The Sun is Shining: Make Hay

July 26, 2014 at 9:32 am | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Learning Stuff | Leave a comment
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Have you ever wanted to learn how to scythe and how to make a haystack? It’s just the sort of thing you can imagine the Five helping out with on the farm, before going into the farmhouse for a grand High Tea of ham and lettuce sandwiches, scones and cherry cake, all washed down with homemade lemonade.

If you fancy it, and you’re anywhere near east London next weekend, here’s your chance. From 1-3 August you can take part in a Community Haystacks event on Walthamstow Marshes. The Marshes were traditionally considered common land and are now managed by Lea Valley Regional Park. Hay used to be cut on Lammas Day (1 August), which is the festival of the wheat harvest and the first harvest festival of the year. For the second year in a row the traditional is being reinstated on Walthamstow Marshes by the Lee Valley Park Rangers and artists Kathrin Bohm and Louis Buckley.

On 1 and 2 August you can learn how to scythe with expert Colin Leeke. A two hour workshop costs £5 and includes tools and (much needed) refreshments. There will also be free talks on the Marshes from speakers including artist and architect Céline Condorelli, food grower and conservationist Fiona McAllister from Growing Communities, and artist Alana Jelinek. Sunday 3 August is haystack-making day! Bring a picnic and join in to help make the largest haystack the Marshes have seen for many a year. Apparently this will be Essex-style – I don’t know what this means but will look forward to finding out.

More information and details of booking for workshops can be found here.


5 Things to Do in Norwich

June 16, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Fashion, Learning Stuff, Travel | Leave a comment
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Just back from a lovely weekend in my home town of Norwich. I love that place. Here’s my pick of things to do from this visit.

Eat local. Loads of delicious produce from Norfolk is available on the market and from other delis and stores. Here’s some tasty looking asparagus from Louis’ on Upper St Giles, and some gooseberries and strawberries from the market. Mmmm!



Buy some books. The Dormous bookshop on Elm Hill has good secondhand books including Blytons and Penguins. The Book Hive is a new-ish but now much beloved institution. This picture is of their window display promoting their ‘Book Hive Year’ whereby you can sign up to receive one hand-picked book a month for a year.

Book Hive

Send a postcard home. The Famous Five always send their parents a card or two while they are away. I love this letterbox which is embedded in the window of stylish art/craft/gift shop, Verandah on Upper St Giles (the shop was formerly a Post Office). You can buy some gorgeous cards just up the road at Fabulous Frames (separate post on these to follow).


Learn stuff. Norwich Castle Museum is one good place to do this. It’s a museum in a castle! What could be better than that? They currently have an exhibition on called The Wonder of Birds: Nature: Art: Culture. It’s good. So good I bought a catalogue. No photos allowed inside the exhibition but there were stuffed birds aplenty, drawings, paintings, textiles, fashion, eggs and fossils. Extinct birds were represented too, including the Great Auk, whose replica egg would have delighted Jack of the Adventure series (keen ornithologist Jack dreams of one day spotting a Great Auk).

Wonder of Birds

Eat local, part 2. Ronaldo’s ice cream stall, located on London St, does the best ices. They use local milk and cream, fruits, nuts and liquers. I had liquorice which I wasn’t sure I’d like. It was, needless to say, utterly delicious. If you can’t decide though, I’d make like the Famous Five and have at least three ice creams each:

“I advise you to start off with vanilla, go on to strawberry and finish up with chocolate.” – Julian, Five Have a Wonderful Time.

Welsh treats

June 1, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Aunt Fanny, Eating and Drinking, Learning Stuff, Travel | 1 Comment
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photoLast weekend I went to Hay-on-Wye, a small and charming town on the Welsh/English border (it’s on the very edge of Wales). My trip coincided with the first weekend of the Hay Festival (it finishes today) and I managed to go to talks on a wide range of things, from the efforts of the National Trust in Wales to become more sustainable, to a history of the universe with a focus on the potential life-giving properties of comets (the Rosetta space probe is about to land on comet Churymov-Gerasimenko).

The town is always lively and bustling – Hay is famous for its second-hand bookshops – but there’s even more going on during the festival, from markets, street performers and food stalls set up near the castle. The festival site is a little way out of town and enterprising locals set up small stalls, beer gardens and cafes in their gardens on the route down to the site. My favourite of these was the lady who was selling fresh Welsh cakes for 50p each. Mmmm. These were so good I had to make some myself as soon as we got back to London.Welsh cakes Those pictured below are my own effort. The recipe came courtesy of and can be found on my recipe pages, with a couple of my own tweaks.

