Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Garden visitors

In digging up the garden I've been having a few guilty pangs as I disturb a few residents. Mattocking away I found these chaps burrowed down in the soil. Fortunately they survived the ordeal. I still haven't identified the exact bumble bee species, but she was huge, about an inch and a half long. The other, it turns out, is a going to turn into an elephant hawk moth. I hope I get to see it after the metamorphosis.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013


It's official. Dr Herringshaw and I have bought a house. The story of the buying has been better told elsewhere (and here), so I'll just say: we're in, and we love it.

I've refrained from knocking down any walls as yet, and the only thing of real note we've done so far is to cut the grass. Having a garden for the first time in years is something we're enjoying getting used to, especially when you find things like this.

I know that middle age has truly set in now that I'm researching sheds and greenhouses. My main project, though, is to dispense with the grass entirely and plant a floral grassless lawn, like this one. It's partly my laziness, and partly because I've always wanted something like a camomile lawn, but this way I get a bit more variety, insects, and a rest from the lawnmower. Everyone's a winner!

I'm starting small: pratia, three types of thyme, and freshly sown red clover towards the centre. Fingers crossed I don't kill it all.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Festival Of Archaeology

As part of the Festival of Archaeology this year, they are running a wee competition where people create woolly archaeological things.

I'm not sure if it counts, but I thought I'd give needle felting a go, and so the easiest shape I could think of was the Venus of Willendorf.

Spot the difference!

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Pinterest (Proto-)Success #2... nearly

There are lots of pins about regrowing spring onions on Pinterest so, as I was growing them from seed in the yarden anyway, I thought I'd give it a try.

I chopped up the onion but left the bottom half centimetre and roots, and plonked into potting compost and lots of water, and within a few days it's regrowing!

As I've got loads in the garden I'm in no hurry, which is probably lucky as it's not growing fast...

Sunday, 27 January 2013

In which you think one thing about your ancestors, and then...

Lydia Balcomb is my great-great grandmother - my grandpa's gran. She's someone that I had no idea even existed before I started doing research into my family tree a few years ago.

Looking at censuses I knew she was born in Chaldon, Surrey around 1839, that she lived in Bletchingley for the majority of her life, and that she had married twice, as my great-great grandfather (William George Watson) died in 1891. Beyond that, nothing. In my head, all my ancestors are sturdy, honest, peasant-folk. People that I could see myself having been 160 years ago. Then I started digging.

William George Watson is a shady character. He doesn't exist before he rocks up in Bletchingley and marries Lydia in 1866, allegedly hailing from Wiltshire, though I've found no records to prove this. They had eight children in the space of fourteen years, and I was concerned when I ordered up William's death certificate to find that he died in the Godstone Union Workhouse.

Things were clearly not easy. My view of the family as hard-working poor folk in difficult circumstances was confirmed when, following the poor house link, I found a long record of poor relief applications from 1870-1875, which no doubt continued, but the later records are lost.

My views were changed, however, when I got a week's subscription to the British Newspaper Archive in the hope I might discover something new. I looked up a few names, but was surprised when I looked for the Balcombs and Watsons in Surrey to find the following from 1885:

I wasn't sure what it meant. Was William neglecting his family? It certainly seemed that way when I found a later report where he was taken to court for it, as well as failing to send his children to school. However, equally it could imply that Lydia was none too innocent when it came to cash. My imagination was running wild with thoughts of gambling addiction, expensive drug habits, or something equally shady.

Then I came across another story, which made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. In 1887, when she was 48, it seems that Lydia had a few too many, or simply got annoyed with one of her neighbours (and not for the first time, it seems).


Lydia Watson, of Bletchingley, was summoned on the information of Salome Richardson, with breaking and destroying plants growing in her garden, doing injury to the amount of 5s. -- Wm Richardson said on the Sunday morning, the 11th September, he found there had been a great many of his flowers pulled up and laid on the path, but he did not know who did it. -- Wm Wood, gardener, said on the night of the 10th he was walking down the road, and saw the woman, Lydia Watson, leaning on the gate. Witness lived a little further down the road, and standing there he saw her go into the garden two or three times and heard the leaves of the flowers rustle. The next morning he heard a great outcry because the flowers in the prosecutrix's garden had been torn up.-- Mrs Richardson said this was the third time she had had her flowers destroyed.-- P.C. Knight said the reason Watson did not come was because she said that was not her name, and as nobody knew it in Bletchingley she would not come till she was charged in her right name. He told her if she did not come a warrant might be taken out against her, so she promised to attend, but had failed to do so.--Mrs Watson ultimately appeared in court at about 2.30 in the afternoon and denied she was at the gate at the time alleged, but was in bed. The Bench inflicted a fine of 10s, with 5s costs.

I would dearly love to see more records on this. Mostly as I'm intrigued as to what she's going on about with her name. What is she talking about? Has she ditched the 'Watson' and gone back to her maiden name due to irreconcilable differences? Is she just nuts?

Either way, four years later William dies in the Workhouse, and a year after that she marries John Pooley, a seaman. She lives until 1906 when she dies of heart failure at the age of 67.

