Under my feet

I made it into the garden this morning. It’s time for a spot of weeding, for reconnecting with my other, outside room, and taking in a little of  the newfound springtime sun. Under my feet, the lawn is soft and soggy. The brick paths of the veg bed are alternately springy with moss and slick with errant mud. I keep expecting to clear the beds for sowing but there’s so much out there, waiting to be eaten. Three dozen leeks. Ten swedes. The first tender sprouts of brocolli. A bed of winter salad, barely touched, which will soon come into its own. Tiny green cabbages which, having held on all winter, are taking off in this gentle, tentative sun. Even the greenhouse is full of out-of-season fennel, tucked in there in the autumn.

The moment I set foot outdoors the hens are at my side, tripping me up in their excitement. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to have them trail, Pied Piper style, in my wake. They follow me up and down the lawn as I admire Ilse’s winter garden, a smudge of purple from afar, up close. And when the trowel comes out they vye for top position, as close as they can get to the worms each little spadeful brings. We find a knot of them in the base of a rotting swede, enough for everyone to share. An unexpected feast. There are plenty to go around. In fact, I think there are more this year than ever before, and certainly more than when we first dug out our veg patch. I like to think of them all, burrowing through the good earth, helping the garden grow.

Soon we must erect a hen-proof fence, and sow the first seeds in the warming soil. For now, new life sprouts in the airing cupboard before being moved to a bright windowsill, safe from that little gang of hooligans with their scratching claws, keen beaks and destructive bathing habits. But we can’t hold on forever. Spring is on its way. I can see it in the blooms on nude branches, the nodding daffodils, the crocuses which open their hearts to the sun. In the softening outdoor air. And in the moist dark soil which whispers promises to me from just under my feet.

Primroses and other winter flowers

The snowdrops are out, and the hellebores, and yellow daffodils nod from the market stalls. Winter flowers, here to make the most of the new light, before the trees come into leaf and steal the sun.

I was given a gift of yellow primroses in a miniature watering can, as a thank you for a little sewing task, and it sits on the kitchen windowsill. Now, every time I cook or go to do the washing up I can look at it and the flowers just beyond the window, beneath the apple tree, and beyond them too to the daffodils and crocuses, tulips and irises emerging from beneath their earthy blanket. It is still very much winter, but the sight of all those flowers is drawing me outside. There’s not a huge amount to be done just yet, but there’s enough to keep us busy over a half term week at home. There’s a bonfire to be had, with a picnic lunch and hot cordial for its minders. There’s a bed I want to dig with Ben. There’s an empty strawberry pot, needing to be filled while the little plants are still dormant. And into the earth can go the very first seeds: parsnips and garlic and shallots. More than anything, I just want to be outside, enjoying those flowers while they last, and planning some more for the summer. Of all the flowers of the year, perhaps it is the primroses and other winter flowers that I notice and savour the very most.

Just socks

After all those hours, those evenings and mornings and snatched half hours in the afternoon, I finally cast off and sewed in the ends to find… just a pair of socks.

It’s an awful lot of effort for something which will be hidden on my feet, tucked away inside boots or slippers or wellingtons most of the time. And although the pattern is deceptively simple, they’re still not quite as simple as a pair of toe up socks, with simple short row toes and heels. These socks sport a lovely, wavy pattern reminiscent of the Seine (and our own, closer-to-home Ouse). They have a thick and padded eye of partridge heel, and a double cast off at the toe. There’s a nice bit of shaping as the heel narrows into the foot, with a neat row of slanting stitches standing proud of the rest. And yet they’re not a cardigan or a hat or even a little snood. No, they’re just socks.

I’ve knit three such pairs of socks this winter: one for Mother and two for myself, as well as a pair last summer. There will be more this coming summer as I use up all the odds and ends in a stripy pair or two. To be honest, there’s still an untouched skein of yarn in the bottom of my wool basket. But for now, that’s where it’s going to stay. Because for someone who doesn’t like making the same thing more than once, even with variations, three is a lot of pairs in a row. I’m moving onto something new, as soon as I’ve sketched out the pattern. A proper winter knit, to keep me busy until spring.

There will be more socks in my future, that much is certain. I always tire of them before they’re done, and have to force myself on through the last few inches. But then I wake up on a chilly winter’s morning and pull on a pair and it’s the nicest start to my day. All those little details – the heel and the pattern and the colour of the yarn – make a functional piece of clothing a little bit of luxury. They might just be socks, but oh! What a treat.

