Sewing for mermaids

Well, who would have thought that those old dance recital costumes would come in so handy? A waistcoat, a 20s style flapper dress, 45 minutes and a sewing machine et voila! One happy little mermaid, ready for family camp.

In the meantime though, the enthusiasm for all things aquatic continues. Penguins? Dolphins? Killer whales? Picture books are pored over. I know more about giant squid than I ever thought I would. The boys keep disappearing to the shed, asking for more string and nails and bits of board. There’s a seahorse in the making, and I swear I saw some frontal fins attached to an old potato sack. They’re busy, and I’m happy, being too busy myself in the garden to worry about the fact that the holidays have begun. They know how to make their own fun, my children.

There was a day last week, though, when despite the shining sun and endless array of jobs I felt listless and worn out. The past week or so I have fallen asleep nearly every time I’ve allowed myself to sit for more than a few minutes at a time. I would have done so on Thursday, had it not been for a little project I have been saving up. Ilse’s passion for mermaids won’t last long, and once it’s over that will be that, for me. My days of sewing children’s fabrics are numbered, as are her days of wearing little girls’ clothes. And what could be more little girl than a romper covered in mermaids, with hair as brown as hers, sea horses at the ready for a quick jaunt around the reef? I spent a while cutting it out, placing the creatures just where I wanted them. Sewing started post tea and was done just after my littlest’s bedtime. She did some secret reading, at my behest, and quarter of an hour after she should have been asleep she sneaked downstairs to admire the result in the long hall mirror.

Apparently this little outfit comes with certain conditions attached. It must be worn with the hair down, like a real mermaid. It must hang on the pegs in her bedroom, so that she can see it when she wakes. But my favourite, by far, is that fact that she tap dances everywhere she goes. With white pointelle socks, summer sandals and her straw boater, she thinks she’s Shirley Temple, and heel-shuffle-hops all the way to the bus stop. Tap dancing mermaids? Potato sack squid? Gangly sea horses and fierce she-pirates? Welcome to the wonderful world of home made summer holidays. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Beside the seaside

The children had a checklist: wave jumping, ice cream eating, sandcastle building and lots of fish and chips. And I had mine: walks along the beach, with the sand between my toes. A little pot of winkles on the seafront. A picnic rug, and a spot of crochet. Happy children.

We fulfilled a few of these wishes in our very first afternoon there with Miss Stevens, who drove us over in her motor. She’d never been to Filey before, and I think she liked the way the waves crashed against the defences before retreating to leave behind a wide and sandy beach. Filey is the sort of beach resort I remember from my own childhood: lots of Edwardian boarding houses overlooking the sea, tea shops round every corner, and donkey rides up and down the sands. Chilly weather when you were hoping for the sun, and then, when you have just about given up, the clouds part and there it is, in time to warm you through. Nothing fancy, nothing new. Just spray thrown in your face by the high tide, and lips that taste of the salt air. Sticky fingers from fast melting ices, and sand in your socks. And then at night, tired out with bracing air and strolling up and down along the sands, sleep, with the shushing of the sea and the promise of the beach just after breakfast.

As a child, the charms of the seaside are obvious. Who doesn’t want to visit that strange and magical margin dividing land and sea? The shore, which vanishes and reappears, is different every time, and offers up new treasures. The bucket full of shells is filled, dumped out, sorted and half emptied before being swiftly filled again. Mussels are the thing – no, cockles now – no, sea glass with its jewelled translucent softness. There are moats to be dug, last minute, as the tide swirls in and washes whole kingdoms away, and the little court decamps and starts again. And there are white steeds to jump with growing confidence until an unexpected swell knocks you into the water and you squeal with shock and delight in equal measure.

