We Aren’t Quite There Yet

It is nearly the end of January, but we aren’t quite there yet. I don’t like to let a month slip by without writing a blog, but if there ever was a month to let slip by, January would be it.

January on social media has been taken over by people giving things up – Dryanuary, Veganuary, and over on Instagram (I’ve joined Instagram, for my sins), it’s all clean living and Slimming World.

Dryanuary would seem a bit wasted on me, who can go a fortnight without drinking and barely notice it, and whilst I have been tempted to dabble in veganism (hey, you can still eat chips, and I like dark chocolate, and tofu, right?) – and I do love my shiny new HFW River Cottage veg cookbook –

…..the thought of tea with some kind of milk substitute in it just can’t be borne.

So I have limped on to nearly-the-end of January without giving anything up, or taking anything up, and it has felt like a month of endless rain. Morning school runs in the rain, and slogs down the hill to preschool in rain, and dashing back up the hill to be home before it rains (this week bought some respite; we got the rain, but we also got a rainbow). I have only ventured into the back garden to fill up bird feeders, and found the lawn to be completely sodden.

It’s the time of year I like least, because the garden feels most remote from me. I look out of the window and notice things: I must cut that back when I’ve got a minute. I never pulled up the dead Michaelmas daisies. I wonder which ferns have survived the winter. And I don’t go and look. I put it off for another month. I think, February, I’ll deal with it in February.

And then February will roll round and there is a baby girl about to turn 3 – no longer a baby! – and half term and lots of weekends taken ferrying children to birthday parties, so another month will slip by and I still probably won’t get any jobs done in the garden.

I have done what I term ‘the basics’ in the front garden – sweep up the leaves, deadhead roses, cut back the fuchsia and a few other things that have got too big for their boots – but that to me is the very least, a lick and a promise to keep the front of the house looking vaguely respectable (and I’m sure I’ve typed very similar words in previous Januaries).

There is so much more to be done out there, an entire dead hydrangea to be dug out, for starters. That’s going to be an afternoon’s work in itself – and at least two other plants which don’t deserve to be there at all, and an enormous overgrown holly which is pretty much a hedge now.

Then we have to make decisions about the really big jobs of the year – new windows, and perhaps redecorating the sad neglected bedrooms (ours and the spare), or dealing with the drive and crumbling front wall. Make the house look more respectable from the outside, or the inside? The bit everyone sees, or the bit no-one but us sees? Paging Dr Freud…

In the meantime, the snowdrops are nearly up, the catkins are on the hazel tree, and for a pound you can buy a vase of sunshine in the shape of daffodils. So, spring is coming, but we aren’t quite there yet.

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The Wreath Lectures, 2017

Another year has rolled round and I’ve been sneaking up to front doors and admiring wreaths yet again. Last year was all about the mistletoe and silvery wreaths, this year what I’ve been noticing were cones. Big cones, little cones, it’s all about the cones.

First of all, cones with cinnamon sticks, a huge red ribbon and what looks like the contents of the fruit bowl.

Big cones, small cones and fake shiny fruit including cherries. I saw this wreath on quite a few doors locally and was slightly bemused by the apparent introduction of cherries to the festive fruit canon.

Cones with silvery leaves. Lovely.

And more cones with more silvery leaves and big silver baubles. This was perhaps the point at which I decided cones were the ‘thing’ this year.

What looks like a home-made wreath, I always like a low-hanging wreath (or perhaps I should call it a sub-letterbox? Or a below the fold?) I particularly liked this one because of the slightly wonky Easter-eggish shape.

This one appears to be coneless, but I liked the asymmetric gold leaves against the yellow door. (Poor photo, as it was a big house with steps up to the front door so I couldn’t get any closer, but I didn’t want to leave this one out).

Another yellow door and a really spectacular display – wreath PLUS ivy PLUS holly PLUS a big offcut of the Christmas tree. If you have a big grand yellow door, why the hell wouldn’t you? I would.

And in contrast, a plain green wreath not even hung up, just dropped straight on the doorknob, against an austere black door. Classy.

Another plain black door, this time with a twiggy wreath with a hint of sparkle underneath. Endorsed.

