Thinking of buying a book as a gift? Here’s some suggestions

Sarah Horrigan
Photo by Sarah Horrigan via Morguefile

The older I get, the more my Christmas and birthday gift wish list shrinks down to one word- Books, not that I can recall a time when I wasn’t super excited to receive one. From the Christmas Days of my youth when I had to be prised away from the latest annuals or a yet to be read Rumer Godden / Roald Dahl / Blyton and later on, the copy of the ‘Women’s Room’ given to me by a friend’s mother, to my now fast approaching ‘On Golden Pond’ days where the books are a little more reflective of one half century of interests,  I could never feel disappointed by a gift of a book. Even the piles of books from publishers and authors keen for me to review them hasn’t spoiled my pleasure and I look forward to a time when I can cancel all obligations and simply read my way into old, old age, preferably in some stellar location-  a rocker on an Appalachian covered porch, a maccia covered hillside in Sardinia, by the fishing boats at Woodbridge’s Tide Mill or a Georgian garden square in Bloomsbury perhaps. Until then, I will visit these places vicariously through the writings of others. Here are some books, newly published, soon to be published and a few old favourites too- books that somebody you know will love to receive, lend to others or to treasure.

Please note that you will find no Amazon links on this site. All books can be ordered from local book shops and from Waterstones and other nationals too. Please support your local traders and a list of some great East Anglian book shops are at the bottom of this feature. 

Food writing & cookery books

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My own preference is for a bit of writing with the recipes, lyrical, well researched and evocative writing that makes me want to do more than just cook. I want to be transported to the history, places and people behind the recipes. However I accept that this is my own quirk and so have also picked out some cookbooks that are very good examples of clear recipe writing, that don’t always assume prior knowledge nor a hedge funders means when it comes to buying ingredients. First off is the super engaging campaigner Jack Monroe and her second book release of this year, ‘A Year in 120 Recipes’. With the same consideration given to budgetary constraints and the paying of close attention to seasonality and careful use of a good store cupboard, Jack shows us how to bake (Peanut Butter Bread is yummy) and cook delicious soups and sides: a ‘pesto called Lazarus’ makes great use of innervated bottom of the fridge ingredients. As we go through the year, Jack shares with us some of the tumultuous events that cemented her position as a cook, recipe writer and social activist. Oh, and she found love too.

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I have been obsessed with the writing and recipes of David Lebovitz for quite a few years now and often re-read his first cooking memoir ‘A Sweet Life in Paris’ with its mix of wise before its time ex pat advice, scintillating food and wry observance of the often baffling nature of la vie en Paris. He has (thankfully not a moment too soon) published a new tome, ‘My Paris Kitchen‘ with the same mix of memoir, experience, culinary know how and recipes readers of his website will recognise as his trademark. Beautiful photography of his apartment and the city reflects the ten years he has lived in the city and the many changes Paris has undergone: a city embracing the cuisine and ingredients of people from all over the world. Cassoulet, coq au vin, wheat berry salad with radicchio (very good), cookies made with duck fat and that classically chic little chocolate cake are among the stand out recipes for me. Practical know how is great too- weights AND measures. Oy vey.

Baking books with a different slant to them are a particular weakness of mine and Trine Hahnemann’s ‘Scandinavian Baking: Loving Baking at Home’ combines functionality (recipes that work and aren’t too esoteric in technique or ingredients) with the quirkiness and lightness of touch possessed by Scandinavian food. The rosehip roulade for me, is the standout recipe and many of them are hugely appropriate for winter (and Christmas) baking. Out now.

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‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’

Want to get your rap mad kid into cooking? Best suited for the younger cook, the ‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’ contains thirty hiphop inspired recipes with sometimes (very) tenuous links to the music itself- think Wu-Tang Clam Chowder, Public Enemiso Soup, Run DM Sea Bass and Busta Key Lime Pie. No expletives and each recipe is accompanied by a bespoke piece of artwork created by one of 30 of the best upcoming illustrators.

The first cookbook from a popular London restaurant, ‘Duck & Waffle: Recipes and Stories’ features its eponymous dish, a confit duck leg sandwiched between fresh waffle and fried duck egg, drizzled with mustard maple syrup. One for lazy afternoons where you can take over the kitchen and use every pan in the cupboards. In complete contrast is are the Little Leon range of small cook books from ‘Fast Suppers’ to ‘One Pot Naturally Fast Recipes‘ with uncomplicated recipes, standard ingredients and a lower hardback cover price of around £5-7 making them a great stocking gift for students, less confident cooks and children.

Increasingly fashionable are cookbooks that focus upon a particular region and in the case of Italy this is particularly apropos considering it was not even founded as one nation until the 1860’s and still cannot be described as uniform in cuisine to this day. ‘Sharing Puglia: Delicious Simple Food From Undiscovered Italy’ by Luca Lorusso is a well designed example of a comprehensive regional cookbook packed with stunning landscape photography. Cook kingfish crudo with fresh fava beans, lemon, and Caciocavallo  or scampi with fresh chicory and pomegranate, pour some wine and dream.

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In Kathleen Flinn’s earlier memoir, ‘The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry’, she recounted the story of her departure from the corporate world to study at the world’s most famous cooking school- Le Cordon Bleu. In ‘Burnt Toast Makes you Sing Good’, Flinn tells the remarkable story of her large Michigan family and her Irish/Swedish roots, including her parents’ unlikely decision to pack up everything and go to California to help run an Italian restaurant, their abrupt move to a very basic Michigan farmhouse, and their risky decision to raise chickens with no prior experience. Memories of Family, fishing, foibles and food, accompanied by the recipes of the food mentioned makes this a great read for lover of food writing.

The Autumn sees the release of books by the big gastro-beasts that roam the earth –Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, The Hairy Bikers and Hugh FW (full name not required). Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty More’ firmly places vegetables under the spotlight and refreshingly refers from framing them in the context of fish and meat. Organised not by ingredient or meal type, but instead by cooking method- grilled, baked, simmered, cracked, braised or raw, the recipes (which remain ingredient heavy) number Alphonso mango and curried chickpea salad, roasted aubergine with a sweet black garlic sauce, seaweed, ginger and carrot salad and a variety of sweet honeyed cakes and tarts such as meringue roulade with rose petals and fresh raspberries. Sumptuous and clear in its layout, courtesy of well known designer Caz Hildebrand (of Nigella book fame), the recipes might not be swift or few in ingredients but they work and they look good. Jamie Oliver has abandoned his low cost meals laced with a soupcon of social concern; theme of his last book, to go all out in his latest tome ‘Jamie’s Comfort Food’ featuring carb and protein heavy meals that may leave you with a food baby alongside some pretty pleasurable satiation. NOT a book for dieters (or those watching the pennies), meals like katsu curry with its fried breaded coating, mighty moussaka, mushroom soup pasta bake which riffs off those post war American recipes using canned soup as an ingredient plus enough roasted cow to keep Dan from feeling desperate will please many of his fans.

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Got a coffee snob in the house? Then the ‘World Atlas of Coffee’ by James Hoffman might keep them from banging on about it for a few days. His profession as a champion barista and coffee roaster means his exploration of varieties, the influence of terroir, production and roasting methods down to actual brewing is extensive and informed. This is the first book to chart the coffee production of over 35 countries, encompassing knowledge never previously published outside the coffee industry. Another semi scholarly tome is ‘The Language of Food’ by Stanford University linguist and MacArthur Fellow Dan Jurafsky,  the book every person in the food business needs to read, thus hopefully releasing us from tedious menu’s full of boring descriptions like  ‘crispy’ and ‘juicy’. Jurafsky points out the subtle meanings hidden in filler words, homes in on the metaphors and storytelling tropes we rely on in restaurant reviews, and charts a micro universe of marketing language on the back of a bag of crisps. The fascinating journey through The Language of Food uncovers a global atlas of culinary influences. With Jurafsky’s insight, words like ketchup, macaron, and even salad become living fossils that contain the patterns of early global exploration that predate our modern world.

