And so to bed

Brace yourselves, because that was the only vaguely pretty photo that this garden post has to offer. November is descending into darkness and we spent a final Saturday afternoon putting the garden to bed together. I snapped a few quick photographs on my phone just as the sun was threatening to slip below the city-stunted horizon, and empty beds are not the most photogenic of subjects. Yet when I’m reading about other people’s gardens, I want to see the work behind the scenes, and not just the glamour shots of sweet peas in all their finery.

My task this weekend was to clear the cut flower bed and protect the tender plants. A couple of old fleeces, too full of second cuts and noils to be worth my limited spinning time, had been put aside for just this purpose. They’re protecting the incredibly productive alstroemeria, some freesias and, for the first time ever, my gladioli bulbs. I’ve always dug them up and overwintered them in the garage before, so keep your fingers crossed for me. I still have a mountain of compost and leaves to dump on top of the whole bed, to protect and feed it over the coming months, but I’m waiting for some muscle to come home from university for that particular task. That, or a burst of energy and enthusiasm one bright morning. I have shifted a lot of compost over the last couple of weeks and need a bit of a break.

The veg patch is done, for now. Before dealing with each bed, I worked out the crop rotation for next year so that I can treat each accordingly.

Two beds got a few inches of compost.

This one will have roots in it next year, so it only gets a layer of cardboard.

The fourth bed (just out of sight to the left) has this winter’s roots and other veg still in it, but it’ll get a mountain of compost dug in come spring, and the beans and peas that will be planted will be perfectly happy in there.

I still need to prune the fruit bushes, so didn’t think to take a photo of the fruit patch. It’ll be pruned and each bush given a top dressing of organic fertiliser. I love growing fruit; you get maximum output for minimum input.

My PSB are loving the colder weather, as are the leeks.

The perpetual spinach still has a couple of meals left in it,

and although the parsnips look unimpressive above ground, they are one of my consistently huge harvests every year. We virtually never buy them, and we dig them up all winter.

I do need to bring in and use the end of the beetroot though, before we get any serious frosts.

The flower bed by the patio has been mulched by the apple tree above it, and I’m inclined to leave it like this, apples and all. The birds and other wildlife love them and it makes a convenient blanket for this bed.

I have to say, fresh air and excercise apart, there is something faintly sad about a November garden. There’s a line from a Carol Ann Duffy poem that pops into my head every time I go out there at the moment: The trees have wept their leaves. They certainly have. But there’s also pleasure to be taken in doing things for the very last time this year: the last bit of strimming, the last mow, the last weeding of a bed. The garden is fast becoming a blank canvas, ready and waiting for spring.

Not all is asleep out there though. For the first time ever, I filled our hanging baskets with violas and they look so pretty, these little flashes of colour either side of our front door. Seb spent some of his pocket money at the pet shop this weekend, and filled his bird feeders with fatballs again. Bulb lasagnas have been planted. The hens are still laying, just about. We’re planning a night-time birthday party out there, with a big fire and a barbecue and hide and seek in the dark. The garden might have been put to bed, but it’ll be lying awake for some time yet.

Madeleine

Have you put your garden/ pots/ patio to bed for the winter yet – or are things just waking up into spring where you live?

 

A small, sustainable wardrobe: we are the grown ups now

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

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My Sharpen Your Pencils dress as modelled by the gorgeous Ella. We got together for a photoshoot in the summer holidays, and she wowed me with how a  woman in her late teens or early twenties might style and wear my clothes. There are more photos to follow of both of us in the patterns. The dress pattern will be available in the coming months.

For some time now, I’ve been mulling over how to present my patterns within the wider context in which they are created. In the end, a series seems the best way forward: a weekly post about clothing and its impact both on us and the world around us.

I have always been interested in the wider world, the health of our planet, and the living conditions of its poorest inhabitants. You don’t grow up in a country like Tanzania in the 1980s and then turn a blind eye to issues like climate change, pollution, poverty, or human rights. Perhaps it seems odd – frivolous even – to approach these issues through the prism of the clothes we wear. Perhaps it is. But we all, without exception, clothe ourselves each day. And when you are conscious of your daily choices in one sphere, this consciousness spills over into other parts of your life, until before you know it, you are buying your loose leaf tea in an old ice cream tub and looking for a car share buddy.

I can distinctly remember learning about climate change at school. I was an early member of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots – a global environmental organisation which started in Tanzania, educating and inspiring children from kindergarten through to university about the change that they can make to the planet and its people. I remember reading Douglas Adam’s wonderful Last Chance to See, and about the rate at which the rainforests were disappearing, and being taught about the importance of educating women in eradicating poverty. So we kids made our changes: we stopped buying aerosols, and ate less meat, and learned to recycle our waste.

And all the time, I trusted the grown ups to sort the big things out.

More than twenty years on, little has changed. If anything, the rate of destruction has increased. We are producing over 300 million tons of plastic every year. Girls all over the world – including developed countries – miss school every month because of lack of sanitary ware. Between 150 and 200 species go extinct every day. Governments make decisions which they know are harmful rather than helpful to the world and its inhabitants. Even Lovelock’s fantastically optimistic Gaia hypothesis has lost its nerve.

