River Cottage Handbooks

River Cottage Handbooks

River Cottage Handbooks

Field guides, cookbooks, gardeners manuals, forager's friends, sustainability source-books, fisherman's companions and ethical way markers – the River Cottage Handbooks form an ever expanding reference library; a set of contemporary, practical guidebooks; the culinary equivalent of the Audubom Field Guides.

River Cottage began as a small-holding project of chef and journalist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, it was his attempt to live a simpler life, away from the trappings of a larger city, a way he could have a closer, more conscious relationship with the food he consumed. From simple beginnings River Cottage has now become a culinary empire and while it has grown exponentially it hasn't wavered in it's ethical, hands-on, back-to-basics philosophy. The River Cottage Handbooks are the embodiment of this. 

Building my collection

Building my collection

For those familiar with the River Cottage series, you may recognize some of the handbooks' authors – John Wright, Pam 'The Jam' Corbin, Gill Meller and Nick Fisher to name a few. It is this pedigree of authors that makes each handbooks truly invaluable, while each has recipes they are far more than cookbooks, they are a deep-dive into the authors specific specialty. You not only learn how to cook herbs you learn how to grow, cultivate, harvest and store the finished product. You don't just learn how to cook fish, you learn how and where to catch them and how to eat sustainably. The books are exquisitely presented, with colour photography and easy to follow instructions for all experience levels. They seem to operate slightly away from the TV goings-on, and have a timeless, practical quality.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is certainly a polarizing character, even within my family opinions are mixed. Some see him as a rich kid, backed by Channel 4 money, living in some kind of fantasy world, preaching to all about his virtues. For others he is a real pioneer; someone that cares deeply about how we feed ourselves and about the moral, ethical and environmental impact that we have on the world.

I find myself in the later camp – I've watched Hugh ever since 1995 when he presented "A cook on the Wildside" and have watched the entire "River Cottage" series many times. I find myself continually inspired by his escapades, and while he does bullishly preach the virtues of his lifestyle, at least he walks the walk with his activism, and as Yvon Chouinard said “To do good, you actually have to do something.”

For the last few Christmases and birthdays I have managed to acquire several of the handbooks and have started building the complete collection. They are now go-to's for inspiration as well as guidance. Hunt them out.

Alfred Wainwright

There is no other character in British hiking quite as celebrated as Alfred Wainwright; although he is little known outside of the UK, for many he is the godfather of recreational walking. His pictorial guides to the hills and fells have made much of the UK, and in particular the Lake District, accessible for all to enjoy.

It all began on 7th June 1930. Wainwright had saved enough money for a weeks holiday in the Lake District in North-West England. He took the bus from his Blackburn home and after arriving in Windermere he made for Orrest Head; it is a short walk but ends with breathtaking views over the town of Windermere, the lake of the same name and the surrounding fells.

I was totally transfixed, unable to believe my eyes. I had never seen anything like this. I saw mountain ranges, one after another, the nearer starkly etched, those beyond fading into the blue distance. Rich woodlands, emerald pastures and the shimmering water of the lake below added to a pageant of loveliness, a glorious panorama that held me enthralled.
— Alfred Wainwright
My trip to Orrest Head

My trip to Orrest Head

From then on he was hooked, he spent the following years making multiple trips to explore the Lake District – he even found ways to make the journey during the early years of World War II, when travel was heavily restricted. So keen was his love of the area, that in 1941 he took a pay cut and moved north to Kendal to work for the Kendal Treasurer's Department. The hills were now on his doorstep and he ventured out at every opportunity, building a personal relationship and deep knowledge of their many peaks.

Being a meticulous scribe, illustrator and artist, as well as a passionate walker, Wainwright began to document each of his trips. In 1951 he began work on a set of Lakeland Guides, he intended to climb and document every one of the 214 Lake District's Fells. He completed this in 13 years and compiled them into seven books, once published they became instant classics, inspiring millions to load up a pack and head to the hills. Wainwright went on to expand his range, creating guides for the Pennine Way, the Coast To Coast walk and eventually the Lake District's Outer Fells, these have also become indispensable walking guides.