Gabrielle Hamilton, the famous chef proprietor of NYC restaurant ‘Prune’ is tiger to Anthony Bourdain’s pussy (cat). From the moment I read her first autobiographical book ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’, sent to me by a dear friend in the States, I got hooked on her writing and was determined to taste her food. I have yet to achieve the latter but with the publication of her first and eponymous cookbook ‘Prune’ I can make do at home until I pick up the phone, book the flights and make a reservation at the same time. Gabrielle’s book is as no nonsense as her cooking style: there no introduction nor headnotes, because they are already covered in her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, which covers the evolution of her culinary ethos and style. There are stylish and tasty tricks to make the ultimate grilled cheese, the methodology for a bowl of grape nuts cereal with maple syrup that comes complete with a vanilla ice cream cone upturned on top and her ‘Youth Hostel Breakfast’: an assortment of wursts, olives, crackers, an egg, and tubes of fish paste. If I told you that her signature, for me, is the purest of recipes for radishes with salt and pale creamy butter, then you’ll either get her or you won’t.

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One of the first (and best) food bloggers is Molly Wizenberg of ‘Orangette’ fame and I can claim to be an early adopter, having read her from the start and bought her first book ‘A Homemade Life‘ pretty much straight off the presses. Basically when Molly recommends something or someone I get onto it straight away meaning that the book I was sent recently, ‘A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus’ by Rene Erickson (which had already impressed me greatly), took on even greater significance when her latest blog post dropped into my inbox. It turns out that Molly is friends with Ms Erickson and like me, cannot rate her food, which is basically French married with the Pacific north west, highly enough. Listen to the ethos of Rene: “I’m not a classically trained chef – actually, I’m not trained at all – so there aren’t a lot of rules about cooking in my kitchens. It’s more important to me that people are happy and comfortable than that they can crack an egg with one hand or slice a case of shallots in a minute flat. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to make someone else do it. I want my staff to have healthy lives and dynamic, interesting jobs that don’t entail someone hovering over them.” The cover art is glorious- paper art married with victoriana, all on a background of saxe blue making this a simply gorgeous cookery book to own as well as use.

I have often thought about a compendium of lemon recipes (I am a dweeb I know) and somebody has beaten me to it with this, the Lemon Compendium by Yasemen Kaner-White, packed with amazing and lesser known recipes. Recipes such as Latvian Celebration Cake are bookended by writings about all things lemony from health and beauty tips to historical accounts making this a lovely ‘refreshing’ book to brighten a dull and endless winter.

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My prediction for the next gastro-fashion is Hawaiian food. Diverse and kaleidoscopic with an amazing fusion of culinary influences that reflect the history of the islands, books on the subject are a bit thin on the ground in the UK. If you are prepared to do a bit of hunting though, Rachel Laudan’s book, ‘The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Extraordinary Culinary Heritage‘ is a fabulous introduction and guide to its history and food.  Part personal memoir, part historical narrative, part cookbook, the book kicks off with a series of essays that describe Laudan’s first experiences with a particular Local Food (the Creole term for the food), encounters that intrigue her and eventually lead to her tracing its origins and influence in Hawaii. Followed by recipes, over 150 of them and a glossary plus gorgeous photos, this is the book for those eager to acquaint themselves.

Children’s books

Children tend to lead mindbending lives, what with the imaginary friends, monsters under the bed and other manner of weird and wonderful imaginings and so we think Clive Gifford’s book ‘The Science of Seeing and Believing’ which has just been crowned winner of the Royal Society’s Young Peoples Book of 2014 is a perfect gift. And not only for kids: your average adult could always do with getting back in touch with all the wonders of the human brain. Packed with anecdotes about how the brain processes sensory information and a range of illusions, from Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s stunning motion illusions to Roger Newland Shepard’s L’egs-istential Quandary, this is a brilliant book.

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The latest Jacqueline Wilson book stars her most outspoken, fiery and unforgettable heroine yet: Opal Plumstead: schoolgirl, sweet factory worker and Suffragette, fiercely intelligent yet thwarted in her ambitions of university. A timely meeting with Mrs Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes via the factory owner, a meeting with a man she feels is her soulmate and the start of the First World War all conspire to influence the adventures of a brand new role model for boys and girls.

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Neil Gaiman’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’

It’s important for children’s books to reflect universal themes and emotions; it makes them relatable but they also need to inspire and transport through fantasy. Many an adult will recount a grim childhood redeemed by the escape they found in books. In time for Christmas with an early December release is Neil Gaiman’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’, a retelling of The Brothers Grimm’ darkest and most enduring fairytale.  Breathtaking and haunting illustrations from Lorenzo Mattotti complete a book to read and treasure and a book that indeed does transport the reader. Ruby Redfort,  supercool secret agent, code-cracker and thirteen-year-old genius is the latest of Lauren Child’s creations for slightly older readers. In this, the fourth book of the series Ruby must pit her wits against a seemingly invisible foe. How do you set your sights on catching a light-fingered villain if you can’t even see him?

The Photicular process uses an innovative lenticular technology, sliding lenses, and original four-colour video imagery resulting in a book that is more movie in your hands. Ocean offers not only a refinement of inventor Dan Kainen’s Photicular technology, taking readers on a virtual deep sea dive but through a text by Carol Kaufmann it offers descriptions and information in the form of mini essays. Escape here is provided via fantastical explorations of a world most of us will never see, the science bit explained accessibly and in some detail.

Cozy Classics by Holman Wang are a new range of books for younger children that seek to reinterpret classical literature in easy to understand illustrations and keywords. Twelve stunning images of needle felted illustrations accompany twelve child friendly words. From Moby Dick to War and Peace, these little books will introduce the classics to a whole new generation of readers. Mick Inkpen has built up quite a backlist now and ‘The Blue Balloon’ remains one of our families most loved children’s book. This tired, old and soggy balloon becomes endowed with fantastic powers which are magically demonstrated via giant pull out and fold out pages as the balloon goes square, multi coloured and very very long. 

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Alongside these well known classics, there are some great debuts and books by authors in the earlier stages of their careers. ‘A Dog Day’ is the stylish pen and ink debut of author Emily Rand, perfectly depicting the frustration of having to wait for the grown ups via a friendly terrier. He just wants to go to the park with his friends to play ball, but his owner has other ideas. Young Manga lovers and fans of Graystripe will be very pleased to receive ‘The Warriors Manga Box set’ by Erin Hunter capturing in mythical intensity, the journey of Graystripe- the ThunderClan deputy, back home to the forest and his Clan after capture by Twolegs. A good bedtime story never dates and stories about children who won’t go to bed had particular appeal in our house. ‘Max and the Won’t Go To Bed Show’ by Mark Sperring is a bit more high octance than most- you have to perform it alongside the telling so perhaps not one for tired parents on a busy school and weekday night. A rollicking parody of a circus performance with Max (and you) taming wild animals and performing magic tricks, if timed right, will tire out the most energetic of children.

