Pirates and creatures of the deep

There’s a particular type of pleasure in knowing just what to expect. It wasn’t just me, with my packing list or John, map at the ready. The children were raring to go, even before we pulled up at our own traditional pitch, longing for their cousins to arrive. We were a day before anyone else, and camped a dark night under the stars with only the wind in the trees for company. The following morning Seb and Ilse scouted out old dens and ran the perimeter of the wood before settling themselves near the gate and to wait for their friends.

This time, we watched the party evolve. John and Ben knew how to help put the marquee up. Familiar faces arrived by the hour, so that the crowd swelled from our little picnic of eight to thirty, then a hundred, then more. That first evening the adults were sitting around the fire, sharing news of the past two years, while the children were already running wild in the dark, electric torches flashing through the trees. Two years older, two years more independent, they stayed out of sight for as long as possible, delaying the inevitable call to bed. And yet, the faster you went to sleep the faster the dawn would come, with sausages for breakfast and then a quick bathe in the sea before more friends arrived, and the party proper would begin.

There aren’t many places where children can really run free. We read about them in books: the Walker children with their camp on Wild Cat Island, the Famous Five roaming the Cornish coast. We seek these places out: in cub camps and long walks over the bare winter landscape, in gardens big enough for the children to be hidden with their penknives and their flints. This is what I want for my children, and what I have made sure they have had: dirty knees, smoky hair, something sticky smeared around their faces. A length of string dangling from a pocket. As big a world as we can muster, making room for an even bigger one in their heads. Games which go on over hours and days and even years, put down and picked up when the same little gang gets together again. Friendships which endure over time, with children they might only have met once before, in a far off place, a quarter of a lifetime ago. Adoration for the big ones in the gang. Care for anyone smaller. Tumbles and grazes and dock leaves pressed on stings. And always, in the background, a safe place where the grown ups are.

I think this is how much of the weekend felt, to them. Until the entertainer arrived with his magic and his music and tomfoolery. After that it was time for the donning of costumes and the clearing filled with pirates and creatures of the deep. Our own made an appearance: our mermaid and giant squid, our pirate and our silly seahorse, water-wings and all. John and I were pirates too, adorned with fake tattoos and stripy shirts and neckerchiefs. There was a luminescent jelly fish, and an deep sea anglerfish with an oh-so-mesmerising light dangling just before his teeth. There was a gaggle of mermaids and their pets, and a ghostly butler from the long-since-sunk Titanic. The hog roast was dished out by a sailor in his whites, and I almost walked past Father with his dark false beard and tricorn hat.

In the dusk, we listened to sea shanties and joined in when we knew the words (what shall we do with the drunken sailor?), then sat back to more music from singers and players alike. There was a rum bar, and a couple of barrels of something else for the landlubbers among us. There was dancing, and sitting by another fire. Finally, at some time in the early hours, there was bed.

The next day could have felt a little empty, seeing so many people leave. Some we’d met two years ago, others we’d known all our lives. More still we’d met just the previous evening. They were all off on holidays, or back to work, or off to visit family. But us? We struck out for the loveliest beach in Devon and spent an afternoon in and out of the surf, before walking slowly home along the cliffs. There were the remains of a hog roast to be shared amongst we remaining campers, and a final night of talk around the fire. The following morning saw the last few families on their way and as the rain began to fall it was just us left camping in the woods. We weathered the storm in the best way we knew how: by striking out for somewhere beautiful, and picking up fish and chips for supper on our way back in the evening. It would have been much sadder, but for one important fact: the theme for the next family camp had already been discussed.

Garden notes: Other people’s gardens

I always get a little thrill on the threshold of other people’s gardens. There’s something expeditionary about setting off into someone else’s little patch of green, even if it is only the size of a handkerchief. All that poking about in shrubs and trees, peering into steamy greenhouses and stumbling upon evidence of children playing on the lawn. And for all the times I’ve stood at somebody’s back door and been disappointed by a manicured square of green, there have been so many times that I’ve encountered winding paths and hidden pigsties, wild herb beds and love seats tucked beneath a willow bower.

We recently hired a motor for a little trip down to Devon, to the English Riviera, although I must clarify that our accommodation was of the canvas variety rather than that offered on Burgh Island. The journey took a full day either way, and so we punctuated it with visits to National Trust properties. A little diversion from the main road, a bite of lunch in the tea room and then a tour around a house and garden. Most such houses are grand affairs, so different to our own home that I am content to gaze at all the beautiful things while being glad that our home is so much cosier and easier to dust. Some are full of the original furnishings, including the collections of several generations of inhabitants. Others have been given to the nation empty, and filled with chairs and tables, books and portraits gathered from other properties and auctions. Occasionally you stumble upon one which is really special – like Cotehele in Cornwall, which we spent a day exploring – a tudor mansion which has been left unchanged since the 17oos. The rooms are dark with tapestries, the beds spread with hand-pieced patchwork or exquisite whole cloth quilts. Seb and Ilse peered into the great hall through the squint in the solar, and we all took turns handling the weaponry on display, from great swords six feet long to little daggers and cruel, delicate spurs.

