Bees... after the pollen has settled

They’ve been with me for almost 2 weeks now, or perhaps it would be more truthful to switch that to “I have been with them”.

Worse than babies or a new pet, bees make time stand still.

The nature of my work requires me to sit hunched over a desk, resulting in the need to uncoil, straighten out and ultimately stand up. I’ll slide the kettle over, maybe slip outside and sniff the air. Now the bees are here I find my hand reaching out to my bee suit and my feet, on their own track of logic, heading off down to the bottom of the field.

I was told that as I approach the hive I need to talk to the bees, familiarise them with my voice. My first visits were I suspect equivalent to Joanna Lumley on helium, soundbites of excited, squeaky plumminess interwoven with self-conscious babblings. After two weeks my tone has dropped back down to my normal ‘posh’ drone.. perhaps slightly more appealing for the bees. After all, who really wants to be spoken ‘at’ by a wild eyed and caffeinated gibbering human.

As I head towards the back of the hive rather than trying to calm them down I find that I am the one who’s breathing more slowly. At about 20 ft, the uncomfortable tug of the bee suit is forgotten, at 10 ft the council tax bill can wait, 6 ft and a rude silence from a client is of no consequence.. and by the time I place my hand on the side of the cedar frame I am wholly ‘there’ and nowhere else. And breathe.

Walking around to the side, hand still on hive, still talking, I find myself crouching down, eyes level with the hive entrance.. many little open doors created by a sliding bar of machined wood. The bustling activity of these little creatures, wholly engrossed in their purpose..such a counterpoint to the calmness thats slowly enveloping me.

Today, it’s time to check right inside the brood chamber. This is about as intimate as it gets. Removing first the peaked roof and then the cover board, an extraordinary wave of perfume rushes at me. It’s pollen, nectar, honey, propolis. It’s bee.

Using the parrot beak hookend of my hive tool I gently ease it in amongst the fizzing little bodies and lever the edge of the frame into a position where I can slowly work my finger between bee and box and, wedging it beneath the edge I slowly lift one end of the frame up. It feels a fairly destructive move: in their constant effort to fill any and all gaps, the bees have welded these vertical rooms together with their cement like propolis. I work on the other end gently nudging little legs, abdomens and faces out the way and at last I have both ends securely in forefinger and thumb of each hand. Letting out my breath, whispering, apologising, I slowly lift what must be 2 lbs of frame. It’s carpeted in bees, a complete and perfect study of a superorganism at work… and there’s honey…




Bees... Yeah, but I'll never make wax candles, okay?*

Sunday 13th April 2014… blue, blue sky. What a backdrop. 

They came with the golden glow that is Pat Brown.

Approimately 15,000 workers and one queen. We all dressed in varying degrees of protected readiness and made our way down to where K had set up the hive; nestled amongst Spring’s sparsely covered branches of a lake side Beech. I readied the smoker nearly burning fingers as I lit newspaper (an ancient OFM, good quality) and gradually stuffed the smoker’s inner cylinder with dried grass that Pat had collected on our way down through the field.
(Note to excited self: Must collect more, and store in paper bag as instructed by Pat.)
With the suck and puff of air pulled through the bellows, the flame – slowed and steadied by the compacted grass – continued to burn at a simmer. Eventually, without any more encouragement, a thick creamy coil of smoke curled lazily from the spout.


Pat opened the lid of the nucleus box and with gentle, slow and loving attention to every nuance of bee behaviour she removed the six waxed and drawn frames. They were loaded with bees, drawn cells, uncovered babies and capped worker and drone cells. A few cells were filled with honey.. their supply until they make fresh from their new surroundings. We transferred all of the frames in exactly the same order as they were originally, pulled cells on one frame rippling intimately  into the perfect curve of its companion frame.

The children stood back a little. 

I couldn’t stop looking. Shocked, entranced, deliriously happy, humbled. I wanted to take off my gloves (ridiculous) and stroke frames, cells, bees (really ridiculous since although they appeared calm, they were preoccupied and a little agitated from their 3 hour journey from Gloucestershire). The smell of the pollen, wax, cedar frames, propolis.. such the headiest of cocktails.

