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Essentially England News - Escape in a Snowstorm
January 31, 2015

Escape in a Snowstorm

I can't believe that it's already the end of January! But all the calendars in the house agree on this fact, so it's clearly I who has lost track of time. When I haven't been working I've been busy writing a new novel and learning the ropes when it comes to book publishing. I now know what it takes to get a book cover designed… and for a graphic moron like me, that was a bit of a painful journey,though I'm glad to say we got there in the end and I think the cover looks stunning.

Fortunately, it's mostly cold, windy, grey and unpleasant here, so staying inside and glued to the laptop isn't the hardship it would be in the middle of June when the air is full of lilacs and freshly cut grass and the sun is shining fit to bust. Actually, it snowed yesterday and this morning! For all of five minutes, before it turned to rain. But that mini-appearance of Jack Frost ties in nicely with the bit of history I've dug out for you this month. Enjoy!

Wappenham ©

Escape in a Snowstorm

I was driving through beautiful hoar frost the other morning and seeing signs for Oxford made me think of medieval warfare and a story I was told when I was little…yes, I know, my mind is a strange place sometimes.

But once upon a time, in 1141 to be precise, Oxford Castle was under siege. Surrounded by King Stephen's troops, who were patiently waiting to claim the prize inside its walls: the Empress Matilda, Stephen's rival for the English throne.

The soldiers must have been a hardy bunch, since campaigning in December can't have been enjoyable. But Stephen, who had brought his army up from Bristol, was confident that the castle would run out of provisions and - by capturing the Empress - he'd finally be able to end England's first civil war.

What he hadn't counted on was Matilda escaping from the besieged castle. In the story I was told as a child, she lowered herself from the battlements on knotted bedsheets - and really, has anyone ever done that? - during a fierce snowstorm. Dressed all in white and so well camouflaged, she crossed the frozen moat and slipped right through the middle of Stephen's army.

I'm sure that what really happened wasn't quite as dramatic. Matilda was feisty, but she was also a former Empress and contender for the crown. It's unlikely that she would have been left to go anywhere alone. And medieval historian William of Malmesbury suggests she didn't even climb down the wall. Whatever really happened, though, we can't get away from the fact that Matilda did escape from the besieged castle and made it through the surrounding army.

The castle garrison surrendered as soon as she was well away and King Stephen - gallant as always - forwarded Matilda's whole baggage to Abingdon, where she'd taken refuge.

Most of Oxford's Norman castle has been rebuilt in stone, and then ruined during that other civil war, but bits of it still stand and if you make it to Oxford, I urge you to visit. You see, the castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of Empress Matilda, so - just maybe - you might get the chance to ask her how she really escaped all those years ago.

Warming and Delicious

One of my favourite vegetables, leeks are endlessly versatile. And when it's cold and miserable outside, I love nothing better than making leek and potato soup. Potato and rosemary soup comes a very close second, and I often add a leek to that one, too. Just because leeks make an excellent soup base. And because any soup you make will taste even better the next day.

What You'll Need

Leek and Potato Soup When making this for two or three as a substantial warming lunch, you'll want about 3 good-sized leeks. Here, that would be about 450-500g of untrimmed leeks. You also need 2-3 potatoes, a little smaller than fist size, and they must be floury potatoes, or your soup will end up like glue.

Apart from that you need a splash of oil or a knob of butter, salt, pepper, stock powder (very optional), and a little milk or cream. A few mushrooms, sliced and pan-fried in butter with salt and paprika, make a great garnish.


Couldn't be easier. Trim both ends of the leeks, but do not throw the green parts away. (I don't understand why anyone would even do that!) Separate all the layers and wash carefully, as leeks are notorious for holding on to the soil they're grown in.

Then chop your leeks and place in a large pot with your choice of oil or butter and soften the leeks over a gentle heat while you peel and cube your potatoes.

When the leeks have wilted - they tend to shrink a bit when cooking - add the potatoes and stir to coat with the oil. Then add enough hot water to cover the vegetables, add a good pinch of salt, pepper and the stock power (if using) and leave the soup to cook over a medium heat.

I'll put the lid on until the soup comes to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer. Fifteen minutes or so later, both your leeks and potatoes will be soft.

Take the pot off the heat and blitz your soup. (Whoever invented the stick blender needs an award! Just saying.) Add a little milk or cream until you have a consistency you like.

Then taste and season.

Garnish with anything that sounds tasty to you: bacon cubes, chopped spring onions, chopped chives, or the aforementioned pan-fried mushrooms… all sound perfectly delicous.

Most of all, though - enjoy!

And Next Month …

That's it from me for the moment. If you have snow, enjoy it, because I know for a fact that spring's on the way. Right next to my front door, two hardy little snowdrops are bravely battling the cold wind. And I'm sure they won't stay alone for long.

If there's something you'd specifically like to read about, please let me know, either by mail or on the Facebook page.

Please keep well, and I'll be back next month!

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