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…

All the knitting

There is definitely a seasonality to making. I don’t just mean gift-making in the run up to Christmas, or cotton-frock making in May. Of course I do both those things, but there’s a deeper pull towards certain kinds of crafting at different times of year. In the new year, I want to do nothing but sew. Come spring, I’m ready to spend most of my time in the garden, perhaps with a bit of hand-sewing or embroidery for rainy days. The long summer holidays open up time for spinning and the dyeing of wool. And when September comes, I want to spend all my evenings knitting in front of the fire, right up to the end of the year.

There are always things that I end up doing out of season – I sewed a skirt last month, for instance – but on the whole I’ve come to anticipate this yearly rhythm. Which is why I thought I’d better pull out my stash of wool and remind myself of all the knitting I want to do before the year comes to an end.

First up are the Christmas knits. Just to be clear, I am the sort of person for whom Christmas starts on December 24th. That’s when we put up the tree, festoon the staircase with lights and ivy, and put holly everywhere we can. But the Christmas crafting needs to start quite a bit earlier than that. In fact, once I’ve made the Christmas cake  in October half term, November is upon us and it is high time to get started.

First on – and off – the needles this year was Ben’s hat. A quick and easy knit, it’s just waiting for its bobble. I’ll have a bobble-making-hat-finishing afternoon when all three hats are done, so this one is put away for now.

In progress is a longer project, which I am not going to write about here for tip top Christmas secret reasons. I’m knitting bits of it in between each of the other projects. Suffice to say that it is going swimmingly and it will be a test of my love to give this one away.

Currently on the needles is a second sock, which is both a first-time-sock-knitters’ pattern I’m writing, and Ilse’s Christmas knit. I’ll finish it off this week, but have to keep stopping to shoot the next part of the tutorial in daylight.

Fliss’ hat will be next: this lovely snuggly one in shades of heather. I love it, she loves it, I can’t wait to begin.

Seb’s hat  – the same as Ben’s but in different colours – will be the last of the knits for my children. My auntie Fiona gave me  the lovely book that all three hats are from in the spring, and it is just full of beautiful patterns. I have my eye on a hat I’d like to make for myself, one day, as well as a couple of the snoods. It has inspired practically all my Christmas knitting this year.

There are two more projects that I’m not even going to post the materials for here, as they’ll give the game away. One is a knitting project that I’m collaborating with one of my children on, and the other is a sewing project. Enough said.

Once the hats are all made, I have plans for all the leftover Shetland wool. First up will be a fairisle tea-cosy, as I’ve been meaning to make one for literally years. I don’t have a pattern yet and will probably just make one up.

I bought the pink wool especially, to tie it all together. I like pink a lot, just now.

And then I need a new pair of cuffs. My last pair were discovered hiding in a white wash that had just gone through at a hygienic 60 C. Let’s just say that while the sheets were better for the cycle, the cuffs were not. I might make some from the book, or make up something more fairisle-y and colourful.

Then there are three balls of Drops Alpaca for a new knitting design that is floating around my head. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but let’s just say that it involves some of my very favourite winter flowers.

And finally, when all that is done, I am going to knit myself a new pair of socks. This is a bit of an annual thing now: making a new pair to replace the oldest and most worn out. I suspect these will be cast on in the new year, because despite my love of wintry sewing you do need to have something to keep your hands busy while you’re relaxing by the fire of an evening.

I make it five weeks until Christmas, and then another week until the new year. I’ve got five Christmas projects to finish, not counting the first hat, the sewing project or the collaboration. Then three more to work through after that. Then there’s the small matter of a job, patterns to publish and oh, a family. The knitting might just go on a little further into the new year that I’d planned. Ahem. But then again, there are worse things in life than a surfeit of knitting.

Madeleine

Are you making anything for Christmas this year? How’s it going? Wishing you good luck and happy crafting!

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?

And breathe

What I needed, after the excitement and busyness of last week, was a breather. A quiet weekend. A chance to pause and take stock. And, in a funny sort of way, that is exactly what I got.

