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.

Lovely ladies

There was a changing of the guard this week, with the arrival of six new hens from a local farm. We set their boxes in the vacated hen house, having moved the older girls into the tractor for a few weeks, and they were out and exploring their ladders and perches in no time. I think they like their new home: in the morning we found an egg apiece in the nest boxes. Then in the tractor we found Ilse’s hen, dead, having quite literally dropped off the perch in the night. There were a few tears, as befits the passing of an old pet: the last of our original trio of hens. But we’d known it was coming: she stayed close to home and ruffled her feathers into a cosy eiderdown even in the sun. Ben had built her a step to help her in and out of the house, and she had special permission to sleep in the nest box at night. Seeing this, I’d added an extra to my original order of five new birds, anticipating the need to replace her. Of course she didn’t know that, and of course she was just a hen, but she was a lovely, gentle, inquisitive old lady, and her timing felt quite dignified, somehow.

We motored over to the Dales later that day, to have lunch with John’s mother, Ida, and walk up onto the moorland. I like it best in the autumn, when the tops are purple with swathes of flowering heather, but this time the fresh green growth only hinted at such beauty. The ewes were up there with their lambs, already grown sturdy and strong. The sheep were beginning to shed their fleeces, leaving handfuls of rough wool lying here and there, and as she picked some up my mother in law told me about a woman in the village, blind with age, wanting to pass her spinning wheel and knowhow on to someone new. What a lovely gift to give. It made me think about the all those millions of acts, big and small, that people do for one another. And as we talked we dropped down into a little valley full of wild garlic and forget me nots, where the bees were out gathering pollen with their sisters.

Even though there was no purple on the moor, we’d bought a little with us in celebration of Ida’s birthday. A bunch of lilacs from our massive shrub in York, further along than those in the chilly Dales. Mauve cards from the children, made by shaving coloured pencil leads over paper and gently brushing the pigments across the page. A violet peg bag, made long ago with floral sprigs and polka dots and satin ribbon – and Ida in mind. Little gifts, gathered together with care.

In turn she sent us home full of roast dinner and sticky toffee pudding, with a jar of her excellent marmalade, a stack of Good Housekeepings and a few balls of wool to transfer to the growing pile of little knits. And on the way I got started on a granny square, crocheting the way Mrs Roberts had taught me just a couple of weeks earlier. Home again, I found a postcard on the doormat from Mrs Eve, and then there were the hens, new and old, to check on. We made a quick supper of the pork pies Ida had wrapped up for us, with lettuce from the garden and a bit of bread and butter, feeling glad for a day without any cooking, before shooing the little ones off to bed. An easy evening, at the end of a delightful day. Really, it’s no wonder I couldn’t help but think that there are a lot of lovely ladies in my life.

Retreat

Last Sunday found us at Mount Grace Priory, out for the day, doing something different. It was the last day of the holidays, you see, and to go out and be somewhere else is the very best way I know of making it both lasting and special.

Even driving through the countryside is a treat: seeing different places, remembering old landmarks. The bend in the road where our hired motor broke down, once, and we had to keep giving it push starts all the way home. The farm that each of the children visited, with school and willing mothers, to pet the lambs in the spring of their reception year. The turnings to other places we love to visit: Byland Abbey and Helmsley Castle. There have been a lot of last days of the holidays.

We admired the trees, standing bare and boney above the landscape. I think they might be at their most beautiful, like that. Then again, I know I’ll change my mind once they blossom and bud. We looked for rabbits, their white tail ends bobbing madly as they dove for the hedgerows. There was a bird of prey, hovering over a fresh-ploughed field. The first daffodils were braving it.

I’d never been to Mount Grace at this time of year. I’d heard that there would be snowdrops, but was unprepared for the sheer carpets of white that lay under trees and around the becks and bridges. The grounds were alive with bulbs: the little white flowers at their peak and the sturdy spears of daffs and crocuses waiting in the wings. We followed the path to the arts and crafts house, normally vibrant within, but that day the wallpapers looked almost dull compared to the show outside.

There was a pinboard display all about the monastery beyond. I read it with Ilse, who liked the thought of all those monks living side by side in their own little houses. It is a cosy idea, somehow, those people all alone and yet together, somewhere wild and also safe, tucked into the warm end of a valley. Occasionally coming together for prayer and labour, but mostly contemplating the beauty of the universe and the love of its maker.

