Cuttings

As many of the flowers begin to fade out of doors, those indoors are getting our attention. Oh, there’s still plenty in the garden, and to be seen on hedgerow rambles. Into the house come cuttings of sweet peas, and anemones, and umbellifers. There is hibiscus by the armful, and the grass is full of buttercups. But on a rainy day, when the first of the woollens are called for, there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in pulling out old shirts and frocks and cutting them up for quilting.

In the mix, this time, is Ilse’s romper from last summer, and an old green dress of mine. There are a number of shirts for plains and stripes, from Father and John and Ben. There’s a blouse Fliss loved but splashed something on in a chemistry lesson. And there’s a little Liberty, too – spared from a length I bought in London to make a new case for my flute – a splash of something special to bring the quilt to life.

I’ve had a lot of company on my afternoons of cutting. Not just the customary Poirot on the wireless, and the tray with its pot of tea. Seb has been hovering, picking bits out of the scrap pile for some puppetry project or other. Ilse has been snipping off the buttons for the jar. Fliss wandered in and out, casting an eye over the proceedings and glowing quietly with pleasure as she noticed each new fabric in the pile. I’ve had helpers to count the 63 white squares cut from a worn out sheet, and the 32 setting triangles. The multicoloured strips have been arranged and rearranged in various colour combinations. It’s been a lovely way to pass the rainy summer holiday afternoons.

We’re just about finished now, with all the cutting. Next comes the stitching together of the long strips, before they are cut into short trios of squares and resewn into nine-patch blocks. Then the whole top can be pieced and set on point to create a diamond effect: a Jewel in the Crown quilt.

But not today. Today, the sun is shining, and I know a green lane where the hedges are groaning with blackberries. Today is a day for stained lips and prickled fingers and baskets heavy with fruit. The quilt can wait for another rainy day. I have different cuttings to take: from the anemones in the garden to give to a friend of mine, which I hope will bloom next summer.

That’s the thing about cuttings: they grow into something wonderful. A whole new plant from a length of root. Crown jewels from cotton chintzes. And in the kitchen this evening, jam from unbidden brambles.

Garden notes: Kew

Kew must be a surprise whatever time of year you visit. In late summer, when the sun is strong and the trees are in full and darkened leaf, the palm house shouldn’t be as much of a shock as it is. The very air drips; the moist leaves shine; fleshy blooms flirt from across the walkway. A jungle, in south London, locked away in a house for almost two hundred years. Put that way, perhaps it’s no wonder it beguiles.

Kew is a bit of a magical land. It is the botanical world in miniature, a microcosm of the planet’s plants, a snapshot of natural history. A day’s stroll will carry you beyond the jungle to the deserts, where carnivorous plants wait to trap small beasts in their pitchers, and other plants pose as stones. Amazonian giants patrol the warm ponds with a lazy flick of the tail, and rare orchids are common as weeds. Then on, to a walk through the trees, looking into their crowns as an equal, seeing the London skyline as they do. It was a little lesson in botany, given that the leaves and the seeds were out in force, and the children could name them all. We strolled through a rose garden and chose the sweetest smelling. We lingered by full flowerbeds. And all the time our little host, at just four years old, was naming flowers and trees for us: agapanthus, oak, plane, aquilegia. What a garden to have on your doorstep. What a playground. What a school.

It was in the arboretum that we spread our picnic mat. We were visiting dear friends – friends who John has known for many years – and their children, and spent a few days in London, doing London things. Windsor Castle. The site of the signing of the Magna Carta. A special shop or two. But best of all was Kew: the Royal Botanical Gardens, founded in 1759 and forming the most fascinating 300 acres in London. This is the place to which plants have been carried from all over the world: periwinkles and peonies, hibiscus and hostas. And in response, the place was humming with visitors, wandering from flower to flower, shrub to shrub, tree to tree. Gathering the sights and smells, new things to know, and the feeling of sun on their backs. It was wonderfully, gloriously, and appropriately alive – with all sorts of people enjoying all sorts of plants in all sorts of ways.

