Castles and coves

We love the sea. We love it in the morning, when the coast is fresh and empty and still sparkling with dew. We love busy midday sunshine beaches, when everyone and their dog lays claim to a patch of sand. Best of all though, we love it in the late afternoon, when the striped windbreaks and bright buckets are packed away and the coast empties of tired children complaining of sand in their shoes and the long walk home.

From about three o’clock the sand is at its warmest and the sun still high enough to revive you after the chilliest of dips. John invariably heads in for a proper swim, while the children splash about or jump the rollers. In and out, wet and dry and wet again, stopping for an ice-cream (madness) or reaching for the flask of tea (far more rational in these parts), the swimming and sandcastle making goes on until about six, when people start clamouring for their tea, and John lights his little Trangiar and the sausages are soon fizzing and popping in the pan. A bread roll, a salad or two if we’re feeling fancy, and everyone is full and warm and ready to doze on the long drive home.

We’ve visited several beaches over the past couple of weeks. In Cornwall we had a couple of balmy evenings in Poldhu Cove, where we were not the only family to turn up and start cooking supper on the sand. Kynance Cove merited a fast and furious visit, leaping through the icy breakers on a moody morning. Having decided that the water really was too cold and that I would only go waist deep, I was swept off my feet on more than one occasion, much to Ilse’s delight. We needed fish and chips – sat in – to warm up after that particular swim. Sadly we didn’t manage our usual Devon bathe from pebbly Beesands, with the gale force winds blowing us into a cosy cafe for a wet-and-wild-night-of-camping-recovery breakfast instead. But we did make a special pilgrimage to a site John has wanted to visit since he was about ten years old: Tintagel Castle, and its cave-speckled cove beneath.

If you’ve ever visited Tintagel, you’ll know that the castle itself involves no little toil up and down a lot of steps, and the soaring temperatures on the day of our visit meant that the cove beneath was packed with people cooling off after their endeavours. We pottered about for an hour or two, looking into local shops and sampling the superb pasties from the cafe by the ticket office, and by the time we traipsed back down to the cove it was almost empty. We were the only people in the sea, with a few families on the shore, their knicker-clad little ones squealing with glee as the cool water washed over their toes. It was our last day in Cornwall before a drive north through the gathering night, and perhaps my favourite day of all. A castle and a cove, pasties and a cream tea: everyone was happy, which made me so. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer end to our little southern holiday.

So when John announced that he’d like to spend an afternoon and evening at Sandsend, near Whitby, I was only too happy to comply. I packed a basket or two with sausages, a couple of salads from our bursting garden, and a chocolate cake nestled in my tin, and we had one more glorious afternoon by the sea, all of us this time, mucking around in the sand and admiring the crystal clear water. Seb built a birthday monument for his dad, Fliss and Ilse stood on the empty steps and belted out some Abba, Ben and I admired the many shoals of little fish, different types of jellyfish and the odd transparent crab. John, of course, went for his swim, and then we had our hot picnic tea before heading home to sandy showers and fresh clean sheets and beds that rocked gently in our sleep.

Desert Island Discs: Something Changed

John and I had no business meeting each other. It really shouldn’t have happened: he was a starry PhD student in another subject, at another college, while I was still an undergraduate with rather a lot on my plate. Yet one June evening, a supervisor drove me out of Cambridge for dinner at a country pub, and on the way home he parked his car at the back of Trinity. We wandered back to St. John’s through Great Court and there we bumped into a friend of his, covered in chalk dust, an ice axe in each hand.

I’d come back from Syria, where I’d been having some time out, to spend May Week in Cambridge before returning for my final year the following October. At the end of year, after exams, there are a couple of weeks of pure fun: garden parties; May Balls that go on all night; dinners and punting and lazing around all day on the gloriously sunny Backs. My supervisor, seeing that I was smitten, invited me to his garden party the following afternoon as John was going to be there, and the rest, as they say, was history. I don’t think I’d ever had as much fun as we had in those first two sunny summer weeks. They remain in my mind as a time of pure happiness.

Although we didn’t listen to any Pulp during those first two weeks, I’m always reminded of them when I hear Something Changed. My whole life turned on a chance encounter on a golden Cambridge evening. Not just finding my life partner – although that would be enough – but finding my independence again. It’s all very well, believing in fate (I don’t), but even if you do, it’s what you do with your opportunities that counts. My whole life turned on the head of a pin in those two short weeks. In a funny way, I became myself again, free and unafraid.

