Saturday, 15 November 2014

Over the hills and a great way off.....

Yesterday was a fabulous bright and glowing day.  How easy it is to spend every hour of every day working and worrying, looking after people, driving up and down the country, baking, gardening, shortening curtains, making jam, working through the endless to do list.  Sometimes you just need to walk away from it all.  Yesterday was the anniversary of my mother's death.  It was a good day to look up, to breathe, to pull on our boots, lock the door and to set off over the hills and far away.

Up the hill from our house, the Clwydians were bright in the sun.  It takes half an hour to get to the top, walking first a lane and then a rough track, gaining height with every step.

On a clear day you can see forever, across to Snowdonia and right down the Vale of Clwyd to the sea.  Yesterday was as clear as could be, with tiny puffs of riding cloud.

See what the wind does up here.  It was still and calm as we came out onto the top but the hawthorn tree is always windblown, sculpted by the wind so that it leans away from the imagined gale even on the stillest day.

We walked out along the Clwydian Way, hugging the side of hill below the ridge, looking out across the Vale.

Up here you need to be hardy, although these cattle looked rather teddy bear-like close up.

Can you get any hardier than this little holly, growing determinedly in the top of a gate post?  One day the post will rot away and there will be a tree in its place, even after the metal gate has fallen.

There are sheep up here too although I don't think they should be on our side of the fence.  As Ian approached them they skittered away, their little black ears held upright and their black tails swinging.

And all the way along the track, this view spreading out and away under the sun.  Black crows flew and sparrows fluttered in the hawthorns.

The walk changes.  We left the Clwydian Way and headed off up into Llangwyfan Forest, walking between towering pines which cling to the hillside.

At the top of the track you look across to Moel Arthur, one of a string of Iron Age hillforts along the ridge.  I love the moment when you leave the trees behind and see the bare hills spreading away along southwards towards Llangollen.

You can just see the dome of Moel Arthur, the dark heathery smudge on the summit of the hill across the valley.

Reach the little car park below Moel Arthur and then start to climb, following the Offa's Dyke Path. This path runs the length of Wales from Chepstow in the South to Prestatyn in the North.  I walked it all a few years ago and loved it all but the section which tramps across our hills is one of the best bits.  Call me biased if you like.  It is very near home!

And now we had turned back North and we were walking home, up high on Penycloddiau, with the springy turf under our feet and the views spreading out on either side: west to Snowdonia and east to the Dee Estuary and, on a day as clear and diamond bright as this, all the way to Liverpool.

Mum would have been glad to know we were out together in the sun, watching the buzzards soar, looking to this day.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Darkness falls and the fires are lit

I am sure that when I lived in a city winter was never this dark!  The clocks went back this weekend and suddenly the glorious extended autumn hit the buffers.  I looked out of the window at half past five, the lights having been on in the house for ages, and saw the black night.  Partly it is the totally welcome absence of light pollution here.  Stand in just the right place on our land and you can see the faint amber smudge of light which is Mold to the East but turn your back on that and the valley is very black.  You can't see the line of the ridge opposite or of the ancient hillforts to the west against the sky.  Look up and on a clear night you can see stars, but wander around and it is can't-see-the-hand-in-front-of your-face dark on nights when the moon is, as tonight, a waxing crescent.  It is close to total darkness.

We go out to the pub for a meal, driving our narrow lanes between the high hedges.  In the headlights the browns and golds of the last of the bracken shine out at the edge of the road.  Where beech trees line the lanes the leaves pile up in russet drifts.  It is easier to drive these lanes in darkness. Oncoming headlights alert you well in time for you to find the place to tuck in by the hedge to let the other vehicle come by.  We round a corner and see the remains of a badger, caught unawares crossing the road.  It feels as if we have dropped into another world.  It is magical, light and dark in high relief, hedgerows illuminated and blackness beyond.  I know it all familiar farmland in daylight but driving tonight it does not feel familiar at all.

