On my bike

Apart from a day when I ran along Hadrian’s Wall without a waterproof coat on, and got back home after about 15km drenched through to the skin and feeling miserable, the weather hasn’t been too bad lately (and the rain does at least mean the pond I’ve created has filled up). Cycling also feels like the easier option if I’m feeling a bit tired, and having given blood earlier in the week I still felt a bit lethargic. As Saturday dawned the weather looked glorious, so I decided a long bike ride was in order.

I didn’t set out to go fast but just to enjoy myself, and in fact as I cycled along I thought that there are the ‘exploratory’ runs and bike rides (and even swims), when you maybe try out a new route and just want to make the most of the weather and your freedom; and then there are the ‘training’ runs, rides and swims when you’re trying to push yourself a bit harder and perhaps to get a good time. Having only done one short bike ride since October, Saturday was definitely an exploratory day.

I’d found some rides which were based around Alston, but one of them looped through Brampton, so rather I decided I’d do the Brampton-Haltwhistle loop and miss out Alston, thereby also making it a bit shorter. Even so it looked as if it would be about 30 miles, which felt like about the right distance for this point in the year. Despite the sun I wrapped up fairly warm in my down jacket – although it wasn’t long before I’d unzipped it in order to cool down a bit and had taken my gloves off.

I cycled out along the A689 through Milton and Hallbankgate and then was on to road which I’d driven many times but never cycled. I passed the old railway line which links up with Pennine Way, and remembered running from there with Kerry when we were training for Kielder Marathon – that was a difficult day with a poorly waymarked and very soggy route. I looked over towards the North Pennines, passing the sign telling me it was an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and stopped to take a photo of the hills. Another cyclist passed me at that point and although I kept him in my sights for some time, he eventually was far away ahead of me.

You know how there are some places whose names appeal to you, and how there are roads that you drive past and think ‘I wonder what’s down there’? Lambley is one of those places for me. And today I finally cycled through it. It’s an incredibly pretty village, perched on the edge of the hill, and if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s miles from anywhere and has no shops or other facilities, it would be a gorgeous place to live. The road wound down to the South Tyne, where it crossed the river near a Mine Water Treatment plant. Seeing the South Tyne reminded me of when I ran from Alston along some of Isaac’s Tea Trail, including splashing through the Tyne. It struck me that in the summer this might be a good place to swim, though the river’s quite shallow so I’m not sure how far you’d be able to go.

Not far past the river – up a bit of a hill – I came to a car park and was able to join the Pennine Trail, an old railway line which presumably once went from mines at or near Lambley to Haltwhistle (I wonder if it also joined up with the line that goes to Alston – I imagine it probably did. Railway lines for the mines would have criss-crossed this landscape once). I was glad I was cycling my slightly sturdier roadbike and not my triathlon bike with its especially narrow tyres – in places the track was quite rough and at one point I had to walk for a couple of yards as the gravel was very deep and loose. But most of it was very cyclable, even if I did have to keep stopping to open gates or slowing up to avoid pedestrians – I started shouting ‘ding ding’ as I approached them in the end, which helped. As I passed him, one man very kindly shouted ‘ding ding’ to the next people in front of me. Needless to say with the glorious weather there were quite a few pedestrians about, especially as I approached Haltwhistle. I think the sun had made us all happy though.

At Featherstone you cycle past a pub (sadly closed at the moment, of course) and the old station platform, and then pass along a beautiful avenue of elegant silver birch trees. There is a Featherstone Castle, though whether this is a real castle and still exists or not I don’t know – perhaps something to explore another day. There are also some castle ruins near to the A69 according to the map – again I didn’t spot anything but I probably wasn’t looking in the right place.

From Haltwhistle there was a fairly long climb up to join the military road (the B6318) not far from Walltown Crags. As I came out on the top of the hill before dropping down into Greenhead I only had about another 8-10 miles to go, all through familiar territory – Gilsland, Birdoswald, Lanercost and back into Brampton, past the roman turrets, milecastles and fort that I have been to many times. As I looked over towards the west I stopped to take another photo, feeling quite emotional: this is my Home, this wide expanse of gorgeous countryside where countries and counties meet.

New runs and lockdown 3

I’ve always had a relatively low boredom threshold, and love exploring. A third lockdown (really the 2nd ‘proper’ one) and I was more than ready to start to look for some new running routes. But just how far was ‘local’: if I was taking the kids down to Penrith to their Dad’s, was it OK to run down there (not a question the police could answer when I emailed them)? However, there were certain site visits which were necessary for work, so I started trying to plan off-the-beaten-track routes which would take in the site visits, and trying to find alternative routes locally.

We’ve had snow, too – nothing terribly thick yet, but I couldn’t wait to get out running in woods with snow falling. It always reminds me of the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – even though it hasn’t been evening nor actually snowing as I’ve run. But even feeling the crunch of snow under foot brings up my memories of that poem: the images the words conjure up; the sounds and stillness of being out in woods in snow; the magic of running through the woods back from Lanercost, with snow floating down around me.

I’ve run to Lanercost and back twice in snow recently: one time it was fairly firm underfoot but the second time it was wet snow on top of wet mud, which, as I trod into it, made a squishy mess. Nothing pure white and virginal that day, unfortunately – and the second time there were also a lot of trees down across the beck. It’s still a lovely run though, and Lanercost is an atmospheric place, choc full of history and thoughts of Edward I, Robert Bruce, the dissolution of the monasteries and parties in the Dacre Hall.

