Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Plot Thickens!

Simon Kirby is a magnificent shed builder and keen allotment gardener, but Newbury Town Council is trying to evict him from his little patch of loveliness and what's more they've been trying to gag him! The following are Simon's words from his Facebook campaign page, Newbury Growing Pains. Please 'like' his page to show your support.
I've had an allotment at Wash Common in Newbury for sixteen years and have been in dispute with the Town Council for more than two years now. As Chair of the Allotment Society I raised a problem with them over the fairness of the rent review term in the tenancy agreement but they wouldn't discuss it. In 2010 they put our rents up 47% and as they still wouldn't discuss the problem I reported it to Trading Standards who upheld my complaint and the Town Council had to change the tenancy agreement.

This is what Trading Standards said: 

"I spoke to our legal representative yesterday and she is of the opinion that the 'rent review term' in the old agreement was itself not unfair, what made it unfair was the lack of ability to withdraw from the contract without penalty, ie you had to give 12 months notice and pay the higher price in the meantime."

I didn't pay the unfair increase, just as the Regulations say I don't have to, and the Town Council forfeited my tenancy agreement for arrears on 17 May 2010. However, they couldn't do anything about it because there are no arrears if the rent review term is unfair, but rather than accept they had made an error they gave me another notice forfeiting my agreement in December 2010. That deadline came and went because they couldn't do anything about it but they were still unable to hold their hands up to what was now victimisation.

In February 2011 they held a secret meeting at which they revoked the forfeiture and gave me instead a Notice to Quit. That's more difficult to defend because a Notice to Quit doesn't depend on the tenant being at fault and so there's nothing I can say about the unfairness of the rent review term. I asked to see the parish council minutes for the meeting where they decided this, but the town clerk refused. His case at Newbury Magistrates Court for an alleged offence of preventing access to parish minutes under Section 228 of the Local Government Act 1972 is currently suspended until the end of April.

I've been as vocal as I could about what I see as tin-pot tyranny from the Town Hall, and they don't like that. I've aslo been quite vocal in demanding allotment self-management, and they really don't like that. The Town Council spend around £100k of tax-payer money each year providing the allotment service over six sites, and at over £7.00 per pole Newbury is in the top 10% of councils by price. Self-management would provide a better service, with a cheaper rent, and at no cost whatsoever to the tax-payer. The down-side for the Council is that self-management would mean one less thing for them to spend our money on, and they do so enjoy spending our money.

To shut me up about self-management and how they dealt with the unfairness of the tenancy agreement the Council offered me a new tenancy agreement on the condition that I signed a secret no-criticism protocol. I refused. This is what they wanted me to sign: 

"Simon Kirby agrees to: Cease to make postings and pronouncements in public places (including in particular notice boards and e-forums) that are critical of or negative towards Newbury Town Council, its Members, Employees, Contractors, Customers, Tenants, and other associates, without prior discussion with the Chief Executive Officer of Newbury Town Council."

This is from a Lib-Dem controlled council. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act makes it unlawful for a town council to interfere with my freedom of expression, and there are some very good reasons why the citizen should always be free to criticise the state.

So my Notice to Quit expires on 1 April 2012. The Council could end this nonsense if they offered me a new tenancy agreement, but failing that I'll have to defend an application for possession of my allotment. Basically it's unlawful for the council to give a Notice to Quit in place of the forfeiture becaue it deprives me of my right to a fair trial of my civil rights and obligations, and without the minutes of the meeting the notice doesn't have any authority, but it's an awful lot of hassle.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Citric Bitters

You might not know it from the scarcity of posts on the subject, but I am currently undertaking the second year of a herbal apprenticeship with Sarah Head who styles herself as a Kitchen Herbwife but basically it is a course in the wildcrafting, growing and application of  traditional medicinal herbal medicine - I prefer the old term for it - wortcunning.
From wort, a plant, herb, or vegetable, used for food or medicine; often = pot-herb but not in ordinary use after the middle of the 17th cent. and now arch. As a second element, however, retained in various plant names, as colewort, liverwort, ragwort etc. And cunning, another obsolete word meaning knowledge; learning, erudition.
The training comes in the form of monthly tasks both practical and theoretical, medical and herbal, based around the seasonal opportunities in the natural way.

