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.

Gardens, home and away

While I planned the London leg of our trip south, John was in charge of the week we spent in Devon and Cornwall. The Devon part was easy – every other year my brother and his family throw a huge weekend-long party in their woodland, and that, coupled with a visit to their home in Totnes, is a well-practised part of our summer holidays. The Cornish visit, however, wasn’t planned until one hot evening in London, when John checked the weather forecast, pulled together a plan, and booked a couple of campsites.

There were so many things we could have done in Cornwall. We could have visited more National Trust sites. We could have gone to the Tate in St Ives. We could have pottered along the north coast, taking in the pretty towns with their Enid Blyton coves. But knowing how much I like my plants, and how hard we’d all tried to be plastic-free and reduce our footprint recently, John arranged for us to visit a couple of world-famous gardens.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Eden Project since it opened in 2001, and the space-age view of the honeycomb biospheres in a lush green valley did not disappoint. Parts of the Mediterranean biosphere reminded us strongly of holidays in Greece, Italy and southern France, with the grapes and the olive oil and the kitchen gardens overflowing with good produce and impossibly fat lemons. Some of the plants in the South African section were familiar to me too, from my trip there many years ago but also from Tanzania. The Californian section was the newest to us, as we’ve never visited the west coast of the USA. Wandering around, marvelling at the dry-weather plants, put me in mind of the early settlers, deciding whether to go further north or south as they approached the Pacific Ocean in their covered wagons. I’d always assumed I’d go south, but perhaps life would have been easier a little further north, where the weather patterns were more familiar. Whichever they chose, the climate must have been a shock to settlers from Britain and Ireland, with our temperate island seasons. We have neither blizzards nor deserts, and – usually – water in abundance.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the wave of familiarity that swept over me as we entered the Tropical biosphere. There is no other way to describe it except that I felt as though I’d suddenly come home. Even now, after all these years away, I could name so many of the plants, and tell the children about their dangers, uses and temptations. How we never climbed snake-trees (ficus) as they were a favourite haunt of mambas. How the swiss cheese plant reminded me of one we had in our living room when I was growing up. The cinnamon, pomagranate and papaya trees from which we would nibble as we went about our play. Hibiscus – the vibrant red kind, with its prominent yellow-dusted spear. Ginger, which grew as an ornamental in our back garden, alongside the traveller’s palm, and the enticing frangipane under which we dug tunnels and built dens and made mud pies. I hadn’t realised how many plants I could name, nor how firmly they were etched into my mind. There was something new and familiar around every corner and it almost felt like showing the children around a place where I had grown up.

I do think that it matters, being able to name the plants around you. I think that it changes your perspective of the world if you can name the living things which inhabit it. We care more for the things that we can name. Around the outdoor gardens, which we loved the scope and variety of, we learned the names of many plants that we hadn’t known before. I do love a garden with labels. We could have spent all day there, learning about plants, their habitats and their uses, so we did. Fliss was so inspired that she is writing a herbal: a botanical volume of plants, their identification and medicinal uses. There has been much careful research and sketching since we got home. I came home to two weeks of vibrant green growth, which is both delightful and alarming all at once. I picked four kilograms of cucumbers on Sunday, and have bottled my first jars of tomato sauce. There are more courgettes than we can shake a stick at and flowers in every room of the house.

The children are probably relieved by the abundance because I was sorely tempted by the vegetable and flower gardens at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. John reckoned that our back garden is about half the size of their vegetable beds, and this observation quickly disintegrated into my enthusiastic suggestion that if we dug up the lawn, we could be self-sufficient in vegetables. How Good Life of me. Seb was particularly horrified, and his reaction, coupled with the fact that the chickens would have nowhere to roam and I do actually have a limited number of hours in the day, won out. Oh, but it really is the sort of garden to inspire those One Day dreams. John and I were making plans the whole way around – one day we’ll have an orchard with a pond for the poultry to live in, and a small woodland for fuel, a huge vegetable patch and a couple of pigs. And then, walled off and civilised, something akin to the Italian Garden, which is so far from what I normally aspire to yet took my breath away.