As an adult, its charms are even greater. There are no chores to be done, beside the seaside. There are no dishes to be washed: those vinegary fingers need only a quick lick before the children are back in the sea. The boarding house breakfast isn’t mine to cook, the floors not mine to sweep. So there is nothing left to do but play and rest. Solve the mystery of Five Red Herrings with Lord Peter Wimsey. Linger over a pot of tea and a scone. Pick our way out onto Filey Brigg and see the whole world reflected in a rock pool. Hang a piece of bacon on a string and wait and wait and wait for the big brown crab to come and grab it with its greedy claws. Paddle in a little deeper than you should, so that the cold North Sea soaks the hem of your dress. The day’s laundry is the rinsing of the bathers in the bedroom sink, the day’s cooking a choice between one form of sea food or another. A complete holiday, in other words, only a bus ride away from home, squeezed into the middle of an otherwise busy term. It’s a different world, truly, beside the seaside. And all the children want to know is when we are coming back. Soon, my lovelies. Soon.

Collage

Ben and I had to go away at the start of the half term holiday, to help an elderly relative in Sussex. Fliss came to wave us off at the tram stop, early on a frosty morning, before the little ones were even awake. I knew they would be fine, without me. John is more than capable, and Mother and Mrs P were already planning casseroles and invitations to high tea.

It seems they had a lovely time while I was away, full of fun and family. John took the children out for a winter scramble, and to cafes for luncheon on more than one occasion. I missed a tea party for his grandmother, who is now 98 years old. By all accounts my mother in law laid on a real feast, and I was sorry to miss seeing that side of the family. I sent a handmade present in my place: a letter case sewn from pink corduroy, with pockets and edging made from scraps left over from my peonies dress. I put wadding between its layers, to give it body, and a mother of pearl button with a self-fabric loop to hold it closed. Inside were cards, and stamps, a little address book and a pen. Because letters matter, especially when you live alone.

Mother and Father had everyone over for a big meal, and one of her family-famous puddings. My children rave about her puddings, and helping her make one is one of their favourite things to do when they are there. They are building quite a repertoire: Eve’s pudding, crumbles, trifle and steamed suet delights. All served with plenty of custard, of course.

By the time Ben and I were home again, everyone had found their half term rhythm. John had taken a couple of days off work, and the children were filling their time with books, dens, and, more than anything else, making. The last time my mother in law had come to visit, Seb had told her how much he wanted to make a little teddy bear for himself, out of felt, to live in a matchbox. So it was that he came home from Great Grannie’s tea party with a parcel of felt, a head full of plans, and a little sister eager to join in. I came in the door to requests to raid my knitting basket for woollen scraps to stuff their bears, who have accompanied them on their half term adventures ever since.

She had also sent a stack of old gardening pamphlets for me, and as I read them I passed them on to the children. Fliss mixed a flour paste for Ilse and the girls have spent two or three happy afternoons making collages of dream gardens, complete with gnomes, sheds stuffed with books, and blooms improbably out of season. They have abandoned the laws of nature, and turned their backs on the rules. Their gardens are a happy mix of whatever they fancy and nothing more.

Which is what this half term has been, one way and another. Time away, which makes me greet being at home with fresh enthusiasm. And then, once home, a collage of all good things. Time with each child, on their own, catching up. Perhaps it was only a walk to the shops or a ten-minute whisper before the lights went out, but it was precious time alone together nonetheless. Catching up on laundry, and ironing, which is not fun in itself but comes with the satisfaction of seeing everything fresh and ready for another day. A little bit of work on my fair isle cardigan, of which the body is complete and the first sleeve begun. Sewing – lots of sewing: a toilet bag before my journey, and a sweet reversible handbag almost as soon as I came in through the door. It has birds on one side, and velvet on the other, and little round handles. Quick and pleasing, and intended as a gift. Starting and finishing a shirt for Seb in one surprising afternoon, and then some new night things for myself. Looking at all the scraps I am creating and planning a new quilt for Fliss’ bed.

There have been some startlingly bright days since my return, tempered by lots of rain and wind. I am surprised by the swiftness of this week. Half terms fly by so quickly, and are always more of a change than a rest. We know the drill; we all know what to reach for in these February holidays at home. A hodgepodge, a medley, a collage of pleasant things to fill the hours.

