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!

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The Twelve(ish) Books of Christmas

This blog is rather unapologetically taken over by Christmas at this time of year, and I realise the posts have got rather repetitive (though rest assured I am not missing out on my annual wreath round-up, no siree). 

And then I remembered I had not done a post about my favourite Christmas books. Hurrah! Problem solved. And then in a piece of perfect serendipity, I was reunited with a favourite Christmas book I’d loved and lost years ago: 

 

The Lion Christmas book was a book I poured over for hours, all year round – if I ever wanted to evoke the spirit of Christmas, I simply picked it up and dipped in.

It is the perfect Christmas anthology in that it has a balance of stories, crafts and baking ideas, poems and non-fiction (‘Christmas traditions around the world’, etc).

There is a lot of religious content, but much of it used to explain Christmas traditions – the origins of St Nicholas, the legend of a frosty spiders web inspiring tinsel – and it tells the Christmas story beginning to end, including Herod and the flight to Egypt, so it pulls no punches there.

It is sentimental, terribly naff and much too godly for my tastes now, but I still love it. I was thrilled to find a copy on a charity bookstall and after years of wondering if I’d ever see it again, am delighted to own my own copy once more.

The first Christmas book I remember, though, I have never parted with (and no intention of ever doing so). I was surprised to discover that my copy from 1981 is a first edition, I assumed it was much earlier than that, as the feel of it is more 1950s-60s.

Nevertheless, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas is very reminiscent of my 1980s childhood in lots of ways, but with an added bit of Shirley Hughes magic – look at those lush borders around the edge of the page, hung with gingerbread men and all sorts of other goodies. 

In Shirley Hughes’ world, there are always roaring fires to come home to, snow at Christmas, real candles on the tree, (who ever does that, nobody in 1981 that I knew of) and Salvation Army bands playing in the town centre. 

None of that was really part of my childhood, but the book still takes me back there in other ways, as there is much that reminds me of the Christmas build-up – the home-made cards, the nativity scene, the waking up early on Christmas morning. 

It’s the tiny details that make this book lovely – the cotton wool snow and gold paper star on the Nativity is a particular favourite picture of mine, but it is also famous for acknowledging the times when Christmas isn’t so much fun.

Tom has a meltdown and goes out for a walk with Grandpa. As the book says ‘Just the two of them. The sun is very big and red’.

Simple, beautiful, and instantly brings back the memories of Christmas tantrums or cooking disasters or sickness (and she never ate blackcurrant Fruitella again), but also pitches you into a moment of pure sentiment if you, like me, wish you could have had just one more Christmas with your grandad or granny there.


Moving on from the slightly melancholic to cheerier things, I bring you Mog’s Christmas. This is much more Christmas as I knew it in the 70s/80s – more garish and kitsch, with streamers, balloons, tinsel and paper pom-poms, but rendered in Judith Kerr’s trademark soft pastel shades, it feels very homely and familiar. 

There is still snow, of course, and the story is so slight you could blow it away like a snowflake, but who cares, it’s Mog, and I love her.

That covers the top 3 books from my junior Christmas reading era, and to take it to 12 will mean either a very long blog, or several. 

I’m not sure I can even get to 12 books without more research and digging back into the memory banks, but I can do a quick run-down which hopefully may prompt me to return to this topic next year.

4. The Box of Delights: I loved the celebrated TV series as a child, but the book I’ve read countless times, one of my default comfort reads.

5. The Dark is Rising: such a well-loved fantasy book that it now has a Christmas readathon associated with it. I could write essays about this book, let alone one blog!

6. A Child’s Christmas in Wales: a staple of our family Christmas, especially the lovely edition we had illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 

7. The ‘Little House’ books: all of them have a Christmas chapter, but my favourite is By the Shores of Silver Lake, where the Ingalls family are left behind in South Dakota when nearly all the other prospective settlers go back East.

8. The Armourer’s House: one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s less well-known books, set during the reign of Henry VIII, but it reaches its climax at Christmas and delivers a supremely happy festive ending.

