Waterlog

Each time of year has its antidote. In the dull damp cold of January it is whisperings of spring, of gardens awakening. In October it is tales of cosiness to come, with cold toes and shortened evenings pushed firmly to the margins. In July, it is water, and nature, and calm.

This time of year inevitably builds to a frenzy, with end of year assemblies, visit days to new schools, sports days, school plays, music concerts, holiday planning, and social visits that somehow didn’t happen earlier in the year. People are coming and going from the house at all sorts of strange times, for the day, or a night, or a couple of weeks in France. There are invitations to field and fit, like temporal tetras, into the family calendar. On top of that, I’ve been working full time, coupling my days at work with my own project at home – the beginnings of my business and rebirth of this blog – so that the usual rhythms of July days at home have been reassigned to the busy hours which bookend my working days.

While my days at home are spent writing and drafting paper sewing patterns, I’ve saved my knitting for the evenings. After a day bent over the dining table, measuring and drawing and doing sums, it is a joy to sit on the sofa in the kitchen and watch the chickens make their evening rounds while I add a few rows to my design. In all, I’m pulling together five sewing, four knitting and one embroidery project together for my first pattern collection. The idea is that I’ll release one a month, and support each with video tutorials, link ups and FAQs. This first year of projects is designed to help new sewers and knitters build both a capsule wardrobe and a repertoire of key skills at the same time, so that they can make clothes which are both achievable and beautiful.

Of course, the simpler something is, the more work goes into making it so. The little cast on of green is the beginning of a doll-sized shawl, one fifth the size of the actual design. I had started the real thing before deciding to test my pattern in a smaller format, to save time in case it didn’t turn out as I wanted it to – it’s going to be a crescent shawl with exceptionally simple shaping, and I’ve not seen one like it before. Should it work – and I think it will – the practice shawl will be a gift for Ilse, to wrap around her toy kitty.

Now that I’ve calculated the arcs and angles and figured out my gauge, I’ll have the pleasure of knitting through this little shawl over the next few evenings, Wimbledon on in the background, until it’s time for bed. But the tireder I get, the harder it is to sleep. I find this every year in July: there is so much to think about and do, so many decisions to make and hot stuffy days at work that it is hard to put my mind at rest. I have a little repertoire of antidotes, for this. The pre-sleep knitting helps, even if it’s just a few rows. This weekend I will bring in the lavender, which I’ll hang from our wooden ceiling airers and we will all drop off the moment our heads hit our pillows, lulled by its soporific scent. Most effective of all, though, is reading.

I always read before I go to sleep, but the book I find myself returning to again and again in these tricky July days is Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it; I tend to dip in and out of it, paddling randomly in and out of his outdoor swimming journey around Britain. There is something immensely soothing about nature writing. Reading it is like going home, or being hugged, or perhaps it is simply the literary equivalent of a long walk through green fields. Simple tales about what is both extraordinary and what has always been: training a hawk; courting hares; wild swimming through Britain’s landscape. These are the books that I fall asleep in, their cool waters closing over my head until I am a water baby myself, dreaming of clean skin and cool pastures.

When I opened this book, last week, I found a feather inside, bookmarking the middle of a chapter. I must have broken off, halfway through a bathe in its refreshing pages. I picked another and started to read, until sweet sleep overtook me and before I knew it, a new day had dawned.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

PS – What is July normally like, for you? I suspect that it varies tremendously, depending on whether you have children and whether they are still waiting to break up for the summer holidays.

Notes from the garden (and beyond): June

Last year (and the year before, I think) I ran a weekly Garden Notes series, documenting the changes in our garden over the coming year. Reading about other people’s gardens is one of my favourite things: garden posts are the ones I simply can’t resist and I go back to them in the depths of winter when I am missing the green and can’t quite believe that it’ll ever be warm enough for anything to grow out there. With that in mind, and the simply beautiful weekend we’ve just enjoyed, I thought some garden notes would be in order for today. Only this year I’ve amended the titleto include some of the natural world around us. We are holidaying in the British Isles this summer – England and Eire, to be precise, and probably Scotland – and I want to track the course of this summer as it melts into autumn.

