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?

As I’ll ever be

I have spent quite a bit of this holiday getting ready for the new year. There’s a lot on the books for 2019: a significant increase in work hours, a big birthday, work on the house, more patterns to publish, an outdoor swimming event, a couple of nice holidays… Then there are all the things I want to carry on with: parenting and gardening, ballet, music lessons, reading and crafting and working on my writing. Enough to keep me out of trouble, at any rate.

Yet for all my planning, I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I don’t see the logic in having just one shot at changing habits every year. If I want to change something, I’ll change it, no matter what the calendar says.

I do, though, always feel a shift during the Christmas holidays. It’s less to do with dates than the passing of the winter solstice, the subtle lengthening of the days, and the inevitability of the spring to come. Winter is here, and it won’t last forever. So I find myself making preparations, and urging others to do the same.

This year, as every other since we’ve lived in this house with its big old garden, we’ve had a family day out there, hacking and chopping and pruning until it is in a fit state to leave until it greens again. We filled two enormous builders’ sacks with evergreen waste to haul to the council compost facility, and have a heap of branches by the fire pit just waiting for den-building and a spot of chicken-proofing before an enormous bonfire one dull weekend to come.

As is also always the way, my focus has shifted away from knitting to sewing. I love to pull all my fabric out in the quiet days after Christmas, and write little labels assigning projects to each length. This year, though, I tried something new. Conscious of the fact that my time and attention are going to be stretched, I went ahead and cut every single one of my projects for the coming season. I have to give full credit for this to Jo at Three Stories High, who wrote a post about this in November. I have to admit, I read it and thought that while it was a good idea, it wasn’t for me, because I don’t like to have more than one work in progress on the go at a time. But when I was writing my labels, I realised that I probably wasn’t going to want to draft a new skirt pattern on a Saturday after the cleaning and shopping and ballet runs. I certainly wasn’t going to be in the mood for grading boys’ waistcoat pieces for the upcoming dance show. And I would probably put off dyeing the background fabric for my 5″ scrap quilt when faced with another week’s worth of laundry. Besides, in my head, a length of fabric is a work in progress the moment I pay for it. So I got on with it.

First I pulled out my tailored skirt block and drafted a new style I want to develop.

I drafted a bias-cut cami, and some new underthings, and cut up a stack of old clothes into scrap-quilt squares. There are also three bags and two lined zipped pouches, ready for some simple evening stitching.

I bought a couple of packets of Dylon and turned a ripped sheet, old pillowcase, stained dress shirt and boringly white fat quarter into grey background fabric.

And then I cut out 197 background squares in various shades of grey.

I dealt with all other the leftover pieces straight away, and now my quilts are ready to sew.

I graded a waistcoat pattern for Seb and the other boy in his ballet class, and cut all the pieces.

Then I tidied my little studio, including my sewing drawer. All that’s left uncut are two lengths of fabric for pattern tutorials (because I need to photograph the process) and one piece of rather lovely Liberty that I suspect is destined to be used whole, on the back of a quilt.

Everything else is ready for garments, bags, pouches or quilts.

And then I set my space up to carry on with my 2 1/2″ postage stamp quilt.

Not all the days have been quite as purposeful, though. I’ve been going for lots of long leisurely swims with John or one of the children for company. I’ve done some very relaxed piano practice. There has been a lot of lounging around watching films and knitting up my latest design. We’ve been for a few lovely sunshine-y strolls, including one down into the Hole of Horcum yesterday, when the purples and greens and oranges of the winter landscape delighted us all. We’ve been planning lots other of walks for the coming Sundays, with the odd pub lunch thrown in, as well as other nice things to do together in our downtime. And there’s a fiendishly difficult jigsaw in progress on the dining table.

Mostly, though – and especially in the week to come – I am going to be attempting the impossible, in trying to store up as much rest as possible for the weeks ahead. So yes, I will definitely be having that second cup of tea in bed, and perhaps doing a few rounds of colourwork before I get up. There’s nothing urgent, just now. Everything is as ready as it’s going to be for the weeks and months ahead. Now we just need to remember to enjoy them.