Although I quite frequently do the tasks, I am hopelessly slack about writing them up. This is daft really since I enjoy the whole subject and I love finding occasions when modern science confirms traditional practice, and then correlating that with folklore and myth.

Anyway back in January we were tasked with making up citric bitters, specifically Seville orange bitters. Most of us know bitters, Orange Bitters or Angoustura Bitters as digestifs; the alcoholic beverages served after a meal to aid digestion. And they do do that.

According to Jim MacDonald “Bitter herbs stimulate the secretion of digestive acids, juices and enzymes, which generally improve appetite & digestion, especially of fats/oils/lipids." His excellent article "Blessed Bitters" is more than worth a read for what bitter deficiency syndrome is all about and which herbs  might remedy it. There are many more of them (like dandelion and chicory) than just the citrus ones that we might know about as a nice tipple. Historically a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables at this time of year would have been a pressing nutritional concern and our bodies would cry out to be renourished. However my well-fed family seems to appreciate the concoctions I make if they are nice tipples, rather more than those that aren't!

Seville oranges are the oranges that we know very well as the ones that go into English Breakfast marmalade. (Don't start me on marmalade which comes from the marmello or quince not the orange. That must be the subject of another post!)

Sevilles are available for only a very short season of two or three weeks in late January/ early February. Blink and you'll miss them in the shops. Given that I did blink at the critical moment so missed them entirely, I was wondering whether to 'fess up' to Sarah, when I came across a bountiful supply of deeply reduced-price lemons and limes that Tesco was divesting itself of! So I bought about six or 8 bags.

Given that bitters are made from the zest rather than the fruit, I cast about for a recipe for a lemon cordial to preserve the lovely fresh juice. I used this one as the base (although I replaced the tartaric acid with cream of tartar) and multiplied up the quantities and incorporated the limes.

Lemon  Cordial 

  • 750 ml fresh lemon juice 
  • 550 g sugar
  • 3/4 tablespoon citric acid 
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tartaric acid 
  • 1 tablespoon boiling water 

  • Mix the citric acid and tartaric acid with the boiling water and stir until it’s dissolved. 
  • Put a large saucepan on a low heat and add the lemon juice and sugar. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. 
  • Add the citric acid/tartaric acid mix and stir in well. 
  • Strain through a couple of layers of a clean muslin cloth into sterilized bottles. Cap with lids or corks and seal. 
  • When opened, store in the fridge.
This cordial is concentrated and should be served diluted with water to taste. It can be sweetened further if desired. It's delicious served icy cold with fizzy water or tonic water as a grown-up non-alcoholic cocktail.

Having squeezed a mountain of lemons and limes, I made the bitters part tinctured in vodka, using the zest of the fruit as a classic Italian Limoncello - a  digestivo as you might say.

So I used this recipe which is supposed to be the traditional Limoncello from Sorrento, Amalfi or Capri.



  • 1 Litre of Vodka (37-40%Vol) 
  • 10 Lemons (possibly organic) 
  • 350 g Granulated sugar 
  • 150 ml Water 
For this recipe you also need a 2-3 litre jar with a sealed lid. The jar should be washed very well or sterilised before use. 

Note: About the sugar, some people like the limoncello sweeter and use 450 g of sugar. This is up to personal taste and preference. 


1. Rinse the lemons under running water. 
Organic lemons sometimes have soil residue, so rinse them, one by one, to be sure they are completely clean. Then, dry the lemons with kitchen paper. 

2. Now, it’s time to prepare the sugar syrup. Put all the sugar into a small pan, add the water and melt the sugar over very low heat. The melting should take a few minutes, meanwhile keep stirring and take care that the syrup does not reach boiling point.Soon you will notice that the syrup becomes clearer. At this point, turn the cooker off and leave the syrup to cool down. 

