Sunday, October 10th, 2021

This lawn has always been cut in stripes. Yesterday, my gardener Colin felt inspired to try circles. We both like the result so much that from now this will be the default. This poor lawn was recently attacked by an animal which dug holes all over it, presumably looking for something to eat and/or kill. It happened overnight  a few weeks ago and the lawn next morning was in a truly bad state, pockmarked from top to bottom and side to side. We’re filling the dozens of cavities with soil from molehills. This, together with the multitude of funguses, spiders and other living organisms that emerge at this time of year, is the down side of living in the middle of a wood. The big side lawn is the one that tends to attract the moles. It was being cut yesterday by a family of deer that spent the whole day grazing peacefully.

Low Season

Friday, October 1st, 2021

October 1st marks the beginning of my winter season. Not that it feels or looks like winter just yet. The fig tree, planted in the 1960s from a cutting of a tree that stood in the front garden of my family’s St John’s Wood home in London, has yet to shed its leaves. When it does eventually divest itself, there will be great piles of enormous leaves to clear away. This tree has to be pruned hard every year. If left to grow unchecked, it would by now be as big as the whole of the garden in which its parent stood at Number 8 Woronzow Road, London NW8.

From now until Easter, although it is tempting to shut up shop and take a holiday, I try to keep one room open. Bookings naturally tail off after September, especially in rural locations like this one. But hosting one set of guests once a week for a couple of days provides a trickle of income towards maintenance and energy costs, justifies the weekly food deliveries and gives me something to keep me occupied without giving me the enormous workload that I have during the short, intense summer season. Having plenty of days off also gives me a chance to do repairs and upgrades, touch up paintwork, clean or renew mattresses and bedding and just generally take stock of the state of things like roofs and windows (both of which there are far too many in this house). Such tasks are impossible during the hectic summer months.

If you want to book a room, you will find that the only one available online for the next couple of months is the East Wing. If it’s already booked and you want to come and stay, you will need to contact me to find out whether I can open up another room for you. I recently adopted a policy of not releasing dates for booking rooms more than two or three months in advance. In previous years I opened up dates up to a year ahead, but I found that almost all of those advance bookings got cancelled, usually at fairly short notice. Short lead times make life much easier for me.

Secret Corners

Saturday, September 11th, 2021

Four miles down the lane from here is the village of Rolvenden, where Great Maytham Hall is said to be the inspiration for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. This was one of my favourite books as a child, and the name Colin has always been associated in my mind with that novel. My gardener is called Colin, and since starting work here this summer — among many other gardens that he also looks after in this area — I feel that he has waved a magic wand over the grounds, which I had begun to neglect in recent months. His energy is a wonder to behold and I look forward to the improvements he is intending to make, particularly to the yew hedges, which are tricky to trim. Yesterday he was busy uncovering the old ornamental well, hidden behind bits of overgrown rhododendron, bramble and yew. I remember the day I was first able to peer over the edge and see the black mud at the bottom. I was seven years old and felt very grown up.

We are enjoying some glorious weather that we should have had in August but never did. Let us hope that these fine days will last through to the end of September, so that the many guests who are due to stay here this month may enjoy the garden and the fruit of Colin’s labours.

Socially Distanced

Saturday, August 28th, 2021

Here are place settings for two couples at opposite ends of the table. Normally guests are seated near to the window end of the room and they generally enjoy making one another’s acquaintance over breakfast. On this occasion, it was clear that one couple preferred as much separation as possible, so I quickly re-arranged the place settings so that they sat at the far end near the door. This photo shows the table laid for the second morning, with the jams in No-man’s land in the middle of the table.

This was a few weeks ago. Since then the number of covid-19 cases in the area has gone up fairly steadily until it is now back to a level at which I no longer feel comfortable accepting new bookings other than from patients at Benenden Hospital. Added to this, my cleaners have covid in the family and are self-isolating, so I have had to do all the cleaning as well the hundred and one other chores that are involved in running a B&B. Time, therefore, to scale back my operations — at least for a while until it becomes clear which way the wind is blowing.

I run this B&B more or less single-handedly, certainly as far as cooking breakfast is concerned. If a guest were to transmit the virus to me and I become symptomatic, I should be forced to self-isolate and would not be able to look after my guests or give them breakfast. Turning away guests at such short notice would be hugely disruptive and inconvenient, especially as I hear that hotel or B&B accommodation is in very short supply around here. I suspect that other B&Bs have either closed or not re-opened since restrictions were lifted.

I have quite a few guests arriving in the coming two months. I will of course honour these bookings but have disabled all future online bookings for the time being and will re-open rooms and dates as and when this unpredictable situation changes for the better.