There are other jaunts to write about – involving castles and coves, sausages and swims – but I wanted to set the gardens down first, as they are in my mind’s eye. Both were vast, ambitious spaces, managed far more skilfully than I will ever manage mine. I’ve come home with a head full of plans to implement over the coming autumn, winter and spring. Really, though, those two days of gardens have deepened my love of plants and the natural world. I won’t be starting an Eden Project any time soon, or bringing an abandoned landscape back to its former glory. But I will be outside every day, watering and cutting, pruning and weeding, caring for my little piece of the planet.

On Hampstead Heath

Wherever you visit, it’s good to strike a balance between being a tourist and acting like a local. So while we almost always visit the big attractions – the Acropolis, Pompeii, the Brandenberg Gate – we also like to get our hair cut, hear local history from our landlord’s granny, and head for former East German lakes.

This time, I thought we’d try a spot of outdoor swimming, and the heat wave made it such an appealing idea that we threw over our day in Greenwich in favour of a day in and out of the water. There are several lidos in London, but I wanted something a little wilder, and a quick search brought us to the clay pits on Hampstead Heath.

Now, I’d never even been to Hampstead before, but it turns out that as well as the village and heath they’ve filled in some old clay pits to create natural swimming pools. We were a little anxious about whether we’d get in – surely in a city the size of London demand would be overwhelming – and I had prepared the children for disappointment and had Plan B up my sleeve. To our delight we were greeted by a lovely old man who charged me £2, checked several times that the children were good swimmers, and let us in immediately. The little area of land around the jetty was busy, but not so much so that we couldn’t find a spot to spread our towels, and huge pond had far more space than I’ve seen at any swimming pool. Clearly the rest of London was cooling off elsewhere.

Swimming at Hampstead Heath reminded me of nothing as much as the day we spent at an old East German swimming lake in Berlin. Virtually cost-free, full of locals and with only the most basic of amenities, it is my sort of swimming. The girls and I walked into the women’s changing area, which is fenced off for privacy, to find a wrinkly old woman stretched out on a bench, completely starkers, soaking up the sun. Nobody was fussing about their hair, there was no overpowering waft of deoderant sprays or whoosh of hand-dryers. Just lots of people enjoying the good weather and staying cool in the water.

We went swimming in pairs, and I went in with each of the younger ones, to keep an eye on them. The water is so opaque with clay that you cannot see your own hands in the water, and it would be impossible to see someone who’d gone under. The lifeguards were excellent: friendly and sensible, and Ilse’s age and swimming ability was checked before she was allowed in. We had a lovely time in the water, swimming out to this patch of flowers or that, practising dolphin or backstroke or just skulling along. Every so often we’d get out to warm up, or swap between those reading on the bank and whoever’s turn it was in the water.

I love swimming outdoors. Whether in the sea, a river, a lake or a pond, it is one of my favourite things to do. I love being in the water – any water – but water without chlorine and surrounded by plants, rocks, sand or simply the horizon is such a treat. We’ve got a lot more outdoor swimming lined up this summer, along the coast of Devon and Cornwall, but before I’d even rinsed the silt from my hair I’d planned another day out, in and around the Nidd. We all have our favourite memories of our sojourn in London, but mine is without a doubt the day we spent swimming on Hampstead Heath.

Madeleine

Do you swim outdoors? Is there somewhere close to you where you can? One day, I’m going to live by the sea again, but I’m glad I’ve discovered rivers and ponds too, because I wouldn’t have were the ocean still on my doorstep.

Plastic free on holiday

As soon as we’d found solutions to all sorts of plastic-free conundrums at home, we set off on the first part of our summer holiday and have been thinking on our feet ever since.

I have to admit, I’m loving Plastic Free July. I love the conversations it promotes, the way it’s forced me to use different shops, and the fact that I’m being more inventive in my shopping again.

