Wandering and wondering

We go shopping as infrequently as possible; it’s not something either of us ever particularly enjoys but at this time of year I come to detest it as the inexorable Christmas bombardment greets us at the shop door. What is that all about? Christmas is two months away . . . are we the only people left in modern society who are actually still enjoying October? Are we unusual in not wanting to spend at least a sixth of the year focusing on one day in December? Walking into a DIY shop out of bright, warm, Spanish sunshine to be greeted by a forest of plastic Christmas trees, snowflakes and illuminated glitter-sprinkled nativity scenes was just downright weird; who wants to look at Father Christmas wrapped up in all his red, beardy finery when we are still in shorts and sandals? One of the loveliest things about our simple life is the fact that we can practise true mindfulness in the sense of enjoying all the small, special things that are happening in the present rather than waiting for the present (at Christmas or whenever). When Roger went out one evening this week to shut the sheds as it went dark, he came back with a handful of rosebuds he had picked for me; small loving gestures like that – little surprises that are totally unexpected – are more precious to me than anything he could buy and wrap and stick under a tree.

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So, how lovely to escape the Christmas consumerist madness and retreat to our little haven in the mountains once again. There has been so much to celebrate this week, not least the continued gorgeous weather that keeps us wrapped in sunshine and toasty warmth. We have been harvesting figs from both trees – one with white-fleshed fruits, the other pink – in an attempt to beat the blackbirds and blackcaps to them. They are so delicious, sweet and succulent and I love them best of all sun-warmed straight from the tree.

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Although the walnut harvest didn’t look too promising, we’ve been nicely surprised by the amount we have collected so far and there are still plenty left in their green cases on the trees; no problems with the birds there, it’s the wild boar we have to keep at bay!

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Look closely at this walnut tree and you can see there’s rather more than nuts to be picked. Yes, that is a Russian Pink Fairy squash climbing through the branches! I lifted the parent plant a few weeks ago but the stem had sent down roots in several places and this one has just kept on growing and has produced a couple of extra fruits. Madness!

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Having nurtured our little lemon tree through far too many winter storms, how exciting to find a single baby fruit on it. There is another flush of blossom, too, and still plenty of pollinators around to do the business so maybe there will be more fruits to come. In the meantime, I am keeping my eye on this brave little beauty. Picking our own lemons . . . now that’s a rather special treat to look forward to. 🙂

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I know I have said it many times, but wandering around the garden picking bits and pieces for our dinner always brings me a huge amount of pleasure and I feel enormously grateful that we can enjoy such a wealth of fresh, wholesome food every day. Although things like cucumbers and French beans are over, we are still harvesting huge amounts of peppers both outdoors and in the polytunnel, along with aubergines, Florence fennel, carrots, chard, courgettes, several types of kale, cabbage and lettuce. We treated ourselves to the first parsnip and leek this week, we don’t have a big crop of either but they are huge so we can stretch them a long way and they were truly delicious.

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The tunnel will really come into its own now, taking us through the winter with a good variety of salad leaves including red and green mizuna, mustard, rocket, wild rocket and coriander. Oh, the sheer joy of picking the freshest, greenest, zingiest salad bowl of baby leaves this week!

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As spaces open up in the garden, I have been turning the soil to clear it of weeds, preparing to spread a good mulch of manure as an autumn feed. It’s such hard work on the slopes, every forkful has to be thrown uphill to stop it all rolling down the mountainside and where the ground is slippery I tend to do a strange backwards moonwalk in my wellies! It hasn’t been helped by the fact that the moles have had a field day along the bottom of the garden (their furtive tunnelling conveniently hidden in the squash jungle) so the path is falling away; a terrace wall along there is definitely on the to-do list for next year. Little velvet-coated annoyances aside, I love turning the soil like this; it is dark and deep and there is something wonderful about that rich, earthy smell. A good rest over winter to let the worms and weather do their work then all will be set for seedtime once again.

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Autumn is very slow to arrive here, it tiptoes in so quietly and gently that we barely notice it is here. There has been a subtle shift in the light and colours playing across the landscape this week, some gentle hints of golds and browns although everything is still predominantly green.

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The fungi have popped up overnight like – well – mushrooms, marching across the meadow in perfect formation.

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I found theses in the wood; no idea what type they are but they reminded me of drop spindles!

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Between the fungi, there is a wide and wild sweep of autumn crocus with their delicate mauve petals and saffron centres. So beautiful.

