The end of March can be one of those wonderfully useful times of year, for gardeners. The first, tentative steps towards the autumn’s harvest are about to be surpassed by a veritable stampede as life in the garden leaps back into motion. Everything is starting to grow: the early seedlings, the spears of broccoli, the tops of the parsnips still waiting in their bed. The beginning and the end of the cycle of life in the veg patch, all mixed up.

I found myself, on Good Friday, with two rows of new potatoes to plant and a bed still full of brassicas. Not to be deterred, I decided that it was time to use them up. We pulled them all and picked off the smallest, most tender leaves, which yielded enough for several meals. The rest we hung from the top of the chicken run for the hens to peck at. They laid an egg each, over the following days, including the odd double-yoker. A brilliant exchange, in my opinion.

Spuds in and brassicas munched, it didn’t take me too long to spy another garden job. It isn’t only my veg which are growing again; the weeds are making their presence felt, too. I attacked them with strategy this time, seeking a return for my labour. As a result, we have had what some are politely calling an experimental week in the kitchen. It turns out that Hairy Bittercress is aptly named. And that Ground Elder doesn’t really taste like spinach – a truth which I feel the need to test every year, for some reason.

I blame optimism, and the fact that I really don’t like waste. We eat everything up, around here, emptying the larder into a pot of soup almost every week, and seeing what colour it turns. We save empty treacle tins to plant seedlings in, and toilet rolls to start off our tomatoes. Pamphlets are cut up for collages and decoupage. Bottles go back to the shop for half a penny, and the remains of each Sunday roast is minced into shepherd’s pie, before the bones are boiled to make a nutritious stock.

Edible weeds, then, just beg to be eaten. Some are disappointing: we’ll stick to proper cress from now on. But others are just waiting to come into their own. There’s a little patch of nettles behind the tree house which I insist aren’t weeds at all, given that they are growing in the right place. They bring in the butterflies, yes, but before then they have other uses. I’ll be pulling my gloves on before long, and taking my gathering basket down to that end of the garden. The time for nettle soup is nearly upon us, and with a dash of nutmeg and a swirl of cream it’s as good as any other.

In the rush of this time of year, between the sowing and the weeding, I usually forget the little bit of pruning that’s required. That of the odd thing which is meant to be left to flower on last year’s growth: the forsythia, for instance. I was in no danger of forgetting this year, though – it is a beast of a shrub, eight feet tall and almost as wide. Luckily we all approve of the use I put those prunings to. They’re on the kitchen table, in the living room, and in front of the little window at the end of our hall. Anywhere I can tuck a vase, really. Daffodil-yellow, twiggy and fresh, ready to welcome April into our home.


A moveable feast

No Easter is quite like any other. It flits about, this feast, like the birds between the trees and the ground, gathering twigs, building new partnerships. Some years it’s sun-soaked in a predictable, comfortable sort of way: one of a succession of days in the garden, sowing and hoeing and mowing the lawn. Others, like this year, it is as unpredictable as spring can be, moving from showers to bright skies and back within the space of an hour. And sometimes, rarely, like the time we stayed in Appleby, there is an unexpected fall of snow and we spend the morning sledding and building soggy snowmen which melt before the day is out.

It feels right, that Easter weather is so unknown. After all, nobody knew what was happening that first Easter. Christmas is different: people knew, even the first time, what was going on. A fact which is reflected in the depth of our traditions: in plum puddings and roast goose, in presents under the tree and a visit from Father Christmas. We know how to celebrate a birth.

That first Easter, though, very little was known. The killing of God took place, and yet the world didn’t end. For three days there was mourning. And then nothing but an empty tomb, an absence of a body, a mystery. Nobody knew what was happening, until, somehow, they did.

The only fixed things in our Easter celebration are a trip to church and a chocolate egg for each of the children – and even the eggs are brought home by John. Unlike the run up to Christmas, Easter is a time when there is very little for me to do in the way of fulfilling the children’s expectations. Which is a very good thing, given all the other tasks I am enjoying just now: all the sowing and planting, weeding and planning. There’s the spring cleaning to come, too, the washing of windows and curtains. The sweep to book, once the last fire has gone out. Outgrown clothes to send to the jumble sale.

