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Found my niche

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Whenever I visit a garden, I’m drawn to the quietest corner, imagining how to recreate a mini-oasis of calm and inspiration.

Recently, I had the luck to visit Wallington in Northumberland, and found the perfect niche.


A joyous combination of modest asplenium ferns, alchemilla and lobelia set in a Regency-era horse-shoe enclosure facing the sun.

Frosted greens and navy are definitely my favourite combination for tranquillity. Add a lichen-encrusted stone feature, a bench and sundry hostas in pots, and I’m in heaven.


A small, naturalesque waterfall gurgled discreetly, reminding me of a wry comment by Alan Titchmarsh, amused at a large garden fountain, commenting that ot sounded like a large equine relieving itself into a deep trough. Oh, dear. I still can’t walk past ostentatious water features without wondering where the nearest loo is.

I may never aspire to the view they have at Wallington, but when we move house, I now have my wish list.

PS I discovered that the gardener at Wallingt…

Fact, fiction and fascinating foraging

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Cragside is a superb Victorian house in the North-East of England with an unusual claim to fame –it’s the first home to be lit using hydro-electric power.
It’s also well known for other gadgets inspired by the owner, Lord Armstrong, a Victorian inventor, innovator and landscape genius whose engineering skills made him a fortune.
There’s a hydraulic lift for the servants, for example, and the first electric dishwasher in the world.But some eerie personal coincidences have made the place even more fascinating.
I’ve been working on a sequel to The Lost Orchid, a tale of botanical skulduggery in the 1880s when orchid fever was at its height. (Doing the research I became something of an orchid addict - see Orchidmania, a small blog of mine.)
Ferns were massively popular in Victorian England, and much has been written about pteridomania, so I thought a fern-themed sequel would be appropriate.
It seemed a good idea to move the action further north and this is when I came across Cragside and its…

Fancy a blue ruin?

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Bingo; Blue Ruin; Blue Tape; Daffy; Diddle; Drain; Frog’s Wine; Geneva; Heart’s Ease; Jackey; Lady Dacre’s Wine; Lightning; Max; Rag Water; Sky Blue; South Sea Mountain; Strip Me Naked; White Ribbon; White Tape; White Wool.

Whatever am I talking about?
These are all 18th-century nicknames for gin. I’ve just found some sloes in the freezer picked last autumn and was hunting for a recipe – and inevitably got caught up with some Georgian history.

It is said that gin was invented around 1650 in the Netherlands by Dr Sylvuis. This man - who is also known as Franz de la Boé - was Professor of Medicine at Leyden, Holland. Originally, he intended this 'medicine' as a remedy for kidney disorders. He used neutral grain spirits flavoured with the oil of juniper. He called it 'genever' after the French term genièvre meaning juniper. By 1655 it was already being produced commercially and English soldiers serving in the area developed an affection for the spirit.
When William of Orange…

Apricot liqueur

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Apricot liqueur is a bit of a treat but it is expensive for what it is. Even the most basic apricot brandy starts at around £12 a bottle. Here's a cheaper alternative that's simplicity itself.


Apricot Liqueur
Ingredients: One pack (about 200-300g) dried apricots 225g white sugar 500 ml vodka*
To make: 1. Boil the apricots in the sugar with 50-100 ml water to soften. You’ll need more if the apricots are tougher, less if they’re the squishy sort. 2. Combine all ingredients in a large Kilner jar. (I’ve used a wide-necked coffee jar in the past, and it worked fine!) 3. Seal it tight and leave it alone for three weeks. 4. Drain. Filter through a muslin bag for a clear liqueur. If you’re not fussed about cloudy cocktails (anything with fresh lemon or lime goes cloudy anyway), just pour through your finest sieve. 5. Create label. Fee free to copy either of the ones reproduced.


I use cheap schnapps (from Iceland, of all places). Plain gin or vodka is fine. I see on US websites that many…

Vernal Equinox

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I am a creature of the seasons.

I used to think the four quarters of the year were all about temperature, but it’s much subtler than that.

The turn of the planet is crucial. Spring to summer to autumn to winter. A natural order of events. Until chaos intervenes.

Recently, my personal life has been chaotic and this is reflected in the stories. But that’s how we process difficulties, disorder and dissidence.

Seasonal Disorders is my take on a personal calendrical chaos. Four long/short stories (mini novellas), written at pivotal moments in my recent life, which has been so different from what it was that I scarcely recognise it.

Now I'm doing better, in case you were worried. Updates ensue.

Mad fairies, evil spirits, sinister coincidences, ancient beings, coincidental aliens ... Well. No madder than my than current existence. Bring it on, as they say.

Seasonal Disorders is soon out on Amazon ...

When you can’t see the view for the trees

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I need to start by saying I’m a paid-up member of the Woodland Trust. Many years ago, I placed myself in front of a large oak tree being menaced (both of us) by a big bloke with a chainsaw. Can’t believe I did, but it’s true. And we stopped it getting chopped down without permission.

I’ve planted sensible British trees in my various gardens over the years and I can tell a whitebeam from a hornbeam. A tree fan, I am. With a surname like Kelt, it’s not surprising.

But I had a bit of shock the other day. You may have gathered from previous posts that we used to live in Bath. One of favourite walks, especially after a broiling day at the old Chronicle offices in Westgate Street, was Primrose Hill. 
We’d drive up Lansdown Road, and before you get to the Hare and Hounds,  turn left and down a short road, over a style and then we were in open fields. Our dog Amber loved sproinging over the tussocky grass, as we followed behind in a cloud of butterflies. Down below, the city of Bath was laid out…

Full circle

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Some years ago, I was raiding a charity shop in Leamington Spa and came across a batch of classic murder mysteries. I forked out the princely sum of £20 for nearly 100 books. 


Several dozen were by Gladys Mitchell (below,right), a crime writer whose quirky style I came to appreciate. Gladys was something of a free spirit. The murders were all rather dashing, almost lurid. The characters so non-stereotypical it was hard to guess whodunnit. The settings were all so different and unexpected …
The investigative journalist that lurks in all of us got the upper hand a few years ago. I decided to drag Gladys into the spotlight and do a biography. Why not? It couldn’t be that hard! 

I rummaged around, tracking down some former neighbours and such. It’s only when I found some rare ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets that I realised she might have been secretly gay. If true, it suddenly made sense of so many of her plots in which sexuality and sexual orientation was a turning point.
In due course, I felt the publi…