Tag Archives: London

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!

Kerb Appeal

Walking the dog around the streets of SE8 and SE4 I can’t ignore the huge amount of fruit falling onto the pavements, unwanted and unloved.

Now it’s damsons and crab apples and soon there’ll be pears and apples, figs and nuts of various kinds.  Not forgetting the blackberries which are early this year, our own Oregon Thornless isn’t quite ready but it looks as if it’ll be a bumper year in our front garden which becomes a rendezvous point for the local mums and toddlers.

It’s a bit of an obsession, finding free fruit. Everywhere I go I take old carrier bags, and if I’m in the car there’s always a coolbox alongside the Wonder Lurcher . For this recipe I gathered 5 lb (2.3 kg) of damsons from the road and pavement just 200 yards from my house, it took 5 minutes and I was studiously ignored by passers-by.

The tree is old grey and twisted, and this year heavy with fruit. I did the polite thing and knocked and asked if I could have some, but was told curtly that I could only have the windfalls in the street. Oh well, I know how she feels. Our blackberry trails along our railings at the front of our house, there’s always more fruit on the pavement side, its the sunnier side, and passers-by help themselves, which is nice I think. Though sometimes we arrive home to find people trampling around our front garden. Last year a woman knocked at our door on her way home from the Hillyfields farmers’ market. She was carrying apples in her pulled-up skirt,  a bit eccentric I thought.  Three children peered at me from behind her skirt, “I’m going to make an apple pie,” she beamed, “would you mind if I picked a few blackberries to put in the pie?” Of course not I said, but then a few minutes later I glanced out the window and saw her and the children frantically stripping the bush, grabbing handfuls of squashed fruit till her carrier bag looked like an over-stuffed pillow. “So that’s why she’s carrying the apples in her skirt,” sighed Clarissa.

About 95% of our fruit is imported, 71% of our apples come from abroad, surely this is wrong on so many levels. For nearly 500 years we were a great fruit-growing nation, then suddenly we’re not anymore. The big food retailers strive to remove risk when stocking fruit, they do this by only stocking fruit that isn’t ripe. They say that it will ripen in the fruit bowl at home. They say this is what the consumer wants because he or she only wants to shop once a week so it needs to keep for a week. The trouble is, as I’m sure you know, it usually goes straight from unripe to rotten, and consumers have forgotten what really ripe fruit tastes like, or looks like. Supermarket fruit has a good ‘shelf life’, which may be good for the shelf but isn’t good for the fruit.

In Sheffield Stephen Watts left school after A levels and didn’t know what to do, so to fill his time he started growing vegetables on an allotment. He spent three years learning about horticulture, biodynamics, and organic farming.

In 2005 he cycled around Sheffield mapping old and neglected fruit trees he found in back gardens and on waste ground, finding apples, pears, plums, figs, cherries, hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and quince.  By happy coincidence Anne-Marie Culhane, a community artist, arrived in Sheffield in 2007, and she too cycled around noticing the old fruit trees, “The whole city is full of fruit,” she thought, “and loads of it is going to waste.”

Getting together with Stephen they founded the ‘Abundance‘ Project.  Says Stephen, “I knew where the trees were and how and when to harvest them, and Anne-Marie knew how to make it into a project, how to get funding and get people on board. It wouldn’t have happened without the two of us.”  Starting with half a dozen volunteers they scoured the city, knocking on doors. “It changed my life,” said Stephen, simply.

Now they’ve had a visit from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who helped pick and juice for ‘River Cottage‘,  and Stephen travels around encouraging  other towns to follow their example. The Abundance idea has spread to Manchester, Reading, Bristol, Oxford, Brighton, and Plymouth so far.

They begin harvesting in August and carry on till October, distributing the fruit, fresh or made into jams, pickles, cider and juices around Sheffield for free. About half the fruit is pressed for juice which can be frozen, and the waste is composted. Abundance ticks all the boxes, food miles, carbon footprint, healthy eating, and community involvement. In South East London we have several Transition Town groups in New Cross, Brockley, Lewisham etc., and Project Dirt in Deptford’s Utrophia. I might be wrong, but these groups seem to be more about growing food than gathering what is already there and going to waste.

Not everyone likes damsons and their tart  grown-up taste, but the thing about damsons that really fascinates me is that they haven’t been changed by breeding, the damson you taste today will taste the same as the damson that St Paul might have eaten on the road to Damascus. Damson is a shortened form of Damascene, the plum of Damascus.

Here’s a really simple damson pickle recipe, I’m going to put the pickle away in a cool dark place for at least two months, probably till Christmas.  You’ll need plenty of glass or plastic storage jars, don’t use anything metal or it will react with the vinegar. I bought mine in Deptford High Street, most of the general stores sell them and they are cheap, I think.

For the photograph I had to try the pickle freshly made and it was delicious, sweet and subtle. The blue-veined Cheddar cheese came from Green’s of Glastonbury at Blackheath Farmers Market, and the bread from Els Kitchen in Ladywell. “It’s French,” offered El, I think she meant the style of loaf, pain de campagne, and it did have a slight resemblance to Serge Gainsbourg.

Damson Pickle


I had 2.27 kg (5 lb) of damsons

2 apples, cored and chopped into small pieces

2 onions finely chopped

450ml (3/4 pt) red wine vinegar

225g (8 oz) Demerara sugar

110g (4 oz) sultanas or raisins

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp juniper berries, crushed

Small piece, about 25mm (1″), (or more depending on your love of ginger),  of fresh ginger, peeled and grated., or, 1 tsp of ginger powder.


Wash the damsons and then slice them all the way around with a sharp pointed knife (I used a fish filleting knife) then twist them so they separate into two halves, remove the stones and discard. Then put the fruit into a large jam pan and add all the other ingredients and stir together. Put on your hob and heat, slowly bring to the boil and simmer for between 30 and 45 minutes depending on size of your pan.  Stir from time to time as it becomes thicker. You’ll need to simmer till the mixture reaches the setting stage, that is when you push a spoon through the surface of the mixture and it begins to resemble thin jam. It’s not too critical, but if you over boil or heat too long the pickle will be bitter.

Have ready some clean storage jars and some greaseproof paper.When you think the pickle is ready, pour into the jars and seal. Leave for a couple of hours then cut circles of greaseproof and rest on top of the pickle and reseal. Wait till Christmas!?

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