Category Archives: English

The Queen’s (Full) English

One thing led to another. I was driving towards the North Kent Marshes and an appointment with Farrow and Ball, as I drove I was half-listening to the audio book of “Iris“,  the recollections of Iris Murdoch by her husband John Bayley.

Farrow and Ball wanted to do some publicity shots of their paint range at our tumble-down shack, I had hoped that they might paint it, but it turned out that I was just the first location in a week of photo-shoots. They wanted to shoot outdoors and it rained of course.

Photographer James Merrell and the team soldiered on. “I think the rain adds something, makes it more real, more British,” said Charlie the Creative Manager bravely, while we held umbrellas over James. No time to wait and see if the weather cleared, they had to get to West Sussex that afternoon for another shoot.      “And tomorrow we’re in Deptford,” said the stylist.

Not the Master Shipwright’s House in Watergate Street I said?   “Yes,” said Charlie, “why don’t you come along?”

Just try and stop me I thought.

The next day the sun shone after a dismal start and I wandered down to the river and the Master Shipwright’s House. They were having lunch, and Charlie showed me around a few of the rooms and introduced me to the owner. It is the sort of house I could easily live in, huge rooms, distressed walls and bare floorboards.

I’ve glimpsed it from the street when the gates are open, I’ve seen it from the other side of the river, but nothing really prepares you for the shiver of history when you’re actually walking around inside it. Recently I’ve become more and more interested in Deptford’s lost dockyards, and for a couple of weeks I’ve spent a day wandered around the Pepys Estate and Deptford Green. It’s too late for the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard, mostly buried under the Pepys Estate, but now there are plans afoot to build on the 42 acres of Convoys Wharf, the old King’s Yard founded by Henry VIII in 1513, his first Royal Dockyard.  If you’d be interested in learning more about the unsympathetic development proposed for Convoys Wharf I urge you to visit the Deptford Dame853, and for a scholarly and passionate defence of Deptford’s heritage, the Shipwrights Palace. Then maybe like me write to Lewisham Council to oppose these plans.  Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I was a regular visitor to Deptford, arriving by river and landing at the watergate stairs. In 1581 she knighted Sir Francis Drake on board his ship and ordered the Golden Hind to be preserved in Deptford as a reminder of the historic achievements of Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.  On another occasion in Deptford Sir Walter Raleigh might have thrown down his cloak so Elizabeth could avoid wetting her feet in a puddle on those same stairs, for a while Sir Walter was one of Elizabeth’s favourites. In about 1586 he had a ship built here by Chapman the Master Shipwright, and he named it the Ark Raleigh.

                                 The first Ark Royal

Unfortunately by that time he was less in favour and Elizabeth ‘bought’ the ship from him for the Navy renaming it the Ark Royal. In 1588 it was the flagship of Admiral Howard in the attack on the Armada.

But one thing leads to another as I said, and at the weekend I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery for the Twombly and Poussin exhibition. Two painters separated by 350 years that both left their homeland aged about 30 and went to work in Rome. They painted similar subjects in drastically different styles, Twombly was a romantic, and Poussin a classicist. I think Twombly is the greater painter, inspiring and intriguing, beside his electrifying canvases Poussin seems too chocolate-boxey.  Twombly was a poetry lover and introduced poetry into his paintings sometimes as the subject, and often scribbling in pencil onto his paintings.

‘Hero and Leander’ ©Cy Twombly

The painting on the cover of the exhibition catalogue and on the exhibition poster is ‘Hero and Leander‘, a painting about love, death, blood and the sea. Hero and Leander was the poem Christopher Marlowe was working on when he died in Deptford in 1593 after a fight at Eleanor Bull’s house on Deptford Strand.

                John Evelyn’s map of Deptford and The Strand.

For a couple of days I was completely obsessed with Twombly and Marlowe, and the many fantastical theories surrounding the death of Christopher Marlowe.

     Christopher Marlowe, 1585 aged 21. Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Was he a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster in the 1580s? Was he linked to the out-of-favour Earl of Essex? Did he contact Sir Walter Raleigh and express atheistic views, which was as serious as treason in Elizabethan England. His patron was Walsingham’s cousin, Thomas Walsingham a former courier for the intelligence services, and Marlowe spent his last night alive at Thomas Walsingham’s moated manor house at Scadbury in Chislehurst.  As did the man who would kill him Ingram Frizer and two others, all three working for Thomas Walsingham and possibly working in the Elizabethan spy network. Two of them had been involved in exposing the plot by supporters of Mary Queen of Scots to usurp Elizabeth. One of them, Robert Poley, should have been delivering an urgent dispatch to the Queen at Nonsuch, but instead chose to spend the day with Marlowe in Deptford. It seems a fight broke out over the bill, and Marlowe was stabbed to death, and later buried in St Nicholas‘ churchyard. Frizer was pardoned, Mrs Bull it turns out was distantly related to Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s chief advisor, and she also had contacts with Walsingham’s spy network. Three years after Marlowe’s death, Elizabeth visited Scadbury and knighted Thomas Walsingham… I don’t suppose we’ll ever know exactly what happened and why, but the rumours indicate that there may be more to his death than meets the eye.

