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]

In practice

My gardening plans have had to be postponed, for today. I woke up this morning to rain: not just the typical Yorkshire mizzle but the sort of downpour which permeates your very bones if you’re not careful.

Rather than launch straight into the day’s housework, I turned to my rainy day alternative, and left the lid of the piano up once Ilse had finished her morning practice. As soon as the house had emptied, I pressed down the soft pedal and began to play.

There is a reverence to mornings that I don’t lightly break. Speaking to a neighbour I might explain my habits in other terms: the beds need time to air, or the daily doesn’t arrive until ten. In truth, I need a peaceful start to my days. With four children I can’t stay in bed with a pot of tea and a book, or go for a pre-breakfast wander. So I wait until the house is quiet to begin my little rituals.

I am learning a gavotte, by Bach. From the hesitation, the stopping and starting and wrong notes, this may not seem like a particularly soothing activity. Yet I can think of nothing else, as I play. I am absorbed. I am tested and stretched, and play the same short passage over and over before the clock strikes quarter to and I resurface. Then I take a deep breath, shut the lid gently, and put the kettle on for Mrs P. She will be cold and damp from the rain.

Sometimes, in my lessons, I feel a terrible dunce, my hands stumbling and head wooly when faced with the simplest exercises. But that feeling never lasts. Each week (my teacher assures me) I am, ever so slightly, better. I wish that my childhood self had never given up. Much stronger that my regret, though, is my delight that I am learning anyway.

I normally play the piano in the evenings, after the supper dishes have been wiped and left, standing ready, for the morning. I play my flute in the late afternoon, when the hotpot is in the oven and the vegetables are boiling on the top. By late afternoon I am ready for its surprisingly penetrating timbre, the high notes and the semi-quavers. I am fully awake, by then, and I need to be. At present, I am working on Mozart’s quartet in D, and even straightforward phrases are often rudely interrupted by wrong notes and missed accidentals. I wonder whether I will ever get it up to speed.

When the children were babies, before I  had begun to take piano lessons, I would practise once they were all in bed. I had no choice: the time before supper was consumed by fretful babies and fractious toddlers. I would long for John’s return. Once he was home and the children tucked up, full-bellied, I would assemble my flute to play soft airs, country dances and lilting Irish lullabies. Sometimes it was only for five minutes, sometimes longer, but that twilight music is lodged in their subconscious. Fliss still alters when I play after supper, dragging a blanket into a chair and listening, eyes closed. Even now I play to her, from downstairs, when she is sleepless.

Nowadays, my turn at the piano is the last of the day. It is certainly not the most impressive, but probably the best-enjoyed. Occasionally (only occasionally) I have to remind the children that they’ll be glad of all this practice, later. As an adult, I just do it because I want to. And that changes everything.

[whohit]inpractice[/whohit]

Little knits

Autumn does not deepen in a steady flow, but hesitantly, advancing and retreating like an incoming tide.

This morning was the occasion of another little rush forwards. We woke up to clear skies and a heavy dew and, suddenly, out of drawers and cupboards, came the little knits. They have been squirrelled away, tucked in, all summer, behind the socks and vests, but their time has come. October is the month for little knits – on go hats and mittens, scarves and socks – enough to keep that nip in the air at bay without recourse to a heavy coat.

Like autumn itself, though, the day will grow warmer before it is colder, and those same hats will be shoved down the sides of satchels on the journey home from school. Because of this, October is also the month of lost little knits. Gloves, discarded, cannot be found when the frost strikes a week later. I sewed Ilse’s mittens to a ribbon and ran it through the arms of her cardigan. The others are disdainfully too old for such precautions, but Ilse, at least, will still have two mitts by November.

Outside, I wished I’d put my new wool socks on. By the time I’d pulled out the shrinking cucumber vines my toes were numb. I found no fewer than twenty-six cucumbers, hiding from the cold in the remains of the lush tangle. The hens were sunbathing, snuggled together in a corner of their run. And happily, the slugs had not ventured near the windfalls.

Inside the house, a ladybird had come to share our warmth. She ambled along the white windowsill, unconscious of how conspicuous she was in her red and black jacket. I took her out to the bush where hundreds of her kind sleep each winter. There is still time for her to bed in.

In the warmth of the afternoon I knitted. At the bottom of my basket, beneath the sleeves and half-knit body of Fliss’ Foxgloves, is a half-finished scarf for Ben. I worked on this, today.

