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?

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.

Desert Island Discs: All Things Bright and Beautiful

Perhaps I’d better begin with an explanation; after all, not everyone lives their life with Radio 4 murmuring companionably in the background. Desert Island Discs is one of those programmes which has become an institution, a jewel in the crown of British broadcasting, a regular feature of Sunday mornings across the UK. Aired for the first time in 1942, the format is simple: a guest is invited onto the programme to talk about their life. The interview centres around a conceit – if you were going to be abandoned on a desert island, what music would you take with you? The guest has eight choices, and they usually dictate the structure of the interview, taking the audience through their early years, significant highs and lows, and important relationships. Finally, the guest is asked to select their favourite disc, choose a single book to take with them, and given the luxury item of their choice.

Now, call me a fantasist (though I prefer ‘imaginative’…) but I can’t be the only one who’s wiled away a sunny afternoon working out her own playlist. Sadly, I doubt that I’ll ever get to do the show for real, but it did occur to me that it would be the ideal way to tell you all a little bit more about myself, now that I am appearing on the blog alongside Cecily. So without further ado, can I ask you to make yourselves a cup of tea and get comfy, as I present my first disc to you.

I don’t remember very much about my early years. We lived in West Sussex, on the south coast of England, until I was five, at which point we moved to Dar es Salaam. I started school at around the time my younger sister was born, and remember little of it except two things.

One was the local nature walks, which I adored. Once a week we would put on our coats and form a crocodile, holding hands with our nature walk partner. I remember the hand holding very clearly (it must have been impressed upon us), and the leaves crunching underfoot in the autumn. I remember stopping to pick up flowers or insects, or admire the patterns on the bark of a tree. I could have sworn we walked through great woods every time, although it might only have been a spinney, grown large through childish eyes.

The other memory is of assemblies. As for countless schoolchildren before us, the day started cross-legged on a scuffed wooden floor, with some teacher or other banging out hymns on the piano. I liked this habit of starting the day with a song, but only one sticks in my mind. Once we moved, and went to a different sort of school, we didn’t sing hymns any more. We sang other songs instead: We are the World, and Mungu Ibariki Afrika. It was years before I heard All Things Bright and Beautiful again, but when I did, having been dragged to a teenage church service by a missionary friend, I was four years old again, and sitting on that primary school floor.

Now, let me be clear: All Things Bright and Beautiful is not one of my favourite songs. It isn’t even my favourite hymn. But it is so evocative of childish peace and wonder, so filled with anticipation about what I might bring back for the nature table, that I can’t think of anything I’d rather listen to as I make my first lonely forays around the desert island. So there you have it: the first of my eight discs. Not the finest music in the world, but the gateway to some of my earliest, most fleeting memories.

Madeleine

What about you? What piece of music would you choose to evoke your early years? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear!

For the bees

Every so often you see your family through somebody else’s eyes, and a part of who you are comes sharply into focus. John and I were invited out to dinner with my lovely friend and music teacher, Mrs England, and I found myself chatting away about log piles and toad ponds to a zoologist and nature enthusiast.

Now, I spend a lot of time in our garden. I spent a good four hours out there yesterday, tending to the veg patch. I love keeping hens and would like to have a hive and some sheep and pigs one day. Gradually, year by passing year, I find my approach becoming less utilitarian and more inclusive of scent and colour and the other joys that flowers bring. Our garden is a bit part of what makes me me. So much so that I hadn’t realised quite how engaged Seb is with nature at the moment. It took a room swap and a rearrangement of pictures for me to notice that his wall hanging of native garden birds, together with his collection of found feathers, took pride of place on his new walls. That the binoculars are spending a lot of time paired with his bird book whenever we go away. And that, when chatting to the very funny and charming zoologist, Seb was the child I named as being transfixed by nature.

