Castles and coves

We love the sea. We love it in the morning, when the coast is fresh and empty and still sparkling with dew. We love busy midday sunshine beaches, when everyone and their dog lays claim to a patch of sand. Best of all though, we love it in the late afternoon, when the striped windbreaks and bright buckets are packed away and the coast empties of tired children complaining of sand in their shoes and the long walk home.

From about three o’clock the sand is at its warmest and the sun still high enough to revive you after the chilliest of dips. John invariably heads in for a proper swim, while the children splash about or jump the rollers. In and out, wet and dry and wet again, stopping for an ice-cream (madness) or reaching for the flask of tea (far more rational in these parts), the swimming and sandcastle making goes on until about six, when people start clamouring for their tea, and John lights his little Trangiar and the sausages are soon fizzing and popping in the pan. A bread roll, a salad or two if we’re feeling fancy, and everyone is full and warm and ready to doze on the long drive home.

We’ve visited several beaches over the past couple of weeks. In Cornwall we had a couple of balmy evenings in Poldhu Cove, where we were not the only family to turn up and start cooking supper on the sand. Kynance Cove merited a fast and furious visit, leaping through the icy breakers on a moody morning. Having decided that the water really was too cold and that I would only go waist deep, I was swept off my feet on more than one occasion, much to Ilse’s delight. We needed fish and chips – sat in – to warm up after that particular swim. Sadly we didn’t manage our usual Devon bathe from pebbly Beesands, with the gale force winds blowing us into a cosy cafe for a wet-and-wild-night-of-camping-recovery breakfast instead. But we did make a special pilgrimage to a site John has wanted to visit since he was about ten years old: Tintagel Castle, and its cave-speckled cove beneath.

If you’ve ever visited Tintagel, you’ll know that the castle itself involves no little toil up and down a lot of steps, and the soaring temperatures on the day of our visit meant that the cove beneath was packed with people cooling off after their endeavours. We pottered about for an hour or two, looking into local shops and sampling the superb pasties from the cafe by the ticket office, and by the time we traipsed back down to the cove it was almost empty. We were the only people in the sea, with a few families on the shore, their knicker-clad little ones squealing with glee as the cool water washed over their toes. It was our last day in Cornwall before a drive north through the gathering night, and perhaps my favourite day of all. A castle and a cove, pasties and a cream tea: everyone was happy, which made me so. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer end to our little southern holiday.

So when John announced that he’d like to spend an afternoon and evening at Sandsend, near Whitby, I was only too happy to comply. I packed a basket or two with sausages, a couple of salads from our bursting garden, and a chocolate cake nestled in my tin, and we had one more glorious afternoon by the sea, all of us this time, mucking around in the sand and admiring the crystal clear water. Seb built a birthday monument for his dad, Fliss and Ilse stood on the empty steps and belted out some Abba, Ben and I admired the many shoals of little fish, different types of jellyfish and the odd transparent crab. John, of course, went for his swim, and then we had our hot picnic tea before heading home to sandy showers and fresh clean sheets and beds that rocked gently in our sleep.

Minor miracles

There’s a box in the kitchen that keeps distracting me with its cheeping. Under the heatpad are these little bundles of fluff.

Until now, we’ve got our hens either as point of lay pullets, or as rescue hens from the egg industry. We like both. With the pullets, there’s the excitement of seeing them come into lay. Their combs grow and redden and  their first small and sometimes strange eggs appear in the nest boxes. Over time, these sleek teenagers put on weight until, imperceptibly, they have grown into the characteristically fat hens lazing around the garden.

The rescue girls are fun too, although sometimes quite disturbing to look at on arrival. They tend to be overwhelmed by the most natural of things: rain, for example, or grass. Give them a couple of days, though, and they’re strutting their stuff and giving the established residents a run for their money.

I’m not sure what made me think of hatching eggs this time around. Perhaps we were just ready to try something new. Whatever the reason, we ordered some eggs in a variety of breeds, and an incubator, and diligently turned them for three weeks. Late last week we locked down the incubator and waited for something to happen until on Sunday morning we could hear cheeping and saw the first pipped egg.

Ilse set up her Chick Watch station (blanket, colouring pencils, book, drink) and settled in for the morning, but nothing happened. That afternoon we had a long standing arrangement to go to a barbecue, and when we got back we were greeted by this little one.

