But first, the hens

Now that summer is in full swing, my days at home have taken on a new routine. I find that, if I get up early enough, I can have breakfast with everyone and still be ready to settle down to work on this blog and the pattern book by nine o’clock. Come three, it’s time to hop on my bike and cycle the six miles to Ilse’s school and back, along the edge of the Knavesmire and across Hob Moor, with its current herd of young cattle grazing on the daffodils.

It is a beautiful ride, and we often stop for a quick picnic on the way home – just a couple of biscuits and a flask of tea, under the hawthorn trees, watching the other cyclists and dog walkers and pram-pushing parents go past. It clears my head after a day of writing and measuring and drawing all those lines, and brings me back down to earth in the most delightful way.

Before any of that, though, before the bike ride or the writing, there are things to be done in the garden. Flowers to be picked, the day’s greens to be brought in and washed, pots to be watered and eggs to be gathered. All it takes is for one of us to open the kitchen door and there they are, pacing indignantly at the wire of their run, waiting for me to open the door to their house and let them loose on the garden.

They have the run of the place, with established dustbaths and scratching spots and the whole lawn to chase insects across. Instead of fencing them into one area, we have fenced them out: out of the veg patch, out of the cutting garden, out of the patio with its table and pots of flowers. Apart from when we are all out, or at night, they are free to enjoy it as they wish, and the rest of the time they have a large and shady run attached to the side of their house.

So large, in fact, is their house that it’s been a bit underpopulated of late. We bought another six rescue hens home last summer and, while they were still in a separate tractor, a fox got in and killed the lot. I found four in the coop, and a trail of feathers all the way up to the gate by the side of our house. One by one the others have been getting older and, quite literally, dropping off the perch. So Father, Ilse and I went on an expedition at half term to bring a couple of new pullets home. Hedwig and Fawkes have settled in quite nicely now, and are keeping Eggletina Harpsichord company in a little flock of three.

Come next winter, though, they could do with a few more bodies to keep their house warm through the night, and to that end we ordered a dozen hatching eggs by post. They arrived on Friday and, once rested, have been sitting, warm and cosy, in a little incubator in the kitchen. We are expecting chicks two weeks on Saturday, and I’m not sure whether Ben or I is the most excited person in the house. The eggs are numbered according to which breed they are – we ordered a mixed batch – and Seb has been poring over the guide, coming up with names for each type of bird. So far he’s come up with Cotton for the Silkie, which I so hope will hatch, and Champion for the Gold Top. In the meantime, I am turning the eggs several times a day, and making sure that the water reservoir is topped up, and dreaming of electric hens. Fliss and Ben have promised to fix up the tractor, which will be perfect to house them once they are big enough to go outside, and we have chick sitters arranged for when we go on holiday.

It seems such a long time – eight years! – since we bought this house and hens became a very real possibility. I can’t imagine not having them now. They make the garden feel alive, somehow, with all their pecking and scratching and lounging, spread-eagled, in the sun. They give us the richest, most orange-yolked eggs with whites that sit up firmly in the pan. Best of all, though, is the way they demand my presence in the garden each morning, by pacing at that wire. I might be able to ignore the lettuce, out of sight in the veg patch. I might pretend not to see the spinach bolting. I could even choose to leave the sweet peas for another day. But I can’t ignore our girls and then, once out there, I may as well do the watering and the picking and the trip right down to the compost. Whatever else a day at home might hold, the hens always seem to come first, and for that I am very grateful.

Madeleine

PS – What gets you outside every day? Or are you one of those people who doesn’t need any prompting? I find that, on holiday in Italy or Greece, I can’t wait to greet the sun, but in England I often need a little more persuasion. Of course, once out, it’s hard to drag myself back in again…

Welcome, rain

On Friday afternoon, the sun shone and the air grew so thick that I abandoned all thoughts of cooking. Indoors, the couch and my knitting were beckoning, but instead I stayed on the patio, picking my way through another batch of fleece before carding it, ready for spinning. The thing is, you never know whether this will be the last day of sunshine for a long, cold while. So while the sun shone, I carried on with the dirty, outside tasks, like pulling the mucky tips off the wool and watching the dust fly as it moved from carder to carder.