Another Tree Down

Monday, July 26th, 2021

This garden was planted up a century ago. Inevitably, some of its trees are reaching the end of their lives. Ten days ago I casually mentioned to my tree surgeon that the big cherry tree near the yew hedge was beginning to look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It has been like that for years, and we have sometimes removed boughs to reduce the weight on one side, but this summer the angle widened to a worrying degree. The roots were rising from the ground and the yew hedge was now at risk, so I asked the tree surgeon to come over and look at it last Wednesday.

We decided that the tree must be felled sooner rather than later. This was sad, as that tree had been part of my life since my early childhood in 1960 when we came to live here. We had four more days of hot weather scheduled, so he said he would take the tree down once the heat had abated. That was five days ago.

Yesterday the weather turned. At the end of a day of rain and thunderstorms, I glanced out of an upstairs window and saw that the tree had taken matters into its own hands. That venerable old cherry, having just yielded its last crop of fruit to the local wood pigeons, jays and blackbirds, decided to gracefully bow out from this world rather than be subjected to the guillotine.

Sunny Side Up

Tuesday, July 20th, 2021

In the midst of a mediocre summer, we are suddenly enjoying a few days of warm weather. Today is as sunny as a perfect fried egg.

An English breakfast revolves around an egg. This central orb is usually surrounded by various satellites such as bacon, sausages, tomatoes and mushrooms. For a long time I was terrified of frying eggs. All too often the yolk would split on landing in the pan; the white would run off in strange directions in uncontrolled abandon; the yolk would cook too fast or not fast enough; bits of white would become rubbery while other bits remained raw; the list goes on… And once cooked, the fried egg would refuse to unstick itself from the pan and end up in pieces, an unsightly and unappealing mess on the guest’s plate. It would then have to be removed and put in the bin. Panic sets in as I must start all over again with a fresh egg in a different pan (which needs warming up, wasting precious minutes) at the same time as trying to prevent the rest of the breakfast from congealing, getting burnt or getting cold, juggling plates, pans, oven doors, and oven gloves.  Oh, the stress! Tip: always put the egg on first when plating up, because it’s at that point when disasters are most likely to strike. At least that way you won’t be faced with a plateful of assorted, unsalvageable food items stained with yellow blotches that all have to be given to the cat. I speak from experience.

Back in 2018, when I first started this B&B, I bought a set of four tiny cast iron frying pans on eBay (see photo above of this morning’s egg being cooked in one of these mini-skillets). They measure 5 inches (13cm) across and are tailor made for fried eggs. But I didn’t dare to use them without first doing my research and then trying them out on family and friends rather than paying guests. So they remained in the cupboard for more than a year, earmarked for experimentation at some future date when I wasn’t so busy. Meanwhile I continued to use my ceramic, non-stick frying pans. These worked quite well, and certainly a lot better than, say, a stainless steel frying pan would, but they were by no means flawless. Such pans rely on their surface being absolutely pristine. Any invisible film or residue from a previous use will cause the whites of eggs to stick. I have had quite a few failures. I dislike non-stick cooking surfaces and avoid them wherever possible. After a year or two, the non-stick coating starts to flake off and you have to buy new pans. All of my other cookware is steel or cast iron, which is virtually indestructible.

During the lockdown year of 2020 I found myself with plenty of time to practise using my tiny cast iron egg skillets and I can thoroughly recommend them. The egg never sticks, provided that you heat the oil until smoking point and then, when the egg is in, turn the heat right down or even switch it off.

I use a medium or large, separate pan for the mushrooms. The trick here is to keep the steam down to a minimum. Fry them quickly until golden, then turn the heat right down, separate the mushrooms and allow the steam to dissipate. The bacon is grilled and sausages and tomatoes are roasted in the oven (frying them will splatter your whole kitchen with grease). That’s a lot of heat sources, but in my view it’s the only way to avoid sogginess and ensure that all the separate components remain crisp. There should be no liquid visible on the plate.

Scrambled eggs take no more than 30 seconds to cook — sometimes less than that — and I cook them as individual portions in my tiny skillets or a slightly larger skillet when using two eggs per person (a medium sized egg takes up very little space after cooking and looks mean when plated up). I have tried cooking four scrambled eggs at the same time for two people, and then dividing them into two portions, but this doesn’t produce good results. The eggs take too long to cook through, lose the air you so carefully introduced during the whisking stage, lose their moisture through evaporation and become rubbery, deflated and lifeless. And you can’t achieve a nice round shape on the plate. Overcooking a scrambled egg affects its sunny colour too. The initial fresh, vibrant, creamy yellowness gives way to a drab greyness. If you’re pushed for time you can just about get away with cooking three medium eggs at the same time for two small portions, but the results are not as good as individually crafted offerings.

