Are pilchards really sardines?

I was writing about school dinners and how, on the whole, I enjoyed them… I had forgotten pilchards… Pilchards, those small headless and tailless fish served at school in a tomato sauce… with salad… salad comprising of limp lettuce leaves, slices of cucumber and slices of tomato… I can’t say that pilchards were my favourite dinner. I think to be fair to pilchards it was the horrid, metallic tasting tomato sauce.

Now sardines are another matter; when I was young  I don’t ever remember seeing sardines, those small members of the herring family, in fishmongers shops; I do remember having them in tins, preserved in oil. I liked sardines, in sandwiches or on toast. When I went abroad as a student then there were fresh sardines, delicious grilled and eaten with French bread and a glass or two of wine. Sardines began to appear in fishmongers, or maybe they always had been there and I’d never looked for them before.

I read of the shoals of pilchards which swam round Cornwall, and how watchers would be posted on the cliffs to look out for them so the fishermen could go out and catch them, of how the sea changed colour when they came, millions upon millions of tiny silver fish.  These small fish were once the mainstay of the Cornish fishing industry, giving work to thousands of men, and food on the table for their families. In 1871, for example over sixteen thousand tons were exported, having been sorted, salted and crated by the women working through mountains of fish in what were called the pilchard palaces. Apparently by the 1900’s the town of Newlyn alone processed thousands of tons of pilchards each year. However, tastes changed and more and more pilchards were consigned to tins, which is how I remember them. A hundred years after the boom years, only six (yes 6) tons of pilchards were landed in Cornwall. Newlyn, which had relied on the small fish, now had a museum at the Pilchard Works factory.

Happily, the fashion for fresh, locally sourced, quality food (I hope it is more than just a fashion) means that fresh pilchards are back in the fishmongers, and back on people’s plates; although nowhere like the fishing fleets of the past, there are about a dozen boats which go out pretty regularly from Mevagissey and Newlyn. Pilchards which were selling at 1½p (0ne and a half pence) a kilo, are now selling at about £3 a kilo… things are looking up for the fishermen and their families in Cornwall.

So  back to the question about pilchards and sardines; apparently it depends on size – small one are less than 6 inches long, pilchards are longer… as simple as that…

Look out brambles! Secateured and ready!

The sun is shining, the bitter wind has dropped, I have a free afternoon and I’m about to attack the brambles which are running through our hedge. The hedge itself has gone rampant and is also tangled with ivy. It makes an effective barrier against intruders, something prickly is much better than most security devices at keeping unwelcome visitors out, but I don’t want it to overwhelm the new climbing roses we’ve planted, or the pretty berberis (also spiky but very small) or the new Japonica.

We are lucky to have a very good recycling system in Somerset, so all the stuff we can’t compost ourselves, turn into mulch or shred can be piled into green bags and will be collected by the dustbin men every two weeks… I know they don’t collect dustbins any more  in fact there probably aren’t any  dustbins, only wheelie bins and coloured boxes… but I don’t know the current name for the bin men. Garbage disposal operatives, maybe, heroes whatever they are called, always so cheery however beastly the weather!

So – to the garden, to the hedge, to work!


It’s Tuesday today, the day I do my voluntary teaching, English conversation for adults. We start the ‘lesson’ with some grammar points, then we have a topic which involves some general conversation, so today we’ll talk about May Day, which is tomorrow. We have coffee which encourages conversation, then we split into three groups, roughly beginners, intermediate and advanced… but only roughly, the students can choose which group they go in. After three-quarters of an hour we come back together again and have what is known as ‘bag time’ Each week one of the volunteers brings a collection of connected items to talk about,; for example, one week someone brought a collection of mugs from across the world, another week someone had been doing some gardening so brought in a variety of tools, seeds, compost, plant pots, and the students all planted some runner beans.

Today I’m with the beginners and I’m going to be checking they all know parts of the body, and can describe people. I may also check their pronunciation of days and months. It’s all a little fluid because we never know how many students will be there, sometimes only eight, sometimes nearer twenty! They are all adults and have busy lives so sometimes they can’t make it, or sometimes they come once and find our class isn’t what they’re looking for.

Thinking of days of the week…. Tuesday is named after the Norse god of war, Tyr. There are a couple of actresses I know of named after it, Tuesday Weld and Tuesday Knight, there have been books, films, even an opera with the word in their title as well as songs, and an American band. If you were born on a Tuesday then you are ‘full of grace’ according to the old rhyme!

Bird of paradise

I love this exotic flower, the strelitzia. I’ve seen the often enough in florists and at garden centres, but I was lucky enough to see some growing almost wild in southern Spain where I took this photo.