He alternately charged around the incubator like a tiny, ineffective T-Rex, before suddenly collapsing into sleep. You wouldn’t have imagined that such a fragile thing could make so much noise, but apparently the noise and movement encourages the others to hatch. It must have done some good, because at ten o’clock that evening Ben, Fliss, John and I were all glued to the incubator, watching the second chick unzip then push apart its egg. The following morning there were three in there, galumphing around, and I was sure that there would be more by the time the children were home from school.

Sadly, not all the chicks made it. Now I really know the meaning of the expression don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Some of them never made it to lockdown. Some of our chicks pipped but never unzipped. I followed the advice to sit on my hands and do nothing for most of the day, but when I knew that they were dying I decided to intervene and help the last little one out of its shell. I could see its beak, peeping  and breathing, but the movements were growing further apart. So, ever so slowly and gently, I used tweezers and cotton wool and a warm flannel to keep the membrane moist and soft and, over the course of some hours, hatched the last one myself. It flopped about in the incubator for a long time, so we left it in there alone to dry off, away from the others who were alternately charging around the brooder and toppling over on top of each other.

Twenty four hours later, the last chick joined its siblings and is holding its own with no problems at all, thank you very much. We’ve learned so much by doing this, and each new chick felt like a mini miracle. Of course I am sad about the ones that never hatched, but at least I know that I gave them my full attention and really did do my best. I’m also far more confident now about what to do should the same situation arise next time. Sitting at home alone, making decisions about what best to do to look after the tiny lives in my hands, the internet came to my rescue. There is such a wealth of information out there, compiled so generously by hobbyists who freely share their knowledge and expertise. Over the past month I’ve followed all avenues of the hatching debate: opinions on humidity, temperature, intervention and so forth. Then of course the unexpected happened and I found myself right back in those pages, having moved swiftly from I think it would be better to let nature take its course to this is probably a perfectly healthy chick that just needs a little help hatching. So really, this post is a celebration of all sorts of minor miracles – none of which are really miracles at all, in the true sense of the word. Yet they have stirred a sense of wonder and gratitude in me, so I think they deserve the name. The miracle of a fertilised egg turning to a chick in three short weeks. The miracle of watching life appear before my very eyes. And the generosity of people all around the world, posting what they know online so that their expertise is right there when we need it. Minor miracles indeed.

Holy Week

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

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

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

For Mother’s Day

For Mothers’ Day this year I had a lingering illness which might have ruined the day but for the gifts I received. They were carried in with the morning tea tray: a little handmade coaster, a bag of Pontefract cakes and a voucher. Oh, they know what I like, and what’s on my mind just now. They know I’d like nothing better than to be out in this glorious sunshine, setting the garden to rights, and that I just don’t feel up to it. So nothing could have been better than their voucher promising me a day’s labour out there. I don’t mind how many times they’ve given me this gift; I’ve never loved it more than I did this Sunday.

For my part, I did some fiddly little jobs – pricking out the tomatoes, pushing the onion sets into trays of compost to bring on indoors for a while. John cleaned out the hens and mowed the lawn and built an urgently required chicken-proof fence. Ben spread compost on the beds and turned the newer heaps onward through the bays. The younger three fetched and carried and helped out wherever and whenever they were needed, and from their bare feet and and legs and arms you’d have thought it was high summer.

I took Seb in the motor to visit my own mother with the gift of a bowl of violas. All the talk of allotments with Father sent me home keen to visit my own space: just a little amble, nothing more. John and I cut a basket of tender brocolli before the buds split into yellow blooms. We noticed that the damson has burst its first white tender bud. And when we opened the door of the greenhouse, the aniseed fragrance of fennel spilled out into the cooler, outdoor air.

In the last hour before supper I carried a rug and my old chocolate tin of seeds out to the garden bench. There’s something very pleasing about making a list of what needs to be planted when, and what’s already in. It made me disproportionately happy. Around me, the day dissolved from industry to play. The children soaked themselves in one last water fight before their baths; John hammered in the last stake; an easy Sunday roast was on its way. Thanks to them, I can sow the next lot of seeds as soon as I like, in the freshly composted beds now safe behind the fence. I needn’t worry about the height of the lawn. And no, nobody wanted to do the weeding for me, even if it was Mothering Sunday, but that’s all right. I’ve had a whole day of gardening despite feeling under the weather, and more has been accomplished than I could ever have achieved alone. And they did it all quite willingly. I couldn’t really ask for anything more for Mothers’ Day.

