Banking it

Clearly two plus one does not always equal three. Take bank holidays, for instance: adding just one day to the weekend more than doubles the time off work. Everything that can closes down for the full three days, leaving Saturday curiously like Sunday, that lovely day of peace. And then the real Sunday comes, and then Monday which, with all the banks and shops and schools and factories shut down, is Sunday yet again. And three Sundays are worth much more than three of any other day, which makes the break far longer than just three turns upon the axis.

Add to that the fact that everything seems just that little bit easier in May and well – what are we to do but spend a lazy three days pottering around at home? Getting back into bed with the tea tray and a good book for just one extra hour. Helping Ilse with her latest project (involving tissue paper and a great deal of paste) before even thinking about the luncheon. Finding myself with an army of eager garden helpers, which dwindles to just one within five minutes, but which is still one more than I am used to. Getting round to some of the tasks I’ve been avoiding: repotting the tomatoes for the last time, lifting the netting off the peas to get at those marauding weeds – because it’s ten times more fun with two. Thanking John for doing the tasks I find heavy going, like cutting the hedges and mowing the lawn. Seeing a break from Ben’s revision become a carpentry session, at the end of which the hens have a new playground to get fit on.

Caught in this little time warp there is a chance to slow down, take stock, and get started on ventures new. Time to pair a pattern with some soft and variegated aran, and see a cabled bobble hat fly together in a swift row here, row there. Looking at my fast dwindling skeins of wool and choosing some to crochet into granny squares. Opening the cupboard with the fabric in and, with Fliss, choosing all the cottons for her quilt. Poring over design books together, and asking if she’s sure. Sitting and chatting while we snip away at old shirts and dresses, cutting squares two and a half inches wide for an Irish chain in washed out pinks and greens. And then, when we pause, finding that it’s only ten to three, and not quite time for tea.

There have been trips to the park, and to a friend’s to play. There’s been music practice, and preparation for exams, and learning lines for a school performance. There’s been a long letter from Meg, and one written in reply. A shop popping up in the shed, selling all manner of groceries at outrageous prices. A garden centre with a cafe and two keen delivery children scooting up and down the paths. Leisurely lunches which melt into leisurely teas. A bit of a tidy. A lot of sitting in the sun.

I’m half expecting to find that a whole month has gone by, while we were having our bank holiday weekend. We’ll go back to the real world and find that there’s a row of little absent Os in the school registers, that John’s desk at work is dusty. That Mrs P has been knocking at the door, and the children and I have missed our holiday by the sea. They go on forever, these bank holiday weekends, always giving more than seems quite possible. Soak it up, I say. Save it, store it, bank a bit of this for later. Because – believe it or not – it won’t go on forever.

Garden notes: Eggs

The new hens seem to have settled in remarkably well. I keep expecting to find the nest boxes empty, but no – every day I’m greeted with a full complement of eggs. After the first flush already in their systems, they were meant to pause for a while, but I shan’t complain. We love eggs.

There’s been a fair bit of gloom around these past couple of days: low clouds and glowering skies. I’ve been weeding surreptitiously, hoping the weather gods won’t spot me in amongst the onions before I finish the task. Keeping my fingers crossed for warmth, and a couple of dry hours, I’ve been rewarded by some pretty solid stretches of rain. But. But – the beans have popped up along their rows of canes, and there’ll be no stopping them now. The sweet peas have poked their little noses out above the soil. I keep finding Fliss nibbling radishes as she wanders around the garden, nose in a book. And there’s been enough dry weather to get out and bring in the early harvest: great bowlfuls of sweet new lettuce leaves, cut-and-come again chard tops, peppery-hot rocket. And eggs. Lots and lots of eggs.

They are suggestible things, those unassuming little ovoids. They sit there, meek and fragile in their dun shells, but it only takes a sharp crack to reveal their vibrant yolks. I know I should be setting some aside, saving some of this late spring flush by slipping them into the barrel of isinglass. But they whisper to me from across the kitchen. There is all sorts of eggy goodness happening here, now. Breakfasts are eggs: poached, boiled and fried. My solitary lunch: a greedy bowl of new salad dipped in a rich and wobbly mayonnaise. And supper? Well, I’ll blame it on the steady rain which began at twelve and carried on past bedtime. The mercury dropped, a chill wind blew in from the east, and the menu changed. I felt it was one of the last good custard days of the season.