Most of my little knits are made in the summer months. I like to use up the odds and ends of wool – balls left over from cardigans, half a skein remaining from my nordic pullover, or from another little knit. There’s a rhythm to my knitting: cardigans for John and I in the spring and then little knits right through until late September, when I know the children won’t grow out of their new pullovers before they’ve worn them. These smaller knits are easy to take on the train, to the beach, and on a picnic. They don’t lie hot and heavy in my lap. By October, my wool basket is empty and the corners of everyone’s drawers are full of cosiness.

I looked at John in his new hat, and remembered the three evenings I spent knitting it: mid-August, the windows open, a serialisation of the latest Agatha Christie on the Home Service. My own oak leaf hat: a rainy week in July when we couldn’t get out of doors. Ilse’s mittens: the meandering train ride to my brother’s family in Devon, one either way.

When all the others had left, I watched Ilse from our bedroom window as she set off for school, exclaiming over jewelled webs with muffled claps of joy. Those mittens will remind her of dewy mornings, frosty gates and, hopefully, pushing carrots into snowmen’s faces. But they remind me, already, of telegraph poles oscillating by train windows, of the first glimpse of sailboats in Devon harbours, and of the promise of the summer ahead.

[whohit]littleknits[/whohit]

Plotting

It might have been the reappearance of the sun, after so many days of grey skies. Or perhaps it was simply that I had wandered into the garden with no particular task in mind.

I couldn’t quite bring myself to pull out the cucumbers. The trees are still in leaf, so cannot be pruned. And I flatly refuse to cut away the hibiscus which has grown into my bench. I spent some time diving down the backs of the laurels and lilac, cutting away at rogue brambles. That done, I wandered to the fruit plot, and began to weed.

The strawberries were heavy with fruit which will never ripen. The rhubarb, too, was suffering in the shade of the ash. Both needed a sunnier spot. Which meant that I’d have space for at least three new fruit bushes – blackcurrants or gooseberries, most likely. But in order to move the unhappy plants I would need a new perennials bed, in full sun. I abandoned my weeding and set off, pacing the lawn, carving it up in my mind.

Gardening is an optimist’s game. Ask me, any time, and I will always reply that the garden will be better next year. It’s not just about autumn. In winter we pencil convoluted calculations of appetites and planting distances in the margins of seed catalogues, determined to get it right. Then there’s the thrill of green buds in spring, dancing above us as we nurture the first fragile rows of seedlings. By summer these have translated themselves into fruits and flowers, and we sow the overwintering plants between them.

In each of these seasons we work away, diligent and hopeful, making the very most of what is before us.

In autumn, only in autumn, can we tear up the plans. At a stroke of a pencil, lawn becomes bed, and bed, lawn. New trees are drawn in where, a moment before, there were none. Hard landscaping appears, changing the feel and function of the plot.

We have a window of opportunity, once a year, to reimagine everything. I have a tendency to plan my garden on my own. I ran into the house for paper and pencil, squeezed onto the bench beside the hibiscus, and began to sketch. I got as far as having the old pine tree removed before I paused. If we cut it down at head height, it would leave the perfect space for a den. And the children have been asking whether they might reinstate the secret passage behind the hawthorns. I pushed my plan aside.

In the house, I spread a larger piece of paper on the kitchen table. On it I sketched a compass and the bare bones of our garden. The rest I left blank.

This evening, after supper, we shall fill it in. Together. We can each plot our treasures on this map. It will be a jumble, a mixture of piratical Xs and neat, scaled sketches. But I will make sense of it. I will make a list, alongside, of what is to be done. Then, with everybody’s help, I will begin anew. I love our garden, and with everyone’s input, it will be better still next year.

[whohit]plotting[/whohit]

Gathering

Sunday morning, before mass, found me in the garden, gathering the last of the anemones. I arranged them into a rough bouquet as I picked them, knowing that to separate them would cause the trembling petals to scatter. There were just enough to fill two vases: one for the kitchen and the other for the dining table, ready to greet our guests. It was ‘only’ Mother and Father, but the occasion was heightened by the fact that we hadn’t seen them for a month. They have been on the south coast, catching the remains of the summer sunshine.

I laid on the sort of luncheon October does best: roast loin of pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, potatoes and parsnips which, although not yet sweetened by the first frosts, were golden and sticky from their roasting.