Take last week, for instance. I’ve known that we were going to a fancy dress party for months, but had done nothing about the green face paint or red hair dye that Seb and Fliss had requested. In my book, a promise is a promise, and so I found myself on the way to a till with plastic face paint and plastic sponges in a plastic palette wrapped in plastic. Here I was, about to purchase something I really didn’t want to. But when it came to it, I couldn’t. I turned around, put it back and reasoned that I could find another way. The same thing happened with a can of spray-on hair dye for Fliss. And so it was that we found ourselves on the afternoon before our departure smearing natural, paper-bagged henna in Fliss’ hair while Seb melted a bit of an old green pastel crayon in some coconut oil. Both solutions, I am relieved to say, not only worked, but were more fun than the requested products would have been.

Since we were driving south, it was easy to throw a few essentials into the car. Nothing fancy; just the usual suspects: water bottles, flasks, shopping and produce bags and so forth. The one thing that did raise an eyebrow were the cloth napkins, but I’d seen so many zero-wasters treat them as essentials that I thought I’d give them a go. So far they’ve been used as napkins, tables, hankies, towels, damp cooling cloths, kneckerchiefs, fabric bags, a way to make scratchy theatre seats more comfortable against bare legs, and emergency sunscreens. I will never travel without one again.

The whole plastic-free endeavour has lent a lovely holiday lackadaisicalness to shopping and meals. Essentially, we pack a picnic each morning, wash out our containers once empty, and hit the shops with them on the way home. It’s rather nice, roaming the aisles to see what’s plastic-free, and shopping for just one or two meals at a time. It turns out that the vast majority of unpackaged food is extremely healthy, so we’re eating well into the bargain. House-sitting, where the basics are already to hand, is a huge help of course, but it is still easier than either John or I expected. When I told the greengrocer today that I didn’t want his reduced strawberries because of the plastic punnets, he told me that he often decants them for plastic-free customers and reuses the punnets, which impressed me. (Unlike the helpful but misguided butcher who almost lined my stainless steel box with plastic film. John stopped him just in time.)

So far, so good, which makes me even happier than I already am, just being in London with my family. Next week’s camping will throw up some new challenges, no doubt. But I also have no doubt that we’ll rise to them. After all, the Eden Project is on the itinerary, and who could fail to be inspired by that?

Madeleine

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in Plastic Free July? We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve done pretty well by simply refusing what we don’t strictly need. And, thankfully, ice-cream cones are still very firmly on the menu.

 

Cultural capital

Some opportunities are too good to be missed, and so when some kind friends offered us their London home for a few days, there was only one answer.

I love bringing the children to London. They’ve been several times now, but because of the age differences there is always someone who wasn’t born when we visited that place, or stayed at home when we went to that museum. And while York is a beautiful city, there are elements of London which are simply awe-inspiring, iconic, or both.

Much of this summer has been left deliberately under-planned, so that we can just follow the good weather, but I know better than to drag three children (Ben has stayed in York with some houseguests of our own) around the hot and dusty streets without a plan. On the very evening that the trip was confirmed, I bade the children to choose their top destinations, threw in a couple of my own (Liberty’s fabric department) and pulled the whole thing together into what I have to say is a rather slick itinerary. We’re taking in a West End show (Richard of Bordeaux opened to rave reviews this February), touring Parliament (the younger ones have never done this), doing a spot of bathing in the Serpentine and visiting the Foundling Museum, among many other things. Yesterday, though, we started with an easy and essential day for the younger two, who had no memories of the South Kensington museums.

I genuinely believe that, where possible, children should be taken to visit museums of national importance. It is part of their cultural heritage. I can’t even remember the first time I visited the Victoria and Albert museum, for instance (perhaps around the fin de siecle?) but I do know that it feels familiar and welcoming whenever I go back. Weaving places into your childhood does that; it makes them yours. So while I showed Seb and Ilse my favourite exhibits, and we all stopped here or there to rest our legs and make a sketch, my heart was brimming over at how much they loved it all.

