Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Walking to School

It’s national walk to school week this week, apparently. Or that, at least, is the line they’ve been feeding us at the village school. This is all very well, but it’s a time-consuming exercise. You can’t just whizz down in your car, drop and run. Oh no, suddenly I’m hob-nobbing with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the village.

Take yesterday. First, since I was passing, I popped my head into the barn where the village mechanic does his thing amongst the chickens. This is very handy, I might add – having a man what does cars at the end of my lane. Certainly much cheaper and more convenient than schlepping over to the swanky Audi concession in Macclesfield where they stitch you up royally with the invoice and you have to hang around finding things to do in the industrial estate for hours on end. There’s always the bowling alley I suppose….anyway, I digress. I’m umming and aahing about whether or not to get my timing belt done. The car’s, I mean, not mine. Mind you, my timing belt’s in need of a good service. Maybe that’s been the problem all these years? Hmm, I’d never thought of that. Can you get that on the NHS? I shall have to investigate. But I’m digressing again. (See? That’s why I never get anything done – and am always late.) Anyway, a discussion was had and we agreed to talk. Then, just as I was leaving, a friend drove up in her smart new 4x4 (needed round here I can tell you – it’s not Fulham, you know). We proceeded to have an erudite conversation about the clanking noise coming from underneath the vehicle despite the fact that it had just been fully serviced but in the end decided best leave it to the mechanic. (However, I did just wonder if it was a trapped stone and later discovered this was the startlingly technical conclusion the mechanic had drawn too. Is this the start of a new career for me, perhaps? I did once have a boyfriend who regularly dismantled cars, so I must have picked up a few tips there. Move over Kylie Minogue. Er, not. I’m 45 and brunette. Not quite the same, is it?).

But I’m digressing AGAIN. So, where was I. Ah yes, walking up the lane, just trying to get home but meeting various obstacles along the way. The next was one of my near neighbours. I was teetering on the verge, composing a nice shot over the hedge of the field with the marsh marigolds and the sheep and the sweep of the hills beyond, when he came past and was clearly in dire need of a chat. We tut tutted about all the sheep and lambs wandering round the place (one had whizzed down the lane in front of me and L as we walked down to school, its lambs bleating furiously in the field and wondering why the hell their mother was doing a runner when they wanted feeding (I think I know); another three were hanging around outside the pub, presumably waiting for opening time; another two lambs had just thrown themselves under Joe’s wheels etc etc). The farmer concerned believes in the right to roam. When he still had dairy cows he used to deliberately leave the field gates open so one cow would wander out, moo, and then all the others would follow it down the lane to the milking barn. Same on the way back. Simple, eh? We also discussed the myxomatosis rabbits (one had tottered across the road in front of me when I took the big girls to the bus this morning – and the same one was still bumbling about in a befuddled manner now, bless its little heart). Did see three tiny little bun-buns just yesterday though, so there’s hope. Breed like rabbits, etc etc. So it’s not total wipeout. I do love seeing their little white tails bouncing across the green fields, though it’s always seemed rather unfair to have a camouflaged coat then a white tail which just screams ‘Shoot me! Shoot me!’. Still, their problem, not mine, I’m pleased to say. I’m a little higher up the food chain.

So, what was next? Ah yes, I was on the home straight (clutching - slightly guiltily - some pink and white wild flowers I’d gathered from the roadside) and panting up the last really steep bit, hallucinating about kettles and Agas and nice cups of tea, when my neighbour staggers out with his box of goodies to recycle. Now, he’s always up for a chat, so I knew my cuppa would remain a mirage for a while longer. We discussed the merits of the day (sunny and therefore glorious and much cherished round these parts); we discussed blossom and his hollyhocks (there’s a story there but we won’t go into that now) and the fact that everything up here in the hills is a good two weeks behind the plains. We’ve still got snowdrops. Ha, ha, only kidding. But we do still have tulips and bluebells and the daffs have only just faded. Ah yes, it’s a harsh life in the High Peak. We discussed moving to Gloucestershire or some such soft southern option, but concluded we might just stay put for a while. Maybe. And he asked me about the house in France (he’s a bit of property magnate on the side, unlike his farming brothers in the village), and I told him the weather seems to have taken a dive down there too ever since we invested our precious pennies in finding ‘A Place in the Sun’. Huh! Last August, you could count the balmy nights on the fingers of one hand. There was me imagining lazy hazy days by the beach and much drifting about hotly in a Kaftan, sipping on a gin and tonic. Yep, ok, more disappointment to handle. But I’m good at that now. I’ve lowered my expectations. I told him how the property had been moved, timber by timber, from its original inland location, to one closer to the sea because the previous German owner had a, clearly, very bossy wife who it was clearly not worth crossing (they've since divorced). Anyway, saved us the trouble, I spose. And then we went on to discuss the merits of old houses versus new until, finally, I was able to take my leave with a smile and a cheery wave and go and get that kettle on. It was now 10 o’clock and I’d taken 45 minutes to get home. I could have driven to Manchester in that time. Still, I’m not complaining really. Is this not, after all, what village life is all about and what I love compared to the anonymity of my previous life on a street in London? Indeed it is, and my day felt complete before it had really even started. You can’t ask for more than that, can you now?