Show week

Oh Mummy, aren’t you EXCITED? whispered Ilse, slipping into bed with me this morning. It took a moment for me to wake up and realise what she was talking about. This week is Show Week: tutus, makeup, jazz shoes, waistcoats, new satin ballet slippers, tap dancing jockeys – the works. This is the week they get to go on a real stage, in a real theatre, and show everyone how well they can dance. Who wouldn’t be excited?

They’ve been working for this for a long, long time. Show week comes but every other year, in between exams for which the syllabus must be perfected, and I’m not sure which my children enjoy more. What with the fact that everyone is involved in the show, the levels of adrenaline reach new heights at show time. There are top secret dances which are only whispered about amongst the children, and quick costume changes to be rehearsed. And while exams call for new socks and shoes and leotards, the show requires a whole other level of pizzazz. There’s a fuchsia tutu with Fliss’ name sewn in, and the most beautiful handmade peonies pinned onto the waist and hair. I know they must have taken the mother who made them hours and hours, and they will be taken off and treasured long after the tutu has been outgrown. There’s a white satin waistcoat, fluttering with feathers at the neckline for my dove, Seb, and the other boy in his class, stitched by me, with winglike epaulets painstakingly put together by Mrs Roberts. She’s made a hopping, leaping knot of frogs too, with webbed hands and feet and shimmering wet splotches on their waistcoats, and a party of elves to dance amongst the peonies. One of the grannies has created a classfull of tippety tapping penguins, with little dickie bows and white bibs over their black catsuits, and when Ilse tried hers on and did a funny little penguin waddle round the room it made up for the hours of careful sewing.

Because there have been hours of sewing, all around, with people helping each other, sharing their skills and time. I helped Mrs Roberts with some waistcoats; she made goodness knows how many epaulets as well as tails for the flock of girl doves. In the changing room, parents are showing one another how to stitch a flower, or a feather, or a name tag to an outfit. Tips are being swapped for getting those satin slippers light pink again instead of grey, and how to keep them clean (rugby socks over the top, backstage, I hear). And there’s still all the chaperoning to be done, and the ferrying to and fro, and the waiting outside the stage door for the technical rehearsal to be done.

But watching Ilse hugging herself with the thrill of it all made it worth every single moment. Come next Sunday, she’ll be in an exhausted, exhilarated little heap. I suspect the others will, too. Between now and then, though, there’s magic to be lived. It’s finally, wonderfully, ecstatically here. Show week.

Twelve days

The first day is the big one, or course. Christmas Day: a day for church and presents and rather too much food. A capon, and stuffing and parsnips and sprouts. Paper crowns. Wrapping paper everywhere. Leftovers on the kitchen counter.
Boxing Day: a walk in the wind. Cold meat and vegetables baked in a pie. The start of a jigsaw.
Not much on the 27th. Playing with some new toys, finding homes for others. Thank you letters. A stroll to the postbox.
On the 28th old fabrics are pulled through, and plans for using them up are afoot. We do a little sewing, or model making, or reading. There’s a trip to the pictures.
The 29th and 30th are spent outside, the former in freezing fog and frost, the second in a sudden thaw. One day in the garden, pruning shrubs and trees, and the next wandering around the woodland of Fountains Abbey with the rest of the Graham clan.
On the 31st, plans for the following year are germinating. By the first, they are complete. Mother makes a feast.
The second brings a trip to the countryside in the motor in the morning, and more sewing in the afternoon. The schools go back on the third. On the fourth I bake a cake, and give the house a clean.
Today, the fifth of January, is the eleventh day of Christmas, and also my 38th birthday. We’ll eat the cake, and have something special for supper. It is the last in a long list of recent celebrations, and really we are all ready to get back to normal. Which is why it’s a good thing that it’s the twelfth day of Christmas tomorrow. A day to take the greenery down and put it on the compost. To pack the decorations away in their box, ready for next year. For the house to feel clean and sparse and bright again. Twelve days, each with its own flavour. Our Christmas, in a nutshell.

Feast

The new year started with a feast, which is by far the best way to start a year, to my mind. I can take or leave the seeing out of the old year – I was reading in bed when 1931 slipped away – but I like to see the new year in with a special meal and plans for the months ahead.

Mother cooked this year: one of her spectacular meals where the whole afternoon slowly unfolds into course after course, with brief rests in between. There was salmon and salad to start, followed by a ham and vegetables, then two puddings and finally, before heading home, apple pie and crackers and cheese. We certainly needed our walk up the hill afterwards, and I was glad I’d skipped breakfast.