Locally I also found an ‘extra’ bit of route which I have now done twice – the first time I tried it out my car was having its handbrake repaired and I ran while waiting for the car, saw a bridlepath and thought ‘I’ll see where that goes’. It linked up with a path I’d been along a long time ago, next to the river Gelt, and then took me back into Gelt woods. Today I did it again, clocking up 11.5km. I’m not really much good at spotting wildlife but I have seen deer in the wild grass near the woods, and today there were miniscule buds on some of the trees, a mix of snow and sun on the fells, and snowdrops having burst out of the ground getting ready to throw their flowers open.

Standing over the railway line feels like a real ‘Railway Children’ moment.

At the end of January I had to go down to Bristol to take my mother in for her second cataract operation, and my father in for his first Covid jab. It gave me a chance to run around Bristol, feeling a little nostalgic for when I’d lived there for 4 years when I was first married and my two oldest children were babies/toddlers. I was at school in Bristol for 5 years as well, and so the place feels familiar. I ran along the Portway, past a wicker sculpture of a whale (it’s quite well camouflaged in the photo) and up through Stoke Bishop before crossing the Downs, that lovely open space in Bristol perched on top of the cliffs of the Avon gorge, and back into Clifton Village. The following day I ran from my parents’ house along to and up on to Wavering Down: the sun was out and spring was in the air. The day after that there had been snow over night and my sister and I walked up there under a completely different sky!

The snow has been somewhat sporadic so far this year, and when I ran yesterday from Shap Abbey ruins to Rosgill, cutting through towards Burnbanks across muddy but beautiful scenery, the snow was on the felltops rather than on the ground, and the streams were all running energetically. Having taken rather a long time to run the first 6km or so, due to squishy ground and unclear footpaths (and having to keep checking the map), Penny and I decided to run back along ‘the concrete road’ rather than a bridlepath which was a bit further south (that will keep for another day). This road was built to help get materials and construction workers from Shap to Haweswater, to build the dam – the one which flooded the village of Mardale. It passes through what feels like an almost-unknown valley before we picked up the Coast to Coast route to return to the Abbey ruins.

While I like understanding the history of the land and buildings – I was going on to Penny about rows of standing stones I’d read about and so forth – she was busy spotting wildlife, like a dipper in the stream. Its white chest makes it rather striking. And we both liked the belted Galloways, though there was a bull amongst them and calves, so we gave them a wide berth.

Talking of standing stones, there are tons of stone circles in Cumbria. One of my favourite ‘small’ ones is Mayburgh Henge, which sits right next to the M6 just south of Penrith (and en route to running on Askham Fell). Another is Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick. Visiting it towards the end of a cold wet day during lockdown made it feel even more atmospheric than normal. A lone dog-walker went past on the opposite side of the circle, but otherwise I had it to myself. Historians and archaeologists believe that one of the purposes of this circle may have been as a meeting point, where axe heads created from the stone from the Langdale valley were traded. Places like this, and there are many of them in Cumbria, are a reminder of our deepest human roots; of the continuum which is human life. Other people have trod these ways before us; others will after us.

And finally and on a lighter note – I’ve been making more cake. I seem to keep having bars of dark chocolate given to me or in the cupboard, so there are various variations on the theme of chocolate cake. And as that’s making me feel hungry, I’m going to go to make dinner!

Twelve days of Christmas

Watching Lucy Worsley present a programme about Tudor Christmasses made me rethink this time of year; as did an email from Lyn Thurman and also reading Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain (not currently available on the iPlayer, sadly).

Whatever your religion, midwinter was a time of celebration and feasting, and was the ‘liminal’ time between the old year and the new (maybe not for the Romans however, for whom the new year started in March – although Janus was the two-headed god who looked both forward and back). I loved the idea of keeping a ’12 days’ diary but also it got me thinking about how we now think of the time between Christmas and New Year as rather quiet and potentially lonely; a time for contemplation, relaxation and (one hopes) restoration, before returning to the busy-ness of the New Year.

It made me think that perhaps next year I would like a big, splash-out FEAST on Christmas Day – I don’t mean just with family but with lots of people – and then to carry on partying right into January (in fact Lucy Worsley points out that day 7, New Year’s Eve, for the Tudors was actually quite quiet); to finish work on Christmas Eve, put up the decorations, and go back to work on 6th January. I also like the idea of exchanging gifts on New Year’s Day rather than Christmas Day – not so sure that will please my kids though.

The least I felt I could do this year was keep a 12 days ‘diary’, and hope there are some good omens for the New Year. Surely we can’t all be as cut off and isolated in 2021 as some people have been in 2020.

Day 1: Christmas Day, 25th December

The children were with me to start with, and pleased with their presents. At about 12 noon David came to fetch them and I started preparing the bits of lunch I was doing to take to Mark and Laura’s, feeling a little bit sad. However I had a lovely time at Mark and Laura’s and they gave me a pump for the car, which is extremely useful as my tyres are forever going flat (I have had a valve repaired and a tyre replaced now, so am feeling slightly more confident about the car at present).

Day 2: Boxing Day, 26th December

Rainy, muddy and a little hungover but ran up in Ridge Woods, as previously reported. Storm Bella approaching made the wind pick up but there was a general feeling of clearing things away.