I also managed to do a little bit of shopping and bought a few things which I think would appeal to Aunt Fanny et al. Two types of local honey: Shenmore honey, a raw bramble honey, and a set Wye valley blossom honey; an earthenware jar from Hay Antique Market, which is now holding some beautiful Sweet Williams, a grill scrubbing brush, which is so aesthetically pleasing it almost (but not quite) makes me want to clean my grill, a 1/3 pink old school milk bottle and some original 1940’s celluloid buttons, which I can imagine adorning the Five’s shirts and blazers. It all looked so nice, I couldn’t resist taking some photos of each bit. Here they are.

celluloid buttons

1940s celluloid buttons. 10 for a pound on Castle Street

photo 2Raw bramble honey, from a garden behind The Great English Outdoors

photo 31/3 pint school milk bottle and grill scrubbing brush from Flow

Sweet WilliamsSweet Williams from Joanne’s Florist, Globe Town, London (yes, London) £2.

Needless to say, there are also some amazing bookshops in Hay, a couple of which specialise in children’s books and /or Penguin classics, Observer Guides to Trees (etc) – all great Famous Five style-fodder. My two recommendations are Rose’s Books (I was sorely tempted by early editions of Finniston Farm, Five are Together Again, and the Welsh-set Five Get in a Fix, all of which I don’t yet have) and Barnabee’s Books (where I picked up a 60s edition of the Observer Guide to Trees for £2). In short, Hay=Heaven.



Know Your Swallows, Swifts and Sand Martins

May 13, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Posted in Cycle Rides, Learning Stuff | Leave a comment
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…and House Martins too, but that didn’t fit with the alliterative title of this post.

As I was riding home from work tonight I saw some swallows. This is always a lovely sight, especially early in the year. Or were they swifts? Or martins? I wonder this to myself EVERY year. Although I have consulted Enid’s nature books in the past I’m afraid it’s failed to sink in. So here are some tips for identifying swallows, swifts and martins from each other, for me and also for you, if indeed you have this problem.

The Barn Swallow

Barn SwallowFrom Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book:

‘He is a well-known bird, because of his long, forked tail. His black is steel0blue, his throat and forehead are chestnut-coloured, and he has a blue-barred chest.

Swallows build their nest sin barns of out-buildings, on beams or rafters. The nest is a saucer of mud, and is lined with feathers or grass. The eggs, which are long and narrow, are white, speckled with grey-brown.

The swallow has a musical little twitter that sounds like “feetafeetit, feetafeetit”. It is very pleasant to listen to listen to on a warm summer’s  evening.’

From the RSPB Magazine:

‘The one with the long, forked tail: steel blue above, pale below (white to bright peachy colour) but with a clean-cut dark throat […] Swallows typically fly low down, flying fluently with sinuous swerves and more fluttering twists, often around livestock, along the edges of open fields, over cricket pitches and the like’.

The House Martin

House MartinFrom the RSPB Magazine:

‘The one with the white rump: blue-black above with browner wings, with a broad white band above the tail, and all-white below from chin to tail. Nests in quarter-sphere mud cups beneath eaves’.

From Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book:

‘Many people think that the house martin is the barn swallow, for they are rather alike. The martin belongs to the swallow family, and leads the same aerial life. He is steel-blue above and white below. He has a white patch on his back, and this and his shorter tail will help distinguish him from the swallow. He, too, is a migrant.

The martin likes to build his nest of mud under our eaves, stuck against the wall. He lines it softly. The eggs are long and are pure white.

The martin, like the swallow, has a pleasing twitter.’

The Sand Martin

From the RSPB Magazine:

‘The brown one: all mid-brown above, white below with a brown chest band. This is a tiny bird, more fluttery than the others, often above or close to water.’

The Swift

From Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book:

Swift‘The swift has no song or twitter, only a loud and harsh screech. His name is a good one for he is one of our fastest flying birds’.



One thing that is lovely about Enid Blyton’s writing is the way she incorporates factual information into her narratives. The first part of the Nature Lover’s Book tells a series of short stories set across the course of the year. John, Janet and Pat go for a series of walks with Uncle Merry and his little black dog Fergus. Uncle Merry opens their eyes to all sorts of things that are around them, from flowers in January to nightbirds, moths and nocturnal beetles in June.

