Recipes: from an Old Farmhouse by Alison Uttley

Cover of Recipes from an Old Farmhouse

An evocative image

I wanted to follow up on the last Landing post on foraging-related books with another foody feature. This book is part memoir of a Derbyshire country childhood and part recipe book by children’s writer Alison Uttley (1884-1976), who was best known for her Little Grey Rabbit series and also the Sam Pig books. The recipe book was first published by Faber and Faber in 1966 and I recently treated myself to the copy shown here, which is in very nice condition. Something to cheer me up during the spring Lockdown! It is a beautiful little hard back book decorated with black and white sketches by Pauline Baynes. The drawings complement the text beautifully. Recipes has been reprinted more recently, but I opted for a copy of the original edition and wasn’t disappointed.

Alison Uttley gives us recipes that her mother used in the farmhouse kitchen, including recipes given by friends and neighbours. These were named for the donor, for example ‘Mrs Lowe’s Parkin’. The book is divided into sections with anecdotes, reminiscences and recipes. If you wanted to try out any of the items, you would need to scale down and adapt the recipes as Uttley gives the quantities and methods as they would have been used by her mother at the end of the nineteenth century in the farmhouse oven. So, you would need to figure out the oven settings and alter the timings accordingly. The recipes aren’t laid out as recipes as we would find them in a cookery book nowadays, but they are easy enough to follow. I’m planning to try one or two of the cakes or puddings in smaller quantities.

I have found overlaps with my foraging post as in a few of the recipes given, Alison Uttley talks about foraged ingredients gathered by the family. I was particularly taken with her account of the annual cowslip gathering expedition with her mother. They took a clothes basket out with them to fill with blossoms. She describes it beautifully here,

Black and white illustration of the author's mother and the maid picking cowslips, with the children in the background

Picking cowslips

One morning in April my mother would announce that we would pick cowslips for cowslip wine. We would set off after breakfast, the servant girl, my brother, my mother and I, with a clothes-basket, and several smaller baskets. It was exciting to run down the first big field, deep down to the gate that led to the cowslip field. By the gate we left the clothes-basket, and we each took another basket and began to gather the flowers.

It sounds idyllic but it was also hard work for all of them, Uttley describing herself as ‘dazed with stooping to the ground’ after a few hours of picking. It sounds as though the children were allowed to go off and play though, while her mother and the maid carried on for the whole day. But of course, the work didn’t stop there. What Uttley refers to as ‘peeping’ was the next task: removing the flowers from the stalks and calyces. That task must have been mind-numbingly tedious as well as an instigator of repetitive strain syndrome. I find it bad enough picking stalks off fruit for a modest sized batch of jam, so I’m not sure how I would have coped with that mammoth preparation session.

Black and white title page illustration for the chapter on beverages, showing entwined branches with culinary equipment hanging off them.

Chapter title page

I’d actually love to be able to try making a small batch of cowslip wine, but cowslips are quite rare now in Britain and also in Ireland according to Zoe Devlin’s website, However, she does go on to point out that the plant has made a comeback in Ireland in recent years, so perhaps it will continue to spread.  In his foraging guide Food for Free, Richard Mabey suggests that the huge quantities of petals used in making ‘one of the very best country wines’ has probably contributed to the flower’s scarcity in Britain. He comments on the ‘devastation that some of these recipes must have wreaked on flower populations’. Thankfully now, you can buy cowslip seeds as well as other wildflower seeds to grow in your own garden and even up the balance a little. I somehow doubt that I will be able to grow enough flowers to make wine, though cowslip growing is to be one of my projects for next year (I have the seeds ready!) As far as beverages are concerned, I think I will have to stick to making elderflower cordial, the only problem there being that the best blooms always grow too high to reach!

I hope to return to the book for another Landing post, when I have had a go at some of the recipes. Meanwhile, I will decide where to go for August’s Landing Tales post when I have scoured the book shelves again!

Are there any Alison Uttley fans out there? Does anyone remember her Traveller in Time, televised by the BBC in 1978? I loved the series then, but wonder how it would stand up now.

(Pauline Baynes illustrations scanned from my copy of Recipes) 



Old Possum: TS Eliot

Now, you may have thought ‘Ah ha, this is going to be a poem about a cat’. And you would indeed be right but it is also a poem that continues the train theme that I began yesterday. There are many magnificent cats (I might mention Cat Morgan, I might mention Mr Mistoffelees) in T.S. Eliot’s poems but only one ‘Railway Cat’ and that is the incomparable ‘Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’ Here’s the first part of Eliot’s poem:

text of T.S. Eliot's poem SkimbleshanksOld Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was first published by Faber in 1939 and re-published with additional poems in 1954.  Apparently T.S.Eliot first wrote the cat poems during the 1930s and included them in letters to his God children under the name ‘Old Possum’. Lucky kids! An illustrated edition of the Practical Cats (drawings by Nicholas Bentley) was first published in 1940 and re-titled in 1974 as ‘The Illustrated Old Possum’. More recently Axel Scheffler has illustrated Old Possum (2009) but I have a great fondness for Bentley’s cats in preference.

In this poem, there is again a great rhythm for reading aloud as the sense of the train journey up to Scotland is evoked. Mind you, I think T.S. Eliot was taking a few liberties with the night mail service, since I seem to recall from the GPO film that it carried no passengers. I believe there used to be a sleeper train travelling up and down but whether that carried mail or not, I doubt if it had as dedicated an employee as Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat.

Book jacket of Old Possum's Practical Cats The first Old Possum cat that I recall was ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ which I remember my mum reciting to us when we were young. I’ve had a couple of copies of Old Possum’s over the years and this present book  replaces one that mysteriously went astray during a house move (a case of the ‘hidden paw’ perhaps?).

