Cooking Home

Making a giant cake for the local area’s street party

When the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 2002 I made a large long cake for a street party in our road, with the position and number of each house iced on it.

In 2011 a friend and I made a huge celebratory cake when we had a bumper street party for the royal wedding.

It therefore seemed an idea to offer to make a giant cake this year for our local residents’ association street party, particularly as there was the Platinum Jubilee to celebrate.

My first step was to talk to one of the organisers to ask if they would like a ‘giant’ cake – ‘yes’ was the answer. So in late April I started baking using a standard Victoria sponge recipe. Over a few weeks I made six sponge cakes, each one in a large roasting tin (4 eggs per cake). The first question was whether I had space in our chest freezer for each cake as it was made. It’s surprising how much volume the six cakes took up, and of course to avoid bending or cracking the sponge they had to freeze on a flat surface.

The shape and size of the finished cake was dependent on the design on top of it. As the party was for a group of seven local streets I decided on a map with each street named. I wanted to get the street names sorted well in advance of drawing the actual map on the cake so bought rolled fondant and wrote the names in cocoa flavoured icing a few days before the event (enough time to see if writing in icing was still something I could do!).

It was then that I discovered my assorted icing tubes and nozzles were not really up to the job although I managed as the photo below shows. Thanks to Amazon, in 24 hours I had a new set of icing equipment ready for the actual map.

Google maps was a good starting point to give me the road layout and I produced an enlarged version on paper. For what seems a relatively simple task there was a surprising amount of measuring and calculating (size of the board that the cake would sit on, size of the finished cake based on the dimensions of the ‘roasting tin’ cakes, and the size of the map when drawn on the giant cake). The next rather hazy photo shows part of the paper map.

Blocking together the six cakes, as in the next photo (taken two days before the party) gave me the right shape for the cake.

I stuck the separate cakes together with ‘butter’ cream (made with sunflower margarine as I kept to dairy free throughout). Whipping together the margarine and icing sugar was too easy producing a fairly soft mix and I wondered whether it would set properly.

Luckily the following day it was quite firm enough for the next stage which was to cover the cake with white water icing. After a short time, the white icing was dry enough to pipe on the basic road pattern.

Then I added the street names.

As you can see below, I doubled up the lines indicating the streets, and framed the map with chocolate chips. I also decided to add a ‘baby marshmallow’ palisade round the outer edge of the cake which involved lightly painting the edge of the cake with boiled water so the marshmallows would stick. I added a random collection (the whole packet) of dolly mixtures in a convenient space at the ‘south’ end of the cake which children might enjoy. They did!

These sweets and decorations were part of a collection that I had great fun buying. The photo below was taken after the party, a reminder of what I used.

The next stage was to complete the decorating…. Again I lightly painted each area with boiled water before adding the sprinkles, choc chips etc so they stuck onto the cake.

It was impossible to make a map look like a pretty cake (no home-made marzipan roses, crystallised flowers etc). In the end I realised that what it most resembled was a land-use survey map! Not a problem luckily.

Before driving the extremely short distance to the street where the party was to be held I added an ingredients list, which you can only just see at the bottom of the photo below, and covered the cake with cling film.

Just before 3pm I whisked off the cling film and the cake was cut, as part of the party’s opening ceremony, by the oldest resident.

It went down well with the partygoers throughout the afternoon. People chose where they wanted me to cut them a piece. Can I have a piece from my street? That’s where my garden is – please may I have a piece from there? What’s happened to my house – someone else has eaten it! Please can I have a piece with chocolate on top?

By about 5.30pm most of the cake had gone.

Cooking Home Outdoors

Platinum Jubilee weekend

The Queen has been on the throne for 70 years, the longest reigning European monarch, and a unique situation, unlikely to be repeated. She became Queen in February 1952 when her father died (and she was on an African safari). Her coronation was on June 2nd 1953. She celebrates her ‘official’ birthday on June 2nd although her birthday is April 21st and she was 96 this year, 2022.

This year bank holidays were rearranged (late May bank holiday moved to Thursday 2nd and an extra day added on Friday 3rd) to give a 4 day weekend from 2nd to the 5th of June.  Over these days there were large national events organised in London that were televised. Also many communities had street parties and other gatherings. Many of our neighbours were away seeing friends and family or taking advantage of the long weekend to go on holiday so there was nothing laid on here, although our bunting gave a celebratory feel to things.

The bunting goes up at the back of the house………….

And here it is in the front.

