These days

I’ve been making a real effort not to say I’m so busy, although truth be told I catch myself doing it all the time. Yesterday afternoon, collecting Ilse from my parents house, I found myself doing my usual must dash! – and it was true. John has been out of the country for work this week, which has been the cherry on the cake of a very full life.

The trouble is that the word busy doesn’t have the best connotations. There’s something self-important about it, as well as pointless. They call it busy work for a reason: something to keep children occupied and make them think they are getting somewhere whereas, in fact, they are standing still. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with a bit of busy work, as long as it’s a conscious choice. I’d count knitting something simple as grown up busy work, really. But I don’t want to think of my life as busy. I want to think of it as full of the things I love.

These days, I am working four days a week outside the home and one day on my pattern designing business, and I am loving it all. Around the edges, though, I’ve chosen to keep going with the other things I enjoy, rather than putting them on ice for when the work dries up, or, worse, the last of the children leaves home. Like most people, I like finding out about how other people spend their time and, as this has been so much on my mind lately, I thought I’d share a week with you.

On Mondays, I just go to work. Normally, nothing happens in the evening, which is the loveliest end to the first day of the week. John and I take it in turns to come home and take care of the children and the chores, or stay late at work. As a result, I either switch off by cooking and doing the ironing, or walk straight into a house with a lit fire and tea on the table. I like both.

The lack of clubs means that Monday nights are when I tend to finish off – or at least work on – whatever craft project I started at the weekend. This Monday just gone I finished a couple of waistcoats for an upcoming ballet show (don’t worry, I’m not actually in it. I wouldn’t inflict that on any audience).

On Tuesdays, I go for a swim in the evening. We decided to enter an outdoor swim this summer, so since December I’ve been swimming twice a week (more in the holidays) at our local pool. There’s a women’s only session on Tuesdays, which is the perfect time to do interval training in the pool as everyone is very polite and knows that you are not trying to race them for a couple of lengths before going maddeningly slowly for a bit. At least, I hope so. Maybe they all just think I’m annoying.

On Wednesday evenings, I have a music lesson. At the moment, I’m working on the piano. You might remember that I also play the flute, but I find that one instrument to practice (hopefully) every (most) day(s) is quite enough to have on my plate at the moment, thank you very much. One day I am going to do my flute diploma. But I am enjoying playing the piano so much that I’ve decided to go for my grade 8 on that first. It might take forever, but I’m enjoying the journey and I’ll get there eventually.

Thursday is my day when I work at home on my business, and in the evening I head out to my adult ballet class. To be entirely honest, John often has to give me a shove out the door. Having spent a day blissfully cacooned in my own little world of sewing and knitting and writing, the thought of donning a leotard and going out into the cold and doing what is always a really challenging class is not a little daunting. Then I get there and I love it. Every. Single. Time.

On Fridays, I like to come home and cook and then watch something in front of the fire with everyone. I might, if I’m feeling energetic, do a little knitting. I always have an early night. Now that I’m forty, I don’t even pretend to want to stay up late.

Saturday mornings are probably the hardest part of the whole week, involving cleaning the house, planning meals and generally catching up with the debris of the week. Suffice to say that I have streamlined this to within an inch of its life. I will never enjoy it, so it may as well be got over with as quickly as possible. I know that there are people who love this more than anything, but I just don’t. If I could travel through time, I’d go and get myself a Victorian housekeeper – you know, one with really high standards who would take care of everything. Sadly, I can’t. At least everyone pitches in.

I do, however, love Saturday afternoons, because this is often when I start a big new crafty project. If you remember, I did a lot of cutting out of fabric during the Christmas holidays, and last week it was a joy to be able to just pick up those waistcoat pieces and start to sew. There is no way I would have had the wherewithal to grade and cut the pattern, but sewing? I can do that. Especially with a pot of tea, some Christmas cake and some good company.