I had a fantastic summer that year, diving in Australia and spending a couple of months with my parents in France and then Aleppo, Syria. When I returned to Cambridge in the October, John and I, who had been writing all summer, decided to make a go of it. I made new friends – through John but also, for the first time, through my course: proper friends, people who built me up. I started to take my studies seriously, spending my days tucked in a corner of the labyrinthine University Library, periodically meeting John for tea and scones in the cafe, and in the end I did rather well. When the time came to graduate, I didn’t want to leave. I loved those final twelve months, working and playing hard, encouraged and inspired by the people around me. They made what could have continued to be a very tough time not only manageable, but a joy.

If I think of my life as a series of events, the significant moments weighing heavy on an unbroken thread, that chance meeting was one such moment for me. How lucky I was, to bump into the love of my life just then, when I least expected it. It wasn’t just something that changed that day; it was everything.

Celebrating Plastic Free July

You know how sometimes things seem to come together and fall into place just perfectly? Over the past few weeks I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about all the plastic our family seems to be getting through. Then my brother told me about a packaging free shop in the town where he lives. And Seb read, on the back of a Morrisons receipt, that the supermarket is inviting customers to bring their own containers to take home fresh meat and fish. And yet somehow we are putting the bin out more often than we used to. So I went online to look up plastic free options and inspiration and stumbled upon Plastic Free July.

Originating in Australia in 2011, this year looks set to have millions of participants in over 150 countries worldwide – including me. I’ve pledged to give up single-use plastics… forever. It goes without saying that I won’t succeed and I like the way that they acknowledge that directly. It doesn’t bother me at all, setting myself up to fail in this way, because I won’t view it as failure. Instead, I’m going to celebrate each and every piece of single use plastic that we don’t use. There are bound to be all sorts that slip the net: medical blister packs, butter ‘paper’, single-use plastics that we already own. But there are bound to be plastic items that we refuse, and that’s why this can only be a win-win scenario.

So much has changed since the first time I made a concerted effort to reduce the single-use plastic in our lives – about ten years ago. Back then, it felt a bit niche, to be honest. Nowadays it feels positively mainstream. I told my car-share buddy about it on the way to work and she enthusiastically told me that she’d like to give it a go, then sat down with me to create a resource to share the opportunity with the rest of our organisation. Beth Terry‘s blog was the only one I could find on the topic, way back when. Now there are several excellent blogs which look at everything from plastic-free living to zero-waste lifestyles in a realistic and encouraging way. Best of all, a quick internet search turned up all sorts of options in and around York, from the market to Whittards to a farm shop that is literally on my way to work and sells both fresh and frozen food sans plastic, as far as I can tell. (The aforementioned car-share buddy and I have a stop planned for later in the week.) Then there are all the online shops specialising in plastic-free living: I ordered my first tin of non-nano suncream along with a few other consumables that we are about to run out of. I couldn’t find those sorts of products the last time I looked.

If I am honest with myself, I had become complacent about certain plastics. Things that I never used to buy: punnets of grapes, tubs of hummus and yoghurt, rigid packs of organic mince – had become regular features in my online trolley. Thanks to the powers of habit and the efforts of my husband, we had stuck to several ingrained behaviours, such as using the market for fruit, veg and most meat, and getting our milk delivered in glass bottles. However, I knew that the teabags thrown onto the compost heap contained plastic; I was just tired of swilling out the teapot. I knew I needed a wake-up call and some inspiration. What I hadn’t appreciated was how much I needed to feel that lots of other people were trying to do this too. Thanks to co-workers and my  children and my lovely husband who took our own containers to the butcher to see what they would say, this doesn’t feel like such an uphill battle any more.

Sure, there are lots of horrifying statistics and videos out there, and they deserve our attention. But when searching, with Ilse, for some child-appropriate information (good old Newsround) we discovered that a company is developing a product designed to clean up the big bits of plastic in the oceans. I simply cannot believe that future generations are never going to dig up our landfill and develop the technology to recycle it. And pressure is mounting to ban or tax more forms of single-use plastic than just the bag.

I’m not anti-plastic. In fact, Cecily is going to make a very excited appearance on the blog next week, writing all about the wonder material that has so much potential to improve the world. When I was a kid in Tanzania, plastic was a pretty rare and precious thing. My mother kept her UK-shopping plastic bags neatly folded, and used them over and over again. Ice-cream tubs would live on for years alongside the tupperware. In the run up to Plastic Free July, I keep rescuing plastic from the recycling. There won’t be many more squeezy bottles or freezer bags coming into our home. Plastic plays a significant role in our lives, and a shift in mindset makes it suddenly invaluable.

I’m not planning on writing about the issues surrounding plastic or offering comprehensive lists of tips – other people have already done that extremely well. What I would like to do is share this journey with you once in a while – because I’m sure it will be a very long and bumpy journey – and invite you along for the ride. Like every adventure, it’ll be more fun with company.

Madeleine

Are you already a plastic-free pro, or just interested in finding out more? I’m really curious about what you think. And I’d love to know if you do sign up to Plastic Free July. You could leave a comment, or drop me a private email. Whatever you do, big or small, alone or as part of a community, I hope we can celebrate every small refusal of another bit of unnecessary plastic – and cheer each other along.

Rhubarb and roses

19 June 1933

It was only after the last cap was tightened last night that I realised that there’s been a bit of a theme to our recent preserving: fruit and flowers. Gooseberry and elderflower, lemon and elderflower and, last of all, rhubarb and roses.

Normally, I make rhubarb jam earlier in the season, adding crystallised ginger to the pot to give it the sort of sweet heat I crave in the dark days of March. The first, forced rhubarb is slender and pale and, when bottled, shines pinkly from the larder shelves. But this year the rhubarb has been so abundant and lush that we took it for granted, almost forgetting that it would soon come to an end. Which is how I ended up making a batch when the roses were in bloom.

At first I thought I’d use the roses from the bush which towers, two or three meters high, above the hen house, but although they have a lovely scent, it’s not sweet enough to eat. So I turned to my little rambler, still in its early years but laden with its open, cut and come again heads of loose and sweet-smelling petals.

Taking a handful indoors made me think of the little bottles of rosewater perfume that we’d make with our grannie in Ireland, when we visited each summer. She’d save a variety of small containers for just this purpose, and send us out to pick the blooms, pluck the petals from each one and leave the mixture to brew overnight. Then she’d tell us to use it up, but I never did. It was too pretty: the dark pink curls suspended in what was no longer simply water. So I’d keep it, jealously, until the pink turned to brown and the high summer fragrance became something sour and earthy.

I did wonder whether the scent would survive the rigours of the jam-making process. At first, the panful looked akin to an Arabian delicacy: a mound of rose and pistachio Turkish Delight, strewn with petals to serve. Before long, though, the sugar drew the juices from the fruit and the whole lot came to a raging boil, setting quickly in the jars with whole chunks of the softened stems suspended in the jelly. I have to admit, I licked the spoon myself. And the pan. Goodness knows what the children were doing to resist that scent, but whatever it was, I was quite happy not to have any offers of help with the washing up. The rhubarb was softened, somehow, its flavour mellowed but still true, and above it sang the rose, confident and clear.

We are so enjoying bottling this lovely June that it didn’t take Ilse long to persuade me to get on with the elderflower cordial, before the last blooms turned brown and brittle on the trees. We were just in time, bringing in a basketful on Saturday afternoon a mere half hour before the heavens opened. All we had to do, cosy in the kitchen, was boil the kettle for a cup of tea and pour a share of the hot water over the blooms, as well as the zested rind of some citrus fruit. The following day we strained the brew, added sugar and the juice from the same bright fruit and brought it to a simmer. Then it was bottled and put away on the larder shelves. Apart, that is, from the one vessel which made its way to the soda syphon, for tasting purposes.

