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Realising old dreams

 

My brother, Dom, and I have been talking about going into business since our early twenties. Our paths went different ways, mine along the not for profit / charity and his down the antique restoration and furniture finishing route.

Music was very important to both of us – we had and still have a shared love for bands such as the Fall, Daniel Johnston Captain Beefheart and Will Oldham. We played a bit too – making rough music in the guise of Throwaway Folk, listened by noone but we enjoyed every minute. We dreamt about having a café with a vinyl record and book shop – chaotic, edgy, a bit like the shop in Black Books.

 

Dom has gone on to be a first class furniture finisher. About 15 years ago I took a year out and worked with him. I was staggered by his skill and intensely artistic eye. He was working for some of the most prestigious antique dealers and interior designers in the world.   He would take an expensive piece of furniture, 300 – 400 years old which had a new restored leg or large patches of new veneer and he would apply colour, waxes and treatments to the new piece and blend it to look exactly with the original. It was staggering to see the complex processes and techniques he used.

Fast forward 15 years and I went over to his place and after a couple of bottles of wine we got to chatting about our lives. I had made some changes to my working life and was exploring options and possibilities. I wanted to develop a working life that had different elements rather than have one job. We talked about going into business together – we jotted down a list of the most important things we were looking for and compared – they were the same, principally have fun, use our skills creatively and make a living that in some way expressed our personalities and passions. We decided to base the business on Dom’s skills – look for a place that could accommodate a workshop and a shop to sell Dom’s work. He would keep his existing clients and so would have to work on site and I would use the workshop as an office and conduct my not for profit and coaching work from there.

The next day I wandered down to Standard Quay, a beautiful setting by Faversham Creek with antique shops, cafes and a lovely pub. Over the years it has become a destination for people to come and wander around. I enquired about space and looked at one shared area that did not appeal and was about to go when I was told there was another space that had just become vacant. As soon as I climbed the stairs I knew this was the place – it was perfect.

 

I rang Dom and told him to come down and have a look – he agreed. The next day we signed the lease, set up a limited company and before we had time to fully comprehend what was happening Pierre & Dom had become a reality.

Sometimes things fall into place, actually that is not strictly true; you need to know what pieces you require, have them ready and when the right time / circumstances comes allow them to fall into place. We have both made some significant sacrifices in order to enable this to become reality. Will it work out? We don’t know, but it feels good working together and it is exciting to explore an idea and realise a long held dream.

Seeing things as they are

Since I have been paying attention to the smaller things going for a walk outside has become a joy, regardless of the weather, purpose or destination. I have discovered hidden beauty in what ordinarily I would not have given a second glance.

Where did this come from? I know eyes will begin to roll when I say this but – here goes! Meditation – there I said it! It has allowed me to have (cue even more extravagent  eye rolling) a mindfulness, about my sorroundings. Whereas previously I would wander around in a daze, thinking about the past or the future, my mind jumping around, now I am more likely to be paying attention. It has allowed me to focus on the present moment, to what is in front, below or above me . Some days are better than others, its a curious thing but when my mind is unfocused, scrambling around, even when I want to take photographs nothing can be found. On days when I am in “the zone” I cannot keep up with the unfolding beauty of everyday things.

 

Ok, ok perhaps I am exagerrating, ok, ok, I am exagerrating – however there is some truth in this and that is, in itself, remarkable enough. One of the tricks is to forget the name of objects, just see them as interesting forms, incredible colour formations, beautiful, shocking or just downright perplexing.

So, now going out is an adventure, every day is different, each route, even the same old one taken every day changes, as the objects change, as the weather changes as my own perspective and mood changes.

All photos taken on my Samsung smartphone.

You can see my finds on my Flickr page

The Flood – building an Arc

 

Things had been going well. My new life tilling the soil rejuvenated me- I was springing up out of bed at 5.30am to dash down to the allotment on a daily basis. I couldn’t wait to get down there and two hours would fly by before I had to hot foot it  to work. I was back in the evening for another couple of hours – I didn’t have enough time in the day.