Although Trooping the Colour (the Queen’s Birthday Parade) is an annual event, this year was the first time we watched it on television. It was spectacular, with the Prince of Wales (Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall) in the lead followed by the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) and the Princess Royal (Princess Anne) riding behind all in full military dress, looking very splendid. The Queen was absent for the parade. There was a procession of carriages for other members of the Royal family, with the Duchesses of Cornwall and Cambridge together with Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. The children were facing backwards (good thing they didn’t suffer from motion sickness!) and were given a lot of press coverage as it was one of their first royal occasions.

At the end of the morning we saw the Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace first with her cousin, 86 year old Duke of Kent, and then with the ‘working members’ of the royal family. They watched a terrific fly past including not only the Red Arrows but also 15 Typhoons making a 70 formation.

In the evening beacons were lit throughout the country at dusk, 9.45pm.

I cycled to Castle Hill to see the Cambridge beacon being lit. There was a piper playing before and while it was burning. Patrick watched the TV coverage which included beacon lighting on Unst (Shetland) with ‘Vikings’ who threw their burning brands into the fire.

On Friday June 3rd there was a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral attended by thousands of key workers as well as celebrities and a large number of royals. Again, the Prince of Wales stood in for the Queen who was reported as having experienced ‘some discomfort’ (tired maybe) after her busy ‘official birthday’ the day before. There were many superb aspects to the service from the building itself and the music to the religious ceremonial and the Archbishop of York’s sermon. He stood in for the Archbishop of Canterbury who had a combination of covid and pneumonia (not a good mix of illnesses).

The media made a great drama of the attendance of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and his wife Megan. It was great to see them there – crossing the Atlantic with two very young children is no joke what with jet lag etc, for a short visit to London.

In the afternoon I decorated a jubilee cake. It was a Mary Berry recipe with a rich sponge (including less flour, more ground almonds and several eggs) topped by butter icing and fruit.

We started it for pudding when we had supper in the garden.

Jim came round and we kicked off with pink prosecco.

Saturday 4th was ‘normal’ if having the roof of the bike/’cow’ shed totally replaced can be counted as that. At the end of the day I took a load of rotten timbers to the tip – much improved by the help I was given by the people who work there.

In the evening we watched the concert that took place outside Buckingham Palace. It started with a brilliant film ‘when Paddington Bear came to tea with the Queen’ and they tapped the rhythm on their teacups of ‘We will rock you’ as the first song started. The music was not my style although it was chosen to appeal to a wide range of the population and included old pop songs as well as new. The best part of the evening show was the high tech ‘lumière’, projected onto and above Buckingham Palace and on several occasions accompanied by videos. Both Prince William and Prince Charles made speeches, focussing on the environment and a positive future, and thanks to the Queen, respectively.

On the afternoon of Sunday June 5th there was a Jubilee pageant following a 3km route starting at Whitehall and leading up the Mall and round the Queen Victoria monument in front of Buckingham Palace and on to St James’s Park. It was made up of four parts, military marching, horses and bands first, then a trip through the decades since 1952, followed by street theatre and dance and ending with a tribute to the monarch. There was a huge variety of acts with many celebrities involved (Dames in Jags was one – with Dame Pru Leith’s jag breaking down and needing a push!). 

By the end of Saturday the jubilee cake had been eaten and I made a traditional Victoria sponge which we had on Sunday.

At the end of the pageant there was another balcony appearance when the ‘family succession’ joined the Queen. I took a photo from the television.

True to form the weekend was not completely dry, it rained on Sunday, and it was so cold that I lit the wood burner (in June!!).

On Monday morning the first thing to do was take down the bunting. It was very wet so I hung it up in the top bedroom to dry.

We’ve now put away the bunting, and are looking forward to our own street party for the local community at midsummer.

Cooking Home

Making trifle (or how to end up with a delicious pudding without getting each stage right!)

We enjoy trifle up to a point. Traditionally it is a Christmas dessert – perfect for an influx of family and friends. This year I decided that Sunday lunch on 5th December would be a good day to have trifle, especially as we are having a ‘pretend Christmas dinner’ ie roast chicken and all the trimmings, so what better than individual trifles to follow. But I was missing two key ingredients, sponge for the base and amaretti biscuits for a layer near the top.