Finally, if you haven’t introduced your children to some fine fiction from <ahem> times past, then here’s my guide to some of my favourites. Rumer Godden’sThe Diddakoi is a powerful and still relevant account of the prejudice towards the traveller and Romany community and its effects upon all class systems within a small country town when a young girl, half Romany, comes to live there. Godden’s ‘Miss Happiness and Miss Flower’ similarly deals with the loneliness and dislocation felt by Nona, sent to England from India and the two little Japanese dolls that help her. Another of her books dealing with the longing for a home in a strange place is ‘The Dolls House’ about the little penny doll, Tottie. Eve Garnetts ‘The Family From One End Street’ is a lovable chapter book about a large family living in working class loving poverty, somewhat romanticised but nonetheless a good starting point for discussions about this topic. A complete contrast in surroundings although not lacking in family love either are the ‘Milly Molly Mandy’ series by Joyce Lankester Brisley set in the pastoral idyll of an English village. Joan Aitken was one of my favourite short story writers for children and ‘From a Necklace of Raindrops’ contains eight classic stories conjuring up a world filled with magic, where wishes can come true. Well worth re-acquainting yourselves with her back catalogue too.

Travel, non fiction and nature writing for adults

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The Little Toller publishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE Bates, Adrian Bell, Richard Mabey, Joseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever. I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods‘ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Bluebell woods set in Kent explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside and In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?

If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’  – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.

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In her book ‘Wild’, Cheryl Strayed ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marcettofollows the popular trope of journey as metaphor for self discovery and the vehicle by which we can develop an enhanced intrapersonal relationship, and reinvigorated this category of travel writing in the process. In her new book ‘Walking Home: a Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed’, Sonia Choquette marries the historical sense of pilgrimage with travel writing, reinterpreting what pilgrimage means for a spiritual as opposed to religious generation. Keen to regain her own spiritual footing after a series of personal life crises, Sonia sets out to walk the legendary Camino de Santiago, an 820-kilometer trek over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain in the footsteps of the many who went before her.

I bought ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marchetto as soon as it came out, drawn to the quirky and distinctive style of this smart New York based graphic artist and writer and the intensity of her story-what happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist with a fabulous life finds . . . a lump in her breast? We laugh, cry and get angry alongside Marisa as she faces up to a potentially deadly disease, finds love, loses a lump and shows her not everyone’s reaction is one of kindness. Soon to be made into a film, it’s time to get re-acquainted with the book.

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Smart, modern writing on London with a great design ethos is surprisingly hard to find but Penguin Modern Classics is soon to re-publish Iain Nairn’s  classic treatise, ‘London’, a record of what ‘moved him’ between Uxbridge and Dagenham and an idiosyncratic, poetic and intensely subjective meditation on a city and its buildings. Seeing the beauty where others see dirt, possessed of an unerring eye for character beyond the obvious and vivid in its writing, this is one for anybody living there and all who adore this great city. Part travel, part food writing ‘In Search of the Perfect Loaf’ by Samuel Fromartz ticks both boxes emphatically well in my opinion. From Paris, to Berlin, to Kansas, we follow Sam on his quest as he shares his love for bread and the ‘baking secrets’ he learned along the way over four years. Perfecting sourdough and whole grain rye, meeting and picking the brains of historians, millers, farmers, wheat geneticists, sourdough biochemists, and everyone in between, learning about the history of breadmaking, the science of fermentation, Fromartz meets the needs of the bread geek in me and educates along the way too.

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I am a sucker from travel writing set in the USA and one of my absolute favourites is by Martin Fletcher and several years old now. ‘Almost Heaven: Travels in Backwood America’ satisfies my craving for the ‘other’ America and the less glamorous (and less obvious) everyday encounters with people. Written after completing his assignment as The Times correspondent in Washington DC, Fletcher possesses a reporters eye for detail and an absolute instinct for the story. My favourite section? His visit to Angola state prison and the interview with the editor of the famous in-house newspaper ‘The Angolite’. In complete contrast, Frances Mayes of ‘A Year Under the Tuscan Sun’ decided to take time off from her bucolic Italian life and travel around Europe, casting her poets eye over the history, culture and landscape of Portugal, Italy, Spain, Turkey, France and North Africa among others. Her observations in ‘A Year in the World’ are informed, lyrical and full of her love of poetry and art, perfect for cold winter days, spent dreaming of warmer climes, by a fire. Buy a copy of the poems of Lorca and Neruda to read straight afterwards because she loves them and quotes them often.

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‘Charming Package’ by Norman Rockwell, one of the paintings explored in Deborah Solomon’s book.

Lovers of Americana in art will devour ‘American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell’ by Deborah Solomon in which Rockwell’s dedication through periods of self-doubt, depression and marital tumult is both explored and paid tribute to. “It’s a fine story, how this odd and fastidious young man worked his way up through a cartoonish phase to become the most beloved American artist of the 20th century, his very name a byword for sentimental Americana — Main Street, the village church, the ball field, the soda fountain, the barbershop, the freckle-faced Boy Scout, the garrulous grandpa, the blushing bride — an odd-duck artist yearning for normalcy and community” writes Deborah Solomon, “a small-town Arcadia of his own imagining.” And Solomon tells this fine story in her own fine way too.

Margaret Forster is not the first writer to explore the nature of houses, home and their history with relation to their own lived experiences but in ‘My Life in Houses’ we are shocked out of our contented enjoyment of her reminiscences by the sharp intrusion of reality (and I will not give the game away here save to say is it not something I could have predicted). Forster understands that the home is the bedrock of social and economic history and that a roof and four walls comprise a psychological framework to human existence. From her humble beginnings in a Carlisle local authority house which nonetheless is seen as aspirational by her parents and her own yearning to live in the private houses nearby with indoor toilets to her current Highgate home, Forster ends this book with an assertion that a house has an indefinable influence: it both reflects its inhabitants and affords them something in return. That indefinable sense of home is what we return to in our minds and hearts and exists independently of its walls.

Llareta from the Atacama Desert in Chile and over 3000 years of age
Llareta from the Atacama Desert in Chile and over 3000 years of age

The artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe for the best part of a decade to discover and photograph Very Old Things or to be more precise, living things over 2,000 years old. She has now collected the most breathtaking of these into a single volume of photographs and essays in The Oldest Living Things in the World. This is a powerful and exquisite piece of work that transcends a single definition, covering science, art, philosophy and spirituality over seven continents. It asks us about the meaning of life when such aged organisms face destruction at the hands of humankind and intersperses such weighty matters with well written accounts of her adventures as she explores the world. This is a coffee table book that will actually get read, will spook, enthrall and educate.

Fiction and short stories

Busy people (especially parents), commuters or those with shorter attention spans can all maintain their engagement with the written word via stories in short form and I have recently had the pleasure of reading some great anthologies, recently published and not so. Always keen to promote East Anglian writers and publishers, I discovered Salt Publishing and had a look at their list. The ‘Best British Short Stories’, edited by Nicholas Boyle aims to reprint the best short stories published in the previous calendar year by British writers, whether based in the UK or elsewhere (their words) and includes pieces by Elizabeth Baines, Johanna Walsh, Christopher Priest and Jay Griffiths. The introduction itself, in which Royle explains his editing process, what was left out and why, is a masterpiece in itself. Baines little vignette with its descriptions of black lapping sea, mud flats and the smells of Autumn is particularly apropos for readers like me, based in the watery counties of East Anglia.

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove

From presidents reincarnated as horses to Japanese girls, drugged and producing silk from their bodies, the stories of Karen Russell weave the everyday emotions of folks into fantastical magical realism in her short story collection ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove‘ and in her debut, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”.  If you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then giver her a try. If you fancy reading Russell in long form, then go for ‘Swamplandia’, a tale of a Floridian alligator wrestling park owning family, left adrift after the mothers illness and defection of the heroines big brother to a rival park. Fantasy of a different kind abounds in Terry Pratchetts latest Discworld novel ‘Raising Steam’, still going strong after 30 years as Ankh-Morpork branches into the railway age. Packed with in jokes and references from the earlier novels, it is written with all the sly humour his fans have come to expect.