We could do nothing. We could weep and wail and feel powerless in the face of big corporations, big government, big natural disasters that heap still more misery onto human misery. Or we could simply accept that we are the grown ups now.

I have money in my pocket, and I can choose where to spend it. I have places to go, and I can choose how to get there. I have children, and I can choose what sort of a role model I wish to be for them. I have friends, and I can choose what to talk about with them. And I have a voice, here on this blog, that I can choose how to use.

Most recently, I had the choice of what to do with the time that has opened up to me as my children grow ever bigger. I put a lot of thought into what I wanted the legacy of this time to be. In the end, I decided to start a business selling dressmaking and knitwear patterns. How, you might think, is that a positive choice? How will that make a difference? How is that being a grown up?

I started making my own clothes when our children were small and, frankly, we had no money for adult clothes shopping. More pertinently, we had nothing like the money required to buy the ethically made garments I really wanted. So as well as shopping second hand and accepting hand-me-downs, I decided to teach myself to make them. Of course, there wasn’t spare cash for patterns either, so I borrowed a book from the library and tried to draft my own.

Over a decade later, I’ve learned a vast amount. Best of all, I’ve taken charge of the choices I make. Knitting and dressmaking can be as sustainable – or otherwise – as you make it. Churning out clothes that you don’t need or don’t even want is no better than going shopping every Saturday. If you are taking clothes to the charity shop, you are still consuming too much.

Instead, I’ve become fascinated by detail, by skill, by versatility and material. I demand a huge amount of my clothes: that they be warm or cool or cross-seasonal, that they be comfortable, that they be attractive, that they fit into a reasonably compatible colour palette, that they have the sort of details that make them not just good enough, but exactly as I want them. One of the things that delighted me most about the reception of my Snow Day jumper was the number of people who commented on the little details. I added an uneven hem because it looks good and keeps my lower back warm. I added a very wide boat neck because I wanted a jumper that was both a little bit sexy but also cosy. The sleeves are ribbed to make them extra warm, because I feel the cold. And these details matter because that is my only jumper. I don’t have another jumper in my wardrobe. It needs to work hard.

In my wardrobe there is a fairly stable number of items, though of course it fluctuates a little. At the moment I have three pairs of shoes, three coats or jackets, one jumper and two cardigans, three dresses, three tops and four bottoms. Actually, I only have two bottoms, because I’m waiting to test the printed version of a couple of patterns. But there will be four, soon. I make my clothes exactly the way I want them, and then I wear them over and over again. Eventually they wear out, and I cut them up and make them into other things: quilts and potholders and so on, to give as gifts or use around the house. It works out that I generally need to replace one of each category each year. That means that I make one new knit, one dress, one top and one or two bottoms a year. I buy new shoes, coats and underwear as I need them, usually secondhand or from ethical companies.

Of course, having a tiny wardrobe isn’t going to save the world. But it was one of my first steps to making a significant difference. And I do believe that I make a significant difference. Every time I refuse to buy wrapped cheese, every time I log onto The Life You Can Save, every time I get on a train instead of an airplane. Spending less on shopping means that I have more money to donate or spend with trusted companies. Making my own clothes, and making them precisely as I want them, ironically means that I spend less time thinking about my clothes and more time thinking about things that matter. Each night I put away the few things that have needed to be washed. Each morning I put on whatever is clean and suitable for the demands of the day. I might wear the same things over and over again, but I couldn’t care less. I love all of my clothes and feel fabulous in them.

If you wanted to, you could work through all the patterns with me and, at the end of three years, we’d have sibling wardrobes. In different colours, no doubt, and different patterns and materials, but essentially the same. That would be fun. Equally, I’d be happy if people made just one of my patterns, so that they had that one great dress, or sweater, or pair of socks, and stopped buying more and more and more. Because the world just can’t take it any longer.

In my messy, imperfect life, making my own clothes is one of many things that I do to try to make a difference. I make mistakes all the time (though not in my patterns, I hope!), but I keep on trying. The internet is full of inspirational people sharing their personal passions. This is my offering: make the world the way you want it to be, from the clothes on your back to the cares in your head. Be conscious. Most of all, know that the choices you make do matter. We might not all be politicians or aid workers or company bosses. But we are the grown ups now.

Madeleine

Do you buy lots of clothes, in the search for the ‘perfect’ this or that? Do you make any of your own? What would your ideal wardrobe look like, in order to work for you and the world around you?

Gardens, home and away

While I planned the London leg of our trip south, John was in charge of the week we spent in Devon and Cornwall. The Devon part was easy – every other year my brother and his family throw a huge weekend-long party in their woodland, and that, coupled with a visit to their home in Totnes, is a well-practised part of our summer holidays. The Cornish visit, however, wasn’t planned until one hot evening in London, when John checked the weather forecast, pulled together a plan, and booked a couple of campsites.

