Sophie Grigson’s kitchen

Sophie Grigson
Sophie Grigson portrait by Mark Fairhurst.

She’s a self-confessed cook rather than a chef and champions local food production.

Sophie Grigson explains what’s going on in her kitchen.

COOK Sophie Grigson has a personal sense of style more in keeping with an Eighties pop star than a chef. With her spiky haircut, dangly earrings and elfin features she could so easily have bagged a record deal or presented the cult programme The Tube during that era, you can’t help but feel as you talk to her.
Her lovely Oxfordshire farmhouse also has a slightly whacky feel. There’s the new dog, Ben, recently adopted, who currently has to be kept in one side of it while the cat, Spice, rather put out by the usurper, has taken refuge in the kitchen. The door between Ben’s and Spice’s territories remains firmly closed and it’s not clear, if it came to a bun fight, which pet would come off the victor.

Sophie is all smiles, welcome and hand waves, excusing the chaos and ushering me into the most obvious room for this interview the kitchen – or rather, Spice’s space.
It’s just the kind of kitchen you would expect Sophie to have. Not for her the pristine pans gleaming on a rack beside polished granite work surfaces. Instead, it’s a used, lived in, experimented in, sat in, chatted in creative kitchen. It was hand built by a local joiner and has a range down one end, while jars, bottles and packets line shelves all over the walls. The windows frame views over the valley beyond and the sills are packed with kitchen paraphernalia, including a stylish hand-juicer, which, I note, has dust all over it.
“I take it that’s not used much,” I venture.
Sophie, busy creating coffee for us, is unabashed as she replies that it looks good, which is why it won its place in her kitchen.
Sophie herself has lived an interesting life. Her late mother Jane Grigson was a highly acclaimed author, translator and one of the pioneers of the Sixties culinary revolution and her father Geoffrey Grigson was a poet and critic. Hardly surprisingly, Sophie has a string of books to her name and is a regular contributor to Waitrose Magazine. Easy to talk to and passionate about food, she regularly pops up on hit TV cookery shows and spent the run-up to Christmas cooking in Sri Lanka. She was one of the judges of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme Food and Farming awards and uses her not inconsiderable influence and profile to champion local food producers, farmers’ markets and small food-related businesses. Indeed, it was at a local food producers’ festival that I first met her.

Such a good cooking pedigree

With so many strings to her bow, so many demands on her time, so many accomplishments and such a good cooking pedigree, it’s refreshing, if a little surprising, to her that she was slightly daunted on her Sri Lankan trip to discover she was cooking for around 50 guests.
“I’m a cook, not a chef,” she says, adding in the same breath that she really enjoyed the experience. “It made me realise how hard chefs work every day, especially in that heat. In the course of preparation we had several power cuts, the fuse box went up in flames and not all the staff spoke English – but we got it done on time and it was a really good evening,” she says.
I ask her if her children can cook and she assures me that they can, a bit, though se reveals that they think what Mum does is a bit boring.
“They can both cook their favourite dishes,” she says. Favourite means a Thai coconut vegetable and fish noodle soup and pasta with tomato sauce. They’ve also been known to supply peanut butter brownies to local fundraising markets.
“They get the idea and that’s good,” says Sophie.

“It’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use.”

Living with one foot in Oxford and the other in the countryside, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sophie is so passionate about supporting local food producers and retailers.
“I think there are issues that we do need to address… I think it’s important, as a food writer, to give my backing to people who are producing the kind of food I want to use,” she says.
“We are seeing a lot of changes in attitudes to food production. You can have a green hotel, for example, without compromising on quality; in fact by raising your quality. Hotels and restaurants tapping into local food producers get lots of things, not just fresh produce. They can have more say and ask local people to make things for them” she says. And there are so many human interest stories behind the food we eat.”

Community and rapport

Sophie is keen that we should be aware of what is available at farmers’ markets and in farm shops. She also points out that shopping regularly that way establishes a sense of community and rapport between buyer and seller or producer.
Other cooks are also lending their weight and voices to highlighting the way we produce food – recent programmes with Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall about the lives of British-reared chickens have had an impact on supermarkets and customers.
“The demand for free range chickens has gone up, which is also good for British producers – it’s very exciting,” says Sophie, pointing out that the ultimate aim was to improve the way that chickens were raised.
“Good for Channel 4 for being brave enough to do that. When I first started appearing on television programmes 15 or 16 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that sort of thing,” she says.
Sophie would like to do a series on meat and follow the progress and lives of beef cattle, because she feels that if we are going to eat meat we should know the process of getting it on to our plates.
“I love meat, as long as I know it has had a good life,” she says.
So, food apart, how does Sophie spend her time?
“I do a lot with the children. I like reading novels. I’ve been reading a Barbara Trapido book – I really enjoy her novels. I had this strange experience of sitting in bed one night, reading one of her books and there was my name. It was a conversation someone was having – it felt lovely!” says Sophie, adding that she has been a volunteer at Oxford Literary Festival. She enjoys amateur dramatics, recently playing the fairy godmother in her local village panto and taking part in the The Vagina Monologues in Abingdon.
Sophie makes regular visits to France and loves the way the French have remained so connected to their food production. She would like to travel more, especially if she could combine her journeys with discovering food. She was enchanted by Sri Lanka and would like to travel through South America.

