Taking the Biscuit

June 7, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Posted in Dick, Eating and Drinking, Fun and Games, Joan the Cook | Leave a comment

A pause in my cycling tales to alert all London-based readers to the fact that this weekend sees the exciting prospect of a three-day British Biscuit Festival. Yes! A biscuit festival! What could be better?

Get yourself down to the Brunswick Centre near Russell Square to participate in a Tea and Biscuit Social, a Build-a-Biscuit workshop, a Tea Dance and much more. But of course no biscuit festival is truly complete without the presence of Joan the Cook, whose ginger biscuits inspired Dick to award her with the OBCBE (Order of the Best Cooks of the British Empire) in Five on Kirrin Island Again.

More details on the festival here.


Touring England

March 11, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Posted in Anne, Fun and Games, Learning Stuff, Travel | 2 Comments

A lovely Sunday afternoon spent with Anne: tea, scones and the Touring England board game – an exciting 1930s race around the country by motor car. Anne won. You actually tour England and Wales but the 1930s was clearly a time more indifferent to the divisions between the nations of Great Britain. Apart from that little slip up, the game is both educational (there are interesting facts about each town or city you have to visit) and fun.

Each players picks 8 cards at random and these decide the destinations you must set off to visit (pre-motorway) before returning to your home town. You choose your route and encounter a number of obstacles along the way (traffic lights, minor collisions, stubborn ferries that require you to roll at 6 before boarding). As the box says, this is a game requiring both skill and judgement.


December 3, 2010 at 12:43 am | Posted in Fun and Games, George | Leave a comment
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‘”Golly, it’s snowing!” [George] said suddenly sitting up. “I thought it would when I saw the leaden sky this morning. It’s snowing hard! It will be quite thick by tonight – inches deep.”‘(Five Go Adventuring Again)

Considerable Falls of Snow by Eric Ravilious (1938)

The news is full of tales of snow-related woe this week, and many people are finding their lives disrupted by travel chaos and the extreme cold. It might therefore be worth turning to Blyton to remember the magical side of snow too:

‘In winter-time the clouds often float through very cold air, and it sometimes happens that instead of turning into raindrops, as they usually do, they change from water-vapour into tiny ice-crystals. The crystals join together and make snowflakes. They are too heavy to float about the sky, so down they come. They are so soft and light that, although there may be many thousands of snowflakes falling around us, we never hear a sound.

Have you ever seen an ice-crystal? I should like you to see one, because I know you will be surprised at its lovely shape. To see crystals properly, you want a piece of black cloth. Catch a snowflake on it and look at it through a small magnifying glass.

You will see that the flake is made of tiny glittering crystals – and every one of them has six sides! Catch as many as you like and count the number of points they have, and you will always find six, or a multiple of six. Some of the crystals are feathery-looking, some are star-shaped, others are plain  – but all are exquisitely fragile and delicate.’ (Around the Year: Winter Time)

The ‘Things to Do’ section of the chapter on ‘The Story of Frost and Snow’ suggests that ‘the very first chance you have, catch a snowflake on something dark and look at it closely – with a magnifying glass if you can. Count its sides’.

Why don’t we give it a try?

Toy Boats and War Games

September 25, 2010 at 9:04 am | Posted in Fun and Games, Learning Stuff | Leave a comment
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In Five on Kirrin Island Again the cousins pay a visit to the jolly ‘red-faced, barrel-shaped’ coastguard. He’s singing a sea shanty while busy making wooden toys in the little shed behind his whitewashed cottage. Given the combination of his occupation and this hobby, the coastguard would no doubt be interested in the Toy Boats exhibition that is currently running at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The exhibition follows the social, technical and industrial history of the toy boat, from the hand-made wooden boats of the 1800s through to the steam and battery powered vessels of the 20th century.

Both educational and fun, early boats were made largely to instruct boys (sorry George), stimulating their curiosity and introducing them in the ways of life at sea. Germany soon emerged as a leader in the field and developed a large export industry. By the 1910s toy boats had become powerful propaganda tools and the Kaiser himself took a special interest in toy boat production, encouraging manufacturers to make more submarines in order to demonstrate Germany’s underwater strength.

