Thursday, 23 December 2010

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Herewith a little ditty I penned for Christmas (John Betjemen need not worry yet! - though he may turn in his grave) which some of you may empathise with. Just a bit of fun at a hectic time of year:-


The Merry Go Christmas Round

The halls are decked,
The tree is up,
It’s time to make the Christmas cup:
Pour in the cider,
Pour in the wine,
We’re going to have a fine old time!

Blue lights flashing
everywhere,
Anymore and I’ll go spare:
Blow up Santas,
Golden sleighs,
Let’s have a party, weh hey hey!

Big fat turkeys,
Ribs of beef,
Christmas fayre is such a treat.
Where’s the stuffing?
Where’s the pud?
My, oh my, it tastes so good!

In-laws coming,
Out-laws too,
Let’s cook up a turkey stew.
All those presents,
All that booze,
Time to go and have a snooze.

So that was Christmas
Don’t you think?
Too much time at the kitchen sink.
Roll on New Year
Roll on fast
Bloomin’ heck that’s another year passed!

Bah Humbug!

And my Christmas gift to you all (wait for it...) .... is a new Fridge Food post (hurrah!) which may give you an option if you're looking for an easy, but hearty, meal over the Christmas and New Year period when you're feeling fed up with cooking anything even vaguely demanding. And if you're fed up with bloody turkey and ham. Click HERE if you are interested.

Ok, that's all folks for now! Have a very MERRY CHRISTMAS if I don't get here again (folks are driving up the motorway to land on me as I type - AND I'M NOT READY!!) and I've a drinks party to prepare for tonight as well. So...

....start popping the corks!
x

Ps: my blogging and Purplecoo friend, Tattie Weasle, has written a far better ditty over at hers. Click here to read it for some more Christmas merriment!

PPS: my father sent me an email with a YouTube link called 'The Digital Nativity'. It had me crying with laughter. Click here if you fancy a giggle.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Reflections on a Funeral

A week has passed since the funeral of our farmer and I am looking back and reflecting. One of the hardest things about any funeral service, or service of remembrance, is listening to the eulogy. You often learn so much more about the person in that one speech than you might in a lifetime of acquaintance. Even with good friends or relatives, the people who have lived closest with them, on a daily basis, are really the only ones who know the person well. I always end up feeling slightly cheated, that I wish I had spent more time with them, that I wish I had asked them more questions, had more conversations. But suddenly it is too late. Time has been called and you've missed your chance.

We learnt some details of the farmer's life and character that we hadn't known before: the fact that his farm and farmhouse was the very same in which he was born and brought up; the fact that his own father died at 64 (just one year younger than himself) and how devastated he was and how, at a young age, he took on the work of the farm full time. We heard the stories of him as a lad, more interested in the sheep and the dairy herd than in his schoolwork; how he would hide in the meadows and do almost anything to avoid being locked in a classroom. We heard tales of mischief and tales of his dedication to his own family and close friends: how he would take his own son around the daily duties of the farm just like his father before him; how he loved nothing better than cooking and eating in his own farmhouse kitchen with those he loved most around him; how he relished his Sunday roasts and freshly shot game (if you were a vegetarian at the wake, you would have gone hungry); how he loved his horses and traps, his rare breed sheep and all the traditional, old-fashioned methods of farming. He could be a rascal and a bit of a bugger too, but always with his pipe in his mouth and a twinkle in his eye. It was no surprise, then, when it came to lowering his coffin into the frozen ground, it wouldn't fit. They tried every which angle, but to no avail. As his widow said, it was as if he was shouting 'I'm not bloody going in there!' and in the end she was reduced to shouting out 'Has anyone got a crowbar?' before suggesting stamping on it herself. Humour to the end. What a fitting tribute.

In sadness, joy can usually be found, if you look hard enough. As I have driven up and down our lane this snowy week, passing their farmhouse at the end of it down by the village pub, I have often thought of the family left behind. Yet though a huge part of it is missing in person, the spirit is still there. The son is taking on the farming duties around his job as an electrician - as he has been doing anyway throughout his father's illness. He surrounds himself with his mates who come and help him when they can - a bunch of lively young lads who stumbled out of the pub, slipping and sliding in the snow, on the way to the church laughing and saying 'You'd never believe we're going to a f****** funeral'. Death is not something the young usually fear even if it brushes close by them. Even if you have secret worries about it (as I have done from the age of 13 - an unhealthy preoccupation with the passage of time), you can reassure yourself that you've probably got a few years left yet and can shove those darker thoughts to the back of your mind. But the truth is, none of us know when our number will be up. For that reason alone, it is so important to try and find joy every day - in the simple tasks of life, in the world that surrounds us, in our family, and in our friendships. For me that is perhaps the truest definition of 'living life to the full'. Every day we wake up and see the sun rise is a bonus, every day we see the sun set is a blessing. The rhythms of life will go on long after we are gone. While we are here, we should simply try and enjoy them. The farmer enjoyed his life and there is much we could all learn from his simple priorities: family, food, farming, fun. It was a kind of no-fuss life as far as I can see, and a wonderful tonic in a world that, in these modern times, too often spins too fast.


Thursday, 9th December 2010

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Eternity

I am sitting at my bedroom windowsill looking out over the fields and hills that I loved from the moment I first set eyes on them. The sense of eternity embraces the valley in a way that I find hard to put into words. Perhaps it is the fact that the rock and mineral that shapes the landscape has been here for millenia more than us, pre-dating an Ice Age which we can never imagine (although perhaps more easily today in the blanket of snow which covers us). This horseshoe valley was shaped later by glacial erosion and left behind the vista we see before us now.

A weak sun illuminates the scene from time to time, warming gently from on high. The fields in front of me are empty of sheep, the gate swings open and tractor tracks pattern the snow on the lane. My mind is wandering around the corridors of memory, searching for images of the farmer whose sheep filled the land in front of me. His was the old Land Rover which passed by on the day we first came to view the house, locked into the rhythms of rural life, of tending flock and pasture.

In an hour or two we will be at his funeral. He prematurely left this life in mid November on the day my late father-in-law was born. His presence in this valley has been slight since just before lambing time, his life ebbing away as new life was born. His family have farmed the land for generations, they are part of the historical framework of the village. Black and white photographs in the pub bear testament to the characters, once in abundance, who shared the burden of rural life in these hills and valleys. As each year passes they become fewer and fewer, their spirits absorbed into rock, moor, stream and meadow.

As I look across these frozen fields today I see only a man standing ruminatively with flat cap on his head, pipe in mouth and sheepdog by his side, watching over his flock. It was a real image, one day when I opened the curtains; now it is just in my mind's eye.

But the time has come to step out into the softly falling snowflakes, into a landscape suffused with peace, to commit this well-loved man to God and earth. To eternity.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The twists and turns of life and tyres

Life has taken some extraordinary twists and turns in the last week or so and I'm still in the middle of some difficult stuff. I've found myself without time or energy to write despite fragments of ideas coming to me at strange times and places when I am without pen, paper or computer.

So much has been happening but so much that I can't write about for various reasons. I'm finding it hard to put words to emotions anyway - something which normally comes easily enough to me. There is much around me at the moment that is in limbo, and limbo is a state which is always de-energising.

I have found this brief moment to write while waiting at Selecta Tyres to get my winter treads put back on. It hardly seems a moment ago that I was having them taken off, yet here we are suddenly only a few weeks away from Christmas (quick panic attack). Mercifully, unlike the first time I had this done, I have snuck in before they have felt the need to drape tinsel over the tyres in the waiting room or plug in their flashing 'Merry Christmas' sign above the drinks dispenser. Instead I am just freezing cold and am dying to go to the loo. I came in at 3.30pm, they said I'd be done by 4pm and it is now nearly 5pm. All the other things I planned to do I've had to abandon and I've just texted E to let her know I'll be late collecting her from choir practice at school. I'm watching MotoGP on a loop - lots of fast bikes and nasty crashes (obviously haven't got the right tyres on) - and trying to decide whether this is preferable to the promotional video about the benefits of wheel alignment which I had the pleasure of seeing about 50 times while I sat on this same sofa last year.

