning routine is bad. Its normal to have some aching or swelling given you have just made a hole in your skin, but it shouldn’t be hurting a lot for a long period of time.

I love my tragus jewellery, especially my diamante stud. I feel a bit different, but in a girly way, not a tomboy-grunge kind of way like I should be hanging out in the back streets. I had my left ear pierced which is the opposite side to where I part my hair so I can easily hide it if needed, plus it is not so obvious that way. My mum doesn’t like it much, she says that its not as noticeable as I think it is, but thats fine. I had my ear pierced because I wanted it done, not for other people to see and like it. Just for me.

Recommended cleaning routine

You should follow whatever cleaning routine your piercer recommends to you, especially in the first few weeks after having the piercing done. After that, the fail-safe fall back is the saline solution:

  1. Grind 1 ½ teaspoons of sea salt into hot water. Stir it so that the granules melt.
  2. Leave it for a few minutes to cool, then fold up some paper towels.
  3. Dip the paper towel into the solution and apply to the piercing with the jewellery in(!)

Do not rub. Do not scratch. Just let the solution soak into the piercing. Every couple of minutes dip fresh paper towels into the water and re-apply.

Do not wear earphones or headphones for at least 3 if not 6 months so as not to irritate it.

Different types of jewellery

There are various different types of jewellery you can buy for your tragus, from hoops to ball-studs. Unlike a traditional lobe piercing, the ball-studs screw on at the front, rather than the back because that would just be awkward otherwise!

I hope you’ve found this useful. Before I had my piercing I looked up everything from the process to possible infections and found that the internet can be a very misleading place! A lot of websites may have well have just said that my ear was going to fall off and that the piercing wasn’t worth it. It was hard to find an honest non-horror-story review.

Some lovely famous faces with tragus piercings:

Super simple and scrummy: squash

My father grows many different varieties of vegetables in all colours of the rainbow, so when I was handed this one I honestly believed that it was a courgette as he said, and planned my dinner accordingly.

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Except its not. A courgette that is. Its a squash. And the clue? The massive seeds inside that are similar to a pumpkin! Good job the two vegetables don’t taste vastly different or I might by having words with dearest father for ruining my meal!

Anyway, I happen to love squash and figured it would still work. So here it is, my quick and simple mid-week dinner: squash with bolognaise sauce, topped with Parmesan. A low-carb super-tasty alternative to pasta.

You will need:

1 squash (this will only work if your squash is bowl-shaped)

Quorn mince (or meat, of course)

Mushrooms

Spinach

Garlic

Chilli (optional)

Tomatoes (fresh, tinned – its up to you)

Parmesan, grated

How to make:

  1. Cut the squash about a third of the way down from the stalk, all the way around. Scoop out the seeds and place on a baking tray.
  2. Cover the squash with foil and bake in the oven for approximately 40 minutes at 200 degrees.
  3. Whilst the squash is cooking, brown off the mince and mushrooms in a frying pan, adding garlic and chilli as you wish. Add the tomatoes and salt and pepper for seasoning, and let it simmer.
  4. Once the bolognaise sauce is nearly ready, add a handful of spinach leaves and let them wilt in the steam before mixing them into the sauce. Leave on a low heat.
  5. Remove the foil from the squash and bake uncovered for another 8-10 minutes.

It really is that simple. Remove the squash from the oven, pour on your sauce and enjoy! You can eat the squash rind, but make sure it is soft and supple or it will have the texture of orange pith.

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We are moving house shortly and I am really looking forward to growing my own vegetables and herbs. Sam is going to make me a vegetable trug and I’m hoping to get a small greenhouse too. Its so exciting – a bit like The Good Life! I can barely keep a few flowers alive each year, so this will definitely be a challenge for me, but one I am going to embrace whole-heartedly. If anyone has any tips for a super-newbie gardener, do let me know what to do and not do!

Book club: The Lake House by Kate Morton

A novel is an insight into an author’s world, or how they perceive it to be. No matter what the story, the intimacy of reading someone else’s words on a page gives you an understanding of them as a person. Most writers agree that they leave parts of themselves in each novel; your experiences are all you have to draw from after all, topped up with research.

But I’ve become stuck in a bit of a same-old author rut and didn’t know what to do. I felt I knew what was coming from the first chapter, and rarely was I wrong. I love a good story, but I wanted to shake it up a bit. And so I thought what better to way to encourage myself to read more widely than if I post about my reads and take inspiration from others – even if it is a book I would usually steer away from in the store.

So this is what lead me to The Lake House by Kate Morton.

The plot: a summary

The Lake House is a beautifully crafted book. It is the tale of a tragic incident that occurred in the early 30’s in Cornwall and which has haunted each of the family members involved for the following 70 years. It brings together a modern-day policewoman, Sadie, who in trying to escape from her own wrong-doing, visits her grandfather and stumbles across a majestic yet run-down house in the Cornish countryside. Her inquisitiveness leads her on a search for the truth in order to solve a crime that happened well before her own birth.