“One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”

“I’d love to take six months out and go from top to bottom, or the other way round,” says Sophie. “One of the good things about having an interest in food is it’s a common language.”
It’s a language that Sophie has proved fluent in and our local food producers are lucky to have such an eloquent and dedicated champion for their cause. She’s not just another personality dreaming up recipes in the kitchen. Sophie’s choice to be hands-on in the food world is Oxfordshire’s – and the nation’s – gain.

This interview first appeared in Oxfordshire Life magazine on June 2008 under my former name, Sandra Fraser. ©SandraKessell
Image ©Mark Fairhurst

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The magic of Val Doonican: what a wonderful singing star

I was lucky enough to meet Val Doonican five years ago when his autobiography was republished under the title, My Story, My Life. He was as gentlemanly as you might imagine the soft-spoken Irish crooner to be and I left his home feeling richer for having met him. After hearing that his death was announced I re-posted this interview as a tribute to him.

Ever since this interview was arranged I’ve had Val Doonican’s music in my head – a curious combination of O’Rafferty’s Motor Car, Delaney’s Donkey and Walk Tall. Val’s music was a mainstay of BBC radio’s Family Favourites and his must-see television show ran for 24 years – a combination of chat, music and other stars’ guest appearances. So it’s with some trepidation I find myself ringing the doorbell on Mr Doonican’s Chilterns home, looking at his name on the brass mailbox, and trying not to blurt out: “Oh what a wonderful motor car, the greatest ever seen…”

Stylish and shy

Val himself calls down the stairs once I’m in the hallway and suddenly, there he is, easily recognisable as the star of my youth. A little older, true, but still with that lovely Irish lilt to his voice, the same slightly shy, ready smile and crooked teeth. He looks in fine fettle I tell him, and he laughs, pleased, and ushers me into the stylish duplex apartment he shares with his wife Lynn on the outskirts of Beaconsfield.

Stars on the sideboard

Now in his early eighties, Val is dressed in smart corduroys and a fine-knit smoky-blue jumper. Most of all, he’s very welcoming and kindly just as you would imagine he might be. It could be the home of any successful retired businessman and grandfather, there’s so little to hint at his professional life. Only close inspection reveals that former prime minister John Major is in one of the photos and comedian Jimmy Tarbuck is in another. The rest are family snaps – albeit Val and Lynn make a very glamorous couple – a collection of weddings, parties and smiling babies. But while I’m admiring a picture of a bouncing baby girl, Val becomes very sombre. Before we’ve been acquainted five minutes he’s explaining that the child is the couple’s first-born daughter, Siobhan, a cot-death victim who died just hours after the photo was taken, and it seems as if the interview isn’t going to go so well after all.

Pre-war Ireland, where Michael Valentine Doonican was born and grew up, was a tough enough experience. Val was one of eight children and when a sister contracted tuberculosis Val’s father moved into a garden shed to allow his mother to nurse her. Shortly afterwards, his father died of cancer of the mouth and throat. With his father’s admonishment to “always be yourself” ringing in his ears, Val left school and started work making boxes, never guessing music would become his full-time occupation. His career started slowly enough, touring Ireland, before touring England.

A turning point

After years touring separately, Val and Lynn, another star of the music scene, had married in the early 60s. Lynn had been persuaded to go back on stage after the birth of Siobhan, so the couple both had careers and earned a living. Val had been working in a live show with an orchestra.
Val’s response to Siobhan’s tragic death was to go to work at the Maida Vale studios the next day – a reaction born out of shock.
“Because of my working life in the business, I thought, ‘I’ve got to go in’.”
At that point, Val was well-enough known in the music business, but he’d never been able to secure a record deal or get a break into the big time. So often he’d felt he might be close, but the life-changing phone call had never come.
“Yet from that day on, everything went right for me,” says Val, wondering if God had a greater plan for the couple. “It was like a miracle,” he says, in spite of the tragedy.

Performing on Sunday Night at the London Palladium

If you’d rather believe in curious twists of fate than a higher power, at exactly that time the legendary impresario and star-maker Val Parnell heard of him from three different people, including superstar Dickie Henderson, and looked him up. Within weeks of Siobhan’s untimely death, Val had performed on Sunday Night at the London Palladium after which, his agent, Evelyn Taylor, started getting calls from the BBC, ITV and record companies trying to secure deals. You’d have forgiven Val for leaping at the first opportunity.
“But having been around for so long I was not fascinated by being famous,” he says. Eve, the shrewdest person in showbusiness, as Val calls her, suggested he chose his next move carefully. As a result, Val plotted a slow-burn, long-term career. For nearly 25 years he hosted his own television show and at the same time produced some 50 albums. His was the voice of the era, and a plethora of big names joined him on the show.