If I’m not sewing, I’m swimming, because the weekend is the best time to get into the pool and just swim for as long as I want. Sometimes I have company that gets bored after about an hour, and sometimes I go on my own and stay in much longer. I don’t mind when in the weekend I go, or how far I swim, as long as I go and do at least 60 lengths of crawl. I am astonished by how much progress I’ve made in two short months.

Sunday has long been family day in our house, and in winter that often means a walk. Last Sunday it was just a short one: an hour along the Fulford Ings and back. The week before we all went to see Mary Poppins, instead. Next weekend is Residents First weekend in York, when all the local attractions and restaurants and so forth are open at a very reduced rate to anyone with a YorkCard. There’s a lot to choose from, but I’m hoping for a trip up the Minster tower as it’s been literally years, and perhaps a visit to Barley Hall or the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. We’ll see.

I can’t quite decide whether this is the most boring post in the world (I suspect it is – sorry) or actually vaguely interesting to those of you who don’t know me in real life. But I think I’m going to publish it anyway, for my future self. There’s been a lot of dedicated diary writing in our house, lately, and I caught myself thinking that I really ought to keep one again. And then I remembered that I do, after a fashion, right here on this blog. One day, when this big old house is much emptier and I have time on my hands, I’d like to look back at the way things used to be. The longer I live, the more I realise that life changes, imperceptibly, all the time, and what was just the norm one year is completely forgotten the next. So this is a little record for myself, really, of these fleeting months at the start of my fifth decade, and how I chose to fill them.

Madeleine

What are you choosing to fill these days with?

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

The Saturdays

As a child, one of the books that I read over and over again was The Saturdays. In Enright’s tale, four New York siblings are bored every Saturday, until they decide to pool their allowance and let one person have an adventure with it each week.

It’s a very long time since I had a long and empty Saturday – what a treat that would be! But, busy as they are, they can still be boring. Between the cleaning and the shopping, the homework and mountain of logs to be stacked, Saturdays can be a bit mundane. This year, though, we seem to have stumbled upon a bit of a plan.

It turns out that a plan was just what we needed. (Who would have guessed?) With the children being the ages that they are, little rhythms have fallen into place. I make a vat of soup, to last the week. John visits the fishmonger, to buy something delicious for tea (moules frites, anyone?) Birthday cards are made and posted. One or another of the children bakes a cake. And then I have a little crafternoon, with anyone who wishes to join me.

It’s only a little crafternoon, because by the time the house is clean and piano practice done and the fridge full up for the week ahead and so on and so forth, there are usually just two or maybe three hours left to play. But that’s enough time, if you’ve planned ahead, to achieve something quick and crafty. Last week, I made beeswax balms. The week before, I worked on my Lionberry shawl while Ilse crocheted a snood with impressive speed. Before that, we made some beeswrap. Having everything to hand, ready to begin, is a wonderful thing. With a bit of preparation, cakes get baked, chairs waxed, pots filled with protective goodness.

This week, inspired by all the fun with beeswax, Ilse suggested that we use the candle-making kit she received for her birthday and, knowing that this Saturday was going to be particularly full of jobs, I agreed. We aren’t really a kit-making family, to be honest. We generally tend to make things up for ourselves. So it was particularly pleasant to set out the chopping board and a couple of sharp knives and look on, knitting in hand, as Ilse and Seb worked their way through all the candles in the kit. Apart from the odd bit of tricky cutting, I wasn’t really needed at all. I was quite happy, then, to nibble my chelsea bun, sip tea, and admire their progress – all the while knitting furiously on another jumper sample.

I worked out that I’ve knit three jumpers in the last month, and cast on for one more yesterday evening. There is no shortage of craft in my life. In fact, I fully intend to do less knitting as soon as the latest pattern is launched, for fear of doing damage to my hands. They are beginning to seize up a bit. So why, you might wonder, would I want to do yet more crafting on a precious Saturday afternoon?