So much older now than when I made that rosewater – and hopefully a little wiser – I’ve been resisting the urge to save all our preserves against a rainy day. I don’t want to find chutney from two years ago at the back of a shelf, and wonder if it is still good to eat. Of course, it almost always is, but that’s not the point. We don’t make these things to sit in jars for posterity, as evidence that summer was here and that we made the most of it. I’d rather have that proof in the form of good tastes on my tongue. Invariably, I wonder whether I have put aside enough – enough jam, enough chutney, enough bottled fruit – to last the cold months through, and invariably we are still eating it up when the following summer’s bounty flows into the kitchen once more. In this spirit, Fliss made a crumble for our Sunday roast, with the last of the blackcurrants and pears, and it was a delicious precursor of the harvests still to come. This year, for the first time, I have almost got it right. The shelves are nearly empty, bar the bottles and and jars I’ve added over the last couple of weeks. There’s one lot of plums still on hand, which I’ll use to crown a pavlova, and some bottled raspberries which will disappear the moment they grace the table. The only stumbling block is the gooseberries: we are drowning in gooseberries. Not only are we nowhere near polishing off last year’s crop; the two pounds for last week’s jam barely made a dent and the rest are swelling to enormous proportions with all this sunshine and rain. Now that the rhubarb is just about done, I’ll have to turn my culinary attentions to those lovely, prickly-sour little fruits. Perhaps John can find a recipe for gooseberry wine or spirits. After all, that’s what he did with the last lingering sticks of rhubarb. And, somehow, I don’t think that his rhubarb gin will still be hanging around in a year.

Cecily

PS – How about you – are you busy making preserves yet? What do you have an abundance of, in your part of the world? Are you still eating up any stock from previous years?

PPS – If anyone has any suggestions for what to do with all those gooseberries, please let me know. I’m particularly keen on the idea of a gooseberry chutney or relish – something to add a bit of zing to a plain cheese sandwich, or to have with cold meats or fish. Or ways of eating them fresh as part of a savoury dish. We’ll have enough sweet fools and crumbles over the next few weeks as it is!

In my hands, by my bed

One of the things that I love about John is his habit of choosing me books. He watches the pile on my bedside table, topping it up when it gets low. Usually it’s a stack from the library, but last week, as a half-term treat, he came home with a brand new one, leaving it by my bed for me to find when we went up.

He knows me well. I go through phases of being fascinated by stuff, the objects that we surround ourselves with. In my dreams, and in our holiday-going reality, we travel light,  throwing a few essentials into a day sack: a change of clothes, a passport, a bar of soap. The thought of having too much is suffocating, and yet I can see how people find comfort in the things which surround them. We all do; we’d be lying if we claimed otherwise.

The Life of Stuff is a family memoir, probing the generations through the things they loved and the hoard they left behind. Its lays out a pattern of family tragedy which repeats itself through the generations, and the author’s determination to change things, to be different. It left me wondering whether my own relative lack of interest in stuff comes from the fact that we moved a lot when I was growing up. Home is where the family is, regardless of continent or climate or whether the container with our chattels has arrived.

The stuff I love is functional: quilts and clothes, trowels and teacups. The things I make are always about keeping us warm, fed and comfortable. They are made, they are used, they fall apart. New things take their place.

I wore my favourite white jumper into oblivion last winter, and so a new one is on my needles. The pattern is one I’m developing for release this autumn, comfortable and warm and easy to throw on. And although my tester will be making it from commercial yarn, mine is knit from my own yarn, raised by my aunt, sheared by my cousin, spun soft and light and woolen by me. That’s the sort of story the things in my family tend to tell. Well made, well loved, and, one day, well worn. The stuff of comfort.

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

PS – If anyone fancies reading The Life of Stuff once John and I have finished, drop me a line and I’ll send it your way. UK readers only, I’m afraid, because, well, postage.

PPS – Thank you all so much for coming back, subscribing and reading again after my long hiatus. It really does mean an awful lot to me. Your ‘welcome back’ comments had me smiling for days.

For Mother’s Day

For Mothers’ Day this year I had a lingering illness which might have ruined the day but for the gifts I received. They were carried in with the morning tea tray: a little handmade coaster, a bag of Pontefract cakes and a voucher. Oh, they know what I like, and what’s on my mind just now. They know I’d like nothing better than to be out in this glorious sunshine, setting the garden to rights, and that I just don’t feel up to it. So nothing could have been better than their voucher promising me a day’s labour out there. I don’t mind how many times they’ve given me this gift; I’ve never loved it more than I did this Sunday.