Which led to a pudding, simply to carry the custard. In the end we went for an Exmoor In and Out: last autumn’s softly wrinkled bramleys under a layer of dense almond sponge. It was quite happy cooking in the Aga with the fish pie while I made the custard. This is the kind of cooking I do best: abandoning something to the gentle heat of the oven while I stir the silken pan of custard and think of other things. Simple and extravagant, elegant and childish, it is one of my favourite things to eat. Comfort, in a bowl.

There was another soul in need of a little comfort, yesterday. Seb had just returned, tired and filthy, from an outward bound adventure with his pals. And although he didn’t show it, although he was talking nineteen to the dozen, I suspected there was a little pang of sorrow lurking somewhere near his tummy. So what’s a mum to do, but make a favourite tea and draw a hot and bubbly bath? To find ways of reminding him that, all in all, there are some good things about being home again. Seeing his spot filled at the dinner table by a pink-cheeked, pyjama-clad boy made me realise how I’d missed him. So between one thing and another, it was a very happy suppertime indeed.

And faced with eight more eggs this morning? I’ve lots of ideas up my sleeve. The cooler custard nights might be dwindling, but quiche season is just beginning, and the time for cold boiled eggs in picnic baskets is surely just around the corner. Lay on, ladies. I’m not complaining.

Lovely ladies

There was a changing of the guard this week, with the arrival of six new hens from a local farm. We set their boxes in the vacated hen house, having moved the older girls into the tractor for a few weeks, and they were out and exploring their ladders and perches in no time. I think they like their new home: in the morning we found an egg apiece in the nest boxes. Then in the tractor we found Ilse’s hen, dead, having quite literally dropped off the perch in the night. There were a few tears, as befits the passing of an old pet: the last of our original trio of hens. But we’d known it was coming: she stayed close to home and ruffled her feathers into a cosy eiderdown even in the sun. Ben had built her a step to help her in and out of the house, and she had special permission to sleep in the nest box at night. Seeing this, I’d added an extra to my original order of five new birds, anticipating the need to replace her. Of course she didn’t know that, and of course she was just a hen, but she was a lovely, gentle, inquisitive old lady, and her timing felt quite dignified, somehow.

We motored over to the Dales later that day, to have lunch with John’s mother, Ida, and walk up onto the moorland. I like it best in the autumn, when the tops are purple with swathes of flowering heather, but this time the fresh green growth only hinted at such beauty. The ewes were up there with their lambs, already grown sturdy and strong. The sheep were beginning to shed their fleeces, leaving handfuls of rough wool lying here and there, and as she picked some up my mother in law told me about a woman in the village, blind with age, wanting to pass her spinning wheel and knowhow on to someone new. What a lovely gift to give. It made me think about the all those millions of acts, big and small, that people do for one another. And as we talked we dropped down into a little valley full of wild garlic and forget me nots, where the bees were out gathering pollen with their sisters.

Even though there was no purple on the moor, we’d bought a little with us in celebration of Ida’s birthday. A bunch of lilacs from our massive shrub in York, further along than those in the chilly Dales. Mauve cards from the children, made by shaving coloured pencil leads over paper and gently brushing the pigments across the page. A violet peg bag, made long ago with floral sprigs and polka dots and satin ribbon – and Ida in mind. Little gifts, gathered together with care.

In turn she sent us home full of roast dinner and sticky toffee pudding, with a jar of her excellent marmalade, a stack of Good Housekeepings and a few balls of wool to transfer to the growing pile of little knits. And on the way I got started on a granny square, crocheting the way Mrs Roberts had taught me just a couple of weeks earlier. Home again, I found a postcard on the doormat from Mrs Eve, and then there were the hens, new and old, to check on. We made a quick supper of the pork pies Ida had wrapped up for us, with lettuce from the garden and a bit of bread and butter, feeling glad for a day without any cooking, before shooing the little ones off to bed. An easy evening, at the end of a delightful day. Really, it’s no wonder I couldn’t help but think that there are a lot of lovely ladies in my life.

Garden notes: A patch of earth

When Ilse came to me, book in hand, to beg a patch of earth to call her own, I knew what she’d been reading. She’d picked out a plot already, a weedy spot under the lilac which is just coming into bloom. By the time she showed it to me it was cleared and had a twig fence all around it, to mark it out in case the hens and neighbourhood cats misunderstood. A shady spot, on the very edge of the lawn, where I could see the roots of the nettles and dandelions cut off at the surface of the soil. A spot where the chickens like to scratch and which, now cleared, would invite all passing moggies. A perfect spot in Ilse’s eyes, if not in mine.

We suspect the pigeons ate the poppy seeds she sowed. They stepped right over her picket fence and got straight to their hungry work. Fortunately there is no shortage of seedlings in this house, and for round two she chose to plant some marigolds, those little orange ruffs, to stand up to the dandelions. I’ve chased the hens away from them so many times already but there are still some left, thank goodness. Just one, that’s all she needs. One marigold, one bloom, one spark of magic to make her garden a success.

While she wants flowers, Seb wants veg. Not any old vegetables: not lettuce or spinach or peas. Not runner beans, and definitely not courgettes. Why grow easy things when you could grow what you really want? What Seb wants are globe artichokes, spikily ornamental, softening to a savoury delicacy to dip in melted butter. A crop with a tiny yield. A crop which you don’t pick until the second year.

In truth, I hadn’t given the artichokes a huge amount of thought. He’s planted things before, watched them germinate with devoted fascination, then forgotten all about them. He’d find them a few weeks later, shrivelled and crisp on a sunny windowsill. A shrug, a sigh, and he’d be off again to hammer nails into another bit of wood. I didn’t think these seedlings would get far.

Instead, I’ve found myself hunting for a space for them. An unobtrusive space, where I’d be happy to leave them for some years, but where they’d have a high chance of success. It’s such a fine balance, squeezing everything in, planting as close as I dare. Willing it all to grow; knowing some crops will fail. Trusting that I’ll try again next year.

As it was, the carrots were true to form. They took so long to germinate that I sowed another few rows. Then one day they were up, and the next they were gone. I suspect the slugs. A shrug and a sigh and it was back to the garden plans for a little reshuffle. A well-timed failure, and in their old spot, at the end of one bed, is a space for Seb’s plants to thrive. I think they’ll like it there.

That’s the thing about gardens. Things change all the time. The swedes might be a mollusc’s midnight feast, the apples might get scab. The cherry blossom drops so that the earth and not the skies are swathed in pink. And yet the world keeps spinning. The rain falls, the sun shines, and in its turn the lilac opens up. I spent a happy half hour last evening, sniffing at the blooms and filling vases for the house. There is always something new: as one thing fades another takes its place. Nature presses on, and fills the spaces left by our failed plans with something better.

It’s easy enough to teach children to grow a courgette. Soil, water, sun, a bit of general care and there you go. But that’s not what those patches of earth are all about. They’re about all the downfalls which might afflict those artichokes before next summer. They’re about those little shrugs and sighs and sowing something else. We’ll dig Ilse’s bed properly this autumn, she and I, together. There’s a pile of bricks behind the shed to mark it out. Behind them we’ll plant her favourite bulbs: snowdrops and daffodils, bluebells and tulips. There they’ll flourish, of that I’m sure. And afterwards, while the hens eat her seeds and peck leaves off her plants, she can look up and see the lovely lilac blooming in her very own patch of earth.

All over

There are many ways to greet the rain, but my favourite is with a cup of tea, a spot of knitting and a day spent resolutely in. Why try to carry on with springtime plans when you could revel in a little cosiness instead? As it turns out, a day or so of rain was just what I needed to finish off the cardigan which had been languishing in my knitting basket for some weeks, with just one buttonhole band to make. A drama on the wireless, a blanket on my lap and, in next to no time, it was done.

