Restoration

A new year, and for us in more than way than one: not only the calendar clicking round towards 2022 but also – on the 28th December – the end of our first twelve months back living in Mayenne. It was sad not to be celebrating our first ‘anniversary’ as part of Sam and Adrienne’s planned (and subsequently cancelled) visit but I suppose that just about epitomised the rollercoaster year it had been since moving here. We lit the ice lantern anyway and raised an optimistic glass to a calmer and kinder time of it over the next twelve months. We shall see.

I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions, not because I think there’s anything inherently wrong in trying to make ourselves into better beings but because I simply think it’s the wrong time of year for it. For many people living in northern climes, January is a difficult and depressing enough month as it is without beating ourselves up with an almighty guilt trip following the excesses of the festive season; since according to many studies, improving health and fitness tends to be top of the new habits bill, then I would suggest a slightly lighter, warmer month might be a better time to start. It’s a personal thing, of course (feel free to disagree!) but I believe that the idea of ‘restoration’ – meaning to renew, repair, rebuild and, ultimately, to heal – is a more appropriate one just now. A time for reflection and a promise of change are no bad things but for me, the important point is that it is done with kindness and compassion, a sense of positive growth that mirrors the lengthening days and brings hope and happiness rather than self-sabotaging guilt and fear of failure.

I’ve been pondering this idea a fair bit over the last few days as all of our activity in the garden has been very much along the lines of restoration work. Our local weather forecast is very detailed and pretty accurate but it has been a fairly depressing given that for most of our twelve months here, the daily temperature values have remained stubbornly below the expected norm; what a wonderful Yuletide gift, then, as suddenly we moved from ‘minus two feels like minus eight’ (and yes, it certainly did) to a blissfully kind plus fourteen and double figures overnight. Okay, so it’s been a bit grey and damp at times but a real joy to spend our days outside together, getting stuck in to several tasks which have been waiting a long time.

There was never any chance of us following the classic rule of waiting for twelve months before making any changes to the garden; it was bad enough coping for several months without a garden full of fresh produce, yet alone prolonging the agony for a complete year. The vegetable patch was a huge priority right from the moment we arrived here but now, with everything stripped back to its bare bones, it is the perfect time to assess the overall design of the garden and start working in earnest on its structure. Although I accept that some of what we are doing might look more like destruction than restoration, it’s all part of a big plan which (we hope) will ultimately result in a garden that is full of life and colour, interest and food, an intimate place to wander and wonder that will continue to grow and evolve year on year. So, let’s start with trees. We have already planted several new fruit trees along with a handful of native deciduous varieties and next week’s delivery of bare-rooted plants will mean many more specimens to add colour, interest and structure; we will continue to plant trees during the dormant period for many years to come, and although they might look a bit small and diffident to start with, they should grow into elegant, mature beauties in no time.

On the flip side, there are a number of ancient, half-dead trees which really have to go such as the old apple tree we cut down this week. Like most of the mature fruit trees here, it had suffered terrible abuse in its lifetime, bent over at awkward angles, great boughs having been lopped off in grotesque amputations (we can only think for firewood but why would you do that?) and the crown left broken and rotten. The scanty fruits it produced were tasteless to the point of being unpleasant and not even the birds would touch them. Neither of us likes felling trees but there comes a point where it is the only sensible course of action and trust me, nothing will be wasted: it will make room for new, healthy replacement trees, the trunk and bigger boughs will be used for firewood, the smaller branches for the barbecue and the twiggy sticks for mulch and compost. As soon as the tree was down, we could see it had been the right decision as the trunk was almost completely hollow and yet, in death, there was the promise of life . . . the whole thing was full of a rich, black compost, enough to fill a large dustbin, the best of nature’s nourishment which will sustain many other plants through the coming year. Thank you, tree!

Something we had no qualms about felling was the ugly garden shed, even more of an eyesore now the leaves have gone and the hedge behind it has been laid. It’s been a useful place to keep a few tools but was in entirely the wrong spot; the roof had been leaking for years and consequently was totally rotten and the fibreboard lining was peeling off the walls like wet spongy carpet. The wall panels themselves and and the doors were all pretty sound, though, so our plan was to dismantle the whole thing and reuse what we can in building a new, improved shed whilst clearing the area of the piles of junk we had never got round to shifting and turning it into something more attractive.

We knew from experience that this kind of job always takes longer than expected, especially as we have a habit of buying properties from previous owners with a nail fetish – not in the buffed, polished and manicured sense but more of a “I’ve got a hammer and I’m going to use it – everywhere!” sort of way. I’m sure there’s probably a deep psychological reason for belting in twenty long nails where a single screw would do the job but honestly, I wish they wouldn’t. It took ages to remove the piles of rusted ironwork and every time we thought we were done, we discovered several more lurking in dark corners. We would have liked to lift the roof off but despite being rotten, it was way too heavy so we decided a controlled collapse was the only way to bring it down; unfortunately, I was a fraction of a second too slow in jumping back at the crucial moment and the roof caught my legs on its downwards trajectory, leaving me with thighs and knees so colourfully bruised they would be fascinating if they weren’t so sore! Well, I could have chosen to have a ‘normal’ Christmas Day instead, stuffing a turkey, swigging port and scoffing chocolates, but where’s the fun in that? 😆 Shed down, we set about sorting the materials into piles: rotten roofing felt and fibreboard to go to the déchetterie, timbers to be reused or chopped for firewood, good panels shifted ready for the new shed. Time for a teabreak and fortifying mince pie (or two).

Sheds like this one generally come with a ready made floor, the whole thing being designed to sit up on blocks, but for some reason this one simply had more fibreboard nailed onto a couple of palettes which in turn sat on piles of organic matter, including a dessicated rat, mixed with broken slates. It was a painstaking process raking up the organic stuff for the compost heap and picking out as much slate as we could to top up the polytunnel path. We’d decided the cleared area would be perfect for growing a colourful mass of annual flowers so, wanting to test the depth of soil, I fetched a fork and speared it into the ground, only to send excrutiatingly painful shocks into my wrists and up my arms (I was obviously determined to do myself a serious injury one way or another, maybe port and chocolates would have been a better idea after all?🤣). I’d hit concrete, and from the sound of the echo, it had a big drop beneath it. Scraping off the soil, we were quite excited to think we might have found a well; there would certainly have been one here somewhere before the house was connected to mains water and it would be a useful resource if our rain butts run dry in a hot summer. Roger levered the cover up and I leaned in for a closer look . . .

Ha ha, not a well but the old privvy – my goodness, that must have been a long old dash from the house with plaited legs! I’m always astounded at how nature fills a vacuum and here was no exception: a group of sleepy-headed grass snakes curled up where the ‘throne’ had once been, slumbering their way through the winter months.

Not wanting to disturb the snakes, we replaced the cover quickly and gently, but Roger had at least had time to see that the whole concrete affair will lift out easily once they have vacated their winter quarters. We will then fill it with topsoil from digging the pond and scatter flower seeds for a riot of summer colour. Rather than get rid of the scrappy area of hardstanding that was in front of the shed, we will make a proper edge for it, top it up with more broken slate then put a seat and maybe some glazed pots on it. It will be the perfect spot to catch the evening sun, somewhere we can sit and watch the fruit ripen and listen to the buzz of insects in the flowers. I’ll take that over a grotty shed, any day.

Where the new shed is concerned, I’m pretty chuffed that we’ve managed to tick several permaculture boxes, not only because it will mostly be built from reclaimed materials but also because we are designing it to perform several functions. Last summer, Roger removed a bay from the carport behind the house; it’s not a structure we would choose to have, especially not one long enough to park a bus, and it added nothing to the view from the house. Some of the timbers were used to make the utility cabin and the rest, along with the roof panels, were used to build the beginnings of a new structure in the vegetable garden.

The most important function will be water catchment; our current rainwater butts are about as far from the veggie patch as they can be and although dragging back and forth with heavy cans helps to keep me fit, the novelty of that will certainly wear off in a hot summer. A length of guttering, a couple of downpipes and decent sized butts will make things more efficient and life a lot easier, especially when it comes to keeping the tunnel watered. The rescued shed panels will be used to make shelter sides and a much smaller enclosed shed, just enough to house things like handtools, buckets, pots and trays which we need in that part of the garden; they are currently leaning against the frame, waiting for us to finalise our design, but the actual building shouldn’t take too long once we get started.

We carried the garden bench into the shelter to give it a bit of protection over winter but it’s incredible how much we’ve continued to use it so we are planning to leave space for a couple of chairs to live in there permanently. That will give us somewhere to shelter from heavy showers or grab a bit of shade when we’re working in heat (please note how optimistic I’m being about a good summer to come!); it will also be a great spot to sit and watch the veggies grow. If this sitting about is starting to seem like a bit of a theme, then it is; observation is an important part of gardening and it’s crucial to make places to sit and watch, to listen and read the land. It’s not all about work, work, work . . . restoration begins with rest, after all. 😉

I’ve also started to sort out the long stretch of bank behind the house, a job I’ve been itching to do ever since we moved here but at the same time I’ve been dreading starting as it was always going to be an onerous task. Basically, when the renovations were done here about fourteen years ago, a large gravelled area was dug out on the north side of the house; it was done well and must have cost a pretty penny, the resulting earth bank being shored up with mighty railway sleepers and stone walls . . . but then came the planting. Now I know we all have different tastes and ideas and I celebrate that diversity of choice and character, but personally, I cannot stand what I call supermarket carpark planting schemes – those predictable, banal, ‘low maintenance’ shrubs and groundcover plants which it might be deemed suitable for an urban retail landscape but are so completely wrong in a cottage garden in rural France.

I would never, ever choose to plant those things myself; for me, a south-facing bank like that with house windows looking out over it just cries out for a rumbustuous paradise of herbs, flowers and fruit; why, oh why, plant creeping conifers when you could have roses and raspberries and a riot of rainbows? I am trying very hard to be generously pragmatic where some plants are concerned, knowing that cotoneaster and heather, for example, are great for insects; in fact, the reason I haven’t been able to get stuck in until this late in the year is the busy population of bees and it would be wrong to destroy what is such a good food source for them. I’m not going to pull everything out and start again but rather try and get it all under control first then tip the balance in favour of plants I prefer by introducing more and more new things in the future and encouraging the few wild beauties that appeared last year of their own volition. Far more my cup of tea.

To be fair, I have found a few treasures buried among the chaos: lavender, thyme, a couple of different mints and lots of strawberries, all of which can stay and hopefully will thrive with more light and attention. There is a lot of couch grass in the mix and I can’t do much about that apart from cut it right back and encourage other things to grow more strongly. The shrubs have all grown into one another and most have a lot of dead woody matter that I’m removing in the hope they will be rejuvenated while a few young self-set native trees have been lifted to plant elsewhere. I’m not sure what to make of things like two tiny ornamental conifers (which I don’t like) planted in the shade of a twisted willow (which I do) and I can’t say I was too thrilled to find a hideous resin statue lurking under the bigger of the two, a cat in sunglasses wielding a garden spade: the mind boggles – and yes, it had to leave!

The biggest nightmare by far, however, is the periwinkle. As a native plant, it makes for lovely groundcover in the right spot with its glossy, deep green leaves and pretty blue flowers but this one is monstrous, having run amok and choked everything in sight, including itself; it’s even grown right through the stone wall Roger built in the summer which is downright rude in my opinion. Where it has formed thick mats, I’m chopping it right back in the hope that any new growth will look healthier and darker (that sick yellow colour just isn’t right) but that’s the easy bit; to remove it from the other plants, I’m having to get right into the middle of them and pull it out strand by single strand which is a painstaking job, the wheelbarrow rapidly filling with trails of the stuff yet with little apparent progress made on the ground. I’m beginning to wonder if at this rate, I shall have finished before the bees are back but I shall soldier on in the belief that one day, it will be beautiful. It might just take a long time . . .