“I was getting 19 million viewers a week”

Though today’s come-and-go stars seem to make a lot of money in their short careers, Val’s satisfaction lies in having had the most amazing time, and despite the show’s understated charm and its rocking chair finale, it remains one of the BBC’s most enduring productions.
“When I think back to the mid-Sixties, I was getting 19 million viewers a week,” he says modestly.
Val’s star quality was undeniable, The Beatles were blasting their way through the charts, yet Val managed to knock them off the number one slot. He met and performed with singers who had been his boyhood idols, such as Perry Como, to whom he was often likened, yet he always appeared to remain down-to-earth. Behind the scenes he finally started to enjoy all the trappings of success. Lynn and Val were able to move to Rickmansworth because of its good road links and proximity to airports and London. Once their daughters, Sarah and Fiona, started school, the family jumped the Buckinghamshire border to a house in Seer Green that completed the show-biz lifestyle. It was bought from Jon Anderson of rock supergroup Yes fame, and had seven bedrooms, a swimming pool and kitchen garden.

A natural raconteur

“It’s all explained in my biography, how it all gradually happened,” says Val, talking like a favourite uncle or grandfather rather than a former household name. Tellingly though, it has been Lynn and Val’s friends and neighbours who have kept them living in the Beaconsfield area for decades, rather than its proximity to London, neighbouring show-biz stars or the beautiful countryside that surrounds them. The couple feel they are part of the community, hosting residents’ association meetings in their home and enjoying parties with friends.
“This is where our life is. It’s a lovely place to live, a lovely part of the world – you couldn’t ask for more. I do a lot of painting – I’m a member of Chiltern Painters – and I’ve been a member of Beaconsfield Golf Club since 1977,” says Val, who is a natural raconteur and has a charm that puts guests at their ease.

A certain modesty

Yet for all his past fame and fortune, it’s not until I’m leaving and ask to visit the cloakroom that I discover walls lined with photos and old posters – Lynn performing with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise; Val being presented to the Queen Mother; Val at a charity golf match with a myriad of stars. It’s a Who’s Who of show business legends. I linger a little longer than I need to, seeing who I recognise from their glory days, when they wanted to be on Val’s show and part of the Doonican scene. Getting into my silver people-carrier car a few minutes later, I can’t help thinking that it should be at least one of 40 shades of green, just like O’Rafferty’s, and that if today’s television producers could recapture the magic of Val Doonican, a quiet understated modesty and charm, they’d be on to something massive. Val welcomed everyone into what became his big family. Those of us who watched him in his heyday, however young we were, or however old, retain the warm fuzzy feeling and, it seems, those quirky lyrics.

Val Doonican 1927-2015

An interview with Fern Britton

I wrote this article back in 2011 and have been hosting a link to it from my site. However, I noticed it’s lost its punctuation and formatting – so here’s the original, along with links to  Iain Rennie Hospices at Home, now known as Rennie Grove, the charity that prompted Fern to grant the interview in the first place.

As she launches a new Chilterns cycle challenge, Fern Britton talks about padded saddles, Strictly Come Dancing Christmas and THAT gastric band…

First things first. Up close and personal, Fern Britton looks even better in the flesh than she does on the television.
She parks her modest little run-around, steps out into the rain and sashays into the Iain Rennie charity office in Chalfont St Giles, close to her home, the epitome of a yummy mummy in her plain tube dress, waist-clincher belt, flat pixie boots and trendy leather jacket. Her only jewellery is a ruby-winged heart necklace and a discreet watch – no rings, no bracelets, not even earrings.
A different kind of person might have dashed into the loo before facing a camera and interviews – not Fern. Clearly her decision to step down from This Morning, the hugely popular daytime show she hosted for more than 10 years, suits her. What hasn’t changed is the megawatt smile familiar from a thousand TV sofa chat close-ups and not a few paparazzi snaps. She greets the fundraisers in the office like old friends and they, in turn, congratulate her on her appearance, because despite the rained-on hair and today’s gruelling schedule she looks sassy and she’s glowing with vitality.

It’s the make-up from Strictly Come Dancing, she says, without a trace of false modesty. She’s been rehearsing with her secret partner (there’s speculation it might be fellow Buckinghamshire resident Brendan Cole, but she’s tight-lipped because we’re meeting before the Christmas special show line-up has been announced) and has driven straight to this interview from the dance studio. She’s loving the whole experience, from the gorgeous dress (she rummages in her handbag to show me a swatch of the material, but can’t find it, to our mutual disappointment) and the high-heeled dancing shoes, to strutting her stuff with some of entertainment’s finest. She’s never had the time to accept an invitation to join the show before though she did a solo number for Let’s Dance for Comic Relief.