Hurrying

Although there was ice in the hens’ water, my six middle-aged ladies had laid another five eggs today: a sure sign that spring is on the way. Unlike me, the hens and other animals aren’t fooled by a sudden cold snap. They watch the sunlit hours grow longer, and know that the time has come to make haste for spring.

There is so much to do before the good weather arrives, both inside and out. As a matter of fact, I’m inclined to ignore the ‘outside’ part of the equation and focus on finishing the indoor tasks before I am out in the garden every day, pulling weeds and planting tiny little seeds in the warming soil. Despite the fact that I have been diligently sewing for weeks now, I’ve made very little progress on items for our family. Cards and presents, yes. Costumes for the show, yes. A cardigan for Mrs Eve, and some lovely socks for Mother, yes indeed. But not a lot for the people who live in our house.

So it was that I spent Sunday finishing off a quick project I’d started the previous week: re-covering Ilse’s tatty old eiderdown. I’ve been dithering about this for ages – which fabrics to use, how to go about it, whether I’d be able to hand quilt through a layer of fluffy feathers. In the end, all my questions answered themselves. The blue fabric I bought back in the 1920s, for a dress for myself which never got made because it would have been yet another blue summer dress, and if I’m not careful all my dresses are blue. I’ve had to resist blue again for this spring, but I think I’ve found the fabric I want to wear this summer. The other fabric, the brown and cream, was an old linen curtain which didn’t fit any of our windows in this house, so I unpicked the tape and lining and found there was just enough. It only took an hour or so to sew them together with a bit of bright pink piping and stuff the old eiderdown inside.

It turned out that I couldn’t hand quilt all those feathery layers, and have newfound admiration for those who can. My stitches were uneven and I couldn’t get the fluffy layers to lie flat enough to avoid puckering the back. After a couple of feet I ripped it out and opted to tie it all together instead, and Ilse found some embroidery silk to match the piping in her Christmas sewing kit. In no time it was done and on her bed, and I love the pink ties against the brown of the flowers and vines. Things do have a way of working themselves out. It sat atop her blankets and quilt just in time for the hard frost of last night and the misty start to this morning.

Oh, there is still so much to be done, but it is a good sort of hurrying at this time of year. Racing against the arrival of the spring is the best way I know to cope with the final weeks of cold and dark and damp: making them precious, making them count. I need at least another seven or eight weeks of inclement weather if I’m to sew all those dresses and other summery things in time. I’ve another whole cardigan to cast on for, even, before I give up on big knits for the season. Stay with us, winter, just a little longer. I’m not tired yet of knitting by the fire or taking my latest creation along to Mrs Thistlebear’s winter parties. I’m hurrying, but in the nicest possible way. After all, the only thing that can beat me is the spring, so whoever wins I’ll be happy.

Onwards and upwards

Even on the coldest days I spend an hour or so outside: hanging washing in the winter breeze, cleaning out the hens, digging veg or surveying the garden with an eye to spring. I never plan to be that long – just fifteen minutes, is what I tell myself, but then I’m always pleased when I come back in and the kitchen clock tells me just how much fresh air I’ve had.

All this week the sun has been shining, and it has been a pleasure to do those little outdoor tasks. On my return from the compost I noticed that the bulbs are pushing up in Ilse’s little ‘garden’. We bought crocuses and dwarf irises to add to the daffs I’d pushed in the previous autumn: easy flowers that the hens will leave alone. Woodland flowers, perfect for filling the bare earth in the shadow of the lilac. They’ll distract from its spring twigginess and be over before the shrub is in full leaf.

Bulbs are so wonderfully tenacious. Frost or snow, they push their blunt little noses onwards and upwards whatever the weather. Today they were getting plenty of sun, although the wind was bitingly cold. I chopped a birch log into kindling to warm myself up again and went indoors to light the fire. As I set the match to the paper, the sun streamed in through the window, heating the chill air. When it catches the grate I can barely see the dancing flames within. Even the dull days are growing longer, and there is more birdsong in the air. I’ve a list of jobs as long as my arm, but the sun makes it all feel so manageable. Onwards and upwards, I say. I think it’s time I got started.

Frozen

The seasons lag behind the sun, dragging on their mother’s hand. The winter solstice was over a month ago and yet it is colder now than it was then, with hail and sleet and frost in the last three days alone. On paper it looks as though spring is not far off, but a glance outside dispels this theory in an instant. We are in the middle of winter, and every twig, every blade of grass, is frozen.