There were so many things we could have done in Cornwall. We could have visited more National Trust sites. We could have gone to the Tate in St Ives. We could have pottered along the north coast, taking in the pretty towns with their Enid Blyton coves. But knowing how much I like my plants, and how hard we’d all tried to be plastic-free and reduce our footprint recently, John arranged for us to visit a couple of world-famous gardens.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Eden Project since it opened in 2001, and the space-age view of the honeycomb biospheres in a lush green valley did not disappoint. Parts of the Mediterranean biosphere reminded us strongly of holidays in Greece, Italy and southern France, with the grapes and the olive oil and the kitchen gardens overflowing with good produce and impossibly fat lemons. Some of the plants in the South African section were familiar to me too, from my trip there many years ago but also from Tanzania. The Californian section was the newest to us, as we’ve never visited the west coast of the USA. Wandering around, marvelling at the dry-weather plants, put me in mind of the early settlers, deciding whether to go further north or south as they approached the Pacific Ocean in their covered wagons. I’d always assumed I’d go south, but perhaps life would have been easier a little further north, where the weather patterns were more familiar. Whichever they chose, the climate must have been a shock to settlers from Britain and Ireland, with our temperate island seasons. We have neither blizzards nor deserts, and – usually – water in abundance.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the wave of familiarity that swept over me as we entered the Tropical biosphere. There is no other way to describe it except that I felt as though I’d suddenly come home. Even now, after all these years away, I could name so many of the plants, and tell the children about their dangers, uses and temptations. How we never climbed snake-trees (ficus) as they were a favourite haunt of mambas. How the swiss cheese plant reminded me of one we had in our living room when I was growing up. The cinnamon, pomagranate and papaya trees from which we would nibble as we went about our play. Hibiscus – the vibrant red kind, with its prominent yellow-dusted spear. Ginger, which grew as an ornamental in our back garden, alongside the traveller’s palm, and the enticing frangipane under which we dug tunnels and built dens and made mud pies. I hadn’t realised how many plants I could name, nor how firmly they were etched into my mind. There was something new and familiar around every corner and it almost felt like showing the children around a place where I had grown up.

I do think that it matters, being able to name the plants around you. I think that it changes your perspective of the world if you can name the living things which inhabit it. We care more for the things that we can name. Around the outdoor gardens, which we loved the scope and variety of, we learned the names of many plants that we hadn’t known before. I do love a garden with labels. We could have spent all day there, learning about plants, their habitats and their uses, so we did. Fliss was so inspired that she is writing a herbal: a botanical volume of plants, their identification and medicinal uses. There has been much careful research and sketching since we got home. I came home to two weeks of vibrant green growth, which is both delightful and alarming all at once. I picked four kilograms of cucumbers on Sunday, and have bottled my first jars of tomato sauce. There are more courgettes than we can shake a stick at and flowers in every room of the house.

The children are probably relieved by the abundance because I was sorely tempted by the vegetable and flower gardens at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. John reckoned that our back garden is about half the size of their vegetable beds, and this observation quickly disintegrated into my enthusiastic suggestion that if we dug up the lawn, we could be self-sufficient in vegetables. How Good Life of me. Seb was particularly horrified, and his reaction, coupled with the fact that the chickens would have nowhere to roam and I do actually have a limited number of hours in the day, won out. Oh, but it really is the sort of garden to inspire those One Day dreams. John and I were making plans the whole way around – one day we’ll have an orchard with a pond for the poultry to live in, and a small woodland for fuel, a huge vegetable patch and a couple of pigs. And then, walled off and civilised, something akin to the Italian Garden, which is so far from what I normally aspire to yet took my breath away.

There are other jaunts to write about – involving castles and coves, sausages and swims – but I wanted to set the gardens down first, as they are in my mind’s eye. Both were vast, ambitious spaces, managed far more skilfully than I will ever manage mine. I’ve come home with a head full of plans to implement over the coming autumn, winter and spring. Really, though, those two days of gardens have deepened my love of plants and the natural world. I won’t be starting an Eden Project any time soon, or bringing an abandoned landscape back to its former glory. But I will be outside every day, watering and cutting, pruning and weeding, caring for my little piece of the planet.

On Hampstead Heath

Wherever you visit, it’s good to strike a balance between being a tourist and acting like a local. So while we almost always visit the big attractions – the Acropolis, Pompeii, the Brandenberg Gate – we also like to get our hair cut, hear local history from our landlord’s granny, and head for former East German lakes.

This time, I thought we’d try a spot of outdoor swimming, and the heat wave made it such an appealing idea that we threw over our day in Greenwich in favour of a day in and out of the water. There are several lidos in London, but I wanted something a little wilder, and a quick search brought us to the clay pits on Hampstead Heath.

Now, I’d never even been to Hampstead before, but it turns out that as well as the village and heath they’ve filled in some old clay pits to create natural swimming pools. We were a little anxious about whether we’d get in – surely in a city the size of London demand would be overwhelming – and I had prepared the children for disappointment and had Plan B up my sleeve. To our delight we were greeted by a lovely old man who charged me £2, checked several times that the children were good swimmers, and let us in immediately. The little area of land around the jetty was busy, but not so much so that we couldn’t find a spot to spread our towels, and huge pond had far more space than I’ve seen at any swimming pool. Clearly the rest of London was cooling off elsewhere.

