Friday, 22 May 2009

Sinking Boats

Well, the long-awaited moment has arrived. The bags are packed (not), the legs are waxed (not) and we’re ready to go (not). Watch out Turkey, here we come!

This time a year ago, neither N or I could sail. We spent last May half term tacking around the Straits of Gibraltar learning How To. We haven’t been on a boat since. Yet here we are, insane or stupid enough to be taking our precious cargo of beautiful little girls on a 40ft boat around the western Mediterranean. Of course, this seemed like a good idea six months ago at the time of booking, but now the moment of truth has arrived, amid huge excitement from the junior crew (blessedly ignorant of their parents boating skills), and I have to admit to a few queasy moments wrapped up in notions of blatant parental irresponsibility. Ahem!

This is the first step, of course, towards a planned sabbatical. Well, planned as far as I am concerned (but N, of course, keeps moving the goalposts and finding excuses to delay). I have had this in my sniffer for nigh on 25 years, ever since we met a family doing the same in Rhodes one summer holiday nearly a quarter of a century ago (it doesn’t do to rush these things). So here we are, now, with our own little brood, about to test the ‘Family All Cooped Up On a Boat Together’ theory. My mother has her doubts. She always has her doubts. Isn’t that what mothers are for?

I have been frantically trying to locate Gocek on a map of Turkey, with surprising difficulty, so that I can google the weather forecast. I was determined that we should pack light, still haunted as I am by the memories of hauling a half tonne bag down the jetties of Gibraltar to the amusement of all the other Boaties, sitting smugly (and grubbily) in their ubiquitous shorts and T-shirt. I had, as ever, packed for all eventualities having not a clue what might actually be required. I then, of course, spent the whole week in the same pair of trousers and sweatshirt and could have saved myself a ricked back and a whole load of psychological trauma. (Ridiculously huge bag, however, did come into its own when it came to bringing the obligatory Moroccan rug back to Blighty. This was small consolation.)

I have now been packing for the last week (or three), trying to squeeze everything into ridiculously small bags. I have given up. We have huge bags again. Oh the shame. My stress not helped by going with another couple who still remember waiting outside our flat in Milan and counting 52 separate items being packed into our car for a ski trip in the Dolomites. And that was with just one baby. Curses, I am crap at packing. Far too many decisions. I go completely hot-headed and can’t think straight, despite hours sitting on the loo reading magazine articles all about ‘packing the perfect suitcase’ and ‘capsule wardrobes’ with just a handful of items which seamlessly translate from night to day with the casual addition of heels and jewellery. As if. The thing is, I HATE not having the right clothes. You feel such a tit if you get it wrong. Or you just feel cold. Or you just feel hot. BE PREPARED is my mantra. Which is why, of course, I’m taking everything bar the kitchen sink. And sink the boat I probably will as I bring all the ballast aboard to the amusement of all around. Mostly our friends. They have three boys and are unfussy people. They will have small bags. Sigh.

Right well, no time to sit here chatting. I’d better get off and unpack again in my third attempt to keep it simple. Think of me in three hours time flushed and swearing shoving everything back into the huge bags with hair lightening bleach smeared all over my arms and moustache and wax strips hanging off my legs while trying to water plants, feed the children, wash the dishes, empty the rubbish bins and generally pretend that I AM UNDER CONTROL!!!!

Now, I’m very un-modern and don’t have any swish 21st century gadgets like ipods, iphones, netbooks and the like. And I’m not a bird, so I don’t Twitter. Thus it will be glorious radio silence from me for a week or so. Enjoy the peace, and if you have an idle moment, think of a boat somewhere in Turkey leaving a messy trail of damage and sinking vessels in its wake as it leaves a once beautiful, ordered little harbour…

We may, or we may not, be back.

And just in case you miss me, you can always click here for our salty tales of Gibraltar last year and how we became Skipper and (In)competent Crew.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

A Sunny Day in May

As the rain blasts against the window and the sheep huddle under the horse chestnut, I thought I’d take us back to the sunshine and optimism of last Monday.