By noon there were dark brown molehills against the winter white where I had pushed my fork through the icy crust and pulled food from the crumbly soil: knobbly Jerusalem artichokes for a smooth and creamy soup, parsnips to sweeten a wintery stew. The eggs  were still warm when I wrapped my fingers round them, and the hens have puffed their feathers into little fluffy eiderdowns. I spread a fresh layer of straw in their house for them to scratch in, and threw in a handful of mixed corn. They don’t mind this weather as long as their crops are full.

As I went back over my lists last night, snug by the sitting room fire, I was glad to see how many weeks I had to finish all the inside jobs before the warming earth pulls my attention elsewhere. What’s the hurry? There’s a pile of beautiful fabric awaiting my attention, and some soft new wool to knit. The children are still playing with their Christmas toys and puzzles. We’ve visited the library. One way and another, I’ve got better at wintering as the years have gone on.

In Clydebank, though, there are many families for whom winter has just got worse, with the work on the Queen Mary grinding to a halt. There will be a lot of people without a fire to make their idle lists by, or new fabric to run contented hands over. When it gets as cold as this, I wonder how those without a roof survive at all. How do you coax yourself through another day of ice when spring is two months off, at least? I used to think about men in frozen trenches and wonder how they bore it; now it’s mothers who gladly send their children off to  school with its heater and free meals.

It’s a beautiful thing, a frozen world, when there’s hot toast and dripping at the end of your constitutional. And if there isn’t, then little kindnesses can go an awfully long way towards making sure there is.

 

Veg

Perhaps it’s a symptom of age, but I love veg. I love crisp green leaves and sticky roasted parsnips, beans that squeak and savoys with their little pockets full of gravy. Best of all, I love veg from my own patch, dug out of the mud on a damp January morning, crisp and vital against all the odds.

Yesterday I dug two swedes for the pot, and four leeks. I pulled a couple of our own red onions from the basket – not many left now – and added a few carrots and a bit of celery from the greengrocer’s. By the time I’d put all that veg in the pot there was no room left for the beef, so I popped it in the oven to cook down in a bit of stock, with a few dried herbs for flavour, and added the meat an hour or so later. I could smell it all afternoon – the beef, yes, but also the earthy sweetness of the winter veg and the mild tang of the onion and leek. We had it for supper, with mustard seed dumplings for those with hollow legs, and I felt better and better with each bite.

It’s all I really want to eat, just now, which is a good thing as there is quite a lot still standing in the beds, and the earliest new harvest is just beginning to emerge. I spied the first purple bud of brocolli today. Those winter salad leaves I planted under cover are cropping well now that the light is back, and the beetroot and Florence fennel I planted late and neglected to thin out are having a little winter growth spurt in their unusual cold frame home. An unorthodox method, perhaps, but it seems to be working and if it does I’ll be bottling fennel in March.

Just now, though, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much the winter fields and garden have to offer. I made a celeriac soup for our club this week, with celery and celery seeds to triple its sombre savouriness. There are leftover sprouts to add the the pan with butter and eggs in the morning (it’s delicious, I assure you), and overwintering salad onions to add a zing to anything you like. There are creamily delicate cauliflowers to smother with cheese, and mounds of mashed swede and carrots. Simple foods, homemade and more often than not homegrown, but never boring. There’s almost always something new, something that’s not been tasted since it was last in season. While I was out with my fork yesterday I glanced across at the stumps of the Jerusalem artichokes, cut down on our day in the garden at Christmas. We’ve not had so much as a bite of them yet. Time for them to take their place in the winter menu. Lovely.

What the doctor ordered

Rest, fluids and warmth, in that order. Our dear friend Mrs P has come down with pneumonia, and there isn’t much else that anyone can do for her. She’s in York Hospital at the moment, stable after a frightening weekend when her chest fluttered feebly through 48 hours and we thought the worst might happen. But she is, as she herself would put it, a tough old bird, and thank goodness for that. The worry hasn’t passed, but there are glimmers of the woman we know and love and, fingers crossed, she’ll be bossing the staff nurse around soon and sent packing home to Acomb.

What with worry over our old friend and the combination of a new term and awkward hospital visiting hours, it’s been a bumpy few days. There’s not been a lot of sleep, or a lot of calm in general. Add to that the grey skies and near incessant rain, and it’s enough to drive anyone round the bend. Thank goodness that it’s Mrs Thistlebear’s party this week: some time spent making things is just the medicine I’m after. So I’ve prescribed myself some fabric, in easily swallowed doses. There’s been some stitching – six pot holders, the top of a starry table runner – but mostly there’s been cutting. Nothing fancy: squares for little make-up bags, rectangles for larger sponge bags. A growing pile of snippets to turn into birthday cards. And lots and lots of scrappy strips which are the start of Ben’s going-away quilt. I want to include as many different fabrics in it as possible, so that he’ll remember all of us each time he uses it.

