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!

A Major Incident

For most of us, the idea of being witness to, or involved in, ‘a major incident’ is probably something we idly imagine, or hope never to experience. When it actually happens, it is such an odd and disconcerting experience, I thought I had better put it down in writing before I forget. 

I have been in proximity to a major incident before, the tragic events of 7/7 – although thankfully not a witness, I was inadvertently quite close by, trying to get back to my office after being evacuated from the tube. But my memories of that day have become very much mingled with the collective memories of my work colleagues and the images which filled up the news night after night.

This time, thankfully, there were no fatalities, so the experience has become much less upsetting and more fascinating, realising you are a bystander to an event which has taken over the news on a slow news summer day.

We were going to the seaside on Bank Holiday Saturday, and had made very good time getting out of London – avoiding the south circular meant we’d barely been stationary by the time we got on the motorway. Then, suddenly, the unwelcome sight of traffic slowing down ahead.

We ground to a halt, and almost immediately saw that people were getting out of their cars. At first we were incredulous – surely if it was a crash on the other side we’d be moving fairly soon, why risk getting out of the car? – and a sense of distaste at the thought of rubberneckers, if the accident was serious. 

It reaffirmed my instinct that I am not a rubbernecker – I am terminally nosy, but I don’t want to see bad stuff, and I don’t want to see others suffering. But then, as more and more people got out of their cars, I searched for ‘M20 traffic’ on Twitter and discovered that what had actually happened was a motorway bridge had collapsed onto a lorry (or been hit BY the lorry – at this point it wasn’t clear).

Then, I started to have a different appreciation for the ‘rubberneckers’ – perhaps, after all, these were the ‘citizen journalists’ who were communicating the news story as it happened; as we waited, many people around us were tweeting pictures and video footage to local radio stations, getting the word out there fast and perhaps saving other drivers from wasted journeys.

With two children getting bored and fidgety in the back, we did eventually get out of the car, but I didn’t feel very comfortable doing it – there were still motorbikes (police and otherwise) weaving through the cars, and people opening car doors unexpectedly, but it was too surreal and odd not to take the opportunity to walk on a motorway.


This photo shows where we were, right in the middle of the jam, about 40-50 cars behind the bridge itself. We saw the air ambulance hovering but didn’t see where it landed – it was already being reported on social media that there was only one injured person, and unbelievably, it was being said they had only sustained minor injuries.


Still, even knowing it was not a fatal crash scene, I didn’t want to go any closer. I didn’t actually see the broken bridge or the trapped lorry myself, despite being so close – it is odd, but somehow I knew I didn’t want to be one of the gawpers. 

The atmosphere at this point had  changed, though – we all knew no-one had been killed, miraculously, but we all also knew we might be there a long while, so a bit of Blitz spirit had kicked in – people were chatting to each other, football was being played on the other side of the barrier and a remote control car being driven around. People were climbing the nearest stairs up the embankment and bringing back cold drinks, apparently from a local golf course. 

We had thankfully brought packed lunches for the children and lots of water, but I *was* beginning to wonder when I’d get to go to the loo. (We’d been stationary for about 80 – 90 minutes at that point).


We began to notice a few drivers were turning around near us – at first we thought ‘no way’, surely they would just get stuck in amongst the traffic facing the right way, surely there was no way through?  

Then we noticed they were going through a gap in the central reservation a few hundred yards behind us, and by then lots of engines were starting up. Clearly we were not going to leave the motorway driving forward, as it wasn’t safe to go under the hanging half-bridge, so we had to turn round to get out. 

We joined the queue weaving through the stationary cars, and in only a few blessed minutes we were being waved through the gap by a police motorcyclist. Oh the joy of being on an empty motorway speeding away from the jam, and the relief of it being finally over, and the pity for those still stuck on the wrong side!

Our day out at the seaside was not to be, but having been cooped up in the car for hours, we couldn’t just go straight home. We realised we were very close to lovely, tranquil Ightham Mote and there couldn’t have been a better place to rest and recover ourselves. 


From there we had a smooth journey home, and we saw from the news that the rest of the traffic was cleared within three hours. 