‘All Our Names’ by By Dinaw Mengestu brings together a Midwestern social worker and a bereft African immigrant and explores their relationship of shared dependency with truth, sadness and a keen, unsparing eye. Dinaw Mengestu continues to explore the violent uprooting and uneasy exile of his two previous novels, Children of the Revolution and How to Read the Air in this tale, riven with passion and an unshared narrative of the past. Isaac is from Africa and Helen is his social worker lover, although Isaac’s true name is never revealed to us, or her. The real Isaac is left behind in Uganda where 10 years of postcolonial rule are about to affirm the dictatorship of Idi Amin.

November 2014 brings us the latest novel from Stephen King who appears to be on a ‘revitalised’ roll (bad pun-sorry) with book releases coming thick and fast. His last book, ‘Mr Mercedes’ marked a departure from fantasy fiction and his own genre of horror into the wilds of crime fiction and was, as to be expected, readable with no great departure from the usual tropes- disillusioned and troubled detective, woman who (nearly) saves him, yet it was laced with his characteristic detailed characterisation and use of cultural iconography to enrich the stories sense of place. ‘Revival’ returns however to familiar ground- a novel about addiction, religion, music and what might exist on the other side of life- small boys, charismatic ministers, the passage of time and a pact between an addicted rock musician and an onstage showman who creates dazzling portraits with lightning. Another ‘big beast’ of the literary world, Haruki Murakami, publishes ‘ The Strange Library’ in early December, a story narrated by a young man who follows a strange old man into a subterranean reading room in the local library. The man has an appetite for human brains and with only the company of a sheep man and a girl who talks with her hands, how is he going to escape?

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Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be delighted to know that in ‘Lila’, her latest book,  we return to the town of Gilead in a story about a girl who lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder. Due out early October and talking of sequels, Rachel JoycesThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ takes up the story of the woman Harold Fry planned to walk the length of England to see before she died. I like eerie tales, perfect for those nights as they draw in and this, from Kate Mosse called ‘The Mistletoe Brideis named for the famous old folk tale that told of the bride who hid in a wooden chest to surprise her new husband and was never found, dying entombed as he hunted for her, evermore. As Mosse’s introduction states, some of the tales have been printed elsewhere previously, and at the end of each she provides an insight into their inspiration. She also tracks how these short tales show how she would later develop into the writer of books such as Labyrinth.

In Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ we meet Frank, a difficult character to base the first of a planned trilogy of fiction upon, for Frank is a bit of a loner and disrupter with fraught connections to the wider cast of family members that populate the story. This first part of that projected trilogy called ‘The Last Hundred Years’ follows the story of a farming family from Iowa-the Langdons- from the early twenties to the mid fifties with a chapter for each year. Covering vast events, the Depression and Second World War to the start of the atomic age, we see these through the prism of the novels shifting point of view and as readers, we are kept on our toes by a narrative device that makes it hard to know what is going to happen next, no matter what our pre-existing knowledge of the wider historical content may be. The facade of family life, what it reveals, conceals and distorts is beautifully set against American life.

To the lives now, of immigrants to the USA, pitching up in a housing complex in Delaware in Christina Henriquez’s ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’. Arturo Rivera was the owner of a construction company in Pátzcuaro, México. One day, as his beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, is helping him at a work site, she sustains an injury that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same again. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better. For Mayor Toro, the first glimpse of Maribel is love at first sight and the beginning of a friendship between the two families. Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Central and Latin America, filled with hopes, dreams and sometimes, disappointment.

During the summer of 1929 four children come together and change the course of their lives forever in a novel by Doris Grumbach, ‘The Book of Knowledge’ which examines the ways that childhood experiences create transformative resonance that lasts throughout adulthood and beyond and in a lighter read altogether, we become reacquainted with ‘Emma’, the famous Austen busy body in this revisiting by Alexander McCall Smith.

Think about re-reading some of those famous eighties ‘sex and shopping’ novels, all of them pure trivial and enjoyable fun. Highly recommended is the uber-book of its age ‘Lace’ by Shirley Conran, a sumptuously elaborate ‘ages and stages novel’ set across continents featuring five women- four friends and the secret daughter of one of them. The scene with the goldfish is one that all us women who read it in the eighties will remember. Others of that time include pretty much the entire oeuvre of Judith Krantz- ‘Scruples‘ and its sequels plus her ‘Princess Daisy‘ and ‘I’ll Take Manhattan’;  The Watershed’ by Erin Pizzey and the many novels of Rona Jaffe but particularly ‘Class Reunion’, ‘After the Reunion’ and ‘The Best of Everything‘. ‘Decades’ by Ruth Harris and the ages and stages novels of Eric Segal’ -‘Doctors’ and ‘The Class’ are also worth reading too. All of these are effortless pleasure after the economic and time consuming vagaries of the festive season. Put on your pyjamas, a pair of woolly socks, sink into the sofa with some Christmas chocolates, a warm blanket and indulge yourself.

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Charlottes Web

And finally, to some beautiful books that transcend age groups. The Folio Society produces over four hundred titles, all special or limited edition commissions of classic books for all age groups. With introductions from leading literary figures such as Jeannette Winterson and Michael Morpugo and illustrated by award winning artists and designers, these books with exquisitely set type, protective slipcases, premium paper and bindings are destined to be read, re-read and handed down like the treasures they are. Our choice? Charlottes Web with illustrations by Garth Williams in the classic style of the original and Ballet Shoes, introduced by Jacqueline Wilson and illustrated by Inga Moore. For adultsthe stylish redesign of Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with an introduction by Jay McInerney and artwork by Canadian Karen Klassen will definitely appeal. The blue cat on the spine of this edition is adorable and if American history is your passion, then the ‘History of the Indians of the United States‘ by Angie Debo with the sepia tinted cover image and gold and navy blue embossing, bound in buckram makes this meaty read something to treasure. For another sort of American history coupled with travel writing, Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ is introduced by broadcaster James Naughtie and is bound on covers of cloth printed with a resplendent panorama of mid century New York City.

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Charlottes Web

Book shops in Norfolk

Holt Books, Holt

Crab Pot Books in Cley and Wells-Next-the-Sea

Jarrolds Books, Norwich

Ketts Books, Wymondham

Norfolk Children’s Books Centre, Aylsham

The Book Hive, Norwich

The Brazen Head Burnham Market

Book shops in Suffolk

Aldeburgh Book shop, Aldeburgh

Browsers, Woodbridge

Chapel Books, Saxmundham

Harris & Harris, Clare

Kestrel Bookshop, Sudbury

Landers, Long Melford

There are also branches of Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds (2), Southwold, Ipswich and Norwich.

A stay at Alde Garden

The wonderful thing about Suffolk is that it is full of hidden nooks and crannies, winding lanes, pubs in hamlets, woodland that feels unchartered and above all, amazing people with a real commitment to the environment, to their customers and their businesses. Mark and Marie who own and run the White Horse pub in Sweffling, the Alde Gardens campsite and its adjacent hideaway holiday cottage called ‘Badgers Cottage’ are two such people, originally from Southend in next door Essex and now honorary Suffolk folk. Having started the campsite back in June 2010, inspired by their own love of camping and thoughts about how to do it better based upon the sites they visited and love of the environment, they used the revenue from early guests to renovate the White Horse pub, keeping its original character intact and saving yet another one of our country pubs from closure.

Set in the tiny little village of Sweffling a mere few miles away from Saxmundham, Framlingham and the glorious Suffolk Heritage Coastline, conveniently close to the A12 and on the National Cycle Route (National Cycle Network route 1, and the Suffolk Coastal Cycle route – Regional Route 41), the cottage, pub and campsite made for a wonderful and relaxing stay with our every need both anticipated and catered for. Forests (Rendlesham), nature reserves (Minsmere), great food (Farm Cafe at Marlesford) and many places to eat in the various villages and towns, the beach (Dunwich, Orford, Walberswick, Covehithe and Southwold) plus the location in the Alde Valley, a stunningly attractive and fertile farming region, punctuated by wonderful footpaths and views make this region a prime holiday destination whilst retaining its sense of self. People live and work here and this is not obscured by the very necessary tourism that brings in much revenue- there is no tourist ‘Disneyland’ feel about this part of the county.