Before I set off to the nearby super-market I made the custard. This consisted of heating half a pint of milk with an ounce or two of sugar, then thickening it slightly with regular custard powder and bringing to the boil resulting in single cream consistency. To thicken further I decided to add two beaten eggs, after removing from the heat. At that stage all was well but further very delicate heating led to a minor disaster – thick on the bottom of the pan (is this scrambled egg? – not quite) and runny on top. However I decided to hope for the best and sieved the custard into a clean bowl expecting it to solidify firmly while I popped to the shops. Alas it didn’t. I should know better as I am a dab hand with baked egg custard but rarely succeed with pan heated egg custard. However the taste was fine – not the traditional custard powder flavour (which Patrick doesn’t like), nor raw egg.

Once back from shopping I broke up the madeleines (sponge for the base) into 6 individual bowls.

And then added sherry.

I pressed the crumbled cake well down so the sherry was thoroughly soaked up from the bottom. Then the custard went onto the top and luckily the quantity was exactly right and it looked as though it would be fairly well absorbed from the top by the madeleines.

A trifle traditionally has several layers often including fruit and/or jam. I decided this was the moment to use up one of the tins of fruit that I had bought pre Brexit when we were threatened with huge shortages of fresh fruit, salad and vegetables. The use-by was 2020 – but I have no concerns about that as tinned produce keeps incredibly well unless the tin is damaged. So I opened a tin of mangoes and chopped them up to make the next layer.

I have not used jelly (neither packet nor made with gelatine) in trifles for decades so wasn’t going to start now even though a traditional trifle is meant to have a good ‘solid’ jelly layer.

Another of my purchases was amaretti.

They went on top of the custard. There were 6 of the mini biscuits for each trifle which is generous (and bumpy) compared with the normal arrangement of crumbled amaretti making a fairly flat layer. Then I whipped about a quarter of a pint of cream for the next layer.

Because of the relatively uneven surface made by the amaretti I decided that roughly smoothing out the cream was the best I could do. But the finished effect, each trifle topped with a glace cherry, looked ok. Other decorations can be far more elaborate for example almonds, split, cut into mini sticks and toasted, are good stuck vertically into the cream, with 1 cm long spines of crystallised angelica adding a touch of colour. In the 1950s silver balls were arranged on top of trifles (must be done at the last minute) and raspberries and strawberries are also good for decoration.

Then into the fridge to wait until lunch tomorrow. By then the layers will have merged a bit more and the amaretti may not be quite as brittle (crunchy) as they are straight out of the packet.

Looking at the photo these trifles look more like Belgian buns than desserts – but I can guarantee they won’t taste like buns!

Cooking Home

Making Christmas cakes at the end of October

Homemade Christmas cakes keep so well that I find the best time to make them has always been half term, at the end of October or the start of November. There’s a bit of a breather then from the usual schedule of activities which is good as the cake making process is surprisingly time consuming.

I have combined two recipes, the ancient one that I found in a newspaper years ago and my mother’s ‘rich fruit cake’. This is so we finish with a cake that cuts into slices that are reasonably firm. The flavour of the cakes made from the ‘ancient’ recipe was delicious but, without the addition of features of my mother’s recipe, the slices fell into a mound of loose crumbs – not really a problem but better to be able to cut pieces that people can eat easily.  

After finding the list of ingredients I review the store cupboard to see whether I have enough dried fruit, eggs, flour, spices etc. I always have to buy brandy as I don’t keep a traditional ‘cooking’ bottle of brandy (with ‘medicinal’ uses on the side). By the end of the previous festive season all the brandy has been used up in Christmas cakes (cooking and adding spoonfuls to soak in during storage), brandy butter, upgrading shop bought mincemeat for mince pies and, if there is any left then Patrick has a glass or so, to save it from ‘going flat’! 

Cooking Christmas cakes has been a tradition of mine for over 40 years and I remember there was a time when I set aside £10 from the family budget to cover the cost of ingredients. Now the cost is higher – but still very reasonable given the finished cakes – rich and fruity with enough booze to ‘make you hesitate about driving after eating a slice’ as a son once said.

So shopping for ingredients complete, the next stage is to skin and chop almonds, weigh out all the fruit, flour and spices, butter and sugar and check the number of eggs needed. I usually make a huge quantity of cake mix, enough for several cakes. The photo below shows three bowls of ingredients and also the tins that I greased, lined and wrapped in brown paper (to ensure that, during the long slow cooking stage the cakes did not burn at the edges). This year I prepared all this the day before I planned to bake the cakes.

So on day two I beat the 12 eggs for the four cakes I was making. Then I went on to beat together the sugar and butter – you can see that in the photo below, with the beaten eggs in the bowl nearest the egg rack.