For my part, I did some fiddly little jobs – pricking out the tomatoes, pushing the onion sets into trays of compost to bring on indoors for a while. John cleaned out the hens and mowed the lawn and built an urgently required chicken-proof fence. Ben spread compost on the beds and turned the newer heaps onward through the bays. The younger three fetched and carried and helped out wherever and whenever they were needed, and from their bare feet and and legs and arms you’d have thought it was high summer.

I took Seb in the motor to visit my own mother with the gift of a bowl of violas. All the talk of allotments with Father sent me home keen to visit my own space: just a little amble, nothing more. John and I cut a basket of tender brocolli before the buds split into yellow blooms. We noticed that the damson has burst its first white tender bud. And when we opened the door of the greenhouse, the aniseed fragrance of fennel spilled out into the cooler, outdoor air.

In the last hour before supper I carried a rug and my old chocolate tin of seeds out to the garden bench. There’s something very pleasing about making a list of what needs to be planted when, and what’s already in. It made me disproportionately happy. Around me, the day dissolved from industry to play. The children soaked themselves in one last water fight before their baths; John hammered in the last stake; an easy Sunday roast was on its way. Thanks to them, I can sow the next lot of seeds as soon as I like, in the freshly composted beds now safe behind the fence. I needn’t worry about the height of the lawn. And no, nobody wanted to do the weeding for me, even if it was Mothering Sunday, but that’s all right. I’ve had a whole day of gardening despite feeling under the weather, and more has been accomplished than I could ever have achieved alone. And they did it all quite willingly. I couldn’t really ask for anything more for Mothers’ Day.

On Liberty, and love

Whatever happens, people will always want chocolate. As a result, we’ve been largely untouched by the depression. The chocolate industry, and John’s role in it, have grown rather than shrunk over the past decade or so. All those Kitkats and Aeros have kept a comfortable roof over our heads and good food on the table. And although I am careful with my spending, I can afford to treat myself to a Liberty print now and again.

It’s easy to be happy, when everything is going well. My day yesterday consisted largely of taking apart a well loved and washed out blouse to trace a pattern from it, before putting the navy silk aside for other purposes. I arranged the pattern pieces on the bias and began to cut everything out, pot of tea on the table, wireless on in the background. After a while the news came on, and with it people who were so sure that they were right that they never even paused to hear the other side speak.

It was at this point that I discovered I’d cut two identical sleeve pieces, which was a mistake, as they ought to be mirror images of one another. The whole blouse had been a bit of a squeeze, really, and to my dismay there wasn’t a scrap left large enough to cut another piece. So I stitched three pieces together with careful French seams which should be reasonably well hidden under my left arm. Far from perfect, but far from a disaster, either. These things happen. I don’t think I’ll make that particular mistake again, for a while at least.

Had it been a cheaper, less nice fabric I might not have bothered. I might have cut it down at once into a blouse for Fliss or Ilse, and pretended I’d never gone wrong. But I love Liberty too much to let it go.

And besides, we do go wrong, sometimes. But rarely so far wrong that a little love and care can’t put it right. I can’t help thinking that we could do with a little more love all around, at the moment. A touch of understanding and patience for angry people. A dash of agape, of wishing the best for everyone, including those we might disagree with. Perhaps especially for those who are unhappy. Now there’s a challenge for me, far greater than a spot of dressmaking. And although it is hardly an original thought, it’s a pretty important one, here in 1932.

Is it winter yet?

As long as I have known John, which is a very long time now, we have disagreed over the naming of the seasons. To me, a sunny day in May spells summer. Flowering bulbs and a break in the frost means spring, even if it’s only February. And winter starts around the middle of November, when lightweight macs are relegated to the backs of cupboards and the last of the summer shoes are hibernating, polished leather against crumpled tissue, in their boxes under the stairs. I can’t wait for the next season to begin, can hardly sleep for hoping for the spring. Were I in charge, summer would begin in March and last until October. And if November isn’t winter yet, then I dread to think how cold it’s going to get.

John likes to name the seasons by the book. Winter, apparently, does not begin until the setting of the solstice sun. Spring comes in March; autumn in September. And not just at the start of each named month, but on the 21st, and not a minute sooner. He measures his days by the calendar, which is reasonable enough, I suppose, but not sane enough for me.