Two years ago everyone looked at me slightly quizically when I said I had winter tyres on my car. I was clearly a bit of an oddball. But having lived in northern Europe where winter tyres are obligatory in many places, and now ensconced in a suitably harsh climate in the UK, it was a logical step. Now, of course, after last winter's countrywide freeze, the whole nation has suddenly decided that it's not such a silly idea after all and I'm now pissed off that I can't seem to get tyres for N's car for love nor money. In retail speak, There Has Been a Rush on winter tyres and now I'm irritated that I've been beaten at my own game. Should have kept my mouth shut. Particularly annoying as I am due to go to York this weekend and snow is forecast and we need the bigger capacity Volvo. Still, there's a spray can of 'Liquid Chains' on the counter. £28.99. That will do. And if it doesn't work we will be enacting one of the alarming skiddy shut-your-eyes horror crashes that I have just been witnessing on the reassuringly large Sony flatscreen. At least I am mentally prepared.

Watch this space.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Things I have done today



Friday 12th November 2010

Things I have done today:

1. Woken up to Classic FM – Saint Saens ‘Dance Macabre’ – scared the cat off the bed.
2. Woken girls who fell back to sleep after their alarm went off.
3. Made cup of tea.
4. Fed cat.
5. Chivvied children.
6. Taken them to school bus.
7. Missed bus.
8. Taken them to next stop.
9. Gossiped with neighbour.
10. Made another cup of tea.
11. Emptied dryer.
12. Paired a laundry basket full of almost identical (but not quite) white socks.
13. Done an hour’s ironing while watching ‘Lorraine’. Apart from the fact it was with Fiona, not Lorraine. Not good. Remind me not to do that again. Felt slightly queasy by end.
14. Made toast and marmite.
15. Texted friend whose father gravely ill. Felt very sad.
16. Emptied dishwasher.
17. Loaded dishwasher.
18. Unloaded dryer and washing machine and put stuff in dryer.
19. Put dark wash in (two muddy coats – one is the gardener’s which was lying around the potting shed and I felt generous; the other is mine from when I went arse-over-tit in the mud outside ballet on Monday).
20. Took rotting stuff out to compost heap.
21. Noticed bird feeder on ground (blown off in gales) and brought inside to wash having learnt on Autumnwatch last night that greenfinches currently dying hand over fist due to dirty bird feeders. Mine even had bird poo inside it, so clearly high time to do some Bird Housework.
22. Missed a phone call from Brother-in-Law while dallying at compost heap.
23. Phoned Brother-in-Law back. Informed me that Woman’s Hour about to do a feature on the exhibition I went to see with him at The Lowry while he was visiting earlier in the week. Discussed Christmas presents and plans for New Year.
24. Listened to the feature on Woman’s Hour and then got sucked into another one on Housework. Very apt.
25. Called School Bus company to see if friend’s child’s mobile phone been found (doing this as favour to said friend’s mother who’s currently looking after children for two weeks while friend in Mexico. All right for some.) Phone found. Phew.
26. Phoned worried grandmother to give her the happy news. Offered to pick it up for her on Monday. Offer accepted.
27. Stripped double bed and put clean sheets on (including pillowcase protectors which have been meaning to change for months).
28. Made girls’ beds (they should have done this – considered leaving them but have babysitter coming tonight and did not want to appear slovenly or uncaring, especially in light of radio feature on Housework).
29. Had shower.
30. Sorted out a pink wash from the girls’ dirty clothes baskets.
31. Taken out previous wash and hung up by Aga to dry.
32. Set pink wash off.
33. Made cup of frothy cappuccino and eaten two Abernethy biscuits (reward).
34. Texted N to wish him a good lunch (posh one at L’Escargot in London to celebrate (??) 25 years of working for the same company)
35. Swept up leaves (as gales conveniently blown them into relatively neat piles and currently neither howling gale nor pissing with rain – grab moment when you can round these parts).
36. Potted up two cyclamen and put by front door. Rearranged pots, cleared leaves and took pumpkins inside (never did get round to carving them).
37. Pruned, in slightly desultory fashion, cotoneaster, a rose and wisteria. Will return to do more thorough job when have more time.
38. Cleared up debris and made mental list of everything there is to do in garden (including major tree surgery).
39. Put fat balls in feeder and noted continued presence of mouse in potting shed eating bulbs and bird food.
40. Looked over piles of crap in stable and felt faint.
41. Peered into plastic shopping bags and sorted Christmas presents into a box.
42. Took box down to cellar.
43. Looked over piles of crap in cellar and felt faint.
44. Fiddled around down there for a bit trying to impose a little order on the chaos. Tip of iceberg.
45. Made lunch (wrap with houmous, rocket and cherry tomatoes).
46. Sent text to friend about travel arrangements for tonight.
47. Turned on computer.
48. Checked emails.
49. Sent email.
50. Got phone call from friend about tonight’s travel arrangements. Sorted.
51. Called to arrange massage and spa session in Buxton spa before gift voucher (given to me for my birthday in June) expires.
52. Made mental list of everything I still had to do before picking up girls from bus.
53. Felt faint.
54. Collected girls from bus.
55. Listened to girls’ tales from school.
56. Made lasagne from the weekend’s Bolognese sauce.
57. Helped with homework.
58. Got ready to go out.
59. Drunk too much.
60. Suffered legless husband, freshly pissed from Big London Lunch.
61. Gone to bed too late.


Things I have not done today.

1. Too numerous to mention.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Coming Home

Coming back from holiday is rarely joyous: mountains of mail blocking your front door, a reminder of all you left behind; dust and cobwebs; sagging house plants; the dead flowers you forgot to take out of the the vase in the rush to leave. In our case the house was also perishing cold as our heating is leading a life of its own at the moment and clearly decided to take a holiday too.

Yet, despite all this, for once I was neither downcast nor despondent. I put on the kettle to make a cup of tea and let my eyes fall on the garden, so changed since we left just over a week ago. The late afternoon light was golden, warming the burnished autumn colours still further.The skeletons of the trees were starting to reveal themselves a little more clearly as they slowly shed their yellow, brown and red coats onto the still green lawn below. The sky above was clear October blue. I stepped outside and smelt the subtle shift in season too: a new sharpness to the air laden with woody undertones and memories of Autumns past. How strange it is that at this seasonal winding down towards winter and hibernation, Autumn, which holds the new scholastic year, is a time of new beginnings for so many.

As we had flown back into Manchester, for once through cloudless skies, I chanced to look out of the window just as we were passing over Combs Moss - the magnificent horsehoe of high moorland which cradles the glacial valley in which our village lies. I had never seen it so staggeringly clearly before, standing proud and unmistakeable in the Peak District landscape: the iconic shape of Castlenaze and its Iron Age fort, the deep V-shaped cuts in the mountainside down which wild streams flow, the bumps and grooves of its majestic silhouette which I have come to know so well. It is this view that I look out on every day from my windows, a view which never ceases to inspire in all its seasonal moods.

I returned to the boiling kettle and made a cup of tea. We were home.


Castlenaze


September rainbow

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Dolphin Delights

Just as an aside, I wanted to alert anyone who's interested to the programme I watched with the girls (when they were meant to be doing their homework!) on dolphins last night as part of BBC 2's Natural World series. Not only was the photography stunning and set in the extraordinarily remote and beautiful Shark Bay in Australia, but the insight into these remarkable animals is unmissable.

I always knew how intelligent they are but this programme revealed whole new levels of knowledge on the social framework of dolphin communities - with one of the central characters being a female who they have been watching for 23 years I think it was (one of the girls spoke just at the wrong moment!). This soulful matriarch, with her family of at least 8 I believe, could teach lessons to many a human mother, that is for sure.