The quantities were so huge that I needed a very large bowl to stir them all together. So I scrubbed out the washing up bowl and used that as you can see below. First to go into the washing up bowl was the fruit with flour etc stirred in to avoid the fruit sinking. In fact for Christmas cakes it is a case of ‘cake mixture sticking loads of fruit together’ rather than ‘some fruit in a cake mixture’.  The wet ingredients went in second and then it was a case of mixing it all together.

Patrick helped out this year. You can see he is stirring away gallantly so the mixture is fully combined and ready for the last stage, adding brandy.

I forgot to take any pictures of adding the brandy, then filling the tins, but in the photo below the cakes are safely in the oven. Even though cooking takes place at a fairly low temperature, there is still a risk that the top of each cake will dry out and become too dark so this year I covered each one with a sheet of greaseproof paper with a hole in the middle.

During the baking stage I checked the cakes a few times and after several hours they were ready – a skewer came out clean when I stuck it into the centre of each cake. And here they are, below, straight out of the oven.

Once the cakes had cooled slightly I took them out of their tins and unwrapped the greaseproof paper. They were then ready to cool on the wire racks where they sat for a couple of hours to reach room temperature.

I will probably feed the cakes with more brandy over the next 4 or 5 weeks. Then I will cover them with marzipan and icing in December. For the moment they are well wrapped up and stored in airtight tins.

Leisure Outdoors

An October cycle ride from north Cambridge to Coton and back via the city centre

Over the years I have gone for several cycle rides with my friend Nancy. These have mainly been in the summer and early autumn, based on our enthusiasm to get out when the weather is good and when we are not too busy with other things. In theory we arrange to meet for a cycle ride three or four times each year but in fact it usually turns out to be a maximum of two, accompanied by comments such as ‘where has the summer gone’, ‘can we fit in a ride before the weather turns’ etc.

Luckily cycle rides were not affected by covid as they were definitely in the ‘allowed exercise’ category. I see from my ever increasing collection of undeleted emails that we cycled to the south of the city on 30th September 2020 but have found nothing earlier that year. In the summer of 2019 we cycled to villages north of the city, a conveniently close area as both of us live in north Cambridge. It was this area that we also cycled to in early August this year, the first of our two rides in 2021. The route was to Histon via the guided busway then to Girton through some lovely, locally managed woodland, a stop at Girton church where I bought some jam, and back via a track from the new development at Darwin Green to Histon Road.

Our most recent cycle ride, on 4th October, was to Coton, a village to the west of Cambridge. It has been joined to Cambridge for decades via the ‘Coton footpath’ that runs westwards to the village from the intersection of Adams Road and Wilberforce Road. When the M11 was constructed in the early 1980s it crossed the route of the footpath so a bridge was built. As continuing development took place in west Cambridge and more and more university departments moved out of the centre, the footpath became an increasingly useful link, so much so that part of it was widened with designated separate cycle and pedestrian paths.  

Our cycle route started at Nancy’s house. Our route is shown by hand written black arrows. We went north on Histon Road then joined the track that took us to Darwin Green. We crossed Huntingdon Road and took a cycle path through Eddington, another new development, this time mainly residential, on the original site of the University Farm between Huntingdon and Madingley Roads. After crossing the Madingley Road we cycled through the west Cambridge site to reach the Coton footpath.

Before setting off there is a fair amount of preparation from pumping tyres to checking the route. The photos below demonstrate this, Nancy’s map followed by a picture of her in the garden before putting on her helmet.

We set off at a reasonable pace negotiating various hazards including ongoing work on the new cycle path along Histon Road. Where the path was blocked by machinery it was the usual situation – dodge out into the stream of cars!! For ages I have found the principles behind separating cycles from mainstream traffic intriguing – at many traffic lights and all but one ‘Dutch’ roundabout in Cambridge, the cycle lanes stop altogether which makes me think cyclists need to take to the skies like Mary Poppins (or risk life and limb joining cars, buses and lorries as they whizz through intersections and round roundabouts).

Once we were on the track to Darwin Green, accessed via a short stretch of footpath, all was well – lovely clear skies, a light wind and views of ‘about to be developed’ farmland. The light wind sounds delightful but it was blowing towards us so, as always, it had a surprising effect on the effort needed to cycle. The story goes that whichever direction you are cycling, it is always against the wind – or at least that’s what it feels like. Another factor that should have no effect at all in Cambridgeshire is gradient. We have almost no hills so perfect for cycling, but even a gentle slope makes a difference.

When we reached Eddington we bowled through it with barely a glance I am ashamed to say because it is a fascinating new development. In fairness Nancy and I have been there many times before and have seen the lovely wild flower areas, the sustainable housing and the award winning community centre, Storeys Field Centre ( Eddington is well worth a visit, via its website ( if it is not possible to go there in real life.

