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.

Mornings, in summer

There is everything to love about waking up on a summer’s morning. The sun already seeping through the curtains. Sheets and blankets half kicked off. The yellowness of the light, telling you that it’s going to be another sunny day. A tea tray, with a pot that stays hot while you potter out of bed, through the laundry basket, into the bathroom and down the stairs. Wandering down the garden in your dressing gown and wellies to pick something for the pan: spring onions, perhaps, or chard. Hens already up, the day’s eggs waiting smooth and warm in the clean dry straw. Sending children off on bikes in the good weather, with no moans about wind or cold or misplaced gloves. A quiet breakfast on your own, once the house has emptied. The sun, lingering in the high sky, so that the day yawns on before you. Time, then, for another cup of tea on the patio.

How I love these blessed summer mornings. And noons, and sultry afternoons. It’s hard to feel stressed with the hot sun on your back, easing your muscles into buttery relaxation. Why bother dragging yourself in when there are so many things which can be done outside, instead? Yesterday I popped out to water the tomatoes and came in, four hours later, the beds weeded and watered and generally tidied up. It’s hard to mind about a bit of dust in the house, or the roses which are dropping their petals all over the kitchen table. Leave it for a rainy day – and there’ll be some of those soon enough.

Instead, wander around outside and look at how everything’s grown. The marigolds are ready to bloom. The broad beans are in full flower. The first nasturtiums have popped open, and we’ve hung a basket of their cheery blooms on either side of the front door. Just flowers, just in my back garden. What’s bloomed and what’s not doesn’t really matter to anybody else. But to me, each unfurling petal is a little wonder. A win. A tiny celebration of the summer, new and soft as it still is. I love each climbing bean, each burgeoning lettuce, each visiting bee. Each meal on the lawn, each supper with the french doors flung wide open. And the mornings, of course. I even love mornings, in summer.

A good year for roses

I can’t remember my garden ever being quite so full of flowers. The  roses by the hen house keep coming in flush after flush, filling my arms with vasefulls for the house. By the side gate they are pink and open and heady with old-lady scent. The creamy rambler I planted in the hedge two years ago is beginning to do just that: stretch its arms up into the hawthorn branches and twine between and betwixt them. The patio pots are in bloom: pinks, violets and blues, and in the new bed the little plugs have settled in and are commencing their own summer show.

Perhaps it’s the long spell of proper summer weather. Perhaps it’s the sense of things winding down towards the summer break. Perhaps it’s the coming to fruition of so many things at once in this particular corner of York, but this moment feels important. I have a strong sense that it is, in part, to do with the children and who they are just now: each at a different age but all with that peculiar combination of independence, willingness and trust which is so precious. While Ben is on the cusp of the wide world beyond school and home and all that’s familiar, Ilse is running her own little cafe  selling everything from sweet peppermint tea to rose water from an upturned box on the lawn – yet both of them invite us to be part of their endeavours. Add that to Seb and Fliss growing more like themselves with each passing month, and all of them wanting me rather than needing me as much, and this is a lovely time.

Today the sun is shining bright as ever, with temperatures set to soar once more and there are many, many jobs which should be done. But. I think I’ll pause to smell the roses, sit on the patio and spin for a spell, before taking the children for ices after school. First, though, I’m off to gather another bunch of roses to set in water around the house. They don’t bloom like this every day. No, this is most certainly a good year for roses, and I’m going to enjoy every single moment of it.

One evening in June

Lovely days in June can’t be depended on. You have to seize them. So it was when I collected Ilse from school and bumped into the others, flying home on their bicycles in their shirtsleeves, ties flapping in the wind. We didn’t go home at all, but instead to the park, where we had tea and buns in the little cafe and we all had a go on the pedal boats. The drakes strutted about on the concrete edges of the lake, losing their dignity the minute a child appeared with bread to throw. A man rode round with his trike of ices. And we spread blazers and cardigans on the cool green grass and lay back and drank in the sunshine.

We don’t often just head out like this, abandoning the tea I had prepared, leaving the laundry flapping on the line. We found a public telephone box and rang John, telling him of our plans, asking him to join us. He arrived just in time for the last of the evening warmth, as the park began to empty.

When we got home there was supper to put on, ironing to fold, prep and piano practice that had to be done, all in a jumble at once. But never mind. This is all part of my summer plan, breaking up the tedium and the tiredness with something unexpected. Nothing special, or expensive. Just a trip to the park, one evening in June.