They’re Buckfast bees. I like that. Not sure why, but the name conjures less monk… more imagery of  a relaxed, laid back kind of bee… possibly reclined on a bale of hay, a piece of fresh grass twiddling in it’s mandibles, ‘ears’ stoppered with headphones piping in a little Al Green.

We stood watching as courageous bees started to exit the hive, backwards, hover 2 inches, land, and then stick their little bottoms in the air, almost performing a come-hither waggle! I’ve now learned that this is their way of encouraging their comrades to return. This is where your queen is. So stay close, this is home!

Done with the gawping (for now), we gently brushed one another down, removing any little interrogative foragers off our suits to ensure no one got lost. 

Pat’s 79, sparky beyond what’s deemed normal for someone of that age, and everything I aspire to.
She warned “I can be a bit bossy, but I’d rather you know what you’re doing!” Blue eyes perceptive and quick, wink from a creased-from-too-much-smiling face. We laughed a lot over bread and cheese, and then she was gone… the children asking under their breath if she could be their third grandmother.

It’s now Wednesday 16th April. Every day I’ve been down at least twice to check on them; not necessarily for the benefit of the bees, but the pull is irresistible. 

However yesterday was a turning point. I saw a bee hovering to touch down on the landing strip…she was LADEN with pollen.
They’ve arrived.. 
Click on this link if you fancy a peek. If you have any hints/tips/books to recommend regarding bees then please do get in touch. I’d be delighted.
* Maybe one day…

My father... and other jackdaws

… I probably go on about them a bit…

But at this point in the conversation (because that’s what this is) I need to point out that I’m not a twitcher,birder or spotter. It’s not through a need to shy away from the sad misrepresentation of those ‘who do’ as being perhaps rather obsessive/enthusiastic, indeed ‘geekier’ than most.  It’s simply that I don’t know enough about birds to qualify as such a person. But I do love them. I really do. And it’s very much because of my father.

From previous posts, you’ll know that I was brought up on the North coast of Cornwall.

We moved down there when I was pretty young and set up in a cottage nestled amongst working farms, stream carved woodland and badger sets. My mother and father had chosen to do this because they were both very much attracted to a more meaningful, slower and real existence.  In truth, regardless of whether this lifestyle still held the same rosy appeal for them after a few years, they couldn’t afford to do much more than a “Tom and Barbara”, even if they’d secretly pined for the ‘old life’, as, with a lower income, things got pretty squeaky and we all had to be far more resourceful than before.

My father pursued a growing career as an antique furniture restorer, while my mother held together the house and heart of our family.  This family at various points became extended to include pets… the usual dogs and cats. We kept chickens, geese and guineafowl, but they weren’t supposed to be anything other than the next meal.

My father had found peace and a little time with this move to Cornwall, and with that I suspect a little more headspace too. Slowly, a softer side was occasionally glimpsed … one goose (‘Dorcus’) had taken a shine to him,  and would follow him to the back door for a crust. In turn my father started walking around with pockets permanently stuffed full of stale bread and corn (the bain of my mother’s existence as inevitably it would end up in the washing machine, pockets bloated!). A guinea fowl (‘Peep’) that began it’s early life living in my mother’s top pocket decided that Dad was his mate-for-life and as such trailed around after him as he moved through his working day. And naturally, as I took on the chores of feeding the animals they would start to follow me too.

This was my very first experience of someone depending on me, yes me, for food and company! As an 8 year old this seemed beyond any magical experience portrayed in a Disney film (even The Jungle Book).

I relished this new form of company. The love was unconditional, unquestioning and always available whenever I walked out of the kitchen door and around to the back garden or orchard (pockets bulging with corn!). School life, by contrast, was hell. So these feathered friendships were far more nurturing than anything in the school playground at that time!

Meanwhile, my father’s heart seemed to slowly unfurl to reveal someone in stark contrast to the sales manager of before. I came to know, love and admire my dad, probably for the first time. It’s only now, in my fourties writing this that I’m able to percieve this gradual change in our relationship as it truly happened.

My growing years were defined by birds, on so many levels. We’d be driving along in his white transit van, my brother and me in the back, no seat belts, free to bump around. On most trips it would seem my parents would spot a bird on the roadside. The unspoken rule was, if it was alive, my father would mend it; if it was dead, my mother would cook it!