A chance to set things straight around the place, to plan the meals for the week ahead, to empty the fridge into the soup pot and refill it with fresh veg. To chat with my children, home and away, and share a new project with them each. Somehow, in between the Saturday comings and goings to the market and the ballet studio, the house was cleaned. I read a novel – a whole, 595 page novel – in one weekend: a treat which is unlikely to be soon repeated. Seb baked a seed cake. Ilse, between piano practice and dance lessons and copious amounts of homework, started a snood with the leftovers from Fliss’ Snow Day and presented it to me, last night, complete. I added a few more rows to my Lionberry shawl. John finished sanding the fiddly bits on that ugly old chair I’d brought home, and gave it a coat of wax. It was to go in our bedroom but looks better in my studio, so there it’ll stay for now. Its seat has been recovered deliberately lackadaisically, using one of the fat quarters purchased at the mill, back in August. I want to be able to whip the fabric off again, and use it in a quilt, in a new year’s flurry of making.

Mother and Father joined us for our Sunday roast, and it was one of those glorious affairs which seemed to cook itself, everyone taking care of just one of two parts of the process. Seb peeled a sinkful of spuds, and put them on to boil. Fliss picked the fattest pears from the tree and tossed them in brown sugar and cinnamon, before Ilse topped the fruit with an almond sponge, to make an Exmoor In-and-Out. I cut vegetables from the garden, and left them ready in a pan. And John pulled it all together: roasting the potatoes, making a gravy, carving the rested bird. By the time the girls’ gently fragrant pudding was brought to the table, I felt entirely myself again.

Yes, it was one of those weekends where we pottered about and everything we did was like a deep and calming breath. There is something so pleasing in the familiar, when you are regaining your balance. Make soup – inhale. Cover a chair – exhale. On it goes, through bookish cuddles on the settee and the sound of someone making steady progress up and down their scales. Family life, with all its familiar rhythms, has restored my bumping heart to something steady once again.

This morning, at the start of a brand new day, new week, new month, I got things ready to begin again. While seeing to the hens, I picked a fresh bouquet of cosmos to grace the windowsill in my little studio. I tidied the debris of the last design into the children’s craft cupboard so that my basket is waiting, empty, for the wool I’ve ordered to arrive. The desk is clear. There is a fresh title in my design book, gracing a clean white page, ready to record the calculations of the day. Colours have been chosen, little details settled upon, test knitters primed and waiting. A pot of tea, the radio for company: there is comfort in the familiar. A deep breath, a clean space, and I am ready to begin again.

Madeleine

And you? What did you do this weekend?

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?

September again

16 September 1935

Why is it that while spring arrives so tentatively, autumn simply announces itself? Here I am, she says, and, like it or not, here she is. She’s here in fogged-up morning windows, in windfalls on the lawn, in retreating cucumber vines and tired children adjusting to new school routines. Like her or not – and there is much to admire in her red-haired-pale-faced beauty – she’s a stubborn one, and stares down the fast-fading summer.

I’d like to treat September as the start of a new year, and in many ways I do. I feel it in the children as they set off to school each morning, in their blackly polished shoes and trousers with growing room intact. I feel it in the evening when they tumble in the door, satchels full of new books with as-yet pristine covers. I approach the new year as they do, in my best handwriting, not wanting to spoil all that is fresh and clean and novel. This year, I tell myself, will be the year that I really focus on the piano. I’ve started to learn Debussy’s Arabesque No.1 and for an hour and a quarter last night I went over and over the passages, learning arpeggios, trying to commit tricky fingering to memory. If I did that every night, it really would make a difference. Just imagine how well I’d play, this time next year.

I’ve seen enough Septembers to know better. I’ve lived enough to know that it can’t really be the start of a new year, this slipping away of the sun. I’ve spent enough chilly hours at the piano to know that, blanket or not, there’s a limit to the time I’ll spend away from the crackling fire and other, cosier pursuits. And yet there is still enough of a sense of something new to incubate a little hope that, this year, something new will happen. Something will be achieved.

In the garden, cornucopia is no longer the word. It overflows no more. Today there was a measly solo cucumber on the vine; the season of courgettes morphed into monsters is done. Every day, there is a little less. Fewer beans on the vines, less spinach to cut and wash. And yet we are hungrier than ever. To make things stretch, our meals have many elements. Not just an omelette, but with beans and bread on the side and a hot baked apple to follow. Porridge and toast and – oh go on – an egg for breakfast. My usual soup, warmed up in the aga, is not enough for lunch without a thickly buttered roll. There was so little left of our roast last Sunday that the only leftover in our Monday pie was a single chicken breast, bulked out with gravy and copious veg. Mashed potatoes? Yes please, with everything. The children baked biscuits and cakes just days ago and, already, they are gone. Yesterday, there was nothing to add to the stone in our soup. For the first time since June, we need to buy more from the grocer.