This is from ‘A Second Walk in May’

‘One morning John went into the garden and heard the swallows twittering together. He loved their little voices saying “feetafeetit, feetafeetit.” He looked up and saw that another bird was flying with them.

“That must be the swift,” said John to himself. “It’s sooty black, as Uncle Merry said. What great sickle-shaped wings it has! It looks like a flying anchor!”.

Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book has beautiful drawings by Donia Nachsen, as seen above. I was very lucky to discover a second hand copy of this in the National Trust bookshop at Blickling Hall in Norfolk while on a cycling tour a couple of years ago.


Famous Five Foods

June 25, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Learning Stuff | 1 Comment
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Apparently there are quite a few people out there who are interested in what the Kirrins eat. Food writer Josh Sutton has done an actual statistical analysis on the foods consumed in the Famous Five books which a) is very interesting b) makes me feel a lot less geeky for keeping a spreadsheet with a record of what gets eaten when and where. Sutton’s data is available in spreadsheet form but also in this fabulous visualisation (click on the picture to be take to an interactive version which you can explore in more detail).

Sutton has grouped the Five’s meals and snacks into food groups and has concluded that actually they eat rather healthily – there are plenty of radishes, crisp lettuces and plums in amongst the ginger beer, ices and buns.

As well as validating my decision to regularly eat like the Five, it’s also intriguing to see what foods crop up repeatedly and which only make a one-off appearance e.g. the chocolate mould which will be a one-off on my dining table too. Unbelievably, ginger biscuits only crop up once, as do egg sandwiches, but regular favourites include bread, ham, biscuits and tomatoes (lashings of).

Read Josh Sutton’s article on ‘Why the Famous Five had the Perfect Austerity Diet’ here

Happy Birthday to the Famous Five

June 24, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Learning Stuff, Travel, Uncle Quentin | 1 Comment
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2012 marks the 70th anniversary of the Famous Five. The first book, Five on a Treasure Island was published in 1942, with a further twenty following over the next two decades.

To mark the occasion, the Ginger Pop shops in Corfe and Poole, in conjunction with the Dorset Tourist Office, the Energy Institute and others are running an adventure trail around the Isle of Purbeck this summer. This is based on the sixth adventure, Five on Kirrin Island Again, in which Uncle Quentin attempts to solve humanity’s energy problems through an incredible new invention. Helping the Five thwart the plans of baddies eager to steal Uncle Q’s secrets, the trail takes in a variety of locations around the area, giving visitors the chance to explore all manner of attractions and to win some exciting prizes!

Demonstrating typical levels of organisation, imagination and intrepidation, Anne has organised a trip for us via train, steam train and boat. So, hurrah, we are off on Friday for a long weekend roaming across Blyton country. I’ll be sure to report back on our activities, not giving away any vital clues about the trail of course.

For more information on the Famous Five Adventure Trail 2012, visit the Ginger Pop website.


A First Book of Nature

May 3, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Posted in Learning Stuff | 2 Comments
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Today was the official launch of a beautiful new book that admirably continues the tradition of Enid Blyton’s Round the Year and other nature books. A First Book of Nature is written by Nicola Davies and illustrated the wonderful Mark Hearld. Hearld is one of the group of artists with a close affiliation to the fine St Jude’s Gallery which is situated in my home country of Norfolk.

Hearld works in printmaking, collage, painting and ceramics and uses birds, animals, flora and fauna in his work. Pigeons and hares seem to recur quite a bit and A First Book of Nature features these and much more.

The book travels through the year with hares, birds’ nests and blossom in the spring; honey and hay-making in the summer; ‘spiderlings’ and squirrels in the autumn; and naked winter trees and cold dark skies filled with stars in the winter. It is less didactic than Blyton’s books (which are full of projects and classroom exercises) but there are little poems, lists of reasons to keep chickens (‘they look very silly when they are taking a dust bath’), a recipe for making a cake for birds and instructions on seed saving.

To celebrate the book’s publication, Foyle’s bookshop is holding an exhibition of Hearld’s original art works for the book in its 3rd floor gallery until the 13th May. If you’re in town I highly recommend stopping by to take a look (and browsing the book too).