Day 3: 27th December

Woke up feeling sad (perhaps I shouldn’t have watched two slushy films last night – A Wonderful Life and White Christmas), and with a headache again. I think I may actually do Dry January this coming year. A chat with Anne and I felt more cheerful and headed out for a longer run. There were flowers popping out in places, harbingers of spring not being that far away; and snow on the hills, reminding me that it’s still winter and that often the coldest part of winter is January and February. However it was far sunnier than it’s been for a while. As I got closer to home I bumped into Lesley, from choir, and her husband Alan and stopped for a really nice (socially distanced) chat with them.

Day 4: 28th December

Woke up feeling sad again and was in fact quite tearful as I drove down to Whinlatter. I don’t think watching a programme about Bristol and cooking last night helped; I felt quite nostalgic and ended up going to bed (and waking up) thinking how much my life has changed since I lived in Bristol. On the other hand, I can’t wish I hadn’t had my children – for all the emotional anguish they cause and the amount they cost, I think they’re amazing and turning into pretty decent human beings. I just wish I didn’t so often feel that I’m second choice parent-wise.

Whinlatter car park was heaving and I was worried I wouldn’t get a space, but fortunately as Penny works for and Tim has worked for the FC, they were able to wangle me a space. Having bought my membership only last time I was there I feel I should perhaps have my own personalised space… (no, I’m not serious).

The weather was absolutely stunning and despite a few icy patches, it was a glorious day to be out. We almost could have been in the Alps. Tim ran off ahead, his long legs making it look as if he was just ambling gracefully uphill, while Penny and I ran, chatted and took photos. When we got back Tim was having a chat with some former work colleagues, so fortunately not standing around in zero degrees getting cold.

Day 5: 29th December

Went to the Post Office and to Sainsburys, both mercifully fairly quiet. Then headed over to Stocksfield to pick up some logs from Clare and Colin and to go for a pretty walk in and around Ridley and Broomley Woods, including to one and over another ford. I wonder if Broomley Woods are related to Broomlee Lough… and as a result of wondering have found a useful website about English Place Names. Thank you to the University of Nottingham (my old University, as it happens):

‘Broomy wood/clearing’.

brōm (Old English) Broom; a thorny bush or shrub.

lēah (Old English) A forest, wood, glade, clearing; (later) a pasture, meadow.

The moon was rising above the hills as we loaded the car up with the logs, and looked absolutely stunning, though trying to take a photo did it no justice whatsoever. I checked when the full moon was due and it’s tomorrow (30th), and is apparently called the Cold Moon or the Ice Moon.

Day 6: 30th December

Something of a mixed day. Apparently the moon was full at 3.30 a.m. this morning, but it looks great this evening too. My sister pointed out that it was also a Blue Moon as it’s the second full moon this month.

I had a fantastic – beautiful – run up at Kershope Forest with Penny – a new route which neither of us had done before, where we went from misty frost to sunshine and back again – but unfortunately Anne couldn’t make it and on the way back we heard that Cumbria is now (as of midnight) in Tier 4 lockdown. The news about the schools was slightly better – most primary schools will go back as normal and most secondary schools will have a staggered return. I was really worried that they were going to close the schools again – we’ve ruined this planet already for our kids (climate change/using up resources through our greed); I was worried we were going to wreck their education as well. I know that’s a first world problem but I’m hoping our children might grow up to be somewhat more responsible than the previous generations have been. The only hope on the horizon seems to be that the world population is due to decline quite drastically by about 2050.

BUT – we do live in a beautiful world and some of us are incredibly lucky to have some of that beauty on our doorstep, easily accessible. We are privileged.

As I’d forgotten to buy pasta at the supermarket yesterday I got home and made lasagne. Kneading is extremely good for getting rid of grumpiness when you hear about more lockdowns.

Day 7: New Year’s Eve, 31st December 2020

Phoned Edward to say ‘Happy Birthday’ to him – I was due to go down to Penrith to take his presents down but he and Alex want to come up here tomorrow, so I’ll go and fetch them tomorrow instead. I went out for an incredibly icy end-of-year run – even the Tarn was partly frozen over – and then came back and finished making smoked salmon brioche and a sauce for lasagne for tomorrow. Then it was time for a game of Trivial Pursuit over Zoom with my sister, her boyfriend, and my Mum; then time to attempt to light the firepit. Fortunately Mark and Laura (my bubble and my neighbours) knew what they were doing so they got it going, and we had mulled wine and sausages in a snow-covered garden.

I got my tax paid; my mortgage renewal sorted out; a tutor found for Edward; and it snowed. Quite a definitive end to the year. Time to watch a film and then go to bed. It’s a quieter new year than normal but I think it is for a lot of people; I think that’s how a lot of people want it. 2020 is going out with a whimper rather than with a bang.

In Rowbank Woods, near the railway station

Day 8: 1st January 2021

Lovely New Year’s Day run along the river Eamont and up on to Askham Fell. My Strava said 9.99 km when I got back to where I’d parked the car!

Picked up all three children from David’s and headed home. The usual squabbles but it’s lovely to have them in the house again. Alex is rather fed up that his return to school has been delayed by 2 weeks and that he’ll be doing online lessons; and there is now a total xbox ban at both houses so he’s also fed up that he can’t ‘see’ his friends. I used to have my nose stuck in a book; nowadays for most kids (boys especially?) their noses are glued to screens. I wonder if it’s really all that bad, or if it’s just that it’s different from how I grew up.

