Minor miracles

There’s a box in the kitchen that keeps distracting me with its cheeping. Under the heatpad are these little bundles of fluff.

Until now, we’ve got our hens either as point of lay pullets, or as rescue hens from the egg industry. We like both. With the pullets, there’s the excitement of seeing them come into lay. Their combs grow and redden and  their first small and sometimes strange eggs appear in the nest boxes. Over time, these sleek teenagers put on weight until, imperceptibly, they have grown into the characteristically fat hens lazing around the garden.

The rescue girls are fun too, although sometimes quite disturbing to look at on arrival. They tend to be overwhelmed by the most natural of things: rain, for example, or grass. Give them a couple of days, though, and they’re strutting their stuff and giving the established residents a run for their money.

I’m not sure what made me think of hatching eggs this time around. Perhaps we were just ready to try something new. Whatever the reason, we ordered some eggs in a variety of breeds, and an incubator, and diligently turned them for three weeks. Late last week we locked down the incubator and waited for something to happen until on Sunday morning we could hear cheeping and saw the first pipped egg.

Ilse set up her Chick Watch station (blanket, colouring pencils, book, drink) and settled in for the morning, but nothing happened. That afternoon we had a long standing arrangement to go to a barbecue, and when we got back we were greeted by this little one.

He alternately charged around the incubator like a tiny, ineffective T-Rex, before suddenly collapsing into sleep. You wouldn’t have imagined that such a fragile thing could make so much noise, but apparently the noise and movement encourages the others to hatch. It must have done some good, because at ten o’clock that evening Ben, Fliss, John and I were all glued to the incubator, watching the second chick unzip then push apart its egg. The following morning there were three in there, galumphing around, and I was sure that there would be more by the time the children were home from school.

Sadly, not all the chicks made it. Now I really know the meaning of the expression don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Some of them never made it to lockdown. Some of our chicks pipped but never unzipped. I followed the advice to sit on my hands and do nothing for most of the day, but when I knew that they were dying I decided to intervene and help the last little one out of its shell. I could see its beak, peeping  and breathing, but the movements were growing further apart. So, ever so slowly and gently, I used tweezers and cotton wool and a warm flannel to keep the membrane moist and soft and, over the course of some hours, hatched the last one myself. It flopped about in the incubator for a long time, so we left it in there alone to dry off, away from the others who were alternately charging around the brooder and toppling over on top of each other.

Twenty four hours later, the last chick joined its siblings and is holding its own with no problems at all, thank you very much. We’ve learned so much by doing this, and each new chick felt like a mini miracle. Of course I am sad about the ones that never hatched, but at least I know that I gave them my full attention and really did do my best. I’m also far more confident now about what to do should the same situation arise next time. Sitting at home alone, making decisions about what best to do to look after the tiny lives in my hands, the internet came to my rescue. There is such a wealth of information out there, compiled so generously by hobbyists who freely share their knowledge and expertise. Over the past month I’ve followed all avenues of the hatching debate: opinions on humidity, temperature, intervention and so forth. Then of course the unexpected happened and I found myself right back in those pages, having moved swiftly from I think it would be better to let nature take its course to this is probably a perfectly healthy chick that just needs a little help hatching. So really, this post is a celebration of all sorts of minor miracles – none of which are really miracles at all, in the true sense of the word. Yet they have stirred a sense of wonder and gratitude in me, so I think they deserve the name. The miracle of a fertilised egg turning to a chick in three short weeks. The miracle of watching life appear before my very eyes. And the generosity of people all around the world, posting what they know online so that their expertise is right there when we need it. Minor miracles indeed.

But first, the hens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeleine

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

Half term happenings

June 1, 1933

 

The younger children have been on their half term holiday this week, free of the classroom just in time to soak up the end of the late spring weather. It just so happened that Ben came home on the very first day, his summer break already underway, so that for the first time since Christmas we are all under the same roof. We were all excited to see him, but Ilse particularly so, as they had a special outing planned. Ben’s first and most important job was to take her to choose a new hamster.

In the end there were eight of us who went along: Ilse, Ben, Seb, Fliss, my brother Pete and his two children, and myself. Crowding out the little pet shop we found only one hamster available, a fluffy white one with a pink nose and faintly buff patches on either side of his face. We can’t imagine why he was left til last; he is very sweet if still a little nervous. Ilse has named him Albus, and Ben is helping her to handle him every evening.