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I wandered through the woods to my Contemplation Stool and my favourite leafy glade bathed in golden afternoon sunlight. There weren’t as many signs of autumn as I’d imagined although the chestnut and birch trees caught against the blue sky were doing their bit. I sat for a few moments listening to the birds and reflected on how far from all that plastic Christmas madness the moment was.

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I love this little patch of paradise and the fact that we are both so content to spend most of our time here; it’s nothing for the car to stay parked for a fortnight or more without going anywhere. That said, we enjoy travelling and visiting new places and the mind-broadening stimulation and enrichment that can bring. Now the house renovation is almost done, we have more time to look outwards so a charity race in Vigo last weekend gave us the perfect excuse to pack our running shoes and head off to somewhere different. We travelled down through Galicia into a landscape very different to this one; instead of mountains there were gently rolling hills with large arable farms set amongst great swathes of forest, reminding me very much of parts of France (although the palm trees were a bit of  giveaway!). We stopped at Santiago de Compostela, the final destination for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who follow the network of Jacobean routes across France, Spain and Portugal every year. We live close to the Camino del Norte and were interested to see where the footsore pilgrims we see walking throughout the summer end up. As well as a magnificent cathedral, the city is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and many of the historic campus buildings are very beautiful. We wandered through the ancient streets and enjoyed the quiet courtyards full of flowers.

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Every other building seemed to be a hostel or restaurant and little wonder – if I had walked all those miles then food, drink and sleep would definitely be top of my list! We passed through an archway where a busker was squeezing a jaunty tune out of traditional bagpipes and emerged into the sunlit Praza do Obradoiro in front of the cathedral. It is certainly a spectacular building but it was the pilgrims who caught my eye and attention: people from all over the world drawn to this place that to them is so very special. There were groups laughing and chatting, already sharing stories and memories; couples and individuals wandered around the square drinking in the sights and sounds or simply sat in quiet contemplation; others lay with heads cushioned on their backpacks, faces turned to the sun. Someone played a guitar. I watched a group of ladies well into their seventies clinging to one another as they took the final steps into the square, melting into tears and laughter. How far had they walked to get there, I wondered? What obstacles had they overcome, what memories would they treasure? There is a lively buzz to Santiago but in that square I felt so much more, a powerful wave of human emotions – joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, achievement, wonder, relief, completeness. Every one of those people had set themselves a huge personal challenge and I suspected that the journey had changed them in a profound way. I don’t share the pilgrims’ faith and I have no desire to follow the Camino myself but I felt very touched by being a part of their journey’s end: I salute every single one of them.

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From Santiago we headed south to Vigo. To be fair to the place, our hotel was at the not-so-pretty end (close to the race start) and we didn’t see the historic bits so I don’t want to sound too negative but honestly, the traffic was beyond crazy. Roger decided it was the worst place he had ever driven through in his life (which is saying something) and he ended up using satnav for the first time ever (which is really saying something). Our hotel was comfy and the food was great but we are not naturally city people and were happy to head out of the chaos and explore further afield. We followed our noses down the coast road south with no precise plan. I love wandering about like that, just doing our own thing off the beaten track; we have always found the prettiest and best of places more by accident than design.

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We turned inland and wound our way through miles of vineyards, the vines clambering high over supports and starting to flaunt their autumn fire. A bridge carried us across the Minho river and into Portugal, where we decided to carry on down the coast. Well, why not?  We loved the pretty cobbled seaside town of Caminha where the wild Atlantic waves crashed against rocks that looked like the remnants of an ancient lava flow.

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We wandered barefoot along a wide expanse of beach, the silver sand sparkling with silica stars. Everything was so blue, it was truly beautiful and delightfully hot!

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Onwards to Viana do Castelo where we climbed up to the Santuário de Santa Luzia, an iconic mountaintop church, to enjoy the spectacular views down to the city and the coast beyond. We even ended up being part of a wedding celebration there which brought an added and unexpected moment to our day!

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On Sunday morning we both ran in the Vigo Contra el Cáncer race and what an event it was with the best part of 5 000 people taking part in a 10k run and 5k walk / run. The streets were turned into a tidal wave of pink as people from all walks of life turned out to support the local charity. Like Santiago, the atmosphere tingled with emotion, many walkers and runners sporting photos of loved ones on their t-shirts. I have run in a couple of Race For Life events but this was on a totally different scale and it felt good to be part of such an incredible thing and to give something back to this lovely country that has made us so welcome.