[whohit]collage[/whohit]

Forever

Every so often a book is published which captures the imagination of a generation. Father Christmas delivered one such book this Christmas, to the stocking of a certain ten year old. He read it in one long go, pausing only to eat meals and, when forced to, sleep, so that by the end of Boxing Day he was able to lay it aside with a bittersweet sigh. He didn’t want it to end, you see.

Ilse was curious, as she always is when Seb is immersed in something, so I borrowed it from him to read aloud to her, in the time between supper and bed, snuggled on the couch. By the end of the first evening Fliss was listening in, hovering, perched on the edge of an armchair. By the third evening she was ready and waiting with Ilse for the story to go on, and Seb had come back in to lie before the fire and hear it all again. Even John has had to read it, just to be able to join in with the incessant chatter and renaming of so many daily things. The children no longer walk anywhere, but tack, arms spread to catch the wind. They request pemmican and grog at mealtimes. The newsagent is getting used to being called a native, and takes it in his stride as he measures toffee provisions into striped paper bags.

No-one wants the younger parts. Seb is, naturally, Captain John, and carries his compass around with him. He has done a lot of cartography, lately, and I am not altogether surprised to learn that the hill up the road is, in fact, the Matterhorn. Ilse wants to be Mate Susan, but all too often Fliss takes that role and Ilse is Able Seaman Titty, instead. I, of course, am Mother, the best of all natives, and our own John is Captain Flint with his green parrot and home upon the high seas.

Only Ben doesn’t join in. He’s too old for such games, and not old enough to enjoy them differently, either. Fliss teeters on the edge. I hear her playing, wholeheartedly, when she thinks it is just herself and Ilse and Seb, but the minute I walk into the room she clams up, and pretends to be doing something else. She is in-between, just now, in that no-man’s land between Ilse and I. I catch her longing for both things: for womanhood and childhood, and not knowing which way to turn.

John and I are very aware that these might be the last few months in which she plays these sorts of games. This might be the last time she can be truly lost, as only a child can be, just around the corner, barely out of sight. A cry goes up from the end of the garden: Swallows and Amazons forever! and while there is abandonment in it there is an edge of something else too, of self-consciousness and shame. Soon, too soon, the role of Susan will be Ilse’s every day.

With this in mind, we’ve hired a bothy in the Lakes for later in the season. A little stone hut, far from anywhere, on the edge of a mere. There are rowing boats for hire, and perhaps a chance to sail. We’ll teach the children to make drop lines and fish for sharks and tiddlers in the boundless ocean. They can build dens amongst the trees, and make buttered eggs over a campfire, and walk the mile to the native settlement for their supper each evening. They can wake each morning to that best of all thoughts: now, what shall I do today? and come up with the answers themselves.

They don’t last long, those years between toddling and adulthood. Much as I would like them to last forever, Ben has shown us that they won’t. So we’ll just have to make the most of them, fleeting and precious as they are.

[whohit]forever[/whohit]

Burning bright

We had our day in the garden: the very best day of the holidays, so mild and bright that it might have been March. The children herded the hens, as planned, and saved long sticks for the building of their den. John and I climbed ladders and cut things back. A rogue branch from the cherry no longer hangs into the vegetable patch. The elders have been reduced to stumps. Even the wisteria, with its wild curls, has had its topknot shorn. The garden looks empty, and enormous.

The children helped for longer than I had hoped, pruning the roses and carrying lopped branches to a growing heap. But one by one they slipped off to the wild space at the end of the garden. Ilse built tiny nests, first for the birds but then, with Fliss’ help, for a whole village of little people.  Next door’s tabby was cast as a tiger, slinking through the undergrowth, and defences were thrown up. They had a winter picnic in the tree house and finally, when all was done, Ben built a bonfire to burn the debris of the day.

The others trickled indoors but we stood by it, Ben and I, until all that was left was a heap of wood ash. There you are, Mum, he said, pointing at it. You can mix that into the compost tomorrow. We can call it combust.

You see, he understands.  What else is this hacking and pruning and shaping and clipping for, if not to encourage new growth?

