History lessons

I went on a school trip yesterday, accompanying Ilse’s class on a visit to Fairfax House and a walking tour of the centre of York. It’s a Georgian town house, built by the Viscount Fairfax for his daughter Anne. Sumptuous and elegant, the upper floors of the house hold clues to the family’s Catholicism in dangerous times: scrolls of parchment in the plaster, ironwork roses in the balustrade, and, in the privacy of the four poster beds, crucifixes watching over the family as they slept.

Of all its treasures I love the textiles most of all. There are chintz hangings on the beds, and damask ‘papers’ on the walls. The conservators found fragments of Chinoiserie birds and plants adorning the walls of the lady’s bedroom, and had the company, which still exists, hand block the same design so that, standing in that space, you can see what she did, all those years ago.

The salon, with its crimson silks on walls and furniture, reminds me of Jane Eyre’s Red Room more than anything, even though it is a place for cards and socialising instead of sleep. On such a hot day the stuffiness seemed to concentrate itself in there, and although the keyboards and stucco were truly fascinating, I did wonder whether I, like Jane, might find it all a bit too much. It is a house built for winter warmth, with very little in the way of friendly draughts, and it was with some relief that we headed out into the fresh air of the pavements, in search of a patch of shade.

In a city like York, inhabited by Vikings and Romans, capital of England for one short season, home to the chocolate empires of the Quaker elite, you expect there to be history under your feet, but I wasn’t prepared for quite how much the area around the castle had changed since Georgian times. Who knew that Clifford’s Tower, the site of such anguish, once masqueraded as a folly in a wealthy gentleman’s garden? Or that the courts, so imposing, are a vestige of a fortress built by the Victorians to keep undesirables under lock and key? I certainly didn’t. I imagined that the ancient parts of town had always looked like that, just with the rest of the castle complex where the modern tea shops stand. I learned a huge amount, despite the heat, about the assumptions that I make.

We were all rather hot and sticky when we arrived home, pedalling in from our disparate starting points. Tea was a simple affair: bread and butter and gooseberry jam. No scones or anything I’d need to light the stove for. It was during this meal, on a rug in a shady patch of lawn, that I decided that supper would be of the same, cold, variety, so once the plates were cleared I took my basket to the shops for some cheese and ham and other simple things. Waiting my turn to be served, I had to wonder what this little building was before it became a grocers, and what the Georgians might have popped out for if they were too hot to cook. Oysters, perhaps, or pies. And I wondered what the choices might be in a hundred years time – foods not even dreamt of yet: the marmite and cocoa of future generations. History isn’t just in books, especially in a city like this. It’s under our feet, and in the empty spaces where buildings used to stand, and in the foods we eat.

One evening in June

Lovely days in June can’t be depended on. You have to seize them. So it was when I collected Ilse from school and bumped into the others, flying home on their bicycles in their shirtsleeves, ties flapping in the wind. We didn’t go home at all, but instead to the park, where we had tea and buns in the little cafe and we all had a go on the pedal boats. The drakes strutted about on the concrete edges of the lake, losing their dignity the minute a child appeared with bread to throw. A man rode round with his trike of ices. And we spread blazers and cardigans on the cool green grass and lay back and drank in the sunshine.

We don’t often just head out like this, abandoning the tea I had prepared, leaving the laundry flapping on the line. We found a public telephone box and rang John, telling him of our plans, asking him to join us. He arrived just in time for the last of the evening warmth, as the park began to empty.

When we got home there was supper to put on, ironing to fold, prep and piano practice that had to be done, all in a jumble at once. But never mind. This is all part of my summer plan, breaking up the tedium and the tiredness with something unexpected. Nothing special, or expensive. Just a trip to the park, one evening in June.

 

Bronte country

Can you remember how old you were when you first read Jane Eyre? I can. I was ten, and my grandad had given me a set of all three Bronte classics for Christmas just a fortnight earlier. Fliss has read it, of course, and Ilse knows it from a wireless adaptation, and I’m sure Ben must have read it though he claims no recollection. Seb was the least thrilled when I announced that our half term day out was to be at Haworth, visiting the village and the moors but, most importantly of all, the Bronte Parsonage.

It’s hard not to think of it as a sad house, especially as the first death, that of their mother, occurred very soon after moving in. Then were the deaths of the two eldest children, both girls, both of tuberculosis contracted at school. Then later, the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne, and finally Charlotte, a few years later, the longest lived of all the children, aged only 38. Imagine, to have all six children and your wife to survive childbirth and infancy only to lose them all, one by one, until you were alone again. No wonder the house feels sad.