Ben was home from camping with the scouts just in time to bathe and join us. The others were rested from their week-end at home, scattered about the place, engrossed in their own endeavours. Ilse has been learning to knit, flitting down from her bedroom every few minutes with another tangle for me to unravel. Seb has been practising archery, having carefully restrung the bow Ben made so patiently with him last spring. Fliss has been wandering in some imaginary world, under an old blanket in the tree house, a stack of best-beloved volumes beside her. Industrious John chopped and stacked all day on Saturday, filling the woodshed and shaking off the feel of his desk.

So it was with great joy that I had them all around one table. We each had our own adventures to tell of, so that we sat talking for a long while after the last spoonful of damson crumble was gone.

A lengthy game of scrabble ensued, and knitting for some, and the customary doze on the settee for Father. Best of all, we lit the sitting room fire for the first time this season, and its magic held us all there, together, in one space. We didn’t even move for tea but drank it where we rested, with thin slices of apple and cheese, and slabs of Mother’s apple and marmalade cake to follow. It was the very best sort of Sunday: involving food, fire and a family gathering.

That evening, before turning in, I weighed out sugar and dried fruit, and poured over it the dregs of the day’s tea. An egg, some flour and a quick stir was all that was required before I popped it into the stove to bake the following morning. It made two tea loaves, fragrant with cinnamon: one for home and one for John to take to the office. In the coming afternoons, I believe that they will be the cause of smaller, but no less important, gatherings.

 

[whohit]Gathering[/whohit]

The morning garden

Each morning, once the breakfast has been cleared away, I head into the garden.

I have tried gardening at all times of day. In the afternoon the gardens roundabout become temporary sitting rooms: people chat over flowerbeds, drink tea on their benches, and play ball games with small children on soft lawns. There are babies, crying in their prams as they wake from afternoon naps in the fresh air: noisy great grubs in their rolls of cellular blankets and crocheted hats.

In the evening the sun casts its long fingers between the trees and plays gentle hymns  on the lawn. From the house I can hear the older children practising their scales. There is a golden, molten quality about the garden, precious but transient. Time moves too quickly in the evenings. John joins me, companiable, and asks what he might do. The children rush out for a game of French cricket before Ilse must go to bed.

In the late hours of the morning, before lunch, the sun sits high above the open flowers, coaxing their scents from them. The last of the bees congregate around the sedum. I can hear Mrs P in the kitchen, yanking strings from beans and clattering the cutlery. Soon the front door will burst open and they will spill in, full of their day, demanding their lunch. My own stomach growls impatiently.

But in the morning everyone is elsewhere. Mrs P is still at home, paring carrots and potatoes for her own husband’s supper. Ilse has joined the gaggle of children on their way to the village infants’ school. Seb, still proud of his new-to-him bicycle, snakes down the lane in Fliss’ wake. Ben is long gone, flying far ahead, as usual. John is waiting for the bus. The neighbours are sitting down with a cup of tea, and a sigh. Their toddlers are toppling towers of wooden bricks. Their babies are having the last dribble of porridge wiped from their sweet chins, expertly, with the edge of a spoon.

It is quiet in my garden. I fancy that, if I listen carefully enough, I will hear the creaking of the woodlice as they go about their business. Today I dig up a patch of ground elder, suprising the white roots as they look up from silent networks in the damp brown earth. I disturb several earthworms, who flail blindly about, accordion-like, mourning their crumbly beds. In the tree above, the mist condenses and drips. The world has shrunk to a flower bed, a trowel, and an old newspaper to kneel on.

I know that when I close my eyes tonight I will see those complex creamy pathways, laid bare in the dark soil. Later, when I am laying the table, or mending Seb’s shirt, or waiting my turn at the grocer’s, I will be able to rest my eyes and, for a moment, enjoy the peace of the morning garden again.

 

[whohit]The morning garden[/whohit]

Fair isle at the fair

My mother in law invited me to attend her local wool fair. As the train approached Skipton, the fields were full of sheep, busily growing their fleeces to keep them warm this winter.

It seems apt then, for a woollens fair to take place in the Yorkshire Dales, and in the auction mart to boot. Each of the stalls was set up in a pen, and none was the same as any other. There were looms, tweeds, felts, crochet hooks, knitting needles, baskets and needle cases. There were piles of patterns, too – not just the ordinary brands, but those written by the vendors themselves, proudly sporting their own designs.

