Ideas abound in the English Country House

Ideas abound in the English Country House

I’ve already talked here about how cemeteries and graveyards start my imagination running, but if I’m really looking for inspiration it’s the big, old, crumbling, Victorian mansion that makes me want to write. And, lucky for me, we’re knee deep … Continue reading

Highgate Cemetery -The Story Behind the Headstone

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I have an insatiable curiosity for cemeteries. Maybe it’s because my grandmother used to live next to a church with a large graveyard, but more likely it’s the stories behind the words, a fascination with other people’s lives, especially when they don’t appear to have gone to plan, don’t seem ordinary.

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You could accuse me of having some kind of Hello magazine fascination with death, wanting to know more than I should about somebody else’s life. I don’t think so; I can’t gauge that much from a gravestone. No, it’s the possibility that the headstone presents, the idea of a story that starts my imagination running.

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As I am in the midst of writing a novel set in the late 1800s, I have more than a passing interest in the Victorian’s obsession with death. Now they really took death seriously, revelling in the trappings of bereavement, especially in the 1890s when funerals became important social status symbols. And the memorials they built (think of the Albert Memorial in Kensington, London) became all the more splendid, noble in the creation of landscaped cemeteries, mausolea, monuments and memorial gardens.

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Finding myself at a loose end in London last spring, I suggested to my 12 year old that we visit Highgate Cemetery. You can imagine his reaction – eyes rolling and, well, couldn’t we go to somewhere more interesting? Bribing him with a good lunch (Kalandar Café, 15 Swains Lane, Highgate) we set off with my camera. It was the first sunny day we’d had in months; an inkling of the spring to come after months of a miserably wet winter.

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Cemeteries, although not invented by the Victorians, were cultivated by them to a degree difficult to comprehend now, with our 21st century stilted attitude towards death. During Queen Victoria’s reign the growing population scrambled to live in the cities and by the end of the 19th century 77% lived in urban areas. As you can imagine this brought huge hygiene problems and the disposal of the dead became something of a headache. Urban churchyards were full and, frankly, disgusting.

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So London set about building beautiful garden cemeteries, away from the churches, of which Highgate is only one of many. Having fallen into disrepair in the 1960s it was rescued by The Friends of Highgate Cemetery who are conserving this magnificent area with its monuments and buildings for the benefit of the public. It’s a work in progress and there are still many graves hidden amongst the overgrowth and rampant ivy. But it’s this  slight timeworn disorder that gives the visitor a feeling of mystery and a desire to scratch beneath the surface.

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Buried here are luminaries such as Karl Marx, George Elliot, Douglas Adams, Christina Rossetti and Malcolm Maclaren, to name but a few. But it was the ordinary person who we found more interesting, the eccentric and the serious, the tragic and even the hilarious. And I’m delighted to report that my 12 year old found himself captivated (and surprised) by the boundless stories that could be found in this place.

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Wouldn’t you want to know what happened to Thomas Putnam of London and Madras?

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The Holy Trinity of all Apples

 

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According to some of our commercial apple growers we are going to have a bumper crop of apples this year. A mild spring and warm summer, accompanied by the perfect amount of rainfall, has resulted in a vintage year for our English apples.

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Sadly, in my part of Wiltshire that’s not true. We have three apple trees and almost no apples – everyone we know in our valley is in the same boat; it’s so bad that our annual Cider Making Day has had to be cancelled. As you can imagine we’re a little bit upset about that. But, to make up for our loss, I’ve made an exciting discovery – the red fleshed apple. Yes, that’s what I said, red – an apple with a shocking pink/red flesh.

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The father of a good friend of mine was a passionate apple man and spent much of his forty years of retirement breeding and developing by grafts and cross-breeding a red-fleshed apple. As a World War II POW, he also spent time looking for ways of controlling the fairly serious side effects from his interment. The result of both of these endeavours was the small Trinity apple; red skinned and red fleshed, high in anti-oxidents and Vitamin C.

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I’ve been hearing about these apples for years, but just a few weeks ago some arrived in the post. Could I make some jam? We’d just like to see how it turns out.

Well – who’d pass up that opportunity?

Now, making apple jam/conserve/butter/jelly can be a bit tricky. Apples have a very delicate flavour and too much sugar or being too liberal with the spice can turn it into a tasteless or over-spiced sugary mess. On the other hand, not enough sugar and you’ve just got an apple sauce that won’t keep for long. These particular apples are great cookers, they cook down to a silky pulp and the pretty red colour enriches on cooking.

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I decided to make what would strictly be called an Apple Cheese – it’s called a cheese because it’s pushed through a sieve. But I haven’t let it thicken enough to be classed as a cheese. I’ll call it a jam because of its jammy consistency, but its relatively low sugar content would have our EU food police heading for the rulebook. But, to hell with the EU, this is homemade, just for my pantry and my friends and family.

Of course, I’m not expecting you to be able to get hold of these red fleshed apples yet… but I hear it won’t be long until you’ll start finding them in the shops. Meanwhile, the recipe below will do for any cooking apples, especially Bramleys.

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Holy Trinity Jam

900g (2lb) Red fleshed apples
½ Lemon
½ tsp Ground Cinnamon
200ml (7fl oz) Water
Approx 400g (14oz) Sugar – ordinary granulated will do
Small knob of butter

Put a small, clean plate into the freezer before you start.

Roughly chop the apples – pips, skin and all, and put in a large pan along with the chopped up lemon, ground cinnamon and water. Bring to the boil and simmer until the apples have turned to mush, approx 20-30 mins.

Push the apple pulp through a plastic sieve. Weigh the pulp and return to your clean pan. Add half the weight of sugar to the weight of the pulp. Slowly bring to the boil and let the mixture bubble for approx. 10 minutes. Test whether you have reached setting point by dropping a teaspoon of jam onto the frozen plate. If, after a few seconds, the jam wrinkles when you push it with your finger then it is ready to jar up. If not, simmer for another couple of minutes and test again. When the jam is ready stir in the small knob of butter to get rid of any unsightly scum that might be on the top.

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Pour jam into clean and sterilised jars and seal. Because of the low sugar content of this jam it won’t keep for very long, so make small batches and keep in the fridge for no longer than three months.

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The Trinity apple is an early ripening, small red fleshed apple. Harvest usually takes place in mid August. The apple has a limited shelf life, probably due to its high juice content, but is a good cooker and perfect for making puree. Next year there will be a limited harvest in Twickenham, England, which could be available for ‘Pick Your Own’ for any interested parties.

If you want more information about the Trinity apple please contact turner.register@googlemail.com.

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