A few days ago, we moved from the old year to the new. Burning on that fire were the remains of 1930 in my small patch. But not all of it. The apple, pear and damson trees still stand in the same places. The knotted hawthorn hedge still marks one long boundary. And on everything we cut, fat buds are waiting for the right moment to start anew.

Somehow, the turning of that page means very little to me. A moment in time, full of champagne and fireworks. A fabrication. Artifice.

To see the new year in, you have to look outside. You have to caress the emerging buds with your fingertips, and prepare the way for them. You have to look up at the forsythia, about to burst into flame. The whole of nature knows that a new year is here, without recourse to clocks or calendars.

As for me, I know it is here when the clearing is done and the growing begins. I’ll sow the first lettuces soon, under cover. I’ve marked out my new bed, ready to double dig in the crisp January air. Soon, so soon, potatoes will be chitting in a cool bright place, while outside a hard frost prepares their bed for them.

Once the bonfire was out we went in to the other fire, and I spent an inspiring evening with seed catalogues and my notebook. There will be flowers, this time, in amongst the vegetables. Marigolds in pots, to cheer on the tomatoes. Sweet peas, my favourite, standing tall with the beans. Nasturtiums, to tumble out of beds and into salads.

I am restless with anticipation. I keep having to put aside my knitting to jot down a new idea, or a refinement of my plans. Because the new year is here at last, and burning brightly in me.

[whohit]burningbright[/whohit]

Comfort and joy

All around the house, people are busy with new games and projects. Ilse skips up and down the lawn, getting a little further each time before the rope catches on her ankles or her swinging coat. There is a beetle drive in the front room, between Mother and Father, John and Ben. Long rows of dominoes are set up then knocked over by tin soldiers in the heat of battle. Wood shavings litter the corner of the kitchen, when a new pen knife has been whittling all sorts of experimental objects. And beside each bed there is a little stack of fresh books, enticing us into our pyjamas and another early night.

This has been a Christmas of great comfort, and for that we are very blessed. John kept the fire roaring all day long. Ben helped me cook my first Christmas dinner on the aga, which proved so much easier than the old range. He peeled and scrubbed in the scullery, and I rolled and basted, and by the time we were finished the table was filled with everyone’s favourites. There was bread sauce for Father, pigs in blankets for Ilse and Seb, sweet parsnips for Mother and Fliss, balls of sage stuffing for John and Ben and a capon, juicy and hot. Paper crowns adorned heads, new wool socks kept feet cosy, and we ate so well that a game of charades was deemed necessary before anyone could face pudding.

Such comfort lasts a few days longer. Having cooked such a dinner the day before, I had no intentions of making anything more complex than a Boxing Day pie. It’s only a Monday pie, really, but with extra trimmings. Christmas dinner in a pie? I didn’t bother asking, but rolled the pastry in the morning and left it in the cool pantry all day, while we played our games and read our books and enjoyed being at home together.

So there is comfort, and there is also joy. Joy in the Christmas mass, when we remember the best gift of all. Joy in the carols, sung by three hundred people with one voice. Joy in the children’s voices as they rip the string from their presents on Christmas afternoon. And in the faces of Ben and Fliss, watching their parents, grandparents and little siblings exclaim over the fudge and marzipan they had prepared and wrapped so secretly.

The joy lingers too, just like the leftovers and the full woodshed. It carries on in the hearts and minds of the children, engrossed in something new. It carries on in John and me, at home and at rest together for a few sweet days. It carries on in the lights, still shining in the green tree, and in the sprigs of fresh ivy which adorn this house, and in the Christmas candles, lit each suppertime until they are all burnt out.

There is so much comfort and joy here, now. There is plenty to share. With people who are lonely or exploited or suffering the consequences of the Wall Street Crash. With victims of war. With people we pass in the street, every day. Which is why John and the children and I are putting our heads together around those Christmas candles, to decide how we might share a little of what we have so much of: all that comfort, and all that joy.