They come originally from South Africa and were named after the  Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, where Queen Charlotte of England,  the wife of King George III was born. Some varieties of strelitzia grow to more than 10 metres tall – really? Can you imagine that? How amazing! That variety has blue and white flowers, but there are varieties with many other colours. You can probably guess they are called bird of paradise flowers because they do really look like birds.

Strelitzia feature in my novel,  ‘The Stalking of Rosa Czekov’ – Tyche the main character receives a bouquet of them after a night of passion!

It’s for you-hoooo!

It may be difficult for my children to imagine a world without mobile phones, I guess almost impossible to think about a time when not everyone even had a land-line telephone in their home!

I lived in a flat as a child, and the elderly lady upstairs, Aunty Gladys had a phone installed and we were allowed to use it for important calls. That didn’t happen very often, and when I say ‘we’ I mean my parents. So we used public telephones in the iconic red telephone boxes. The first time I remember using one I must have been about ten, and my dad Donald came with me to help me. In those days there were two buttons, A and B which had to be pressed in sequence and when you had inserted the four pennies you needed to make a call. I was overcome with nerves and barely managed to speak to whoever I was calling.

When I was fourteen we moved house and there was a telephone in our new home, but I don’t remember using it very often. In those days there were three postal deliveries a day and you could post something being fairly sure it would arrive in the next day’s post. Moving again when I was sixteen, to a new house, and no phone. I moved away when I was 18 to go to Manchester Polytechnic; and never had a phone in any of the grotty places I lived (no student accommodation for the Poly!)

By the mid seventies, phones were very common, and really, from then on, I always had a land line. I first saw a mobile phone in 1995, I first had one in 2000, now I can’t imagine life without it, and am so glad I can keep in touch with my children now that they are away doing degrees themselves!

The lovers at St Pancras

St Pancras Station in London was commissioned to be built in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it was designed by William Henry Barlow. It is the most amazing structure, and must have been a marvel at the time, and a wonder for the next 150 years. Apparently some bureaucratic vandal suggested knocking it down in the 1970’s can you imagine that? What crass ignorance; this station is a thing of beauty and wonder  and a tribute to the enterprise, skill and art of engineers and constructors. I have been to London times without number but have never been here before as my trains always arrived at other stations. I will, however go here again, not to catch a train but just to spend time looking at this glorious triumph of the meeting of art, science and engineering.

The contract for the construction was of the station substructure and connecting lines was given to Messrs. Waring, with the Barlow’s assistant Campion as supervisor. The lower floor for beer warehousing contained interior columns 15 wide, and 48 deep carrying girders supporting the main station and track. The St Pancras branch ran below the station’s bottom level, in an east to west direction.

To avoid the foundations of the roof interfering with the space beneath, and to simplify the design, and minimise cost, it was decided to construct a single span roof, with cross ties for the arch at the station level. The arch was sprung directly from the station level, with no piers. Additional advice on the design of the roof was given to Barlow by Rowland Mason Ordish. The arches ribs had a web depth of 6 ft (1.8 m), mostly open ironwork. The span width, from wall to wall was 245 ft 6 in (74.83 m)}, with a rib every 29 ft 4 in (8.94 m) The arch was a slightly pointed design, with a reduced Radius of curvature at the springing points. The Butterley Company was contracted to construct the arches. The total of the 24 rib roof, and glazing was over £53,000, of which over half was for the main ribs. The cost of the gable end was a further £8,500.

The single-span overall roof was the largest such structure in the world at the time of its completion. The current record holder for this is the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Texas, USA.

The materials used were wrought-iron framework of lattice design, with glass covering the middle half and timber (inside)/slate (outside) covering the outer quarters. The two end screens were glazed in a vertical rectangular grid pattern with decorative timber cladding around the edge and wrought iron finials around the outer edge. It was 689 feet (210 m) long, 240 feet (73 m) wide, and 100 feet (30 m) high at the apex above the tracks

The buildings fronting the station and the station hotel were designed by George Gilbert Scott an architect who produced some of the finest Gothic revival buildings in the world, including workhouses, asylums, churches, schools, libraries, town halls, public buildings, and memorials such as The Albert Memorial.

Within the station are a number of wonderful contemporary bronzes, including one of Sir John Betjeman who was passionate about architecture and trains as well as poetry, and a fantastic, almost awe-inspiring,  30 foot bronze statue by Paul Day called ‘The Meeting Place’ but known as ‘The Lovers.’ Round the huge base is a tremendous bronze frieze: