All this wool

I had grand plans, this spring, of spinning up all of last year’s fleeces before the new ones were even shorn. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but I came closer than ever before. It’s such a learning curve, this spinning hobby of mine. The first two fleeces I was given – lovely piebald Jacobs’ – took me a full two years to work through. Last year I was given three more: two Scotch mules and a huge sack of what turned out to be alpaca. So when I found myself with half a fleece still to process when offered this year’s shearings, I wasn’t too downcast. I think I’m making good progress.

Progress is a good thing, as I’ve been offered several fleeces this year. Two are from my aunt who lives outside Edinburgh and has all sorts of rescue animals, including Ilse’s favourite goat. My sister Meg has eight sheep now, and I was offered four of their fleeces (four are this year’s lambs’, and will keep their fleeces against the coming winter). Two were absolutely enormous, with more than a year’s growth, and, to be entirely honest, more than I could handle. The other two were beautiful Shetlands, one mottled grey and one brown, or moorit, as I’m learning to call it. They are so small and light in comparison to the last three fleeces I’ve had that I made short work of washing and drying them in the good weather of last week.

Since those first two fleeces, which came from a commercial meat farm and which I washed, section by section in buckets of hot soapy water, I’ve adopted a far less intensive approach. Given than all my fleeces now come from either my sister or my aunt, both of whom care for their sheep with minimal (if any) use of chemicals, I much prefer to soak them in a bathful of cold water for a day or two, changing the water once or twice. The amount of dirt that drops out of them is extraordinary, but more importantly the suint (sweat) washes away, leaving a sweetly sheepy smelling fleece with ample lanolin for easy spinning. Then I pop them in an old pillowcase, spin them in the machine, and spread them first outside then finally inside on one of our airers to make sure they are completely dry before putting them back into the (washed) pillowcase with a couple of lavender bags for storage. I can’t tell you how much labour this has saved, and how much more I enjoy carding and spinning a fleece while it is still a little greasy.

I also used to process each fleece bit by bit, picking and carding and spinning and setting each couple of skeins before moving onto the next, but I don’t do that any more, either. Instead, I wait for a fine day and spend it sitting in the garden, picking the washed fleece open and discarding any bits of vegetation or nubbly second cuts. Most of the dirt falls out at this point, and I’d rather it fell outside. If the weather is kind, I card outside too (you should have seen the clouds of dust that came from the alpaca – no way was I carding that in our house). And I save the spinning for rainy days, with a film or an audiobook and one or two of the children for company, playing alongside with their own projects.

I’ve also learned a lot about spinning this year, moving on from carding and worsted-spinning everything (I made a cardigan so sturdy that it can almost stand up by itself) to combing for socks, chain-plying for strength, and spinning long-draw for jumpers and hats and mittens. Not only does long-draw spinning result in the softest, loftiest, cosiest yarn, but it’s fast. Or at least as fast as any (sheep) back to (human) back jumper can be described as such, which is probably very slow in non-spinners’ eyes.

Finally, I set the twist and give it a proper wash at the same time with a bit of eco-friendly delicates liquid, before labelling it and, usually, knitting with it immediately. I’ve made quite a bit from my own yarn this year: two pairs of socks (one woolen and one worsted, to experiment) a pair of sturdy (ahem) colour work mittens for my aunt, a surprise for another aunt (more of which in a later post), the softest, warmest and most beautiful Georgetown cardigan for myself, a cardigan for Ilse, and am halfway through a jumper for myself or Fliss from this last fleece. I plan to spin up the final rolags today and take all the wool on our last holiday of the summer to finish it off.

Ilse in particular has been fascinated by the possibilities of dyeing, and has just finished carding a basket of rolags from fleece that we kettle-dyed in the spring. I’ve promised her that I’ll spin that too, before our holiday, so that she can bring her crochet with her. There’s a big bag of avocado pits and skins in the freezer, just waiting for a spare white skein, and I can’t wait to try dyeing with elderberries for a pillowy purple-grey cloud. I suspect these coloured skeins – and any others that we make – will end up as colour work in something or other, against some plain white fleece.

Not all leftovers are dyed, though. When I didn’t know what to do with my first, inconsistent spins, I started crocheting a hydrangea blanket, which has turned out to be wide enough for a double bed and serves as a record, of sorts, of my spinning ventures. There’s a bit of everything in it: wool and alpaca, DK and aran, wobbly adventures in long-draw and neat inchworm chain-ply. One day, in about a million years, it’ll actually be long enough for a bed, too. So that’s where all the leftovers will continue to go: into a blanket that probably looks lovely to no-one but me but which tells the story of all this wool.

Castles and coves

We love the sea. We love it in the morning, when the coast is fresh and empty and still sparkling with dew. We love busy midday sunshine beaches, when everyone and their dog lays claim to a patch of sand. Best of all though, we love it in the late afternoon, when the striped windbreaks and bright buckets are packed away and the coast empties of tired children complaining of sand in their shoes and the long walk home.

From about three o’clock the sand is at its warmest and the sun still high enough to revive you after the chilliest of dips. John invariably heads in for a proper swim, while the children splash about or jump the rollers. In and out, wet and dry and wet again, stopping for an ice-cream (madness) or reaching for the flask of tea (far more rational in these parts), the swimming and sandcastle making goes on until about six, when people start clamouring for their tea, and John lights his little Trangiar and the sausages are soon fizzing and popping in the pan. A bread roll, a salad or two if we’re feeling fancy, and everyone is full and warm and ready to doze on the long drive home.

We’ve visited several beaches over the past couple of weeks. In Cornwall we had a couple of balmy evenings in Poldhu Cove, where we were not the only family to turn up and start cooking supper on the sand. Kynance Cove merited a fast and furious visit, leaping through the icy breakers on a moody morning. Having decided that the water really was too cold and that I would only go waist deep, I was swept off my feet on more than one occasion, much to Ilse’s delight. We needed fish and chips – sat in – to warm up after that particular swim. Sadly we didn’t manage our usual Devon bathe from pebbly Beesands, with the gale force winds blowing us into a cosy cafe for a wet-and-wild-night-of-camping-recovery breakfast instead. But we did make a special pilgrimage to a site John has wanted to visit since he was about ten years old: Tintagel Castle, and its cave-speckled cove beneath.

If you’ve ever visited Tintagel, you’ll know that the castle itself involves no little toil up and down a lot of steps, and the soaring temperatures on the day of our visit meant that the cove beneath was packed with people cooling off after their endeavours. We pottered about for an hour or two, looking into local shops and sampling the superb pasties from the cafe by the ticket office, and by the time we traipsed back down to the cove it was almost empty. We were the only people in the sea, with a few families on the shore, their knicker-clad little ones squealing with glee as the cool water washed over their toes. It was our last day in Cornwall before a drive north through the gathering night, and perhaps my favourite day of all. A castle and a cove, pasties and a cream tea: everyone was happy, which made me so. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer end to our little southern holiday.

So when John announced that he’d like to spend an afternoon and evening at Sandsend, near Whitby, I was only too happy to comply. I packed a basket or two with sausages, a couple of salads from our bursting garden, and a chocolate cake nestled in my tin, and we had one more glorious afternoon by the sea, all of us this time, mucking around in the sand and admiring the crystal clear water. Seb built a birthday monument for his dad, Fliss and Ilse stood on the empty steps and belted out some Abba, Ben and I admired the many shoals of little fish, different types of jellyfish and the odd transparent crab. John, of course, went for his swim, and then we had our hot picnic tea before heading home to sandy showers and fresh clean sheets and beds that rocked gently in our sleep.

Gardens, home and away

While I planned the London leg of our trip south, John was in charge of the week we spent in Devon and Cornwall. The Devon part was easy – every other year my brother and his family throw a huge weekend-long party in their woodland, and that, coupled with a visit to their home in Totnes, is a well-practised part of our summer holidays. The Cornish visit, however, wasn’t planned until one hot evening in London, when John checked the weather forecast, pulled together a plan, and booked a couple of campsites.