Apart from wandering through the village to the pet shop, and a day in York enjoying, amongst other things, ices in the Minster Gardens, all the cousins really wanted to do was spend time with one another. Seb had been given a brand new game, Monopoly*, which they played no fewer than six times in four days. When the sun shone they spread a rug under the apple tree and played there for a long afternoon, punctuated only by a water fight. They know each other very well, despite the distance between Yorkshire and Devon, and each visit seems to develop a theme. This time it was Monopoly; in the past it has been devising plays, or dressing up, or, in Greece, swimming in the warm Aegean Sea.

We saw Mother and Father as much as we were able, and I must say that four late nights of sitting up and chatting rather took it out of me. I’m sure I used to be able to stay up much later, but I will confess that having taken them to the station to catch the southbound train, I came straight in and fell asleep on the settee, wireless on, knitting in my hands. An early night was had, and another one tonight should do the trick. Having guests is rather like going away on holiday: it forces you to break with routines and makes it so much more of a holiday. Time is spent sharing news and stories, rather than doing the weeding, and that is just as it should be. The jobs can wait. What matters is spending time with family, building connections between those in the new generation and strengthening existing sibling bonds.

It seemed that the jobs would wait today, too, as Father and I headed to a little farm on the far side of York to make a few pleasurable purchases. First were the flowers for the pots in Father’s yard: bee-loving annuals, and a spill of cheerful red geraniums. After that, we walked past the donkey and the little field of goats, through a gate where there were new puppies to pet, and on to the chicken shed. There must have been a hundred pullets in there, and we spent fifteen minutes chasing them around, failing to catch a single one, while Ilse looked on and laughed. Eventually the farmer reappeared with a box to put them in and caught two, just like that. One is a grey, speckled hen with a white bib, rather like a barn owl, so we’ve named her Hedwig. The other, black with a collar of copper feathers, puts us in mind of a phoenix, and of course she is named Fawkes. So although the cousins have gone home and the house is suddenly quieter, we have three new residents who need to be sat by and gazed at. Which means that we are still very much on holiday, and the jobs will just have to wait until next week. There’s plenty happening this half term holiday as it is.

* Actually, Monopoly came out in 1935, so the children wouldn’t have been able to play it in 1933. However, they could have played Coppit, which came out in 1927 and was a firm favourite when we were children. Or Touring England, which lived in a cupboard in my grandad’s dining room and came out every time we went to stay.

Beautiful

From a distance, the veg patches are still bare, apart from the end of this winter crop or that. But if you look closely, things are beginning to come up. You can see the broad beans without squatting now, and trace their zigzag rows down each side of the bed. The rocket is still wearing only its seed leaves but they are bigger and ready to part and allow the true leaves through. There are no signs of the leeks yet, and I might try a second sowing, but indoors the other winter veg is starting fairly well. I tried a new variety of tomato, Legend, and it is twice the height and breadth of its contemporaries and threatening to topple the little pots. The chilli peppers might decide to survive after all, if this good weather stays. We’ll see. And the annuals – more colour than I’ve ever grown before – are turning into sturdy little plants and will soon bear to be planted out. Sweet peas, nasturtiums and marigolds are old and familiar favourites, but we’ve added more to the mix and I don’t really know what to expect. Flowers, hopefully, to plant among the vegetables and make the patches even more lovely than in summers past.

Each year I like to try something new, out there. For a long time it was vegetables: different varieties or more beds or a different way of sowing. This, we have decided, is the year of making the garden beautiful as well as practical and productive. Only in places, mind: it’s a big space and a thousand shades of green is a lovely sight in itself. So far we’ve had the usual show of bulbs under the apple tree by the kitchen, as snowdrops gave way to tulips and daffs and the crocuses which were eventually mowed away with the lawn. Just now the bluebells are bowing their pretty heads over the fading hellebores. Ilse’s garden has added to the scene, her bulbs flowering in their turn under the lilac which is so bountiful just now. Many of the new flowers were chosen for her space, on the basis of the picture on the packet alone, which is an aspirational and admirable way to garden, in my opinion. I’ll help her plant them soon, just beyond the almost invisible fence which keeps the chickens off. For my part, I’ve a patio garden planned, and have been collecting pots from round about the place to add to the scene. Nothing fancy or expensive – just a motley collection of old pots with sweet peas and geraniums and other simple blooms in. Another little fence, to keep the chickens off, and a spot to drag a couple of wicker chairs out of the kitchen and into the dappled sunshine. I’m hoping it’ll be my spinning spot, all the glorious summer long. Even if not much blooms, it’ll be lovely if the sun shines. And if not, I’ll keep the chairs indoors and watch the rain bounce on the patio slabs instead while I carry on indoors. Just a few flowers, that’s all it really needs to transform it from something hard and plain to something beautiful. Well, that and a little more of this  sun. That would be very nice indeed.

