Simple pleasures, golden treasures

No question that Black Friday and its friends have taken root in Western Europe, despite the ironic lack of the Thanksgiving celebration of gratitude to precede them. People like to shop and that’s fine. I don’t, and that’s fine, too. I don’t feel the need to follow fashion, have the ‘latest’, grab bargains or accumulate stuff so in all honesty, the long weekend of frenzied shopping completely passes me by. What I have been doing is reflecting on all the things I have been up to over the last week that have brought me great pleasure; many of them very simple, most of them costing nothing but all of them bringing me more joy than all the retail therapy in the world. Here, then, is my list of little treasures:

Holding our two new little grandsons for the first time, kissing their soft, silky heads and breathing in the sweet baby smell of them. Enjoying lots of fun and nonsense, games and stories and jumping in puddles with their older siblings.

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Looking for the next muddy puddle . . . 

Enjoying  a long walk on the South Downs with Sam and Adrienne. Okay, so the weather was rubbish and conditions underfoot were a quagmire but the fresh air and exercise were great and there was much chat and laughter as we slithered along. Devil’s Dyke, a  deep dry chalk valley,  was spectacular even in the pouring rain. Our picnic lunch was delicious: Adrienne’s ‘squashage’ (go on, try saying it!) rolls of sublime homemade rough puff pastry wrapped round spicy roast squash, chorizo and chestnuts. So seasonal and utterly scrumptious.

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Picnic time and nowhere dry to sit . . . but the food more than made up for that slight inconvenience!

Coming home to a house that feels for the first time more like a home than a hovel: warm, dry, bright, clean, comfy and smelling of new wood. Coming home, too, to warm sunshine and beautiful blue skies.

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Harvesting, cooking and eating piles of fresh vegetables from the garden, some of them late surprises: who said we’d had the last of the peppers and courgettes? Who thought the late peas and cannellini beans had really had their day? There was also a surprise in the form of a good bunch of purple sprouting broccoli; this is supposed to be one of our spring veg, but it’s decided to put in an early appearance . . . well, I suppose we can only eat it once!

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Butternut squash, carrot,  Florence fennel, courgette and green pepper from the garden, ready to roast.

Admiring plenty of summer colours still lingering in the garden.

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Welcoming a visit from our lovely neighbour Vita. Seeing washing out on the line, she realised we were back from our travels and hitched a lift up the hill on Jairo’s tractor to bring us a dozen new-laid eggs. Treasure indeed! Those little brown beauties were just perfect for my ice cream making plans. I know there are lots of healthy yoghurty options for ice cream these days but ’tis the season for comfort food, so I felt the need for a rich, custardy creamy base, deepest yellow from golden yolks  – one swirled through with cooked peaches from the freezer, another spiced with cinnamon and ginger (to be shamelessly melted over piping hot mince pies).

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Starting my new crochet project, the ‘Moroccan Spice Mix’ blanket: another gift blanket, but my own colour choices and designs this time so quite a challenge. Actually, quite a pleasure, too.

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Working in the garden. It’s amazing how quickly the patch goes to look empty at this time of year . . . but not for long. After a second season of cultivation and feeding, the soil is deep, rich and wonderfully friable so I’ve had a happy time lightly forking and raking then planting early peas and broad beans for a spring harvest.

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I’ve also planted a couple of large glazed pots with tulips, an early birthday gift from Mum and Dad. A December birthday can be very gloomy weatherwise but it’s always a pleasure to have such gorgeous colours to look forward to in the spring.