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Badger Cottage

Alde Garden, as they named the campsite, is set in what was once a larger beer garden belonging to the pub and cleverly gives no hint as to its size and shape, tucked away as it is behind an existing perimeter of hedges and mature trees, criss crossed with pathways following the contours of this sloping site. Each accommodation option-Yurt, Tipi, Bell Tent, Romany caravan, shepherds hut, Hideaway among others, is discreetly placed so as to benefit from the privacy provided by shrubs and trees, wildflowers and woven partitions made from the branches from coppiced trees- willow and hazel…Clusters of indigenous plants have grown and self seeded or been transplanted, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this happens totally naturally. A wild garden requires great discipline and knowledge to ensure it remains balanced and manageable: Mark and Marie work very hard to achieve this and its seemingly effortless beauty  is deceptive.

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Communal facilities can be found grouped near the rear of the pub where a back door off licence serves ice creams and drinks and a nearby fire pit is bordered by log seats and tree stump tables which bore chalk drawings by children staying there (lovely). The jungle shower, ‘Treebog’, shower and bathroom block plus fridge freezer offer discreet, modern and eco friendly facilities whilst the Antipodean style open kitchen is extensively stocked with cooking and eating equipment plus eggs from the ducks, a goose and flock of chickens that roam free in the daytime. The honesty shop sells local products such as sausages, bread and milk, cans of tomatoes, pulses and bags of pasta- and yes these are locally sourced wherever possible too (although it isn’t always possible), this being a guiding principle behind everything Mark and Marie do. This kind of pride in, and loyalty to their home region is incredibly inspiring; even though they live in one of the most bountiful regions of Britain, it still takes considerable time and effort to source goods and services locally, ensure they are of high standard and maintain the continuity of supply for their guests.

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Two nights in Badger Cottage

We stayed at Badger Cottage adjacent to the pub and campsite for two nights and spent our last night sleeping under the canvas of the Dragonfly Yurt inside the camping garden proper- two different types of accommodation with wide appeal for those who want the full camping experience or those wanting to engage with nature but retreat to a bedroom with a ‘proper’ roof at night.

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A converted redbrick stable, adjacent to the pub yet perfectly soundproofed, (the only sounds we heard were of the owls at night and the clatter of the hooves of the Welsh Cobb that offered trips in a trap around the local area each evening), Badger Cottage has been beautifully restored by Mark and Marie, avoiding twee pastiches of country cottage decor and offering a surprising amount of space for a home so small. Is the ultimate convenient location for local ale lovers being next to the CAMRA recommended White Horse Inn. A  low-impact place to stay, renovations were carried out using environmentally friendly paints and other natural building materials such as lime, and re-using reclaimed materials whenever possible. Most of the furniture and fittings are either recycled, beautifully hand-made from reclaimed materials or sourced locally. Solar panels heat the water for the bath, and all lights have low energy light bulbs. The cast iron woodburner is a very efficient way of heating the living room alongside a central heating system for deepest winter and water is collected via a system of water butts for the garden and livestock needs.

Two days in, we were still noticing all kinds of handmade features for the first time: stone corbels with Acanthus carvings holding up sitting room beams and doorways, beautiful wall art made from reclaimed items and the detail on the stairs which themselves are stunning although families with very adventurous babies and toddlers will need to keep a close eye on them. The stairs are partially open to the mezzanine bedroom over the main sitting room so little hands needing to hold onto a rail will have to take extra care here. Mark and Marie have made atmospheric and decorative tableaux everywhere you look- a hand forged cast iron candelabra on the kitchen table, dark red wax dripping down the cups in front of the dramatic Ecclesiastical arched window, cushion covered chair pulled up in front; a stack of wonderfully scented wood built in under the stairs with fruit crate filled with bottles of beer in front and cast iron wood burner to the side, metal flue shining brightly and contrasting with the oldness of the walls; white cast iron bath with metal bath rack, space for a book and little vases with posies of Honeysuckle; rustic stacks of wooden coasters on a side table in front of the dramatic cast iron and wood stairs….

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There is WiFi in the cottage, the grounds and some of the camping accommodation, a TV, a DVD player and stack of films in the cupboard plus plenty of books, games and magazines to borrow, two comfy sofas to sit on and french doors to throw open, allowing the room to catch the late afternoon rays as you wind down after a day exploring Suffolk. The little sitting space outside the cottage has a woven hazel hurdle fence, a small table and chair set plus that glorious Virginia Creeper covering the cottage which was just beginning to turn flame red during our stay.

Both bedrooms, although mezzanine, offer a good level of privacy and noise proofing and they are accessed via different rooms- the front bedroom from the sitting room and the back room from the kitchen/dining area. The tiny front bedroom window with its attached bird feeders and thick curtains keeping out the early morning light was particularly attractive and as we lay in bed listening to the calls of a lonesome owl (He was shouting his head off, in search of a mate!) feeling sheltered and warm under the rafters of this cosy room, we could see how lovely a stay here in winter would be. The bedroom has the feel of a treetop hideaway surrounded as we were by beams and the furniture made of reclaimed wood and the guest bedroom balustrade has been made from sumptuous Vietnamese teak that was destined for the dump- a criminal waste that would have been! Lush throws and cushions, good quality squishy duvets and pillows and a deep deep mattress made the bedrooms feel super luxe-the draperies in the master room have been skillfully handmade by Marie’s mum. I had an impulse to bounce and leap up and down on the bed like a gleeful child when I first saw it but (1) that would have been very disrespectful to the mattress and (2) those cross beams up high would have knocked me out. Travel cots are available and need to be reserved at time of booking.

The second bedroom is on a private little mezzanine over the kitchen with wooden staircase and banisters, two wooden single beds and a little sofa overlooking wall art, high above the kitchen which is itself well equipped with a dishwasher, all the equipment you will need and a supply of tea and coffee. Warm rugs cover the quarry tiled floors. The bathroom is particularly lovely- a Victorian free standing cast iron bath, beautiful wash stand and simple, fuss free decor; the heated towel rail and toiletries from a local company will lure you into spending plenty of time soaking here. There is enough space to bath more than one child at a time (saves water!) whilst a parent can sit nearby with a book or glass of wine, keeping an eye on them. There is an over the bath shower, solar panels heat the water and electricity is also from a renewable source –the 100% renewable energy tariff from Ecotricity,

Reading the Saturday papers is one of my must do weekly rituals and sitting at the wooden kitchen table next to the arched window that overlooks the lane beside the cottage, cheese sandwich made from Suffolk Gold cheese and Pump Street Bakery bread bought from Snape Maltings farmers market, late afternoon sun streaming in, I felt peaceful and grounded, not something that is always guaranteed when staying in a rental home or hotel. Newspapers are available from the nearby small towns of Framlingham or Saxmundham and the Farmcafe at Marlesford on the A12 has free papers to read as you eat too.

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We waved to the tourists out on their pony and trap ride courtesy of Alde Driving (for bookings call 01728 746226) as they passed the kitchen window each evening and ended up going for a ride around  the villages of Sweffling and Rendham as a result, enjoying a chat with the driver about local history and laughing at his very nosy pony. Guests can book both short and long routes (from £25 per ride), rides are often available summer evenings and can be pre-booked for day time. Staying at Alde Garden and Badger Cottage offered plenty of opportunities to meet local people, other guests and the owners who encouraged us to mingle and get to know each other through spending time in the communal areas (fire pit, outdoor kitchen) and walking around the gardens. Yet we never felt either obliged to socialise (there are plenty of people who honeymoon here so clearly there is privacy to be had) nor did we feel that it was hard to find a private space. Guests here seemed sensitive if they saw you with your head bent over a book or sitting on a log staring dreamily into space.