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Home once more and now we have turned our thoughts to our next journey, the long trek north through France to the UK next week. Oh my goodness, I think we are going to find it a little chilly and it does feel strange digging out long trousers and warm jumpers while I’m still pootling about in shorts and sockless crocs! On the bright side, I might just get to try out my new mittens, all finished and ready to go. I so enjoyed this little project, creating something from nothing; now I’m pondering the other skein of purple Merino waiting in the wings – some snuggly slipper socks, perhaps?

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I’m still very much in creative energy mode so I’ve decided to capitalise by launching into something I’ve been thinking about making for several years: a designated bag for carrying my woolly projects when we go a-travelling. At home, I keep everything close to hand in a couple of wicker baskets but they aren’t practical for packing or lugging about on a plane or ferry. I usually end up stuffing a bit of sock knitting into the top of  a rucksack or – heaven forbid – my (hand)Bag of Doom, which is far from perfect. I’ve tumbled vague ideas around my mind about spinning a heap of chunky yarn, dyeing it in a range of colours then knitting a tapestry-style tote bag . . . but it hasn’t happened; hardly surprising when you consider it has taken me over six months to spin 100g of fleece this year. (It’s finished and skeined but hasn’t made it to the dyepot yet; can’t rush these things.) In fact I could probably walk every route of the Camino in the time it would take to accomplish. So, at the risk of taking an easy way out, I’ve bought commercial yarn and opted for crochet instead.

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Not surprisingly, Attic 24 gave me the exact starting point I was looking for with Lucy’s Jolly Chunky Bag It’s possible to buy a kit but I wasn’t over fussed on the colour combinations (I used ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Fondant’ last year and I’m not a fan) so chose a different palette of colours for the yarn and buttons that are far more ‘me.’ I’ve decided to make the bag bigger than the stated pattern, hopefully roomy enough to cart blanket projects round in and I’ve also bought a couple of magnetic clasps as I think being able to close the bag is a good idea. This is the first time I’ve used chunky yarn in a crochet project and it whizzes up like a dream; in no time at all, the circular base was done . . .

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. . . and as I work round and round the sides, it’s starting to look more like a bag every minute. I am enjoying this activity so much, it’s the perfect simple, therapeutic wool messing for enjoying outside in the evening sunshine and with any luck will be finished in time to stuff with travel projects next week. Well, if I’m going to be a bag lady I might as well do it in style! 🙂

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Family trees (and other special plants)

Isn’t it a lovely thing to share other people’s gardens? Whether it’s a case of simply relaxing and drinking in the sights, sounds and scents or else mooching about through plants and produce, exploring colours and textures and perfumes,  for me it is always an enjoyable and inspiring experience. The last few times we have visited Roger’s parents in Ludlow, the weather has been too inclement to spend much time outside so what a treat on our recent trip to be able to luxuriate out of doors in proper summer weather. The garden they have spent several years creating is stunningly pretty, very long and narrow with teasing vistas that draw you naturally ever upwards, climbing the steep path through formal plantings, a productive vegetable patch, an orchard and a wild area at the very top.

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I love the Jack and Jill seat nestling in a green, leafy glade, completely hidden from sight but enjoying far-reaching views of the South Shropshire hills. I also love the way personalities of plants and gardeners alike echo through different spaces and I have a habit of coming away from other people’s gardens with inspired ideas to transplant into our own patch. The morning sunlight through that magenta clematis had me popping with joy and rushing out to find one similar  . . .

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. . . and true to form, I managed to come back with not one plant but two, a magenta ‘Aotearoa’ and a lilac ‘Proteus’ to keep it company (of course). I also found myself drawn to a pretty grouping of plants: a golden rose, a soft, buttery yellow marguerite and bright sunny creeping Jenny all combined with a somewhat moody purple sedum. Colour wheel opposites, artistically paired.

