Simple pleasures, golden treasures

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

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

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Looking for the next muddy puddle . . . 

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

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

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

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

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

Admiring plenty of summer colours still lingering in the garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The gift of giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Of death and life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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? 🙂

 

 

 

 

It’s not about ‘where?’

With the nights drawing in, we are spending at least some time indoors before bed each evening and that has been a good excuse to dig out my patchwork blanket and work some more squares. Who needs television? 🙂 It is such a simple and gentle activity giving my mind ample opportunity to wander; it was during one such ramble that I realised in many ways this blanket project exemplifies everything that is good and central to our way of life.

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I love making things from yarn: I have knitted since I was a child and in more recent years I’ve also developed a passion for spinning and dyeing my own wool. I had dabbled in crochet here and there but had never really cracked it for all the usual reasons – too busy, too tired, life too full of more important things to be done. This year it has been such a treat to finally find the time to have another go and I have had so much fun making colourful bits and pieces for the new babies in my life. I can’t describe how much pleasure these simple, creative activities have given me.

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The idea for my patchwork blanket was born from my natural inclination not to waste. Several biggish projects have left me with a good quantity of leftover yarn, a resource that has been manufactured, transported and paid for; to my mind, it would be a crime to do nothing with it. So, using the most basic of equipment which I’ve had for years (crochet hook, wool needle, scissors) I’m spending happy times with scraps of yarn, making a practical and colourful all-purpose blanket which I hope will have a busy future. When I started it, I deliberately excluded the hot colours and screaming pinks but I wasn’t too many squares in before I invited them back  – the blanket was looking a bit too harmonious and sophisticated for my liking. I want a rowdy carnival of colour and clashes to make me smile!

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Another thought that has occurred to me as I have been happily hooking away is a point I need to make very clearly before I go too much further: this blog is not designed to be a guide to country living. Yes, we live in a very rural spot so obviously many of the experiences I write about and the photos I include will reflect that, but we haven’t moved out from a town or city to the countryside in order to live our simple way of life; we’re country born and bred and we’ve always lived out in the sticks. We’ve had several lucrative urban job offers over the years but we’ve consciously avoided the big bucks and bright lights because we preferred to stay in familiar territory and raise our family in the country. My point is, though, that everything I believe constitutes simple and happy living can just as easily be practised and enjoyed in an urban setting – in fact, some aspects are probably easier (rural life doesn’t come without its downside). Take my crochet blanket: it could be made absolutely anywhere! You don’t need to live in the country to create beautiful and practical things for your home, revamp old furniture, declutter, cook delicious meals, find time to exercise your body and brain, enjoy company and conversation, dance, laugh, love . . .

You don’t need a rustic farmhouse kitchen to bake bread, turn fresh, seasonal ingredients into dishes of gorgeousness or fill old jars with homemade preserves.

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You don’t need a huge patch of land to grow a garden; in fact, you don’t even need a garden at all. It’s amazing what can be achieved in a few pots on a windowsill or balcony.

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My blog is about taking control of life and living it to the full, having so much more through having less, focusing on what is truly important, appreciating and enjoying the simple things that make each day special, putting experience over ‘stuff’, being kind to the environment and living a simple, gentle but utterly fulfilling life. It doesn’t matter where you call home. It’s nothing to do with location and everything to do with attitude. You can take it with you wherever you go. Now that’s a lovely thought.

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Sofa . . . so good

I’m so very excited about writing this blog that I just want to dive in and write and write and write – there is so much to share! However, there is no need to rush.  I must be patient and take my time; after all, time is one of the biggest and very best things we have ‘bought’ for ourselves by dropping out. We have time to do all that we need to do, all that we want to do and time just to be. Quite honestly, that is priceless.

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Morning dew on geraniums . . . it’s wonderful to have the time to notice and enjoy such a simple but beautiful thing.