Although the cottage is a little separate from the campsite- we had to go through a gate or set of steps past the rear of the pub (taking us on a wander through a romantic tangle of flower and leaf edged pathway) to access it, all guests of the cottage can use the campsite facilities. At night we wandered into the pub which was a whole twenty or so steps away and ended up retiring to the campfire afterwards, fairylights and solar path lights guiding our way in a part of Suffolk with very little light pollution, to talk to other guests, roast a few sausages, drink more local ale and just be. It is possible of course, to be completely private as guests while staying in the cottage if this is what you wish and it provides enough separateness to do this without leaving you feeling awkward and guilty about not ‘mingling’ enough.

A night in Dragonfly Yurt

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Our last night was spent in Dragonfly Yurt which has been designed and furnished with family and group visits in mind- it is camping but with a luxury edge to it, ideal for the first time camper in fact. Built on the site by Mark and Marie from locally coppiced ash and hazel, tucked away in a corner to the front right of the open kitchen, in sight of the fire pit and sheltered by a windbreak of hedgerow and within easy reach of the loo in the darkest of nights, the yurt is bright, spacious and airy. The intricately trellised structure, lit by fairy lights and casting shadows across the floor which is thickly protected by rugs and rustic matting is magical at night when the woodburner is lit (handmade again from recycled materials and featuring a delicate engraving of a Dragonfly), swiftly warming an evening which had turned unseasonally cold. The private outdoor area faces west so as to catch the afternoon sun and has a seating area carved from fallen trees and a little barbecue although the handbuilt pizza oven, fire pit and open kitchen also offer ample scope for cooking.

Peeping through the trees can be seen other accommodation options, each set in its own little area to satisfy the human need for personal territory. The Romany caravan has a history unknown although it is believed to be at least 100 years old. With the help of a carpenter it has been restored it in traditional gypsy caravan style & design, using lots of recycled materials and provides a double bed plus under the bed child’s sleeping area. I was smitten by the roof of the ‘The Hideout’ – a cosy little retreat tucked away in a small clearing amid the trees and shrubs, almost totally hidden from view of everyone else and accessed by dipping your head to walk under a woven bower of branches and plants. Two glass panels in the roof allow a wonderful view of the nature around you – whether it be dragonflies, birds & butterflies during the daytime or bats and stars at night and most wonderfully of all, this roof is tiled with old ’45 vinyl records rescued from landfill.

Waking in the morning to see the shadows of the Indian Running Ducks that roam the site freely, cast against the canvas of our yurt, slowly moving closer until they peered one by one round our open door was the quirkiest (and best) memory. The most intrepid (and nosy) of the ducks had spent the previous afternoon engrossed in watching a young couple erect their own tent near to the pond, ducking its head into the canvas flap opening from time to time, shaking itself free of stray guy ropes and investigating their bags strewn over the grass.

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Upright in shape, as opposed to the more traditional forms ducks take, these ducks provided hours of entertainment alongside the other breeds of chickens, fluffy of foot, tiny and swift moving and also prone to the occasional squabble as all chickens are wont to be. A rather mardy Gander lives in its own pen adjacent to the pub and it is advisable NOT to try to befriend him but the rest of the livestock is friendly although of course, children are discouraged from chasing. And dogs are not allowed on site. The children we met were content to sit and watch and scatter the floor with bird food supplied for this purpose and kept on the shelves of the communal kitchen. Watching chickens come flying over from all corners of the site after hearing the faintest of sounds as we picked up the container was hilarious, If they’d have been human sized, we’d have been knocked flat in the crush.

Scattered all over the site, there for you (and pint sized guests) to find are little bowers, nooks and hideaways. Whippy young stems are encouraged to grow or are tied into shape, log seats placed inside and all that is needed then is a child (or adult) with untrammelled imagination. The fact that these hideaways frequently house dust bathing chickens was a source of huge joy to the little kids we met there- Five year old bi-lingual Emily was certain that “Hadas y dragones viven aquí!” (Fairies and dragons live here) as she tucked herself inside one of them, shooing away the Bantam chicken inside and firing up her already very active imagination. We won’t give away the location of these- the fun is in finding them for yourselves. Mark and Marie have provided packs of chalk, pots of crayons and drawing paper by the shelter kitchen table with haybales pulled up to sit on, many children have decorated the pages of the guest books and written expansive accounts of their stay, whilst other children have decorated the outdoor seats and tree trunks with rainbows of chalk and happy messages. Emily took it one step further and draw elaborate designs all over our knees with both the chalk and the charcoal laying around the fire pit. She thus learned where artists charcoal came from.

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This part of Suffolk, although not as flat as many believe the county to be, is easily walked or cycled. Hills are gently undulating, slope gradually and offer plenty of stopping -off -to -catch-breathe-points. Hence, Alde Garden offers plenty of push bikes, some fitted with child seats (or one baby seat) and accompanying safety helmets for guests to use free of charge. Local bike hire companies can provide two seat cycle trailers, delivered to the site and Mark or Marie can suggest some great local bike routes that are suited to your energy levels or fitness. To be honest, we didn’t use these, nor did we explore the local region much by foot because the campsite is such a restful place and for us, the need to restore energy levels and be still was pretty important. We did notice plenty of families with car boots stuffed with scooters, trikes and various pieces of water sport equipment so clearly Alde Garden appeals to people who want more activity from their break than we did.

We had already heard great things about the White Horse pub as one of our friends is both owner and head brewer at Shortts Farm Brewery near Thorndon and he supplies Mark and Marie with his ales, Skiffle, Indie and Blondie. In fact, our first acquaintance with the pub came when Matt took us there last July and so we were very happy to have the chance to return and get very settled and comfortable in one of the deep sofas in the lounge bar. Having to drive great distances, therefore being unable to enjoy more than a pint (some of these real ales are, real strong!) means country pubs can struggle to attract a regular clientele outside of the locals living close by so being able to stay next door (and it really is next door!) was something we intended (especially my husband) to make the most of.

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The White Horse has had the life breathed back into it after being closed for 8 years, until Mark and Marie took it on. Over 200 years old, the pub shares the same values as the campsite and cottage with reclaimed and locally made fixtures and fittings.. A wood burning stove in the lounge bar and an old Esse range cooker (with back boiler to heat various radiators) in the public bar keep things snug too whilst eco bulbs and candlelight keep lighting low- you will not be assaulted by bright electric lights and the pub is reminiscent of how it must have been two centuries ago whilst not sacrificing modern comforts too. Rows of pewter mugs belonging to locals are lined up on hooks by the front door, a piano piled high with boxed board games; Othello and Scrabble among them, newspapers and local tourist info, Bar Billiards and a dart board are all the traditional markings of a village pub that is a hub. It would have been a tragedy for Sweffling had it been been sold and turned into a private house.

Don’t look for the bar when you walk in as it has an old-style tap room where locally brewed real ales are served straight from the barrel, proper ploughmans are made and dished up alongside a range of local ice creams- the lemon and ginger? So delicious I had two pots of it. In winter the owners make hot pies, using the wood oven and when we were there, several locals were eagerly anticipating the colder weather that would herald The Season of the Pie. Scotch eggs the size of a small planet, freshly made, locally baked Huffer bread made in a wood fire and served with local rapeseed dipping oil were the last items on the small but perfect menu. The pub also stocks some local spirits, a selection of local or fairtrade organic wines, soft drinks & a small array of speciality spirits. Don’t expect Coca Cola and Fanta or similarly branded soft drinks: the cola is by Fentiman made with proper Kola nuts and many drinks are sourced locally, from East Anglia and where possible, Suffolk. Any varieties of drink not available locally are sourced from Fairtrade or other similarly ethical or groovy suppliers. My favourite was Marie’s hot spiced apple drink with spice and raisin-y undertones whilst husband tucked into a range of local ales, Absinthe from Adnams and Papagaya rum (not all on the same night, thank goodness!).

