What I did in the holidays

My list, made on the last day of the old term, mainly involved the garden. There was so much weeding to be done that I divided it over eight days, adding some planting or potting on to add interest, and, with a little help from everyone in the house, we did it. Fliss and I sowed dozens of seeds. John lifted a lot of edging that the nettles had got under, threatening to overrun my patch, and relaid them with a thick layer of cardboard underneath. Ben mowed the lawn, twice, and spread compost on all the beds. Seb and Ilse started a herbal remedies company, the main ingredients of which appeared to be nettles and dandelion roots, so I gave them couple of trowels and lots of encouragement. Perhaps best of all was when I came in from the garden last Tuesday, dirty and tired, to find that my very favourite dining establishment, Cafe Magnifico, was open for business. There were bluebells on each plate and Easter chocolates for dessert, and although the two charming proprietresses looked familiar they assured me we’d never met before. It stayed open that whole second week when John was back at work and I was pushing myself to get through my list, serving luncheon every day and even taking care of the washing up.

My only other real goal was to finish my cardigan in time for Easter which I did – in plenty of time and on Shell Island, in fact. I cast on for a pair of socks and got as far as turning the heel, knitting in the evenings. As it was all going so well I added some more to the list: to wash the fleece and a half that had been languishing in the shed since autumn, and to piece all eighty nine-patch squares for Ilse’s quilt. I did both, and what began as a session where Ilse and I laid out the squares on Sunday afternoon became a game for the whole family, moving things around, swapping one square with another to spread the colours out more evenly. I could – perhaps should – have retained more control of it, but it is just a little girl’s quilt after all, and they had so much fun. I glanced at it briefly once they were all in bed and it looked all right to me, so it’s all packed up in that order, ready to be sewn together this week.

When people ask what we did in the holidays I tell them we went camping in Wales, which we did, and we had a lovely time. There were day trips too, and lots of lazy days in the house and garden for the children, reading books and making potions. We had a glorious Easter lunch with Mother and Father, and Mother outdid herself once more, producing a simnel cake when we had just about recovered from the previous three courses. And there was time for resting in the sunshine by day, and by the fire in the evenings.

Yet Easter always feels like a turning point, however early or late it falls, and this is the holiday in which I end up doing most. Now that term is back in swing, it feels good to have new projects and new rhythms on the go. More time in the garden. The end of a quilt top within sight. Daily spinning while the supper cooks. If I hadn’t worked so hard during the holidays none of this would be possible. And it isn’t work, really – not if you choose to do it. It’s just another type of play. So that’s what I did in my holidays. I played, hard.

At the mill

It was on a rainy afternoon in Wales that I picked up a leaflet for Trefriw Woollen Mill and suggested – half jokingly – that we go and have a look around their factory. This was met with some moans and groans and, although I thought it would be interesting, I didn’t think we’d actually end up going. But John pointed out that it was very nearly on our way home and so we took a little detour north before heading back over the border and goodness me, I’m glad we did.

I didn’t even take my camera in with me, that’s how little I was expecting. We looked around their shop which was full of the most beautiful woollen goods: skirts and jackets, jumpers, slippers, hats and mittens, knitting patterns and balls of wool. What really caught my eye was the display of tweed, woven on the premises and available by the metre, and it took some stern words with myself to walk away. You’re allowed to wander through the little cafe into the factory beyond, and the very first thing we found was a traditional Welsh bedspread being woven on a beast of a machine, roaring and clanking as the fabric grew, weft by coloured weft. Ilse didn’t like it much and Seb lost interest fairly quickly but Ben and Fliss were almost as transfixed as I. The loom is set up with a chain which tells the machine which shuttles to send across when, creating the traditional patterns. At the same time, the man operating the machinery was winding new bobbins on an old bit of kit which seemed to work in almost exactly the same way as the bobbin winder on my 1916 Singer. In the room beyond was the little hydraulic electricity plant which drove the whole factory, filled with plants from all over the world which liked the warm, damp conditions.