Toys were played with in the bath or on seaside holidays, but civic planning in the late Victorian and Edwardian era led to the creation of a large number of ‘miniature oceans’ – boating lakes in parks. Grown-ups got in on the act and toy boats became more serious and impressive (and expensive). This yacht (above right), for instance, is absolutely huge. It’s nearly 6 and a half feet high and would have been difficult for an adult to handle, let alone a child. While elegant boating lakes further developed the market for toy boats, they also became graveyards for the becalmed, broken down and abandoned. The first boat you see as you enter the exhibition is a decrepit and rusty boat found, along with another 150 or so, when the Kensington Round Pond was drained in 1923.

The other examples on display are in far more pristine condition. Many are on loan from the Musée National de la Marine in Paris and several are from the private collection of Ron McCrindell. Sections are devoted to key manufacturers from European nations and the patriotic Kirrins would no doubt have had a boat like one of these (left), produced by a British manufacturer such as Meccano, Sutcliffe and Hornby.

Like the boats themselves, the exhibition is both instructive and entertaining. Alongside examples of clockwork (right), steam and battery-powered boats, you can explore cross sections of each to discover their inner workings. There are also examples of old boating catalogues, posters and maritime-themed games including a ‘Russia vs Turkey’ boardgame (below left) produced around the start of the Crimean War in 1853.

It seems that the premise of recent controversial (computer) games like Six Days in Fallujah and Medal of Honor, is nothing new and that nineteenth century children and adults were also eager to embrace warfare, albeit precariously. Elsewhere in the National Maritime Museum, the realities of naval warfare are brought home, not least through the display of the blood-stained and musket ball-damaged uniform worn by Admiral Lord Nelson when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Entry to the National Maritime Museum is free and the Toy Boats exhibition runs until the end of October.

Famous Five Games

August 11, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Posted in Fun and Games | 3 Comments

‘”I’ve got a pack of cards in the pocket of my mac,” said George, much to everybody’s joy, and she got them out. “Let’s have a game of some sort.”‘

– Five Go to Billycock Hill

Has anyone out there ever attempted to play the 1950s Famous Five card game? Anne and I had a go on our recent tower sojourn and were absolutely baffled. I bought it before last year’s summer cycle tour and we did play it one rainy day but didn’t quite master the rules. I thought it might have just been our lack of attention that made the game nonsensical, but after the recent second attempt, I posit that the good folks at Pepys didn’t plan the rules very thoroughly.

In short, there are four ‘adventures’ depicted in episodic card form. These are all gorgeous colour Eileen Soper illustrations and follow the stories of Five on a Treasure Island, Five Go to Smugglers Top, Five Go Off in a Caravan and Five Get into Trouble. The object of the game is to start one ‘story’, collect the correct cards in sequence and be the first to complete an adventure. Along the way, you can be hindered by ‘danger’ cards, which can be specific to a particular adventure, or ‘general danger’ cards that can be used to block any player’s run. Countering these are the chirpy ‘all safe’ cards, featuring our happy adventurers once it’s all over.

There seems to be a massive flaw in the logic of the game, however, which means that if you are playing with two players you inevitably reach a stalemate/battle of wills in which one player has to decide to relinquish the all important final card and basically hand victory to their opponent. Can you imagine George, Julian or  Dick doing this? They would be playing for hours with George stubbornly refusing to give in, even though she is a girl and should be sweet-natured and happy to pacify the menfolk.

Perhaps this flaw is a hint that children should always be in fours. Anyway, Anne and I came up with alternate rules that made the game a bit more ruthless and exciting (but still with some holes, and with a relative understanding of the word ‘exciting’). We played it more like gin rummy – you could add to anyone’s story sequence thereby helping or hindering them or other players, and perhaps forcing them to put down the all-important card that would enable you to find the ingots, capture the smugglers etc. The cards are physically beautiful so when it gets too frustrating I would suggest you just look at the pictures, take another sip of ginger beer, and feel happy.