Day 9: 2nd January 2021

Slight dusting of snow again overnight and Edward was desperate to go sledging. I wasn’t convinced there would be enough but he managed to get down the hill on the Ridge a few times. Bella went for a walk round the wood nearby, looking very glamorous in her black wool coat and woolly hat and scarf.

Day 10: 3rd January 2021

As I was taking the kids back to David’s anyway I thought it would be good to meet up with Penny for a run down that way. We decided on Thirlmere – the path (and road) on the western side is now open again so we could officially complete the ten mile Thirlmere loop.

It was lovely: Hevellyn was still in mist but the clouds were getting blown from the east and much of the time the sun was shining; there was still a frost on the ground; the reservoir was still and calm like a mirror. The path is mostly great but there were some stretches on the western side where it was quite stony or tree-rooty, and where it was beginning to fall away. We celebrated with coffee and Maltesers at the end; and Blencathra looked absolutely stunning on the way home.

When I got home my lovely neighbours had gritted the road and my drive; also Penny has been giving me a plentiful supply of fire wood (she and Tim ordered a lorry load). People are lovely.

Blencathra from St John’s in the Vale

Day 11: 4th January 2021

Back to work today and my lovely fat tree has now been undressed and also denuded of all its branches.

Then this evening we were told of another lockdown: and this time even the schools are closing, up until at least February half term. Bloody covid. And stuff dry January. I’m off to get some tonic to go with my so-far-unopened bottle of Rose Gin tomorrow.

I wonder if people felt as fed up when the Black Death was in circulation, or whether they just resignedly thought ‘here we go again, a few more deaths’. They must have felt just as much grief as we do, but had far less knowledge to fight death.

I stayed up later than I should watching Lucy Worsley’s series about the Romanovs.

Day 12: 5th January 2021 (‘Twelfth Night)

English Heritage has apparently today been in print encouraging people to keep their decorations up until Candlemass – 2nd Feb. – as they would have done in medieval times, to try to keep some midwinter cheer alive. Bit late for my christmas tree! Also apparently Candlemass is a Swedish doom metal band…

I’m fine when I’m talking to people (thank god for friends) but otherwise I’ve felt really fed up all day; alone and kind of bored, even though I have work. But at least I do have work – a job I enjoy, which so many people don’t – and the countryside. I went for a run this afternoon after work but my heart wasn’t in it, added to which in places you couldn’t run as the ice was too slippery and on top of the Ridge the young cows started following me, so I thought it better not to run. I’m well aware that I should be counting my many blessings, but today was a day to walk into the dark tunnel and acknowledge that life sometimes just feels rubbish, however lucky you are.

But as I sat down on a makeshift bench and watched the sunset over Scotland (to the north and west), it struck me that it doesn’t matter if some days all you do is go out and get some fresh air, admire the views, and listen to the sounds of the world. I think at the weekend I might just go for a run around a lake.

And tomorrow is another day.

January 1st 2021: 6 at 60

I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions as such, but as I turn 60 this year I felt I should endeavour to complete some challenges. 2020 has made us all more aware than ever I think that we really cannot guarantee that plans will go as desired; so I’ve made these challenges in the full knowledge that acts of God or man or just my lack of ability, time or money may mean that I don’t achieve all the goals. I felt however that it was important to try to achieve something in 6 of the areas of my life that mean a lot to me.

The 6 areas are singing, cycling, swimming, running, writing and Italian (there is cooking as well, but I’m not 100% sure when I’ll be able to host any dinner parties again, and also I wanted to try to achieve things I hadn’t done before).

The goals for each area are:

Running – complete 9 Lakeland Trails (both ‘series’ and the half marathon)

Swimming – I have a list of lakes and a river I still want to swim in, plus ‘Swim Snowdon’ (walk/swim about 6 miles up and down Snowdon, swimming in the various lakes and tarns en route)

Cycling – I’d like to complete my circuit of Cumbria and then Writing – finish writing up ‘Round the Edges’, which is about running and cycling around Cumbria.

I’d also like to do a standard distance triathlon – perhaps Windermere – which would of course combine running, cycling and swimming.

Italian – I thought about doing Italian GCSE. I’d still like to but I’ve done very little italian study recently, and missed quite a few of the conversation group sessions. Still, there are 6 months until GCSEs are taken, if they happen at all this year. As an alternative I’d like to go somewhere in Italy and speak a lot of Italian.

Singing – I’ve been working towards doing some sort of Performance exam, probably my ARSM (sort of ‘Grade 9’). I’d love to do some more live singing this year before my voice gets too old and knackered, and I have some fab. repertoire. If circumstances permit I’d also like to do an outdoor garden party with live music in aid of charity – not just me performing but various of my musician friends as well.

And a venue is already booked for my birthday party in September; we’ll just have to see nearer the time how many people I’m allowed to invite (if any at all); and at the very least I think people will be keen to do WastFest again.

2020 started me on a journey of being fitter: it’s enabled me to get outside regularly and improved my mood when I’ve felt low. It’s a path I want to remain on for the rest of my life, but if I can use my brain for things like languages, writing, and reading history books as well, then life should be pretty full and good. Not forgetting friends and family to do all these things with when possible.


Birthday 2020: where will I be in 2021?