We wandered out to cell eight, which has been rebuilt and restored, the only home standing in a terraced quadrangle. Downstairs each room was assigned its function: to sleep, to pray, to study. There was a great stone fireplace set into one wall. Above was the workroom, equipped with spinning wheel and loom. A great space, full of light. Below was a glazed cloister. It faced a walled garden, the vegetables kept orderly by box hedges, the fruit bushes lining the path to the latrine set over yet another little stream. Oh, Mummy, said Fliss, I bet you’d love to live here.

In some ways, I really would. I feel at home in its simplicity and purposefulness. I could happily spin and weave, garden and write. I would enjoy the time alone and the time with others. If it wasn’t for one great stumbling block I really would love to live there. NoI said to Fliss, I’d miss you all far too much.

Perhaps a retreat might be the thing, for a weekend or so. A little time away, someday. But I really don’t feel the need, just now. I am very happy where I am: at home, in the thirties, with everyone around me. Family life is messy in all sorts of ways, but I couldn’t give it up.

On the way home, the pheasants were running from our headlamps. The trees were vanishing into a blackening sky. I was tired, yet also rested. Ready for another half term. One day’s retreat, with everyone around me, was all that I had needed.

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Nutcracker

A trip to the ballet seems to have become a Christmas tradition in this house. And what better ballet than the Nutcracker, full of toys and children, magic and sweets?

The very act of putting our glad rags on and leaving the damp streets for the gilt and plush of the theatre made it feel as though, suddenly, Christmas was here. Ilse was tingling even before the overture began, with its hoppity-skippety heartbeats. She perched on the edge of her seat throughout, and by the time Marie was dreaming of her nutcracker prince Ilse was dreaming too, of dancing those same steps, and having the swell of the orchestra lift her from below.

At six, she can dream. At six, anything can happen. Her life is wide open, just waiting to be filled with whatever she may choose.

Seb would not choose to be a dancer, I know, much as he loves his lessons. His dreams, he told me afterwards, were a little more prosaic: he plans to ask his dancing mistress if they might include a fight scene in the next show. Or trumpets and galloping. Or both. We talked about how good the little nutcracker boy was at keeping himself stiff and wooden, even when he was being carried around, and how he was barely any older than Seb.

Neither Ben nor Seb particularly liked the romantic ending, but Fliss and I did. Try as I might, I can’t shake the adagio from that Pas de Deux from my mind – those falling notes, simple and tragic all at once, followed me all the way home.

So when we got in, I put on my recording of the score. It has been on or near the gramophone for some time, as the children became familiar with the music. There was a great deal of twirling and leaping around me as I boiled the potatoes, and Ben succeeded in showing Seb how hard it is to stay rigid whilst being carried under somebody’s arm. Ilse put her tutu on, left over from her last show, and Fliss watched them all from behind a book.

I suspect that there will be a lot of dancing in this house over the next few days, of both the sword-wielding and twirly varieties. And I’m sure I heard some shuffles and thumps from Fliss’ room at bedtime. As for myself, I lowered the needle on the record as soon as they had all left this morning, and enjoyed a little waltz as I cleared away the breakfast things. An overblown flower, in two pullovers and a pair of slippers. At thirty-six, that particular daydream is never going to come true, but it is fun pretending. Anything can happen in your own head, no matter how old you are.

In fact, in the foyer yesterday I bumped into a friend with whom I had lost touch, and we made plans to meet up in the new year. Old friends brought together by something beautiful. Which only goes to show that all sorts of wonderful and unexpected things happen in real life, too.

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Stars for Seb

I like to think it all began with our first night walk, years ago now, when Seb had grown sturdy on his feet and Ilse was just beginning to be thought of. It was a mild October evening, yet the dark had us penned up, listless, indoors.

There were empty jars draining by the kitchen sink and Ben had abandoned some tissue paper project. He had already mixed a flour paste, so it was easy to put the two together and show the children how to cut bright pieces of colour and stick them to the outside of the jars. Ben’s had tiny diamonds in it; Fliss’ was a sea of overlapping curves. Seb’s was a medley of colour, stuck on any which way with great globs of paste.

We tied parcel string handles around the rims and dropped a tea light into each. The children giggled as they waited, ready in their hats and coats, for John’s key to turn in the lock.