Over tea – thank goodness for ready-roast chickens and shops within an easy cycle – I doled out jobs for today. Not a lot, just a little help from everyone, please. Strimming for Ben. Tying up the peas and beans for Seb while Fliss staked the fast-blooming alstroemerias and my new freesias. Ilse was to help me water and plant out the cucumbers and courgettes – the very last things to go into this spring’s veg patch – while I weeded it all and John made his usual rounds at the butcher and greengrocer’s on the market. A typical late spring Saturday morning.

And then on Saturday it rained, on and off all day, so that instead we found ourselves in the kitchen. A kettle on the Rayburn for endless mugs of tea, and more buttery crumpets smeared with Marmite as each new sleepy head emerged. Fliss stitched away at her old ballet skirt, embroidering it with golden swirls for a fancy dress costume. Seb appeared from the garage with a big stick and his knife, as well as the promise to work over a spread of newspapers. Ilse was colouring, and Ben rummaged through the spice drawer as he and John planned our meals for the week ahead. It’s the first time in ages that we’ve been in just one space, together, for so long. In the spring our house doubles in size as we spread out, away from the fires, into bedrooms and right down to the end of the garden to make much-needed repairs to winter-ravaged dens. But yesterday we all stayed together, held no doubt by the gentle warmth of the cooker and all five episodes of Death on the Nile, one after another, on the radio.

As for me, I worked on the knitting I’d been so keen to get to the previous day, which is a pattern I’m developing for the autumn. I got through all the counting and onto the easy stretch before Poirot solved the murder, which was satisfying. The rain let up, just a little, after lunch, so that I could run out and plant the freesias that my dad had bought me on Friday, staking them against the weather. And then, later, there was Paddington to watch again and, best of all, a pile of rolags ready to spin from that sultry afternoon the day before. There’s a time and a place for everything, you see. Tasks for sunshine and tasks for rain. That way, whatever the weather, there’s a way to make it welcome.

Madeleine

Sweet

Sweet peas by my bed, so that I fall asleep and wake to their scent. The fact that they keep coming, a few more every day.

Wide open days with nothing whatsoever planned, so that we can ask that most delightful of questions: now, what shall we do today?

Produce from the garden and beyond: warm tomatoes, fleshy cucumbers, baskets of strawberries from a nearby farm.

The thud of the first windfalls, and the cinnamon-spiced preserves that sound heralds in this house.

Children and chickens on the lawn, doing nothing extraordinary. Just footling about, lost in their own little worlds.

These summers, with all of them here, more precious every year.

Bittersweet, yes. But let’s focus on the sweet.

Into the pot

Now that I’m into it, these quilt kits are proving great fun to put together. I finished cutting the main fabric for Seb’s eiderdown cover last night and put it into the dye pot today. It’s going to have a patchwork top: improvisational stars on a navy blue background – the words ‘winter’s night’ keep running through my head. Both of the bed-sized quilts I’ve made so far (Seb’s Devon quilt and Ilse’s Diamonds) have featured lots of white, which was a happy marriage between the effect I wanted and the materials I had to hand. But although that wasn’t what I had in mind for these next three, the fact is that all our sheets are white and they keep being worn through at a steady rate by one or other of us.

It’s been a while since I dyed anything – three years at least – and I’d forgotten how much fun it is. Having got everyone out of the house at the same time, two hours of solitude seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and I spent a happy while in the garage, listening to the wireless and stirring a pot of naviest blue. There’s something a little bit witchy about it, to be honest, and a little bit addictive. There are plans to dye the sashing for Ben’s quilt (grey, yawn, but it’ll bring the rest of it together) as soon as I have it all cut, but dying isn’t quite as utilitarian as that. Today’s session has already had me dashing in to cut a few more strips to throw into the pot and add to my basket of precuts. And I bought a two-pound bag of salt, which means that I’ll have half a pound left over. Hmmm, we can’t have that cluttering up the cupboards. I’ll just have to dye whatever bits of sheet are left over once all the kits are made. Pink, I think. Or perhaps green! Or aquamarine…? How will I ever choose?