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Staying here was the perfect recuperation after our wedding: a frenetically busy year at work and a recent burglary all conspired to leave us a tad ragged round the edges. The yurt and cottage offer two slightly different experiences and most of all, flexibility with guests able to choose how much they want to participate in campsite life, all in a glorious location.

A great marriage between eco awareness and the expectation of guests regarding their holidays means that newbies to the concept of low impact living aren’t put off (there is no proselytising) or made to feel inadequate. Rather they will go away with some ideas about how to make often very simple changes that benefit them, their purse and the world. In addition, Alde Garden is a great example of how holidays, not traditionally known for moderation and low consumption, whether this be in travel or fuel costs, buying unnecessary crap and over consuming generally, can be incorporated into a lower impact, more thoughtful way of living. Attracting families with young children is key to instilling these kind of values in a gentle, enjoyable way and Alde Garden does this cleverly with its little signs, activities and information showing kids why certain plants and environments are important (one example) and making water awareness fun- the Treebog and Jungle Shower are perfect fun for kids and adults too.

For us, the chance to meet Marie, Mark and many locals alongside the other guests was what made this short break even more special and we will definitely be returning.

Alde Garden website

Badger Cottage page

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Season of the witch in East Anglia

As a child I often drove past the roadside marker commemorating the execution of a witch near Hadleigh in Suffolk, causing me to develop a horrified fascination with this unpalatable aspect of East Anglian history. If I had known aged ten that the largest single witch trial in England took place in Bury St Edmunds in 1645 when 18 people were executed by hanging, I’d have flatly refused to travel there with my grandparents on market days.

Many people remain unaware of how Bury St Edmunds in particular influenced witch hunting and trials all over Europe and particularly in the United States. The presence of Matthew Hopkins, the self styled ‘Witchfinder’ led to East Anglia becoming synonymous with witch hunts and his continued activity was guaranteed by the fiscal benefits it offered- he made a small fortune because local parishes paid him a fee for his investigations. Suffolk and Norfolk had been made prosperous through the wool and other trades – the villages of Long Melford and Lavenham are testimony to this with their astonishingly dramatic churches built from wealth, and locals had money to spend in pursuit of proof of Puritanical compliance and religious devotion. It has been estimated that over 100 executions happened across East Anglia that can be attributed to the work of Hopkins. The 1603 Witchcraft Act brought an end to this in an era that had till then provided a ‘perfect storm’ of factors- a civil war, politics, religion and a belief in the supernatural underpinned by a collective external locus of control, which made Hopkins and his ilk so persuasive and successful.

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A drawing of Hopkins from his book The Discovery Of Witches

This frenzy that gripped the Bury area in the 17th century served as template and encouragement for the Salem witch trials in the States resulting in around 200 witch trials in the area in the mid-17th century- another more grotesque link to add to the already strong connections between New England and East Anglia.

Says James Sharpe, professor of early modern history at the University of York and author of the books Instruments Of Darkness and The Bewitching Of Anne Gunter on the BBC Radio Suffolk website-

“It’s a very important part of the history of Bury St Edmunds. I think there’s a recognition that the trials were important for the development of law and the price paid by innocent people because others had accused them of witchcraft.”

Thingoe Hill in the town was the usual gathering place for crowds to watch the public hangings and burnings of witches- in 1662 two elderly widows from Lowestoft were put to death after being accused of casting spells upon the daughters of a local fish merchant, Samuel Pacey. Amy Denny and Rose Cullender were stripped naked and Cullender was seen to possess a growth on her body that was believed to be a teat used to suckle her Devil’s familiar (a pig, a cat or a toad, usually) which, added to other ‘evidence’ – misfortune suffered by neighbours, the deaths of horses, pigs and cattle, and a man being infested with lice, sealed their fates. The eminent men who sat in judgement on the women, a respected doctor and an esteemed local judge meant the trial and its proceedings acquired the status of ‘case law’ and in Salem, the presiding American magistrates studied the report of the Bury trial and modelled their system of inquiry and judgement upon it.

As a result, East Anglia has a plethora of visitor attractions and events that seek to remember this interesting period of history from museums to special attractions at local stately homes and parks. In Bury St Edmunds, the local museum on Market Hill called Moyse’s Hall has well curated exhibits of witch bottles and accoutrements, dead cats and shoes, either donated or recovered from houses where they were bricked up behind walls to ward off witches/evil spirits. Usually single shoes and not pairs were entombed near doors, windows and chimneys. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes- coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones.

Standing on one corner of the market place for over 900 years, Moyses Hall dates from the 12th century and can boast a rich and varied past as the town gaol, workhouse and police station. Serving as a town museum since 1899, it recounts the creation of the early town from the building and dissolution of the Abbey, to prison paraphernalia and artifacts of witchcraft and superstitions.

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Moyses Hall cats

The numerous house cats that were buried alive in the 17th century in the hope that they would repel witches still turn up in East Anglia as old buildings are reclaimed and restored. The Mill Hotel in Sudbury, overlooking the Millpond and famous water meadows immortalised by Gainsborough and Constable, has on display its own mummified cat, walled up behind protective glass at the rear of the main reception. Remains of a cat were also found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011. Elizabethan House on Great Yarmouth’s South Quay has, in its attic, a perfectly preserved skeleton of a cat underneath the floorboards (The attic is not open to the public but they generously sent us a photo which is below). This ‘little palace’ as Daniel Defoe described it is located in the heart of the heritage quarter and showcases life in Tudor times through hands on displays.

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Mummified cat at Elizabethan House by kind permission

Cats weren’t the only anti witchcraft technique used by domestic home owners. At the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum near Norwich, staff will tell you about how old pairs of trousers were found stuffed up a chimney, possibly to stop witches from flying into the house. When you consider the cost of fabric, the time it took to make and repair clothing by hand and the income levels of many working class families, their talismanic status is better understood. Giving up a pair of trousers was no easy decision.

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Witches bottle at Gressenhall

Halloween saw Gressenhall Museum celebrating all things spooky with their ‘Witches in the Workhouse’ over two days a few years ago and this year they have ‘Ghostly Gressenhall. Discover objects of superstition from the museum collections and spot the bats hiding in the collections gallery then take a witch-rich tour and hear chilling tales in the dark corridors of the workhouse. Among the museum’s artefacts collected from all over the region to illustrate life in Norfolk down the ages is a witch bottle from the 17th century. Found near the Tumble Down Dick public house at Woodton, these bottles served as talismanic protection against actual or threatened illness. They were usually filled with urine or nail clippings, sometimes from the sick person, with nails, pins, or threads added in too, tightly corked and either set to heat by the hearth or buried it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in Astrological Practice of Physick (1671), ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’

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Tollhouse Museum

Great Yarmouth’s Tollhouse Museum, a 12th Century medieval former merchant’s house has been transformed into one of the town’s most important civic buildings with a vibrant timetable of family friendly activities and many exhibits commemorating the towns past history of crime and punishment, often with a maritime flair. Built about 800 years ago, grand home of a rich merchant with its sturdy stone walls, finely carved doorway and arched windows, it was acquired by civic officials whereupon it served as courtroom for various different types of courts, the town gaol with the notorious dungeon known as ‘the hold’, and a police station. Over the years it has been home to pirates, robbers and murderers as well as countless common crooks. It has been attacked by rebels and rioters and gutted by enemy bombs. Staff here can tell you the story of Marcus Prynne, a local gardener accused of witchcraft in 1645; not all witches were female, a commonly held misapprehension, and the gaol cells are the site for spooky Halloween story telling as visitors ‘meet’ the witches on trial and find out their grisly fate in atmospheric evenings of costume drama.