Madeleine

Are you ready for – and looking forward to – the new year? What does it hold for you?

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…

Haddon Hall

You could very easily miss Haddon Hall. There’s a signposted car park, then you are directed over the road and past an unassuming little shop and ticket office towards a turn in the path, a bridge, and the hall on the hill above you.

Everything about it is understated. When we arrived, the woman on the door advised us as to the best route to take. Please do take the time to visit the chapel before going into the house, she said. It’s worth a look.

Having seen the 2011 version of Jane Eyre a couple of times, I was familiar with the front of the hall, its wide stone steps leading down into the courtyard. I had a good sense of the grounds, with the trees and river and low bridge straddling it. I could picture the steep slope that Jane half-runs, half-tumbles down at the very start of the film. And I was prepared for beautiful panelling in so many of the rooms, and a large, sunken kitchen.

What I was not prepared for was the chapel. Worth a look turned out to be the understatement of the month. Inside the tiny house of worship was an reredos of mesmerising detail and beauty. I captured only one tiny part of Christ’s journey to the cross. The walls, whitewashed during the reformation, had been restored to their frescoed glory, with wonderfully imagined depictions of the garden of Eden, the ship of fools and three skeletons stirring a cauldron as just some of the highlights. There was a marble tomb of a small boy, his little form preserved in Victorian memorium. Wooden choir stalls flanked the chancel; the font stood waiting in the baptistry; the pews were still in place.

I found the children in the kitchen, making wands of sticks, rosemary and twine in the midst of ancient sinks and steps so deeply worn they looked like drainage. There was a tray of herbs and spices and a great heavy pestle and mortar to grind and blend them before tying the witchy concoctions into scented muslin sachets. The great hall was so inviting, with its three piece suite arranged around a massive fire, that we stopped and sat a little before heading up the stairs and through the other rooms.

There aren’t many big houses that are so hands off in their stewardship, or so simply displayed. Really, we were free to wander at will through room after panelled room, each offering up its own surprise in the form of stucco or furniture or views. I adored the long gallery, with its thousands of tiny panes of glass ushering the light in on the coldest and wettest of days. Like everywhere else, decoration was confined to a vase of flowers, dried seedpods, or leaves, and it was beautifully done. The garden itself was as unfussy as the rest of the hall, relying on the vista to please the eye as much as the planning and planting.

When we got back to York, we spent a quiet afternoon rewatching Jane Eyre in front of the fire. I know that many, many other films have been shot in that house, but this was the film in which it first caught my eye. We kept picking out spots we now knew: the wedding in the chapel, the scene in the kitchen when the servants are all preparing for the arrival of a large party, panelled rooms through whose windows Jane longs for the world. Ilse jumped when she saw Rochester shooting across the landscape from the very three stone steps that she had declared her favourite spot in the place. Something about the informality of our visit made us feel that we knew it in a way that we didn’t know other, fussier great houses. When you’ve seen as many grand homes as I have, they can begin to blend into one, with all their fine furniture and cordons and wardens in every room. Haddon Hall really was something quite out of the ordinary. When I mentioned our visit to a friend, she agreed with me at once. In fact, we decided that it wasn’t just out of the ordinary, but that it was really quite extraordinary in its quiet and peaceful way.

Madeleine

Have you visited anywhere recently that really surprised (and delighted) you? Any recommendations for days out? Do tell!

The A-Line skirt pattern is now available!

It is with no small amount of excitement that I’m writing to let you know that my first ever dressmaking pattern is now for sale! You can find it in my Etsy shop. I cannot begin to tell you how much I’ve learned through this process – in fact, it could be the subject of another whole series. For now, allow me to share a couple more images with you.

We took the photos while we were on a family holiday in Derbyshire this half term. My parents booked the most beautiful house for all 14 of us, and this was the view from the kitchen windows:

So naturally it became the location for a little photoshoot. The stone steps with flowerbeds take you down from the back of the house to the lawn.

