Across the water

We booked our holiday to Ireland on a bit of a whim. We’ve fallen into a pleasant pattern of having one summer’s holiday in the UK and the next aboard, and this was meant to be a UK year. But by the time June came round, I was itching to go across the water, so we looked at ferries.

As a rule, we try not to fly. The number of long haul flights I took before the age of 25 must mean that I’ve used up my – and probably my children’s – fair share of flying for a very long time. We’ve taken the children on planes a couple of times, but we do try to take the train whenever possible. It’s surprisingly easy and you get an incredibly strong sense of where you are going, and how far away it is. The furthest we’ve got by rail is Sorrento, which took a couple of days and involved spending a night on what was essentially a youth hostel on wheels, which everyone thought was lots of fun (except perhaps the poor French teenager who had to share our compartment). But of course you can’t get the train to Ireland, so we booked onto the Liverpool-Dublin overnight ferry instead. When we booked we were warned that it was not a passenger ferry, but one the lorry drivers use, so we didn’t really know what to expect.

It was fantastic. As soon as we boarded we were fed the most enormous meal – salad bar, puddings, hot main course, the works – before settling into our two very clean ensuite cabins for the night. Then we were woken up by the announcement that breakfast was being served and we’d be docking in Dublin in an hour. Sixty minutes later, full of yoghurt, croissants, hot drinks and a fry up we rolled off the ramp and set off towards Galway. If I were a trucker, that’s the way I’d travel. In fact, it’s the way I’ll be getting to Ireland from now on.

 

If I’m honest, the whole holiday was a little bit slapdash and last minute, which is the way our holidays often are, but it seems to work out fine. We wended our way cross-country, stopping for lunch and to take in a little sheep show before arriving at a lovely campsite and booking in for the first two nights. The site was relaxed and friendly and best of all, had its own beach literally just over the wall. Given that the weather was unusually warm and dry, we spent the whole of our second day on that beach, dipping in and out of the Atlantic, peering patiently into rock pools and knitting on a rug while others built a model of Newgrange in the sand. I love that sort of day, just pottering and knitting and knowing that there’s nothing more to do but cook some sausages for tea, but one day of that is also quite enough. The following day we set off north along the Wild Atlantic Way, taking in the scenery until we reached the National Museum of Rural Life.

 

Now, John and I had been to the National Museums in Dublin before, when we were over for a wedding, and if you’ve ever been you’ll agree that the collections of bog bodies and torques are breathtaking. The Rural Life museum greeted us with a tiny house just by the car park: a dwelling made up of all the traditional styles of Irish building, from wattle and daub to stonework, various thatching styles and lime plaster. I’m afraid it only fuelled my dreams of building or repairing an traditional dwelling one day, and everyone was very patient as I examined it and took lots of photos. I think they must have groaned inwardly when we then came across a traditional travellers’ caravan, but I managed not to linger too long there. I’d like my little house to be a little bit bigger, and probably fixed in one place. Unless it’s a houseboat, of course. But that’s the topic for another post.

 

Inside, I saw and read a lot of things that I already knew, but the children learned a lot and some of the craft displays were very interesting. I had no idea that so much was made from straw – everything from armchairs to saddles, hen houses to babies’ rattles. That, and the ‘lazy bed’ method of growing potatoes, fascinated me. Ireland continued to be a nation of tiny farmsteads for a very long time, and the ingenuity of people in what can be an extremely challenging environment, where the weather can make or break you, is not something that I encounter in my daily life. It might seem an odd comparison, but it reminded me of Tanzania, where everything around you can be used for some purpose or other, and where, even within one country, styles of housing and agriculture differ according to the climate.

We had our own taste of Ireland’s particular challenge – rain – that evening as we found a campsite at 6 and rushed to get the tent up before the black clouds broke. We’d stopped in a port town in Donegal – Killybegs – and as we erected our tent we saw the QE2 pull out of its deep harbour with thousands of passengers waving from the uppermost deck. Before they were out of sight the heavens opened, but thanks to John the children were perfectly cosy and dry, tucking into first soup then pasta before snuggling down with a book of Irish folk and fairy tales.  By morning, the wind and rain had gone and we were given the most beautiful view across the bay and out to sea.