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I’ve forgotten the name of that rose but what I do know is that Sam gave it to his Granny and Grandad at their golden wedding anniversary party; so good to see it still going strong eight years on and there was a satisfying circularity to the fact that we were there to provide a grandparent chauffeur service to Sam’s own wedding. When it comes to gifts, we often choose experience over stuff; our wedding present to Sam and Adrienne is impossible to wrap but that golden rose inspired me to find them a ‘living’ card, something to plant as a reminder of their special day. Over the years, we have planted many things – trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs – to mark birthdays, anniversaries and special milestones in our lives; it’s such a pleasure to watch them flourish and be reminded of happy days and celebrations. For Sam and Adrienne, I fancied a climbing or rambling rose, something that would suit them and their garden, that will (hopefully) flower on their future anniversaries and with a name appropriate to the occasion. ‘Shropshire Lad’ would be a good choice for Sam but not without a ‘Montgomeryshire Miss’ to go with it! In the end I plumped for a Harkness climber, a really enthusiastic looking plant with pretty coral buds, flat pink blooms with bright yellow centres (a little past their best in the photo but this beauty will flower three times in a year) and a delicate perfume. The name? ‘Summer Sweetheart.’ Ah, that will do nicely!

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So to the wedding itself and what a truly captivating day it was. We are so thrilled that all three of our offspring have had the imagination and courage to turn their backs on the excessive and unnecessary spendathon so typical of modern weddings and instead have opted for something small, intimate and very personal – a true celebration of their special day, bursting with their own creative touches. What an idyllic setting for the ceremony at St Mary’s House, Bramber , an enchanting 15th century timber-framed house with five acres of immaculate gardens.

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How lovely to spend time in the gardens after the ceremony, the children playing tag and hide-and-seek and bubbling with mischievous energy, the adults mingling and chatting and laughing in the sunshine. No official photographer running the show; instead, simply the informal pictures taken by everyone there which capture the atmosphere so much better than anything posed and staged.

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The ‘tunnel’ of homemade petal confetti was utterly beautiful as was the bridal bouquet; no stiff and formal hothouse prima donnas here, rather something sweet and pretty that could have been gathered straight from a cottage garden. Gorgeous!

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What a wonderful reception, too, at The Artisan Bakehouse where tables and chairs were set up outside in the sunshine. No formal seating plan, no speeches, no standing on ceremony; instead, a blissfully relaxed and happy time for all, chatting over a glass of bubbly, playing lawn games and indulging in the delicious food. So much fun and laughter. What a perfect, perfect day!

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On one of our previous UK trips, Sam and Adrienne had treated us to a prototype wedding cake, a delicious confection of lemon and pistachio lovingly baked in their kitchen. In its final rendering, that citrussy top layer was filled with whimberries, freshly picked from the patch where Sam popped the question last year and decorated with crystallised pansies picked from the hanging baskets he had given Adrienne for her birthday. There is just something so right about all that.

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So, home again to Asturias and time to check what’s been happening in our own (somewhat neglected) garden. There’s been plenty of rain, just perfect for the new hydrangeas we planted with Annie – one for her, one for Matthew – to celebrate the recent holiday they spent with us. Ah, more happy memories. I was also delighted to see the agapanthus in bloom at last; it’s been a bit tardy this year but is now resplendent in vibrant blue and carries yet more meaning for us.

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It was a gift from my brother and his wife, given on Sam’s eighteenth birthday to mark the fact that we had raised all three of our children to adulthood. At the time, I was touched by such an unusual and totally inspired gesture and this ‘Northern Star’ variety, designed to thrive in cooler climes, has flowered every summer without fail. Not surprisingly, however, it has moved up several gears since arriving in Spain; I’ve split the original plant once and both pots are ready to split again. I might even try some in the ground this time. Our garden will never be perfect but it is in so many ways a reflection of our family, life, love. I like that. 🙂

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September Bouquet Blanket

There’s still something so pure and heartfelt and emotional and genuine about a bouquet of flowers . . . Vanessa Diffenbaugh

With my self-imposed finish line of early July looming ever closer, I recognised the need to crochet like a mad thing in order to have the ‘September Bouquet’ blanket ready for its trip northwards. Not for the first time, I was thankful that those squares were pretty easy to make and so I just made sure I picked up my crochet hook in any spare minute to get all 90 done. That of course was the easy bit! Then came putting them all together . . .

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I suspect that most proper and talented designers have a clear picture in their minds or on paper of exactly how their finished work will look, backed up with research, sketches, colour swatches and lots of practice bits and bobs. That never seems to work for me; ideas just hover around the periphery of my imagination and it’s not until I have everything in front of me to mess with (I’m very much a visual learner, I think!) that I start to see the finished thing. I’ve never made a ‘colourwash’ project before, so having scrubbed the floor, I laid the squares out and began to play.