Saturday evening saw us make a foray into the countryside just outside York, at the home of some dear friends of ours. It was so balmy that we sat outside long after the barbecue and deserts had been enjoyed, catching up with each others’ news and watching our children play on the hay bales in the field just over the fence. Later still, when the moon hung in the still-light sky, we took a stroll down the track which leads away from the road and towards the farmer’s house, between fields of luminous, shifting wheat and broad beans in full bloom. In the quiet of the night the animals were out, hunting and hiding as they must. A pair of buzzards started from a bale and flew away to the camouflage of a tree grown tall in the hedge. Time and again the barn owls flew, soft and silent, over the stubbled fields. And Ilse told me that she and my friends’ daughter had been the last in from the bales and looked round one last time to spy a doe on the edge of the woods, watching and waiting for them to leave.

At home, even my suburban garden is bursting with life. There are insects everywhere, and the little garden birds swoop low across the lawn to catch them. We have been careful to keep the bird bath full, and it has become a regular watering and bathing spot in the rounds of the neighbourhood flocks. Our makeshift pond, which I am still hoping will entice some frogs or toads, has long been wriggling with various larvae and in the heat of Sunday I noticed various long-bodied insects hovering above it. I have yet to identify them: that will be a project for Seb and I to enjoy together. For the first year in many we haven’t seen a hedgehog or a vole cross the patio in the evenings, which is a little worrying, but the piles of rotting wood and undisturbed weeds are a standing invitation to all and sundry. We’ve gardened organically since before we moved here, and year on year the volume of life in the garden swells as we create new habitats.

It was with all this life that I shared our space, pottering around on Sunday, watering and weeding and feeding this and that. I had to wait for a bee, drunk on nectar and overheating in his wooly coat, to bumble his way off the brick path so that I could see to my burgeoning tomatoes. The fruit patch was genuinely loud with little beasts enjoying the autumn raspberry blossoms as I checked the progress of the summer canes. Ben and I had an exploratory nibble here and there on our rounds: fat blackcurrants and the first of the sweet mange tout. Further along the same bed, the broad beans have set sail with more blooms than I can ever remember, and I am looking forward to that first crop with such anticipation. Even the new potatoes are in bloom, and the time is fast approaching when they’ll be placed on the table, their burst skins fat with butter, speckled with pepper and mint.

When I think of my garden at the moment, the word that occurs to me is cusp. We are on the cusp of so much goodness that it is easy for me, impatient as I am, to spend too much time dreaming about what is coming next and fail to focus on what we are enjoying just now. Each morning begins with fresh baskets of lettuce, rocket and spinach. There are flowers at my bedside – sweet peas and English marigolds – to wake me as they flow with scent each morning. And on Saturday I took my favourite of all gifts to our hostess: a bunch of home grown stems wrapped in newspaper, which is only possible in these warmer months. There is so much happening now to be connected to, to savour and relish and store up against the coming cold.

On the way home, far, far past her bedtime, Ilse was wide awake and talking about all she’d seen and done. Playing on the hay bales was so much fun, she told us. Do you remember, Mummy, how Laura’s Pa told them not to play on the haystack but they did anyway? Now I know why they did – it’s the best fun there is. It makes me happy, that my twenty-first century daughter finds as much fun in a hay field as her heroine did in pioneer America. It makes me happy that Ben wants to walk the garden with me, and taste and wonder over all that grows there. Or that Seb will sit and sketch and look up bugs and birds, or Fliss give up her Sunday morning to carry cans of water to thirsty plants. I want my children to feel connected to the natural world around them, to know its beauty and its unstoppable power. And to cherish and care for it, as a matter of course. As for myself, I felt unspeakably connected as we drove home through the darkening night on Saturday: to the earth, to the creatures that we share it with, and to our friends, with whom those connections had just grown deeper.

Madeleine

PS – What’s June like in your part of the world? And, if you have a garden, what stage is everything at? Has your harvest well and truly begun?

For the bees

Every so often you see your family through somebody else’s eyes, and a part of who you are comes sharply into focus. John and I were invited out to dinner with my lovely friend and music teacher, Mrs England, and I found myself chatting away about log piles and toad ponds to a zoologist and nature enthusiast.

