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.

[whohit]retreat[/whohit]

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.

[whohit]nutcracker[/whohit]

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.

[whohit]starsforseb[/whohit]

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.

[whohit]conquering[/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]