I’m not sure whether it was because I was looking for it, but there was fair isle everywhere I turned. Patterns, subtle and bold; hues, natural and bright – there was almost too much choice. Pullovers, slipovers, gloves, hats, scarves, snoods, socks…all in fair isle.

It wasn’t really a surprise: fair isle is beginning to come off yachts and golf courses and into our homes and streets. In truth, I had gone looking for some patterns and wool to make another attempt at it, having knit my first nordic pullover last winter.

As a result, I came home with a basket bursting with wool: Shetland 2 ply in nature-inspired hues for John, Ben and myself, and brights for the children. We could each do with a gay new pullover, so my hands will be busy this autumn. I have decided on a Foxgloves for Fliss, to begin with. We need patterns to remind us of what is missing: foxgloves and bluebells, echoes of mountains and blue-grey waves, steady lines of trees in leaf. Like the cave painters of old, I like to imagine that what we create in the long winter encourages these things to return.

Opening the curtains this morning, the world was fuzzy and dull with mist. It still hadn’t cleared by the time Mrs P and I were hanging out the last of the wash. Peer as I might, the garden remained  grey and indistinct. The wash struggled to dry in the saturated air.

By this afternoon the autumn sun was breaking through once more, burning off the last of the haze. Yet the morning was a timely reminder of what is to come. We need pattern and colour to keep us cheerful through the grey months ahead. Perhaps the islanders know that better than us, living as far north as they do. I am more than happy to learn from them. With a rug over my legs, a cup of tea at my side and the sun on my back, I spent a happy half hour on the garden bench, casting on.

 

[whohit]Fair Isle at the Fair[/whohit]

Jam for grown-ups

Last Wednesday, after tea, we headed down the green lane once again. The blackberries are nearly over, and the few that remain are either small and dry or overblown and pecked at. Although we picked a few, they were not our primary concern: we were after sloes.

Seb and Ilse were with me, as were my sister and her husband. Being newly married, they have no children, but make a great fuss of mine. My four are very fond of their new uncle who, as an historian at Edinburgh, has no shortage of tales of derring-do, and whose study at home boasts no fewer than three swords. He also has three of the prettiest spaniels this side of London; it was with heavy hearts that Fliss and Ben stayed at home to finish their prep.

Despite the dogs under our feet we gathered twenty pounds of sloes in no time. I am so often overawed, at this time of year, by the sheer abundance of nature. We left hundreds upon hundreds of fruits for the birds, all in a ten yard stretch. Multiply that by the thousands of miles of hedgerows in Britain, and the hundreds of thousands of families like ours. Then there are the millions of creatures who depend on them for their shelter and food over the course of a year. The mind boggles.

I kept eight pounds of the sloes for ourselves, which Mrs P clearly thought was far too much, judging by the shape of her left eyebrow. I assured her that much of it was destined for the village show, and charity auctions, but the truth is that that still leaves plenty for us. John and I are both rather fond of a small glass of sloe gin while toasting our feet in front of a February fire.

When Seb discovered that he wouldn’t be eating any of the sloes, he asked why on earth he’d been gathering them. Ilse stepped in. ‘It’s to make a special drink’, she explained. ‘It’s like jam, but for grown-ups.’ Which is precisely what it is: a sweet, fruity reminder of a happy afternoon over a year ago. A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, stored up for winter.

By the time we were home the cottage pie I’d left in the oven was ready, Fliss had cooked the beans and John was in from work. We had a very merry supper, the eight of us, ending with a bowl of blackberries and cream. Seb and Fliss gave an impromptu piano concert, and we laid plans for gathering sloes again this time next year. It was a perfect midweek supper: homemade, simple and sweet. Jam for the souls of grown-ups and children alike.

 

[whohit]Jam For Grown-Ups[/whohit]

Apples, everywhere

In our garden, behind the kitchen, stands an apple tree. We think it must have been planted there over eighty years ago, long before this house was built. It isn’t a perfect shape. Some of its lower branches are truncated, and, on top, dozens of water shoots reach feebly to the sky. Its bark is deeply ridged and scarred from old washing lines.

Its imperfections are especially apparent in the winter. Laid bare, its branches reveal all the awkwardness, inconsistency and lack of balance that only decades of poor pruning can achieve. Each January I eye it up from the kitchen sink, collect my saw and stepladder and climb, trembling, into its crown. I remove a few of the lower offenders before retreating, afraid of its full twenty feet.