Instead, I’d used the morning free from cooking or eating to look to the months ahead. I don’t make resolutions, but I do make lists and sketches and plans. The garden has been mapped out for the coming spring, and the order form in the back of the seed catalogue carefully filled in and dropped in a postbox on our way to my parents’ house. Onions and leeks, swedes and parsnips, broccoli and broad beans and a whole new bed for salads: 1932 will hopefully be slow revelation of the seasons through the tastes and textures of the veg patch. After an icy day out there last week, the garden is ready and waiting for the days to grow long again, and I can hardly wait.

It’ll be a while though, which is why I’ve made other plans for the meantime. A list of sewing and knitting I’d like to work through in the dark evenings between now and then. Pot holders and bookmarks and birthday cards, two blouses and new school dresses for the girls. My annual summer frock. The pair of socks I’ve just begun, and a cardigan for Mrs Eve’s baby, and another jumper for Ben and something pretty and lacy for myself. Will I get it all done? I doubt it. But I’d rather have too much in my plate than too little, especially when the days lend themselves to gloom and and chill and inertia.

That wasn’t something I had a problem with on the First. There was plenty on all of our plates, and stories of our Christmases to share, and the next few weeks to talk about. I hope you too have plenty to look forward to, this coming year. Happy new year. Welcome to 1932.

A party in the dark

Eleven is a wonderful age. Young enough to knock around together as a ragtag gaggle of boys and girls, old enough for a party outside on a pitch black December evening in the week before Christmas.

Somehow, on the short journey between school and home, the children morphed from the responsible pupils who had led the carol concert into a band of experienced backwoods people. In no time at all they were gathering sticks with which to prepare their supper, building a fire and polishing off great slabs of sticky chocolate cake. And while they’re young enough to be happy spending time with Seb’s parents, grandparents and siblings, they’re old enough to follow instructions with a knife and sit safely around a campfire. After the cake they wound twists of dough around clean peeled sticks to bake over hot coals, then speared sausages on sharpened sticks to roast and nibble while hot and dripping fat. And all the time, between each bite it seemed, the game that they were playing developed just a little more into something uniquely theirs and of the moment.

Perhaps December isn’t the very nicest time to have a birthday: everyone is rushing around in the cold and the dark, getting ready for the bigger birthday to come. And yet, played to its strengths, it worked out beautifully this year. Dark by four, the evening seems endless to children who measure time in terms of sausages consumed. By six o’clock there had evolved a game involving hidden monsters at the end of the long garden, and a safe place by the shed, and more rules than I could follow. And, judging by the shining eyes and the number of times they ran up and down the garden, I think the party in the dark was a success. Nobody wanted to go home, even though the leaving was tempered by gooey marshmallows and other final treats. Bathed and pink and clad in his pyjamas, Seb declared it the best birthday that he’d ever had. Well, that’ll do, then. Happy birthday, my love.

Pirates and creatures of the deep

There’s a particular type of pleasure in knowing just what to expect. It wasn’t just me, with my packing list or John, map at the ready. The children were raring to go, even before we pulled up at our own traditional pitch, longing for their cousins to arrive. We were a day before anyone else, and camped a dark night under the stars with only the wind in the trees for company. The following morning Seb and Ilse scouted out old dens and ran the perimeter of the wood before settling themselves near the gate and to wait for their friends.

This time, we watched the party evolve. John and Ben knew how to help put the marquee up. Familiar faces arrived by the hour, so that the crowd swelled from our little picnic of eight to thirty, then a hundred, then more. That first evening the adults were sitting around the fire, sharing news of the past two years, while the children were already running wild in the dark, electric torches flashing through the trees. Two years older, two years more independent, they stayed out of sight for as long as possible, delaying the inevitable call to bed. And yet, the faster you went to sleep the faster the dawn would come, with sausages for breakfast and then a quick bathe in the sea before more friends arrived, and the party proper would begin.

There aren’t many places where children can really run free. We read about them in books: the Walker children with their camp on Wild Cat Island, the Famous Five roaming the Cornish coast. We seek these places out: in cub camps and long walks over the bare winter landscape, in gardens big enough for the children to be hidden with their penknives and their flints. This is what I want for my children, and what I have made sure they have had: dirty knees, smoky hair, something sticky smeared around their faces. A length of string dangling from a pocket. As big a world as we can muster, making room for an even bigger one in their heads. Games which go on over hours and days and even years, put down and picked up when the same little gang gets together again. Friendships which endure over time, with children they might only have met once before, in a far off place, a quarter of a lifetime ago. Adoration for the big ones in the gang. Care for anyone smaller. Tumbles and grazes and dock leaves pressed on stings. And always, in the background, a safe place where the grown ups are.