Finally, we drove up to Derry to visit family for a few days. My mother comes from Derry, and I spent half of every summer there throughout my childhood and teens. Two of my mother’s siblings still live or work on the farm there, and I hadn’t been over in years. We had such a lovely time, seeing them: the children were spoiled rotten and announced that it was the best part of their whole holiday. When you’ve moved around as much as I have, there’s something very comforting about going back to somewhere you’ve known your whole life. It was fun, reminiscing about all those summers and the odd winter holiday when there were calves in the shed and I was given the task of teaching them to drink from a bucket by letting their rough tongues lick my hand. My uncle has a daughter Ilse’s age, who invited she and Seb out for the day. Later they played an epic game of Monopoly with my cousin Mary, home for a holiday, while my aunt and I talked craft. She’s studied traditional Irish crafts properly and is a superb basket-maker, and treated me to an afternoon of willow-work. I have a lot to learn, but she sent me home with such a quantity of willow, books and moulds that I can’t wait to get started. Best of all, I think I may finally have found a craft that John’s interested in as well, and I have high hopes for some cosy wintry evenings making all sorts of baskets, platters and plant supports together.

Going somewhere as an adult that you are used to visiting as a child is a very strange experience, and I saw Derry through different eyes this time. As a kid, I stayed out of town, playing or helping about the farm or riding at a nearby stables. This time we walked the walls and visited the Free Derry museum with Fliss, who learned a lot about her history and where part of her comes from. I’m really glad that we did book that ferry when we were bored and restless on Monday night in June. Really, it’s only a short hop to Ireland from York. Just drive to Liverpool docks, and head across the water.

Photo shoot

Every so often, this blog forces me to do something miles out of my comfort zone. This week, it was the photo shoots for the sewing patterns I’ve been developing.

If I’m entirely honest, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t think about this part of the process when I decided to start selling my patterns. I knew, in a vague sort of way, that there would have to be photographs of some sort, but as long as it remained a hazy and unspecified prospect that was fine by me. Finally, though, my hand was forced by the fact that I’d made an appointment with a very talented young woman and that my photographer is due to go back to university soon. Given the choice of now or never, I went for now.

All I can say is: do not underestimate the amount of skill and confidence it takes to style an outfit and then be photographed in it. My friend’s daughter, Ella, arrived at our house with two suitcases of clothes and accessories and proceeded to throw on my clothes with such style and ease that absolutely everything looked right. Ben, our photographer for the day, had the privilege of clicking the shutter at someone who knew how to stand or sit, and had only to focus on the lighting and framing of the shot. My friend and I quickly left them to it, busying ourselves with folding and ironing and many cups of tea. It was one of the most inspiring and fun days I’ve had on this project, and the photographs are better than I had dreamed of.

I loved seeing a seventeen year old wear my clothes with such flair and inventiveness. She could have gone on and on, creating different looks for different occasions. I keep a very small wardrobe, relying on my clothes to be versatile enough to be dressed up for work or a wedding or down for gardening – there’s little I wouldn’t do in any of them. I tend to do simple shifts in formality: swapping heels for Chelsea boots or a knit for a tailored coat. Ella’s outfits were far more inventive and striking, and left my girls in awe. I can’t wait to share her photographs with you.

At the same time though, I love to see clothes on the person who made them. There is something symbiotic about the relationship between conception, execution and the physical reality that ensues. When I design, I think about who I want to be in a particular item: sharp and stylish, patterned and a little bit vintage, or just someone who is off to dig the parsnips. I love it when bloggers post photos of themselves in their creations, but never fully appreciated the effort until it was my turn.

