Friday, 27 July 2012

Back to Wales

Keith just sent across this photo of me at The Ciliau. Wales seems far away, but back there Sunday evening via Avignon and London. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012


Aleppo, Syria hit the headlines today and I'm reminded of my paternal grandmother who was born in that ancient city. (A glance in the mirror after a week in the sun also reminds me of my middle eastern roots. For the last ten months I've been looking rather like my maternal, Welsh grandmother!). We're heading to Colonia, Uruguay in September, to spend a summer there while Ollie does field work for his PhD. In the late 1920s my Grandmother's adoptive brother (actually a cousin of hers, who escaped from being massacred by the Turks in Eastern Anatolia, then from being murdered by Arabs in the deserts of Syria) emigrated to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and from there began a small exodus of the Manoogian family to South America. With this family history, my love of middle eastern food (whether made by my grandmother, Sarkis in Villa Crespo or Ottolenghi in West London) I'm thinking of doing a pop-up supper club called MANOOGIANS in Colonia over the summer months. And if I enjoyed it, maybe I'd continue it once a week at Pottery Cottage. Thoughts to please!

Old friends, new friends

When we first met Joe (far right) he was the same age as Bo (far left) is now, and his lovely Mama was very pregnant with Honor (centre right), who met Seth (centre left) just hours after he was born. All of this happened in Buenos Aires, and after many happy days and months together in Argentina, we've since met in Oxford, Dorset, Argentina, Wales, and London (multiple times), and one of these days we'll make it out to Barcelona where they live now (and where they don't kick kids out of the pub at 7pm as happened just after this photo was taken in Westbourne Grove last week). 

Welsh sculptures

How exciting that Keith Johnson and John Finlayson, who have spent the last two decades scouting talented artists for Anthropologie, loved Sally Matthews' sculptures. Plans afoot for a solo exhibition in London!


I just loved Sally's ability to stay completely calm and unphased by the guys saying they'd like to commission a solo exhibition on the Kings Road (photo 1) and that Keith would like to buy - there and then - a limited edition bronze horse (photo 2). 

The Ciliau

Huge thanks to Roger Capps and Emma Metcalf for allowing me to show The Ciliau to Keith Johnson and John Finlayson from Anthropologie. I love otherworldly places, and Capps' inspired restoration of this house, tucked in the hills a few miles from Hay, is just that. My iphone snaps are terrible - for better shots, buy World of Interiors in October.
 Mural of a goat, uncovered during the meticulous restoration.
 A dream library, which is swarming with bats at night as they have a bat preservation grant.
 The most desirable outdoor loo I've ever seen (complete with copper bath).
 Emma disappearing out the door, under a portrait of her younger self

Adjust the sails!

Great quote on a card at The Ciliau (see next post). The boat is The Dolphin, a handsome Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter, which owner Roger Capps, and my friend Emma, sailed around the Arctic on for three years. 

Monday, 23 July 2012

It wasn't all bad!

It's not gone as planned, but hopefully, one day, we'll finish the cottage and look back on these days and think how fun it was that our kitchen was outside in the wettest June on record, when a month's worth of rain fell in two days.
I guess very few people in the country noticed that the rain stopped pretty much every day around 5/6pm, timed perfectly so that we could cook and eat outside every evening through that dreadful spate of rain, and most days for breakfast.

Rain rain rain

The rain really has been miserable, but it's been perfect weather for our fledgling garden. The grass is morphing from its newborn hair look to proper thick grass, and by the time we return from France next week we should be able to mow it for the first time.

I fell in love with Lupins on our Christmas camping trips to Lago Huechulafquen, under the shadow of spectacular Volcan Lanin. In the mornings we walked from our simplest of simple pitches beside the lake, through swathes of Lupins to buy fresh bread and honey from the Mapuche for our breakfast. I was so happy to find they do well in Wales too, and of everything we've planted they've flowered the most. I don't have any pics of them in full flower, but every day we have new ones, and they look just a gorgeous as they begin to burst into flower, with the contrast of acid green and bold colour:

I'm less excited by the shrubs, but in a year or so it will be less defined and perhaps I'll better appreciate the contrast of the foliage with the flowers. It's amazing how quickly the earth is covered and the green takes over. Lots of weeding required, but I'm training the boys from a young age, as I direct from the sidelines, glass of wine in hand.

Fforde Fotos

Love these two photos from the multi-talented Jasper Fforde, who lives up the hill from us in Clyro. The first is of his latest book, 'The Woman Who Died a Lot' taken in his garden, which has beautiful views down to Hay. The secon is of his fab stairwell bookshelf which is filled, from tip to toe, by single copies of each of his books ever published. He benefits from being prolific (and works to multi-book contracts) and having a worldwide cult following, so lots of different titles and many foreign editions stack up to make a very cool wall covering.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Begwyns views

It's beautiful when it's not raining...
Taken on Ollie's run on the Begwyns this evening.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

From seed to lawn - in one month

Looking at this almost makes me feel okay about the rain. 
I will post a pic tomorrow of the other side of the garden that was sown just a week ago and already has a green cover. Amazing!

To pack or unpack, that is the question

So all this chat about heading off to South America in September, but we haven't booked the flights yet, and we can't really until Ollie passes the first year of his PhD.  This week he has been locked up in his shed (well, apart from a two-day trip to Cambridge and to London for the Faber Summer Party) working on his progress review, a 15,000 word report on his research to date. It's due in tomorrow morning and he's just sent it off and on 30 July he has an interview with his supervisor and advisor. I suppose if it all goes wrong and he fails we'll at least be able to unpack our bags and settle, but I'm not sure I'm quite ready for that yet.

Sunday at Shepherds

Persuading an Argentine that Shepherds sheep's milk ice-cream is as good as Freddo's is harder than getting a thumbs up on a steak outside of Buenos Aires. To be fair, they don't do dulce de leche granizado but it's still seriously, seriously good ice-cream!!

Every Child - be inspired!

Please watch this great short film with a song written by our friend Jim Eliot (who also writes songs for Kylie) and the kids from Gladestry School, just a few miles away from here. At the end there's a petition to sign online that will be sent to Powys County Council as part of the campaign to stop the closure of this great rural school. More about the school and the campaign at the Friends of Glasbury School website:  It's really great, click the arrow to play!

Fells and foxgloves

From Ollie's run on The Begwyns this afternoon. He's really going to miss his long weekend runs in the hills (we just have three more weekends here this summer!).

Brunch in the sun

Brunch IN THE SUN!!!! Bit cloudy in this photo, but amazingly, it really was sunny. Papers and pastries baked just for us, overlooking the River Wye (so full from all the rain it's at winter levels) at the River Cafe in Glasbury.

'The best steak outside of Buenos Aires'

We had the loveliest of evenings yesterday with our dear Argentine friend, Macu, and Jamie, one of Ollie's oldest friends, who are soon to be married - having been set up by us three years ago! We took them to wonderfully atmospheric Bull's Head in Craswell, nestled in the Black Mountains. The food was fantastic. Macu bravely chose the steak which owner and chef Charles Mackintosh was delighted to hear her declare 'the best steak outside of Buenos Aires'.

With well worn stone floors, peeling lime walls, huge wooden settles a roaring fire and the famous hole in the wall bar - it's the perfect cosy pub, and the food is fantastic and makes it totally worth the trek.

Blue pots in Craswell

Gorgeous blue pottery collection at the Bull's Head in Craswell, gifted to the owners by a potter friend who now lives in Israel.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Grass - one week update

All this rain is good for something ;) One week after sowing the grass seed. Pretty good, eh?

Ollie's writing shed

Still a long way to go until we finish the shed, garden and house, but it's getting there, and Ol loves his shed. At gone 10pm last night he was still in the shed, I looked out and it was pitch black out there, so it cross my mind that he could have died... but no, he just hadn't got around to flicking the switch on the light and was working there on his computer in the dark. Quite typical of Ollie, but it's shed where he can happily live out all his odd ways. He's away now for three days so I get to take over the shed until Friday, hopefully to finish sorting the books and get a shelf up for his kettle and coffee machine.

Life at the end of the day

We had dinner with friends in Clifford on Saturday and they were asking about how we're feeling about going back to Argentina in September. It got me thinking about what I miss about life there. Friends definitely. Other than that, there's so much I love about Argentina and Buenos Aires, but what do I really, really miss every day? I realised that one thing is how different 5 o'clock is there to how it is here. 5pm in Argentina I'd always be outside, with or without the boys. The light and temperature is perfect at that time, the parks and streets full of people doing not particularly anything, and with the second half of the 'day' is just beginning. Here, 5pm the day is winding down and everyone's retreating into their houses. I find the evenings here so confined. I get an urge many evenings to go for a run, to feel like the world hasn't stopped just because it's after 7pm. I find the sight of house after house with the lights from a TV flashing out one of the most depressing things about our country! I do appreciate the quiet of living in the countryside, but I do wonder why, on the rare sunny evenings, we're the only family around us in the village eating outside. One of my favourite sounds from Buenos Aires, even in our last apartment where we had no place to eat outside but we all had our windows flung open, was the sound of families all around us cooking, eating, chatting, laughing, arguing, clattering plates and pans as they cleared up and doors opening and closing as people then went out to enjoy the rest of the evening. I miss that. It's not all bad though, and today there is life in the day after 5pm as I'm going to see Cold Comfort Farm at The Courtyard in Hereford with my friend Jules.