It certainly wasn’t the day we planned, but it was simply a huge relief to have been able to drive away unscathed from something that could have been an awful tragedy. 

The wider implications of what happened – the state of motorway bridge maintenance, the height of the load which hit the bridge, are still at the back of my mind, and I’m sure it will be a while before I feel comfortable going under motorway bridges again, but for now, the ‘major incident’ can become one of those ‘I can’t quite believe this happened to us’ tales we will remember for many years.

And to repeat the advice I’m glad I had already taken – full packed lunch and lots of water. The children ate two lunches that day in the end, but without the distraction of food I don’t know what we would have done.

Mixed Feelings

I have to confess – I’ve been dabbling elsewhere: I’ve had a blog posted on a site which is collating breastfeeding stories of mums who, like me, have used the Lambeth and Southwark Milkspot cafes, which are now threatened with closure after Kings pulled their funding. (If they do survive, it will likely be as a shadow of their former selves, with the expert clinical staff replaced with health workers who have perhaps had just a few days training in breastfeeding support).

  
I wouldn’t be breastfeeding at all without their help, so the cause is one very close to my heart, but without the threat of closure hanging over them, I doubt I would ever have written about my experience of breastfeeding on a public platform. 

Having been active on parenting forums and Facebook groups since the Big Girl was born, I’m aware that breastfeeding seems to raise heightened emotions and hackles wherever it goes. I follow the threads and read the articles and comment anonymously, but raising my head above the parapet to speak about my own experiences was just a bit too daunting until now.

The ‘Claridges breastfeeding’ story actually began on one of my local Facebook parenting groups, and I remember reading the thread late at night and thinking ‘I bet this will all kick off in the morning’ – and indeed it did. The story took on a life of its own, and the mum originally involved seemed to disappear – I hate to think she was hounded by people who thought she was attention-seeking when clearly she was very upset by the experience.

In my case, I am sure it was my difficult experience of breastfeeding that has influenced my own strong opinions – as a mixed feeder (both my children have had  breast milk and formula), I have a foot in both camps.

I am a pro-breastfeeder through and through, and I struggle with those who find the idea of it ‘icky’. I was raised by a biology teacher mother, human bodily functions hold no particular fear or hang-ups for me. It seems completely natural to me that we should feed our babies the way other mammals do – the clue’s in the name. (Incidentally, the thing that really blows my mind is that underwater mammals produce milk and suckle exactly the same as we do – the idea that whales and dolphins produce milk, I just can’t get my head around).

  
(Mare and foal in the New Forest for illustrative purposes. I don’t have a photo of a dolphin nursing its young, surprisingly…)

At the same time, I am under no illusions that breastfeeding is easy – and luckily thanks to the advice of a good friend who was a few months ahead of me in the parenting lark, I was prepared for it to be hard, for pain, for the fact I might need to express or use formula. 

Once I’d got over the initial disappointment of having to offer formula the first time, and worked out that I could mix feed, I had no problem with there being formula in the Big Girl’s diet, provided I could still breastfeed too. I was not part of the club that is exclusive breastfeeding mums, but I realised that, personally, I didn’t need to be. 

I didn’t feel judged or criticised at the breastfeeding cafe as a mix feeding mum; rather I was supported in my goal of trying to reduce formula and sustain breastfeeding, whilst keeping my baby fed and happy. Formula was a safety net which meant I no longer had to worry about her weight – when I had stopped stressing about that, I felt more relaxed, and feeding got easier.

The second time round was much harder, as I discovered giving too much formula too early could lead to a  baby losing interest in breastfeeding, and that was a whole different kind of hard. It was only then, when I was days away from having to give up with a baby who refused to feed, that I really realised how much I was judging myself, and how much of my self image as a ‘successful’ mother was predicated on me being a breastfeeding mother.

However – and this is the really important point – the only person I was judging myself against was me. Everyone has their own limits and measures of what constitutes ‘successful’ parenting and to try and rank us against each other is a pointless exercise. 

