A Winter of Walks

Almost everyone who stepped into the tea shop said the same thing: Well, that certainly blows away the cobwebs. Through the windows, the surf rolled onto the sands. Children and dogs laid claim to sticks, one little boy proudly brandishing a branch much longer than he was tall. Wet animals ran in and out of the chilly water. And when it was time to leave, we pulled on hats and buttoned our coats tightly against the sea breeze.

What fun it is, to have a motor of our own, and be able to enjoy somewhere other than our own little city. We’ve made a promise, John and I, to head out every single Sunday of the winter for a walk. To have a change of scene, and make the day feel longer, and generally, well, blow away those pesky cobwebs which come of too much time indoors.

This week we sought the clear blue-grey light of the coast in winter. It only took an hour to reach Sandsend and, having stopped for a cup of tea, we walked along the beach to Whitby for a bag of chips for lunch, vinegary and hot. The tide lapped at our heels as we approached the safety of the slipway, and by the time we were walking back along the seafront the spray was sending the children shrieking and laughing in and out of its reach. What with the promise of chips in one direction, and the fun of not quite dodging the spray in the other, nobody complained about the five or six mile jaunt, and it was lovely to stretch my legs and plough up the steep path to the cliff tops.

Not all our walks will be as long, or as far afield. A fortnight ago we only ran out to Beningbrough to wander round the ordered calm of their walled garden. Sometime soon we’ll go over to the Dales, and set off early to make the most of the short sunlight. It’s the getting out that matters, and fresh air and green spaces.

Every other day of the week I wish it would stay light for longer, that the day didn’t end at four o’clock. But on Sundays the early sunset means that we all get to enjoy it, whether towards the end of our walk or afterwards, in the motor car. This week it was gentle and glowing, a soft apricot suffusion breaking through the clouds and rendering the moors more glorious than ever. After the sunset, once it’s dark, we may as well go home and pop a chicken in the oven. There was just enough time for a rice pudding, as long as the little ones bathed before tea and went to bed straight after, and for a glass of wine in front of the fire. Thank goodness there’s no rushing in at seven o’clock in the winter, racing to put tea on the table, because that would undo all of the good of the day.

Everyone seems to like it, so we’re sticking with this plan. The Sunday roasts we’ve always had, and a hot pudding for afters, now with a walk beforehand. A whole winter of walks, in fact.

Is it winter yet?

As long as I have known John, which is a very long time now, we have disagreed over the naming of the seasons. To me, a sunny day in May spells summer. Flowering bulbs and a break in the frost means spring, even if it’s only February. And winter starts around the middle of November, when lightweight macs are relegated to the backs of cupboards and the last of the summer shoes are hibernating, polished leather against crumpled tissue, in their boxes under the stairs. I can’t wait for the next season to begin, can hardly sleep for hoping for the spring. Were I in charge, summer would begin in March and last until October. And if November isn’t winter yet, then I dread to think how cold it’s going to get.

John likes to name the seasons by the book. Winter, apparently, does not begin until the setting of the solstice sun. Spring comes in March; autumn in September. And not just at the start of each named month, but on the 21st, and not a minute sooner. He measures his days by the calendar, which is reasonable enough, I suppose, but not sane enough for me.

For me, winter is when toddlers chug up and down the street, blowing steam out of their engines. It’s when even Ben asks if we might light the fire, and I can serve stew three times in a week without anyone complaining. Winter starts when the Christmas crafting does, and the last of the tomatoes’ blackened stems has been hauled off to the compost. When the hens have to be away by four o’ clock for fear of the fox. When the children bother to come back for mislaid gloves.

If I want to take the only sunny day in January and call it spring, I will, and I’ll enjoy it all the more. One swallow definitely makes a summer. In fact, the only season I will not rush towards is autumn. Lovely in itself, it spells the end of my long summers and I hold it at arm’s length as long as I possibly can. That’s why it’s the shortest season of them all, only hanging around as long as the brown leaves on the trees. What with the wind and the rain of the last few days, those have all been blown away. So call it a month early, if you must, but I’m fairly certain winter’s here at last.