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Making mincemeat. I’d happily dispense with most of Christmas but never, ever mince pies. I love the cosy kitchen time spent making them and the seriously decadent business of eating them. A homemade mince pie of buttery crisp pastry bursting with soft, spiced fruity gorgeousness is a thing of utter beauty – and far surpasses anything bought, no matter how many times ‘luxury’ appears on the packet. Likewise, homemade mincemeat is a world away from the shop bought stuff, which is why I have always made my own and would encourage others to have a go. It’s child’s play and takes a matter of minutes: honestly, if you can chop an apple and grate a lemon, you can make mincemeat.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve used Delia Smith’s recipe  adding my own adaptations as suits the occasion. For instance, I much prefer raisins to currants so I change the fruit ratios to reflect that; for years I’ve experimented with different varieties of apples from the garden but this year I’m using our pears; as for nuts, forget almonds – for us, it’s homegrown walnuts all the way. The beauty of Delia’s recipe (I think, anyway) is that the slow heating in a cool oven to prevent the apple fermenting means the suet melts and coats everything instead of sitting like nasty little fatty white maggots which I have always found unappetising. I never bother adding any brandy, either: this is not because I have anything against festive tipple, but I like my mincemeat to be child-friendly and also I think it’s a shame to overpower those lovely spicy, citrussy flavours with strong alcohol. I suppose the brandy would help as a preservative but no worries there – this stuff does not last long enough in our house to go off! In a week’s time we’ll be having a return walking match with Sam and Adrienne here, so I reckon a mince pie stop at the top of our mountain sounds like a grand plan.

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Breathing in the scent of the first jasmine flowers blooming by the door. Gorgeous.

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There are so many other things I could add: the song of a chiffchaff in the garden, the sweet smell of woodsmoke and luxurious warmth from our new stove, evenings spent cooking delicious meals together, the brilliance of a sunset, good news from a friend . . . give me experience over stuff any day. As for Cyber Monday? Don’t think I’ll bother, if that’s alright.

 

The gift of giving

Isn’t it a wonderful thing to receive gifts from other people? I particularly love it when a gift is unexpected and homemade, and in the same vein, I love to make and give bits and pieces to other people. Homemade gifts are such beautiful things that it’s a shame we so often shy away from the idea of them. I think there are three main reasons for this.

1. Time (or at least, a lack of it). In lives that are so full of busyness and rushing around, it’s often hard to find the time, energy and enthusiasm to make something. So much easier to go to a shop or online and buy something . . . but perhaps it’s exactly because we are so busy that we should try and find a little time out for ourselves do something for others? There is much pleasure in making, after all.

2. Perfection. Modern consumerist society offers us a dizzying amount of products to buy, many of them very beautiful , most of them standardised. If we buy something that seems less than perfect, we return it as faulty.  Homemade gifts are beautiful precisely because they may not be perfect. They are not the same as every other one coming out of a factory or workshop: they are unique, and their little quirks and imperfections are what make them so special.

3. Money. How often do we set out to buy a gift with a fairly precise cost in mind? It’s almost like gifts have to say, ‘Look, I’ve spent this much on you’ because the amount of money spent reflects our feelings for someone or the level of esteem in which we hold them. The problem with that approach is that it confuses price with value: they are not the same thing. How can you put a price on the thought, effort, care and love someone puts into a homemade gift for someone else? The cost may be a few pennies, the value is priceless.

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So, this is a gentle plea for giving simple gifts that are homemade with love, maybe not always (life after all tends to get in the way of the best laid plans) but at least some of the time. I believe that everyone has creative talents – even if they insist otherwise! – and there is much pleasure in using them to make lovely things; all you need is a little imagination and the courage to give it a go. You don’t need to have the original idea, either; there is nothing wrong with borrowing other people’s ideas – see my wedding blanket gift below. I tend to veer towards textile-based gifts because that’s what I love to make but in the past I’ve done many different things. I’ve baked and decorated cakes and biscuits or made boxes of chocolates and jars of special preserves. I’ve created hand-tied posies from garden flowers and filled boxes and baskets with fresh, homegrown produce. I’ve tried my hand at new things: making herbal handcreams, plaited corn dollies and colourful origami Japanese cranes. I’ve even stepped far outside my comfort zone to make a wooden birdbox, complete with a blue tit painted on the front. As I’d be hard pushed to say which of my ‘skills’ sets are the more dire – drawing or carpentry – you will appreciate just what a labour of love that one was! However, I had a lot of fun and learnt some new things . . . and I understand the birds are using it, which is a relief.

