Category Archives: Nature

A Perfect Day

Staring down the barrel of another winter, there’s nothing for it but to wrap ourselves in chunky knits and warm memories.

Before summer left us, I had a magical day of the absolutely perfect variety, that will no doubt haunt me for years to come in deep sleep and desktop daydreams.

It was a perfect day in a perfect week spent at Menabilly with my family. And it started very early – before the night had even left us. Armed with a torch and binoculars, I raced morning up the cliff path to watch the sun rise over the sea in a symphony of pink and orange. The silence was so complete that I could hear the fishermen talking from their boats on the waves below.

Menabilly sunrise1

Menabilly sunrise2

Menabilly sunrise3

If I’d had my paints with me I probably would have caught pneumonia on that hillside desperately trying to capture the wash of colour and the explosive moment the sun breached the horizon in a blaze of gold. Thankfully for my physical and mental health I made do with just my camera, and I arrived back at the cottage in time to catch the rest of my family finishing the last crumbs of breakfast. Some more hungry than others, we jumped in the car and headed into a fairytale – otherwise known as Tintagel. The legendary seat of King Arthur is perched on a Cornish cliff top on the north coast, and its rugged beauty had me immediately head over heels. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and there were ruins, rocks, waterfalls, caves and beaches to bounce around. It was my idea of absolute heaven.

Tintagel 1

Tintagel 2

Tintagel 3

Tintagel 4

Tintagel 5

Waterfall at Tintagel

Cave at Tintagel

Me on the rocks at Tintagel

When I was done clambering upon all that there was to clamber upon, and had finished imagining round tables, swords in stones, ladies in lakes, and all things Arthurian, we headed to Polkerris for dinner at my favourite restaurant – Sam’s on the Beach.

That night Sam’s outdid themselves: my huge bowl of white wine soaked spaghetti was so delicious that dignity went utterly out the window and I ended up wearing more sauce than makeup; they seemed to be exclusively playing a list of my favourite songs; and as we laughed, chatted, and enjoyed each other’s company we had the best seat in the house to watch the sun sink into the harbour.

Sam's on the Beach

Sunset at Polkerris

Chlo at Sam's on the Beach

Mum and Dad

Olives at Sam's on the Beach

Best pasta of my life

Sunset at Polkerris

So the perfect day ended as all perfect days should – with full tummies and full memory cards. And when winter bites, and you catch me with a glazed expression on my face, this is where I’ll really be.

Picnicking Perfection

Picnic is my favourite word. I’m also a big fan of Akimbo, Wiggle, Kerfuffle, Whimsical, Pyjamas, and Sausages when you say it whilst moving your mouth as little as possible. Soshergis. But picnic is my favourite. Say it as fast as you can: picnicpicnicpicnic. Or as slowly as possible: pic-ker-nic. Whatever the speed you choose to utter it, it’s the best thing in my vocabulary (which includes gems like Sycophancy, Loquaciousness,  and obviously Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) because as well as being easy on the ears, it combines two of my greatest loves: food, and the outdoors.

And you rarely say Picnic unless a picnic is on the cards. It would be a little bit superfluous (another classic) and more than a little bit mean. So in the spirit of sharing, I’m inviting you to be a sneaky fly on the wall at the very best picnic I’ve ever been on.

Gem and hamper

Once you’ve packed yourself up a hamper full of deliciousness, there are just a few more ingredients you require if you wish to achieve picnicking perfection. In the Gemma book of picnicking, these are as follows: a view (preferably of the breath-taking variety); a tree (the more romantically shaped the better); and a rug (must be featuring a checked pattern otherwise it’s scientific fact that the food won’t taste as good).

Coombe Hill view

Picnic tree

Picnic view

Picnic spot
Let’s just all take a moment to bow down before the utter perfection of this picnic spot. Coombe Hill, ladies and gentleman, was unbeatable on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at the end of July.