The other point of interest for me was that, by strange coincidence, I have just finished reading Bill Bryson's book on Australia, Down Under, in which he makes a visit to Shark Bay to view some unique and fascinating things called Stromatolites which are the oldest known form of life on the planet. Having read the passages he wrote on this with great interest it was good to see the physical reality and beauty of Shark Bay on screen.

If you have enough broadband width to watch BBC iPlayer (sadly I don't), then make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, or pour yourself a glass of wine and click on the link below (or the one in the opening paragraph). And in the process of writing this post, I also came across a great site which had an article on Shark Bay, the dolphin project and the ecological significance of Shark Bay. It's worth reading. Here are the links again:

BBC 2 Natural World

Shark Bay

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A Moment of Reflection


I have just eaten my lunch outside on the front terrace in soft September sun. Of course, it's actually October, but today feels like its softer sibling. The sun is hot yet burnless, warming my back as I write; the air is slightly milky and completely still. Save for the buzz of flies, the crisp rasp of a dry leaf as the cat shifts her position in the sun, the distant barking of a dog, the caw of crows, the lowing of cattle and, way across the valley, the intermittent drone of a chainsaw and the calls of playing children, all is calm. A plume of grey smoke, too far away to scent the air, drifts gently upwards from the green valley floor to the blue sky above where not a cloud breaks its perfect cian expanse.

Sitting at my round white metal table, this vista before me, I wish I'd come out earlier. Chores, as ever have kept me inside. I had paperwork to sort out, calls to make, bills to pay. I had not even noticed that the day had turned so good. Only when my stomach rumbled, and a baked potato and coleslaw called, did I discover what I had been missing.

In a few days' time I am on the move again. There are bags to be packed and things to sort out. It is the half term holiday and we are using one of the two weeks we are given in this long Autumn term to go and find the sea again, the last splash of latest summer before the clocks turn and all becomes dark and cold once more.

Although just a few posts back I was writing of our summer in France, that all seems a lifetime away. This first half of term has hit me like a juggernaut. In nearly seven weeks I do not seem to have got to grips with everything that has been thrown at me. I have felt nothing less than bamboozled by life, yet I am not quite sure why. I have struggled with the events happening around me to my friends and family (death, divorce and debt among them), and I have struggled with keeping on top of everything that has been going on with the girls at the busy start to this new school year. My diary has been a constant zone of head-on collisions, all of which have to be worried about and sorted. There has been an endless flow of events scholastic, business and social, all of which need managing, organizing, preparing for.

I am trying to get used to my eldest daughter being in senior school and helping her, in turn, get used to the new independence expected of her. I am trying to remember the new forms, teachers and activities that they are all involved in. Pantomimes, musicals, ballet exams, Brownie camps, trips, tests, matches, races and competitions all vie for attention amongst the daily grind of homework and housework. N is a nebulous presence in the background of our days. If we were divorced I somteimes wonder if it would make any difference (yes, I quickly answer, as it would mean less food to prepare, less nagging from him about mess around the house, fewer work dinners to go to, fewer shirts to launder...where are the papers, I'll sign, I'll sign!). But no, I do believe that we would miss that presence, however nebulous, truly I do. It just needs to be less crabby, less stressed. That is no way to live. He needs a proper holiday. I don't want him to bring a single paper of work, yet I fear he will and the complete break he so badly needs, and never gets, will remain just out of reach.

Tomorrow I am away to my gardening course and I must learn my latin names for an identification test. I have two bay trees to re-pot, tomatoes to tend, plum jam to make. I should be writing up notes for the gardening club I run at the village school (I passed by this morning just to check on our pumpkins and carrots, cauliflowers and parsley). Today is a day for being outside. The lawn has had its final cut of the year and is looking soft and alluring. The trees are turning, all in their own time: some are dusty grey-green, others have golden highlights on their leafy crowns. A few lupins still colour the garden, white and pale pink anemones too; red berries of cotoneaster, the hips and the haws. Dark pink cosmos and sedum, white arenaria, bright yellow hypericum and antirrhinum, and the pale mauve of scabious all add their notes to the harmony of the autumn borders. All nature is calming down, save the fruiting trees, in preparation for the death or dormancy of the winter months. The sap is returning to the earth from whence its energy came, before rising again next Spring in the continual cycle of regeneration.

But now the hour of sublimity I have alloted myself is sadly past and I should return to the tasks before me. As I tread gingerly back over the chicken shit and the headless mouse by the back door, I am grateful for this moment of reflection. I know how lucky I really am.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

New Fridge Food Post

It's been a long time coming, but have finally got round to posting something new over at Fridge Food - a thrown together supper of tomato, chorizo and bacon pasta. So easy, remarkably good. Go see.

x

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Coming Home

Our journey back north from the south coast of England was uneventful compared to the same from the south to the north of France. The most notable element was stopping at Warwick Services on the M40 for a quick food shop at the small Waitrose branch they have there – surely the most civilised aspect of the place – and we were even seduced into buying a ‘cool bag’ for a quid (when you spent £15 or more). Ah yes, we were back in England all right.

This was further confirmed as we approached Buxton which was living up to its status as the wettest place in England as high winds drove rain hard and horizontal at the car. Welcome home! Spirits were not high at this point but mercifully the rain eased as we drove into the village and N noted how it was the first time for as long as he can remember unpacking the car from a holiday a) in daylight and b) without it pissing with rain. Reasons to be cheerful, then.

And so we put the kettle on (it was still only 10.45am as we had disembarked from the ferry at the ungodly hour of 7am) and tried to accustom ourselves again to these northern climes and atmospheres and this old stone house.

The sun was strong enough and the wind weak enough to be able to enjoy lunch outside on the front terrace, next to the lane. As we chomped we admired the beautiful view around us and admitted that it wasn’t a bad place to live really. In fact, I don’t believe we have ever eaten out on the front terrace before and it was therefore wildly peverse that not long after we’d sat down we were suddenly crowded out and being made to feel self-conscious by a load of horse riders who congregated right in front of us; this followed immediately by three stinking old Land Rovers who then pulled tight up against our low wall, belching fumes to let the riders move on before deciding that they’d made a wrong turn. So they then sat there even longer deliberating noisily before, one by one, they used our drive to turn around in. All this in the 15 minutes in which we were trying to sit outside and enjoy a peaceful lunch. Quite unbelievable! But we had to laugh...

The following few days, before the girls were back at school, we were blessed with fine weather. The September sun bathed the fields in golden light while the farmers busied themselves with haymaking. We watched as tractors plied up and down, first cutting the meadows, then coming back to spread the cuttings with whisk-like attachments. Once dried, they were back to heap the hay into long lines so all the fields became deliciously stripey, before finally returning to bail it up into neat rectangles.




The air was sweet and dusty and full of the sounds of rural work. I almost felt moved to go out proferrring jugs of cool homemade lemonade to the hot field hands but decided this was a little too Tess of the D’Urbervilles for my own good. And they might get the wrong idea with all those haystacks about (...who am I trying to kid?! an old hag like me…).

We even managed to get the bikes out and cycle down the lane and through the village to a favourite spot by the stream which meanders through the valley. We took a rug and picnic, paddled and played pooh sticks while cattle and an ageing mare (no, silly, not me!) drifted lazily around us. It was all very Cider with Rosie – and the sort of gentle summer holiday pursuit that I always dream of doing with the children but rarely achieve because it’s pissing with rain and howling a gale.

The girls were back at school before we knew it. We’re still trying to get back into the routines of term time and I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that E has moved on to senior school. She will grow up so fast now.

While I have been away a baby has been born, a friend’s father has been dying, someone else has been made redundant and much more in-between. Life continues to change for everyone and I have felt a strong desire to change something too. So I have ditched yoga (for now) in favour of a gardening course. I know it is the right decision – it has made me very happy already. A long time ago at university, reading Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ from his ‘Contes Philosophiques’, I took on board his advice on the last page of the tale: ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin.’ While, of course, this was philosophical in intent, the literal and practical implementation of it leads back to the philosophy: when out in my garden, digging, planting, nurturing, maintaining and creating, I am simply playing out the fundamentals of a contented life. There is hope and expectation, hard work and disappointment; but by being physically in touch with earth, air and water, and the cyclical energy of death and renewed life, my spirit is entirely at peace. I understand more and more, as each day passes, that this is the direction my life is taking, that this is where my experience of the world has led me, and that this is where fulfilment lies.