All of which has the lovely effect of making everything we do an added bonus. This year the children blew eggs, and painted them with watercolours. I bought some twisted willow inside, pruned last autumn and left over from the Christmas wreaths, and they hung the eggs from its branches. Twiggy and bare, full of unexpected loops and tangles, they have space for all sorts to dangle in their embrace. Ilse had to be shown how to blow the eggs, which made me wonder how long it’s been since we’ve done this. It’s not as though we’ve done nothing in the meantime: sometimes we boil eggs and draw on them with pencils, making monochrome designs. Other times we might slice their tops off, stuff their insides with cotton wool and wait for a full head of cress to grow above their funny faces. One year a neighbour, who was watering the plants while we went away, left a treasure trail of tiny foil-wrapped eggs around the house, chocolatey and precious.

I found the time to make some hot cross buns while the children were busy with their eggs, and we had them as an easy Easter breakfast. In the evening Mother cooked for us all, making the sort of feast that the children save room for, guessing there will be more than one pudding. There was. It was a happy day, this year, relaxed and joyous, full of laughter and silliness.

There have been other Easters which have not been so glad: as I say, it’s a moveable feast. Changeable as the season it falls in, with rain and sleet as well as sunshine in the forecast. Each one unique, each one met afresh, but always full of love. While all else may change, that part never does. Happy Easter.


I held my breath as I cut the pieces for Seb’s fish shirt, hoping I’d bought enough fabric. He’d chosen it so eagerly, selecting something which would be just right for family campAnd it is. It will be perfect for a weekend of pirates and creatures of the deep, as well as for the rest of the summer.

But it’s just right for him, too. For the boy who likes to swim against the tide a little, to be the odd fish out from time to time. This is the boy who wants to make a giant squid costume out of papier mache and paint it gold, because they are gold, Mummy. Really. There will be ten trailing tentacles, plate-like eyes at belly button height, and armholes to accommodate all the dancing he’s going to do. My little fish is most certainly the orange one.

He left me in no doubt about the details of the shirt: it is exactly the same as that of two years ago, only bigger. A grandad collar, with no buttons to snag on pesky branches. Straight sides to accommodate too many ice creams. And tabs and buttons at the elbows, to keep his sleeves out of the way while he’s hammering new bits onto his den, or copying out constellations.

I find a great deal of joy in a job well done, and even more in one so well received. He put it on, beaming, and the shirt I thought had plenty of room in it had only a little. He grows while my back is turned. Ten, already. Ten.

I wondered whether he’d still wear it next year, at eleven. Whether he’d prefer something else, by then, something striped or checked or even plain. Who knows? Not I. All I know is the pleasure on his face as he hops around, declaring it his favourite ever.

He’s grown out of everything but his school uniform, this spring. Ten was the height of Ben’s phase of wearing everything out: holes in knees and elbows and many random rips besides. There is nothing to pass down. So Seb will need something more to wear at weekends and through the long summer holidays. I didn’t need to think before offering him another.

The trick with Seb is to let him choose, because who doesn’t want to wake up on an spring morning with a favourite shirt flung ready over the back of a chair?  They’ll become his second skin, a creased and grass-stained part of his everyday adventures. One on, one in the wash, over and over again. Little boys have other things to think about than what to wear, like where to find the biggest mess of frogspawn, and whether the latest Just William is back on the library shelves. But when he does stop to wash his face before tea, and catches a glimpse of himself in the little bathroom mirror, he’ll recognise himself, just the way he is in his mind’s eye.

He went for bears, the second time around. I cut the pattern a little larger, and managed to squeeze a size eleven out of just over a yard. I’m feeling optimistic, you see, encouraged by his hearty approval of the first. This time it’s bears to wear in the woods, out ranging, searching for blackberries in late August. Bears to wear fishing with his uncle in the Lakes, to scoop pike out of the water and into the bows of the boat. Bears to come snuffling around me in the hot July kitchen, asking for honey sandwiches for tea.

One day he’ll outgrow such things; I know that. But now? For now, he loves them, and I love that he does. I must have stitched that sentiment into each and every seam, judging by the way his face shines when he wears them. Once these days are past I’ll cut them up and make a quilt for him. Something new from something old – something very, very him. Not yet, though. Not just yet. We’ve the whole of the summer before us, and the next, and maybe even the one after that. Here’s hoping.