And then the heavens opened.  I have a problem on my hands. My beautiful little plot of land became a swamp, a marsh, a soggy basin of squelching mud. You may think I exaggerate, if so I wish you were there  to see me stuck in the goo, having to be pulled out by my allotment neighbour Joe.

“I told ‘em this plot wasn’t fit to let” he grunted encouragingly as he pulled my foot loose from my wellie which remained stuck in the mud.

As is always the case on allotment sites everybody has an opinion, their own theory about pretty much everything. To compound things a state of civil war exists on Stonebridge.  A new committee has been making changes, drastic changes, the likes of which have not been seen for the last 30 years, so I am told. There are now regular plot inspections, an edict has been passed, stipulating a date when plots have  to be dug in the spring. My neighbour Bill is in the very centre of the battleground, indeed he seems to be the battleground and has recently resigned from the committee, in protest at the new authoritarian regime.

Bill used to do a lot for the site, indeed he was often referred to as the Site Warden. He would strim  all the paths (not an inconsiderable job – it’s a big site) and twice a day open the sluice gate to regulate the water flow. It was true Bill could be difficult, rude at times but it was undeniable he contributed a lot. However these tasks have recently been stripped from him, he has been told he needs to attend training in order to obtain a licence to operate the strimmer. Bill refuses. An old sluice has been re-opened and the previous one also retired from service along with Bill. His theory is that the new sluice is not doing the job, hence the boggy conditions on mine, and his plot. Others say there are underground streams, I have been told also, unconvincingly

“Just dig it over in Autumn and it’ll be fine come Spring”

So, a decision had to be made – abandon hope or, metaphorically speaking, build an arc. Despite feeling crushed and dejected I opted for the latter. I loved my plot and the site and had invested to much in it to give it up. I decided to build some raised beds. Problem one – obtaining decent wood was, after a protracted negotiation process,  solved by buying some old railway sleepers from Bill ( they had been lifted from the London Underground years ago apparently)

The next problem – obtaining the, literally, tons of  soil with which to fill them up was not so straightforward. My Dad came to the rescue – he knew a farmer nearby who had a heap of soil left by contractors – we could have it.

The soil was poor, with lots of stones and rubble – but it was soil! After several days and multiple trips we managed to fill one of the raised beds. And then the rains returned.

Fate is a funny thing.  Desperate to get the raised beds ready for growing season, ignoring the rain I found out that the committee had decreed what was once a communal bonfire heap was being used to extend the plot adjoining it. The bonfire heap was sitting on a mound of soil! The ground needed levelling. But, there was a problem. The bonfire heap was managed by Bill and he was spitting feathers that it was being taken away from him! I had nailed my colours to the mast in the civil war. I was on Bill’s side, I had complained about him being victimised. I had pleaded for the committee to leave him alone as rumours swirled around that part of his plot was about to be taken away from him because he wasn’t working it. I couldn’t take the soil as this would constitute a betrayal of Bill! For weeks I looked at that lovely heap of soil – watched as other people dug into it and carted it away. I listened to Bill and made sympathetic noises, when one day he said

” Don’t understand why you’re not f!ck*ng taking some of that soil from the heap – it’ll all be gone soon.”

“You don’t mind Bill?” I asked

” Well , its no bleedin’ good to me now is it”

I ran to get my wheelbarrow. It was poor quality, full of ash, not a bad thing in itself, but all in all it was better than nothing.I took thirty five barrows full but still it wasn’t enough to fill the last two raised beds.

I found out there was a couple of very large heaps of soil on another allotment site across town – my father had an allotment there and told me it was probably alright to have some as it had been standing there for some time. For four weeks I would get up at 5 am every morning and fill up two rucksacks, lined with black plastic bags, with soil and carry them the mile to my allotment and go back for more, sometimes three trips in two hours. In case you are wondering – I don’t drive – another story to tell later! Unsurprisingly, my arms began to ache. A voice in me asked if I was going crazy, but little by little the raised beds were filling up. It was only later that I realised I had inflicted tennis elbow on myself – in both arms! It would take many, many months to heal and was very painful!