There were so many things we could have done in Cornwall. We could have visited more National Trust sites. We could have gone to the Tate in St Ives. We could have pottered along the north coast, taking in the pretty towns with their Enid Blyton coves. But knowing how much I like my plants, and how hard we’d all tried to be plastic-free and reduce our footprint recently, John arranged for us to visit a couple of world-famous gardens.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Eden Project since it opened in 2001, and the space-age view of the honeycomb biospheres in a lush green valley did not disappoint. Parts of the Mediterranean biosphere reminded us strongly of holidays in Greece, Italy and southern France, with the grapes and the olive oil and the kitchen gardens overflowing with good produce and impossibly fat lemons. Some of the plants in the South African section were familiar to me too, from my trip there many years ago but also from Tanzania. The Californian section was the newest to us, as we’ve never visited the west coast of the USA. Wandering around, marvelling at the dry-weather plants, put me in mind of the early settlers, deciding whether to go further north or south as they approached the Pacific Ocean in their covered wagons. I’d always assumed I’d go south, but perhaps life would have been easier a little further north, where the weather patterns were more familiar. Whichever they chose, the climate must have been a shock to settlers from Britain and Ireland, with our temperate island seasons. We have neither blizzards nor deserts, and – usually – water in abundance.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the wave of familiarity that swept over me as we entered the Tropical biosphere. There is no other way to describe it except that I felt as though I’d suddenly come home. Even now, after all these years away, I could name so many of the plants, and tell the children about their dangers, uses and temptations. How we never climbed snake-trees (ficus) as they were a favourite haunt of mambas. How the swiss cheese plant reminded me of one we had in our living room when I was growing up. The cinnamon, pomagranate and papaya trees from which we would nibble as we went about our play. Hibiscus – the vibrant red kind, with its prominent yellow-dusted spear. Ginger, which grew as an ornamental in our back garden, alongside the traveller’s palm, and the enticing frangipane under which we dug tunnels and built dens and made mud pies. I hadn’t realised how many plants I could name, nor how firmly they were etched into my mind. There was something new and familiar around every corner and it almost felt like showing the children around a place where I had grown up.

I do think that it matters, being able to name the plants around you. I think that it changes your perspective of the world if you can name the living things which inhabit it. We care more for the things that we can name. Around the outdoor gardens, which we loved the scope and variety of, we learned the names of many plants that we hadn’t known before. I do love a garden with labels. We could have spent all day there, learning about plants, their habitats and their uses, so we did. Fliss was so inspired that she is writing a herbal: a botanical volume of plants, their identification and medicinal uses. There has been much careful research and sketching since we got home. I came home to two weeks of vibrant green growth, which is both delightful and alarming all at once. I picked four kilograms of cucumbers on Sunday, and have bottled my first jars of tomato sauce. There are more courgettes than we can shake a stick at and flowers in every room of the house.

The children are probably relieved by the abundance because I was sorely tempted by the vegetable and flower gardens at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. John reckoned that our back garden is about half the size of their vegetable beds, and this observation quickly disintegrated into my enthusiastic suggestion that if we dug up the lawn, we could be self-sufficient in vegetables. How Good Life of me. Seb was particularly horrified, and his reaction, coupled with the fact that the chickens would have nowhere to roam and I do actually have a limited number of hours in the day, won out. Oh, but it really is the sort of garden to inspire those One Day dreams. John and I were making plans the whole way around – one day we’ll have an orchard with a pond for the poultry to live in, and a small woodland for fuel, a huge vegetable patch and a couple of pigs. And then, walled off and civilised, something akin to the Italian Garden, which is so far from what I normally aspire to yet took my breath away.

There are other jaunts to write about – involving castles and coves, sausages and swims – but I wanted to set the gardens down first, as they are in my mind’s eye. Both were vast, ambitious spaces, managed far more skilfully than I will ever manage mine. I’ve come home with a head full of plans to implement over the coming autumn, winter and spring. Really, though, those two days of gardens have deepened my love of plants and the natural world. I won’t be starting an Eden Project any time soon, or bringing an abandoned landscape back to its former glory. But I will be outside every day, watering and cutting, pruning and weeding, caring for my little piece of the planet.

On Hampstead Heath

Wherever you visit, it’s good to strike a balance between being a tourist and acting like a local. So while we almost always visit the big attractions – the Acropolis, Pompeii, the Brandenberg Gate – we also like to get our hair cut, hear local history from our landlord’s granny, and head for former East German lakes.