From Eddington we crossed the Madingley Road and, at my suggestion, cycled through the West Cambridge site, rather than taking a rural path along the east side of the M11. We had cycled that footpath a few years ago and so a new route seemed a good idea.

The photo below is of the point where we turned south to access the Coton footpath.

We found ourselves cycling for a short distance through an area that is clearly next in line for new buildings, with access roads leading nowhere and some areas of rough ground. Our route led straight onto the footpath, which at that point is single track alongside autumn fields (some recently tilled and others showing signs of harvested crops). The sun was shining and suddenly we felt we were in an extremely rural area. But this was slightly offset by the throbbing of traffic on the M11 a short distance away.

To cross the motorway we cycled up a steep slope (in fact I chickened out and pushed my bike!). This next photo shows the slope up to the bridge – this side has not been resurfaced.

Then across the bridge and down the other side (freewheeling on a smooth track that is much improved since the last time I cycled there when the surface was potholed and quite dangerous).

It seemed a good idea to take a photo of us in front of a Coton sign, to prove that we had reached our destination. The first one we saw led to Coton Country Reserve, managed by Cambridge Past, Present and Future. The sign was fairly low compared with us when standing – you can see the top of the gate behind us – so we had to shrink down for the photo! Coton Country Park is definitely well worth visiting but on this occasion we decided against and went on to the church.

Although Coton has many attractions for the 21st century including a very good pub and an excellent garden centre, for me the area round the church is the biggest attraction. Here are the traditional features that you would have seen for centuries including a village pond, the village green with an old pump and the primary school.  We were able to go into the church itself which was a bonus, and were fascinated by it and its history from the 12th century.

Leaving Coton we retraced our route along the path towards Cambridge and over the M11. The next two photos show this. I took the first of the two precariously as I cycled along – luckily there was no other traffic and plenty of space to wobble along one-handedly with the phone in the other.

The photo below, from the motorway bridge, gives a deceptive idea of the traffic because of the spacing of vehicles. In fact, despite petrol supply problems, there was a continuous stream in all four lanes.

Our route took us due east along the Coton footpath and away from the village towards the city. We passed many other cyclists and as we approached the eastern end of the footpath there were more pedestrians. On the left side of the path we could see the modern buildings of the West Cambridge site, but when we reached the end, and set off down Adams Road we were in an area of huge older properties most of which are now split into flats.

We crossed Grange Road and cycled down Burrell’s Walk past the university library (photo below) on our right.

Then across Queens Road to Garrett Hostel Lane and up and over Garrett Hostel Bridge, which was full of undergraduates in their gowns taking photos. The picture below is to the north, showing Trinity Bridge beyond the punt.

We cycled down Trinity Lane – a lovely narrow old area of the city and pushed our bikes down Trinity Street (it is one-way, the other way) towards Round Church Street.

The next photo was taken outside Trinity College looking towards St John’s College.

From Round Church Street we crossed Jesus Green to Victoria Avenue, onto Midsummer Common and along the river with the college boathouses on the other (north-east) bank.

We finished by crossing the river via the footbridge that leads to Manhattan Drive, through the ‘de Freville estate’ to Chesterton Road, and on to Milton Road, arriving at my house for a late coffee.

Leisure Outdoors

Mainly Yellow Flowers, on Shetland in July

We normally try to visit Shetland in the summer. The islands extend about 70 miles from north to south and lie either side of latitude 60 degrees north. Days are very long in summer and on the whole the weather is kind, although summer fog and misty drizzle are common.

In the past we have visited in May and June and have seen sheets of bluebells, followed by fuchsia and montbretia which thrive. In gardens hostas are huge and completely free from slug and snail attack. So there is plenty to enthuse about for us Cambridgeshire gardeners, used to fairly dry conditions and hungry pests. This year we visited in July and discovered that it is a superb month for wildflowers.

The quantity and variety was huge and yellow flowers were particularly impressive.

The photo below is a typical roadside view. As we drove from place to place this is what we saw either side of us. On this occasion we were walking down the road (in an east-north-east direction) towards Levenwick Beach. You can see the cluster of houses in the distance that were once the homes of a fishing community. On the right is the typical profile of many of the cliffs on the east side of Shetland’s South Mainland.

Here we have buttercup and monkey flower.

And this next photo is of monkey flower, in its preferred watery habitat. The actual flowers are substantial and on many occasions the plants were growing profusely along small steams and ditches. It was possible to use the abundant yellow flowers to track the water courses.

