Low hanging fruit

There were times, towards the end of October, that I thought we’d never get the apples in. There was always something more urgent or important to be done. The days slipped by and the weather steadily worsened. Fliss and I spent the finest afternoon of the holiday at Father’s allotment, helping him to bring his own crop in. But at home the Bramleys languished on the tree, occasionally thudding onto the kitchen roof or the patio or lawn.

That is until one day, when Seb and I were home alone, and decided to go out and pick the low-hanging fruit. Just an hour, we promised each other: an hour and a couple of crates. We didn’t even get the stepladder out, but picked whatever we could reach with our feet still on the ground, laying all our bounty on the garden table. In under an hour we had well over a hundred apples picked, wrapped and packed, and I could bear to look at the tree again.

Needless to say, the apple- picking squad assembled the very next day, ladders and all. But I like to think they wouldn’t have, if Seb and I hadn’t got the ball rolling. Whatever the reason, we have apples enough for a whole winter of puddings, and compotes and roasts.

Reaching for the low-hanging fruit has become a bit of a theme around here in the past couple of weeks. The Liberty blouse I have planned seems far too onerous a task to begin. So too does my simple quarter circle skirt, the materials for which are laid out ready on the dining table. Instead, I’ve embarked on a little cross-stitch project, which is mesmerising and beautiful in its novel imperfection. I’ve been knitting simple things. I hear that Father Christmas has started his list with the presents he gives out every year: socks and books and foil-wrapped chocolate coins. Tick them off, I say. It’s got to be done anyway, so you may as well start with the low-hanging fruit to get you in the mood for a bit of stretching at the top of a rickety ladder.

Tesselations

There have been page after page of tesselations floating around the house of late. Fliss learned to draw these interlocking patterns from her mathematics mistress and Ilse, spotting the bright sheets of gridded paper, demanded to know how they were done. Ever patient, Fliss taught her sister to draw interconnected crosses three squares wide, and pick each element out in a different colour. Then they moved on to dogs, each one standing on the back of the next so that they rose in diagonal towers across the page. Then came the moment of glory, when Ilse made up her own simple pattern and it worked. When I’m grown up, she announced, and I build a house of my own, this will be the hall floor.

The lives of the six of us, in and out of this house, are a tesselation of their own. They are more than the sum of their parts, and, when all is well, they fit together into a lovely seamless pattern. I see it more at this time of year than any other: when it’s chilly in the bedrooms and so we gather around the fire. When there’s still novelty in indoor pursuits and no-one is fed up with the same games, the same stories, the same selection of crafts. Last night, Ben lit the fire while I got the tea things ready. I sat down with a final cup once the scones had all been eaten, and found the boys engrossed in a game of chess. The girls were drawing more tesselating patterns together. Tea drunk, it was time to give Seb and Fliss their flute lesson, and for Ben to make a start on his prep. Ilse was happy with the shoebox of colouring pencils until Seb was free to join her, while Fliss went off to write an essay on Tennyson. By the time John came home, supper was ready, prep was done, and the children had a fresh stack of patterns for him to admire. It was one of those lovely evenings when everything fitted tidily together.

Of course, not all evenings are quite as neat. Often the things we do jar and clash against each other. Show me a family that doesn’t know that feeling. But once in a while everything fits, just so. The tasks which need to be done fall into place alongside the all important play. Everyone wants to join in the same games, to make the same music, to draw the same pretty patterns. Those rare evenings are worth taking the time to enjoy. And of course, the cherry on the cake was that the patterns the children were drawing summed it up just perfectly.

Sugar and spice

We almost had a frost last night. I woke, snug under the covers, to the sound of the tea tray at the bedroom door and the news that I’d slept until nine. Nine? Surely not. But when I drew back the curtains and saw the fog I knew why the sun hadn’t woken me.