I have been very glad of it, over the past few days. Finished and blocked, it was ready just in time for a chilly weekend, and goodness knows I wanted nothing more than a new woolly to ring the changes this late in the season. An old red one, long since consigned to house wear only, can now be thrown in at the end of the hot white wash – a quick bit of felting will deal with the holes, and I can make it into a hot water bottle cover, ready to be loved all over again.

I think this may be my favourite of all the knits I’ve made myself, but apparently I say that every time. Still, it is pretty perfect, for me. Made of Shetland 2-ply, it has a fineness about it that I love, but the stranding makes it two layers thick and deliciously warm. I know I’ll love its hopeful green in winter as well as in spring, and the gay yellows and blues bring it to life. It’s bright, but also earthy, with a hardy woollen steadfastness I adore. This is a knit for a busy person, one who needs to be warm in the garden in midwinter and won’t have time to change before cycling into town. The sort of knit I can wear on a campsite. It’s a knit for me, designed by me, ready to meet my every need. The sort of knit everyone should have.

Woven into it are the memories of rather more months than I had intended. Of casting on not once nor twice but three times before making it work. Of filling long winter evenings with a little colour and pattern and industry. Of passing a storm in a bothy, and watching the children fish from a pebbled beach. Of all the long months between Christmas and now, May, when the garden is in bloom and I probably won’t need it much until the nights draw in once more. There are bluebells in this jumper, yes, but also fireside logs and Christmas stars. Knitted over two seasons, this jumper was made to be worn in three or four.

While I was ribbing knit one, purl one with the back of my mind, the front of my mind was otherwise engaged. Because of course with the end of one knit comes the start of another – or several, in this case. We are officially in the season of little knits, and by my side, where I could eye up the contents, was my wool basket. It’s a long time since I filled it at the autumn fair, and only a few odd balls remain. This year I think there might be a few little crochets, as well as little knits. Perhaps the start of a granny blanket, to use up scraps over several years. I can think of a girl who’d like a foxgloves hat to match her big sister’s cardigan, and I’m sure I can come up with a pattern. I’d like to make some mittens with leaves and vines running up the back – or perhaps just some fingerless gauntlets to wear around the house. This is the best sort of play: before decisions are taken and anything is possible. And I find my thoughts heading outside again too, after those blissful days of sun, to quilting in the garden. I’ve a quilt to make for Fliss, and I’d like to do it all by hand, making the most of the bright long days.

There are so many things to dream up, so many things to make. Perhaps I should be sad when I come to the end of a long and familiar project, but I’m not. That jumper might be all over, but the making isn’t. On with the next project, and the next and the next. It’s never all over, really.

Garden notes: blossom

A few days in the sun and we all strip off, plants and people alike. There is a trail of cardigans around the place: on the garden bench, the picnic table, the rocking chair on the patio. The little ones leave puddles of empty clothing by the back door as they run off to paddle and splash. And the trees and shrubs release their flowers from their protective buds, and blossom.

Everything is flourishing, out there. We’re picking lettuce daily, and cutting the chard which so obligingly comes again. All the onions are up and beyond being pulled by the curious birds. The leeks are beginning to thicken from trembling spikes to something with substance, so that I can imagine transplanting them one day, a few weeks from now. Other plants have been settled into their final positions: the summer cabbages, the courgettes, the celeriac and celery. I’ve never grown these last before, and couldn’t quite believe that the flimsy seedlings would ever translate into something I could handle, let alone leave out there on the veg patch. Then one day, there they were, a set of sturdy and recognisable little plants,  just desperate to get out into the big wide world. Lots of water, a mild forecast, and they’ve done it.

In fact, they’ve done so well that I couldn’t bear to waste any of them, and put in more than I’d intended. Thus they are encroaching on the space marked out for fennel. That’s the problem with fennel, and other latecomers to the patch. There’s never enough space left for them. No matter how hard I try: something else always gets there first. Every spring I tell myself I need a bigger patch, and every winter I dig another bed, but it’s never enough. There’s something new to try, each year, as my love for the garden blossoms. I’ll squeeze the fennel in somewhere, but it won’t be ideal. I’ll be using that spade again next winter.