Now, I spend a lot of time in our garden. I spent a good four hours out there yesterday, tending to the veg patch. I love keeping hens and would like to have a hive and some sheep and pigs one day. Gradually, year by passing year, I find my approach becoming less utilitarian and more inclusive of scent and colour and the other joys that flowers bring. Our garden is a bit part of what makes me me. So much so that I hadn’t realised quite how engaged Seb is with nature at the moment. It took a room swap and a rearrangement of pictures for me to notice that his wall hanging of native garden birds, together with his collection of found feathers, took pride of place on his new walls. That the binoculars are spending a lot of time paired with his bird book whenever we go away. And that, when chatting to the very funny and charming zoologist, Seb was the child I named as being transfixed by nature.

It was as he was making some suggestions about how we could make our garden more nature-friendly that I realised quite how much we had done, and how much lives out there. Not just the family of bluetits in the hollow of the apple tree, or the thrushes who prise snails from their shells by the patio doors. There are the toads who take up residence in the greenhouse every summer, kept watered with the thirsty tomato plants. The hedgehog – one in a long and much-loved line – who follows the same route every evening at dusk. The wobbly-legged spiders, and the little brown ones who spin their webs between the strung up cucumbers and catch yellow and brown striped hoverflies. There are more insects than I can name, as well as several species of bee who come to visit the lavender and anemones, centipedes and other underground wrigglers, crawlers and slitherers. Who knows what lives in the decaying woodpile, or what our soon-to-be-sunk pond will attract? It seems we’re rather fond of bugs and birds and various creepy crawlies after all. Apart from slugs, that is.

Ben came out to help me lift the brassica cages to get at the weeds beneath them, and paused by the silvery-blue sea of borage. Look, Mum, he said, it’s simply crawling with bees. And so it was. That and the marigolds, the lavender, the just-beginning sweet peas and the abundantly self-seeded nasturtiums – all crawling and buzzing with all manner of pollen-loving insects. Those flowers have brought the bees in in a way the garden never has before. I thought that I was growing a cutting garden for the house, and filling some first-summer gaps with easy annuals but no, it appears I was wrong. Most of that bed is no use for filling vases with after all. It seems I planted much of it for the bees.

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.

Oh, October

Every time I look outside the garden is a little more bedraggled. There are weeds left over from when it was still warm enough for them to grow. The grass is overlong and permanently damp. Some trees have shed their leaves; others will cling on for another month or so. The pots of herbs are twiggily bare; already a brown dirt path is being worn to the compost heap.

I haven’t seen as much of this October as I would like. Between one thing and another – a nasty cold, last minute sewing, trips to visit friends – it is already half gone before I realised it was here. Suddenly the house is too cold if left unheated in the evenings. There is condensation on the bedroom window panes. Slippers have appeared, and hot water bottles, and hats and gloves and snoods. Oh, I think. October. And then the sun shines and midday is warm and the washing blows dry on the line and I catch sight of the hens bathing in the dust and the blowsy autumn roses clinging onto skeletal shrubs and – oh October!

It’s a funny, inbetweenish sort of month. The sort I never really notice: it bears neither the grief of September nor the dread of November nor even the headlong rush of December towards Christmas and year’s end. It’s just simple, quiet October, calm and unassuming. Slowly, the green is fading and the nights are drawing in. There is a gradual lessening of noise and outdoor life. Yet a walk to the shops can still be taken in a jumper. The beetroot and fennel grow on, quietly, in the beds. Caterpillar season is over and the Brussels sprouts are swelling on their stems. The sturdy leeks grow fatter.

The robin is back on the garden bench, cocking his head at me. Birds of prey circle over hedgerows. The geese have not yet all flown south. It’s only October still, mild and gentle, waiting for me just a little longer.

Nests

The blue tits are back, darting from the ground to the apple tree in short, fluttering hops. I presume they are building a nest in its hollow crown, although I have left them in peace. They have done so before, as evidenced by the numbers of them swooping low over the insect-rich lawn on buzzing late summer evenings. There are plenty of dried leaves for them, plenty of moss and bits of grass. I hope they make a home here once again.