Finally, a poinsettia wreath not on a door but simply propped casually on a windowsill. Audacious, but it works beautifully.

Those are my best finds of the year, with no repeats – and finishes off a very happy Christmas. Hello to 2018 (in 20 minutes) and a big far off wave to Spring. I have a big pile of gardening jobs with my name on and I am looking forward to getting started!

Christmas Trees, and letting go…

This year feels like the first time I have properly relinquished control of the Christmas tree.

I was well aware it was bound to happen, and that as children grow older, letting them take charge of Christmas decorating is all part of the fun (for them). For me, I knew I would have to rein in my Monica Geller-style tendencies, and not fret too much if a favourite decoration of mine was not hung in an optimum place, or the two snowmen ornaments were hung side by side, rather than placed well away from each other, to create a properly balanced tree.

There are limits to what one tree-obsessed mum can take, of course – you have to apply some control over distribution of decorations, otherwise they will all end up on the lower half of the tree, and limit the number of times a particular item is fiddled with and taken off and put back on, or risk setting off a flood of needle-drop.

Apart from that, (and a little bit of rearranging after they’d gone to bed), the tree is entirely mostly their own work, and I am pretty pleased with the communal effort. It helps that the tree is a nice shaped one, and for once, not on a wonk.

I’ve also given them free rein with decorations in other areas – the Mr has helped them with paper chains (I don’t get involved, all that rustling paper drives me mad) and we’ve made some ‘stained glass’ tissue-paper window decorations which were great fun to do – and look nice against the glass no matter how scruffily they’ve been made. (See below – I rather like the freestyle approach to what colour a reindeer ought to be).

I even encouraged the use of cotton wool balls to try and make a snow picture; I can’t say the results were outstanding, but it kept the big girl happily occupied for a while.

One thing I noticed after the tree was finished was the lack of baubles, and I realised we now have so many ‘good’ decorations we don’t need to fall back on the non-breakable red or gold baubles which were formerly used to fill in gaps, and are so basic they live in a plastic bag in the garage, because there is no room for them in the Christmas decoration boxes. (Poor basic baubles, now I feel like they are Mary and Joseph in the stable and I should invite them in out of pity, but there is simply no space on the tree!)

The lack of space doesn’t mean there are no new decorations on the tree, though – I had resisted buying anything new, but still seem to have acquired things – the children each chose a decoration from a craft stall and the big girl embellished hers with a few extra sparklies (could I ever have imagined the day I’d allow bright acid yellow on to my tree? Reader, it happened).

Then the toddler came home from preschool with a salt dough tree decorated by her – she insisted on holding it all the way home, so more glitter ended up on her and the buggy than the decoration – but still it is pretty well glittered.

There is also a rather jaunty snowman made by the big girl at school, and another salt dough star which came from somewhere or other.

Finally, I succumbed to temptation (in a church, of all places!) and bought two olive wood fair trade guilt-free decorations made in Bethlehem. (Bought at the St Martins in the Fields gift shop).

I have not had much time for making decorations this year, as I’ve been making a mobile as a present for the toddler instead (pictures will follow). At my current pace, perhaps it should be set aside for her birthday in Feb to give me time to make a few more decorations, if I can squeeze them on the tree.

For yet another year, I’ve also contemplated my very tiny and drab wreath and wondered if I could or should do something better, but time has run away with me and I’ve put that on the mental to-do list for next year. No shortage of good wreaths out there to nick ideas from, though: I have a very long list already to whittle down for my annual wreath round-up!

The Lost World of North London

I don’t go north very often – north of the river, that is. My personal fiefdom these days doesn’t stretch far beyond the British Museum – but a couple of recent happenings have reminded me of my North London days, and I thought it was worth trying to capture those moments before they slip away altogether.

View from Parliament Hill Fields

My first proper job was in Camden. It was an odd place to work, as opposed to hang out, or shop, or drink. There was a whole other non-tourist Camden under the surface: the pub where we used to drink was a stones throw from the Worlds End, but it was down an alleyway a few steps away, and if you hadn’t been intending to go there, you’d have no reason to find it. This meant we mostly had the pub entirely to ourselves, and as the office had a lack of meeting rooms, we met in the pub.