The extra eyeshadow and foundation, together with her shorter hairstyle, may add a certain glamour, but as Fern walks up the stairs in front of me I can’t help but notice (women tend to) how very slender she is, or rather, has become.
After we’ve talked about her extensive charity work I finally come out with the question I’ve been itching to ask since hearing all those greetings in the office downstairs, ‘Does she mind everyone commenting on her size these days?’.

“I could either continue as I was and take the consequences, or think – hang on a minute, I don’t want my knees to be replaced”

Famously, or rather, notoriously, she had a gastric band fitted some four years ago and kept the operation a secret while crediting a better eating and exercise regime as first the pounds, then the stones, fell off her formerly voluptuous plus-size frame.
She draws herself up in her chair and looks me straight in the eye as she replies: “These things don’t work by themselves. You have to work hard to lose weight! I wish people would acknowledge how hard it is to get fit or get fitter.”

Notably, though, there are mini mince pies and biscuits on offer as we chat, and Fern doesn’t touch them. But far from getting annoyed, she’s flattered by those kind remarks about her looks. She says her age, (she’s 53), has given her an understanding of who she is. She decided to lose weight to improve her health, which was beginning to cause concern, not for anyone else’s benefit.
“I could either continue as I was and take the consequences, or think – hang on a minute, I don’t want my knees to be replaced,” she says.

Gastric band or not, she stresses her sustained weight loss has been achieved over several years. She feels as good as she did in her twenties, but adds:
“I’ve got wrinkles, I’ve got this and that, but since were talking about the Iain Rennie Hospice, we are also in an era where we must look after ourselves and do something to prevent those illnesses we can.”
Not that every illness is preventable, but with the National Health Service under scrutiny, a population that takes more responsibility for its fitness takes pressure off the system, she feels.

Becoming involved with the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home charity wasn’t a sudden epiphany, but as she grew up and still lives nearby she was aware of its work and its shops in the Chilterns.
“I’m all for local. The big national and global charities like Oxfam and Save The Children do amazing things but you mustn’t forget local charities which may be helping the person right next door to you. It’s particularly in this financial climate you have to think neighbourly charity begins at home,” she says.

It’s a phrase that might be used to describe Fern’s new fitness philosophy, which ties in perfectly with the IRHH‘s latest fundraising venture.
The charity is launching its first Chilterns Cycle Challenge, in March, featuring three different routes. The longest of these, at 75 miles, follows the boundary of the current Iain Rennie nursing catchment in the Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire Chilterns. The other two routes, at 10 miles and 35 miles, take in the area’s glorious countryside – and who better to launch their new fundraiser than a Buckinghamshire resident with a known penchant for pedal power?
“I’ve always cycled,” she says. “I cycled around the Chalfonts in my youth. Then you reach an age when you’re excited with your car. But when I was about 45 or 46, I picked up a bike again. I’d bought one for my husband (celebrity chef Phil Vickery) for Christmas, but he’s much more of a runner.” Fern borrowed Phil’s bike to ride the roads around their home in Holmer Green and became hooked.
“I started off doing a mile or two and when I got to four miles I thought I was doing very well – then I got to eight, then I did a ride for the British Heart Foundation that was 15 miles and that went well.”

Professor Lord Robert Winston, the fertility expert, involved her in Women for Women charity cycle rides and she has continued to clock up some impressive mileage by cycling through Egypt, India, Cuba, Jordan and most recently, China.
“Before you know it, you’re doing 30 miles, or 60 miles,” says Fern, revealing she’s progressed from a padded gel saddle to a sliver of a thing. She’s not competitive, though, and doesn’t tear around at Tour de France speeds. What she does do is train, 10 to 15 miles, three times a week plus up to 40 miles at weekends and it’s this regime that has kept the weight loss continuing.
“I’ve got a very understanding husband,” says Fern, when I ask how she fits all that cycling into her already busy schedule. She has a new series of Fern Britton Meets interview shows coming up soon with the Rev Jesse Jackson, Clarissa Dickson-Wright, June Brown (Eastenders’ Dot Cotton) and Cliff Richard in the hot seat that got Tony Blair talking candidly about the Iraq War in the last series. Then there’s the novel writing and being a mum to four children.

She urges prospective cyclists to take advantage of the training advice being offered by Reactivate Bucks in the lead-up to the IRHH event and she will be there on the day, probably lagging at the back of the pack, chatting, she says.
“If we can get 500 cyclists and they manage to raise £150 each – 500 times £150 – that’s… a lot of money!” she says, as we give up on the maths (it’s £75,000 I work out later).
And if Fern’s experience is anything to go by, taking a cycle challenge could be the start of something truly amazing.