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My goodness, did that take some time! I switched and swapped and swapped and switched then walked around looking at them from every angle . . . then started all over again. It’s a good job I have a very understanding husband as I was blocking the main thoroughfare through the kitchen for quite some time. Eventually, I settled on a plan: purples moving through blues to greens then yellows. As the final round still had to be worked on each square as the joining round, I could at least tell that the finished blanket would be big enough. No need for any extra squares. Phew!

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If I had made much smaller squares and used more colours, I think the most effective way of organising them would have been to mix them through a bit; for instance, different shades of blue next to one another with an occasional purple or green at either end. These squares somehow felt more comfortable sitting together in their own little colour groups, sort of ‘not quite stripes.’ I joined them vertically which meant changing colour every one or two squares; this made the job more interesting and as each new strip was added, the solid blocks of horizontal colours appeared as if by magic.

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I’m not sure if this is what I’d been imagining but I felt pretty pleased with the outcome.

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So, on to the border. I hadn’t given it a single thought until the squares were joined at which point all I can say is I knew what I didn’t want. The sunburst flower pattern creates a fairly dense square which in turn makes for a cosy, weighty blanket. This was definitely not the place for a lacy border, nor anything too open and airy or too narrow; I wanted something firm and closely-woven to echo the feel of the squares, with the possibility of using plenty of the colours in the process. Having hunted about for ideas and tried a few things out, I opted for the linen stitch edging by Lucy at Attic24. This is a simple and speedy stitch which builds up into a tight-knit border of beauty and – even better – allowed me to use all eighteen colours! Given that the first colour would have to nestle comfortably up against the other seventeen, I opted to start with ‘Parchment’, the most neutral shade I had. Similarly, I knew from finishing the ‘Granny Patchwork’ blanket earlier this year that ‘Parma Violet’ makes a subtle outer edge colour that sits more harmoniously than stronger shades against whatever surface it rests on.

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All that remained to be done was fill in the space between the two and with so many colours being used, I felt the need for a little plan to keep me on the straight and narrow.

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The most important thing about working this border was not to pull it too tight so I switched hooks and opted for a 5.5mm bruiser; it’s a rather snazzy metallic green number but boy, did it feel chunky! Still, it’s amazing how quickly it moved around the blanket and revealed the charming pattern. Here’s the ninth round being worked: almost halfway there . . .

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. . . and the other nine done.

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Blanket finished, with time to spare. I feel like I’ve moved a long way from my starting point of the beautiful wedding bouquet Sarah made for herself but I hope at least there is an echo of the colours and textures that she gathered together in such a stunning way and carried under a brilliant blue September sky almost five years ago.

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Certainly for me it has been a huge, indulgent pleasure to remember such a happy day with every stitch I’ve made. How can such a simple pastime bring so much joy?

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Now I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s finished in time to take and give in July – a little early I know, but we have Sam and Adrienne’s wedding (yes, another wedding!) to attend and I am so excited! Happy, happy days! 🙂

 

 

 

Lone thoughts from abroad

Once again, the month of May has brought me a time of solitude.  Just a few days this time rather than the three weeks of last year but the principle is the same. I’ve never minded being alone – in fact, I think times of gentle solitude are a beneficial thing for everyone now and then – but I do find the days very long, so the key is to keep busy. No problem there, I am never short of things to do and – if you will excuse the photo pun – I’m not short of time, either.

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Gardening is always my first port of call, partly because we grow so much of our own food and those plants need to be looked after but also because for me, time spent outdoors being busy in the fresh air and totally engrossed in nature is so precious and rewarding. We have had a very concentrated effort together over the last week, so all the major preparation and planting have been done and now it’s down to me to keep an eye on it all and potter away at general ‘caring’ activities – weeding, tying in, watering, bug patrol and the like. I love the way everything grows so quickly at this time of year, there’s such a feeling of burgeoning growth and excitement in the patch and something truly wonderful about the promise of all that good food to come.

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Of course, it’s not just about food and I’m always happy to spend time with my nose in the flowers, too. I’ve been potting up geraniums for ripples of summer colour.

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The roses and jasmine are building up to a spectacular show and their heady scent hits my senses and feeds my soul every time I step out of the door (which is always open at this time of year to invite those tantalising perfumes to waft inside).

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I have no idea what variety this rose is but happily we have several of them, deep-scented and gorgeously resplendent, cartwheeling down the walls in their ruffled cancan petticoats.

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Wandering around the garden, I find myself seduced by those unexpected moments, the kaleidoscope of plants and flowers doing their own thing. Here, a white rose mingling with Jacob’s ladder, pretty as a picture.