Pausing in my busyness, I take a few moments to luxuriate in the unbelievably mild temperature, the softness of the air and the pared-back beauty of the season. In ancient times, wrens were of particular significance at this time of year but here it is the sweet fluttering melody of dunnocks that rings from the hedgerows. There is magic, too, in the haunting daylight calls of tawny owls from the woods, the trilling woodlarks and the strident whistle of the mistle thrush, that most optimistic of winter songs. There is so much still to be done on this precious patch of land but I am happy that we have started to make our mark. When we arrived here, the summer raspberry canes had been sheared off at ground level, only a few missed survivors being left to bear fruit last summer; this year, they have grown tall and strong, now making a bold splash of winter colour that promises a wonderful harvest to come. Perhaps they are an apt symbol of what time, love and healing can do, real restoration in every sense of the word. Yes, I like that. Happy New Year, one and all! 😊

Fade to grey

It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly a year since we moved here. We’re usually fairly cool customers but this time last year, the stress levels were running pretty high as we headed into the final days of negotiating the obstacle course of lockdowns and travel restrictions in the scramble for that magical pre-Brexit deadline date. I still feel nothing but complete gratitude that we made it, even if it was by the skin of our teeth! Things are certainly calmer this year and that extends to the weather; gone are the winds that stripped the last of the leaves from trees and hedges, gone are the rainstorms and the spiteful flurries of sleet that drove us indoors, gone are the frosty mornings that turned everything to a rimey crisp. This is what I think of as ‘nothing’ weather: quiet, still, dry . . . and very, very grey.

Flocks of bramblings silhouetted in the oak trees at sunset.

In an effort to persuade my pupils to use imaginative language in their writing, I made a series of ‘colour clouds’ for my classroom wall to help them choose more descriptive words than just plain old red or blue. I don’t remember the list I had for alternatives to grey but I swear we have seen the lot in the sky and landscape over the last couple of weeks: gunmetal, slate, pewter, dove, smoke, mushroom, ash, silver, pearl . . . how is it possible to have so many nuances of something that barely qualifies as a colour? Some days, the cloud has been down to the ground, creating an eerie, drippy stillness in the garden and an almost claustrophobic sense of oppression and gloom; on others, the sky has been blanketed in higher, billowy mounds, soft as a pigeon’s breast and shot through with ripples and blushes of palest blues and pinks as the sun sinks towards the unseen horizon. It might not be as uplifting as sunshine in a blue sky, but there is a certain seasonal beauty to it, nonetheless, and it is definitely no excuse to be stuck indoors. Hedging, logging and gardening continue undaunted!

Stripped back to basics: the winter garden under grey skies.

What a surprise, then, to wake in the middle of this pervasive grey to a clear sky and day of brilliant sunshine. It was like one of those children’s magic painting books where a sweep of water transforms a white page into soft rainbows; suddenly, the blues and greens are back and pops of colour seem to shine from every corner. The birds are no longer black silhouettes against a grey canvas but bright in their winter plumage: yellows and blues of tits, red of robins and bramblings, rose of chaffinches and linnets. Squadrons of starlings fly fast and low through the garden then alight, chattering and whistling, in the top of an oak tree, their sleek metallic plumage dappled like oil on water. Jays, raucous and ever more daring it seems, move in flashes of pink and blue mischief whilst green woodpeckers shimmy up trunks and branches in coiffered caps of startling scarlet. There are still colourful beads of berries strung through the hedges and even here and there, a little burst of floral sunshine, too.

This ancient cider apple tree was the first to drop its leaves but has held on to plenty of fruit. The birds are feasting well!
Calendula living up to its name . . . they have flowered every month in the last year.
Spindleberries in a bare hedge.

Despite all this, the garden suddenly seems so bare, stripped back to its skeletal framework in complete contrast to the fecund fullness and colour of summer. It’s not totally devoid of interest and beauty, though, and above all, this is the perfect time to assess what we have done so far and make plans to add to the structure during these dormant months. Roger has finished laying the long run of hazel hedge and now we are planning to plant new ones to break up the spaces and create shelter for the potager. Several weeks ago, we spent a morning lifting young tree seedlings which had self-set around the patch and potted them up in the polytunnel to use as part of a native hedge: oak, hazel, holly, hawthorn, ash, honeysuckle and spindleberry made for a very good start. I’ve also taken hardwood cuttings of red dogwood and flowering currant which will be worthy additions to a hedge or stand alone as shrubs depending on how we feel. I love creating gardens in this way, using what is to hand and spreading it around; one of the smaller lasagne beds I made has been planted up with blackcurrant seedlings lifted from beneath the parent bush and a clump of chives split into several decent roots. That said, at this early stage of the garden’s construction we need to buy in plants to help things along, too, so we are waiting for a delivery of bare-rooted plants in early January as well as the replacement rugosa roses which hopefully this time will be red.

Red dogwood makes a brilliant splash of winter colour; soon we will be planting yellow and orange varieties, too.
Cuttings and young plants overwintering in the tunnel ‘nursery.’

