“England, with its history and air of magic, the soil and woods thick with meanings that survive in fragments, is an empire of imagination.” ~ T.S. Eliot
Fancy a drive along a winding country road, rolling green hills and grey stone walls as far as the eye can see? Perhaps a leisurely stroll along an ancient footpath across a meadow resplendent with wildflowers?
Maybe you’d rather visit Beatrix Potter’s house, explore the formal gardens of a stately home, find a welcoming inn for a spot of tea, or join the convivial conversation at a neighborhood pub.
I cannot think of a better way to celebrate all that is glorious, interesting, inspiring, beautiful, memorable, unique and charming about England than to pore over the pages of Susan Branch’s latest book, A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside (Vineyard Stories, 2013).
This gorgeous, handwritten, illustrated diary chronicles the two months in 2012 when Susan and her true love Joe wandered around England from Tenterden, Kent, up to the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, and down through the Cotswolds.
Whether you’re a diehard Anglophile like me, or someone who dreams of visiting England someday, you’ll find much to love about this enchanting gem. Susan’s narrative is eminently readable — warm, animated, genuine, and intimate, infused with vivid detail and informed by her trained artist eye and sensibility.
Moreover, her deep, abiding love for English history and culture is palpable on every page — there’s childlike wonder in serendipitous discovery, unabashed excitement and enthusiasm for dreams coming true, and a dreamy air of romance, for this is also a love story about Susan and her beloved Joe (this trip was their 25th anniversary celebration).
I fairly swooned as this fellow Beatrix Potter, Emma Bridgewater, Jane Austen, thatched cottage, tearoom, antiques, castle, quaint village and all-things-handmade lover related her adventures via words, photos and watercolors. Many of you know how much I also love hand-lettering and typography, a form of art which makes everything feel more personable and personal.
How many people write entire books by hand anymore? Every single page is a feast for the eyes; I appreciated all the careful attention paid to the seamless integration of text with art. Perhaps in another life, Susan, with her flair for decoration, was a master of the illuminated manuscript in the Middle Ages. She probably also made some delicious soup and bread for everyone in the refectory when she wasn’t busy scribbling and sketching.
Gardening enthusiasts will enjoy Susan’s fastidious naming of flowers and shrubs, and her interest in both natural and man-made landscapes; literary buffs will feel their pulses race as she walks through Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Kipling’s Bateman’s, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston, Jane Austen’s home in Chawton, Potter’s Hill Top Farm.
If you’re a fan of Susan’s illustrated cookbooks, you’ll be happy to know she’s included 9 recipes, a section all about TEA (!), and of course, delicious mention of some of their most memorable meals, whether pub grub, teatime, fancy restaurant, in friends’ homes, or aboard the Queen Mary 2 (Susan and Joe always dreamed of sailing to England on an ocean liner!).
Naturally, I had to try one of the recipes, and since I still had some lemons on hand after making the teacake, I baked the Lemon Butter Cookies.
The recipe is actually from Susan’s friend and longtime penpal Rachel Lucas, whom she visited in Aylesbury. Rachel is a professional baker and writer, who lives with her husband Paul and the most adorable wire fox terrier, Alice (“a heartbeat at my feet”). Rachel served these cookies at tea and had packed some in cellophane bags for Susan and Joe to take along as they made their way to the Peak District.
I knew they would be good since it was an all-butter recipe with the addition of cornstarch (I see this more often in British recipes: Natasha Lowe’s Shortbread remains a big favorite). The recipe also calls for 1/2 cup of cornmeal, which helps give the cookie a nice texture. Pretty straightforward and easy to make, with the option of sprinkling sugar crystals on top for extra crunch (I did half sugared, half unsugared).
While these beauties are baking, of course you should linger over Susan’s book, so when you finally taste the cookies with a cup of your favorite tea, you’ll be right there with her and Joe on the terrace of a wonderful stone cottage called “Weathericks.” Have as many as you like, but mind Darcy the peacock!
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LEMON BUTTER COOKIES
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- zest of one lemon
- 1-1/2 cups unbleached flour
- 1/2 cup cornmeal
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- sugar crystals (for extra crunch, but optional)
Cream butter, sugar, vanilla & zest until smooth.
Add dry ingredients until just incorporated.
Use wax paper to shape and roll dough into two 8-inch logs — about the width of a cookie. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or so.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice cookies about 1/4 inch thick. Put on ungreased cookie sheets.
Sprinkle them with sugar crystals (or roll logs in sugar before cutting). Bake 15 minutes until slightly golden.
Cool on waxed paper. Makes about 40 cookies.
*Can be rolled out and cut with cutters into teapot or heart shapes.
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A Fine Romance is the perfect teatime, wintertime, anytime read — a travel guide, memoir, art book, scrapbook, history book, love story all in one. As with Susan’s other delightful books and calendars, it is sprinkled throughout with lovely and inspiring quotes, all hand-lettered, of course!
Susan has also compiled an awesome APPENDIX at her website. There, she’s provided a boatload of links corresponding to every ★ red star ★ in the book — everything you need to plan a trip of your own, with fun videos and information about all the people and places mentioned.
I gave A Fine Romance to everyone I could think of for Christmas last year, and know I will go back to it again and again, especially savoring those “tears in the eyes” moments of elation I remember so well from when I lived there.
If you’re not already following Susan’s blog, you should subscribe immediately. Treat yourself to a haven to handmade, homemade beauty where it always feels like a good friend is writing a letter just to you. How can you resist someone who expresses herself with so much heart? ❤
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A FINE ROMANCE: Falling in Love with the English Countryside
written and illustrated by Susan Branch
published by Vineyard Stories, 2013
Nonfiction, 260 pp.
♥ Visit Susan’s Website and Blog
♥ Stay current with Susan’s news via the Friends of Susan Branch Facebook Page
♥ Susan discusses the book in this TV interview:
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“And beyond the timeless meadows & emerald pastures, the rabbit holes and moss-covered oak and rowan trees, and the ‘slippy-sloppy’ houses of frogs, the woodland-scented wind rushed between the leaves and blew around the gray veil that dipped below the fells, swirling up in a mist, blurring the edges of the distant forest.” (A Fine Romance, p. 177)
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This post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your fancy bibs and come join the fun!
Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.