Category: Short stories and other writing

From the Witch


Alder cone & immature catkin2
Alder, or to give it its botanical name, alnus glutinosa

A very lovely elderly lady I used to garden for, had a stand of five alder trees at the bottom of her garden, next to a brook.  She called them her guardians, and there is indeed something solid and reassuring about this tree.

Alder binds up river-banks.  Like willow, it flourishes naturally  by the edge of rivers, with its roots in the water.   This preference of the the wild tree can exploited by planting alder along river banks to prevent the erosion.

Alder has an ancient reproductive system , harking back to a time before angiosperms. Like hazel and birch, it has catkins, but alder is the only broad-leaved deciduous tree to have cones as well.  You can see them on the photo above, persisting from last year, along with the unopened catkins and the young cones.  In the late-winter sunlight, alder trees have a purplish haze to them, because they are covered with purple catkins.


Alder catkin

The catkins are the male part of the alder’s reproductive system.  They are produced in the winter, and as mentioned before are a purplish brown.  In the early spring they become long and dangly and are full of yellow pollen which is dispersed by the wind.  The female parts are the little nubbly structures which you can see in this photo.  They will be fertilised by the wind-blown pollen from the catkins and will swell into cones.

You can understand what D.H. Lawrence was banging on about in ‘Women in love’: trees are surprisingly sexual.

And here is a bit of local lore: alders can form alder carr, which is a dense thicket or stand of alder, usually small in height, growing on wet swampy soils.  And Aldercar is an old area of what is now a joint parish with Langley Mill, just north of Derby.

Our history is in our place names.


Since we first moved to Derby, I must have driven by this water-meadow on my way Morrisons to do the family shop, every Saturday for the best part of twenty years.  And no matter what time of year, I’d always noticed the horses but had never been able to stop. This morning I was determined to find them, and so I cycled.  Sure enough, there they were, knee deep in the buttercups and lush grass.  20160529_084042 There was a kindly gentleman by the footpath, upending a bag of hay and breaking up some carrots. I asked him if they were his horses.  “No,” he replied.  “They’re gypsy horses”.  One of the male horses came over to investigate my bicycle, and I could see he’d been fighting, and had bite marks on his rump and tail.


He emptied the bag and we watched as a group of them came up to eat. There was a shaggy foal with them. He’d felt sorry for them in the winter when the water meadow was like a lake and they’d been marooned with nothing to eat, so he’d started feeding them.  “But this’ll be the last time till next winter, now that the grass is up,” he said.

“Think the gyspies work them?” I asked.  “No,” he replied.  “But they do rotate them.  Sometimes you see different ones in the field.”

The sunlight reflected on the water and lapwings flew high in the sky.  On the far side of the water meadow, the Sheffield train went by and the horses galloped across into the next field.  I said goodbye and walked along the green way, thinking about the Romany, where they had gone and when they were coming back for their horses.









Nettle is the first wild food of the year, and the sight of its young jagged leaves in early April, is a welcome sign that the Wheel of the Year has turned and Spring is truly here.

2016-04-05 11.18.47
Witches are not immune to nettle stings: the trick is not to mind.

Nettle is a wild plant that I treat with enormous respect and admiration, although it was not always so.  My first gardening job involved clearing a large patch of waste ground and in those days I was very hench: no gardening gloves for me, as I liked to feel the earth underneath my fingernails.  I pulled up nettles bare handed, safe in the knowledge that if you grasp the stalk firmly you don’t get stung.  Later that night I was woken from a deep sleep by hundreds of little throbbing stings in my hands, extraordinarily painful.  From that time, I have always worn gardening gloves.

There are some very good reasons not to pull nettles out.  Here are six of them:

  1. You can make nettle tea with them.
  2. You can make nettle soup with them.
  3. I am told on the best authority that you can use the young leaves to make Spanakopita.
  4. You can make a wonderful plant feed with them and will never need to buy Tomorite again.
  5. Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies lay their eggs on them, and the caterpillars feed on the leaves.
  6. You can crop them several times in the year, so instead of regarding them as a perennial pest, see them as a renewable resource.



The desire to drink nettle tea tends to come on in the evening.  It is pale green and strangely addictive.

You will need

  • Marigold rubber gloves or similar, to protect your hands
  • A large plastic bag, or trug, to collect the nettles
  • A large jar with a well fitting lid*, or a tea caddy.
  • A small teapot

Find a secluded nettle patch – it should be away from a road, and away from any suggestion of herbicide.  Pick your nettles carefully: you only want the the very young leaves at the tip of the stalk.  You need lots of nettles, so fill your bag.

To wash or not to wash? I don’t: the leaves are going to be steeped in boiling water, which should kill off any germs; and besides, wet leaves tend to rot.