Find out more about the Chilterns Cycle Challenge at http://www.renniegrove.org.

Nicky Henderson

Nicky Henderson
Nicky Henderson

henderson2 henderson3I wrote this article five years ago. Great to see Nicky Henderson still has the magic touch.

If he were a film star he’d be cast as the strong, silent type: as it is, he’s one of the country’s most respected and successful figures in National Hunt racing. I spent a morning in the wind and rain with trainer Nicky Henderson. Photography by Mark Fairhurst.

When you have 110 horses and 50 stable staff under your care sitting down is a luxury. Those entrusting racehorse trainer Nicky Henderson to deliver include HM Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and JP McManus. Apt then, that Nicky is a bundle of energy, marching forward to greet me at his yard just outside Lambourn, striding off to his all-weather exercise ring and jumping into his Jeep to whizz up to a vantage point from where he can watch his wards, human and equine.

Seemingly impervious to the blustery weather, his blue eyes are inscrutable as he scrutinises his horses. He has rugged good looks but doesn’t seem bothered by appearance. His only adornment is a signet ring bearing his family crest. Hatless, he’s lightly dressed in unbuckled boots, a pair of blue canvas trousers and a waterproof jacket of the kind usually worn by hikers. But mere morals venturing to Seven Barrows in winter should wrap up more warmly – a vest, jumper, tweed jacket and a long waterproof, windproof coat prove just about adequate and within seconds of meeting Nicky I’m mud-spattered despite wearing wellies. This has been one of the wettest winters on record and the weather is causing Nicky, and his owners, enormous disappointment – pools of water lie everywhere and Nicky dubs his all-weather exercise ring ‘the best building we’ve got’.

The gallops at Seven Barrows are fine, but the nation’s racecourses are struggling to put on meetings. When you have favourites peaking for races and owners itching to see their asset placed, cancellations are exasperating.

Seven Barrows straddles the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border and is dotted with Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows From the hilltops on the gallops the only house to be seen for miles is Nicky’s own. The house and yard were built in the mid-1800s and the soil hasn’t been tilled since. At least part of the everyday pleasure of Nicky’s job lies in being outdoors and he’s proud to be the guardian of this landscape.

Though Nicky’s expensive Eton education wasn’t intended to equip him for a successful career in horse training he says with a wry smile: “We all knew where the bookies were.”
He trod a more conventional path initially, following in his father’s footsteps to become a stockbroker. Two years on, having told his father he hated his job, he started riding as a professional jockey – not such a leap as it appears – he’d been an amateur before. His father, Johnny Henderson, was an extraordinary man, whose vision and drive kept Cheltenham Racecourse from being sold for property development. He had been an amateur jockey himself, was a racehorse owners and breeder and he supported his son’s decision.
“He was very good. I was expected to do the other job, but I didn’t want to sit in the City all my life,” says Nicky.
Johnny Henderson saw his son ride 75 winners and become an assistant trainer under the tutelage of the late Fred Winter before making a name for himself as a top trainer in his own right.

“I have three daughters, [Sarah, Tessa and Camilla], I don’t think any of them wants to get into training, though you do get women trainers. If they did, I’d help them,” says Nicky.
Though the youngest rides out for him when she’s home, Nicky has plenty of stable boys and girls working for him. They address Nicky as ‘Guv’nor’ and the rapport between them implies not only great respect, but also warm affection. No barking of orders, he exchanges very few words during his observations, but he knows exactly how each horse is riding. In horseracing circles Nicky is recognised as a bit of a softy, resisting the pressure to send his horses out unless they’re in tip-top condition.
“I can be criticised for it, but when my horses run, they are fit… there’s not a lot of point firing them at the wrong races in the wrong circumstances,” he says.

“Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses”

He later revisits the subject.
“We do have the best owners, which is quite important,” he says and looks embarrassed when I suggest such owners appreciate his handling of their valuable horses or they would go elsewhere for success. “They are the most understanding and the nicest. Training owners can be the hardest part of training horses,” he says.

There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear.

Nicky’s been on the go since 6am, but he hasn’t had breakfast and won’t be having lunch. A single cup of coffee will sustain him through the day.
“I’ve never thought of it before,” he replies when I ask him how he manages to expend so much energy on so little food. There’s no hope of a coffee for visitors, it’s clear. Instead, Nicky hits the phone, resting in a chair for a microsecond, then jumping up and walking around as he talks to a hospitalised jockey, an owner and his assistant trainer. Then he’s discussing nutrition with vet Buffy Shirley-Bevan, trying to find the perfect balance of nutrition for an off-colour horse.
“Everything’s easy with hindsight. You have to make hundreds of decision every day – it’s inevitable there are going to be wrong ones, that’s what it’s all about,” he says.