Swimming at Hampstead Heath reminded me of nothing as much as the day we spent at an old East German swimming lake in Berlin. Virtually cost-free, full of locals and with only the most basic of amenities, it is my sort of swimming. The girls and I walked into the women’s changing area, which is fenced off for privacy, to find a wrinkly old woman stretched out on a bench, completely starkers, soaking up the sun. Nobody was fussing about their hair, there was no overpowering waft of deoderant sprays or whoosh of hand-dryers. Just lots of people enjoying the good weather and staying cool in the water.

We went swimming in pairs, and I went in with each of the younger ones, to keep an eye on them. The water is so opaque with clay that you cannot see your own hands in the water, and it would be impossible to see someone who’d gone under. The lifeguards were excellent: friendly and sensible, and Ilse’s age and swimming ability was checked before she was allowed in. We had a lovely time in the water, swimming out to this patch of flowers or that, practising dolphin or backstroke or just skulling along. Every so often we’d get out to warm up, or swap between those reading on the bank and whoever’s turn it was in the water.

I love swimming outdoors. Whether in the sea, a river, a lake or a pond, it is one of my favourite things to do. I love being in the water – any water – but water without chlorine and surrounded by plants, rocks, sand or simply the horizon is such a treat. We’ve got a lot more outdoor swimming lined up this summer, along the coast of Devon and Cornwall, but before I’d even rinsed the silt from my hair I’d planned another day out, in and around the Nidd. We all have our favourite memories of our sojourn in London, but mine is without a doubt the day we spent swimming on Hampstead Heath.

Madeleine

Do you swim outdoors? Is there somewhere close to you where you can? One day, I’m going to live by the sea again, but I’m glad I’ve discovered rivers and ponds too, because I wouldn’t have were the ocean still on my doorstep.

Minor miracles

There’s a box in the kitchen that keeps distracting me with its cheeping. Under the heatpad are these little bundles of fluff.

Until now, we’ve got our hens either as point of lay pullets, or as rescue hens from the egg industry. We like both. With the pullets, there’s the excitement of seeing them come into lay. Their combs grow and redden and  their first small and sometimes strange eggs appear in the nest boxes. Over time, these sleek teenagers put on weight until, imperceptibly, they have grown into the characteristically fat hens lazing around the garden.

The rescue girls are fun too, although sometimes quite disturbing to look at on arrival. They tend to be overwhelmed by the most natural of things: rain, for example, or grass. Give them a couple of days, though, and they’re strutting their stuff and giving the established residents a run for their money.

I’m not sure what made me think of hatching eggs this time around. Perhaps we were just ready to try something new. Whatever the reason, we ordered some eggs in a variety of breeds, and an incubator, and diligently turned them for three weeks. Late last week we locked down the incubator and waited for something to happen until on Sunday morning we could hear cheeping and saw the first pipped egg.

Ilse set up her Chick Watch station (blanket, colouring pencils, book, drink) and settled in for the morning, but nothing happened. That afternoon we had a long standing arrangement to go to a barbecue, and when we got back we were greeted by this little one.

He alternately charged around the incubator like a tiny, ineffective T-Rex, before suddenly collapsing into sleep. You wouldn’t have imagined that such a fragile thing could make so much noise, but apparently the noise and movement encourages the others to hatch. It must have done some good, because at ten o’clock that evening Ben, Fliss, John and I were all glued to the incubator, watching the second chick unzip then push apart its egg. The following morning there were three in there, galumphing around, and I was sure that there would be more by the time the children were home from school.

Sadly, not all the chicks made it. Now I really know the meaning of the expression don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Some of them never made it to lockdown. Some of our chicks pipped but never unzipped. I followed the advice to sit on my hands and do nothing for most of the day, but when I knew that they were dying I decided to intervene and help the last little one out of its shell. I could see its beak, peeping  and breathing, but the movements were growing further apart. So, ever so slowly and gently, I used tweezers and cotton wool and a warm flannel to keep the membrane moist and soft and, over the course of some hours, hatched the last one myself. It flopped about in the incubator for a long time, so we left it in there alone to dry off, away from the others who were alternately charging around the brooder and toppling over on top of each other.