I had planned to give this skirt to Fliss, but having styled it for the photoshoot I think it’ll be filling a skirt-shaped hole in my wardrobe until I try out another pattern. It is as elegant and easy to wear as I remembered – perhaps even a little more so.

We had such a lovely time, pottering about and having a little outing every day. One day most of us went down a local mine. Another – rainbow-filled – day we spent in the grounds of Chatsworth:

And my personal highlight was our visit to Haddon Hall. I’d never been there before and I was blown away. I’ve been to a LOT of stately homes and never seen anything like this. No wonder they shoot so many period films there. I’m going to write a post all about it next week, but for now let me share just a glimpse here and there…

When we got home, I spent a couple of days finalising the pattern pdfs for the Little Flurries jumper and the A-Line skirt, before doing more pottering around my own house and garden. The week culminated in a big 40th birthday party of a friend, which meant a night away in Harrogate, before starting the Christmas knitting in front of the fire (and Doctor Who, of course) yesterday. It has been such a lovely holiday, and I feel refreshed and ready for the next couple of months.

But for now, let me leave you with one last photo of the skirt. The sewalong begins tomorrow, and you’ll find full photographed tutorials to accompany the pattern published every Tuesday in November. Do let me know if you make one, and how you get on. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you!

Madeleine

Do you have a good basic skirt pattern in your collection? Which patterns do you turn to again and again?

A new sort of garden to grow

Needless to say, the school holidays have a rhythm and ritual of their own. At first we dash away – to London this year, then on to Devon and Cornwall to camp. Then there’s a spell at home, when the children and I set the house and garden to rights, and shop for new uniforms, and visit the shoe shop to see whether their feet have grown too much for last year’s shoes to see a little more service (inevitably, they have). Then there are nametapes to sew into new shirts and trousers, a mouthguard to fit to the newest secondary school pupil, bags and bottles and lunchboxes to check over and football boots to pass down to the next in line. Apart from Ilse, who was understandably thrilled by her new uniform, we find this part of the summer best got over with as quickly as possible. Then there’s another trip away – to Ireland, this time – before a last few days at home, tying up loose ends.

On my list this year were the children’s scrapbooks. All year, we collect bundles of their memorabilia: ticket stubs, maps of visited cities, postcards they write home to their future selves when away on foreign soil. Photographs that arrive in the post after a special weekend with a grandparent, and little notes written by friends, adorned with swirly lovehearts and impossibly scrolled signatures. Last year, and – dare I admit? – the year before that, we never got round to collating their precious bits and pieces into their scrapbooks. This summer, SCRAPBOOKS was scrawled insistent and bold across the top of my master list and, finally, in that last week of August, we cut and reminisced and glued and admired until they were all done. Fatter now, and on their second volumes each, they have rejoined Ben’s and mine on the shelf in the front room.

That said, I am not one to finish a holiday with a job, no matter how delightful that job turns out to be. Oh no. In this house, the last day of the holidays is sacrosanct. Everybody knows that, on that last day, we will all be going out together. In years past it’s been a walk along the Nidd Gorge, or a drive out to a castle to watch a falconry display, picnic and all. This year, York was lucky enough to have a new attraction: a pop up Shakespearean theatre called the Rose, and the children had been to see Macbeth there (with my parents) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as Fliss’ birthday treat). As the cast took their bows at the end of the latter, John and I looked at each other, the same thought in both our minds. Once home, we booked groundling tickets one last time, to see Romeo and Juliet on the last afternoon of the holidays.

Walking into town that day, Fliss counted that she’d seen no fewer than seven plays this summer. Isle and I had seen five, Seb six, John four and Ben – well, he’s been doing his own, university student, things. Whichever of Fliss’ seven we’d shared with her, we had to agree that it had been a pretty spectacular summer of theatre. For me, two of the York productions had been the very best: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Secret Garden. The children had loved those, as well as Matilda, which we took them to while in London. And although I had been expecting the big, expensive productions to be good, I was blown away by the far more modestly priced Secret Garden, which could have given any of the others a real run for their money. The lighting, the magically transformative set, the eerie music and sheer convincingness of the actors cast a spell over us all. Even if it hadn’t been one of our favourite children’s stories, we would have fallen in love with it that night. In fact, Ilse has asked me to read it with her again, and so a little of the summer is winding its way into these early September evenings, when uniforms have been exchanged for pyjamas and the children are tired and excited by the newness of it all.