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There, self-set mustard in a halo of acid yellow, thrumming with insects.

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A single Welsh poppy, soft as a sigh.

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The filigree pincushion of a flowering Welsh onion.

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How can I not smile . . . and how can I drag myself indoors to attend to other things with so much beauty to savour? Well, of course at some point I just have to, in part because I need to eat! Making bread has become a way of life for us and I see no reason to abandon that just because I’m on my own so I’ve been happily beating back the dough this week. It is one of the great bonuses of our lifestyle that we have the time to bake and we are blessed with a wide choice of flours and plentiful supply of fresh yeast. Our usual loaf is made from a mix of white, wholemeal and spelt flour flavoured with seeds or walnuts (the traditional local bread) but we love to make ‘world’ breads, too and think nothing of throwing together some naan or tortilla, pitta or pumpernickel or whatever, depending on what we’re planning for dinner.

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Tapenade rolls

Bread making is such a wonderful activity; for me, it’s like making mayonnaise – something to be done with care, patience and love. One type of bread we’ve always had mixed results with is sourdough but that has all changed since our recent UK trip. Sam and Adrienne (who have the whole sourdough scene totally sussed) gave us a jar of starter to bring home and I can’t describe the enormous responsibility I felt towards it. After all , it’s a living organism that needs careful feeding and I was slightly terrified of killing it before we had even made the Spanish border. By an amazing coincidence, the book I was reading at the time told how the Pilgrim Fathers had carried a single crock of leaven on their famous journey across the Atlantic, keeping it alive all the way;  suddenly, West Sussex to Asturias didn’t seem quite so bad!

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Sourdough starter feeding time: strong white flour and rye at the ready.

Our first try at a couple of sourdough loaves was fascinating; the speed with which they rose in the oven was totally insane! We have a long way to go to perfect the technique – particularly getting the scoring right – but so far the bread has a lovely texture and is completely delicious. Here’s to many more happy sourdough bread moments!

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Like making bread, planning and preparing our evening meal together is a huge part of our lifestyle. Always based on what’s good in the garden, we love to indulge in old favourites and try out new recipes alike. One of our preferred dining styles is a tapas / meze type of meal with lots of different small dishes combined to make a perfect whole. It’s such a great way to eat and suits homegrown veg so well as a little bit of something special – a few asparagus spears, a globe artichoke, a handful of baby broad beans – can be made to go a long way.

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Cooking for one, though, can be a bit awkward. It’s very tempting to live on scrambled eggs (during last year’s time alone, thanks to the warm generosity of our neighbours I ended up with four dozen eggs!) or soup which is fine but not very exciting, so for me at this time of year the answer is salads. I LOVE salads, I think they are such a wonderful way of celebrating the season and there is nothing better than a freshly foraged mix of leaves, herbs and flowers packing a healthy punch of crisp colours and zingy flavours.

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It’s certainly nothing new. I keep coming back to this passage, originally written in Italian in 1614:

Of all the salads we eat in the spring, the mixed salad is the best and most wonderful of all. Take young leaves of mint, those of garden cress, basil, lemon balm, the tips of salad burnet, tarragon, the flowers and tenderest leaves of borage, the flowers of swine cress, the young shoots of fennel, leaves of rocket, of sorrel, rosemary flowers, some sweet violets, and the tenderest leaves or the hearts of lettuce. When these precious herbs have been picked clean and washed in several waters, and dried a little with a clean linen cloth, they are dressed as usual, with oil, salt and vinegar. An offering to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, by Giacomo Castelvetro.

How on earth in latter times did limp lettuce, slimy cucumber and tasteless tomato become an ‘acceptable’ salad? Whoever thought that was a good idea? What a truly wonderful thing it is to wander about picking edible bits and pieces to combine in a dish of gorgeousness: here I chose Little Gem lettuce (we have a pile that needs eating out of the tunnel before the melons take over), baby chard leaves, mint, chives, marjoram, chervil, lemon balm, baby peas and pea shoots with borage, coriander, calendula and chive flowers. Of course, I made way too much so there was plenty left for lunch the next day.  🙂

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When I was raising a family or going out to work, cleaning the home was always something of a chore, a necessary activity to keep our household ticking along but not something I ever particularly enjoyed. Now I have to admit to feeling a sort of contentment at spending time cleaning. In part, I think this is because I can now do it at my leisure, rather than cramming it into tired evenings or precious weekends. As we’ve spent two years slowly but surely turning a grotty hovel into a bright, warm, comfortable home, caring for it brings a sense of achievement and celebration. Also, our living space is fairly small (four rooms and an entrance porch) so it’s hardly an onerous task! I favour a ‘green clean’ policy: like organic gardening, I think it’s better for us and the environment we live in and natural cleaning products are so much more pleasant to use than all those heavy duty, chemical-laden gloops and squirty stuff. My basic cleaning kit comprises white vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, bicarbonate of soda and lemon essential oil – simply add elbow grease.