We visited a lovely exhibition, ‘Bigton and Birds’, in Bigton Hall. It included poetry, paintings, music and film, all created locally and organised by Bigton Collective ( We were delighted to have the opportunity to visit and enjoyed it so much that we went two days running. The exhibition was brilliantly curated, including vases of wild flowers. Here are two photos of one of them – more yellow monkey flower in the centre of the vase and buttercups trailing in the second picture.

The next four photos show:


Yellow flag (yellow iris)

Meadow buttercup

Meadow vetchling

If possible we visit parts of Shetland that we have not been to before – and this time we went to Fetlar. This is one of the three north isles and relatively small compared with Yell and Unst. To get there we have to use ferries – which meant careful timetable checks and advance bookings, made online from Cambridge before we set off on our trip.

Fetlar is known for its red necked phalaropes and also for being relatively green (The Garden of Shetland). We set out to see as much as we could of the island and in about 4 hours we managed a wonderful range of activities (short moorland walk, museum visit, RSPB reserve + picnic lunch, church, beach and a restoration project). The photo below shows bog asphodel with tormentil in the foreground which we saw on moorland in the north east of the island.

We saw a lot of tormentil. The next photo shows slender St John’s wort with tormentil nearer the top of the picture.

And below, more tormentil.

There were many other flowers in addition to the profusion of yellow ones. Here is an eye-catching angelica.

And below is a sheet of flowers at Norwick Beach on Unst – tufted vetch and purple clover.

Throughout Shetland we came across a profuse and highly scented light mauve flower, which we identified as dame’s violet. Here it is in the foreground of this photo taken in the garden of the Old Haa, Burravoe, on Yell.

Collecting these photos together brings back the wonderful profusion of flowers that we saw. Next summer maybe the focus will be on blue and purple given the tasters in the last three photos here.

Home Leisure

Zooming OR how to be sociable and busy when going out isn’t convenient

This blog is the first of mine with no illustrations. After a year of using virtual meetings I doubt very much whether anyone needs to see screen-shots of how to schedule a zoom meeting or yet another screenful of participants’ faces in their individual rectangles.

I first heard of zoom in April 2020 when a friend told me that it was a possible way for her daughter to continue her music teaching. This was a total surprise to me for a variety of reasons. Firstly, how do you play music with other people online? And secondly what is zoom anyway? Is it another version of skype or what?

In no time at all we were all trying it out.

But there were so many things to learn. Do you need to pay? What does ‘turn on original sound’ mean? How do you avoid having one person (the one who made a noise, maybe you even) filling up your screen when you want to see all the people in the zoom call? Don’t all speak at once – raise a hand. Use chat, etc. etc.

Here are a few familiar scenarios: ‘you’re muted’, ‘we can’t see you’, ‘you’ve frozen’, ‘you’re sharing your screen’, ‘you’re still not sharing your screen’, ‘sorry, I was distracted and forgot to let you in’. In some groups faffing about with unfamiliar buttons can cause a big delay but I have been in other zoom calls that have run incredibly smoothly. It depends partly on the confidence and skill of the person running the meeting and also on their ability to manage (or even sweep aside) the problems that others are experiencing.

At the start I printed out an article from The Times that explained the basics of all the online meeting platforms. The zoom section told me about background view (messy kitchen with washing up in sight versus neat study lined with erudite books!), angle of the screen and distance from it etc. It also provided details on setting up a (free) account, then scheduling meetings. So in theory all was set for a successful first meeting. But two thirds of my life passed without using computers at all so getting zoom right first time was not instinctive. It is incredibly impressive how many over 65 year olds are now totally competent zoom users when previously many of them failed with simple operations such as accessing emails on their phone.

My two sisters were also learning to use zoom so it was possible to test it with them before something more time critical was scheduled. They also helped when I decided to change to zooming on my iPad after a long spell of only using my laptop. Most importantly, at an early stage they pointed out that they could barely hear me when I used my laptop (admittedly it is 8 years old now), so IT savvy son Jim immediately lent me a hand held mic. I now have a fully functioning system with a choice of (hand free) mics depending on whether it is just me (headphones) or Patrick joins me and we both participate.

That’s enough background….

So what do I use zoom for? First and foremost, I do not sit and listen to lectures and talks, although I could as there are plenty available. My two main uses of zoom have been to keep in contact with people who I’ve not been able to meet and to play and sing in music groups.

