Oh nettle, where is thy sting?

Nettles in field

I love the smell of nettles in the morning.

They smell of spring to me. I tried to think, yesterday, while playing in the field and kitchen, how to describe their scent. Are they lemony? Peppery? Soapy? None of these will do. They just smell, gloriously, like nettles.

Most of us, most of the time perhaps do not get so close to a nettle patch to catch their heady scent. But if, as I did, you go out with a pair of rubber gloves, nice and early while the sun is just beginning to drive off the dew, you can pick a bagful without getting stung and get a good whiff while you are picking.

Then back to the kitchen and a sinkful of scented green leaves (rubber gloves still on); blanch them and squeeze out the water (rubber gloves off at last), mix with cooked potatoes, semolina, flour and egg. This is the dough for potato and nettle gnocchi, which we ate in the evening with sage butter. I have made nettle pasta (brighter green than spinach pasta) before but it was my first time of making these delicious little dumplings.

Oh, and those nettles are very nutritious, and free, and you can make all sorts of things out of them. All very worthy, but I was just having fun.

Note:After reading the first version of this post, my friend pointed out (see comments below) that the nettles in the picture with the fetching white flowers are dead nettles, which look very similar to stinging nettles and grow in the same places but are unrelated and do not sting.

So I went back to the nettle patch for another look and indeed there is a fine mix of both urtica dioica (with stings) and lamium album (without). Luckily both are edible as I suspect both went into my cooking!

Nettles in kitchen

Making gnocchi

There… and back again

We have been in Manchester this past weekend. The drive over the Pennines and back again can be slow, but there are glimpses of beautiful countryside to be had from the van windows as we pass – a few of which form today’s gallery above.

We have spent time with friends, daughter and grandchildren, all people very dear to us. Each encounter has been important, and fun, and yet I still find it unsettling being back where we used to live. Every bit of it is so familiar, it induces a kind of panic in me. It seems as though the new life, Heckington, is but a dream and I have not managed to leave after all.

On the way home I mused about why I find it so hard to go back. I think my separation from the place throws into relief the feelings of being trapped, stuck and powerless that I had over so many years. I feel cheered by this realisation that Manchester is not a terrible place; it is simply that I was often unhappy in the years I lived there.

I am happier now. Over this past year I have felt the happiness came from being in a place that feels so right for me. But perhaps there is another way of looking at it. Perhaps it is not the place so much as my act of choosing it that brings this lightness of heart, this sense of balance and freedom.

I am reminded of children’s adventure stories, of those moments when someone crosses into another world. There is a magic in the curiousity, faith and courage that take someone over a threshold into an unknown future. When we choose freely and step forward in hope, we claim some of that magic for ourselves.

I wrote this post back in April about some of the same set of feelings, though I didn’t see them so clearly then as now.

Vertigo

Mill view

It’s been a busy week, including a short visit from two-year-old granddaughter sans parents. Great fun – and full on, as they say.

Handed her back at Doncaster station rendezvous on Friday; then I was off to my placement to do a mediation. By the time I had retrieved the van from Grantham station and was driving home I was very tired. So I turned off the main road earlier than usual and drove very slowly along narrow country roads, getting out once or twice to take a photo of fields.

This picture is taken from the road into Heckington from the nearby village of Burton Pedwardine. In the distance you can see Heckington Windmill.

Fields of wheat are like a green sea stretching out to the far horizon; close up you can see each individual plant, each ear of grain. They remind me of looking at Antony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles at the Tate in Liverpool some years ago. Hundreds of little clay figures spread out to fill a whole room, like a field or a sea. Yet each is a unique figure, the whole seems a metaphor for humanity; we are a mass and within the mass each individual is huge, complex, unique, valuable.

It is too much for my poor brain to contemplate on this particular day, the vast and the minuscule; vertigo brought on by corn standing in a field.

Field

Summer’s lease

By Heckington Eau Swallows swoop and skim over the grass when I walk Doris the dog round the village sports field, telling me it’s summer even with a gale blowing and grey sky overhead.

Blue sky later: good for an evening walk. The footpath runs along the bank of Heckington Eau and I look over fields of wheat or peas, stretching like a dark green sea below me. The banks of the drains, so plain in winter, are bursting with grasses, cow parsley, wild flowers.

Many fields have wide verges left uncut for wildlife: crops and grasses make stripes of light/dark green, grey, yellow.

Stripes bring to mind the Isle of Wight, 1970s, bottles filled with layers of coloured Alum Bay sands. Before that, in my grandmother’s house, stripy sands in a bottle were from the Egyptian desert: my teenage summers or my mother’s lost, hot childhood, bottled.

And watery fen or arid desert exist under the same bowl of sky.

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Cross-country

Here is England, seen fleetingly through the van window, from Heckington to Manchester and back again. We pass fields of sheep and steelworks, cranes and turbines, service stations, farm shops, church towers heading for heaven, footpaths winding off the page. We travel across England’s middle, through green England, tarmacked England, under impossible, painted skies of blue and white and thunder-grey. And as I look out, and when I remember it later, writing these words, I can taste the green and the rain and the grit and I could eat it up, it’s so good.

Truckstop, Norfolk

Suffolk view

To Suffolk on Tuesday to see aunt and cousins. Enjoyed the three hour journey in campervan through a rural landscape that moved from pancake-flat fenland to low, rolling Norfolk hills. And now am on my way home again. Here was my coffee stop, somewhere near Thetford – noticed the field colours like the ones in my last post, the picture taken by friend on Star Fen. So great to see so much green at last. I love all these fields, trees, hedgerow, cow parsley, reminding me of childhood summers.

Coffee stop

Plum plum pudding

I’ve been looking for years for a Christmas pudding recipe that I like enough to use more than once – and think now I’ve found it. Called Plum Plum Pudding – plums twice because it uses fresh plums as well as prunes – it’s from Dan Lepard’s recent book, Short and Sweet and is delicious. I also made Figgy Pudding and a more classic Xmas pudding from the same book, but we’ve not eaten them yet.

Just now I’m too full of Christmas dinner to think about eating anything else for a long time…

Less rain today. Took dogs out for v quick walk before we sat down to eat, a little before dusk. Had brief glimpse of the kind of view I love – vast sky of bright, pale blue washed pink around the edges, green grass and skeleton black trees, intensity of colour that catches me by the throat. Turning back, I head for the church spire standing tall in the flat landscape.

We’ve been here a week. In some ways it’s still like being in a holiday house where you don’t quite know how everything works. But out walking in the fields it already feels like home.

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Yesterday’s landscape photos too dark, but here is a picture of the village green with the church behind.