More macarons; more running

I had 3 egg whites left so rather than thinking I’d make meringues (because I rarely do), I thought I’d attempt macarons again. This time I looked in my copy of Larouse Gastronomique (after all, that would have to have the ‘right’ recipe, wouldn’t it…) and found a recipe for chocolate macarons (or macaroons, as LG calls them).

I have to admit that they’re not as smooth and shiny as I had hoped and I think perhaps using the italian meringue method works best from that point of view. They are also slightly chewier than before, which I think is a combination of the cocoa powder and of not having overcooked them. Filled with peppermint-flavoured French buttercream or cream cheese topping (leftover from Carrot Cake) with a jam centre, they are however, still little melt-in-the-mouth morsels.

I also made basil and olive focaccia, as I had some leftover basil.

I didn’t run at all on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, although I wish I had as too much rich food and then too much red wine throughout the afternoon and evening of Christmas Day led to a bit of a hangover on Boxing Day. As a result I didn’t do the long run I’d aimed to do, but instead ran up on to the Ridge, the mud marginally drier having had two days with little rain. As I ran the chill intensified as the wind picked up: Storm Bella was on her way. I don’t particularly like being out under trees in strong winds: you just never know when one might fall on you, although they weren’t creaking like they had in Gelt Woods one day many years ago.

The day before Christmas Eve, however, Penny and I had gone running down at Whinlatter Forest. I think I’m right in saying it’s the only mountain forest in England; it’s certainly hilly. There’s a measured 10km route (which was the final proof that Strava always measures my runs shorter than they actually are) which starts off on wide forest roads and then heads on to windier, narrower, pretty forest tracks. It’s a lovely route and as we ran we discussed how it would be feasible with head torches, and that it would be worth the rest of the running group coming down there sometime.

There was snow on the fell tops (as you can just about see it in one of the photos), and going to Keswick with the kids the following day the snow had got thicker and spread down the fells a bit further: Christmas Eve was one of those beautiful blue-skied winter days when the snow gleams high and white against the sky.

Storm Bella fortunately seemed to pass over this part of the country quite quickly, so today when I went out running I was met again with blue skies – although there were plenty of clouds of both dark grey and of white – and the sun creating highlights (I did try to get a photo of some trees and ground cover with the sun coming through, but the shot was useless!). Snow is forecast again for tonight, and apparently Whinlatter has been closed due to snow – so having hoped to get down there again tomorrow, I’ll have to think up somewhere else to run. But as anyone who reads this blog even semi-regularly will know, I’m not stuck for choice in this amazing county: even having to ‘stay local’.

Running and rain

It’s been raining here. It feels as if it hasn’t stopped since sometime in November – if not August. The ground is getting more and more sodden, grassy tracks have turned to mud, it’s impossible to run without slipping; the days have been dull and short. I really haven’t had much new to write about, running-wise: my ankle began to feel OK again (and to stop waking me up in the night with a dull ache) and my running fitness began to show signs of going back to where it was before I hurt my ankle. However motivating myself to get out and run – and then once I was out, actually to run more than 4km or so – has been difficult the past few weeks.

Until this last week, when I seem to have turned a bit of a running corner: and also to have got out on a new(ish) route. Plus Anne is now no longer in lockdown, so we’ve been able to meet up to run again.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some lovely runs up on Askham Fell, which always lifts the spirits – Penny and I managed to get out one unusually sunny afternoon at the end of November, and then we also ran down there in the dark one work evening under stunning skies (her husband was meant to come too – he was busy on a work call in the car, and we eventually saw the little light of his head torch coming towards us just as we had reached the halfway mark and were about to head back).

Over the past few days the rain has continued but there have been brief moments of sun. Today, as I ran towards Talkin Tarn, I had to stop for two trains and to tie up my shoe laces. As I waited I looked towards the west and saw a beautiful sky. The dark grey clouds were blowing over and the blue sky was expanding, while I love the silhouettes of the trees on the skyline.

Yesterday I met Penny to run at Greystoke Forest. Unfortunately even the permissive paths are closed at the moment, and rather than risk getting shouted at (or shot at?), we decided to take note of the several signs which made it quite clear that we wouldn’t be welcome. It opens again in April apparently. We’d wanted to run somewhere under tree cover in the hope it would be less wet: instead we ended up at Mosedale, near Bowscale Tarn, where we ran and some of us swam back in the summer/autumn.

We started up the road, the wind against us and the rain beating against our faces. As we climbed further up the hill we got closer to the river Caldew, crashing down over the rocks and not looking half so inviting as it did back in the summer. We turned south along the Cumbria Way after about 4km and ran for another 1km or so, the path firm but covered in water-filled-potholes. By the time your feet are wet (despite Goretex running shoes), you feel you may as well just run through the puddles anyway. The great thing was that the water was clean for a change – because the surface was stony, although there was a LOT of water, it wasn’t muddy.

We had aimed to do about 10km so at the 5km mark we turned round, after taking a few photos. My thighs were cold from having been facing into the wind and rain but as we turned back the worst of the weather was behind us rather than against us – and also we were mostly running downhill. It’s a beautiful valley and we agreed we’d go back another time and come back on the track which goes over the top of the hills and drops down towards Bowscale Tarn, rather than doing an out and back run.