9. What Katy did at School: for the marvellous scene where Katy and Clover unpack their Christmas boxes and find all kinds of goodies inside. Actually the Christmas chapter in What Katy Did where she plans all kinds of surprises for her siblings is rather sweet.

10, 11 and 12 still remain unclaimed. Not even considered A Christmas Carol yet, as I suspect I’ve read it far less than the number of times I’ve watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. Another 12 months to see if I can think of something to fill in those gaps!

Building a library for children, part 3

I am going into dangerous territory with this blog: I am entering the world of Twee. It’s not fashionable these days, and it’s not encouraged, and I have my reservations about it as much as any other feminist, but I do like a bit of twee, of things that are fancy, sweet and tiny and pretty and dainty.

I don’t know what started it off, but I suspect an early fascination for all things miniature went hand in hand with a love of flowers – I was very keen on making miniature gardens as a child, the sort where you put moss in a plastic tray and a mirror for a pond.

As we were growing up in the countryside with parents keen on wildlife, learning the names of wild plants was a given – and my mum encouraged this by giving me my first Flower Fairy books when I was about 7. (I remember the occasion as they were a present after I’d had a very minor operation in hospital, along with what became another much loved book, Little House in the Big Woods).

I think my mum – not otherwise a fan of fairy related stuff – liked the Flower Fairies because the floral illustrations were accurate, and didn’t just focus on pretty flowers.

She pointedly *didn’t* buy me Flower Fairies of the Garden, thinking garden plants are not nearly as interesting as wild ones – and the Flower Fairies of the Wayside includes some of the most despised weeds, including groundsel and goose-grass.

The Flower Fairies of the Autumn also taught me the difference between white and black bryony, and was my first introduction to poisonous plants and berries.

This came in useful when I was able to reassure other parents at the toddler’s nursery that the plant we’d found in its  garden was in fact not deadly nightshade but the less likely to be fatal (but still nasty) woody nightshade. Phew.

Of course it helped that when I was growing up, many of these plants were commonly found in the hedgerows so I was able to learn them and recognise them – I saw them all the time.

It won’t be quite so easy for a city dwelling child, but we have woods nearby which we visit quite often, and plenty of flowers in our garden have been inspired by my childhood love of the Flower Fairies, so I hope she’ll pick up some knowledge on the way. And knowing which berries not to eat is basic common sense information all children should learn.

The poems which accompany the Flower Fairy pictures are probably verging too much on the twee even for me, but some of them are lovely – and the fairies themselves, whilst some of them have frilly dresses (see Guelder Rose, above) are pleasingly lacking in glitter and wands and so forth. Look at the Blackthorn fairy, for instance –

There’s a hairdo that hasn’t seen a brush in a while!

I throughly approve of these wild and slightly mischievous fairies – they belong to the world of fairies Shakespeare knew, of Robin Goodfellow, of the fairy folklore in Edward Thomas’ Lob (one of my favourite favourite poems) and of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.

Moving on from fairies, though, there are also animal books which enthralled me as a child and still do – Beatrix Potter was a stalwart of my childhood, meeting parental approval again because the animals were drawn accurately from life (though as has often been pointed out, how poor Potter is at drawing people!), and the Lake District was one of our favourite family holiday destinations (my copy of Mrs Tittlemouse proudly has a label inside saying it was bought at Hill Top).

So we have already got a confirmed junior Potter fan in our household, with her own Peter Rabbit money box (alongside my original set of PR china which has somehow survived childhood intact – mug, plate, bowl and eggcup!)

The other animal books which I don’t think my mum would endorse (or at least, I never owned myself as a child, but always coveted) are the Brambly Hedge series.

This is an unashamedly twee world – a place of tiny mice, of pretty flowers and lace and frills and all things dainty.   But again, the animals and plants are all drawn accurately, and it’s the level of detail I love most of all.

I think it’s the cross section drawings of the mouses’ homes which captured my imagination as a child – the winding stairs and larders and corridors disappearing around corners were fascinating, and they appealed to my love of miniature things.

