Balancing

There are certain points when everything feels a bit like a balancing act. Between time spent outside, growing things in the newly emerging garden, and ensuring that the house still feels welcoming when we come back in. Between work and rest – I think that fact that John and I have both been felled by heavy summer colds suggests that we got that one wrong. Or even just getting everyone to where they need to be, especially on two wheels, which poor old Seb came a cropper to last week. He fell on his right elbow, resulting in five weeks of wearing a sling. Like the old pergola, we all seem to be walking a little wounded at the moment. Most challenging of all, though, is catering to people of different ages and stages, all needing something, but something different.

Ben is in the last month of preparation for his Higher School Certificate. I can’t help but think how different it’ll be for Seb and Ilse, with no younger siblings charging around the place singing and squabbling and forgetting that they’re supposed to be quiet, please. We don’t do too badly most of the time, especially when school is in term. But this week they are all on holiday, and only Fliss seems to understand that Ben really could do with some peace in which to get his head down. It’s fine as long as the weather holds – Ben installs himself in the front room and we head out into the garden. On wet days, though, it takes a while for something to grab everyone’s attention. Yesterday was one of those, but crochet animals came to the rescue, and a jigsaw, and Children’s Hour on the wireless.

Thankfully they are heading out tomorrow with Mother and Father and the house will be quiet all day, which will be wonderful while Ben works. He’ll have all the peace he could want. Except that when he’s finished and the books are put away, he won’t have anyone to be silly with, or chat to, or play games with in the garden. The truth is that I’m just not as good for letting off steam with as his little siblings. I’ll have to make sure he does something nice with a friend, instead. Some fun is certainly needed after all that study. It’s a balancing act, I tell you.

What I did in the holidays

My list, made on the last day of the old term, mainly involved the garden. There was so much weeding to be done that I divided it over eight days, adding some planting or potting on to add interest, and, with a little help from everyone in the house, we did it. Fliss and I sowed dozens of seeds. John lifted a lot of edging that the nettles had got under, threatening to overrun my patch, and relaid them with a thick layer of cardboard underneath. Ben mowed the lawn, twice, and spread compost on all the beds. Seb and Ilse started a herbal remedies company, the main ingredients of which appeared to be nettles and dandelion roots, so I gave them couple of trowels and lots of encouragement. Perhaps best of all was when I came in from the garden last Tuesday, dirty and tired, to find that my very favourite dining establishment, Cafe Magnifico, was open for business. There were bluebells on each plate and Easter chocolates for dessert, and although the two charming proprietresses looked familiar they assured me we’d never met before. It stayed open that whole second week when John was back at work and I was pushing myself to get through my list, serving luncheon every day and even taking care of the washing up.

My only other real goal was to finish my cardigan in time for Easter which I did – in plenty of time and on Shell Island, in fact. I cast on for a pair of socks and got as far as turning the heel, knitting in the evenings. As it was all going so well I added some more to the list: to wash the fleece and a half that had been languishing in the shed since autumn, and to piece all eighty nine-patch squares for Ilse’s quilt. I did both, and what began as a session where Ilse and I laid out the squares on Sunday afternoon became a game for the whole family, moving things around, swapping one square with another to spread the colours out more evenly. I could – perhaps should – have retained more control of it, but it is just a little girl’s quilt after all, and they had so much fun. I glanced at it briefly once they were all in bed and it looked all right to me, so it’s all packed up in that order, ready to be sewn together this week.

When people ask what we did in the holidays I tell them we went camping in Wales, which we did, and we had a lovely time. There were day trips too, and lots of lazy days in the house and garden for the children, reading books and making potions. We had a glorious Easter lunch with Mother and Father, and Mother outdid herself once more, producing a simnel cake when we had just about recovered from the previous three courses. And there was time for resting in the sunshine by day, and by the fire in the evenings.

Yet Easter always feels like a turning point, however early or late it falls, and this is the holiday in which I end up doing most. Now that term is back in swing, it feels good to have new projects and new rhythms on the go. More time in the garden. The end of a quilt top within sight. Daily spinning while the supper cooks. If I hadn’t worked so hard during the holidays none of this would be possible. And it isn’t work, really – not if you choose to do it. It’s just another type of play. So that’s what I did in my holidays. I played, hard.