For every mother that makes it to the magic goal of 365 days of breastfeeding and feels good about it, there will be one who makes it to 366 days. She has every right to feel good about it – getting to beyond a year is an amazing achievement – but there is no ranking order of ‘better’ parenting for every day longer you breastfeed. And my early breastfeeding woes are nothing compared to those who’ve had repeated bouts of mastitis – I’m sure I would not have been able to continue through that and I’m lucky never to have experienced it.

In terms of my personal goals, if I had stopped feeding either of my children before six months, I think I would have felt terribly disappointed – but I stopped feeding the Big Girl at 10 months, and there was no huge feeling of let down (pun intended) at that point. It would have been nice to make it to 12 months, when I was so close to it, but I didn’t feel in any way like it was required of me. Our feeding was slowing down gradually and it came to a natural stopping point – there was no regret. 

The same applies to Baby Sister, now gloriously six months old and just starting weaning – we carry on, we feed as long as she wants to, but I judge myself by nothing but my own expectations and hopes, I have no fixed goals or rigid rules to stick to. 

I am proud to be a breastfeeding mum – because I know how hard I worked to get this far – but I know that for others it’s even harder, even more painful, even more heartbreaking than it was for me. I don’t place myself on any pedestal, I compare myself only with me. 

There are no medals or prizes for parenting except those we award ourselves – and if breastfeeding is that for me, great, I can award myself a big invisible rosette and throw myself a tickertape parade. Go me. But I’m not entitled to say that makes me a better parent compared to anyone else. We all have our own mountains to climb, and up them we must go. This just happens to be my personal mountain, my story.
  
Milky baby 

The pink thing

You have a baby girl, you get given pink stuff. Your baby turns out to be fair and blue eyed, you get even more. You have another girl, and still the pink stuff keeps coming. This is a scenario so ubiquitous I could have started with ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged….’ but I’ll spare you the Austenisms.

Pink has become something of a battleground in the years since I became a mother of girls – I was aware of Pink Stinks (though their website seems to be rather dormant now), and also more recently the efforts to reclaim pink as an acceptable colour for men, boys and grown-ups, not just small girls. 

I didn’t go into parenthood with any strong feelings for or against pink – after all, I like pink flowers (especially the ones in my favourite local front garden, half way down the hill, where  the planting beautifully reflects the sugared-almond pink house).

  
When it came to wearing pink, clothes are just clothes, I thought; my feelings about gender stereotyping were  much more engaged by the Let Toys be Toys campaign, perhaps because I remembered my own diverse childhood interests so vividly.
I was devoted to my dolls house and my Lego townscape, true – in pride of place was the 70s-tastic Snack Bar – but I also played with Space Lego, an awesome toy farm my mum & brother made from papier mâché to house our Britains toy farm vehicles, and of course with Star Wars figures. We didn’t quite have Brio in my era but you can bet I would have played with it if we had.

So the world of gender stereotyping toys is one I felt duty bound to challenge, clothes I was a bit more ambivalent about. We were given such nice clothes, it seemed a shame not to use them – and not all of it was pink, (though quite a lot was). It wasn’t so much a case of shying away from pink, more a question of what to buy to complement all the pink clothes we already owned?

My salvation, when dressing the toddler, became H&M, partly on the grounds that it was the nearest clothes shop with a decent range I could get to by bus, and because it met the brief – lots of tops, dresses and leggings in flexible colours and lengths to work alongside pink. The toddler’s wardrobe staple became black, navy or grey marl leggings, hooded tops, and t-shirts in a variety of stripes, spots, hearts and so on, all of which could be made to work with pink. The toddler, it turned out, was even better at a capsule wardrobe than I was.

It was only the other day, when sorting through yet another load of navy, grey, denim and stripy laundry, that I realised what the problem was. I had started to dress the toddler exactly like me!  As pink has started to fade from her wardrobe I only seem to have replaced it with dark and plain colours – where is the joy in that? Why should she have to wear a boring ‘mum uniform’ just because I do?

She needs more bright colours, more patterns, more fun – and now that she is 3, the clothes aimed at her do begin to bother me; far more emphasis on frills, garish glittery logos and slogans and cheap looking Disney rip-off designs. 2 year old girls can wear simple easy-to-wear leggings and t-shirts with no fuss, but it seems 3 year olds have to wear crop tops and frilly vests and flouncy lacy skirts and vacuous slogans – and that bothers me far more than the colour pink itself. 