Of all the attractions though, one stood out for me – and I suspect many people would choose the same. The waterlily house, hot with red and orange blooms without, steamy and green within, was the highlight of my day. A pool full of great lilypads, some flat and smooth, others with upturned, serrated edges. We saw the daytime blooms and read about those which rise from the water at night to set a trap for unsuspecting beetles. Wild plants, exotic plants, floating green and calm on a mirror-smooth pond. And in the water, if you look carefully, you can just see the wrought iron framework of their protective cage, amplifying the English sun. To me, this house was Kew Gardens in miniature: the essence of a curated botanical world. And the joy of it is that we have three more seasons to see it in, and much more besides to explore. We will most certainly be going back to Kew.

Twirling

There was a brief period, a few days ago, when there was absolutely no wool to knit with in this house. Ben’s socks were cast off and the basket was empty. The little knits were over and the autumn knits – the big ones for the children – are only half dreamed up. Patterns are chosen, but the wool hasn’t been – and most likely won’t be until we go to the fair again in September. That funny time between the end of one project and the start of another is sometimes so exciting. At other times, like last week, it makes for restless hands. It’s not as if I have nothing to do. There’s an old jumper which needs unravelling and reknitting just a little shorter. But that’s just not as enticing as something novel, something different, something fresh.

Fortunately, Ida had something new planned for me. A while ago, when we went over to Skipton to visit her for her birthday, she had asked me whether I might be interested in a spinning wheel. The answer was a foregone conclusion, and little bits and pieces have been coming my way over the past few weeks. A pair of carders. A drop spindle. The promise of a fleece. And then, via Mother, a package from Auntie Flo full of Irish tweed roving.

I always seem to end up trying new things when my children have their friends round. Heavens knows what they make of it: Fliss’ mother walking around the house with her arms stretched high above her head and a slightly uncontrollable spindle twirling down below. It was all a bit frustrating, at first, but then suddenly it stopped being roving wound around a stick and became something akin to wool. Whisper thin in places, definitely the wrong side of chunky in others, but knittable. It grew more even as I went on – and I did go on, all evening, until I’d spun the whole lot – so that whatever I end up making will be quite different from end to end. Those little flecks of colour didn’t really, on the whole, get spun into the yarn. But I rather like them, and am inexperienced enough to hope that they disguise some of the wobbles as well as adding to their number.

By the end of the following day the product was finished – washed, bashed and wound into a very artisan looking ball of wool. I have no idea what to make with it. The lavender on the landing suggests knitted pouches to present the sachets in. Autumn, just peeping over the horizon, is putting in a vote for woolly corsages. We’ll see. I’m not in a hurry anymore, and the restlessness has gone. There’s a ball of wool in my basket, so I can start knitting again whenever I feel the urge. Just now, though, I really want to keep getting better at making wool. And as spinning seems too grand a word for for my total lack of skill, I think I’ll call it twirling.

Garden notes: Almost heaven

This is turning out to be one of the nicest holidays I can remember. Or do I always think that? Either way, this summer plan of not having much of a plan at all, of writing in a few trips here and there and spending the rest of the time pottering around at home has come up trumps. Or rather, the weather has. This is the hottest, driest summer we’ve had in ages – at least, the past few days have been blissfully sunny and warm. We didn’t settle on any particular destinations this year, apart from the Devon family camp, and decided instead to chase the good weather wherever it may go: north or south, east or west. But as it’s been everywhere this week, so have we, with John and the children off on a little jaunt of their own while I stayed behind at home.

I love being on my own, knowing that soon the house will be full again. A day or two or three is just fine by me. My thoughts find their rhythm, and so do I, eating whatever and whenever I choose, going to bed whenever I like, getting up when I want to in the morning. So it must be a sign of approaching middle age that I have eaten balanced meals at reasonably sensible intervals, gone to bed at a decent hour and been up to make the most of every day.