My dear friend Mrs Eve has been doing the very same, making a new home just right for she and her Mister. She is buying new furniture, and happily unpacking trunks into new wardrobes. Creating a place to set forth from and to come home to. Somewhere which reflects the pair of them, just as they are. Somewhere spick, span, and ever so cosy.

Now that spring is coming, the urge to nest has struck even those of us who have been settled for some years. Through Mrs Eve I have had all the fun of shopping vicariously, coming home with a full purse. And I still don’t intend to spend much. But there are changes to be made.

For me, it’s all about having a base from which to get out, at this time of year. A place to sit just outside the door, and be spurred on into the garden. Somewhere to cast on for little knits on sunny afternoons. A snug spot for a snooze, without the season passing us by. And then, when the sun goes in at the end of the evening, when the fresh air has tired us out and the breeze turns chilly, we’ll want somewhere cosy to retreat to: a nest of sorts, lined with soft wool instead of moss. A space which looks out onto the world beyond, waiting for the next flight, and the next.

Ben will be spreading his wings this summer as usual, heading off on adventures of his own. Fliss will go away for a week or so with the Guides. Seb will spend the long vacation roaming round the village, and even Ilse will be popping in and out of this home and that. Then there will be times when we all fly away, together, to explore other parts of this island. We are all so looking forward to being away.

Yet I know that the flip side of being away is the joy of coming home again. Knowing the rhythm of our days. Seeing how the plants have grown, in our absence. Hearing, from Mother and Father, of how the hens have sulked and fussed and refused to lay any eggs. Opening the door to our own hall, hanging our coats on our own pegs, settling into our own beds.

They say that a change is as good as a rest, and after this busy half term with all its decorating and digging I am ready for a change. I’ve the kitchen in mind, with its french doors which open onto the patio beyond. Nothing drastic, nothing more than the work of an afternoon. I’d like to try the sofa in a different spot, for a better view. I’d like the rocking chair pulled closer to the door so that it’s the work of a moment to lift it onto the patio. I’d like to wake the picnic bench from its long slumber in the shed, ready for springtime dining. And I’d like to press some blooms, and place them in the frames which line one kitchen wall. To make this spot as cosy and appealing as I can. Because this is where you’ll find us, in this room which spills so delightfully outside. There, and in the garden beyond. Darting in and out of our nest, with brief fluttering hops at first. And later? Why, later we’ll have spread our wings. Later we’ll be swooping over the loud lawn in the heady evenings of summer, drunk on the joys of the season.

[whohit]nests[/whohit]

Stars for Seb

I like to think it all began with our first night walk, years ago now, when Seb had grown sturdy on his feet and Ilse was just beginning to be thought of. It was a mild October evening, yet the dark had us penned up, listless, indoors.

There were empty jars draining by the kitchen sink and Ben had abandoned some tissue paper project. He had already mixed a flour paste, so it was easy to put the two together and show the children how to cut bright pieces of colour and stick them to the outside of the jars. Ben’s had tiny diamonds in it; Fliss’ was a sea of overlapping curves. Seb’s was a medley of colour, stuck on any which way with great globs of paste.

We tied parcel string handles around the rims and dropped a tea light into each. The children giggled as they waited, ready in their hats and coats, for John’s key to turn in the lock.

There is something thrilling for children about being out after dark: something adult and almost forbidden. It is not quite the same world, seen only by light spilt yellow across the pavement.

We listened to the nocturnal creatures crashing about in the fallen leaves, and made our way to the river. Glimmers of white caught our eye along its contours as the moon picked out the sleeping swans. We made for our favourite bench on the bridge and it was here, protected by candlelight, that they ate their makeshift supper of cheese and pickle sandwiches, dipping shortbread into milk still warm from the thermos. Towards the end of the feast the candles guttered and went out, one by one.

Suspended over the river you are away from the light thrown out by the important buildings: the shops with their windows full of wares, the big gas lamp reminding everyone where the pub is. The sky above, with its splash of stars, is more clearly visible. We pointed out what we knew: the North Star. Ursa Major. Dippers, large and small. Orion’s diamante belt. Seb, in particular, was fascinated.

