The morning garden

Each morning, once the breakfast has been cleared away, I head into the garden.

I have tried gardening at all times of day. In the afternoon the gardens roundabout become temporary sitting rooms: people chat over flowerbeds, drink tea on their benches, and play ball games with small children on soft lawns. There are babies, crying in their prams as they wake from afternoon naps in the fresh air: noisy great grubs in their rolls of cellular blankets and crocheted hats.

In the evening the sun casts its long fingers between the trees and plays gentle hymns  on the lawn. From the house I can hear the older children practising their scales. There is a golden, molten quality about the garden, precious but transient. Time moves too quickly in the evenings. John joins me, companiable, and asks what he might do. The children rush out for a game of French cricket before Ilse must go to bed.

In the late hours of the morning, before lunch, the sun sits high above the open flowers, coaxing their scents from them. The last of the bees congregate around the sedum. I can hear Mrs P in the kitchen, yanking strings from beans and clattering the cutlery. Soon the front door will burst open and they will spill in, full of their day, demanding their lunch. My own stomach growls impatiently.

But in the morning everyone is elsewhere. Mrs P is still at home, paring carrots and potatoes for her own husband’s supper. Ilse has joined the gaggle of children on their way to the village infants’ school. Seb, still proud of his new-to-him bicycle, snakes down the lane in Fliss’ wake. Ben is long gone, flying far ahead, as usual. John is waiting for the bus. The neighbours are sitting down with a cup of tea, and a sigh. Their toddlers are toppling towers of wooden bricks. Their babies are having the last dribble of porridge wiped from their sweet chins, expertly, with the edge of a spoon.

It is quiet in my garden. I fancy that, if I listen carefully enough, I will hear the creaking of the woodlice as they go about their business. Today I dig up a patch of ground elder, suprising the white roots as they look up from silent networks in the damp brown earth. I disturb several earthworms, who flail blindly about, accordion-like, mourning their crumbly beds. In the tree above, the mist condenses and drips. The world has shrunk to a flower bed, a trowel, and an old newspaper to kneel on.

I know that when I close my eyes tonight I will see those complex creamy pathways, laid bare in the dark soil. Later, when I am laying the table, or mending Seb’s shirt, or waiting my turn at the grocer’s, I will be able to rest my eyes and, for a moment, enjoy the peace of the morning garden again.

 

[whohit]The morning garden[/whohit]

Fair isle at the fair

My mother in law invited me to attend her local wool fair. As the train approached Skipton, the fields were full of sheep, busily growing their fleeces to keep them warm this winter.

It seems apt then, for a woollens fair to take place in the Yorkshire Dales, and in the auction mart to boot. Each of the stalls was set up in a pen, and none was the same as any other. There were looms, tweeds, felts, crochet hooks, knitting needles, baskets and needle cases. There were piles of patterns, too – not just the ordinary brands, but those written by the vendors themselves, proudly sporting their own designs.

I’m not sure whether it was because I was looking for it, but there was fair isle everywhere I turned. Patterns, subtle and bold; hues, natural and bright – there was almost too much choice. Pullovers, slipovers, gloves, hats, scarves, snoods, socks…all in fair isle.

It wasn’t really a surprise: fair isle is beginning to come off yachts and golf courses and into our homes and streets. In truth, I had gone looking for some patterns and wool to make another attempt at it, having knit my first nordic pullover last winter.

As a result, I came home with a basket bursting with wool: Shetland 2 ply in nature-inspired hues for John, Ben and myself, and brights for the children. We could each do with a gay new pullover, so my hands will be busy this autumn. I have decided on a Foxgloves for Fliss, to begin with. We need patterns to remind us of what is missing: foxgloves and bluebells, echoes of mountains and blue-grey waves, steady lines of trees in leaf. Like the cave painters of old, I like to imagine that what we create in the long winter encourages these things to return.

Opening the curtains this morning, the world was fuzzy and dull with mist. It still hadn’t cleared by the time Mrs P and I were hanging out the last of the wash. Peer as I might, the garden remained  grey and indistinct. The wash struggled to dry in the saturated air.

By this afternoon the autumn sun was breaking through once more, burning off the last of the haze. Yet the morning was a timely reminder of what is to come. We need pattern and colour to keep us cheerful through the grey months ahead. Perhaps the islanders know that better than us, living as far north as they do. I am more than happy to learn from them. With a rug over my legs, a cup of tea at my side and the sun on my back, I spent a happy half hour on the garden bench, casting on.

 

[whohit]Fair Isle at the Fair[/whohit]

Jam for grown-ups

Last Wednesday, after tea, we headed down the green lane once again. The blackberries are nearly over, and the few that remain are either small and dry or overblown and pecked at. Although we picked a few, they were not our primary concern: we were after sloes.