Originally, the plan was to make a large pot of tea, switch the wireless on and make some serious progress on Fliss’ quilt. I haven’t even finished cutting out all the pieces, never mind sat sewing them together under the apple tree. I had wanted this quilt to be a hand-stitched one – one where I could look at each block and remember where and when I made it. I was hoping to stitch little bits of our summer and autumn adventures into it – days out here, camping trips there, a happy afternoon on the lawn. But the sun will insist on shining, and I’ve lived in Yorkshire long enough to know that when the sun shines, you go outside. So outside I have been, giving the garden a much needed bout of attention after all our days away, and bringing in bits of harvest in return. The vegetable beds are weeded, the fruit patch seen to, and the gravelly bits free of stray green. I’ve sorted out the neglected hanging baskets and rehung them at the door, and cut down at some astonishingly long brambles. Marigolds, from the bottom of the garden, have been rehomed in pots and beds much closer to the house, and there are sweet peas to cut each day to fill a little glass vase. The celery is benefiting from some much-needed watering, and the French beans are getting started in earnest. Fresh tomatoes turn red overnight, and when I sat on the bench by the hibiscus yesterday the bees buzzed in and out of the blooms around my ears. Honestly, it was very nearly heaven.

I say nearly because it seems I’m not the only creature to find our garden appealing. Those pretty white butterflies that float around the veg patch have been wreaking havoc with my brassicas. I’ve had caterpillars before, but never an invasion quite like this. To use a term I wish I’d coined but didn’t, it was very nearly a brassica massacre. Instead, it was the caterpillars that bought it. Thankfully we discovered the extent of the damage before the children went away, and so I had a team to help me squash them and carry the most infested leaves directly to the chicken run. It was a little bit heartbreaking in all sorts of different ways, and our suppertime vegetable plans were swiftly changed from cabbage to French beans. If only caterpillars weren’t such sweet, fuzzy little things – and didn’t like cabbage quite so much.

I think – I hope – we got there just in time. I had spring cabbage for supper last night, and each leaf was tender and pale green and whole. Tonight, though, I am feeding six once more – some of whom are in need of home-cooked food with all its vegetably goodness. There’s a bubbling pot of ratatouille in the oven which was growing in the garden only an hour before. John will be pleased – of that I’m sure. I suspect the children could have coped quite happily with a few more days of pemmican and grog and other camping rations. Still, they’re glad to be home for a breather before the next adventure. A big bowl of vegetables might not be sausages cooked over a camp fire, but to be home and bathed with a hot meal in front of you must surely be almost heaven.

A proper picnic

Come August the moors turn purple. The sun lights up the landscape in patches, falling through windows in the cloud. The rowans are laden with red, the bracken is at its full height, and the gorse is, as ever, in flower. But it is the purple heather I like best: great swathes of it splashed across the tops, broken only by a prow of Yorkshire gritstone here and there.

There are lots of places more classically beautiful – I know that, I’ve seen many – but nothing quite compares to the moors in August. It is still bleak, still hard country to scrape a living from. For great stretches there is nothing, and then a long, low farmhouse comes into sight, and then there is nothing again. Small villages huddle in shallow dales, trees twisted by the wind. Sheep wander freely: Swaledales with their curled horns and black faces. Sheep and pheasants, fattened for the kill, and the hovering birds of prey who have spotted something small and living we could never see. This is an old landscape, constant over centuries, changeable by the hour.

It was here that we took a picnic – a proper picnic, in celebration of John’s fortieth. A family picnic seemed just the thing, and the last time he’d had such a thing for his birthday was thirty four years ago, when he was six. Oh, to have an August birthday. The outings and excursions, holidays and lazy days in the garden that such lucky people have, each year. He always lets us share it with him. This year it was properly hot – almost too hot to sit still on the blanket in the midday sun. Nobody really wanted to, anyway, given that the bilberries were ripe. Lips, fingers and chins were stained purple long before the hamper had even been opened, and it took little persuasion to get the children to collect a few more for jam while John and I spread the rug. We had a late luncheon in the heather – pork pies with piccalilli, sandwiches with bully beef and relish, tomatoes from the garden and cool green cucumber cut into sticks for nibbling. A pause was most certainly necessary, and so out came the books and the playing cards, the whittling knives and the knitting. Nearby boulders were examined and attempted, low paths in the flora wriggled through on bellies, siblings jumped out on before they could get ‘home’.