The ruins of Scadbury Manor can still be seen if you’re adventurous enough to search for them at Scadbury Nature Reserve. I did of course, braving brambles and barbed wire, first finding a Tudor walled kitchen garden then following that around to the romantic ruins of the old manor house, still surrounded by a moat.

Back to the beginning of this rambling story, driving along half- listening to “Iris” I heard a remark about breakfast and Queen Elizabeth, but I didn’t quite catch the context so I had to go and buy the book.

There on page 111 is the description of breakfast in a hotel : “had bacon and scallops for breakfast, the favourite morning dish, as I recalled, of good Queen Elizabeth the First, who used to wash it down with a pint of small beer. We had Irish coffee instead.

That is the sort of annoying throw-away remark by an academic that can never be proved to be true, or not. But I like the idea of Queen Elizabeth breakfasting on bacon and scallops at the Royal Dockyard in Deptford.

Most recipes for scallops and bacon would have you wrap the bacon around each scallop and secure with a cocktail stick. That’s a bit too mimsy for me, I’d want a proper dockers’ breakfast, not finger food.

I buy my scallops from F.C. Soper in Nunhead, or Shellseekers in Borough Market.  Ex-navy diver Darren Brown runs Shellseekers, if you visit his stall on a Friday or Saturday you’ll find Darren cooking takeaway scallops with bacon.

Scallops and Bacon

Ingredients (serves 2):

225g – 450g streaky unsmoked bacon rashers, you’ll need 2 or 3 rashers per person, depending on your love of bacon

10 or 12 scallops, removed from their shells. Slice each scallop in half through the side into 2 rounds.  (Don’t buy large bags of scallops from supermarkets, they’ve probably been soaked in phosphates which bleaches them and then soaked in water so they swell unnaturally. I prefer to buy diver-caught scallops, a bit more expensive but better.)

Freshly ground black pepper, and salt

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, crushed

Glass of white wine

25g unsalted butter

A few leaves of fresh parsley


Grill the bacon, or fry if you wish, till the rashers are starting to crisp and curl. Then put them onto kitchen paper to drain. While the bacon is cooking lightly grease a heavy frying pan with a little oil and over a medium heat fry the scallops for about 2 minutes each side. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the scallops till they are golden, then remove them to a warm dish. Add the chopped onion and crushed garlic to the pan, increase the heat, and when the onion is translucent pour in the glass of white wine. Stir, and scrape the bottom of the pan to collect the bits of fat and scallop. Keep cooking so the liquid reduces by half, then spoon in the butter and stir a little bit more. Serve the bacon with the scallops and pour over the juices from the pan. Scatter a few parsley leaves across the dish.     Rule Britannia!

Warning: May Contain Nuts…

We’re just back from Polly and Jon’s wedding in Kent. I wasn’t the wedding photographer but Polly is the daughter of very old friends and we’ve known her all her life, and I wanted to take some pictures. Disaster struck, all my cameras suddenly decided enough was enough and ground to a digital death, and my pocket digital had disappeared into the matmos I call home.

So I had to take the Holga to accurately (!) record Clarissa’s arrival at the church.

And her shoes…!

A Holga is a light-leaking plastic camera with a plastic lens that uses 120 film. Some might say it misuses 120 film.

It has a cult following because it can be relied upon to produce pictures that are blurred, out of focus, haphazardly framed and (by light getting into the camera) fogged . Which is exactly why it is so satisfying to use after the relentless perfection of digital with the endless opportunities and compulsion to manipulate, ‘improve’ and ‘correct’ to make reality even more real, but at the same time less true. I agree with Martin Scorcese who reckons digital effects may look ‘real’, but they lack that ‘used’ feel, the fortuitous unplanned reality of life.

Polly’s mum and dad, Barry and Karin, used to live in Brockley, but some years ago they decided they needed a new challenge and took the brave step of selling their huge house and buying the 180 acres of beautiful Kent countryside known as Farnell Farm. From the beginning they planted Kentish cobnuts, Filberts and Gunselberts, about 700 trees altogether on a sloping 4 acre field leading down to their barn.

They thought cobnuts would be in tune with the landscape and a traditional local crop,  something that was very important to how they saw their life on the farm.  On our first visit we were unprepared for the sheer beauty of the landscape; while the dog dashed around in lurcher heaven Barry and Karin showed us around the orchard, Barry worrying about the squirrels eating the nuts, and later Karin bringing us some freshly picked green cobnuts.

The cobnut harvest starts at the end of August after St Philbert’s Day, the first cobnuts are green, and eaten as fresh as possible. The taste was amazing, the green cobnuts were moist, sweet and soft.