So . . . I’ll let this blog develop slowly –  maturing as it goes like a good cheese or wine – and weave the hows, whys and wherefores of our simple life into tales of our daily living. There are so many incredible and inspirational blogs out there on a similar theme and I’ve been trying to work out where exactly we fit into the scheme of things. Are we frugal? In the dictionary definition ‘economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful’ then yes, we are . . . but not in a mean or tight way. We don’t spend much money but we don’t feel like we go without – quite  the opposite, in fact. Are we minimalists? According to Joshua Becker Becoming Minimalistminimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it – so yes, that’s us too, to a large extent. How about self-sufficient? Ironically, in terms of food production we are less self-sufficient than we have been in the past, mainly because we have decided against the tie of livestock, for the time being at least. That said, the bulk of our fruit and vegetables comes from the garden, we love to forage for wild foods and although we buy other foods, every meal and all our bread is made from scratch.  It’s not just about food, either. We are self-sufficient in other essentials such as fuel for the stove and if I’m allowed to count it, labour – we’re practical people and can turn our hands to most things so we don’t pay other people to do things we can do ourselves.

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Growing, harvesting, cooking and eating vegetables and fruit from the garden is an important and wonderful part of our life.

In May 2016, we moved ourselves from the UK to northern Spain with only the possessions we could fit into a hired transit van, car and two trailers. Our new home is in a stunning mountain location but that is pretty much all that could be said for it at the time. On good days, it was an ‘ interesting project’ but a more realistic evaluation would be ‘complete hovel’! However, we could see there was plenty of potential to transform it into a comfortable, cosy, happy home: all it required was a modest amount of expenditure and several years of work. We knew that the house needed a new roof so we had budgeted for that and put the money aside to pay local builders – we certainly weren’t going to tackle that job ourselves! The rest, though, has been down to us and we are paying for the materials as we go along out of our normal monthly fund which proves just what is possible on a meagre income.

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Home, sweet home: a project in waiting.

Anyway, after months of work this week we finally reached an exciting milestone: Return of the Sofa.  Our house is small and we have decided to create a cabin-style feel to the interior by having one open kitchen / living space with a bedroom and bathroom off. With the flooring down and decorating done (just a few fiddly finishing bits and pieces left to do) we rescued our sofa from the barn where it has spent many months wrapped in tarpaulin and introduced it to its new home. We bought the sofa roughly twelve years ago to sit at one end of our kitchen. As a family, we have always enjoyed what I would call ‘sociable’ cooking: no individual slaving away in the kitchen on their own to cook dinner, but all hands on deck whether to help, hinder or simply keep the cook company. Our resident teenagers and their friends loved that sofa and many happy evenings have been spent on it, chatting, laughing and playing music. What a state the poor thing was in when we unwrapped it; it has certainly had a life!

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Battered, faded and slightly mouse-nibbled . . . it’s good to have our sofa back again!

Now I realise there are many people out there who would have got rid of something so tatty many years ago and certainly wouldn’t have dragged it all the way to Spain . . . but this is where our frugal approach is so valuable, because in my eyes all it needed was a bit of TLC. A good vacuuming went a long way to cleaning it up but there’s not a lot to do about the obvious wear and tear except cover it.

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This is definitely beyond repair with needle and thread . . . 

First, a heavy cotton throw (which we have had for so long I can’t even remember where it came from), freshly washed and dried in the sunshine, then the ‘Coast’ ripple blanket I had spent many happy weeks making over the summer just for this purpose. Ta dah!

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Okay, I have no idea what’s hot and happening in the world of sofa fashion right now and I suspect it’s not this . . . but who cares? It’s clean, bright, slightly quirky, warm and incredibly comfy, so why replace it? Put it this way, the cost of a new one would pay our shopping bill for several months: that’s why we live how we do!

Back to the sociable cooking and seventeen years ago we bought a couple of breakfast bar chairs (not sure if that’s the right term) to accommodate extra kitchen dwellers at worktop height. After much use the original bottle green paint had all but rubbed away so I have had a happy time in the sunshine this week giving them a facelift with some spare eau-de-nil eggshell paint I’ve been using on the doors. Here’s the first one installed, looking good as new.

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Looking around the furniture in our living area, I suddenly realised that the sofa is actually the newest thing there; we’ve had everything else for longer. Pine desk – 15 years; cane comfy chairs – 17 years; bookcase –  20 years; coffee table- 20 years; butcher’s block – 23 years; kitchen table and chairs – 25 years. We haven’t bothered to spend money updating because we’re bored or our ‘stuff’ is unfashionable – it’s functional, we’re happy with it so why change? I actually love the history in our kitchen table, not just all the happy meals we’ve shared around it with family and friends but all the little doodlings you can see in the right light, left in the soft pine by our children busy with their artwork, homework or whatever. I studied for my degree at that table and sewed my daughter’s wedding dress on it, too. So many stories, so much love.