A final tip to B&B breakfast providers. Get the hot drinks and croissants out of the way first so that you can concentrate on the main dish. Croissants retain their heat for quite some time, so it’s fine to let them sit for ten or fifteen minutes. And if you are on your own manning the bacon, sausage, egg, tomato and mushroom stations, do not attempt to cook more than two people’s breakfasts at the same time — it never works. Here is this morning’s egg attended by her acolytes on a plate (sausages were not requested today).

Jugs, Gills and Jars

Tuesday, June 29th, 2021

When I was a child, yoghurt was just beginning to be sold in plastic pots, but glass jars were still common, particularly in Europe. In England, the volumetric capacity of a jar of yoghurt was a gill (pronounced jill), which contained 5 imperial fluid ounces, or one-quarter of a pint. This was the perfect size for a portion of yoghurt and was equivalent to 142 ml. When I first started making yoghurt on opening the B&B, I used the jars that came with the yoghurt incubator, which were the only option available at the time. It’s the empty jar in the middle of the picture. It takes 220 ml, and I have found that guests barely get through half a jar most of the time, leaving the rest to waste. Some guests want just a spoonful on their fruit or cereals. It meant that when making my weekly batches of yoghurt I was using a lot of milk and wasting a lot too, as there’s only a certain amount of leftovers that I or the cats can consume. If a couple of guests each want a full portion of yoghurt, then one jar could be a little skimpy to share between them (110 ml each). I needed a better solution. In just three years, the choice of glassware available online has expanded considerably, and the nearest equivalent to the old gill that I have been able to find are the two jars on the right of the photo. I bought a few of each. By a strange optical illusion, the one on the end has a smaller capacity than its neighbour, at 130 and 135 ml respectively. The glass of the 130 ml jar is a lot thicker and clearer than the 135 ml jar; the round shape is nicer too and the lid is better quality. I’d definitely get more of these, which are now my favourite jars.

I’ve also recently withdrawn the larger of the two white ceramic jugs from circulation. The two sizes of jugs were displayed in the guests’ kitchen for guests to help themselves to milk and take up to their rooms. I’d assumed that most guests would pick the small jug, but hardly anyone does. Even if it is just one person staying rather than two, everyone picks the larger jug, fills it right up to the top — it holds 200 ml, or about a third of a pint — and then leaves more than half of it in their room overnight to go sour. The unused milk must then be thrown away. The small jugs (95 ml) may look like something you’d find in a dolls’ house, but they hold more than you might imagine, and certainly enough for a couple of cuppas unless you want an American-style latte. Optical illusion at play again!

No Water

Thursday, June 24th, 2021

On Monday this week, guests had booked to stay for three nights, neatly following the previous weekend’s guests and filling in weekday gaps before my next set of guests due to arrive today. Nice to have a whole, uninterrupted week’s worth of income for a change, following the disastrous summer season of 2020. One couple at a time on most days, here for a peaceful and relaxing break and sightseeing, is the ideal scenario for me. I dislike the pressures of catering for multiple guests at the same time.

All went well until 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning, when a burst water main somewhere in the area caused the water to be shut off until late evening. There was no warning and no notice. No one from the water company brought drinking water, although they are supposed to in the event of prolonged disruptions. I had to keep phoning the water utility company to find out what was going on. The time to completion of repairs kept being put back. My guests, understandably, felt they would have to curtail their visit and cancel their second and third nights. The prospect of having to keep flushing the WCs with buckets of water did not appeal. Nor did the lack of even a cold shower, never mind a hot one.

Ironically, as soon as the guests had packed their backs and were on their way out of the front door, the water came back. Too late to change their plans. If I’d been in their place, driving all the way home late at night instead of enjoying a pleasant mini-break, I’d have been hopping mad.

Southeast Water, if you google yourselves and come across this page, please note that I am not happy. Unscheduled disruptions to our water supplies happen far, far too frequently in this area. How can I run a B&B without a reliable supply of water?

Peak Season

Sunday, June 6th, 2021

The rhododendrons are flowering later than usual this year. Their season is quite spread out, spanning a few weeks, with different varieties coming out at different times. The first ones at the end of April are white. The last are also white, late in the summer. Peak time is usually May, but this year it’s June. Some have shed all of their petals before others have yet to open their buds. This photo shows a selection from the drive up to the house, but these plants are all over the garden. From now on, it’s a pretty rapid decline — until next year. Here are a few more photos.

Queues at the Door

Sunday, May 16th, 2021

At the moment, it’s cats only at the door. But tomorrow will be a significant day. All over the country, B&Bs that have lain dormant since March 2020 will be allowed to welcome guests into their houses at last, and serve them a proper breakfast. For the next few weeks, the rule of six — or two households (one of which of course is mine) — will apply, so I shall only be accommodating one set of paying guests at a time until the end of these restrictions, currently scheduled for June 21st.