September 2010

Monday, 6 September 2010

Sunset over Rennes

As we hurtled our way towards the northern French seabord, I glanced left just as the autoroute climbed higher ground and suddenly revealed a beautiful red orb eaten into on its lower circumference by the silhouetted skyline of Rennes. The Eagles were filling the car with a live version of 'Tequila Sunrise' (not literally, of course - would be a bit cramped) and though it was the end of the day, not the beginning, the conjunction of image, mood and music was sublime.

We had left the house far too late, as usual (just trying to finish off those last jobs and close things up for the next few months), and endured a nail-bitingly slow journey up the western edge of France as everyone returned home, like us, from their holidays, cars stuffed to the gunnels with suitcases, pushchairs, surfboards, bodyboards, spare loo rolls and nappies: long queues at the peage, smoke drifting listlessly out of open windows. 25 degrees, blue skies, a few puffy clouds - a perfect day for basking on a beach - but here we all were, heading home on hot tarmac.

We finally cleared Paris traffic at Niort and were able to really put our foot down - and put our foot down we really had to do. We had three and a half hours until the end of ferry check-in time and about 350 miles to travel, with two cities, Nantes and Rennes, still to get round. You can do the maths. Forget pleasing notions of 'the last supper in France' - it was a hastily purchased ham and cheese sandwich for the second time that day, crisps and some mini saucisson (surprisingly good).

Still, this was an improvement on last year when we congratulated ourselves on reaching St Malo just in time for supper before tipping onto the ferry - only to discover, replete with good food and wine, at a completely vehicle-free check-in, that we were in the wrong port. Divorce was on the cards when we burst an expensive tyre at 1 o'clock in the morning on a ridiculous piece of high pavement jutting unexpectedly out into the middle of the road as we drove round in circles trying to find the hotel that we'd hastily had to book in Caen before trying to get a place on the first ferry out the next morning. N and I were screaming at eachother, the children were crying, my bladder was about to burst and in the end I had to relieve it, sobbing and exhausted, by the side of the road while N changed the tyre (which necessitated unpacking and re-packing the entire contents of a hugely loaded boot to access the spare). A costly supper indeed, and the car still bears the scars of the impact with a now permanently bent wheel rim which judders irritatingly around 70mph.

Meanwhile, the year before that, we got the time wrong of the ferry and had to book hotels and change ferry bookings in the car on the way up - so you can see, our record is not good. Even this year N thought we were returning home on the Sunday not the Saturday - at least I'd double-checked that one. I'm learning.

The sunset stayed on our western flank all the way up to the approaches to Caen, bleeding rouge into the darkening sky, and the Eagles stayed with us too. Unfortunately (though not entirely unpredictably), as they sang out 'Down a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair' our own dark highway was suddenly lit up by a blue flashing light which kindly accompanied us to a side road with a helpful message in glowing red lights saying 'Suivez-Moi'. As we finally pulled up in some back lane off the autoroute I grabbed the small green bottle residing in the drinks holder on the dashboard hissing 'God, hide the beer bottle!' An open window, 'Bonsoir Monsieur', and the happy knowledge that we had been clocked doing 183kmph ensued. N was naturally accused of being either drunk or on drugs but the breathalizer mercifully showed 0 (I'd shared the beer with N and he'd drunk half a litre of water too).

Feeling the situation rather desperately required a context, I chipped in helpfully with 'Non, non, Monsieur, it's just that we're in a hurry because we have to catch the ferry at 10.30' (voice pitch rising slightly to suggest urgency).
'Ah, ok' replied one of the officers, adding with surprising accommodation: 'Then I shall be as quick as I can!'

There followed the inevitable filling in of forms and a request for 90 euros. We only had 100 and they had no change, so they got a beer on us. Annoying, but possibly fair in the circumstances. We were advised that just 5kmph more and the driver's licence would have been removed. Good to know.

So we were cut free from the restraints of a 'fair cop' at 10pm which left us half an hour to get to the ferry. By now the warm red glow in the sky had turned to cool silvery-gold, as a waning full moon had taken over the choreography of the skies and was dramatically backlighting a large cumulo-nimbus cloud directly ahead of us. N was still fretting and I kept having to repeat, soothingly, 'Don't worry, we're going to make it' and (slightly less soothingly), 'But for God's sake stick to the limit!'

It was notable that we saw not one other British car on the approaches to Caen and on the way to the port at Ouisterham, presumably because they'd all got there in marvellously good time and had enjoyed a splendid 'last supper' at a leisurely and digestable pace.

We finally drew up to the ferry check-in at 10.20pm on the dot. Seven hours and 20 minutes of somewhat stressful driving from the bottom left-hand corner of France on one of the busiest travelling days of the year - and we get there right to the minute! This was particularly pleasing for me, the navigator, as it was the EXACT time that check-in began and validated all my original calculations as to the rather 'juste' nature of the task ahead of us - and N's endless questions about how many kilometres we had still to go, so he could work out what average speed had to be achieved on any given section of the journey. But that's the trouble with us Bodens - every minute really does count.

The icing on the cake, however, was when we drove onto the ferry and were directed onto the ramp. We were just catching our breath and sorting out the chaos within the car when one of the crew started banging on our window rather tetchily and asked us to 'Hurry up!' We had done nothing but 'hurry up' for the last seven and a half hours, for God's sake, and here we were being told to again! It seemed they needed to get the ramp pulled up presto so that they could get the rest of the cars loaded underneath. So with that, swearing mightily, I had to scramble about clutching and dropping passports, handbag, overnight bags, cabin tickets, coats, rubbish and all, and get the hell out of Dodge so they could pull the wretched ramp up. Absolument Typique.

With cabin eventually located (5 of us in a 4-bunker - joy), we were quick to deposit our stuff and scuttle out again in search of a well-needed drink. In fact we felt we had perhaps earned that good supper after all and were pleased to find the secluded 'Comptoir des Plaisirs' area, away from the hordes hanging out noisily at the bar and the canteen, where we shared gin and tonics and a bottle of Loire red and enjoyed a surprisingly good one-course meal with a plate of cheese and coffee to follow. The girls explored the ship a bit and then settled down to a game of cards nearby (they were taught a new game rather charmingly called 'shit-head' by friends early in the holiday and had become complete card sharks playing it at every opportunity whether that be on the beach, in the car, in their beds - and every time I saw them at it I imagined the green baize table-top, the yellow pool of light and the shiny green visors like a scene out of The Cincinnati Kid or something).

In due course, tired but replete, we took a brief stroll out onto the deck before heading to our quarters. The moon was leaving its own silver wake on the inky water below and in the distance colourful fireworks were exploding silently into the night sky. The holidays were over; we were on our way home.


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PS: have tried in vain to publish a really boring video with this post. For the moment you have been spared, but if I ever crack it I will come back and torture you with it!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Letter from Les Landes, Saturday 14th August

Our lunch was rudely interrupted yesterday by a youngish man in camouflage-patterned combat trousers and T-shirt enquiring who owned the land next to us. We told him it belonged to the 'commune' (i.e the Mairie, or Mayor) and politely enquired why he was asking. He didn't seem inclined to tell us, so when I said that, actually, a part of the land was ours (true enough, though sadly only a metre-wide strip the other side of the stream) and that therefore we had reason to know, he informed us he was looking at buying some suitable 'parcelle' of land to make a botanical garden. The piece of land in question, full of natural springs, would, of course, be ideal and save a lot of watering...



