The sea is calling

I love the sea in all seasons, but it calls particularly loudly in the summer months. We haven’t been to the beach for a while, but Seb is heading to the coast on a day out soon with school, and it’s got me thinking that we could do with a family visit too.

The children don’t mind where we go – they like the kiss-me-quick of Scarborough and the Bridlington donkeys as much as the next person, but given the choice John and I always head to Filey. Just a little resort, it has a short promenade above a long, sweeping beach and when the tide comes in you can walk up and down along the seafront, or stroll up the nearby grassy hill for a spin in the pedalos or a turn on the putting green.

True to form, the English summer has been a bit variable of late, but I have high hopes for a bit of timely sun. Call me greedy, but I haven’t had enough fine weather yet. After last week’s deluge, I’m ready to start watering by hand again, but I don’t think I’m going to need to for a while. In the meantime I have school concerts and assemblies, debating meets and end-of-term performances to keep me happy indoors. But a spot more sunshine would be seasonal and very welcome, as would a day out at the sea. Here’s hoping.

Moving out

I wasn’t expecting Ilse to be the one moving out this summer, but that’s what she cheerily announced on Sunday afternoon, blanket under one arm, cushion in the other. We’ve all been working on transforming the little tower for her in spare pockets of time. John made a swing with her, which hangs beneath the house part and is hidden by the raspberry canes. I took her to a jumble sale to buy the basket which hangs on a pulley, ready for lifting up treats. Lovely Mrs East gave her the squishiest hand-knit pillow, all wool and cables. We found a rug to spread over the wooden floor, and an old beanbag, and a biscuit tin. She’s taken out a notebook to keep a log in. And on Saturday she and Fliss made the bunting and strung it up themselves, right over the F which has been there since we tidied it up for Fliss several years ago. We ought to look out for an I, but are keeping the F for posterity. And because she keeps disappearing up there, too, and pulling that stick-door shut behind her.

And what about Seb, I hear you asking? Don’t worry: he’s building a base out of an old tarpaulin, a ball of string and roughly 6,000,000 sticks. He works for a bit, then stops to raid the fruit patch before getting back to it. He’s very happy.

Between them, I am getting almost hourly requests for a date on which they’ll be able to sleep out there this summer. I keep thinking about the fox who comes to visit the chickens, and the fact that neither space can be seen or heard from the house, and a thousand unsavoury possibilities. Then I remember that they camp out in the garden every summer. It’ll be fine. It’s inevitable, really. Time ploughs on, children get bigger, and one by one they all move out, if only for one night.

 

Mornings, in summer

There is everything to love about waking up on a summer’s morning. The sun already seeping through the curtains. Sheets and blankets half kicked off. The yellowness of the light, telling you that it’s going to be another sunny day. A tea tray, with a pot that stays hot while you potter out of bed, through the laundry basket, into the bathroom and down the stairs. Wandering down the garden in your dressing gown and wellies to pick something for the pan: spring onions, perhaps, or chard. Hens already up, the day’s eggs waiting smooth and warm in the clean dry straw. Sending children off on bikes in the good weather, with no moans about wind or cold or misplaced gloves. A quiet breakfast on your own, once the house has emptied. The sun, lingering in the high sky, so that the day yawns on before you. Time, then, for another cup of tea on the patio.

How I love these blessed summer mornings. And noons, and sultry afternoons. It’s hard to feel stressed with the hot sun on your back, easing your muscles into buttery relaxation. Why bother dragging yourself in when there are so many things which can be done outside, instead? Yesterday I popped out to water the tomatoes and came in, four hours later, the beds weeded and watered and generally tidied up. It’s hard to mind about a bit of dust in the house, or the roses which are dropping their petals all over the kitchen table. Leave it for a rainy day – and there’ll be some of those soon enough.

Instead, wander around outside and look at how everything’s grown. The marigolds are ready to bloom. The broad beans are in full flower. The first nasturtiums have popped open, and we’ve hung a basket of their cheery blooms on either side of the front door. Just flowers, just in my back garden. What’s bloomed and what’s not doesn’t really matter to anybody else. But to me, each unfurling petal is a little wonder. A win. A tiny celebration of the summer, new and soft as it still is. I love each climbing bean, each burgeoning lettuce, each visiting bee. Each meal on the lawn, each supper with the french doors flung wide open. And the mornings, of course. I even love mornings, in summer.