Yet ‘home’ they all came when they saw me sandwiching blackcurrant fool between the layers of a Victoria sponge. It being a birthday cake, we poked candles into its top, and sang before we cut it. Such simple celebrations are very often the best. A slab of cake – or maybe two – on a proper cloth napkin, with tea in a proper china cup and proper grog for the little ones? Proper French bubbles in proper champagne saucers, followed by a most improper nap in the middle of the moor? Now, that’s what I call a proper picnic.

Garden notes: Into the kitchen

It is in August that things begin to fall. An overripe plum from a tree. Excess apples, shaken off in the wind. The tops of onions, still green, collapse into the spaces between their bulbs which are still swelling in the sun. And it is at this point, every year, that things begin to come into the kitchen in earnest. New potatoes, boiled to floury perfection with a sprig of mint, before being crushed with chopped scallions and butter. A couple of leaves from each of the summer cabbages. The first french beans, tender and slim. The umpteenth courgette. Tomatoes, by the cornucopian handful. Beetroot tops, swede tops, radish tops. The first of the salads from the second sowing. Things to be eaten as soon as possible, keeping the time between picking and plating as short as we possibly can. I haven’t visited the greengrocer’s for ages, and have no intention of doing so for a good while yet.

At just the same time, the preserving has begun. Traditionally, this is the time when the children pile the windfalls so high in the larder that I throw my hands up in despair at ever getting through them before the brown spreads from their bruises. Traditionally I have a mountain of overgrown courgettes to fight my way to the bottom of, having ignored them for a day too long. Traditionally I look at all the luscious green herbs and leaves and wonder how on earth I am going to capture them. In all likelihood, this will happen again in a week or so. You’ll find me behind a wall of freshly washed jars, presiding over three or four bubbling pots of chutney and jam, hot and bothered and wishing I was outside.

But not yet. So far, I am winning. My approach this year is to go on the offensive against the rising tide of the home gardener’s glut. Each day, while watering and weeding, I identify a little something or other to put up for the winter. I pick it after tea: a few stems of rhubarb, or perhaps a trugful of nasturtium leaves. Then into the kitchen I go, for a post supper potter with some vinegar, or a little oil. Sometimes there is sugar involved. Often there are spices. And less than an hour later I emerge with my prize: a couple of jars of pickled beetroot. A few pots of jam. Greens and herbs, pounded into a chlorophyll paste to brighten the darkest winter meal. One little victory each evening, set on the larder shelves.

Of course, we don’t grow anything like enough food to keep ourselves going the whole year long. I have tremendous admiration for those who do, and perhaps one day I might achieve that. My aim is different, although very much in the same spirit: to waste as little as possible, and make as much of what we have as I can. There is so much pleasure in opening a jar of bottled fruit in February and knowing that you grew it. I pace our progress through the larder, making the preserves last the whole year long until the next harvest is coming in. Just as the marrows are ready, we are opening the very last jar of chutney. So far, this season, I am feeling remarkably on top of it all.

You know that it won’t last, though, don’t you? Because the beans are about to start coming out of our ears, and the apples will fall by the panful. Already I’m closing my eyes just a fraction as I walk past the still full bed of summer cabbages, and thinking about all the sauerkraut jars I’m going to need. The rosehips are well on their way and that orangey floral syrup is too much of an autumn treat to be missed. And then there’s the sheer quantity of berries that six people can pick in an afternoon, even given free reign to eat as many as they like. The tide is coming, I tell you. Soon I’ll be on the defensive again, wooden spoon at the ready. It’s on its way, the results of a year in the garden, flowing straight into the kitchen.

Pirates and creatures of the deep

There’s a particular type of pleasure in knowing just what to expect. It wasn’t just me, with my packing list or John, map at the ready. The children were raring to go, even before we pulled up at our own traditional pitch, longing for their cousins to arrive. We were a day before anyone else, and camped a dark night under the stars with only the wind in the trees for company. The following morning Seb and Ilse scouted out old dens and ran the perimeter of the wood before settling themselves near the gate and to wait for their friends.

