The Peak District’s Soft Centre

Ask people what they associate with the Peak District and you will receive many different answers: Chatsworth House and the Devonshire’s, Bakewell Tart, grouse moors, rock climbing and caving.  The UK’s first designated national park is all of these things and more.

Chatsworth (1) watermark

Chatsworth House

A whistle-stop tour last weekend of the Peak District didn’t allow a thorough exploration of all its diverse scenery.  A drive through Chatsworth’s historic parkland and a visit to their farm shop gave a glimpse of the famous cascade in the gardens but that and the house interior will have to wait for another occasion.  If ‘farm shop’ conjures up a vision of a limited choice of vegetables covered in mud at a wayside shack, think again.  Chatsworth’s huge selection is impeccably presented along with breads, cheeses and meat in the former Shire Horse stallion stable block, now beautifully converted.

Chatsworth (2) watermark

Quality is key at Chatsworth Farm Shop

The town of Bakewell is renowned for Bakewell Tart or to be more accurate, as I now know it should be called, Bakewell Pudding.  Forget the oversweet, thickly iced versions available nationwide, the traditional version is packed full of almonds, the shortest of sweet pastry and not much else.  The queues of people waiting to purchase them stands testament to their quality and flavour.

Bakewell (6) watermark

Prepare to join a queue!

Only moments away from the busy town centre is the River Wye (one of several in the UK with that name), a place of calm and surrounded by historic, stone buildings.  On Sunday morning, Remembrance Day and the 100-year anniversary of the end of the Great War, brought silence to the town.  As elsewhere throughout the country, the focus at 11 o’clock was the war memorial with the traditional wreath laying ceremonies of scarlet poppies.

Bakewell (1) watermark

The old mill at Bakewell is available for holiday lets

Bakewell (9) watermark

WW1 memorial to the fallen men of Bakewell

As already hinted, the Peak District has broad expanses of heather moorland as well as limestone crags and outcrops.  This weekend’s exploration of the Peaks revealed the softer side of the national park; its gentler views were bathed in unseasonably warm sunshine highlighting the last of the autumn colours.

Bent Chapel (3) watermark

Peaceful grazing with a view!

Chatsworth (6) watermark

Lengthening shadows as the autumn sun sets

Another visit to the Peaks is planned, next time exploring on foot the passes of the High Peaks, the Chatsworth estate and the village of Eyam, where in 1665 the villagers chose to isolate themselves during an outbreak of bubonic plague.   Of the three hundred villagers, only eighty survived but their self-sacrifice prevented the disease spreading to the neighbouring population.

nr Bakewell (2) watermark

Isolated cottages are scattered throughout the national park

Although time was short, a visit to the Blue John Mines couldn’t be ignored.  The story of this rare semi-precious stone and the descent into the caves via two hundred and fifty steps will come next.  If you suffer from claustrophobia or struggle with steps this isn’t the place for you – it’s a long (and sometimes low and narrow), old climb back to the top!

Blue John Mine (11) watermark

The descent into the mine

Advertisements

How To Grow Tomatoes With Little Effort

It may seem odd writing about growing tomatoes at the time you should be harvesting them but it is often the case that when you see a plant growing somewhere that is the time you wish you knew how to grow them.  As regular readers of my garden articles will know, although I love gardening I also like to achieve great results with the minimum of effort and tomatoes are not an exception!  Effortless gardening doesn’t mean bad horticultural practice for you can hardly expect great results from shoddy workmanship wherever your interest lies.  All the photographs below demonstrate that it is possible to have superb tomatoes without devoting every spare moment to growing them.

Tomato 'Moneymaker' watermark

Perfect tomatoes can be grown quite easily using my method

As is often the case, I discovered this easy way to grow tomatoes out of necessity: a client wanted them but they only visited their country house irregularly and I could only devote one day a week to maintaining their grounds.  That left about fifteen minutes a week for the tomatoes.   This method, by the way, only works for plants grown in containers.  Although they were grown in a greenhouse there is no reason why the same method could not be used for growing in pots outdoors although they are more at the mercy of the usually variable British summer weather (not variable this year, 2018!).

Tomato 'Golden Sweet' watermark

Tomato ‘Golden Sweet’

All garden plants, whether grown in containers or in the garden border require good growing conditions and this starts with getting the soil or potting compost right.  Tomatoes are greedy feeders and books and articles always advise feeding the plants on a regular basis as soon as the first flowers show signs of turning into fruit.  That is far too time consuming for my fifteen-minute rule!  Instead, use a quality compost.  I used Carr’s potting compost which is made from composted farmyard manure; although not the cheapest it is well worth paying the extra cost for the results that are obtained.  There are, of course, other manufacturers that do something similar which, I daresay, will achieve similar results.  To this compost I mix in several handfuls of horticultural grit and double the recommended amount of water-retaining granules – these swell upon contact with water, and release it gradually thereby reducing the necessity for regular watering.