And yet there is an odd sort of thrill in the end of the garden season. A new beginning is in the air – far off enough to be pristine and ideal in its conception. A weighing up of what went well and what… didn’t. My cosmos, for instance, have been a delight. The broad beans have not. This year, I grew the best potatoes we’ve ever had, and I’ll be chitting the same variety come 1936. And I have grander plans than that: for island beds of flowers tough enough to survive the hens’ attentions, and walls of willow waving in the breeze. In my mind’s eye, I’ll be digging a lot, this winter. Digging, and playing the piano, and making changes that won’t be washed away with the turning of the earth.

Perhaps that’s why September makes me feel so strange: both ill at ease and excited, all at once. Because in one way it’s another chance to get things right, to make a change, to move forward in my life. And at the same time, it is full of reminders that that’s just what life is doing: moving forward, taking my children with it. Those school books aren’t just a clean version of the previous year’s. What was to be, next year, is now. I can’t make out whether autumn is as lovely as she pretends, or whether there’s hint of  malice in those cold eyes. Whatever the truth, she’ll only give way to winter, but that in turn makes way for the gentle spring.

Cecily

How do you feel about September? And have you made plans for the coming year?

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.

Castles and coves

We love the sea. We love it in the morning, when the coast is fresh and empty and still sparkling with dew. We love busy midday sunshine beaches, when everyone and their dog lays claim to a patch of sand. Best of all though, we love it in the late afternoon, when the striped windbreaks and bright buckets are packed away and the coast empties of tired children complaining of sand in their shoes and the long walk home.

From about three o’clock the sand is at its warmest and the sun still high enough to revive you after the chilliest of dips. John invariably heads in for a proper swim, while the children splash about or jump the rollers. In and out, wet and dry and wet again, stopping for an ice-cream (madness) or reaching for the flask of tea (far more rational in these parts), the swimming and sandcastle making goes on until about six, when people start clamouring for their tea, and John lights his little Trangiar and the sausages are soon fizzing and popping in the pan. A bread roll, a salad or two if we’re feeling fancy, and everyone is full and warm and ready to doze on the long drive home.

We’ve visited several beaches over the past couple of weeks. In Cornwall we had a couple of balmy evenings in Poldhu Cove, where we were not the only family to turn up and start cooking supper on the sand. Kynance Cove merited a fast and furious visit, leaping through the icy breakers on a moody morning. Having decided that the water really was too cold and that I would only go waist deep, I was swept off my feet on more than one occasion, much to Ilse’s delight. We needed fish and chips – sat in – to warm up after that particular swim. Sadly we didn’t manage our usual Devon bathe from pebbly Beesands, with the gale force winds blowing us into a cosy cafe for a wet-and-wild-night-of-camping-recovery breakfast instead. But we did make a special pilgrimage to a site John has wanted to visit since he was about ten years old: Tintagel Castle, and its cave-speckled cove beneath.

If you’ve ever visited Tintagel, you’ll know that the castle itself involves no little toil up and down a lot of steps, and the soaring temperatures on the day of our visit meant that the cove beneath was packed with people cooling off after their endeavours. We pottered about for an hour or two, looking into local shops and sampling the superb pasties from the cafe by the ticket office, and by the time we traipsed back down to the cove it was almost empty. We were the only people in the sea, with a few families on the shore, their knicker-clad little ones squealing with glee as the cool water washed over their toes. It was our last day in Cornwall before a drive north through the gathering night, and perhaps my favourite day of all. A castle and a cove, pasties and a cream tea: everyone was happy, which made me so. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer end to our little southern holiday.

So when John announced that he’d like to spend an afternoon and evening at Sandsend, near Whitby, I was only too happy to comply. I packed a basket or two with sausages, a couple of salads from our bursting garden, and a chocolate cake nestled in my tin, and we had one more glorious afternoon by the sea, all of us this time, mucking around in the sand and admiring the crystal clear water. Seb built a birthday monument for his dad, Fliss and Ilse stood on the empty steps and belted out some Abba, Ben and I admired the many shoals of little fish, different types of jellyfish and the odd transparent crab. John, of course, went for his swim, and then we had our hot picnic tea before heading home to sandy showers and fresh clean sheets and beds that rocked gently in our sleep.

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?