[whohit]comfortandjoy[/whohit]

Summer in Devon, Winter in York

It was Ilse’s turn to help me with my quilt yesterday. I spent the first part of the afternoon in the village hall, listening to her school carol concert – a cacophony of recorders and coconut shell donkey steps, carried off with the exuberance only infants can muster. I had my handkerchief ready – I am prone to welling up when all those little voices wend their way haphazardly through Away in a Manger – but I didn’t need it this year. Ilse is one of the ‘big’ ones now, and I enjoyed watching her play her recorder and organise the tots.

We stopped at the baker’s for two currant buns and headed home for an afternoon of just the pair of us. I’d left the fire laid and supper ready to go into the stove, so all I had to do was make a pot of tea while Ilse ran around closing the curtains, and generally being grown up and helpful.

Since we finished her quilt I have hand-sewn the three layers of my own together in blues and greens: quilting and decorating it in one stroke. I’d sewn the front of the binding in place with the machine and so just needed to spend an extended evening hand-sewing the back of it into place. Ilse’s ‘help’ consisted of her playing her favourite records and rehearsing dances to them in the hallway. Then she would come in, announce a recital, and perform. It made the hand-sewing fly by.

I love this quilt, not because it is particularly beautiful or a show of much skill. It is, in fact, extremely simple in design and execution. The reason I keep gazing at it is that it is pieced from old clothes worn on a special holiday in Devon, eighteen months ago.

My brother Pete and his wife had arranged for the whole family – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents – and many friends to spend a week camping on a wooded hill by the sea in South Devon. We took the train down and as we had to carry everything up to the wood from the bus stop three miles away, we packed as lightly as we could. I laid out one old frock and set of underwear for each of the girls and myself. Similarly, John and the boys packed one change of clothes apiece. Bathers, night-things and essential teddy bears went into the knapsacks, and the children were ready to go.

We had the kind of weather we English fantasise about – long, sunny days with unbroken skies, where the air is sultry in the light but blissfully temperate as soon as you step into the shade. There was no cloud watching or chilly breeze; Ben and several of his older cousins abandoned their tents and slept in a clearing, with nothing between them and the hushing of the trees. In the evenings there was a great fire, for fresh fish from the hut along the road, or tins of beans, or potatoes in their skins. Somebody brought an accordion, and someone else, a tin whistle.

The site has no water, so I took the children to bathe in the cove each morning, and rinsed their clothes out in the salt water before spreading them on warm pebbles to dry. The weather broke on the last day; the sea turned grey with the threat of the coming storm and our train was lashed by it all the way north.

When I washed the salt out of the clothes with soap and fresh water they were soft and faded, perfect for climbing trees and getting lost in for the remainder of the summer. Ripped and finally outgrown, I cut them into squares last winter and, in the summer just gone, stitched the squares into four long strips.

The faded blues and greens remind me of the muted Devon landscape in late July. The grass is about to yellow. The leaves of the trees are less verdant, more familiar. The sea sparkles so that it barely has a colour at all, but is just a dazzling sheet of reflected light.

Between the strips I sewed white percale sashing, left over from the sheets I made in January. White for winter and snow, and to bring light into these dark days. A quilt for both summer and winter, finished in time for midwinter’s day, when the balance tips and the days begin to draw themselves out once more. I sewed rows of running stitch dashes to link the two, to say where we have been and where we are now. We will go back again. Back to summer and sunshine and days when all you have to do in the morning is slip on a frock and a pair of sandals. Summer and winter, north and south, sunshine and snow. Neither would be the same without the other. And on cue, the very morning after I finished the quilt, a postcard dropped onto the mat, inviting us to another family camp next year.

[whohit]summerindevonwinterinyork[/whohit]

Stir up Monday

Our conker expedition was rained off. The picnic, prepared the day before, sat forlornly on the kitchen table. Everything felt damp, and the sky stayed resolutely grey.

On days like this, the kitchen is the place to be. I turned on the electric light and, not trusting to its yellow glow alone, shook more coal from the scuttle into the stove. Then Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I gathered our supplies, not for an outdoor expedition but for a rainy day adventure.