I remember particularly the Friday after my first proper week at work (I’d been an intern for six weeks before that). We had, naturally, gone to the pub. I happened to glance out of the window, surrounded by my new colleagues, newly solvent and newly thrilled with myself, and saw an old-ish man walking past. He gave me a weary, dismissive glance – and it was, who else, Alan Bennett.

I wanted to run out after him and explain. I’m not really one of them, Mr Bennett. I went to Leeds. I know how the trams used to run past the Packhorse. I’ve been to Kirkstall Abbey. My mum and dad went to Beyond the Fringe. Don’t lump me in with them!

Anyway, this all came to mind when I read that Bennett’s former home on Gloucester Crescent is for sale. I never saw him again in Camden, and I never realised till years later that many other literary types lived on the same street (not that I would have recognised Michael Frayn or Claire Tomalin if I’d seen them).

I did wander the back streets when I got a chance, though – particularly in the second year when we moved to a bigger office in Primrose Hill, and some of those grand streets along by the canal became short cuts through to the new office.

Canal, east from Camden Lock

The book which taught me all about Camden’s literary hinterland, and brought back all its messy glory was of course Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. By genuine coincidence, the week I read about Alan Bennett’s house being on sale, I also went to see Stibbe reading from her new book, An Almost Perfect Christmas, and this brought on the sentimental urge to revisit my Camden days.

To be strictly honest, being a media executive in Camden in the Noughties is probably not very much like being a nanny there in the Eighties, but there were some things which rang true.

It felt a lot like the Camden I knew – Parkway with its shabby non-tourist shops including a pet shop that actually still sold pets, and always had a sad parrot in the window, and my first proper hairdresser where Darron cut my hair, Delancey Street with its posh bistro where I had to endure a terrifying lunch with my new boss and drank far too much, and the cafes on the High Street, (pre-Costa, pre-Starbucks and nicer than any of them) – Ruby in the Dust and Bean and Cup, you are still the benchmarks of my favourite cafes, all these years later.

Then there was yoga, which featured in Love, Nina, and for me, too. It was the year 2000, I was 23, and I was all about the yoga. I had been going to a class in South London, but the commute home wasn’t getting me there on time, so I looked for a class near to work. ‘Near’ turned out to be in a community hall on the stunning Maiden Lane Estate, which was a brisk walk from the office, and practically half way to Kings Cross – so I used to walk back along York Way to get to the tube, marvelling at how desolate and magnificent it all was.

I can barely remember if the yoga class itself was any good, it was the splendour of Maiden Lane’s terraces and alleyways, and those long walks through the wasteland of pre-gentrified Kings Cross that stay with me.

St Pancras, mid-regeneration (2008)

When we moved to the new office in Primrose Hill, I discovered we were close to the chi chi Triyoga, beloved of various Spice Girls – so I switched allegiance from poor old Maiden Lane and for a few months was able to claim I shared a yoga teacher with Sporty Spice, Simon Low. That was the peak of my Camden cool, as it came to a halt in autumn 2001 when I was made redundant, with a good chunk of my colleagues following at the same time or a month or so later.

There was a rather bleak period of unemployment – it was a cold winter, not a pleasant time to be in a flat with no central heating, or out pounding the pavements looking for temp work, but just like something out of a chick-lit novel, I got a week’s work just before Christmas, which meant I could afford to buy Christmas presents.

After an unsatisfactory 9 months commuting to Chiswick, (not recommended) and it was (too good to be true, another chick-lit plot point, but genuinely true) almost exactly 12 months to the day I was made redundant, that I started a new job back in the borough of Camden.

This time, though, it was Fitzrovia, and though the work was less fun and I missed the golden days of schlepping round Camden and afternoons lounging on Primrose Hill when we should have been working (no wonder we were all made redundant, really), it felt like the start of proper grown-up life.

And it opened up a whole new bit of London, which became far more special even than Camden had been, and led eventually to the year I spent in my tiny but very much loved Bloomsbury flat.

