Monday, 11 November 2013

Armistice Day

I always find the 11th hour of the 11the day of the 11th month a very moving two minutes. 120 seconds when, in theory, the world stands still and remembers those who lived in decidedly more difficult times than we do now, where the future was uncertain and how it played out was literally a matter of life or death.

Armistice Day marks the end of World War 1 where approximately 16 million people lost their lives and a further 20 million were wounded. These are staggering statistics the like of which the world, one can only hope, will never see again.

As I stood on Chapel-en-le Frith market place, in glorious sharp autumn sunshine yesterday morning, I thought of the key difference between the wars of the last century and those we are fighting today. Namely that, certainly in World War 2, young men were obliged to sign up whereas today it is a choice - albeit a courageous and noble one - to serve one's country. It is always the very young men that I think of during that precious silence: those that either signed up with glorified ideas of the concept of war, or those that simply had no choice. I think of those who died alone, cold and petrified, in wood or field, trench, sea or sky. 

As we remember those poor souls who 'gave their tomorrow for our today' I wonder if we have done them proud. I fear not. The very absence of such immense and intense conflict has spawned a generation who does not know the meaning of suffering, or perhaps, more specifically, sufferance - and we are all guilty of this. Of course we all have our tragedies and crosses to bear, some, sadly, so much heavier than others. But when it comes to the Collective, we are all, relatively, blessed. 

The two minute silence, in the middle of a working morning, is, for me, the most powerful show of common humanity that we have in the modern world. If the rush of our broadly consumer driven, comfortable lives pauses for just this tiny amount of time, it is a momentous thing. The silence of a crowded department store or a busy railway station for these sacred minutes is something to behold. It is a moment where strangers metaphorically hold hands and are, briefly, united. 

I was angry to learn that not all the teachers at the girls school wore poppies today and that the silence was not observed across the whole school at 11am, despite there having been an assembly on the subject. Whatever your personal standpoint, all sentimentality aside, I feel that the basic lesson of thoughtfulness and respect that this simple ritual engenders should be upheld in, of all places, a school.

My journey home earlier this evening was marked by two extremely serious road accidents: an upturned car on a dangerous corner and a crushed motorbike at an equally dangerous junction. The news, too, is full of the enormity of the natural disaster in the Philippines where thousands of lives have been swept away by the wild and unpredictable forces of nature.  Life is precious and oh-so-fragile. There is no time for needless loss of life through war. To reach the end of every normal day safely is, surely, a blessing in itself. 

Friday, 18 October 2013

A Buzz About Buxton


Monday 9th September

The sun was shining and Buxton was buzzing - two potentially rare events in this frontier town of the High Peak. Yet today the vibe was good, the sun was hot and - cue drum roll - I actually had to take my coat off! But, more importantly, I have a feeling that in the next few years Buxton is going to go from strength to strength.

Work is well underway on the regeneration of The Crescent - a small scale rival to the famous landmark in Bath - which will hopefully attract and accommodate even more visitors as a quality hotel and spa so that people will, once again, be able to come to Buxton to 'take the waters'. For decades all the therapeutic offerings of this spa town, whose origins go back to Roman times, had no longer been available beyond coming to collect water from the well that flows freely just opposite The Crescent and which is celebrated in the annual well-dressing ceremony every summer. Besides this new development there is also a very good spa to be found at the Dome complex (formerly the stables to the Duke of Devonshire) which is now home to the University of Derby and as such the spa is a training ground for students. Do not let this put you off - I have enjoyed two superb body massages there for a fraction of the price of your average spa, so no complaints from me.

The Cavendish Arcade has always been my favourite part of Buxton, ever since I first arrived in the High Peak a decade ago. It is flanked by the green of the Slopes on one side and by the attractive Pavilion Gardens and Opera House on another. The building was Buxton's original Thermal Baths built in 1854 (the original stained glass vaulted ceiling and plunge bath remain) and, for me, represents the heart of Buxton. During the boom years of the early 2,000s, the owner of the Arcade doubled his rental prices overnight. Sadly many shops were forced out of business and the Arcade lost its positive vibe. Looking around me today, I do believe that things are looking up. 

The old stalwarts of Unique Feet, Minimo, Atticus Boo, Jantar and Charlotte's chocolates are still going strong and some interesting newcomers have moved in. Take Wild Olive, a small family run company making handmade soaps, candles and body products in Derbyshire, which has just opened a flagship store in the Arcade. It is super modern, super stylish with its clean displays and smooth white, wood and glass interior, bringing a dash of Harvey Nichols to this old lady of a spa town! Then there is Makepiece whose strap line is 'from sheep to chic'. They make beautiful clothes using natural yarns from sustainable farming. Their website goes on to say 'Undyed and natural dyed options. Low impact manufacture. Fair employment. Working to be carbon neutral.' You can't get much more green than that. And on the subject of which, their neighbours both have Eco credentials too: first there is Eco Republic - another interesting store offering a host of eco and fair trade products; and then there is Minibugs Boutique which makes claims to have 'fun things for fun kids'. Their window certainly looks very appealing and they have stylish one-off brands such as Frugi, Aya Naya, Childs Farm and Green People. Worth a look I think.

And then, when all this rather tempting shopping has been explored, you can sit down and watch the world go by with an excellent cappuccino and a handmade chocolate or two at Charlotte's - just as you find me now. Ah yes, and with a couple of groovy new bars round the back of the Cavendish also hotting up Buxton's nightlife, I feel that this Grande Dame of the High Peak has finally picked up her skirts and is running again. How nice.

Charlotte's Chocolatiers...

 

Forget-Me-Not interiors...



Entrance to the historic arcade...



Pretty floral displays....



And yet more green credentials...









The stunning stained-glass roof...



Unique Feet...



Minimo for designer clothes...



The inviting threshold of Wild-Olive...


Jantar's jewellery and polish pottery...



Atticus Boo's present heaven...

 
 
Restoration and renovation is underway for The Crescent Hotel and Spa...



The thermal waters for which Buxton is famous...

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Season of Mellow Fruitfulness

Monday, 7th October 
 

 
This evening, just before darkness enveloped me and the surrounding landscape, I put on my welly boots and grabbed a plastic punnet to do a last bit of blackberry-picking up the lane. Lily pricked up her ears and wagged her tail, delighted at the idea of an 'out' having spent a boring afternoon in the car. She was less impressed when I stopped almost immediately to start my search for black fruit amongst the brambles and fading stinging nettles, the goose grass now looking limp and dried out where just a week or two ago it was still burgeoning. She shot me a mildly exasperated look of 'oh no, not again!' before settling into sniffing companionably about in the verges while I set about my business.

Those of you from more southerly climes will no doubt have stopped picking some weeks back, but up here in the High Peak there are still fruits to be had from the hedgerows and verges of our country lanes. It has been a phenomenal year for blackberries, the conditions of damp late spring and warm summer clearly suiting their development. Every time I have foraged since September I have noted the many berries still there to ripen and have gone back a week or so later to gather the next crop of shiny black clusters for my bramble jelly.

This evening, though, seemed very much like the party was over. I could see berries that were brown and shrivelled, berries that were dusty black and mouldy, and many fruitless stems where passers by had long since ravaged their fecundity. But if I peered hard into the gathering gloom and took the trouble to turn back leaves, my rewards were still plenty. There are even still a few brambles which are carrying red and green berries, still waiting to ripen in the golden October sun. 

The air was still and surprisingly warm, filled with evening birdsong; but otherwise all was peaceful - no car noise, no voices, no tractors, no planes nor even a single bleat of sheep or bark of dog. Just the blissful 'silence' of nature.