So many bird moments; I could fill a book, but I won’t, at least not for public consumption.

Some memorable highlights as I grew up:

Sharing my breakfast with Gonzo the crow ( he particularly loved scrambled egg)

Having my teeth cleaned by Jack (the jackdaw.. contrary to popular belief they don’t go for your eyes!)

Revision for my Chemistry A level being interrupted by a buzzard, perched high on the dresser, firing a poo 3 metres through the air, only to land on my carefully annotated illustration of a Liebich Condenser.

Watching my father give mouth-to-beak resuscitation to a goose (it lived).

On another occasion I watched him grab a drowning gander that had fallen into a large bucket of water, and, finding no pulse, he took it by the legs and swung it around his head. A huge expulsion of water arced out; the young goose survived.

My father (on countless) occasions has played the part of mother bird to baby pigeon, crow, jackdaw. Carefully holding the youngster he would chew on a mouthful of chick crumbs, add water, swill and then wait for the fledgling to put it’s head in his mouth to feed. I have photos, but I don’t think he’d would thank me for ‘sharing’.

Watching him from my bedroom window, strolling out into the orchard, whiskey in hand, only seconds later to be tracked by a clattering of jackdaws. Two detached from the wild mob and swung down to land on his shoulders.  He always kept bread in his shirt pocket for his friends, and jackdaws will remain high up there amongst the best, most loyal of friendships that he’s enjoyed.

Writing this brings such a surge of strong emotions, you’d think I’m writing about a man who has died. He hasn’t; he’s very much alive and can be found most mornings strolling with geese. But he’s made a huge impression on me.

He’s given me a balance, a spirit level to hold up to my life. This life, it’s so fast, so messy, sometimes with an enforced level of materialistic values that make it umbearably heavy. To be able to walk outside, look up and listen. It makes life lighter, clearer, happier.


Trainers or Louboutins...


We all have to write a bio at some point in our lives, let people know a little about ourselves, perhaps selecting the bits that we hope will communicate, amuse, (impress) … With Twitter it’s quite a relief really to know you only have 160 characters available.  Not too demanding of detail, but enough to express who (you think) you are.  I put on my twitter profile: “Freelance Illustrator of  edibles (mostly) Cyclist, Forest Scamperer, Sheller, Louboutin Wearer. Just a little obsessed with figs…”

The one I suspect that gets the most attention might be ‘Louboutin Wearer’, but the one that perhaps defines me most succinctly (outside of illustrator) would be forest runner.

I started running (scampering would be more apt) in the forest for several reasons. 1) it’s kinder to the body than road running, 2) it’s free 3) it’s easy to fit in around work and family life because, 4) it’s on my doorstep…

However, there was a 5th reason that only became clear much later on, and now supersedes all the other reasons in significance and impact. The 5th one is “Oh wow, I didn’t know that.”

I didn’t know that I could run that far and not get bored

I didn’t know that it was so noisy in the forest…

I didn’t know my heart could pump that fast, and not burst

I didn’t know that the air smelt so differently, depending on the weather, the season…

I didn’t know that my head needed emptying so badly.

I have rediscovered something utterly amazing that I thought I’d lost forever in my old school satchel.  I have become reacquainted with a desire to know, to learn, to question. As each foot falls on deer carved pathway, my mind begins to loosen from the ties that bind it to the usual rhythms of work/home life.. and with this uncorking of my stuffed, distracted and chattering head, there appears a space.  It flows with the air, the bird song, the whoosh of a breeze through tall pine trees, and there, there with the flow, is a tweak of a curtain then a full graceful drawing back, to reveal questions and need-to-knows, dreams and plans, long forgotten (unvoiced?) hopes. They become clear, the canopy of sky, no matter blue or grey,  giving them an almost palpable aura of dewy freshness, a readiness to be looked at and considered with full attention. Without distraction.

It doesn’t really seem to matter what my feet are doing, how my ankles are adjusting to rock, mud and shale, whether my quads are aching or whether I’m picking an errant gnat out of my eye. The head space remains accessible, available.