I’m thinking of squeezing in one more train poem tomorrow on #PoetryinJune before moving onto a new topic so look out for that tomorrow. Meanwhile, any comments about your favourite poems on trains, cats or anything else would be very welcome!

Now, back to T.S. Eliot (AKA Old Possum…)

Skimbleshanks and the stationmaster

Skimble and the stationmaster


Wendy Cope

New Season by Wendy Cope (born 1945) is taken from Serious Concerns (Faber 1992) which was her second collection of verse, the first being Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Faber 1986). I was given Serious Concerns by a customer when I worked in Birmingham in the late 90s and I went on to buy the first collection on the strength of reading it. Attentive readers will recall that I included one of Wendy Cope’s seasonal verses as an Advent post last year. If I was to try to sum up Cope’s work, I couldn’t do better than Dr Rowan Williams who said “Wendy Cope is without doubt the wittiest of contemporary English poets, and says a lot of extremely serious things”.

It was very difficult to make a selection from Serious Concerns, but finally I plumped for this one because it serves to remind me of life’s endless possibilities. It is something that we all probably need reminding of from time to time; I know I do. It is slightly late in the season to use this one, as the chestnuts are already in leaf, but I hope you will overlook that minor technicality.

New Season

book jacket with teddy bear

I also love the jacket..

No coats today. Buds bulge on chestnut trees,
and on the doorstep of a big, old house
a young man stands and plays his flute.

I watch the silver notes fly up
and circle in blue sky above the traffic,
travelling where they will.

And suddenly this paving-stone
midway between my front door and the bus stop
is a starting-point.

From here I can go anywhere I choose.

Of course I also just wanted an excuse to feature the Posy Simmonds drawing of the very studious bear on the front cover. I think that you will find almost as many illustrators as poets mentioned on The Landing this month. But then that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

If you liked this poem here is more information on her work from the Poetry Archive web site.

Flaming June is Poetry Month #PoetryinJune

Woman in orange dress asleep on couch

Flaming June, Frederick Leighton, 1895

If you all cast your minds back to last December, you will recall that I set myself the daunting challenge of writing a seasonal posting every day during Advent. Somewhat to my surprise, I did indeed manage to do just that very thing. Ever since then I have in mind to attempt a similar challenge later in the year. Well, dear reader(s) that time has now arrived with the advent of spring (or what passes for spring in these parts at any rate).

To a great fanfare (well you’ll just have to imagine that bit) I am hereby announcing that the month of June will be Poetry Month (#PoetryinJune) on The Landing. I have been scouring the shelves here and blowing the dust off a few volumes that I have not looked at in a while. My intention is to put together a mixture of old and new(ish) poems, which will include a few childhood favourites too. My grand plan is to work out a complete list ready for June 1st but I may end up flying by the seat of my pants part of the way through the month.

I belatedly caught up with the poetry readings at the National Gallery of Ireland, which are run in association with Poetry Ireland. This has also helped to spur me into action and to include a sizeable chunk of poetry on the blog. Yesterday I was listening to Peter Sirr reading from both his own poems and his translations. One of the translations he read was Maison á Vendre (House for Sale) by André Frénaud both versions of which you can find on Sirr’s blog The Cat Flap.

I will have to apologise in advance if my choices for next month are not your choices but I will try to put together a reasonable mixture culled from our shelves. In fact, I have to come clean and admit that I never manage to read as much poetry as I would like. I am much more likely to pick up a novel or short story collection if I’m browsing and in need of something to read. Last year was supposed to be my year of reading more poetry so I picked up a couple of Faber volumes in a book sale to try and broaden my range but they are still languishing on the shelf.

Next month may then prove to be a voyage of discovery for me as there are clearly poetry books on our shelves that I have barely even opened. However, I will certainly feature a few poems from my childhood that have been read many times over and that are still enjoyed. This will, I hope even the balance a little and perhaps remind me of a time when I was more poetry minded than I am now. I used to have a Puffin collection of children’s poems and a Children’s Treasury containing stories and poetry. The latter still survives so I will choose a favourite memory from its rather battered pages for one of my blog entries.

At last Wednesday’s Poetry Ireland reading by Michael Krüger I jotted down his assertion that ‘a day without reading a poem is a lost day’. Let’s see what I can do about that during the course of next month.

Let me know about your favourites if you have time to drop me a line (use #Poetryinjune on Twitter).

(Picture Credit: Wikipedia – original painting in the Ponce Museum of Art, Puerto Rico)

Advent Reading Challenge: Wendy Cope

December 11th

The Christmas Life by Wendy Cope (taken from The Book of Christmas edited by Fiona Waters and mentioned in a previous post). This poem was previously published in If I Don’t Know (Faber).

I have been a fan of Wendy Cope’s verse for a long time, since someone gave me a present of Serious Concerns (Faber) when I worked in a Birmingham bookshop in the 1990s.

This festive poem celebrates the zest and spirit of Christmas: the living greenery brought inside the house with its hint of spring to come; bright colours on the tree; memories both happy and sad and the hopefulness of a new beginning for all of us.

Here are the first and last verses:

Decorated Christmas Tree

All Kinds of Everything…


Bring in a tree, a young Norwegian spruce,

Bring hyacinths that rooted in the cold,

Bring winter jasmine as its buds unfold,

Bring the Christmas life into this house.

Bring in the shepherd boy, the ox and ass,

Bring in the stillness of an icy night,

Bring in a birth, of hope and love and light,

Bring the Christmas life into this house.

I hope that you are enjoying these Advent snippets of poetry and prose both old and fairly new. It has proved to be an enjoyable writing and reading challenge for me and I am re-discovering many old favourites along the way.

(photo: Chris Mills)

Until tomorrow…