This time, I thought we’d try a spot of outdoor swimming, and the heat wave made it such an appealing idea that we threw over our day in Greenwich in favour of a day in and out of the water. There are several lidos in London, but I wanted something a little wilder, and a quick search brought us to the clay pits on Hampstead Heath.

Now, I’d never even been to Hampstead before, but it turns out that as well as the village and heath they’ve filled in some old clay pits to create natural swimming pools. We were a little anxious about whether we’d get in – surely in a city the size of London demand would be overwhelming – and I had prepared the children for disappointment and had Plan B up my sleeve. To our delight we were greeted by a lovely old man who charged me £2, checked several times that the children were good swimmers, and let us in immediately. The little area of land around the jetty was busy, but not so much so that we couldn’t find a spot to spread our towels, and huge pond had far more space than I’ve seen at any swimming pool. Clearly the rest of London was cooling off elsewhere.

Swimming at Hampstead Heath reminded me of nothing as much as the day we spent at an old East German swimming lake in Berlin. Virtually cost-free, full of locals and with only the most basic of amenities, it is my sort of swimming. The girls and I walked into the women’s changing area, which is fenced off for privacy, to find a wrinkly old woman stretched out on a bench, completely starkers, soaking up the sun. Nobody was fussing about their hair, there was no overpowering waft of deoderant sprays or whoosh of hand-dryers. Just lots of people enjoying the good weather and staying cool in the water.

We went swimming in pairs, and I went in with each of the younger ones, to keep an eye on them. The water is so opaque with clay that you cannot see your own hands in the water, and it would be impossible to see someone who’d gone under. The lifeguards were excellent: friendly and sensible, and Ilse’s age and swimming ability was checked before she was allowed in. We had a lovely time in the water, swimming out to this patch of flowers or that, practising dolphin or backstroke or just skulling along. Every so often we’d get out to warm up, or swap between those reading on the bank and whoever’s turn it was in the water.

I love swimming outdoors. Whether in the sea, a river, a lake or a pond, it is one of my favourite things to do. I love being in the water – any water – but water without chlorine and surrounded by plants, rocks, sand or simply the horizon is such a treat. We’ve got a lot more outdoor swimming lined up this summer, along the coast of Devon and Cornwall, but before I’d even rinsed the silt from my hair I’d planned another day out, in and around the Nidd. We all have our favourite memories of our sojourn in London, but mine is without a doubt the day we spent swimming on Hampstead Heath.

Madeleine

Do you swim outdoors? Is there somewhere close to you where you can? One day, I’m going to live by the sea again, but I’m glad I’ve discovered rivers and ponds too, because I wouldn’t have were the ocean still on my doorstep.

Plastic free on holiday

As soon as we’d found solutions to all sorts of plastic-free conundrums at home, we set off on the first part of our summer holiday and have been thinking on our feet ever since.

I have to admit, I’m loving Plastic Free July. I love the conversations it promotes, the way it’s forced me to use different shops, and the fact that I’m being more inventive in my shopping again.

Take last week, for instance. I’ve known that we were going to a fancy dress party for months, but had done nothing about the green face paint or red hair dye that Seb and Fliss had requested. In my book, a promise is a promise, and so I found myself on the way to a till with plastic face paint and plastic sponges in a plastic palette wrapped in plastic. Here I was, about to purchase something I really didn’t want to. But when it came to it, I couldn’t. I turned around, put it back and reasoned that I could find another way. The same thing happened with a can of spray-on hair dye for Fliss. And so it was that we found ourselves on the afternoon before our departure smearing natural, paper-bagged henna in Fliss’ hair while Seb melted a bit of an old green pastel crayon in some coconut oil. Both solutions, I am relieved to say, not only worked, but were more fun than the requested products would have been.

Since we were driving south, it was easy to throw a few essentials into the car. Nothing fancy; just the usual suspects: water bottles, flasks, shopping and produce bags and so forth. The one thing that did raise an eyebrow were the cloth napkins, but I’d seen so many zero-wasters treat them as essentials that I thought I’d give them a go. So far they’ve been used as napkins, tables, hankies, towels, damp cooling cloths, kneckerchiefs, fabric bags, a way to make scratchy theatre seats more comfortable against bare legs, and emergency sunscreens. I will never travel without one again.