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Homemade gifts don’t have to be ‘things’, either. Sarah’s father-in-law writes humorous poems to read out at family occasions. What a wonderful way of bringing everyone together in love, laughter and celebration! One of the most incredible and touching gifts I have ever been given was a song written and performed by a very talented young lady I had the pleasure of teaching. It couldn’t be wrapped and labelled, it isn’t sitting on a shelf gathering dust . . . but the poignant beauty of that haunting melody – and the creativity and heart that went into it – will stay with me for ever.

Try ‘experience’ over ‘stuff’, too. Sometimes, just spending a little time with others – rather than money –  is the greatest gift we can give. Nothing complicated, perhaps a walk somewhere, a simple picnic, a chat over coffee . . . shared moments with a focus on being together and enjoying each other’s company. I still smile at the memory of a surprise moonlit walk to the top of a hill, a flask of real hot chocolate and apple muffins still warm from the oven shared beneath the stars. You can’t buy that from a shop.

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By way of example of a homemade gift, here is my latest creation. When Sam and Adrienne announced their engagement last August, I knew immediately that I wanted to make them a special gift to mark the wonderful occasion of their wedding. Making things for weddings has been a bit of a habit of mine in recent years and it’s one I love; as I have been in full crochet mode this year, a beautiful blanket seemed like just the thing.  No question about which design, it had to be the Moorland blanket from Lucy’s Attic 24 website. Sam and Adrienne, like myself, are both great fans of moorland; no surprise really, it’s the landscape in which they grew up, albeit the hill country of south Shropshire and mid-Wales rather than the Yorkshire Dales. Sam had popped the question in a whimberry patch, August sees our house here surrounded by swathes of purple heather and I knew that Adrienne had seen and loved the blanket design so it seemed very apt. Also – and I do have to confess this – on a very selfish note – I desperately wanted to work that design but couldn’t justify making another blanket for us . . . so this way I would have all the pleasure, and hopefully a meaningful gift at the end of it.

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This was no stroll in the park, I have to say. Those first few rows were horrendously tricky; for some reason, it took a long while for my brain to assimilate the stitch orders and my eye to understand where I was in the pattern. However, eventually it all clicked and I started to revel in the rhythm of those waves. This is such a clever pattern.  The way those colours weave and meld into one another is quite magical, it’s like making sweeps of watercolours across a sheet of cartridge paper. I love the subtlety of the colour combinations, too, and it was fascinating to see the colours of a moorland landscape develop. In fact, working my way up the blanket felt like a wonderful walk. First, the peaty browns and earthy greens brought to mind the short tough grasses, bright mosses and deep black boggy puddles so typical of the landscape. Next, I meandered happily through swathes of purple heather, climbing towards the hilltops and the evocative call of curlews; here there would be whimberries, too! Finally, the beautiful blues of a late summer sky. I could imagine soft clouds scudding past and skylarks trilling up high.

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For me, the greatest part of making this gift has been the time spent thinking about the recipients – two very precious young people with a wonderful shared life ahead of them – which means that my love and hopes for them have literally been worked into every stitch. That’s what makes homemade gifts so special.

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I probably should apologise for the sheep, mind you (moorland just isn’t moorland without sheep in my book) as there is more than a hint of dog about that face, don’t you think? Still, if I wanted a perfect crocheted sheep-looking sheep I could buy one ready-made from a shop . . . but where’s the fun in that? 🙂

Perfect Planning

The photos in this post are some I have taken over the last couple of weeks. I hope you enjoy their simple seasonal beauty.

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It’s funny the things I miss sometimes. We have hardly any post here: being totally paperless is great for the environment but I do miss a pile of old envelopes for making lists on! I like lists, I like lists of lists and above all, I love a good plan.

If you are considering making some changes to your life in order to simplify your lifestyle or give you more time to do the things you want to then starting with a Grand Plan is vitally important. We didn’t suddenly wake up one morning, pack a van and disappear; our decision to downsize and drop out was made years ago and involved some very careful planning and decision-making in order to make it happen. Even if the change you are looking for is relatively small – say, making time to sit down in peace and quiet once a day, getting rid of unwanted clutter or learning to cook simple but delicious meals -then a plan is still a helpful and powerful tool. The British armed forces have a saying known as the Seven Ps: proper prior planning  prevents piss-poor performance. Love it or loathe it, it contains a lot of truth; the better you can make your life plan, the greater chance you will have of realising your goals. So, here are my tips in how to get started.