Fire is what you need in winter and darkness.  Back home we light the stove.  Fire and warmth make winter a pleasure.  I am a spring and summer person really, but tonight I am happy with the dark.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Who am I?
Daughter, nearly a year on from the sudden death of my mother, trying to support my father as he falls away into motor neurone disease, holding on to the self they created in their parenting of me: happy, resilient, loving, amused and amusing.  This self is buffetted hard by the rain and wind of loss and sadness but she still stands up, most of the time.  Thank you Mum and Dad for that.

Wife, sharing with my husband the loss of his father and receiving his help with my own demands.  Torn by living in one place and loving in another.  Having his company on the road as the miles pile up under the wheels.  Needing to find time to focus on each other

Mother and stepmother, feeling at the moment most strongly myself when I talk to my daughter and my son, loving their deep sympathy and understanding, their practicality, watching them in their turn parenting their children and seeing how totally they are adult, responsible not only for themselves but for others.  Being with them is balm to the soul.  Cherishing the love and care of my stepchildren, different from that of my own children but no less important and no less essential to my well being.  Feeling I do not have enough time or energy for everyone.

Grandmother, suddenly moved to laughter by a grandchild, brought into the moment.  Today nearly five year old grandson was given a large model of a plane to his total delight.  "Look Grandma.  It's like a big rocket ship, full of mysterious things."  "Mysterious things", that is what we need.  The two babies in the family, smiling.

Sister, sharing the loss of our mother with my brother and sister.  Knowing that, as my sister and I struggle to find ways to support our father, we understand each other, we support each other.  Admiring the way my brother and his wife cope with their own problems arising from my brother's health.  The relationship with our siblings is a fascinating one.  It may, as our parents die, become the longest relationship in terms of time that we have, predating that with our partners and our children, part of the landscape of our lives.

Friend, not as good a friend as I would like to be, not enough present, although the warmth of my friends on my recent big birthday reminded me that they understand.  I need to find more time for them.  I tend to seize on a day with no claims upon it to take time for myself but sometimes I would get just as much nourishment in a different way from time with a friend.   It is much easier to find time for local friends than for those at a distance.  Note to self: make it happen.

Colleague?  Not any more although the contact with other people who provide accommodation for visitors or who write is important to me to keep in touch with that part of myself.

And just me?  This has been a challenging year for that.  Gardening provided the passion and even intellectual challenge as I tried to make something here which was a fit for the place.  Gardening takes time and being present.  It has been squeezed out and I almost find it easier to be totally disconnected from it than to cope with the frustrations of doing not enough and doing it badly.  I feel as if a bit of me is missing if I am not obsessing about the garden and yet that is the only thing to do just now.  There are only so many hours and days and weeks.  Yoga is something I do for me and keeps me centred in a way I could never have imagined.  Last week I joined a choir and was amazed at how energised it made me feel.  Today for the first time for weeks I picked up some knitting again.  I have of course made a total hames of it and am now busily pulling back what I have done but still, I liked the feel of the needles in my hands.  So here we are, sometimes bobbing up and down a bit, but head above water, still here, still me.  Thanks to all my lovely family coming along on the journey and buoying me up in the waves.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Cyclamen, pansies, tomatoes and abundance

I have always loved cyclamen.  When we first came here nearly nine years ago I longed to establish cyclamen, both autumn flowering cyclamen hederifolium and February flowering cyclamen coum.  I must have bought ten plants of each variety and most of those have simply disappeared.  I longed for them to naturalise and to fill the dry shade under the tree in the side garden but it seemed that only one or two hung on.   Then suddenly this autumn I saw the slender flowers gathering quietly under the tree, certainly twice the size of last year's patch.  Now the flowers are going over and the equally beautiful marbled leaves are patterning the dry soil.  I love them.  They can double and treble and multiply to their hearts' content and I hope they will.  This is an image from the RHS which perfectly captures the delicacy of the flowers.