It was in the fog that we finally picked the pears: Ilse, Seb and I. It’s only a gnarled little tree but it yielded several pounds and Seb spent the morning helping me peel and stud the halves with cloves before pickling some and bottling the rest in sweet spiced cider. By lunchtime they were just about done, as was the soup that we’d set bubbling on the warm plate of the aga, and the kitchen was full of the smells of our preserving as well as the garlicky lentils and bacon of our lunch. For afters the children took an apple each, picked from Father’s allotment only the day before when we’d helped him bring the end of his harvest in.

That’s what this week’s holiday has been all about. The Bramleys have finally been picked and wrapped and laid neatly in wooden market-traders’ trays. The remnants of the summer cabbages have been jarred. Those almost-forgotten red tomatoes have made splendid lunchtime treats, and the green used up in chutneys. The fennel, still too small to harvest, is safe under a cold frame. Only the leeks stand in the beds, and the swedes and purple sprouting brocolli, savoys and Jerusalem artichokes. Parsnips grow steadily on, waiting for that first frost to bring their sugars out. It can come now, and blacken the lingering nasturtiums and courgettes.

In the kitchen there’s a bowl of dried fruit soaking in brandy. Tomorrow we make the Christmas cake and pudding, and heady apple mincemeat. The season is shifting from early to late autumn, looking ahead to the winter. Until today we put up what was in the garden: tomorrow we bake with more exotic ingredients. Lemons and oranges all the way from Africa nestle in the fruit bowl with apples from only down the road. There’s an extra bag of sugar on the shelf to turn their empty rinds into a marmaladish jelly. I popped a glacé cherry into each of the children’s mouths and watched their faces as they recognised the sweetness. The larder shelves are very nearly full with the work of another year, indoors and out. This is the sort of cooking that looks as far ahead as our gardening plans do: into the weeks and months before us. I know how much we’ll enjoy these bright jewelled jars of spicy goodness and the flavours they’ll bring to the winter table.

For now, though, at the end of another long day in the kitchen, the sitting room fire beckons. That, and a glass of rhubarb gin, bottled in the long-ago spring. You see, we knew then that we’d be glad of it now, and so we are. Who wouldn’t be? Because sugar, spice and all things nice are what the things in the larder are made of. Mmm.

Offshore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, October

Every time I look outside the garden is a little more bedraggled. There are weeds left over from when it was still warm enough for them to grow. The grass is overlong and permanently damp. Some trees have shed their leaves; others will cling on for another month or so. The pots of herbs are twiggily bare; already a brown dirt path is being worn to the compost heap.

I haven’t seen as much of this October as I would like. Between one thing and another – a nasty cold, last minute sewing, trips to visit friends – it is already half gone before I realised it was here. Suddenly the house is too cold if left unheated in the evenings. There is condensation on the bedroom window panes. Slippers have appeared, and hot water bottles, and hats and gloves and snoods. Oh, I think. October. And then the sun shines and midday is warm and the washing blows dry on the line and I catch sight of the hens bathing in the dust and the blowsy autumn roses clinging onto skeletal shrubs and – oh October!

It’s a funny, inbetweenish sort of month. The sort I never really notice: it bears neither the grief of September nor the dread of November nor even the headlong rush of December towards Christmas and year’s end. It’s just simple, quiet October, calm and unassuming. Slowly, the green is fading and the nights are drawing in. There is a gradual lessening of noise and outdoor life. Yet a walk to the shops can still be taken in a jumper. The beetroot and fennel grow on, quietly, in the beds. Caterpillar season is over and the Brussels sprouts are swelling on their stems. The sturdy leeks grow fatter.

The robin is back on the garden bench, cocking his head at me. Birds of prey circle over hedgerows. The geese have not yet all flown south. It’s only October still, mild and gentle, waiting for me just a little longer.

Culinary compensations

Friday afternoons find me on the sofa in the kitchen, a pile of cookbooks balanced on one velvet arm, the calendar in my lap. Were I to go about our meals summer-style it’d be cabbage every night, with endless apples after. So it’s back to planning again, and pencilling in each dish on the calendar in the hall. The children check it as they pass and squeal with delight at near-forgotten favourites: toad-in-the-hole, beef stew, cheese and onion pie with an orange pool of beans.

