Burning the Sugar Loaf

The last time Lizzie and her friends stayed for a weekend they spent an hour or so discussing where to go for a walk. After looking through the various books, maps and leaflets on the shelf, they’d more or less decided on a trek to the top of the Sugar Loaf when someone queried the name.

“Why’s it called the Sugar Loaf?” asked Phil.

“Because of the shape,” said Mary. “It looks like a sugar loaf.”

“That doesn’t tell me anything,” said Phil. “What the hell is a sugar loaf?”

To be fair, he had a point. Books blithely trot out these descriptions that may have meant something once upon a time but no longer. Who among us has seen an actual sugar loaf?

Well…now I have! Courtesy of my lovely friend Susie, who lives with her equally lovely husband Dave in a cottage on the hillside above the village. They’d invited us to a Christmas party last weekend, and as it wasn’t raining (for once) we set off on foot, clutching a torch each. A torch is more necessary than a coat around here if you’re going to be out after sunset. Unlike night-time in a town or city it actually gets pretty dark – I feel as though I’m living in Watership Down half the time. Once you leave the main street you may be able to see your hand in front of your face but you sure can’t see where you’re putting your feet! There are all sorts of hazards waiting to get you, from ankle deep puddles to twisted tree-roots to various small piles of unidentifiable muck. It’s also quite risky when walking alongside a canal…

Anyway, torches in hand, we arrived safely and settled ourselves into the warmth of Susie and Dave’s kitchen. The table was laden with all sorts of gorgeous food and the smell of home-made pretzels was mouth-watering. Before long we were enjoying the highlight of the evening: the Feuerzangenbowle! Susie and Dave are German and had promised that this was a traditional twist on the already deservedly famous Glühwein. It translates as ‘bowl of fire-tongues’ and was not only delicious to drink but spectacular – and nerve racking – to watch! The Glühwein is made as normal and the pot sits over a low heat. Above the pot is a metal rack holding…drumroll…a sugarloaf! In this case Susie had actually made two and they looked like little white sandcastles of compressed sugar. She then mesmerized us all by pouring warmed, flaming rum over them, a process which went on for at least twenty minutes and would have set off the smoke alarm more than just once if someone hadn’t switched it off! The idea is that the sugar melts in the flaming rum and runs through the rack into the Glühwein, bringing a beautiful, alcoholic caramel taste with it. It was absolutely delicious, but Susie – you must have nerves of steel!dec 2015 38Die Feuerzangenbowle!

So Danke schön Susie and Dave – as well as having a wonderful time in great company, now I know from first hand experience what a sugar loaf is!

The festivities continued the very next evening at the Christmas dinner for the local singing groups. Thirty-nine of us got together at the Bear in Crickhowell, which for years has had an excellent, well-deserved reputation. I’ve been to many departmental dinners in my working days, but always felt that when big parties were involved the food was churned out of hotel kitchens with very little care or attention to detail. At some of those places service was very often casual, if not downright sloppy. Not so at the Bear; the meals were really tasty and the waiting staff were brilliant. We all enjoyed the evening (nobody more than the astonished African guest booking into the hotel just in time to hear us singing Nkosi sikelel’i in between courses – it’s one of our party pieces) and we will definitely be returning next year!

On Sunday we collected Alex and assorted luggage from the train station and went to Abergavenny Winter Food Festival. Not quite as crazy as the main event in September, it was still well worth the visit. The more important part of the day, though, was what happened when we got home…putting up the Christmas decorations!   This always seems to be a bit of a chore until we actually get into it and then it takes over completely. Moving house two years ago has knocked the routine into six but this is our second Christmas here and hopefully we’re starting to sort ourselves out.dec 2015 13

dec 2015 14

After this massive effort we rewarded ourselves with a mini-holiday in York. Mr B and I were there last year for the first time and loved it so we decided a return was definitely in order. This time we went by train and took Alex with us. We stayed in a hotel just outside the city walls and were lucky enough to have reasonably good weather – so good in fact that people were walking around in t-shirts.

On the last trip we hadn’t gone into the Minster for some reason, so we put that right this week. It is completely wonderful! We joined a tour given by a very knowledgeable guide, which is always the way to get the best out of any visit to a historical site/museum exhibition. They tell you things that you couldn’t possibly find out for yourselves. We were there for about two hours but only because there were other things we wanted to do, and to tell the truth I could have spent all day in the Minster.york minster1 2015York Minster

There’s been a church here since 627 AD and although for centuries it was fairly rudimentary it was rebuilt in a substantial form (of course) by the Normans. My own opinion of the Normans is that they were greedy, murderous thugs but what I can’t fault them for is their commitment to detail and their complete obsession with making their presence felt. There are, of course, two main types of building that we associate with them: the castles which were quickly thrown up at first in wood, then in stone, punctuating the land in order to say ‘We are here, we are stronger than you and we are not going away – argue with us at your peril!’; then, almost as fortress like, the religious buildings that sprang up with seemingly equal fervour. The cynic in me says that this was more to do with how things looked and with politics than with any true adherence to faith; and they were probably also hedging their bets. Anyhow, once they had finished harrying the North into bloody submission they replaced the simple Anglo-Saxon building at York with their usual brutal stone edifice, which lasted until the middle of the thirteenth century; at that point it began to be transformed into the more elegant Gothic style which we still see today. There are some fantastic stone carvings in the Chapter House, as well as the stunning Screen of Kings in the transept. But one of my favourite decorations was the dragon which emerges halfway up the northern wall of the nave. It may have been used as a pivot for the mechanism to raise the very heavy lid from an early font.york minster3 2015The Screen of Kings, c1450: Left to right, from William the Conqueror to John

york minster18 2015The dragon in the nave

Like many historical buildings York Minster does its bit to pull in visitors and gain useful funds from the public. There’s the usual plea for contributions and the ubiquitous shop; and Alex reverted to her childhood and spent five minutes in the dressing-up section.york minster6 2015A new career beckoning?

I have to say that although I’m not religious I really love these sites. Where else do we have buildings that are in such good nick at such an age? And for that I thank the institutions of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches and also – although I wouldn’t have wished them on anybody – the Normans! We filled in the rest of the day by visiting the Jorvik centre and the National Railway Museum, then rounded it off with a Ghost Walk and a good dinner. I’m sorry to say that the Ghost Walk wasn’t scary enough to keep us awake and so we enjoyed a good night’s sleep before catching the train home the following day. All that remains to be said is that the weather looks set fair for the next few days and we’re planning a walk tomorrow to collect holly and mistletoe.

We won’t be trekking up to the top of the Sugar Loaf though – just in case of fire!

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