That Christmas we gave him a book on the stars. He has long since absorbed it. This is the boy who asks to stop on the way home from cubs to see which of his friends are shining tonight. This is the boy who threw handfuls of borax in the bonfire, to show me what it would do. The boy who can make a miniature radio set out of a bit of crystal. A magician, and a soothsayer. An alchemist.

Children change all the time. There is a danger of pigeonholing them, of telling them who they are and what they are good at, and determining their self-view. One year’s passion might be gone by the next. They try things on for size and discard most of them.

But some of them stick, which is why I am confident that this starry jumper will still suit Seb in a year or two. I think the stars have stuck, with him.

These past few months have seen new interests creeping in. An affinity for music. Outdoorsiness. A blossoming love of nature. Which is why I am glad that there are trees, too, in this traditional design. Stars and trees, but mostly stars, for Seb.

[whohit]starsforseb[/whohit]

Hedgehog season

Beyond the lawn and the veg patch, in the unclaimed land between my garden and the start of the children’s territory, stands the pergola. It leans to one side, and I’ve grown to love its weary dilapidation. A wisteria, once trained up it for support, now holds the structure together, and each spring dangles slender bunches of lilac blooms into its interior.

To its left is the fruit bed and to its right, a shaded, forgettable bed which, until this year, has ended each season deep in weeds. Last spring I hit upon the idea of growing jerusalem artichokes there and they have flourished, forming an impassibly lush and vaguely prickly wall. The beans took up the bed to the front of the pergola, and the wisteria linked arms with them as soon as they were tall enough, forming a seamless transition from ceiling to floor.

We sling the hammock in this green room, and I’m sure I was not the only one to imagine myself on an Amazon expedition as I swung there in muggy July.

But now it is October, and time for its walls to come down. I spent an hour this morning pulling up the spent beans, having first collected the mottled pods full of next year’s seed. The robin moved in as I left, hopping over the dark bare soil, hoping for a worm. The hideaway is no longer.

Yet I am careful to leave a boundary: an untouched edge of hedge and fallen leaves which is disturbed as little as possible. The toads live here, and the hedgehogs and, once, we even saw a lizard zig-zagging his way to the safety of a crevice. We leave the nettles standing all summer for the butterflies to feast on, and piles of old logs for beetles and solitary bees to set up house.

At tea time there was a knock on the door and six or seven of the village children were crowded there, asking whether mine might come out to collect wood for Bonfire Night. Seb bolted his milk and in a few minutes he and Ilse were scarved and hatted. Ben took his electric torch to ward off the gathering darkness. I started to remind him not to let the children build the bonfire until the fifth, but he nodded impatiently. He knows what hedgehogs like to do.

Once the door was shut behind them, their simmering excitement pouring down the lane to the farmer’s house, Fliss and I looked at each other, the same idea in each of our minds. The dough was rising for supper, next to the stove where vegetable soup spluttered lazily.

She divided the dough in two while I cleared the tea things. Then we shaped dough noses, snipped prickles and pressed fat raisin eyes into place. We set the little creatures down for a rest, under a clean tea towel, before finishing them in the oven.

At the supper table Ilse and Seb were full of their triumphs: the strong pine tree trunk Mr Stevens had been saving for them all year, the woodwormy wardrobe Mrs Cornwall was only too pleased to be rid of, and the promise, from next door, of a moth eaten suit for the guy. Ben had taken them all hunting for conkers, too, shining his light into the orange leaves which lay, thick and unbroken, on the green. Too soon, though, a definite rustling in the leaves persuaded them to abandon their endeavours.

There had been many eager pockets and too few conkers to go around. Seb asked whether we might run a half term expedition to a row of horse chestnuts we know, near the knavesmire. I agreed at once, on the proviso that Ilse would be cartographer and Seb navigator. I would provision the company.

Fliss had decorated the hedgehog loaves with fallen leaves, conkers, and acorns. They prompted happy bouncing from Ilse, a bloodthirsty ‘can I eat the eyes?’ from Seb, and a kiss from John as I sat down. It was the end of one happy day, full of plans for another.

[whohit]hedgehogseason[/whohit]