I have to do it when I’m hungry: after a meal I have no interest in thinking about the next. But pre-tea, when there’s a cake in the oven and my lunchtime soup feels a long, long time ago, I approach this task with gusto. It’s so easy in the autumn: so many good things are in season. It’s more a case of choosing what to leave off than what to put into the plan. How many types of pie can a family eat in a week? Which day shall we have kippers, or porridge, or toast? There’s leftover mash to be made into bread, but also pots of herbs to knead into a different sort of dough. Can we get through all those sweet and spicy autumn puddings before the fruit is off the trees?

Nothing can be wasted, but the kitchen fills with unexpected treats. Ben goes foraging with his pals and brings back baskets of good things: rose hips and elderberries and sloes. I make a floral-orange syrup and give it to the children, hot, for breakfast, as a drink or drizzled in their bowls. Sloes mean gin, and sugar; elderberries wine. The pears are falling quickly now, and will sit hard and sulky in the bowl until suddenly going off if I don’t cook them. We still haven’t picked the Bramleys.

In spring food is so exciting: green and fresh and new to our tired and jaded palates. In summer it is easy – salad and cold cuts and a bowl of minted, boiled new spuds. In autumn it’s such fun to think of all the dishes we’ve not had for all this time, and fit the increased cooking into the rhythm of my days. Sundays: roast. Mondays: leftover pie, and chicken soup to last the week. Different things on the next few days until on Friday I look in the larder and wonder which cake to bale. Last week there were courgettes but no butter or eggs: I waited for the feathered ladies to oblige before making a batter with oil and grated veg, with mixed spice to add depth and lemon juice to give a little lift. Luckily everybody loved the faintly greenish cake. You see, in summer I might pop out to the shops quite often, just as I do to the veg patch in the garden. But in autumn it’s a point of pride to make it through the week with just what I wrote on my list.

It’s a funny time of year, both cornucopial and lean. Yes, there are good things everywhere to eat. But this is it now, until that first bowl of bright green nettle soup next spring, so it must be made to last. I quite like the planning and the making of my lists. There are lots of things I dislike about autumn, not least that it heralds the winter months of cold and grey and dark. But on the plus side, there are so many good things to eat. Say what you like about October: it most certainly has its culinary compensations.

Goodness

 

It seems almost silly to be knitting with such a colour when October sunlight saturates the world. Outside are verdant lawns, wanton berries, roses which throb pinkly in the dawn and evening light. Inside, I am knitting with the colour of summer: the sea washed out by overhead sunlight, the faded greens of favourite cotton frocks. And oh, goodness, how I love it. The time for plums and teals and ruby reds is fast approaching, but not here yet. I’m happy knitting with the ocean, on sticks of driftwood beige.

While this jumper looks like summer, it feels like bed on a winter’s morning: plump and soft and comfortingly warm. I’m not sure I’ve ever knitted with anything quite this thick, or on needles wide as tree trunks. After months and months of 2 ply it felt a little wrong, but only until I looked down to realise that I’d knitted the whole of the back of Ben’s jumper in two short sessions. Then it felt just right: fast and compelling, keeping pace with this sudden onslaught of autumn. I’m cabling the front already, and watching the pattern emerge. He’ll have this jumper in a couple of weeks, all of a sudden, having waited all last year. Ah, well. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.

Once done, it’ll be on with Ilse’s, in seasonal royal plum blue, paving the way to Christmas. Then, after the feasting, I’ll rip out my old white aran and make it over in a way that’ll feel just right for January. Frugal. Austere. Necessary and good. I’ve decided to join Mrs Thistlebear’s winter project parties, this year, and take along a new project at the start of every month, which leaves room for Ilse’s quilt as well as those two raw fleeces, bits of which are already twisting their way onto my wheel.

Truth be told, I’m not all that happy about the arrival of autumn, but little bits of goodness are cheering me along. Sitting by the fire and knitting. Holding onto the colours of August for a short while longer. Dashing through a jumper to warm my patient boy. Simple things, but kind. Thank goodness for wool, and knitting, and boys who ask for jumpers in subtle summer hues.