By spring my dissatisfaction has melted away with the last of the frosts. There is no arguing with apple blossom. From Ilse’s bedroom window the whole world is awash with miniature ballerinas, twirling pink tutus in the warming breeze.

Come the summer it shades us generously, lingering over lunch on the patio. A family of bluetits takes up residence in its hollow trunk, and last year, when we grew the lawn into a meadow, they swooped through the evening air, gathering insects in perfect parabolas. Bluetits, gin and tonic and an hour on my favourite bench. Heaven.

The windfalls start in August. Apple butter, apple cake, stewed apple, apple crumble – no matter how fast I cook them I never get to the bottom of my basket before their bruises ripen. They are banished to the compost. By September I sigh at every thump: I am tired of peeling apples.

So this Sunday I rallied the family into our annual picking. The usual questions were resolved: who would wrap the apples (me), who would ferry them from the pickers to my hands (Seb, Ilse and Fliss), and who would get to go up the ladder to pick just a few (everyone, naturally).

There was some precarious balancing on the very top of the steps, and some delicate manoeuvring of Fliss’s hockey stick, but they are in. This morning there were only five windfalls, dropped from the higher branches. I can cope with five. Apple pie for supper, I think.

 

[whohit]Apples Everywhere[/whohit]

Where the cake is

Now that all four children have been back at school for a couple of weeks, they have fallen into their familiar habit of announcing, on arrival, how good it is to be home. It’s a bit of a family joke this: Benjamin in particular says it with a sideways smile, to please me. Felicity is beginning to adopt the same habit, as her world widens around her, but the little ones truly mean it. I am grateful, each and every afternoon, that we live so close to good schools and don’t need to send the children away. John says that it would benefit Ben and Fliss, but I held my ground on that score, and won.

I waited until they were tucking into their second round of sardines on toast at tea yesterday (because I know that full stomachs lead to more thoughtful answers – from my brood, anyway) before asking what ‘home’ meant to each of them. Actually, I’d asked Mrs P, my daily, the same questions earlier in the day. She’d surveyed me, with the dignity that she somehow maintains even when up to her elbows in soap suds, as if I might be a few pence short. ‘It’s where you go back to at the end of each day’, was her – slightly wondering – response.

Of course, I’d hoped the children would have rather more to their notions of ‘home’ than simply a place to return to, and they didn’t disappoint. Ben (helping himself to bread and jam, now) said that it was a comfortable place to replenish oneself. Fliss told me that it is a safe place where she can forget about ‘outside’ things and curl up in an corner with a book. Seb claimed that it was where the best cake was to be had (which I think he meant as a compliment, rather than a threat to relocate should standards slip) and dear Ilse said that it was where Mummy and Daddy were. (They have all learned to butter me up, in their own ways.)

While we were on Lindisfarne, we visited the castle there, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. John had written ahead to the housekeeper to arrange a private tour. He is very good at things like that; I would have skulked around the castle mound, surreptitiously admiring the wildflowers whilst hoping I wouldn’t be spotted.

I liked the castle very much. I liked the brickwork herringbone floors, the handles carved to fit comfortably beneath one’s hand, and the stained glass which threw soft and fleeting colour into the rooms without the need for gaudy ornamentation. Despite the design being almost twenty years old – and despite the fact that it is a castle, on a very windy northern island –  it felt quite modern, comfortable and homely.

I also liked Mrs Lilburn, the housekeeper, and think she liked us, for she invited us into her kitchen for tea and fed the children ginger snaps from an unfeasibly large tin. When we left, we all agreed that the kitchen had been our favourite space of all, because (as Seb put it) ‘that’s where everything important happens’. I prefer to think of it as where those things happen that nobody really notices until they stop happening: shopping lists being written, pots being washed, socks being darned.

So, although there are still many (many) changes I long to make to our house, I was pleased to unlock our front door, light the fire in our stove, and put our kettle on. I don’t go out to work, and therefore have a place to ‘go back to at the end of each day’, but I do have a place to which those I love return. There aren’t that many years left before Ben won’t be opening our gate every evening, so I must try my best to make it ‘home’ for them all – with a groaning table, a quiet corner, moist cake and the best version of myself.

[whohit]Where The Cake Is[/whohit]