There is something thrilling for children about being out after dark: something adult and almost forbidden. It is not quite the same world, seen only by light spilt yellow across the pavement.

We listened to the nocturnal creatures crashing about in the fallen leaves, and made our way to the river. Glimmers of white caught our eye along its contours as the moon picked out the sleeping swans. We made for our favourite bench on the bridge and it was here, protected by candlelight, that they ate their makeshift supper of cheese and pickle sandwiches, dipping shortbread into milk still warm from the thermos. Towards the end of the feast the candles guttered and went out, one by one.

Suspended over the river you are away from the light thrown out by the important buildings: the shops with their windows full of wares, the big gas lamp reminding everyone where the pub is. The sky above, with its splash of stars, is more clearly visible. We pointed out what we knew: the North Star. Ursa Major. Dippers, large and small. Orion’s diamante belt. Seb, in particular, was fascinated.

That Christmas we gave him a book on the stars. He has long since absorbed it. This is the boy who asks to stop on the way home from cubs to see which of his friends are shining tonight. This is the boy who threw handfuls of borax in the bonfire, to show me what it would do. The boy who can make a miniature radio set out of a bit of crystal. A magician, and a soothsayer. An alchemist.

Children change all the time. There is a danger of pigeonholing them, of telling them who they are and what they are good at, and determining their self-view. One year’s passion might be gone by the next. They try things on for size and discard most of them.

But some of them stick, which is why I am confident that this starry jumper will still suit Seb in a year or two. I think the stars have stuck, with him.

These past few months have seen new interests creeping in. An affinity for music. Outdoorsiness. A blossoming love of nature. Which is why I am glad that there are trees, too, in this traditional design. Stars and trees, but mostly stars, for Seb.

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Conquering

Maps in hand, we set out for the horse chestnuts. The season is well under way, and I wasn’t quite sure of what would be left. Fortunately, the children have been finding conkers in dribs and drabs over the past few weeks, and already had a reasonable selection. I think that what they really wanted was the promised expedition.

We traversed mountain ranges and waded through razor sharp mangrove swamps. In the trees the parrots called to the puffins. Lions ran at us, tongues out, panting, to share their games. We passed all sorts of indigenous peoples: eskimos in their beaded collars and embroidered sealskins, bright against the achingly white landscape; aboriginals with dreaming dots about their brows, inviting us to go walkabout with them; and the odd Sioux, on horseback, with long dark hair blowing like silken strands in the cooling breeze. Several times we had to stop and check our compass, or squint at the sun to guess at our latitude. I flitted between the north pole and the antipodes, carried by the fancy of whoever I was talking to.

No wonder the explorers were in need of provisions by the time we arrived at that long rumoured haven, where the conkers lie thick and plentiful on the ground and everything tastes, somehow, of ambrosia. I unrolled the woollen rug and spread it on the still crisp leaves. Cocoa was sipped as quickly as it cooled, pork pies sliced and spread, ever so daringly, with mustard, boiled eggs shelled then dipped in a twist of salt. There followed a long pause for conker hunting and knitting. Both pursuits were, thankfully, fruitful, and celebrated by the passing round of slabs of seed cake.

My personal triumph was waiting at base camp: a hotpot, ready to feed the returning expedition, cooked for so long that it felt as though someone else had made the supper. I only needed to add the pastry crust.

Once home, the focus of the expedition shifted. A pair of expert, retired conquerers shared their secrets with the raw recruits. The smooth dark spheres were suspended in vinegar, baked in the oven, or stored, in a paper bag empty of pear drops, at the back of the airing cupboard. That particular treasure will be unwrapped and carefully drilled next year. Finally, Seb and Ilse fetched from their treasure boxes a single conker each, collected the year they were born and quietly growing in strength ever since. They were carried, ceremoniously, to John’s shed, to be made ready for battle.

The fresh air of the Arctic, of the North American plains and of Uluru had renewed the party’s appetites, and short work was made of both hotpot and pickles. I wiped the table so that the children could sit there, after supper, while I washed the pots in the scullery.

The new conkers will be ready soon, ready to take on playground challengers and defeat all comers. In the meantime, at the kitchen table, my three conquerers occupy themselves by filling in the blank spaces on their maps with all they had found while they were taking over the world.

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