Wednesday, 17 December 2014


How I would love to have a really beautiful singing voice.  Unfortunately that is just not going to happen.  I have however decided to settle for good enough and I have joined a choir.

At school I loved singing but I was never good enough for our really quite serious school choir.  I could hold a tune just about but couldn't get all the high notes with the sopranos and couldn't manage all the lower ones when I was sent to sit with the altos instead.  I could read music just about but I couldn't play any instrument (still can't) and struggled with sight reading.  So at around about seventeen years old I gently slipped out of the choir, following my teenage theory of "if you can't do it really well, don't do it at all".

What a totally stupid philosophy of life.  Yes it meant I held onto the things I could already do well and got better and better at them (writing about English Literature, cooking, baking, walking, writing poetry) but all sorts of things that I did not do very well or did positively badly (ice skating, drawing, understanding physics and yes, singing) just got put away and in the rush of life with the demands of work and children they somehow got put away for good.

So one of the things I want to do at this stage of my life is to look at whether there are things which I set aside which I would like to come back to.   I came back a couple of years ago to knitting which I abandoned as a teenager when my jumpers were always disappointingly not quite the right fit.  I have got quite good at it.  I might not be an artist or even a highly talented craftsperson but I can produce garments for children and covers for cushions and lap rugs in both knitting and crochet which give me both pleasure in the making and satisfaction in the finished piece.  So there we are, I don't have to design my own patterns and spin and dye my own wool to regard myself as a knitter.  I can be good enough by being average, by being OK.

Where does it come from, this urge to be the best or to be nothing at all?  Not from my childhood, I don't think.  I remember encouragement to try things and a strong sense of being loved for being myself, not for what I did.  Possibly from my education which was fiercely academic and competitive.  Is it widespread?  I don't know.  I am not sure I have talked about it much with friends.   I have just lived a life where I do the things I can do and don't do the things for which I don't seem to have any existing talent or ability.

But slowly as I have grown older I have come to wonder if this urge for perfection is a destructive thing and if it kept me from messing about, paddling at the edges of things I would have enjoyed.  So back to singing.  I know I like to sing, that I have spent years singing in the car, especially with my children when they were young and my voice and theirs was the nearest we got to in-car entertainment.  When I started to learn Welsh I found I loved learning Welsh songs and singing, even in a group which was quite small.  So I have joined our parish choir, Cor y Llan Ysceifiog, and I like it very much indeed.  I still can't get the highest notes but I find just opening my mouth and making sure that no horrible noise comes out seems to be enough.  I love the focus and the energy.  I love it when the choir mistress, having let us sit down for a few minutes singing something in a scanty, inadequate way says laughingly "Let's stand up then" and makes us do some scales, and blow our breath out and shake our shoulders.  I love the harmonies and the mens' voices anchoring the sopranos and the soaring beauty of the voice of the young soloist.  I love the songs, both in English and in Welsh, and the sense when I get home of my body having been blown through by the winds of breath.

To be good enough is enough.  Is it just me or have you been caught by the perils of perfectionism?   I wonder if I should have another go at ice skating?

Friday, 5 December 2014

November: going, going, gone

Has someone speeded up time?  What have I been up to since I saw you last?  Loads and loads, here is a whistle stop tour.

Drove to Devon (car just does the three hundred mile journey by itself these says while I snooze on the back seat, I wish).

Spent a week volunteering with the National Trust helping to decorate Killerton House for Christmas.

Good things: great company, good food, fabulous instruction from the fabulous Sarah Pepper so that I now know how to make wreaths and swag mantelpieces.  I am not an experienced or talented flower arranger.  Every day after a few minutes of working away on my own I looked at what I was doing compared to everyone else and felt such a rush of shame and embarrassment that I contemplated just sneaking out and not coming back.  Yet every day when I persevered, following the guidance I had been given, not giving up, remembering that with Christmas decoration "more is more",  whatever I was working on turned a corner and suddenly came out right.  Thank you Sarah!

However, bad things: sleeping in a bunkhouse, especially on the top bunk.  There is nothing like knowing that you can't go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without waking the world to make you desperate to go and quite unable to sleep.  Actually that was the only bad thing, that and maybe a bit much hanging about from time to time.  On the whole, good week.

Drove to South Wales to see older daughter and family and to celebrate grandson's fifth birthday.  Spent the afternoon playing "What kind of dinosaur am I?" with Joseph and his four year old cousin,  then drove home taking four and a half hours for a three hour journey because the police had closed the A470.  Home, yoga, choir, Manchester, took my mother's oldest friend out to lunch because she's lovely, attempted to think about Christmas and failed utterly.

At the beginning of the week Ian drove us to Chepstow to pick up my brother and then on down to Devon again where we stayed with my sister and used  the fact that there were two of us for two wheelchairs to spend time with my brother and my father together.  Lovely and exhausting and full of the mixture of pleasure in their company and deep sadness as dad moves slowly on the hard road laid out for him by Motor Neurone Disease.  Came home, Ian doing all the driving again, dropping my brother back home on the way.  Fell into bed, slept fitfully, dreaming uncomfortable dreams.

And then a couple of days with daughter in law and three and a half month old grandson staying.

Such a smiley baby, beaming with delight when Ian blows raspberries for him.  Lovely to see my daughter in law so clearly knowing her baby, responding to his little noises, the expressions which chase across his face, with love and laughter and sensitivity.  He is growing so fast that I have had to change the length of the little cardigan I am knitting for him.

It all feels a blur, of ageing and illness and growing and new life and driving and hurtling towards Christmas.  Tonight I will stop, have a bath and lie quietly in the hot water, sit by the fire and breathe, listen to the flames as the logs burn in the stove and be still.  And then maybe I will sleep a deep dreamless sleep in my own bed with Ian beside me.

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.