Time For Tea

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has brought to the fore a more patriotic spirit than I’ve ever witnessed in my twenty-three and a bit years of life. Perhaps it’s linked to the Olympics (#London2012) or building on the hype of last year’s Royal Wedding festivities, but I’ve seen more red-white-and-blue than ever before, from bunting on trees to Union Flag manicures. And I’ve found it all rather heart-warming. On International Day at school, surrounded by girls in glittering saris, silky Korean hanboks and intricately embroidered kimonos, I often lamented the lack of an English national dress. The British, in particular the English, truly are in my somewhat limited experience the masters of understatement and not-wanting-to-make-a-fuss, and the general disdain with which much of the population look upon the closest thing I can think of to a national dance – Morris dancing – I thought spoke volumes about our national pride or lack thereof. But the marriage of William and Kate – now Katherine – last year contradicted me, and this year’s Jubilee festivities have solidified that still further. My delving into the world of the countryside has shown me and continues to enlighten me about a new side of British life, and the combination of these two worlds – the city and the country – has led me to the conclusion that British tradition – or rather English tradition, for the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish are all proud enough to have and to celebrate their own national dress and traditions – does still exist, if in a slightly subtle form. I may live to change, alter, regret or even deny this assertion, but it’ll do for now.

Yesterday I went to my second gathering of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, and it was just as good as before. Three stands, three pairs of clays per stand and plenty of cake! The highlight was most definitely the wonderful, adrenaline-fueled simulated flush put on by John, Derek and Sid, our lovely instructors. I thought I loved shooting, and my second simulated experience (the first being a 20-bird sequence shot from the grouse butt at RBSS) has cemented what the first confirmed – it takes it to a whole new level. You have no time to think, it feels so much more instinctive and you do get a real adrenaline rush. I shot RBSS’s Classic Handicap with an A Class shot, and was thrilled with my 8 kills out of 20 when he only hit 12! The flush yesterday reminded me of that, and I was delighted when I managed finally to open my barrels and let the ejectors do the work (at the beginning I carefully removed my spent cartridges and looked around mid-flush for the bin to put them in). I reloaded at record-breaking speed – a personal record but still… – mounted the gun and ‘killed’ a clay that had been launched while my gun had been broken. The cherry on the cake was to hear expert instructor John King behind me say “very good shot”, a self-esteem boost if there ever was one. Needless to say I can’t wait for my first game shoot.

Shooting and hunting are, of course, part of British Heritage, dating back to Idon’tknowwhen. Having graduated from and thus left university, I think I am now safe to reference Wikipedia (and will admit a mixed feeling of guilt, rebellion and liberation in doing so) when I say that the first recorded instance of hunting a fox with dogs was in 1534. The relaxation of the law in 1831 meant that shooting was more accessible to the masses. The association of hunting (and I include shooting under that umbrella of a term) and the monarchy help give shooting its terribly British reputation – though, I believe, HRH herself doesn’t shoot, Prince Philip does, and the newest member of the Royal Family, the Duchess of Cambridge, has been photographed shotgun in hand.

A yet more quintessentially British tradition is that of drinking tea. Tea is the lifeblood of the William Powell office, and I’m sure many other offices around the country. I don’t think my mother could function without it – we used to take little sacks of teabags on holiday with us, as she could never find tea good enough abroad. It was presented to the Britons by Asterix in place of the Magic Potion, and, drunk with ‘a drop of milk’ led them to win the battle against the Romans[i]. Despite being grown abroad and only becoming popular in the UK in the 1800s, tea is most definitely an English tradition, particularly when served with cucumber sandwiches and scones – which should be pronounced ‘sconns’ not ‘scoans’ – with clotted cream and jam (my mother and I disagree on the order of application of jam and cream, meaning it was a hot topic of debate around our tea table today… opinions welcome!)

All of the above means that a meeting of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, guns and teapots at the ready, on the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations seemed most wonderfully fitting. I successfully managed not only to make a cake for this meet, but not to drop it; I did my bit, arriving with both my orange and hazelnut brownies (loosely based on Leon’s ‘Better Brownie’) and my pride intact. My brownies joined the cakes brought along by the ladies were not only of the same spectacular standard as last time, and to mark the occasion, they were adorned with red, white and blue stars, and union flags both edible and paper. Bunting decorated the lodge, and the beautiful LadiesShooting tea cups, saucers, side plates and teapots stood about proudly, waiting to be filled with hot delicious English Breakfast tea.