A day at the beach

So my iphone screen has broken and I'm a little lost without it. I rely on my phone so much, not for making phonecalls as there's barely any signal in Clyro, but for using it as a backup memory and as a filing system (I take photos of images, references, articles etc. I like). So on Sunday when I drove to the coast on a whim, I was gutted not to have my phone and have had to crank my own memory system into gear to keep a record of one of my best days with the boys ever.

Ollie was walking in the hills with friends for the day, so on a whim I drove to the coast with the boys. I was planning on taking them to the Dan-yr-Orgof caves but they fell asleep in the car so I thought I'd surprise them and be at the seaside when they woke up. I'd like to have gone further, but we made it to The Mumbles and they were so excited. We had the beach to ourselves and the tide was out. We had a picnic, made damns in the tributaries, decorated sandcastles with shells, chased giant bubbles down the beach, wrote our names in the sand and Seth drew a family portrait (including Macu, she'll be pleased to hear!), sent sand 'icebergs' crashing into the water and had running races along the beach. My mum told me later that my Welsh great-grandfather used to go to The Mumbles in a charabanc! It was a perfect day out, and next time I'm going to leave early and make it to the Gower. 

We then drove up to Swansea to see the boats in the docks, the old trams in the museum, and the lovely sculpture of a young Dylan Thomas down by the marina, before driving back through the Brecon Beacons National Park dappled in light and totally breathtaking. I love Wales!! (and can't live without a camera).

Welsh Baskets

I've met some great small food producers around here, especially down towards Crickhowell and Abergavenny. So I've started offering baskets of handpicked produce which I can deliver free within a 5 mile radius of Hay. I'm calling them Welsh Baskets, and they come in a willow basket with a Welsh blanket bunting flag detail. I'm offering three baskets - one perfect for a weekend stay, and two for long stays or bigger groups, one more typical hamper fare, but all locally-produced, and and other with all fresh produce. All the details are here. Local people, please forward the link, and I have cards I can drop off at local businesses.

Thanks to Mari Fforde of Little White Dog for the photos, taken opposite Pottery Cottage by the castle tump. 

Proud mama

Huge thanks to man of many talents, Jasper Fforde, for this lovely photo of Seth (with his classmate, also called Seth) taken at Clyro School sports day last week. He looks so, so happy and I love his grubby, strong little knees.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The World According to Oliver Balch

The World According to Oliver Balch (Wanderlust magazine)

Author and Journalist, Oliver Balch, on visiting Turkey just after the Romans left
Mountain/ocean/jungle/desert – which are you and why?
Mountains – closest to heaven.
What was your first great travel experience?
Southern Turkey, pre-package holidays – it felt as if the Romans had only just upped and left.
What was your favourite journey?
Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk, with my dad aged 12.
What are your top five places worldwide?
Buenos Aires, mid-Wales, Himalayas, Provence, Bolivia.
Name a special place to stay. Why is it special to you?
The Maze, Rio de Janeiro – the safest place to sleep in a favela.
What three items do you always pack? Why?
A book to beat off boredom, a pen to put down notes – and a head torch for hands-free, illuminated nerdiness.
Which passport stamp are you proudest of?
Sikkim – it was so grand and so totally preposterously unnecessary.
Which passport stamp would you most like to have?
A Tibetan visa, from a Tibetan government.
What is your guilty travel pleasure?
A dongle.
Which do you prefer: window or aisle?
Window – once I’m in my seat, I like to stay there.
Who is your ideal travelling companion?
Graham Greene – if Pico Iyer hadn’t already nabbed him.
Best meal on the road? And your worst?
Red jungle curry in Thailand... Thai curry in Reading.
Most surprising place? And your most disappointing?
Sucre, Bolivia – a colonial gem; Sao Paulo, Brazil – a concrete catastrophe.
Where do you NOT want to go?
Disney World – I fear I’d flee so fast that I might forget my children.
Who/what inspired you to travel?
A hunch that there might be more to the world than rural Essex.
What do you listen to on the road?
Preferably the soft thud, thud, thud of train wheels over railway sleepers.
Does any song take you back to a particular place?
Dire Straits, Money for Nothing – my friend’s older brother played it continuously as we drove across France in the mid-80s. We thought he was so cool and sophisticated. He must have been all of, ooh, 13 years old.
What do you read when you travel?
Local newspapers, especially those at the lower end of the market. They're a minefield of cultural insights.
Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity?
Rajesh Jala – he’s an Indian documentary maker and one of the most humane individuals I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet.
What's the most impressive/useful phrase you know in a foreign language?
“Che, boludo” – only Argentines fully appreciate just how versatile this phrase is.
What is your worst habit as a traveller?
Impatience. It’s my worst habit in any and every guise.
Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?
Recount how I took my wife camping during the Brazilian summer when she was eight months pregnant. Our discomfort would pale in comparison.
When are where in your travels have you been happiest?
Walking the Langtang Circuit trek in Nepal, aged 19, with no map, no timetable and only my thoughts and the mountains for company.
What smell most says 'travel' to you?
Mosquito repellent.
Given a choice, what era would you travel in?
The pre-combustion engine era – cars spoil the view. In fact, there is little cars don’t spoil when it comes to travel. Even road trips are worse off for them.
If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, which would they be?
Havana for the sea-soaked Malecón, Buenos Aires for its old-style cafes, and Mumbai for its intoxicating chaos.