Although, to the outsider, this may seem an admirable enough idea, his plan was to encourage tourists and schools visits which seems a little inappropriate in a narrow residential lane squeezed between two houses, thus ruining the privacy and tranquillity of both. When there is miles of forest in all directions, it seems a tad perverse to come and trample over our space - like the people who come and sit pretty much on your towel when there's acres of beach all around. The young gun in combats then further aided my sudden attack of indigestion by announcing that 'better this than a house'. I muttered that the ground had been declared 'inconstructible' - i.e un-buildable on - because of the aforementioned natural springs which have their source there. To this he countered, ominously, 'all ground can be made 'constructible' ' and that sure as eggs is eggs there would be a house on it one day. I was not amused.

This brings me neatly to a current large juicy bone of contention (not just here in France, but in my hilly English home too): it seems that wherever I find to rest my caravan that is beautiful, and which I love for its peace and natural wonders, there's always some bastard who wants to come along and destroy it. Back home, many other local residents and I are currently engaged in a battle against Barratt Homes who are in cohoots with the local authorities and want to build 550 unremarkable houses whose need has not been justified in a valley of remarkable beauty. There has been a face-saving consultation period, civil objections - and now we discover there is the stench of rotting fish within the local authority which potentially seems happy to take a quick back-hander at the expense of the local community (not least of which being that the local secondary school would have half its playing fields removed if the proposal were to go ahead). So much for democracy.

Out here in rural France, meanwhile, we are being assailed at every turn by cheap housing, supposedly for the local community, but in fact (apart from the high-density lotissements) mostly bought or constructed by second homers. (Please excuse my apparent hypocrisy as a holiday home owner, but we love this area - like the many who have found it before us - and would do anything to preserve its character and uniqueness. This is of course lost on those who have lived here all there lives and perhaps see any old building programme as progress.) The point of my objection is not in the building per se, but in the nature of the seemingly unchecked process where the Mayor seems omnipotent. Our Mayor has been in his position for 35 years and his father was Mayor before him. It seems that the local community has voted him in - but maybe it was the case of the devil known. He is not all bad and has done much to enhance community life - but he will allow no building on his side of town where he lives in a fine house with a fine private lake behind a fine dense hedge surrounded by 'la nature'. Our side of town is, of course, another matter and he is currently wreaking havoc in what seems, to the outsider, a slightly ambitious, not to say misguided, 'plan d'urbanisme' wherby forest and field is being given planning permission almost hourly, it seems, in the headlong rush to make a quick buck and for the unnaturally hasty 'aggrandissement' of a rural community. The raison d'etre for all this would appear to be more about the aggrandissement of Monsieur le Maire's ego rather than anything more altruistic. Here, as in my home town, there is a serious risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water. But hey, who am I to tell them that? I will, nevertheless, try...

And if the bloke in combat trousers manages to persuade the Mayor that his plan for the Mezos equivalent of Kew is actually rather chipper, then I shall have to consider opening up my house for tourists as a 'Classic Landaise Farmhouse', rather like the Ecomusee de Marqueze (watch this clip for a giggle!) - if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, eh?! I'm sure the Mayor would approve as he also has plans for a golf course nearby.

Meanwhile I'm just going to pop down the Amazon for a few choice piranhas to chuck in his lovely lake....


Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Letter from Les Landes, Friday 13th August

And so I have moved my charabanc to France. The last time I was here the call of the cuckoos and the drill of the woodpeckers reverberated in the woods around us; now it is the soft coo of the woodpigeons or the harsh drone of hedgetrimmers and strimmers which accompany our daily rhythms.


The days pass easily enough in a mix of sunshine and clouds. When sun prevails we are on the beach, when clouds win the battle we find other amusements. There is always a wash to put in, a floor to sweep, a meal to prepare, a bed to change or a visit to be made. N has had work trickling through since we arrived nearly three weeks ago and as I sit on the beach writing this, he is at home taking a conference call. All this annoys me greatly as he is never truly allowed to rest, it seems. He deals with it by putting his head in the proverbial sand and saying that it is only 'normal'. I, meanwhile, yearn for the days pre fax and email and mobile and Blackberry - the days when you couldn't be contacted, you couldn't respond, so no-one expected it of you; when you could escape and just 'be' for a while. It doesn't seem to me too much to ask, but in this mad, arrogant, demanding world we now live in, it seems that I am wrong. It is me that is being unreasonable.

I therefore cherish the moments we have in the sea - where the elements rule and not the human ego. Forget that humility at your peril - the power of the ocean, the capriciousness of its currents can quickly show our physical frailty with little remorse.

Today the water is not too angry. The girls are out in a group of other children learning to use her power for their pleasure. I have watched them running along the beach, jumping and skipping, warming up before plunging into the foamy surf, pulling the boards they are learning to ride behind them. Philou - patient, kind, tanned and wiry - has them under his watchful eye.









They count the times they have managed to stand up and come running up the sand at the end of each hour they have been learning, announcing their scores to me proudly. And as I watch them in the waves I see how each girl tackles the task in accordance with her personality: the oldest watches, takes her time, goes out deeper and manages fewer but longer runs in; the middle one stays closer in and attacks each and every little wave with gusto and determination, always coming back with the highest score; the littlest has her chin stuck out, her sticky legs goose-pimpled, part-determined, part-lazy, but always stubbornly in control of what she does or doesn't want to do, which wave she does or doesn't want to take. I look on, fascinated, with the love of a mother.

These mornings on the beach are the best time to be there - the tide out and benign for surfing or bathing, the huge sweeps of wet sand reflecting the strengthening sun; the beach bar serving hot coffee to the early surfers or their patient partners, the soft dry sands newly swept and clean inviting you to place your towel. By mid afternoon the atmosphere will have changed completely from this sense of calm and well-being to full-on holiday hubbub.

But now the girls have ended their lesson and are running towards me in their shiny wetsuits like exciteable sealions. They will tell me their scores, I will help them struggle out of their clinging black prison and we will then all head back into the waves again for a lark about with a new sense of freedom as the water touches skin not rubber. We will then head home for lunch and to do a few chores before returning late afternoon to the beach, as the hubbub starts to subside, to share these elemental pleasures with their father too as is only right and good. He may take his board and fight it out with the waves too; we may play bat and ball, fly a kite, or just lie and read while the girls make castles and roads and endless imaginary scenes from driftwood and detritus. We will then retire sandily and saltily from the beach to find a favourite place to eat and watch the world go by. The world on holiday. A holiday world. My world for now.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dunge Valley Gardens


I went to Dunge Valley Gardens on a sunny afternoon towards the end of May. It's a treasure of a place hiding deep in the beautiful Goyt valley above the Cheshire village of Kettleshulme. I first discovered it soon after we moved here, now seven years ago. Whenever I arrive in a new place I have to go exploring - it's a way of connecting with my new environment and putting my small life into a wider, more meaningful context. But when I followed the small brown signs with the enticing sounding name, like Alice through Wonderland, I truly never expected to find something quite so surprising and alluring on the apparently bare green hillsides around me.

Since that first discovery, I have taken family, friends and French teenagers there and every visit has never failed to delight. I am filled with a sense of wellbeing every time I visit - but I have always chosen my days and timings carefully.

The best time to go is towards the end of a sunny day in May when the rhododendrons and azaleas, for which it is particularly renowned, are at their blooming best. By arriving a little later in the day you are more likely to have have the place relatively to yourself. Or you could sit and have a cup of tea on the terrace above the lawn and wait for the other visitors to drift away before you plunge yourself into the lushness.


It had been a few years since I'd last been, but having carved out some time from my own heavy gardening schedule, I grabbed my camera and set off as bright early summer sunshine played hide and seek behind white puffy clouds. The light was sharp, shiny and sublime, the sun hot and the air clean and fresh, yet warm and still.

I drove up through the Goyt Valley hills before turning off down a long descending driveway. I recalled the first time I had done this thinking 'Where on earth is this going? What can possibly be down here of any interest?' Then suddenly you find yourself in a sunlit gravel car park with an attractive long low stone house in the background and a makeshift entrance booth surrounded by pots of rhododendrons and azaleas and other shrubs for sale.

