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.

When rain stops play

Typical English summer weather: sunshine up until the last few days of term and then rain, rain and more rain. Or that’s what it feels like, anyway.

Between downpours the children and I have been outside: playing, building obstacle courses, constructing dens and tending to the garden. Under a sky of clouds, outside looks less than appealing but once I begin I don’t want to stop. There’s always one more thing to weed, tie in or feed. And then the heavens open once again and we all rush in.

It was at the start of the holidays that Seb announced his summer projects: building his new den and completing a number of airfix models. For when it’s sunny and when it rains, he explained. Oh dear. More of us rubs off on them than we imagine. Because that’s precisely how I organise my summer projects too: gardening and quilting, for when it’s sunny and when it rains.

More than that, though, is the fact that we both save one outdoor task til last, just in case the rain does come. Under an umbrella of leaves – me under the apple and he sheltered by the pine at the far end of the garden – we can carry on outdoors if it’s only a gentle shower. And then if rain really does stop play, we each have another project waiting for us indoors.

For my future self

There’s an awful lot of thought involved in sewing, but exponentially more when you are trying to use every last scrap in a number of long-term projects. If I start with quilt A, I’ll want a bit of that fabric for variety, but what if I don’t leave enough for the cornerstones in quilt B? Yet I can’t start with quilt B until I know that there’ll be enough wadding left over from C. Then there are old sheets to be divided three ways and dyed all the right colours, and all in all it is far too much to think about when I have a scant hour to get my machine out and sew in the middle of term.

These quilt packs, then, are a little gift to my future self. The summer holidays are the perfect time to sit down and work out patterns for the two that I’ve designed myself, and make lists of all the types and sizes and numbers of pieces required. It’s not something I’d normally do, cut three quilts out at a time, but in this case it really is the only way forward. Some of it is straightforward: cut the background fabric for one quilt and slice the rest up into strips and squares to enrich the other two. Other elements are a little more nail biting: could the wadding set aside for one quilt really stretch to two? Just – with a lot of crazy piecing for the one which will be quilted so heavily it won’t matter. And should I use those fabrics on the fronts, or save them to piece a back? There’s lots of measuring and calculating, but I think I’ve got it all worked out, and written instructions for my future self to make sense of each fat pack.

It would be so much easier to throw this lot away and buy a few yards of brand new fabric to make each quilt top. I could buy a roll of batting, and some extra wide yardage to back them all. But that seems very wasteful when it turns out that I have just enough after all. There’ll be a single trip to the haberdashers to buy the thread needed to sew each quilt, but that will be that.

Originally, I’d anticipated diving straight into one of these quilts as soon as the packs were complete, but now that I’m in the mood for thinking, I might press on with a couple of other head-scratching projects and get them done. One is a little rocking chair we’ve had for a couple of years now, waiting for a sanding and a brand new cover. The other is a wingback chair I bought on a whim for a song a couple of weeks before I realised quite how many projects lurked around the house. Ben’s already sanded that one for me, and it too needs new upholstery. So perhaps I ought to tackle them before the hurly-burly of term begins again.

From the outside it may seem dull, all this maths and cutting and sorting, but in little increments it’s rather fun. I make a pot of tea, put the wireless on and before I know it I’m joined by one or other of the children, wanting to make something too. Yesterday Fliss cut into some lovely florals she got for her birthday, to make a little teddy quilt. They are much, much prettier than my crazy-paving wadding. And as I had my eye on that gorgeous aqua print, she cut me a couple of strips to add to Ben’s scrappy quilt. I tucked them away with the other pieces, looking forward to getting them out one rainy autumn afternoon. I think she’s rather lucky, my future self.

Loose ends

What with the end of term only a matter of days away, I’ve had a second wind. The last few days has seen my to-do list grow to ridiculous proportions, but I am getting through it, bit by steady bit. Yesterday I had a bit of a surge and tied up a lot of loose ends – those pesky final tasks which get in the way of a job being done. There were things to do in the children’s rooms, at the end of the big shuffle-around. The hem of our bedroom curtains had come down in the wash and I couldn’t bear to lie in bed and look at it for another evening. I had a pile of bills to pay, and our account to balance.

Most importantly of all, though, were those final arrangements for our holiday. We’re not quite there yet, but we are on our way. Ferries are booked. We’ve found places to stay in all three of our destinations, and written to the owners with arrival times and travel arrangements. The children’s cousins have sent an excitable postcard, and we really ought to send one back. See you in Greece! it says. Seb drew them a picture of the Parthenon in return. It’ll be such fun, having a holiday with my brother and his family, and it has already doubled the thrill for our younger ones. They love spending time with their cousins.