In the 30’s, the youngest member of the Edevane family was found missing. A toddler, last seen sleeping in his nursery whilst his parents hosted a party, was nowhere to be found. Presumed missing, taken or dead, each of Theo’s siblings held their own guilt and slice of knowledge as to what happened to him for the remainder of their lives.

The story primarily centres around Sadie and one of Theo’s siblings, Alice, who is now well into her 80s and a renowned writer herself. The novel jumps through time, from the 30’s to the present day with the reader gaining an understanding of the circumstances surrounding Theo’s disappearance from the perspectives of Alice, her mother and at one point her grandmother, with present-day Sadie tying it all together.

The switches between modern-day Sadie and the events of the 30’s helped me to gain an insight into not only the characters’ understanding of the circumstances surrounding the incident, but their own personal development. I found it far from confusing and more of a guide, helping me to come to my own conclusions with each plot twist, rather than being fed the story and feeling like an outsider, an observer.

Themes

The novel is largely the story of two crimes woven together within the Gothic mystery genre. Love is what holds this novel together and brings it to life; unbreakable family bonds showing the lengths a person will go to to protect their nearest and dearest.

Although the story centres around Sadie and Alice, it is Alice’s mother, Eleanor, who really stands out and makes this story real. In each of the recollections you see Eleanor in a different light and how she has changed as she gets older. As a young adult she feels stifled by her mother’s strict expectations of her and the need to please those around her. As she grows up, her love for her husband Anthony and the joy of motherhood is ever-present, but with it the understanding that she is now Mother, not just Eleanor. She had duties and responsibilities, but is she at risk of nearly becoming like the very thing she despised most: her own mother? Morton adeptly contrasts the adult Eleanor with the softer, girl-ish side to her and her desire to love and be loved. Eleanor is the rock of the family, the cord that binds them together and makes them a unit. Eleanor is, truly, the heroine of this novel.

Morton is able to portray Alice’s stubborn, selfish but other-worldliness as a teenager and show how she has matured into an adult, still carrying those traits but with a newfound understanding of life and the reason why people make certain decisions. She is set in her ways, focused and deliberate in each of her actions. Misunderstood as a teenager, perhaps, but her misunderstanding of the situation surrounding Theo’s disappearance is heartening; her friendship with the gardener confused with courtship and love, and her shame at being rejected resonating with her into later life.

Sadie is not a strong character, despite her central place in the novel. Her ‘wrong-doing’ is not such a life-changing event as the reader is initially lead to believe and she lacks in personality. Her sole purpose is to tell the story, rather than to seemingly be a part of it. I lacked any connection or empathy with Sadie, finding her rather bland. But perhaps that was the purpose. She was the narrator, and it could be quite easy for the reader to be side-tracked from the main story if Sadie also had her own life-story.

The most riveting aspect of the book by far was the author’s attention to detail, particularly when describing events and emotions from the 30’s. Alice’s observations about her siblings and mother; her button-down top and pearls and the lines around her eyes; the longing to be out by the lake, the dryness and grittiness of the summer heat bearing down on her really bring the characters to life and give them depth. Morton is able to give the reader a real flavour of what life was like for the middle classes back then, from fashion to behaviour and society’s staunch, conventional expectations.

But if you take a step back from The Lake House, cracks start to appear.

There are several incidents in this novel that are unnecessary and, frankly, unbelievable (alert: potential for spoilers!)

  • The death of Eleanor’s mentor and family-friend. The reader is lead to believe that this could be suicide, but it is largely unexplored until the reader comes to Alice’s grandmother’s only recollection. The mentor had lived with the family for several decades and it seems entirely unbelievable that he would be murdered. Morton clearly chose to kill him off to try and divert the reader, but the red-herring was so glaringly obvious from the get-go it would have been disappointing if the mentor had had anything to do with Theo’s disappearance in the end.
  • The ending. Whilst it was comforting for Theo to not only be found alive, but for the reader to know that Eleanor knew he was safe before her untimely death, it was just too twee for Theo to turn out to be Sadie’s grandfather. Of the hundreds and thousands of people who moved to and lived in London then, is it plausible that the two ‘investigators’, Sadie and Alice, would be linked biologically? I’d say not.
  • Anthony’s shell-shock was well-researched by Morton, but introduced too late into the book and then dropped far too suddenly. I have read several fictional accounts about the effect of shell-shock on those who fought in the First World War (Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong being by far the most moving), and whilst Morton adequately explained the effects of it, it was a very shallow depiction and, I felt, tip-toed around the subject. Morton needed to explore it more in order for the reader to give it proper weight and consider whether it was viable for Anthony to have had involvement in Theo’s disappearance.