Over the months I have had zoom teas and coffees with friends. We log in and have cake/biscuits and tea/coffee. This is a good relaxing starting point for talking about whatever we like, from books, to families, to walks we have done and so on.

As for my family, zoom has been an excellent way to keep in touch whether with those living far away or locally (when lockdown and/or weather means we can’t meet, even in the garden). One of the highlights was a zoom session on Boxing Day afternoon with 27 members of the family, including 8 children who made intermittent appearances. Henry and his family in Canada were travelling in the car on the way for a day of winter outdoor activities so we could see them bowling along as we all talked. The rest of us in the UK were in our respective homes. We have never had so many of us ‘in one place’ at Christmas.

Now for music – this normally depends on having people in the same room so they can see and hear each other as they play or sing together. When we are all housebound, as we have been during the covid months, this cannot happen.  Over zoom it is possible to hear people, as long as it is one person at a time. So playing or singing together in the normal way is impossible. However it is possible to play duets as a friend and I discovered. One of us plays, unmuted and the other one mutes and plays their part at the same time which creates a feeling of playing in the normal way. The significant difference of course is that the unmuted player cannot hear the other part and has to lead fairly confidently so player two can follow. That is why swapping over works – each person has a chance to lead (unmuted) and to play as though it were the real thing (muted). It takes a bit of practice but after a while it works.

With more than 2 people playing or singing the arrangement has to be different. Basically there has to be a ‘backing track’ to play along with. Now we have had over a year of this all the ‘backing tracks’ are relatively sophisticated. For the madrigal group that I sing with the organiser has perfected her IT skills and has collected a large number of pieces many of which are backed by accompaniments that she has created herself. We mute and sing our own parts as the music plays. It is a golden opportunity to try other parts too. I am normally soprano (top line, often with the tune) but have taken this chance to sing an underneath part, generally alto.

The recorder group that I help to run started with some fairly unsophisticated short zoom sessions. They were short because, with three or more participants, a ‘meeting’ held by someone without a zoom licence is restricted to about 40 minutes. They were unsophisticated as the best ‘backing tracks’ that we had were from choral wiki so we were adapting madrigals etc for recorders to play. However things swiftly changed thanks to two members of the group who became skilled making backing tracks and producing properly written out music for recorder ensemble on their computers. To add to this one of the country’s leading recorder players decided to produce pieces for recorder ensemble on a weekly basis that she conducted and assembled by playing all the parts. There is now a stunning collection that has made playing the recorder via zoom a really enjoyable (albeit different) experience.

There are other groups that I have joined via zoom over the past year. Two of them (a book group and a discussion group on biographies) are part of U3AC, an organisation that quickly took to zoom with a very large number of most successful courses, events, talks etc. Although some people do not like meeting online, there has been a very high level of attendance for many activities such as lectures (which previously involved travelling to the venue then the nightmare of finding parking). If we have to be locked down then it is wonderful to have some way to see and meet the members of each group even though it is virtual not face to face. There have been several initiatives to replace real socialising such as an informal zoom session instead of going to the coffee shop with friends after the ‘biographies’ discussions.

I have also been involved in a weekly discussion group (7-10 members) that focussed on outdoors.  It was a collaborative arrangement where everyone contributed their thoughts and ideas. We all became skilled at screen sharing our presentations as well as photos and videos. A group this size meant that there was time for everyone to speak in the 90 minutes sessions whereas very large groups can be less interactive.

There have been several one-off zoom sessions that I have joined over the year including a talk by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, a local quiz and a concert. It is a remarkably good way to keep in touch with what is going on and to enjoy a variety of activities that otherwise would be unavailable when venues of all types are closed.

Many people I know have done zoom exercise classes for pilates, yoga, dance etc. My exercise has taken the form of working in the garden and allotment, and when possible some walks – so nothing on zoom. Nor have I used zoom for teaching or playing games with friends online, useful/fun though that can be.

I am very keen for the benefits of zoom to continue after the constraints linked to this coronavirus pandemic have gone. When it is difficult to travel, whether long distances or just locally, zoom can be great. It is also a very good way to interact with people with no risk of any infection, whether a common cold or something more serious. And using zoom to keep in regular ‘visual’ contact with people is a definite improvement on phoning.

So what will happen in future?  Will zooming continue once it is permissible to resume face to face contact? I hope so.

Home Outdoors

Using our coppiced hazel

We have a hazel between the shed and the compost. Normally it is a large bushy plant as it has been coppiced at least twice in its lifetime. This year I coppiced it again.

The rather unusual picture below was taken one summer to show the morning glory climbing the tomato plant!  As you can see it was when the hazel was in full leaf, to the right of the shed.