The Flower Fairy pictures never showed their homes, but Brambly Hedge imagined a whole world entire, with weavers and bakers and birthday parties and weddings. It was so complete, and so perfect.

I can’t remember when I first encountered Brambly Hedge, but what I do know is that any book showing cross-sections inside houses fascinated me – and ultimately it led to another enduring passion, my own much-loved dolls house. That’s probably a blog in its own right, for another day, though.

I have made up for the lack of Brambly Hedge in my own childhood by buying the books for the toddler – but I have resisted reading them to her too much – I love them, but are they too twee and girly to merit approval these days?

I also picked up Angelina Ballerina in a charity shop, but that I think is a step too far into the world of tweeness even for me and it has remained hidden away, so far. I love ballet, but I’d far rather the toddler’s first experience of ballet (when she’s a bit older) was the Ladybird book of Ballet which I treasured as a child (and how I wish I still owned it!), and of course, Ballet Shoes. But it’s a few years until she’s ready for either of those, so I’m not sure I can keep hiding Angelina Ballerina for too long.

I am aware that there is an awful lot of projecting my own interests onto my children here: fairies, dolls houses, ballet and flowers – so I should add that we are also encouraging trains and dinosaurs too, but we don’t have so many books about these. Perhaps I should be getting some recommendations….

Building a library for children, part 2

I have no shame in admitting that if there is a kind of childhood book I love above all others, that I could never part with no matter how many I own, it is fairy tales. It may have become fashionable to knock them – or at least the Disney Princess variety of fairy tales with all the stereotyping and traditional gender roles they bring – but I came to fairy tales from a rather different direction.

I wasn’t really raised on Disney (bar the classics like Dumbo and Bambi), and the thought of ever going to Disneyworld is enough to bring me out in hives. Rather, my first exposure to fairy tales was via Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book and Hans Christian Andersen. So the versions I read included the chopping off of heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper, and the terrifying fate of the Little Mermaid to feel like she was walking on knives when she replaced her tail with legs (though how relieved I was that she had a happy ending of sorts, even if it didn’t involve a prince).

Luckily, alongside the more disturbing versions of these tales were the picture books I loved most of all, Cinderella and Thorn Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty) illustrated by Errol le Cain, published by Puffin. I’ve since also bought (possibly my favourite of the lot) the Twelve Dancing Princesses, which I borrowed from the library as a child but never actually owned.

It’s the gorgeous, detailed, jewel-like illustrations which make these books so precious to me. Here, for instance, is Cinders dressing one of her ugly sisters for the ball…

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And here is the Sleeping Beauty asleep in her bed:

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Here, finally, are the twelve princesses in their magical underground palace, dancing…

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(Incidentally, how weird and mysterious that story is. Who *are* the princes trapped underground in the castle? Do they ever get out or do they wait forever in vain for the princesses to come back? The book doesn’t answer those questions and it’s always haunted me…)

Those pictures don’t even show the best of the books, but it’s hard to capture the tiny details in a photo – mice transforming into horses for Cinderella’s coach, the different costumes of the twelve fairies invited to the Sleeping Beauty’s christening, and above all the frames and borders of each page which are decorated in the most lush, delicate repeating patterns.

As a child, it was hard not to believe in fairies when presented with such fantastical, magical pictures, and if you can track these books down on second hand sites anywhere, I highly recommend them to anyone you think needs an antidote to Disney. (And for the record, I did have a ‘princess dress’ as a little girl, but also had a ‘Cinderella dress’ made of shabby brown stuff covered in patches, and a toy broom to go with it, so I could play at being Cinderella when she was sitting in the ashes).

As I grew up, my early love of fairy tales opened doors to more stories – British folklore like the Mabinogion and the tales of King Arthur, and the mythology of Greece, Rome and the Norsemen, as told for children by Roger Lancelyn Green (again, if these are still in print I recommend them – Lancelyn Green’s novel for older children about the fall of Troy, The Luck of Troy, is particularly worth a read).