It was one of those rare but sublime days of crystalline light where everything shined with the reflective intensity of a newly scrubbed diamond. It was, quite simply, dazzling. Most of all, it was physically impossible to stay inside. The outside called from the moment I drew open the curtains in the morning.

So after the most cursory attempt at household chores, I was out there, camera in hand, to record the beauty of the hour, and the passage of early Spring into late Spring. Here is what I saw:

Forget-me-nots are a favourite of mine, for their colour, their simplicity and their tenacity.

The acid of euphorbia, the purple and white tulips, the sculptural bud of the allium, and the large leaves of comfrey are set against a mossy dry stone wall.

The view down to the reservoir.

The contrast of shiny dark purple tulips and white sweet scented narcissi in a tub.

Late planted daffodils struggling to keep their pretty heads above the fast-growing loostrife.

'Dingly dell' through which a small stream meanders with run-off water from the hills behind us. It is here that snowdrops flourish in late winter and now the bluebells are just beginning to take over (as the lesser celandine subsides).

This small bright red rhododendron looks a little lost right now, but it was planted to help replace some of the mature ones which we lost (over-zealous chain-saw wielding bloke!) when the dell was cleared (necessary maintenance) in the autumn.

This is the top of Dingly Dell where the stream enters the garden over a stone waterfall. We had the scrubby wild rhododendrons and other undergrowth cleared from around it last autumn and now, during winter, after heavy rains, we can see the torrent from our dining room window.

This is the 'Witch's Face' - can you see it in the stones at the base of the tree trunk? Two slitty eyes, a nose and a crooked mouth. Currently a little cluttered, I'm afraid, by a wood pile which doesn't normally live there and a rather unsightly old petrol can (all part of the autumn cutting and clearing and burning process). This is actually the site of an old fountain. I would love to get it up and running again one day.

This is the very top of the garden which we keep wild, apart from cutting a path through the tall grass. This is also where we have a small vegetable patch, a greenhouse, raspberry canes, blackcurrant bushes, gooseberry bushes and some apple trees. I love it up here.

This is looking back at the main lawn with the cherry blossom and the copper beach looking fresh and splendid at this time of year.

A large tub of tulips adds colour to the terrace and an early-flowering clematis is decorating the wall above.

I suddenly heard a load of bleating and caffuffle, and rushed round to the front of the house, overlooking the lane, just in time to catch sheep rush hour.

You can just see the green bench where I love to have coffee and look at the view. We call it 'Billy's Bench' in memory of N's late father who loved sitting on it on our terrace in Milan, smoking his pipe and contemplating life. I trust he still sits here sometimes now when we are not looking. He was born in Greater Manchester and though he had to move down south after the death of his mother when he was just seven years old, he remained misty eyed about his north-west roots. It is a tragedy that he never lived to know that this is where his eldest son has ended up...

And this is the view that we breathe in.

Having toured the garden, I decided it was time to make a cup of tea, sit on the bench and gird my loins for a phonecall I knew I would find difficult. It started ok, but by the end I was taken over by some hidden and supposedly long buried emotions – the conversation had sparked a load of happy yet painful feelings coming back to me, as I feared it would, and I found myself with tears flowing despite the beauty all around me. To subdue the memories of far away sea shores, oysters, friendship, and simple but complicated love I knew I had to go for a walk – to connect fully with where I am now, the place in which I currently live on that glorious sunny day last week. It felt good to be alone with my thoughts and my camera – simply appreciating the space, the air, the views and nature around me. There is no better tonic than a spring lamb in a green field by a stream on a sunny day in May.