Despite all these trials and tribulations it has been worth it. All my raised beds are now full of soil and the floods bother me no more. It is interesting to see the pains one will go to for something that means a lot. The process has also increased the bond twixt me and plot!

 

 

Taking Notice

I cannot remember when I first started taking photographs. I think it was when I visited Naples, I was thrilled by the decaying beauty of the old quarter, how lived in the city centre is, in stark contrast to the socially cleansed centres of most European cities.

But surprisingly, for me, the turning point was the the graffiti – not always –  but often, clever, playful. It captivated and energised me.

I think this was the first time I had become interested in taking images. To be more specific noticing objects that most people, myself included, would normally walk past and not notice. I used a Blackberry Playbook, a very distant relative of the ipad. They were not that common back in 2009 and I could wander around and take shots without people noticing too much. I spent days on end doing just this, hours would fly be as I criss-crossed the city.

Back home it wasn’t long before I got a smart phone and that was when my obsessive picture taking really took off. It has become a thing with me, when out and about most times my eyes are everywhere, normally on the ground looking for ineresting things to capture and record. It has helped change the way I see the world.

A Pressing Matter

Mid to late September is cider making time. It’s been a thing in our family for the last 38 years (apart from one year, during a disasterous move to Wales). For the last 15 – 20 years aples have been sourced from a beautiful old fashioned orchard just outside of Faversham. It is owned by a delightful chap who doesn’t spray chemicals, in fact he doesn’t even pick any of the apples.

It must be one of a few remaining traditional apple orchard in Kent. Nowadays apple trees are dwarf size, economics dictates, beauty and tradition die, harvest time has become mechanised. Years ago people from London’s Eastend used to come down to Kent during their holidays to pick apples and hops, to earn a bit of money and to be out in the fresh air.  On one of our favourite walks up to Telegraph Hill, you come across the remains of hop pickers shacks. A reminder of how vibrant the countryside once was.

But, as the great Ronnie Corbett says “I digress”.

Most years we make about 80 gallons. The process from start to finish takes about 4 -5 days. It is a real marker in the year, the last goodbye to summer before the onset of darker days.

The apples are milled twice, one coarser and another finer mill.

Then the finely ground apples are racked into muslin covered ‘cheeses’, stacked on top of each other and then covered with a wooden slab and pressed using a car jack. It is all delightfully Heath Robinson, but it works well.

We could go electric which would cut the time dramatically, but where would the fun and sense of achievement be found in that? Its a great thing to all work together, great fun and good excercise. During the winter months as you take a sip of cider, you are reminded of those glorious early autumn days, in the fading sunlight when you were picking, milling and pressing.

 

Castaway beach – faraway in time

It’s remarkable how a shift in thinking can change your relationship with a place. My decision to collect plastic along Castaway Beach has given me a real spring in my step. The number of castaway plastic items littering this beautiful place is staggering. Doing something about it is uplifting.

Yes, its an effort, an hour walk to the sea, along the creek  and an hour back,

another hour combing the mile or so stretch of sand, seaweed, pebbles and shingle.

But it is a fascinating and ever changing landscape to explore. The beach is situated on the edge of Nagden Marches, behind a concrete sea wall.

Opposite is the beautiful and strange Isle of Sheppey, in centuries past the winter camp of Viklings and invaded by the Dutch in 1667. The sea in-between is half sea, half estuary. It goes out far at low tide leaving a vast mud flat dotted with beautiful tufts of sea grass and wading birds probing for worms, molluscs and othe invertebrates.

So ordinarily, my head is lifted to the sea and sky. But during plastic collection it is turned down. There is a rich array of plastic to be found from large objects to tiny such as childrens drinking straws and plastic bottle caps.

to strange and curious surprises that make you scratch your head

Walking off the beaten track on a beach can also bring you across things you would rather not have seen, like this poor young gannet

But looking down brings you into another world and allows you to see details you would otherwise have walked past, objects that are as beautiful as the sunset, vast blue sea or crashing waves above and in front of you.