His office features wall-to-wall photographs of times that went right – horses in winners’ enclosures with their proud owners; horses clearing perfectly Becher’s Brook in the Grand National; bronzes of horses and a wide-screen television for watching race meetings. In Nicky’ words, horse racing is about hours of agony for a moment of glory. Like Olympic athletes, racehorses are highly tuned and their systems work at the extremes of their physical capabilities.
“One of my biggest frustrations is injury,” says Nicky as he’s called out of the office to examine a horse with a cut on its leg that’s not improving.

“I’m no good at doing nothing”

So what does Nicky do to relax?
“We do go on holiday. I go to buy horses in France – that will be our main objective this year. The last 10 years it’s been the place to buy,” he says.
“I didn’t learn much at school but I learnt enough French to be able to have conversations with a French trainer and I got a maths ‘O’ level which keeps me in the office for an hour or so,” he says, cracking a rare smile.
“I do go to Scotland – I’m not good in hot weather and I’m no good at doing nothing. I can’t sit on beaches,” he says.
He used to ride his own horse but says, practically: “It takes up a box and you have to keep it. It doesn’t make sense to have a box with a Dobbin in it.”
Nicky likes fishing and shooting (although the season clashes with National Hunt racing) and has been known to hit the odd round of golf. He enjoys eating out, but the pleasure comes from the company, not from the food. His passion and his life-blood are in the training.
“Everybody who does it is mad. We all stick together. It’s good fun around here,” he says, adding that without the fun there would be no point doing it.
Can Nicky see himself continuing until he’s too infirm to stand outside in all weathers or will be able, one day, to retire and relax?
“I haven’t thought about it. It depends how long I last. You last as long as anybody wants you to keep going. If things go badly for a couple of years people soon forget you,” he says. (Nicky needn’t worry, a quick check of the next day’s results shows that he had two winners at Ascot.)
“You only give this sort of thing up when you’re too decrepit to do it,” he says.

“I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards”

We go outside again and clamber into the battered old Jeep; it’s filthy inside and houses a diary, notebook, two pairs of binoculars and a pair of warm gloves that Nicky shows no sign of putting on. We’re heading back up the hill to watch the final runs of the day. “I wouldn’t want to train anywhere else but here. If I couldn’t justify staying here, anywhere else would be going backwards,” he says, surveying the landscape.

Such stark beauty could move the most dispassionate man and as another of his horses thunders past, tail flowing, sinews straining and nostrils flaring, Nicky tells me it cost £75,000 as a six-month-old and is due a win. His face is alight with the thrill of watching it gallop.
The gods can spit fire and spout rain up here, but it’s clear that Nicky Henderson is in his element. At one with nature, the closest he can get to heaven on earth – and that’s without the winning, or maybe, it’s part of the reason for it.

[Written for Oxfordshire Life magazine to highlight Lambourn Open Day on March 21 2008. It’s a unique opportunity for members of the public to see the racehorses and meet the trainers.]

The search for Gt Aunt Nica

RothschildHannah

This article first appeared in Cotswold Life December 2012

The fates of those blessed or cursed with wealth and fame have always enthralled and entertained – and provided headlines and schadenfreude when it all goes horribly wrong. Sandra Kessell talks to Hannah Rothschild about her book The Baroness.

It’s a fair walk between Waddesdon Manor’s car park and the house itself and today I have enough time to drink in all the fabulousness of the French Chateau-style building, the perfectly manicured lawns dotted with contemporary sculpture, the precisely planned floral displays and the coach loads of visitors ambling along the raked gravel paths.

I’m here to interview writer and film director Hannah Rothschild, the eldest of Jacob, Lord Rothschild’s daughters, and to hear of her fascination with her Great-Aunt Nica, a rebellious Rothschild who broke ranks to live among radical musicians at the heart of the bebop jazz scene.

In Nica’s youth this extraordinary family home was a playground for the rich and famous. She was brought up in similar luxury at nearby Tring Park, one of several Rothschild houses built around Aylesbury Vale and filled with treasures ranging from the gorgeous to the downright bizarre. At Waddesdon, priceless Sèvres porcelain, clocks and artworks were amassed, while at Tring, weird, wonderful animals were gathered either alive to populate the grounds or dead to be to stuffed or mounted and preserved in glass cases.

Today, Waddesdon Manor is in the hands of the National Trust, though the Rothschilds still play a major role in its management. Hannah is deep in conversation with one of the back-room staff when I arrive, too early, and guessing from my notebook that I’m her next appointment, she excuses herself momentarily to introduce herself and ask if I’d like a coffee while I’m waiting. Her easy manner and solicitude don’t come as a surprise. In my experience, people in Hannah’s position make pleasant interviewees.

According to Nica’s sister, the great scientist and ecologist Miriam Rothschild, our lives are shaped by genetics and chromosomes long before we are born. It was Miriam’s exasperation with Hannah that piqued her voyage of discovery into their forebears’ history.