 

Bronte country

Can you remember how old you were when you first read Jane Eyre? I can. I was ten, and my grandad had given me a set of all three Bronte classics for Christmas just a fortnight earlier. Fliss has read it, of course, and Ilse knows it from a wireless adaptation, and I’m sure Ben must have read it though he claims no recollection. Seb was the least thrilled when I announced that our half term day out was to be at Haworth, visiting the village and the moors but, most importantly of all, the Bronte Parsonage.

It’s hard not to think of it as a sad house, especially as the first death, that of their mother, occurred very soon after moving in. Then were the deaths of the two eldest children, both girls, both of tuberculosis contracted at school. Then later, the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne, and finally Charlotte, a few years later, the longest lived of all the children, aged only 38. Imagine, to have all six children and your wife to survive childbirth and infancy only to lose them all, one by one, until you were alone again. No wonder the house feels sad.

And yet there must have been a lot of fun in it, between times. There was an awful lot of life to be lived between each of those deaths, and you can’t help but come away with a sense that those girls made the very most of what they had. Their home is bursting with their sketches, embroidery, tiny childhood manuscripts, family newsletters and the like. It is a house full of industrious play – the sort of play that Emily and Anne and Charlotte never really grew out of, channelling it into their novels instead.

They played on the moors, too, just a short walk out of the village, and when we visited it was the hottest day of the year so far and everything was blooming. Fliss even complained of the lack of bleakness. Everywhere were flowers: buttercups, umbellifers, rhododendrons and forget-me-nots. We sat on a great slab of stone and looked out over it all, from the vibrant moor to the blasted hillsides and the grey stone village nesting in between, and had to be quiet so that Ilse could be inspired. She’s started a new novel: The Return of Wuthering Heights. I think there are a lot of ghosts in it, because later that night she came into our room with a nightmare, too scared to go back to sleep in the dark. There were fingers scratching at her window, even after I assured her that it was only Humbug the hamster’s squeaky wheel.

And now our copies of those novels are off the shelf and to be found on beds and garden benches. There are lots of discussions about which is everyone’s favourite, and why. It’s Wuthering Heights for me, in case you’re curious. Because of the sympathy between people and place, and the blurring of lines between the past and the present, the dead and the living. It embodies everything I think I know about the Brontes, and the lives they lead, and the place they came from. In fact, they are so strongly associated with Haworth and the moors above it that its new name seems entirely appropriate, and not a mere anachronism: Bronte country.

Offshore

Everything ends. Some things feel as though they never will, although you wish they would. They drag their feet like children carrying a bad report towards home and reprimand. Others end all too soon: good books, an evening at the pictures, time with the people we love. It doesn’t seem to matter how long a good thing lasts – whether the summer holiday is two weeks or six – end it must, and it doesn’t hurt any the less for being longer.

I love the way we’ve ended our last two summers: in Northumberland, in a couple of tents, spending all of every day together. This year we visited Cragside, the wonderfully eccentric home of hydroelectricity, where frightfully English arts and crafts meet outrageous Italian marble and steamy Turkish baths lurk in the foundations. It drizzled the whole time we were there, but we didn’t mind. We took our time around the house and found a tremendous pine to picnic under in the arboretum. We had afternoon tea and cakes in the snug gatehouse teashop, and motored right around the estate on our way back to the campsite. It was on this final drive that we saw a deer, just for a moment, on the road in front of us, before she turned to face us and was gone. That was a day which ended all too soon.

Our campsite was feted for its wildlife: a river cut it off from the field across the way and the whole area was surrounded by trees. It is in these that the owls must live, and from these that they must hunt and hoot the whole night through. We kept our eyes peeled for foxes, which we see sometimes at home, but also badgers, which we don’t. Sadly they were either sheltering from the rain or else their black and white kept them safely hidden in the shadows streaked with moonlight. Even though we didn’t see them, I liked knowing they were there. There’s something comforting about animals nearby, where they should be, not chased away to the shrinking wildernesses of our little island.

It’s easy to forget that we Britons live on an island. In York the sea is almost equidistant in either direction, and feels so far away, but the truth is that we could drive from coast to coast in one day in the motor. Had I my way, and John’s job was not with Rowntrees, we would live by the sea, and I would have a boat of my own, and sail when the weather was fair. Sailing fast in a dinghy is just how I imagine flying to be: catching the wind, responding to it with a little adjustment here and there, moving just as the crow flies upon a fluid and unmarked highway. It’s been years since I’ve had that thrill.