On Shell Island

In the end, we went away for just three nights this Easter, which was enough of a change to be a rest before coming home to the garden (for me), work (for John), revision (for Ben) and play (for the other three). We piled tents and sleeping bags on top of the motor, ourselves into it, and headed to Wales for our little break.

I can’t remember having visited Snowdonia before, and it’s the sort of place I would remember. Mountains, woodland, small towns and villages and, around every bend in the road, another view of the springtime sea. We drove through lanes with slate walls on either side, past little roadside waterfalls and mossy, twisted tree-formed tunnels to Harleck and beyond, until we found ourselves on Shell Island before the tide came in and flooded the causeway, cutting us off from the shore. The children tumbled out of the car and away to explore while John, Ben and I set up camp. Red-faced and puffing, they came back to report to us every quarter of an hour or so on their latest find: the sand-dunes that needed to be scaled, the rock pools, the hidden dell between our camp and Lookout Hill, and Shell Beach, from which they brought back sandy pockets of their finds.

We wouldn’t normally spend much time on a campsite, preferring instead to treat it as a place to sleep while we spent the days out and about, but the following morning Ilse looked so forlorn at the thought of leaving the island to climb Cader Idris that it only took me a moment to decide to stay behind with her. We waved the others off and set about our day. It isn’t often that I let a seven year old set the agenda, but we had such a lovely time I might need to do so more often. In the morning we went to the little island shop for a tin of soup, some hot cross buns and milk for tea, then packed my knapsack with knitting and a rug and a bag of sweets and set out for a spot of cartography. We climbed a sand dune and stopped every hundred yards or so to add something new to her map, discussing suitable names all the while. It was such hard work that we agreed on a long sit down after lunch, on a blanket in the sun beside our tent, she colouring her map and me adding the button bands to my nearly-done cardigan, before setting off for a lazy afternoon of shell collecting. We meandered for a good two hours along the beach, past the dunes to the rock pools, then the harbour, then the jetty where the crabbing is, before wandering home to wait for the others and supper. The sun shone well enough, and the wind certainly blew, but we had such a lovely day, the two of us.

Of course we went out and did other things on the other days, but I think that was my favourite day of all. Just Ilse and I, on a nearly deserted island, footling around and doing our own thing. Surely that’s what holidays are all about. Well, ours, anyway.

Eternal optimism

Ilse set out to make herself a pair of ball gloves this morning. You know the sort: white satin, elbow length, wrinkle free. They were the culmination of her half term holiday full of sewing. I had begun to wonder whether she’d ever start to use the box we’d put together for her for Christmas but one day she dove in and there was no stopping her. How lovely to have your own kit, complete with scissors and thread and a bundle of pretty fabrics. I’m so pleased that she agrees.

I’m also delighted by her sewing optimism. Seriously, she thinks she can make anything, and the truth is that she’s usually right. I didn’t know how she was going to make a pair of trousers for Little Ted out of Ben’s holey old socks, but she did. By the time she asked me to draw around her right hand, up to the elbow, I knew better than to question her, even though she later dropped the scheme in favour of washing the motor with John. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a bucket of suds.

But really, in this house optimism is key when it comes to sewing projects. And not just for eight year olds; I need a healthy dose as much as they do. After all, you wouldn’t catch me starting on a dress I felt was doomed to failure. Every single item I embark on is going to be beautifully fitted, finished and fit for purpose. This doesn’t always bear very much resemblance to reality. Sometimes things veer off in unexpected directions, such as the scrap bag, although this hasn’t happened for quite some time now. Still, after all these years of stitching, none of the clothes I’ve made have every turned out perfectly. I know all of their little flaws, and though I despair of them at first, in time they become just another quirk of the garment, and for that I forgive them.

I traced a pattern off an old blouse recently, picking the blue silk apart at the seams and laying it out on the bias, as is so fashionable just now. Honestly, only a few years ago everything was cut as straight as straight can be, and bodies squashed flat towards androgynousness. Here in 1932 curves are all the rage, and I loved my old blouse which clung and floated in all the right places. When the silk went bobbly and began to fade I knew I wanted another just like it, and so I made one in a light Liberty lawn, ready for the impending spring. Needless to say, it isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. I shan’t tell you what’s wrong with it, because once I do, that’s all you’ll be able to see.