And yet there must have been a lot of fun in it, between times. There was an awful lot of life to be lived between each of those deaths, and you can’t help but come away with a sense that those girls made the very most of what they had. Their home is bursting with their sketches, embroidery, tiny childhood manuscripts, family newsletters and the like. It is a house full of industrious play – the sort of play that Emily and Anne and Charlotte never really grew out of, channelling it into their novels instead.

They played on the moors, too, just a short walk out of the village, and when we visited it was the hottest day of the year so far and everything was blooming. Fliss even complained of the lack of bleakness. Everywhere were flowers: buttercups, umbellifers, rhododendrons and forget-me-nots. We sat on a great slab of stone and looked out over it all, from the vibrant moor to the blasted hillsides and the grey stone village nesting in between, and had to be quiet so that Ilse could be inspired. She’s started a new novel: The Return of Wuthering Heights. I think there are a lot of ghosts in it, because later that night she came into our room with a nightmare, too scared to go back to sleep in the dark. There were fingers scratching at her window, even after I assured her that it was only Humbug the hamster’s squeaky wheel.

And now our copies of those novels are off the shelf and to be found on beds and garden benches. There are lots of discussions about which is everyone’s favourite, and why. It’s Wuthering Heights for me, in case you’re curious. Because of the sympathy between people and place, and the blurring of lines between the past and the present, the dead and the living. It embodies everything I think I know about the Brontes, and the lives they lead, and the place they came from. In fact, they are so strongly associated with Haworth and the moors above it that its new name seems entirely appropriate, and not a mere anachronism: Bronte country.

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.

There were snowdrops. And peacocks. And miniature rooms.

We had a few very spring-like days last week in the midst of much cold and stormy weather and as luck would have it, those just happened to be the days that we had plans to be outside. One of those was Friday, which John had taken off work and so we all piled into the motor and set off into Ryedale.

After all these years of living in York I’d never visited Rievaulx Terrace – in fact, none of us had. A man-made feature, it has that lovely combination of the wild and the constrained, urging you to wander along a smooth and grassy terrace as you enjoy the shifting view of the trees and ruined abbey below. We began our walk, though, by heading through the woods to the far end of the grounds, before wandering back to the temple for luncheon (well, a talk about the meals we might have had in it had we arrived by invitation and carriage two hundred years ago). And everywhere were great swathes of snowdrops. I thought they’d make a lovely photograph, pure white against the browns of leaf and trunk and earth, but just as I was focusing Ilse asked if she might take it, so I handed the camera over.

It wasn’t until I wanted to take a picture of the children that I reclaimed the brownie, only to find that Ilse had used up all the film. Ah well, no matter. We had seen her creeping quietly through the woods, presumably photographing something wild. A deer, perhaps, or the woodpecker we had heard. She assured me that her pictures were well worth it.

So it was with a cry of dismay that she arrived at Nunnington Hall to find a peacock posing for his portrait on top of a garden wall. And the banks full of snowdrops in the sun, and the funny old scarecrow in the cutting garden, and the wishing tree, its bare branches bright with ribbons. She would have liked to have taken photos of all this, but her disappointment was short lived. After all, there was an attic waiting, full of miniature rooms to examine and sigh over.

We’ve visited Nunnington many times over the years, and that collection of tiny rooms in the attic is an enduring highlight. They are not the kind of thing that I’d ever be tempted to make, being small and fiddly and utterly useless. But they are certainly something to wonder over. Who, for instance, has the patience and skill to render shelf after shelf of inch-high leather-bound books? To make a workshop full of shining woodwork tools, complete with a project in progress, miniature shavings curling on the floor? In spite of the grand entrance hall and period drawing rooms our favourites are the day and night nurseries, with their rows of thumbnail marching redcoats and a set of stacking rings, abandoned mid-play on a little table. There are shelves full of tiny toys, on top of which stands a doll’s house in a doll’s house, which prompted my children to search for yet another within. And on a chair by the cot lies the nanny’s knitting: the beginning of a diminutive red sock grown on double ended needles the size of pins.

We had such a lovely day that I opened the envelope of photos with some anticipation, right there in the chemist’s. There were some older ones of earlier parts of our holiday. There were one or two that I had snapped, early on our walk. Then there were four of John, one of me and seven of a pheasant, growing ever closer and less blurred. I picked the best, to give to Ilse for her scrapbook as evidence of our day. But there were also snowdrops, I assure you. And peacocks. And delightfully miniature rooms.

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.

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.

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.

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: 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.