Bringing it in

Now that the garden is back under control, we can settle into our usual rhythms: a little weeding every day, some planting or staking or some other important task – just a couple of hours out there, four or five times a week. For the last couple of years I’ve made weeding the first thing I do when I step outside. I wander round all the fruit and veg beds and pull up every last little weed I can find. It’s become a habit, partly because I practised it but mainly because it works. My beds have been cleaner than they ever were before. (Just don’t peer into the corners of our garden. We call them wildlife havens, and the air above them hums with life, but most people would call them neglected, instead.)

This year, though, I’ve decided that bringing it in will be the first thing I do each day. I started on Sunday, and found four fennel bulbs to sit our joint of pork on, and a basket of the last of the sprouting broccoli, each stem slender and tender and a deep forest green. On Monday there was cherry blossom, cut from the side which overhangs a veg bed slightly, and between getting it through the back door and into a vase in the sitting room the house was strewn with petals. It was so nearly over that I almost left it out there, and only came back to it after pulling a handful of beetroot from its overwintering in the greenhouse. Half an hour later the blue sky turned black and the rain pelted down, and through the kitchen window I could see the dark sky fill with pale confetti, ripped from the dancing branches. On Tuesday there were bluebells, cut from the patch Fliss discovered self-seeding behind the compost bay (another wildlife haven), and enough little gem leaves, yet again from the greenhouse, to put one or two into everyone’s sandwiches.

There’s not a lot out there just yet, but there’s so much more than I can see standing at the kitchen sink. If I didn’t go looking I’d have missed those bluebells, and that rain would have whipped the end of the cherry blossom from under my very nose. There may not be bowlfuls of salad, but oh! what a difference a little fresh crunch makes in an April sandwich. And even if it’s only a basket of young nettles or beetroot tops to treat as chard, it’s something. I shudder to think how much I’ve missed over the years, waiting for the harvest. So that’s my springtime resolution: keep up with the weeding, and do a different, extra, task each day, but first of all, bring something – anything – in. A little harvest, each and every day. It’s absurd how much pleasure that brings me.

What I did in the holidays

My list, made on the last day of the old term, mainly involved the garden. There was so much weeding to be done that I divided it over eight days, adding some planting or potting on to add interest, and, with a little help from everyone in the house, we did it. Fliss and I sowed dozens of seeds. John lifted a lot of edging that the nettles had got under, threatening to overrun my patch, and relaid them with a thick layer of cardboard underneath. Ben mowed the lawn, twice, and spread compost on all the beds. Seb and Ilse started a herbal remedies company, the main ingredients of which appeared to be nettles and dandelion roots, so I gave them couple of trowels and lots of encouragement. Perhaps best of all was when I came in from the garden last Tuesday, dirty and tired, to find that my very favourite dining establishment, Cafe Magnifico, was open for business. There were bluebells on each plate and Easter chocolates for dessert, and although the two charming proprietresses looked familiar they assured me we’d never met before. It stayed open that whole second week when John was back at work and I was pushing myself to get through my list, serving luncheon every day and even taking care of the washing up.

My only other real goal was to finish my cardigan in time for Easter which I did – in plenty of time and on Shell Island, in fact. I cast on for a pair of socks and got as far as turning the heel, knitting in the evenings. As it was all going so well I added some more to the list: to wash the fleece and a half that had been languishing in the shed since autumn, and to piece all eighty nine-patch squares for Ilse’s quilt. I did both, and what began as a session where Ilse and I laid out the squares on Sunday afternoon became a game for the whole family, moving things around, swapping one square with another to spread the colours out more evenly. I could – perhaps should – have retained more control of it, but it is just a little girl’s quilt after all, and they had so much fun. I glanced at it briefly once they were all in bed and it looked all right to me, so it’s all packed up in that order, ready to be sewn together this week.