You are greeted by the owner - an unusual character who sometimes gives you the impression he'd rather you weren't troubling him, but I have learned to accept his nature over the years and always attempt some friendly conversation. When you see what he and his wife have created since 1984, you can forgive them any idiosyncracies - even the slightly bossy signs which greet you from time to time telling you to stay on the paths, or not to touch, or some such slightly terse instruction (which are no doubt born out of the tedious business of dealing daily with the general public - which can test the patience of saints, after all).

I always start my visit with a drift around the lawns which stretch below the flagged terrace surrounding the house. In May the grass is acid green and all the generous borders are bursting with fresh new life. A lady in a floppy straw hat and her slightly effete son sit talking on a bench in southern tones while I admire the rich dark blue forget-me-knots, the emerging broad leafed hostas, the sky blue meconopsis.

I then take a short wander along the narrow little paths which weave around and through the wide borders, ducking under specimen trees and brushing past shrubs and roses, with the chink of tea cups and light conversation in the background.















This done, I set off down the pale grey gravelled paths which lead off behind the lawns to the wilder world beyond. They take you down towards the stream where giant gunnera grow, over small wooden troll bridges (thoughtfully covered in chicken wire to avoid slipping on damp days) before climbing up the hill through bright green blades of grass and clumps of green headed hellebores bowing gracefully to the rays of sunshine which illuminate their beauty.


From here I descend the path back towards the lawns, crossing another bridge which takes you across the small boggy pond full of marsh marigolds and irises and other water plants, before another path loops me into the lower end of this narrow hidden valley in which the gardens have been formed.

You duck under, around, past and between a sumptuous array of rhododendrons with their endlessly diverse flowers and foliage.

For dedicated plants people many of these are helpfully labelled. A tiny specimen caught my eye - a 'wren' azalea - and then just after this came a 'giant' rhododendron with leaves over a foot long - so outsized that they twist your perspective and render the other plants out of proportion as very tall people do 'normal' sized people. As I continued up this path on the left hand side of the valley I was struck, as I always am, by the stark juxtaposition of bare sheep-studded hillside with lush valley. It is such an unlikely combination, and yet feels entirely natural. The trees are tall and the canopy high, so you do not feel claustrophobic - there is always a glimpse, a vista, of the world beyond which helps to create the incredibly strong sense of place as you wander through this tiny Himalayan kingdom in the middle of the Peak District.

There are little wooden seats at almost every turn, inviting a moment of contemplation (a game I once had with the girls when first I took them here was to make sure they sat on every one of them). Some are hidden amongst the exotic shrubbery where you can sit and be enveloped in the sweet earthy scents and the watery tunes of the two or three little streams which tinkle down through the valley to the accompaniment of a wealth of beautiful birdsong. Others are perched at dramatic viewpoints such as at the waterfall or high up at the head of the valley where you can look down on all before you. It was up here, I was told, that two young owls often perched, but I didn't manage to see them. Instead just the green hills behind me and the magical world below me, a moment of peace in which to sit, feel, think, listen and appreciate.

The meandering paths shift from gravel to stone flags, to bare earth and roots and back again. I always find myself madly follwoing every twist and turn, muttering to myself like the White Rabbit at the sheer pleasure of it all.

It is indeed a children's paradise but, as you might expect, there are typical requests from the owners that say children should be seen but not heard. Harsh, perhaps, but an instruction I nonetheless appreciate as this is a peaceful place where only natural sounds should reign.

Having lost myself for an hour in this little slice of an exotic Himalayan kingdom where I draw much inspiration for my own small 'dingly dell' back home, I returned to the house to peruse the plants for sale, enthused by all I had seen.





I found myself a beautiful lemon rhododendron, a blue azalea, a sweet-scented viburnum and a number of those dark blue forget-me-knots and meconopsis. As I was choosing, I fell into conversation with Jenny, the owner (who told me about the owls and the fact that they were nesting in an old tree down near the hosue) and asked why, this year, the gardens are no longer open in July and August. She told me that too many recent wet miserable summers had made them decide to open just from March to June, 'and besides', she added, 'we're getting older'. I suppose it will not be long now before they decide to retire and it is not clear, despite a daughter living with them, that there is anyone in place to continue this labour of love. I fear that one day soon they will just close the gates and keep it to themselves - and it will leave a huge hole in my celebration of early summer as well as being a great loss to the area. So hurry - you don't want to miss it - and I shall republish this post next year, hopefully, in time to remind you to visit.

Meanwhile, I would have loved to stay for a cup of tea and a final few moments of quiet calm, but I had children to meet from school - and a boot full of plants to find a new home for. It was time to say goodbye, for this year at least.









Information:




Dunge Valley Rhododendron Gardens, Windgather Rocks, Kettleshulme, High Peak, Cheshire, SK23 7RF.
Tel: 01663 733787
david@dungevalley.co.uk

If you spend £12 on plants from their Hardy Plant Nursery then entry to the gardens is free.
'We have one of the largest collections of Rhododendrons and Azaleas in the north of England with Magnolias, trees, shrubs and perennials for sale. Meconopsis Sheldonii (the Blue Poppy), Prunus Serrula, exotic double flowering Hellebores, and Tropaeolum speciosum (the Flame Creeper) bring customers from all over the country.'

Online Catalogue: http://www.dungevalley.co.uk/




[Please note, this is a completely independent review. I just love the place and wanted to share it with you]



Friday, 9 July 2010

A Moment in Time

Saturday 3rd July 2010

As I write this N, recently returned from Nigeria, is quietly downstairs in his study fiddling with the new watch he bought himself on the plane, while outside my bedroom door there is the intermittent patter of small feet across carpet as G and L rush around gathering new bits and pieces for their endless games of Barbies. I have just found them in the bathroom discussing new hair styles for Rapunzel, chuffed that they have finally released her tresses from some manky old elastic bands which were curtailing her beauty. The house never seems quite complete when one of the girls is missing - E is off with her Year 6 classmates on an adventure weekend in Castleton which happens to be just 15 minutes away from our house. It is nice to know she is nearby.

It is really noticeable how she and her muckers have subtly grown up in the last six months. Until Christmas the boys in their year seemed more of an irritation than anything else. There were complaints, even during the rehearsals for Beauty and the Beast (Year 6 puts on a musical every year), of the boys just being silly and disruptive. Now though, softly softly, they have infiltrated themselves into the tight little groups of girls and are starting to be embraced as fellow friends, potential boyfriends, and people who will be missed when they all get split up in September as they move into Seniors (the boys are on one site, the girls on another).

With the end of the school year drawing nigh, there have been a stack of Leavers events and activities over the last few weeks (let alone all the normal end of year stuff), all of which I seem to have been heavily involved in and N has been absent for, his work commitments leaving me playing the part of Single Parent once again.

I spent the day with them all at Alton Towers a few Tuesdays ago. (This is a theme park nestled unexpectedly, and surpringly attractively, in the rolling green Staffordshire moorlands in the grounds of a once stately home.) We were all split into groups and another parent and I were in charge of five girls (including our daughters) and six boys. It was a day of high adrenaline, hot sunshine, getting wet and having fun together. True, there was also a lot of queuing, a lot of walking and much hurtling through the air at high speeds which meant we all came home exhausted - but very happy.

At the end of the week was the School Walk where the entire junior school does a 7 mile hike up and around the hills surrounding the school. Another glorious summer's day and my memory filled with large groups of children walking alongside cool canals then climbing up high and gamboling through flower-filled meadows, down stoney paths, along lanes and through villages back to the school for a big picnic.



The Junior School Talent Show followed the picnic lunch. L was singing a Take That duet with a little Year 3 boy called Sam who's taken a shine to her and they're often seen hand in little hand. Parents were not allowed to watch but I managed to lurk and catch them on stage doing their stuff in front of a sea of faces - two tiny seven year olds in shorts with huge microphones, looking like rabbits in headlights but singing beautifully together. I was so proud. I couldn't do that now, let alone at their age.