I thought that was it, until John pointed to some iron stairs leading to the floors above. The first – the whole first floor – was given over to carding the wool. Huge cages of the stuff, ready scoured and spilling out through gaps in the wire, was picked up by the steel needles of the first drum. From there it worked its way along the whole floor, drum to drum, until at the end of it all there was roving, thinner than I’d seen before, and quite ready to spin. We followed the painted arrows up again to the second floor where spinning mules dominated the space, doing in a minute what it would take me many hours to achieve at home.

I’ve never actually seen a spinning mule in real life before. I’d seen pictures of them at school, when we were studying the Industrial Revolution, but to see them in action was quite breathtaking, and not only for the wool enthusiasts among us. It took only one man to operate a full row of them, spinning perhaps two hundred strands at a time, the roving stretched out for a yard or two as the spools ran backwards on iron rails set in the floor. Then the spinning began, the roving oscillating and dancing in tiny standing waves as it grew more and more taut until the gears changed and the bobbins ran back towards the body of the mules once more, winding up the spun wool as they ran.

No wonder the cottage spinners went out of business. No-one could possibly hope to keep up with production on this scale: not with the carders or the spinners, nor the looms, nor even the machines which twisted the spun yarns together into two-plys for knitting. And yet this wasn’t modern machinery. This was old-style industry, run by water and producing high quality, skilfully made products. This was a mill which was embracing the past – just not as far back in the past as most home spinners and weavers go. On our way out we found a little dyers’ garden, with all the native herbs and flowers labelled by name and by the colour they would produce. We recognised several from our own garden and the hedgerows roundabout. I’ve never been that interested in dyeing my own wool, but Seb and Ilse leapt at the idea and keep asking to borrow my drop spindle. Perhaps we have a couple more wool-lovers in the family after all. Perhaps they’ll forget about it when they go back to school. Either way, I pulled a few handfuls of white wool off one of the Jacob’s fleeces in the shed and set it to scour in a bucket of hot water. Either they’ll use it or I will. I’ve run out of washed wool this week. It was almost the first thing I reached for when we got back from Wales: to make a few rolags and spin them on my wheel. For the first time, I felt reasonably pleased with the results, despite the fact that I’ve barely spun a thing all winter. Now I’ve got a plan for all the wool I’m making, and there’ll be a few more bucketfuls set to soak before the week is out. I don’t mind sharing if it fuels the children’s interest. Even it it’s on nothing like the scale we saw at Trefriw Mill, there’s plenty of wool for us all to play with.

On Shell Island

In the end, we went away for just three nights this Easter, which was enough of a change to be a rest before coming home to the garden (for me), work (for John), revision (for Ben) and play (for the other three). We piled tents and sleeping bags on top of the motor, ourselves into it, and headed to Wales for our little break.

I can’t remember having visited Snowdonia before, and it’s the sort of place I would remember. Mountains, woodland, small towns and villages and, around every bend in the road, another view of the springtime sea. We drove through lanes with slate walls on either side, past little roadside waterfalls and mossy, twisted tree-formed tunnels to Harleck and beyond, until we found ourselves on Shell Island before the tide came in and flooded the causeway, cutting us off from the shore. The children tumbled out of the car and away to explore while John, Ben and I set up camp. Red-faced and puffing, they came back to report to us every quarter of an hour or so on their latest find: the sand-dunes that needed to be scaled, the rock pools, the hidden dell between our camp and Lookout Hill, and Shell Beach, from which they brought back sandy pockets of their finds.