The blue tits are back, darting from the ground to the apple tree in short, fluttering hops. I presume they are building a nest in its hollow crown, although I have left them in peace. They have done so before, as evidenced by the numbers of them swooping low over the insect-rich lawn on buzzing late summer evenings. There are plenty of dried leaves for them, plenty of moss and bits of grass. I hope they make a home here once again.

My dear friend Mrs Eve has been doing the very same, making a new home just right for she and her Mister. She is buying new furniture, and happily unpacking trunks into new wardrobes. Creating a place to set forth from and to come home to. Somewhere which reflects the pair of them, just as they are. Somewhere spick, span, and ever so cosy.

Now that spring is coming, the urge to nest has struck even those of us who have been settled for some years. Through Mrs Eve I have had all the fun of shopping vicariously, coming home with a full purse. And I still don’t intend to spend much. But there are changes to be made.

For me, it’s all about having a base from which to get out, at this time of year. A place to sit just outside the door, and be spurred on into the garden. Somewhere to cast on for little knits on sunny afternoons. A snug spot for a snooze, without the season passing us by. And then, when the sun goes in at the end of the evening, when the fresh air has tired us out and the breeze turns chilly, we’ll want somewhere cosy to retreat to: a nest of sorts, lined with soft wool instead of moss. A space which looks out onto the world beyond, waiting for the next flight, and the next.

Ben will be spreading his wings this summer as usual, heading off on adventures of his own. Fliss will go away for a week or so with the Guides. Seb will spend the long vacation roaming round the village, and even Ilse will be popping in and out of this home and that. Then there will be times when we all fly away, together, to explore other parts of this island. We are all so looking forward to being away.

Yet I know that the flip side of being away is the joy of coming home again. Knowing the rhythm of our days. Seeing how the plants have grown, in our absence. Hearing, from Mother and Father, of how the hens have sulked and fussed and refused to lay any eggs. Opening the door to our own hall, hanging our coats on our own pegs, settling into our own beds.

They say that a change is as good as a rest, and after this busy half term with all its decorating and digging I am ready for a change. I’ve the kitchen in mind, with its french doors which open onto the patio beyond. Nothing drastic, nothing more than the work of an afternoon. I’d like to try the sofa in a different spot, for a better view. I’d like the rocking chair pulled closer to the door so that it’s the work of a moment to lift it onto the patio. I’d like to wake the picnic bench from its long slumber in the shed, ready for springtime dining. And I’d like to press some blooms, and place them in the frames which line one kitchen wall. To make this spot as cosy and appealing as I can. Because this is where you’ll find us, in this room which spills so delightfully outside. There, and in the garden beyond. Darting in and out of our nest, with brief fluttering hops at first. And later? Why, later we’ll have spread our wings. Later we’ll be swooping over the loud lawn in the heady evenings of summer, drunk on the joys of the season.



It isn’t quite here yet. It comes and goes in bursts of yellow light and clear blue skies. We are not in the month of April, with its sunshine and showers and weeds sprouting everywhere. Spring has not quite sprung.

And yet… The tomatoes have germinated. Forty-nine new lettuce seedlings are waiting to greet the outside world. The tiny specks of green which marked the celery and celeriac have got taller, and thrust out two fragile leaves apiece. We monitor our busy windowsills each morning for further signs of life. Outside, next year’s parsnips are in. The spinach is beginning to grow again. I have ordered some new hens. And last night we had broccoli from the garden with our fish pie.

Away from the fire the evenings are still shivery, but the days are warming fast. Gloves are discarded on the cycle home from school. Hats lie, unwanted, in the basket. Coats, donned under protest by some, are left unbuttoned by all. The snowdrops are over. The nettles are on the move.

I have almost finished being in: doing all those tasks I promised I’d do by Easter. Soon, very soon, I will be out every day, soaking up the sunshine and the green, green garden. And when it rains, which it will do, because we are in Yorkshire, after all, I can come in again and be pleased that I have a clean kitchen wall to look upon while I boil rhubarb jam and stir fresh greens into the soup.

Everything has its time. Last Sunday we started to plan our summer holidays, and while we were doing so I slipped in an little extra treat for the younger children and I: a trip to the seaside just as spring is turning into summer. A couple of nights in a boarding house, followed by smoked mackerel for breakfast and a race to be the first on the beach. We will dust off the buckets and spades, and dig out our bathers. The season of whelks and ices is coming round again. Soon, soon, but not just yet.

I made the schoolboy error of telling the children of this plan late one afternoon, as soon as our booking was confirmed by the last post. That night I found Ilse still awake long after her bedtime, whispering to her teddies. I can’t sleep, she told me. I’m too excited.

As for me, I went to bed with a head full of garden plans. Some new hens. How I’ll plant each bed. The shape of the days to come, in the spring, when everything is racing into life. My mind rushed from one thing to another, far into the wee hours of the morning, long after my own bedtime. In the morning I told John, bleary eyed, of my wakefulness. He laughed at me: how old are you? You sound just like Ilse.

I don’t care if I do. This is my very favourite time of year, full of hope and anticipation. Anything might happen, and I’ll do my best to make sure that it does. Good times are on their way. The earth is springing into life all around us, and I’m springing, too. Springing, springing, almost sprung.



There has been much late night activity in the kitchen, after the pots and pans have been washed and dried and put away. Once the sink has been wiped clean, and the table cleared for action the following morning. When the light should have been switched off, and the door pulled to.

Something was keeping me in there, away from the sitting room with its fire and cheerful company. It might have been the wireless, with the latest adaptation of Jane Eyre. But I think it was something deeper than that. Something tired of winter, mild though it has been. Something needing a change, and not a rest.

As a result, we are getting through flour at an alarming rate. Bags which have been lingering for some weeks now are being used up, finished off, tipped upside down over the mixing bowl. On Thursday it was a speedy seed cake, slid into the still hot range straight after supper. Its fragrant, damp heaviness, studded with caraway seeds, is the perfect partner to a well earned cup of tea.

On Friday the children were all playing at cards, just one last game of snap before bed, when I turned tail halfway down the hall and headed back to the kitchen. It was plain flour that found its way into the bowl, this time, along with a pint of milk and a couple of eggs. A quick whisk, and a space on the cold shelf in the larder. Breakfast done, but for the frying. Yet that wasn’t quite enough, so I kneaded strong flour into the leftover mashed potatoes, with a splash of milk and a pinch of yeast, and left that too, in the cold, to rise slowly overnight. It baked on Saturday, while the pancakes fried on the griddle, and baked beans heated in the bottom oven. Lunch, made at breakfast, dreamed up the night before. Chewy, dense potato bread, toasted in waxy yielding slices. Food thought of long in advance. Hungry food.

The seasons must be shifting if I am thinking of baking again. In the winter it is parsnips we eat, roasted, or a celeriac mash. Swede and carrot, on the side or sliced into a stew. Or potatoes, lots of potatoes, delivered by the sackful. Peeled and boiled and roasted. Left over, and chopped straight into the frying pan in the morning, alongside the eggs and some cold savoy cabbage. Mashed and eaten with an eruption of gravy, the remains patted into little cakes and fried in butter until crisp around the edges. They fill my suppertime kitchen with a gentle fug, these rooty vegetables, dug up in the autumn, stored in the mud they came with.

But when spring comes I won’t want to be standing over a steamy stove each night. I’ll want to be outside, doing something else. It’s bread I turn to then, rather than spuds, rather than swedes or parsnips or even porridge. Bread, straight from the crock, baked once a week in a session which makes me wonder what else I can fit in while the oven’s hot. A quick soda farl, perhaps, for supper that evening. A cake or two, while the oven is cooling down. Then no more baking for another week.

Bread is what I want to eat when the weather is hot and there are better things to do. I like a slice, buttered and folded in on itself, as the afterthought to having nibbled my way around the veg patch by way of a solitary luncheon. I might slide a sliced tomato in there, with a grind of pepper, if I can be bothered. And for supper I might go to all the effort of boiling some eggs to go with the salad and the loaf and the sliced ham. Or not. It depends on the weather.

In the greenhouse, baby lettuces are finding their feet. The first seeds are thinking about germinating, encouraged by a daily dose of water and kind words. The early potatoes are chitting on a cool windowsill, just waiting for Good Friday and the start of a new adventure, underground. The broccoli is beginning to sprout, and we have had our first taste of sour pink rhubarb.