Even devouring these books aged 9, 10, 11 or so, I never would have imagined what would follow – the fascination with fairy tales and mythology led me to what was possibly my favourite ever module of my English degree, Romance, Ballad and Fairy Tale. This course introduced me to the idea of fairy tales as symbolic narratives which help shape children’s understanding of the world and the journey to adolescence and adulthood (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Angela Carter, Marina Warner).

Then, my fascination with Norse mythology drew me to study the Viking sagas, which in turn gave me a yearning to go and see all the places for real one day – and thanks to that, I got to visit Iceland for a memorable weekend in 2009, followed by Newfoundland in 2011 to see L’Anse aux Meadows, the place the Vikings (it is believed) knew as ‘Vinland‘ in the saga of Erik the Red.

Who would have believed a childhood love of fairy tales could lead to such adventures and experiences?

So, for anyone who worries about whether their children should be reading fairy tales or not, or anyone who has neglected to read fairy tales themselves, I have plenty more weird, wonderful and inspiring books to share.

Angela Carter’s collection of updated fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, is most definitely for adults not children, but I read and enjoyed her Virago collection of fairy tales from around the world in my late teens.

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Worth owning for the cover alone is Alan Garner’s amazing collection of folk tales. Some very odd and fascinating tales here you won’t find anywhere else. I’ve also just been given a lovely collection of tales as retold by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Faber.

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For younger children, I’d also recommend the glorious, sunny tales of Joan Aiken’s A Necklace of Raindrops collection – no dark or troubling corners to be found here, only the magical illustrations of Jan Pienkowski and a world of fantastical and imaginative stories. (I also had a couple of other collections by her aimed at slightly older readers, The Kingdom under the Sea and Tales of a One-Way Street).

Finally, no house should be without Grimms Tales (as per the current trend, you can buy a Penguin Classics edition retold by Philip Pullman) and Hans Andersen – and it’s worth remembering that although many of the tales are psychologically quite disturbing and even more are downright bleak and depressing (see The Red Shoes, for instance, or The Story of a Mother if you want to feel really miserable), there are plenty of positive role models too – heroines who rescue the men rather than the other way round – East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon is a favourite of mine, and of course the best heroine of them all, brave, resourceful, loyal Gerda in the Snow Queen.

We’ve now become converts to Anna and Elsa in our house – despite the lack of Disney in my childhood, I have no problem allowing The Mouse into our house, provided it’s *good* Disney. The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians and The Lion King are all welcome, and Toy Story OF COURSE, (mainly parts 1 & 3 – 2 was a big disappointment). So far, Frozen wins on all counts – great songs, some very impressive set pieces of animation and a heroine as brave as the Hans Andersen character who inspired her. But I won’t be neglecting to tell the toddler the real stories too – when I look at where it led me, how can I resist?

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Me at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, 2011

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The day before, we’d been on a boat trip to see ICEBERGS! See what I mean about where a love of fairy tales can lead you? Icebergs, that’s where! I rest my case.

Building a library for children, part 1

Having no new house updates to share, and a garden still mainly off-limits in the wild meteorological conditions we’ve been having, I’ve been rather stumped as to what to blog about, but then inspiration struck.

I haven’t blogged about books for a while, and I’ve never really tackled the subject of children’s books – and considering I spend a lot of time reading children’s books and reading ABOUT them (many, many good children’s book bloggers out there who have inspired me), I realised I was missing a trick.

As an adult BC (before children), I still clung fondly to my favourite childhood books, and actively tried to replace copies which had gone astray or got damaged; when I was pregnant, like any hopeful bookish parent, I dreamed of sharing most-loved books with my child, rediscovering old friends and generally getting swept away by the nostalgia of it all.

The reality, of course, when you’re reading Topsy and Tim or Charlie and Lola for the umpteenth time, is quite different – but I still have some of my classic and most treasured picture books stashed away for the future, and I have tried to make sure the toddler gets exposed to real poetry as well as nursery rhymes.