For the children: coloured pencils, wooden rulers, ink pots and boxes of nibs, and thick sheets of laid paper. Special paper, for a special project.

For me: cinnamon and mixed spice, flour and eggs, golden syrup and dark brown sugar.

The children began by sketching compasses, Fliss reminding Ilse of in which direction each of the points lay. They discussed their landscapes, suggesting features geographically possible and impossible. Oxbox lakes in surprising little Os along the river. Islands with hostile camps upon them. High strung bridges and fireplaces with cauldrons slung over them. Then the map-making began in earnest, tongues out, brows furrowed. Seb drew curving contour lines. Fliss sketched a magical glade.

While they drew, I zested oranges and lemons. I creamed sugar and butter with oozing syrup. I sieved flour with spices and stirred them, alternating with beaten eggs, into the mix. Finally, I poured in two pounds of brandy-soaked fruit and carried the bowl to the table.

Ilse went first, pulling the spoon easily through the layer of dried fruit and wishing, eyes tight shut. Then Seb, whose lips moved unconsciously, nearly spilling his secrets. Fliss’ wishing took a long time, and I wondered whether there was a long list of wishes or just one, elaborate, desire. And I went last of all, wishing for the same thing that mothers always wish for, and actually stirring the fruit into the cake mixture.

The Christmas cake went into the oven. Soon there was a warm, spicy December fug, cacooning us from the lingering gloom. Coloured pencils were taken up, and I turned to the pudding.

Eggs and brandy, nutmeg and zest – almost the same ingredients but to a different end. We washed a silver sixpence and buried it in the uncooked basinful, before pleating the greaseproof paper lid and tying it on with string. Once lowered into the steaming pan it began its rattling dance, rising and falling with the bubbles. The room grew warm and softly steamy. Exotic flora and fauna were sketched around the edges of the maps.

I spread the picnic on the tablecloth for a late luncheon. Bully beef sandwiches, apples and cocoa make a feast whether eaten in a Christmas-cosy kitchen or on a trans-Siberian trek. Over their meal three excited children told me of the developments to their conker-collecting plans. It appears that we will be criss-crossing the globe. Their eyes shone, their voices rang, and their imaginations were clearly stirred up. As was my pudding, on a Monday, and a few weeks early. Sometimes, though, you have to obey the weather.

[whohit]stirupmonday[/whohit]

Where the cake is

Now that all four children have been back at school for a couple of weeks, they have fallen into their familiar habit of announcing, on arrival, how good it is to be home. It’s a bit of a family joke this: Benjamin in particular says it with a sideways smile, to please me. Felicity is beginning to adopt the same habit, as her world widens around her, but the little ones truly mean it. I am grateful, each and every afternoon, that we live so close to good schools and don’t need to send the children away. John says that it would benefit Ben and Fliss, but I held my ground on that score, and won.

I waited until they were tucking into their second round of sardines on toast at tea yesterday (because I know that full stomachs lead to more thoughtful answers – from my brood, anyway) before asking what ‘home’ meant to each of them. Actually, I’d asked Mrs P, my daily, the same questions earlier in the day. She’d surveyed me, with the dignity that she somehow maintains even when up to her elbows in soap suds, as if I might be a few pence short. ‘It’s where you go back to at the end of each day’, was her – slightly wondering – response.

Of course, I’d hoped the children would have rather more to their notions of ‘home’ than simply a place to return to, and they didn’t disappoint. Ben (helping himself to bread and jam, now) said that it was a comfortable place to replenish oneself. Fliss told me that it is a safe place where she can forget about ‘outside’ things and curl up in an corner with a book. Seb claimed that it was where the best cake was to be had (which I think he meant as a compliment, rather than a threat to relocate should standards slip) and dear Ilse said that it was where Mummy and Daddy were. (They have all learned to butter me up, in their own ways.)

While we were on Lindisfarne, we visited the castle there, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. John had written ahead to the housekeeper to arrange a private tour. He is very good at things like that; I would have skulked around the castle mound, surreptitiously admiring the wildflowers whilst hoping I wouldn’t be spotted.