3. While the syrup is cooling down, cut the zest from your lemons, making small pieces, with a sharp knife or peeler. You need only the yellow /green part of the lemon skin, also known as rind. The pith, the white part underneath the rind, is too bitter and would spoil your limoncello. 

4. Put all the zest in the jar (unused lemons may be used to make a lemon sorbet or even lemonade). 

5. Pour the litre of vodka into the jar. 

6. Add the syrup (the syrup must be cool). When the syrup cools down, it is easy to find some of the sugar solidified in the bottom of the pan. Scrape the bottom with a wooden spoon and put this sugar into the jar. 

7. Now, that everything is in the jar, close the jar with its sealed lid. 

8. Put the jar in a cool and dark place for 30-40 days. 

9. Twice a week take the jar and put it onto a flat smooth surface. Then, with your hands spin the jar a few times, so all the contents are shaken up. Then, put the jar back to the cool and dark place. 

10. After 30-40 days, you can transfer the contents of the jar into a bottle. For this you need a funnel and something to filter the limoncello liqueur from the zest that is in the jar. A gauze or jelly bag filter would be fine. 

11. Now, pour the contents of the jar into the bottle. 

12. In the end, you should be left with a yellowish clear liqueur. 

13. With one litre of vodka, I managed to prepare 2 bottles of limoncello (about 70 cl each). 

14. Close the bottle with a cork and put the bottle in the fridge. Limoncello must be drunk chilled (but no ice cubes, as this will dilute the drink too much) and using chilled glasses when drinking it, will make it perfect. 

It needs to steep for at least six weeks which is why mine is still in the jars and not yet bottled. But I found a pretty bottle in a charity shop that would do the trick when it's ready.

I'll let you know whether it aids our digestion!

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Return of Fester - Microchipped cat

Fester and his girl, Rhianna Yates prior to his ordeal

Our beloved cat, Fester, was returned to us last night 6th March 2012, after 9 months living rough at Vodafone HQ;  thanks to two lovely cat owning ladies, a microchip and Fester’s enormous paws!

The lovely ladies who rescued Fester: Cassandra Lund & Philippa Bills with Fester

Fester disappeared from home in Berkeley Road, Newbury on 11th June 2011. Our information about how he ended up several miles away in open countryside is still sketchy, as Fester hasn’t been up to giving a full interview yet. However, we believe that workmen doing a garden clearance over the road left their van open and while curiosity did not kill the cat, Fester was inadvertently catnapped. The workmen saw no cat and declined to tell Dave (Yates) where they had been tipping (which reluctance Dave puts down to the cost of semi-commercial disposal of garden waste. And while this is not the time to get political, Fester did feature in the 2010 General Election campaign as the Apolitical Demo-Cat who likes to be on top of his paperwork.)

The Apolitical Democat on top of his paperwork

In spite of a poster campaign, door knocking and searches of all the likely places (the dump) and unlikely places (everywhere else we could think of including wheelie bins), there was no sign of Fester. But we never gave up hope of his return and refused several offers of replacement long haired kittens, consoling ourselves with the thought that one day he might swagger back home, sporting tattoos, a pierced ear and a long story. While he hasn’t got those, he has been returned to us alive and well, but thin, dirty, dreadlocked, hungry and nervous.

His rescuers are cat-lovers, Philippa Bills and Cassandra Lund. Fester had been seen for some time looking sad, hungry and lost around grounds of the out-of-town Vodafone HQ, however it was only when this was drawn to Vodafone employee, Philippa’s attention that concerns were raised. As a Maine Coon owner, herself, she recognised by the enormous size of his paws and his sociable nature that this was not some feral stray but a Maine Coon with a home to go to.

She sprang into action. She gave him a little milk and some bacon to be going on with, and rushed off-site to fetch a cardboard box from Waitrose. She took him home with her, but anxious as to his condition she kept him separate from her own cats until she had a vet check him over.