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The vinegar is brilliant for cleaning windows and mirrors. Mixed with lemon juice and bicarb, it makes a great all-purpose paste for cleaning the kitchen and bathroom. A small amount of olive oil with a squeeze of lemon juice and few drops of essential oil makes the best wood polish I’ve ever used. Any bits left over are mixed with a squirt of eco-friendly mild washing-up liquid and hot water to wash the floors. Job done – a bright, sparkling home smelling of freshly-squeezed lemons and garden flowers.

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Who needs air freshener?

What has been especially lovely about cleaning this week is there has been the guestroom to prepare, too; Roger’s mum is flying back with him for her first trip to Asturias so it has been a real delight to make everything ready and comfortable for her. We’re hoping it will be the first of many such visits!

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A glimpse of the guestroom.

The evenings are the time of day that seem to stretch out when I’m alone so there’s been nothing for it but to resort to my unquenchable wool habit. What a pleasure to sit in the evening sunshine serenaded by the raucous birds and crickets, then move indoors at sunset and curl up with a mug of tea, some background tunes and a basket of yarn. I’ve been having a bit of a birthday sock knitting bash of late; it’s an activity that I truly enjoy but I now really need to turn my attention back to the September Bouquet blanket if I have any chance of finishing it by early July. I’ve been doing bits in odd moments here and there and the squares are starting to mount up but probably not fast enough. Thankfully,  the sunburst flower pattern is a lovely, easy make with that ‘sunflower’ snuggled in the centre of every square.

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My starting point for the blanket is 90 squares, five in each of the eighteen colours I’ve chosen; from there it will be a case of working out the finished size I’m looking for, accepting that I might have to work some extra squares. Then of course there’s the joining and border which will both take time. I’ve resisted the temptation so far to start messing about with possible layouts but my eye is constantly drawn to those piles of squares nestled in my basket and I can see how the whole colourwash idea might just work.

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Time to make haste and get those squares finished. Mmm, yes but . . .

I’ve banned myself from starting any new knitting until the blanket is finished and in all honesty, it would be good if I could just focus completely on this project. Good . . . but totally out of character because as always there’s an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch for some time and this week I had a little nudge in the right direction (or wrong direction, depending on your perspective). Now that we have lovely clean, dry storage upstairs I’ve finally moved my sewing machine-and-other-stitching-paraphernalia box down out of the horreo. Having a little sort through my treasures, I found a wooden quilting hoop that I bought for a few pennies in a closing down sale many years ago; I subsequently discovered it was much easier to quilt on the sewing machine so the hoop had become completely redundant until I had a little lightbulb moment. I have been toying with the idea of making a mandala for several months; it seems to be one of those essential crochet rites of passage but as I’m really not a ‘make woolly mats to stand things on’ sort of person, it’s been hard to find an excuse. Until now, that is . . . because I think the children’s sleeping den we have created upstairs needs something bright and colourful to jazz it up before Annie’s visit and what better than a giant rainbow dreamcatcher worked inside the quilting hoop?

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I’m using the starflower mandala pattern from Zooty Owl  and my goodness, what an amazing project it is! My plan is to work the rounds in the order of rainbow colours and keep going until the circle is large enough to stretch on to the hoop in a colourful web. This is so different to working blanket squares and every round seems to bring a magical change; I need to concentrate very hard, not least because I’m mentally converting from US to UK terms as I go along, but I’m having a lot of fun in the process.

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Actually, since starting on my crochet adventure last year, I have had as much enjoyment from the things I’ve made to use up scraps as I have from the major works and there’s a lot to be said for that – except perhaps for the fact that they distract me so much from the matter in hand. Ah, but how can I possibly resist such dazzling temptation?