Solutions – inside and outside

I was thoroughly enjoying walking the snake of the creek to the sea wall. Years beore I had run along the same path but didn’t notice as much as whilst walking. The sense of space, the huge skies, the peace and wildness allowed me to step outside of the clamour, hassle and brute noise of the built environment. Even the electricity pylons appeared, in this landscape beautiful, like a range of Eiffel Towers ranged across the skyline. I had been told by a twitcher peregrine falcon’s used them as resting and lookout posts.

However, after a few trips I started to notice litter spread confetti like along the beach. it depressed me, I got to griping about humanoids as my brother refers to people. Rather than enjoying the landscape I felt increasingly uneasy about being there.

 

Walking back along the creek I noticed plastic and litter there as well, strewn along the grass and mud. It was beyond sadness, I was astounded that people did nothing about it. How can people enjoy the beauty of this wonderful place and do nothing about this terrible pollution?

I found I was talking about myself. It had never ocurred to me I should do someting about it. Rather I had retreated into bitterness and blame and this was ruining my walks. I began to feel guilty and resisted what I knew to be the right thing to do – pick the bloody stuff up and do something about it. I became miserable. I came out to walk not to be a litter collector. Why me?

Walking on the beach I saw the Brent geese gathering in their thousands, their hollow honking echoing around the bay. I walked back along the creek and saw a marsh harrier wheeling around like a feathered stealth fighter and I started picking up plastic and stuffed it in my bag.

It didn’t require any thinking, just doing and I began to feel better.

 

Explosive growing

The long awaited day has arrived.

Two and a half years after placing my name on the waiting list I was offered the choice of one of two plots on Stonebridge allotments. The first was on a slope with a beautiful view of the allotment ponds and waterways. The second a flat, small plot but with a big greenhouse, the possibility of a large shed and a very big black bucket!

And a rather charming plastic woman in a state of undress on the bridge connecting my plot to Patrick, one of my neighbours.

Despite some initial reservations, I snapped this plot up. The shed was confirmed a few days later for a small fee.

The plot was a mess, it required a lot of clearing up, the ground hadn’t been dug for a number of years. I noticed how wet the soil was and at one point hit standing water – only a spit (spade length deep.) This didn’t augur well but I had committed to it and it felt as if my dreams had come true. The setting was incredible. Stonebridge allotments are contained by a large brick wall on one side and water the other. It stands on the site of Britain’s first gunpowder works. With over 100 plots of various sizes, it is a beautiful place. Right in the centre of the town it has numerous waterways, filled with wild watercress, bullrushes, ducks, geese, swans, herons, coots, dabchicks and kingfishers. These water courses were used to transport the gunpowder, providing a smooth passage for the punts. Two men were employed full time to clear the waterways. Any bump or sharp shock could have explosive consequences.

I knew the site well, my Dad had a small plot here, part of his allotment empire. I had met Bill, one of my new neighbours, before, a Stonebridge stalwart of 30 years standing and site warden. I had often seen him roaming around helping people out. He has that rare human commodity – character, and I am thrilled my plot is so close to his.

So, I set to work. It was close to being the perfect time of year, just time to prepare for the first growing season. Being only five minutes walk from my home in the centre of town it was as if all my birthdays and Christmases had come at once.  Learning how to grow with my dad was fantastic but I needed to make mistakes and learn from them. This was literally a blank canvas, albeit a canvas of soil

But I soon found this to be untrue, digging at the far end of my small plot on a raised bed close to the adjoining waterway I came across five hibernating newts. Even with my disturbing the soil around them they remained asleep. What to do? I couldn’t just leave them exposed, it was still cold and they would probably die. I created a soil mound and placed them carefully inside. Imagining a sort of newt hotel. Pleased with myself I told my brother a few days later and his laughter ended with an outraged snort.