Philippa and her neighbour Cassandra took Fester to Vets4Pets, Newbury where his condition was checked and his microchip scanned. One very emotional phone call later and we were reunited with our beloved Fester in the Vets4Pets surgery. We phoned our 15 year old daughter Rhianna Yates (who is Fester’s rightful owner, although he believes that he owns her) requiring her straight home from dance class without telling her why, for fear of her running under a bus in her excitement. The cat and his girl were soon reunited and in her own words Rhianna “cried like a baby”.

Grubby as he is, Fester is resuming his purr-poseful role authorizing all paperwork with his paw prints and being ‘that something’ that crashes on computers.

We’ve sent flowers to Fester’s lovely rescuers, Philippa Bills and Cassandra Lund, that they will get tomorrow with our very, very grateful love and thanks.

Sarah at Vets4Pets Newbury is very keen to point to Fester’s story as a way of encouraging pet owners to microchip,  so that  if they do, they may also have their treasured pet returned to them just like Fester.

I’ve posted some pictures with my thanks on the Vets4Pets Newbury Facebook page but because of the excitement his return caused last night on Facebook, Fester now has his own Fan Page that we are about to populate with pictures of the returning Cat King!

Monday, March 05, 2012

Secret Doors

Followers of this blog will be aware that I posted about the work of my friend Suzie Bishop at her current Exhibition at New Greenham Arts in Newbury.

Most people (as I was) were particularly taken with her painting called Secret Door (above).

I've subsequently come across a wonderful picture by NC Wyeth which was the front cover image for Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger.

They're lovely, aren't they?

Mad as a March Hare

Sir John Tenniel's 1865 illustration

'What sort of people live about here?'  
'In THAT direction,' the Cat said, waving its right paw round, 'lives a Hatter: and in THAT direction,' waving the other paw, 'lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad.' 
'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked. 
'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.' 
'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice. 
'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here.'
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The phrase, Mad as a March Hare has been in continuous use in the language since the 16th century. It appeared in the writings of John Skelton as early as 1528 and it was well-enough established by 1546 for John Heywood to include it in his collection - A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue. 

It is reported in The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner that this proverb is based on popular belief about hares' behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season, which lasts from February to September in Britain. Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that these bouts were between males fighting for breeding supremacy. This behaviour is shown and discussed in the BBC video above.

The March Hare in Tenniel's 1846 illustration is represented with a straw on its head, which  is often cited as having been a symbol of madness, or at least of brainlessness as may be seen in Frank Baum's Scarecrow of Oz.

Numerous fine illustrators have represented the March Hare:

Arthur Rackham 1907

Mabel Lucie Attwell 1910

Gordon Robinson 1916
Charles Folkard 1921

Disney 1951

The history of Walt Disney's association with Lewis Carroll's Alice books stretches all the way back to 1923, when Disney was still a 21-year-old filmmaker trying to make a name for himself in Kansas City. He made a short film called Alice's Wonderland, featuring a live action girl interacting with cartoon characters.

In 1946, Disney work began on an all-animated version of Alice in Wonderland that would feature art direction heavily based on the famous illustrations of Sir John Tenniel. This version was storyboarded, but was ultimately rejected by Walt, as was yet another proposed live-action/animated version of Alice.

Finally a more streamlined and less complicated approach was used for the design of the main characters. The concept art that led to the final 1951 animated version that we know as Alice in Wonderland was by Mary Blair who took a Modernist approach to her design of Wonderland, creating a world that was recognizable, and yet was decidedly "unreal." Blair's bold use of color is one of the film's most notable features.

I think I may embark on a painting of 'boxing' mad March Hares.


Going off at something of a tangent ... while researching images to illustrate this article, I came across a lesser known book illustrated by Arthur Rackham. I reproduce the title page below of The Zankiwank and The Bletherwitch by S. J. Adair Fitzgerald, since it prompted a very British snigger and the observation that the verb (which is so apparent to modern eyes in the title) was coined as recently as 1950, based on the noun that Partridge's Dictionary of Forces Slang dates to 1948, and as such would have been entirely unknown to Mssrs Rackham and Fitzgerald.