Westward Farm Scilly Gin

Many a distillery spawned by the ginaissance is proud to proclaim that it is a small batch producer, but they will have to go a long way to beat the Hicks family. At the risk of sounding like Stella Gibbons, there have always been Hicks at Westward Farm, well at least for seven generations and they seem to be thriving on it.

Based on the island of St Agnes, the southernmost populated island in the Isles of Scilly. As well as distilling alcohol, which we will come on to in a minute, they produce essential oils from plants they grow on the farm from which they make a range of soaps and toiletries marketed under their “28 miles” brand. In their orchard they grow apples which they turn into apple juice and cyder and their Westward Farm beef can be found in the food shops of the island. In a quaint, country touch they have a wheelbarrow outside the farm gate containing seasonal produce. I must make a trip to the Isles some time.

Twenty-eight is a theme running through the farm’s produce because, astonishingly, they produce their gin in batches of just 28 a time. The botanicals they use for Westward Farm Scilly Gin are sourced from Java and Africa as well as from their own fields. They grow their own juniper, coriander, and angelica, and, as you might expect, source as much of their own energy as they can through their solar panels.

The base of their spirit is made from pure grain and the botanicals, frustratingly they are tight-lipped as to what precisely goes in, are gently vapour-infused in their stills to ensure that none of the unique qualities of each is lost in the process. It also means that no batch is precisely identical, adding an intoxicating variability to their product.

As well as Scilly Gin, they produce a Rose Geranium gin, a Wild Wingletang Gin, the name taken from the Downs on the island from which the gorse blossom they use is foraged, a Tanglewood Kitchen Pink Gin, and an oak-aged 28 Miles Gin. They keep themselves busy.

My bottle of Scilly Gin is made from clear glass and is bell-shaped with a small neck and an artificial cork stopper. The label is functional rather than elaborate and has an old-fashioned, chemical bottle about it. Black lettering is set off against an off white or beige background with the name of the gin in blue. The only symbols on the label are the co-ordinates of the farm and a rather forlorn tree at the bottom. Batch number 621 produced my gin, the label tells me, and was the work of Aiden to whom I offer my thanks.

On the nose there is the aroma of very fresh juniper with citrus and spicy elements in the mix. In the glass it is beautifully clear and in the mouth is a complex, but well-balanced, mix of juniper, citrus, and pepper which leaves a long lasting and warming aftertaste. It worked well with a good quality tonic and with an ABV of 40% is strong enough to make its presence felt while leaving enough room to entice you to pour another one. This was a real find and next time I pop into Drinkfinder UK in Constantine, I will be putting another bottle in my basket.

Until the next time, cheers!

Inspector French And The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

A review of Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy by Freeman Wills Crofts

I always find that I have to take a deep breath before I plunge into a book by Wills Crofts. They can be hard going at times with Crofts’ penchant for a detailed unravelling of the methods deployed in a usually exquisitely plotted crime. In this, his seventh, originally published in 1927 and also known as The Starvel Tragedy, the third to feature Inspector Joseph French, the tone is quite different and makes for an entertaining and page-turning read. It is the best of his tales that I have read.

French can be guilty of being a tad vainglorious, several times during the book musing that his successful resolution of the case will almost certainly guarantee him promotion, and also a little slow on the uptake, having been handed a clue that would speed up his enquiries and failing to recognise its import until almost too late and not realising that one of the characters upon whom he is relying to snare the culprit is not all that he seems. The denouement of the case is dramatic, partly because of the latter failing, but French manages to get out of a situation which could have been curtains for him and the culprit is left with an appointment with the hangman’s noose. The moral of the story is a nick will get you nicked.

The plot is complex, as you would expect, although it hardly seems so at the outset. Starvel is a house out in the wilds of Yorkshire and lived in by a miser, Simon Averill, his niece Ruth, and their two servants, the Ropers. Ruth who has led a miserable life, brightened only by an incipient courtship with Pierce Whymper, is invited to stay a week in York with a family she barely knows. Her visit is curtailed when she receives the tragic news that the house has been burnt down in a ferocious fire and that the three occupants have been killed. Worse still, Averill’s money, which he kept in a safe and was estimated to be in excess of £30,000, had been burnt to cinders.

What looks like a tragic accident takes on a different complexion when the local bank manager sometime later reveals his suspicions about the loss of the money as the safe was fireproof. A note, whose number tallied with one that the bank had recently sent to Averill, is found in circulation and is traced to Whymper, who has cooled his relationship with Ruth. Scotland Yard are called in by the local force and French is sent to investigate.