I suppose it’s the difference between work and play: making something just for fun, as opposed to creating something with the intention of publication. Then there’s the family aspect of it – I love watching my children’s creativity. And the pleasure of bashing something out in a couple of hours flat, rather than taking days and days to get it right. Plus the satisfaction of ticking something off the ‘I’d like to…’ list.

Not all Saturday crafternoons are crafty, strictly speaking. Sometimes Fliss draws. We have plans for a Christmas cake quite soon, and a batch of garden chutney. But they are the sort of activities that don’t quite fit anywhere else in our week. Too long for a weekday evening, too short to fill a luxuriously lazy Sunday. As long as we’ve thought ahead and got everything we need, we can make these things in a couple of hours in an otherwise bustling day. Who knows how long it’ll last, how long before no-one wants to sit and knit with me. No doubt the family rhythms will shift again, before long. But for now, this is how we spend our Saturdays.

Madeleine

Please excuse the flatness of these photos – we’ve had high winds, grey skies and lots of rain, none of which are helpful in taking a decent photograph!

How was your weekend? Do you have a rhythm on Saturdays, or is every one different?

Balm

We have a habit of collecting those tiny pots of jam. You know – the ones which arrive with a B&B breakfast, or a cream tea, containing an individual portion of conserve. Waitresses smile as the children pocket them, still half full, to eke out onto slices of toast at home. Honestly, you’d think we didn’t have a cupboard full of homemade conserves just waiting to be eaten.

But I don’t mind really, because I know that jam, like most things, is more fun in miniature. I also know that, once nothing else can be scraped out of the tiny pots, they’ll go through the dishwasher and then they’re mine, to refill as I choose.

Sometimes they are simply filled with jam again. Whenever I make a batch, I tend to fill a tiny jar and put it aside to go with a certain red-suited gentleman’s festive gifts. Recently, since we made the change to plastic-free toothpaste tablets, we pop a tiny jarful in our toilet bags for travel. Sometimes they liven up a packed lunch, full of mayonnaise or mustard or ketchup. This week, I filled a few with balm.

I used to make beeswax balms a lot, until, somehow, I fell out of the habit. Instead, I’d taken to buying similar products. There is no moisturiser on earth as richly nourishing as a beeswax balm, and, homemade or not, I wouldn’t face the winter without one. They don’t contain any of the wonder ingredients touted on expensive face creams, but they are the most protective and healing thing I know of. And you can use them anywhere: on your face, of course, but also on chapped lips, hands, knees, elbows, to smooth down flyaway hair, to highlight a cheekbone. Depending on your choice of essential oils, you can use them for other purposes too: as perfume or decongestant, an aid to sleep or a special treat for weary skin. In case you can’t tell, I love my balms.

This week, I made a single pot of lavender-scented balm when I came in from work one evening. John was busy making tea so I took advantage of the hot Rayburn to quickly melt some beeswax. I hadn’t made balms in some years, and wanted to test my proportions before making a larger batch. Happily it was a success, so with John and Fliss requesting pots of their own, and the fact that I wanted to make a Vicks substitute for the approaching cold season, I made three more this weekend.

Follow my method by all means, but do remember that I am in no way a herbalist, doctor or anything of that ilk. This is just a commonsense approach to getting some goodness into your skin, hair and nails. Beeswax is incredible stuff, and forms a protective barrier on your skin which keeps the cutting winds out and the moisture in. I used almond oil this time, but I’ve used olive oil in the past, and will no doubt try something different in the future. None of us are allergic to anything, which makes it easy, but do bear such things in mind, especially if you’re going to give these as a gift.

Finely slice – or grate – some beeswax from your block. Put it directly into your jars. I aim for a quarter to a third of beeswax by volume, and just judge it by eye, but if you were using pellets you could get your measuring spoons out. Top the jars up with your olive, almond or alternative carrier oil.

