Forty

I think that my fortieth birthday was probably the nicest one I’ve ever had.

There’s an awful lot to be said for getting older and knowing just what you like. I didn’t want a party, or a big fuss, or a special present from John. But I did want to celebrate with my friends and family, and I did want to mark the occasion in some way. So in the end, John booked us into the sumptuous Pale Hall for the weekend, and we had such a fantastic time.

We don’t often have much time with just the two of us, and our holidays are self-catered apartments or back-to-basics bothies much of the time. So you can imagine my delight when we pulled up at the entrance to the hotel, handed over our car keys and were shown into the drawing room for a glass of fizz. Just the two of us (thanks, Mum and Dad), and a weekend of the most incredible food and drink and surroundings. We decided to just be decadent and had the six course tasting menu (something we only discovered in our thirties) and wine flight on the first night, and then dined in again on the second night, which was my actual birthday. Everything was done just beautifully, from the games in the library to the decanter and double ended bath in our room, and the staff couldn’t have been friendlier or more welcoming. I think the moment that summed up the juxtaposition of such luxury with such unstuffiness was when I realised that the harpist was playing Radiohead while we had our canapés on my birthday evening. Really, it was the nicest break we’ve had together since we got engaged, and the best present I could have received.

I saved my actual presents – from other people – for the Sunday night, because Ilse in particular likes to watch me open them. The children put them under the Christmas tree (it was still just up, it being 12th night) and opened a bottle of prosecco and the Christmas cake and had such a lovely last evening of the holidays. I have some great experiences to look forward to, as well as choosing the setting of some precious stones bought somewhere special to our family, back when I was little. There weren’t any Sunday night blues on my part. Besides, I was looking forward to seeing my colleagues again. Before the holidays, they had arranged things so nicely that I am the happy holder of some theatre vouchers which will be put to good use very soon. I am lucky to work with such an fun and thoughtful team.

Turning 40 prompts a lot of nostalgia amongst people who have been there. Some people have told me that they stayed at home and cried their eyes out. Others ignored it. But several had a great time. After all, what’s not to like? I feel (almost) grown up, but not old. I have more freedom than I’ve ever had, in all sorts of ways. I’ve started a new chapter at work this week, as well as carrying on with the things I was already doing. I have a wonderful family and group of friends, and I get to spend a lot of time doing things I love. Life is sweet. And it was so much fun celebrating 40 years of it.

Madeleine

I have to ask – if you’ve turned 40, what was your birthday like?

Merry Christmas, everyone

Whether you’re someone I know in person, or an online friend, a subscriber or someone who just drops in from time to time, someone who celebrates Christmas or for whom it is just another day, may I wish you all the best over the coming days. I hope that the final days of 2018 are peaceful, and that 2019 brings good things to you all.

I don’t normally do pictures from around the house, but the elves have been at work so it seems churlish not to.

From a change of lightshade in the hall:

to a set of nesting Father Christmasses:

a row of paper trees:

and a fully festooned bedroom:

everyone has been decorating in their favourite ways this year.

Today we’ll put up the tree and bring in the holly and the ivy. I’ll cook a ham and decorate the cake, and wine will most certainly be mulled. It’s my favourite day of all.

Whatever your plans, I hope you have a lovely time. Take care, and I look forward to seeing you again in the new year.

Madeleine

Trying for a lower-waste Christmas

Having been trying really hard to reduce our consumption of plastic this year, it goes without saying that we’re trying to have a lower waste Christmas. We don’t tend to produce much more rubbish than usual over the holiday, but there are some improvements that can be made. Having said that, I’m not going to announce a plastic-free or zero waste Christmas around here, because that simply isn’t going to happen. So, as usual, I am counting every bit of plastic avoided as a little win.

One area that we don’t have any control over is how friends and relatives wrap presents for our children. Some of them are very like us and reuse paper and ribbons, which makes life easy. Others use plastic or ‘foil’ wrapping paper and copious sellotape. Things come in shiny (read: plastic) gift bags, and cards come with more ‘foil’ (plastic again) or glitter (yes, more plastic) which render them unrecyclable.