What he unravels is a complex, long-planned crime which involves theft, the murder of three, and eventually a tally of five, as well as a spot of coffin robbing and blackmail. French’s investigations take his to Scotland and France as well as seeing him shuttle back and forth from London to Yorkshire. Although he makes several major mistakes, French’s genius is to see the bigger picture while methodically and painstakingly investigating every lead, no matter how unpromising, to wherever it leads him, often a dead end. He is stoical when frustrated and moves on with a sigh but with enthusiasm undiminished to the next lead, often supplied to him from conversation he strikes up with one of the chatty locals.   

Crofts has constructed a story that is packed with incident and even though the bones of the plot and possibly even the culprit is evident midway through its telling, there are plenty of spills and thrills and red herrings to keep the reader on the edge of their settee until the dramatic end. Justice is served and not only the baddies but also the good guys get their just desserts.

The Prime Minister’s Pencil

A review of The Prime Minister’s Pencil by Cecil Waye

He is the type of politician who owes his success to clever boosting than to sound statesmanship. And in my opinion, it will be a bad day for the country when he is allowed a say in the management of its affairs”. That is not a contemporary political observation but Christopher Perrin’s succinct summary of the politician, Sir Ethelred Rushburton, who stands to take a prominent Cabinet position if the current government falls. It seems that those types were always around, some more successful than others.

This is the fourth and last outing for Cecil Waye’s private investigator, Christopher Perrin and was published in 1933 and has now been reissued for a modern readership to discover by Dean Street Press. Waye was a nom de plume of the prolific author Cecil John Stewart Charles Street, who wrote much longer series of detection under the pen names of John Rhode, featuring a forensic scientist by the name of Doctor Priestley, and Miles Burton. My major criticism of Perrin is that is not really developed as a character and is somewhat colourless, giving the impression that Street did not really know what to do with him and gave up to pursue other avenues.  

There are elements of Priestley forensic’s approach in this book with the death of Rushburton’s missing secretary, Cuthbert Solway, ascribed to an exotic parasitic disease and the cause of the Prime Minister’s assassination eventually traced to a pencil packed full of substances that reacted in what was at the time a revolutionary and ground-breaking way. However, the tale is as much a thriller as it is a detective novel with Perrin at the centre of all the scrapes, a story involving a determined gang of well-connected criminal masterminds who see a newly developed substance as their key to wealth and influence.

I’m not sure whether it is down to Perrin’s naivete, stupidity or disregard for the dangers of the situation, but he has an unerring knack of falling for every trick in the book, a characteristic which puts his own life in danger but also leads to the unfortunate and unnecessary murder of one of his informants. It makes for an exciting tale, written in an easy style which carries the reader along. Even if it is fairly obvious what is going on, the thriller elements make it a page turner.

The story starts with Millicent Rushburton visiting Perrin’s office to ask for his help in solving the mystery of the disappearance of Solway. She is not so much concerned about the welfare of her father’s secretary as for the disappearance of her leverage to get much needed funds from her father’s wallet. Solway disappeared after visiting a Harley Street specialist but is eventually found on Rushburton’s estate, Oldwick Manor. The local doctor cannot find a cause of death but the post-mortem shows he died from trypanosomosis. As Solway had rarely left Oldwick Manor, never mind the country, the cause of his death and his unexplained absence is baffling.

The Prime Minister is assassinated, after sharpening a pencil given to him by a financier. The PM is killed instantaneously, and his secretary is stunned. The pencil vanishes into thin air. Perrin sees a connection between the assassination and Solway’s disappearance and death. Doggedly, with the assistance of his pal, Inspector Philpott, and his business partner, Meade, rumbles the conspiracy involving some of the highest in the land and a plot that could have changed the shape of the country’s fortunes.

Perrin certainly signs off with a bang.

The First Lawnmower

As Britain became increasingly industrialised, budding inventors with engineering know-how saw the opportunity to mechanise processes that hitherto had been performed by hand. One such was John Lewis who owned the Brinscombe Mill in Stroud.

When a piece of cloth is initially woven, its surface is rough and uneven and needs to be finished off to create a flat surface. The rough edges or nap were cut off by hand using shears, a skilled and laborious process. Lewis’ masterstroke was to patent, in 1815, a machine that allowed the cloth to move underneath a horizontal blade, which trimmed off the nap evenly and quickly.