Now fill a pan with water, drop a steamer basket in, and add your jars. You want the water to come partway up the sides of the jar, so that the beeswax melts in the water bath. Put it on to come to a gentle simmer.

As the beeswax melts, give it a stir to mix the oil and wax together. I happened to have some wooden skewers to hand, so I used one of those. It’ll make an excellent firefighter, later.

When all the wax has melted, carefully remove your jars from the pan, and add some essential oils. I used ten drops of lavender for a very gentle fragrance, ten drops of eucalyptus to invigorate John, and about 40 drops of eucalyptus for my pot of decongestant. Give them a good stir, taking care not to mix the scents. I used both ends of my skewer.

Put the lids on and admire. They should look like tiny jars of liquid honey.

And then, once cool, they look like my very favourite set honey, with a hole in the middle where I presume the mixture contracts as it cools. Aren’t they soothing, just to look at?

Next time, I’d like to try some different scents – perhaps something orangey and spicy to carry me through December. I also adore the smell of wintergreen and might make a pot of that for my soon-to-be dry, sore hands.  Fliss wants to find some tiny tins and fill them with a more highly scented blend, to give to her friends as solid perfumes. I might make some with honey in, as lickable lip balms, and I’m on the lookout for rosehip oil.

This time, though, I happy with my choices. Lavender is nothing short of a wonder oil, in my opinion. Ever since Ilse was badly burned on the upper lip by a stickily hot marshmallow, and a doctor advised lavender essential oil to combat scarring, I’ve been complete convert. It’s one of the few things I pack in my little toilet bag whenever we go away. It was what the midwives added to my bath, after Seb and Ilse were born, to help with healing, and what I drop onto people’s pillows when they can’t sleep. Just the other evening, Seb was still awake some time after going up, and a smear of balm under his nose sent him off to the land of nod in no time.

Eucalyptus, on the other hand, is invigorating and cleansing. The pot of stronger balm will be what I rub into the children’s chests – and my own – when we come down with coughs this winter, and around their poor sore noses when they have a cold. It is antibacterial and antifungal and a very effective decongestant. Plus it just smells wonderful.

So there you have it: beeswax balms. There are recipes for these all over the place, I’m sure. However you end up making yours, I hope you enjoy using them as much as I do.

Madeleine

Do you make any medicinal or beauty products for yourself? Do tell…

 

On hold

I have been meaning to make elderberry syrup for three weeks now. Mrs Beeston raves about it. Mr Winter has been tempting me with tales of his bottling exploits. Even Mrs East keeps asking whether I’ve got round to it yet. Three weeks on, the answer is still No. But at least the berries are no longer on the tree.

Instead, last Thursday, I made five minutes to run out and cut a basketful of the drooping clusters. All day, while I was waiting for the kettle to boil or for a reply to an email, I ran a fork through the tiny branches, knocking the berries into a tub, before sticking it in the freezer. They, like so much else right now, are officially On Hold.

These past couple of weeks, everything that can be shoved in the freezer has been. Pears? Freeze them. Tomatoes? Freeze them. A box of softening purple plums? Fr – ooh, actually, lets stew those with brown sugar and cinnamon and have them on our porridge. And everything that can be dried, has been. The airer on the landing, that sifter of warm upward drafts, is currently hung with mint and hydrangeas. The garden is collapsing, and I am catching what I can.

The thing about putting things on hold is that it doesn’t make them any less important. I still want to use that bag  of avocado pits for an weekend dye session; its just that I have neither the time nor the fleece just now. When I’m pickling cucumbers (eight kilos and counting) I can’t deal with the marrows, too. And while I’d like to claim that it’s just the rush of September that knocks me off my feet, the truth is that things are put on hold all the time, in this house. I left half the elderflowers on the tree in May because I was tired of preserving them. On hold, they turned into the berries I picked last week.