The whole plastic-free endeavour has lent a lovely holiday lackadaisicalness to shopping and meals. Essentially, we pack a picnic each morning, wash out our containers once empty, and hit the shops with them on the way home. It’s rather nice, roaming the aisles to see what’s plastic-free, and shopping for just one or two meals at a time. It turns out that the vast majority of unpackaged food is extremely healthy, so we’re eating well into the bargain. House-sitting, where the basics are already to hand, is a huge help of course, but it is still easier than either John or I expected. When I told the greengrocer today that I didn’t want his reduced strawberries because of the plastic punnets, he told me that he often decants them for plastic-free customers and reuses the punnets, which impressed me. (Unlike the helpful but misguided butcher who almost lined my stainless steel box with plastic film. John stopped him just in time.)

So far, so good, which makes me even happier than I already am, just being in London with my family. Next week’s camping will throw up some new challenges, no doubt. But I also have no doubt that we’ll rise to them. After all, the Eden Project is on the itinerary, and who could fail to be inspired by that?

Madeleine

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in Plastic Free July? We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve done pretty well by simply refusing what we don’t strictly need. And, thankfully, ice-cream cones are still very firmly on the menu.

 

Cultural capital

Some opportunities are too good to be missed, and so when some kind friends offered us their London home for a few days, there was only one answer.

I love bringing the children to London. They’ve been several times now, but because of the age differences there is always someone who wasn’t born when we visited that place, or stayed at home when we went to that museum. And while York is a beautiful city, there are elements of London which are simply awe-inspiring, iconic, or both.

Much of this summer has been left deliberately under-planned, so that we can just follow the good weather, but I know better than to drag three children (Ben has stayed in York with some houseguests of our own) around the hot and dusty streets without a plan. On the very evening that the trip was confirmed, I bade the children to choose their top destinations, threw in a couple of my own (Liberty’s fabric department) and pulled the whole thing together into what I have to say is a rather slick itinerary. We’re taking in a West End show (Richard of Bordeaux opened to rave reviews this February), touring Parliament (the younger ones have never done this), doing a spot of bathing in the Serpentine and visiting the Foundling Museum, among many other things. Yesterday, though, we started with an easy and essential day for the younger two, who had no memories of the South Kensington museums.

I genuinely believe that, where possible, children should be taken to visit museums of national importance. It is part of their cultural heritage. I can’t even remember the first time I visited the Victoria and Albert museum, for instance (perhaps around the fin de siecle?) but I do know that it feels familiar and welcoming whenever I go back. Weaving places into your childhood does that; it makes them yours. So while I showed Seb and Ilse my favourite exhibits, and we all stopped here or there to rest our legs and make a sketch, my heart was brimming over at how much they loved it all.

It was only when we stepped out through the Cromwell Road exit that Isle remembered that in Ballet Shoes this was the girls’ walk everyday: down the longest road in London to the V&A. We all agreed that they would have been better off varying their routine with visits to the Natural History and Science Museums too, and obliged on their behalf. I must confess, I was looking forward to seeing the look on their faces when they encountered the diplodocus for the first time, and they didn’t disappoint. I remember his unveiling astonishing the adults in 1905; I defy children not to look up in awe. What I didn’t expect, though, was Ilse’s delight in the building itself, as she pointed out the birds and vines which were the fabric of every pillar, every arch. We could have visited that and the V&A empty, for the sake of their structures alone.

Years ago, when Ben was little and Fliss just a baby, my sister Meg and I took him on a tour of preserved bodies in the city – from Jeremy Bentham at UCL to the rarely visited collection that Darwin brought back on the Beagle, to the mummies in their sarcophagi in the British Museum. We’re squeezing the latter into today, along with the Foundling Museum and a visit to John at work in the British Library. With that said, we’d better make some sandwiches and be out the door. There is so much to see and do, you could come back to London again and again. It’s what I’ve done, since my parents brought me every summer, and what I hope my children will do as they grow older and one day have children of their own. Bringing them to London, showing them the sights, and building their cultural capital in their own capital.