Less aesthetically pleasing, but more interesting and more like real adventures, are the game books published by Hodder & Stoughton between 1984 and 1988. Each of this series of eight books has a title that hints at the original Blyton adventure on which it is based. Many years ago I had The Secret Airfield, for instance, which was based on Five Go to Billycock Hill. These games are very George-friendly ie you can play them all by yourself if you happen to be a ‘peculiar’ only child (or should I say ‘strange’?) but they are also enjoyable to play with a friend/cousin/brother/sister. I had completely forgotten they existed until Anne produced The Wrecker’s Tower game (Five Go Down to the Sea), and I promptly squealed with delighted nostalgia.

Each adventure book comes with picnic cards and other useful items such as a map, a measuring tape card, a torch card (a picture of a torch with strategically-cut holes enabling you to read otherwise incomprehensible messages) and a code book (see the Enid Blyton Society’s game pages for images of these). Anne and I discovered that although it seems the most useless, the measuring card is actually quite helpful. Code books, on the other hand, are two a penny as characters keep throwing/giving them away.

The game books take the form of a story, chopped up into short paragraphs, with a general problem/choice/dilemma at the end of each section. You can throw a Famous Five die to see which character decides what happens next, or you are expected to deploy one of your useful supplies. If you don’t have the required item you have to guess. You set off with three picnic cards in your knapsack and when these are gone the adventure is officially over (as we know, the Five can’t survive for long without food). Apparently there is more than one way to complete each adventure so you can play time and again. Hurrah! If only the game aspect of these books could be combined with the Soper illustrations…

A Famous Five Style Holiday (4)

July 27, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Posted in Cycling, Eating and Drinking, Fun and Games, Travel | 3 Comments
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We arrived at Peters Tower full of curiosity and anticipation. Turning the key in the big red door, we stepped inside and began to explore. Inside it is like being in a vertical boat. The interiors have been done in teak and brass, and in fact, the Landmark Trust’s architect spent time in boat yards gaining inspiration for this project.

Tower living is spread across four floors, all of which are united by one single majestic ironwork spiral staircase which takes up about a third of the floor space on each level.The bathroom is located on the ground floor, the kitchen on the first floor, a snug sitting and writing room on the second, and two bunk beds on the top floor, right behind the clock face and directly underneath the bell (which chimes between 7am and 11pm).

This was our view on the first morning from the kitchen. Being right on the estuary meant we were witness to the extreme ebb and flow of the tides. At low tide there is nothing but mud, sandbanks and the odd stream dividing you from the far shore, at high tide the water comes within metres of the base of the tower. Across the water we could see an old tower on the hill – but would mysterious lights shine out at night, a la the lonely Wreckers Tower in Five Go Down to the Sea?

The tower is located in Lympstone, an excellent village with a train station, four pubs (three within a few minutes of the tower), and a post office that does really sell ices. Because it is so close and therefore commutable to Exeter and Exmouth, it is also a place where people actually live – it’s not one of those lovely but slightly sad villages that are deserted all week and only fill up when people arrive for the weekend.

Nearby is the National Trust property, A la Ronde, built to house the Grand Tour treasures of cousins Jane and Mary Parminter. It’s yet another quirky building, filled with unusual objects and famous for its shell gallery which contains nearly 25,000 shells. Because it is so fragile the gallery can only be viewed on close circuit television. Unlike George, Jane Parminter thought that girls were ok and in her will stated that only unmarried female relatives could inherit A la Ronde. In 200 years only one man, the Rev Oswald Reichel, owned the house. He improved its home comforts by installing a massive central heating system and replacing the thatched roof (seen in the model, right) with a tiled one with lots of windows. Like Uncle Quentin in Five on Kirrin Island Again, Reichel also asserted his masculine presence by adding a phallic tower to the property, although not to the house itself but in the form of a laundry building just behind.

While at A la Ronde we felt it was our duty to sample a cream tea. It was a beautiful day so we were able to take it outside with a gorgeous view of the sea and distant harbour. This was our second cream tea of the holiday. The first, and best, was at the Cosy Teapot in Budleigh Salterton. Budleigh Salterton is a seaside town renowned for the beauty of the pebbles on its beach. It is very quaint and somnolent, perfect for a seaside holiday with rowing, fishing, ices and all of the sorts of the things the Five like (no dreaded piers etc.).