We wouldn’t normally spend much time on a campsite, preferring instead to treat it as a place to sleep while we spent the days out and about, but the following morning Ilse looked so forlorn at the thought of leaving the island to climb Cader Idris that it only took me a moment to decide to stay behind with her. We waved the others off and set about our day. It isn’t often that I let a seven year old set the agenda, but we had such a lovely time I might need to do so more often. In the morning we went to the little island shop for a tin of soup, some hot cross buns and milk for tea, then packed my knapsack with knitting and a rug and a bag of sweets and set out for a spot of cartography. We climbed a sand dune and stopped every hundred yards or so to add something new to her map, discussing suitable names all the while. It was such hard work that we agreed on a long sit down after lunch, on a blanket in the sun beside our tent, she colouring her map and me adding the button bands to my nearly-done cardigan, before setting off for a lazy afternoon of shell collecting. We meandered for a good two hours along the beach, past the dunes to the rock pools, then the harbour, then the jetty where the crabbing is, before wandering home to wait for the others and supper. The sun shone well enough, and the wind certainly blew, but we had such a lovely day, the two of us.

Of course we went out and did other things on the other days, but I think that was my favourite day of all. Just Ilse and I, on a nearly deserted island, footling around and doing our own thing. Surely that’s what holidays are all about. Well, ours, anyway.

Holy Week

My children like Christmas much more than Easter; I think most children do. I certainly used to. Now, though, it’s the other way around. I love Easter and all that leads up to it: Pancake Day, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday… It goes on for well over a month, but, well, so does life. Looking around, even now, you wouldn’t know that there was anything much afoot. A few more chocolates in the shops, perhaps, in some rather unusual shapes, but nothing like the days before Christmas.

Instead, Holy Week finds us all full of our own plans: for gardening, spring cleaning, a good old clear out, a trip away or maybe just a rest in the glorious sunshine. I like the way that life goes on throughout the run up to Easter. If Christmas is about a birth, with all the excitement and novelty that that entails, Easter is about life. About the day to day, and how we live it, and what happens when it comes to an end on this earth. If a birth is the beginning of something, like a wedding day, full of promise and joy, then life is about the keeping or breaking of those vows. Not with grand gestures once a year on a birthday or anniversary. It’s in a million cups of tea, or meals set on the table, or a willingness to stop and listen to each other. Small things.

So really, I’m glad that there are no gifts to be bought or parties to attend. Just a trip to mass and a meal with family and a bit of chocolate for the children. Simple celebrations in the midst of springtime life: the sowing of seeds, the pulling of weeds, the washing of curtains and quilts. It’s a promise kept, Easter Day, just as the spring follows the deep midwinter. A miracle occurred. The sun came back. And life goes on and on.

There were snowdrops. And peacocks. And miniature rooms.

We had a few very spring-like days last week in the midst of much cold and stormy weather and as luck would have it, those just happened to be the days that we had plans to be outside. One of those was Friday, which John had taken off work and so we all piled into the motor and set off into Ryedale.

After all these years of living in York I’d never visited Rievaulx Terrace – in fact, none of us had. A man-made feature, it has that lovely combination of the wild and the constrained, urging you to wander along a smooth and grassy terrace as you enjoy the shifting view of the trees and ruined abbey below. We began our walk, though, by heading through the woods to the far end of the grounds, before wandering back to the temple for luncheon (well, a talk about the meals we might have had in it had we arrived by invitation and carriage two hundred years ago). And everywhere were great swathes of snowdrops. I thought they’d make a lovely photograph, pure white against the browns of leaf and trunk and earth, but just as I was focusing Ilse asked if she might take it, so I handed the camera over.

It wasn’t until I wanted to take a picture of the children that I reclaimed the brownie, only to find that Ilse had used up all the film. Ah well, no matter. We had seen her creeping quietly through the woods, presumably photographing something wild. A deer, perhaps, or the woodpecker we had heard. She assured me that her pictures were well worth it.

So it was with a cry of dismay that she arrived at Nunnington Hall to find a peacock posing for his portrait on top of a garden wall. And the banks full of snowdrops in the sun, and the funny old scarecrow in the cutting garden, and the wishing tree, its bare branches bright with ribbons. She would have liked to have taken photos of all this, but her disappointment was short lived. After all, there was an attic waiting, full of miniature rooms to examine and sigh over.