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You will need pens or pencils and paper – almost certainly something bigger than the back of an envelope! Actually, I always find the bigger the better as it helps me to really focus; we use a flipchart sheet and marker pens in different colours which can be useful for grouping or separating ideas.

Start with your ultimate goal as the title. Remember, this is your dream and only you can make it happen. Making your plan is so exciting because it’s the first step in moving from an abstract idea to something more concrete. Seeing it written down starts to make it feel possible and real. Go on, smile – this really could happen!

You know that awful job interview question, ‘So where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ Well, it’s so much more fun when you are asking yourself. Timescale is very important: how long do you realistically believe it will take to achieve your goal? Write it down, underline it, circle it . . . that’s what you will be working towards.

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Now split your page in half. On one side, make two simple but comprehensive lists of the pros and cons of making your life change. Be honest here; it’s less painful to ignore the cons but they are important factors in the equation. In the same way, don’t ignore what might seem abstract or even daft ideas in the pros list: being happier or less tired or healthier are important – in fact, possibly just the very reasons behind wanting to make the changes in your life.

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Next, assign everything in your two lists a weighting to show their relative importance to you. This can be a bit tricky so take your time and again, be honest and realistic. It might be more attractive to focus on the good bits but things like financial concerns can’t be ignored; it’s crucially important not to risk financial disaster or the loss of your home. Being brutally honest at this stage could save a lot of heartache later on. What you should see developing is a clear set of reasons why you should pursue your dream and a list of the possible negative factors that could affect your decision.

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On the other half of your page, write down everything you would need to do in order to achieve your goal. What goes here will depend entirely on you, your situation and your dream. If finding a few minutes in the morning to read or exercise before going to work is your aim, then organising clothes and lunchbox the evening before and setting the alarm for an earlier time may be pretty much all you need to do; if you plan to sell everything and travel the world in a camper van, then your list is likely to be a fair bit longer! That’s fine – it’s your list and it doesn’t matter how short or long it turns out to be. Don’t forget to add any research that you might need to carry out (we spent a lot of time looking into the cost of living, tax implications and health care insurance abroad) or any new skills you want to acquire (in our case, basic Spanish so we factored in some evening classes before we moved).  What you should find is that pretty much everything in the end will come down to three things: time, money and effort. Once your list is complete, draw lines or arrows to indicate dependencies and make connections as this will help when it comes to sorting out order and timescale. So for instance, we knew that we couldn’t sell our home or move abroad before our youngest child had left home, but it would be possible for one of us to shift from full-time to part-time work several years before then.

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At this point, stop! You’ve worked hard and your head is probably whirling like a squirrel in a cage with the excitement and trepidation of it all. Walk away from your plan and go and do something else: have a walk or run in the fresh air, put the kettle on, watch a film . . .  whatever helps you to relax. Leave your plan in a place where you can clearly see it for several days (that’s the beauty of working on big paper, it’s very visible); visit it often, look over what you’ve written, think and reflect. Is there anything missing or new that you’ve thought of? Add it. Do some things now seem irrelevant or unnecessary? Cross them out. On reflection, could you do things differently or change your timescale? Adjust your ideas.

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Now comes the really exciting bit: creating your Grand Plan! Actually, it’s quite simple, as all you need to do is write a chronological list of everything that needs to happen within your chosen timescale. I like to make a written numbered list whilst Roger prefers to create nifty spreadsheets on the computer. It’s your plan, so do exactly what works for you. The important point to remember in the coming weeks, months or years is that your Grand Plan is a work in progress and as such it is designed to be flexible, not set in stone. If your ideas change as you go along or things take longer than expected to happen or lead in unexpected directions, that’s fine – it’s all part of the process. Even if your plan doesn’t come to fruition or you have to end up altering it or abandoning it in favour of other things, treat it as an interesting exercise and experience. After all, the very fact that you wanted to make it in the first place was a brave and adventurous step in trying to change your life for the better . . . and that’s an amazing and ultimately rewarding thing to do.