Extending the range of fruit here is a top priority and we’ve made good progress with that over the last few weeks. We’ve planted two cherry trees, both bigarreau varieties and highly recommended for their flavour: ‘Tardif de Vignola’ is an Italian variety, late flowering so hopefully frost-resistant and ‘Coeur de Pigeon’ is a French heirloom variety dating back to1540 with heart-shaped fruits that give it its name. We’d like to add a couple more to the collection and after that, our priority will be plums. The neglected soft fruit bushes and raspberry canes have recovered well with lots of loving care through this year and I’m hopeful of a good crop next season. I’ve planted a jostaberry (a cross between a blackcurrant and gooseberry) for a bit of fun and also a ‘Fall Gold’ raspberry which I’m very excited about as it is apparently capable of producing two crops of yellow fruits in a year. Roger has started to make a plant support structure by the mandala bed using stout hazel poles from the hedge laying; we’ve planted a rescued grapevine at one end and a thornless blackberry ‘Black Satin’ at the other in the hope that between them they will make an attractive and edible hedge. I also have several honeyberries, a goji berry and a self-fertile sea buckthorn to go in, all new plants for us and interesting additions to our food plants, as is a Sichuan pepper already planted.

Young jostaberry

We have quite a reputation now of being the crazy couple who arrive at the déchetterie with an empty trailer and take away other people’s rubbish – namely piles of cardboard, which the attendants are only too pleased to help us load from the grand carton skip. This week we have been using it to extend several beds in the vegetable patch by sheet mulching and I have to admit, I’ve found the change in the box contents a fascinating study in human behaviour: where previously, the cardboard had wrapped barbecues, patio sets and metal-framed paddling pools, now it’s all heat pumps, woodburners and oversized televisions. Cardboard boxes have clearly-defined seasons, it seems (or perhaps I just need to get out more)!

Removing staples and tape from a pile of cardboard.
Laying and watering sheets to extend a soft fruit patch . . .
. . . then piling on the organic layers to build soil.

Having plenty of piles of organic matter to hand, we soon managed to build several lasagne layers on top of the cardboard, but changed our plans in a couple of places after having chewed over our ideas a bit. I’d marked out a fairly huge bed in one place but given we plan to plant a curve of hedge near one end of it, Roger suggested we left an area to keep as grass as it will make the perfect sheltered, sun-drenched spot for a seat. I love the way our garden designs evolve like this, it’s partly why I never feel inclined to draw a proper design . . . which is a terrible confession for someone studying permaculture, I know. 😆 We often come up with our best ideas spontaneously and I like the fluid nature of this, the fact that nothing is set in stone and we can change our plans if that’s what feels right. I read a timely reminder this week that gardeners are an integral part of their ecosystem and whilst it’s all too easy to focus on the practicalities of producing food or supporting wildlife, we need to bear in mind that a little ornamental planting simply for the sake of beauty or some scattered seats and hammocks for rest and relaxation are not sinful indulgences. Ah well, a seat in the sun it is, then!

The garden is constantly changing and evolving.

Although this can feel such a dead and empty time of year, we are still enjoying a decent fresh harvest from the garden, namely cabbage, kale, chard, leeks, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes along with rocket from the tunnel. Digging a few bits and pieces for a tray of mixed roast veg this week, we lifted what must be the biggest crop we’ve ever had from a single Jerusalem artichoke tuber, incredible when I remember how we literally just shoved them in the ground last winter and forgot all about them. Talk about thriving on neglect! The white garlic I planted a few weeks ago has sent up rows of glossy green shoots; there is something wonderful about that brave new growth and the promise of food to come next summer.

Garlic shoot
There’s still a colourful jumble of fresh veggies to enjoy.
The biggest, most productive Jerusalem artichokes ever. For a sense of scale, the knife is 20cm (8″) long.

The wind might be as light as thistledown but it’s a north-easterly, sharp as honed steel, the kind that makes our nose and eyes stream and nips at fingers and toes even when they’re snuggly wrapped in many layers. It has a brittle, metallic tang that makes me think of pine forests and snowfields so many miles to the north, places where the land is deeply frozen and daylight scant and scarce. I think, too, of Sam and Adrienne in Norway and our shared sadness and disappointment that their long hoped-for visit has been cancelled as a result of the Covid situation. How many more times must we go through this? 😪 I can take or leave Christmas at the best times but now I have no stomach for it at all; my healing will come – as it always does – from immersing myself in the garden and local landscape, no matter how grey and drear it might look. I will bring in some greenery and light a few candles to celebrate the passing of the solstice; we will cook a lovely meal together and raise a toast to our loved ones, wherever they may be, in the hope that 2022 will bring us the time together we crave. On a kitchen shelf sits a Kilner jar of sloe gin I made specially for Sam and Adrienne and I shall keep it as a gift until we are finally able to see them. For me, the rich jewelled magenta of the macerating fruits, a celebration of nature’s autumnal bounty, is now a symbol of hope and optimism, something to bring smiles and banish sadness. The days might be dark and the landscape bleached but there is still joy and comfort to be found in colour, light and love. To everyone kind enough to read my ramblings, whether you are celebrating this festive season or not, I wish you a healthy, happy and peaceful time. Until next year, my friends . . ! 😊

How typical that the only clear night in weeks coincided with a full moon: not much good for looking at the stars so I did some holly gazing instead!

Creative thinking

I love cabbage. We’ve been eating a range of varieties for many months and there are still plenty left in the ground, toughing it out through the worst of the weather to give us a reliable green vegetable in these cold, dark months. I love the sweet starchiness of parsnips, the bold earthiness of Jerusalem artichokes, the onion tang of leeks and the crisp leafiness of chard and kale but there is no doubt that at the moment, cabbage is king.

Despite this, if someone had told me that there would come a time when making sauerkraut would be a regular and enjoyable way of life, I’d have laughed my socks off. Roger has always liked it, I couldn’t bear it . . . but then, I’d never tried the proper homemade stuff. Encouraged by those who already knew how good it is and the gift of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Much More Veg recipe book, I gave it a go a couple of years ago and never looked back. It is such a simple process but one I find totally therapeutic and satisfying: wandering down to the patch to cut a cabbage, washing and shredding it, packing it into jars with sliced garlic, bay leaves and coriander seed and covering in brine, then waiting a couple of days for the magic of lacto-fermentation to begin, the fat bubbles of carbon dioxide rising up the jar like a miniature lava lamp. It’s a great way of preserving and produces a food that is wonderful for our gut health as well as being truly scrumptious; yes, I’m a complete convert! I do need to sort my timings out, though, as we’re both a bit disappointed if we finish a jar before the next one is ready . . .

Something I’ve been playing with in the garden this year is leaving plant roots in the ground after harvesting. I wrote in the summer about how incredibly successful this was with lettuce, the new growth of hearty, crisp plants meaning we were able to cut two decent-sized lettuce from each root and there was no need for more than two sowings. The drumhead cabbages we cut two or three months ago have proved to be every bit as enthusiastic, sending up a rosette of baby cabbages from their knobbly stumps, as many as half a dozen on some plants. They might not look that impressive, but each is every bit as tasty and edible as the original and they are ideal for turning into sauerkraut; it seems like we are enjoying a huge amount of good food from each single seed. This willingness to look at things from a new angle, to try to do things differently, to play with curiosity and exploration is a quality I think human beings will need more and more in the future as we grapple with the changes that are to come, possibly sooner rather than later.

These summer cabbages are now a patch of baby winter ones!

This approach fascinates me but I’m not even sure what its precise definition really is; I’m not usually lost for words but I’m struggling to nail this one. Creativity? Adaptability? Practical skills? Innovation? Flexibility? Resilience? A combination of all these and more rolled into one? It’s not just the ability to make things, mend things or repurpose things but also the willingness and confidence to respond to new and difficult circumstances in a positive way. That doesn’t necessarily mean having to come up with bright, shiny, new ideas, either – far from it, in fact, as the answers to many problems can lie in what was done or used in bygone times. There’s much talk about new technology being the way forward in tackling climate change (and I’m not pouring cold water on that idea) but I believe that many of the ‘old ways’ hold significant value and hope, too. One of the most enjoyable and interesting blogs I’m currently reading is all about bushcraft; now, I’m not planning to live as a wild woodswoman anytime soon or stitch buckskin moccasins or light the fire using a bow drill but how fascinating would the experience of learning and applying such ancient skills be? In these long, dark evenings by the fire, I’m never short of something to do as there’s always plenty of woolly business to hand but Roger is planning to arm himself with rope and string and spend time extending his repertoire of knot-tying skills and I think I’ll join in the fun; apart from being a great bit of brain gym, it’s an activity that could bring significant benefits to a wealth of our practical, outdoor activities.

The woodsman at work.

Anyway, for want of a single word that encapsulates all these ideas, I’m going to stick with ‘creativity’ because as much as anything, I’m a word nerd and I like its etymology. The English word ‘create’ comes from a root meaning ‘to grow’ and it’s a root shared by French, too, yielding one of my favourite sounding words croissance (growth); this is not to be confused with croissant (delicious breakfast pastry / crescent) although that’s the same word root, too! It is also related to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, and this is why I think it’s the right word for me to choose because the farming metaphor is a good one: we plant seeds of ideas, nurture projects as they grow, practise skills, allow time for development, adapt to conditions and situations and finally – hopefully! – reap a harvest. I believe we all have this creativity within us and it’s definitely a characteristic to be cherished and celebrated.

Lacking plant pots in the spring, I made them from newspaper.

When reflecting upon the problems of surviving in an uncertain future, I think creativity is a key concept to consider. As a primary school teacher, I worked through several shifts in pedagogical thinking, approaches and new curricula, all of which saw a gradual shift towards a greater emphasis on developing children’s creativity, critical thinking skills and problem solving faculties; the problem was, these were still firmly entrenched in the joint straitjackets of an overloaded timetable and never-ending assessments and testing which served to stifle the very elements we were supposed to be encouraging! It was as if the Powers That Be couldn’t quite bring themselves to allow children (or teachers) the time, space and – above all – freedom to be truly creative, innovative and risk-takingly different. If I’m going to be completely cynical, I could argue that modern societies focused on economic growth don’t really want too much creativity flowing through their veins because if people could shift for themselves then they wouldn’t need to spend so much time buying goods and services from others. We are encouraged to become reliant on others to provide for our needs (and, in all honesty, it’s actually very hard to be completely self-sufficient); this might make our lives easier but it also makes us very vulnerable as the recent prolonged shortages of water and power following in the wake of Storm Arwen have shown. I’m not for one moment suggesting we crawl back into our caves or give up the true advantages that modern technology brings but I think a move towards getting back to basics would be very wise.

Stormy skies this week: an increasing trend for the future?

It’s an interesting (and worrying?) percentage -31% in this study – of British people who say they are not confident about preparing a complete meal without a recipe and I think that is such a shame, partly because feeding ourselves must surely be one of the most fundamental activities there is – and one that could become increasingly crucial in the face of climate change and global shifts in food production – but also because cooking can be such a pleasurable and rewarding experience. There is much debate over the reasons for this and I don’t want to go too far down that particular route here although it’s certainly an interesting topic to explore: are the causes social, economic, cultural, political, technological or a result of trends in parenting or education (or none or all of the above)? As an aside, I’d like to state for the record that the three so-called Millenials we raised can not only boil an egg with their eyes closed but also know precisely how to look after the hen that laid the thing in the first place. Oh, and how to turn chickens and eggs into amazing meals for many people, served up with fabulous dishes of homegrown or foraged fruit and vegetables. Please don’t believe everything you read about ‘Generation Hopeless’!

I’ve always made mincemeat and a Christmas pudding from scratch but for many years I stuck religiously to the same recipes (thank you, Delia!) because I was too busy to do anything else and ultimately because they worked. Recipes are useful things and certainly if you’re making something like a sponge cake or bread, it’s usually a pretty good idea to at least have some guidelines to follow in terms of quantities of ingredients and cooking temperatures and times. However, being pretty practised in those two recipes, I’ve had far more fun since I started veering off the tracks and doing my own thing. Perhaps courage and creativity go hand in hand, being brave enough to ask, ‘What if . . ?’ and then going for it? A few days ago, I found a recipe for a so-called ‘classic’ British Christmas pudding which contained only one kind of dried fruit (raisins) and one type of spice (nutmeg). Well, I’m sorry: it might turn out to look like the ‘perfect’ Christmas pud but doesn’t that seem incredibly dull and unimaginative for something that is supposed to be the crowning glory of the biggest meal of the year? When it came to making our own pudding, I used very much what we had to hand: how many recipes require us to dash out and buy special or extra ingredients when we might very well have perfectly good alternatives in the house already . . . and how often might that put people off cooking? Golden sultanas, plump dark raisins, Agen prunes, dried cranberries, homemade candied peel, our own apples and walnuts, half a dozen different spices, flour, breadcrumbs, eggs, melted butter and brown sugar all went into the mix until it looked vaguely right. I never put alcohol in mincemeat but I like a splash in the pudding and in the absence of the usual suggestions, I sloshed a bit of Talisker single malt whisky in (we don’t drink spirits, I have no idea how old that part-bottle is!). Well, what’s the worst that can happen? This is creativity and adaptability at it’s easiest and (I hope) tastiest, too.

We’ve been known to barbecue Christmas dinner . . . well, why not?

Moving beyond cooking and personally, I think that planned obselence has an awful lot to answer for. How can we criticise someone for not being able to change a plug when electrical goods come with moulded ones these days or for not owning a screwdriver when manufacturers use weird-shaped screws or make their products deliberately non-fixable? In the world of fast fashion, who’s going to be bothered to sew on a button or stitch up a hole, yet alone replace a zip or turn collar and cuffs? Let’s be totally fair, when aisles and aisles of supermarket shelves groan under the weight of ready meals, how relevant is the ability to boil an egg, anyway? According to the study I quoted earlier, only 37% of people claimed to feel confident about changing a flat tyre (I’m assuming they meant on a car). Well, I know how to do it but when the need unfortunately arose a few months ago, I had to ask for help as the complex wheel locking system and garage-tightened wheel nuts which require a specialist tool rendered it physically impossible for me to manage alone. We are at the mercy of modern living and it’s not always very helpful.

A bike puncture is so much easier to deal with!

I’m not going to do my usual ‘Bah, humbug!’ thing this year but may I indulge in the tiniest seasonal rant? Pleeease? 😉 One of the things I’ve always loved about France is how very quiet and understated Christmas is: apart from the piles of fresh oysters, luxury chocolates and bottles of champagne in the shops and the occasional Christmas tree in front gardens hung with brightly-coloured foil bows, you’d be hard-pressed to know anything was going on. To be fair, that remains true of our very rural neck of the woods; except for the tasteful decorations in the boulangerie window and a few extra boxes of chocolates in the local supermarket, life here is just simply sliding gently from late autumn into early winter without any fuss or bother. What a difference elsewhere, though! Last week, we needed to venture further afield than usual to buy a new mattress ahead of Sam and Adrienne’s visit and neither of us could get home fast enough. It was like a feeding frenzy in the shops but one that reminded me more of sheep than sharks. What is it about Christmas that has people piling their bags and trolleys high with so much stuff and how much of it is truly needed? (In the same vein, why does a supposed ‘crisis’ drive people to stockpile toilet rolls?) How much of that Christmas food will even be eaten at all, yet alone with enjoyment and honour? I believe true generosity is a very beautiful human characteristic but since when did a piece of mass-produced tat grabbed from a supermarket shelf become a meaningful, loving gift?

Here’s another situation where surely a little creativity could go a long way. I don’t necessarily mean making gifts and the like as I realise for many people that is neither an option nor a pleasure, but perhaps there’s an argument for more lateral and original thinking rather than following the herd headlong into the chaotic and predictable consumer circus? I recently had a long telephone conversation with an old friend who I hadn’t seen or spoken to for several years and it was better than any bought gift, believe me. We took it in turns to talk and listen, catching up on news, putting the world to rights (ha, I wish!) and more than anything, laughing ourselves silly together; I was reminded why we had become friends in the first place and how that friendship endures, even if we are not in contact on a regular basis. I was left with such a wonderful feeling of warmth and well-being, that true cozy sense of hygge that no amount of mass-produced Christmas jumpers, snowflake-printed fleecy blankets or cinnamon-scented candles could ever create.

Homemade beeswax candle.

Returning to the ‘Woodland Ways’ bushcraft blog and I am fascinated by the series of articles about star lore. I can find north using Polaris and I recognise a few well-known constellations and stars but I must confess, I feel otherwise totally ignorant; it’s true I’ll probably never need to navigate by starlight, but for how many years have I stood beneath wide starry skies gazing upwards in awe and wonder without really knowing much about them? Well, I’m setting out to learn, working my way carefully through each article and building up a star map which I hope will become embedded in my memory; it’s just another way of looking at things from a new angle, an activity to challenge and develop my powers of observation and tickle some neural pathways into action. It’s also a refreshing way of embracing the season, spending time outdoors in the longest, darkest nights of the year – as long as nature is kind enough to grant me a few cloudless ones, of course! A cabbage-loving, knot-tying, recipe-dumping, star-gazing word nerd: mmm, a bit weird, maybe? Well, yes, I think I probably am ‘out there’ somewhere but at the end of the day it’s about embracing and loving life and all its possibilities, being mad enough to climb out of the box, take a few risks and do things a bit differently. One day, it might be a question of survival. For now, I’m just happy not to be a sheep. 😆

Of snow and saints

Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s

!8th century English nursery rhyme

I’ve never kept a diary of weather patterns but for decades now – apart from the five winters we spent in Asturias – the days around a family birthday on the 23rd of November have tended to bring us the first fall of snow and this year has once again lived up to that reputation. Although the weather has been bitterly cold, there was no snow in the forecast so it was a bit of a surprise to wake one morning a few days ago to a white and wintry world!

The good thing about snow at this time of year is that it is generally short-lived, the ground being nowhere near as cold as it will be in January and February when it is more likely to linger and pack down into ice. There was no great depth, either, just enough for a light covering of that sticky, crystalline type of snow that clings to everything . . . and makes great snowballs if you are so inclined.

After the blissfully dry, mild and still autumn weather we have enjoyed so far, this felt like a small warning shot across the bows, a reminder that we are heading towards winter whether we like it or not. I love the transformation that a snowfall like this creates, changing the shapes and patterns of the landscape and bringing yet another fresh perspective to the garden. After days of gusty winds that saw blizzards of leaves falling and swirling in pools of bright autumn colours, there was suddenly a softness and stillness to the morning, a shadowed landscape caught in the low level of morning light.

Wandering around and quietly breathing in the beauty of the morning, I was struck by several things, not least the way in which the holly trees have suddenly come into their own with their classic pyramid shapes, dark glossy leaves and bright berries: this is definitely their time now. They haven’t quite got the whole stage to themselves, though; several large oaks are still clinging to their leaves and the low sunlight made a stunning bright fire of them against the snow.

I was also fascinated by the tracks left by a wealth of animal visitors, their dark pawprints stitching wandering seams through the snow. I love the way they followed the new paths we have made, flowing and curving through the garden, backtracking and criss-crossing, weaving a tale of nocturnal busyness and secret activities we seldom see.

No such secrets from the birds who are feeding in what feels like their hundreds (honestly, I swear they eat more than we do!) at our new bird table. Last year, we muddled through with a temporary fix so this year I was determined to organise a more permanent table, the idea being to make one from scraps of spare timber. Frustratingly, despite plenty of wood lying about the place, there was nothing suitable for the job so in the end, we bought a locally made ‘build your own’ flat pack; we probably wouldn’t have bothered with heart-shaped fretting and a pretty blue roof ourselves but the birds seem quite happy and, combined with feeders hanging in the cherry plum tree, the table makes a decent feeding station for a variety of species. Having revamped the kitchen and turned the sink round so that it is under the window where it really should be (yes, yes, very conventional but far more sensible), I can now watch the greedy feeders whilst doing the dishes. At the moment, it’s the great tits who predominate; they are black-masked bullies to be honest, zipping in to steal the sunflower seeds at an alarming rate and surely expending far more energy chasing each other off than they gain from eating the food. I’ve rigged up a double bird bath at ground level using a couple of sturdy plastic trays I found lurking behind the rain butts (the kind you sit plant pots in) and they are hugely popular, especially with our resident flock of sparrows who literally divebomb each other like high-spirited children in a swimming pool. Such great entertainment. Who needs television?

The 23rd of November is the feast of St Clement. Before I pursue this line of thought, I should say that Christian saints’ days hold no religious significance for me and indeed, so many of them were martyrs that I don’t find their stories particularly uplifting either; I was born on the feast of St Barbara and there wasn’t a lot of joy in her life, let me tell you! However, I do like many of the associated traditions, particularly where they are woven through with strands of much older ways, of seasonality, culture, creativity and celebration. For instance, St Barbara is the patron saint of mines (amongst other things) and I admire how the Asturian miners famously lift their collective voices to her in haunting, spine-tingling harmonies. So, back to St Clement who incidentally is the patron saint of blacksmiths and – more appropriately for me – feltmakers, having apparently invented felt himself. As a child I learned to sing and play the English nursery rhyme game that starts “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s”, knowing it referred to the bells of various London churches; what I discovered more recently is that on the feast day, children would go from door to door asking people for fruit in exchange for songs, a tradition known as ‘clementing’ which is apparently still practised in some rural parts of Britain today. Historically, their gifts were more likely to be apples and pears than the expensive luxuries of oranges and lemons but I think it’s a lovely idea all the same. It also seems very fitting that this time of year marks the start of the citrus fruit season, their glowing colours, zesty flavours and Vitamin C the perfect antidote to our darker days and worsening weather.

In Asturias, citrus fruits were a local food for us but back in northern France, they are very much on our ‘global’ list again; they mostly come from Spain, although I have seen French clementines from Corsica in a local shop. I have been making oranges and lemons into candied peel to chop into my mincemeat and Christmas pudding mixes, and their grated zest and juice will also go in, to balance the soft fruitiness of apple from our orchard and mingle with the flavour of warming spices. There is something so very evocative about the wonderful smell of those ingredients and, although I’m no great fan of Christmas, these delicious traditional foods are completely non-negotiable! The first batch of mince pies will be made ready for my birthday at the weekend (better than a cake, any day) in the hope that the weather will be kind and we can head off to a local beauty spot on our bikes with a flask of piping hot coffee to go with them. If not – and, let’s be honest, the chances are the weather will be grim – then we’ll just have to enjoy them by the fire instead. Somehow, I think we’ll cope.

I’ve often toyed with the idea of having a ‘half birthday’ in the first week of June so that I could celebrate at a time of light and warmth, butterflies, swallows, roses and honeysuckle by way of a change. However, Vicky – whose actual birthday falls in that week – has reminded me that over the years, many of her special days have delivered appallingly bad weather and pointed out that at least in December I won’t be disappointed! Well, I suppose there’s truth in that and anyway, this year I have roses a-plenty at least. Several bushes have continued flowering throughout autumn and we have been enjoying little pickings of them in the house, still scented and beautiful (if a little weather-damaged) and an interesting contrast to the flickering flames of the woodstove.