Each Wainwright guide is exquisite. Every publication is a compilation of his illustration and writing; of factual practical knowledge as well as his whimsical musings. If you chance upon any be sure to pick them up, even if you have no intention of visiting the Lake District – they are real works of art and an amazing case study in information design. His guides are now part of UK folklore, so much so that the 214 peaks in the Lake District are now known as 'Wainwrights'. The guides are still widely available and have been recently updated by Chris Jesty (a friend of Wainwrights) for Frances Lincoln who now has the publishing rights for the guides.

Sadly Alfred Wainwright passed away in 1991. He may have been quiet and reclusive in life, but his legacy does, and will, continue to speak loudly of his love for the hills and fells for years to come, through the practical content of his guides and in the memories created by the generations of walkers they inspired. 

Posted on March 12, 2015 and filed under Hero.

Farewell Stripers

Seasons End 2014

Seasons End 2014

In the past few weeks the last of the striped bass have left my local waters and continued on their annual journey South. Just like the retirees and holiday makers, they are heading for warmer climates after a summer gorging on Maine's seafood.

It was by far my most successful year of fishing, early in the season I made a pact with myself and only fished with flies and only ones I tied myself. This was, at times, highly frustrating, especially when fumbling double halls, battling winds and getting drenched while wading in the pitch black. I'm really glad I stuck with it, there were even moments out there when I felt like I got it;  when the sun was slowly rising over mirrored waters and I was making perfect tight loops, targeting fleeting shadows beneath the water. I cannot wait for their return.

Until next season, I shall leave you with this, from Mark Kingwell's wonderful book "Catch and Release"

Fishing teaches us to dream, to find apertures of possibility in the edifice of daily life; to act by contemplating and contemplate as a way of acting. To angle is to live in hope. And just as surely, hope’s contours are revealed by angling calmness.
— Mark Kingwell - Catch And Release, 2003
Posted on October 27, 2014 and filed under Fishing.

Planked Fish

Brandt Berglund and Clare E. Bolsby - Wilderness Cookbook, 1976 

Brandt Berglund and Clare E. Bolsby - Wilderness Cookbook, 1976 

I first saw this recipe on an episode of River Cottage, it looked amazing but I think that Brandt Berglund and Clare E. Bolsby have trumped Mr. Fearnley-Wittingsall with this recipe from their 1976 publication - "Wilderness Cookbook."

Planked fish was often used on the trail by scouts and early settlers. The method is simple and needs little attention while cooking.

Split a log a little larger than the spread of the fish. Rub some bacon fat or bear grease on the plank and prop it up vertically in front of the camp fire. Clean the fish and remove the head and tail. Split the fish open and place it skin side down on the preheated log. Tack the fish down along the edges of the skin with wooden pegs.

Season the fish and smear some grease or bacon fat on it. Place the log vertically in front of the fire and let cook. Baste the fish from time to time; it makes the meat much juicier.

The fish should cook in about 20 minutes, depending on size. Check the fish occasionally. When the meat is flakey and tender, remove from the head before it breaks loose from the skin and falls into the fire.

To save the trouble of basting I usually peg three or four strips of bacon on top of the fish before placing the log in front of the fire.
— Brandt Berglund and Clare E. Bolsby - Wilderness Cookbook, 1976
Planked Salmon on the Fire

Planked Salmon on the Fire

When I tried this method of cooking, I did a whole side of salmon on an offcut of wood. I didn't have any wooden pegs so I used regular nails, and I was fresh out of bear grease so I used butter, a little olive oil and some herbs. I also put a cast iron pan beneath the plank to catch all the goodness that came out which I used to baste the fish and pour over the meat when finished. It took a little over 20 minutes, but it was a big piece of fish. 

Planked Salmon Finished and Ready to Serve

Planked Salmon Finished and Ready to Serve

The finished salmon fell away from the skin and was succulent and moist. Incredibly straight forward and extremely delicious.

Posted on September 16, 2014 and filed under Recipe.

