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.

 

Cultural capital

Some opportunities are too good to be missed, and so when some kind friends offered us their London home for a few days, there was only one answer.

I love bringing the children to London. They’ve been several times now, but because of the age differences there is always someone who wasn’t born when we visited that place, or stayed at home when we went to that museum. And while York is a beautiful city, there are elements of London which are simply awe-inspiring, iconic, or both.

Much of this summer has been left deliberately under-planned, so that we can just follow the good weather, but I know better than to drag three children (Ben has stayed in York with some houseguests of our own) around the hot and dusty streets without a plan. On the very evening that the trip was confirmed, I bade the children to choose their top destinations, threw in a couple of my own (Liberty’s fabric department) and pulled the whole thing together into what I have to say is a rather slick itinerary. We’re taking in a West End show (Richard of Bordeaux opened to rave reviews this February), touring Parliament (the younger ones have never done this), doing a spot of bathing in the Serpentine and visiting the Foundling Museum, among many other things. Yesterday, though, we started with an easy and essential day for the younger two, who had no memories of the South Kensington museums.

I genuinely believe that, where possible, children should be taken to visit museums of national importance. It is part of their cultural heritage. I can’t even remember the first time I visited the Victoria and Albert museum, for instance (perhaps around the fin de siecle?) but I do know that it feels familiar and welcoming whenever I go back. Weaving places into your childhood does that; it makes them yours. So while I showed Seb and Ilse my favourite exhibits, and we all stopped here or there to rest our legs and make a sketch, my heart was brimming over at how much they loved it all.

It was only when we stepped out through the Cromwell Road exit that Isle remembered that in Ballet Shoes this was the girls’ walk everyday: down the longest road in London to the V&A. We all agreed that they would have been better off varying their routine with visits to the Natural History and Science Museums too, and obliged on their behalf. I must confess, I was looking forward to seeing the look on their faces when they encountered the diplodocus for the first time, and they didn’t disappoint. I remember his unveiling astonishing the adults in 1905; I defy children not to look up in awe. What I didn’t expect, though, was Ilse’s delight in the building itself, as she pointed out the birds and vines which were the fabric of every pillar, every arch. We could have visited that and the V&A empty, for the sake of their structures alone.

Years ago, when Ben was little and Fliss just a baby, my sister Meg and I took him on a tour of preserved bodies in the city – from Jeremy Bentham at UCL to the rarely visited collection that Darwin brought back on the Beagle, to the mummies in their sarcophagi in the British Museum. We’re squeezing the latter into today, along with the Foundling Museum and a visit to John at work in the British Library. With that said, we’d better make some sandwiches and be out the door. There is so much to see and do, you could come back to London again and again. It’s what I’ve done, since my parents brought me every summer, and what I hope my children will do as they grow older and one day have children of their own. Bringing them to London, showing them the sights, and building their cultural capital in their own capital.

Cecily

What are your favourite places in London – or in your own nation’s capital? Do you have any places that you’ve visited over and over since childhood?

Half term happenings

June 1, 1933

 

The younger children have been on their half term holiday this week, free of the classroom just in time to soak up the end of the late spring weather. It just so happened that Ben came home on the very first day, his summer break already underway, so that for the first time since Christmas we are all under the same roof. We were all excited to see him, but Ilse particularly so, as they had a special outing planned. Ben’s first and most important job was to take her to choose a new hamster.

In the end there were eight of us who went along: Ilse, Ben, Seb, Fliss, my brother Pete and his two children, and myself. Crowding out the little pet shop we found only one hamster available, a fluffy white one with a pink nose and faintly buff patches on either side of his face. We can’t imagine why he was left til last; he is very sweet if still a little nervous. Ilse has named him Albus, and Ben is helping her to handle him every evening.

Apart from wandering through the village to the pet shop, and a day in York enjoying, amongst other things, ices in the Minster Gardens, all the cousins really wanted to do was spend time with one another. Seb had been given a brand new game, Monopoly*, which they played no fewer than six times in four days. When the sun shone they spread a rug under the apple tree and played there for a long afternoon, punctuated only by a water fight. They know each other very well, despite the distance between Yorkshire and Devon, and each visit seems to develop a theme. This time it was Monopoly; in the past it has been devising plays, or dressing up, or, in Greece, swimming in the warm Aegean Sea.