I liked the castle very much. I liked the brickwork herringbone floors, the handles carved to fit comfortably beneath one’s hand, and the stained glass which threw soft and fleeting colour into the rooms without the need for gaudy ornamentation. Despite the design being almost twenty years old – and despite the fact that it is a castle, on a very windy northern island –  it felt quite modern, comfortable and homely.

I also liked Mrs Lilburn, the housekeeper, and think she liked us, for she invited us into her kitchen for tea and fed the children ginger snaps from an unfeasibly large tin. When we left, we all agreed that the kitchen had been our favourite space of all, because (as Seb put it) ‘that’s where everything important happens’. I prefer to think of it as where those things happen that nobody really notices until they stop happening: shopping lists being written, pots being washed, socks being darned.

So, although there are still many (many) changes I long to make to our house, I was pleased to unlock our front door, light the fire in our stove, and put our kettle on. I don’t go out to work, and therefore have a place to ‘go back to at the end of each day’, but I do have a place to which those I love return. There aren’t that many years left before Ben won’t be opening our gate every evening, so I must try my best to make it ‘home’ for them all – with a groaning table, a quiet corner, moist cake and the best version of myself.

[whohit]Where The Cake Is[/whohit]

The second conversion: north to south

[whohit]The second conversion: north to south[/whohit]

John and I decided, as usual, to spend the last few days of the children’s holidays away somewhere. The simple act of being away transforms the final week of the holidays (and all that the phrase carries with it) from a countdown to routine to another meandering adventure in the sunshine.

We camped, visited castles, and lost one another in the sand dunes – I can’t remember the last time I felt so utterly relaxed and at peace with the world.

The children, no doubt, will recall their time by the sea as the highlight of Northumberland. They ate ices every day, then little pots of cockles and winkles, before leaping over waves, and going almost imperceptibly further out to sea with each sideways jump. But for John and I the highlight of the holiday was our time on Lindisfarne.

Cut off from the mainland at high tide, it is an almost mythical land. There are rocks with mustard yellow seaweed, pebbles in every shade of grey, wild flowers and grasses and trees blown so persistently by the wind that they have since bowed down in obedience. On the edge of the village lie the ruins of the priory, from where the second conversion of England began. The first came from the south, from the continent, bringing Christianity like sun in the springtime, the days growing ever longer and sweeter. This second conversion put me in mind of autumn, creeping in from the north, with its mists and frosts and mornings which don’t fully surrender to the sun until near noon.

I love autumn. I love the way it demands commitment – so unlike the fickle, carefree days of summer when we drift from one pursuit to another and know that there is always tomorrow. August: when the fervour of spring is long forgotten, and the sun hangs as heavy on our lawns as the bees droning in the lavender. Autumn days are more precious by far. If we don’t pick the harvests they will vanish, devoured by animals and insects and a stealthy, unexpected blanketing of hard white frost. If we don’t preserve them they will rot, yielding to the grey fuzz of mould and disappointment. We need our sacks of carrots, our strings of onions and bottles of impossibly purple beetroot. Our crumpets, without a smear of glossy red jam, will never convince us, huddled in front of our January fires, of the truth of tales of sunlight.

With that in mind, I took Ilse and Seb berrying the very morning after we came home, and that afternoon had six more jars of blackberry jam in the larder before the older ones were home from school. Suddenly, I am knitting faster, ordering tweed for a new skirt, and taking stock of everyone’s woollen underthings.

In my mind, there are two new beginnings in every year: spring and autumn. As I stood in the ruins of the priory, its roof long fallen and tumbled walls no barrier to the offshore winds, the illusion dissolved. My final summer fling was over: autumn was here. All the way home, winding our way south along the coast, the feeling followed me. The haystacks huddled in shorn fields. The buzzing in the hedgerows had dwindled. The berries on the holly are already as yellow as the seaweed, and on their way to russet. And so, each morning, before the children head off to school, I stir a spoonful of jam into their porridge and embrace another day of autumn.