We’ve visited Nunnington many times over the years, and that collection of tiny rooms in the attic is an enduring highlight. They are not the kind of thing that I’d ever be tempted to make, being small and fiddly and utterly useless. But they are certainly something to wonder over. Who, for instance, has the patience and skill to render shelf after shelf of inch-high leather-bound books? To make a workshop full of shining woodwork tools, complete with a project in progress, miniature shavings curling on the floor? In spite of the grand entrance hall and period drawing rooms our favourites are the day and night nurseries, with their rows of thumbnail marching redcoats and a set of stacking rings, abandoned mid-play on a little table. There are shelves full of tiny toys, on top of which stands a doll’s house in a doll’s house, which prompted my children to search for yet another within. And on a chair by the cot lies the nanny’s knitting: the beginning of a diminutive red sock grown on double ended needles the size of pins.

We had such a lovely day that I opened the envelope of photos with some anticipation, right there in the chemist’s. There were some older ones of earlier parts of our holiday. There were one or two that I had snapped, early on our walk. Then there were four of John, one of me and seven of a pheasant, growing ever closer and less blurred. I picked the best, to give to Ilse for her scrapbook as evidence of our day. But there were also snowdrops, I assure you. And peacocks. And delightfully miniature rooms.

Eternal optimism

Ilse set out to make herself a pair of ball gloves this morning. You know the sort: white satin, elbow length, wrinkle free. They were the culmination of her half term holiday full of sewing. I had begun to wonder whether she’d ever start to use the box we’d put together for her for Christmas but one day she dove in and there was no stopping her. How lovely to have your own kit, complete with scissors and thread and a bundle of pretty fabrics. I’m so pleased that she agrees.

I’m also delighted by her sewing optimism. Seriously, she thinks she can make anything, and the truth is that she’s usually right. I didn’t know how she was going to make a pair of trousers for Little Ted out of Ben’s holey old socks, but she did. By the time she asked me to draw around her right hand, up to the elbow, I knew better than to question her, even though she later dropped the scheme in favour of washing the motor with John. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a bucket of suds.

But really, in this house optimism is key when it comes to sewing projects. And not just for eight year olds; I need a healthy dose as much as they do. After all, you wouldn’t catch me starting on a dress I felt was doomed to failure. Every single item I embark on is going to be beautifully fitted, finished and fit for purpose. This doesn’t always bear very much resemblance to reality. Sometimes things veer off in unexpected directions, such as the scrap bag, although this hasn’t happened for quite some time now. Still, after all these years of stitching, none of the clothes I’ve made have every turned out perfectly. I know all of their little flaws, and though I despair of them at first, in time they become just another quirk of the garment, and for that I forgive them.

I traced a pattern off an old blouse recently, picking the blue silk apart at the seams and laying it out on the bias, as is so fashionable just now. Honestly, only a few years ago everything was cut as straight as straight can be, and bodies squashed flat towards androgynousness. Here in 1932 curves are all the rage, and I loved my old blouse which clung and floated in all the right places. When the silk went bobbly and began to fade I knew I wanted another just like it, and so I made one in a light Liberty lawn, ready for the impending spring. Needless to say, it isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. I shan’t tell you what’s wrong with it, because once I do, that’s all you’ll be able to see.

And that old blue silk? Well, that inspired some deeply uncharacteristic behaviour in me, using it to create a wearable toile for a set of, ahem, underthings. A toile isn’t the most optimistic choice, but when it comes to precision sewing it is the sensible one. I did, of course, expect them to be wearable and I can confirm that they most gloriously, comfortably are. I’ll certainly be buying some pretty new fabric for my next attempt.

In the meantime, the optimism continues, as I draft a new and untested pattern for each garment in the pipeline. Because that’s where the fun is. In holding your breath that things will work out and secretly, privately, knowing that they will.

Pottering with a purpose

The younger children have exactly three trips planned this half term: one morning in town with pocket money and book tokens to spend; one afternoon out with Mother – a trip to the Castle Museum followed by afternoon tea; and one day out in the motor, all together, for a walk or a wander in an as yet unselected location.