If I had my way, I’d turn the whole garden over to vegetables, double digging the lawn and putting it to good use. But then I glimpse the children running barefoot on the grass, dodging arcs of water. The hens peck and scratch, and turn grass and insects into the most orange yolks I’ve ever seen. I watch Ben stroll out in the evening, revision done for the day, and challenge the others to a game of french cricket. So I dig my beds in the parts that are played on the least, adding just a little more space each year. Children need to blossom, as well as vegetables.

Watering in the celery, I remembered the promise I had made to myself of weaving flowers in amongst the edibles. The sweet peas are yet to go in, the marigolds outgrowing their nursery. The beans must be planted and the weeds are getting rowdy. Yet all I seem to manage, day by precious day, is to plant and to water. It’s all about priorities, just now.

With that in mind, I’ve blocked out an entire day to sow those seeds and get the weeds in check. I’ve warned Mrs P, and bought some cold cuts for our supper. The baking can wait. So can the wash. Let the postman knock; let the boy with the telegrams come. I won’t hear them. I’ll be in the garden, helping it blossom.


Ever since my aunt sent me my very first snood, I’ve been wanting to learn how to crochet. I borrowed a book from the library and pored over it for hours, hook in hand, but couldn’t work it out. Other people were encouraging: it’s easier than knitting, they told me. You only have to learn four stitches. I’m surprised you can’t do it already.

I was sure I could do it, if I could only get started. I crocheted the cut steek of Fliss’ foxgloves, pulling slip stitches through the edge of the knitted fabric, making it secure. With something there to connect to, it was simple. But starting from scratch, with a length of cotton before me, seemed impossible.

So Mrs Roberts and I hatched a plan some months ago: an afternoon in a cafe, for tea and cake and a skills swap. I would teach her to knit intarsia. She would teach me to crochet.

I think it is a mark of how lovely a time we were having that we suddenly noticed the diners coming in for their evening meals. Our lunch dishes had long since been cleared, afternoon tea had been taken. Waitresses had stopped by our little table to see what we were making, and add their own tips to the mix. Mrs Roberts had written out a pattern for me, unintelligible at first and entirely comprehensible by the end. With her encouragement I made a flower, and once we were onto double and triple crochet it all made sense. She showed me how to vary stitches on the scarf she was making, before pulling the yarn free again, rolling it up and stuffing it back into its little pouch. Her attitude was so can-do, so why-not that I caught it. I think I could make anything now, with crochet.

Of course she needed very little help to get started with her fairisle, knitting together a stunning medley of creams and purples. She has plans for a jumper for autumn, and I can’t wait to see it. Watching other people make things is very nearly as much fun as making them yourself. In fact, the next day, I showed Fliss how to crochet and she whipped up a set of matching bracelets to share with all her friends. It was fun to watch her pick it up so quickly. That was easy, she said. Because it is. And I’m so glad I’ve learned to do it at long last. It was a good afternoon, for Mrs Roberts and I: both productive and purposeful.

Better still, though, was what was happening while our hands and eyes were busy. A long talk, without thought of chores or deadlines. Sharing anecdotes and hopes, long stories and their meanings. Being able to focus on just the two of us, without interruption or complaint. We tied a lot of knots, that afternoon, but the best of all was the one which pulled us closer. Continue reading “Knots”

Garden notes: maying

May is such a polite month. Out goes moody April, with her cold shoulders and stormy temper and in steps gentle May, all maypoles and morris men. It is the month of maying, too, as the old song goes: of love and courtship, steady and hopeful. Time marches on and yet some things never change. The old songs are sung, the old dances stepped lightly out on the grass, and now my girls join in while Meg and I look on and tap our feet. Even the little ones know their places, know to wait their turn to weave in and out amongst the others, and to hold their own strand high above their heads so the bigger girls can pass beneath.

It’s the month of maying in the garden, too – of asking permission and getting it. May we play out after supper, Mother? May we have our lunch in the tree house? May we wear our bathers and splash in a bucket of water? Yes, yes and oh, if you must. It’s hard to deny anyone anything in May, as long as they ask nicely. I’m asking nicely, too. May I harden off the brassicas? May I put in the french beans, and trust to a warm spell to bring them on?