Cecily

What are your favourite places in London – or in your own nation’s capital? Do you have any places that you’ve visited over and over since childhood?

Desert Island Discs: Mache Dich, Meine Herze, Rein

My father gave me a triple CD set of St Matthew’s Passion when I set off to university, and if I’m honest, I didn’t listen to it much at first, preferring the sweeping melodies of Rachmaninov, or the rich orchestration of Mahler. I used to turn away from Bach in my music lessons, not knowing how to turn all those black notes into something musical, something expressive.

After John and I were married we had our other children fairly quickly, and had completed our family long before most of our peers had even started theirs. It’s a funny time, your twenties. For many people, especially those who go to university, your twenties are the first time that you make your own decisions and people’s lives branch off in different directions. Of course, ours was different from much earlier on but even so, those early years – juggling babies and toddlers, primary school and then secondary school transitions, early career paths, maternity leave and then a period at home with the children full time – were both wonderful and extremely hard work all at once. They are for all families. It would have been nice to have had some friends doing the same at the same time, but we had each other, and perhaps that is why we are such a tight-knit unit now. I think I could do just about anything with John by my side.

Time passes, we grow older, and now Bach is possibly my favourite composer. In his music there is, to my ear anyway, the perfect balance of control and passion, and I can find all of life in it. His aria for bass, Mache Dich, Maine Herze, Rein (Make Yourself Pure, My Heart), bubbles with the sweetness, energy and yearning of those early family years. It presses on, so much happening beneath the smooth, controlled emotion of the soloist. I could listen to it a thousand times more and still find something new every time I do, so complex and perfectly crafted is its form. When I think back to those early years, I don’t remember the sleep deprivation, money worries or dirty nappies. I remember a busy, happy, full time, which I thought would last forever. Now that Ben is at university and Ilse about to start secondary school, I can see a time coming when life will be quiet and I’ll have all the time I used to long for. We have so many plans for what comes next, when we find ourselves with a grown up family in our mid forties. Now, though, in the midst of this transition, I like to put this aria on as we sit down for our Sunday roast, Ben home for the holidays and us all around the table together, the way we have gathered for years. There’ll be silence at first as we enjoy the chicken and wine that, years ago, was such a treat. Then the talk will start, just stories and questions, discussions about anything at all, really, until it ends in laughter. Those days of corralling little people, the endless washing and cooking and background noise are over now, replaced by teens and nearly-teens. It’s a different sort of noise. And it’ll be another sort of noise in ten years’ time. But, God willing, it’ll still be there in ten, twenty, even thirty years. The pulse of family life, the pulse that we created, John and I, beneath the sweet and different songs that we all sing.

Madeleine

Do you have music that you associate with family mealtimes? We have music that I’m sure our children will forever associate with Sunday roasts (in the same way that, for me, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is Sunday mornings): this, and Carmina Burana, A-Ha and REM – and the BBC R4 Friday night comedy. What about you?

End of an era

Next week, I’ll wash all three of those little gingham dresses and take them to the charity shop. After fifteen years of having a child at primary school, Ilse leaves Year 6 tomorrow., and there’ll be no more hanging of summer school frocks on the line.

While I deliberately muddle my children’s names, ages and doings on this blog, some moments need setting down on paper, if only for me. I’ve been taking a child to primary school since 2003. We’ve got photos of them all on their first days, excited and beaming in their uniform, and in a couple of days we’ll have photos of all of their last days, too, with skinny long brown legs sticking out from too-short shorts and dresses, scuffed shoes and faces no less excited about the next adventure.

It would be a strange sort of parent who didn’t want their children to grow up. After all, that’s why we parent: to help them grow into independent adults, making their own place in the world. I won’t pretend that I’m not glad I won’t have to stand in freezing February playgrounds, or deal with two different sets of school letters. When Ben started secondary school I think we were almost as thrilled as he was at the next big step. Now that he’s at university, I know how quickly the next seven years will fly.