Suffice to say that I have a lot to learn, and that Ben is very patient. The end result is a series of very honest photos: these are the clothes that I have designed and made and that I wear on a daily basis. They show how I wear them, and what they look like in use. I’m so pleased that we persevered with the shoot, because now we have photos of the clothes styled and modelled in two very different ways, but on two ordinary people, using the contents of their own wardrobes, on a slightly overcast day, in and around my house and garden, photographed by a novice. None of us had ever done anything like this before, and, although some of us were better at it than others, we all worked together to achieve an end product to be proud of. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

So, in the spirit of this week’s photo shoots, I leave you with the first up-to-date photograph of me published on this blog. It was another overcast day and I was hoping the sun would come out – and then it did.

All this wool

I had grand plans, this spring, of spinning up all of last year’s fleeces before the new ones were even shorn. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but I came closer than ever before. It’s such a learning curve, this spinning hobby of mine. The first two fleeces I was given – lovely piebald Jacobs’ – took me a full two years to work through. Last year I was given three more: two Scotch mules and a huge sack of what turned out to be alpaca. So when I found myself with half a fleece still to process when offered this year’s shearings, I wasn’t too downcast. I think I’m making good progress.

Progress is a good thing, as I’ve been offered several fleeces this year. Two are from my aunt who lives outside Edinburgh and has all sorts of rescue animals, including Ilse’s favourite goat. My sister Meg has eight sheep now, and I was offered four of their fleeces (four are this year’s lambs’, and will keep their fleeces against the coming winter). Two were absolutely enormous, with more than a year’s growth, and, to be entirely honest, more than I could handle. The other two were beautiful Shetlands, one mottled grey and one brown, or moorit, as I’m learning to call it. They are so small and light in comparison to the last three fleeces I’ve had that I made short work of washing and drying them in the good weather of last week.

Since those first two fleeces, which came from a commercial meat farm and which I washed, section by section in buckets of hot soapy water, I’ve adopted a far less intensive approach. Given than all my fleeces now come from either my sister or my aunt, both of whom care for their sheep with minimal (if any) use of chemicals, I much prefer to soak them in a bathful of cold water for a day or two, changing the water once or twice. The amount of dirt that drops out of them is extraordinary, but more importantly the suint (sweat) washes away, leaving a sweetly sheepy smelling fleece with ample lanolin for easy spinning. Then I pop them in an old pillowcase, spin them in the machine, and spread them first outside then finally inside on one of our airers to make sure they are completely dry before putting them back into the (washed) pillowcase with a couple of lavender bags for storage. I can’t tell you how much labour this has saved, and how much more I enjoy carding and spinning a fleece while it is still a little greasy.

I also used to process each fleece bit by bit, picking and carding and spinning and setting each couple of skeins before moving onto the next, but I don’t do that any more, either. Instead, I wait for a fine day and spend it sitting in the garden, picking the washed fleece open and discarding any bits of vegetation or nubbly second cuts. Most of the dirt falls out at this point, and I’d rather it fell outside. If the weather is kind, I card outside too (you should have seen the clouds of dust that came from the alpaca – no way was I carding that in our house). And I save the spinning for rainy days, with a film or an audiobook and one or two of the children for company, playing alongside with their own projects.

I’ve also learned a lot about spinning this year, moving on from carding and worsted-spinning everything (I made a cardigan so sturdy that it can almost stand up by itself) to combing for socks, chain-plying for strength, and spinning long-draw for jumpers and hats and mittens. Not only does long-draw spinning result in the softest, loftiest, cosiest yarn, but it’s fast. Or at least as fast as any (sheep) back to (human) back jumper can be described as such, which is probably very slow in non-spinners’ eyes.

Finally, I set the twist and give it a proper wash at the same time with a bit of eco-friendly delicates liquid, before labelling it and, usually, knitting with it immediately. I’ve made quite a bit from my own yarn this year: two pairs of socks (one woolen and one worsted, to experiment) a pair of sturdy (ahem) colour work mittens for my aunt, a surprise for another aunt (more of which in a later post), the softest, warmest and most beautiful Georgetown cardigan for myself, a cardigan for Ilse, and am halfway through a jumper for myself or Fliss from this last fleece. I plan to spin up the final rolags today and take all the wool on our last holiday of the summer to finish it off.