Even the plants are behaving themselves: sitting where they’re put, respecting one another’s space. They’ll sprawl around later, full grown and uncouth, when they think I’m too busy to notice. September can be like that. But in May they are oh so polite. Even the weeds are tentative and easy to deal with. I hoe them down, knowing what tricks they’d get up to later if I didn’t.

Some things are bolder, barely waiting for a reply before pushing themselves up, up into the warm air. The peas are making steady progress, in synch with one another, neat and tidy in their little rows. They’ll start grabbing at the poles soon, but for now they are being good. The shy bluebells are putting on their little show, cool and modest in the shadow of the apple, taking their turn before the branches above burst into bloom. The ash isn’t at all sure, but then it never is, and always waits until the very end of the month to put on leaf. Perhaps it is just being kind, and letting the gooseberries swell before it ushers them into semi-shade. Nor is the may itself in blossom, although the hedges are bright with new leaves. We’ll know the warm weather is here to stay once its pink and white froth celebrates the season.

The only thing which isn’t polite is the list of tasks I want to tackle each day. Planting, sowing, weeding, watering, knitting, writing, making music… Those are just the things I long to do; add to that the jobs which must be done – the cleaning and cooking and washing and ironing. They jostle in my head, these jobs, each wanting to be at the fore, until I order them all on a piece of paper and there they stay until I can cross them off, one by one. A May day is never long enough. I could spend twice the time on each of these labours of love, spurred on by sunshine and soft breezes.

Sometimes it feels as though the only thing to do is to make things simpler. In this spirit, I’ve combined tea and supper into a single meal: high tea, served picnic-style on the patio. A jug of creamy milk from the cows who are so happy to be in the fields again. A pot of tea. Bread and butter, cake, sardines and radishes, and each plate lined with the tenderest, earliest lettuce leaves. I asked very nicely, and took them very gently, and left plenty to grow on. The little plants said I may. For who could say no, on a day like this?


In the pink

The race is on, for spring is the season of so many things. It’s the most important time in the gardening year, of course: miss it and you’ll wait a whole twelve months for a second chance. The season of shaking off the old and the woolly, and reaching for cottons and silk. The season when so many of us feel the need to mimic Mother Nature and create. The season of waiting: for reliable sunshine, for warm evenings, for fresh vegetables from the field and garden. It’s the season of eggs – of both the double-yoked and chocolate varieties. Of Mother’s birthday, and Meg’s, and Victoria sponges piled high with jam and cream. For some, it is the season of revision while exams wait patiently at summer’s door, immutable and stern. For others it marks the winding down of the school year, as homework becomes more and more sporadic and spelling books linger unwanted in the bottom of satchels. There are better things to do, while the sun is shining – or so they tell me. And who can blame them, when on a bright day the whole world is in the pink and the children chatter and play like birds in the hedgerows?

The days are busy, and we fall into our beds with willing exhaustion. Sleep is swift and deep, pulling us down, down into its currents. We wake in the morning to plans which have formed overnight without our knowledge. Then the rush is on to finish all those many tasks before we get to the one thing we longed to do: to sew, to write, to wander round the garden in the fading sunlight. Each moment is as important as any other, whether we are eating or kissing or just walking idly along. If this were winter I would reach the evening hours and declare an end. I’d pick up my knitting and stitch steadily through the quiet dark until it was time for bed. But this is spring, and after supper there are more hours in which to do all those things you haven’t managed yet. A second bout of music practice. Sewing name tapes onto summer uniforms. Ticking another item off that merry list which never ends: the list of the living, the doing, the being.

We’ve had our fair share of springtime colds, of sore throats and headaches and general grottiness. Some of us are still under the weather, delightful and changeable though it is. Yet even then, even with sniffles and tired bones the spring has urged us onwards. And there’s nothing like a cold to remind you of how wonderful it is to feel well. We’re better now, thank goodness, and in rude health once more. Ready to meet up with other people, to bake a cake and make hand drawn birthday cards which open back to front. Ready to sing, in chorus if not in harmony, of happy birthdays. To make the best of this, my favourite of all the seasons now that we, like the flowers the house is filled with, are in the pink once more.