I know that it’s only sewing – and mostly only cutting out at that. But what else can I do when it’s not quite time for bed and my thoughts are too distracted to settle to a book? I’m not just cutting; I’m making order out of chaos. I’m planning for the future: a future that brings all the things we hope for. Hot pans full of meals. A table to sit around, and eat. And Mrs P, home again and well enough to join us.

Feast

The new year started with a feast, which is by far the best way to start a year, to my mind. I can take or leave the seeing out of the old year – I was reading in bed when 1931 slipped away – but I like to see the new year in with a special meal and plans for the months ahead.

Mother cooked this year: one of her spectacular meals where the whole afternoon slowly unfolds into course after course, with brief rests in between. There was salmon and salad to start, followed by a ham and vegetables, then two puddings and finally, before heading home, apple pie and crackers and cheese. We certainly needed our walk up the hill afterwards, and I was glad I’d skipped breakfast.

Instead, I’d used the morning free from cooking or eating to look to the months ahead. I don’t make resolutions, but I do make lists and sketches and plans. The garden has been mapped out for the coming spring, and the order form in the back of the seed catalogue carefully filled in and dropped in a postbox on our way to my parents’ house. Onions and leeks, swedes and parsnips, broccoli and broad beans and a whole new bed for salads: 1932 will hopefully be slow revelation of the seasons through the tastes and textures of the veg patch. After an icy day out there last week, the garden is ready and waiting for the days to grow long again, and I can hardly wait.

It’ll be a while though, which is why I’ve made other plans for the meantime. A list of sewing and knitting I’d like to work through in the dark evenings between now and then. Pot holders and bookmarks and birthday cards, two blouses and new school dresses for the girls. My annual summer frock. The pair of socks I’ve just begun, and a cardigan for Mrs Eve’s baby, and another jumper for Ben and something pretty and lacy for myself. Will I get it all done? I doubt it. But I’d rather have too much in my plate than too little, especially when the days lend themselves to gloom and and chill and inertia.

That wasn’t something I had a problem with on the First. There was plenty on all of our plates, and stories of our Christmases to share, and the next few weeks to talk about. I hope you too have plenty to look forward to, this coming year. Happy new year. Welcome to 1932.

Lull

Outside, the silver frost has hung on all day. The whole world seems suspended in the timeless twilight between Christmas and New Year. We get up a little later every day, and breakfast is in danger of merging into luncheon. And why not? I’m sure these precious days at the end of one year were made for readying us for the next.

How I love this little lull. If I were to wander around the house, I’d find a jigsaw on the dining table, and Ben’s books, and my sewing machine in full swing at the other end. In the sitting room John has been doing just that, and galloping through his Christmas books at speed. There is evidence of knitting on the couch, and some embroidery, and new music on the stand. On the stairs the fairy lights twinkle and beyond them, in the kitchen, Seb is touching up his latest diorama. Ilse’s new colouring book lies open on the table, a tropical scene half alive with colour. It’ll have to wait to be complete, like the jigsaw and and knitting and the little embroidered house. They’re all at the pictures with John, and I am in the quiet house on my own in the middle of the lull in these holidays.

There’s something about the turning of the year that makes me want to neaten up loose ends. These are the days in which I rifle through old offcuts, and make a plan for each and every little piece left over from the previous year’s projects. We covered two notebooks this morning, Fliss and I, for a twins’ birthday party she’s going to next week. I’ve made a quick potholder from the leftover crumbs. There are toilet bags and bookmarks and pretty fabric roses in the offing. I’d like to clear the decks by the end of January, in time for the spring sewing to begin. We all need a dose of optimism in February.

Then there’s the ground to clear for next season’s growth, the tips of which are already poking out above the soil. A day or two in the garden should do it, if we all work together, and pave the way for an excitable evening with the catalogues.

And yet it isn’t all tasks. Some days are set aside for other things. Best of all are those mind-clearing walks that only cold air and bright sunlight through bare branches can achieve. We found the first primroses yesterday, small and pastel yellow in the otherwise barren ground. Soon the buds will be on the trees, soon the snowdrops will be out in force. For now, though, we can walk through the silent woodland and over the icy moor and wonder at the peace of it all. Of this welcome, gentle, unassuming lull, before the earth shifts on its axis and plunges us into the coming year.