Ilse in particular has been fascinated by the possibilities of dyeing, and has just finished carding a basket of rolags from fleece that we kettle-dyed in the spring. I’ve promised her that I’ll spin that too, before our holiday, so that she can bring her crochet with her. There’s a big bag of avocado pits and skins in the freezer, just waiting for a spare white skein, and I can’t wait to try dyeing with elderberries for a pillowy purple-grey cloud. I suspect these coloured skeins – and any others that we make – will end up as colour work in something or other, against some plain white fleece.

Not all leftovers are dyed, though. When I didn’t know what to do with my first, inconsistent spins, I started crocheting a hydrangea blanket, which has turned out to be wide enough for a double bed and serves as a record, of sorts, of my spinning ventures. There’s a bit of everything in it: wool and alpaca, DK and aran, wobbly adventures in long-draw and neat inchworm chain-ply. One day, in about a million years, it’ll actually be long enough for a bed, too. So that’s where all the leftovers will continue to go: into a blanket that probably looks lovely to no-one but me but which tells the story of all this wool.

Castles and coves

We love the sea. We love it in the morning, when the coast is fresh and empty and still sparkling with dew. We love busy midday sunshine beaches, when everyone and their dog lays claim to a patch of sand. Best of all though, we love it in the late afternoon, when the striped windbreaks and bright buckets are packed away and the coast empties of tired children complaining of sand in their shoes and the long walk home.

From about three o’clock the sand is at its warmest and the sun still high enough to revive you after the chilliest of dips. John invariably heads in for a proper swim, while the children splash about or jump the rollers. In and out, wet and dry and wet again, stopping for an ice-cream (madness) or reaching for the flask of tea (far more rational in these parts), the swimming and sandcastle making goes on until about six, when people start clamouring for their tea, and John lights his little Trangiar and the sausages are soon fizzing and popping in the pan. A bread roll, a salad or two if we’re feeling fancy, and everyone is full and warm and ready to doze on the long drive home.

We’ve visited several beaches over the past couple of weeks. In Cornwall we had a couple of balmy evenings in Poldhu Cove, where we were not the only family to turn up and start cooking supper on the sand. Kynance Cove merited a fast and furious visit, leaping through the icy breakers on a moody morning. Having decided that the water really was too cold and that I would only go waist deep, I was swept off my feet on more than one occasion, much to Ilse’s delight. We needed fish and chips – sat in – to warm up after that particular swim. Sadly we didn’t manage our usual Devon bathe from pebbly Beesands, with the gale force winds blowing us into a cosy cafe for a wet-and-wild-night-of-camping-recovery breakfast instead. But we did make a special pilgrimage to a site John has wanted to visit since he was about ten years old: Tintagel Castle, and its cave-speckled cove beneath.

If you’ve ever visited Tintagel, you’ll know that the castle itself involves no little toil up and down a lot of steps, and the soaring temperatures on the day of our visit meant that the cove beneath was packed with people cooling off after their endeavours. We pottered about for an hour or two, looking into local shops and sampling the superb pasties from the cafe by the ticket office, and by the time we traipsed back down to the cove it was almost empty. We were the only people in the sea, with a few families on the shore, their knicker-clad little ones squealing with glee as the cool water washed over their toes. It was our last day in Cornwall before a drive north through the gathering night, and perhaps my favourite day of all. A castle and a cove, pasties and a cream tea: everyone was happy, which made me so. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer end to our little southern holiday.