“You created a newt burial mound, you fool. When they dig into the soil they create air pockets you just piled a load of earth on top and suffocated them”

Only a few days in I had successfully murdered the inhabitants of my plot. I felt sick and remorseful. Not a good start. Turning over the sod the next day I looked over and there was a frog looking at me with accusatory eyes. I decided to leave him well alone and learn my lesson. I need to tread more carefully – this place is not my home.

 

Going Home

 

It’s a curious thing but if asked where my roots are I would have to say Quimperlé  in south western Brittany. This is the town where my mother was born and lived until  her late teens. It is a town I have only been to a handful of times, mainly during my childhood.

Despite having a French mother and having been named Pierre not a word of French was spoken in our house when growing up. My mother came to the UK as a young woman, as an au pair first in Glasgow and then swinging Soho in the late fifties. She made a decision early on to integrate and after marrying my father decided to forget she was French and become as English as she could.  This principally because, as newly weds, their economic circumstance compelled them to live with my father’s parents – a very English family whose distrust of foreigners, particularly the French, did not exempt my mother. Indeed she became the focal point of their hatred. And so I became Peter and, during my childhood, ignored my French background, save for a few trips to  Quimperlé on holidays.

However the few times I did visit the town I was always taken by my grandpere, Jean Mortain. Despite never having had a conversation or any meaningful exchanges I always felt close to him. Perhaps it had something to do with the way he looked, he was a striking character, he looked a bit like an elf, with very large ears and small in stature. Ever since my twenties, after he died, I imagined him going about his day in his house and around the town. I cannot say why, but I have thought about him most, if not every day. My mother and I visited the town back in 2010 but only for a day, we were staying with relatives up the coast and, despite desperately wanting to we couldn’t break free. Over the years I tried to convince my mum to go but she has not been keen. She tells me she never likes going back to places she has lived, and iion to this the town is not the same place for her. Save for a few exceptions she knows nobody still living there and what was once a bustling market town is now economically depressed with empty shops and out of town supermarkets. I can understand but this stoped me from going back, for many years I felt I would be betraying her in some strange way.

But one day I decided I was going – for two weeks. I couldn’t put it off any longer. Mt granpere, Jean Mortain was calling and I had to go.

Upon arrival the first thing I did was to go and visit the old family home. The house grandpere bought, the home of which he was so proud. He came from humble stock, was born next door, his bedroom window looking out onto the slaughterhouse with all the sounds of distressed animals and stench of blood and guts. The detritus was all swept into the river which flowed at the bottom of his garden. This, he used to say, was why the trout and salmon were so bigand juicy.

Jean Mortain’s work took him all across town and the sorrounding region. He was a couvrer, a roofer, as was his father. But Jean was clever, he became the town’s premier couvreur, he had a killer advantage. He was the only roofer in the town who could read architect’s drawings. As a young man he put himself through night school and this sacrifice paid off. It ensured he would always have a steady flow of the best paying work.

Jean Mortains workshop on the quayside, through the red doors – probably unchanged since his day

He never became rich, apparently he treated his workers too well to allow him to become wealthy. But, by the standards of the town, his family were comfortable living in the house in Rue Terre de Vannes. He lived there all his life save the years when he was a prisoner of war in Austria. He escaped one time and came back home, but was soon discovered and was captured as he fled across the rooftops, despite his advantage on this terrain he was trapped and sent back to a more high secutiy prison. He never talked about the war, he had seen all of his friends from the town killed, unsurprisingly   he became shorter of temper and suffered from stomach complaints.

Despite this on his return after the war he became involved in the life of the town. He refereed footbal and rugby matches and it was not uncommon for him to return post match with a black eye after having been chased by the losing side through the streets.

My memories of him are fleeting. I remember him driving us to the seaside 10 kilometres from Quimperlé, myself and my younger brother rattling around in the back of his van, bottles of wine, intended for his workers at lunchtime, clinking and rolling across the floor. I remember him buying us caramel lollipops from the small cafe across the street and unhooking a wriggling eel we had caught at the bottom of the garden, laughing and patting my brother on the back. I remember watching him, unobserved, hawk a great gob of spittle into his flower bed and feeling ashamed of him, not realising at my age it was due to a condition he had developed in the prisoner of war camps. I remember chickens waiting to be dispatched to the table squawking in his wonderful, damp earth smelling garage and spider crabs scuttling across the kitchen floor as the water roiled in the pan in which they were soon to crawl their last.