Tomato 'Cherrola' F1 watermark

Tomato ‘Cherrola’

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed, sowing in gentle heat in February and there is a huge choice of variety.  For ease and speed, I purchased young plants from a garden centre once I had no concern of late frosts killing them.  The pots were filled to within a couple of inches of the brim with the compost mix which I had pre-moistened.  As a guide, the compost should feel damp but you shouldn’t be able to squeeze water out of it.  Plant three tomatoes in a 20/25 litre plant pot placing a sturdy cane by each plant.  Stand the pot on a watering saucer or tray and water well.  Gardening rules state that tomatoes don’t like standing in water but I found that by using the saucers I could leave them with a good supply to last them the week.  By the time of my next visit, the compost and tray were dry but the plants unaffected by either the standing water or the drought.

Tomato 'Tigerella' watermark

‘Tigerella’, an heirloom variety of tomato with striped fruits

Tomatoes grow in two different ways depending upon the variety – bush or cordon.  With bush tomatoes you just leave them to grow as they will; with cordons it is recommended that you remove side shoots and tie the plant upright onto the cane.  Although the latter method sounds time consuming and fiddly it is a simple and quick task once it’s been mastered.  The secret is to remove any shoots that grow out of the union of the leaf stalk with the main stem – if done early enough they snap off with the fingers.  If you leave them they will need to be cut out with a knife or scissors.  Although it is possible to leave them in situ I find that the plants become very congested and difficult to manage which, in the longer term, means they are more time consuming to deal with.

Tomato 'Sungold' watermark

Tomato ‘Sungold’ – note how the plant has been ‘stopped’ when it had grown as tall as I wanted it to be.

And that’s it!  Just tie the plants to the cane as they grow and give them a really thorough watering once a week from the top of the compost until the saucer begins to overflow.  There’s no time-consuming feeding for the compost will provide all the necessary nutrients. And because the plants are growing strongly and healthily you are far less likely to be bothered by pests or diseases.  All the tomatoes in the photographs received no chemicals or other additives; all we had to do was to eat them.  If you’ve never tasted a home-grown tomato eaten the moment it is plucked from the vine then you’re in for a real treat!

Tomato Big Boy 1979 watermark

A photograph from 1979!  Tomato ‘Big Boy’, a beefsteak variety living up to it’s name!

Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham

Cheltenham, on the western edge of the Cotswolds, is full of historic Georgian buildings which make it an interesting place to visit if you are readily bored by the now characterless towns that have had their hearts ripped out in the interest of modernisation.  Although it has all the major chain stores there are still very many smaller, independent shops which help to make the centre busy and vibrant.  There are, however, plenty of opportunities to escape the throng of shoppers by relaxing in its parks and green spaces which are close to hand and beautifully maintained.  With so many positive attributes, it is not surprising to find that there are also numerous cafes, bistros and restaurants – great news if, like me, you prefer your relaxation to revolve around food and drink.

Cheltenham (3)   copyright

One street that incorporates all of the above elements is The Promenade, a wide tree-lined boulevard.  We made our way to the top end of it, walking past the splendid Town Hall with its fountains, to reach Brasserie Blanc where we had booked a table for a Saturday lunch.  Set in a delightful Georgian townhouse, it has very recently been completely refurbished and, judging by the number of diners there, has retained its loyal clientele.

Cheltenham (4)   copyright

Any culinary venture that has Raymond Blanc’s name attached to it is bound to be a good choice and Brasserie Blanc didn’t disappoint whether in its understated interior design, the friendliness and efficiency of the staff and, most important of all, the quality of the food.

Slide1

The huge arched windows and high ceilings give a feeling of space and natural light, both of which prevent the L-shaped marble bar, which runs almost the full length of the building, being too dominant.  It is visually impressive and imparts a delightfully informal atmosphere to the dining area.

Slide2

Our Italian waitress, Chiara, who was both charming and efficient, guided us through an extensive menu.  For the starter my partner selected the cheese soufflé with a rich cheese sauce which came with the most wonderful, crispy outer crust.  I went for the salt beef salad, chosen to test the chef’s expertise for, having a Jewish grandmother, I consider myself to be rather an expert when it comes to salt beef.  It didn’t disappoint, the combination of flavours being both subtle and mouth-watering.

Slide5

For our mains, I chose the slow-braised Scottish venison casserole.  I was impressed when Chiara advised me that it was both quite gamey and rich which wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste but was just perfect for me.  My partner had scallops with poached, smoked bacon.  In the interest of research, I insisted upon tasting and it was beautifully soft and tender.  Puddings also didn’t disappoint.  My pears with salted caramel would be worth a special trip to Cheltenham just for those and my partner’s meringues were just as they should be, soft and chewy.

Slide3

Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is one of twenty mostly situated in London or the south of England.  This does, for me, create rather a problem: do I return to Cheltenham or do I try some of the other locations?  One thing is certain, I will definitely be returning!

Slide4

Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is located at The Promenade, Cheltenham GL50 1NN

All photographs of Brasserie Blanc are taken from their website.  More information including booking details can be found here