We saw Mother and Father as much as we were able, and I must say that four late nights of sitting up and chatting rather took it out of me. I’m sure I used to be able to stay up much later, but I will confess that having taken them to the station to catch the southbound train, I came straight in and fell asleep on the settee, wireless on, knitting in my hands. An early night was had, and another one tonight should do the trick. Having guests is rather like going away on holiday: it forces you to break with routines and makes it so much more of a holiday. Time is spent sharing news and stories, rather than doing the weeding, and that is just as it should be. The jobs can wait. What matters is spending time with family, building connections between those in the new generation and strengthening existing sibling bonds.

It seemed that the jobs would wait today, too, as Father and I headed to a little farm on the far side of York to make a few pleasurable purchases. First were the flowers for the pots in Father’s yard: bee-loving annuals, and a spill of cheerful red geraniums. After that, we walked past the donkey and the little field of goats, through a gate where there were new puppies to pet, and on to the chicken shed. There must have been a hundred pullets in there, and we spent fifteen minutes chasing them around, failing to catch a single one, while Ilse looked on and laughed. Eventually the farmer reappeared with a box to put them in and caught two, just like that. One is a grey, speckled hen with a white bib, rather like a barn owl, so we’ve named her Hedwig. The other, black with a collar of copper feathers, puts us in mind of a phoenix, and of course she is named Fawkes. So although the cousins have gone home and the house is suddenly quieter, we have three new residents who need to be sat by and gazed at. Which means that we are still very much on holiday, and the jobs will just have to wait until next week. There’s plenty happening this half term holiday as it is.

* Actually, Monopoly came out in 1935, so the children wouldn’t have been able to play it in 1933. However, they could have played Coppit, which came out in 1927 and was a firm favourite when we were children. Or Touring England, which lived in a cupboard in my grandad’s dining room and came out every time we went to stay.

Please would you be kind enough to resubscribe?

During my break from this blog, I’ve had so much fun dreaming up all the things I want to do with it. Cecily’s voice, for a start, is something that I’d like to keep alive. One day, I’d like to draw my favourite posts together into an ebook, if only for me to read when I’m old. And yet I also want to express myself as a modern woman: someone with an education, a career, a family, and choices. I want to talk about all the places we go and things that we do – that we simply wouldn’t have been able to do in 1932. I’d also like to link up to or talk about other people’s blogs that bring me so much pleasure, and the inspirational attitudes and achievements they portray.

In short, I’d like the blog to be a place where I can express the many different aspects of who I am. A place where I can publish a short story that I’ve written, or just muse about daily life. I want to talk about the modern flute music that I’ve been learning, or about spinning alpaca fibres, or choosing patterns from Ravelry. I also want to start sharing some of my own patterns – some for free, some for sale – which will mean writing about them sometimes.

As I suspect you know, GDPR comes into force tomorrow. I’m by no means an expert, but it’s a set of regulations intended to protect individuals’ data. Because I would one day like to try selling some of my sewing and knitting patterns through this blog, it makes sense for me to make sure that my mailing list complies with these regulations from the off. That means that I need everyone on my list to have actively clicked through a couple of steps to confirm that they really do want to be on my mailing list. You’ll notice that there’s a new paragraph in the ‘Join our community’ box – this is there so that you know what you are signing up for. There will be a second email coming out today, asking you to resubscribe. I’ll have to delete my previous mailing list this evening. I hope you don’t find this all too off-putting; as I say, it is just to ensure that I comply with regulations from the start. I promise I’ll stop bombarding you with emails and get back to normal from tomorrow!

With all the official stuff said, can I say that I am practically hopping with excitement to start sharing my designs with you? I love to teach, and this first set of patterns is designed with people who are new to garment-making in mind. Given the number of people who have commented on my hand-made wardrobe and said that they’d never know where to begin, I thought that I could help. And now that means complying with GDPR, even if you are reading this from outside the EU.

I hope that this doesn’t scare you off. I have no intention of the blog becoming a hollow marketing ploy. I just want to share what I’m making, and see if there’s any sort of future in it.