Wherever you may be, if you are having a 'grey day', I hope this may have lifted your spirits a little too.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Miracles of Nature

In my post 'Fleeting Delights’ I mentioned long tailed tits and the pleasure their little dance had given me in a mundane moment one morning at home. Equally special was the nest (pictured above) I found lying on the grass shortly after we got home after the Easter holidays. I couldn’t see where it had come from, but it was just lying on the lawn in all its quiet splendour, and I had no idea what bird had constructed it. It had clearly been blown out of somewhere by the high winds.

I took it into the village school with L as their topic this term is ‘Holes’ – and it struck me that the opening into the nest was a perfect example of the topic. After looking at the way the nest had been so beautifully constructed with moss, lichen, feathers and fibres, it was gently placed in a box and put on a side table. I had been muttering to the Head Teacher for a while that I thought we should try and find space for a Nature Table, and I’m delighted to say that bringing in this nest seems to have kick-started the process. When I came back into school that afternoon to pick L up, the nest was accompanied by some information sheets which had been pulled off the internet, together with a drawing of a long-tailed tits nest which was absolutely identical to the one I had found, confirming it was made by those little feathered friends of mine I had watched with such delight.

I did a bit of my own research and have learnt that these elaborate domed nests are often placed in the middle of thorny bushes, such as gorse. The nest has an outer structure, which is then lined with up to 2,600 feathers, a process that may take up to 39 days to complete. The birds prefer feathers which are between 2 and 4cm long and it seems that the Long-tailed Tits use the feather lining to regulate the temperature within the nest and are able to accurately gauge how many feathers they need to get the temperature they want. You may want to click here to learn a little bit more, together with this BBC Nature link.

It is simply incredible to think how these tiny creatures could build something so extraordinary in its engineering and design – and identical to the pictures we found. Who teaches them how to do it? Is it just some intuitive force of Nature? It really is quite remarkable and shows again how Nature never ceases to fascinate and amaze.

Hence my belief in the importance of the Nature Table, and I am delighted that there has recently been a move to bring them back into schools. The Nature Table was something that my generation grew up with – a generation whose young lives were so much simpler than they seem to be now. Computers as we know them today did not exist, let alone the World Wide Web and a generation obsessed and reliant on technology that such advancements have spawned.

While I can appreciate the good things it has brought, I cannot help but be nostalgic for a world that was slower and perhaps a little more in touch with the fundamentals of life. These days we spend so much time rushing around or staring at screens, whether computer or plasma TV, that many have not learned (or, at best, have forgotten) the importance of stopping, looking, touching, listening and smelling. There is so much beauty and wonder around us and far too often, it seems to me, it is overlooked or unappreciated.

The example of the Tit’s nest is just one tiny one in a micro world that goes on around us every day.

For me, bringing back the Nature Table in schools is just one small but important step in reminding our children that the natural world is a place of endless fascination, from which many lessons in science, geography, engineering and social behaviour can be learnt, and which can build a loving appreciation of our own place within it. In short, it can help re-connect us with where humankind ultimately came from and, as such, my hope would be that it could also encourage a greater humility and a renewed connection with, and appreciation of, our natural environment.

Footnote: Country Living has been running a campaign to bring back the Nature Table in schools. For more information, click here.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Fridge Food - Two Italian Salads

Just so you don't think I've been slacking, I've just written a new post on my Fridge Food blog. If the sunshine earlier in the week got you excited and you like Italian food, then go take a look.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Words of Wisdom from a Six Year Old

At breakfast today, L looked up from her bowl of porridge - all just-out-of-bed mad professor hair, dark round eyes and freckles - and said, from nowhere:

"Cool girls that think they're cool go out with boys with guns in their pockets and hoods up". She added, as an afterthought, "And skateboards".

Is she right? Is this really what we have become? If this is what a six year old who watches Peppa Pig and Charlie and Lola perceives, then Houston, I think we have a problem.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Gurkha Campaign

If you've been prepared to die for our country, surely you have a right to live here? Far more than many who are daily allowed through the gates....

What do you think?

(Read more here.)
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