India RisingOliver Balch is a freelance journalist specialising in business and world affairs. His first book, Viva South America!, was shortlisted as 'Book of the Year' at the UK Travel Press Awards. His latest book, India Rising: Tales from a Changing Nation, can be ordered on Amazon now.

Happiness is...

A hotdog at IKEA age 3, 2, 4 and 4

We made a mad dash back to Bristol after the wedding in Alfriston, crashing with friends (in a 'normal' family house, it felt such a treat!). Ollie caught an early train on Friday up to York to speak at the Festival of Ideas and I hung out in Bristol for the day with Kari, starting with a bit of history and culture at M-Shed and by the end of the day we had descended to IKEA. Four happy kids though, and the boys were asleep before I'd reached the Severn Bridge.

Sussex summer solstice

Still catching up...

Although Seth had flown around the world by the time he was four months old and both boys have inter-railed around Europe with us for a month, they haven't ever really been on any long car journeys (mostly due to my aversion to cars). Racking my brain, trying to think of any others, I can only come up with our road trip in an Ambassador up to the tea plantations in Kerala with our great pal from BA, Heather, but even then I think we only did four hours or so at a time.

So last week I reckon was a record - six hours straight from Clyro to Alfriston between Brighton and Eastbourne on the south coast. We were headed there for the wedding of Ollie's cousin, Emma, to Nathan, on the day of the Summer Solstice. Ollie was in Finland last week doing field work for his PhD, so I was driving the boys down on my own, and apart from the 5.30am start and Bo's vomiting, it was ok.
 Here's a cleaned up, spruced up Bo chatting up the flower girl for some confetti.
My favourite part of the wedding was part of Nathan's explanation of why, at 40-something, together for over a decade, living happily together between Brighton and in their cottage in Alfriston, they'd decided to get married. They've both travelled loads (Emma is a travel writer) and, among other things, Nathan shared that this had given them both an appreciation for their own culture and traditions, marriage being one of them. They brought in elements from different English traditions for marriage ceremonies, and mixed them with music from Africa, where Emma has spent long stints, and put so much thought into everything that was read and said. Nothing was trite or unfelt and we were so pleased to be part of the celebrations.
The five Balch ladies: my mother-in-law, Nessa, sister-in-law, Boney, me, Ollie's sister-in-law, Kate and her daughter, Bridget.

(Another memorable moment from the day was when I asked the guy next to me at the ceremony how he knew Emma and Nathan and he replied, 'I've been playing strategy games with Nathan for the twenty years...' Not what I expected, but just brilliant.)

Car makeover

Our old Golf looking sparkly and new after being cleaned by 12 year old Alexander from Clyro! (He even cleaned the tyres, how keen is he??) I was quite tempted to sell it, it looked so good.
(Unfortunately Bo chose the following day to have his first bout of car sickness and vomited over the back seat FOUR TIMES on our way to Sussex.)

While Papa's away, the grass we'll lay

Soil prepared
Seth psyched up after my strategy talk...

 Sowing the seed
Treading in the seeds after raking