One evening in June

Lovely days in June can’t be depended on. You have to seize them. So it was when I collected Ilse from school and bumped into the others, flying home on their bicycles in their shirtsleeves, ties flapping in the wind. We didn’t go home at all, but instead to the park, where we had tea and buns in the little cafe and we all had a go on the pedal boats. The drakes strutted about on the concrete edges of the lake, losing their dignity the minute a child appeared with bread to throw. A man rode round with his trike of ices. And we spread blazers and cardigans on the cool green grass and lay back and drank in the sunshine.

We don’t often just head out like this, abandoning the tea I had prepared, leaving the laundry flapping on the line. We found a public telephone box and rang John, telling him of our plans, asking him to join us. He arrived just in time for the last of the evening warmth, as the park began to empty.

When we got home there was supper to put on, ironing to fold, prep and piano practice that had to be done, all in a jumble at once. But never mind. This is all part of my summer plan, breaking up the tedium and the tiredness with something unexpected. Nothing special, or expensive. Just a trip to the park, one evening in June.

 

Taking care

This time of year is always a bit of a slog. It should be wonderful – the weather is warm, the school year nearly over, sometimes the sun even shines. But we’re not quite there yet. Ben’s exams run for the next three weeks. Fliss has a ballet exam soon, and the extra lessons that that entails. John is busy at work, getting everything in place for the Christmas chocolate frenzy. In the garden there’s lots and lots of salad, but not a great deal else. All those things that we’ve worked so hard for have not quite reached fruition, and we’re getting tired.

So I have declared the next month to be the month of Taking Care. Early nights. Good food. Jaunts out at every opportunity, for a little change of scene. Adjustments to the routine, and little treats for everyone when they least expect it.

Outside in the garden, which is so tantalisingly close to the start of the harvesting season, the weeding and watering must go on. There are plants to be staked, and successional sowings to be made. This morning I planted out ten baby fennel bulbs and two rows of fledging lettuces, before sowing more seeds indoors. And although I still pick a bowlful of lettuce each and every day, there are now rocket leaves and baby chard to add to the mix. Seb slipped out before breakfast to pick the first of the raspberries. And there are so many roses on the bush behind the hen house that I’ve filled a vase to overflowing, and more are still in bud.

By contrast, the cutting garden looks quite bare, with pale spears gladioli just breaking through the surface. Beside them, the marigolds are settling in, as are the dahlias, sweet peas, alstroemeria and starflowers. The sunflower seeds have sprouted fat dicotyledons. They are all working very hard, and would benefit from a bit more sun, and I know that there will be flowers sooner or later. To settle our impatience the bedding plants are doing splendidly in their new bed, and putting on a show in purples and pinks and blues. Better still, you can see them from the sofa in the kitchen, and from the sink, and the table, and even the back bedrooms upstairs. It’s brought the garden closer to the house, that bed of Ben’s, so that even those of us who don’t have the time to get out there every day can enjoy the pleasures of June.

Further back, the elderflowers are already beginning to brown and drop their petals. I could be rushing around, making one more batch of cordial to carry this month into the winter. But we’ve plenty of that in store, and of jam. In fact, we’re eating things up at the moment, to make room for this year’s bounty. Sunday evening saw the last jar of 1931 blackcurrants stirred into a marbled, creamy fool. The remaining spring cabbages came straight in from the patch to the pan. Jars of Emergency Pudding (a phrase the children love) mean that there are always mulled pears to satisfy that need for just a little something sweet. There will be time enough to restock those larder shelves. During the summer, when we will have nowhere to be and nothing to do but the things we choose. When a whole day’s agenda might be: Make Chutney. For now, though, we’re taking things as easy as we can, and making life comfortable. Dropping anything which isn’t strictly necessary. Slowing down. Taking care.

Garden notes: Picking

We’ve been away an awful lot this summer, one way and another. Between outings and overnights, camping trips and tramps around the country, home has been a place to get the washing done and have a bath before heading off again. Things have been different in the garden, too – periods of neglect (in which the tomatoes were saved only by the kindness of a neighbour with a key) followed by a two or three day stint of hours and hours out there. Once back from our final jaunt earlier this week, I was ready for a change of pace. To get back to taking my time, pottering about and making the most of the autumn sun. To seeing all the jobs that must be done and choosing one – just one – to make a start on. And, in this precious time before the clocks go back, using the time between tea and supper to wander around with a basket on my arm, seeing what is ready to be picked.