Gem on picnic rug

Picnic view

Harebells

With the sun beaming, the harebells dancing in the breeze, the hillside awash with the sound of leaves rustling, the swaying sea of rosebay willowherb resplendent in all its purple hazey glory, and the vale spread out below us, we unpacked our treats. In my beautiful hamper – thank you so much Lucy! – and an extra canvas bag I’d squeezed: a mini bottle of Champagne; tea cakes and strawberry jam; the mother of all sausage sandwiches for my decidedly non-vegetarian picnic partner (comprised of caramelised onion and pork sausages in a cooked baguette with fried mushrooms, caramelised onions, and barbecue sauce, with cheddar melted over the top – salivate away, meat-eaters); roasted pistachio nuts; and last but by no means least, wafer cones, raspberries and Chantilly cream to create picnic-proof ice cream cones (patent pending).

Best picnic ever

Raspberries

Teacake

Picnic

Make-do ice cream cone
Sat up there, with good food, and good company, I felt like I was in some kind of strawberry jam and Chantilly cream flavoured dream. A few families were making the most of the school holidays, and dog walkers with various charming four-legged friends were enjoying the beautiful weather too, but up on the hill away from the world the murmered noise of play and far away conversations only added to the atmosphere. It’s by far the most peaceful I’ve felt for months.

Gem and teacake
With tranquillity seeping into my soul with every breath, it was easy to see why the commanding structure of Coombe Hill was erected here. Perched at the end of the ridge, where the view stretches to both sides of the horizon, is a memorial to the 157 men of Buckinghamshire who gave their lives in the Second Boer War. Overlooking the land for which they fought, and the homes where they lived, loved, and tragically never returned; I can’t think of a better place for their memories to linger.

Coombe Hill momument
The stone reminder that our existence is a fleeting one possibly explains why, of all the people with whom we shared our afternoon on the hill, my inner romantic was most drawn to a pair of elderly gentlemen who were sat on a bench quietly gazing over the vale with the manner of two people who have perfected the art of contentment. I hope that I’ll still spend afternoons sitting in sunshine watching the world go by when my hair is grey and my face is lined with a lifetime of memories.

Old friends
That’s a long way away though, and for now, I’m happy. I don’t remember a day that better matches my favourite Oogway quote so perfectly: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift – that is why it is called the present.”

Us

Us
Operation pull-funny-faces-at-the-last-minute-and-sneakily-ruin-Gemma’s-attempts-at-a-‘nice’-photo may well have been a roaring success, but I think that second one might be my favourite picture of us, ever.

Eventually, with much less stored in the hamper and much more stored in our tummies and on my camera’s memory card, we decided to head home into the cooling afternoon. And then, as if there wasn’t already enough happiness in the world on this sun-soaked English Tuesday, the breeze and my dress conspired to decide that this was the perfect moment to show Coombe Hill my knickers, and I very nearly have photographic evidence.

Breezy
Happy ‘today’, everyone!

Sensational Butterflies

“Always remember that the past was a lie, that memory had no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

The last few months have all been a bit topsy-turvy in Gemma land. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this Gabriel García Márquez quote and sulking. (By the way, how desolately beautiful is that sentence? One Hundred Years of Solitude is a wonderful book.) But like a butterfly emerging gratefully from an uncomfortable cocoon, I have brushed myself down, stood back up, and got a grip. This mental shakedown would have been much more tedious if it hadn’t been for my oldest and oddest friend, Niki. (More on the ‘odd’ later.) We’ve spent so much time together in our pyjamas of late that we’re becoming a bit like an old married (under-dressed) couple.

Bearing this in mind, we’ve been trying to spice things up in our relationship a little, by wearing proper clothes and and going on adventures. Second in our series of dates that will ruin our hair (although admittedly the humidity was not as drastic a hair-destroyer as the balloons) was a trip to the Natural History Museum’s Sensational Butterfly exhibition.

Niki & I in Sensational Butterflies

(Pause here to nod politely and agree that we make a great couple.)

Parked on the front lawn of the English landmark and tourist hotspot is a decidedly exotic adventure, in tent form. Stepping inside is to step out of English summer and into a tropical garden, bejewelled with butterflies. They hatch from their chrysalises and then float around, charming guests as they go.

Pale Owl and chrysalis at the Natural History Museum

They were everywhere.

Peeking at us from behind leaves…

Plain Tiger

… Perched on colourful snacks…

Postman

… And bewitching visitors when they spread their wings.