I was surprised again yesterday, this time by a spontaneous act of patriotism at a friend’s barbeque in the evening. In my role as sensible driver, I was amused and somewhat impressed when the slightly tiddly group agreed to add a new rule to the drinking game, Ring Of Fire. While the various rules are much argued over, interchanged, debated and tweaked, I’ve not yet actually witnessed the introduction of a new rule – until last night. To mark the celebrations of the Queen’s sixty years of reign, it was agreed that upon drawing a queen from the ring of playing cards on the table, the whole group had to stand and sing the national anthem. And despite their small size, sing they did. Twice before the game was abandoned did the walls of the shared house vibrate with passionate, tipsy renditions of God Save The Queen. I had the forethought to film the second performance, but sadly as it was on someone else’s camera I can’t post it on here. The gusto with which the anthem was belted out perhaps says more about the quantities of G&T and Pimms-and-lemonade consumed, but I believe it also shows that at their heart, even a group of proactive and intelligent students and ex-students with political views ranging from the redest of reds to the bluest of blues, share a love of their country and their monarch – if not the monarchy as an establishment. But I’m not going to dissolve into a debate about the monarchy here; suffice it to say, the enthusiasm and general joining-in-ness was really lovely to see.

Today I celebrated the Jubilee by enjoying afternoon tea with my family, watching the slightly damp pageant on the River Thames, followed by the Diamond Jubilee special “entertainment extravaganza”, all with yet more tea, homemade elderflower champagne, cordial and Lemon Shrub (more on those to follow in a later post) and plenty more cake. I spent last Friday baking a variety of cakes: the aforementioned orange brownies with toasted hazelnuts; wholemeal scones; a lemon drizzle cake with a hint of ginger (could have done with a bigger hint in my opinion but a nice moist loaf nonetheless); and the best Victoria sponge I’ve made to date, consisting of two wholemeal sponges that actually deigned to rise rather well, sandwiched together with only-slightly sweetened cream (a hat-tip here to the ex-colleague who introduced me to this) raspberry jam and fresh raspberries, and topped with more cream and a fresh-fruit Union Flag, inspired by yesterday’s winner of the S&CBC rosette for Best Cake. The plan was for leftovers to be vacuumed up by my friends on Tuesday after a street party here in Twickenham, but I fear the half a lemon drizzle loaf and two wholemeal scones that are left may not quite fill us up. Luckily I still have some elderflower champagne and more potent lemon shrub left over, which should hopefully distract my guests.

Shooting, barbeques, mini-flags, friends, family, copious amounts of tea and cake, pretty red-white-and-blue napkins and plenty of patriotic spirit have made the Jubilee weekend rather wonderful so far. This is history in the making, and we are living through it. We are celebrating only the second monarch ever ever ever  to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee. (The feminist in me wishes to point out that both of the monarchs to achieve this were women. Long Live the Queen indeed.) If HRH lasts another four years – and I can think of no reason to doubt her – we will have cause to celebrate the longest reigning monarch in British history; truly something to celebrate. I’d better get planning those cakes.


[i] I still think Marcus Ginandtonicus should have played a key role in ‘Asterix in Britain’, if only due to the fabulousness of his name!

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Shotguns and Chelsea Buns

Last week I encountered a chain of bad luck. One due to my own clumsiness, one actually due to sheer bad luck, and all of which culminated in me bombarding my few Twitter followers with tweet after tweet after tweet last Saturday morning, every single one of them moaning about the traffic jam I was sat in for an hour and a half. There were four key factors that led up to this moment:

  • First, last autumn a girl I was working with wrote an article about her experience on a grouse moor for a new website, ladies-shooting.com.
  • Second, I started this blog.
  • Third, a couple of months ago I was embarrassed by my mother’s proficiency and persuaded by work to rediscover my Twitter account – which I duly linked to the blog, rechristening it @TheFirstFrost – and started ‘tweeting’.
  • Fourthly and finally, due to a diagnosis of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, I have recently found myself living back in Greater London – temporarily I might add – and thus with a slight lack of anything even vaguely country to write about.

These circumstances all combined to stick me in the worst traffic jam I’ve yet experienced as a driver. I shall explain.