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Our kitchen table, my trusty workbench: I have spent more hours doing crafty things on it than eating, I am sure!

Believe it or not, we have other pieces of furniture that have done even longer service than the table, the most noteworthy being this chest of drawers currently squeezed into a temporary space in the kitchen.

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We bought this almost 30 years ago from a secondhand shop (junk, not antiques!) when we were setting up home and desperately needed something for storage. Junk it was, too; a rather nasty thing, covered in badly chipped  brown varnish and sporting ugly handles. The beauty of it to my eye was those lovely deep drawers, just right for bedding and towels. Looking at the worn parts now, I can see I must have painted it yellow at some point; I certainly don’t remember that but then it was a long time ago! At a slightly later date, I set to and gave it a new look with spare bits of cream and blue paint, then had a very happy time with stencils. Along with a few other temporarily placed bits and pieces, this chest will move out of the kitchen to a new spot once the renovation is complete. With that paint so chipped, flaking and grubby beyond cleaning, it really is time for another facelift and there’s a job I shall relish! The true irony – and the reason I’m sharing this tale – is that of all the pieces of furniture we’ve ever had, this one has drawn more compliments and happy comments than anything else. In fact, only recently a Spanish friend visited and made a beeline straight to it – she loves restoring furniture and this sort of thing is right up her street. It just goes to show that you don’t need to spend a fortune or be constantly changing and replacing the things around you in order to be comfortable or happy. Cherish the old and worn: they hold the story of your life and that’s a thing far more precious than fashion.

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The only thing regularly changed in our home are fresh flowers from the garden. The vase was a wedding gift, so we’ve had that for 32 years – blimey!

 

Daydreams

Why write this blog? Well, I’ve been inspired by the people – so many people – who, sighing wistfully, have said they wish they could do what we have done. My response is always the same: so why can’t you? What is stopping you from following your dream? *

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If you don’t follow a dream then it remains just that, an abstract idea of what life could have been. We seem to be programmed to cast doubt on some of our finest hopes, ideas and aspirations. How powerful are can’t, shouldn’t, musn’t, don’t and couldn’t on the tongues of others and in the chatter of our own minds? How many wonderful experiences have been lost to the crushing negativity of doubt and disbelief? How much better is it to fail trying than never to try at all? How sad to look back over a life full of if onlys . . .

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That said, of course, pursuing any dream does require a decent dose of common sense. Modern life comes with a whole rack of commitments, responsibilities and expectations which we can’t just abandon overnight. The most common reply to the question * above is lack of money. No surprise there; lovely though it would be (I think, anyway) to live in a world of sharing and barter, the bottom line is we need enough funds to live on. How much ‘enough’ amounts to is down to individual wants and needs but to us it means enough monthly income to cover our bills plus a slush fund for emergencies; we haven’t bowed out of modern life completely and things happen – who knows when the car might break down, for instance? However, our ‘enough’ is just that; in fact, our whole life change was based on the understanding that enough is enough. When our children left home, we could both have carried on working full-time; we wouldn’t have seen much of each other and we would have rattled around a house full of empty rooms, but we would have had more money than we could ever spend . . . so what was the point? We now live on an income well below the current British median disposable income figure and we still have more money than we can spend . . . as well as a much smaller, cosier home and all the time in the world to be together and live life to the full. (As a quick aside – we could have done this in the UK but decided we’d like a bit of an adventure, so we are currently living in the beautiful principality of Asturias, in northern Spain.)

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I am not a financial expert and I have no intention of handing out advice about money (apart from occasionally sharing some of the ways in which we manage to save it). I am not going to preach, either; how people live their lives is up to them and what we are doing wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you don’t agree with what I say, then that’s fine – we’ll agree to differ! What I hope to do is present a gentle plea for simple living and to share the many benefits it can bring. You don’t have to be radical and pack in work, sell your property, move abroad, give up all the things you love to have and do to enjoy a simpler lifestyle . . . but it’s amazing what huge differences just small changes can make to lives that are too frantic, too busy or too stressful. If you dream of a simpler life, then please believe you can make it happen. Your dream might seem small and insignificant, but the point is, it’s your dream. Don’t let it get away!

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