It was only when we stepped out through the Cromwell Road exit that Isle remembered that in Ballet Shoes this was the girls’ walk everyday: down the longest road in London to the V&A. We all agreed that they would have been better off varying their routine with visits to the Natural History and Science Museums too, and obliged on their behalf. I must confess, I was looking forward to seeing the look on their faces when they encountered the diplodocus for the first time, and they didn’t disappoint. I remember his unveiling astonishing the adults in 1905; I defy children not to look up in awe. What I didn’t expect, though, was Ilse’s delight in the building itself, as she pointed out the birds and vines which were the fabric of every pillar, every arch. We could have visited that and the V&A empty, for the sake of their structures alone.

Years ago, when Ben was little and Fliss just a baby, my sister Meg and I took him on a tour of preserved bodies in the city – from Jeremy Bentham at UCL to the rarely visited collection that Darwin brought back on the Beagle, to the mummies in their sarcophagi in the British Museum. We’re squeezing the latter into today, along with the Foundling Museum and a visit to John at work in the British Library. With that said, we’d better make some sandwiches and be out the door. There is so much to see and do, you could come back to London again and again. It’s what I’ve done, since my parents brought me every summer, and what I hope my children will do as they grow older and one day have children of their own. Bringing them to London, showing them the sights, and building their cultural capital in their own capital.

Cecily

What are your favourite places in London – or in your own nation’s capital? Do you have any places that you’ve visited over and over since childhood?

Notes from the garden (and beyond): June

Last year (and the year before, I think) I ran a weekly Garden Notes series, documenting the changes in our garden over the coming year. Reading about other people’s gardens is one of my favourite things: garden posts are the ones I simply can’t resist and I go back to them in the depths of winter when I am missing the green and can’t quite believe that it’ll ever be warm enough for anything to grow out there. With that in mind, and the simply beautiful weekend we’ve just enjoyed, I thought some garden notes would be in order for today. Only this year I’ve amended the titleto include some of the natural world around us. We are holidaying in the British Isles this summer – England and Eire, to be precise, and probably Scotland – and I want to track the course of this summer as it melts into autumn.

Saturday evening saw us make a foray into the countryside just outside York, at the home of some dear friends of ours. It was so balmy that we sat outside long after the barbecue and deserts had been enjoyed, catching up with each others’ news and watching our children play on the hay bales in the field just over the fence. Later still, when the moon hung in the still-light sky, we took a stroll down the track which leads away from the road and towards the farmer’s house, between fields of luminous, shifting wheat and broad beans in full bloom. In the quiet of the night the animals were out, hunting and hiding as they must. A pair of buzzards started from a bale and flew away to the camouflage of a tree grown tall in the hedge. Time and again the barn owls flew, soft and silent, over the stubbled fields. And Ilse told me that she and my friends’ daughter had been the last in from the bales and looked round one last time to spy a doe on the edge of the woods, watching and waiting for them to leave.

At home, even my suburban garden is bursting with life. There are insects everywhere, and the little garden birds swoop low across the lawn to catch them. We have been careful to keep the bird bath full, and it has become a regular watering and bathing spot in the rounds of the neighbourhood flocks. Our makeshift pond, which I am still hoping will entice some frogs or toads, has long been wriggling with various larvae and in the heat of Sunday I noticed various long-bodied insects hovering above it. I have yet to identify them: that will be a project for Seb and I to enjoy together. For the first year in many we haven’t seen a hedgehog or a vole cross the patio in the evenings, which is a little worrying, but the piles of rotting wood and undisturbed weeds are a standing invitation to all and sundry. We’ve gardened organically since before we moved here, and year on year the volume of life in the garden swells as we create new habitats.