I think this is how much of the weekend felt, to them. Until the entertainer arrived with his magic and his music and tomfoolery. After that it was time for the donning of costumes and the clearing filled with pirates and creatures of the deep. Our own made an appearance: our mermaid and giant squid, our pirate and our silly seahorse, water-wings and all. John and I were pirates too, adorned with fake tattoos and stripy shirts and neckerchiefs. There was a luminescent jelly fish, and an deep sea anglerfish with an oh-so-mesmerising light dangling just before his teeth. There was a gaggle of mermaids and their pets, and a ghostly butler from the long-since-sunk Titanic. The hog roast was dished out by a sailor in his whites, and I almost walked past Father with his dark false beard and tricorn hat.

In the dusk, we listened to sea shanties and joined in when we knew the words (what shall we do with the drunken sailor?), then sat back to more music from singers and players alike. There was a rum bar, and a couple of barrels of something else for the landlubbers among us. There was dancing, and sitting by another fire. Finally, at some time in the early hours, there was bed.

The next day could have felt a little empty, seeing so many people leave. Some we’d met two years ago, others we’d known all our lives. More still we’d met just the previous evening. They were all off on holidays, or back to work, or off to visit family. But us? We struck out for the loveliest beach in Devon and spent an afternoon in and out of the surf, before walking slowly home along the cliffs. There were the remains of a hog roast to be shared amongst we remaining campers, and a final night of talk around the fire. The following morning saw the last few families on their way and as the rain began to fall it was just us left camping in the woods. We weathered the storm in the best way we knew how: by striking out for somewhere beautiful, and picking up fish and chips for supper on our way back in the evening. It would have been much sadder, but for one important fact: the theme for the next family camp had already been discussed.

New music

To my surprise, I find that there are other tunes to listen to. There, beside the gramophone, they have been waiting for me. I run my fingers over the cardboard sleeves, settle upon one at random, and pull it free. Some hissing, a little scratching but then the music which has been turning over and over in my mind, viewed from every angle, is replaced by the steady pulse of an orchestra and the the gentle rise and fall of piano notes above.

Throughout the rest of the day, other melodies have risen to the surface. Other snippets of song, other chords, other timbres. Some linger, some pass swiftly on, but it’s good to hear them again. Good to listen to something that I don’t know the name of every note of. Good to have a change.

That afternoon, in the garden, I find the slugs have been eating my savoys, and lift the cage off for a closer look. I bring two big bowls of raspberries in to have after supper, with cream. The mange tout are growing large and stringy so I pick the lot, and eat the bright sweet peas straight from the toughest pods. I weed a little section, and Ben passes me short lengths of cotton twine to tie things in. I snip at prickly brambles and carry them, at arm’s length, to the pile for burning. The hens follow me around, and I think that they are pleased to see me.

Inside, there is new fabric to be washed, and a new pattern to be cut. There is a little mountain of ironing to smooth the wrinkles out of. Ben gives me his old shirt, acid holes burned in the front from a chemistry lesson mishap, and I add it to the pile I was sorting, months ago, for Fliss’ quilt. There are two cards waiting to be written on the mantelpiece. There are novels by writers other than Christie to be read. There is a piano to be played, and a school play to enjoy. A party in a week or so. Holidays to have.

I hadn’t realised quite how far away I was – not consciously at least. Little piles were building in this house where little piles are never left to clutter up a surface. Books to be read, and new clothes to sew for little people. Recipes I’d like to try, thank you letters to be written. Even though the floors were swept, the dishes washed, the meals cooked and eaten, it seems I wasn’t fully there. Half my mind was elsewhere, rehearsing, remembering, and trying not to worry. It’s silly, really, to get so caught up in a project. To let it dominate a month or more.

But then I’m so, so glad I did it. I’ve become a better player, and learned to deal with nerves. I’ve remembered what it’s like to be eighteen and faced with exams, hard work and uncertainty about the outcome. I’ve seen how well my own children cope, and tried to learn from them. I’ve given four performances, and come out smiling.

Now I can relax, and the summer can begin. Never mind that it is raining, or that temperatures are low. There are so many things to do that I can’t wait, and so I haven’t. The garden got a burst of my attention yesterday. I’m popping into town to have my hair cut. Lots of little projects are coming back to life, and my full attention is right there with each and every one. And between them all – between the sewing and the writing and the tidying of the house – I think it’s time for some new music.