Home Sweet Home

My brother, Martin, cooked when I couldn’t: https://youtu.be/bM1uxyiwx8s.

We were celebrating my return from hospital.  Having survived the world tour cooking across six continents , I nearly died in a car accident in France.  I was there to discover new cooking opportunities but ended up in hospitals for five months: two months in Intensive Care and six weeks in a coma.  It was truly touch and go as to whether I’d survive and, if I did, whether I’d be paralysed from the neck down.  Looking back at the first video I made in the hospital https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBMOMDSInYY it’s clear that I was still struggling.

But with excellent medical care, fantastic support and much love, I got through it and soon started to sound and look much stronger https://youtu.be/h7nJI57H-M8


When I eventually was able to return home, I still wasn’t well enough to stand and cook.  Former Royal Navy Fleet Catering Officer stepped in to the breach: Martin spent nearly a whole day making his magical Italian ragout for our special meal to mark the homecoming and all the efforts of family and friends to keep me going.

This is certainly one of those dishes that has to be cooked from the heart: chopping vegetables so fine that they virtually disappear; hours and hours of stirring and gentle simmering;  two types of minced meat with just the right balance of lean and fat; the weird but successful addition of milk; lashings of wine to evaporate and, ultimately, such rich  unctuousness   that anything more than simple plain pasta would be overwhelming.  This is definitely not a meal for the faint-hearted or cholesterol-conscious.

For someone who’d been living on rather plain hospital fare for months, it was a distinct shock to the system but gloriously indulgent and heart-warming.  What a wonderful welcome and huge incentive to get back in to the kitchen.    Next time, you can see that I’d been inspired by Martin and was cooking again.


Fledgling baby Navy Pussers at HMS PEMBROKE.

We were endlessly teased about being on the Long Sec’s Course (its all in the name).  Held at the old naval shore establishment, HMS PEMBROKE, near Chatham, it aimed to equip us to be Secretaries in other establishments (for the WRNS officers) and at sea (for the men).Formal photo with two rows of young naval officers in uniform

But please don’t go thinking that this was all about typing and shorthand – it was much more concerned with the breadth of running the non-fighting aspects of a Royal Navy organisation: some basic personnel and legal matters, security, document control and administration, catering and finance.  It was the first step in becoming a “Pusser” -naval slang for a purser – a branch that has now morphed in to Logistics.

As a course, we had to march around the parade ground with disastrous results as one of the men simply couldn’t keep in step.  I’d forgotten about the camping trip when another still kept to his bow tie and monocle while we girls still accessorised for the country.  It sounds a bit Bertie Wooster after all these years!

Penny in blouse and natty scarf with male colleague in full jacket, bow tie and monacleWriting this, I have so little memory of the course but more about the dramas.  We did have to manage a full scale fire evacuation exercise of Wrens Quarters in the middle of the night – lots of very disgruntled girls freezing in nighties and slippers.  The social side had its highlights too: a night the chaps lifted a piano in to the night bar, utterly fatal drinking games, one of the girls chasing the Irish doctor down a corridor wielding a stiletto-heeled shoe, the mornings after … And we had a wonderful time at the Chatham Navy Days – seeing who could visit the most ships’ wardrooms.

I’d already been told that I was off to Naples for my first proper job which was very unusual so had to fit in time getting all my white tropical uniform and kit – back to HMS DAUNTLESS as time was so tight.    I’m sure that there were a perfectly dreadful pair of flat lace-up canvas shoes that never came out of the box.


Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

Officer training – not all stiff upper lip!

Three months’ “shake-and-bake” officer training at the Britannia Royal Naval College back in 1978 produced a great batch of new Women’s Royal Naval Officers.

You can see that parades featured large – and it could be perhaps an hour standing around with those winter winds blowing up skirts.  We all had full sets of cold weather gear: thermal vests and short “long johns”.  The problem was when the weather was so bad that they cancelled the outdoor parade so we had to strip off the thermals in no time flat – which also meant grappling with complicated collar studs.  Where did they get the idea that still dressing up for the last century was a mark of leadership potential?

The great and the good, the Admirals and Director WRNS, came to inspect the turn-out and precision footwork.

Behind the scenes there was a bit more fun: taking our feet off the ground for a flight in the College’s helo.  I just wish I had an image of the ballroom dancing classes we took in preparation for all the future wardroom Balls– there was so much laughter at the dreadful footwork that some were thrown out for being too disruptive.

And the rehearsal for the end-of-term Passing Out Parade was another traditional time for different dressing up – its difficult to see which were the real women and which were just for the morning.

On parade 2 On parade Passing out parade rehearsal Butter wouldn't melt Close inspection Dressed for Helo flight

Navy women.

Here’s the fourth batch of young women transforming in to naval officers at Dartmouth in early 1978.  We had just three months although many of the men took years.2 rows of women officer cadets plus their Divisional officers on the steps in front of the naval college

I remember the feet of the Special Duties Division (St George’s?) pounding in the cold dark hours of their early morning platoon runs – and their chorused shout of “Good morning, Talbot Division” under our windows to banish the last hopes of desperate sleep.  There must have been some confusion as to whether we were training as maids or officers: every minute seemed to be spent polishing (brass and shoes), ironing anything that could be worn and practising how to drink coffee without the regulation chocolate biscuit melting down the side of the cup.

There was lots of rushing about – but only in a very lady-like way – not much sleep and a wild fantasy that being able to “drive” the platoon around the parade ground was going to be career enhancing.