It was as he was making some suggestions about how we could make our garden more nature-friendly that I realised quite how much we had done, and how much lives out there. Not just the family of bluetits in the hollow of the apple tree, or the thrushes who prise snails from their shells by the patio doors. There are the toads who take up residence in the greenhouse every summer, kept watered with the thirsty tomato plants. The hedgehog – one in a long and much-loved line – who follows the same route every evening at dusk. The wobbly-legged spiders, and the little brown ones who spin their webs between the strung up cucumbers and catch yellow and brown striped hoverflies. There are more insects than I can name, as well as several species of bee who come to visit the lavender and anemones, centipedes and other underground wrigglers, crawlers and slitherers. Who knows what lives in the decaying woodpile, or what our soon-to-be-sunk pond will attract? It seems we’re rather fond of bugs and birds and various creepy crawlies after all. Apart from slugs, that is.

Ben came out to help me lift the brassica cages to get at the weeds beneath them, and paused by the silvery-blue sea of borage. Look, Mum, he said, it’s simply crawling with bees. And so it was. That and the marigolds, the lavender, the just-beginning sweet peas and the abundantly self-seeded nasturtiums – all crawling and buzzing with all manner of pollen-loving insects. Those flowers have brought the bees in in a way the garden never has before. I thought that I was growing a cutting garden for the house, and filling some first-summer gaps with easy annuals but no, it appears I was wrong. Most of that bed is no use for filling vases with after all. It seems I planted much of it for the bees.

Mud and rushes

The willow is most definitely out: the twisted little tree in our garden; the grand weeping sort, trailing its tears in the silty river water; and the shoots which sprout unbidden everywhere they think they can get away with it. We saw more willow than anything, on our Sunday walk along the Ouse. We also saw wild cherry trees in such full bloom that from time to time there was nothing for it but to stop, and stand in their arms, and breathe in all that nectar.

Maples were unfurling their sticky buds, their little hands still held tight in the cool spring air. And everywhere stood hummocks of last autumn’s grass, its seeds long since pillaged by the birds and the field mice and the tiny, furry voles.

These are the things I look for on a walk: what is growing, what was growing, what will be growing soon. Signs of animals which surely must abound there. Birdsong, and flashes of the rainbow as a crow hops into the marsh, a treasure in his beak. Just life, really, the sort of life that goes on, wild and independent, galaxies apart from mine, and right there on my doorstep.

What the children look for is something entirely different. The city boathouse where the wooden rowing shells wait in racks for their turn upon the river. Wide concrete steps down to the water, and an algae-waving wellington abandoned at their foot. Barges along the towpath, and their little gardens set out with living fences woven out of willow. The smell of woodsmoke, and somebody’s lunch, and the fantasy of living there and being allowed to roam the water and its edge. Eroded pathways tumbling to the shore, with muddy beaches and slippery expeditions to the next. Grass, growing unkempt and unexpected in the crook of a tree, and working out how it came to be there. And mud. Always mud. Squelchy and wet in the marshes, a treacherous terrain which boasts the fluffy tops of rushes at its centre. Mud, slippery on the beaches. Sucking mud, in patches, where if you wiggle your feet you can get them to sink in and pretend that you are trapped there, held prisoner by your own rubber boots.

It’s gratifying, how much pleasure can be gleaned from a simple tramp along the water at the edge of the city. I can see why there are big houses built here, overlooking the marshland and the waterway beyond. Huge houses, in fact, with lawns which sweep down to the rough public land below, a polite distance keeping them from tramping folk like us. I saw one house that I would very much like to live in, should I also be allowed to have the staff. And a garden that I loved, with ancient hawthorns pruned into wonderfully round clumps at the end of each gnarled branch. We ought to go back, in May, to see them blossom into candy floss. That was the image I carried home with me.

Seb, who is on occasion very wise as well as being very silly, brought home a handful of fluff from the top of a tall reed or two, and put it in the empty syrup tin he’d begged last week. We were all a little bemused, not knowing what this was meant to be. It’s my tin of happiness, he told us later, when Mother and Father had arrived to share our roast. He prised off the lid and offered it around, urging each of us to plunge our hands inside, and as we did so every single one of us broke into smiles. He’s right. That silky, fluffy goodness is happiness in a tin. Who would have thought it? So much pleasure from just some mud and rushes.

There were snowdrops. And peacocks. And miniature rooms.