For me, winter is when toddlers chug up and down the street, blowing steam out of their engines. It’s when even Ben asks if we might light the fire, and I can serve stew three times in a week without anyone complaining. Winter starts when the Christmas crafting does, and the last of the tomatoes’ blackened stems has been hauled off to the compost. When the hens have to be away by four o’ clock for fear of the fox. When the children bother to come back for mislaid gloves.

If I want to take the only sunny day in January and call it spring, I will, and I’ll enjoy it all the more. One swallow definitely makes a summer. In fact, the only season I will not rush towards is autumn. Lovely in itself, it spells the end of my long summers and I hold it at arm’s length as long as I possibly can. That’s why it’s the shortest season of them all, only hanging around as long as the brown leaves on the trees. What with the wind and the rain of the last few days, those have all been blown away. So call it a month early, if you must, but I’m fairly certain winter’s here at last.

Tesselations

There have been page after page of tesselations floating around the house of late. Fliss learned to draw these interlocking patterns from her mathematics mistress and Ilse, spotting the bright sheets of gridded paper, demanded to know how they were done. Ever patient, Fliss taught her sister to draw interconnected crosses three squares wide, and pick each element out in a different colour. Then they moved on to dogs, each one standing on the back of the next so that they rose in diagonal towers across the page. Then came the moment of glory, when Ilse made up her own simple pattern and it worked. When I’m grown up, she announced, and I build a house of my own, this will be the hall floor.

The lives of the six of us, in and out of this house, are a tesselation of their own. They are more than the sum of their parts, and, when all is well, they fit together into a lovely seamless pattern. I see it more at this time of year than any other: when it’s chilly in the bedrooms and so we gather around the fire. When there’s still novelty in indoor pursuits and no-one is fed up with the same games, the same stories, the same selection of crafts. Last night, Ben lit the fire while I got the tea things ready. I sat down with a final cup once the scones had all been eaten, and found the boys engrossed in a game of chess. The girls were drawing more tesselating patterns together. Tea drunk, it was time to give Seb and Fliss their flute lesson, and for Ben to make a start on his prep. Ilse was happy with the shoebox of colouring pencils until Seb was free to join her, while Fliss went off to write an essay on Tennyson. By the time John came home, supper was ready, prep was done, and the children had a fresh stack of patterns for him to admire. It was one of those lovely evenings when everything fitted tidily together.

Of course, not all evenings are quite as neat. Often the things we do jar and clash against each other. Show me a family that doesn’t know that feeling. But once in a while everything fits, just so. The tasks which need to be done fall into place alongside the all important play. Everyone wants to join in the same games, to make the same music, to draw the same pretty patterns. Those rare evenings are worth taking the time to enjoy. And of course, the cherry on the cake was that the patterns the children were drawing summed it up just perfectly.

Swallows and Amazons

There’s been a lot of dreaming about Wild Cat Island in recent months. A lot of den building behind the sofa and at the end of the garden. A lot of packing of knapsacks and traipsing round the house to Rio and back. A lot of pemmican, and grog, and buttered eggs. The stitching of swallows on flags. Piratical attacks. Midnight raids.

At longed-for last, these Swallows headed off with their Daddy – who fortunately didn’t have to be on a ship in the South China Sea – to the Lake District, while I stayed at Holly Howe to look after Vicky (or my vegetables, at least). Three days later, they were back, having had enough adventures to write a novel of their own – which Titty set about at once. Not having been with them, I can only report their travels as they were described to me. A voyage on a ferry to a distant island in the sea, where they camped in the ruins of a castle and made friends with the native children. Post supper swims off the pier. Visits to Rio for supplies, before heading up to base camp, carrying all that they might need. Sleeping halfway up Kanchenjunga, and waking to make the dawn ascent. Searching the cairns for messages from earlier explorers – and, finding none, knowing they were the very first to set foot upon that crest. Returning to civilisation in time to fish for sharks, before the long paddle steamer home across the seven seas.

As I say, I wasn’t there, but I believe what I read in the company’s log. For a little while, at least, they all got to be Swallows: living for the summer, flitting freely about the English countryside. Wild camping in the hills, and messing about in boats. Stories in books are wonderful. Stories shared with friends and siblings, acted out in boats made from apple crates, are even better. And stories recreated in the place where they are set – in the hills and waters set aside for us all to enjoy? They’re the very best of all, apparently.