It was with all this life that I shared our space, pottering around on Sunday, watering and weeding and feeding this and that. I had to wait for a bee, drunk on nectar and overheating in his wooly coat, to bumble his way off the brick path so that I could see to my burgeoning tomatoes. The fruit patch was genuinely loud with little beasts enjoying the autumn raspberry blossoms as I checked the progress of the summer canes. Ben and I had an exploratory nibble here and there on our rounds: fat blackcurrants and the first of the sweet mange tout. Further along the same bed, the broad beans have set sail with more blooms than I can ever remember, and I am looking forward to that first crop with such anticipation. Even the new potatoes are in bloom, and the time is fast approaching when they’ll be placed on the table, their burst skins fat with butter, speckled with pepper and mint.

When I think of my garden at the moment, the word that occurs to me is cusp. We are on the cusp of so much goodness that it is easy for me, impatient as I am, to spend too much time dreaming about what is coming next and fail to focus on what we are enjoying just now. Each morning begins with fresh baskets of lettuce, rocket and spinach. There are flowers at my bedside – sweet peas and English marigolds – to wake me as they flow with scent each morning. And on Saturday I took my favourite of all gifts to our hostess: a bunch of home grown stems wrapped in newspaper, which is only possible in these warmer months. There is so much happening now to be connected to, to savour and relish and store up against the coming cold.

On the way home, far, far past her bedtime, Ilse was wide awake and talking about all she’d seen and done. Playing on the hay bales was so much fun, she told us. Do you remember, Mummy, how Laura’s Pa told them not to play on the haystack but they did anyway? Now I know why they did – it’s the best fun there is. It makes me happy, that my twenty-first century daughter finds as much fun in a hay field as her heroine did in pioneer America. It makes me happy that Ben wants to walk the garden with me, and taste and wonder over all that grows there. Or that Seb will sit and sketch and look up bugs and birds, or Fliss give up her Sunday morning to carry cans of water to thirsty plants. I want my children to feel connected to the natural world around them, to know its beauty and its unstoppable power. And to cherish and care for it, as a matter of course. As for myself, I felt unspeakably connected as we drove home through the darkening night on Saturday: to the earth, to the creatures that we share it with, and to our friends, with whom those connections had just grown deeper.

Madeleine

PS – What’s June like in your part of the world? And, if you have a garden, what stage is everything at? Has your harvest well and truly begun?

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…

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!

On our way*

Laundry done, lists made and amended and amended again. The children have been taken into town to choose a new book each, not to be opened until we are on our way. Frocks have been deliberated over, bathers tried on for size, dark glasses packed against the bright Greek sun. I’ve taken most of the toys out of Ilse’s bag – the entertainments she packed just in case – and replaced them with smaller, more versatile playthings. A tin of coloured pencils. Her favourite teddy bear. And in the other children’s bags, something for all of them to share: a deck of cards, a rainbow of embroidery silks. A ball to inflate on the beach.

The garden is weeded, the hens cleaned out, a note rolled in a bottle for the milkman. Mother and Father have visited for full watering and hen-care instructions – without which we wouldn’t be able to go away at all. Sandals have been bought, or passed on, so that everyone has a pair that fits. I’ve made myself a double-sided hat to shade me from the sun: the others each have one from holidays past. Greek drachmas have been ordered and collected from the bank. Tickets and passports, checked and double-checked, await a final checking in the hall.

One more sleep, if you can persuade yourself to do such a thing with a head full of heroes and ruins. One more day of waiting. And then, almost unbelievably for the littler ones among us, we will be on our way.

 

* Actually, we have now been to Greece and back and had a really wonderful holiday, which I look forward to writing about next week. Oh, and I lost my hat. C’est la vie.

 

 

Sweet

Sweet peas by my bed, so that I fall asleep and wake to their scent. The fact that they keep coming, a few more every day.

Wide open days with nothing whatsoever planned, so that we can ask that most delightful of questions: now, what shall we do today?

Produce from the garden and beyond: warm tomatoes, fleshy cucumbers, baskets of strawberries from a nearby farm.

The thud of the first windfalls, and the cinnamon-spiced preserves that sound heralds in this house.

Children and chickens on the lawn, doing nothing extraordinary. Just footling about, lost in their own little worlds.

These summers, with all of them here, more precious every year.

Bittersweet, yes. But let’s focus on the sweet.