I can’t actually remember the last time we bought any proper wrapping paper, because for over a decade we’ve been cutting off the tape, smoothing it all out and reusing it. We deal with the plastic paper by reusing it the following year. Cards – whether plasticky or not – are cut up to make labels and the remnants recycled. Envelopes are opened up and added to our scrap paper ‘notebook’ (a pile of paper held together by a bulldog clip) and we often give gift bags to the local charity shop to sell again next Christmas.

Our own presents – those that will be unwrapped in the house – are usually ‘wrapped’ in a (reused) cloth gift bag or a (again reused) pretty box tied up with a ribbon. I keep good bags and boxes when we are given them, and you don’t need many. I don’t use tape unless I’ve run out of ribbons, and when we do, it’s the paper stuff. When there’s nothing big enough, plain brown recycled paper (which we found in red last year) does the job, and can easily be rolled up and used again. And thankfully Father Christmas is most obliging, wrapping everything in either newspaper or scraps of wrapping paper too small to be of other use, and because it’s all plastic-free it becomes ready-scrunched tinder for the stoves.

Perhaps this might sound Scrooge-like, saving paper from one year to the next, but to tell the truth I rather like it. It’s much more creative, finding ways to make everyone’s present look pretty without just turning to the latest shiny offering from WHSmiths. Sometimes the children like to potato-print the brown paper packages, sometimes we attach pine-cones and the like to ribbons. I’ve some rather nice two-coloured handspun that I’m going to use, left over from a project, on people who I know will use it again. And there’s always a medley of colours and patterns under our tree.

Filling the advent calendars took a little thought, because I have used plastic-wrapped sweets and chocolates until this year. I made the children’s calendars years ago, and they were one of my very first crafting projects. I sketched out the scenes, worked out a colour scheme and set to work doing some simple embroidery and appliqué. They are far from perfect, and no doubt I’d do a better job now, but the children love them and that’s all that matters.

I toyed with the idea of unwrapped sweets, but they would make the pockets sticky and I don’t want to wash these. In the end, we visited one of the lovely traditional sweet shops in central York, where the woman was incredibly helpful in making sure that I’d have at least the 72 sweets I needed. Then Seb and Ilse spent a happy afternoon wrapping them in scrap paper and stuffing them into the pockets. Before you ask, they always fill their own calendars. They like to put their favourite sweets into special days, and love the whole process.

Christmas cards are not something we’ve ever really got into, and we have no intention of starting now. But there are certain relatives who we do give them to, so a pack of ten is ample. We like to buy them from Oxfam, and I was pleased to find this almost plastic-free pack there. (It has a pointless velcro tab holding it closed.) There’s a hare on five of them…

and a partridge on the others.

Needless to say I’ll be cutting up the cardboard case itself and using it as a couple of postcards.

Food is another thing that won’t really change: we buy most of our Christmas lunch direct from the market stalls and little local shops that we buy from week in, week out. Our butcher will have an unwrapped bird ready for us. The greengrocer will have everything unwrapped, as usual, on his stall. Milk comes from the milkman, and I’ll add a couple of reused glass bottles of juice to our order, for the children. And there are a few glass bottles of frozen elderberry cordial waiting to be paired with some sparkling water from the sodastream. I just need to make sure that the prossecco comes with real corks…

Everyone in our house gets a handmade gift from me, which is pretty low waste, given that I’ve got plans for a tea cosy and some wrist warmers from the leftover yarn. Ilse, Ben and Fliss’s knits are almost done (the hats still need bobbles), and I’m casting on Seb’s later today. I won’t post about John’s here, because he sometimes reads the blog, and Mother and Father’s are going to remain tip top secret. But the children know about their hats, as they no longer all go to bed early enough for secret knitting to take place.

Which brings me to the biggest change we’ve made this Christmas: shopping locally. In previous years we’ve done a mixture of local and online shopping. This year, we’ve enjoyed going into York and getting it all done in just a couple of focused outings. If you take your own bags and choose wisely, it can be virtually waste-free. There have been just a couple of things that I’ve not been able to find in the shops, but I’ve made sure to request minimal plastic, and it hasn’t been too bad.