I found the very best refuge: warm, barely lit and with soft mats for a snooze.   It was the firing range so I became an enthusiastic rifle and pistol shot to the extent that, in desperation, they included me in the College team.  But, in those days, despite the Women’s Royal Naval Service having been trained at the College for over a year, the powers-that-be still hadn’t quite grasped that we wear different clothes.  The vaunted Dartmouth “Colours” came in the form of a natty green tie replete with the Britannia logo – just what I needed!

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

You Tube



Calling cooks and chefs around the world: your help please.

I have this wonderful opportunity: to cook around the world and show that just being blind doesn’t hold me (or others) back.Penny chopping while filming for bakingblind.com

As one of the 50 worldwide blind semi-finalists for the Holman prize, I now have about four weeks to flesh out my original pitch with a detailed plan and budget if I’m to reach the Final.   The prize commemorates James Holman who, like me, was blinded when serving in the Royal Navy.

probationery third officer melville brown WRNSI’m looking for people in different countries (whether chef or home-cook, sighted or not) willing to spend about half a day cooking with me – in cafes, restaurants, homes or anywhere else within reason!   These are the people who will make this whole adventure come alive: helping me bust myths about what blind people can do.    Together, we can capture some favourite and local recipes and share them across the globe through the Baking Blind YouTube channel, podcast, blogs and social media: there’s an example of me cooking with John and our sillier Comic relief fundraising episode.

My only concern is that the budget will probably be too tight for much travel away from main airports.  But I’m already trying to raise more funds and help-in-kind so that I can go further, meet more cooks and reach more people.

If you or someone you know could help, take part or would like to know more, just drop me an e-mail to penny@laylands.co.uk

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

You Tube


Can’t see but can cook and dream!

I’m Penny Melville-Brown and have been trying to push the disability boulder up the mountain of public attitudes for years.  So I’m delighted that Disability Talk has invited me to provide this guest blog.

Penny chopping while filming for bakingblind.comIt all started over 20 years ago when I was still serving in the Royal Navy and my eye sight started to go.  They were very good: after being off-sick for a year and with just sight in one eye, I went back to work, got a promotion and carried on even while the other eye was failing. The Navy helped me with flexible hours, getting to work and magnification on my computer even though, like other parts of the military, they weren’t covered by the equality legislation.    When I was finally medically discharged, those years with all sorts of health difficulties gave me the confidence that being blind didn’t stop me working.

But trying to persuade future employers seemed a slim chance until I was lucky enough to link up with others equally passionate about making work a real prospect for disabled people.  So I launched Disability Dynamics: working on employment programmes, equality schemes and trying to change some of our public services.  Over the last few years, I’ve been heavily involved in self-employment as it can be ideal when employers are still reluctant and we may need to keep control of where, when and how we work.  There are some wonderful stories of how people have changed their lives – feeling better and happier.  We were just on the brink of more inclusive support for business start-ups when the recession hit and the Government changed.

Over the years, I’ve heard from lots of people who are hugely frustrated, depressed and isolated because their efforts to get a job just result in repeated rejections.  I’m convinced that there are millions of disabled people who would work if they could but haven’t had the help they need or the opportunities they deserve.  Just pushing them through programmes designed for other long-term unemployed people can seem more about a target-driven process than getting the best from this national resource.  There are still lots of questions  as to whether the forthcoming Work and Health programme will deliver the radically different approach we need – and demolish the ultimate barrier: employers’ attitudes.

With lots of help from those with specialist knowledge about disability and employment, we put together our Steps to Success and Sustainable work models that show that just one organisation will rarely have all the skills and capacity to provide every variation of support.    Our Help to Work partnership showed that multiple organisations embedded in the local community working together can succeed where parachuted national providers may not.

Along the way, there have been many more topics to debate from the disability perspective:

You can see my blogs with lots of images of my flower arrangements and some recipes.  The last gives a clue to my latest venture: Baking Blind.  The cooking videos and recipes are just another way of trying to show that having a disability isn’t the end of the world and that blindness or any other impairment doesn’t stop us doing most things.  I’ve rather optimistically entered an international competition to take the idea around the world.  And I’ll be blogging more recipes over coming months – and about how I’m bashing bowls out of pewter!  One of my taxi drivers has been teaching me some of his dishes and we have a whole range of great bakes for Comic Relief coming next.


Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

You Tube


Can’t see but can cook and dream…

I am competing alongside around 100 other international blind people for the inaugural Holman prize being awarded by the San Francisco ‘Lighthouse’ organisation to allow the winner to fulfill their dream.
Each of us has created a short video clip – there are many excellent ideas from amazing people. My own goal is to take the ‘Baking Blind” channel and website around the world: cooking with other people and showing that life with a disability can still be fun, fabulous and fulfilling. I’ve spent nearly 20 years helping other people with health conditions and impairments to get back to work so I know there’s lots of talent out there if others can look beyond our disabilities and see the people we are.
The prize commemorates James Holman who became blind while serving in the Royal Navy in the early 19th century –his adventures travelling solo around the world are celebrated in his biography “A Sense of the World”. Coincidentally, I am also a blind veteran having left the Royal Navy as a Commander in 1999.
You can support me with a ‘Thumbs Up’ for my YouTube clip at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26G_kenQFQ4
And see other dreams for the Holman prize at https://www.holmanprize.org/candidates . First round ‘voting’ closes on 7 March 2017.

Penny sitting in the garden