So when John announced that he’d like to spend an afternoon and evening at Sandsend, near Whitby, I was only too happy to comply. I packed a basket or two with sausages, a couple of salads from our bursting garden, and a chocolate cake nestled in my tin, and we had one more glorious afternoon by the sea, all of us this time, mucking around in the sand and admiring the crystal clear water. Seb built a birthday monument for his dad, Fliss and Ilse stood on the empty steps and belted out some Abba, Ben and I admired the many shoals of little fish, different types of jellyfish and the odd transparent crab. John, of course, went for his swim, and then we had our hot picnic tea before heading home to sandy showers and fresh clean sheets and beds that rocked gently in our sleep.

Gardens, home and away

While I planned the London leg of our trip south, John was in charge of the week we spent in Devon and Cornwall. The Devon part was easy – every other year my brother and his family throw a huge weekend-long party in their woodland, and that, coupled with a visit to their home in Totnes, is a well-practised part of our summer holidays. The Cornish visit, however, wasn’t planned until one hot evening in London, when John checked the weather forecast, pulled together a plan, and booked a couple of campsites.

There were so many things we could have done in Cornwall. We could have visited more National Trust sites. We could have gone to the Tate in St Ives. We could have pottered along the north coast, taking in the pretty towns with their Enid Blyton coves. But knowing how much I like my plants, and how hard we’d all tried to be plastic-free and reduce our footprint recently, John arranged for us to visit a couple of world-famous gardens.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Eden Project since it opened in 2001, and the space-age view of the honeycomb biospheres in a lush green valley did not disappoint. Parts of the Mediterranean biosphere reminded us strongly of holidays in Greece, Italy and southern France, with the grapes and the olive oil and the kitchen gardens overflowing with good produce and impossibly fat lemons. Some of the plants in the South African section were familiar to me too, from my trip there many years ago but also from Tanzania. The Californian section was the newest to us, as we’ve never visited the west coast of the USA. Wandering around, marvelling at the dry-weather plants, put me in mind of the early settlers, deciding whether to go further north or south as they approached the Pacific Ocean in their covered wagons. I’d always assumed I’d go south, but perhaps life would have been easier a little further north, where the weather patterns were more familiar. Whichever they chose, the climate must have been a shock to settlers from Britain and Ireland, with our temperate island seasons. We have neither blizzards nor deserts, and – usually – water in abundance.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the wave of familiarity that swept over me as we entered the Tropical biosphere. There is no other way to describe it except that I felt as though I’d suddenly come home. Even now, after all these years away, I could name so many of the plants, and tell the children about their dangers, uses and temptations. How we never climbed snake-trees (ficus) as they were a favourite haunt of mambas. How the swiss cheese plant reminded me of one we had in our living room when I was growing up. The cinnamon, pomagranate and papaya trees from which we would nibble as we went about our play. Hibiscus – the vibrant red kind, with its prominent yellow-dusted spear. Ginger, which grew as an ornamental in our back garden, alongside the traveller’s palm, and the enticing frangipane under which we dug tunnels and built dens and made mud pies. I hadn’t realised how many plants I could name, nor how firmly they were etched into my mind. There was something new and familiar around every corner and it almost felt like showing the children around a place where I had grown up.

I do think that it matters, being able to name the plants around you. I think that it changes your perspective of the world if you can name the living things which inhabit it. We care more for the things that we can name. Around the outdoor gardens, which we loved the scope and variety of, we learned the names of many plants that we hadn’t known before. I do love a garden with labels. We could have spent all day there, learning about plants, their habitats and their uses, so we did. Fliss was so inspired that she is writing a herbal: a botanical volume of plants, their identification and medicinal uses. There has been much careful research and sketching since we got home. I came home to two weeks of vibrant green growth, which is both delightful and alarming all at once. I picked four kilograms of cucumbers on Sunday, and have bottled my first jars of tomato sauce. There are more courgettes than we can shake a stick at and flowers in every room of the house.