Under my feet

I made it into the garden this morning. It’s time for a spot of weeding, for reconnecting with my other, outside room, and taking in a little of  the newfound springtime sun. Under my feet, the lawn is soft and soggy. The brick paths of the veg bed are alternately springy with moss and slick with errant mud. I keep expecting to clear the beds for sowing but there’s so much out there, waiting to be eaten. Three dozen leeks. Ten swedes. The first tender sprouts of brocolli. A bed of winter salad, barely touched, which will soon come into its own. Tiny green cabbages which, having held on all winter, are taking off in this gentle, tentative sun. Even the greenhouse is full of out-of-season fennel, tucked in there in the autumn.

The moment I set foot outdoors the hens are at my side, tripping me up in their excitement. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to have them trail, Pied Piper style, in my wake. They follow me up and down the lawn as I admire Ilse’s winter garden, a smudge of purple from afar, up close. And when the trowel comes out they vye for top position, as close as they can get to the worms each little spadeful brings. We find a knot of them in the base of a rotting swede, enough for everyone to share. An unexpected feast. There are plenty to go around. In fact, I think there are more this year than ever before, and certainly more than when we first dug out our veg patch. I like to think of them all, burrowing through the good earth, helping the garden grow.

Soon we must erect a hen-proof fence, and sow the first seeds in the warming soil. For now, new life sprouts in the airing cupboard before being moved to a bright windowsill, safe from that little gang of hooligans with their scratching claws, keen beaks and destructive bathing habits. But we can’t hold on forever. Spring is on its way. I can see it in the blooms on nude branches, the nodding daffodils, the crocuses which open their hearts to the sun. In the softening outdoor air. And in the moist dark soil which whispers promises to me from just under my feet.

Frozen

The seasons lag behind the sun, dragging on their mother’s hand. The winter solstice was over a month ago and yet it is colder now than it was then, with hail and sleet and frost in the last three days alone. On paper it looks as though spring is not far off, but a glance outside dispels this theory in an instant. We are in the middle of winter, and every twig, every blade of grass, is frozen.

By noon there were dark brown molehills against the winter white where I had pushed my fork through the icy crust and pulled food from the crumbly soil: knobbly Jerusalem artichokes for a smooth and creamy soup, parsnips to sweeten a wintery stew. The eggs  were still warm when I wrapped my fingers round them, and the hens have puffed their feathers into little fluffy eiderdowns. I spread a fresh layer of straw in their house for them to scratch in, and threw in a handful of mixed corn. They don’t mind this weather as long as their crops are full.

As I went back over my lists last night, snug by the sitting room fire, I was glad to see how many weeks I had to finish all the inside jobs before the warming earth pulls my attention elsewhere. What’s the hurry? There’s a pile of beautiful fabric awaiting my attention, and some soft new wool to knit. The children are still playing with their Christmas toys and puzzles. We’ve visited the library. One way and another, I’ve got better at wintering as the years have gone on.

In Clydebank, though, there are many families for whom winter has just got worse, with the work on the Queen Mary grinding to a halt. There will be a lot of people without a fire to make their idle lists by, or new fabric to run contented hands over. When it gets as cold as this, I wonder how those without a roof survive at all. How do you coax yourself through another day of ice when spring is two months off, at least? I used to think about men in frozen trenches and wonder how they bore it; now it’s mothers who gladly send their children off to  school with its heater and free meals.

It’s a beautiful thing, a frozen world, when there’s hot toast and dripping at the end of your constitutional. And if there isn’t, then little kindnesses can go an awfully long way towards making sure there is.

 

Nesting

When I went out to the hens this morning I found that three of them, at least, had finally finished putting on their winter eiderdowns and were laying eggs again. After a few weeks of nothing, it was a pleasure to carry the still warm treasures through the frosty garden and place them in the bowl, straw and all.