My fireplace in Bloomsbury

Finally, when browsing through my old photos from days wandering round north London, I found a favourite which captures the essence of Camden for me – the plaque commemorating the house where Rimbaud and Verlaine stayed (it’s probably nearer to Kings Cross than it is to Camden, but the same neck of the woods).

When I took this photo, the terrace was in a state so shabby, it seemed very appropriate, given their reputation for being dishevelled and generally disreputable, but it looked like it was heading towards being done up. And I am still amused that someone put a plaque up to commemorate that they stayed there for just 3 months – so fleeting, so pointless, but somebody out there bothered to record it.

Even Further West

This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing, but also putting off – because I’m going back to one of my favourite places, but I’m also not sure I can do it justice.

When I went to Cornwall in 2002, I stayed right at the very end. Ok, not the very end, but in one of the last villages before Land’s End.

It was one of those holidays memorable not solely for idyllic and relaxing moments – I remember a lot of mist, fog and rain – and a holiday barn which you might call bijou and atmospheric, but could also have accurately been called basic and somewhat uncomfortable.

But something about the far west of Cornwall got under my skin, and it hasn’t ever really left me. This time round, when we stayed squarely in the centre of the county, I noticed a difference – we were surrounded by cornfields, not to mention acres of cauliflowers (if we’d got cut off from Truro and Waitrose by a flash flood, we could have survived quite well on caulis).

It was charming and scenic and bucolic and so on, but it wasn’t the wild, rugged Cornwall I remembered – where the recall of magical names like Sennen, St Buryan, St Just, Lamorna, Treen and Mousehole can still cast a spell over me.

So, with only a couple of days left in Cornwall, I wanted to go back to my favourite place. The weather didn’t look promising, but crucially it did look like it would improve the further west we went – so we set off, and as we passed St Michael’s Mount and Penzance, I felt my spirits rising (and the sun did come out!)

It is impossible to put my finger on it, but beyond Penzance, the landscape did change subtly. Narrower lanes, definitely, less trees, (and those there were more obviously shaped by the wind). Houses seemed to get smaller and more hunched into the ground.

Everything slightly less lush and green, as if all the vegetation had been scorched by salt. We drove slower, the roads got narrower. I was convinced we’d missed a turning: it didn’t feel like a place I ought to be using a smartphone. Back in the day, I would have had a road atlas on my lap, but some of these lanes were too tiny to be on an atlas.

Then, finally, the lane turned abruptly downhill and we got a glimpse of the beach I lost my heart to all those years back – Porthcurno, home of the famous Minack theatre.

I hadn’t visited the theatre last time, and we didn’t plan ahead well enough to arrange to see a play this time, but we could pay to look around, so this is what we did first. The cliff top location is every bit as dramatic as I imagined, the sheer scale of it impressive – and quite terrifying if you have any problem with heights or cliff edges.

Quite how you’d manage to watch a play there without being completely distracted by the surroundings – let alone the issue of audibility, which is often a challenge for me – but there was a fascinating exhibition on the site explaining how theatre companies deal with the, um, unique performance conditions.

Then, we went to the beach. I’m not sure I can quite explain why I love Porthcurno beach so much, but these things probably contribute:

– it’s a perfect horseshoe curve of a bay with the dramatic Logan Rock (see far right in the picture above) at one end, and towering cliffs on either side.

– the sea is the colour above (ok probably not in February) and the clearest water I’ve ever seen in Britain.

– it is simply the best beach for swimming outside of the Caribbean I’ve ever been.

The waves are not so huge that you can’t get into the water easily, but once you’re in, the ground shelves away quickly and you’re comfortably out of your depth (just enough for it to feel slightly thrilling, but not dangerous, provided you’re a confident swimmer).

I must have spent a good hour, on and off, with my feet up, sculling with my hands, bobbing up and down in the waves and feeling in complete heaven. (Btw the last time I was there, a shark swam into the bay. It was exactly like Jaws, the speed with which everyone got out of the water. This time, fortunately, no shark).

The other joyful moment was taking the big girl for her first proper swim in the sea. (The toddler’s verdict was that the waves were ‘too scratchy’).

The big girl loved it, though, and I hope that she remembers the first proper time she went in the sea was at Porthcurno, the one of the best beaches in the world, and her mum’s favourite place in England. (Not my favourite place in Britain – that can be saved for another day).