The roots will keep coming for a while longer. Sunday morning saw a whole basket of Jerusalem artichokes, topped with a few more parsnips to go with the roast. They’ve kept us going all winter, those parsnips, with enough to give a few away. But now it’s time to eat them up, and make room for the new harvest. Which we do with pleasure: they are sweeter than ever, after the recent frosts.

Even so, I am greedily awaiting all the things I haven’t tasted in a while. Which is perhaps why I keep finding myself in the kitchen, after the day is done. Mixing and kneading. Getting my arm in again. Hungry for the season ahead.


Mothers and sons

Traditionally, Mothering Sunday was the day when people would be allowed to attend their ‘mother’ church – a religious occasion which meant that those in service would be allowed home for the day. Of course, the Great War changed all that – there are so few people working in the big houses nowadays – but I like to think of all those near-grown lads and lasses picking flowers from the hedgerows to greet their mothers with.

We went to our church last Sunday, and the little ones were invited to take flowers from the altar and bring them back to us. Seb picked out a hothouse rose, Ilse a seasonal tulip. Once home, Ilse tucked her pink one into the orange bunch John had bought me on Saturday. But Seb’s rose lay lonely on the kitchen table, with no natural mate. The house is full of flowers: daffodils, tulips and great leggy branches of forsythia, cut from the garden. Yet our own roses stand bare and twiggy in the beds. He looked a little forlorn, until I took down a cut glass vase, just big enough for a single bloom, and trimmed its stem to length. Now it stands beside my bed, the last thing I see at night. Something beautiful, from my boy.

It was Ben’s birthday, too, last weekend: his seventeenth. He still climbed into bed with us, long limbs and all, to open his presents in the morning. It is getting to be a squeeze, this bed of ours, on birthday mornings. Soon, too soon, he will be elsewhere, making his own traditions. But not yet. We showered him with all of ours: gifts before breakfast, a special supper of his choosing, and an outing with a friend or three. A raucous chorus of Happy Birthday. A cake, aflame. Nothing extraordinary, but everything sweet and full of comfortable, familiar ordinariness. We have had seventeen years of practice, to find out what he likes.

He likes to see his grandparents, too. We invited them all to share our Sunday roast: a chicken as a treat, and a home grown fruit crumble for afters. I took the opportunity to give my mother some flowers, and a card I’d stitched on my machine. My own cards, adorned with cups of tea and colourful (if improbable) garden scenes, were lined up on the dresser. I love those homemade cards: crayon on folded paper from some, watercolours on the special laid stuff from others. I cherish the way they appear from under mattresses and stacks of vests. I take care not to tidy too well at such times of year. And I love how there are always more than four, always six or eight or ten, as they are struck by inspiration over and over again. Those funny little cards are the best gift I could have.

Yesterday I dusted the mantelpiece, moving each of Ben’s cards carefully out of the way, daydreaming idly about our upcoming holiday in the Lakes. Meg and I have begun to plan it, sending lists of food and equipment north and south of the Scottish border. She: pickles and cold meats. Fresh perch, fried in butter. Fishing rods. I: beef stew and new sleeping bags. And cake. More than anything, I want to arrive armed with heavy tins of it. I want to send the children into the woods with greaseproof-wrapped slabs in their pockets. I make a list, thinking most of all of what Ben might like. Tiffin, stored with a cut Cox to keep it moist: gingery, Yorkshire. A simnel cake, made by a mother for her children rather than the other, traditional, way around, a fat disc of marzipan melted into its fruity middle. Hot cross buns, full of chopped peel and spice. Easter food. Picnic food. The sort of food that can be served in chunks. The sort of food that boys – and girls, and mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles – crave on long walks with uncertain weather. A last burst of winter food, eaten in front of a bank of crocuses, under a shower of blossom. Food for the start of spring.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time poring over my cookbooks this past week, choosing what to bake. I’ll try a few things out, between now and then, recipes I’ve not followed for a while. From over my shoulder, certain voices have made themselves heard. I nod, and assure them that I know what they would choose. I am their mother, after all.