Garden notes: Autumn rhythm

Porridge weather has arrived. There was porridge for breakfast this morning, served with a spiced compote of windfall apples and pears. Delicious. The sky, on the other hand, was the grey of that peculiarly nasty porridge: the kind that goes all gluey in the pan. And, truth be told, I felt a little that way out myself. Lethargic and sluggish and low. Because try as I might to hope otherwise, I know that summer is over and the whole of autumn and winter lie ahead.

I’d like to be one of those people who embrace autumn. The kind who long for the weather to turn. But I’m not. Instead, I seek out the compensations. A good excuse for knitting. Long cosy days when the whole family gathers to be near the fire. Pies, and mackerel, and hot sticky puddings. There are many things to love about the colder half of the year. The thing is, I have to get there first. When I wake on a day like today, all I want to do wave the children off to school and collapse in an armchair with my knitting or a good book and a blanket to shut out the season. Yet there are sheets to be washed, and meals to be cooked. Floors need scrubbing and nobody but me is going to see about the garden. And those chores, those pesky chores which keep me from a day of wallowing in the gloom, are really my saving grace. So today I sat down with my notebook and did what I’ve done for the last seventeen years: I decided on my autumn rhythm.

Mrs P laughed when I showed it to her. I don’t blame her: it is scarcely any different to last year’s. First some time at the piano: soothing and effective all at once. Then the garden. Then the house, then this, then that. Slowly and purposefully, it pulls me out of the morning quiet and into the day. There are no deadlines, no time slots other than the obvious. There’s no rush; there’s plenty of time for a cup of tea or half an hour working on my latest project. And after supper is eaten, the evening is mine to do with as I wish. This is the time to sit under that blanket and read, or knit, or do a little sewing by hand, and chat to John or listen to the wireless. The day is done, but more importantly, it is done well, and that matters, in the autumn.

Each part of the rhythm counts. It matters that there is a stew in the oven and crock of fresh soup on the cold shelf for the week. I care about getting the sheets washed and ironed and back on the children’s beds. Making music makes me happy, as does getting better at it. But the turning part of the day, the part that lifts me from the gloom, is the time I spend in the garden. I never, ever want to go out there when it’s cold and damp and grey. Today I promised myself I only had to do ten minutes. Dig the potatoes, I said, and that’ll do. But then Penelope made me laugh by standing right over the fork so as to get at all the worms, so I spent a little longer pulling some bolted lettuce for them all. In doing so, I noticed that the second, smaller flush of lavender was ready for the taking. And while crouching there, I smelled the sweet peas and cut another vaseful for the kitchen. Then there were the windfalls to pick up: the good ones to come indoors, the sluggy ones for the chickens in their run. The tomatoes needed watering. The veg patch wanted a walk and an inspection, and all told, I was out for an hour and a half.

It’s not as exciting as spring. It’s not as brilliant as summer. And yet somehow it’s in the autumn that I’m most glad I have a garden. It keeps me going, gentle and funny and kind, pulling me outdoors each and every day. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and working in it, and writing about it, these past few months. There’s not much left to say now, except this: know that I’ll be out there in the wind and the drizzle and snow. Ostensibly, I’ll be taking care of it, fitting it into my daily rhythm. In truth though, it’ll be taking care of me.

Garden notes: Reluctant

Parts of the garden, at least, seem as reluctant to accept the autumn as I am. The tomatoes keep on coming, as do the valiant courgettes which I’d expected to succumb to their layer of powdery mildew weeks ago. Nasturtiums flower cheerfully in oranges, reds and yellows, and the herbs keep growing fragrant and bright green. If I only look in certain places, I can convince myself that it’s still summer.

It’s harder in the kitchen, though. True, last night’s supper was a simple combination of cheese omelettes, soda bread and greenhouse-fresh tomatoes, but I slipped the fruits into the frying pan to warm through in melted butter. Beside them cooked this evening’s supper –  a simmering pot of sunny carrot soup. It seems the salad days are coming to an end.