Tips from the Archive #010

Robert J. Kelsey -  1974

Robert J. Kelsey -  1974

A quick tip by Robert J. Kelsey from his wonderful book "Walking in the Wild - The Complete Guide to Hiking and Backpacking". This might be controversial to some, in fact many ultralight hikers argue to the nth degree about the finer points of Esbit and Hexamin vs alcohol to avoid just this, but this old tip is interesting and worth some further investigation.

Tip #10 – The Pot Black

Whatever cooking ware you choose, prepare it properly for cooking. That means blacken the exterior! I will brook no argument on this point from spotless-pan paranoids. A pot blackened with good hardwood soot, which is shiny black and sticks to the pan, distributes heat more evenly and does a better cooking job.

Never scour the outside of such a treasure. Simply wipe off any loose soot and spilled food with a damp paper towel. Put each kettle in its own plastic bag and nest them, then put the whole collection into a master cloth bag.
— Robert J. Kelsey - Walking in the Wild, 1974
Posted on September 4, 2014 and filed under Tips from the Archive.

The Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection

Everyone please form an orderly queue and proceed immediately to the Scottish Heritage Collection website. Since 2006 The Scottish Heritage Collection has been archiving and cataloguing an ever growing collection of vintage mountaineering gear and memorabilia.

The charity was created by The Nevis Partnership - an amalgam of Ben Nevis friends and supporters. They received sponsorship from the Heritage Lottery fund and now use the money to maintain the Ben Nevis path system and the Mountain Heritage Collection.

The collection boasts some fascinating pieces, everything from RAF Mountain Rescue boots to Burmos Stoves, from the original sketches for Davie Glen's badges to Arctic Survival Manuals each with their own tale and legacy, it is well worth an afternoon exploring and a lifetime following.

A huge thank you to legendary guide Mick Tighe who has has been heavily involved in the collection, donating most of his own pieces as its backbone, he was kind enough to allow me to post pictures and share the good stuff that they are doing.

Al the images here are copyright of the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection, please respect their ownership and ask permission if you would like to use them.

Roger Deakin - Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain

Roger Deakin - Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain - 1999

Roger Deakin - Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain - 1999

It was on one of Roger Deakin's daily swims, in his moat at Walnut Tree Farm, that the master plan behind 'Waterlog' was hatched - to explore the ancient tradition of wild swimming on an aquatic peregrination through the bays, beaches, rivers, brooks, lidos and pools of Great Britain.

Inspired in part by John Cheever's "The Swimmer" and his own son's adventures overseas, Deakin explores the British Isles at water level. His journey takes him from glacial tarns of the Welsh highlands, seemingly bottomless and home to legend and myth; to the abandoned university swimming holes, haunted by tales of students who once swam there; from the Victorian Lido's in their fading glory, struggling to make ends meet; all the way to Britain's beach desert of Dungeness.

While Deakin wore many hats, I feel he can be truly crowned king of the nature writers. He weaves history, culture, science, anthropology and natural history into each beautiful, dreamlike narrative, making it impossible not follow in the wake of his swimming tale. This book is so charming, poetic, romantic and moving you long to be standing on the banks, shouting encouragement, ready to leap into action with a towel and a thermos of Bovril upon his emergence.

Sadly Waterlog was the only book Deakin completed in his lifetime, although two more have been published posthumously. I have already bought Waterlog for a number of friends and since I finished it I have swum every weekend in homage to Deakin, and in celebration of the romance and nostalgia of wild swimming.

Posted on August 12, 2014 and filed under Books.

VHD 2.0

We Are Back

We Are Back

And ... we're back, it took a little longer than I had expected but the VHD is back to full strength with a new design, a new web host and a new blogging engine. I have gone through most of the back catalogue, edited lots of the pictures and a lot of the copy. I have bought a new tripod so I can take some better shots of books and items. There is a little more fine tuning and testing but I couldn't wait to share.

With the move I fear that some of the pinned or shared images will no longer work so apologies there, but feel free to re-pin the newer version of the lost images they should be larger and better looking anyway. This new structure should be easier for me and hopefully you to use.

This new move is working out a little more expensive than before so if you enjoy the blog and would like to help out, you can pickup a poster, t-shirt or a patch at the VHD stores. All proceeds go back into this blog. 