Home from home

So much of this winter’s sewing has consisted of little things: shoppers and cushion covers, bookmarks and pencil cases – bits and bobs. Gifts, and the odd thing I’ve needed for a while, but have been loathe to buy. A simple set of pyjamas. A new toilet bag. Things which can be made out of the scraps left over from our new shirts and dresses, costing nothing more than a Sunday afternoon. What with the rain we’ve had lately I’d rather be inside anyway, across the hall from the fire, with the wireless for company.

Most often, though, I find I have other company, usually in the form of a certain six year old. She makes me feel like a conjuror, with her oohs and ahhs and general excitement. The simplest hemmed handkerchief appears, through sleight of hand, where minutes earlier there was a only a square of cloth. It is enough to inspire even the most reluctant sewer.

I can’t help laughing, just a little, at her enthusiasm, and yet… Creation in action is magical. Seeing something appear where before there was only a piece of paper, a stick of charcoal. Watching someone use their hands to turn something mental into something tangible, accessible to all.

It happens even when we think we are in charge. It was I who showed Ilse how to cut and stuff her teddy bear, and how to form a blanket stitch. I thought I knew what she was making. Yet even I was surprised by tiny Tabitha Bear, with her little blanket, ready for nights away. Ooh, I said when presented with her, she’s wonderful!

A little familiar company is what is needed, sometimes, to make a home away from home. Someone to whisper to at bedtime, after the last page of the story has been turned and your light has been switched off. Someone to tuck in and reassure that everything is fine, in this strange house with its funny noises. Ilse has been staying with Mother and Father from time to time, as a treat, when Seb is away with the Cubs. Much as she loves it, she has been dreaming up a few home comforts to make it even more special. A new teddy bear to mother in the dark, and a grown up toilet bag – just like Mummy’s, please.

Thus passes another showery spring afternoon. A bit of pink corduroy for the outside, with a little bird stitched on, to distinguish it from mine. A pale blue zip to match the bluebird lining. Then another zip, to a smaller, secret pocket. One day she might keep her jewellery in there, as I do mine. For now, though, I think she might just unzip it to look at the fabric it is made from: a scrap from my peonies dress. A little bit of home away from home, at toothbrushing time, that no-one else need know about.


Fresh eyes

Somewhere between sweeping the hall and getting my mop out, the steady rain turned to snow. Slushy snow, at first, more wet than icy. It dropped, novel and clean, onto the muddy lawn. The grey clouds turned from something dull to something special.

By the time I was rinsing my bucket I had trodden a definite path between the back door and the standpipe. The flakes, huge and heavy, redecorated my jumper and, uncertainly, the garden turned from green and brown to white and brown, and then pure white.

Nobody had expected it to snow. It was far too wet for it to stick. But it did so anyway, for an hour or two. My forlorn garden, the village rooftops, even the street outside looked lovely.

By the time I met Fliss in town it had long since melted. The ragged heaps of slushy brown, pushed irreverently to one side, had shrunk away in the sunshine. I took Fliss to the bakery to buy Chelsea buns for tea, and as we cycled home she pointed out tiny islands of white, hiding in the shade, dripping from low bushes.

It was only she and I, that afternoon. She laid and lit the fire as I warmed the pot and set our favourite tea things on the tray. I thought about the baby girl I had visited that morning, and about this girl of mine, old enough for matches and strong tea. I watched her over the rim of my cup as she nibbled her bun, engrossed in her book, and tried to remember her as a little thing, and almost couldn’t.

The rest of them trickled home, one by one, beneath the setting sun. Ben on his bicycle, squash racquet slung over one shoulder, satchel heavy with books. Isle, brought home by the mother of a little friend, having had a tea party of their own. Seb, with John, after an early evening jaunt in town. They had a present for me, a flat shape in a paper bag. A recording of a fantasie by Telemann: number three, to be precise. The fantasie I have been battling with for several weeks now, unable to turn the relentless semi-quavers into music.

I settled the needle onto it and set it turning while the potatoes boiled. And then, I heard how it should be done.

We played it again during supper, and once more afterwards, while I looked at the notes on the page. Now I saw them with fresh eyes. Not groups of four, marching up and down the stave, but threes and fives and, every now and then, a pause. Phrases. Consciousness.

I had a go, mimicking what I had heard, and what had been an excercise in reading accidentals became having a go at a piece. This was fun. Wobbly, far from perfect fun. Thank goodness for fresh eyes.