I was quite ready to content myself with another boat trip, though: out to the Farnes, where the birds and seals are protected from day trippers and their casual interference. We mean well, but too many footfalls might damage a puffin’s burrow, or frighten away the terns. By the time we went, at the end of August, the birds had long since flown to sea, abandoning their summer breeding grounds to the ravages of winter. They’ll be elsewhere, riding the wind and the waves, unconcerned about offshore breezes on the rocks. We weren’t, though. August, and there we were in woolly hats and jackets with the collars pulled up high against the spray. I doubt the children noticed: they only had eyes for the seals on the rocks and in and out of the water, playful as pups, disappearing and emerging somewhere entirely unexpected. Two miles offshore and we could have been on a different planet, so far removed were we from the piers and paths and crab selling huts of Seahouses. Here and there a building braved the sea: Grace Darling’s lighthouse, a ruined church, and cottage or two for the wildlife wardens. I could almost fancy living there: spending March to December in a little white stone cottage on the edge of a rock in the cold grey sea.

Coming south to York, and being met by that glorious September, our time in Northumberland felt odd and other-worldly. It was autumn there so soon, and it was wild, and wonderfully free. Our little city feels so tame and familiar by comparison. But when last week the cold began to bite, and the sky shifted from blue to grey, it was of Northumberland I thought, and those grey seals on the rocks, and the end of our summer holidays. An end spent somewhere other, arrestingly wild and offshore.

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.

 

Garden notes: August

There are so many things to love about August. School holidays, for one. Sunny days which are actually hot, as well as bright. Bare feet indoors and out. Swimming in the sea. Ices. Those blonde wispy bits at the front of Ilse’s hair – and then finding the same in the mirror. Reading in the garden. Reading in the park. Reading on campsites and beaches and trains. Little knits, and planning the big ones. Child-sized adventures here, there and everywhere. Catching up with family and friends. Baskets of garden goodies which make for easy, tasty gifts.

Putting up the rest of the produce. Every day there are more windfalls to be dealt with. I made fifteen jars of apple jam last week, then began on the apple sauce. The beans are living up to their reputation and providing enough for a couple of meals a day, were we that way inclined. Instead, we share some and preserve others. There are tomatoes and cucumbers and crisp green lettuce leaves for lunch and the potatoes, no longer early, are big and floury enough to roast on Sundays. The courgettes need picking every day or two, and those which hide beneath a floppy leaf get missed and swell to awkward proportions in no time. There’s a bed of summer cabbage to bring in and salt. Beetroot and small red onions have begun to fill a row of ruby jars, while bigger onions dry off in the sun.

On top of this, new seedlings have gone in. There are spring cabbages on the kitchen windowsill, and the empty pea bed is sprouting once again with beetroot, radishes and fennel. Winter salads have been sown to grow on under cover, as well as swiss chard and spring onions. The brassicas are standing in the beds, ready to brave the winter when it comes, and beneath the soil the parsnips are waiting to be sweetened by the frosts.

But not just yet. They’ll have to wait a little longer. This August, which kept on giving, has me convinced it’s going to be an Indian summer. Even if it isn’t, it’ll be a while before the pears come in off the tree, and the apples need to be picked and wrapped in paper. There’s a good month of harvest ahead, surely. There are still days left before school starts, still weeks till the clocks go back. I can’t quite believe that this summer, which has given us so much, is ever going to end. We’ll keep it going till the very last minute: till the frost strikes and the fire is lit and the blankets go back on the beds. And even after that, we’ll be remembering it and talking it over. Looking at postcards and photographs, making plans to go back again next year. And eating its bounty, tucked away in the jars and bottles that line the pantry shelves.

Not today, though. I’ll turn the page of the calendar tomorrow. Today, let’s pretend it’s still August. After all, the sun is high in the sky and school uniforms lie crumpled at the backs of drawers. Today, in this house at least, we’re calling it August.

Garden notes: Kew

Kew must be a surprise whatever time of year you visit. In late summer, when the sun is strong and the trees are in full and darkened leaf, the palm house shouldn’t be as much of a shock as it is. The very air drips; the moist leaves shine; fleshy blooms flirt from across the walkway. A jungle, in south London, locked away in a house for almost two hundred years. Put that way, perhaps it’s no wonder it beguiles.