When people ask what we did in the holidays I tell them we went camping in Wales, which we did, and we had a lovely time. There were day trips too, and lots of lazy days in the house and garden for the children, reading books and making potions. We had a glorious Easter lunch with Mother and Father, and Mother outdid herself once more, producing a simnel cake when we had just about recovered from the previous three courses. And there was time for resting in the sunshine by day, and by the fire in the evenings.

Yet Easter always feels like a turning point, however early or late it falls, and this is the holiday in which I end up doing most. Now that term is back in swing, it feels good to have new projects and new rhythms on the go. More time in the garden. The end of a quilt top within sight. Daily spinning while the supper cooks. If I hadn’t worked so hard during the holidays none of this would be possible. And it isn’t work, really – not if you choose to do it. It’s just another type of play. So that’s what I did in my holidays. I played, hard.

At the mill

It was on a rainy afternoon in Wales that I picked up a leaflet for Trefriw Woollen Mill and suggested – half jokingly – that we go and have a look around their factory. This was met with some moans and groans and, although I thought it would be interesting, I didn’t think we’d actually end up going. But John pointed out that it was very nearly on our way home and so we took a little detour north before heading back over the border and goodness me, I’m glad we did.

I didn’t even take my camera in with me, that’s how little I was expecting. We looked around their shop which was full of the most beautiful woollen goods: skirts and jackets, jumpers, slippers, hats and mittens, knitting patterns and balls of wool. What really caught my eye was the display of tweed, woven on the premises and available by the metre, and it took some stern words with myself to walk away. You’re allowed to wander through the little cafe into the factory beyond, and the very first thing we found was a traditional Welsh bedspread being woven on a beast of a machine, roaring and clanking as the fabric grew, weft by coloured weft. Ilse didn’t like it much and Seb lost interest fairly quickly but Ben and Fliss were almost as transfixed as I. The loom is set up with a chain which tells the machine which shuttles to send across when, creating the traditional patterns. At the same time, the man operating the machinery was winding new bobbins on an old bit of kit which seemed to work in almost exactly the same way as the bobbin winder on my 1916 Singer. In the room beyond was the little hydraulic electricity plant which drove the whole factory, filled with plants from all over the world which liked the warm, damp conditions.

I thought that was it, until John pointed to some iron stairs leading to the floors above. The first – the whole first floor – was given over to carding the wool. Huge cages of the stuff, ready scoured and spilling out through gaps in the wire, was picked up by the steel needles of the first drum. From there it worked its way along the whole floor, drum to drum, until at the end of it all there was roving, thinner than I’d seen before, and quite ready to spin. We followed the painted arrows up again to the second floor where spinning mules dominated the space, doing in a minute what it would take me many hours to achieve at home.

I’ve never actually seen a spinning mule in real life before. I’d seen pictures of them at school, when we were studying the Industrial Revolution, but to see them in action was quite breathtaking, and not only for the wool enthusiasts among us. It took only one man to operate a full row of them, spinning perhaps two hundred strands at a time, the roving stretched out for a yard or two as the spools ran backwards on iron rails set in the floor. Then the spinning began, the roving oscillating and dancing in tiny standing waves as it grew more and more taut until the gears changed and the bobbins ran back towards the body of the mules once more, winding up the spun wool as they ran.

No wonder the cottage spinners went out of business. No-one could possibly hope to keep up with production on this scale: not with the carders or the spinners, nor the looms, nor even the machines which twisted the spun yarns together into two-plys for knitting. And yet this wasn’t modern machinery. This was old-style industry, run by water and producing high quality, skilfully made products. This was a mill which was embracing the past – just not as far back in the past as most home spinners and weavers go. On our way out we found a little dyers’ garden, with all the native herbs and flowers labelled by name and by the colour they would produce. We recognised several from our own garden and the hedgerows roundabout. I’ve never been that interested in dyeing my own wool, but Seb and Ilse leapt at the idea and keep asking to borrow my drop spindle. Perhaps we have a couple more wool-lovers in the family after all. Perhaps they’ll forget about it when they go back to school. Either way, I pulled a few handfuls of white wool off one of the Jacob’s fleeces in the shed and set it to scour in a bucket of hot water. Either they’ll use it or I will. I’ve run out of washed wool this week. It was almost the first thing I reached for when we got back from Wales: to make a few rolags and spin them on my wheel. For the first time, I felt reasonably pleased with the results, despite the fact that I’ve barely spun a thing all winter. Now I’ve got a plan for all the wool I’m making, and there’ll be a few more bucketfuls set to soak before the week is out. I don’t mind sharing if it fuels the children’s interest. Even it it’s on nothing like the scale we saw at Trefriw Mill, there’s plenty of wool for us all to play with.