While I’m on the subject of nature illustration, I have to take this opportunity to post up some of Eileen Soper’s work. She usually appears on this blog through her Famous Five illustrations (and with thanks to the Enid Blyton Society who make these images available on their very good site) but she was also a dab hand at nature drawing too. Both of these are available to buy online. The top one is titled ‘Who-Who-Who-Who?’, the bottom one ‘Woffly the Rabbit and Quick Ears the Hare’ (and we all know whose nose is a ‘a bit woffly’, don’t we?!  – see The Famous Five in Love if not).

Off-Beat Walking in London

April 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Learning Stuff | 1 Comment
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Well, we’re three quarters of the way through this gloomy Easter weekend and I’m sad to say I have not cycled once. Prof Hayling and I didn’t make it to Essex after all so I instead opted for a pleasantly melancholy London-themed weekend of gin, Patrick Hamilton (a re-read of Hangover Square) and walks around the city courtesy of Shire’s retro classic Discovering Off-Beat Walks in London and the fascinating Hackney Hear (which has led me around London Fields this afternoon, possibly looking a bit like a weirdo).

Yesterday I opted for Shire’s (partial) London Wall walk. Starting at St Paul’s you walk up St Martin-le-Grand and Aldersgate before wandering round the back to Noble Street where large portions of London’s Roman city wall can be seen. Things get a bit confusing when you negotiate the raised walkways around the Museum of London and the Barbican but it’s all fascinating stuff, especially as this is a walk that really highlights London’s rich juxtaposition of old and new, e.g. the 200AD Roman wall next to 20th and 21st century office blocks, or St Giles, Cripplegate Church in the midst of the Barbican complex.

This (left) is the the tower of St Alban’s Church and is all that remains of an early church that was rebuilt in the 17th century by Inigo Jones and again by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London. The church was partially destroyed in the Blitz, with the rest demolished in the 1960s. Now just the tower remains as a listed building serving as a private home with a roof garden.

Hackney Hear is a GPS-enabled application for the iphone or similar. As you stroll around London Fields and Broadway Market, audio clips based on your location get played – I heard Iain Sinclair musing on London Fields’ distant and more recent past; a local discussing the gang culture of the area; a poem about trees; a song about the lido, and the history of outdoor swimming in East London.

If you stray out of range whilst listening to a particular recording you have to walk back – hence my possibly looking a bit odd as I paced back and forth, suddenly halting from time to time. But hey, who cares about such things? If you are in the area and are technologically enabled, I recommend you check out Hackney Hear – it’s free to download here. The map (pictured right) that accompanies the app is by the talented Badaude. You can read more about her experience of working on Hackney Hear here, and see some of her other London walking maps here.

Tomorrow I will re-emerge from these solitary London pleasures and host a Famous Five High Tea. It’s time to finally attempt the chocolate mould of Five Fall into Adventure as the Lenten chocolate fast is over, and, in the words of young Sid the paperboy, who gets embroiled in this adventure, I am now feeling ‘partial to anything in the chocolate line’.

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.

East Anglian Film Archive Online

November 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Posted in Learning Stuff | Leave a comment
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On Thursday I went up to Norwich for the launch of the East Anglian Film Archive’s new website and digital archive. This contains 200 hours’ worth of films from the East of England region, from 1896 to the (almost) present, all available to watch online for free. It’s a fantastic achievement although sadly the launch comes at a time when the archive has had its staff and funding cut and has had to curb its operations for the foreseeable future.

Here’s a quick pick of 5 Famous Five friendly films to try (but please explore further as there are some incredible films looking at slum housing in Ipswich, the art of paper marbling, lavender growing and much more)

1. Witness in Brass (pictured above) Two boys (quite Julian and Dick-esque) rub church brasses under the guidance of a friendly Essex vicar.

2. Old Shuck A spooky tale of Mr Leslie Goodwin’s sighting of Old Shuck, the Black Ghost Dog of North Norfolk. On a par with stories of ‘spook trains’ and the numerous other tales told by some of the old salts that populate Enid Blyton’s books.

3. Ted Ellis Learn about nature with the legendary Norfolk naturalist Ted Ellis. A good companion to Blyton’s Round the Year series of nature books.

4. The Flood The adventures of four children who get stranded in a Fens farmhouse by a dramatic flood.

5. The New Gypsies (Caravans). An Anglia news report from 1961 on the rising popularity of caravan holidays. The Five were well ahead of the game here (see Five Go off in a Caravan)

Oh, and because I can’t quite resist throwing in one for George, here’s one more, a curious BBC Look East piece from 1977, Dog Psychiatrist. Obviously no other canines are quite as smart as Timmy.

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