All are suitably vague for a holiday which is, in this house at least, all about rest and recuperation. We’ve adopted a let’s see how we feel on the day approach to everything beyond the garden gate. As long as they get out at regular intervals to stretch their legs and have a change of scene, I’m happy. So far there has been dressing up, board game playing, the making of pouches for survival kits, the start of a new manuscript, and much reading. They are expert potterers, able to entertain themselves for days on end with self-dreamed projects and pastimes.

All of which is extremely fortunate, as my own pottering has rather more of a timetable attached to it. Why do I always end up with so much I want to do, each half term? It isn’t as though any if it is terribly important, even, this time around. Honestly, one of my aims was to replicate the coffee cake my mother-in-law baked last week. Frivolous, yes – but I never make the time to ice my cakes in term time, so it seemed the perfect treat for Friday afternoon when the children came home with mounds of muddy sportswear and that start-of-the-holidays glee. Truth be told, it only happened because I wrote it down. Friday morning: clean house with Mrs P. Friday lunchtime: bake coffee and walnut cake. Friday afternoon: pop to haberdashers for thread, bias binding and elastic. Ice cake. Come half past four all was well with the world.

The list goes on, and more is ticked off each day. Sewing, knitting, seeing the odd friend. Preparing for spring in the garden. It’s all pottering, only I know what I want to achieve each day. With only a week off school, I like to have my time mapped out in a vaguely purposeful way. We still get up a little later, and take a lacksidaisical approach to daytime meals (a favourite part of holidaying, to me). But I can immerse myself in each and every moment knowing that, by the end of the week, I’ll have done all that I hoped to.

Needless to say, plans change all the time, but there’s plenty of room for improvements. Ilse has a new task, for which she’ll need a spot of supervision: bunny-sitting a certain rabbit named Sparkles who lives a few doors down. Popping along the street on certain days to check his water and have a few cuddles while we’re at it? I’m sure we can squeeze that in. In fact, that seems to be the epitome of pottering with a purpose.

Twelve days

The first day is the big one, or course. Christmas Day: a day for church and presents and rather too much food. A capon, and stuffing and parsnips and sprouts. Paper crowns. Wrapping paper everywhere. Leftovers on the kitchen counter.
Boxing Day: a walk in the wind. Cold meat and vegetables baked in a pie. The start of a jigsaw.
Not much on the 27th. Playing with some new toys, finding homes for others. Thank you letters. A stroll to the postbox.
On the 28th old fabrics are pulled through, and plans for using them up are afoot. We do a little sewing, or model making, or reading. There’s a trip to the pictures.
The 29th and 30th are spent outside, the former in freezing fog and frost, the second in a sudden thaw. One day in the garden, pruning shrubs and trees, and the next wandering around the woodland of Fountains Abbey with the rest of the Graham clan.
On the 31st, plans for the following year are germinating. By the first, they are complete. Mother makes a feast.
The second brings a trip to the countryside in the motor in the morning, and more sewing in the afternoon. The schools go back on the third. On the fourth I bake a cake, and give the house a clean.
Today, the fifth of January, is the eleventh day of Christmas, and also my 38th birthday. We’ll eat the cake, and have something special for supper. It is the last in a long list of recent celebrations, and really we are all ready to get back to normal. Which is why it’s a good thing that it’s the twelfth day of Christmas tomorrow. A day to take the greenery down and put it on the compost. To pack the decorations away in their box, ready for next year. For the house to feel clean and sparse and bright again. Twelve days, each with its own flavour. Our Christmas, in a nutshell.

Lull

Outside, the silver frost has hung on all day. The whole world seems suspended in the timeless twilight between Christmas and New Year. We get up a little later every day, and breakfast is in danger of merging into luncheon. And why not? I’m sure these precious days at the end of one year were made for readying us for the next.