True, there are trays of baby little gems and other winter leaves waiting on the kitchen windowsill. It almost looks like springtime. But these will be planted in the greenhouse, and will grow too slowly to feed us all each day. These winter salads won’t be filling any bowls. What they will do, though, is brighten up a ham and chutney sandwich. They’ll bring a dash of greenery to a plate of smoked mackerel and toast. They’ll persevere, when all is wet and windy.

Mrs P is bothering about the house these days, washing the last of the curtains, turning out the rooms. It was she who urged me to book the sweep and order a delivery of coal. Yesterday, she rapsodised for a full half hour about the joys of wearing woollens, and cold, fresh morning air. Oh, I know what she means, but I’m just not ready yet. Don’t tell her I haven’t ordered anyone’s new woollen combinations, or even thought about putting the summer frocks away. No-one’s told me that they’re cold – yet.

Reluctant as I am, though, some progress has been made. The first of Ilse’s dresses is very nearly done, and went together smoothly. A bolt of woollen suiting came today. This Sunday finds us at the yarn fair again. And in the kitchen drawer lie all those wintry flavours needed to bottle this year’s pears: cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. I’ve had a sniff or two, to get me in the mood, and am feeling almost ready. I’ll do it on a rainy day, and be glad of the warm and spicy fug. That, and some new wool to knit with, and a bit of successful sewing, and I might feel a little less reluctant about the tilting of the world.

On the way

You wouldn’t have thought, yesterday, that we were halfway through September. The children were playing barefoot on the lawn, I’d taken my cardigan off by midday, and the windows were open to let the heat of our roasting dinner out. Summer came late this year but it’s making up for it now, hanging around until the very last minute, and nobody’s complaining. In the mornings, though, there’s sparkling dew on the grass. It’s just about dark by Ilse’s bedtime. It’s happening, much as I’d like to ignore it: autumn is on the way.

Most of us have enough to wear this year, should the first frosts suddenly strike. Fliss seems to have stopped growing, or slowed down at any rate, and Ben’s things are new enough to last a little longer. Seb’s trousers are a decent enough length to buy me a little time. But Ilse has shot up this past year and needs new everything. And while I can fill a few gaps with old things of Fliss’, she does need new school dresses and something to wear at the weekends. Not just any old something, mind you. Ilse knows exactly what she would like, please. My plans for some little dropped waist dresses were not well met: how does she know they belong to the 20s? They still look wonderful on little girls: easy and swishy and without an ounce of fuss. Happily, her own plans are equally practical and sweet. What she would like, please, are dresses with high yokes and full skirts to just above the knee, with three quarter length sleeves (so they’re warm, but they don’t get in the way) and possibly a peter pan collar. Three buttons at the back, like the pinafore  she loves so much, and definitely some pockets to keep her precious finds in. It took a bit of sketching and and explaining and pointing to parts of other dresses around the house, but we got there in the end, and are both pleased with the design.

Making the pattern turned out to be a breeze, and not at all the afternoon of careful calculations I’d built it up to be. The block I made for her this summer was still in the drawer and, thanks to the fact I made it a size up, still big enough. So it took less than an hour to adapt it, and not much longer to cut out the fabrics she’s chosen. We’re starting with a Saturday dress in blue corduroy, the yoke lined with an old gingham shirt of John’s she’s always liked. It’s a bit of a relief, really, to have got to this stage. What with the cutting done, the rest is easy: I’ve made enough dresses now to sew a quick seam here, seam there in odd pockets of time. Dress number one is on the way.

As is the grey wool I’ve ordered for her school frocks, and my new spinning wheel, and the knitting fair next weekend. Autumn crafting is upon us. As is the season itself, though you wouldn’t know it by looking out the window. Stick with us, summer, for as long as you like. But when autumn comes my little girl will be ready with something warm to wear, just like the rest of us. And just as importantly, I’ll have a basket of wool to knit up, as well as two fleeces to learn to spin with. I have to admit, autumn does have its compensations.