For anyone becoming a parent soon, or buying a present for a young child, I do have some book-based guidance which may be of use – there are many, many lovely poetry and rhyme anthologies which you may think would look beautiful on a nursery shelf.

Which they will – but if you are from a bookish family like ours, you might find that you’ve ended up with *many* anthologies and treasuries, and next to picture books, they rarely get a look-in during the toddler years, which is a shame.

If you are considering buying an anthology as a gift, maybe check first with the parents that they don’t already have several. I would also check a poetry book for age-appropriate content, too – I had a poetry collection as a child which contained the highly depressing and unsuitable poem ‘Flannan Isle’, about a mysterious real-life tragedy at a lighthouse, exactly the sort of thing calculated to give me nightmares, I can’t imagine why it was included in a children’s collection.

Having said that, there are some poetry books no child should be without, and these I can wholeheartedly endorse. The poetry book I loved most as a child is the classic collection edited by Kaye Webb of Puffin Books, ‘I Like This Poem’. It was published in 1979 in support of The International Year of the Child, and to my complete joy is still in print.

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The poems were all selected by children for children of their own age, so everything is arranged in chapters for 7 year olds, 8 year olds, etc, up to 14/15, and each poem is followed by a brief comment from the child who selected it explaining why they like it (and how odd to think that these ‘children’ from 1979 are now adults older than me!)

It was from this book that I discovered some of the poems that have stayed with me for years – Night Mail, Ozymandias, and Tarantella.

I discovered romance and death in The Highwayman, laughed myself silly at When Daddy Fell Into the Pond (unbelievably, these two by the same author, Alfred Noyes) and was entranced – still am – by the opening line of John Masefield’s Cargoes: ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir’. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what a quinquireme was, it was the magic spell cast by the rhythm and the fascinating, unknown words that stayed with me.

If you have a child, and they don’t own this book, buy it for them now. Just do it!

The second poetry book I love most will be familiar to anyone who encountered the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 80s – Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I had the cassette tape of Cats, and the mug, and the t-shirt and the souvenir programme, but I had the poetry book first – and having known and loved Old Possum for so long, it didn’t feel quite so daunting when I had to tackle TS Eliot for adults later on. (The Waste Land was the very first thing I studied at university – a long way from Jellicle Cats, but it now has as fond a place in my heart as Old Possum does).

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The legacy of ‘Cats’ the show being so closely associated with the poems is rather a bittersweet one – in some cases, I can’t read the poem without hearing the song in my head, but in others, the cat jumps right off the page and is alive in my mind without any need for Bonnie Langford prancing around in tights. Bustopher Jones, for instance, ‘The St James’s Street Cat’ – who hasn’t known a black cat with white spats swaggering through your garden like they own it, just as he makes his stately progress down Pall Mall in the poem?

Reading the poems aloud as an adult, you find yourself having to stifle a giggle at odd places, especially in Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer – ‘after dinner, one of the girls/Suddenly misses her Woolworths pearls’ – and Growltiger’s Last Stand, which slightly terrified me as a child, is actually hilarious, I now realise.

My favourite poem in the collection is still, as it’s always been, Macavity the Mystery Cat. As a child, I was fascinated by this rangy, mangy, wicked ginger cat, but it was only as an adult that I realised who was the true inspiration for Macavity: it was, of course, James Moriarty.

I was reading Sherlock Holmes about 4 years ago, and the description of Moriarty – domed forehead, sunken eyes, head moving from side to side like a snake – and it jumped out at me, Macavity IS Moriarty! And how cheeky of TS Eliot to have lifted the character so blatantly from Conan Doyle, though obviously it’s an homage rather than sheer plagiarism – though wouldn’t it be great if Eliot had written a sequel where Macavity gets his comeuppance at the hands of a consulting detective cat?

This is our second copy of Old Possum, by the way – the one I actually read to the toddler.

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The illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great fun, though I do find the faces a little too human – I like my cats to be cattish, not humanoid – but as a picture book for a toddler it’s perfect.