“Nica seemed to have escaped,” explains Hannah. “I got more and more interested by her, I was making films and programmes for BBC Arts and I would see her when I went backwards and forward to America and it seemed the films were less interesting than she was.”

Then suddenly, Great-Aunt Nica died. Hannah thought she had missed her opportunity, then discovered she could still build a relationship, of sorts. She made a radio programme and a TV documentary about Nica, but feeling she had scratched only the surface of her life, and with stacks of material to explore and record, she started writing a book.

Discretion and secrecy are Rothschild watchwords, so when word of the book got out, the wider family viewed Hannah’s intentions with suspicion. They thought there were more worthy Rothschilds to write about.

“The family weren’t universally thrilled by this – nobody was,” says Hannah.

So what was her father’s viewpoint?

“He said, ‘Do you think you really need to do this?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ And after that, he never asked again. He was very supportive,” says Hannah. “Having raised the question he then accepted the idea.”

Hannah’s touching and candid account conjures up such well-drawn characters you feel as helpless as if you were watching King Lear repel his favourite daughter and divide his kingdom. As you read, pre-conceptions dissolve. Some aspects of Nica’s life were all-too-well documented but what lay underneath was unexplored or had been glossed over. So did the real Nica grow on Hannah as incomprehensible actions became understood?

“Yes,” says Hannah emphatically. “When I said I had a relationship with her it was rather like the cycles one goes through with friends, you know, love, and irritation and frustration and love again, I went through very similar things with Nica. For me, when I found out that she had decided not to live with her children, I got very upset with her… I felt disappointed in that decision.” But she realised in divorce cases of that era the father was always given priority over the mother, so Nica would have been unlikely to get custody, even if she’d fought for it.

Hannah delved into Rothschild history to start her story. Then progressed to Nica’s earliest years.

Named after a moth by her entomology-obsessed father Charles – Nica – full name, Kathleen Annie Pannonica – was the youngest of four children. Where her eldest sister and brother put their privileged but emotionally constrained childhoods behind them and found meaning, recognition and gainful employment through science, Nica lived her young adult life as a social butterfly, revelling in glamorous high society, marrying a handsome European Baron, flying her own plane, driving fast cars and generally following a path, if not exactly expected of her, then not entirely alien to her class.

During the Second World War Nica’s brother Victor was head of a small department at MI5 and her sister Miriam joined Alan Turing’s decoders at Bletchley Park.

Nica, whose French husband Baron Jules de Koenigswarter had settled his family in Normandy, remained with their children at their chateau, escaping to English safety just in time to avoid the horrors of the Nazi regime. Her married name and history caused distrust in England, but determined to help the war effort, she followed her husband’s lead, joined the Free French Army and smuggled herself on to a flight bound for Africa, repeatedly getting out of scrapes to put herself back on the front line.

It was said that when Nica heard ‘Round Midnight’ after the war, her world shifted on its axis. She left children, husband and scandal in her wake as she pursued and befriended the New York musicians who made it.

Her longest, closest and most personal friendship – there’s no evidence to suggest it was anything more intimate, despite speculation – was with the avant-garde pianist and jazz composer Thelonious Monk.

A giant of a man, both physically and in terms of his contribution to modern music, he wrote songs about and for Nica and she, in turn, adored and supported him, his wife, friends and family financially and in just about any other way she could. While he lurched from mental health crisis to fame and ultimately legendary status, she went into a tail spin, falling from the highest social echelons to a life of squalor and ill ease.

In the Fifties she sheltered the great jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker when he was sick. He repaid her by dying in her hotel suite. She later insisted drugs found in her car were hers, sparing her less well-connected musician friends for whom a conviction would have meant suspension of their professional licences. She knew the trials of being a misunderstood white, upper-class Jewish heiress making international headlines were as nothing to being black, gifted and breadline poor in colour-conscious 1950s America. But she also knew the fallout would affect her family. An image of her at the time of her arrest shows not a devil-may-care socialite but a frightened and sick to the heart mother and sister aware she was about to inflict pain on her loved ones.

What emerges in The Baroness, The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, is an affectionate portrait of an exasperating, naïve, brave and principled woman – an absurdity of contradictions, a mix of dog-like devotion and reckless  behaviour. Fiercely private, she drove the flashiest, look-at-me, open-top Bentley in New York. The girl who had spent her childhood dressed in pristine white lace living in houses of sumptuous luxury ended her dotage in a small apartment, surrounded by cats that ripped everything to shreds and left her home stinking. Born into wealth and possession beyond most people’s wildest imaginings and at her death worth $750,000, in her latter years she lived on a shoestring, satisfied by the ephemeral nature of music.

The Baroness is an oeuvre that has taken 20 years of research to complete, so now it’s done, does Hannah have another biographical project in mind? Is another family member sitting in her sights?