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The ebb and flow of the days bring other activities, too: sharing emails and Skype chats with loved ones; pushing on with my Spanish study; taking photos and drafting blog posts; walking through the woods; chatting with neighbours. Time ticks away and very soon I shall need to turn my thoughts to airport taxi duty and a special homecoming meal. How lovely it will be to have company, conversation and shared laughter once more. Until May comes round again, perhaps? 🙂

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Sensing Spring

Communicate: share or exchange information, news, or ideas.

Commune: share one’s intimate thoughts or feelings with (someone), especially on a spiritual level.

One of the blessings of our lifestyle here is having proper time to communicate with others; I love to keep in touch with a wide circle of family and friends, to catch up with what they are doing, to share their stories and thoughts as well as exchange little snippets and tales of what we are up to ourselves. In a rush, it’s so easy just to touch on the superficial, but with time and effort it’s possible to go beyond the facts – the who or what or when – and engage at a deeper level of interest, of sharing, celebrating or commiserating. What a wonderful gift to give someone, our full, unhindered, focused attention, listening with a quiet mind and open heart. It’s a precious thing indeed.

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I suppose it is about moving from ‘communication’ to ‘communing’ and the same is true of time spent in nature. To explore the world like a young child is not childish but childlike; there is a world of difference. As adults in the hustle and bustle of modern society, our auditory and visual senses are bombarded and overloaded, day in, day out; how often do we allow ourselves to indulge all our senses playfully, without bias or preconception, opening our hearts and minds to new experiences and possibilities? How would a child respond to the jewelled flutter of a butterfly, the delicate fragility of a robin’s egg, the scratchy wingbeat of a crow, the secrets hidden in a tulip’s cavern, the arcing iridescence of a rainbow? When we give ourselves permission to stop and listen and feel and smell and taste as if everything were a brand new shiny experience, then even the simplest or most mundane thing can seem like a minor miracle.

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So, when spring came bounding up the steps and hammered breathlessly on the door this week – ‘Come out and play! See what I’ve found!’  – I didn’t need asking twice. Senses engaged, I let myself be led by the hand. Budburst started here some time ago; the warm-up act of hazel, willow and birch is already in full verdant splendour, fluffing and puffing up the woodlands with streaks of brilliance like the joyful sweep of a child’s paintbrush. Lime. Chartreuse. Pea.

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Now the nuttery adds its voice: oak and chestnut and walnut leaves unfurling like uncurling fingers, arms akimbo, in a seam of coppery gold that echoes the iron-rich rocks below.

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In between, pooled like silver moonlight, a confection of graceful cherries whisper and shiver in delicate white. I am reminded of Housman’s celebrated lines: loveliest of trees, the cherry now is hung with bloom along the bough. Shropshire poetry, Shropshire roots, a Shropshire lass. Some things run very deep.

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It’s not all about trees, of course. Beneath the emerging canopy is a burgeoning, bustling, stretching busyness led by fern and foxglove, followed by a jostling crowd of others, some brash and extravagant, others quiet and diminutive.

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What a feast for the eye, all this shape and shade and shimmer, but try seeing it differently for a change . . . Is it a shepherd’s crook? A seahorse? A question mark?

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In this world of waking and stretching, of rising sap and soft, silky leaf-lets, of the rich mineral smell of moss and bark and boulder, I need no more than the green. The lush, fresh, newness of it all is enough to feed my soul. So many shades and tints, how could I name them all? More poetry springs to mind, this time from W.H Davies: I also love a quiet place that’s green, away from all mankind.

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Ah, but I don’t get away with that one easily: just look at this frolicsome floral dance! Such a brazen parade of flirtatious fluttering and wiggling of petal and pollen, of saucy colour and come hither looks. Who could fail to fall under their seductive charms?

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There is so much that I can’t capture in photographs, so many moments where an image is not enough and words seem hopelessly inadequate: the melodious cadence of blackbird; the harmonious warbling of robin and blackcap; the shouting echo of songthrush; the twitter and curse of tit and wren; the chiffchaff and cuckoo calling their own names. How do I share the velvety buzz of the busy bumbles, the sulphuric flash of yellow butterflies, the dash and zip of sun-warmed lizards, the furry flit and whirr of a dusky bat? The shifting shapes of feathery clouds, the play of sunlight across the valley, the electric crackle of a retreating storm, the deep, ancient, fecund smell of the earth after rain?

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No matter: it’s about being in the moment, feeling, experiencing, living. Memories and records can wait. Stories can be shaped and shared later. This is communication at its very best. Thank you, spring – what a lovely chat we’ve had! What a wonderful time we’ve shared!

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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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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? 🙂