And amongst all this cerebral stuff that’s going on, my eyes are drinking in this extraordinary, visual and ever changing theatre of the forest. The colours range for Monet to Van Gogh, depending on season and light.  This light can play tricks on the lower canopy, transforming it into the biblical burning bush. Shadow can create a moving form that seems to race one pace behind me … or was that a deer … There are bat boxes  secured high up in the creaking pines. I have been lucky enough to run with those bats as they loop within inches of my nose, glancing my shoulder.  One late winter afternoon, the light dipped so quickly that I became disorientated.  Flicking on my head torch I suddenly became aware that I was moving parallel with silent-running deer. 14 or more sets of eyes blinked back at me.  My heart leapt with shock, and then burst with the sheer thrill.

Running in the forest, and through its seasons, is perhaps the most extraordinatry and innervating aspect of all. If I was just to talk about the changes of the scent and quality of the air (if I could write with a “scratch n sniff” app it would help): the dry bite of icy air sucked into lungs in the winter; the first whiff of pig manure, pulled across on a northeasterly breeze from a farmer’s field as winter subsides; the punchy honeyed smell of warmed bluebells; the damp earthiness of the freshly watered forest floor; the drying pine needles underfoot as we slip seamlessly (hopefully) into Summer.

I’m sure that this state of mind could be priced beyond any gym membership (or any pair of Louboutins come to that), but no-one’s managed to make it an exclusive ‘members only’ club yet. This is a relief. It means that we can all join, for free!



A few days ago a friend posted a photo of windfall apples gathered from his orchard.

They looked dewy, lush. They must have smelt wonderfully perfumed…

I’d been picking, and enjoying our own crop, but there was something about the timing of this photo married with the sparsity of words used to annotate it, that triggered the strongest wave of a mislaid memory. It flooded my head and heart with such force, that I actually had to put down my pencil and involuntarily close my eyes.

It placed me right there, back in the moment. And the moment was this:

I’m lying on slightly dampened ground in my grandfather’s orchard. I’m wearing a tiered skirt my mother has sewn for me. My feet are bare, heels touching the grass.  I’m stretched out on an old, slightly moth-chewed blanket I’ve taken from the sitting room. The ground is littered with primroses of every hue, the colour wheel randomly scattered. In fact I’m actually lying on primroses; I can pick out the subtle sweet smell of bruised petals.

I’m looking up though, because above me is blue. Someone has rolled out a  mediterranean sky on this Spring day.

It is cloudless!

But, seared into this blue, in laser-precise outline, is blossom. Clouds of pinky white flowers are stuck on to the leathery barked arms of ancient, stooping apple trees, such as a child might glue scrunched white tissue paper onto a card to depict a blizzard scene. As I look, right arm shielding the sun, small handfuls occasionally take flight from a tree, to be lifted then gently released from a tiny dizzy thermal popping up from the warmed ground.

I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by young goslings who’ve decided that I’m their ‘other’ mother this day. They’ve been grazing for a while and have settled around me, cheeping and wittering; a chatter that is as comforting for me as it is for them. Any slight movement from me evokes a wave of renewed peeps, a slight shift and a rearrangement of folded limbs and stubby wings. We all settle once more. Eyes close, breathing slows. Blossom continues to drift.

I’m writing this because, now I’ve stumbled upon this precious cache, I don’t want to lose it again.



T shirts and Tentacles

It’s been a while … actually it’s been a whole season since I last wrote!!

Summer has whooshed by a brake your wrist speed (seriously), and rather than delay and get bogged down with detail, if it’s ok with you I’m going to use this post a bit like a pin board, and stick up just a few of the projects in which I’ve been delighted to be involved… Here we go… and I promise not to do this again.

Quite out of the blue I was invited by Howies, to design some t shirts for their summer range. This was very new territory for me, but they were extremely kind and patient! The first theme was geared towards one of my favourite past times, that of cycling, with an emphasis on what it ‘gave’ me.

So I illustrated a fish (of course) on a bicycle, escaping the hum drum routine of swimming with the crowd! To my amazement (and relief) it sold out in the first week!