After school that same afternoon was Summer Fun Friday (the equivavlent of a school fete) with stalls and bouncy castles, cheerleading displays and all the usual stuff. I helped set up. I helped clear away. Another fun but exhausting day, finished off with supper in a pub garden with friends where N was finally able to join us. The long light evenings made it far too late a night for all the children, but one to savour.

Then on the Sunday of that weekend was the Leavers' Party. I could hardly believe it had crept up on us - so long in the planning and now suddenly here. A band of parents arrived at school early to set everything up. It was another glorious summer's day, perfect for a happy send-off into the next stage of life. I donned apron, hat and silly plastic gloves ('elf and safety') and helped behind the barbecue, serving up hotdogs and hamburgers to hungry folk. I watched the scene from my corner of the playground - a bucking bronco, a treasure hunt, a red sofa on the playing field where a photographer was taking pictures of them all, and a Leavers 2010 banner with all their names on it, wishing them luck, which made me choke with emotion when I first saw it. Time spun forward to the day when they are adults looking back on this moment that we were living now. One of those days which we all have tucked away in our own adult minds - a special day when we were once children, long ago in the mists of time. I took a photo of E and some of her friends standing under the banner, knowing that one day in the unknown future they would look back on this and remember...



As I served my hotdogs to mothers and fathers and watched them go and sit down at a table with their families, I wished N was there to share this rite of passage with me and our daughter. But he was up in those big blue skies above, on a plane to Africa. What different lives we lead.

A disco followed and I lay down my plastic gloves and hat and managed to go and have a peek at them. As I watched their dance moves, their smiles and laughter I was reminded of the Christmas discos they've had in the last four years and noted the subtle changes which have taken place in comportment and body language. They were growing up, for sure. One boy, who I watched doing extraordinary break-dance moves with his sunglasses fixed firmly on his nose and who had dedicated his talent show song to E earlier in the afternoon, gave her a present at the end of the disco. It was a black leather cord looped through a golden butterfly. It was sweet, it was perfect - the girl with the golden hair and clear blue eyes, the girl with her feet on the ground and her head in the clouds, the girl who had played the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, a part that was made for her and her voice of an angel.

So as my eldest daughter takes her first significant step towards adulthood I think of my youngest, with her little sticky legs poking out of her shorts, who has spent the afternoon gamboling around with her friend and singing partner, giggling and getting into mischief. I will savour that for now, because I know that all too soon she will be at that Leavers Disco too, with a different look in her eyes and different thoughts in ther head and maybe Sam will be handing her a present too...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Nice Smells and Nasty Smells

Kitchens should be full of nice smells - the frying of onions, a waft of garlic, toast and the aroma of fresh coffee. Today mine has been a far cry from this idyll. I came down this morning to be met by an updraft of cheesy stench which I spent some time puzzling over. Now, at some point over the last 24 hours - and I really can't remember if it was last night or this morning - I heard a big bang. It sounded like something had fallen down or over, but I couldn't see anything obvious. It was only when I went to take my tea mug to the sink at around 9am that I was overwhelmed by the hideous odour. Bit by bit, my senses took in the information: a breakfast plate put down in a puddle of something which came to light only when I picked it up to put it in the dishwasher; a large amount of white spatters all over the cupboards next to the sink...and then finally the penny dropped. Yesterday I had been sorting the fridge out a bit - things liquifying in the vegetable drawer, a mouldy punnet of strawberries, you know the sort of thing (let's not pretend we're all domestic goddesses, eh?) - and had also removed a well-out-of-date but not opened carton of single cream (lid slightly swollen) and a very bloated packet of mozzarella cheese. Both these were victims of our sailing holiday - never got round to eating them before we went away and didn't get round to eating them when we got back because vaguely conscious they were past their sell-by-date and would probably be less than palatable (nothing worse than cream or milk that's turned -specially when you've just put it in your tea or on your cereal! highly gag-worthy). My eyes fell on the packet of mozzarella next to the sink which I had put there yesterday and was summoning up the courage to open and put down the waste disposal in the sink (such is my obsession with recycling, you see, that I didn't just dump the whole unopened lot in the bin - a decision I now regret). I noted that it was no longer bloated. Indeed. Such was the build-up of gas and putrification inside it (especially since removed from cold fridge and left in warm kitchen) that the wretched thing had exploded. Oh joy. I then spent a merry half hour or more disinfecting, washing down, bleaching and generally trying to eliminate the hideous smell which seems to have seeped into every pore of the marble worktop and grain of the wooden cupboard doors. It's been with me all day - even under my fingernails, which will not disappear despite endless washing and much gardening.

Then, to cap it all, this afternoon, having picked up the girls from the school bus and been to the library and the doctors' surgery, I then found myself having to 'age' paper for G's history project on Great Explorers of Tudor Times. I have been putting sheets of photocopying paper in the top oven of the Aga to make them turn brown, then taking matches and pretty well using up a whole box and making a whole load of mess, let alone risking life and limb and the house insurance, by burning the edges to make it look more authentic. Tonight, of course, trying to do too many things at once, I burned them all not once, not twice, but three times - releasing acrid burning smells into the kitchen every time I opened the oven door and realised I'd cocked up again.

Ah yes, my home is a joy to be in right now. A far cry from glossy interiors mags where scented candles glow romantically in every corner and piles of home-made cakes and freshly baked bread are arranged enticingly on the perfect country kitchen table....No, let's get real shall we?

On the up side, I have managed to scribble down a new Fridge Food post, long overdue, if you want to pop over and take a look (and if the antics I describe above haven't put you off!). Here are a couple of photos to tempt you....





Washing Around in Cyberspace


This is a quick impromptu post based on a couple of unwanted Followers. It's quite unnerving to log on and find that your latest Follower is sporting a lot of provocative breast. I clicked on the icon, expecting the worst, and the worst certainly came. Bits of a female you can't see without a mirror and a cucumber suddenly filled my screen. This is not really what I want. In fact, I suddenly feel rather lost and alone, and really quite vulnerable, out here in cyberspace. Where have all my 'friends' gone? There just seems to be an aching silence and a feeling of use and abuse pervades this place. It makes me feel rather sad on a day when I was feeling sad enough already.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

So Where did Last Week Go? - Final Part

Tuesday Evening, 8th June

This turned out to be as nice as I hoped it would. We were joined by our four best friends up here, and everyone had taken the trouble to dress really smartly, which added to the sense of occasion. We sat and talked in the low lit, comfortable lounge (it not being warm and fine enough to sit outside as we normally would), sipping champagne, perusing all the deliciously tempting menu options and making lively conversation. The evening continued in the same vein - and as we were quite late we were the only ones in the restaurant, but it made no difference. We made more than enough atmosphere all by ourselves. We came away from it replete, happy, and filled with a tremedous sense of wellbeing. What more could you ask for on your birthday?

Wednesday 9th June

There was an inevitable flatness to today after the joys of yesterday. The weather was still unseasonally cool and I had to contend with yoga after a late night and lots of alcohol. It was a bit of a struggle. I really had no desire to hang upside down on ropes or exhaust myself in demanding, body-aligning, body-strenghening positions. But I knew I had to go through with it to get me in the mood for the evening when I was due to teach some yoga to the Combs Brownie Pack. I had been knobbled by Brown Owl a few weeks earlier who had fixed me with her beadly little eyes and given me no option but to smile and agree. I spent the afternoon back at home trying to devise a routine suitable for a bunch of Brownies. I realisesd this whole little exercise was stressing me somewhat - largely because I had no notion of how successful it would be, given I've never taught yoga in my life before. Would I be up to it? As ever, I take these sort of things far too seriously and worry too much about doing a good job. So, when the time came, determined not to be late for once, I slipped into my yoga kit, grabbed my mat (unwrapping it for the first time since I bought it three years ago - I'm not good at practising at home!) and headed down for the village hall, nicely on time. And as is always the way with me, when I'm on time, everyone and everything else is late and when I'm late everyone and everything is on time. So there they were, in a certain amount of chaos finishing one activity (the theme of the evening was 'pyjama party' and they had been allowed to invite a friend each so there were twice the amount of Brownies there than usual - a key fact I had been unaware of) and were about to be given marshmallows dipped in a chocolate fountain. I could not help thinking that this was not an ideal yoga situation: an overcrowded room full of hyperactive kids with blood sugar count about to go through the roof...