This week – this last, mad, silly week of term – is full of performances and celebrations. We’ve split the events between us, John and I, and drafted in the grandparents for support. Last night Seb and Fliss performed in the cabaret at their school, singing and playing in the orchestra, while I attended a different do and John and my dad went to see Ilse in her play. I watched it on Tuesday with the other two – Ben is working away from home – and despite my best efforts I must admit to a tear or two at the end. I don’t know how many school plays I’ve sat through: how many nativities and musicals and Christmas concerts and open classrooms and parents evenings perched on tiny child-sized chairs. They all merge into one extended blur and yet I can pick out distinct moments, made clear by the differences between my children themselves. In their Year 6 musical my children have chosen such different roles: technician, stage manager, comic relief and, last night, soloist. Watching Ilse dressed like a reception pupil, taking turns in a duet with another girl we’ve known since before they could walk, was such a fitting culmination of the confidence and grace my girl has gained over the past few years. I beamed at her throughout. But the finale tipped me over the edge.

This evening will be their graduation, with video of them all in reception, a bouncy castle and ice cream van and the dreaded farewell song. Ilse’s already expecting me to cry, but I think she will, too. It’s bittersweet, this transition from one thing to the next. Exciting and fun and full of adventure, but relentlessly moving on, on, on.

Madeleine

Little wins and smaller bins

At the start of Plastic Free July, we made a commitment to just try our best and celebrate the little wins. We knew that there would continue to be single-use-plastics in our lives – the stuff is so invidious – but we also knew that we could use less of it. So far, just over halfway through the month, we’ve had to empty our little plastics bin twice, decanting as much as possible into the recycling. And while that could feel dispiriting, almost all of it is either plastics we already had in the house, or the result of Ilse’s birthday party last weekend.

We actually bought very little single-use plastic for Ilse’s party. She was very keen on having ice cream to cool everyone down after a trip to the park, and as there’s no ice-cream stand near our house I went for the biggest, sturdiest tub I could find, with a view to reusing it afterwards. She also wanted soft, sesame-topped burger buns rather than the crustier rolls we usually buy, and they only came in plastic. Oh, and the butter for her cake came in plastic butter ‘paper’. Perfect? No. But not bad for an kid’s birthday party. In truth, the majority of plastic came with her gifts, and she was delighted to receive such thoughtful, personal presents. All in all, I think it was a success.

Other than that, I’ve long been the sort of person who cuts open tubes of toothpaste and bottles of moisturiser to get the very last bit out, and that packaging has gone into our bin. Bags of rice, packets of pasta… it’s amazing how quickly it all adds up when you start paying attention. However, John has had absolutely no trouble at all doing all our greengrocer, butcher, bakery and local shopping plastic free. For my part, our supermarket shopping looks very much like this:

 

So while we have emptied our plastics bin twice (decanting as much as possible into recycling), it is beginning to slow down. So much so, in fact, that we’ve been able to do a little bin reshuffle to reflect our aims.

I never thought I’d post a picture of our household bins online, but nor did I think I’d be declaring ice-cream purchases, so there you go. Allow me to introduce our little bins, from left to right. When we bought the blue bins at IKEA, many years ago, we’d already worked out that the smaller the bin the less rubbish you were likely to produce. Not only is it inconvenient to have to empty the bin more regularly, but it also makes me cringe. The bin on the left was our original rubbish bin, and its partner our compost caddy, until I had an epiphany and swapped them around. As a result, for many years we’ve had a landfill bin that takes a supermarket carrier bag, and tried to empty it just once a week, with varying levels of success. The wicker bin used to be a plastic-bag-lined bin in our bathroom, until it became our recycling bin (in which to carry things out to the garage and sort them into the council crates). The little Tanzanian basket on the right is our bathroom bin now.

Why, you might wonder, am I writing about our bins online? Lots of reasons, really. For a start, we’ve tried to align size with desirability. We’re most comfortable filling the biggest bin with old flowers and peelings, which gets carried to the end of the garden and composted. Next up is recycling, although we are well aware recycling isn’t really the solution. The smallest of the downstairs bins is for plastic – and, so far, none of these bins needs lining with even a reused bag. And now we’ve reached the point where our little bathroom bin is the recipient of only compostable stuff, so we’re lining it with newspaper and adding it to the compost heap.