We took the children into town late on Saturday afternoon, to see the lights and do their little bit of shopping. If you’ve ever been to York in December, you’ll know that it gets absolutely packed, with coach loads of tourists bussed in to enjoy the medieval shambles and independent shops. York feels very Dickensian in the winter, and I can see why people love it. After a while though, the crowds all got a bit much, so we went for a stroll through the deserted Minster Gardens. The stained glass of the minster was glowing, and coming out on the far side of the park, the Treasurer’s House was all lit up for Christmas.

We popped into a favourite little Italian for supper, and it was lovely, sitting there in the noise and the bustle, the last of the shopping at our feet, getting warm and cosy in the ancient heart of the city. Of all the changes we could be making, this must by far be the most pleasant.

I know that we could make even less waste by avoiding Christmas altogether, but we’re not going to do that. Instead, we’re just being that little bit more careful. Over the years we’ve become increasingly conscious of how we celebrate, and to my mind, little shifts made over many years are more effective than one big gesture. Nothing feels painful, the changes are sustainable.

No doubt we’ll do something else differently next year, and then again in the future when the children have all grown up. But for now, this is how we’re trying to have a lower-waste Christmas, and still celebrate the occasion.

Madeleine

Are you trying to reduce your waste/ consumption this Christmas? How are you doing it? I’d love any hints and tips…

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.

Minor miracles

There’s a box in the kitchen that keeps distracting me with its cheeping. Under the heatpad are these little bundles of fluff.

Until now, we’ve got our hens either as point of lay pullets, or as rescue hens from the egg industry. We like both. With the pullets, there’s the excitement of seeing them come into lay. Their combs grow and redden and  their first small and sometimes strange eggs appear in the nest boxes. Over time, these sleek teenagers put on weight until, imperceptibly, they have grown into the characteristically fat hens lazing around the garden.

The rescue girls are fun too, although sometimes quite disturbing to look at on arrival. They tend to be overwhelmed by the most natural of things: rain, for example, or grass. Give them a couple of days, though, and they’re strutting their stuff and giving the established residents a run for their money.

I’m not sure what made me think of hatching eggs this time around. Perhaps we were just ready to try something new. Whatever the reason, we ordered some eggs in a variety of breeds, and an incubator, and diligently turned them for three weeks. Late last week we locked down the incubator and waited for something to happen until on Sunday morning we could hear cheeping and saw the first pipped egg.

Ilse set up her Chick Watch station (blanket, colouring pencils, book, drink) and settled in for the morning, but nothing happened. That afternoon we had a long standing arrangement to go to a barbecue, and when we got back we were greeted by this little one.

He alternately charged around the incubator like a tiny, ineffective T-Rex, before suddenly collapsing into sleep. You wouldn’t have imagined that such a fragile thing could make so much noise, but apparently the noise and movement encourages the others to hatch. It must have done some good, because at ten o’clock that evening Ben, Fliss, John and I were all glued to the incubator, watching the second chick unzip then push apart its egg. The following morning there were three in there, galumphing around, and I was sure that there would be more by the time the children were home from school.

Sadly, not all the chicks made it. Now I really know the meaning of the expression don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Some of them never made it to lockdown. Some of our chicks pipped but never unzipped. I followed the advice to sit on my hands and do nothing for most of the day, but when I knew that they were dying I decided to intervene and help the last little one out of its shell. I could see its beak, peeping  and breathing, but the movements were growing further apart. So, ever so slowly and gently, I used tweezers and cotton wool and a warm flannel to keep the membrane moist and soft and, over the course of some hours, hatched the last one myself. It flopped about in the incubator for a long time, so we left it in there alone to dry off, away from the others who were alternately charging around the brooder and toppling over on top of each other.