As we ran back along the road we met an elderly man walking his two dogs. His hat blew off as we approached him; he greeted us in a friendly manner and then said “I’ve met you before, haven’t I?” It was the same gentleman whom we had met back in the summer, who had told us about the pools in the river – pools which we had driven to look at in the summer but had run past today. There was something very pleasing about meeting him again: the rain started pouring down even more heavily shortly after but he looked quite well-prepared, so I hope he enjoyed his walk.

We were drenched: my legs were wet up to my thighs; but it struck me that it was probably quite good training for winter open water swimming. The swimming group has decided to try to swim (outside) every month of 2021. In wetsuits, I’m glad to say.

Christmas cooking

I’m not quite sure why, but this year I decided I’d make a lot of edible Christmas gifts for people. So since the end of November I have been busy each weekend baking a range of things, and then being inspired to dig out more recipes when I had ‘spare’ ingredients (bananas; chocolate; egg yolks…). I’ve had classicfm on in the background – their christmas playlist is lovely – and even had a request read out one morning as I was making carrot cakes.

Many of the recipes came from my Scandinavian Christmas book – I think the guaranteed snow in most of Scandinavia and the fact that Father Christmas probably comes from Lapland (as opposed to the North Pole, where of course there is only ice and no land) somehow makes the Scandinavians the experts in ‘christmas’, or at least in ‘winter food’. And of course there’s lagom, and fika, and hyyge…

So without any further ado, here is a pictorial list of what I made, with some comments I’ve tried to keep brief.

These first few did not come from the Scandinavian book; the Clementine and Mustard Seed chutney was in the Waitrose Christmas magazine (slightly adapted); I can’t remember where the Orange and Fig wine and white Mulled wine came from. The other chutney is a very similar one but made with apples. I’m going to my neighbours (they’re my bubble) on Christmas Day, and they’ve assured me they love chutney… I have a feeling this could keep them going a while, so I hope they don’t have too much in stock already. And when someone’s letting you share their christmas dinner you have to take something to drink with you. The mulled wine needs to be served warm; the orange and fig wine like an apertif, really cold.

Cake is always popular, and M&S had a nice recipe for carrot cake in their christmas food brochure (again, slightly adjusted). I had some bananas left, so an old favourite out of Cake (the recipe book by Rachel someone) got made, and then topped with chocolate and stars to make it more christmassy. The spiced Christmas cake drizzled with white chocolate which is meant to look like a christmas tree, came from the Scandinavian book – I think the Cardamon cake did too (the Scandinavians seem to love cardamon – it was in SO many of the recipes – I’ve now run out of cardamon).

These are probably two of the things I was most pleased with. The Brown Cookies (containing spices and candied peel) were really popular – it’s a recipe I’d definitely make again – and my macarons could be improved but weren’t bad. Booths supermarket posted an extremely good video by ‘chef Paul’ on how to make macarons; for mine I actually used an Italian meringue rather than a French meringue, but I made some before these to try out his method. The only problem was that a lot of them stuck to the greaseproof paper, and they’re so delicate they of course broke. Oh well – it meant that I was able to taste test them…

The stollen, surprisingly, wasn’t from the Scandinavian book but from Raymond Blanc’s Christmas, a recipe book I’ve had for years and used several times. The Honey cakes were from the Scandinavian book, but what the recipe didn’t say was ‘DO NOT use runny honey’: my mixture was impossible to roll out and cut into shapes which could then have been covered in tempered dark chocolate. I understand that the cakes tasted good though. One of my favourites however was the Venetian Focaccia above, from Venezia – a beautiful recipe book by the Tessa Kiros, the same author of Like Apples for Jam and Falling Cloudberries. It creates an incredibly light cake, something of a cross between panatone and brioche (probably more like the former), and lemony. I doubled the amount of lemon zest in it but you could easily triple it if you love lemon (as I do).

Almost equally as light was Pulla Bread (Scandinavian again). I don’t like raisins but it seems to me that you could easily make it without raisins – or alternatively if you want an alcoholic version, you could cut down the amount of milk in the recipe and add brandy-soaked-raisins (which, by the way, are in my carrot cakes).

Finally, one of my friends said she didn’t like spiced cakes particularly: and I know she loves chocolate. So here is a dark and white chocolate cake (with actual chocolate in the sponge as well as on top). The recipe is from BBC Good Food, which is a great resource if you just want to find a recipe for something online and be fairly sure it will work (the Waitrose website is also good. I used to use Great British Chefs and Great Italian Chefs, but they now charge).

The only things left for me to make now are Honey Roast Parsnips and roast potatoes for the main course on Christmas Day, and bruschetta/crostini (of various types) as a starter.

Happy Christmas!

On top of the world again

In mid-October I headed down to Somerset, to take my Mum in to hospital for a cataracts operation. Whilst it’s quite a short operation, my parents (and my sister) live at the other end of the country to me, about a 6-hour drive away, so I planned on staying the weekend, meeting up with my sister, and doing some exercise.

Most times when I’ve been down there I’ve run along the ‘Strawberry line’ – the former railway line which used to go along the Cheddar valley to Wells. Cheddar is not known only for its cheese, but also for the strawberries which grow so well along the valley. There was always something exciting, as a child and teenager, when the signs popped up alongside the road to Wells inviting you to come and pick your own: something we rarely did as with a large-ish garden my parents were keen to grow fruit and vegetables themselves (a quality which got passed on to my sister but less so to me: I still remember the thrill of moving to London and being able to buy strawberries and other out of season and exotic groceries at Nine Elms Sainsburys).