Apart from all the letters and bookings, I’ve been looking through everyone’s things. A knapsack each? Yes. Decent bathers? Absolutely. Enough cool clothes to cope with the heat of Athens? Mostly. A sunhat for each of us, to keep the glare off our faces? Um, almost. There’s a little bit of sewing to be done. I’ll add that to the list.

Luckily there’s time. Thank goodness for a second wind. There won’t be many more quiet days now before the children are at home with me each and every day. And while I look forward to that – I really do – I also know that it’s a good idea to get the dull jobs out of the way before that happens.

Because then… why then the real fun begins. A visit to the library, to choose good holiday novels. More Greek myths to read. The selection of a privileged favourite teddy. And for me, a visit to my embroidery box, to choose a little something to keep me busy on our travels. I can hardly wait.

 

Blooming

For the past three weeks now I’ve had a steady supply of alstromeria blooms for the house. The marigolds are in full flood. And all along the garage wall the japanese anemones keep on coming. There is an embarrassment of flowers in my back garden for the first time ever, and it is making me very happy indeed. This vegetable grower has branched out into something new and beautiful. In fact, she’s even remembered to water the baskets of trailing nasturtiums hanging on either side of the front door. Now that really is unprecedented.

Despite all the flowers, I haven’t actually been in the garden all that much of late. I stole a visit late yesterday afternoon and found the sweet peas on the verge of starting. I also found the odd weed, but not nearly as many as I deserved. Beans – the first of hundreds – are dangling, mine for the picking, from their climbing vine, and a neglected courgette is masquerading as a marrow, but really, this is payback time out there. All that hard work in the spring is paying dividends now, and I have every intention of enjoying it.

It’s not all redecoration and housework around here: yesterday also involved a truly delightful luncheon by the Nidd with Mrs Bee, Mrs Eve and her sweetie pie baby boy. Really, we could have been on the riviera, enjoying the warm air and the splash of oars as holiday-makers paddled about in the water. What a treat, to sit in the shade and have a proper catch-up with two such lovely ladies. It did me good to shut the door on my endless to-do list and just make the most of a gorgeous summer’s day. Good company, smoked salmon sandwiches and a drink straight out of the fridgedair – blooming marvellous, I tell you.

Anyone for tennis?

Since Wimbledon drew to a close the weekend before last, Seb has been rather keen to try his hand at a spot of tennis. It’s Fliss who most often gets pressed into playing – she’s the only one of us who’s any good, anyway. I certainly never played when I was growing up. But it’s been all the rage with girls recently, what with Helen Wills retaining her number one status for so long. Fliss was practically jumping up and down by the wireless during the women’s final, but Wills seemed unperturbed, taking the trophy in two straight sets.

So she and Seb can often be found on the lawn after tea, hitting a ball up and down to one another, an imaginary net slung across the grass. He’s getting better, and if his serving continues to grow stronger I might suggest they play farther away from the windows. Perhaps this summer I’ll book them a court at the park the odd time.

But it’s after supper that you’ll find them all out there, making the most of the lingering summer light. A tennis ball and a cricket bat is all that’s needed for a game of French cricket, with doggy chances for Ilse (and anyone else who gets out on the first throw). The hens retreat into their run, the woodpigeons coo in the tall ash tree, and the sun slips lower and lower in the sky until I notice the time and send Ilse to bed. Summer evenings have got the be the loveliest of the year, whatever it is you’re playing.

The sea is calling

I love the sea in all seasons, but it calls particularly loudly in the summer months. We haven’t been to the beach for a while, but Seb is heading to the coast on a day out soon with school, and it’s got me thinking that we could do with a family visit too.

The children don’t mind where we go – they like the kiss-me-quick of Scarborough and the Bridlington donkeys as much as the next person, but given the choice John and I always head to Filey. Just a little resort, it has a short promenade above a long, sweeping beach and when the tide comes in you can walk up and down along the seafront, or stroll up the nearby grassy hill for a spin in the pedalos or a turn on the putting green.

True to form, the English summer has been a bit variable of late, but I have high hopes for a bit of timely sun. Call me greedy, but I haven’t had enough fine weather yet. After last week’s deluge, I’m ready to start watering by hand again, but I don’t think I’m going to need to for a while. In the meantime I have school concerts and assemblies, debating meets and end-of-term performances to keep me happy indoors. But a spot more sunshine would be seasonal and very welcome, as would a day out at the sea. Here’s hoping.