I have written before about Plant me Now, an online plant sales business, and I have always been impressed with their plants.  When they asked me if I would like to review some for winter containers I thought at once of cyclamen, not the hardy ones I have out in the garden but the slightly tender perennials which are often used in containers, cyclamen persicum.  They really earn their keep in containers as they flower for a long time and they share with all cyclamen varieties the beautiful foliage which is lovely in its own right.

These are the cyclamen as they will be in full flower.  The difference between the species and these hybrids is like the difference between a bare faced girl and one in full make up.  These are brighter and almost blowsy by comparison in these photographs but in containers they shine throughout the winter, even in snow, and are one of the most cheering sights you could see.

As always the plants arrive carefully packaged and in good health.  Plant me now plants are well grown, not artificially rushed into growth.   They are not the kind which are great when you get them and then slowly decline, but sturdy and strong.

This is what you see when you open up the packaging, five sturdy little plants ready for potting on.  I haven't planted the containers up yet because I want to layer up tulip bulbs below the cyclamen and I haven't even made my tulip order yet.  It will do the cyclamen no harm to stay in their larger pots for a few more weeks until I am ready to put the tulips in.  Anyway, we have had such a glorious September that the geraniums in the large terracotta pots are still flowering fit to burst.  I always have trouble deciding when to take them out, cut them back and put them in the greenhouse.  Some years I have just missed the moment and the frosts have got them but this year I think taking out the geraniums towards the end of October will slot nicely in with the tulip planting.

I also have some violas from Plant me now which will do another container for the front of the holiday cottage, underplanted with yet more tulips.  These are Viola Blue Blotch.  These little plants will eventually look like this:

I love the intensity of the colour.  These plants have doubled in size since I potted them on.  I am interested to see on the Plant me Now website that reviews are accumulating and that they overwhelmingly endorse my own experience of the quality of the plants and of the service.  This is just my own opinion, not an advert by the way.  I was provided with the plants to review but I only ever do reviews that allow me to say exactly what I think!

The other thing which is on my mind and in my kitchen by the bucketload is tomatoes!

We may have lost hold of the outside  garden this year but the greenhouse is overflowing with tomatoes and cucumbers. The yellow tomatoes are Golden Sunrise.  They look as if they might not be quite ripe but they surprise with the intensity and sweetness of their flavour.  The little ones are the old favourite, Gardener's Delight.  They are like sweets, bursting with flavour in your mouth, almost fizzing like a sherbet dip.  They are fabulous just eaten as they are but we have had so many tomatoes I have been making a tomato sauce for pasta to go into the freezer.  This is really easy and deeply flavoursome.
Take a kilo of tomatoes and skin them.   I used to try to persuade myself that it didn't matter whether tomatoes are skinned or not and in many recipes it doesn't but in this one it really does.  Skinning tomatoes is extremely easy.  Cut a little cross in the base of the tomato with a sharp knife, put them all in a heat proof bowl and cover them with boiling water.  Leave them for about ten minutes and then take each one out on a slotted spoon and remove the skin with your fingers.

Chop the skinned tomatoes, season them with salt and pepper and cook them gently in a little olive oil.

Add about a tablespoon of tomato puree, a tablespoon or so of soft brown sugar, a handful of chopped oregano and a glass of red wine.  Simmer it gently until it is thick and glossy.  When the sauce is cool, freeze it in blocks (we use old ice cream boxes).  It makes a perfect base for a tomatoey pasta dish.  When you defrost it, chop and gently fry  a couple of cloves of garlic and add it to the sauce.  If you put the garlic in at the beginning and freeze the sauce with the garlic in it, the garlic seems to go musty.

What an abundance of colour and taste  there seems to be just now.

Friday, 19 September 2014


I have been wandering about through my September photographs.  2009 seems to have been a great season for mushrooms in our garden.  It's interesting how the harvests vary from year to year and how easy it is to forget.  This year is the season of damsons and tons and tons of autumn raspberries.