However, The Lake House is definitely one to read. It is a page-turner in its entirety and whilst I do have some criticisms of it, overall it is brilliantly executed and made me want to stay up late into the night to find out what was going to happen next. Many authors are able to depict a scene, an event, and add some emotion to it, but the human aspect of The Lake House is enthralling. Morton is excellent at portraying a character as a person; weaving in character traits, observations and personality into them so that they are all but real.

I had not come across Morton prior to The Lake House being recommended to me, but I will definitely be reading more of her works in the future.

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Whilst writing this I treated myself to a gorgeous cup of Black Rose tea in my new tea pot. I’ve had quite a stressful and tiring week so this pick-me-up was much needed.

Our Cornish (Coasteering) Adventure

Over the August bank holiday weekend Sam and I took a trip down to Cornwall, which is one of our favourite places in the UK. We’ve been many times before but absolutely love it down there and always take any excuse to go back. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

We stayed just outside of Padstow, in a small campsite in St Merryn. It was the perfect location; great transport links for Padstow and Port Issac, and on the way home we were able to stop in at Tintagel and Boscastle too.

Padstow is a beautiful Cornish village. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESIt is situated on north coast and has a wonderful little harbour. The shops are quite commercial; the typical surf and fudge shops I’ve come to expect from Cornwall, but I think its the restaurants and cafes that entice the visitors in. Pubs, gastro-pubs, up-market restaurants and nook-and-cranny cafes, all serving fresh delicious sea food. You can buy freshly-dressed crab and mussels from stands around the harbour – as well as the traditional Cornish pasty if you fancy something more meaty! Padstow is quaint, but you really don’t need more than a couple of hours there.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES I would definitely recommend going in the morning if you can, as by lunch time and the afternoon the crowds are immense.

Harlyn Bay is where we did our coasteering. My parents had bought us a voucher for Christmas and we were so pleased as it meant tying in a new venture with a trip to the coast. I’ve wanted to do coasteering for a couple of years now (perhaps in an attempt to still feel young and fit despite my advance towards the big 3-0!) Sam is not a confident swimmer so I was a bit unsure whether or not he would enjoy it or would be too apprehensive – but he LOVED it. Coasteering is a meander across the rocks and seaweed along the coast, jumping into the sea and rock pools at designated spots. I would definitely recommend it for those of you who want to do it but have reservations. We filmed a little video to show you just how good it is – so you don’t have to take our word for it!

 

This was the hottest day of the summer – about 28 degrees. I thought we’d be bundling up in jumpers and blankets for the short drive back to the campsite but how wrong I was. I kicked back with some snacks back at the car and sunbathed!

Port Isaac in my view, is a cuter, lesser-known alternative to Padstow.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThere is one car park at the top of town and from there you can do a short walk along the coast, round and down to the village. It has a wonderful little bay with fishing boats (very active fishing boats judging by the amount of fish we saw in the market). We stopped for a Cornish cream teaSAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES in a quirky little cafe where everything from the jam to the scones themselves were homemade.  A perfect respite before we continued on up the hill and enjoyed a welcome break overlooking the bay and soaking up the sunshine. Don’t forget to call in at the little fish market on your way through.

Some people may be familiar with Port Isaac as it is where Martin Clunes’ Doc Martin is filmed, but I’m pleased that, for the most part, it has not become too tourist-y.

Tintagel. Famous for the ruined castle and Arthurian legends of Merlin and the round-table. This village has really take on the myths surrounding the village as many (little) shops contained everything from dream-catchers to figurines. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Just to the left of a Cornish-pasty shop is the very steep walk down to the bay. But don’t worry – you don’t have to walk back up! There is a Landrover service for a small surcharge, or you could cheat like us and walk via a quaint church on the headland. We didn’t pay to go into the ruin or down to Merlin’s cave as it was sooo hot and there is not much shade, but we did enjoy it from afar and had a lovely walk back around on the coast.

Make sure to stop for a Cornish pasty in town – they’re well worth it! You only need a couple of hours here – perhaps a few if you are going to go across to the ruin.

But then you can take a short drive to Bossiney Bay. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESPark up in a car park just off the road out of Tintagel and take a short 5 minute hike half way down the cliff. You should come to a cross road (ahem, cross path), and if you continue for a few yards there should be a parting in the hedgerow, giving you a clear view of the bay below. The rock formation here is quite famous as it looks like an elephant with its trunk dipping in to the water. Its also quite a safe bay to paddle in when the tide is out.

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Just a couple of miles up the road from Tintagel is this little village. There aren’t any shops per se, but several pubs and cafes and a thoroughly enjoyable walk alongside the river, leading out into the estuary. You can walk along the river wall right out until you view the sea; but walk on the right not the more publicised left-hand side as the views are more impressive.

The tide was out when we arrived and we were able to see the chains staking the boats to the seabed, seaweed snaking along it and over the rocks. Well worth a visit and again, only a couple of hours are needed.

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If you are planning a visit to Cornwall – enjoy! And if you want any recommendations of where to go or stay just comment below.