Posted on August 2, 2014 and filed under VHD.

Campfire Sausage Stew with Thyme Dumplings

Sausage Stew and Dumplings

Sausage Stew and Dumplings

Stew is one of my staple outdoor dishes; it's very hard to mess up and the results can be spectacular. This time however, I wanted to up the stew ante and nudge my culinary comfort zone a little further by taking on the mighty dumpling.


For the stew

  • 6 Really good sausages (I normally go for something herby and porky, preferably from a good butcher)
  • 2 Large white onions, roughly chopped
  • 2 Large carrots, sliced
  • 10 Small new potatoes, chopped in half
  • 1 Pint of stock (I used a couple of beef stock cubes)
  • 1 Can of cheap beer
  • 1 Bottle of expensive cider
  • Worchester sauce
  • Thyme
  • Oil for cooking (something with a high burning temperature, sunflower is fine)

For the dumplings

  • 1 Cup of self raising flour
  • 1 Egg
  • 50g Cold butter cubed
  • 1 Tbsp chopped parsley
  • 1 Tbsp chopped thyme
  • ¼ Cup of milk


I cooked my stew on a campfire in a suspended Dutch oven, it needs to cook for several hours so make sure there are sufficient coals. I started with a big hot fire with slow burning wood and let it burn down. You can, of course vary the height of the oven and even cover it in coals if the heat is needed.

Sautéing and Grilling

Sautéing and Grilling

1. Lightly heat the Dutch oven and add the oil. Sauté the onions, do not let them brown - they should soften and go translucent.

2. While the onions were cooking, I put the sausages on a rack directly over the flames to seal and brown the outside. They don't need to cook through as this will happen later. I managed to tilt the grill in such a way that the oil and juices went into the Dutch oven for extra flavour.

3. Once the sausages are browned add them to the onions and pour in the stock, beer and cider. I added a good spoonful of thyme and a few good glugs of Worchester Sauce. Give it all a good stir and bring the oven to the boil, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.

4. By now the broth should be coming together nicely and slowly reducing. Add the vegetables and return the stew to the heat, give it a good stir and cover, then cook for another 30 minutes. Mix up the dumplings.

5. To make the dumplings, pour the flour into a large bowl, add the butter and rub it in until it resembles breadcrumbs.

6. Add the herbs and the egg, and mix with your hand, adding just enough milk so that the mixture comes together in a sticky dough.

7. Check the stew, it should have reduced considerably making a thick, rich gravy; if it is too dry add a little water or stock. Give it another stir and then add large spoonfuls of the dough directly onto the top of the stew. Try and place them a few centimeters apart as they will puff up as they cook. Replace the lid on and cook for another 15 minutes.

8. Check the stew. The dumplings should have puffed up and increased in size and the stew should be thick and rich. I prefer the top of my dumplings to be crispy so I buried the Dutch oven in coals and  blasted it for another five minutes.

9. Then it is done. Serve quickly and eat heartily.

Stew and Dumplings Finished and Ready to Serve

Stew and Dumplings Finished and Ready to Serve

The stew is hefty and flavorsome, the dumplings sticky, doughy and morish. Shared between two we were both stuffed and had enough for lunch the day after. I'm not sure why I was so fearful of campfire dumplings, they were foolproof and a simple way of getting a delicious and filling bread course to my stew, with little effort.

Posted on July 6, 2014 and filed under Recipe.

On the Fly

First fish of 2014 on a fly

First fish of 2014 on a fly

As far as evenings go, it looked unpromising. A thick low cloud clung to the coast, the surf was big and an abnormally high tide had pushed a mountain of water up into the river. As the tide gradually switched from slack to outgoing, the river picked up pace and began to empty back into the sea.

Having fished this river often I knew there was only a few feet of wading room before the drop-off so I gingerly edged forward into the frigid Maine waters in the evening gloom. As I began to throw my rookie double hauls into the current, I had already resigned myself to another skunked striper session.

Today, however, it happened - twice. They were far from monsters but heavy-weights in significance. My first stripers on a fly, and one I tied no less.

Posted on June 11, 2014 and filed under Fishing.