In September 2010 I find we were visiting our friends in Provence, driving through the Camargue and wandering the glorious stone buildings of Avignon.  I find bulls and white horses and stone streets and a brightness of light that is rare here in North Wales.

In September 2011 our then nearly two year old grandson was busy playing trains.  What has changed?  He and his family have moved house and acquired land and pigs and he has grown tall and gone to school.   He still likes trains as a nearly five year old but the trainlines have become extraordinarily complex!

Oh look, in 2012 I went to Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh language centre on the beautiful Lleyn peninsula, and did a week's intensive Welsh course.  My Welsh has been neglected over the last year with other family commitments.  I must revive it.  Perhaps another visit would be the shot in the arm it needs!

In 2013 the dahlias were glorious.  I left them in the ground for the winter for the first time ever and was gloomy in the spring when nothing seemed to show for a very long time.  Then suddenly in the summer the dahlias sprang into life just when I had entirely given them up.  Now we just need a long, warm autumn.  I have buds but no flowers.  Are we too high and too far North to leave it so long?

This September comes around without my mother and my father in law.  How life changes.  And yet how life goes on, as this year we have new babies, ten month old Eliza, represented by the little Elizabeth Zimmerman jacket, and three week old Ted, represented by the Debbie Bliss crossover cardigan.  I have just had a big birthday.

Seize the day.  Feel the sun on your skin.  Hold the damson jam up to the light.  Hug the people you love.

I am sorry to have blogged so much less over the summer and not to have been out and about connecting with the blogs I enjoy reading.   Thanks so much to those who read me for sticking with me.  I think I am back now!  Time to dive back in again.

Monday, 8 September 2014

September sunshine

The mornings are misty just now.  Not a grey, damp mist but a pearly sheen of mist with the sun somewhere behind it, silvering the sky.

It has been a perfect September day.  We have been working in the garden, Ian cutting some of the hedges and a lot of grass while I have cut back what feels like thirty wheelbarrows full of the self seeders which we like to have here but which take over the world if you let them seed: campanula, artemisia, alchemilla, feverfew.  I love them all but left to seed all over the place they squeeze out practically everything else.

The whole garden is overflowing with harvest.  This summer has not been one for the garden as you can probably tell by the way it has not appeared in the blog.  But just now it doesn't seem to matter that we lost it under the demands of other things.  There has been a fantastic harvest of damsons. There are now twenty six jars of jam on the shelves, waiting for winter.  Damson jam is one of my all time favourite jams but it is not the work of a moment.  I found myself snorting in a very unladylike way when a magazine article I read recently extolled the virtues of damson jam but claimed that you should leave the stones in "for flavour".  If you have ever made damson jam you will know that there are almost more stones than flesh.  A jam where you hadn't taken out the stones would be a toothbreaking, infuriating, hopeless experience.  I am pretty sure that they left the stones in because taking them out takes for ever.  However much you might start the process wearing your pretty pinny and feeling like a domestic goddess, by the time you have spent six hours taking out stones it is likely you will be covered in dark purple goo and slowly losing the will to live.  But the jam, once you come out the other side of the pain barrier, is wonderful: deep and dark and with that edge beneath the sweetness which is a truly grown up taste.  I need to confess here that Ian spent the hours taking the stones out this year.  My contribution was to change the stone free pulp into jars and jars of jam.  I also have a huge jar of damson gin steeping gently in the kitchen.  This is as easy as the jam is labour intensive.  Half a kilo of soft, ripe damsons, 600 grams of sugar and a litre of gin, shaken up from time to  time and left until the damsons have transferred their luscious colour to the gin.  Perfect for Christmas.  It tastes like sloe gin but if anything I prefer the damson variety.  It has a deep, complex flavour, the sweetness of the sugar cut through with the edge of the gin and the damsons.  Yum.