Twenty four hours later, the last chick joined its siblings and is holding its own with no problems at all, thank you very much. We’ve learned so much by doing this, and each new chick felt like a mini miracle. Of course I am sad about the ones that never hatched, but at least I know that I gave them my full attention and really did do my best. I’m also far more confident now about what to do should the same situation arise next time. Sitting at home alone, making decisions about what best to do to look after the tiny lives in my hands, the internet came to my rescue. There is such a wealth of information out there, compiled so generously by hobbyists who freely share their knowledge and expertise. Over the past month I’ve followed all avenues of the hatching debate: opinions on humidity, temperature, intervention and so forth. Then of course the unexpected happened and I found myself right back in those pages, having moved swiftly from I think it would be better to let nature take its course to this is probably a perfectly healthy chick that just needs a little help hatching. So really, this post is a celebration of all sorts of minor miracles – none of which are really miracles at all, in the true sense of the word. Yet they have stirred a sense of wonder and gratitude in me, so I think they deserve the name. The miracle of a fertilised egg turning to a chick in three short weeks. The miracle of watching life appear before my very eyes. And the generosity of people all around the world, posting what they know online so that their expertise is right there when we need it. Minor miracles indeed.

Holy Week

My children like Christmas much more than Easter; I think most children do. I certainly used to. Now, though, it’s the other way around. I love Easter and all that leads up to it: Pancake Day, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday… It goes on for well over a month, but, well, so does life. Looking around, even now, you wouldn’t know that there was anything much afoot. A few more chocolates in the shops, perhaps, in some rather unusual shapes, but nothing like the days before Christmas.

Instead, Holy Week finds us all full of our own plans: for gardening, spring cleaning, a good old clear out, a trip away or maybe just a rest in the glorious sunshine. I like the way that life goes on throughout the run up to Easter. If Christmas is about a birth, with all the excitement and novelty that that entails, Easter is about life. About the day to day, and how we live it, and what happens when it comes to an end on this earth. If a birth is the beginning of something, like a wedding day, full of promise and joy, then life is about the keeping or breaking of those vows. Not with grand gestures once a year on a birthday or anniversary. It’s in a million cups of tea, or meals set on the table, or a willingness to stop and listen to each other. Small things.

So really, I’m glad that there are no gifts to be bought or parties to attend. Just a trip to mass and a meal with family and a bit of chocolate for the children. Simple celebrations in the midst of springtime life: the sowing of seeds, the pulling of weeds, the washing of curtains and quilts. It’s a promise kept, Easter Day, just as the spring follows the deep midwinter. A miracle occurred. The sun came back. And life goes on and on.

For Mother’s Day

For Mothers’ Day this year I had a lingering illness which might have ruined the day but for the gifts I received. They were carried in with the morning tea tray: a little handmade coaster, a bag of Pontefract cakes and a voucher. Oh, they know what I like, and what’s on my mind just now. They know I’d like nothing better than to be out in this glorious sunshine, setting the garden to rights, and that I just don’t feel up to it. So nothing could have been better than their voucher promising me a day’s labour out there. I don’t mind how many times they’ve given me this gift; I’ve never loved it more than I did this Sunday.

For my part, I did some fiddly little jobs – pricking out the tomatoes, pushing the onion sets into trays of compost to bring on indoors for a while. John cleaned out the hens and mowed the lawn and built an urgently required chicken-proof fence. Ben spread compost on the beds and turned the newer heaps onward through the bays. The younger three fetched and carried and helped out wherever and whenever they were needed, and from their bare feet and and legs and arms you’d have thought it was high summer.

I took Seb in the motor to visit my own mother with the gift of a bowl of violas. All the talk of allotments with Father sent me home keen to visit my own space: just a little amble, nothing more. John and I cut a basket of tender brocolli before the buds split into yellow blooms. We noticed that the damson has burst its first white tender bud. And when we opened the door of the greenhouse, the aniseed fragrance of fennel spilled out into the cooler, outdoor air.

In the last hour before supper I carried a rug and my old chocolate tin of seeds out to the garden bench. There’s something very pleasing about making a list of what needs to be planted when, and what’s already in. It made me disproportionately happy. Around me, the day dissolved from industry to play. The children soaked themselves in one last water fight before their baths; John hammered in the last stake; an easy Sunday roast was on its way. Thanks to them, I can sow the next lot of seeds as soon as I like, in the freshly composted beds now safe behind the fence. I needn’t worry about the height of the lawn. And no, nobody wanted to do the weeding for me, even if it was Mothering Sunday, but that’s all right. I’ve had a whole day of gardening despite feeling under the weather, and more has been accomplished than I could ever have achieved alone. And they did it all quite willingly. I couldn’t really ask for anything more for Mothers’ Day.