A friend at work encouraged, persuaded and bribed us all to ‘follow’ @William_Powell on Twitter. So that evening, I logged onto my dormant, near extinct Twitter account and did just that. Embarrassed by the fact that my mother was more social-medialy active than I was, and armed with a brand new shiny phone and my brand new shiny blog to talk about and shamelessly promote, I decided to pay attention to my neglected Twitter account. I promptly set about hunting for people to stalk – I mean ‘follow’. Amongst my victims were my colleagues, including the girl mentioned above who wrote the piece about the grouse moor. Sheep that I am, I also set about following people they were following, picking out anyone who seemed familiar, interesting or with an interesting name. Being a lady (or woman at least) who likes shooting, I opted to follow owner of the website she wrote for, @ladies-shooting. Little did I know it would bring me one step closer to that awful traffic jam.

City-bound as I was (and still am for that matter) I’ve had to actively hunt out things to write about, and so I derived my first benefit from Twitter. @ladies-shooting kept tweeting to the world about a clay shoot happening one weekend with the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club. I looked into it, and discovered that it is a ladies-only shooting club, where everything you require is provided, from guns to tuition, good company to cake, and I swiftly signed up.

The day before the shoot saw disaster number one. I set about making a ginger cake to take along, a very simple but very lovely, until-now failsafe recipe, requiring plenty of sticky ingredients – I finished off a tin of golden syrup in the making, which my dog very much enjoyed cleaning out.

However, one foolish and distracting phone call mid-bake meant that I forgot to add the key ingredient of my ginger cake: the ginger. After two minutes in the oven, I remembered, whipped the mostly-uncooked mixture out of the oven, and grated in my stem ginger, stirring it as little as possible before returning it to the oven. Sadly my last-ditch effort to gingify the cake meant that it sank in the middle, quite drastically; the Titanic of cakes if you will. Ever the optimist, I decided that I would cut the cake into squares, ice it, and no one would ever know of my ginger omission and its results. I released the sides of the springy cake tin, inverted it onto a plate, and removed the base of the tin. I then placed a cooling rack on the exposed bottom of the cake, and with one hand on the rack, one on the plate, set to turn it right way up onto the rack to cool. At this point my carpal tunnel kicked in: I dropped the lot. Half the cake slid off the plate onto the floor (much to the dog’s delight) and the rest smashed onto the counter. The cake was, even for the eternal optimist, ruined.

Not to be deterred, I reminded myself that there was nothing about Saturday’s shoot saying that you had to bring a cake, simply that you could if you wished. Next morning, I set off in plenty of time to drive to the Oxfordshire Shooting School to join the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club for the first time, sadly empty handed but armed with my ear defenders. Traffic caused by an accident earlier in the day caused everyone on the M40 to be diverted off at my junction down the A40, the road that I needed to drive down; and so we reach my traffic jam. I sat and crawled along, occasionally lifting my foot from the clutch as I reached the dizzying heights of 8mph, only to be shown a sea of red ahead of me as all cars hit their breaks and we ground yet again to a halt. I spent longer in that traffic jam than the entire journey should have taken. And so I tweeted my little heart out, simply as a means to keep myself amused. I also encountered a traffic sign that I don’t recollect specifically seeing before, and perhaps it was the petrol fumes, but it greatly amused me, surrounded as I was by stationary vehicles:

None of us had much need to be wary of tractors; unless one planned to drive over us all and crush us into real traffic jam (tasty and spreadable, with absolutely no pips!)

Luckily for me, I wasn’t the only one delayed, and when I finally made it to the Shooting School I was just in time to join a group on their first peg, and managed a decent score of 20/30 across all three targets. There was plenty of cake provided by luckier (or simply more organised) members of the group and we stood and sat around, chatting away drinking tea from beautiful china cups with matching saucers. All in all, it was well worth the wait, though I will aim to arrive on time next time.

For any women out there wanted to get involved in shooting, I highly recommend the club as an in. I knew no one at all when I arrived, but had a thoroughly lovely morning. The range of members is wonderful – there are people from a very country background kitted out in Dubarry’s and tweed, and people like me who really really aren’t. There’s also a fantastic variety of ability – you would not be alone as a complete beginner, and the instructors are prepared for that; but there were also a couple of experienced game shots that were both educational and a delight to watch. As I watched one of the women shooting one of the more challenging driven targets off a tower, she seemed to shoot in slow motion; she made it look elegant and easy, and there never was a better reminder that you have so much more time than you think you do from the moment you call for your target to the moment when you pull the trigger.

Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club has achieved something noteworthy (aside from there being tea and cake provided at every get together); they’ve managed to create a group serious about shooting without shying away from the feminine. Everything from the scorecards to the tea sets used at the end was oriented to women. And watching the lady I described above shoot demonstrated that it is possible to be a phenomenal game shot and be ladylike with it; as with all things, it simply takes practice. I very much look forward to the next shoot, on the 2nd June in Barbury near Swindon, and hopefully I can arrive with baked-offerings next time – if I can manage to bake a cake without dropping it or forgetting any ingredients.

The Welcoming Gaze of Gazelles

Finally, I have experienced a moment of belonging! But I shall tell you about it properly, try and do it the justice it deserves. Let me set the scene.

My previously mentioned shooting instructor recently asked me whether I might be around and available one Sunday, to help out on a charity shoot being set up by an ex-colleague and very good friend of his. Of course, I said yes. My instructions included when and where to arrive (approximately at least); to dress in ‘smart-casual but country casual’; and to smile, be charming, answer any questions and generally ‘help’ – instructions as wonderfully specific as so much of this world seems to be! So I dutifully rocked up armed with comfy-yet-country boots, fleece waistcoat and tweed skirt, and without a clue as to what I was expected to do.

And what a place to ‘rock up’ to. A central circular bar had been set up in the centre of a vast hall that was the shoot lodge/building/welcome space, with what can only be described as an armoury of spirits, beers, fruit juices, glasses and citrus fruits neatly arranged as though on display under the bar. A casually elegant basket of Danish pastries was wafted in front of my nose, and warily clutching a pain-au-chocolat, I sipped my tea (somewhat stewed in the pot but easily rendered drinkable by the addition of a little milk and plenty of sugar) and looked around. It was extraordinary. Huge wooden beams floated metres above us, a clean and fresh take on ‘country’, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves set in either side of the fire, over which a mezzanine level had been built around the chimney. The rest of the room had been left open up to the (beautiful) rafters, with huge doors on either side of the room beckoning the daylight inside. Two water buffalo heads looked down sternly from one wall, while a few decapitated gazelles gazed down at us with an altogether more welcoming expression than the angry buffalo. After a few moments spent in my own world (pondering how I’d convert the room into a one-room-house – it’s easily as big as the house I currently live in and a lot lot lighter to boot), The Day Proper began.

My ponytail anchored a James Shouler Shooting baseball cap firmly on my head, (James being the man running the shooting side of the soirée) and so bestowed on me the official role of Staff. There were sporting clay traps set up along one side of a upward-sloping field, and at the top of the little hill sat the flurry – my domain for the day. My job was to sit on the flurry, lounge in the sun with tally counter in hand, back to the cages and the shooters within, and count the missed clays. My old instructor (at this point I feel I should start calling him by name or as simply my friend, but for the sake of anonymity and also for story-telling purposes he will remain My Old Instructor) released the ‘flurry’ of clays over the four cages, spitting clays out at random angles and intervals, in an attempt to mimic a flush of real birds on a game shoot. Scoring and boosting morale for the more amateur shooters was a remarkably easy job, especially on such a beautiful day in such stunning surroundings. The attitude of the competitors was wonderful – as a charity shoot, no-one cared too much about losing (though of course everyone wanted to win) and the day was a huge success with staff and guests alike wearing sunshine-and-daisy smiles throughout. However, I’ve somewhat missed the point – my moment of belonging.

Walking out of the ladies’ alone with cap in hand, soon to be on head, I passed a group of women with perfect hair-dos and elegant (but highly impractical) white aprons, one of whom had so generously wafted temptation under my nose earlier in the form of the pain-au-chocolat . As I stepped onto the terrace, she spotted my cap and whispered to me conspiratorially,

–       ‘I wonder, can you tell us, what exactly is a flurry?!’

She went on to describe how she and the women she was with had sat around committee meetings about this charity shoot, smiling and nodding every time someone mentioned ‘The Flurry’, without the blindest idea what it actually was. I smiled and explained – terribly professionally of course – and joy of joys, they actually understood what I’d said, including my tentative references to game shooting (my experiences of which number to exactly nil).

The shaky sense of ‘I might actually know enough to pretend I belong here’ was reinforced by a fortunately overheard exchange between one of the instructors and one of the women actually shooting on a stand. Gun in hand and appropriately kitted out in tweed skirt and Dubarry boots, she was asked whether she was using a 12 or 20 bore shotgun. She glanced down at the gun she;d been using all morning and replied,

–       ‘I don’t know, the one with the little holes’

demonstrating to me without the tiniest hint of a shadow of a doubt, that I am not the least informed person within the world of shooting.