This time, we watched the party evolve. John and Ben knew how to help put the marquee up. Familiar faces arrived by the hour, so that the crowd swelled from our little picnic of eight to thirty, then a hundred, then more. That first evening the adults were sitting around the fire, sharing news of the past two years, while the children were already running wild in the dark, electric torches flashing through the trees. Two years older, two years more independent, they stayed out of sight for as long as possible, delaying the inevitable call to bed. And yet, the faster you went to sleep the faster the dawn would come, with sausages for breakfast and then a quick bathe in the sea before more friends arrived, and the party proper would begin.

There aren’t many places where children can really run free. We read about them in books: the Walker children with their camp on Wild Cat Island, the Famous Five roaming the Cornish coast. We seek these places out: in cub camps and long walks over the bare winter landscape, in gardens big enough for the children to be hidden with their penknives and their flints. This is what I want for my children, and what I have made sure they have had: dirty knees, smoky hair, something sticky smeared around their faces. A length of string dangling from a pocket. As big a world as we can muster, making room for an even bigger one in their heads. Games which go on over hours and days and even years, put down and picked up when the same little gang gets together again. Friendships which endure over time, with children they might only have met once before, in a far off place, a quarter of a lifetime ago. Adoration for the big ones in the gang. Care for anyone smaller. Tumbles and grazes and dock leaves pressed on stings. And always, in the background, a safe place where the grown ups are.

I think this is how much of the weekend felt, to them. Until the entertainer arrived with his magic and his music and tomfoolery. After that it was time for the donning of costumes and the clearing filled with pirates and creatures of the deep. Our own made an appearance: our mermaid and giant squid, our pirate and our silly seahorse, water-wings and all. John and I were pirates too, adorned with fake tattoos and stripy shirts and neckerchiefs. There was a luminescent jelly fish, and an deep sea anglerfish with an oh-so-mesmerising light dangling just before his teeth. There was a gaggle of mermaids and their pets, and a ghostly butler from the long-since-sunk Titanic. The hog roast was dished out by a sailor in his whites, and I almost walked past Father with his dark false beard and tricorn hat.

In the dusk, we listened to sea shanties and joined in when we knew the words (what shall we do with the drunken sailor?), then sat back to more music from singers and players alike. There was a rum bar, and a couple of barrels of something else for the landlubbers among us. There was dancing, and sitting by another fire. Finally, at some time in the early hours, there was bed.

The next day could have felt a little empty, seeing so many people leave. Some we’d met two years ago, others we’d known all our lives. More still we’d met just the previous evening. They were all off on holidays, or back to work, or off to visit family. But us? We struck out for the loveliest beach in Devon and spent an afternoon in and out of the surf, before walking slowly home along the cliffs. There were the remains of a hog roast to be shared amongst we remaining campers, and a final night of talk around the fire. The following morning saw the last few families on their way and as the rain began to fall it was just us left camping in the woods. We weathered the storm in the best way we knew how: by striking out for somewhere beautiful, and picking up fish and chips for supper on our way back in the evening. It would have been much sadder, but for one important fact: the theme for the next family camp had already been discussed.

Garden notes: Other people’s gardens

I always get a little thrill on the threshold of other people’s gardens. There’s something expeditionary about setting off into someone else’s little patch of green, even if it is only the size of a handkerchief. All that poking about in shrubs and trees, peering into steamy greenhouses and stumbling upon evidence of children playing on the lawn. And for all the times I’ve stood at somebody’s back door and been disappointed by a manicured square of green, there have been so many times that I’ve encountered winding paths and hidden pigsties, wild herb beds and love seats tucked beneath a willow bower.