The only rubbish that isn’t allowed for here is food waste. We genuinely do waste very little food – we’ve been working on that for years – but there are still some types of rubbish that I wouldn’t put in any of our bins. Mostly, to be honest, it’s old chicken bones, boiled up for stock after a roast. They’ll attract rats if I add them to the compost, and make a wet and smelly mess in our unlined wicker landfill bin. For now, I’ve lined a funny little drawer in the bottom of our freezer with newspaper, and the plan is to wait until it’s full, then put the frozen parcel out with the landfill on bin day. When we started Plastic Free July, none of us thought we’d be storing our waste in the freezer, but my wonderful family have just gone with it, as usual.

There have been a few unexpected benefits of our plastic-free endeavours. Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I have rekindled our interest in baking, making all sorts of bread (me) and cakes (the children). Afternoon tea has hit an all-time high in our house.

Bartenders feel inclined to top up my reusable cup with a little extra, once I’ve explained why I don’t want a plastic cup to take outside into these balmy evenings. I’ve also visited shops and parts of the supermarket I never went near before. The woman on the deli counter knows me now, and is delighted by how many of us are bringing our own containers in for cheese, olives and the like. The fishmonger helped me choose some absolutely delicious fish, which I later realised was not the most sustainable breed, but we live and learn, and we chose something different the next time. And it’s so nice to fill the fridge with food already decanted into your own containers, and not have to hunt down the scissors every time you make a meal.

With the end of term in sight, and summer trips on the horizon, we’re thinking ahead but I’m confident that we can do a pretty good job, even when we’re living out of our boot. No doubt there will be some plastic involved, but it’ll be less than it would have been ordinarily, and I’m happy with that for now. If I think about all our little wins, and all the other people around the globe similarly turning down one piece of plastic at a time, they begin to feel quite substantial. So at this point, just over halfway through the month, I’d say we’re winning, on balance. And this is just the start.

Madeleine

PS – Have you been taking part – formally or informally – in Plastic Free July? Do you have any wins you’d like to celebrate? I’d also love to hear about any tips you might have for plastic-free road trips…

Desert Island Discs: Something Changed

John and I had no business meeting each other. It really shouldn’t have happened: he was a starry PhD student in another subject, at another college, while I was still an undergraduate with rather a lot on my plate. Yet one June evening, a supervisor drove me out of Cambridge for dinner at a country pub, and on the way home he parked his car at the back of Trinity. We wandered back to St. John’s through Great Court and there we bumped into a friend of his, covered in chalk dust, an ice axe in each hand.

I’d come back from Syria, where I’d been having some time out, to spend May Week in Cambridge before returning for my final year the following October. At the end of year, after exams, there are a couple of weeks of pure fun: garden parties; May Balls that go on all night; dinners and punting and lazing around all day on the gloriously sunny Backs. My supervisor, seeing that I was smitten, invited me to his garden party the following afternoon as John was going to be there, and the rest, as they say, was history. I don’t think I’d ever had as much fun as we had in those first two sunny summer weeks. They remain in my mind as a time of pure happiness.

Although we didn’t listen to any Pulp during those first two weeks, I’m always reminded of them when I hear Something Changed. My whole life turned on a chance encounter on a golden Cambridge evening. Not just finding my life partner – although that would be enough – but finding my independence again. It’s all very well, believing in fate (I don’t), but even if you do, it’s what you do with your opportunities that counts. My whole life turned on the head of a pin in those two short weeks. In a funny way, I became myself again, free and unafraid.

I had a fantastic summer that year, diving in Australia and spending a couple of months with my parents in France and then Aleppo, Syria. When I returned to Cambridge in the October, John and I, who had been writing all summer, decided to make a go of it. I made new friends – through John but also, for the first time, through my course: proper friends, people who built me up. I started to take my studies seriously, spending my days tucked in a corner of the labyrinthine University Library, periodically meeting John for tea and scones in the cafe, and in the end I did rather well. When the time came to graduate, I didn’t want to leave. I loved those final twelve months, working and playing hard, encouraged and inspired by the people around me. They made what could have continued to be a very tough time not only manageable, but a joy.

If I think of my life as a series of events, the significant moments weighing heavy on an unbroken thread, that chance meeting was one such moment for me. How lucky I was, to bump into the love of my life just then, when I least expected it. It wasn’t just something that changed that day; it was everything.