In the meantime, there’s a spot reserved for me just in front of my spring flowerpots. The met office has promised sunshine for later today, and so I’ll take my knitting out there, with Wuthering Heights on the radio for company. Before that, though, there’s the hoovering to do, and a post to dream up while I do so, about Ben’s first flight into the big world this year. Fledgling, I think I’ll call it, and add a photo of the quilt I made for him to take. He’s heading home for the summer next week, and the medium-sized cousins are coming to stay. It’s going to be a houseful. I can’t wait.

On our way*

Laundry done, lists made and amended and amended again. The children have been taken into town to choose a new book each, not to be opened until we are on our way. Frocks have been deliberated over, bathers tried on for size, dark glasses packed against the bright Greek sun. I’ve taken most of the toys out of Ilse’s bag – the entertainments she packed just in case – and replaced them with smaller, more versatile playthings. A tin of coloured pencils. Her favourite teddy bear. And in the other children’s bags, something for all of them to share: a deck of cards, a rainbow of embroidery silks. A ball to inflate on the beach.

The garden is weeded, the hens cleaned out, a note rolled in a bottle for the milkman. Mother and Father have visited for full watering and hen-care instructions – without which we wouldn’t be able to go away at all. Sandals have been bought, or passed on, so that everyone has a pair that fits. I’ve made myself a double-sided hat to shade me from the sun: the others each have one from holidays past. Greek drachmas have been ordered and collected from the bank. Tickets and passports, checked and double-checked, await a final checking in the hall.

One more sleep, if you can persuade yourself to do such a thing with a head full of heroes and ruins. One more day of waiting. And then, almost unbelievably for the littler ones among us, we will be on our way.

 

* Actually, we have now been to Greece and back and had a really wonderful holiday, which I look forward to writing about next week. Oh, and I lost my hat. C’est la vie.

 

 

Sweet

Sweet peas by my bed, so that I fall asleep and wake to their scent. The fact that they keep coming, a few more every day.

Wide open days with nothing whatsoever planned, so that we can ask that most delightful of questions: now, what shall we do today?

Produce from the garden and beyond: warm tomatoes, fleshy cucumbers, baskets of strawberries from a nearby farm.

The thud of the first windfalls, and the cinnamon-spiced preserves that sound heralds in this house.

Children and chickens on the lawn, doing nothing extraordinary. Just footling about, lost in their own little worlds.

These summers, with all of them here, more precious every year.

Bittersweet, yes. But let’s focus on the sweet.

When rain stops play

Typical English summer weather: sunshine up until the last few days of term and then rain, rain and more rain. Or that’s what it feels like, anyway.

Between downpours the children and I have been outside: playing, building obstacle courses, constructing dens and tending to the garden. Under a sky of clouds, outside looks less than appealing but once I begin I don’t want to stop. There’s always one more thing to weed, tie in or feed. And then the heavens open once again and we all rush in.

It was at the start of the holidays that Seb announced his summer projects: building his new den and completing a number of airfix models. For when it’s sunny and when it rains, he explained. Oh dear. More of us rubs off on them than we imagine. Because that’s precisely how I organise my summer projects too: gardening and quilting, for when it’s sunny and when it rains.

More than that, though, is the fact that we both save one outdoor task til last, just in case the rain does come. Under an umbrella of leaves – me under the apple and he sheltered by the pine at the far end of the garden – we can carry on outdoors if it’s only a gentle shower. And then if rain really does stop play, we each have another project waiting for us indoors.

All together, now

Now that the holidays are here, we can all have a bit of a rest. It’s most obvious for the children, off school as they are, and so far they have lain in bed both mornings with books for company until I call them. Ben has been off for a while now, since the end of his exams, and is combining a surprising amount of relaxation with a few odd jobs until his summer job begins next week. John has enjoyed two days of peaceful breakfasts, sipping his coffee over the paper or a good book before cycling across town to his office at the chocolate factory. And I am freed from the shackles of the school day, and the endless ironing of school blouses.