So, with now only 20 minutes to go before parents came to collect the little cherubs, I attempted to create some order (difficult with Brown Owl, Tawny Owl and three helpers all clattering around clearing up the chocolate mess and talking to eachother) and give a little intro talk about yoga before launching into the set of positions I had selected during the afternoon. All things considered, it went reasonably well, if not exactly textbook, but it was all a bit of a rush and I was darned glad it was over. I had done my bit.

Thursday 10th June

The notation in my diary today was '9.10 Dentist - fillings'. This is not a good start to anyone's day. If you're late they strike you off the list and as this is the only National Health dentist for miles around and a bloody good won at that, I bust a gut to be on time but still find myself hurtling along the lanes at an unsuitable pace. Not helped this morning by the fact that the answerphone message I'd received from the dental receptionist the day before (they always remind you of your appointment in an attempt to save you from getting yourself struck off) told me the appointment time was 9.30am. It was only by chance that I looked at my diary just before 9am and saw that I'd written 9.10am - and I wasn't even washed or dressed. So I threw myself into the shower, hastily brushed and flossed my teeth to save too much embarrassment and admonition, and flung myself into the car. I arrived, panting, at 9.15. The receptionist looked up calmly and told me my appointment was 9.30am. Still, it's the first time I've ever been early, so I resisted the temptation to go off and squeeze another job in rather than hang around the (slightly smelly) reception for a quarter of an hour more than I needed to, I resigned myself to the pile of slightly dog-eared magazines. Most worryingly, instead of the glossy interiors mag, I found my hand reaching out for the Saga mag. Now, for those of you who don't know, this is for pensioners (i.e the over-60s). What is becoming of me? Have I lived too long in the High Peak to be bothered any more about style and glamour?? This is a worrying development and one I shall have to ponder on more deeply. Meanwhile, I was happily flicking through the Saga pages finding plenty to interest and entertain me. Not least of all a rather wizened and world-worn John Humphrys (oh so famous news journalist and long-term presenter of the probing 'Today' programme on BBC Radio 4) who's tale of buying land in Greece and building a holiday home thereon, with all the usual beaurocratic and territorial complications (which clearly nearly killed him), made for a reasonably compelling read. He rents the house out when he or his son's family are not there and gives the income to charity. I even found myself opening my notebook and scribbling down the contact details (email him at kitchentablecharities@googlemail.com or visit The Kitchen Table Charities Trust for anyone else who's interested).

By now it was 9.45am so I'd been in this smelly place for half an hour. Suddenly, though, my name was called and in I went, with a certain amount of trepidation. The last time I had a crown done, it was agony (she'd attempted to do it without anaesthetic, till I could take the torture no more). This time I was having an old grey filling taken out, a small amount of decay removed and a shiny new white filling put back in. I lay back in the chair (not before she'd put a pair of outsized green plastic joke glasses on my nose - she likes a laugh, this one) and watched an equally outsized needle, with (she told me) a particularly outsized dose of extra-strong anaesthetic ('just to make sure') in it, head inexorably towards my mouth ('open wide') and into my back right cheek/gum area. She held it there for what seemed an eternity - then the next thing I know I'm told to go back to the waiting room. I hadn't reckoned on this. Apparently I had to wait 20 minutes for the anaesthetic to do its job. Well, already as I was getting down from chair I felt rather peculiar. My heart was racing and I could barely walk in a straight line. I was told this was the adrenaline in the anaesthetic. Great, I thought, as my heartbeat hit new heights, now I'm going to die. And all for a filling. So I staggered back out to the waiting room, no doubt alarming some onlookers, and went outside to make a phonecall to one of the friends I was meant to be meeting for a (belated) birthday lunch. I warned her I might not make it. Or at least to bring a bib for me as I was likely to be dribbling a lot. I then teetered back in, feeling decidedly queasy by now too, and continued flicking through the Saga mag. This time I read all about its glamourous and very posh ex-editor, Emma Soames (Churchill's granddaughter), who had surprised everyone when she quit her job as editor of the Telegraph magazine (having previously been editor of Tatler) to go for this seemingly rather downgrade job. Still, she made a great success of it - which was probably why I found myself choosing that over the other mags in the pile. She turned it into an interesting read rather than just a repository for cruising and Stanner stair-lift ads.

By now I'd been in the waiting room for well over an hour. I can think of better ways to spend a Thursday morning. Eventually my name was called again and I found myself back in the chair, this time with more sensible glasses on. She asked me if my lip was feeling fat. 'Not particularly' I replied, which was true. 'Oh', she said. 'Are you sure?'. I thought about it for a wee moment (she's scottish) and decided that no, my lip definitely did not feel particularly fat. It was tingling a bit though. 'Oh well', she concluded, 'let's give it a go.' Out came the drill. Out came the scream. 'Ok' let's give you another shot. So another needle was produced and, mercifully, did the trick. I could be operated on in blissful ignorance apart from a slight aching of wide open jaw.

It was completed in a jiffy and I departed, glad to be alive, for my rendez-vous with the girls at The Highwayman, a newly re-opened pub on the way to Macclesfield, with its magnificent hilltop view of the Cheshire plain beyond. In the 20 minutes it took to drive there, I'm pleased to report that the numbness subsided so that when I sat down at the table I was restored to full working order and went on to enjoy a fabulous meal (the new owner-chef trained in Michelin restaurant and his food certainly reflected that). Not a bad end to an otherwise slightly grisly morning. Equilibrium had been restored.

Friday 11th June

I was pleased to note, when I looked in my diary, that I had a free day today - though I had a Ball to go to in the evening. As you do. Just call me Cinderella. This was the day when I was finally going to get round to making up my photographic cards for the local florist-cum-deli-cum-greengrocers. He'd asked me for a 100 cards weeks ago and it had been preying on my conscience. I'd got the photos chosen and printed out, but had rather stalled on putting it all together as sailing holidays and numerous other things kept getting in the way. I had called him the day before we left for Turkey to ask if it was ok to get them to him the week I got back. He said that was fine. But now it was the end of that week and I really had to deliver. So I determined not to get side-tracked by dishwasher or washing machine, garden or phone calls until the job was done. I set my stuff out on the kitchen table, turned on the telly to watch the tennis at Queen's as I worked, and had a happy time making up the cards. It was great to finally get that one ticked off my list.

Having done duties with children I then ran upstairs to change into my 'ball gown' (less glamourous than it sounds - but I was pleased to be able to give one of the dresses I bought in Manchester on my birthday its first outing) before being whisked away in a taxi to Stockport Rugby Club (which, curiously, is actually in Bramhall. So I would have thought it would be called Bramhall Rugby Club. But it isn't. All rather confusing.). It was called 'The Crystal Ball', so everyone was suitably attired in something glittery and you could wear a tiara if you wished. I stuck to crystal necklace and earrings, being short on tiaras, but there were a spattering of men sporting black tie and the required head gear. It as a charity evening to raise money for the NSPCC. We'd gone last year for the first time and the theme was 'tropical' - on one of the coldest wettest windiest nights I can remember. The rain was flooding in under the sides of the marquee. We were there with Italian friends who were living locally at the time. Funnily enough they left the north-west and went back to Italy soon after that.

By the end of the evening England had performed dismally in their first World Cup match, and I had swollen sore feet and a bloated aching belly from consuming a large slice of chocolate tart which was curiously sprinkled, in an experimental sort of way, with sea salt and exploding sugar. Still, it was all in a good cause.


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So that, folks, was where my week went and by the end of it my sailing holiday seemed far, far away - but that's a story for another time.
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