The Cosy Teapot has been voted one of the top three places to have a cream tea in Devon with impressively light (and huge) scones served on Mrs Layman-esque rose patterned crockery. If you don’t fancy a cream tea, the Teapot also sells other delicacies such as crumpets with actual ‘lashings’ of butter. You can even buy vintage crockery, butter dishes, telephones and assorted knick knacks which are all arrayed inside the tea shop.

As well as eating we did do lots of walking (honest). We also took a boat trip so we could see ‘our’ tower from the water (and we spotted a shipwreck), and caught a steam train from Paignton to Churston from where we walked to Greenways, Agatha Christie’s old summer house. One thing missing was cycling – I think this would be a good cycling holiday. National Cycle Route 2 runs along the south coast from St Austell to Dover, or it least it will do when fully linked up. At the moment it’s possible to cycle car-free along the western side of the Exe estuary, plus down the eastern side from Lympstone to Exmouth, and then from Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton via a disused railway line. One folding bike would fit in the tower but no more than that (even large suitcases are problematic in such a bijou space), so if you plan a cycling/tower holiday do bear this in mind.

A Famous Five Style Holiday

July 1, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Posted in Fun and Games, Travel | 1 Comment
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I do actually have a life outside of my Famous Five obsession, I promise, but, I ask you, who could resist going on a Famous Five-style holiday to Devon and staying in a tower on a beach?

We’re going in two weeks’ time and will be staying in this charming little tower. It’s called Peter’s Tower and was built in 1885 by a soldier (from a wealthy merchant family) called William Peters. It’s one of the many properties belonging to the excellent Landmark Trust which was set up in 1965  to rescue, restore and rent out historically and architecturally interesting buildings. These are often quirky, obscure and perhaps not ‘important’ enough to fall under the purview of the (also excellent) National Trust, and there are many exciting properties in which you can stay, including a petite French-style chateau, Gothic follies, miniature castles and towers galore, plus (for those Edith Nesbit moments) an old train station.

I’m hoping that good weather will prevail, although there are many wet weather activities nearby in the form of National Trust houses and other forms of public house. And perhaps this year I will master the Pepys Famous Five card game?

‘Ginger Beer is Back’

May 6, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Fun and Games | 1 Comment
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… according to this article in the Daily Mail. Apparently nostalgic, recession-weary and health-conscious Brits are turning to the old-fashioned and naturally brewed drinks they enjoyed in their childhood – things like Dandelion & Burdock, traditional lemonade and ginger beer. Supermarket sales have risen by 5 per cent in the last year and various brands of properly alcoholic ginger beer have also appeared on the market. In the past home-brewed ginger beer could be as strong as 11 per cent. Soft drink brands like Fentimans are around 0.5 per cent (the fermentation process naturally produces alcohol) and alcoholic ginger beers such as the Scottish Crabbie’s are around 4 per cent.

Fentimans was established in 1905 and used to brew its ginger beer in ‘Grey Hen’ stone bottles (above left) before the company closed down in the 1960s in the wake of supermarket competition. It was re-launched in 1988 by Eldon Robson, great-grandson of the original founder, Thomas Fentiman. While the company’s drinks are no longer sold in Grey Hens, the aesthetic of Fentiman’s preserves the spirit of its Victorian/Edwardian roots. Its brews are now sold in attractive brown glass bottles, and the company has also launched a series of promotional cards based around the slightly naughty Victorian parlour game of ‘furtling’. What exactly is furtling, I hear you ask? Follow this link to find out…(NB this is probably not a game that Julian, Dick, George and Anne would play on rainy afternoons, but who knows?).

Mrs Sanders’ Ginger Buns

January 2, 2010 at 10:47 am | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Fun and Games | Leave a comment
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After a morning spent hunting for secret passages at Kirrin Farm (as you do), the kindly Mrs Sanders brings out some delicious elevenses, much to the delight of the Five, and sits ‘them down in the big kitchen to eat ginger buns and drink hot milk’ (Five Go Adventuring Again).