But after the house – and for some reason it is always after the house – we emerge to wander round the gardens. At Cotehele this included a walk through the fern-rich woodland to the watermill and the quay giving access to the Tamar. At Coleton Fishacre there were the cool blues and pinks which formed the view from the mistress’s bedroom, separated from the red hot pokers of the master’s by cool green lawns and ponds layered with lily pads. At Greenway you can walk down through the woods to the boathouse, and had it been the spring the walk would have been coloured by thousands of camellias. But my favourite garden of all was on the edge of the grounds at Killerton: the cottage garden of the post office. It is an exuberant garden, with plants tumbling over one another in their eagerness to grow and a vegetable patch which appears from nowhere. I could hear the children playing hide and seek but couldn’t find them, following the winding paths until a bank of hydrangeas gave way to a lawn with a bench, and there they all were, waiting for me to be done. I was, nearly. There were a few things I wished to fix in my mind: how the plants were grouped together; which vegetables had been left to grow and go to seed in their second year, attracting scores of beneficial insects. I like to learn things from other people’s gardens, much of which never gets put into practice but which is stored away, just in case. From this one I learned something much, much better than a little tip or trick: something which I intend to act upon straight away. It doesn’t matter if the vegetables are mostly over or got eaten by the slugs, or if the alliums are giving way to gravity and time. Gardens don’t need to be perfect. They need to be places of interest, places worth exploring. Places which tell you about the people who made it and use it and coax it into life. Those other people, to whom the gardens belong.

Summer in Devon, Winter in York

It was Ilse’s turn to help me with my quilt yesterday. I spent the first part of the afternoon in the village hall, listening to her school carol concert – a cacophony of recorders and coconut shell donkey steps, carried off with the exuberance only infants can muster. I had my handkerchief ready – I am prone to welling up when all those little voices wend their way haphazardly through Away in a Manger – but I didn’t need it this year. Ilse is one of the ‘big’ ones now, and I enjoyed watching her play her recorder and organise the tots.

We stopped at the baker’s for two currant buns and headed home for an afternoon of just the pair of us. I’d left the fire laid and supper ready to go into the stove, so all I had to do was make a pot of tea while Ilse ran around closing the curtains, and generally being grown up and helpful.

Since we finished her quilt I have hand-sewn the three layers of my own together in blues and greens: quilting and decorating it in one stroke. I’d sewn the front of the binding in place with the machine and so just needed to spend an extended evening hand-sewing the back of it into place. Ilse’s ‘help’ consisted of her playing her favourite records and rehearsing dances to them in the hallway. Then she would come in, announce a recital, and perform. It made the hand-sewing fly by.

I love this quilt, not because it is particularly beautiful or a show of much skill. It is, in fact, extremely simple in design and execution. The reason I keep gazing at it is that it is pieced from old clothes worn on a special holiday in Devon, eighteen months ago.

My brother Pete and his wife had arranged for the whole family – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents – and many friends to spend a week camping on a wooded hill by the sea in South Devon. We took the train down and as we had to carry everything up to the wood from the bus stop three miles away, we packed as lightly as we could. I laid out one old frock and set of underwear for each of the girls and myself. Similarly, John and the boys packed one change of clothes apiece. Bathers, night-things and essential teddy bears went into the knapsacks, and the children were ready to go.

We had the kind of weather we English fantasise about – long, sunny days with unbroken skies, where the air is sultry in the light but blissfully temperate as soon as you step into the shade. There was no cloud watching or chilly breeze; Ben and several of his older cousins abandoned their tents and slept in a clearing, with nothing between them and the hushing of the trees. In the evenings there was a great fire, for fresh fish from the hut along the road, or tins of beans, or potatoes in their skins. Somebody brought an accordion, and someone else, a tin whistle.

The site has no water, so I took the children to bathe in the cove each morning, and rinsed their clothes out in the salt water before spreading them on warm pebbles to dry. The weather broke on the last day; the sea turned grey with the threat of the coming storm and our train was lashed by it all the way north.

When I washed the salt out of the clothes with soap and fresh water they were soft and faded, perfect for climbing trees and getting lost in for the remainder of the summer. Ripped and finally outgrown, I cut them into squares last winter and, in the summer just gone, stitched the squares into four long strips.

The faded blues and greens remind me of the muted Devon landscape in late July. The grass is about to yellow. The leaves of the trees are less verdant, more familiar. The sea sparkles so that it barely has a colour at all, but is just a dazzling sheet of reflected light.

Between the strips I sewed white percale sashing, left over from the sheets I made in January. White for winter and snow, and to bring light into these dark days. A quilt for both summer and winter, finished in time for midwinter’s day, when the balance tips and the days begin to draw themselves out once more. I sewed rows of running stitch dashes to link the two, to say where we have been and where we are now. We will go back again. Back to summer and sunshine and days when all you have to do in the morning is slip on a frock and a pair of sandals. Summer and winter, north and south, sunshine and snow. Neither would be the same without the other. And on cue, the very morning after I finished the quilt, a postcard dropped onto the mat, inviting us to another family camp next year.

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