The trick is to know what’ll keep, and what won’t. Some things get better, given time. French beans are maturing into dried haricots – and next year’s seed. Cooking apples just keep getting sweeter. But those gladioli won’t keep coming forever, and there’s a limit to the number of days I’ll have cosmos by my desk. There’s already an empty seat at the after-school teatime table. Neither I nor all the science in the world can freeze these fleeting years.

One day – a foggy, November day, perhaps – I’ll pull those berries from the freezer. Knowing Ilse, she’ll be with me to stir our witchy brew. Another day, perhaps when everyone else is out at dance or Scouts or just visiting their friends, Fliss will help me draw and dye and fix that elusive pink from the avocado stones. Only last week, Seb spent a happy afternoon turning frozen black bananas into a raisin-studded loaf. Ben’s stashed a bag of sloes against a home-for-the-holidays gin session. And, thanks to John, that fruit will slowly become next winter’s crumbles and puddings and pies.

It’s not a case of putting things off. I’m just saving them for the right moment. When they can be a focus, and not a distraction. A pleasure, and not a chore. And a welcome reminder of all this rush in the still and frozen days to come.

Madeleine

And you? What are you putting on hold?

Small pleasures

First, there is pleasure in giving. Fliss has been asking for a waxed fabric sandwich wrap all summer, and I finally made her one on Sunday evening. The best part was letting her choose whatever she wanted out of my fabric stash. She chose what is also my favourite: this beautiful vintage floral green, and I know it brings her as much pleasure every lunchtime as it would me. We are neither of us fans of the cumbersome, and a simple wrap-come-tablecloth that folds away into nothing beats a lunchbox any day.

Then there is also pleasure in deliberating. I don’t have much of a stash, as a rule, but I did a bit of shopping while we were in London to make up new pattern samples. The teal linen, which is heavy and rich with drape, was to be a new Sharpen Your Pencils dress, only now I’m dreaming of a new lined A-line skirt in it instead. The floral viscose was to be a Beat the Blues Blouse, but wouldn’t it make the most satisfying of secretly-lovely linings for my skirt? Extravagant, yes. But I think I might be persuaded.

On the more frugal side of things, plans for my scraps are evolving. This little heap of 2 1/2″ squares were to be a postage stamp quilt, and maybe they still will. Or perhaps they’ll be an English Paper Piecing project, instead. I’m thinking of a tea cosy constructed of tiny hexagons, nestled together to keep the pot warm. It is the sort of long slow project that I would like to reserve for weekend afternoons, before the sun slips away behind the hen house.

Speaking of hens, our little flock of chicks is not quite old enough to join the ladies in the big house, but it won’t be long. For now, they are taking it in turns to enjoy the garden. They set out with such determination, arguing over fallen apples and particularly satisfying scratching spots, before ending up in the inevitable chicken cuddle under a tree. Even when the grown girls are out and the little ones are safely in their run, the hens nestle up to the wire. Perhaps we could let them all out together, but I think the small ones aren’t quite big enough to deal with the jostling yet. Sorting out the pecking order can be a stressful business. Everyone is happy, just now, so we’ll keep it this way for a while yet.

Generally, one or the other of us keeps an eye on the chicks while they’re free-ranging, because there are a lot of foxes about just now. We can see them from the kitchen window, but Seb is quite happy in the hammock with a blanket and a book, and John has been sanding this chair on the patio. Spotted for sale in a front garden, I brought it home in early July and put it in the garage. It sat there, untouched, until I lost the ability to see past the dark varnish and faded seat and began to regret the purchase. It was on its way to the St Leonard’s Hospice shop to earn its second lot for charity in two months when I found John halfway through the project. I’m so glad he didn’t ask, and just got started, because I’ve fallen for it all over again. A new seat cover will take no time at all, so once he’s finished with the mouldings and fed the wood with beeswax, we’ll have a new chair for our bedroom.