A cold winter’s morning offers the perfect excuse to stay in your pyjamas and do a spot of baking, especially if you are making something that permeates the air with a gentle waft of warm spices. The Enid Blyton Society have had some discussion about the exact nature of the Blytonian ginger bun – are they bread or cake-like? Fruity or not fruity? Even Jane Brocket, domestic doyenne, doesn’t discuss this in her anthology of recipes from children’s literature, Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer.

I have plumped for a non-fruity cake-like version and after much searching for suitable recipes have decided that Nigella Lawson’s gingerbread muffins could easily double up as Mrs Sanders’ ginger buns. They are not especially muffin-like and are dark and subtle in flavour (I have added a little more ginger to the original recipe). Most of the ingredients would have been available to Mrs Sanders, perhaps with the substitution of the balsamic vinegar for some of her homemade cider or other fruit vinegar.

The Nigellan ethos of feasting and plenty is certainly akin to the Blytonian one and I now can’t stop imagining a bizarre alternate Famous Five world in which Mrs Sanders becomes a seductive satin dressing gown-wearing Nigella, with Charles Saatchi as her art collecting farmer husband. As we know, the Sanders let out rooms to artists from London so perhaps there’s some mileage here? Anyway, here is the recipe for Mrs Sanders’ Ginger Buns, adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast.

Makes 12 buns

250g plain flour

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp baking powder

3 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground mixed spice or ground cloves

1 egg

50g dark muscovado sugar

50g light muscovado sugar

150ml full-fat milk (fresh from the Kirrin cows if possible)

1/4 tsp balsamic vinegar

6 tbs sunflower oil

4 tbs golden syrup

4 tbs black treacle

Whisk up the egg and sugar, then add the milk, vinegar and oil and then the syrup and treacle. Combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and spices and then add the sugary milk/oil/egg/vinegar mixture. Stir until combined but still fairly lumpy (as with usual muffin mixtures – but more runny in this case).

Line your muffin tin with large bun cases or circles of greaseproof paper and bake for 15-20 mins at 200°c/gas mark 6 (Nigella says 20 mins but as usual with her recipes I would cook for less – it depends on your oven). The tops will be dry but the buns will still feel squishy when you take them out of the tin. Leave to cool slightly on a wire rack then serve with large glasses of hot milk.

NB The buns will keep nicely for a couple of days in an airtight tin.

Pools, People and Purpose…

September 18, 2009 at 7:10 am | Posted in Fun and Games | Leave a comment
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…is the title of the photographic exhibition currently on display in the shop of the clothes designer Margaret Howell. Last night the shop hosted a jolly interesting talk on lidos and swimming pool architecture. Brockwell-Lido-diver-50s_6This was one of the opening events for this year’s Open House weekend and the speakers were Ken Warpole and architect Keith Ashton. Warpole’s interest is in architecture, landscape and public policy and his talk focused on post-World War One debates about the necessity of exercise, light and fresh air for health and how this positively impacted upon the building of lidos in London the 1920s and 30s. He linked this with the health movements in Europe and America at the same time (in the case of Germany in the 1930s this obviously had a Nietzschean dark side), and clearly the Famous Five spring from this sort of ethos. They are an active bunch and although they have extremely hearty appetites they usually indulge in some sort of physical activity to work it all off in time for the next enormous meal.

Outdoor swimming, although not in lidos, is a popular FF pastime. The sea, plus Merran Lake (Five Go off in a Caravan), The Green Pool (Five Get into Trouble), the forbidden pool in Billycock Hill and Gloomy Water (in late October – brrrrrrr!) in Five on a Hike Together are just some examples that spring to mind. Get into Trouble poolSo, while it’s not quite the wild swimming espoused by Daniel Start, the late Roger Deakin and others, London lidos do provide something of the pleasures of swimming outdoors (along with fabulous deco architecture). Several lidos and pools should be open as part of the Open House weekend. The theme for 2009 is sustainability so there is also the opportunity to visit a number of weird and wonderful eco-friendly architectural experiments. Things book up really quickly but lots of people don’t turn up on the day so it’s still possible to get into some of the more popular venues.

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