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Of death and life

November 1st is Dia de Todos los Santos in Spain, a day of holiday where people dress in their Sunday best and take flowers to cemeteries to pay their respects to their ancestors. It’s a day to remember and honour the dead and we saw many gatherings and dignified processions in the towns and villages we passed through, heading out to explore the land to the south of us.

The Parque Natural de las Fuentes del Narcea, Degaña e Ibias covers a huge area of very beautiful and wild countryside, home to much wildlife including the endangered Cantabrian brown bear and our plan was to follow the ‘tourist’ route through the mountains, looking for hiking trails to follow at a later date.

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The drive was spectacular until, reaching the top of a mountain pass, a landscape of utter devastation appeared before our eyes.

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Wild fires raged here several weeks ago, their smoke – fanned by Hurricane Ophelia -travelling far to the north. It’s impossible to describe the sheer extent of the damage or capture it with a camera: mountainside after mountainside burned to a cinder, the flames having jumped across roads and travelled with lightning speed through the dry brush. The heat must have been immense if the melted road signs we saw were anything to go by and in its wake a charred, barren and eerily macabre landscape remains.

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The courage of those charged with fighting these fires is beyond compare. I felt an impossible sadness in the face of so much devastation and destruction, of the loss of habitat and life. The day really was all about death, it seemed . . .

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. . . but not quite. Nature, after all, is a great survivor and it will fight back. True, it may take a long time, but the plants will grow and green the landscape once again, the wildlife will return. Pondering death also reminds us how fragile and precious life is and how important it is to celebrate and enjoy this wonderful gift to the full each and every day. For me, that’s not through over-indulgent, selfish hedonism but in finding true pleasure in the simplest of things and the rest of our day presented so many wonderful opportunities to do just that.

Beyond the fire damage, the landscape was completely stunning. Here are some of the best ancient woodlands in Europe, the broad-leafed forests that took root once the glaciers had carved out their deep valleys. The autumn colours (ah, death again!) were at their most spectacular, setting the mountain sides alight in a blaze of golden glory. No wonder bears choose to live here, it is utterly beautiful and so wild.

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At the top of the Puerto del Connio pass (at 1315m, just 30m lower than Ben Nevis) we stood and listened to . . . nothing. There was complete and utter silence. Incredible. The view wasn’t bad either.

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Who could resist the chance of lunch in such a pretty picnic site next to the river? We ate chestnut and leek pie followed by peach and blueberry streusel cake – both homemade and kept in the freezer for just such an occasion – washed down with a flask of strong, hot coffee. Perfect autumn picnic food!

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From the interpretation centre in Muniellos, we enjoyed a 7.5 k walk through bear country, having the tracks and wild places to ourselves for much of the walk. No bears (I think we would have to be extraordinarily lucky to see one) but there were so many things of seasonal beauty to enjoy.

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For me, a day out like this sums up the benefits of the simple life we lead. For a start, it’s a treat so it’s always exciting and interesting. It cost us nothing except the price of the petrol to get there and back (and that’s relatively cheap here). We didn’t spend any money anywhere and came back with no souvenirs except photos and memories. We took nothing except our lunch and a camera. No rucksack. No expensive hiking gear. No smart picnic kit. No phone. Nothing. We enjoyed fresh air and warmth, fantastically stunning views and the beauty of nature, a good walk to stretch our bodies, peace and tranquility and each other’s company. We tend to gravitate towards wild places because that’s how we are but such simple days are equally as possible in urban places: some of the best days out we’ve had have been trailing around cities, avoiding the ‘must-do’ sights and discovering far better things in little back streets or hidden green spaces. The point is, it’s a day out that requires not money and stuff but open eyes and minds and an appreciation of simple pleasures. An affirmation of the joy of being alive. Priceless.

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