Niki and a Great Eggfly

Great Eggfly

We were like two kids in a sweetshop, running around and pointing out an increasingly gorgeous array of the least creepy crawly of the creepy crawlies.

Me and a Paper Kite

Tiger longwings, red lacewings, scarlet swallowtails, blue morphos, postmans, paper kites, and countless other fantastic (and fantastically named) creatures were everywhere you looked. I love the butterflies native to the UK, but these foreigners were just phenomenal.

Paper Kite

Scarlet Swallowtail

Malachite

Great Mormon

As we wandered around the tropical tent, we kept seeing rebellious butterflies breaking the ‘no touching’ rule and landing on enchanted guests, and wondered somewhat dejectedly why no butterfly had found either of us an attractive looking perch. For some reason the stars seemed more likely to land on a child than an adult, and wide-eyed kids were were wandering around with handfuls of butterflies, gently carrying their treasures around to show the grown-ups.

Tiger Longwing

I was pretty jealous of these encounters, because I’m still love-drunk by my new camera’s macro skills. I was snapping away madly, addicted to the level of detail in each shot.

I think this is a Clipper

Red Lacewing

Even when focussing on one tiny thing and one much bigger less dainty thing (hi there) it does a great job.

Common Mormon and Gem

That tent was like snap-happy heaven. Great picture opportunities were just everywhere you turned. If you haven’t been already, then you should go. It’s only a fiver, and it’s so good for the soul. Stand in the heat, listen to the soundtrack of rainforest noises, and let yourself by hypnotised by the butterflies.

Common Mormon

Passion flower

Zebra Longwing

Great Mormon? Not sure

There’s nothing more soothing than nature. But sometimes documenting it can be nothing short of stressful. Still sulking at the butterfly-based rejection, Niki decided that the best way to entice a butterfly was to get 90% of the way to one and hope that her butterfly beau would go the other 10% of the distance. (Yup, just like in Hitch. That well known butterfly documentary.)

Niki

Niki

Niki

A few tentatively paused on her person, but not for long enough to write home about (or long enough for me to take a photo.) But perhaps butterflies prefer it when you play a little harder to get, because while I was snapping away a Great Eggfly landed on my sunglasses.

Great Eggfly on my sunglasses

He was old, tattered, and tired, and – like any weary weather-beaten traveller – was content to rest for a while.

Me and my Great Eggfly

It’s easy when you’re in a place like this to focus – with your mind and with your lens – on the bright and the beautiful; to gloss over the old and imperfect. And I think we’re probably all a bit guilty of doing this in our day to day lives, too. So I’m glad that a tiny, tatty butterfly picked me as a place to temporarily rest his hat, and reminded me in the process that true beauty doesn’t fade, even if stereotypical loveliness is an ephemeral truth in the end.

Hanging Basket Case

The girls and I had a sunny London rendezvous last weekend. I was desperate to see the hanging baskets at the Churchill Arms on Kensington Church Street, and the girls – with much teasing about my horticultural enthusiasm and joking about how much of an anticlimax these flowers would be after listening to me go on and on about them – humoured me.

We walked around the corner and as Sam and Lu saw the pub for the first time I got to enjoy one of my very favourite things: the intense satisfaction of being right. Their previously sceptical faces were lit up like two Christmas trees.

Here’s why.

The Churchill Arms

The Churchill Arms

The Churchill Arms

The Churchill Arms
We decided it was too sunny to spend our afternoon indoors drinking (not something that happens often in England) but what we could see of the interior through the open door was pretty awesome. We’ll have to come back when summer’s over (probably some time next week, god damn it England) and explore properly.

The Churchill Arms interior

Sam and Lu outside The Churchill Arms

When the girls were done ogling they turned back to me and asked “How did you know?!”, clearly mystified by my London pub knowledge. I sort of guiltily mumbled something about something something and looked the other way, before eventually admitting that I’d seen the pub on Gardener’s World. That’s right, boys and girls. I watch Gardener’s World.

It started innocently enough: I was channel hopping and suddenly this gorgeous Golden Retriever appeared, and was wandering around being adorable while the gardening happened, but then before I knew it I was enjoying the plants just as much as the dog. Yeah I might as well just say it: I like to spend my Friday nights curled up with a cup of tea, something chocolate-y, and Monty Don. (On the TV, I mean. Monty doesn’t sit and watch Gardener’s World with me. That would be weird.)