Howies then flattered me further by asking if I’d write a blog for them about the other thing I love to do: forest run. They wanted the dirt, the running at full pelt, hopping over fallen branches and sliding through slurries of mud, to emerge through leafy canopies into glorious sunshine or eye stinging rain! It sounds foul, but there IS something about it… feral, freeing and getting covered in mud… I digress.

Here’s a link to that blog if you’d like a peak, and the T shirt that went with it…funny how it turned out to be a bit like the British Isles.

As most of Britain swung into full Summer mode and the general public’s mottled purple legs turned from pink to brown, the lovely people at the Guild of Fine Food asked if I would design and illustrate a map for them to celebrate British Charcuterie.

As I began to research, it revealed itself to be a thriving and rather unknown industry; I had no idea just how many independent producers we have on these isles, and how diverse the British range of charcuterie truly is. Do you remember when we as a public would show a certain element of indifference (bordering on snobbish disregard) towards the British cheese industry? Yet now, due to a lot of campaigning and persistence  by the producers, and various celebrity foodies there is a palpable element of (smug) pride we feel when hunting down a semi obscure British cheese. It would be great if British charcuterie could enjoy the same level of grand scale public support.

Then there was the project for an Italian photographer who, like me, has a bit of thing about octopus…

The last one I’ll mention was a great couple that ‘won’ a commission through an auction held by the brilliantly innovative Do LecturesThey got to choose whatever they wanted. I got to illustrate it for them. They chose pea pods. Lush. 

So that’s it for now. If you made it this far, thank you for allowing me to spill a few bits of work onto the page. I promise the next scribblings will be a little more inspiring!

Off now to work on some mackerel stripes, bye for now x

Enigma Open Day (but you can visit any time....)

This is not going to be a techie post, so if that’s what why you’re here, then perhaps you should switch to another blog; I won’t be offended.

You see I’m writing this blog from the perspective of someone who is relatively new to bicycles… but absolutely knows she has found something, that she should have pursued many many years back.  I’d like to blame it on my first ever bicycle, but that might seem rather churlish. (I’d asked for a racing bike, but in the 70’s girls weren’t necessarily encouraged to sit astride a high top tube.. I mean, what are you supposed to wear! Apparently a skirt, and keep your knees together, mind). So instead I’ll just say that my initial burn of enthusiasm was all but extinguished, due to a poorly worded letter to Father Christmas, and a frog-green girl’s Raleigh bicycle.

Now however, I’m am ridiculously passionate about bikes (even frog green ones), to the point where my children are perhaps somewhat bemused at how often I disappear for a ‘quick’ spin. I’ve also become a bit of a gear slut.

During my meteoric rise of fervency for all things bike related my husband, Marc, found out about an English bike manufacturer called Enigma. Willingly pulled in by this mystery (yeah I know) vacuum, he and I went to their small but perfectly formed site based down near Eastbourne. He got measured up, while I walked around chatting to framebuilders and welders, stroking lugs and goggling at high polished cassettes.

The thing about Enigma is this: Like a lot of REALLY good bike manufacturers, they are utterly vocational in their approach to frame building and ultimately bike building.  It is a labour of love and devotion. However, in an industry where perhaps 99% of bicycles are manufactured abroad, they are amongst a mere handful that are still British.

It was founded by Jim Walker, who, with almost 35 years experience in this business, set out to reverse the pitiful decline of the British bike industry, which at one time produced in excess of 2 million bicycles a year.  (2009 saw this industry at an all time low of a mere 20,000 bikes being produced).

In just over 6 years the Engima team has steadily grown, selling frames to customers worldwide, to the point where they have had to move premises, and I, along with my family was lucky enough to be invited to the open day on 4th May.

The weather (yes, being British I’ll have to mention the weather) was abysmal, with grey morose clouds loitering over the new Enigma premises in Hailsham.  It started to spit and then seriously threatened a deluge of potentially humour curdling rain.

Never the less this light, airy, hangar-like place was heaving with enthusiastic, all-weather, hearty cyclists, most of whom were clad in cycle shorts and mud, having arrived by bike from all corners of the county to be here and ogle some extremely beautiful frames.

On chatting with a few of these souls it became very clear that if they weren’t owners of Enigmas already they were there, because like me, there is something so completely intoxicating about being in touching distance from such exquisitely built and finished frames.