I fear we have to extend our shopping range well beyond H&M to achieve that – which means buying online or travelling further. 

The baby sister is faring better with her new outfits, though it is hard to find multi-buys without some element of pink in them:
  
However we had more success at our recent Jumble Trail where I found some strictly non-pink and very bright and not boring outfits for her:

  

And of course you can’t go wrong with something hand-knitted by Granny.

  
I feel like, so far, we’ve tackled the challenge of dressing small girls in a way that neither denies nor overtly emphasises their femininity – it will get harder I’m sure, but for now, I will embrace pink, provided it’s part of a rainbow coalition of colours in our lives – and I’ll try to take a break from all that grey, navy and black. Hell, I even bought myself a red top the other day!

Wreathed in glory – the 2014 reboot

Our Christmas spirit came to a rather abrupt end today when we came home from the New Year’s Day trudge round the park & lunch to find our tree had fallen over! Either a draught coming in from somewhere (it has been very windy) or our tree stand is not going to last us another year.

Still, no decorations were broken and it would have been coming down in 2 days anyway, but I’m keeping all the other decorations up for a few more days to compensate for the loss of tree. And we had spent the morning hanging pictures which had been stashed away since before The Builders, so the house was already looking a bit less bare, luckily.

To make the last bit of Christmas cheer last into 2015, though, I’ll share with you some of the lovely wreaths I’ve seen around our local streets lately. Lots of interesting colours and decorations beyond the usual holly and red ribbons, I’m pleased to report!

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A very bright red berried wreath against a pale blue door in winter sun – this was the first one I spotted and I loved it!

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A simple but pleasing wicker/straw and ribbon affair.

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What a beauty – pine cones and dried orange chillies against a royal blue door. Gorgeous colours!

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All in shades of green, against a grey door. Classy.

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Possibly my favourite of the year, a lovely natural wreath incorporating dried hydrangea heads.

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Another natural wreath, this one in autumnal colours against *another* pale blue door, and this one has an unusual shape with the sprays of leaves spiralling out.

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A wreath entirely of gold leaves and berries, a bit reminiscent of the laurel wreaths given to ancient Olympians (I think I’m remembering a gold laurel wreath which features in ‘Asterix at the Olympics’.

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Jingle bell wreath, pure and simple. We have some similar jingle bell stars hanging up in the windows which the toddler is very fond of, and whilst it wouldn’t be the sort of thing I’d have bought a few years ago, I want there to be a few decorations she feels are especially ‘hers’ and which she’ll get excited about them coming out every year – exactly how I remember feeling at Christmas.

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Finally, a vision of pine cones in purple against a dark door.

Those are all the wreaths – but I have one more thing to share, a picture of the handmade decorations I sent to friends and family over Christmas.

It all started with a kit for decorations (mainly felt & buttons) I bought in Oxfam, and have supplemented with other ribbons, my own button collection and Christmas fabric which was a very well-timed birthday present. Most had cloves inside so they smelt Christmassy too.

I had so much fun making them I now feel a bit bereft without a craft project on the go – my fingers are itching to start something new.

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In any case, it feels good to start the new year with a reminder of something creative I achieved in 2014 and something which also brought a great deal of enjoyment. If I feel really inspired for next Christmas, I might make enough to sell at a craft fair, but I doubt the hours spent hand-sewing and what I spent on materials would result in a very good return on investment – still, if I enjoy the work, that’s what counts, I hope.

The year in retrospect was dominated by the stress of the building project, but also a lot of good stuff too – our summer holiday in France gave me the chance to tick 2 things off my adult ‘life list’, the Bayeux Tapestry and the Normandy landing beaches (I’d visited both as a child but had few memories of either).

Both matched up to my expectations, and this time round will be remembered for many years, I hope – and it leaves me excited about what 2015 might bring, probably not any travel abroad but a chance to explore a corner or two of Britain we haven’t seen so much of lately. The main priority will be finding a good family-friendly venue for our main holiday, now that the toddler is old enough to really ‘get’ what holidays are about, we have to make sure it’s as fun as possible for her, whilst still keeping entertainment for adults in mind (even if it’s just remembering to bring board games this time…).