So now that I’ve admitted that I’m a big ol’ loser, I think it’s time for some food.

Prior to the floral fun, we’d been for some raw vegan lunch at Nama. Now I might be a vegetarian (and sometimes a vege-scare-ian) but I bloomin’ love cheese. And eggs. And all the dairy. So I was expecting good things from an artisan raw food restaurant, but my booking for lunch for three at 1pm wasn’t my only reservation.

But as soon as the starter arrived my doubts disappeared.

Guacamole at Nama
Holy guacamole was this stuff good. Guacamole is one of my very favourite foods, and I have eaten a lot of it. I mean A LOT of it. But the guac at Nama. Oh. My. God. How good was it? Let’s just say if I fell into a vat of it, and had to eat my way out, I wouldn’t be sad.

Guacamole at Nama
The girls are just as snap happy as me, so while Sammy was checking she’d got the shot I was shovelling guac into my mouth like a woman possessed. 

Sammy
Thankfully there was enough for everyone and fighting to the death wasn’t necessary. (Just as well, cos who’d want to fight this face?)

Lulu
When we’d finished eating forkfuls of guacamole (which by the way is totally acceptable restaurant behaviour when the guacamole in question is that good) the main attractions arrived. We’d ordered tactically so we could share everything. 

Lasagne verdure (layers of Pomodoro sauce, herbed nut, seed and yellow pepper cheese, pesto and marinated spinach served between courgette ‘pasta’ strips) which was sort of like chewing your way through heaven.

Lasagne Verdure at Nama

Lasagne Verdure at Nama
Zucchini pasta (spiralised Zucchini noodles served with Pomodoro sauce, sundried tomatoes, marinated mushrooms, caramelised onions and olives) which you might think would be less tasty and less filling than normal pasta but you would be oh so very wrong.

Zucchina Pasta at Nama
… Which came with zucchini pasta paparazzi.

Zucchini Pasta Paps at Nama
And Thai coconut curry (cauliflower, courgette, red pepper and leek marinated in sweet chilli sauce, served with a coconut curry, kohlrabi rice and pickled fennel) which as well as being delicious was also the best looking curry I’ve ever seen.

Thai Coconut Curry at Nama
Having chewed our way through all of this deliciousness we were stuffed like three turkeys at Christmas time (albeit artisan raw vegan turkeys), but when the waitress asked if we wanted to look at the dessert menu, who were we to say no? And when that dessert menu had something called a ‘sweet treat selection’ we basically had no choice but to order it. 

Sweet Treat selection at Nama

Sweet Treats at Nama
Even the bill (incredibly reasonable by the way) was presented nicely inside this cute wicker box thing.

Bill at Nama

So yes, I would highly recommend Nama to anyone, whether they be vegan, vegetarian, or an avid meat eater. Having paid up and sipped our last sips of the never ending supply of cucumber water, we skipped off into the sunshine (or perhaps more accurately, limped and groaned into the sunshine, clutching our tummies) and headed to the park via the Churchill Arms, for more gossip and some ice cream in the sunshine.

Gem with ice cream

I have missed my daily fix of these two wonderful women more than I can say in the last year. More adventures soon please, ladies!

Me, Sam, Lu

 

Buttercups and Butterscotch

If you know me but at all, then you’ll be aware that I have a teensy tiny bit of a sweet tooth. And when I say  “sweet tooth”, what I really mean is, don’t be so foolish as to leave any kind of sugary treat within pouncing distance of me unless you want it to end up in my tummy. My ‘guilty’ face is so well worn that it’s starting to fray around the edges a little.

You’ll probably also know how I feel about wild flower meadows. (Hint: I love them almost as much as chocolate.)

So when my parents decided to go hunting for orchids near to my favourite pub in all the world, I was ready and waiting by the front door before they could say “Would you like to come?”. If I’d been a dog I’d have been holding my lead in my mouth and wagging my tail into a blur.