Even the wonder-lurcher discovered a passion for green cobnuts. “People become addicted to green cobnuts,” said Barry. “If you taste them green the flavour is unique and subtle, once they’ve been cold-stored or chilled they lose that flavour.” Karin thinks they taste like raw fresh peas. Green cobnuts are only available for a few weeks from about now, then they’ll turn dry and golden and are delicious roasted. The field yields about 2 tons per hectare depending on the squirrels who account for about half the crop. Then there’s the badgers. Farnell Farm has 75 acres of ancient bluebell woods, peppered with badger setts, the badgers climb up the trees after the nuts and flatten them!

Now a few years on, they’ve a small flock of Portland sheep, and they’ve recently planted 5 acres of vines, hoping in 3 or 4 years to be producing their first Farnell Farm wine.

The couple are licensed by DEFRA to sell bluebell seeds, I didn’t know it was illegal to collect the seeds without a licence, but apparently this is a serious business, and Barry and Karin were two of the first people to be granted a licence to gather and sell the seeds.  They’ve added wild garlic and wild broom seeds to their stock and sell everything by mail order through their website.

The whole family, Barry, Karin, Polly, her brother Harry, and now Polly’s husband Jon, all help with the cobnut harvest, picking the nuts by hand then dehusking them and laying them out on tables turning them once a day.  “Our cobnuts aren’t cheap,” said Karin, “but they are as near perfect as we can get them, we don’t use any sprays or chemicals and rely on birds to keep insects at bay. We haven’t gone for organic registration because of the cost, but our cobnuts are as organic as anyone’s.”

The hazel tree dates from the end of the last Ice Age, cultivated hazels known as Filberts have been grown since the 16th Century, named after St Philbert’s Day which falls just as the nuts are ready to eat. The Kentish cobnut is also known as the Lambert Filbert which was developed in the 1800s. Other traditional varieties are the Gunselbert and the Frizzled Filbert.

Before the last War there were 7,000 acres planted with cobnuts, now there might be just 250. People have lost the taste for cobnuts as small greengrocers have disappeared and supermarkets refuse to stock fresh cobnuts. Some Turkish shops stock green cobnuts from abroad, I’ve seen them in the Lewisham Food Centre for instance.

The Kentish Cobnut Association, led by Alexander Hunt are working to preserve this tradition.  Alex was at the wedding, we’d met before at the Canterbury Food Fair  and at Produced in Kent events. I told him about the blog and we self-consciously exchanged cards.

Ah yes ,the wedding, the Holga was doing its best, every so often I  changed the film and replaced the batteries back into their clips, they kept falling out and rattling around inside the camera so the flash wouldn’t work. The official photographers moved smoothly on, their laptops glowing confidently; as dusk arrived they suggested taking some pictures of the bride and groom with the bridesmaids and ushers in a field the other side of the woods. I thought I might get something memorable, but when I reached the field after negotiating the odd electric fence it was quite dark and I had to rely on the puny built-in flash. The photographers set up umbrellas and flashguns and fiddled with radio transmitters while I happily shot away. Later back in London I took the films to West End Cameras for developing, explaining the shots were taken in near darkness from about 20 feet away and I didn’t think they’d come out…? They specialise in cameras like Holgas and their cousins Lomo and Diana and are really enthusiastic about the fun of film photography. When I got the prints back I was really pleased, this is what is so exciting about Holga photography, the unexpected results the double exposures and the over-lapping frames. The snaps remind me of one of the happiest days,  the fun of photography and the companionship of old friends.

Here’s a recipe for cobnuts, with marrow and plums from the Kentish Cobnut Association. I bought my plums in Lewisham Market, walking around the back of the fruit stalls scrutinising the labels on the crates of fruit till I found some English plums from a farm near Sittingbourne in Kent.

Stuffed Marrow with Plums and Kentish Cobnuts


Ingredients (serves 4):

1 large marrow

2 onions, sliced

2 – 4 cloves of garlic

350g plums

450g cobnuts (that’s the weight in their husks)

175g mushrooms, sliced chunkily

4 tomatoes, sliced

110g butter

30g grated fresh ginger

Some mixed herbs, fresh or dried

Salt and pepper


Clean the marrow and slice it in half lengthways. Scoop ,out the seeds leaving a hollow in each half of marrow and then put them into a suitable ovenproof dish.

Halve the plums and remove the stones. De-husk the cobnuts and chop them roughly, not too small. Take half the butter an in a pan gently fry the onions. Then combine all the ingredients, adding the garlic to your own taste, an scattering with a few mixed herbs, but remember not to overpower the subtle flavour of the cobnuts. Divide this mixture in half and put equal amounts into each half of marrow. Dot with the remaining butter, cover the dish loosely with tinfoil and bake in your oven preheated to 180C for 90 minutes.

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