The other area of poetry no child should be without is the nonsense rhyme – the best exemplar being the mighty Edward Lear. Shamefully, we don’t have a Lear collection in the house yet, though the toddler does already know and love The Owl and the Pussycat. We do have a copy of another nonsense classic, Spike Milligan

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– which has gems including The Ning Nang Nong and the unfortunate tale of the soldier called Edser, (‘Edser in bedsir/Was deadsir’) but some that go into rather (unsurprisingly for Milligan) bleak territory.

I feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of my favourite poems here, but it’s a start, and I haven’t even got on to fairy tales or picture books yet. More to follow on this topic – much more – and if you have favourite children’s books or recommendations, please share them!

A walk around…Oxford Botanic Garden

I am not sure quite why I am bothering to write anything for this blog now there’s a great opening line, as I could just upload all my photos from this trip and it still wouldn’t do justice to how much I loved the Oxford Botanic Gardens.

We had a long weekend planned in Oxford as the Mr was at a conference – and the Botanic Gardens was top of my list of places to visit. The colleges all look lovely but not the kind of place you can snoop on a weekday (especially not in exam season), climbing church towers not really toddler-friendly, and the museums I suspect she will enjoy much more in a few years.

So I had the rare luxury of going somewhere I wanted to go – and why not Britain’s oldest botanic garden?

Oxford Botanic Garden

Oxford Botanic Gardens – view across the walled garden

I was completely out of my depth identifying the trees, though many were clearly very old, but idling around the flower beds I spotted a few favourite plants – alliums, irises, columbines.

Irises

Irises

Allium

Allium

A new one to me was (what appeared to be) a white version of a verbena. I love purple verbena but the alba variety is gorgeous…one to try and get hold of one day, if I can find it.

Verbena alba

Verbena alba

The gardens spill out from a formal walled area into lawns which end abruptly at the river’s edge – a sheer (unfenced) drop which the toddler teetered on the brink of, terrifyingly, to watch ducks and punts going by.

River Cherwell

River Cherwell

Along the river side of the gardens we also found the glasshouses, not on the Kew scale but still very impressive. Lilies, cacti, carnivorous plants.

Water lilies

Water lilies – Nymphaea

Golden Barrel Cactus

Echinocactus grusonii – commonly known as Golden Barrel Cactus

Finally, and most importantly of all, there was a bench I needed to find. I had done my research, read up on other blogs, looked at Google Image Search, and I was determined to find Lyra and Will’s bench.

It really was the loveliest place I could have imagined – under a spreading tree, with its back to the river, and a view of flower beds stretching away towards the church towers and college walls.

Will and Lyra's bench

Will and Lyra’s bench

View from Will and Lyra's bench, Oxford

View from Will and Lyra’s bench – toddler in foreground

We found the names Will and Lyra scratched into the wood, and I wondered how many people will fight to sit there on Midsummer Day, and dream of lost loves?

His Dark Materials is one of those books I wish had been written when I was younger – I can take or leave Harry Potter, I haven’t tackled the Hunger Games or A Song of Ice and Fire (and I don’t intend to), but if only, if only I had been 14 or so when I first encountered Lyra and Will, it would have been a life-moulding experience.

As it is, I love the books and I re-read them religiously every year, but I know they won’t quite bind themselves to my heart the way they would have if I’d read them in the crucible of teenage angst and fury. As it is, I feel a kind of nostalgia for that white-hot intensity, but mainly a relief that it has passed.

Instead, I grow my garden, I water, I nurture and plant and weed and dead-head and prune – gentle, grown-up, non-threatening pursuits – but just for a moment, I got to be Lyra sitting on her bench, and it was just perfect.

Sitting on Lyra's bench

Sitting on Lyra’s bench

A house becomes a home

As we approach Christmas, I keep remembering this time last year, when we were scrambling to pack up the old house and I was phoning the solicitor daily, pleading with her to try and get our contracts sorted so we’d have any kind of hope of moving before Christmas.