Mum works for the Berks, Bucks, and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), which means the rest of us regularly have to come home from our less magical jobs to hear about her day spent cuddling fox cubs, or perhaps dissecting owl pellets, and generally having a lovely time. She’s based at College Lake – an old chalk quarry turned nature reserve and haven for wetland birds – but lately we’ve been exploring BBOWT’s smaller and further afield reserves.

We arrived at Bernwood Meadows in glorious sunshine, just before my tummy started to growl for its mid afternoon snack.

Bernwood Meadows
I wandered off into the yellow haze in a daze. Mum and Dad were very happy to see so many of these bad boys…

Early marsh orchid by Colin Sturges at Okewood Imagery

… (early marsh orchid photo courtesy of Dad, check out more of his stuff here) but although I really do like orchids, there’s something about yellow flowers that really gets to me. Rape, buttercups, sunflowers, daffodils – I’m not fussy, so long as it’s all yellow.

Buttercups at Bernwood Meadows

Gem

Gem
But there was also some green to entertain us. As well as enough buttercups and early marsh orchids to shake a stick at, there was a rather eccentric looking fellow wandering around, nose to the ground, clutching a net, looking for Forester moths.

Moth enthusiast at Bernwood Meadows

He was pleased as punch to have seen seven of the little creatures that day. I’d never seen a Forester before, so tripped back to the gate to look at the information sign again, so that I would have an idea what to look out for. Just on the off chance, y’know?

It proved pretty helpful.

Forester moth at Bernwood Meadows

In reality, the little fellow was probably just using the sign as a windbreak, but Mum and I were in absolute hysterics at the notion of this moth model (mothel?) posing patiently next to their own bill board, faux-nonchalantly, waiting for the appearance of its hoards of screaming fans. (The official term for such a phenomenon is, obviously, Beetlemania.)

When we were done laughing, we decided we were definitely hungry. We found Dad (a harder task than you might think, as he was lying flat on his stomach trying to get the orchid shot he wanted) and persuaded him that there was nothing for it but to head to Murcott to find something yummy at The Nut Tree Inn.

The Nut Tree Inn, otherwise known as my favourite pub in all the land, is charming in every way possible.

Nut Tree Inn
Nut Tree Inn

Nut Tree Inn
Fish at Nut Tree Inn

Inside, the charm offensive doesn’t let up.

Sticky toffee at Nut Tree

The interior is pretty special. The low rafters are decorated with bank notes from different currencies, and comfy sofas sprawl across the place in all their leathery loveliness. (Bad vegetarian.) But let’s not pretend that the décor is the main attraction. The Nut Tree has a Michelin Star and it’s not afraid to use it.

This, my friends, is a sticky toffee pudding with a caramelised apple tart, praline ice cream, and butterscotch sauce. Otherwise known as one of the best things my taste buds have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Sticky Toffee Pudding at The Nut Tree
At one point, to savour the wonder for as long as possible, I was sipping contentedly on my green tea, and one of the staff asked me if I had finished. I just laughed. There was no way I was going to be finished until my plate looked as licked clean as this…

Licked clean plates at The Nut Tree

Full of sugary sweetness, we headed back to the car, but were waylaid by a blonde bombshell. She had curly hair, a beaming smile, and her name was Honey. She was just my type.

Gem and Honey
Cockapoos are, in my humble opinion, second in cuteness only to labradoodles. It was very upsetting to have to say goodbye, after falling in love at first sight. But we took our tummies full of toffee and our hearts full of Honey, and we said goodbye to the Nut Tree.

Nut Tree Inn

But, like a sticky toffee terminator, I promise I will be back.

 

Woodland Wonderland

I love this time of year. The trees are all dressed up with nowhere to go, decked out in their finest freshly unfurled leaves and heavy garlands of blossom. The birds are singing as fervently as if they’re all in the shower and nobody’s home. And everything smells so fantastic that I want to roll in it, doggy-fashion. Spring has unquestionably sprung in all her glory.

And, thanks to nature’s most luxurious carpet, nowhere is more magical than woodland in May time. If you go down to the woods in May you’re in for a blue surprise.