Twenty four hours later, the last chick joined its siblings and is holding its own with no problems at all, thank you very much. We’ve learned so much by doing this, and each new chick felt like a mini miracle. Of course I am sad about the ones that never hatched, but at least I know that I gave them my full attention and really did do my best. I’m also far more confident now about what to do should the same situation arise next time. Sitting at home alone, making decisions about what best to do to look after the tiny lives in my hands, the internet came to my rescue. There is such a wealth of information out there, compiled so generously by hobbyists who freely share their knowledge and expertise. Over the past month I’ve followed all avenues of the hatching debate: opinions on humidity, temperature, intervention and so forth. Then of course the unexpected happened and I found myself right back in those pages, having moved swiftly from I think it would be better to let nature take its course to this is probably a perfectly healthy chick that just needs a little help hatching. So really, this post is a celebration of all sorts of minor miracles – none of which are really miracles at all, in the true sense of the word. Yet they have stirred a sense of wonder and gratitude in me, so I think they deserve the name. The miracle of a fertilised egg turning to a chick in three short weeks. The miracle of watching life appear before my very eyes. And the generosity of people all around the world, posting what they know online so that their expertise is right there when we need it. Minor miracles indeed.

Waterlog

Each time of year has its antidote. In the dull damp cold of January it is whisperings of spring, of gardens awakening. In October it is tales of cosiness to come, with cold toes and shortened evenings pushed firmly to the margins. In July, it is water, and nature, and calm.

This time of year inevitably builds to a frenzy, with end of year assemblies, visit days to new schools, sports days, school plays, music concerts, holiday planning, and social visits that somehow didn’t happen earlier in the year. People are coming and going from the house at all sorts of strange times, for the day, or a night, or a couple of weeks in France. There are invitations to field and fit, like temporal tetras, into the family calendar. On top of that, I’ve been working full time, coupling my days at work with my own project at home – the beginnings of my business and rebirth of this blog – so that the usual rhythms of July days at home have been reassigned to the busy hours which bookend my working days.

While my days at home are spent writing and drafting paper sewing patterns, I’ve saved my knitting for the evenings. After a day bent over the dining table, measuring and drawing and doing sums, it is a joy to sit on the sofa in the kitchen and watch the chickens make their evening rounds while I add a few rows to my design. In all, I’m pulling together five sewing, four knitting and one embroidery project together for my first pattern collection. The idea is that I’ll release one a month, and support each with video tutorials, link ups and FAQs. This first year of projects is designed to help new sewers and knitters build both a capsule wardrobe and a repertoire of key skills at the same time, so that they can make clothes which are both achievable and beautiful.

Of course, the simpler something is, the more work goes into making it so. The little cast on of green is the beginning of a doll-sized shawl, one fifth the size of the actual design. I had started the real thing before deciding to test my pattern in a smaller format, to save time in case it didn’t turn out as I wanted it to – it’s going to be a crescent shawl with exceptionally simple shaping, and I’ve not seen one like it before. Should it work – and I think it will – the practice shawl will be a gift for Ilse, to wrap around her toy kitty.

Now that I’ve calculated the arcs and angles and figured out my gauge, I’ll have the pleasure of knitting through this little shawl over the next few evenings, Wimbledon on in the background, until it’s time for bed. But the tireder I get, the harder it is to sleep. I find this every year in July: there is so much to think about and do, so many decisions to make and hot stuffy days at work that it is hard to put my mind at rest. I have a little repertoire of antidotes, for this. The pre-sleep knitting helps, even if it’s just a few rows. This weekend I will bring in the lavender, which I’ll hang from our wooden ceiling airers and we will all drop off the moment our heads hit our pillows, lulled by its soporific scent. Most effective of all, though, is reading.

I always read before I go to sleep, but the book I find myself returning to again and again in these tricky July days is Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it; I tend to dip in and out of it, paddling randomly in and out of his outdoor swimming journey around Britain. There is something immensely soothing about nature writing. Reading it is like going home, or being hugged, or perhaps it is simply the literary equivalent of a long walk through green fields. Simple tales about what is both extraordinary and what has always been: training a hawk; courting hares; wild swimming through Britain’s landscape. These are the books that I fall asleep in, their cool waters closing over my head until I am a water baby myself, dreaming of clean skin and cool pastures.

When I opened this book, last week, I found a feather inside, bookmarking the middle of a chapter. I must have broken off, halfway through a bathe in its refreshing pages. I picked another and started to read, until sweet sleep overtook me and before I knew it, a new day had dawned.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

PS – What is July normally like, for you? I suspect that it varies tremendously, depending on whether you have children and whether they are still waiting to break up for the summer holidays.

Desert Island Discs: Find the River

After three years in Jordan, we moved back to Dar es Salaam, where we stayed for five more years before I left home for university. Returning somewhere is a strange experience. Nothing is quite as you left it. The student body of international schools is constantly shifting, so that the people you left behind will often have moved on themselves. New faces take their place. Most of all though, is the change that takes place in you, and the shift from age ten to thirteen is a dramatic one.

Still, though all the buildings had shrunk and the number of familiar faces dwindled, there were widening horizons to explore. No longer content to hang out on the school campus, time was spent at friends’ houses or at the beach or, when I was a little older, at the Yacht Club (which sounds far posher than it was). Nonetheless, I did have a little sailing dinghy – a secondhand Laser – and we spent most weekends messing about on the water, racing each other, crewing for friends’ parents on their Wayfarers or catamarans, and eating junk food in the bar. We sailed through great swarms of white, plate-like jellyfish, and occasionally alongside dolphins. For a time, our favourite thing to do was to put a sandwich and bottle of water in the little watertight cubbies at the front of our boats and sail out to Bongoyo Island for a day of lazing in the sun. We had tropical beaches and reefs on our doorstep, and I quite naturally transferred my love of horses to the sea.