As darkness claimed the dying day I entered the field and walked back down to the house through the garden, clutching my full punnet and being careful not to slip or trip. There are still some berries to collect from my own 'rough patch' but it would have to wait till tomorrow. Lily flattened herself hopefully and expectantly on the lawn next to her ball and I threw it twice more for her before I conceded I really couldn't see a darn thing. The lights were glowing from the windows of the house and I glimpsed a daughter passing along the landing on her way down from her bedroom. The kitchen looked appealing and welcoming and an amusing episode of The Hairy Bikers on Bakeation awaited me on the television. Time for a glass of wine and a welcome sit down at the end of the day before I tackled the pile of dirty dishes in the sink and cajoled the girls through homework and into bed. Another busy day ahead tomorrow for them with a cross country competition for G and L and part of an English GCSE for E. And for me? Well, whatever else needs doing I will be finding time to make some more bramble jelly....

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Tuesday, 8th October
 
The morning dawned promisingly and I had to drop the big green tank (aka Land Rover Defender) to the mechanic at the end of the lane (to fix the 'play' in the drop arms which would account for the apparent disconnect between steering wheel and actual wheels - not great on a Defender even at the best of times!). Lily was delighted at the prospect of a walk so early in her day, but the expectant little face dropped a bit at the first blackberry stop. She then had a whale of a time chasing rabbits in the slow trudge (for my part) up the steep field to get to the very top of my lane where, to her clear dismay, I started rummaging around in the hedgerows again. It was instantly noticeable how, at this greater altitude, there were many more berries to pick even than just outside my house. It's amazing what a difference a few metres can make. The one moment of excitement for Lily was when a group of walkers came by with a fellow dog, otherwise it was pretty dull stuff for her. I, meanwhile, was revelling in the simple pleasures of gathering fruits (despite the stinging nettles - still vibrant up here - and tiny thorns penetrating my blackened fingers from time to time). I noticed the tiny snails curled up on stem and leaf, the morning song of countless birds, the odd wasp sucking at a juicy berry, the cobwebs and tiny insects crawling over the fruit. The sun had burst through the morning mists and the air was still remarkably mild. 

Eventually my little black bag was bursting (taking care not to confuse the one full of dog poo with the one full of berries!) and I headed back down through the garden once more towards a cup of tea and slice of brown toast smeared with - you guessed it! - bramble jelly. Thus revived, I would then head back up the garden to collect more berries from my very own bramble patch near the vegetable garden. Indeed, the ultimate pleasure is to be able to pick these little beauties in my own back yard, and to know that it was worth resisting from cutting the brambles back before they had relinquished their black gold.
 

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Now, I have a small confession to make: while I am happy to eat a blackberry off the bramble, I am less keen on them cooked in pies or crumbles (a sin, I am well aware, as an English person! Blame school dinners for that). No, for me the best way to enjoy the intensity of their flavour and colour, and to avoid dental aggravation, is in the simple longevity of a preserve and so, forthwith, I give you my Foolproof Recipe for Bramble Jelly:-
 

Gently rinse your blackberries in a sieve under a cold running tap and them leave to drip dry into a saucepan. Once dried off a bit, put them on the scales to see what weight you have.

Then put them into a large enough pan to distribute the heat evenly through the berries. Add about 30ml of water for each 450g of berries and place pan on a medium heat. Crush the berries with a potato masher when they are nicely heated and have turned from black to a beetrooty red.
 

Pour the mushed berries into the bag of a jelly strainer and allow them to drip (preferably overnight) into the container below the bag. 

 
When the fruit pulp is dry and no longer dripping, discard the contents of the jelly bag. Put the gloriously ruby coloured juice into a large saucepan on a medium heat and add 400g of jam sugar for low pectin fruits (I use Whitworth's quick setting jam sugar) and the juice of at least half a lemon for every 600ml of juice. Stir until the sugar has fully dissolved and then turn up the heat and insert a jam thermometer into the liquid. Boil until the thermometer shows 105 degrees C (220 degrees F) which usually takes 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile put a saucer into the freezer so that you can do a setting test when the jam has reached the required temperature (just to make sure!) - when you put a small amount of the hot syrupy liquid onto the cold plate it should cool quickly and form a skin when you run a finger through it. If this is refusing to happen, then you either need to turn up the heat or add a little more lemon juice.
 




