To dry the nettles, spread them out in a warm, airy place.  I lay them out on newspaper in my spare bedroom.  Turn them carefully every few days so that they dry out. After about a week they will be dry, papery and you should be able to crumble them between your fingers.

Your container is important.  It should be large enough, with a well fitting lid, clean and completely dry.  Transfer the dried nettles into the container, and label including the date.

To make the tea, you will need a small teapot.

Add 1 – 2 heaped teaspoons to the pot, and fill up with boiling water.  Let it steep for about 5 minutes.

Then savour and enjoy. It will do you the Power of Good.














Patience, noun:

 the quality of being patient, as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like

The Witch asks for your patience as she has had other Business to attend to.  Things will be back to normal shortly.




2016-02-07 14.47.59
Alder thicket

This afternoon I went for a wet, wet winter walk in the fields and woods around Osmaston village.  The ground was sodden, the rivers and streams swirling with brown water and every so often, more rain poured from the steel-grey sky.


However, I was there by choice, in the company of good friends and a dog, and in spite of the squelching mud underfoot, we had a very enjoyable time.  The first snowdrops were spotted in the hedgerow.

Once we got home, it was good to warm up again with a bowl of soup.  I’d made it earlier in the day and was rather pleased with how it turned out.  I’ve called it Cheat’s Tomato Soup because it has the satisfying gunky taste of Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup, but it is secretly healthy and dead easy to make.  So without further ado, here is the recipe.


  • Onion, 1
  • Garlic, 1 clove
  • Oil for frying, 1 TB
  • Large tin of reduced sugar baked beans (400g*), 1
  • Large tin of tomatoes (400g*), 1
  • Marigold stock powder, 1 tsp
  • Fresh red chilli, 1, deseeded and roughly chopped
  • To serve:  creme fraiche* (half fat) and one spring onion chopped finely, or chives

To make

  1. Chop the onion coarsely. Mince the garlic.
  2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the onion for a few minutes to soften.  Add the garlic and stir.
  3. Add the beans and the tomatoes plus one tin full of water.  Bring to the boil.
  4. Stir in the stock powder and the chilli. Turn the heat right down, and simmer for 30 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat and liquidise.  If it’s too thick, you can let it down with stock.
  6. Serve with a spoonful of creme fraiche and scatter the spring onion in an artistically japanese sort of way over the surface.



*If you live in America, the imperial equivalent is 14.1 oz, and I think creme fraiche would be sour cream 








Casting around for a some different way to use my Crown Princes (see ‘Z is for Zucca Ivernale’), I found this risotto recipe from north Italy.  You can use any kind of pumpkin, or butternut squash (which is more readily available in UK supermarkets).  It will make you a dish to sustain body and soul.

Some say that Antonio Vivaldi was fond of this dish, so it would only be fair prepare it to the accompaniment of his Four Seasons: Winter.

Antonio Vivaldi, composer of The Four Seasons, and greatest baroque musician of all time, enjoyed a spot of pumpkin risotto when his muse sulked

Serves 4


  • Pumpkin, or butternut squash 600g (or a bit more if you like)
  • Onion, 1 medium
  • Garlic, 1 large clove
  • Oil (not olive), 1TB
  • Butter, 1 thickish slice
  • Risotto rice (sold as arborio or canarole rice in the UK), 200g
  • Dried sage*,  2 generous pinches
  • Marigold stock, 500ml
  • Salt and pepper for seasoning
  • Grated parmesan to serve

* I like sage, but if you don’t, use rosemary or thyme instead

To make

  1. Prepare the pumpkin, or butternut squash.  Remove the seeds, peel and chop into small chunks, a bit larger than poker dice.  Steam until just tender – about 10 minutes.  Drain.
  2. While this is happening, peel and chop the onion, and crush the garlic.
  3. Heat the oil and butter together in a saute pan. (The butter gives flavour, the oil stops the butter from burning – neat, eh?)**
  4. Gently fry the onion till soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and fry for a few more minutes.
  5. Then add the rice and stir till the grains are shiny.
  6. Add 1 ladle full of stock and stir well to ensure that nothing is sticking on the bottom of the pan.  Turn the heat down, and continue to cook gently with the lid off, stirring from time to time.
  7. After about 3 minutes, most of the stock will have been absorbed.  Add another ladle full of stock, as well as the steamed pumpkin and the sage.  Continue to simmer and stir as before.
  8. Carry on adding the stock and cooking.  You may not need all the stock, or you may possibly need more.  Taste for doneness: you are aiming at a soupy consistency, but the individual grains of rice should have a bit of bite – al dente.  
  9. You will notice that the pumpkin sort of disintegrates, giving the risotto a beautiful overall golden colour.
  10. Season to taste and serve in bowls with grated parmesan.
  11. Buon appetito!


**Thank you Mum for this excellent tip!