In the 1820s Stroud-born Edward Beard Budding worked at Lewis’ mill as a “mechanician”. It was during this time that Lewis further enhanced his machine by replacing the horizontal blade with a helical-shaped one which allowed for continuous cutting. If he had not actually worked on these improvements, Budding would have seen the machines in action. An inventive chap, he wondered whether Lewis’ machine could be adapted to create an even surface by trimming off the unruly tops of blades of grass.

It could. What Budding produced was a cast iron machine which used gears and a roller to generate enough energy to turn a horizontal 19-inch cutting cylinder fitted with three blades. As the blades turned, they forced the grass against a fixed plate on the underside of the mower and cut the stalks. A second roller in the middle of the machine allowed the height of the blades to be adjusted. It was pushed from behind and the cuttings were thrown forward into a tray. Astonishingly, the basic design has remained largely unaltered to this day.

Budding teamed up with John Ferrabee, owner of the Phoenix Ironworks in Thrupp, just outside Stroud, to develop a working prototype which they would only try out at night, fearing ridicule from the locals. Satisfied that it worked, Budding applied for a patent in May 1830 for what he described as “a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping or shearing the vegetable surfaces of lawns, grass-plat and pleasure grounds, constituting a machine which may be used with advantage instead of a scythe for that purpose”. He also stressed the health benefits of his invention, claiming that “country gentlemen may find in using my machine themselves an amusing, useful, and healthy exercise”.

The patent (No 6081) was duly granted on August 31, 1830, and the mowers were made available on a commercial basis for the cost of ten guineas, including a wooden packing case. One was purchased by Mr Curtis, head gardener at the Zoological Society in Regent’s Park, who, having put the machine through its paces for four months, professed himself “entirely satisfied” with the results. “With two men, one to draw and another to push”, he commented, “it does as much work as six or eight men with scythes and brooms; not only in mowing, but in sweeping up the grass, and lifting it into a box; performing the whole so perfectly as not to leave a mark of any kind behind”.

Early advertisements showed gentlemen dressed in white trousers, coat tails, and a top hat pushing their mowers – the only way to mow a lawn, I feel – but despite the impression given, using Budding’s machine was no stroll in the park. They were heavy, the clutch had to be held down continually to maintain the drive and downward pressure was needed to coax it into moving and cutting. Still, as early proponents claimed, it afforded “an excellent exercise to the arms and every part of the body”.

By 1832 Budding had allowed J R & A Ransomes of Ipswich, then producers of heavy agricultural machinery, to produce and sell his mowers under licence. Ransomes extended the range to include machines with 16- and twenty-two-inch cutting cylinders and by 1840 had sold over a thousand.     

Budding, though, concentrated his energies on other things, including the invention of a screw-adjustable spanner, before dying of a stroke on September 25, 1846. Examples of his early machines can be seen at the museums in Stroud and the London Science Museum. In 2015, a blue plaque was erected in his memory on the wall of what was his workshop in Thrupp, now the site of the Stroud Brewery.

Lawnmower technology moved on, while remaining faithful to Budding’s fundamental design. Horse drawn mowers were introduced in the 1840s. To minimise damage to the turf, the horses were fitted with leather slippers. Once Buddin’s patent had expired, Leeds-based Thomas Green developed a machine that used a chain to generate power to the rear roller and cutting cylinder rather than gears. It was lighter and quieter than its predecessors but not as quiet as its name, Silens Messor (silent mower), suggested. Launched in 1859 it became the first commercially successful machine.

Steam-driven mowers appeared in the 1890s and in 1902 Ransomes launched the first lawnmower powered by an internal combustion engine. An American farmer, C C Stacy, came up with an electric mower in the 1930s, but the economic impact of the Depression meant that it was only after the Second World War that electric mowers were mass-produced. Sadly, Stacy had not patented his design.

Whether you see it as a pleasure or a chore, Budding made cutting the lawn considerably easier.

Old Codgers Of The Week (14)

For three days a week between May and November Virginia Oliver joins her son, Max, on his boat to help him to trap and catch lobsters off the coast of Maine. While Max hauls the traps from the water, Virginia measures the catch, keeping the large lobsters and releasing those that do not meet the grade.

It is remarkable enough that Max is 78 but his mother is now 101 years old and has been lobstering on and off since she was knee high to a crustacean over ninety years ago. It is not without its dangers. Recently she cut herself so badly that she needed stitches. Undaunted, however, she is resisting all attempts to get her to retire, claiming that she will carry on until she dies. Asked why she is still lobstering, she responded “Because I want to”.

There is no answer to that, and I hope she continues for many more seasons.