We had a few very spring-like days last week in the midst of much cold and stormy weather and as luck would have it, those just happened to be the days that we had plans to be outside. One of those was Friday, which John had taken off work and so we all piled into the motor and set off into Ryedale.

After all these years of living in York I’d never visited Rievaulx Terrace – in fact, none of us had. A man-made feature, it has that lovely combination of the wild and the constrained, urging you to wander along a smooth and grassy terrace as you enjoy the shifting view of the trees and ruined abbey below. We began our walk, though, by heading through the woods to the far end of the grounds, before wandering back to the temple for luncheon (well, a talk about the meals we might have had in it had we arrived by invitation and carriage two hundred years ago). And everywhere were great swathes of snowdrops. I thought they’d make a lovely photograph, pure white against the browns of leaf and trunk and earth, but just as I was focusing Ilse asked if she might take it, so I handed the camera over.

It wasn’t until I wanted to take a picture of the children that I reclaimed the brownie, only to find that Ilse had used up all the film. Ah well, no matter. We had seen her creeping quietly through the woods, presumably photographing something wild. A deer, perhaps, or the woodpecker we had heard. She assured me that her pictures were well worth it.

So it was with a cry of dismay that she arrived at Nunnington Hall to find a peacock posing for his portrait on top of a garden wall. And the banks full of snowdrops in the sun, and the funny old scarecrow in the cutting garden, and the wishing tree, its bare branches bright with ribbons. She would have liked to have taken photos of all this, but her disappointment was short lived. After all, there was an attic waiting, full of miniature rooms to examine and sigh over.

We’ve visited Nunnington many times over the years, and that collection of tiny rooms in the attic is an enduring highlight. They are not the kind of thing that I’d ever be tempted to make, being small and fiddly and utterly useless. But they are certainly something to wonder over. Who, for instance, has the patience and skill to render shelf after shelf of inch-high leather-bound books? To make a workshop full of shining woodwork tools, complete with a project in progress, miniature shavings curling on the floor? In spite of the grand entrance hall and period drawing rooms our favourites are the day and night nurseries, with their rows of thumbnail marching redcoats and a set of stacking rings, abandoned mid-play on a little table. There are shelves full of tiny toys, on top of which stands a doll’s house in a doll’s house, which prompted my children to search for yet another within. And on a chair by the cot lies the nanny’s knitting: the beginning of a diminutive red sock grown on double ended needles the size of pins.

We had such a lovely day that I opened the envelope of photos with some anticipation, right there in the chemist’s. There were some older ones of earlier parts of our holiday. There were one or two that I had snapped, early on our walk. Then there were four of John, one of me and seven of a pheasant, growing ever closer and less blurred. I picked the best, to give to Ilse for her scrapbook as evidence of our day. But there were also snowdrops, I assure you. And peacocks. And delightfully miniature rooms.

Sunday

For all the moments when having such a spread of children’s ages is a challenge, there are days like Sunday which make up for it, tenfold. On Saturday, Ben and Fliss went off to bonfires with their friends, leaving the rest of us to our own devices. And although I didn’t much feel like celebrating, the little ones bounced us through the traditions and it was fun seeing how happy a sparkler could make them.

After the fireworks, Sunday dawned grey, wet and windy. There didn’t seem to be enough light in the air to make it through the windows. Days like that make me tired to my very bones, and apt to doze the hours away in an armchair. But there are better things to do. We wrapped the little ones in their coats and wellingtons and, despite their protests, headed to Fountains Abbey. All around us the trees shone, copper and bronze, and the light switched from gloomy to ambient. A silly, impromptu game of tig carried them through the ruined cloisters and, before they knew it, they were halfway to the tea shop at the far end of the grounds. There we sheltered from the rain and fed them up with scones and jam and clotted cream, until their cheeks were pink. And on the way back they stalked pheasants through the wooded hillside, pretending to be poachers, and named trees from their fallen leaves, and found their own route back.