Seb and Ilse were with me, as were my sister and her husband. Being newly married, they have no children, but make a great fuss of mine. My four are very fond of their new uncle who, as an historian at Edinburgh, has no shortage of tales of derring-do, and whose study at home boasts no fewer than three swords. He also has three of the prettiest spaniels this side of London; it was with heavy hearts that Fliss and Ben stayed at home to finish their prep.

Despite the dogs under our feet we gathered twenty pounds of sloes in no time. I am so often overawed, at this time of year, by the sheer abundance of nature. We left hundreds upon hundreds of fruits for the birds, all in a ten yard stretch. Multiply that by the thousands of miles of hedgerows in Britain, and the hundreds of thousands of families like ours. Then there are the millions of creatures who depend on them for their shelter and food over the course of a year. The mind boggles.

I kept eight pounds of the sloes for ourselves, which Mrs P clearly thought was far too much, judging by the shape of her left eyebrow. I assured her that much of it was destined for the village show, and charity auctions, but the truth is that that still leaves plenty for us. John and I are both rather fond of a small glass of sloe gin while toasting our feet in front of a February fire.

When Seb discovered that he wouldn’t be eating any of the sloes, he asked why on earth he’d been gathering them. Ilse stepped in. ‘It’s to make a special drink’, she explained. ‘It’s like jam, but for grown-ups.’ Which is precisely what it is: a sweet, fruity reminder of a happy afternoon over a year ago. A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, stored up for winter.

By the time we were home the cottage pie I’d left in the oven was ready, Fliss had cooked the beans and John was in from work. We had a very merry supper, the eight of us, ending with a bowl of blackberries and cream. Seb and Fliss gave an impromptu piano concert, and we laid plans for gathering sloes again this time next year. It was a perfect midweek supper: homemade, simple and sweet. Jam for the souls of grown-ups and children alike.

 

[whohit]Jam For Grown-Ups[/whohit]

Apples, everywhere

In our garden, behind the kitchen, stands an apple tree. We think it must have been planted there over eighty years ago, long before this house was built. It isn’t a perfect shape. Some of its lower branches are truncated, and, on top, dozens of water shoots reach feebly to the sky. Its bark is deeply ridged and scarred from old washing lines.

Its imperfections are especially apparent in the winter. Laid bare, its branches reveal all the awkwardness, inconsistency and lack of balance that only decades of poor pruning can achieve. Each January I eye it up from the kitchen sink, collect my saw and stepladder and climb, trembling, into its crown. I remove a few of the lower offenders before retreating, afraid of its full twenty feet.

By spring my dissatisfaction has melted away with the last of the frosts. There is no arguing with apple blossom. From Ilse’s bedroom window the whole world is awash with miniature ballerinas, twirling pink tutus in the warming breeze.

Come the summer it shades us generously, lingering over lunch on the patio. A family of bluetits takes up residence in its hollow trunk, and last year, when we grew the lawn into a meadow, they swooped through the evening air, gathering insects in perfect parabolas. Bluetits, gin and tonic and an hour on my favourite bench. Heaven.

The windfalls start in August. Apple butter, apple cake, stewed apple, apple crumble – no matter how fast I cook them I never get to the bottom of my basket before their bruises ripen. They are banished to the compost. By September I sigh at every thump: I am tired of peeling apples.

So this Sunday I rallied the family into our annual picking. The usual questions were resolved: who would wrap the apples (me), who would ferry them from the pickers to my hands (Seb, Ilse and Fliss), and who would get to go up the ladder to pick just a few (everyone, naturally).

There was some precarious balancing on the very top of the steps, and some delicate manoeuvring of Fliss’s hockey stick, but they are in. This morning there were only five windfalls, dropped from the higher branches. I can cope with five. Apple pie for supper, I think.

 

[whohit]Apples Everywhere[/whohit]

Where the cake is

Now that all four children have been back at school for a couple of weeks, they have fallen into their familiar habit of announcing, on arrival, how good it is to be home. It’s a bit of a family joke this: Benjamin in particular says it with a sideways smile, to please me. Felicity is beginning to adopt the same habit, as her world widens around her, but the little ones truly mean it. I am grateful, each and every afternoon, that we live so close to good schools and don’t need to send the children away. John says that it would benefit Ben and Fliss, but I held my ground on that score, and won.

I waited until they were tucking into their second round of sardines on toast at tea yesterday (because I know that full stomachs lead to more thoughtful answers – from my brood, anyway) before asking what ‘home’ meant to each of them. Actually, I’d asked Mrs P, my daily, the same questions earlier in the day. She’d surveyed me, with the dignity that she somehow maintains even when up to her elbows in soap suds, as if I might be a few pence short. ‘It’s where you go back to at the end of each day’, was her – slightly wondering – response.