All together, now

Now that the holidays are here, we can all have a bit of a rest. It’s most obvious for the children, off school as they are, and so far they have lain in bed both mornings with books for company until I call them. Ben has been off for a while now, since the end of his exams, and is combining a surprising amount of relaxation with a few odd jobs until his summer job begins next week. John has enjoyed two days of peaceful breakfasts, sipping his coffee over the paper or a good book before cycling across town to his office at the chocolate factory. And I am freed from the shackles of the school day, and the endless ironing of school blouses.

Out of everyone, though, it’s Mrs P who needs a rest most of all. She’s not been quite right since that bout of flu in the new year, and I’ve been wanting her to be careful ever since. As you might imagine, she is one of those old battle-axes who ploughs on regardless: stubborn and difficult and with a heart of gold. It’s very difficult to stop her scrubbing the hall tiles, but over the past few months I have devised the strategy of having a long list of other tasks for her. She ticks one thing off and I add another, so that there is always some light work which simply must be done. Thankfully the children are adept at wearing holes in socks and making bedrooms dusty, and there’s always another pot of potatoes to be peeled. And so, while she’s thus engaged, I can quietly scrub those tiles or wring out another load of sheets.

Mr P, who since the war has been a different, sadder sort of man, has come to the fore since his wife’s illness, and for the first time ever has begun to tidy and clean around the house, making something simple for their tea. He came to see me a couple of months ago with the idea of taking Mrs P away for the summer, for a breath of sea air. I thought it a tremendous plan, and we plotted and cajoled until the good lady finally gave in. They left for Whitby on Monday, and won’t be back until the autumn term begins.

Now, other mothers might be quite content to sweep around their children’s feet and tidy their mess after them, but I am not. In the absence of Mrs P, and with so many extra bodies around the house all day, some sort of solution seemed in order. Thus it is that I’ve claimed half an hour of every morning, directly after breakfast. Tasks are doled out (or volunteered for) and I am pleasantly surprised by how efficient we can be. Yesterday we cleaned the whole house, top to bottom. It helps that I’m less particular in the summer, and if I found the odd undusted patch I didn’t mention it. This morning we weeded the front garden, cut back the brambles which insist on growing back each time and gave the henhouse a much needed change of straw. By ten o’clock all was done, and they got on with their plans for the day.

Of course there’s always more to do – dishes and ironing, laundry and the polishing of shoes. I could keep them busy for much longer than half an hour each day. But they go at with with such vigour and – so far – good humour that it seems churlish to ask for more. What they do gives me a flying start and frees a good couple of hours for us to play together, or go for a walk to the park. They’ll always help with the odd little jobs – the setting of the table, or popping down to the shops. And it seems to have inspired Ilse to make her own bedroom a little bit prettier, echoing the sweet peas by my bed with a little cup of hibiscus blooms on her dressing table.

Truth be told, it’s as much about teaching them responsibility and household skills as lightening my load. Don’t tell the little ones, but I really don’t mind if they miss a bit here or there. It’s the willingness that counts, and the fact that we all pitch in, all together now.

On my knees

With two weeks to go until the children break up for the summer, dates for the diary are flowing in thick and fast. There’s the performance at Ilse’s school, the play that Seb has been working on all term and Fliss will be singing in the choir at her end of term fete. Add to that the class parties, birthday teas and general invitations from people to get out and do blissfully summery things, and there’s barely an evening to spare. Even the scouts have abandoned the clubhouse in favour of wild evenings chasing around their nearby plantation.

I know that although these things pick up pace over the last few days there will come a day when it all just stops. Two weeks tomorrow, to be precise. On which day I’ll dig the children’s knapsacks out and ask them to start thinking about what they’d like to take on each of our planned adventures. We have a very exciting holiday planned, judging by the reading and drawing and letter-writing going on around these parts. There is a huge amount of dreaming going on, in the heads of the younger members of the household.

