A Landscape Without Raptors Is An Unnatural One

Those are the words of James Macdonald Lockhart, from his first book, Raptor.  Anyone who has delved into the pages of recent best-seller H is for Hawk, discovered the writings of such as T H White and J A Baker, or enjoyed with me Conor Mark Jameson’s Searching for the Goshawk, will love this book.  Lockhart takes us the length and breadth of the country and introduces us to all of the 15 birds of prey that grace our skies.

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He is guided by the earlier works of his grandfather, Seton Gordon, who’s Days with the Golden Eagle was recently republished, and more so by the wanderings and the writings of William MacGillivray, from the first half of the 19th century.  I’ll find out more about MacGillivray later.  He walked 838 miles from Aberdeen to London, taking extensive notes of the flora and fauna along the way.  Later he became a contemporary of both Audobon and Darwin; in short an expert in his field.

With MacGillivray as his main guide, though not alone as a 17 page research bibliography confirms, Lockhart takes us from windswept Orkney to sun-kissed Devon, meandering far and wide, spotting hawks and eagles  and telling us much more.

On the trail of the red kite in Wales he reminds us that a couple of hundred years ago one of the perils faced by the egg collectors of the day was the threat of half-killed adders in the nest.  He confesses to a touch of cryptozoology – no I didn’t know either, but it’s the study of hidden animals, the search for creatures that may not exist.  Birds of prey may, at times, seem just as elusive.  MacGillivray’s Descriptions of the Rapacious Birds of Great Britain might be interesting.

Here at Grasshopper Towers the buzzard is an everyday presence, often mobbed by crows.  I remember vividly a golden eagle, grounded at the roadside by torrents of rain, on that memorable day with the BBC’s Mark Stephen and Helen Needham.  I’m told there may have been a hen harrier on the roof; the kestrel too hunts the fields regularly.  But other than the splendour of red kites, either in the hills of Wales or further north from here, raptors have remained elusive.

That said I haven’t watched the way Lockhart watches, spending days in hedges, on cathedral roofs, or anywhere else his prey may be likely to appear.  More often than not he spots something else, and is off on another tangent.  But MacGillivray leads him on.

He gives us a hugely enjoyable read, a book well worth a place on the nature shelf, and inspires us pay more attention to what goes on all around.

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One for the children

When can I learn to cook?  A plaintive call across the dinner table.  But not from Girl Urchin, oh no, for she’s quite happy with mixing bowls and beaters and licking chocolate spoons; no this was her brother.  He’d been more than a kitchen assistant for his sister’s recent easter cake – and I’m in big trouble for not getting a picture of that one and a recipe down for you.  Not content with making a cup of tea and putting milk on his cereal, he’s looking to do a bit more.

Chocolate Butterfly Cakes.  A good place to start, and one that involves some finger-licking bowl cleaning.  It also comes with more trouble for your host as the accompanying picture here is straight from the book.  There is a photo of the end result but it remains in the camera, which is now heading off to the Northern Wastes, leaving a period of quiet reflection here at Grasshopper Towers.  And they’ve taken the cakes with them.

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Anyway, let’s start with the list of the necessary:

8 tbsp. soft margarine; 100g caster sugar; 150g self-raising flour; 2 large eggs; 2 tbsp. cocoa powder; 25g plain chocolate, melted; icing sugar for dusting.  And for the filling 6 tbsp. butter, softened; 175g icing sugar; 25g plain chocolate, melted.

And the instructions, ideal for your average 10 year old who of course weighs and measure precisely:

Put 12 paper baking cases in a muffin pan, or 12 double cases on a baking sheet.

Put the margarine, sugar, flour, eggs and cocoa in a large bowl and, using an electric hand whisk, beat together until just smooth.  Beat in the melted chocolate.  Spoon the mixture into the paper cases, filling them 3/4 full.

Bake the cupcakes in a pre-heated oven, 180c/gas4, for 15 minutes or until springy to the touch.  Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

To make the filling, put the butter in a bowl and beat until fluffy.  Sift in the icing sugar and beat together until smooth.  Add the melted chocolate and beat until well mixed.

When the cupcakes are cold, use a serrated knife to cut a circle from the top of each cake and then cut each circle in half.  Spread or pipe a little of the buttercream into the centre of each cupcake and press the 2 semicircular halves into it at an angle to resemble butterfly wings.  Dust with a little icing sugar before serving.

On reflection it might be best to make your cream slightly thin and to play with a piping bag – spreading thicker cream with a knife proved tricky.  But the end result was quite delicious and I suspect they may not survive the drive north to be proudly presented on arrival.

It doesn’t end there though, for I’ve had an assistant with the soup and the rolls.  Scraping the carrots needs a bit of practice but we’ll have him peeling the tatties before long.  Bread-making too is a longer project, after recoiling at getting the hands in and getting mucky.  But anything to do with weighing and measuring is fun; as is cutting the dough into rolls.  Measuring out the spices for the soup proved much more up his street than chopping the garlic.  Thankfully the soup and rolls have been left on the kitchen table, and I can guarantee there will be none left when they return.