The apple trees are loaded down with apples.  This year our neighbours at the Afonwen Craft Centre are using our apples in their restaurant.  You can't get much more local produce than that!  The apples are Howgate Wonder, a heavy cropping, good keeping, dual purpose apple which begins as a cooker but sweetens over its long keeping time so that it can be eaten by February.  We tend to use it principally as a cooker as the apples are huge!

The hedges are full of rosehips and haws.  We won't cut these hedges until February, by which time the birds will have stripped them.  Then they will be cut down hard.  It is always hard to believe that the bare hedge of winter, around four feet six inches high after cutting, will burgeon to a more than six foot wall of fountaining green but it does.  Every year I wonder about making rosehip syrup but I love the look of the hips so much I can't bear to pick them.

The horse chestnuts are full of conkers, not yet ready to fall.  If you try to prise open the spiky cases they hold tight to their cargo.  Inside the conkers are still pale, not yet hard and glossy brown.

And the crab apples are glowing.  These are Red Sentinel and when they are fully ripe they will be shiny, pillar box red.  They hang on the tree right through the winter, only beginning to fall when the new leaves come in the spring.

The swallows have gone.  We have been away for a couple of days.  Last week they were still whizzing and diving and swooping over the pigsties but the sky was empty today.  Summer is over with their going.  Time for the richness of harvest.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

R.I.P. Eric Thorpe

Last Sunday my father in law died peacefully in our local hospital, aged ninety-five, from kidney failure.  Four days earlier he had slipped into deep unconsciousness and we knew he could no longer be treated.  From then on Ian and I, hugely supported by our son and daughter and their partners, who live reasonably locally, kept him company night and day. Our other adult children, who live far away, provided their own support by phone and text.  How does anyone manage these things without the loving support and care of adult children, I wonder?  When my mother died last year I felt it too: we were not alone, the next generation were with us, taking their share, looking after us in their turn.  It is a good feeling. 

I felt as I do now about blogging when my mother died. Partly I did not want to blog.  There are some things which need privacy.  But I also knew that if I did not mention something so important, if I blogged about gardens or lemon cake or walking on beaches, I would in a sort of way be lying.  This blog is not for baring my soul, for public self analysis or therapy.  Often it is for the things in life that give me pleasure: cooking and eating and books and gardens and making things and the very beautiful place in which I am lucky enough to live.  It marks out the year, follows the seasons, shares the celebrations that punctuate the year with family and friends.  Every now and then I have a bit of a rant about things I hate: bullying, unkindness, consumerism, our society's obsession with looks and celebrity.  It is a blog about my life and if I did not tell you about my father in law's death I would start to feel that the blog was a bit of a pretence, in fact I might just have to stop blogging altogether.

So while this blog is not a place to be sad in I would like to tell you a bit about my father in law.

Born in 1918 in the industrial North West of England, Eric was a Rochdale man to the soles of his feet.  He was the youngest of seven children and I suspect was indulged a little by the whole family.  He certainly grew taller and stronger than his elder brothers which they always claimed was because he got more food as a child.  His family were truly poor in that way we have all forgotten about now. There was no question at all that he could stay on at school beyond the age of 14.  All the children had to work.  Eric loved school and didn't want to leave.  He didn't necessarily have an academic sort of intelligence, although he was bright enough,  but he had a natural quickness of mind, an ability to make people laugh and a way of handling people which made him popular and well loved throughout his life.  He was easy to get on with, always ready to give people a hand, a lover of gambling who nevertheless never bet more than he could afford (which wasn't much!), a devoted father, a man totally incapable of doing anything other than looking on the bright side.  He was very profoundly of his time, growing up in the twenties and thirties and raising his family through the fifties, and of his place, a Lancashire milltown.