While there’s light

It took a very long time for me to realise that, no matter how organised I was, the time between the end of school and supper was always going to be busy. For years I had visions of sitting down after tea with a spot of sewing or knitting, and while it does happen from time to time, those times are few and very far between. There are simply too many people around in the early evenings, all needing me for something or other: to listen to their scales or their reading, to mend skirts which somehow got caught on a branch on the way home, or simply to chatter to about their day.

So I’ve given up on making supper after lunch or in the morning. They’ll come rushing in and out of whichever room I’m in, so I may as well be in the kitchen, chopping carrots. Which leaves a little bit of time vacant in the day. And now that it is getting dark so early, there’s only one thing to do with a bit of silent sunlight. I can knit and make beds and roll pastry by electric light, but in the sunlight, I’ve been counting threads and making tiny, tiny crosses, over and over again.

Lots of people have been saying how satisfying this is, and they were right. With or without a murder mystery on the wireless, half an hour with some cross-stitch and suddenly the world is a wonderful place. In fact, I can’t imagine why they call it cross-stitch, as it’s the least cross thing I do, these days.

By the time the children roll home from school it’s time to draw the curtains and begin on the next round of tasks, but that’s alright by me. That little snowflake is proof that the sun did rise, today, and that I made the most of it. It’s fast becoming a favourite time of day, the early afternoon. Sitting in the window seat, stitching while there’s light enough to see.

Twice two

One is the number of skirts I had a week ago; twice two is how many I have now. Twice two because there are only two, really, but each one is made to be worn on both sides, doubling both their warmth and the number of options I have on a chilly morning.

That’s my favourite thing about making my own clothes: the fact that I can have precisely what I want, and need settle for nothing less. Lined woollen skirts? Plain on one side and patterned on the other? Colours which co-ordinate with the rest of my little wardrobe? But of course. Whatever you want, Madam, as Ilse would say.

I don’t like having too many clothes to choose from. There are more important things on my mind in the morning. I make up for it by spending idle moments planning the next addition to my wardrobe. Cleaning out the hens I decided on a sleeve length for my Liberty blouse. Walking to the shops I thought a green sundress would be nice. This kind of thinking goes a long way, when you can open the wardrobe and fling on the nearest thing, knowing that it will all go together reasonably well. And then, when you have a moment over the ironing or the wash, you can stop to appreciate the pretty shell buttons that you chose, or the neat way you bound a hem.

The blue skirt is the one I made last year, and I liked the wooden buttons so much I bought three more to sew on the other, new side. I had the feathered fabric left over from some cushions, much too nice to languish in a cupboard. That was a speedy evening sew.

The red skirt is wholly new: a simple quarter circle skirt where the brown wool-silk herringbone of the other side spills over at waistband and hem. That was Sunday afternoon, bar a quick walk around the vegetables at Beningbrough Hall, to see how their garden grew. I finished the hand sewing while the potatoes crisped up, and the whole house smelled of chicken and spiced apples in an almond sponge. That was a good day.

So I have twice two skirts to choose from now, shivering in the dark before the fires have been lit or the Aga stirred back into life. Ah, well. It makes getting dressed on wintry mornings at least four times as fun.

Sshh

Once the leaves drop off the trees, you can see the fragility of their limbs, shivering in the November sleet. That full, green flush of spring feels long ago; we have harvested the goodness of that time, and once again the world is on the brink of all that winter inflicts.

After the war, we thought that there could never be another time like it. That the men in high office had learned their lesson, that the people wanted only to be able to walk down a lamp lit street to a house where the yellow light shone out of gaily curtained windows.

Now, it seems, there are new men in high office. In the chilled winds, people forget quite how blessed they might be. They compare themselves to those who have more than them, forgetting those who have less. The same old angrily trodden paths are marched down once again, and once again the grass is worn away. Forgotten and despised, the excesses of our long summer lie, brown and rotting, in the gutters.