I’ve been nesting, too, in this cold weather. The temperature dropped below freezing just in time for advent, and just in time for our new fireplace in the dining room to be lit for the first time. We decided to have the sitting room mantlepiece replaced too, so there was an awkward day last weekend when all the furniture was piled up in one end of our kitchen. John finished painting the dining room first, and we moved a couple of armchairs in there to have somewhere warm and clean to sit – a temporary measure, you understand. Except that it transpires that our dining room makes the cosiest sitting room imaginable.

I love these sorts of accidents. Who knew that a smaller sitting room was what we wanted, or that the bigger room would be so perfect for the dining table and all the making and designing that it hosts? That the piano would fit so perfectly into the space between the door and the start of the bay window, or that a big old leather settee was just what you needed to be able to flop onto when your algebra or sewing was too hard? And so the base of an old dresser has been pushed into an alcove to hold the coloured pens and school books, and the piles of sheet music found a space for in the big family bookcase. Armchairs and small tables have been moved. And cushions and throws and blankets have found new homes on old chairs around the house.

We haven’t bought anything, but the house feels completely different, which is my favourite kind of decorating. All our familiar things in unexpected places. There are two new-to-us items, however, which needed a reshuffle to find their places in the house. One is an old low rocking chair, which belonged to John’s grandmother. She used to sit and knit in it when he was a little boy. It’s been waiting for new covers for an embarrassing length of time, but now that there’s a space waiting for it by the fire, it’s the next job on my list. Much easier was the act of spreading a gorgeously warm Welsh blanket across the foot of our bed, to be pulled up on chilly nights. Passed on by John’s mother, it is just the thing to cosy up our room.

Last but not least were the advent calendars, unfurled and hung in a row in the hall, each little pocket stuffed with a chocolate for the start of every day. And I couldn’t resist a string of fairy lights around the kitchen dresser, where the first of the Christmas cards stands. It’s advent, you know. Time to get nesting. I hear a special baby’s on the way.

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.

Culinary compensations

Friday afternoons find me on the sofa in the kitchen, a pile of cookbooks balanced on one velvet arm, the calendar in my lap. Were I to go about our meals summer-style it’d be cabbage every night, with endless apples after. So it’s back to planning again, and pencilling in each dish on the calendar in the hall. The children check it as they pass and squeal with delight at near-forgotten favourites: toad-in-the-hole, beef stew, cheese and onion pie with an orange pool of beans.

I have to do it when I’m hungry: after a meal I have no interest in thinking about the next. But pre-tea, when there’s a cake in the oven and my lunchtime soup feels a long, long time ago, I approach this task with gusto. It’s so easy in the autumn: so many good things are in season. It’s more a case of choosing what to leave off than what to put into the plan. How many types of pie can a family eat in a week? Which day shall we have kippers, or porridge, or toast? There’s leftover mash to be made into bread, but also pots of herbs to knead into a different sort of dough. Can we get through all those sweet and spicy autumn puddings before the fruit is off the trees?

Nothing can be wasted, but the kitchen fills with unexpected treats. Ben goes foraging with his pals and brings back baskets of good things: rose hips and elderberries and sloes. I make a floral-orange syrup and give it to the children, hot, for breakfast, as a drink or drizzled in their bowls. Sloes mean gin, and sugar; elderberries wine. The pears are falling quickly now, and will sit hard and sulky in the bowl until suddenly going off if I don’t cook them. We still haven’t picked the Bramleys.

In spring food is so exciting: green and fresh and new to our tired and jaded palates. In summer it is easy – salad and cold cuts and a bowl of minted, boiled new spuds. In autumn it’s such fun to think of all the dishes we’ve not had for all this time, and fit the increased cooking into the rhythm of my days. Sundays: roast. Mondays: leftover pie, and chicken soup to last the week. Different things on the next few days until on Friday I look in the larder and wonder which cake to bale. Last week there were courgettes but no butter or eggs: I waited for the feathered ladies to oblige before making a batter with oil and grated veg, with mixed spice to add depth and lemon juice to give a little lift. Luckily everybody loved the faintly greenish cake. You see, in summer I might pop out to the shops quite often, just as I do to the veg patch in the garden. But in autumn it’s a point of pride to make it through the week with just what I wrote on my list.

It’s a funny time of year, both cornucopial and lean. Yes, there are good things everywhere to eat. But this is it now, until that first bowl of bright green nettle soup next spring, so it must be made to last. I quite like the planning and the making of my lists. There are lots of things I dislike about autumn, not least that it heralds the winter months of cold and grey and dark. But on the plus side, there are so many good things to eat. Say what you like about October: it most certainly has its culinary compensations.

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.