I love this part of the day. The part when the children flop about on the sofa or the rug, full of bread and jam, ready for a bit of quiet after school and before some game begins. More often than not I am alone in the garden. I check the tomatoes first, then the cucumbers and courgettes. Lettuce next, then it all gets taken in and the leaves plunged into cold water. Then outside once more to the inevitable beans. The low-hung sun shines in my eyes, and looking down I see a spider wobbling about on elongated limbs. The round leaves of nasturtiums steal a march across the paving slabs, heralded by their own radiant blooms, so I pick a basketful of those, too, to make a spicy paste. There are squat green insects here and there, scuttling about on crooked legs, and new webs appear daily between one green creeper and another. The cabbages are safe, now that the caterpillars have moved on to pastures new, but the aphids have arrived in their camouflaged hundreds and tomorrow, really, I should deal with them. For now, though, I have time to sit on my bench and watch the bees make their way from bloom to bloom, drunk and heavy with nectar.

Inside, I watch the hens in happy frenzy on the fresh-dug soil as I rinse the dirt from another panful of potatoes. Boiled, I think, with beans and fish and parsley sauce. Tomorrow there will be cabbage. I must send a child out to pick a Cox for each of them for school. There will be scallions in the morning, and green swiss chard, and flowers for my salad. I could eat like this forever, grazing on the bounty of the earth. Recipe books lie abandoned at this time of year. I keep an ear out for complaints: about green beans again, or more courgettes, or not another cabbage. They haven’t started yet. Perhaps it’s because with green beans come windfalls from the sky, stewed with cinnamon for breakfast. With courgettes come berries in the hedgerows to slow your journey home from school. Or perhaps they simply appreciate this fresh green food as I do, knowing that it cannot last forever. Whatever the reason, they’re eating. And if they keep eating I’ll keep picking, and those plants will keep producing, and everyone will be happy.

Cuttings

As many of the flowers begin to fade out of doors, those indoors are getting our attention. Oh, there’s still plenty in the garden, and to be seen on hedgerow rambles. Into the house come cuttings of sweet peas, and anemones, and umbellifers. There is hibiscus by the armful, and the grass is full of buttercups. But on a rainy day, when the first of the woollens are called for, there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in pulling out old shirts and frocks and cutting them up for quilting.

In the mix, this time, is Ilse’s romper from last summer, and an old green dress of mine. There are a number of shirts for plains and stripes, from Father and John and Ben. There’s a blouse Fliss loved but splashed something on in a chemistry lesson. And there’s a little Liberty, too – spared from a length I bought in London to make a new case for my flute – a splash of something special to bring the quilt to life.

I’ve had a lot of company on my afternoons of cutting. Not just the customary Poirot on the wireless, and the tray with its pot of tea. Seb has been hovering, picking bits out of the scrap pile for some puppetry project or other. Ilse has been snipping off the buttons for the jar. Fliss wandered in and out, casting an eye over the proceedings and glowing quietly with pleasure as she noticed each new fabric in the pile. I’ve had helpers to count the 63 white squares cut from a worn out sheet, and the 32 setting triangles. The multicoloured strips have been arranged and rearranged in various colour combinations. It’s been a lovely way to pass the rainy summer holiday afternoons.

We’re just about finished now, with all the cutting. Next comes the stitching together of the long strips, before they are cut into short trios of squares and resewn into nine-patch blocks. Then the whole top can be pieced and set on point to create a diamond effect: a Jewel in the Crown quilt.

But not today. Today, the sun is shining, and I know a green lane where the hedges are groaning with blackberries. Today is a day for stained lips and prickled fingers and baskets heavy with fruit. The quilt can wait for another rainy day. I have different cuttings to take: from the anemones in the garden to give to a friend of mine, which I hope will bloom next summer.

That’s the thing about cuttings: they grow into something wonderful. A whole new plant from a length of root. Crown jewels from cotton chintzes. And in the kitchen this evening, jam from unbidden brambles.

A proper picnic

Come August the moors turn purple. The sun lights up the landscape in patches, falling through windows in the cloud. The rowans are laden with red, the bracken is at its full height, and the gorse is, as ever, in flower. But it is the purple heather I like best: great swathes of it splashed across the tops, broken only by a prow of Yorkshire gritstone here and there.

There are lots of places more classically beautiful – I know that, I’ve seen many – but nothing quite compares to the moors in August. It is still bleak, still hard country to scrape a living from. For great stretches there is nothing, and then a long, low farmhouse comes into sight, and then there is nothing again. Small villages huddle in shallow dales, trees twisted by the wind. Sheep wander freely: Swaledales with their curled horns and black faces. Sheep and pheasants, fattened for the kill, and the hovering birds of prey who have spotted something small and living we could never see. This is an old landscape, constant over centuries, changeable by the hour.