When we did manage to move just days before Christmas, it was a huge relief, not least because I could put up decorations and immediately make the house feel cosy and homely.

With no shelf space or mantelpiece to hang up cards, we improvised with string and clothes pegs, which looked surprisingly good…and leaving our tree-buying till the last minute meant we had to get an old-school needle dropping variety, with predictable messy results (it did smell properly Christmassy, though). It was an instant injection of colour and personality which the house badly needed – and when my own home-made wreath went up, I felt I’d already put my own small personal mark on the house.

Trying to make our house a home after Christmas was a bit more of a challenge, as it coincided with the baby becoming a toddler, and learning to crawl…and then walk…and climb. We hadn’t had to put anything out of reach at the old house, but it suddenly became a priority – and we didn’t have any fitted storage downstairs at all, so nothing could be shut away or put out of her reach unless we kept it boxed up and invisible.

So after the urgent work was done – electrics and boiler – we had some shelves fitted in the dining and sitting rooms. I am particularly fond of the dining room shelves, as they come into view as you walk down the stairs, and the clutter which has accumulated there over the last few months makes me feel at home.

DIning room shelves

Dining room shelves – a bit wonky!

The shelves started out with some of my favourite ornaments on the lower shelves – the Australian boomerang, the Chinese fan, my Silver Jubilee mug, my teapot – but small hands soon began to grab at these, so we had to do a bit of rejigging.

The bottom shelf now has children’s books and a crate of Duplo, and the breakable items, including some of my favourite vintage pieces, have moved higher and higher up, as the toddler learnt how to scramble up onto the sofa to reach the second and even third shelves. They are now a pleasing jumble of books, china, ornaments and children’s toys, and I like them all the more for that.

Living room shelves - left of chimney breast

Living room shelves – left of chimney breast

The sitting room shelves are on either side of the non-functioning chimney breast, and to quote Anthony Powell, confirm that ‘books do furnish a room’. In a rather dull, characterless room like this, (and also long and narrow, an unhelpful shape for a living room), books add depth and colour, and some much-needed noise absorption. The room felt rather bleak and echoey before, and now, with curtains pulled and the Advent candle lit, it’s cosy and snug.

The shelves also provide a good dumping ground for things we want to keep out of the toddler’s way – remote controls, fiddly toys which she would lose pieces of, and now various Christmas bits and bobs too. The carpenter even built the right-hand shelf around a pillar, which created dinky little alcoves just big enough to take our clock and a few other ornaments.

The lower half of the sitting room may be – and usually is – a tidal wave of toys, discarded shoes and board books, but at least I can look at my lovely shelves and feel quite at home.

It also reminds me of previous places I’ve lived, and how the most unlikely things can make you feel settled. I remember the housing association flat in SE1, where I had no furniture to speak of and had to sit on a futon mattress with no base, far more fondly than the grand Georgian flat in Kensington where the blocked-up marble fireplace had been lined, interestingly, with corrugated plastic.

I don’t have photos of either of those flats – the days before digital cameras and smart phones – but I do have a few of the cutest, dinkiest flat I ever lived in, on the first floor of a handsome mansion block in Bloomsbury. There wasn’t space to swing a cat, but I loved it.

It was the first place I’d ever lived properly on my own, and it became my retreat from the world during days when work had become dreary and I was rather lonely. The living room was particularly snug and dark, like a little she-bear cave, and it had a lovely deep mantelpiece which I piled high with nick nacks and scented candles and the like, so I decided what it really needed was pink fluffy fairy lights to complete the look.

Bloomsbury mantelpiece

Bloomsbury mantelpiece

I justified this utterly uncharacteristic girliness on the grounds I’d probably never live anywhere else suitable for pink fluffy fairy lights – and so indeed has been the case.

Making a family home from a rather ordinary house has been a challenge all of its own, and I’ve had to learn to dial down my love of pretty objects and scented candles, so I’ve given away the fairy lights – there simply isn’t room for so much clutter. And will there be room for a decent sized Christmas tree? That’s the next task ahead of us…