On Shell Island

In the end, we went away for just three nights this Easter, which was enough of a change to be a rest before coming home to the garden (for me), work (for John), revision (for Ben) and play (for the other three). We piled tents and sleeping bags on top of the motor, ourselves into it, and headed to Wales for our little break.

I can’t remember having visited Snowdonia before, and it’s the sort of place I would remember. Mountains, woodland, small towns and villages and, around every bend in the road, another view of the springtime sea. We drove through lanes with slate walls on either side, past little roadside waterfalls and mossy, twisted tree-formed tunnels to Harleck and beyond, until we found ourselves on Shell Island before the tide came in and flooded the causeway, cutting us off from the shore. The children tumbled out of the car and away to explore while John, Ben and I set up camp. Red-faced and puffing, they came back to report to us every quarter of an hour or so on their latest find: the sand-dunes that needed to be scaled, the rock pools, the hidden dell between our camp and Lookout Hill, and Shell Beach, from which they brought back sandy pockets of their finds.

We wouldn’t normally spend much time on a campsite, preferring instead to treat it as a place to sleep while we spent the days out and about, but the following morning Ilse looked so forlorn at the thought of leaving the island to climb Cader Idris that it only took me a moment to decide to stay behind with her. We waved the others off and set about our day. It isn’t often that I let a seven year old set the agenda, but we had such a lovely time I might need to do so more often. In the morning we went to the little island shop for a tin of soup, some hot cross buns and milk for tea, then packed my knapsack with knitting and a rug and a bag of sweets and set out for a spot of cartography. We climbed a sand dune and stopped every hundred yards or so to add something new to her map, discussing suitable names all the while. It was such hard work that we agreed on a long sit down after lunch, on a blanket in the sun beside our tent, she colouring her map and me adding the button bands to my nearly-done cardigan, before setting off for a lazy afternoon of shell collecting. We meandered for a good two hours along the beach, past the dunes to the rock pools, then the harbour, then the jetty where the crabbing is, before wandering home to wait for the others and supper. The sun shone well enough, and the wind certainly blew, but we had such a lovely day, the two of us.

Of course we went out and did other things on the other days, but I think that was my favourite day of all. Just Ilse and I, on a nearly deserted island, footling around and doing our own thing. Surely that’s what holidays are all about. Well, ours, anyway.

Holy Week

My children like Christmas much more than Easter; I think most children do. I certainly used to. Now, though, it’s the other way around. I love Easter and all that leads up to it: Pancake Day, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday… It goes on for well over a month, but, well, so does life. Looking around, even now, you wouldn’t know that there was anything much afoot. A few more chocolates in the shops, perhaps, in some rather unusual shapes, but nothing like the days before Christmas.

Instead, Holy Week finds us all full of our own plans: for gardening, spring cleaning, a good old clear out, a trip away or maybe just a rest in the glorious sunshine. I like the way that life goes on throughout the run up to Easter. If Christmas is about a birth, with all the excitement and novelty that that entails, Easter is about life. About the day to day, and how we live it, and what happens when it comes to an end on this earth. If a birth is the beginning of something, like a wedding day, full of promise and joy, then life is about the keeping or breaking of those vows. Not with grand gestures once a year on a birthday or anniversary. It’s in a million cups of tea, or meals set on the table, or a willingness to stop and listen to each other. Small things.