Of course school was school, as it is wherever you grow up, but life around the edges was rich with new experiences. There were family safaris and then, as I got older, safaris with friends. Although I never had a car, several of my friends had use of their parents 4x4s and I will never forget our trip to camp in the Usambara mountains, which were then almost totally cut off from the world we knew. We lit a fire, stored our food carefully to avoid attracting unwanted animals and spent the evening diving into plunge pools of icy mountain water. The following morning I ventured upstream, picking my way over boulders, only to look up and find myself completely surrounded by a troop of baboons. They looked at me for a while and, thankfully, went on their way. It took some time for my pulse to return to normal.

Then there were school trips. The most exciting was the Kilimanjaro climb, for which we took long practice walks along the coastline. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, but scaling most of its 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) is nothing more technical than a very long walk. You do, however, ascend extremely quickly and the altitude sickness can be quite a challenge. In the end, I never made Uhuru peak – I was just too ill. I did make it all the way to the last of the huts, but I just missed out on the final dawn ascent. One of my very favourite things about that climb though, was the chameleons. They were absolutely everywhere on the lower slopes, with their roving eyes and grippy opposing toes, and I must admit that we did test their colour-changing abilities on our waterproofs…

If I had to choose just one album to sum up those teenage years, it would have to be R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. I heard it first in a friend’s bedroom and still have it, downloaded from CD onto iTunes, and it is still a favourite. I could have chosen so many tracks for this part of my life – Nightswimming would have been quite obvious – but Find the River sums up my impatience and wonder and longing to find my own path through the world.

Recently I was having a conversation with someone who knows Tanzania, and he commented that he couldn’t think of a nicer country in which to grow up. It is so gentle, so serene, so relaxed and conflict free. Of course, as a kid you never appreciate how lucky you are. I can remember my last few weeks so vividly – exams over we would gather at Coco’s beach bar for late-night bouts of monopoly punctuated by dips in the moonlit sea. I had a vague sense that something was coming to an end, but more than that I was impatient to be moving on, beginning something new. Within a year I would so have been so happy to have gone back and sat on that terrace in front of a dukah, sipping beer and worrying about nothing more pressing than the next roll of the dice. But then, I was so busy waiting for life to begin that I didn’t realise how much of it was coming to an end.

Madeleine

PS That’s me, in the white hat with the blue brim. We were in one of the huts, partway up Kili. Do you have a photo or song that takes you right back to your teenage years?

Celebrating Plastic Free July

You know how sometimes things seem to come together and fall into place just perfectly? Over the past few weeks I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about all the plastic our family seems to be getting through. Then my brother told me about a packaging free shop in the town where he lives. And Seb read, on the back of a Morrisons receipt, that the supermarket is inviting customers to bring their own containers to take home fresh meat and fish. And yet somehow we are putting the bin out more often than we used to. So I went online to look up plastic free options and inspiration and stumbled upon Plastic Free July.

Originating in Australia in 2011, this year looks set to have millions of participants in over 150 countries worldwide – including me. I’ve pledged to give up single-use plastics… forever. It goes without saying that I won’t succeed and I like the way that they acknowledge that directly. It doesn’t bother me at all, setting myself up to fail in this way, because I won’t view it as failure. Instead, I’m going to celebrate each and every piece of single use plastic that we don’t use. There are bound to be all sorts that slip the net: medical blister packs, butter ‘paper’, single-use plastics that we already own. But there are bound to be plastic items that we refuse, and that’s why this can only be a win-win scenario.

So much has changed since the first time I made a concerted effort to reduce the single-use plastic in our lives – about ten years ago. Back then, it felt a bit niche, to be honest. Nowadays it feels positively mainstream. I told my car-share buddy about it on the way to work and she enthusiastically told me that she’d like to give it a go, then sat down with me to create a resource to share the opportunity with the rest of our organisation. Beth Terry‘s blog was the only one I could find on the topic, way back when. Now there are several excellent blogs which look at everything from plastic-free living to zero-waste lifestyles in a realistic and encouraging way. Best of all, a quick internet search turned up all sorts of options in and around York, from the market to Whittards to a farm shop that is literally on my way to work and sells both fresh and frozen food sans plastic, as far as I can tell. (The aforementioned car-share buddy and I have a stop planned for later in the week.) Then there are all the online shops specialising in plastic-free living: I ordered my first tin of non-nano suncream along with a few other consumables that we are about to run out of. I couldn’t find those sorts of products the last time I looked.