But I know where the bulbs lie, still and quiet in the earth. Deep in their veins, those selfsame trees hold the blood of life. In drawers, all over the world, packets of seed lie dormant, just waiting to be planted. And quietly, while the mob is shouting, the rest of us carry quietly on putting meals on family tables, and teaching children to think for themselves. Driving lorries of clothes to the cold and dispossessed. Smiling at strangers in the street.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the rattle of the tines as those blackened leaves are raked up for the compost, ready to grow next summer’s fruit. You can hear the scratching of thousands of pens as people write in diaries and newspapers of their care and optimism. You can hear the rattle of the collecting tin as volunteers stand for hours in the cold to help someone other than themselves.

In November, the bleak midwinter lies yet before us. But after that comes the spring. Always, and inevitably.

Low hanging fruit

There were times, towards the end of October, that I thought we’d never get the apples in. There was always something more urgent or important to be done. The days slipped by and the weather steadily worsened. Fliss and I spent the finest afternoon of the holiday at Father’s allotment, helping him to bring his own crop in. But at home the Bramleys languished on the tree, occasionally thudding onto the kitchen roof or the patio or lawn.

That is until one day, when Seb and I were home alone, and decided to go out and pick the low-hanging fruit. Just an hour, we promised each other: an hour and a couple of crates. We didn’t even get the stepladder out, but picked whatever we could reach with our feet still on the ground, laying all our bounty on the garden table. In under an hour we had well over a hundred apples picked, wrapped and packed, and I could bear to look at the tree again.

Needless to say, the apple- picking squad assembled the very next day, ladders and all. But I like to think they wouldn’t have, if Seb and I hadn’t got the ball rolling. Whatever the reason, we have apples enough for a whole winter of puddings, and compotes and roasts.

Reaching for the low-hanging fruit has become a bit of a theme around here in the past couple of weeks. The Liberty blouse I have planned seems far too onerous a task to begin. So too does my simple quarter circle skirt, the materials for which are laid out ready on the dining table. Instead, I’ve embarked on a little cross-stitch project, which is mesmerising and beautiful in its novel imperfection. I’ve been knitting simple things. I hear that Father Christmas has started his list with the presents he gives out every year: socks and books and foil-wrapped chocolate coins. Tick them off, I say. It’s got to be done anyway, so you may as well start with the low-hanging fruit to get you in the mood for a bit of stretching at the top of a rickety ladder.

Sunday

For all the moments when having such a spread of children’s ages is a challenge, there are days like Sunday which make up for it, tenfold. On Saturday, Ben and Fliss went off to bonfires with their friends, leaving the rest of us to our own devices. And although I didn’t much feel like celebrating, the little ones bounced us through the traditions and it was fun seeing how happy a sparkler could make them.

After the fireworks, Sunday dawned grey, wet and windy. There didn’t seem to be enough light in the air to make it through the windows. Days like that make me tired to my very bones, and apt to doze the hours away in an armchair. But there are better things to do. We wrapped the little ones in their coats and wellingtons and, despite their protests, headed to Fountains Abbey. All around us the trees shone, copper and bronze, and the light switched from gloomy to ambient. A silly, impromptu game of tig carried them through the ruined cloisters and, before they knew it, they were halfway to the tea shop at the far end of the grounds. There we sheltered from the rain and fed them up with scones and jam and clotted cream, until their cheeks were pink. And on the way back they stalked pheasants through the wooded hillside, pretending to be poachers, and named trees from their fallen leaves, and found their own route back.

What with the wind and the spattering rain and a pot of tea at the cafe, I thought the walk had woken me up, until we were motoring through the dark on the way home. We arrived unexpectedly soon. The living room window glowed yellow through closed curtains, and when we opened the front door the smell of supper made my stomach growl. How lovely it is to have children big enough to stay at home and feed the fire on a cold November day. To  keep an eye on the meat, slow roasting in the oven, and set the table ready for the meal. To have them all there, the little ones telling the big ones about their walk and the pheasants they supposedly nearly caught. The big ones eating two, then three helpings of belly pork and potatoes, before breaking through the nutmeggy skin of a baked rice pudding. Slow food, watched over by those who have stayed at home to write an essay and solve a page of equations. This is what Sunday afternoons are made for: spreading out and then coming back together, to eat. A little feast day to celebrate the passing of each and every week. Whatever the weather, whatever our plans, this is what makes it Sunday.