The children are probably relieved by the abundance because I was sorely tempted by the vegetable and flower gardens at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. John reckoned that our back garden is about half the size of their vegetable beds, and this observation quickly disintegrated into my enthusiastic suggestion that if we dug up the lawn, we could be self-sufficient in vegetables. How Good Life of me. Seb was particularly horrified, and his reaction, coupled with the fact that the chickens would have nowhere to roam and I do actually have a limited number of hours in the day, won out. Oh, but it really is the sort of garden to inspire those One Day dreams. John and I were making plans the whole way around – one day we’ll have an orchard with a pond for the poultry to live in, and a small woodland for fuel, a huge vegetable patch and a couple of pigs. And then, walled off and civilised, something akin to the Italian Garden, which is so far from what I normally aspire to yet took my breath away.

There are other jaunts to write about – involving castles and coves, sausages and swims – but I wanted to set the gardens down first, as they are in my mind’s eye. Both were vast, ambitious spaces, managed far more skilfully than I will ever manage mine. I’ve come home with a head full of plans to implement over the coming autumn, winter and spring. Really, though, those two days of gardens have deepened my love of plants and the natural world. I won’t be starting an Eden Project any time soon, or bringing an abandoned landscape back to its former glory. But I will be outside every day, watering and cutting, pruning and weeding, caring for my little piece of the planet.

On Hampstead Heath

Wherever you visit, it’s good to strike a balance between being a tourist and acting like a local. So while we almost always visit the big attractions – the Acropolis, Pompeii, the Brandenberg Gate – we also like to get our hair cut, hear local history from our landlord’s granny, and head for former East German lakes.

This time, I thought we’d try a spot of outdoor swimming, and the heat wave made it such an appealing idea that we threw over our day in Greenwich in favour of a day in and out of the water. There are several lidos in London, but I wanted something a little wilder, and a quick search brought us to the clay pits on Hampstead Heath.

Now, I’d never even been to Hampstead before, but it turns out that as well as the village and heath they’ve filled in some old clay pits to create natural swimming pools. We were a little anxious about whether we’d get in – surely in a city the size of London demand would be overwhelming – and I had prepared the children for disappointment and had Plan B up my sleeve. To our delight we were greeted by a lovely old man who charged me £2, checked several times that the children were good swimmers, and let us in immediately. The little area of land around the jetty was busy, but not so much so that we couldn’t find a spot to spread our towels, and huge pond had far more space than I’ve seen at any swimming pool. Clearly the rest of London was cooling off elsewhere.

Swimming at Hampstead Heath reminded me of nothing as much as the day we spent at an old East German swimming lake in Berlin. Virtually cost-free, full of locals and with only the most basic of amenities, it is my sort of swimming. The girls and I walked into the women’s changing area, which is fenced off for privacy, to find a wrinkly old woman stretched out on a bench, completely starkers, soaking up the sun. Nobody was fussing about their hair, there was no overpowering waft of deoderant sprays or whoosh of hand-dryers. Just lots of people enjoying the good weather and staying cool in the water.

We went swimming in pairs, and I went in with each of the younger ones, to keep an eye on them. The water is so opaque with clay that you cannot see your own hands in the water, and it would be impossible to see someone who’d gone under. The lifeguards were excellent: friendly and sensible, and Ilse’s age and swimming ability was checked before she was allowed in. We had a lovely time in the water, swimming out to this patch of flowers or that, practising dolphin or backstroke or just skulling along. Every so often we’d get out to warm up, or swap between those reading on the bank and whoever’s turn it was in the water.

I love swimming outdoors. Whether in the sea, a river, a lake or a pond, it is one of my favourite things to do. I love being in the water – any water – but water without chlorine and surrounded by plants, rocks, sand or simply the horizon is such a treat. We’ve got a lot more outdoor swimming lined up this summer, along the coast of Devon and Cornwall, but before I’d even rinsed the silt from my hair I’d planned another day out, in and around the Nidd. We all have our favourite memories of our sojourn in London, but mine is without a doubt the day we spent swimming on Hampstead Heath.

Madeleine

Do you swim outdoors? Is there somewhere close to you where you can? One day, I’m going to live by the sea again, but I’m glad I’ve discovered rivers and ponds too, because I wouldn’t have were the ocean still on my doorstep.