So really, I’m glad that there are no gifts to be bought or parties to attend. Just a trip to mass and a meal with family and a bit of chocolate for the children. Simple celebrations in the midst of springtime life: the sowing of seeds, the pulling of weeds, the washing of curtains and quilts. It’s a promise kept, Easter Day, just as the spring follows the deep midwinter. A miracle occurred. The sun came back. And life goes on and on.

A day dress

It isn’t often that I make an adult dress from start to finish in a single day. Normally I break it into little chunks: drafting the pattern, cutting out and so forth, and spread it over three or four. For a long time there hasn’t been enough space between meals and laundry and the million other tasks that all parents know so well.

However, I’d promised myself that I’d finish all the garment sewing by the end of March, and on the first of April the fabric I’d ordered some weeks earlier was still waiting, washed and ready, for my attention. I told them all at breakfast: Today I am sewing a dress, divided the tasks into the spaces between meals, and began.

By elevenses an old pattern was modified and the pieces cut out. I sewed the preparatory bits and pieces between then and lunch: a self-fabric belt, darts, long tubes for straps pulled inside out, and even tinier tubes to snip into matching button-loops. Then, in the space between lunch and tea I put it all together: the quarter circle skirt, the three piece bodice, the straps and button-loops attached in just the right positions. John helped me drape it on myself, marking adjustments with coloured chalk and getting the row of buttons central down my back. And finally, after tea and cake, it was time to hand-sew the hem and stitch seven mother-of-pearl buttons into place. I was done in time for supper, only one day late, with another project off the shelf and into my wardrobe.

It’s not a fancy dress at all, just a day dress, with crossover spaghetti-thin straps and a row of dainty buttons down the back. It’s got a modest circular skirt, only as wide as an A-line but without the darts and with plenty of bias drape. The bodice is fitted but not tight – even at the post-tea fitting there was room around the waist – with a wide belt to cinch it all in should the desire arise. And the Indian chintz makes me think of the bleaching midday sun, and parasols, and heat, and dust. Exotic things. Summer things.

I hope we get the weather for it this year. I’ve lined it throughout, just in case, to add a little warmth (and modesty) to that fine, pale-coloured fabric. It ought to be warm enough for high noon, and I’ve a cardigan nearly off the needles to pair with it morning and evening. It is a day dress, after all. A summer’s day, hot day, holiday sort of dress.

Out there

I’ve been waiting and waiting for the excitement to hit, but it just hasn’t so far this year. Normally by now I’m out there every day, planting things ever so slightly too early, impatient for the weather to warm up, but not this spring. I took a stroll around the garden with Father on Sunday afternoon and was dismayed by how weedy and forlorn it looked – my own fault for neglecting it this long – but instead of rising to the challenge I wasn’t quite sure I was up to it. I’m tired, and there are so many things pulling at the corners of my mind that I don’t seem to have a moment to daydream about the warmer months ahead.

But then the sun comes out, and I promise myself that all I have to do is go out and cut some purple sprouting broccoli for supper before I can come back in. Two hours later I’m still out there. There’s a basket of broccoli and another of celeriac, before it runs to seed. I found some tiny red onions, missed in last year’s harvest, sprouting zingy greens to go with tomorrow morning’s eggs. And of course rhubarb, which I so often forget to pick: enough to stew for an easy weeknight pudding, topped with a dollop of cream. I’ve weeded the fourth of the veg beds and made a plan of attack for the upcoming holidays – a sort of jump-start into the season ahead. Best of all, I sat on our bench in the sunshine and watched the birds come and go. A wren, gathering moss for her nest. Our hens, their feather armour slip-sliding smoothly over their sun-warmed necks. A pair of doves, balancing in the uppermost branches of a nearby tree. And the tits, flitting in and out of the hollow in the trunk of that old apple.