I am of course talking about bluebells. I’ve spent the last few weeks enjoying the show. Home in Hertfordshire isn’t too shabby…

Bluebells Hertfordshire 2014

Bluebells Hertfordshire 2014

I’ve actually been visiting Ashridge to pay homage to these mystical flowers for a very long time. My whole life time in fact. Let me take you back to 1995…

Gem & Chloe in bluebells, 1996

When I was growing up, it was a family tradition to pack up a picnic breakfast early one morning at the start of May, and eat it perched on a log amongst the bluebells. We have photos documenting my sister and I growing up, set against a backdrop of blue, munching buttered toast or hot cross buns.

At some point I started borrowing my Dad’s camera and became more interested in the bluebells than in the breakfast. (Blasphemy?!)

2011 was a sunnier affair than this year…

Bluebells Hertfordshire 2011

Bluebells Hertfordshire 2011

I’ve been struggling to capture the symphony of green and purple for the last decade. I took this one in 2005…

Bluebells Hertfordshire 2005

Anyway, this year I was lucky enough to give my bluebell addiction a double dose. My family headed off on a bit of a last minute Cornish adventure, and were met with the most glorious display of bluebells, wild garlic, and red campion.

Woodland wild flowers in Cornwall 2014

The smell was heavenly. This is in a little copse on the cliff overlooking Polridmouth Beach, and the trees are all twisted and gnarled from a life exposed to the elements. I felt like I was in The Wind and the Willows. 

Bark and Moss

Wild wood, Cornwall 2014

Bluebells and wild garlic seemed to be everywhere. In the woods, in the fields, lining the roads…

Prickly Post Lane

Even the track down to our cottage was banked in splendour (and the over-hanging azaleas didn’t hurt either).

Azalea and wild garlic

Woodland flowers

Wild garlic
But, like all good magicians, the woods saved their best for last. On our final day in Cornwall we visited the Luxulyan valley to find our favourite woodland haunt.

Luxulyan Aqueduct

Not far from the shadow of the aqueduct, there runs a stream. And if you follow it down the valley, you will find this place.

Luxulyan Valley
Giant rocks are strewn around as a long-gone glacier’s calling card, trees have spent centuries getting comfortable and stretching their roots out, leaf litter covers the ground, moss clings to every surface it can, and – apart from the musical noise of the stream – there’s an almost holy quiet that settles over everything.

Moss on tree roots in Luxulyan

Luxulyan Valley

A magical place made more magical by the presence of my favourite little bells of blue.

Thinking Outside the Block

Lately, I find myself dreaming of mountains. Of clouds skidding across the smooth surface of lakes. Of the sound of bumblebees buzzing around wildflower meadows. Of padding barefoot across endless expanses of warm sand. The ocean. The feel of the sun on my face.

Working in London, a long, wet Winter, and losing my waggy-tailed walking companion are all taking their toll.

So yes, I like being outside.

I really like it.

Logged on.

More fun than your average activity log…

And I haven’t been doing nearly enough of it. One of the best things about my desk job is that I’m not only allowed but actually actively encouraged to take my soul for walks on Pinterest. But if I don’t book a holiday soon then it won’t just be my soul that’s going for walkies, but my mental faculties too. I will go stir crazy.

Only problem is, I’ve been employed for a little over six weeks. My bank balance is still breathing an almost audible sigh of relief after six months of no incoming payments, and if I even whisper the word ‘holiday’ my debit card will start quivering with fear, and dive so far in to the depths of my purse that I’ll only be able to entice it out again by using the kind of soothing tone with which you’d calm a spooked horse to tell it about my pension plan.

Plus, I’m a big ol’ scaredy cat. I dream of mountains but I worry about blisters and gnats and lack of access to showers. And lack of access to sleep. And – if I’m totally honest – lack of access to makeup. And worst of all; lack of access to food. So far my adventures have basically been of the kind favoured by the average hobbit: undertaken not at the expense of comfort, cleanliness, or vanity, and always brief enough to be home in time for tea.

But I really don’t want to be the kind of person that Gandalf would consider a lost cause.

I need to stop making mountains out of the molehills of the mountains of my mind. (Comprendre?) So this post is really a post-it-note of the virtual variety, so that I can’t chicken out of the promise I’ve made myself to find an adventure.

And who knows, I might even leave my pocket handkerchief at home, too.