Tesselations

There have been page after page of tesselations floating around the house of late. Fliss learned to draw these interlocking patterns from her mathematics mistress and Ilse, spotting the bright sheets of gridded paper, demanded to know how they were done. Ever patient, Fliss taught her sister to draw interconnected crosses three squares wide, and pick each element out in a different colour. Then they moved on to dogs, each one standing on the back of the next so that they rose in diagonal towers across the page. Then came the moment of glory, when Ilse made up her own simple pattern and it worked. When I’m grown up, she announced, and I build a house of my own, this will be the hall floor.

The lives of the six of us, in and out of this house, are a tesselation of their own. They are more than the sum of their parts, and, when all is well, they fit together into a lovely seamless pattern. I see it more at this time of year than any other: when it’s chilly in the bedrooms and so we gather around the fire. When there’s still novelty in indoor pursuits and no-one is fed up with the same games, the same stories, the same selection of crafts. Last night, Ben lit the fire while I got the tea things ready. I sat down with a final cup once the scones had all been eaten, and found the boys engrossed in a game of chess. The girls were drawing more tesselating patterns together. Tea drunk, it was time to give Seb and Fliss their flute lesson, and for Ben to make a start on his prep. Ilse was happy with the shoebox of colouring pencils until Seb was free to join her, while Fliss went off to write an essay on Tennyson. By the time John came home, supper was ready, prep was done, and the children had a fresh stack of patterns for him to admire. It was one of those lovely evenings when everything fitted tidily together.

Of course, not all evenings are quite as neat. Often the things we do jar and clash against each other. Show me a family that doesn’t know that feeling. But once in a while everything fits, just so. The tasks which need to be done fall into place alongside the all important play. Everyone wants to join in the same games, to make the same music, to draw the same pretty patterns. Those rare evenings are worth taking the time to enjoy. And of course, the cherry on the cake was that the patterns the children were drawing summed it up just perfectly.

In my hands

In the evenings, when I’m tired of chopping and mixing and spooning hot food into jars, I’ve been knitting, instead. And so, in a week, this little cardigan has almost been completed. It’s Ilse’s, of course – the one she chose the wool for at the fair. The one she’s been asking me when I’m going to start. And now her eyes are as big as saucers as I let her try the top-down garment on for size, and she can see that it is almost there.

It is a simple little knit, with a clever pattern to form the rippling rows around the shoulders. The neck and hem and button bands are finished in childish garter stitch: the first stitch I ever learned, which lies flat and wiggly all at once. Only the sleeves remain, and the buttons to sew on, and ends to be woven in. I’ve knitted a lot this week, because it has been such a sad week, and I knit when I am sad. I’ve dropped a lot of tears on this little woolly number. And because of the way the things I make remind me of the times I made them in, this cardigan will always remind me of my grandad, and when he died.

If last year was all about pattern, this winter is all about texture. Ben’s cables were the start of it, and now the rise and fall of these sweet waves. I bought some sock yarn at the fair and want to try three different pairs, one homely, one botanical and one Parisian. That’ll take me up to Christmas, I should think. I’ll have something to bring to each of Mrs Thistlebear’s parties between now and then, and make new friends over. And between parties, with my hands busy, my mind can wander freely to wherever and whenever it wants to go.

When sad, some people walk. Some talk. Some sit and gaze out of the window. Myself, I like to knit. It’s a good thing to have in your hands, wool. It’s soft, and warm, and strong. And later, when you look down at what you’ve spent the evening making, you realise that all the things you couldn’t say are in your hands, instead.