In years gone by I’ve been the one leading the way outdoors at this time of year, coaxing the children out with slightly unseasonal ices or drinks. This time they’ve beaten me to it. They’ve had whole afternoons in the hammock, played cricket on the lawn and are shutting up the hens each evening. Ilse’s little bed is beautifully well weeded. And this morning, before school, they each put in a request for what they’d like to sow this afternoon. I’ve got more flower seeds than I’ve ever had before, and promised to buy some bedding plants in after the last frosts. This isn’t very me at all.

But I don’t particularly mind. How nice it is to have someone else to lead the way when you’re feeling tired out by it all. What a pleasure it is to sow something different, and watch new plants emerge. Their enthusiasm’s catching, as is the sun, and I was glad that my quarter of an hour grew into so much more. When I came in I mapped out all the beds and what’s going where, and began to get a little bit excited. I think an evening with a gardening book is in order. In fact, from where I sit I can see blue skies through the window. Perhaps I’ll make a pot of tea and head outside right now. After all, it’s looking quite appealing, out there.

Mud and rushes

The willow is most definitely out: the twisted little tree in our garden; the grand weeping sort, trailing its tears in the silty river water; and the shoots which sprout unbidden everywhere they think they can get away with it. We saw more willow than anything, on our Sunday walk along the Ouse. We also saw wild cherry trees in such full bloom that from time to time there was nothing for it but to stop, and stand in their arms, and breathe in all that nectar.

Maples were unfurling their sticky buds, their little hands still held tight in the cool spring air. And everywhere stood hummocks of last autumn’s grass, its seeds long since pillaged by the birds and the field mice and the tiny, furry voles.

These are the things I look for on a walk: what is growing, what was growing, what will be growing soon. Signs of animals which surely must abound there. Birdsong, and flashes of the rainbow as a crow hops into the marsh, a treasure in his beak. Just life, really, the sort of life that goes on, wild and independent, galaxies apart from mine, and right there on my doorstep.

What the children look for is something entirely different. The city boathouse where the wooden rowing shells wait in racks for their turn upon the river. Wide concrete steps down to the water, and an algae-waving wellington abandoned at their foot. Barges along the towpath, and their little gardens set out with living fences woven out of willow. The smell of woodsmoke, and somebody’s lunch, and the fantasy of living there and being allowed to roam the water and its edge. Eroded pathways tumbling to the shore, with muddy beaches and slippery expeditions to the next. Grass, growing unkempt and unexpected in the crook of a tree, and working out how it came to be there. And mud. Always mud. Squelchy and wet in the marshes, a treacherous terrain which boasts the fluffy tops of rushes at its centre. Mud, slippery on the beaches. Sucking mud, in patches, where if you wiggle your feet you can get them to sink in and pretend that you are trapped there, held prisoner by your own rubber boots.

It’s gratifying, how much pleasure can be gleaned from a simple tramp along the water at the edge of the city. I can see why there are big houses built here, overlooking the marshland and the waterway beyond. Huge houses, in fact, with lawns which sweep down to the rough public land below, a polite distance keeping them from tramping folk like us. I saw one house that I would very much like to live in, should I also be allowed to have the staff. And a garden that I loved, with ancient hawthorns pruned into wonderfully round clumps at the end of each gnarled branch. We ought to go back, in May, to see them blossom into candy floss. That was the image I carried home with me.

Seb, who is on occasion very wise as well as being very silly, brought home a handful of fluff from the top of a tall reed or two, and put it in the empty syrup tin he’d begged last week. We were all a little bemused, not knowing what this was meant to be. It’s my tin of happiness, he told us later, when Mother and Father had arrived to share our roast. He prised off the lid and offered it around, urging each of us to plunge our hands inside, and as we did so every single one of us broke into smiles. He’s right. That silky, fluffy goodness is happiness in a tin. Who would have thought it? So much pleasure from just some mud and rushes.