How I love this little lull. If I were to wander around the house, I’d find a jigsaw on the dining table, and Ben’s books, and my sewing machine in full swing at the other end. In the sitting room John has been doing just that, and galloping through his Christmas books at speed. There is evidence of knitting on the couch, and some embroidery, and new music on the stand. On the stairs the fairy lights twinkle and beyond them, in the kitchen, Seb is touching up his latest diorama. Ilse’s new colouring book lies open on the table, a tropical scene half alive with colour. It’ll have to wait to be complete, like the jigsaw and and knitting and the little embroidered house. They’re all at the pictures with John, and I am in the quiet house on my own in the middle of the lull in these holidays.

There’s something about the turning of the year that makes me want to neaten up loose ends. These are the days in which I rifle through old offcuts, and make a plan for each and every little piece left over from the previous year’s projects. We covered two notebooks this morning, Fliss and I, for a twins’ birthday party she’s going to next week. I’ve made a quick potholder from the leftover crumbs. There are toilet bags and bookmarks and pretty fabric roses in the offing. I’d like to clear the decks by the end of January, in time for the spring sewing to begin. We all need a dose of optimism in February.

Then there’s the ground to clear for next season’s growth, the tips of which are already poking out above the soil. A day or two in the garden should do it, if we all work together, and pave the way for an excitable evening with the catalogues.

And yet it isn’t all tasks. Some days are set aside for other things. Best of all are those mind-clearing walks that only cold air and bright sunlight through bare branches can achieve. We found the first primroses yesterday, small and pastel yellow in the otherwise barren ground. Soon the buds will be on the trees, soon the snowdrops will be out in force. For now, though, we can walk through the silent woodland and over the icy moor and wonder at the peace of it all. Of this welcome, gentle, unassuming lull, before the earth shifts on its axis and plunges us into the coming year.

Bit by bit

What are we doing tomorrow? is often the last question of the day, asked over the banisters on the way up to bed. I had wondered if the younger ones were beginning to get fed up with pottering around the house. Fortunately, ‘tomorrow’ was a day with definite errands, activities and an outing built in. Well, I need to go the the greengrocer and the butcher, and then I thought we might make some gingerbread, and then we’re going to visit your great-grandmother for tea. A look of slight concern passed over Seb’s face. Will we have some time at home? I’ve got so much more to do for Christmas.

Bit by bit, everything is coming together. As far as I’m concerned, only my favourite parts remain: wrapping the children’s presents in front of the fire one evening with John; Christmas Eve in the kitchen, making custard and stewed cabbage and pigs in blankets. Laying first the marzipan and then the icing over the rich fruit cake, and deciding how to finish it this year. Boiling the ham and baking dauphinois potatoes for a meal so rich that only something green and frugal can sit beside it: the cabbagey tops of the sprouts I’ve grown especially. Laying out the stockings at the ends of beds and, finally, trying to sleep so that Father Christmas might arrive.

In the meantime, other important preparations are being taken care of by our household team of elves. There’s a snowstorm on the kitchen windows, and paper chains dangle from every permissible angle. The gingerbread we baked was duly tasted, decorated and tasted again. The pile of homemade cards and little presents is growing, day by day. I’ve a secret slot booked in the kitchen with Ilse. And although they are itching to bring in the holly and the ivy and festoon every picture frame in the place,  that and the tree must wait until Christmas Eve, when everyone needs something to channel their excitement into.

Which left me free to dust off my spinning wheel last night and turn a pile of rolags into yarn. While I did, I thought about all the things I’m going to make in that quiet week between Christmas and New Year, and the walks we’re going to go on, and the people we’re going to see. And then I thought: what are we doing tomorrow? and realised that the answer was: nothing, especially. Well, how lovely is that? I think I’ll do a spot of wintry gardening, and then maybe add a bit to Ilse’s quilt. This is just the sort of holiday I needed: calm and quiet, while the children busy themselves with Christmas fun. I wish you the sort of holidays that you need, too, whatever those might be. Have a very happy Christmas, everyone.