I am under no illusions that either of us will actually sit on it. No, it’ll be where I lay my clothes out for the following morning. Old habits die hard, it seems, and it is so much easier to ease yourself out from under the covers if no thought is required. Besides, a pile of clothes you made yourself is always a little thrill. This morning’s selection was particularly pretty, in my eyes. Soon it’ll be too cold for my chambray peg trousers, so I’ve a pair planned in chocolate tweed as a second sample and winter alternative. The only question is which floral to use for the inner waistband and pockets.

First, though, I have another Snow Day jumper to knit. I let Fliss choose the wool, as it will be for her. This grey-pink is a little too lilac for my taste, but she loves it and I love knitting for her, so all is well. If you need me, I’ll be in my studio, knitting and taking tutorial photographs. Probably with a tea tray and a drama on the radio. Now that is a pleasure, and not a small one. I am looking forward to those hours.

Yet what might not come across in this post of crafting highlights is the hustle and bustle of our surrounding life. I got up at some ridiculous hour yesterday to take John to the station to catch a flight to Sweden, before a full day of work then home to children (who I love) and homework and dinner and packed lunches and laundry and ironing and washing up (which I don’t) and trying very hard to stay awake until it was time to collect them from Scouts (which I managed, only just). In between all of those things, nestled a row here and a row there of my Lionberry shawl, begun at the weekend and continued, all too briefly, in bed after my morning-taxi-driver run. I’ll be putting it aside now, until the sample jumper is gauge-swatched, knitted and blocked. But it’s there, coiled in the base of my basket, waiting for a moment when I need just five minutes of the small pleasure of wrapping wool around a needle and watching what emerges.

Madeleine

What’s bringing you pleasure at the moment?

But first, the hens

Now that summer is in full swing, my days at home have taken on a new routine. I find that, if I get up early enough, I can have breakfast with everyone and still be ready to settle down to work on this blog and the pattern book by nine o’clock. Come three, it’s time to hop on my bike and cycle the six miles to Ilse’s school and back, along the edge of the Knavesmire and across Hob Moor, with its current herd of young cattle grazing on the daffodils.

It is a beautiful ride, and we often stop for a quick picnic on the way home – just a couple of biscuits and a flask of tea, under the hawthorn trees, watching the other cyclists and dog walkers and pram-pushing parents go past. It clears my head after a day of writing and measuring and drawing all those lines, and brings me back down to earth in the most delightful way.

Before any of that, though, before the bike ride or the writing, there are things to be done in the garden. Flowers to be picked, the day’s greens to be brought in and washed, pots to be watered and eggs to be gathered. All it takes is for one of us to open the kitchen door and there they are, pacing indignantly at the wire of their run, waiting for me to open the door to their house and let them loose on the garden.

They have the run of the place, with established dustbaths and scratching spots and the whole lawn to chase insects across. Instead of fencing them into one area, we have fenced them out: out of the veg patch, out of the cutting garden, out of the patio with its table and pots of flowers. Apart from when we are all out, or at night, they are free to enjoy it as they wish, and the rest of the time they have a large and shady run attached to the side of their house.

So large, in fact, is their house that it’s been a bit underpopulated of late. We bought another six rescue hens home last summer and, while they were still in a separate tractor, a fox got in and killed the lot. I found four in the coop, and a trail of feathers all the way up to the gate by the side of our house. One by one the others have been getting older and, quite literally, dropping off the perch. So Father, Ilse and I went on an expedition at half term to bring a couple of new pullets home. Hedwig and Fawkes have settled in quite nicely now, and are keeping Eggletina Harpsichord company in a little flock of three.