If I am honest with myself, I had become complacent about certain plastics. Things that I never used to buy: punnets of grapes, tubs of hummus and yoghurt, rigid packs of organic mince – had become regular features in my online trolley. Thanks to the powers of habit and the efforts of my husband, we had stuck to several ingrained behaviours, such as using the market for fruit, veg and most meat, and getting our milk delivered in glass bottles. However, I knew that the teabags thrown onto the compost heap contained plastic; I was just tired of swilling out the teapot. I knew I needed a wake-up call and some inspiration. What I hadn’t appreciated was how much I needed to feel that lots of other people were trying to do this too. Thanks to co-workers and my  children and my lovely husband who took our own containers to the butcher to see what they would say, this doesn’t feel like such an uphill battle any more.

Sure, there are lots of horrifying statistics and videos out there, and they deserve our attention. But when searching, with Ilse, for some child-appropriate information (good old Newsround) we discovered that a company is developing a product designed to clean up the big bits of plastic in the oceans. I simply cannot believe that future generations are never going to dig up our landfill and develop the technology to recycle it. And pressure is mounting to ban or tax more forms of single-use plastic than just the bag.

I’m not anti-plastic. In fact, Cecily is going to make a very excited appearance on the blog next week, writing all about the wonder material that has so much potential to improve the world. When I was a kid in Tanzania, plastic was a pretty rare and precious thing. My mother kept her UK-shopping plastic bags neatly folded, and used them over and over again. Ice-cream tubs would live on for years alongside the tupperware. In the run up to Plastic Free July, I keep rescuing plastic from the recycling. There won’t be many more squeezy bottles or freezer bags coming into our home. Plastic plays a significant role in our lives, and a shift in mindset makes it suddenly invaluable.

I’m not planning on writing about the issues surrounding plastic or offering comprehensive lists of tips – other people have already done that extremely well. What I would like to do is share this journey with you once in a while – because I’m sure it will be a very long and bumpy journey – and invite you along for the ride. Like every adventure, it’ll be more fun with company.

Madeleine

Are you already a plastic-free pro, or just interested in finding out more? I’m really curious about what you think. And I’d love to know if you do sign up to Plastic Free July. You could leave a comment, or drop me a private email. Whatever you do, big or small, alone or as part of a community, I hope we can celebrate every small refusal of another bit of unnecessary plastic – and cheer each other along.

Notes from the garden (and beyond): June

Last year (and the year before, I think) I ran a weekly Garden Notes series, documenting the changes in our garden over the coming year. Reading about other people’s gardens is one of my favourite things: garden posts are the ones I simply can’t resist and I go back to them in the depths of winter when I am missing the green and can’t quite believe that it’ll ever be warm enough for anything to grow out there. With that in mind, and the simply beautiful weekend we’ve just enjoyed, I thought some garden notes would be in order for today. Only this year I’ve amended the titleto include some of the natural world around us. We are holidaying in the British Isles this summer – England and Eire, to be precise, and probably Scotland – and I want to track the course of this summer as it melts into autumn.

Saturday evening saw us make a foray into the countryside just outside York, at the home of some dear friends of ours. It was so balmy that we sat outside long after the barbecue and deserts had been enjoyed, catching up with each others’ news and watching our children play on the hay bales in the field just over the fence. Later still, when the moon hung in the still-light sky, we took a stroll down the track which leads away from the road and towards the farmer’s house, between fields of luminous, shifting wheat and broad beans in full bloom. In the quiet of the night the animals were out, hunting and hiding as they must. A pair of buzzards started from a bale and flew away to the camouflage of a tree grown tall in the hedge. Time and again the barn owls flew, soft and silent, over the stubbled fields. And Ilse told me that she and my friends’ daughter had been the last in from the bales and looked round one last time to spy a doe on the edge of the woods, watching and waiting for them to leave.

At home, even my suburban garden is bursting with life. There are insects everywhere, and the little garden birds swoop low across the lawn to catch them. We have been careful to keep the bird bath full, and it has become a regular watering and bathing spot in the rounds of the neighbourhood flocks. Our makeshift pond, which I am still hoping will entice some frogs or toads, has long been wriggling with various larvae and in the heat of Sunday I noticed various long-bodied insects hovering above it. I have yet to identify them: that will be a project for Seb and I to enjoy together. For the first year in many we haven’t seen a hedgehog or a vole cross the patio in the evenings, which is a little worrying, but the piles of rotting wood and undisturbed weeds are a standing invitation to all and sundry. We’ve gardened organically since before we moved here, and year on year the volume of life in the garden swells as we create new habitats.

It was with all this life that I shared our space, pottering around on Sunday, watering and weeding and feeding this and that. I had to wait for a bee, drunk on nectar and overheating in his wooly coat, to bumble his way off the brick path so that I could see to my burgeoning tomatoes. The fruit patch was genuinely loud with little beasts enjoying the autumn raspberry blossoms as I checked the progress of the summer canes. Ben and I had an exploratory nibble here and there on our rounds: fat blackcurrants and the first of the sweet mange tout. Further along the same bed, the broad beans have set sail with more blooms than I can ever remember, and I am looking forward to that first crop with such anticipation. Even the new potatoes are in bloom, and the time is fast approaching when they’ll be placed on the table, their burst skins fat with butter, speckled with pepper and mint.