Drive up to the North Norfolk coast to Davenports Magic Kingdom in North Walsham and visit the largest collection of magic and allied arts memorabilia in Europe- a time-travel tour through the history of British magical entertainment and the place of one unique family in that story. Admission cost includes the ‘Witches to Wonder’ exhibition, a 30-minute live magic show, live Headless Lady sideshow and a visit to the re-creation of Davenport’s 1915 shop with its very own magician demonstrating magic tricks from the period.

‘Witches to Wonder’ artefacts on display include a first edition of ‘Discoverie of Witchcraf’t, written in 1584 and now recognized as the first published material on conjuring, and the full-size reproduction of Harry Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Tank, built for the film Death Defying Acts starring Catherine Zeta Jones.

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Fye Bridge

The oldest known bridge in Norwich is at Fye Bridge, down the road from ancient Tombland leading to Magdalen Street. A 13th century structure, it was rebuilt in 1829 and later widened and was once the site of a medieval ducking stool that was used for witches and if they survived they were burned to death. The Norwich author, George Borrow, writing in the 19th century commits to paper, some of the horror of Lollards Pit in Norwich where  people were burned to death for their religious beliefs. Walking through the thronged crowds from the Guildhall Jail over the Bishopsgate Bridge they would spy the faggots of wood piled high on their pyre and be handed over by the church to the authorities and executed. The location married both symbolism and practicality. The pits were formed after the excavations for the nearby cathedral and so proved handy, avoiding the need for the removal of bodies at a time when disease could easily be spread and their location was just outside the city walls, symbolising the casting out of the condemned from the church and decent society.

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Today the Bridge House pub (built over the holding cells) stands where once the pits and execution place stood and a plaque commemorating those who died so awfully is fixed to its wall. On the other side of the road, on the riverbank, is another plaque, hailing the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died all those centuries ago. It is said the screams of the people are still heard and witches can be seen crossing the bridge.

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Moot Hall

Moot Hall in Aldeburgh archives the life of this famous Suffolk seaside town which, around 1662, did not enjoy the relative prosperity and regard that it boasts today. Outbreaks of smallpox, loss of livelihood to marauding pirates, the three Dutch trade Wars (1652-74) which culminated in the terrible Battle of Sole Bay fought off Southwold in 1672 and the influx of sailors requiring help all caused hardship. Add to this a declining population less able to work and imbue the town with wealth and it is not surprising that the town was caught up in a wave of hysteria against so-called ‘witches’ which swept through East Anglia. Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch Finder General, and widow Phillips, his search woman, were employed by the Burgesses to flush out witches in Aldeburgh. Seven women were imprisoned in the Moot Hall’s prison in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record. They were prevented from sleeping and watched for proof of their guilt – that is for the coming of their familiar spirits. Eventually, cold, hungry and exhausted, they may well have confessed and were all hanged in February 1646.

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Framlingham Castle

Framlingham Castle moat formed the backdrop to the ‘swimming’ of another suspected male witch named John Lowes, the elderly vicar of Brandeston who was accused of witchcraft in 1642. After being ‘swum’ in the moat, and found guilty after floating to the surface, Witchfinder Hopkins (Yes, him again) “kept Lowes awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath… till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. Ultimately, Lowes ‘confessed’ to sending imps to sink a ship near Harwich and allegedly proclaimed that he “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes was hanged at Bury St Edmunds in August 1645. A plaque dedicated to Lowes can be seen in Brandeston’s All Saints Church and an image of his hanging is on the village sign. The castle itself makes a dramatic day out for families with its majestic turreted buildings set at the edge of the small market town, surrounded by grassed park, a small pond and numerous places to eat and drink. The end of each October sees the castle putting on Halloween events based on witch hunting with children invited to participate in an interactive adventure.

The Millers Tale has gathered together some of the region’s best Halloween events in a guide here. From ghostly walks around Norwich to Scaresville at Kentwell Hall, there’s something for every age group.

 

Lavender Flower Shortbread

10314546_654301108016473_6590393387550468511_n Sometimes the everyday and the romantic meet and become something more than the sum of their parts and this recipe, for lavender-infused shortbread, definitely qualifies.

Nobody would deny that a typical shortbread recipe with its short list of ingredients- butter, semolina, sugar, flour- is anything other then neat and practical, seemingly an embodiment of its homeland, north of the English border. Yet the Scottish heart is also a deeply romantic and sentimental one, proud of its history and a slow burn of a cuisine, now gaining its rightful place as a great one (and far removed from the lazy stereotypes of deep fried this and that).

Shortbread’s inception came from this place of practicality and economic necessity-no food was wasted and leftovers were often turned into something new to make them more palatable or to render them suitable to pop into a pocket and take to work. Said to originate from the medieval ‘biscuit bread,’ leftover dough from bread-making was dried out in a cool oven until it hardened into a rusk, somewhat similar to the Italian biscotti as the word ‘biscuit’ means twice cooked. The leaven in the bread was replaced by butter, and this biscuit bread became shortbread.

Historically an expensive luxury reserved just for special occasions such as weddings, Christmas and New Year for many, customs grew alongside its popularity and this is particularly apropos for me seeing as this recipe for lavender shortbread was served to arriving guests at our own wedding reception. In Shetland it was traditional to break a decorated shortbread cake over the head of a new bride as she crossed the threshold to her new home. The Pagan ‘Yule Cakes,’ symbolising the sun, begat the new custom of eating shortbread at the dawn of each New Year and is traditionally offered to First Footers– the first people to enter a house after midnight in Scotland. In the middle of the sixteenth-century, Mary Queen of Scots was said to be rather partial to petticoat tails, the thin, crisp, buttery shortbread originally flavoured with caraway seeds. although they are often made without this spice these days.  Scored with a knife whilst still warm and soft from the oven, the shortbread is cut into triangles that fit together into a circle, echoing the shape of the pieces of fabric used to make a gored under skirt or petticoat during Elizabeth the First’s reign. The name for the dressmakers pattern was tally and so the biscuits became known as petticoat tallis.

In my version, fresh lavender petals are mixed into the shortbread dough, resulting in an evocation of summer; delicate in fragrance and buttery. The semolina adds snap and crunch but the shortbread still keeps its rich, damp crumb. Romantic in taste and appearance with a scattering of flowers baked into the crust, this shortbread was delicious served with a glass of asti or prosecco and was scarfed down by guests in five minutes flat. Don’t be tempted to add more lavender and do make sure you reduce the quantities if using dried lavender instead of fresh or it’ll taste more like Jane Austen’s laundry.

Recipe-

60g of caster sugar plus extra for sprinkling over the baked shortbread 120g plain flour 60g semolina 120g cubed unsalted cold butter 2 tsp chopped fresh lavender flowers- remove stalks and seeds

Method- 

Butter and flour a 22-25cm springform cake tin or tart tin. Preheat oven to 180C / Gas mark 4. Place all the ingredients in a mixer and using a paddle, mix until they form a sticky and fine crumb. Or you can add all the ingredients to a bowl and rub in by hand. Tip the dough into the tart tin and press out lightly with fingers or the back of a spoon until even and flattened out. Place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until just turning a light golden brown. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with a little caster sugar and cut into wedges whilst it is still warm and in the tin. Let cool completely then remove wedges.