And that old blue silk? Well, that inspired some deeply uncharacteristic behaviour in me, using it to create a wearable toile for a set of, ahem, underthings. A toile isn’t the most optimistic choice, but when it comes to precision sewing it is the sensible one. I did, of course, expect them to be wearable and I can confirm that they most gloriously, comfortably are. I’ll certainly be buying some pretty new fabric for my next attempt.

In the meantime, the optimism continues, as I draft a new and untested pattern for each garment in the pipeline. Because that’s where the fun is. In holding your breath that things will work out and secretly, privately, knowing that they will.

Pottering with a purpose

The younger children have exactly three trips planned this half term: one morning in town with pocket money and book tokens to spend; one afternoon out with Mother – a trip to the Castle Museum followed by afternoon tea; and one day out in the motor, all together, for a walk or a wander in an as yet unselected location.

All are suitably vague for a holiday which is, in this house at least, all about rest and recuperation. We’ve adopted a let’s see how we feel on the day approach to everything beyond the garden gate. As long as they get out at regular intervals to stretch their legs and have a change of scene, I’m happy. So far there has been dressing up, board game playing, the making of pouches for survival kits, the start of a new manuscript, and much reading. They are expert potterers, able to entertain themselves for days on end with self-dreamed projects and pastimes.

All of which is extremely fortunate, as my own pottering has rather more of a timetable attached to it. Why do I always end up with so much I want to do, each half term? It isn’t as though any if it is terribly important, even, this time around. Honestly, one of my aims was to replicate the coffee cake my mother-in-law baked last week. Frivolous, yes – but I never make the time to ice my cakes in term time, so it seemed the perfect treat for Friday afternoon when the children came home with mounds of muddy sportswear and that start-of-the-holidays glee. Truth be told, it only happened because I wrote it down. Friday morning: clean house with Mrs P. Friday lunchtime: bake coffee and walnut cake. Friday afternoon: pop to haberdashers for thread, bias binding and elastic. Ice cake. Come half past four all was well with the world.

The list goes on, and more is ticked off each day. Sewing, knitting, seeing the odd friend. Preparing for spring in the garden. It’s all pottering, only I know what I want to achieve each day. With only a week off school, I like to have my time mapped out in a vaguely purposeful way. We still get up a little later, and take a lacksidaisical approach to daytime meals (a favourite part of holidaying, to me). But I can immerse myself in each and every moment knowing that, by the end of the week, I’ll have done all that I hoped to.

Needless to say, plans change all the time, but there’s plenty of room for improvements. Ilse has a new task, for which she’ll need a spot of supervision: bunny-sitting a certain rabbit named Sparkles who lives a few doors down. Popping along the street on certain days to check his water and have a few cuddles while we’re at it? I’m sure we can squeeze that in. In fact, that seems to be the epitome of pottering with a purpose.

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.

Lull

Outside, the silver frost has hung on all day. The whole world seems suspended in the timeless twilight between Christmas and New Year. We get up a little later every day, and breakfast is in danger of merging into luncheon. And why not? I’m sure these precious days at the end of one year were made for readying us for the next.

How I love this little lull. If I were to wander around the house, I’d find a jigsaw on the dining table, and Ben’s books, and my sewing machine in full swing at the other end. In the sitting room John has been doing just that, and galloping through his Christmas books at speed. There is evidence of knitting on the couch, and some embroidery, and new music on the stand. On the stairs the fairy lights twinkle and beyond them, in the kitchen, Seb is touching up his latest diorama. Ilse’s new colouring book lies open on the table, a tropical scene half alive with colour. It’ll have to wait to be complete, like the jigsaw and and knitting and the little embroidered house. They’re all at the pictures with John, and I am in the quiet house on my own in the middle of the lull in these holidays.

There’s something about the turning of the year that makes me want to neaten up loose ends. These are the days in which I rifle through old offcuts, and make a plan for each and every little piece left over from the previous year’s projects. We covered two notebooks this morning, Fliss and I, for a twins’ birthday party she’s going to next week. I’ve made a quick potholder from the leftover crumbs. There are toilet bags and bookmarks and pretty fabric roses in the offing. I’d like to clear the decks by the end of January, in time for the spring sewing to begin. We all need a dose of optimism in February.