The only time he spent away from Rochdale was when he was posted to Orkney for the duration of the Second World War.  Somehow being sent to Orkney was very typical of Eric.  Yes, there were dangers undoubtedly and, despite being a soldier not a sailor, he served on the boats which supplied the many bases on the islands.  He was lucky that he did not suffer from seasickness.   But it was a dangerous place.   There were deaths in Orkney, in fact the first civilian to die in the war was killed on the islands.  The following is an extract from the website which documents the landscape and history of Scapa Flow in Orkney:

It was still the early days of the war but already Goering’s Luftwaffe were wreaking havoc on the home fleet in Scapa Flow, and 16 March 1940 would be a date that the people of Orkney would never forget.
That evening at around 8pm, 15 Junkers 88 enemy aircraft were reported over Scapa Flow and a number of high explosive bombs were dropped causing a fair amount of damage and injuring seven Navy personnel. Anti-Aircraft guns opened fire as did ships' guns, but despite early reports of two aircraft being shot down, no losses were recorded by intelligence reports.
As the raiders fled the scene, the aircraft still with bombs flew inland and decided to jettison their bomb loads some four miles east of Stromness as they reached Brig o'Waithe.
On hearing the raiders overhead, Jim Isbister and his wife Lily rushed to the door and amidst the falling bombs, they pulled two passers-by - Mrs Burnett and Mrs Jane Muir - inside for shelter.
Just split seconds later, a bomb fell on Miss Isabela Macleod’s house across the road and as Jim rushed from his house to go and help, another bomb exploded killing him instantly. Miss Macleod although wounded, managed to crawl from the wrecked cottage and Mrs Muir was slightly injured by splinters. Fortunately Jim’s wife Lily and baby Neil survived uninjured.
In total, five people were killed and nine injured in the raid.  Jim Isbister became the first civilian to be killed by enemy action in World War II. A service was held for Jim at St Magnus Cathedral, conducted by his brother-in-law Rev. TG Tait, and Rev. J MacLeod of Stenness, after which he was buried in St Olaf’s cemetery.
But Eric came safe through the war.  He had plenty to eat, perhaps more than he had been used to as a working class boy in the industrial North West.  He loved Orkney.  As an older man he would trot out his stories of Orkney, worn smooth by the telling,  to make you smile or laugh but he would always at some point tell you "It was the land of milk and honey".  He loved the fact that he could send food home and had all sorts of stories of working out how to send eggs or, on one memorable occasion, a leg of lamb, home to his mother, sisters and wife-to-be.
Other than Orkney, his whole life was Rochdale until he came to live with us in December 2010 after his first ever spell in hospital.  He had very limited horizons in many ways.  He had no desire to travel, unlike his wife who chafed at the restrictions which hemmed her in as a working class woman whose health was poor.  Give him three meals a day and the chance to lay a bet on the horses, people to chat to, a bit of TV to watch and he was happy.  When he lived with us I used to find this narrowness of view both extraordinary and from time to time extraordinarily annoying.  How could he be so little interested in other lives, other people (except family), other countries, other foods, the whole glorious panoply of rich and complicated life?  It was as if, faced by a tapestry which covered an entire wall, he insisted on looking at one dark and dirty square inch in the bottom corner.  But perhaps that was the secret of his undoubted contentment with life.  He didn't want much but he knew what he did want and he took pleasure in it right until illness overshadowed the last weeks of his life.  How many people manage to live a truly happy life?  Eric did, in his small corner, and in it he did a great deal of good and very little harm.  He was a good father, a good grandfather, a loyal worker, a good friend, a good man.
Whenever I hear the quote "Bloom where you are planted" I think of Eric.  His roots were deep.  Perhaps you can't have deep roots and wide horizons.  Yet he took what might have seemed an unpromising start in life and he lived that life cheerfully, with energy and good humour and love.  He honoured his relationships with a deep and wordless loyalty, caring for his wife through her many illnesses, looking after his ailing brother in law, doing his best for his daughter, son and grandchildren.  It wasn't a financial best, he never had much money, although what he did have he was generous with.  It was an emotional best.  There was never any question at all that he loved you and gave you that love unstintingly.  He asked very little of you in return. 
Eric was one of nature's gentlemen.  I am glad to have known him and glad to be married to his son.  I will miss him.