Friday, 16 May 2008

Tea and Biscuits

6.15pm Friday

I have just come back in from nearly 3 hours of playing taxis and gone straight for the kettle and the biscuit tin. Actually I tell a lie: I went to the biscuit tin first. I proceeded to scoff, in the space of barely five minutes, four McVities digestives (plain), the last Pink Panther finger wafer (actually it was the cheap version from Morrisons) and the last Maryland chocolate chip cookie (Buy One Get One Free). G came along five minutes too late, peered into the tin (now little more than an offering for the bird table), disappointment radiating from the back of her dishevelled blond head, and said, with the best tinge of hope in her voice she could muster and a wry smile for a 7-year old, ‘Can I have cheesy bix and peanuts please?’ (A favourite mix in our house, you should try it.) ‘No’, I say, meanly, through a mouthful of biscuit, ‘we’ve run out of peanuts anyway’. The dear little poppet sighed and picked up one of the last digestives languishing amongst the crumbs.

Now, my mother, when I came in from a long day at school, made me a cup of tea and a slice of toast, regular as clockwork, before I went off to play or do my homework. It was the most marvellous ritual and one which I frequently refer to when harking back to my own childhood and its maternal embrace. I claim that this (along with my mixed education) was fundamental to the grounded [laughter off stage left] character that I am today. Obviously hasn’t helped me with my own maternal embrace. I then proceeded to go into my study and boot G and L off my computer where they were happily watching the webcam from the village school nesting box. For my sins (and my six biscuits) I now feel slightly sick in the way that you always do when you need a sugar fix and then completely overdo it. Even as you stuff, you know that this will be the inevitable result, but until it actually happens it remains a distant reality and one not to concern yourself with for the moment. Well, the moment’s arrived.

Anyway, that’s my problem, so why not go and get yourself a nice cup of tea too and sit down and have a look at a bird being rather more maternal than I am right now by clicking here to see the nesting box and others in Derbyshire too. It’s a nice gentle activity to do at the end of the day. Help you wind down, eh.

Talking of nests, my eldest has taken her first little tumble out of it this weekend. She’s off on her first weekend away with school on a Year 4 trip to an adventure centre. I spent most of yesterday naming everything on the ridiculously long list of things that had to be squeezed into the sort of size bag that your average 9 year old could actually carry. I resorted to the executive trolley dolly look in the end as this was the only viable option. Not very adventure trip, but hey. As I sit here sipping my tea, I’m wondering what she’s up to right now and thinking how it really doesn’t seem THAT long ago that I was off on my own school trips to canoe in Ross-on-Wye. My love of canoeing still stems from shooting the rapids on the Wye with my schoolmates. Then there were the PGL trips in the Brecon Beacons with my mate Kevin. Here I loved the ‘wide game’ (where you’d all go and hide on a bracken coated hillside, crawling through the earthy green undergrowth to try and get to the ‘home’ post without being ambushed and the piece of loo paper on your wrist being torn off by the enemy) and telling an unsuspecting Spanish boy to spread a ludicrous amount of Marmite on his toast at breakfast. Ah yes, those were the days. Now my own daughter is off doing them and I’m stuck looking at a bird webcam. My, oh my, it’s not just birds that fly, but time too…

Talking of which, I’m about to be late again. Meant to be down the pub meeting friends before heading off to the local Italian as a treat for my two other little chicks. Maybe I’m not such a mean old mother after all.

As I finished that sentence G came in and commented on my perfume: 'I feel sick sometimes when I smell that smell' Great! Well, I still feel sick anyway, so we might as well all feel sick together.

Buon appetito!

