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]

The second conversion: north to south

[whohit]The second conversion: north to south[/whohit]

John and I decided, as usual, to spend the last few days of the children’s holidays away somewhere. The simple act of being away transforms the final week of the holidays (and all that the phrase carries with it) from a countdown to routine to another meandering adventure in the sunshine.

We camped, visited castles, and lost one another in the sand dunes – I can’t remember the last time I felt so utterly relaxed and at peace with the world.

The children, no doubt, will recall their time by the sea as the highlight of Northumberland. They ate ices every day, then little pots of cockles and winkles, before leaping over waves, and going almost imperceptibly further out to sea with each sideways jump. But for John and I the highlight of the holiday was our time on Lindisfarne.

Cut off from the mainland at high tide, it is an almost mythical land. There are rocks with mustard yellow seaweed, pebbles in every shade of grey, wild flowers and grasses and trees blown so persistently by the wind that they have since bowed down in obedience. On the edge of the village lie the ruins of the priory, from where the second conversion of England began. The first came from the south, from the continent, bringing Christianity like sun in the springtime, the days growing ever longer and sweeter. This second conversion put me in mind of autumn, creeping in from the north, with its mists and frosts and mornings which don’t fully surrender to the sun until near noon.

I love autumn. I love the way it demands commitment – so unlike the fickle, carefree days of summer when we drift from one pursuit to another and know that there is always tomorrow. August: when the fervour of spring is long forgotten, and the sun hangs as heavy on our lawns as the bees droning in the lavender. Autumn days are more precious by far. If we don’t pick the harvests they will vanish, devoured by animals and insects and a stealthy, unexpected blanketing of hard white frost. If we don’t preserve them they will rot, yielding to the grey fuzz of mould and disappointment. We need our sacks of carrots, our strings of onions and bottles of impossibly purple beetroot. Our crumpets, without a smear of glossy red jam, will never convince us, huddled in front of our January fires, of the truth of tales of sunlight.

With that in mind, I took Ilse and Seb berrying the very morning after we came home, and that afternoon had six more jars of blackberry jam in the larder before the older ones were home from school. Suddenly, I am knitting faster, ordering tweed for a new skirt, and taking stock of everyone’s woollen underthings.

In my mind, there are two new beginnings in every year: spring and autumn. As I stood in the ruins of the priory, its roof long fallen and tumbled walls no barrier to the offshore winds, the illusion dissolved. My final summer fling was over: autumn was here. All the way home, winding our way south along the coast, the feeling followed me. The haystacks huddled in shorn fields. The buzzing in the hedgerows had dwindled. The berries on the holly are already as yellow as the seaweed, and on their way to russet. And so, each morning, before the children head off to school, I stir a spoonful of jam into their porridge and embrace another day of autumn.