When I think of my garden at the moment, the word that occurs to me is cusp. We are on the cusp of so much goodness that it is easy for me, impatient as I am, to spend too much time dreaming about what is coming next and fail to focus on what we are enjoying just now. Each morning begins with fresh baskets of lettuce, rocket and spinach. There are flowers at my bedside – sweet peas and English marigolds – to wake me as they flow with scent each morning. And on Saturday I took my favourite of all gifts to our hostess: a bunch of home grown stems wrapped in newspaper, which is only possible in these warmer months. There is so much happening now to be connected to, to savour and relish and store up against the coming cold.

On the way home, far, far past her bedtime, Ilse was wide awake and talking about all she’d seen and done. Playing on the hay bales was so much fun, she told us. Do you remember, Mummy, how Laura’s Pa told them not to play on the haystack but they did anyway? Now I know why they did – it’s the best fun there is. It makes me happy, that my twenty-first century daughter finds as much fun in a hay field as her heroine did in pioneer America. It makes me happy that Ben wants to walk the garden with me, and taste and wonder over all that grows there. Or that Seb will sit and sketch and look up bugs and birds, or Fliss give up her Sunday morning to carry cans of water to thirsty plants. I want my children to feel connected to the natural world around them, to know its beauty and its unstoppable power. And to cherish and care for it, as a matter of course. As for myself, I felt unspeakably connected as we drove home through the darkening night on Saturday: to the earth, to the creatures that we share it with, and to our friends, with whom those connections had just grown deeper.

Madeleine

PS – What’s June like in your part of the world? And, if you have a garden, what stage is everything at? Has your harvest well and truly begun?

Desert Island Discs: Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me

Apparently, green mambas have three scales between the eyes, whereas the harmless grass snake has four. This is one of the first things I remember learning when we moved to Dar, probably from one of the bigger boys. It was only later, once I’d carried a young cobra to the biology teacher’s house for identification, that someone thought to tell me that I should never get close enough to count.

For all the things that I loved about life in West Sussex, life as a child in Tanzania was bigger, wilder and more free. School ended at half twelve and then we were free to roam until the sun set at six. We lived on the secondary school campus and nowhere was off limits to us: not the askaris’ huts with their poisoned spears and arrows, not the diving pool with a leak but plenty of tadpoles if you could reach the bottom. Not the low roofs of the classrooms, on which we would play and ride our bikes, nor the flame trees into whose branches we hammered planks and made dens. I know, now, that we were safe, watched over by all the adults in the place, but back then we didn’t care. We were just kids, immortal and invincible, teasing scorpions behind the art room.

So many of my memories of that time are about animals – the baboon that stole the potatoes from my plate, the one-tusked elephant that hung around Mikumi Lodge, the rats that swam up through the toilets and ate our candles and plastic tupperware. Bright birds, in cages or tethered by one leg to a stick. Bush babies and monkeys for sale. Monitor lizards, appearing suddenly out of storm drains.

And driving to see more: lions and cheetahs, impalas and hyenas and giraffe. Tanzania is a huge country, and we thought nothing of driving for a day or two to get somewhere, see something. We saw black rhinos in Ngorogoro Crater, and swathes of flamingos shimmering on Lake Manyara. Wildebeest stirring up the landscape of the Serengeti, and hundreds upon hundreds of crocodiles in the Selous. We also drove out of the country, to Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and, when my parents wanted a little luxury, we travelled to the Old Town of Zanzibar, or to Swaziland, or to a tiny private island where we and the members of A-ha were the only residents for the week.

I’m not sure whether our Datsun pickup, shipped in second hand from China, had a tape player, but if it did I don’t think it worked. I can’t remember ever listening to taped music in that truck. What I do remember is my dad singing. He would sing Green Finger, and Wimoweh, and other songs from the sixties. Most of all, though, he would sing Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and at the vital moment it was our role to come in with the much-anticipated uh-huh? I’m sure we must have squabbled over space in the back seat. I’m sure it was a little stressful driving with several jerry cans of fuel in the back, and hundreds of kilometres between mechanics. We broke down a lot, with one immortal repair in the form of our exhaust being stuck back on with chewing gum, but what I really remember is the singing, and the wildlife, and the possibility of it all.

In 1984, Tanzania was to all intents and purposes unchanged from the accounts I read about in Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. The minibus would drive us past his house on the way to the lower school site, and I’d look at the huge baobab in his front garden and not be the least surprised that nothing had changed. I haven’t been to Tanzania since 1999, when already the country I knew and loved was beginning to morph into something else. Every so often someone asks me whether I’d like to go back. The truth is that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. The Tanzania of my childhood simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been engulfed by our new, globalised world. It’s a place where you are always connected. It’s not that I think progress is a bad thing. It’s just that I’d rather hold onto my memories as they are, wild and free and undoubtedly rose-tinted. Those first five years there were a time when anything could happen, and when I learned that that in itself is a wonderful thing.

Madeleine

PS – What about you? What form do your early years take, once they are distilled? And what song would you choose to summon them up? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear.