A Lazy Affair

I am currently reading The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift for the fifth (or is it the sixth?) time. It’s an exquisitely crafted book about her twenty years spent developing a National Trust garden in east Shropshire. The eloquent prose is woven with golden threads of horticulture, geography, geology, history, country lore, biography and acute, beautifully-described observations that make the book a rich tapestry of a read. It never fails to fascinate, move and inspire me. In a memorable passage, Katherine describes how long-term illness kept her out of the garden for many months; on her return, she was completely horrified to find that nature had taken over and gone completely off-plan. However, she soon realised in delight that all the bolting and seeding, rambling and scrambling, shifting and drifting had in fact created a garden of infinite magic and wonder, the plants setting up stunning partnerships of colour and form that could never have been contrived or designed.

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Our own Shropshire garden in 2015

I love this passage because this is how I garden all the time! It’s a personal thing but I have never felt the need for too much discipline and control in the garden; I’ve always been a curvy lines, wonky wigwams, daisies-in-the-lawn sort of gardener and I think there are three main reasons for that. The first is that a huge number of my favourite plants are very prone to flaunting themselves and self-seeding or running out of control: foxgloves, granny bonnets, lady’s mantle, calendula, borage, angelica, fennel, feverfew, lemon balm, forget-me-nots, mint, nasturtiums, verbena bonariensis, Welsh poppy, Californian poppy, shirley poppy . . . try keeping that bunch under control as they march their riotous pageant of colour and scent across the garden. How many times have we discovered new ‘borders’ in unexpected corners, as if planted by some unseen mischievous hand?

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Shropshire again. There was a vegetable patch in there somewhere . . .

Second, this laissez-faire approach appeals to my idle side: I love to be busy in the garden and actually relish the really hard graft, but if things want to take care of themselves and do their own thing, who am I to argue? Nature fills a vacuum so let it get busy and if the result is a semi-wilderness, so be it. Great for wildlife, great for us.

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. . . and here (2013) in our French garden, too.

Finally, I’ve always thought that bulbs and tubers that plump up, doubling and trebling, roots and rhizomes that run amok and seeds that scatter and self-set, sneaking into whatever places and spaces they can find simply want to be there. They’re happy and they’ll likely thrive, so let them be.

All this has been running through my mind this week as I’ve been trundling back and forth with my barrow, moving the compost heap slowly (very slowly – that hill is so steep!) to a new location. The Lazy Gardener Syndrome is alive and well here, it seems. Take for instance this sumptuous beauty with silken petals that shift from maroon to deepest plum to blackberry like light catching the swish of a taffeta ballgown.

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When I planted the bulbs in November, I chose to put them in glazed pots of Moroccan and malachite blue, thinking the combination would be pleasing to the eye. It is – but nothing like the stunning backdrop of acid yellow that appeared of its own accord. The fizz and bang of those colours together is like champagne bubbles up my nose,  bitter sherbert on my tongue. The yellow is a humble mizuna, self-set in a concrete crack. I left it for the insects. I’m so glad I did.

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Calendula (or pot marigold) is one of my all-time favourite plants. I love its cheerful disposition, it’s unpretentious down-to-earth attitude, it’s sharp herbal scent and tiny fingernail seeds. No need to plant, it was already here in little flashes of sunny light amidst the jungle of neglect. True to its name, it flowers all through the year but in April it is at its best, showing off in a hedonistic burst of sun-worshipping brilliance, carpeting the vegetable garden in huge swathes and exploding in pops and bangs in quiet corners. Last year, I planted a clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ to grow up the stock fencing around the vegetable patch. Poor thing, I have dragged it round several gardens in several countries but here at last it is settled. Roots down, head up, it seems to have found its spiritual home. It is about to flower for the first time in three years, the plump bauble buds on the cusp of bursting into a profusion of pink. Lovely . . . but how much more striking will it be with the self-sown calendula snuggled underneath?

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What hearty little troopers these marigolds are. Here in a clump beneath the glaucous thistle leaves of a globe artichoke, a heap of gold beneath an arching dragon’s wing; here in a shady forgotten spot beneath a Japanese quince, mingling with red deadnettle and sweet violets, a posy of weeds: I could not have planted a prettier patch if I’d tried. They can’t have it all their own way, though. I have lifted a few stray wanderers to plant in blue pots and make a splash of colour on the steps; they’re under control for now but I suspect those seeds will travel when the time is right.

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I have started to plant small flower borders where I can, a few favourite perennials mixed with bulbs and annuals. Even here, any sense of design or control has already gone with the wind. I grew lavender from seed, raised peach carnations from cuttings . . . but the forget-me-nots currently stitching them together are nature’s idea. Why didn’t I think of that?

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Even pottering about the polytunnel, pricking out and planting on, I am not safe. Beneath the staging, between the lettuces and in every available nook and cranny there are nasturtium seedlings lifting their shields against the metallic blue prongs of Californian poppies. Can you imagine what a riot this will be if I let it continue? I need to make an effort, exert a bit of control here . . . but not today.

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Borage needs no encouragement. It drifts up and down the garden in fuzzy waves of cerulean stars, flowering all year round which makes me happy – and the local honey bee population even happier. Just look at it nestled with the bright flowers of komatsuna. Both self-set; honestly, you’d think they’d planned it.

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The flowers are thrumming with bees, their frantic activity shaking and bending the slender stems. Here they fill their pollen baskets: dandelion yellow from the komatsuna, grubby white from the borage. I stand and watch transfixed at the whole precise busyness of it, the bees exploring the tiny throats of the yellow blooms, the whiskery black centres of the blue. I love this affirmation of life, of connection, of dependence; like that colour combination, it’s a beautiful thing.

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Emptying the final barrowload of compost and forking through the new heap, my eyes drift to the broccoli. The plants are spent, the harvest over; time to clear the terrace for sweetcorn . . . and yet, all on their own they are creating a splash of colour as beautiful as anything else in the garden. More bees here, too; the corn can wait awhile. Let’s enjoy that soft buttery yellow against the dusty purple. Opposites on the colour wheel: a marriage made in heaven.

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On the subject of marriage, I have started to make petal confetti this week. I made some several years ago for Sarah and Gwyn’s wedding when advice and guidance seemed thin on the ground; it was rose petals all the way, a bit of a problem when I had no blooms in the garden. I did have cornflowers, though; a whole prairie of them which had encroached on the vegetable patch (of course). I followed the instructions to the letter, selecting, picking, tying, hanging, drying, crumbling. It worked. It was very pretty but on the day, gone in an instant. I fancy something more substantial this time.

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Luckily, things have moved on, ideas changed and developed. How happy to find thay anything goes. Daisies? No problem. Calendula? Mmm, might have a few of those. Music to my ears. What a pleasure, picking from the great abundance around me; what a joy to simply leave them spread out to dry. By July, I shall have such a heady mix to scatter over Sam and Adrienne on their special day!

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Sarah has always had an artistic and creative talent, an eye for colour and a love of country flowers. It was no surprise, them, when on the day of her wedding with Gwyn she chose to pick her own bouquet. Literally. She bought a bunch of sunflowers from her local Co-op but everything else was foraged from her garden – flower beds, vegetable patch, hedgerows, hidden corners and wild places. The result was stunning, a beautiful creation that captivated me all day (there was even a little robin’s pincushion hidden in there!). When I started to plan the design for a blanket – a gift for their fifth anniversary in September – this was my natural starting point.

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How I agonised over my plan, though! I spent days messing about with different motifs and colour combinations, those sunflowers dominating every idea I had  . . . until I realised that was the problem. Go back, look again. Yes, the sunflowers were totally striking but for me it was the supporting act that truly made the bouquet: the foliage in so many shades and shapes, the froth of meadowsweet and curve of honeysuckle, those deep, rich purples and delicate silvers. That is where the beauty lies, a beauty I could never capture in a few shades of yellow, a couple of greens. I chose eighteen different colours.

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What a happy moment, to make a start outside in the sunshine this week. I am working squares in blocks of solid colour, each with a sunburst flower motif ( a ‘sunflower’) in the centre. My plan then is to join them in a gentle colourwash, moving through the blanket as if up the bouquet: greens of foliage, yellows and purples of flowers, blues for that clear September sky and a sense of balance in the overall scheme of things. The finished design hovers at the periphery of my imagination, I really don’t know how it will turn out. No problem. I have learnt that blankets, like gardens, are best left to their own devices at times. Pick a pattern. Choose the colours. Now let them decide how they want to be.

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I have to confess in my last blanket project, I had to exercise a little more discipline. Well, just like the garden, sometimes it’s necessary, I suppose. I wanted to create a rainbow and really there’s no arguing with the colour order of that one, is there? Science had me pinned down for sure! This was another gift blanket, for a new baby expected in August. Traditionally, we dress and wrap babies in white or the very palest of pastels. With my head brimming from the rich research and curiosity in The Morville Hours, I suddenly needed to know why. Is it historic? Religious? Cultural symbolism? Superstition? Oh sit down, my overeager imagination – the answer, I found, is far more prosaic! Babies need a lot of linen and white textiles have always been easier to bleach and launder in hot water. It’s a practical thing, nothing more. I happen to love bright colours around babies, hence my choice to make a rainbow. It might not be practical but I hope the message is as loud as that ridiculous shade of orange: a new little life – how wonderful, how exciting, how precious. What a tremendous thing to celebrate. Let me shout it out in loud and vibrant colours!  🙂

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Art and soul

I am happy to admit that I am a terrible artist. As a child, I was in awe of those television programmes where Tony Hart, armed with tins of paint and fat emulsion brushes, created a masterpiece on the wall in a few deft strokes. I desperately wanted to be that talented but after three years of high school reports which predictably stated, ‘She usually tries’ it came as a relief to myself and the art department staff when I could finally, blessedly drop the subject for good. That said, I love painting: even wide expanses of fresh plasterboard needing coat after coat of emulsion don’t faze me (good job since we’ve had plenty here over the last few months) but I am never so happy as when I can indulge my passion for colour and a little creativity. This week, then, has been a time of great painty pleasure.

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My first project was to make a name sign which eventually can be fixed to the house wall (ah yes, there’s another big painting job in the pipeline), using a lovely slab of slate that Roger had rescued from a tumbledown wall in our field. I wanted to make something that would reflect the feel of our home and our love of the outdoors; something simple, bright, colourful and fun where the name was legible but not dominating. The whole point of sharing this is that it shows you don’t need one jot of artistic skill in order to be artistic; purists may think my approach is cheating, but I prefer to see it as innovative! So, armed with a fortifying mug of tea, I went forth to create.

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My calligraphy skills being no better than my art ones, I did the obvious thing: found a font in our word-processing program, blew up the size then traced it carefully from the screen. Having no intention of painting anything freehand, I then got busy with an ancient stencil; a lot of messing with a simple box of children’s acrylic colours and far too much fun later, a sign emerged. A couple of coats of exterior varnish and it was all ready for business. Something from nothing once again!

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We reached  a great milestone this week in finally being able to move into the room upstairs. One of the knock-on effects is that all the spare bedroom furniture could be moved out of the kitchen/living area and everything rearranged a little. I decided it was time to brighten up some bits of old furniture, starting with a very basic pine shelf unit and a nesting table for what is now officially the guest bedroom. I set up a painting studio outside and, since I was using a universal primer, I threw in an old metal milk churn for good measure.

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While that all dried, I set about revamping another nesting table indoors. We have a large black halogen lamp which is brilliant to knit, crochet, sew and read under at night but it is such an ugly thing; I can’t do anything to pretty it up but I thought I could at least create a colourful table for it to sit on. My other motive for this little project was to try out chalk paints before committing to use them on our old linen chest of drawers which has been desperate for a new paint job for several years (decades, actually). Chalk paints really are the ‘in’ thing and I have to admit I’m not a lover of fads; I have quite happily and successfully painted furniture for many years with leftover bits of gloss paint and yes – truly – even emulsion. However, I’ve been really impressed and inspired by some beautiful pieces of furniture Adrienne has created with chalk paints so I decided to give them a go. Before starting, I did a fair bit of online research, read plenty of advice and then chose to ignore most of it. I didn’t opt for the designer brand that everyone raves about but instead bought a Spanish variety which was a lot kinder on my pocket and offered a good palette of luscious colours to choose from. I didn’t buy a special brush for the paint, just used an old one; neither did I invest in a special wax brush or even special wax as Roger informed me he had a tin of brushing wax in his Man Shed (honestly, that place is an emporium!).

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So how did it go? Well, the paint was a dream to use (I love the fact you don’t have to prime) and went such a long way; so far, in fact, that I changed my plan for the bedroom table and decided to chalk paint that, too, rather than use the eggshell satin I had lined up for it. The colour is absolutely gorgeous; it’s called ‘Mediterranean Blue’ and is a deep, dreamy cobalt, just beautiful.

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When it came to the waxing bit, I knew I could well be using completely the wrong stuff and I did have a minor panic when the (yellow) wax immediately took the colour down a few shades. I was also slightly concerned about how many articles I’d read about this part being very hard work. Well, it’s all relative, I suppose: to me, shifting several tonnes of gravel by hand is hard work. So is giving birth. Brushing a few coats of wax on and buffing it off again just seemed like a very pleasant wet afternoon’s activity, especially as the yellow effect disappeared with the wax and a lovely, lustrous shine surfaced. Job done.

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So now that I know what I’m doing, I’m all set to tackle the linen chest with some more of that lovely blue paint coupled with ivory. By the way, I won’t be distressing any of these chalk painted bits and pieces. I know we all have different opinions – which is to be celebrated – but as a country mouse born and bred,  I have never understood the fashion for filling rural homes with so-called shabby chic. In fact, it’s very much because the linen chest has been steadily distressing itself over many years that I feel the need to paint it again. Recognise that old stencil, by the way? Definitely time for a new look!

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I gave the shelf unit a couple of coats of eggshell ‘Eau de Nil’ to match our interior doors and it looks right at home tucked into the guest bedroom.

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Anyway, back to that milk churn. When we moved here, we found we had been left a house and several outbuildings full of furniture and miscellaneous items; most of it was broken down rubbish which the friendly chaps from the town hall kindly came and took away – it took them two trips in a very large van. Boy, did we have rubbish! The two milk churns, however, were something I wanted to hang on to as I had a cunning plan for them. I love the fact that they represent a little bit of the property’s history and I wanted them outside where they could be seen and enjoyed as big planters. Well, of course – if in doubt, add flowers! I could have left them as they were but something inside was whispering bright colours so I opted for ‘Summer Sky’ which seems somehow appropriate (or at least, it will be once the current run of crazy storms here has worn itself out). I think this will be the perfect eye-catching foil for flowers of any colour; just look at how scrumptious those beautiful deep magenta tulips look against that bright, bright blue.

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However, a nod to the colour wheel says orange and nasturtiums were the first to come to mind. I love nasturtiums and particularly the way they flourish here in the wild, hurling themselves down banks and verges in a brazen tumble of flaming glory in May and again in September. Last year they self-set amongst the sweet corn and climbing beans and as that patch is now under a poytunnel, little seedlings are popping up like mushrooms in the warmth.

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I’ve lifted three of them and transplanted them into a pot just the right size for nestling into the top of the churn in the hope of a bright and sunny waterfall against the blue; once they have finished it will be easy enough to replace them, maybe with a riot of geraniums. Whatever happens, the milk churn should bring a splash of summer colour and a smile or two to our less-than-pretty courtyard. Now for the second one. Blue again? Mmm, still thinking about that one.

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My final paint project and if nothing else, this one proves at least that I haven’t been on a complete bluefest all week! Here is another piece of ‘inherited’ furniture and let me say straight away that it’s dire. It’s wonky: last year I used it as a painting step and wobbled off it more times than I can remember. At some point in its history the seat has completely split in two and has been ‘mended’ supremely badly with a bizarre arrangement of staples. It is riddled with woodworm. In short, it’s a piece of junk which would best serve as morning sticks . . . so why have I rescued it from that fate and painted it?

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Well, the answer lies at the end of our woodland track, a ten minute walk from the house and one of my absolutely favourite places. We have a long term plan to make a two- person seat here; in fact, we even have the base from an old single futon put aside just for that purpose. The problem is, it’s a long way down the priority list and in the meantime, I really wanted somewhere I could perch and while away a little time, so the wonky stool seemed just perfect. I’ve used the paint we have for a garden seat in the orchard; it’s called ‘Olive’ and definitely veers towards the grey side of green which is fine as I didn’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb. A couple of coats and off I went up the lane with my stool tucked under my arm.

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One of the things I love about the woodland spot is that it’s like entering another world; turning into a different valley, the gentle murmurings of village life disappear and all that is left is the sound of a mountain stream tumbling to join the river, a cacophony of birdsong and the soft susurration of the wind through the trees. When the sun shines, the glade is flooded with soft light but I enjoy it in the rain, too, Why not? Armed with my trusty brolly, it’s the Asturian way. This is my ‘sitting place’, somewhere I can think and ponder, daydream and plan, mull and meditate; it’s a place that makes me open my eyes and mind to the small wonders around me; it’s a place that feeds my soul and makes my heart sing. It’s my little haven of mindfulness.

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It’s a place where I can just BE . . . but now I can do that in (wobbly) comfort. How wonderful is that? 🙂

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To be or not to bee wrap

‘Material life and diet should be given a simple place. If this is done, work becomes pleasant, and spiritual breathing space becomes plentiful.’  Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution

 
I have just finished reading a book about minimalist living. Whilst being an interesting and thought-provoking read, I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned by some of the ideas being suggested. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own interpretation and opinion but for me, the whole essence of minimalism is about getting rid of excess, living with only what we need and no more so that what is left – whether in terms of space or time – can be used for happier, non-material things and appreciating the beauty of life and the world around us (as per the opening quotation). Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong?

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For instance, there was a lot of time spent on the idea of de-cluttering which seemed to focus far more on organising existing ‘stuff’ rather than reducing the overall amount of possessions; I found it a bit ironic being advised to go out and buy large plastic boxes so I can store things under the bed. There is nothing under our bed at present because, quite simply, there is nothing to go under the bed (and if there were, I’d be seriously questioning whether we really needed it). When it came to getting rid of things, there was also far too much ‘throw it away’ for my tastes: whatever happened to re-use and re-cycle? Well, I’m happy to agree to disagree with the author on a few things but when it came to a discussion of decorating, I felt completely lost at the suggestion of a simple black and white scheme for everything. Now admittedly, we have painted all the walls of our little mountain house white in order to maximise light as the windows are very small . . . but there is colour in everything else. I am happy to embrace a simpler lifestyle but I didn’t realise it extended to removing an excess of colour! I love colour, it brings so much joy and happiness into my world and the idea of eliminating it is out of the question. In fact, quite the opposite – it’s been high on my agenda this week.

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Last year, I decided to brighten up an old garden seat we’d had for many years; we had kept it as natural wood, oiling it every year to keep it waterproof, but the poor thing was really looking its age. I painted it with the dregs of paint left over from a previous project and we placed it in one of our sunniest patches. It has become one of our favourite places, a natural spot to gravitate towards, mug of coffee in hand. Unfortunately it had gone to look weather-beaten again and having no ‘petrol’ paint left, this week I opted for a brighter ‘peacock’ instead and spent a happy couple of hours in the sunshine giving it another facelift.

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I also finished making the crochet patchwork granny square blanket, something I started last year to use up a pile of  yarn left over from other projects. It’s been great fun creating something useful from a crazy mishmash of colours and clashes, although in theory I suppose I could have put the yarn into storage under the bed or thrown it away. 🙂 Instead, it will be a blanket of many uses, including padding out that seat or throwing in the back of the car for picnics.

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We are edging ever closer to being able to move the spare bedroom furniture out of the kitchen and upstairs. We won’t be able to sort our kitchen/living area out properly until then but in the meantime I dug out our old cotton bunting, washed and ironed it (quite something for me!) and we hung it from the beams. A visiting neighbour was very taken with it and asked if we had been celebrating a birthday to which I had to honestly answer no, it was just me being a bit frivolous and girlie and the bunting was a permanent thing.

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He said he thought that was wonderful because it meant we were celebrating our non-birthdays every day and that was surely a great thing to do? What a lovely way of looking at life! Black and white? I don’t think so!

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One of my goals this year is to try and get as close to zero waste as possible. The amount of waste that goes out for the rubbish collection is already relatively small – one small bag per fortnight, rarely full; we recycle everything we can, compost biodegradable waste and re-use things wherever possible as second nature. The composting in particular is a huge success here; as gardeners, we have had compost heaps for 30 years but have never had such a fast working one. It’s like some sort of magical bottomless pit of gorgeous, crumbly compost. I turned it and emptied it in the autumn, digging out enough to mulch the entire vegetable patch. This week, I’ve turned it again, piling it onto the terraces where the squash and sweetcorn are to be planted (they are such greedy feeders), top dressing all our pots and troughs and hauling buckets and buckets up to the polytunnel. I love this sort of activity, definitely not work in my book. What a thing of wonder compost is . . . and all from waste and worms!

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For us, the biggest issue to tackle is plastic waste, and in particular, food wrapping – something of a hot topic at the moment. Luckily,  a huge proportion of our food here comes package-free . . .

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. . . but we are not self-sufficient so inevitably we have to buy from other places and that’s where the problem starts. Even buying fresh meat and fish loose over the counter, there seems to be no getting away from the plastic it is subsequently wrapped in and which cannot be hygienically recycled. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m working on it and in the meantime, I’ve had a go at making some bee wraps which should at least help to eliminate home-produced cling film waste. Waxed cloth is not a new idea but it has become popular in recent years as an eco-friendly alternative to disposable food wraps. There are some really beautiful products on the market but they tend to be a bit pricey so, encouraged by many helpful websites, I decided to have a go at making my own; driven in from the garden by Storm Gisela a couple of days ago, I decided the moment had arrived!

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The theory is a simple one: soak cotton cloth in melted beeswax, pine resin and jojoba oil to create a waterproof, flexible, washable food wrap. The fabric I used was good quality 100% cotton left over from a baby quilt project (I think it came from Hobbycraft). Beeswax is easily obtainable in a block that can be grated or as small perles, but I had some beekeeper’s waste – a sheet of wax foundation that had shattered – so it seemed the right thing to use. There are various methods for making bee wraps; as the stove was stoked up and the oven hot, I decided to use that rather than the ironing method. I opted for mixing the cold ingredients and spreading them across the fabric as this seemed to be less wasteful and also I know from making lip balm and hand cream that cleaning bowls and utensils that have been around melted beeswax is the very devil!

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It would have been nice to cut the fabric with pinking shears but I don’t have any so straight edges had to suffice; I was working on the theory (correct, as it turned out) that such a tight weave was unlikely to fray after waxing. I chopped the fabric into various shapes and sizes and made a start with the largest square (30cm x 30cm), laying it on a large baking tray covered in parchment paper.

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I popped the tray into the hot oven and the mixture took only moments to melt. I then removed it, used a paintbrush to spread the melted mixture around, making sure it went right to the edges of the fabric, then put it back into the oven for another couple of minutes.

Mmm. What can I say? It did work in as much as I ended up with a sheet of waxed fabric but . . . for some reason, the resin pooled in places and left rather unattractive yellow splodges – no mention of this little problem on any of the websites. I turned the second piece right side down on the parchment which did at least mean the resin wasn’t quite so obvious but I really wasn’t very happy with this method. I honestly wished I’d used the pre-melting approach instead, so for the smaller pieces I piled the mixture on to the parchment next to the fabric, melted it then brushed over. You can see the difference that made in the photo below.

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The upshot of my little wrap making experiment is that I certainly won’t use this method again but will melt everything together first; the good news is that I will definitely be making some more because although aesthetically they aren’t the greatest, they work. They have a strange texture but smell pleasantly and subtly of beeswax and there is something very satisfying about moulding them around the top of a food container with just the warmth from my hands (yes, I’m a simple soul!). I’m interested to see which sizes we use the most in the coming weeks and then I shall make a second batch.

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To me, these little ideas are the epitome of the simple life we live here. I know it’s only a drop in the ocean, but drops add up. It’s another tiny step towards zero waste and steps add up, too. It’s not about grand gestures or dramatic dogma, strict colour schemes or savvy storage systems. It’s about living peacefully, kindly and mindfully every day, taking little steps one at a time to tread more gently on the earth. That’s a life worth living, surely? 🙂

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Simply celebrating

Christmas means different things to different people and how it is marked and celebrated comes down to personal preferences. I’m sure that many people would think our Christmas was very boring – even miserable, maybe: no pile of presents; no tree; no turkey or mountain of festive food; no frantic shopping trips or round of visits and visitors. We have had huge traditional family Christmases in the past but I have to admit there has been something lovely about paring it down in recent years to a very simple celebration.

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The subject of family perhaps needs a little more discussion before I go any further. We have been asked how on earth we can bear to live abroad when we have young grandchildren in the UK: surely we miss out on so much? Well no, not really. Ironically, I have seen more of our grandchildren in the time we have lived in Spain than I did in the same amount of time living in the UK, where full-time work and all the responsibilities and demands of life left me short on ‘Granny time.’ I’ve also seen more of the little munchkins than a fair few of their other UK relatives have in that time, and the truly wonderful thing is that we might only get together three or four times a year, but each one is like a mini-Christmas. I’ve been reflecting this week on some of the things we have done together in 2017: had day trips out, eaten cafe and picnic lunches, had long walks in pretty places, climbed trees, made dens, built towers, jumped in puddles and paddled in rivers, grazed and nibbled around gardens, shared ice creams and gingerbread men, explored caves and ‘castles’, done very serious business with toy farms, horses, machines and Lego, coloured pictures, stuck stickers, curled up with stories, gazed at the moon (and talked about why you can’t go there on a tractor) . . . priceless moments. You can’t wrap any of that and put it under a tree. 🙂

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So, to our quiet and simple Christmas here. One of the things I value now that we aren’t tied to the timetable of work is the fact that we have the chance to acknowledge and celebrate the Winter Solstice. For me, the solstices and equinoxes all mark important turning points in the wheel of the year and I like to spend time at each one reflecting on their significance. I love the Winter Solstice! Yes, I know it’s a while before we really notice the days lengthening and of course the coldest months are yet to come but . . . there is something so joyful about knowing we are turning a corner and spring will come again. I’m not fussed on tinsel and glitter but I have always enjoyed gathering winter greenery and what better day to choose than one where the sun ‘stands still’ – especially when it is shining?

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A short walk up the lane and I turned to look at the view; I never tire of seeing those beautiful mountains and there is something so comforting about the wood smoke spiralling up from the chimney. No need for a Christmas tree in the house when we can enjoy those enormous beauties next door!

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No holly for the house, either: it is a protected species here and cannot be cut. That’s no problem as I’m happy to enjoy it outside; we are blessed with swathes of it in our woodland and I have recently found several tiny new self-set trees growing in the garden – precious things indeed.

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There was no shortage of colour and greenery and I found myself revelling in the simple beauty of the trees around me, native or otherwise.

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Even on the shortest day of the year, my very favourite spot at the end of our forest track, was bathed in sunlight. One resolution for 2018 is to build a simple seat here.

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Over an hour of wandering about with my head in nature, five minutes to ‘create’ in a vase. My kind of Christmas decoration! Later that evening, we sat and watched the sun go down, marking the spot against the mountainous skyline.

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I’ve heard of an elderly couple who pack smoked salmon and a bottle of bubbly and enjoy them as a picnic every Christmas Day as they have done for all the years they have been together. How lovely to be brave enough and imaginative enough to do something different. We did have a delicious roast dinner (local free-range chicken, most definitely not turkey) and a pile of vegetables from the garden but chose to do that on the 21st; for Christmas dinner, we had good old-fashioned homemade steak and kidney pie. Well, why not? We’ve indulged in a couple of cooked breakfast, too, enjoying Vita’s lovely eggs . . . and sending her box back as full as it came. This is the sort of gift-giving I love.

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It has been so good to spend time outside and smile at those little signs of hope for a new growing season. The peas and broad beans are through the ground and enjoying the current mild weather.

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Borage and calendula have provided splashes of colour non-stop but there are a few new arrivals to enjoy, too.

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Given the weather forecast, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve a day early: yesterday just shouted out for a barbecue in the early evening sunshine (and yes, Roger is wearing shorts!).

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It’s wet and windy today for the real event but that’s no bother. I don’t know about resolutions but of one thing I am very sure: whatever 2018 brings, we will continue to enjoy this simple, lovely life as fully as we can every single day. That’s better than all the Christmas presents in the world. Happy New Year!

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Good granola

I am a huge fan of simple food, by which I mean dishes and meals that are created from the most basic and least processed of ingredients. It doesn’t mean that what we eat is boring – far from it. We love to spend time creating complex dishes from an array of ingredients, and mezze/tapas-style meals of many delicious bits and pieces are a great favourite, especially as they usually mean lots of leftovers for lunch! Using ingredients from our patch here is a wonderful way for us to eat but you don’t need to grow or produce your own ingredients in order to enjoy the benefits of creating meals from scratch.

For me, there are three main reasons for cooking this way:

Pleasure: eating should be a joyful thing. If we have enough to eat every day, we are lucky; if we have the choice of many delightful ingredients to choose from, we are blessed. Preparing even the simplest meal with hands, senses and hearts should be a daily pleasure.

Economy: many pre-packed and pre-prepared foods are expensive. Sourcing your own ingredients means you can choose what’s good, in season or on offer and buy in bulk to save money. Even the simplest of dishes – say a basic tomato and herb sauce for pasta or humble vegetable soup – that has been made at home is likely to be of a better quality than the bought stuff, so when comparing cost it’s important to look at the high end of the market.

Health and choice: if you create your own meals from scratch, you have control over what goes into them and that’s a powerful thing. It’s fascinating – and often hair-raising! –  to read the list of ingredients on food packaging. Making your own means you can control the amount of different nutrients and foods that go in (so for example, less sugar and salt, more fibre, no artificial colourings, flavourings or additives). It doesn’t mean you can’t indulge, either! I recently made some cinnamon and ginger ice cream as a treat to eat with hot mince pies. The ingredients I used were egg yolks (from our neighbour’s free range hens), double cream, whole milk, sugar (from a jar with several vanilla pods in to flavour), ground cinnamon and ground ginger. Healthy? Not really! Decadent? Most definitely! The point is, though, that nothing else went in. Compare this with the list of ingredients in a quality brand of ice cream (vanilla – I couldn’t find a cinnamon and ginger version) : reconstituted skimmed milk, glucose fructose syrup, sugar, glucose syrup, coconut oil, whey solids (milk), stabilisers (locust bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan), vanilla bean pieces, emulsifier (mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids), natural vanilla flavourings , colour (carotenes). Ice cream without  . . . cream? Stabilisers and emulsifiers? I’m happy to stick with homemade.

As an example of just how easy and rewarding cooking from scratch can be, I’d like to share my granola recipe and encourage you to give it a go. Granola and ‘crunchy’-type breakfast cereals tend to sit at the luxury (and therefore pricier) end of the breakfast cereal market with an aura of healthy eating about them. Researching some of the top brands, I found that after oats, two of the biggest ingredients were sugar and palm oil, and many recipes for homemade granola use large amounts of sugar, maple syrup and corn syrup. Mmm, no thanks. I based my recipe on Sam and Adrienne’s which is delicious, nutritious and sustaining (in fact, it’s what I stoked up on before running the half marathon in September) but I have played around and made a few changes of my own. The recipe is very flexible so ingredients and quantities can be changed to suit your tastes and preferences; I definitely didn’t want to use sugar as I think the honey and dried fruit are plenty sweet enough. I didn’t buy anything ‘new’, just used what we already had at home; in fact, it was a good way of using up some bits and pieces left over from other dishes. It is so easy to make that it hardly qualifies as cooking!

I started with 450g of oats,

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then added sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds – about 150g in all – and another 150g of mixed walnuts and almonds.

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For the wet ingredients, I began by stirring in several tablespoons of apple puree. These were windfalls that I’d frozen earlier in the autumn; when defrosted, I remembered that I’d added orange zest and juice when cooking them – this gave a lovely additional flavour.

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I then added a couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil (Sam and Adrienne use walnut oil but I didn’t have any) and a very generous glug of village honey straight out of the jar. I gave it all a good stir, then spread it onto two lined baking trays: the mixture was wet but not overly so.

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Many granola recipes call for a fairly cool oven but I just whacked the trays into the woodstove oven which was sitting a bit below 200 degrees Celsius and kept a careful eye on things to make sure the granola didn’t burn. I took it out and stirred it a couple of times and at this point I was slightly worried as it wasn’t doing the clustery thing I’d expected. No worries: after about 45 minutes, it turned a lovely golden brown and clumped together a bit as it cooled.

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Once cool, I added roughly 150g of mixed raisins and dried cranberries, then piled it into an airtight jar.

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This has made a truly delicious breakfast (I like to eat it sprinkled over Greek yoghurt) which has kept well and gone a long way; it’s very filling, so only small portions are needed, and it has a lovely flavour and crunchy texture without being cloying or overly sweet.

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Simple, wholesome ingredients quickly and easily transformed into a breakfast of gorgeousness. Perfect! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Simply living

‘Could there be anything better than living simply and taking it easy?’ Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

We have never set out to be self-sufficient in an extreme ‘Good Life’ sort of way; there are too many commodities we need but can’t produce ourselves, and  – to be completely honest – there are also things we love and wouldn’t like to live without (coffee and tea, for instance). Our aim is to live simply, walking lightly on the Earth and living gently from the land as much as we possibly can. We are happy to have just what we need and no more, and that is a lovely place to be. Neither of us is shy of hard work and yet somehow even on the busiest of days, spending our time on tasks that support our lifestyle can feel exactly like taking it easy! What’s more, the freedom from rigid timetables and responsibilities allows us to take time ‘off’ and enjoy the beautiful place in which we are so lucky to live.

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Walking the coastpath last weekend . . . 
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. . . then up into the mountains.

In cooler months, the woodburning stove  – aka ‘The Beast’ – is absolutely central to our lifestyle. We had hoped  to keep the original stove here but it proved so inefficient and unreliable in our first winter that replacing it was the only choice and once again we opted for a Nordica.

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This is an Italian make, at the ‘budget’ end of things compared perhaps to better known makes of kitchen ranges but we rate it very highly – so much so that this is the third house where we have installed one. Nothing clever or fancy, it simply burns wood in the form of good old-fashioned logs . . . and here is an area where we can be self-sufficient. Half our land here is forest, about four acres (1.6 hectares) of mixed woodland which contains a lifetime’s sustainable supply of logs. We can take what we need through careful woodland management, there is no question of plundering or destroying; all it requires is careful planning and a lot of work! The wood needs to be hauled home, cut into lengths, split into logs then stacked in a stone shed to season until dry enough to burn.

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This is an ongoing process, always looking ahead. This year we have the added bonus of an enormous pile of old timbers which were removed from the house when it was re-roofed in the summer.  We could have paid several hundred euros to have it thrown in a skip and taken away but what would the point of that been? A few days’ hard work at the time created the timber mountain outside and Roger’s daily chainsawing session is steadily reducing it to enough logs to see us through one if not two winters.

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The benefits of having the stove are many. Having opted for an open, cabin style-home it heats the entire house; we have a few modern electric radiators for back-up but quite honestly, I doubt they will ever be used. We are toasty with a capital T! We don’t have a tumble drier: 95% of our laundry is dried outside in the fresh air, but a collapsible wooden airer in front of the stove overnight dries or airs anything if we have a run of rainy days. A kettle of water sits permanently on the hob, providing boiling water for tea and coffee, all our washing up and household cleaning purposes. A constantly hot hob and oven mean we can cook as much as we like without having to worry about using the electric cooker efficiently and it is perfect for those things that need long cooking like the batch of marmalade made earlier this week.

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A hot stove in the morning also means we can cook dishes for lunch, a luxury I have really enjoyed since giving up work and being at home – it beats a lunchbox any day! In the photo of the stove above, there is a pan of lentils cooking as a base for a lunchtime salad and on the worktop next to it, two trays of dough rising for ciabatta loaves.

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Gardening and growing our own food have always been important parts of our life and something I find difficult to regard as work; I love being out of doors with my hands in the soil and the benefits of fresh, organic produce with zero food miles are priceless. Sarah and I often agree that there is a lot of fun to be had ‘foraging’ in your own garden as even at this time of year when it is perhaps at its emptiest, it is amazing what can be gathered. With this in mind, I set off to pick what I could find to go with those lentils, thinking probably a small bulb of fennel and a few herbs would be it . . .

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What a lovely little haul! There was fennel (the smaller bulbs are starting to go to seed now so need eating quickly), mizuna and baby komatsuna from self-set plants, peas ‘three ways’ (a few pods of sweet baby peas, small pods to eat whole and pea shoots), mint and chives for herbal flavour and calendula and borage flowers for colour. Mixed with lentils, salt, pepper, olive oil, grated lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice, what a splendid salad they made.

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Making stock is a way of life for us and here again the stove comes into its own. We bought a stainless steel stockpot over 20 years ago and it is one of the best investments ever, we have used it so much (not just for stock – that marmalade was made in it, too). No bits of meat or fish bone, skin, scraps or shell (in the case of seafood) leave the kitchen without first having been boiled and simmered into a gorgeous, flavoursome stock. For us this is not just about creating the base for future meals but also doing full honour to the animals we have eaten. There is simply no waste. The same is true of vegetable stock, so easy to make and a world away from anything that comes from a cube. The beauty of it is that any bits and scraps of veg can be used so it’s a good way of using up anything that’s past its best and, as the finished stock is strained, the veg can go in skins and all. Here is the pot I made this week:

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A scrappy onion, a couple of garlic cloves, rainbow chard (stalks that had self-pruned), the last few carrots from our late crop now suffering from rootfly, some leafing celery, a tiny leek that came out when I was lifting bigger ones, a couple of definitely-past-their-best parsley stalks and salt and peppercorns yielded three litres of delicious stock, some of which went straight into vegetable soup, the rest into the freezer for future meals. Really, this is something from nothing!

On which subject . . . we are trying hard to get as close to zero waste as possible; it’s not easy, but making compost has again always been a way of life to us, and a great way to recycle organic matter into (eventually) more food. I’m not keen on having a kitchen compost bin which always seems to go slimy, so we use a large plastic mixing bowl instead and empty it daily. I don’t think our current compost heap would win any prizes at it is not very pretty and breaks several golden composting rules: it sits directly on concrete, it isn’t covered, there is only one heap rather than two or three in rotation, we only turn it once a year and we just throw on whatever needs composting rather than any strict green / brown layering. Oh dear!

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Well, the proof of the pudding and all that: I turned the heap a couple of days ago and found many, many barrow loads of the richest, crumbliest, most wonderful compost ever – enough, in fact to mulch the whole of the veg patch currently fallow (most of it) with plenty left to dig into the area where a polytunnel will soon be going up. I think we’ll just stick with the rule breaking, it seems to be working a treat.

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Back to the idea of living simply and taking it easy. A very rainy day saw me looking for an indoor activity and I had just the thing which certainly felt like relaxation. Some months ago, I crocheted a couple of dishcloths from scrap cotton yarn and they have proved to be the best things ever (I realise sounding enthusiastic about dishcloths might seem a bit sad, but I am a simple soul). Given that we don’t have a dishwasher and all our washing up is done by hand, they have taken quite a bashing without showing any signs of wear and tear at all. I throw them into a hot wash with sheets and teatowels and back they come, ready for another go. On the strength of this, I decided to make some more, this time from a slightly heavier cotton: a 100g ball yielded two dishcloths and a larger floorcloth. While I was at it, I dug out some more scrap cotton and knitted a purple tawashi knot scrubbie to use as a scourer (thank you to Sonja for the idea!).

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Simple things and happy days. There really isn’t anything better! 🙂

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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? 🙂

Dress without stress

I have to confess when it comes to being a modern woman I am missing a common gene, the ‘I Love Clothes Shopping’ one. I don’t. (Actually, I don’t really like any kind of shopping; even a trip to a plant nursery or yarn shop holds limited appeal.) I think it comes down to two factors. First, I’m not keen on the hustle and bustle of towns and cities and I find most shops too noisy, too hot, too busy and too full of things I don’t want and certainly don’t need; add to that the fact that I’m not interested in fashion and you can understand why I very rarely venture out to buy new clothes. When I was working and needed to look smart and tidy then of course I had to make some effort but what a happy day it was last year when I folded all those work clothes up and handed them to other people, charity shops and clothing banks. I don’t so much as own a single skirt, jacket or pair of black trousers anymore; I kept only the things I like and will wear and it feels wonderfully liberating.

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I love this insect motif scarf given to me by a child I taught – definitely a keeper.

These days, spending most of my time either gardening or decorating I pretty much live in very old clothes – jeans, shorts, t-shirts, jumpers – which I wear until they literally fall to pieces. Where other clothes are concerned I have what I think is called a ‘capsule wardrobe’: a small amount of clothes all of which I like and wear, and in most cases, everything goes with everything else. This means I tend to wear the same outfits over and over but I believe that’s what clothes are for and it really doesn’t bother me if anyone thinks it’s strange that I always wear the same things (not that I think people really notice anyway, surely they have better things to do). So, when we venture out in the car every couple of weeks to go to a supermarket, buy the DIY supplies we need, take the rubbish and recycling to the appropriate place and conduct any other business that needs doing, I usually wear one of two outfits which Roger wryly refers to as my ‘shopping trews.’ If the weather is warm, a pair of linen pedal pushers, cotton t-shirt and canvas pumps. These were all bought from a French supermarket: I don’t know what it says about me but it’s the one place I’ve always found clothes that fit me well. Looking through recent photos, it seems this doubles as my autumn hiking and beachcombing outfit, too (just replace the pumps with an old pair of trail running shoes).

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On colder days, a pair of jeans (also French supermarket bargains), a jumper I bought for work 15 years ago which refuses to wear out, a scarf I was given and my all-purpose ‘wear everywhere’ green boots.

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Hardly setting the fashion world on fire, am I? That’s the point, though – I don’t want to. I’m clean, tidy and comfortable and I believe that’s all that matters. If I don’t look like I’m ‘supposed’ to, well I’ll live with that.

The only difficulty with a small capsule wardrobe and lack of fashionable items on hand is when there is a special social event for which a degree of dressing up is required. Next July, we have the lovely occasion of Sam and Adrienne’s wedding to look forward to and of course, thoughts need to turn to wedding outfits. I know for a lot of mothers of the groom this would be such a treat, with months of planning and browsing and trying on outfits and agonising over colours and accessories before any purchases were made. Try googling images of ‘mother of the groom outfits’ and you can see exactly what society expects of me: fitted silk dress, satin two-piece suit, killer heels, enormous hat, designer handbag . . .  aaaargh! When I was a novice mother of the bride, someone recommended a shop where they would sort out the perfect outfit for a mere £600. Of course, they could also provide matching shoes, hat and bag for closer to £1000 . . . and then there was the underwear. Excuse me? Mother of the bride needs special underwear? Oh my, I really have led a sheltered life. . . and sorry, but £1000 buys us several weeks of (early) retirement. Note I haven’t even strayed into the realms of hair, makeup, nails and other horrors. Thankfully, I was saved from this living nightmare by the fact that both our daughters turned their back on the gross spendfest that modern weddings have become; they opted for small, intimate affairs with a good deal of homemade gorgeousness which made for truly special and personal celebrations, such lovely days which focused on life and love and not what anyone was wearing.  ‘Old’ outfits straight from the wardrobe were just fine.

Sam and Adrienne’s wedding promises to be just the same. The message is to wear what’s comfortable and that’s good advice, since the reception includes outdoor games (what a lovely idea to bring guests together); also, our five young grandchildren will be there and I can’t chase toddlers or tote babies in high heels. Looking through my much-diminished wardrobe, I found just the clothes I plan to wear: trousers and top, both linen, which I bought many years ago in the days when we had smartish summer events to attend. They were quality buys (albeit on sale) and although they’ve had several outings, they still look sharp and not jaded or worn.

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In the shade of the kiwi, the colours are misleading. The trousers are sand, the top is ivory.

(The same can’t be said for the jewelled sandals I bought to go with them. How I love them, they are the most comfortable footwear I’ve ever had and I have worn them so much but I think it’s only a matter of time before they disintegrate into a pile of cork and beads. These will definitely not be going to the wedding.)

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Sandals aside, this was a good start, but I really felt I needed another element, something to add a touch more formality for the wedding ceremony at least and bring a splash of colour, too. A jacket is out of the question, I always feel uncomfortable and look totally swamped in them, so I opted for a beautiful shawl or wrap, one I would make myself. I bought some exquisitely beautiful yarn, a blend of baby alpaca, cashmere and silk which just oozes comfort and luxury. Thank goodness for online shops! A tad pricey, but the money supports the artisan ladies in rural Uruguay who create such beautiful hand-dyed skeins, so I’m happy with that . . . and let’s face it, I’m not even within sniffing distance of that £1000 . . . or £100 . . . or even £50, for that matter.

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Armed with yarn, needle and pattern, I set out to knit the first ever shawl of my life. Now, if I’d been totally honest with myself I should have known that this project was doomed from the outset for one very simple reason: lace knitting and I do not get on. Give me the most complicated knitting patterns on earth and I can have a good crack at them but there is something about creating patterns by wrapping yarn round fresh air that my brain just can’t assimilate. I tried, I really, really did. I made it from three stitches to 133 and a pretty piece of lace fabric was beginning to emerge when disaster struck: I tried to undo a small mistake and a couple of the tiny stitches slipped off my very shiny needles and unravelled themselves down numerous rows, taking several others with them.

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Try as I might, I just couldn’t see how to fetch them back and so I decided it was time for an honest assessment. This was a tricky project: I could only work in the bright light of outdoors; I needed full concentration to the point where even cow bells and birdsong  were irritating intrusions; I had to write the instructions down for every row and talk myself through every stitch; I felt such tension in my neck and shoulders and a fizzing in my eyeballs that I could only do small amounts at a time. In short, I was an anti-social lace knitting tyrant and I certainly wasn’t enjoying it one little bit. In my heart of hearts I knew I was never going to reach the 405 stitches to complete the shawl so I undid the lot and started on Plan B. This time, a rectangular wrap with no stitch increases and pattern repeats simple enough to memorise; on reflection, a wrap is more ‘me’ than a triangular shawl, anyway, and this surely would be simpler and less stressful. Ha ha, how the knitting gods laughed. Ten rows on 223 stitches and suddenly a couple of them slipped off the needle and unravelled right down to the bottom. Sound familiar? Now of course, it wouldn’t be such a big deal to undo and restart, but what if the same thing happened again? What if it happened in the 90th row? Could I cope with the heartbreak of undoing so much painstaking work? I undid the ten rows, put yarn and needles away knowing that I needed to sleep on it in the hope inspiration for Plan C would appear (hopefully before July).

Isn’t it strange where inspiration comes from sometimes? There I was, just a couple of hours later still feeling slightly downhearted as I washed the dishes after dinner, when I looked at the little crocheted cotton dishcloth I’d made some months ago.

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Bang! Lightbulb moment. Forget knitting, why not crochet instead? After all, what is a crocheted wrap, if not a dishcloth writ large? True, it won’t have the ephemeral filigree quality of knitted lace but at least it won’t unravel, either, and there is a chance I might even finish it. Five minutes on the internet, pattern found and I was smiling once again. I’m still smiling, because I am getting so much pleasure from this project now. I can work under artificial light, so evening crochet is possible. I can enjoy the cow bells and birdsong once again. I can chat to Roger and look up from my work. I can pause mid-row for a cup of tea or glass of wine.

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Happy lace crochet in the evening sunshine this week . . . note the sandals.

I can focus on the beauty of the yarn and the way the colours change and blend with such subtle effects. I can ponder the happy future that lies ahead for two precious young people and the excitement of their special day in July as I work each stitch in relaxed happiness.

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Reflecting on the wedding, I think it’s safe to say that Sam wouldn’t want an uncomfortable stranger to support him and celebrate with him, wrapped in a satin suit, spiky heels and ridiculous hat (not to mention the special underwear). He’d rather have his Mum – his real Mum. Even if she is wearing a giant dishcloth. 🙂

Home, Sweet Home!

What makes a home? For me, it’s always been a place where I live with people I love. I have shared ten homes with Roger – in Cyprus, England, Wales, France and Spain – every home has been different but each time there has been an awareness that we are simply custodians passing through. Even if you live in the same house for your whole life, you are still just a small part of its history, so for me ‘home’ isn’t about the bricks and mortar (or wood, stone, thatch, canvas, whatever) and it certainly isn’t about the ‘stuff’ within. Over the years as our family grew, so did the size of our homes and the amount of possessions needed to fill them; now I am blissfully happy living in a smaller space with the minimum amount of stuff and maximum amount of living! How wonderful to have the time and energy to enjoy simple pleasures and moments every day.

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Moving home might be a pretty stressful and exhausting activity but it’s also a great opportunity to reflect on what we have in our lives and how much of it we actually need. Moving to Spain last year was a huge opportunity for us to reduce our ‘stuff’ and bring only the things we needed and a few bits and pieces that make our house feel like home; it all came down to a transit van, car and two trailers.

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Having reached a point in the renovation and decorating this week where we are finally beginning to see a clean and comfy living space emerge from the chaos, I have spent a happy time rearranging things and unpacking a few bits from the boxes they have been patiently inhabiting for many months. It has given me a chance to look around and reflect on what we chose to keep and why, those special things that make this ‘home.’

First, pictures. We had collected so many pictures, it was ridiculous, especially as I have no idea where most of them came from and if I’m honest I didn’t even like many of them. I suppose it’s just habit – there’s a wall, better hang something on it. Why? I actually prefer lots of empty space on walls – there’s no need to clutter them – with just one or two special pictures which will make far more impact. So, just two have gone up on our kitchen/living room walls this week and I think that will do for now. At the kitchen end is a cross-stitch calendar I made many, many years ago when I obviously had far more patience and better eyesight. It was my ‘holiday’ activity, something to work on in quiet moments when the children were happily occupied or settled into bed; it took me years to complete and I have to say more of those stitches were made in a wet tent than I care to remember . . . but still, there are a lot of happy memories in there and I also love the simplicity of the pictures, all seasonal wild flowers, weeds and leaves.

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At the opposite end of the room is a picture of one of the homes we passed through, painted for us by my father-in-law and framed by him, too, in a solid wooden frame. I love the bright colours and slightly abstract style which seem to suit our mountain house down to the ground.

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Just look at that pile of fruit beneath the picture! Healthy eating has always been central to our lives and fruit is something we have never stinted on (although we only ever buy what’s fresh, local wherever possible, seasonal and usually on special offer. December strawberries? Never). We are so blessed here in being able to pick fresh fruit every month of the year; we are currently enjoying the last of the figs and pears in anticipation of the kiwi glut. We have enough pears in storage to last all winter and a freezer full of peaches, but we still supplement our homegrown produce with bought fruits in order to enjoy a wide variety. I was so thrilled to see the citrus season well and truly under way this week and of course we are lucky to live in a country that does them rather well! The persimmon (kaki in Spanish) are also fantastic and so big that we can happily share one. Anyway, back to special things: the turned wooden fruit bowl on the left was made by Roger at school and the bowl on the right was a gift from my brother after a trip to Morocco. I love them both and it’s a pleasure to fill them . . . and then munch my way through their delicious contents.

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Staying with Morocco, one of our most loved and most used pieces of kitchen equipment is a tagine (well, in fact we have two, both gifts from special people). We love this style of one-pot cooking, it is so efficient and a fantastic way of making small amounts of meat or fish go a long way and using whatever vegetables are to hand. A road trip to Morocco is definitely on our wish list (one day . . . ), I would love to see and sample all those wonderful sacks of spices first hand. In the meantime, we spent a lovely time making some preserved lemons this week. These are the easiest things on earth to make and bring a wonderful flavour to so many dishes. Note the smart new chopping board, made from the piece of  beechblock cut out of a worktop to fit the sink. Waste not, want not! Roger has treated it with tung oil which is a great non-toxic ‘feed’ for wood and now it is set for many years of serious food preparation.

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Sticking with the woodwork, Roger has also recycled some scrap wood into a nifty wine rack to fill a useless pace between a cupboard and the stove; each slot holds two bottles and in such a warm spot, it should keep the Rioja at just the right temperature.

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What a very happy time I had hauling a couple of boxes in from the barn and filling our empty bookshelf once again. This is our entire collection of non-fiction reading material, including almost a shelf and a half of recipe books (yes, we love cooking!). So many of these books were gifts, so many of them are well-thumbed and dog-eared from years of use.

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They are like old friends; what should have taken no more than twenty minutes from start to finish ended up being an hour of browsing happiness – gardening, self-sufficiency, spinning and dyeing, herbal medicine, quilting, Spanish study, travel, birds and beasts, flowers and fungi . . . I was completely lost in other worlds. Funny what little bits fell out of them, too: recipes scribbled on old envelopes, quilting templates traced onto greaseproof paper, a pile of ivy leaves I must have pressed for making seasonal cards and decorations. I was truly thrilled to be reunited with my favourite non-fiction book ever, The Therapeutic Garden by Donald Norfolk. I first borrowed this book from the library years and years ago; after the sixth time, I thought maybe I should buy my own copy! I have read it at least once a year ever since and  – even though I can probably quote paragraphs verbatim – I never tire of it. This is not a gardening book but rather a gentle argument for the benefits of humans spending their time in a garden, exercising, breathing deeply, relaxing, connecting with nature, nuturing, eating, socialising, loving and laughing. It typifies so much that I believe in and many of the quotations are from or about people I admire, such as Henry David Thoreau. Happy, happy days . . . I’m reading it once again.

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Now that mug of coffee brings to mind another little thing that makes me feel at home; it’s a silly thing, really, but that’s the point – home should be about those little special bits and pieces. I am a great tea drinker; I like a cup of good coffee as you can see from the picture above (and I have been known to enjoy the occasional glass of red wine!) but tea is my favourite tipple. Roger doesn’t like tea so it’s a pleasure I enjoy all on my own,  but I do have to admit to being a bit of a tea snob. I really can’t get with the whole dunking a teabag in a cup thing; sorry, but I like my tea (a rich malty Assam being my first choice) to be made in a warmed pot and brewed properly for several minutes. So, here is my little one person pot and the tea cosy I made years ago to keep it snug during those all important brewing moments.

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I love this tea cosy because it was made completely from scraps of fabric and wadding left over from a quilting project and a few odd buttons I’d collected over the years. I used a pair of compasses to construct a hexagon template on the back of an old cereal packet and stitched the whole thing by hand – I do have a sewing machine but there was something so lovely about working tiny stitches with a needle and thread and creating something out of nothing.  As I said, a silly thing really, but I love it.

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On a similar theme, left to my own devices for three weeks in May I had a lot of fun messing about with yarn. One of my projects was to design and make some bunting from scrap yarn to hang above the bedroom window. Our windows here are very small and all have built-in blinds or shutters so there is no need for curtains but I wanted something simple and pretty just to liven the space up a bit. Decorating done and hooks found, it was time to hang the bunting at last.

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With the ‘heavy’ building work done and space opening up in the house, I decided it was time to blow the cobwebs off another old friend and bring it in out of storage. Oh, I am so happy to have this back in my life!

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A good polish for the wood and dubbin for the leather and the rickety old thing was back in action once more, although it’s so long since I’ve spun anything that I felt a bit like a learner all over again. Never mind, I have a couple of skeins of Jacobs wool to work on over winter which will hopefully be transformed into a Very Important Bear for our grandson William.

Finally, the washing line. Now I know this might seem a bit of an odd choice but I love to see a line of washing blowing in the wind; to me it is such an important part of our home and I love to peg the laundry out then bring it in dry and sweet-smelling once the wind and sun have done their business, all for free.  We do have a bit of a problem here with a complete lack of flat land so instead of one long line and a prop, we have two shorter ones; as you can see, it’s a constant battle trying to find enough drying space between the fig tree and kiwi.

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No problem. For me, the promise of snuggling down in those sheets so soft and scented with fresh air is one of life’s great pleasures. Simple, yes. Homely, definitely. . . but then, that’s the very point, isn’t it? 🙂