John and I are frankly too busy to stop and think at the moment, let alone daydream about impending adventures. His work doesn’t stop for the summer. On top of that, the little bit of shuffling we had planned has turned into a full scale reassessment of each and every room in the house. New furniture has arrived for Ben’s/ the guest room, and he and Seb are sharing his old room while John repaints the inside of the sash windows. There’s a chair which won’t fit in either bedroom anymore, so it’s moved down to the sitting room where another, in turn, has been bumped into the kitchen. Looking for a jumble-sale desk, I finally found the coffee table I’ve been wanting for a year, and the sweetest little dressing table for Ilse. So we thought we’d finish off the sitting room properly, for once, and bought a new rug and a new-to-us chair, which makes two that I need to upholster. The old rug has migrated to the dining room. Seb wanted to take his nice dark curtains with him, and Ben is having ours, so I thought I may as well give them their summer wash while they’re off the rails. You know the story. A little change here has a knock on effect there – and before you know it there’s plenty to keep both Ben and I busy for a good few days at home.

It’ll be worth it in the end, and it’s fun to have a fresh-feeling house for the cost of a new double bed. I quite like moving things around, and trying things in different places. Of course, most things need a little bit of adjustment to make them work: new pictures in old frames, things from Ben’s room recovered in some pretty fabric for Ilse. We are determined to have it done before the end of term, and I’m fairly sure we will, even with the ever-growing list of social events. We have spent enough summers working on this house: sanding floors or stripping and repainting the landing, hall and stairs. This is going to be a summer of unadulterated fun, as far as such a thing is possible. The only task I might save is upholstering those two old chairs; I want to get them right. And of course it’s not just indoors that’s keeping us busy – we spent a fair bit of the weekend making a dent in the fruit and berry ‘harvest’, weeding the veg beds and deadheading all those annuals which are now in bloom. Sitting on the patio, enjoying their display, reminds me that all this busyness indoors will be well worth it as the months slip by towards the autumn. I’ll be thankful for past labours then. In the meantime, though, you’ll find me on my knees, both figuratively and literally as I tend the garden and make inroads in the house. Two weeks to go and counting. Wish me luck.

Shuffling

What with the end of term in sight, and the end of Ben’s exams today, my mind has started tripping forward to a little reshuffle around the house. It’s already started in the sitting room: the chaise lounge, which I’d intended to move into the bay window as soon as we stopped lighting the fire, has finally been settled into its new place. Too cold for the winter, it’s perfect for summer evenings, and in the mornings we’ve been coming down to find Seb or Ilse tucked up behind closed curtains, under a blanket, lost in a book.

I like moving things around from time to time. Twice a year, when the equinox throws us from shorter days to long, then back to short again. It almost passed me by this spring, busy as I was in the garden and elsewhere, but it’s never too late for little changes. In truth, I’ve been waiting for Ben’s exams to be over, to put a long-planned scheme into place. He’ll be leaving home soon, slowly at first, with little hops out and back again, and will need a room to call his own for quite some years to come. Yet at the same time there will be long stretches when his room lies empty, and could be put to better use. He’s had one of the two nicest rooms in the house: a sun-drenched double bedroom which mirrors our own across the landing, and it seems a shame to let it be used less frequently. So he’s swapping with Seb, and moving into one of the back bedrooms.

We’ve never had a guest room – having as many people as rooms does that to a family – but things changing seems the perfect opportunity to make two rooms in one. I love spaces which can be one thing and then another: a dining room one hour, children’s study the next. We have lots of such spaces in this house, deliberately, and keep surfaces and other tables free so that they can be put to use for whatever takes our fancy. It takes a bit of thought and planning but really, in the grand scheme of things, university student’s bedroom/ guest room is an easy one to master. It’s lots of fun too, working out just what might go where, how much storage space is needed, how a desk can be a dressing table too. I’m even looking forward to taking down the curtains and having a clear out with the boys.

Nothing is ever static, and things change even faster when there are children in the mix. They insist on growing up, on changing, on moving on to something new. I could keep things just the same, and sit in his room when he goes away, feeling sad. But I suspect there be quite enough of feeling sad as it is. In which case, a little project seems just the ticket, to keep me busy and focused on good things: all the friends we’ll be able to put up in comfort, and see so much more easily. It’s not an end – nothing’s really coming to an end. It’s just a spot of shuffling around, as usual.