PS: and if the bird cam (above) is too riveting for you, click here for another weird view of our world today (and pink wafer biscuits)

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Magic of May

May and June are my favourite months. They are the months of hope and promise. All is bright, all is beautiful. The green of fresh growth is never greener, the yellow field flowers never more gaudy, and everywhere cherry trees wave their pink powder puff blossoms as proud cheerleaders against the sharp blue skies. The fields and hillsides are specked with contented cream sheep and tail-swinging lamb, and the sweet air vibrates with bleating and birdsong. It is brief, and it is magical. All too soon the volume and contrast knobs are turned down and this luscious, promiscuous landscape settles into the more demure shades of an ever maturing season.

Below is a poem written by the uncle of my maternal grandmother, a ‘man of the church’ who left Cornwall for a new life in North America at the beginning of the last century. He went on to do great things there, ending up, if I remember rightly, as a Dean in Boston. Or possibly Detroit. Unfortunately my wonderful grandmother is long gone and my mother and father are currently enjoying life on the ocean wave somewhere in the Mediterranean, so I cannot check. His name was Frederick Edwards and he published a volume of poems called The Natural Year. This is taken from the May – June volume. He is clearly closer to the sea than I and a priest with love and passion flowing through his veins.

May 16th

Out of my window under the eaves
I can look down on the birth of the leaves,
Slenderly folded packets of things,
Timidly opening pairs of wings,
Lengthening, lengthening,
Stengthening, strengthening,
One by one,
Feeling the air, the rain, and the sun.

Lilac, syringa, and elderberry,
Delicate bronzing in foam on the cherry;
Tassels on poplars and birches are dangling,
Twigs in a tumult with green buds entangling,
Thickening, thickening,
Quickening, quickening,
One by one,
Drinking the air, the rain, and the sun.

Crouching below are the barnacled rocks,
Over them herring-gulls wheeling in flocks,
Lacing the purple and blue of the river,
Tossing like showers of blossoms they quiver,
Rising and falling,
Laughing and calling,
One by one,
Free of the air, the rain, and the sun.

Over the trees and the gulls is a hill,
Clothed with the forest, ancient and still;
Mists in its cavernous hollows are smoking,
On its sea-battlements ravens are croaking,
Guardedly nesting,
Solemnly questing,
One by one,
Into the air, the rain, and the sun.

Rounding the hill is the sweep of the bay,
Placidly meeting the sky far away;
Garlands of islands are strewn on the deep,
Over them windflowers of clouds are asleep;
Spring has caressed them,
Love has possessed them,
One by one,
Out in the air, the rain, and the sun.

This was the view from my window today:

And finally, on a local note, I learned today that in the first third of the nineteenth century, Derbyshire miners had their own May Day celebration – on ‘old’ May Day. In 1829, county historian, Stephen Glover wrote:

‘On the 13th May the miners dress their coves or cowes (the place in which they deposit the ore) with oak branches, garlands and other rural decorations. This is called the ‘miners’ holiday’. A dinner of beef, pudding and ale is provided on the occasion, and, when the weather is favourable, the festivities are conducted in the open air. The Bar-masters preside and music and old songs conclude the proceedings…’

Indeed, I dressed my own house today with the first small vase of flowers picked from a garden newly in bloom. Perhaps this long, long winter has now finally ended…

Friday, 9 May 2008

A Year Ago Today

A lot can happen in a year. If Derbyshire County Council had got their way, our youngest daughter would have been in her last term at the village school, the place would have been running down in front of our eyes, then dismantled and lost for ever. A piece of history and a slice of excellence in a mediocre world would have been thrown to the four winds with barely a backward glance from the perpetrators of the crime.

But we fought the good fight and we won. This is something to celebrate in a society increasingly crushed by senseless rules and petty bureaucracy, by small-minded people with limited vision and an eye to the main chance and self-aggrandissment. Instead of painfully counting the days till the end of the summer term and the end of an era, facing farewells that should never be and tears that needn’t have been cried, I was able to leave my five year old daughter in the playground this morning happily attempting to jump her spindly little legs over a rope in a brave attempt to learn the art of skipping. The air was soft and warm, the birds were singing, the children were laughing and the cress was bursting through the soil of the grow-bags which they had busily and messily planted last Friday afternoon.

Instead of a sense of heartache and loss, we are able to continue with a sense of well-being, growth and optimism for the future: these children are being given the very best of starts in a beautiful, healthy, sane environment. I can assure you that the seedlings that come out of this particular grow-bag are strong and vigourous and will grow into beautiful mature plants. They have been given the best of starts in life and they will flourish. These young people are our future and if every child could be given the educational start in life that these children receive, then our world would be a much better place.