Show week

Oh Mummy, aren’t you EXCITED? whispered Ilse, slipping into bed with me this morning. It took a moment for me to wake up and realise what she was talking about. This week is Show Week: tutus, makeup, jazz shoes, waistcoats, new satin ballet slippers, tap dancing jockeys – the works. This is the week they get to go on a real stage, in a real theatre, and show everyone how well they can dance. Who wouldn’t be excited?

They’ve been working for this for a long, long time. Show week comes but every other year, in between exams for which the syllabus must be perfected, and I’m not sure which my children enjoy more. What with the fact that everyone is involved in the show, the levels of adrenaline reach new heights at show time. There are top secret dances which are only whispered about amongst the children, and quick costume changes to be rehearsed. And while exams call for new socks and shoes and leotards, the show requires a whole other level of pizzazz. There’s a fuchsia tutu with Fliss’ name sewn in, and the most beautiful handmade peonies pinned onto the waist and hair. I know they must have taken the mother who made them hours and hours, and they will be taken off and treasured long after the tutu has been outgrown. There’s a white satin waistcoat, fluttering with feathers at the neckline for my dove, Seb, and the other boy in his class, stitched by me, with winglike epaulets painstakingly put together by Mrs Roberts. She’s made a hopping, leaping knot of frogs too, with webbed hands and feet and shimmering wet splotches on their waistcoats, and a party of elves to dance amongst the peonies. One of the grannies has created a classfull of tippety tapping penguins, with little dickie bows and white bibs over their black catsuits, and when Ilse tried hers on and did a funny little penguin waddle round the room it made up for the hours of careful sewing.

Because there have been hours of sewing, all around, with people helping each other, sharing their skills and time. I helped Mrs Roberts with some waistcoats; she made goodness knows how many epaulets as well as tails for the flock of girl doves. In the changing room, parents are showing one another how to stitch a flower, or a feather, or a name tag to an outfit. Tips are being swapped for getting those satin slippers light pink again instead of grey, and how to keep them clean (rugby socks over the top, backstage, I hear). And there’s still all the chaperoning to be done, and the ferrying to and fro, and the waiting outside the stage door for the technical rehearsal to be done.

But watching Ilse hugging herself with the thrill of it all made it worth every single moment. Come next Sunday, she’ll be in an exhausted, exhilarated little heap. I suspect the others will, too. Between now and then, though, there’s magic to be lived. It’s finally, wonderfully, ecstatically here. Show week.

Twelve days

The first day is the big one, or course. Christmas Day: a day for church and presents and rather too much food. A capon, and stuffing and parsnips and sprouts. Paper crowns. Wrapping paper everywhere. Leftovers on the kitchen counter.
Boxing Day: a walk in the wind. Cold meat and vegetables baked in a pie. The start of a jigsaw.
Not much on the 27th. Playing with some new toys, finding homes for others. Thank you letters. A stroll to the postbox.
On the 28th old fabrics are pulled through, and plans for using them up are afoot. We do a little sewing, or model making, or reading. There’s a trip to the pictures.
The 29th and 30th are spent outside, the former in freezing fog and frost, the second in a sudden thaw. One day in the garden, pruning shrubs and trees, and the next wandering around the woodland of Fountains Abbey with the rest of the Graham clan.
On the 31st, plans for the following year are germinating. By the first, they are complete. Mother makes a feast.
The second brings a trip to the countryside in the motor in the morning, and more sewing in the afternoon. The schools go back on the third. On the fourth I bake a cake, and give the house a clean.
Today, the fifth of January, is the eleventh day of Christmas, and also my 38th birthday. We’ll eat the cake, and have something special for supper. It is the last in a long list of recent celebrations, and really we are all ready to get back to normal. Which is why it’s a good thing that it’s the twelfth day of Christmas tomorrow. A day to take the greenery down and put it on the compost. To pack the decorations away in their box, ready for next year. For the house to feel clean and sparse and bright again. Twelve days, each with its own flavour. Our Christmas, in a nutshell.

Feast

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

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

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

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

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