One day we’ll have a meal prepared and presented by The Urchins, jointly and collectively, without squabbling, and packed with flavour.  All we’ll have to do is clean up the debris, after scoffing the goodies of course.  And at this early stage I’m pretty sure we’ll be well fed.

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All Bark and no Bite

Being a quiet, indeed calm, day it seemed a good time to refresh that need to hug a tree.  Those old Cadzow Oaks are still standing, still glorious, having seen it all before.

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However a walk in the woods, a solitary one, provides a bit more than being up close and personal with a bit of rough, with soft bark, ancient or otherwise.  The steep slopes of Chatelherault were alive with birdsong that still morning, some identified, though most not; plenty of chirpy chirpy cheep cheep.  But when alone in the woods there is no troll peeking out from the dark depths under that wee bridge; no retort, not even a second line to the suggestion that a mouse may have taken a stroll somewhere in those woods, deep and dark.

Instead there is quiet and solitude.  Far below the waters burble over boulders; a dog barks and a goose honks.  The two may or may not have been related.  A woodpecker flits from one ancient tree to another, drilling away with no respect for the standard of his trunk call.

By the oaks new-born lambs frolic in the sun; tails a-wag; bouncing on all fours as they do.

On into the woods, sodden in places, ample evidence of seasons getting ever wetter and windier.  Fallen trees.  Thick mosses.  Glaur.

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I return to the oaks from some distance towards the White Bridge, back across the sett where the badgers lie sleeping, plans changed.  Though this is no broadway the lambs lie down and an ear worm runs through my head.  Duke’s Monument, that’s a grand wee wander; less muddy perhaps.  Or not.

But time passes when lost with your own thoughts.  Its one o’clock and time for lunch, dum de dum de dum.  By the time the gazebo takes shape in the trees, past the stand of silver birch, all barky yet still bare; by then I realised that the car was some distance away; that time was not on my side.  The school bus might beat me home.  There may be trouble ahead.

Back through the mud, past the oaks again, was not an option; though a hug might help.  Onwards it had to be.  Childhood haunts.  Back then walls could be climbed; the path between the bings.  Now there are houses.  The long way round then, until eventually the Old Avon Bridge appears.  From there it is an uphill slog back to the car.  Legs complain.

But all was well.  And even the soup was finished by the time the bus appeared.  I’d forgotten they were going to be late, a day out at the Learning Hub, playing with computers.  Still, just wait till they hear what was under the bridge.  Two weeks off school looming; they might take a stroll in the deep dark wood; and hug a tree or two.

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A Tree Worth Hugging

The surrounding land was flat, and so the hard-boiled eggs were broken in the car, salted and peppered, and devoured with the house lentil and assorted breads.  Beforehand we had wandered into the woods, hugged a tree, and wandered back.  Where to next?  Back to the tree, came the chorus from the back seat.  So back we went.

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For this was no ordinary tree.  At around 1,000 years of growth it pre-dated those Cadzow Oaks by about half as much again.  250 years ago the trunk girth was over 10ft.  Today four of us couldn’t come close to linking arms.  The diameter of the ground covered by branches reached close to 200ft, near 200 years ago, circled, grounded.   And the tree grows on.

We stood under the canopy of that magnificent Ormiston Yew, dappled in spring sunshine.  A summer return beckons, to witness the glory in full plumage, freckled with bright red berries.  There is enormous vitality bursting out of the tree, new growth greening the trunks and the branches and the clefts, like ferns ready to burst.

From the outside view it is hard to imagine this mass of greenery as just one tree, a discrete entrance remaining open to passing visitors.  To reach the tree the walk takes you through the grounds of what once was Ormiston Hall, past the stone erected by the Poles stationed there in the war, through a grove of chestnut trees, just beginning to bud.

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Whilst in the area we thought we should pay a call on old Mr Luca, down the road in Musselburgh.  He makes ice cream yet, his café bustling in the chill sun.  From there we walked another path; one a bit different to those woods filled with the sounds of crows nesting in the high canopies, of chaffies singing in the spring; the woods where the pecker drummed out a greeting.

The Esplanade in Portobello was a walk I had not made since being around Urchin-age.  It doesn’t seem to have changed, and it really is a bright spot in Auld Reekie’s gloom, untouched by the tourist throngs.  In front of the shore-front houses bikes and scooters make a smooth mile each way; pipers and box players entertain.  And a couple of young lads, pre-teen, practiced their shooting skills and tricks, before heading to Andorra with the Scottish basketball team, armed with a few extra shilling for the trip.  Mr Luca was there too, but we resisted.