Hannah shakes her head and laughs. Her next project will be a work of fiction, she says.

Then she’s checking the time and working out whether she can show me the Manor’s latest exhibition before she has to honour another appointment with Candida Lycett Green to talk about a charity. We’ve over-run and can’t squeeze out another minute, and off she dashes, blonde hair flying, gold pendant swinging, duty and genes at her heels.

The Baroness, The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, by Hannah Rothschild is published by Virago.

To find out more go to www.thejazzbaroness.co.uk or http://www.hannahrothschild.com

Cotswold Life December 2012 The Jazz Baroness

Timothy Spall and the Call of the Sea

Timothy and Shane Spall image for Seafarer Magazine, courtesy Paul Crompton

 

I’m amazed to find it’s two years since I interviewed the character actor Timothy Spall as he circumnavigated Britain. His wife, Shane has since published a book about their adventures. I caught up with them in a noisy pub at the end of a busy day.

Timothy Spall turned down the opportunity to play a Pirate of the Caribbean so he could circumnavigate Britain in a converted Dutch barge, the Princess Matilda, with his wife, Shane.
Interview by Sandra Kessell for Seafarer Magazine

Why did you take up boating and what inspired you to take to the sea?
I don’t really know. It was a thing that happened when I was ill [with leukaemia]. I said to my wife: ‘When I get over this we can get a narrow boat and do the canals.’ It was our initial plan to get across to France but we decided we didn’t want to do that, we wanted to discover our own country. When we started I couldn’t even read a tide table, I learned to navigate by reading books, but this wasn’t an epiphany. I started to feel the call to the sea and I still feel it – but now I fear it and feel it – though I’m enjoying myself – it’s called life, pleasure.

Who’s the captain and who’s first mate?
I’m the captain and the skipper, my wife Shane is the chief purser, ship’s figurehead and ship’s sorceress. When I lose my bottle she reminds me she believes I can do it. We’ve done 1500 miles so far, the more you know the more there is to find out.

Which is your favourite port?
Everywhere is lovely. One of the nicest feelings was arriving in Douglas as that’s the furthest we’ve been out to sea. When we arrived in Peel on the west coast of the Isle of Man, with its very quaint and beautiful castle, we had to wait on the harbour wall for the tide to come in – it was a microcosm of everything that we have seen, in a way. There were kids playing on the beach, and it was hard to tell whether it was seagulls or the kids screeching as the fishing boats were bringing in their haul of queenies [queen scallops]  – it was absolutely idyllic.

Where would you most like to visit?
Wherever we’re next heading is where I want to be. We’re off to the Caledonian Canal, but we don’t plan more than 50 to 100 miles ahead. I hope we can see the Mull of Kintyre, Oban and Loch Ness. We keep a general idea of where we are going, but that’s also dictated by the wind and tide and weather conditions. If we get trapped, we get trapped. we don’t have a timetable. Sometimes I have to go off to work, so we find a safe harbour and leave the boat in purdah. One of the great things about the British Isles is they’re nautical isles with good facilities – though the Princess Matilda is 54 feet long and we pay for our moorings by the foot!

Do you have any seafaring ancestry?
I’d lived in London all my life until recently, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool 100 per cent urbanite. The call of the sea came from out of the blue, there’s absolutely no recent seafaring history in my family. My wife looked my background up and found I’ve got links to the East Coast, to Suffolk, 100 to 150 years ago. Perhaps some were mariners then.

Would you consider sailing a yacht, rather than your barge?
I don’t think so. Having played a hangman [Albert Pierrepoint] I’m well aware of what a rope can do! I can’t see myself running up and down a yacht, unless I could press buttons in and make the sails do what I wanted them to do. I know how hard life must have been before the internal combustion engine and I’m a lazy so-and-so who would rather dictate it all from the wheelhouse.

Could you combine your love of the sea with acting – playing a part in Pirates of the Caribbean, for example?
That did come my way recently, I’d have loved it, but it didn’t work out. I would have been in the Caribbean rather than being on my own boat. I worked with Mr Depp on Sweeney Todd – if I had another opportunity to repeat that experience, I would take it, he’s very, very good to work with.

Which mariner would you like to play?
Captain Bligh or Nelson – or the last person to invade Britain by sea – John Paul Jones. He invaded Whitehaven in the 18th century – they call him a pirate there, but the US Navy think he’s a hero. Sailing the coast you find wonderful things out about your own country!

If the Princess Matilda sank, what would you save?
A bottle of wine and Shane – and hopefully the lifeboat!

Timothy and Shane Spall’s adventures are documented in a book The Voyages of the Princess Matilda and on their blog, www.spallsatsea.com. Their seagoing Dutch barge was built by Peter Nicholls Yacht Builders Ltd.

Original text here: Tim Spall