To support and add a bit of ‘glamour’, former professional cyclist (and ex head directeur sportif at Team Sky) Sean Yates attended, with a promise to lead a 30 mile ride out for those who felt able.

Sean Yates with young Enigma fan

 A incisive and inspiring speech was made by the High Sheriff of East Sussex, Graham Peters, an active proponent of British industry. He echoed the strong sense of pride and support I think we all feel towards the Engima team. Having not only survived this very tough era Enigma has managed to actually flourish.

After an announcement for the ride out to commence, the High Sheriff whipped out a very glittery sabre and with one well placed slice, cut through a ribbon.

High Sheriff Peter Graham cutting the ribbon

And after fuelling up on a seemingly endless supply of eclectic foods (all mindful of the appropriate ratios of carbs:protein no doubt, “cough, cough”), a stream of Enigmas, led by a motorbike, headed out into the drizzle.

Jim is very clear that the strength of Enigma lies in the team.

“It’s all about the team, and not any individual. I’ve been in the bike business almost 35 years and I realised long ago that a business of this type is only as good as the people it employs, and as far as I’m concerned I have the best team I could have…. all are highly motivated individuals who share my passion for bikes of the highest quality.  I wouldn’t swap a single employee.”

 Jim Walker heading out

We left the open day and returned home…  I walked out to the garage and polished and oiled my Enigma Echo, Love at first (actually, third) bike..

Where do I sign?......

This thing called 30 Days of Biking….

I heard about it last year through twitter, sort of half way in to April, sort of easy to avoid the commitment! But this year in a moment of temerarious enthusiasm I clicked on the ‘pledge’ button.  The very word, pledge (noun – a solemn promise of  undertaking) makes it sound like a daunting prospect. The commitment to cycle EVERY day, regardless of weather, work, kids, obligations, or general lack of zing!

My family thought me brave, but rather daft, given that Spring was rather reluctant to make a show, and so my first two weeks were peppered, nay, hosed with everything Winter had forgotten to throw at us. I thought myself simply daft… and as if to prove me right, the first week of biking was pretty hellish, with sleet, hail, snow, ice; gloved fingers turned white, while my nose – turning turnip purple – dripped like a badly plumbed faucet.

But, powered on in the knowledge that I wasn’t the only one out there mentally and physically ploughing through this slurry of Winter’s doggy bag, I kept going. And then something miraculous happened.  I became addicted.  I found myself ending work, shuffling kids around, putting on the supper and then – almost without thinking – climbing into my bibs, woolly socks, Sidis, and gloves (with integral fluffy nose wipe!), and chirruping “see you later!” with a kind of Tally ho attitude! What?!

From that point onwards it’s been love, not a gooey type of love, but a nurturing, challenging, self determined kind that leaves you grinning wildly at the end. There have been times when I’ve thrown my arms wide and whooped (I am not good at this ‘no hands’  bit, so these were fleeting seconds rather than extended minutes); sung at the top of my voice some 90’s throw back hit.. with no one to hear but the cows and birds. It’s been FABULOUS.

Talking of grinning.. here is the month’s tally:

3 accidental (messy) dismounts, usually user error… hrrm

6 flies caught in teeth through grinning, a further 5 swallowed

3 wolf whistles (possibly aimed at the bike)

1 chicken almost beheaded (it’s a bit of a story)

Just shy of 300 miles covered.

What I’ve gained:


A renewed love for the Sussex countryside

A Love of self propelled speeeeeeeeeed

For those who’re counting, £65 from not using the diesel pig

An inch on each thigh.. my jeans don’t fit but who cares, it’s either skirts or cycling shorts from now on… if Summer plays ball

Head space


Huge thanks goes to those great souls who devised this whole mad wonderful thing called 30 Days of Biking. Not once did I feel alone in this pursuit; there was a world-wide family of like minded cyclists who were pedalling ‘with’ me. Thanks goes to all of you for the good company, great photos and the inspiring/amusing words. It’s been so much fun, and I hope to see you all again next year… if not before!

To be honest, I think it wasn’t even that difficult to get ‘addicted’. Once you’ve discovered the thing that can give you so much, you just find yourself returning.  It’s a very precious discovery too. But it’s not one to keep a secret!