What with the wind and the spattering rain and a pot of tea at the cafe, I thought the walk had woken me up, until we were motoring through the dark on the way home. We arrived unexpectedly soon. The living room window glowed yellow through closed curtains, and when we opened the front door the smell of supper made my stomach growl. How lovely it is to have children big enough to stay at home and feed the fire on a cold November day. To  keep an eye on the meat, slow roasting in the oven, and set the table ready for the meal. To have them all there, the little ones telling the big ones about their walk and the pheasants they supposedly nearly caught. The big ones eating two, then three helpings of belly pork and potatoes, before breaking through the nutmeggy skin of a baked rice pudding. Slow food, watched over by those who have stayed at home to write an essay and solve a page of equations. This is what Sunday afternoons are made for: spreading out and then coming back together, to eat. A little feast day to celebrate the passing of each and every week. Whatever the weather, whatever our plans, this is what makes it Sunday.

Offshore

Everything ends. Some things feel as though they never will, although you wish they would. They drag their feet like children carrying a bad report towards home and reprimand. Others end all too soon: good books, an evening at the pictures, time with the people we love. It doesn’t seem to matter how long a good thing lasts – whether the summer holiday is two weeks or six – end it must, and it doesn’t hurt any the less for being longer.

I love the way we’ve ended our last two summers: in Northumberland, in a couple of tents, spending all of every day together. This year we visited Cragside, the wonderfully eccentric home of hydroelectricity, where frightfully English arts and crafts meet outrageous Italian marble and steamy Turkish baths lurk in the foundations. It drizzled the whole time we were there, but we didn’t mind. We took our time around the house and found a tremendous pine to picnic under in the arboretum. We had afternoon tea and cakes in the snug gatehouse teashop, and motored right around the estate on our way back to the campsite. It was on this final drive that we saw a deer, just for a moment, on the road in front of us, before she turned to face us and was gone. That was a day which ended all too soon.

Our campsite was feted for its wildlife: a river cut it off from the field across the way and the whole area was surrounded by trees. It is in these that the owls must live, and from these that they must hunt and hoot the whole night through. We kept our eyes peeled for foxes, which we see sometimes at home, but also badgers, which we don’t. Sadly they were either sheltering from the rain or else their black and white kept them safely hidden in the shadows streaked with moonlight. Even though we didn’t see them, I liked knowing they were there. There’s something comforting about animals nearby, where they should be, not chased away to the shrinking wildernesses of our little island.

It’s easy to forget that we Britons live on an island. In York the sea is almost equidistant in either direction, and feels so far away, but the truth is that we could drive from coast to coast in one day in the motor. Had I my way, and John’s job was not with Rowntrees, we would live by the sea, and I would have a boat of my own, and sail when the weather was fair. Sailing fast in a dinghy is just how I imagine flying to be: catching the wind, responding to it with a little adjustment here and there, moving just as the crow flies upon a fluid and unmarked highway. It’s been years since I’ve had that thrill.

I was quite ready to content myself with another boat trip, though: out to the Farnes, where the birds and seals are protected from day trippers and their casual interference. We mean well, but too many footfalls might damage a puffin’s burrow, or frighten away the terns. By the time we went, at the end of August, the birds had long since flown to sea, abandoning their summer breeding grounds to the ravages of winter. They’ll be elsewhere, riding the wind and the waves, unconcerned about offshore breezes on the rocks. We weren’t, though. August, and there we were in woolly hats and jackets with the collars pulled up high against the spray. I doubt the children noticed: they only had eyes for the seals on the rocks and in and out of the water, playful as pups, disappearing and emerging somewhere entirely unexpected. Two miles offshore and we could have been on a different planet, so far removed were we from the piers and paths and crab selling huts of Seahouses. Here and there a building braved the sea: Grace Darling’s lighthouse, a ruined church, and cottage or two for the wildlife wardens. I could almost fancy living there: spending March to December in a little white stone cottage on the edge of a rock in the cold grey sea.

Coming south to York, and being met by that glorious September, our time in Northumberland felt odd and other-worldly. It was autumn there so soon, and it was wild, and wonderfully free. Our little city feels so tame and familiar by comparison. But when last week the cold began to bite, and the sky shifted from blue to grey, it was of Northumberland I thought, and those grey seals on the rocks, and the end of our summer holidays. An end spent somewhere other, arrestingly wild and offshore.