Further West Country Rambling

It was quite a thrilling moment, crossing the Tamar to get to Cornwall. I hadn’t gone to Cornwall via that route since my first trip there, and that was only to have breakfast at a Little Chef after getting off a Brittany ferry in Plymouth.

Yes, my parents were trolling me – I had begged for years to go to Cornwall, inspired by Over Sea, Under Stone, naturally – so what did they do? They took me there for breakfast. And then drove home to Essex. I held that grudge against them for years.

I’d been to Cornwall a couple of times as an adult – one brief trip over the border from Devon during a weekend break, and a proper holiday there circa 2002, but neither trip had taken us over the Tamar bridge, so I commemorated it with this rather poor photo.

and found myself remembering a favourite line from ‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ – ‘What’s he mean, Logres?’ demanded Jane. ‘He means the land of the West,’ Barney said … ‘It’s the old name for Cornwall. King Arthur’s name.’

I have loyalties and affections in many corners of the UK – raised in East Anglia, family roots in Wales, very drawn to the wildest furthest bits of Scotland and islands in general – but nothing quite matches Cornwall for me for magic, and it was probably the influence of Susan Cooper which put the germ of it there.

I did also have a great fondness for Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, which covers the most famous Arthurian and Cornish legends with a light touch, though it didn’t shy away from the more down-beat elements of Arthur (spoiler: there’s a big battle and it doesn’t go well for him).

I hadn’t thought of it for years, but as luck would have it, the holiday barn we stayed in had a copy, and the 5 year old was enchanted by it. (She’ll come to Susan Cooper in time, I hope).

View near our holiday barn, Tregear

I seem to have veered off the original topic, which was meant to be a holiday round-up – but there was a point in there somewhere.

My daydream version of Cornwall as a child was all tied up in magic and mystery and legend, all of my favourite things – the reality I learned from this holiday is that Cornwall has buckets and spades and holiday parks and heaving beaches and cafes of questionable quality, just like any other British seaside district.

It isn’t all mists and stone circles and empty cliff tops, which was much more the experience I had staying there in 2002 – of course, that was pre-children, and a very different kind of holiday. I hoped to find more of what I had loved about it back then, but searching for wild and lonely places whilst also trying to have a family-friendly holiday is a bit of a challenge.

Holywell Beach, nr Newquay

We certainly saw areas which looked like they’d seen better days, and plenty of inferior boxy housing going up – plus some very nasty mock-Georgian stuff on the edges of Truro, which has a new Waitrose, presumably put there for the horrid grockles like us (and of course we did use it.

I suppose what troubles me is that in Cornwall, the place which felt like home to me before I’d even been there, I know I am truly an outsider. In Wales, I feel at home because I can pronounce Machynlleth without fear and know to say diolch instead of thank you.

In East Anglia and the Kent/Sussex coast and the Lake District I’m in the places I spent my childhood holidays, so I feel very at ease. In Cornwall, though, I’ll always be a grockle. The question is how to do it without feeling too guilty about it.

Staying well away from the tourist hotspots and the coast was a big advantage – we were beautifully isolated in our holiday barn at Tregear, with the most complicated network of tiny lanes crisscrossing the fields to get us there (I was reminded of what Britain must have been like in wartime, with all the signposts gone – how do you navigate when every field and junction looks interchangeable?)

View from Tregear Barns

The location, despite its peace and quiet, was actually very well placed for driving to either the north or south coasts, (once we’d escaped the jumble of lanes) and convenient for Truro and that damn Waitrose. I had assumed we’d mainly stick to the south coast, but we ended up exploring both, and I had a proper sense for the first time of how different their characters are.

Perranporth Beach

The huge stretches of sand at Perranporth and Holywell in the north reminded me of Brittany, and diving into the waves at the Baie des Trépassés, aged about 15.

This time, I was practically the only person swimming (ok, jumping in the waves and paddling a bit) there rather than surfing, and it did make me wish I’d signed up for a body boarding lesson. Perhaps signs of a mid-life crisis but when I saw everyone but me doing it, I wanted to give it a go!