The plant suppliers who sent us white rugosa roses in February instead of the red ones we had ordered are making good their promise to send 25 bare-rooted red-flowered plants as soon as they had them, so we need to choose some planting spots ready for their expected arrival next week. That will be a lovely job, so full of hope and expectation of scent and colour next year. Even though the white roses weren’t really what we’d wanted, the flowers were hugely popular with insects and there was a good crop of fat orange hips. I’ve been collecting them in the freezer to make into cordial but this week I decided that drying them for tea was a better idea (I don’t like sugary cordials anyway) and now have them sitting on a rack on the stove hob, like a tray of juicy cherry tomatoes slowly shrivelling into hard little nuts. Once dried, I’m going to blitz them in the blender then shake them in a sieve to remove the irritating hairs before storing them in a jar for tea-making. I love the simplicity of this method which I found on the Eatweeds website (a great foraging resource, well worth a look and listen) as there’s no need to faff about with scraping out the seeds and hairs. The rosehip tea will be a wonderful source of Vitamin C to see me through the winter and unlike the citrus fruits, this is one that very definitely counts as local.

Roger has been pushing on with laying the hedge, slightly easier now that the hazels have finally shaken off their leaves. He has left a beautiful holly tree at full height but had to cut a few small berried branches which was my cue to gather the prunings and make an ice lantern for our Yuletide celebrations. I wrote about making these lanterns last year, they are such a simple yet beautiful expression of the season and incredibly easy to create. Along with the holly, I added small snippets of conifer in various shades, mistletoe from the apple trees, ivy, rosemary and bay with rosehips, haws, cotoneaster berries and spindleberries for a splash of colour against the greens.

I’m hoping we will be blessed with a clear, still night when Sam and Adrienne visit from Norway at the end of this month (if they visit – I’m trying hard to remain optimistic in light of the current Covid situation) so we can wrap up warm, light the lantern and candles outside and share warmed mince pies and mulled wine or sloe gin. On clear nights, the starry skies here are truly stunning; with no light pollution and a wide arc of open sky, this would certainly qualify as a ‘Dark Sky’ region in the UK. I love to take the compost bucket down to the heap after dark, simply as an excuse to stand and stare at the myriad constellations of stars – so bright and brittle at this time of year – and the soft sweep of the Milky Way arching overhead. So much magic and beauty, such an amazing light show . . . and all totally for free.

On the subject of money, Black Friday epitomises everything I deplore about modern society: is it just me, or was the crass spendfest particularly obscene this year following hard on the heels of COP 26, with all its urgent exhortations to reduce consumption? I choose to ignore it and nothing would persuade me to buy in, literally or metaphorically, to the whole sad affair but I have to confess to indulging (unusually and by total coincidence on the actual day) in a little retail therapy all the same. Let me explain. Fast fashion is wasted on me; I wear my clothes until they fall to pieces and, as I spend most of my time in old gardening gear and/or overalls, I tend to squeeze a lot of wear out of everything. Many of the items in my wardrobe have been there for over twenty years and I wouldn’t dream of replacing them until they are no longer fit for purpose. Having conceded last week that some old favourites had definitely reached the point of no return, I toddled off to a charity shop on Friday to look for a couple of warm items to wear around the house . . . and struck gold. First, a pair of thick black skinny jeans which were brand new and still sporting the original shop label; then, to go with them, a ridiculously snuggly cream hoodie, barely worn and made from top quality organic cotton by an ethical clothing company. Perfect! My twelve euros is a drop in the ocean but at least it has gone towards helping people in need, perhaps even those in areas already suffering the adverse effects of climate change. Furthermore, whoever donated the clothes, the charity shop and myself have between us all helped to save two perfectly good items of clothing from the waste stream. It felt slightly subversive, a sort of ‘Not Black Friday’ thing to do – and if I manage to eke the normal amount of wear from my new outfit, I won’t be shredding them onto the compost heap until I’m in my mid-seventies. Blimey, now there’s a sobering thought!

One new piece of clothing I have invested in recently is a waterproof coat, my ancient old faithful having sprung so many leaks I actually stay drier in a downpour if I’m not wearing it. It has been retired to gardening duty and in its place, I’ve bought something shorter and more thickly padded, the idea being that if I can guarantee staying warm and dry then I have no excuse for not continuing to ride my bike through winter. It’s that ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes’ adage and I’m happy to report that on a test run to the recycling bins in a particularly vicious north-easterly wind this week, I stayed snug as a bug. The coat is perfect, but sadly I can’t say the same for my hat which was whipped off several times, releasing my hair to fly around my head like some demented Medusa and allowing that icy wind into the depths of my exposed ears. It’s a fleece beanie I bought as an end of sale bargain on a visit to Hawkshead in the Lake District over twenty years ago and it’s done sterling service but I think it’s reached the end of the line, too stretched and worn around the brim to cling on to my relatively big head (!) and even bigger hair any longer. As speed is of the essence, I’ve opted against trying to spin yarn for a new hat and I’m knitting one from some superwash sock wool instead. For me, a good deep welt to fold up as a snug brim is key to keeping the hat on my head so I’m working in double rib and might even knit the whole hat like that as it’s such a great elastic stitch. There’s something very soothing about working the tiny stitches in rounds, like a giant cuff on my short sock needles, a perfect fireside activity for less than lovely days . . . and hopefully, icicle ears will soon be a thing of the past.

Back to the nursery rhyme, and the tradition of naming the songs of bells can be found beyond the churches of London, including in my native county of Shropshire. In the small town of Clun, where I held my last primary school teaching post, the simple bells encourage parishioners to hop, skip and run – very appropriate for the school playground, that’s for sure. For me, though, in this current spate of wintry weather, it’s a line from the extended original song that holds the most promise, even if the rhyme falls a little awkwardly on English ears: pancakes and fritters, say the bells of St Peter’s. Yes, ’tis the season to bake comfort food: let the great mince pie-athon begin! 😉