We recently hired a motor for a little trip down to Devon, to the English Riviera, although I must clarify that our accommodation was of the canvas variety rather than that offered on Burgh Island. The journey took a full day either way, and so we punctuated it with visits to National Trust properties. A little diversion from the main road, a bite of lunch in the tea room and then a tour around a house and garden. Most such houses are grand affairs, so different to our own home that I am content to gaze at all the beautiful things while being glad that our home is so much cosier and easier to dust. Some are full of the original furnishings, including the collections of several generations of inhabitants. Others have been given to the nation empty, and filled with chairs and tables, books and portraits gathered from other properties and auctions. Occasionally you stumble upon one which is really special – like Cotehele in Cornwall, which we spent a day exploring – a tudor mansion which has been left unchanged since the 17oos. The rooms are dark with tapestries, the beds spread with hand-pieced patchwork or exquisite whole cloth quilts. Seb and Ilse peered into the great hall through the squint in the solar, and we all took turns handling the weaponry on display, from great swords six feet long to little daggers and cruel, delicate spurs.

But after the house – and for some reason it is always after the house – we emerge to wander round the gardens. At Cotehele this included a walk through the fern-rich woodland to the watermill and the quay giving access to the Tamar. At Coleton Fishacre there were the cool blues and pinks which formed the view from the mistress’s bedroom, separated from the red hot pokers of the master’s by cool green lawns and ponds layered with lily pads. At Greenway you can walk down through the woods to the boathouse, and had it been the spring the walk would have been coloured by thousands of camellias. But my favourite garden of all was on the edge of the grounds at Killerton: the cottage garden of the post office. It is an exuberant garden, with plants tumbling over one another in their eagerness to grow and a vegetable patch which appears from nowhere. I could hear the children playing hide and seek but couldn’t find them, following the winding paths until a bank of hydrangeas gave way to a lawn with a bench, and there they all were, waiting for me to be done. I was, nearly. There were a few things I wished to fix in my mind: how the plants were grouped together; which vegetables had been left to grow and go to seed in their second year, attracting scores of beneficial insects. I like to learn things from other people’s gardens, much of which never gets put into practice but which is stored away, just in case. From this one I learned something much, much better than a little tip or trick: something which I intend to act upon straight away. It doesn’t matter if the vegetables are mostly over or got eaten by the slugs, or if the alliums are giving way to gravity and time. Gardens don’t need to be perfect. They need to be places of interest, places worth exploring. Places which tell you about the people who made it and use it and coax it into life. Those other people, to whom the gardens belong.

Bit by bit

There are two ways to cut an overgrown lawn. The first is the way Ben approaches it: forcing the mower over the long grass with the brute strength of youth. A few passes and he’s inside, complaining that I have set him an impossible task. The grass is too long, the blades too blunt, the sun too high in the sky.

Come on, I tell him. We’ll do it together. And despite his protests, I raise the blades so high that they’ll cut only the most precocious plants. I adjust the tension so that the cylinder spins freely. Then I give him the mower to try, without the cumbersome bin attached, and off he sets, leaving an arc of green mowings in his wake. We lower the blades, less than he would like, and he does it again. Then lower again for a third cut, until by the fourth he is ready to reattach the bin and leave neat light and dark green stripes up and down the garden. He’s proud of a job well done, I’m happy and John is delighted to come home from work and find that job ticked off the list.

All I need to do now is approach my own task list in the same, gentle way. The house and garden are not quite the way I’d like them to be by this point in the summer. There are weeds growing back between the patio slabs, and the celery is struggling with the heat. I haven’t washed the curtains yet, or beat the rugs for an age. I’ve a mountain of marrows to turn into chutney, and have hardly made any jam. The children’s clothes need clearing out, and I’ve got stuck halfway through knitting a pair of socks for Ben.

Luckily, his lesson on the lawn was a good one for me, too. Slowly, Cecily, slowly does it. It doesn’t all need to be done in one fell swoop. Every day there are meals to be made, clothes to be washed, floors to be swept. Much more importantly than that, there are the children’s holidays to be enjoyed. If I pick a single task every two or three days, that will be progress enough. Bit by bit, I’ll work my way down that list. And if I never reach the bottom? Well, never mind. What happens will happen, and what doesn’t, won’t. Given the choice between embracing the summer and running a perfect house, I know which I’d choose. Today the lawn was mown and the shed tidied, which I think merits a trip to the seaside tomorrow. Make hay while the sun shines, yes, but don’t forget to stop for a long drink of cider and a midday snooze in the shade of the bird-loud hedge.