Of course, I’d hoped the children would have rather more to their notions of ‘home’ than simply a place to return to, and they didn’t disappoint. Ben (helping himself to bread and jam, now) said that it was a comfortable place to replenish oneself. Fliss told me that it is a safe place where she can forget about ‘outside’ things and curl up in an corner with a book. Seb claimed that it was where the best cake was to be had (which I think he meant as a compliment, rather than a threat to relocate should standards slip) and dear Ilse said that it was where Mummy and Daddy were. (They have all learned to butter me up, in their own ways.)

While we were on Lindisfarne, we visited the castle there, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. John had written ahead to the housekeeper to arrange a private tour. He is very good at things like that; I would have skulked around the castle mound, surreptitiously admiring the wildflowers whilst hoping I wouldn’t be spotted.

I liked the castle very much. I liked the brickwork herringbone floors, the handles carved to fit comfortably beneath one’s hand, and the stained glass which threw soft and fleeting colour into the rooms without the need for gaudy ornamentation. Despite the design being almost twenty years old – and despite the fact that it is a castle, on a very windy northern island –  it felt quite modern, comfortable and homely.

I also liked Mrs Lilburn, the housekeeper, and think she liked us, for she invited us into her kitchen for tea and fed the children ginger snaps from an unfeasibly large tin. When we left, we all agreed that the kitchen had been our favourite space of all, because (as Seb put it) ‘that’s where everything important happens’. I prefer to think of it as where those things happen that nobody really notices until they stop happening: shopping lists being written, pots being washed, socks being darned.

So, although there are still many (many) changes I long to make to our house, I was pleased to unlock our front door, light the fire in our stove, and put our kettle on. I don’t go out to work, and therefore have a place to ‘go back to at the end of each day’, but I do have a place to which those I love return. There aren’t that many years left before Ben won’t be opening our gate every evening, so I must try my best to make it ‘home’ for them all – with a groaning table, a quiet corner, moist cake and the best version of myself.

[whohit]Where The Cake Is[/whohit]

The second conversion: north to south

[whohit]The second conversion: north to south[/whohit]

John and I decided, as usual, to spend the last few days of the children’s holidays away somewhere. The simple act of being away transforms the final week of the holidays (and all that the phrase carries with it) from a countdown to routine to another meandering adventure in the sunshine.

We camped, visited castles, and lost one another in the sand dunes – I can’t remember the last time I felt so utterly relaxed and at peace with the world.

The children, no doubt, will recall their time by the sea as the highlight of Northumberland. They ate ices every day, then little pots of cockles and winkles, before leaping over waves, and going almost imperceptibly further out to sea with each sideways jump. But for John and I the highlight of the holiday was our time on Lindisfarne.

Cut off from the mainland at high tide, it is an almost mythical land. There are rocks with mustard yellow seaweed, pebbles in every shade of grey, wild flowers and grasses and trees blown so persistently by the wind that they have since bowed down in obedience. On the edge of the village lie the ruins of the priory, from where the second conversion of England began. The first came from the south, from the continent, bringing Christianity like sun in the springtime, the days growing ever longer and sweeter. This second conversion put me in mind of autumn, creeping in from the north, with its mists and frosts and mornings which don’t fully surrender to the sun until near noon.

I love autumn. I love the way it demands commitment – so unlike the fickle, carefree days of summer when we drift from one pursuit to another and know that there is always tomorrow. August: when the fervour of spring is long forgotten, and the sun hangs as heavy on our lawns as the bees droning in the lavender. Autumn days are more precious by far. If we don’t pick the harvests they will vanish, devoured by animals and insects and a stealthy, unexpected blanketing of hard white frost. If we don’t preserve them they will rot, yielding to the grey fuzz of mould and disappointment. We need our sacks of carrots, our strings of onions and bottles of impossibly purple beetroot. Our crumpets, without a smear of glossy red jam, will never convince us, huddled in front of our January fires, of the truth of tales of sunlight.

With that in mind, I took Ilse and Seb berrying the very morning after we came home, and that afternoon had six more jars of blackberry jam in the larder before the older ones were home from school. Suddenly, I am knitting faster, ordering tweed for a new skirt, and taking stock of everyone’s woollen underthings.

In my mind, there are two new beginnings in every year: spring and autumn. As I stood in the ruins of the priory, its roof long fallen and tumbled walls no barrier to the offshore winds, the illusion dissolved. My final summer fling was over: autumn was here. All the way home, winding our way south along the coast, the feeling followed me. The haystacks huddled in shorn fields. The buzzing in the hedgerows had dwindled. The berries on the holly are already as yellow as the seaweed, and on their way to russet. And so, each morning, before the children head off to school, I stir a spoonful of jam into their porridge and embrace another day of autumn.