And if you happen to be down that we way, head along to Ormiston, go hug a tree.  It does you the world of good.  And the kids love it.

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Another Book For You

This one though, is different.  It is The Wee Black Book.  Eighteen months ago the people of Scotland decided that remaining as part of the UK was the route to a better future for our children and grandchildren, on the basis of the promises made as voting day drew near.  Today, 24 March 2016, is the day that had been earmarked for Scotland to begin to run her own affairs.  The WBB charts the move from the promises then to the reality now.

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In the past 18 months politics in Scotland has been very much off topic on this forum, though thrashed to bits elsewhere.  So for the readers who have been spared the WBB is a quick run through, and it really is an essential read.  It is of course the work of the inimitable Stuart Campbell, of Wings Over Scotland, and you can download it from this link.  Let’s see how it’s all panning out so far shall we.

Elsewhere I see that the citizens of New Zealand have also bottled it, opting not to change their flag.

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Another Epic Russian Novel

Whilst some have been enjoying War & Peace on the box, I’ve been engrossed in the writings of Anatoli Rybakov, and in particular his Children of the Arbat trilogy.

Rybakov grew up in Moscow’s Arbat district, spent a decade in Siberian exile, and was then decorated for his efforts in WWII.  That might have some influence on his tale.  There are others in the story however, and it is the warp and the weft of those lives through those times that fascinates.

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You may recall my enjoyment of Petrograd, the first volume in William Owen Roberts trilogy, translated from the Welsh.  That started pre-Revolution.  However I need patience, for the second and third instalments are not due to be translated and published for a year or three yet.  I stayed with the Russian theme, enjoying Generations of Winter, from Vassily Aksyomov, which took us to those years of Stalin and Beria.

And it  is back to those times that Rybakov’s translation from the Russian takes us too.  It is an epic tale and I stayed with all three volumes uninterrupted, devouring close on 2,000 pages, as those children grow and live, and love, despite it all.  Hardships come, as schooling progresses through the Komsomol to the Party.  Marriages come and go.

Rybakov treats us to both sides of the ruble coin of the day as we follow careers to wherever they may lead, or be told to go.  Fifteen years or so after leaving school the war changes everything, including those careers.

Whilst much of the tale centres on the streets and the buildings of Moscow, and whatever may be hidden within, we travel further, eastwards of course, and to Paris.  Rybakov peppers his tale with the events of the days, with Stalin, and then with Hitler.  War comes to Russia and the inevitable route to Stalingrad.

You might just enjoy spending some time with Nina and Lena, Yuri and Sasha and all those that impacted on their lives.  There is much hardship, and much kindness; and there is much more than that.

 

 

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The best date cake in the world ever, and the easiest

That’s the boast of Dan Lepard, who puts his name to this recipe.  I came across it when rain stopped play, so to speak.  On a book forum I have the habit of frequenting one contributor mentioned a cake, in much the same way the cricket commentary on the radio comes into it’s own when there is no play on the field.  I begged a link to the recipe.  And the beauty is it also happens to be the easiest cake to make, ever.

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Here’s what you need:

200g chopped dates; 50g tamarind paste; 250g unsalted butter; 150g dark brown sugar; 2 large eggs; 275g plain flour; 2 tsp soda bicarb; 175g shelled walnuts, roughly chopped; 150g icing sugar; seeds of 6-8 cardamom pods, finely ground; juice of half lemon.

Knowing I was pretty much covered for all the necessary it seemed a fine wee project whilst the week’s bread was rising; the soup cauldron burbling.  The only change was the need to replace walnuts with pecans.  Fortunately the regular supply of soft and succulent medjool dates had remained unopened for a day or two.  Cardamom in the icing is a master stroke.  As with most things at Grasshopper Towers the icing sugar is unrefined.

And here’s how to go about it:

Line the base and sides of a deep, 18cm cake tin; heat oven to 180C/gas 4.  Put the dates, tamarind paste and 300ml water in a pan and bring to boil.  Boil for a minute, remove from heat, add the butter, and set aside for 10 mins to cool as the butter melts.  How easy is that?  None of your creaming together, endless beating and folding in the flour malarkey.  Add the brown sugar, stir, then stir in the eggs until smooth.  Whisk in the flour and bicarb, then stir in the nuts.  All in one pot, with one spoon.  No mess, well not much.

Spoon the batter into the cake tin and bake for about an hour, or until a skewer poked into the centre comes out clean.  Remove and leave to cool.  When cold, make a thick, smooth icing with the icing sugar, cardamom and lemon juice, a little water if needed, and spoon over the cake till it dribbles.  A few scattered rose petals finishes it off.

And the verdict?  Thumbs up from Girl Urchin, who hadn’t seen the dates going in.  Too many nuts for little brother though, perhaps blitzing rather than chopping may be better.  Sticky, gooey, and quite delicious.  Must go and see how the reading’s going.

 

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