The other big joy of 2014 was seeing the toddler change from a baby, this time last year, to a fully functioning, chattering child. The growth in her language after she started at nursery in May has been phenomenal, and as her nursery is a co-operative run by the parents, I’ve been privileged to see a lot of her development and interaction with other children up close myself.

She will be ready to move to preschool and towards school itself before we know it, so this time spent with her at nursery has been precious indeed, and I know she has loved it too.

There is not likely to be any gardening happening soon unless the weather gets markedly better – so the next proper, meaty blog on that topic may be some way off…and there is still plenty to occupy us inside the house, too. So for now, a Happy New Year and hope that 2015 brings good and joyful things to you all!

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

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Last week, I went back to the village where I grew up, for the first time in years. It was a sad occasion, the funeral of a friend’s dad. I don’t want to intrude on that private event in any more detail…but it was very strange to go ‘home’ after so long, and it’s been on my mind ever since.

I always used to define myself as a ‘country’ person. I grew up in the country – proper country, despite being only a few miles from the end of the Central Line, the village is deep in Green Belt territory (having survived the addition of a handful of cul-de-sacs and some council housing in the 60s/70s) – and it felt like a proper childhood: dens in the field, long cycle rides, tramping through woods in the autumn, and living somewhere where you felt you knew everyone.

My expectation after 12-odd years was that it would be a lot more bling, Footballer’s Wives-style, and on the outskirts of the village there were a few new houses along those lines (big gates, pillars, you know the type), but the heart of the village was pretty much as I left it in 2001, just a lot cleaner than I remembered.

It was always pretty, back in the day, and it won ‘tidiest village’ awards from time to time, but it’s not one of those really pristine chocolate-box places like Finchingfield: it was always a bit shabbier and more awkward than that, with unexplained derelict houses, odd corners with ugly modern houses dumped in them, and run-down farmhouses with rusty equipment in the farmyard. Also, whilst it was idyllic and green, it was never what you’d call quiet: it was used as a bit of a rat run between the two nearest A-roads, so there were often lorries and horse boxes lumbering through the village centre, and in the early hours of the morning, the first flights of the day from Stanstead used to wake me up.

Now, it felt like it had had a proper spring clean, with formerly shabby cottages now tidy and smart, and even most of the 1960s houses, like the one I grew up in, had been made over in the Noughties, with lots of plate glass, skylights and wood cladding in place of PVC and plastic fascias. It was the houses which have been untouched since the ’80s which stuck out like a sore thumb, rather than the other way round.

But I walked just to the edge of the village, just round the corner from our road, and suddenly it felt like home again. The pavement comes to a sudden halt, it was muddy underfoot, and I stood at the crossroads which once represented freedom and the unknown to me, the road stretching away in the distance with an inviting gleam. I know where it goes, of course, but oh, I love the mystery of it. I love it.

Edge of the village

Edge of the village

It feels like an anomaly, my village, an anachronism in the county of TOWIE. A few miles west and it would be on the very edge of London sprawl. A few miles south and it would be a suburb of the nearest town, deep in nail-bar and tanning-salon territory. Yet here it is, a proper village, preserved in its Green Belt bubble: surrounded by fields, footpaths taking off in all directions, and a patch of Domesday-era woodland at its perimeter. I won’t ever live there again, (nor would I want to, even if I could afford it) but it will always be home.

Having said that, a week later I had an unexpected solo night out after booking a returned ticket to see David Tennant play Richard II at the Barbican. I’ve always loved the Barbican, despite getting lost there as I always do, (and why are there no toilets except the ones miles away in the basement?)

It was a beautiful, clear night when I left the theatre, and I decided to walk back to London Bridge, through the near-deserted City – and found, to my pleasure, I remembered the route quite easily from the last time I did it, even in the dark. (The City evidently not quite such a rabbit warren as the Barbican, then…)

I finally paused on London Bridge to take a picture of Tower Bridge and the moon, and I thought, perhaps I am a town mouse, after all.

Tower Bridge and Moon

Tower Bridge and Moon