On this occasion I decided to run from the old railway line up on to Wavering Down, and to come back down past Winscombe church (where I was christened and confirmed, my parents were married, and my grandparents are buried). I hadn’t been on top of Wavering Down for, literally, years, and I’d forgotten how lovely the wide expanse of grassland is on the brow of the hill: I could have run around on the gently sloping top for ages, but the sun was beginning to go down. To the south were the Somerset levels, with Glastonbury Tor in the distance rising up out of them: the following day I went for a bike ride with my sister and her boyfriend, Ross, which entailed some hills but also bowling along across the levels. Next time I go down to visit my family I shall run on Wavering Down again, and for longer.

An ankle injury I sustained by falling over one night as I was running round Talkin Tarn has been plaguing me on and off, and my friend Anne has an intermittent knee problem, so a couple of weeks later we decided we would walk rather than run up Talkin Fell. I hadn’t been up there for a while but I know how wet it gets, and we’ve had a lot of rain recently. The Gelt – which I’d thought we could perhaps paddle in – was flowing fast and furious so paddling was out, but the weather was good and we walked up the track then up Simmerson Hill. On the ridge the wind was quite energetic, appealing to some basic instinct in me – I shouted out loud with joy – and we stopped briefly in the stone shelters on the top of Talkin Fell, but only briefly as it was cold. As it was such a lovely day there were quite a few people around, but with the Carlisle area having just been put into Tier 2 and rumours of another lockdown on the way, everybody was keeping their distance.

More rain followed – as did a national lockdown – although I managed a bike ride in nice weather one afternoon early in November. Finally, I thought, some of the November weather I love: crystal blue skies and icy mornings, with the golds, bronzes, yellows, oranges and reds of autumn still on the trees. Unfortunately we seem to have had more than our share of rain but Saturday 7th turned out to be another beautiful day: luckily, as Penny and I had arranged to meet up to ‘run’ up High Cup Nick.

As much as anything I was intrigued by the name, which, searching the internet, is not anything to do with a devil’s cup or anything like that, but is a ‘nick’ in the landscape which the High Cup gill runs through. What I hadn’t realised is that it’s part of the Whin Sill – the outcrop of rock that pops up along Hadrian’s Wall as well.

We met in Dufton, a lovely village with a (closed but) nice-looking pub and a small public car park with toilets – operated by Eden District council, and OPEN! From there we decided to take a footpath up the U-shaped valley: from the OS map it looked if the footpath ran more or less straight along the valley bottom, a bit higher than the beck, and then climbed up steeply at the end. What we hadn’t realised was that the footpath was more or less indistinguishable on the ground. We decided instead to clamber up the southern escarpment, hoping that we weren’t going to suddenly slide down to the bottom or, potentially worse, that a shake hole would open up beneath us. When we finally reached a higher track we were rewarded with a stunning view: and could clearly see a field of shake holes and also that the path along the bottom was probably excessively boggy.

It was great to approach the top of the valley from above, though, and see the amazing geological formation. It was difficult to stop taking photos: it really did take your breath away. We sat down for a snack and a drink in the sun, grateful for the stunning weather to match such a stunning view.

Needless to say we were a lot quicker travelling back down the hill than we had been getting up it: it took about 2 hours to get to the top, and much of it had been walking as the terrain was steep and bumpy. Going down the track was clear and although stony it was far easier to keep up a steady pace. I then drove through country lanes to get home, planning one of the legs of the bike ride I’m in the process of doing and writing up; and thinking that I need to get up more hills – not only for running fitness but because I love being on top of the world.

Variations on the theme of Apples

My apple tree produced some tasty apples last year, but most years they’re small, hard and rather sharp. However friends have trees which produce tons of apples of various varieties, and so I’ve benefitted from generous bagsful of Bramleys and other types.

One of the pleasures of having plenty of an ingredient is researching the recipes. I have a fairly extensive collection of recipe books, many relating to cuisines from around the Mediterranean and further afield; some by some of the chefs whom I admire the most.

I haven’t made many recipes from my Simon Rogan book: for anyone who doesn’t know, he runs L’Enclume, a restaurant at Cartmel in the south of Cumbria and one of the four or five Michelin-starred restaurants in the county. I decided I’d try his Fig and Apple Chutney, with a few variations. I’m not a great chutney fan but it went down well with the people I gave it to, even though it came out a bit runny despite cooking it for ages. I also made some cheese scones for it to go with (always best fresh from the oven).

I also decided to make a very complex Raymond Blanc recipe, which entailed making about 6 different elements. As I wanted to get it right I took two days to do the entire thing. He calls it Apple Mousse birthday cake; it’s a slightly spicy sponge base with creme cremeux, caramelised apple slices and apple mousse on top, then a layer of apple glaze as the finishing touch. There was a bit of calvados in it too…

I then managed to sprain my ankle running, so decided to rest it one weekend. Although I went to the swimming pool – which was a far better experience than I’d feared it would be – this meant I had plenty of time to do some more cooking. I made a bacon and broccoli flan (with excessive extra cheese – it was yummy); an apple tart which had a sort of vanilla custard on it; and then something out of my French cookery book which was called Apple Fondant with a Pommeau sauce. The latter would have been better made with thinner slices of apple but the pommeau was lovely (cream, calvados and sugar syrup, basically).