Coincidentally on the lunchtime news a youth worker and reformed gang member who was commenting on the brutal knife murder of 16 year old Kodjo Yenga in Hammersmith last year said the problems we are facing with this aggressive youth culture is all down to education. He said that he (as a gang member) was a product of this failure in education. If he can see it, why on earth can’t the people in charge? Why does this government (and others before it) continue to mess up our education system, swamping it with mindless health and safety rules, absurd levels of administration which take away from teaching time and, perhaps most significantly, insisting, in the vein of globalisation, that big is beautiful and that one size fits all? When will they learn that ultimately it is more economical to produce well-educated, well-rounded young people from smaller places of learning than to produce ill-educated dysfunctional people from large anonymous institutions where each child is barely no more than a statistic? This is not rocket science. This is just common sense.

Instead of taking money away from village schools, they should be investing in them. They are the heart of a community, they instill community spirit and a sense of belonging and society to the children whom they educate. It is not just about results and league tables. It is about appreciating what it is to be part of a family, it is about developing self-respect and self-confidence, and understanding what can be achieved by team effort and a positive, optimistic approach to life and learning.

The achievement of our small community in fighting the big boys and beating them at their own game is surely proof enough that small can be beautiful too. We pulled together, we worked as a team, we never gave up and we came out smiling. It can be done.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Easter Memories

There’s so much that I’ve wanted to write about, dear Reader, in recent weeks but time remains my enemy. Easter, for a start: Easter parade hats were made, the Brownies Easter Sale came and went (less eventfully than last year), we went to Sussex and to France (like last year too). In Sussex we had an egg and spoon race in the garden and watched the weather change from sleet to hail to sun and back again every five minutes. We caught up with family and enjoyed vast quantities of my mother in law’s famous cottage pie round the table at her house on Easter Saturday. We flew to France the following day, taking her (and her cottage pie) with us, and the weather did nothing to improve despite being so many more hundred miles further south. We did an Easter egg hunt in the gloaming in our friends’ garden that first evening and ate absurdly yellow omelette made from eggs scooped from the ground just hours earlier. We met new friends and old, spoke French and English, conversed and imbibed while myriad children played and laughed next door, language no barrier.

Old friends from England came to stay the following day with their three boys – nervous at first of our three girls (three brides for three brothers) who they hadn’t seen for a while and the intervening time had turned insouciance into embarrassment. They muddled through and by the following day they were tearing round the house the best of mates. Table tennis matches, more egg hunts and brain-teasing wooden puzzles (bought for occasions just as this when time, for once, was on our side). Finding a restaurant that was open and prepared to take 11 of us was our daily challenge. We failed just once and resorted to raiding the fridge. But what a feast we made of cheese and salad! We enjoyed lazy mornings and long walks on the beach where air fresh from the Atlantic whipped our faces and filled our lungs, and rain always threatened.

On their last day we climbed the Dune du Pilat in a howling gale where not just wind, but sand, scorched our faces too. Triumphant at the top, we were pleased to sit in the sandy embrace of the lee-ward side, leaving the distant view of sand banks and oyster beds to our backs, surveying instead, from high above, the green pine canopy carpet which stretched endlessly and mesmerisingly before our eyes

My one sadness was that the bar in our village, opened so enthusiastically by a newly together couple just two years ago, has been forced to close. The pressure of trying to keep the business open in this very quiet part of France, and having over-reached themselves at the beginning with the new restaurant they created, proved too much. A new baby and children from other relationships cannot have helped. She has gone back to her parents; he lives in assisted housing in the village, now alone. I am sad for the loss of the amenity (café au lait in the morning sunshine, a kir at lunch or in the evening sun, good honest home-cooked food as you watched the passing scene), but I am particularly sad for the hopes that we witnessed at the beginning, the new life they were making as a new family, now lying broken on the quiet pavement. How quickly things can change.

And so the return to England was followed by seemingly endless more weeks of school holiday – two different schools, two different counties. I had been looking forward to this time at home with my girls but by the end I had done the Ice Cream Farm and birthing lambs, the pottery café and swimming, so many times that even I was wearying – and there was always a child somewhere that had to be got to school or picked up from school or homework that had to be done. It was holiday, but it was normal routine: it was rest but it was also alarm clocks. By the end, I felt decidedly weird and the ‘Easter’ bit of the holidays a long distant memory. I have just wanted to write it down before it has gone too far to remember, disappearing as slowly and surely as the sands of time keep flowing…
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