This is what it looks like now.

Seriously hacked down. But it will recover quite soon.

We have kept the stakes to use as supports. They live propped against the shed.

One of our three compost bins disintegrated so when it came to making a new one I took 4 hazel stakes and some wire netting and here it is.

The idea of recording this only happened after I finished the coppicing and the new compost bin had been built. Normally I like to record every stage of destruction/construction, but not this time!

Leisure Outdoors

The Backs in Spring

In Cambridge there is a line of beautiful college buildings that have their main entrances (facing east) along streets in the centre of the city. At the back of these colleges (on their west sides) are gardens and open spaces that slope gently down to the river Cam. An area, accessible to the public, of grass and trees, criss-crossed with paths, lies to the west of the river separating it from Queens Road which is a north south route from Westminster College to Fen Causeway.

The view across the river Cam from Queens Road is fantastic with beautiful buildings, gardens, fields and meadows. The area is known as The Backs and there are gorgeous spring flowers which is why I visited it by bike a week or so ago.

First I had to get ready, starting with helmet and high vis jacket.

Then the bike, in the shed where I checked the tyres which were well pumped up this time.

The first leg of the journey could be in any town i.e. a residential 1930s street with the usual semi-detached houses and parked cars that you can see below.

However once I reached the river things changed. The photo below is downstream from the centre of Cambridge (north-west of the Backs), with a view towards Jesus Green, and houseboats, bikes propped against a tree and a gorgeous display of daffodils in the foreground.

I cycled on and reached the stream behind St John’s College.

My photographic technique is basic so I was pleased to notice the railings and bike wheel shadow, as I was putting my phone away.

And here are some of the wild flowers, anemones and primroses, growing there.

The next photo is the back of Trinity College with the Wren library through the trees on the left.

And below is a view with Kings College chapel on the skyline.

I cycled a little further on and turned east for a short distance along Garrett Hostel Lane where I took the next two photos, the second one giving a good view of the Wren library in the centre of the picture.

Here is the wrought iron gate into Clare College. Normally this college has a very open attitude to visitors and it is possible to walk through but a combination of current restrictions and construction work meant this was not possible. The flowers are always beautiful in the spring with sheets of crocuses to start with, then daffodils.

Turning through 180 degrees to face Queens Road I noticed the dramatic catkins on this tree. My guess is that it is alder.

The next photo (not brilliantly in focus…) is the famous tourist view of Kings College chapel with Clare College to the left.

Then I arrived at the back gate to Kings. As I was taking the photo I was surprised how many pass holders were going through despite the online arrangements for many of the students at present.  

Next stop was looking across to Darwin College from the back of Queens College.

Then a view from Silver Street Bridge with Queens College on both sides of the river (newer to the left/west, and old to the right/east) and the mathematical bridge visible in the centre.

I cycled home by a different route, through the centre of Cambridge and, as I rode up Silver Street there was St Botolph’s church catching the sun on its stone.

I took the last photo from the foot/cycle path along the side of Jesus Green where a stream (covered in duckweed!) flows past the back of Jesus College.

Cooking Home

How to make Hot Cross Buns

First find the recipe – last used a year ago and very old.

It involves making bun dough first and at that point the spices go in (which I forgot one year and had to add later).

Assemble ingredients and weigh out the flour, adding dried yeast (unlike the recipe which says fresh yeast), salt and spices. I can’t remember whether I put the sugar in at this stage or added it when the butter went in; it wouldn’t make a difference.

Weigh flour       add butter   rub in the butter to form…..a breadcrumb texture

Add warm water/milk mixture and stir in a circular way to start the kneading process

Knead by hand for 7-10 minutes until the dough pulls away from the bowl and is springy. Put in a warm place to rise, covered in cling film. After about an hour or so it should have doubled or trebled its size.

Making the crosses

Flour and butter to make pastry. Only a small amount. Roll out and cut into strips.

Now for assembling the buns

Break down risen dough and add fruit, then knead together. Divide into buns and space out on greased baking trays.

Paint beaten egg on the top of each bun then stick on pastry strips to form crosses

Put buns in a warm place to rise again; as you can see they have risen and will get even bigger once in the oven.  While they cook boil up sugar + water = bun wash.

Here they are out of the oven with bun wash brushed on. And finally – cooling on a wire rack.

Tempting to try one at this stage as they are always best straight out of the oven!                                                                         

These buns do not keep well so eat on the day and freeze spares once cool. When defrosted they are as good as the day they were made.