Kew is a bit of a magical land. It is the botanical world in miniature, a microcosm of the planet’s plants, a snapshot of natural history. A day’s stroll will carry you beyond the jungle to the deserts, where carnivorous plants wait to trap small beasts in their pitchers, and other plants pose as stones. Amazonian giants patrol the warm ponds with a lazy flick of the tail, and rare orchids are common as weeds. Then on, to a walk through the trees, looking into their crowns as an equal, seeing the London skyline as they do. It was a little lesson in botany, given that the leaves and the seeds were out in force, and the children could name them all. We strolled through a rose garden and chose the sweetest smelling. We lingered by full flowerbeds. And all the time our little host, at just four years old, was naming flowers and trees for us: agapanthus, oak, plane, aquilegia. What a garden to have on your doorstep. What a playground. What a school.

It was in the arboretum that we spread our picnic mat. We were visiting dear friends – friends who John has known for many years – and their children, and spent a few days in London, doing London things. Windsor Castle. The site of the signing of the Magna Carta. A special shop or two. But best of all was Kew: the Royal Botanical Gardens, founded in 1759 and forming the most fascinating 300 acres in London. This is the place to which plants have been carried from all over the world: periwinkles and peonies, hibiscus and hostas. And in response, the place was humming with visitors, wandering from flower to flower, shrub to shrub, tree to tree. Gathering the sights and smells, new things to know, and the feeling of sun on their backs. It was wonderfully, gloriously, and appropriately alive – with all sorts of people enjoying all sorts of plants in all sorts of ways.

Of all the attractions though, one stood out for me – and I suspect many people would choose the same. The waterlily house, hot with red and orange blooms without, steamy and green within, was the highlight of my day. A pool full of great lilypads, some flat and smooth, others with upturned, serrated edges. We saw the daytime blooms and read about those which rise from the water at night to set a trap for unsuspecting beetles. Wild plants, exotic plants, floating green and calm on a mirror-smooth pond. And in the water, if you look carefully, you can just see the wrought iron framework of their protective cage, amplifying the English sun. To me, this house was Kew Gardens in miniature: the essence of a curated botanical world. And the joy of it is that we have three more seasons to see it in, and much more besides to explore. We will most certainly be going back to Kew.

A proper picnic

Come August the moors turn purple. The sun lights up the landscape in patches, falling through windows in the cloud. The rowans are laden with red, the bracken is at its full height, and the gorse is, as ever, in flower. But it is the purple heather I like best: great swathes of it splashed across the tops, broken only by a prow of Yorkshire gritstone here and there.

There are lots of places more classically beautiful – I know that, I’ve seen many – but nothing quite compares to the moors in August. It is still bleak, still hard country to scrape a living from. For great stretches there is nothing, and then a long, low farmhouse comes into sight, and then there is nothing again. Small villages huddle in shallow dales, trees twisted by the wind. Sheep wander freely: Swaledales with their curled horns and black faces. Sheep and pheasants, fattened for the kill, and the hovering birds of prey who have spotted something small and living we could never see. This is an old landscape, constant over centuries, changeable by the hour.

It was here that we took a picnic – a proper picnic, in celebration of John’s fortieth. A family picnic seemed just the thing, and the last time he’d had such a thing for his birthday was thirty four years ago, when he was six. Oh, to have an August birthday. The outings and excursions, holidays and lazy days in the garden that such lucky people have, each year. He always lets us share it with him. This year it was properly hot – almost too hot to sit still on the blanket in the midday sun. Nobody really wanted to, anyway, given that the bilberries were ripe. Lips, fingers and chins were stained purple long before the hamper had even been opened, and it took little persuasion to get the children to collect a few more for jam while John and I spread the rug. We had a late luncheon in the heather – pork pies with piccalilli, sandwiches with bully beef and relish, tomatoes from the garden and cool green cucumber cut into sticks for nibbling. A pause was most certainly necessary, and so out came the books and the playing cards, the whittling knives and the knitting. Nearby boulders were examined and attempted, low paths in the flora wriggled through on bellies, siblings jumped out on before they could get ‘home’.

Yet ‘home’ they all came when they saw me sandwiching blackcurrant fool between the layers of a Victoria sponge. It being a birthday cake, we poked candles into its top, and sang before we cut it. Such simple celebrations are very often the best. A slab of cake – or maybe two – on a proper cloth napkin, with tea in a proper china cup and proper grog for the little ones? Proper French bubbles in proper champagne saucers, followed by a most improper nap in the middle of the moor? Now, that’s what I call a proper picnic.