Then there’s the ground to clear for next season’s growth, the tips of which are already poking out above the soil. A day or two in the garden should do it, if we all work together, and pave the way for an excitable evening with the catalogues.

And yet it isn’t all tasks. Some days are set aside for other things. Best of all are those mind-clearing walks that only cold air and bright sunlight through bare branches can achieve. We found the first primroses yesterday, small and pastel yellow in the otherwise barren ground. Soon the buds will be on the trees, soon the snowdrops will be out in force. For now, though, we can walk through the silent woodland and over the icy moor and wonder at the peace of it all. Of this welcome, gentle, unassuming lull, before the earth shifts on its axis and plunges us into the coming year.

Bit by bit

What are we doing tomorrow? is often the last question of the day, asked over the banisters on the way up to bed. I had wondered if the younger ones were beginning to get fed up with pottering around the house. Fortunately, ‘tomorrow’ was a day with definite errands, activities and an outing built in. Well, I need to go the the greengrocer and the butcher, and then I thought we might make some gingerbread, and then we’re going to visit your great-grandmother for tea. A look of slight concern passed over Seb’s face. Will we have some time at home? I’ve got so much more to do for Christmas.

Bit by bit, everything is coming together. As far as I’m concerned, only my favourite parts remain: wrapping the children’s presents in front of the fire one evening with John; Christmas Eve in the kitchen, making custard and stewed cabbage and pigs in blankets. Laying first the marzipan and then the icing over the rich fruit cake, and deciding how to finish it this year. Boiling the ham and baking dauphinois potatoes for a meal so rich that only something green and frugal can sit beside it: the cabbagey tops of the sprouts I’ve grown especially. Laying out the stockings at the ends of beds and, finally, trying to sleep so that Father Christmas might arrive.

In the meantime, other important preparations are being taken care of by our household team of elves. There’s a snowstorm on the kitchen windows, and paper chains dangle from every permissible angle. The gingerbread we baked was duly tasted, decorated and tasted again. The pile of homemade cards and little presents is growing, day by day. I’ve a secret slot booked in the kitchen with Ilse. And although they are itching to bring in the holly and the ivy and festoon every picture frame in the place,  that and the tree must wait until Christmas Eve, when everyone needs something to channel their excitement into.

Which left me free to dust off my spinning wheel last night and turn a pile of rolags into yarn. While I did, I thought about all the things I’m going to make in that quiet week between Christmas and New Year, and the walks we’re going to go on, and the people we’re going to see. And then I thought: what are we doing tomorrow? and realised that the answer was: nothing, especially. Well, how lovely is that? I think I’ll do a spot of wintry gardening, and then maybe add a bit to Ilse’s quilt. This is just the sort of holiday I needed: calm and quiet, while the children busy themselves with Christmas fun. I wish you the sort of holidays that you need, too, whatever those might be. Have a very happy Christmas, everyone.

That’s better

Well, we finally made it. The children broke up on Friday, John has taken two weeks off work, and the holidays have begun. It took us until Sunday for the truth of it to sink in, and until today for me to begin losing track of time, which is always the mark of a good break. But it was yesterday morning, walking across Hob Moor as the sun broke through the mist, that I stopped to pay attention. The children travel  this way every single school day, cycling over this little nature reserve on the edge of the city, with John or I in attendance more often than not. At the start of each new term we marvel at its beauty, or stop for  an impromptu picnic tea, but as the weeks wear on I stop looking and simply pedal, head down, into the wind or the rain.

To me, enjoying the little pleasures that winter affords is one of the joys of the Christmas holidays. When we are all at home, sharing out the daily tasks, there’s time to lie on the rug in front of the fire and savour a fat satsuma. There’s time to visit Mother and Father for mulled wine and her delectable mince slices: shortbread with an apple mincemeat topping. And time for parties, of course, fuelled by a fridge full of fizz. When else would I get to settle down and listen to whole of The Box of Delights with the little ones, or take all four of them to the flicks? And yes, there are cards to be written and homemade presents to complete, and there’s lots and lots of wrapping to be done. But with a spicy drink and some carols in the background, it’s no trouble at all.

Yet the nicest thing of all about the Christmas holidays is that almost everyone I know is having a little rest. It’s the one time of year when holidays across the country coincide so that bankers and teachers and schoolchildren and shopkeepers can collectively look forward to a few days off. Even the farmers and the doctors strip their tasks back to the essentials. And beyond these shores, in many other countries, more people than I can picture are celebrating the same feast in more ways than I can imagine. I like that thought very much: a collective sigh of peace and goodwill from all over the globe.

Because I know I’m not the only one to see an old route with new eyes at this time of year, or to look forward to renewing old traditions. Bit by bit, our house is filling with greenery and light. Touches of gold sparkle in dim corners. And every so often I catch myself taking a deep breath and thinking: ahh, that’s better.

Offshore

Everything ends. Some things feel as though they never will, although you wish they would. They drag their feet like children carrying a bad report towards home and reprimand. Others end all too soon: good books, an evening at the pictures, time with the people we love. It doesn’t seem to matter how long a good thing lasts – whether the summer holiday is two weeks or six – end it must, and it doesn’t hurt any the less for being longer.

I love the way we’ve ended our last two summers: in Northumberland, in a couple of tents, spending all of every day together. This year we visited Cragside, the wonderfully eccentric home of hydroelectricity, where frightfully English arts and crafts meet outrageous Italian marble and steamy Turkish baths lurk in the foundations. It drizzled the whole time we were there, but we didn’t mind. We took our time around the house and found a tremendous pine to picnic under in the arboretum. We had afternoon tea and cakes in the snug gatehouse teashop, and motored right around the estate on our way back to the campsite. It was on this final drive that we saw a deer, just for a moment, on the road in front of us, before she turned to face us and was gone. That was a day which ended all too soon.

Our campsite was feted for its wildlife: a river cut it off from the field across the way and the whole area was surrounded by trees. It is in these that the owls must live, and from these that they must hunt and hoot the whole night through. We kept our eyes peeled for foxes, which we see sometimes at home, but also badgers, which we don’t. Sadly they were either sheltering from the rain or else their black and white kept them safely hidden in the shadows streaked with moonlight. Even though we didn’t see them, I liked knowing they were there. There’s something comforting about animals nearby, where they should be, not chased away to the shrinking wildernesses of our little island.

It’s easy to forget that we Britons live on an island. In York the sea is almost equidistant in either direction, and feels so far away, but the truth is that we could drive from coast to coast in one day in the motor. Had I my way, and John’s job was not with Rowntrees, we would live by the sea, and I would have a boat of my own, and sail when the weather was fair. Sailing fast in a dinghy is just how I imagine flying to be: catching the wind, responding to it with a little adjustment here and there, moving just as the crow flies upon a fluid and unmarked highway. It’s been years since I’ve had that thrill.

I was quite ready to content myself with another boat trip, though: out to the Farnes, where the birds and seals are protected from day trippers and their casual interference. We mean well, but too many footfalls might damage a puffin’s burrow, or frighten away the terns. By the time we went, at the end of August, the birds had long since flown to sea, abandoning their summer breeding grounds to the ravages of winter. They’ll be elsewhere, riding the wind and the waves, unconcerned about offshore breezes on the rocks. We weren’t, though. August, and there we were in woolly hats and jackets with the collars pulled up high against the spray. I doubt the children noticed: they only had eyes for the seals on the rocks and in and out of the water, playful as pups, disappearing and emerging somewhere entirely unexpected. Two miles offshore and we could have been on a different planet, so far removed were we from the piers and paths and crab selling huts of Seahouses. Here and there a building braved the sea: Grace Darling’s lighthouse, a ruined church, and cottage or two for the wildlife wardens. I could almost fancy living there: spending March to December in a little white stone cottage on the edge of a rock in the cold grey sea.

Coming south to York, and being met by that glorious September, our time in Northumberland felt odd and other-worldly. It was autumn there so soon, and it was wild, and wonderfully free. Our little city feels so tame and familiar by comparison. But when last week the cold began to bite, and the sky shifted from blue to grey, it was of Northumberland I thought, and those grey seals on the rocks, and the end of our summer holidays. An end spent somewhere other, arrestingly wild and offshore.