It was here that we took a picnic – a proper picnic, in celebration of John’s fortieth. A family picnic seemed just the thing, and the last time he’d had such a thing for his birthday was thirty four years ago, when he was six. Oh, to have an August birthday. The outings and excursions, holidays and lazy days in the garden that such lucky people have, each year. He always lets us share it with him. This year it was properly hot – almost too hot to sit still on the blanket in the midday sun. Nobody really wanted to, anyway, given that the bilberries were ripe. Lips, fingers and chins were stained purple long before the hamper had even been opened, and it took little persuasion to get the children to collect a few more for jam while John and I spread the rug. We had a late luncheon in the heather – pork pies with piccalilli, sandwiches with bully beef and relish, tomatoes from the garden and cool green cucumber cut into sticks for nibbling. A pause was most certainly necessary, and so out came the books and the playing cards, the whittling knives and the knitting. Nearby boulders were examined and attempted, low paths in the flora wriggled through on bellies, siblings jumped out on before they could get ‘home’.

Yet ‘home’ they all came when they saw me sandwiching blackcurrant fool between the layers of a Victoria sponge. It being a birthday cake, we poked candles into its top, and sang before we cut it. Such simple celebrations are very often the best. A slab of cake – or maybe two – on a proper cloth napkin, with tea in a proper china cup and proper grog for the little ones? Proper French bubbles in proper champagne saucers, followed by a most improper nap in the middle of the moor? Now, that’s what I call a proper picnic.

Garden notes: Scorcher

On my way downstairs this morning I found a neatly folded pile of blankets on the landing floor, just outside the linen cupboard. I stepped over them, knowing just why they were there and having no good ideas about where they might be moved to. You see, for much of the year the cupboard stands quite empty, its cosy innards strewn across our beds. It begins to fill in spring, when the eiderdowns are rolled and squeezed onto its shelves. Then come the blankets, and the odd quilt, and I can normally find a way to make it fit. But in a good summer the very last layers come off, leaving only sheets and a breeze from an open window – and this, for the moment, is a good summer.

The air is hot. The earth is hot. Even the soft green grass is warm to the touch. The potatoes, which we began to dig a week or so ago, are keeling over, yellow. Unwatered plants don’t wilt, but crisp. I picked the first tomato yesterday and nibbled it as I opened the greenhouse vents. In the space of a week, the broccoli has doubled in size. I forgot to cut the courgettes and have a harvest of marrows to contend with. The garden is full of butterflies, trying to get through the netting to my cabbages’ swelling hearts.

I keep finding myself in the veg patch, trowel in hand, wanting to begin a job. I pull a few weeds before retreating to the shade. I have young lettuces to plant out, and watering to do, and try to fit those jobs into the cool of the early morning. But for most of the day it is simply too hot to interfere with the plants. Water them and they’ll burn, the droplets magnifying the already strong rays of the sun. Transplanted seedlings will shrivel and die. It is too hot for salad or fennel seeds. Yet the garden is where I long to be.

As happens so often in life, one problem solves another. A blanket on the lawn, in the dappled shade of a tree, is the perfect spot to enjoy this weather from. A book, a little bit of knitting, a notebook full of summer plans. Sat here I can cool down enough to have another cup of tea, despite the fact that, yet again, it looks set to be a scorcher.

July planning

There is nothing nicer than an English summer’s day. Warm enough to saunter round the garden in your dressing gown before the breakfast rush, cool enough to wrap your hands around a cup of tea. Even in the height of summer the countryside is gloriously green, and the blue skies wrap the world in a subtle, Madonna-esque sense of peace. The verges are crowded with the sorts of flowers other, more exotic nations might just overlook: poppies and forget me knots. Cow parsley. Clover. There is time to stop and stare, in an elongated summer’s day.

And stop and stare you must. The English summer is fleeting and ephemeral. It always leaves you wanting more: one more doze upon the lawn, one more tea spread on the picnic rug. An extra week of Wimbledon, the treat of an Indian summer. Some years it acquiesces; others it barely stops to hang its hat up in the hall before passing on to milder, southern climes. Yet we are nothing if not hopeful. We plan for the summer as though it were a certainty, and pack our macs in case of likely rain. Soon the children will be at home for the six week holiday, and so camping trips and other adventures are the order of the day. We’ve spent a little while putting them on the calendar, and keeping our fingers crossed. The summer is taking shape, and I can’t wait. Today, though, the sky is most definitely blue. There’s a spot in a hammock with my name on, and a little extra wool has come my way. Time for a spot of lazy crochet, and another cup of tea. Enjoy it while it lasts, I say. Plan for tomorrow, but live for today.