The south coast, on the other hand, was more like bits of Devon I’d been to years ago, and we found some pleasingly wild places alongside the more manicured and tourist-friendly. I was pleasantly surprised by Falmouth, which was much more upmarket and yachty than I’d realised – the place to go if you want to shop at Joules or Fat Face – but was still somehow a proper place, not all full of Hooray Henries, and the maritime museum is brilliant.

Falmouth Harbour

And I did, eventually find – or rediscover – the place that really owns my heart in Cornwall, Porthcurno, but that deserves a blog all on its own. Plenty more to follow!

A West Country Round-Up

Autumn has blown itself in very promptly, with rain and winds accompanying the return to school, but seeing as we aren’t facing hurricanes here, I am resolving not to grumble too much.

Still, our summer holiday does seem rather long ago now, and I did want to capture a bit of it before I forget too much. This may wind up being a two-parter, though.

This was a fairly different holiday from the last two – we almost exclusively did without the buggy this time round. The scooters didn’t come out of the car boot a single time. This meant, a slower pace, a lot of children carried on shoulders and stopping and starting, but on the plus side, we could now tackle stiles.

Our first proper walk was to try and get down to the beach where we were staying, near Sidmouth in Devon. This was the first bit of sunshine after a morning of rain, so we were determined to make the most of it.

It started easily enough, from the donkey sanctuary (nice cafe), a steep path through the woods which turned into this seemingly idyllic stroll across a field. It looked like another stretch of woodland below us, and the sea not terribly far away.

The reality was quite different though – that lovely green field was actually soaking wet and muddy, and once both children had fallen on their knees, we began to lose hope. Another walker toiling back up the hill warned us that it got a lot more slippery further down, so we turned back at that point.

I did get in a walk by myself that evening, though – down to the nearest hamlet (barely more than 2 farmhouses and one of those was half-ruined), and I got to experience a true deep Devon lane. Plenty more lanes like this were to come, but I think this was the only one I got to walk down blissfully all by myself.

We got a nice sunset that evening, too.

The next day was forecast to be the Good Day of the week, so we decided to go to Lyme Regis. Unfortunately (or otherwise) it was the Lyme Regis carnival with Red Arrows display that evening.

We found a parking space by the skin of our teeth, and headed into town to find it crawling with people, and the beach even busier. I knew that the proper beach – the fossil bit – was further down, so once the kids had paddled and we’d had lunch, I dragged them all down there.

It took quite a lot of hunting, but we found some of the ammonites eventually. Really quite a thing! The looming, crumbling cliffs were slightly terrifying though, especially seeing people scrambling around and excavating bits (why would you??)

We ventured back to the hordes in town, watched the lifeboat launch on what turned out to be a false alarm, and walked out to the end of the Cobb for the views back along the coast.

Lots of people crabbing, but we thought the two year old was much too great a liability to be allowed near any big drops – I warned the children what happened to Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion, not that they were much interested – we just admired other people’s crabs instead.

By then we had pretty much decided it was too hot and exhausting to try and last until the Red Arrows display, so after another paddle, and tea, we headed home. A good move, as it turned out – with so few routes in and out of the town, it was gridlocked trying to leave later on.

Still, crowds or no, Lyme remains one of my very favourite places and I’m very glad we went.

Our last day in Devon was spent at Branscombe, a much cloudier day, but a proper chocolate box place (National Trust of course) and some very impressive cliffs with holiday cabins and mobile homes clinging to the sides in terrifying fashion.

The pebbly beach was quite hard going walking with children, so I abandoned the attempt to get up close to the huge rock pillar at the beach end, but contented myself with hunting out some marine flora.

We ended the day in the neighbouring village of Beer, which if anything I liked even better than Branscombe – it was still a proper fishing village, but with no quay – boats pulled up on the shingle alongside the beach cafe.

Here we were able to buy fresh fish to cook at home – though it didn’t come cheap – and there was a cabin right down by the beach set up as a tiny, free exhibition about all things marine (seemingly so tiny and obscure I can’t even find a reference to it on Google, but it was well worth a visit!).

This was the end of the Devon leg of our holiday – next day, on to Cornwall. To be continued…