 
 

 
 
 
 
Meanwhile, sterilise a couple of jam jars (I put them in the bottom oven of the Aga while the juice is boiling) and once the juice has reached setting point, pour it (preferably with the aid of a jam funnel) into the jar(s).

Cook's Note: 1.4kg (just over 31bs) of fruit should make about 600ml (just over an imperial - as opposed to an American - pint) of juice which in turn gives you two medium sized jars of jelly.


So there you go, the fruits of my labours! Hope you enjoy it as much as I do (and it goes without
saying that doing this with cultivated blackberries in a punnet from a supermarket gives neither the same satisfaction - nor the flavour). 
 

 


Thursday, 3 October 2013

Two New Fridge Food Posts

Just to let you know that I have published two new posts over at Fridge Food. One is for warm days, one is for cooler days or just when you need some food-huggy comfort. Go take a look.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Story of Bird

Apologies for the length of this post and the time it has taken for me to publish it - I just thought that if anyone else has had the experience of looking after a baby bird, they may be interested in  hearing our story....
 
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France, 4th August 2013

Day 1
'Bird' came into our lives a week ago today. N was chopping down a load of bamboo out here in France and suddenly he called me to come and look. Somehow still attached to a long bamboo shoot, lying on the ground, was this little bird's nest with one little baby and a small cream speckled egg inside. We decided to try and put it back roughly where it was, inserting the shoot into the hollow of a previously cut bamboo stem. Bird sat there in his nest, looking remarkably like Schulz's Woodstock (the Peanuts cartoon strip always made me smile), swaying around in the breeze. We went on with our gardening until the chirruping of 'Bird' became hard to ignore and I was concerned that the mother would not now come back*. At this point we made a fatal decision - to bring Bird and nest inside and to try and feed it.

We found a box (having just invested in a number of electric fans due to the extraordinary heat) which was deep and spacious. We put Bird and nest inside it, in one corner, with paper towels and cotton wool underneath it to keep it warm, and I set about concocting some food. I decided that bread soaked in milk could only be good and found some tweezers with which to administer it down Bird's gaping red throat. He seemed very grateful. L googled 'How to look after baby birds' which suggested they need to be fed every half hour or so. We were due out for a late lunch at friends, so on that basis we decided that Bird had to come too. The friend wasn't impressed and made yuck noises at our little avian friend, who was only just starting to get feathers. They did however provide us with a syringe with which to administer tiny drops of water which we felt may be necessary given the 40 degree heat.

When we got back home we realised that his nest would soon get very mucky and unpleasant unless we gave Bird 'nappies' as every time we fed him he forced out an almighty yellow poo (it reminded me so much of the colour of new-born human baby poo) so we got some paper towel and folded it into the nest to line it. L found her mini hot water bottle and filled it up and put it under bird's nest to keep it warm. I rang my parents to wish my father a Happy Birthday and my mother told me birds shouldn't be given milk as it can kill them. Oh. Too late now! So we put Bird to bed that night with some trepidation...

Day 2
We woke the next morning slightly surprised that Bird had actually made it through the night. Apparently E woke at 3am and checked on it and was relieved to see it still breathing. Given that Step 8 of the Caring for New-born Birds website said, ominously, 'there is of course still a great chance that your bird will die' (which followed Step 7 where we were cheerily told: 'you will probably become very attached to your bird'), we felt quite proud that this little fragile creature was still with us. I discovered another website which told me baby birds can be fed crushed up boiled egg, so I found myself hard boiling an egg and mushing it up for Bird at the same time as brewing coffee for N and I. Having survived milk and bread, I thought a little protein could indeed be in order now. 
 
And so we got on with our day. There were gardening and domestics to be done and lunch to be had. 
We decided to go into the village for lunch as it was a bit grey for the beach. Much debate as to Bird, but we decided he should come too and we left him in the car while we ate. The rest of the day was spent at home so we were able to keep feeding Bird his hard boiled egg and keep an eye on him. All that changed was his nest: a pink paper cocktail parasol which L had been given with her ice cream at the  restaurant suddenly appeared perched at a jaunty angle on the side of Bird's nest. It seemed remarkably appropriate in all this holiday heat and amused me greatly. 