Stitches

Well, it transpires that there are lots of things you can’t do without stretching your arms forward, particularly if you spend most of your days working with your hands in one way or another. I had a day or two of such discoveries, getting more and more fed up until I started to think about all the things I could do. Things that were not on my immediate list but that I wanted to get done. Frivolous things.

I spent an evening alternately dozing and re-reading The Go-Between. I tapped into Ilse’s enthusiasm for growing flowers and, with her help, arranged the pots on the patio. I delegated, rather a lot. This helped the house to get clean, thank goodness. I baked a huge Victoria sponge, simply oozing raspberry jam and cream, simply because I had the time, and it seemed a nice way to celebrate Friday. I still sat, for several hours across several different sessions, and helped Ben with his revision. It’s dull, doing it all on your own, day after day. I practised my Chopin, and the non-arm-crossing parts of my Debussy. I hoed the garden, standing very upright. I made a new camisole for myself.

And in between all of this, I cross-stitched the label for Ilse’s quilt. Indoors on the Saturday, then outside while drilling Ben on his Latin grammar on Sunday afternoon. It’s done now, although I might add a pretty little border in a darker pink, just to frame the words. It has a snowflake in the middle because it was one I never finished last Christmas. Once I’d stitched the other half of the flake, it seemed silly not to use it. The label is far from perfect – it’s an old linen napkin with a very uneven weave which makes it hard to be neat – but we all rather like it. So much, in fact, that the others would all like one for their quilts too. I’m sure I can oblige. I loved every soothing stitch.

But today I woke up and felt much better, which meant that the onions have had a much-needed hand weeding and I’m planting up some of those pots. Mrs P and I did a huge, ever-so-slightly-urgent wash. I’ll be getting on with lots of those tasks at the top of the list, now that I’m on the mend. I might just slip in a little cross stitch though. It is just the loveliest thing to do at this time of year, in a wicker chair, in the dappled sun. I don’t think I’m altogether healed just yet. Yes, a few more days of stitches might just be in order.

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.

Twinkle

Walking home from Mother and Father’s last night, we paused to admire the big trees twinkling in bay windows. There’s something so generous about a Christmas tree in a window, the curtains left open as night falls. From within, the inhabitants can enjoy its light and scent while they snuggle by the fire; from without passers-by can choose their favourites, which gets harder and harder as the walk goes on.

The very best display was in a tall Georgian home, where the window of each storey was involved. On the ground floor was the tree, decked out in coloured lights – pretty, but nothing extraordinary. Above it, though, was the nativity scene: the plain panes transformed into stained glass by coloured tissue paper. There was the stable, and the mother and father leaning dotingly over the crib. Three shepherds and three wise men had appeared in the distance. The whole picture was framed by the sort of flowing leaves and vines we might expect in a medieval illumination. And above it, in the little attic window of the top storey, all was dark apart from a yellow tissue star, silhouetted against the background.

In our house we don’t ‘trim up’, as Mrs East puts it, until Christmas Eve. The tree lives in a pot outside; the baubles and all those funny homemade decorations which would mean nothing to any other family stay firmly in their box until the very last minute. Then, while I’m icing the cake and stewing red cabbage, the children have the tree and house to keep them busy, and on Christmas Day it all feels fresh and new and fun.

It can be difficult to wait, though. I found them all in the sitting room making paper chains on Saturday, and more lights have been added to the ones that I strung up last week. A few branches of twisted willow have been cut and sparkle quietly in the corner. There’s a jug of eucalyptus in the hall, subtly scenting the house. And some silly twinkly teacups, bought at a jumble sale last year, have replaced my usual green and white set on the dresser.

We lit the pink gaudate candle at mass yesterday, and the excitement seems to be catching. Just a couple more presents to make, just a few more days of school. But before all that, before the season can really begin, we have the birthday of my own special boy to celebrate. Eleven! And such a fun and special birthday planned. I can see his eyes twinkling already.