I then turned my attention to her earlier life. As she was born so soon after registration began I was having trouble finding her birth certificate. I knew when she was baptised so what I was after from the certificate was her mother's maiden name, and so I decided to go a different route and got the certificate for her youngest brother instead. In a perhaps predictable outcome, it turned out that her youngest brother was not her brother after all, but her illegitimate son. This was hurriedly covered up as the baptism claims otherwise, but the certificate seems to have the truth of it. What this son/brother gets up to in later life is none too pristine either, with another newspaper report of him being caught poaching, and it leading to an attempted murder. 

There was also a hint of another illegitimate child in the census, but he's an elusive character, and I'm not fully convinced. Given Lydia's behaviour thus far, though, I would not be surprised if she had ten rather than nine children after all. More research needs to be done, but Surrey's a long way away, and I've not yet exhausted my online sources. So, another certificate has been ordered - this time the next youngest child - in a bid to find out more about their mother. Here's hoping this one's not Lydia's too.

Ginger Beer Revisited

A friend of mine, in a stroke of genius, has come up with the idea of hosting the inaugural "York Home Brew Beer Festival", due to take place at his house in just over a month. For this, all invitees must brew some sort of beverage over the coming weeks. As I'm not a beer drinker I thought this would be a good chance to revisit my alcoholic ginger beer.

I first made ginger beer back in 2010, before I had any idea about brewing. I still don't have much of a clue, and I fumble my way through with a barely adequate grasp, but I've not poisoned anyone yet. My first attempt was the classic "feeding the yeast" tactic, which can result in some highly explosive results. This time I'm trying a different approach. I did a bit of internet research and came up with this recipe on a Home Brew forum.

I've adapted it for a single 1 gallon demijohn:

200g fresh grated ginger (I only had 170g so that'll have to do)
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tbsp lemon juice (or 1/2 tsp citric acid)
500g sugar
1 tsp yeast nutrient
1 heaped tsp champagne yeast (I used Youngs generic wine stuff)
3 pints water plus extra to top up

I grated the ginger and put it in a large pan with the dry ginger, lemon juice and 3 pints of water to simmer for half an hour.

Next I added the sugar to the hot liquid to dissolve.

Once cooled slightly, I added to the demijohn, topped up with the rest of the water and got out my hydrometer.

I don't know about anyone else, but my readings are always something of a fudge as my wines/ciders, etc are always too cloudy to read them through the glass. Even so, the original gravity looked to be about 1.043, give or take. I also realised my thermometer's batteries had died so there was no way of adjusting it according to temperature... It was pretty cool though, so I didn't worry too much.

I then chucked in the yeast and nutrient and stuck in the bung and airlock. It's taking a while to start fermenting (I think fairly old yeast won't' help!) but there's definitely a bubble.

To be continued...

Friday, 21 December 2012


Saint Nicholas' Day has become part of the Herring-Child festive season. This runs from December to January, and encompasses as many traditions from random countries as we find entertaining/tasty/alcoholic enough.

It starts in earnest on the 6th December, when we deliberately try and burn the house down in the name of good clean fun.

Feuerzangenbowle is a traditional German drink whereby a zuckerhut (compressed sugar cone) is doused in rum, set on fire, and the caramelised sugar and excess rum drips into a bowl of delicious mulled wine. The magic combination of tasty, tasty alcohol and approved pyromania is intoxicating.

We were introduced to the concept a few years ago and have attempted it with varying levels of success ever since; the chief issue with us being the lack of zuckerhut. Previously we attempted to fashion our own by packing moist sugar into a cone of baking parchment. I suspect had we packed harder, and left to dry for more than a few days, it may have been more successful, but I am impatient when it comes to rum-soaked goodness.

Cue 2012, when I finally caved and bought myself a proper kit from the German Deli in London website. I also loaded up on the zuckerhut from the same place.

It was magnificent.

A word of warning though: when adding additional rum you are likely to lose and eyebrow or two. Also, over excitement can also lead to singed carpets.

 Frustration as I clearly didn't add enough rum and it fizzles out in disappointment.
A much more pleasing sight.


Feuerzangenbowle Recipe

3 bottles of cheap red plonk
3 oranges
2 lemons
4 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
(optional, 2 cardamom pods, bruised)
1-2 zuckerhut
1 bottle of strong dark rum (we used Woods Old Navy Rum as it was 50%)

Gently warm the wine on the hob with the juice of two of the oranges and one lemon. Slice the remaining fruit and add to the hob along with the spices. Warm slowly for at least half an hour, not allowing it to boil, then transfer to the heatproof punchbowl. Lay the zuckerhut on the tongs (or other heatproof ledge-type implement) over the bowl and douse in rum. 

Turn the lights off, and set on fire. 

Use a metal ladle to top up the rum to prevent the flames going out, taking care not to singe yourself, your friends, or your house. Drink, rinse and repeat with another cone and finish up the bottle.

Boring safety advice: DO NOT POUR STRAIGHT FROM THE BOTTLE, or you will end up with a Molotov Cocktail, which is far less tasty.