You ready?


Being so accustomed to the mundanity, the reach-for-your-coat-and-waders routine, I almost forgot to take a second look.  I mean a proper David Bellamy kind of look.

Well I have now, and it appears that elusive Spring has soldiered on, regardless of abmismal conditions. Seedlings have popped their heads above the parapet of soil to  wave infantile arms (“Feed me!”). Vegetable beds that were cleared, are now proudly sporting a new buzz cut of young grass and creeping buttercup. Wood anemones are carpeting dappled, forgotten areas of woodland and roadside ditch. Even forget-me-nots have started quietly illuminating the rise of soil around gated field entrances. I should have guessed that Spring would carry on, regardless. She always does.

Time to get my fork out again..

A Thing About Fish.. how it began

The first ‘real’ fish meal I can recall was Conga pie. By real, I mean it wasn’t preformed to look inoffensive and un-fishlike. (Saying that, I will always love a fish finger sandwich!)

Growing up, our little kitchen was (as is for many) the hub of familial life. Everything that was anything happened there. Various dogs carpeted the under table area, waiting to hoover the inevitable fallout from above. There was usually a chair resting, legs prone, on top of this table, enduring a ‘French Polish’. A sewing box took up a weekly slot, at the other end, disembowelled during a spate of darning and hemming. The sink draining area doubled up as storage for cleaned pans as well a resting place for a half plucked goose or freshly gutted fish (ultimate hygiene always top of the agenda!). The true heart of the kitchen though was the Raeburn. Mottled cream with a black top it sat quietly, always ready to cook or simply give comfort to a cold rear (unless the morning ‘coal swing’ had been forgotten).

I must’ve been about 8 years old. Coming in from a prowl and play around the field I was welcomed by a distinctly different smell hitting my nostrils and throat.  I walked over to the Raeburn and on tip toe peered over the edge of mum’s gargantuan pot that always seemed to be bubbling on the single hob.

The bizarre sight of 4 inch thick slabs of twitching muscle floating in a simmering sea of milk seemed entirely wrong to me.

“Mum! Stop cooking this thing! It’s still alive!”

“Don’t worry darling, it’s really not.”

“What is ‘it’?” I asked, with not just a little misgiving.

“It’s Conga eel (bright, cheery voice), and (firm voice to discourage any possible revolt) it’s going to be a wonderful fish pie”

Not in the least reassured, I vowed that this was one dish that I wouldn’t be eating, no matter how it was ‘disguised’.

Of course I did, and I absolutely loved it. Everything that got put in front of me got eaten, not simply because I had to, but because it usually tasted great.  My dear mother was (and still is) is an extraordinarily inventive cook. One of those who can literally pull something out of the proverbial hat, even when the cupboard or fridge looks decidedly devoid of inspiration.

Living near the coast meant that our diet was rich in fish. It was cheap too. really cheap. There wasn’t a huge cheffy/media push on fish at the time, so not many English cookery books featured them, let alone dedicated a whole book to these odd ‘foreign’ foods. Consequently, mum used to make it up as she went along. We ate a lot of sole, plaice and skate.

One that appeared with great regularity was mackerel, and it was at this point that I started to get ‘hooked’ on the sheer beauty of fish, any fish, even the so called ‘ugly’ ones.

If you click here you can see a few of my favourite fish I’ve illustrated.

The most enduring one for me though remains the mackerel..

I met it properly for the first time at the age of 9, as I hauled it up, flapping and flexing, out of the sea and into a sandcastle bucket. The eye popping colours of a living mackerel are quite the most vivid and hypnotically intoxicating that I’ve ever seen. Sadly though within hours of being caught, like all fish, the colours start to fade.  As an illustrator I work mostly from life and so it is when I draw/paint fish: the real thing perched in front of me.

My current mackerel painting started with a visit to my lovely local fishmongers (click and have a listen).

The chosen ones, with bright fluid eyes, got to pose for some colour ref shots before they faded..


And then finally…

And of course to round it off, I should really give you my most favourite mackerel recipe..

1. Go fishing and catch your own, then

2. BBQ it on the beach on which you land.

It will never taste better than at this moment.