Out of everyone, though, it’s Mrs P who needs a rest most of all. She’s not been quite right since that bout of flu in the new year, and I’ve been wanting her to be careful ever since. As you might imagine, she is one of those old battle-axes who ploughs on regardless: stubborn and difficult and with a heart of gold. It’s very difficult to stop her scrubbing the hall tiles, but over the past few months I have devised the strategy of having a long list of other tasks for her. She ticks one thing off and I add another, so that there is always some light work which simply must be done. Thankfully the children are adept at wearing holes in socks and making bedrooms dusty, and there’s always another pot of potatoes to be peeled. And so, while she’s thus engaged, I can quietly scrub those tiles or wring out another load of sheets.

Mr P, who since the war has been a different, sadder sort of man, has come to the fore since his wife’s illness, and for the first time ever has begun to tidy and clean around the house, making something simple for their tea. He came to see me a couple of months ago with the idea of taking Mrs P away for the summer, for a breath of sea air. I thought it a tremendous plan, and we plotted and cajoled until the good lady finally gave in. They left for Whitby on Monday, and won’t be back until the autumn term begins.

Now, other mothers might be quite content to sweep around their children’s feet and tidy their mess after them, but I am not. In the absence of Mrs P, and with so many extra bodies around the house all day, some sort of solution seemed in order. Thus it is that I’ve claimed half an hour of every morning, directly after breakfast. Tasks are doled out (or volunteered for) and I am pleasantly surprised by how efficient we can be. Yesterday we cleaned the whole house, top to bottom. It helps that I’m less particular in the summer, and if I found the odd undusted patch I didn’t mention it. This morning we weeded the front garden, cut back the brambles which insist on growing back each time and gave the henhouse a much needed change of straw. By ten o’clock all was done, and they got on with their plans for the day.

Of course there’s always more to do – dishes and ironing, laundry and the polishing of shoes. I could keep them busy for much longer than half an hour each day. But they go at with with such vigour and – so far – good humour that it seems churlish to ask for more. What they do gives me a flying start and frees a good couple of hours for us to play together, or go for a walk to the park. They’ll always help with the odd little jobs – the setting of the table, or popping down to the shops. And it seems to have inspired Ilse to make her own bedroom a little bit prettier, echoing the sweet peas by my bed with a little cup of hibiscus blooms on her dressing table.

Truth be told, it’s as much about teaching them responsibility and household skills as lightening my load. Don’t tell the little ones, but I really don’t mind if they miss a bit here or there. It’s the willingness that counts, and the fact that we all pitch in, all together now.

Loose ends

What with the end of term only a matter of days away, I’ve had a second wind. The last few days has seen my to-do list grow to ridiculous proportions, but I am getting through it, bit by steady bit. Yesterday I had a bit of a surge and tied up a lot of loose ends – those pesky final tasks which get in the way of a job being done. There were things to do in the children’s rooms, at the end of the big shuffle-around. The hem of our bedroom curtains had come down in the wash and I couldn’t bear to lie in bed and look at it for another evening. I had a pile of bills to pay, and our account to balance.

Most importantly of all, though, were those final arrangements for our holiday. We’re not quite there yet, but we are on our way. Ferries are booked. We’ve found places to stay in all three of our destinations, and written to the owners with arrival times and travel arrangements. The children’s cousins have sent an excitable postcard, and we really ought to send one back. See you in Greece! it says. Seb drew them a picture of the Parthenon in return. It’ll be such fun, having a holiday with my brother and his family, and it has already doubled the thrill for our younger ones. They love spending time with their cousins.

Apart from all the letters and bookings, I’ve been looking through everyone’s things. A knapsack each? Yes. Decent bathers? Absolutely. Enough cool clothes to cope with the heat of Athens? Mostly. A sunhat for each of us, to keep the glare off our faces? Um, almost. There’s a little bit of sewing to be done. I’ll add that to the list.

Luckily there’s time. Thank goodness for a second wind. There won’t be many more quiet days now before the children are at home with me each and every day. And while I look forward to that – I really do – I also know that it’s a good idea to get the dull jobs out of the way before that happens.

Because then… why then the real fun begins. A visit to the library, to choose good holiday novels. More Greek myths to read. The selection of a privileged favourite teddy. And for me, a visit to my embroidery box, to choose a little something to keep me busy on our travels. I can hardly wait.