As I walked and walked across the town, I looked up at the rooftops of the older buildings, at the slates and wondered if they were ones he had laid down. I still think of him, high up, looking out across the town he loved, spying his friends entering the cafe and clambering down to join them.

Cafe des Halles – one of jean Mortain’s many haunts

On my last day I climbed up a steep alley, breathlessly reaching the top with beautiful views of the town, and spied a small chapel around which a graveyard. I recognised it and five minutes later stood in front of Jean Mortain’s grave. I had no flowers, it was late afternoon and so I gathered wild flowers and put them in my bottle of water.

 

 

Starting off

 

The day I started to make sourdough bread I entered a whole new world of pain.

The idea of baking something totally from scratch really appealed to me. I have always loved the bread making process. My mother is a master pastry cook. She is quite simply the best, I have never tasted more buttery, crumbly cases of gorgeousness that just make you go AAAHHH. Perhaps its because she’s French or as she always says “I have very cold hands” adding, to the delight of my nieces, ” and a very cold heart”

She is also an incredible breadmaker

So, it was with hesitation I decided to make sourdough. I had heard stories of people throwing their sourdough starter out of the window in frustration and so my hopes were not particularly high. Yes, to the starter. This is what separates sourdough from the rest of the bread world. Where the fascination and meaning lies. Just flour ansd water, left for ten days to attract natural yeasts ,it bubbles and rises and that is what you feed daily and keep like a pet.

My first foray into the world of the sour dough was, frankly, disasterous and dispiriting in equal measure.

It was about the twentieth time of consigning yet another uncooked, brick heavy, curiously shaped loaf into the bin when I realised I could not carry on. My family were begging me to stop, seeing the toll this ritualised form of defeat was having on me and suffering my short temper on bake days. My one excuse was my oven. It is old and unreliable, I bought an oven thermometer and recorded a maximum of 180. I spoke with our local sourdough baker on the market and he laughed “You wont do it unless you can get to at least 260 pal” So, knowing I was beat I stopped. I slopped my sourdough starter down the sink, feeling guilty of killing the thing I had kept alive for so long. My family breathed a sigh of relief and time passed.

But the dream live on. It nagged at me, I wanted to find a way. I gambled on a new oven.

It cost more than I was comortable with parting. Its maximum was 230 degrees. I wasn’t sure it would do the job. I brought another element into play, a LeCreuset cadged off my mother to serve as a dutch oven.

I made a new pet, using part rye and part wholemeal flour for my new starter. But still this wasn’t enough, it produced ok results but not what my heart and soul required. And then I found this chap, my sourdough hero who should be given a medal. If ever he comes to Faversham I will ensure he is given the freedom of the town.  I followed his instructions to the T and immediately my loaves improved. The process is long, it starts for me at 1pm and usually the loaf comes out the oven 25 hours later. It is a demanding master – it does not tolerate shortcuts but it produces results.

Like all social media postings this is one of my better attempts. I haven’t cracked it, that’s for sure. I want to get a lighter stretch but …… Also I am baking white loaves, using french flour (beautifully fine and silky to the touch) It is another matter altogether using wholemeal, much more of a challenge to get the rise and lightness. But for now it is a joy and I don’t think I can subject my family to anymore stress just yet. I feed my starter every day, he is called Baldwin, named after Baldwin Hill Vineyard where my sourdough hero lives.

Baldwin may not be the most attractive chap but being only two years old he is young and virile.

Everyday I serve Baldwin breakfast, feeding him flour to keep him active, when I say good morning to him it makes me laugh. He shares the same name of a famously irrascible friend of my good friend Mr Neil.

For now Baldwin is happy but he can turn at any given moment. Never let your sourdough defences down is what I have learnt. Baldwin is a cruel master.