There was just one project on my list that didn’t get ticked off before the start of term, but it’s one that I’m quite happy to be finishing off this week. A jumper, started long ago now, but that I had to stop and spin the rest of the wool for, is still on my needles. I’ve finished the second sleeve now, and all that’s left is to work out the configuration of the top of the body and how much ease to work into the pattern for a neat but comfy fit. I can’t wait to finish it off, partly because the days are drawing in but partly because it’ll be available here, soon, as a pattern of my own designing. And then? Why, of course I have the next woolly project lined up, but you’ll have to wait and see what that is. I am loving September this year, despite my own season in the garden drawing to a close and the ever-challenging winter on the horizon. Loving it because of this space, and all the plans I have for growing it, and seeing what blossoms and blooms.

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

PS – What projects are you planning for this autumn – knitting or otherwise?

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.

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.

Plastic free on holiday

As soon as we’d found solutions to all sorts of plastic-free conundrums at home, we set off on the first part of our summer holiday and have been thinking on our feet ever since.

I have to admit, I’m loving Plastic Free July. I love the conversations it promotes, the way it’s forced me to use different shops, and the fact that I’m being more inventive in my shopping again.

Take last week, for instance. I’ve known that we were going to a fancy dress party for months, but had done nothing about the green face paint or red hair dye that Seb and Fliss had requested. In my book, a promise is a promise, and so I found myself on the way to a till with plastic face paint and plastic sponges in a plastic palette wrapped in plastic. Here I was, about to purchase something I really didn’t want to. But when it came to it, I couldn’t. I turned around, put it back and reasoned that I could find another way. The same thing happened with a can of spray-on hair dye for Fliss. And so it was that we found ourselves on the afternoon before our departure smearing natural, paper-bagged henna in Fliss’ hair while Seb melted a bit of an old green pastel crayon in some coconut oil. Both solutions, I am relieved to say, not only worked, but were more fun than the requested products would have been.

Since we were driving south, it was easy to throw a few essentials into the car. Nothing fancy; just the usual suspects: water bottles, flasks, shopping and produce bags and so forth. The one thing that did raise an eyebrow were the cloth napkins, but I’d seen so many zero-wasters treat them as essentials that I thought I’d give them a go. So far they’ve been used as napkins, tables, hankies, towels, damp cooling cloths, kneckerchiefs, fabric bags, a way to make scratchy theatre seats more comfortable against bare legs, and emergency sunscreens. I will never travel without one again.

The whole plastic-free endeavour has lent a lovely holiday lackadaisicalness to shopping and meals. Essentially, we pack a picnic each morning, wash out our containers once empty, and hit the shops with them on the way home. It’s rather nice, roaming the aisles to see what’s plastic-free, and shopping for just one or two meals at a time. It turns out that the vast majority of unpackaged food is extremely healthy, so we’re eating well into the bargain. House-sitting, where the basics are already to hand, is a huge help of course, but it is still easier than either John or I expected. When I told the greengrocer today that I didn’t want his reduced strawberries because of the plastic punnets, he told me that he often decants them for plastic-free customers and reuses the punnets, which impressed me. (Unlike the helpful but misguided butcher who almost lined my stainless steel box with plastic film. John stopped him just in time.)

So far, so good, which makes me even happier than I already am, just being in London with my family. Next week’s camping will throw up some new challenges, no doubt. But I also have no doubt that we’ll rise to them. After all, the Eden Project is on the itinerary, and who could fail to be inspired by that?

Madeleine

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in Plastic Free July? We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve done pretty well by simply refusing what we don’t strictly need. And, thankfully, ice-cream cones are still very firmly on the menu.