Come next winter, though, they could do with a few more bodies to keep their house warm through the night, and to that end we ordered a dozen hatching eggs by post. They arrived on Friday and, once rested, have been sitting, warm and cosy, in a little incubator in the kitchen. We are expecting chicks two weeks on Saturday, and I’m not sure whether Ben or I is the most excited person in the house. The eggs are numbered according to which breed they are – we ordered a mixed batch – and Seb has been poring over the guide, coming up with names for each type of bird. So far he’s come up with Cotton for the Silkie, which I so hope will hatch, and Champion for the Gold Top. In the meantime, I am turning the eggs several times a day, and making sure that the water reservoir is topped up, and dreaming of electric hens. Fliss and Ben have promised to fix up the tractor, which will be perfect to house them once they are big enough to go outside, and we have chick sitters arranged for when we go on holiday.

It seems such a long time – eight years! – since we bought this house and hens became a very real possibility. I can’t imagine not having them now. They make the garden feel alive, somehow, with all their pecking and scratching and lounging, spread-eagled, in the sun. They give us the richest, most orange-yolked eggs with whites that sit up firmly in the pan. Best of all, though, is the way they demand my presence in the garden each morning, by pacing at that wire. I might be able to ignore the lettuce, out of sight in the veg patch. I might pretend not to see the spinach bolting. I could even choose to leave the sweet peas for another day. But I can’t ignore our girls and then, once out there, I may as well do the watering and the picking and the trip right down to the compost. Whatever else a day at home might hold, the hens always seem to come first, and for that I am very grateful.

Madeleine

PS – What gets you outside every day? Or are you one of those people who doesn’t need any prompting? I find that, on holiday in Italy or Greece, I can’t wait to greet the sun, but in England I often need a little more persuasion. Of course, once out, it’s hard to drag myself back in again…

Welcome, rain

On Friday afternoon, the sun shone and the air grew so thick that I abandoned all thoughts of cooking. Indoors, the couch and my knitting were beckoning, but instead I stayed on the patio, picking my way through another batch of fleece before carding it, ready for spinning. The thing is, you never know whether this will be the last day of sunshine for a long, cold while. So while the sun shone, I carried on with the dirty, outside tasks, like pulling the mucky tips off the wool and watching the dust fly as it moved from carder to carder.

Over tea – thank goodness for ready-roast chickens and shops within an easy cycle – I doled out jobs for today. Not a lot, just a little help from everyone, please. Strimming for Ben. Tying up the peas and beans for Seb while Fliss staked the fast-blooming alstroemerias and my new freesias. Ilse was to help me water and plant out the cucumbers and courgettes – the very last things to go into this spring’s veg patch – while I weeded it all and John made his usual rounds at the butcher and greengrocer’s on the market. A typical late spring Saturday morning.

And then on Saturday it rained, on and off all day, so that instead we found ourselves in the kitchen. A kettle on the Rayburn for endless mugs of tea, and more buttery crumpets smeared with Marmite as each new sleepy head emerged. Fliss stitched away at her old ballet skirt, embroidering it with golden swirls for a fancy dress costume. Seb appeared from the garage with a big stick and his knife, as well as the promise to work over a spread of newspapers. Ilse was colouring, and Ben rummaged through the spice drawer as he and John planned our meals for the week ahead. It’s the first time in ages that we’ve been in just one space, together, for so long. In the spring our house doubles in size as we spread out, away from the fires, into bedrooms and right down to the end of the garden to make much-needed repairs to winter-ravaged dens. But yesterday we all stayed together, held no doubt by the gentle warmth of the cooker and all five episodes of Death on the Nile, one after another, on the radio.

As for me, I worked on the knitting I’d been so keen to get to the previous day, which is a pattern I’m developing for the autumn. I got through all the counting and onto the easy stretch before Poirot solved the murder, which was satisfying. The rain let up, just a little, after lunch, so that I could run out and plant the freesias that my dad had bought me on Friday, staking them against the weather. And then, later, there was Paddington to watch again and, best of all, a pile of rolags ready to spin from that sultry afternoon the day before. There’s a time and a place for everything, you see. Tasks for sunshine and tasks for rain. That way, whatever the weather, there’s a way to make it welcome.

Madeleine

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.