As more apple supplies arrived, I started looking for recipes that were a bit different. Monica Galleti’s Apple and Blackberry bake was OK – better served hot than lukewarm – but I think I’d have preferred the topping if it had been a bit lighter (there was no flour in it, just ground almonds). The Chocolate Apple cake out of the Green & Black’s recipe book didn’t taste that great when it was straight out of the oven – the apple filling tasted a bit sharp and the dark chocolate topping went well with the sponge but not the filling. The following day however it tasted rather good. I think the addition of cocoa nibs rather than grated chocolate to the sponge was an improvement – there were also chopped hazelnuts in the sponge (and on the top of the cake) which the cocoa nibs complemented.

Finally I made a Swedish apple cake. It uses a brioche-type dough flavoured with cardamon, and is topped with apple slices tossed in cinnamon and rosemary, and pine nuts. I’ve made it twice now and I’m not convinced by it: I think using bread flour might be better and also the apple should be mixed into the dough rather than just put on the top. It also took longer to cook than the recipe said and in fact today was still a bit soggy in the middle. The flavours were good though.

As you can see from the photo, I also made French sticks. I’ve been given more apples – I think it might be time for more chutney in time for Christmas.

Swimming and cycling

It’s definitely autumn. Some days we’ve woken to a heavy frost, and the roofs have stayed white until well into the morning and the car has told me it’s only 2 degrees (celsius), though I don’t know how accurate it is. The trees are still green but browns and yellows are creeping in here and there, and leaves have started to float to the ground, showing their peers the way. We’ve even turned the heating on.

It was thus with some trepidation that I agreed to go swimming – no, I lie, I suggested that a group of us went swimming – in Grasmere. At least it seemed certain there would be no worries about social distancing – surely nobody else would be out swimming now, although the September non-school-holiday walkers would be out and about?

The weather earlier in the day was not particularly great, but as the afternoon progressed and by the time we all met at the White Moss car parks, it was a lovely sunny autumnal late afternoon. I was still convinced that I’d probably dip my toes in the water, decide it was too cold, and get straight out again. Two swimmers were already in the water when we got there, which gave me some comfort – and as it turned out I was the first out of our group into the water and it wasn’t quite as bad as I had feared. Chilly, but with a wetsuit, gloves and neoprene shoes, OK. I swam back and forth a few times before deciding I didn’t want to risk being a long way out and getting colder than I realised and not being able to get back – my biggest fear is of being out in the middle of a lake somewhere and just not having the energy, for one reason or another, to get back to shallow water.

The others stayed in longer than me – I got back in after taking the photos of them, but not for long – but it was lovely sitting there and admiring the surroundings. Grasmere is gorgeous – I really wished I had a GoPro to take a video at ducks-eye level. One day. And one summer day, when the water’s warmer, I will go back and swim to the island and back.

Two other swimmers had got in further up on the northern shore while we were in, but didn’t stay in for long. But as we got out a woman from North Lincolnshire got in, with only a wetsuit (no gloves or footwear). She did a strong front crawl out into the middle of the lake and up to the island, some way away. She looked like a good swimmer but it was a bit unnerving not to be able to see her initially as she came back: her husband seemed rather perturbed as well. Eventually we saw her, but she seemed to be doing a slow breaststroke. I’m sure she got back to shore all right, but I hope she wasn’t struggling with the cold.

On Sunday I felt like going out on my bike rather than running, and looked through various maps and so forth to find out a new route. I drove to Wetheral, walked over the river alongside the railway bridge (people jump off here – I find it quite unnerving and also desperately sad to look down into the rocky, crashing river below – you’d have to be so totally, deeply unhappy to want to throw yourself into that and risk horrendous injuries) and then cycled up towards Cumwhitton. The route took me down the eastern side of the river Eden, though you don’t actually get to see the river much – especially not at the moment when the trees are still in leaf and the undergrowth is verdant.

There were more uphills than I’d expected and also some quite steep downhills – I really noticed the difference between my ‘normal’ bike brakes on my triathlon bike (now about 18 years old) and the disc brakes on my newer road bike. I’d expected the hill down through Kirkoswald to be one of the scariest and in fact it wasn’t, but even so as I tried to get my foot out of the pedal to stop near the church, I failed – and fell off.

Kirkoswald is one of my favourite villages, certainly in the Eden valley. It has a pretty main village street, which rises up the hill from the river, past the church and former castle towards the vicarage, then rises further up a hill lined by old houses and three (!) pubs before dividing in two (with in fact a smaller third road also going back down the hill). One way goes towards Armathwaite (where I had just come from) and a right angled corner takes you on up towards Croglin and Newbiggin higher up on the fells, and ultimately to Brampton.

After stopping by means of falling off, I took a photo of the gatehouse to the former castle then got back on and pedalled on down to cross the river over the lovely packhorse bridge between Kirksowald and Lazonby. This again is a favourite spot – the river meanders between stony beaches and sheep graze in the fields: I always think ‘sheep may safely graze’.

From Lazonby I zigzagged over and under the railway – the romantic, scenic, Carlisle – Settle line, saved from closure not so many years ago (and a slow-ish but lovely way to get to Skipton and Leeds) and back to Armathwaite. From there back to Wetheral was undulating, with wide open views to the fells and to the Solway. When I got back I felt gently tired in a satisfied way: and very hungry.

I love cycling.