 
Day 3
That night it was my turn to have Bird. I slept fitfully, like a mother with a new-born, terrified that Bird was going to die on my watch. Before daylight I woke with a start and turned on the light to check that he was still alive. Somewhat to my astonishment he stirred and shuffled in his nest and then gave out a little chirrup. I gave him some food, then closed the flaps again and turned off the light. I still couldn't sleep properly though, so gave up the struggle and got up early to get on with my day. Bird snoozed on happily until the household started to stir some hours later.
 
It was only a little later that I first noticed Bird suddenly seemed a little lacking in energy. We put him on the ground to see if he would hop about but he seemed a little wobbly. It was then that I noticed the tiny creatures crawling over the white 'nappies' in his nest. I peered at them and they looked like minuscule spiders. Some were pale coloured, some were darker. I quickly decided they were not a good sign and immediately found a little plastic box in the recycling in which to bathe him. I put in a centimetre or so of tepid water with a minute squeeze of ecological washing-up liquid. I plonked the little thing in and sloshed him all over. I don't think he liked it much but I tried to persuade him it was for a good cause. I could see more of these little dots in the bath water and felt satisfied that I had washed some of them out. I then dried him with paper towels and popped him back in his nest having changed his nappies once more. I noticed he was shaking so picked him up again and cupped him closely in my hands. I thought perhaps he had got cold due to the bath (his feathers were growing but there was still much pink skin under his wings and below his chest). When he'd stopped shaking I put him back in his nest, now empty of the little speckled egg which had lain next to him as L had cleaned poo off it earlier but unfortunately it had broken in the process. No brothers or sisters for Bird now! I also decided to put him back on a more mixed diet as I thought his lack of energy could be due to too much protein and a lack of carbs. So I mixed the egg with bread, water, some crushed up crackers, a bit of grated Parmesan cheese and a drop of milk.

The day was hot and after lunch the beach called. E decided to stay at home, so Bird was left in her care for a few hours. She continued to feed him regularly and give him tiny drops of water on the end of his  beak from the syringe. N came to pick her up later and bring her down to the beach for supper with the rest of us - and of course Bird had to come too in his fan box. He was looking much perkier again and hopping on to the edge of his nest. We left him in the car and checked on him from time to time during our meal. All appeared to be well in Bird's world. We felt pleased but N couldn't help reminding us about 'Step 8'...


Day 4
Another hot day loomed and, again, the desire to go to the sea again was strong. I wasn't sure a hot beach was entirely suitable for Bird but it was that or starve alone at home. So Bird came too, rather aptly in his fan box and with his pink parasol. He was very chirpy about it all and was probably happier than the rest of us: the heat proved intolerable and at a certain point we had to retire. Bird came to the snack bar with us and I took him out to give him a cuddle in my hands. E was acutely embarrassed, of course - she's a teenager.

 
Day 5
The girls had Bird in their room overnight and apparently they woke to hear his chirping and duly fed him. Due to the continuing heat we decided to stay at home by the pool. Bird was washed again, his nest cleaned out and nappies changed and was fed at regular intervals. We let him hop about on the ground a bit and he was far less wobbly than previously and starting to hop out of his nest in the box more and more. These were all good signs...

 
Day 6
Bird was very chipper again today with much chirping and feathers coming along nicely. He almost looked fluffy. I had woken early, my mind full of Things To Do, and decided that when the rest of the family eventually woke, we would go and visit the market at a small town about half an hour away where we hadn't been for some time. Bird was now such a part of the family that it was automatic that we bring him along. So his box was loaded into the car and off we set. We purchased speciality cakes, wine and Armagnac and then enjoyed a good lunch before having a mooch around the church and the local shops. In the antiques and bric-a-brac shop we spotted, quite serendipitously, a small sky blue wooden birdcage. It was perfect, if somewhat overpriced! But madness prevailed (helped along by red wine, no doubt) and Bird had a new home to move into from his fan box. L, always the nostalgic, was not amused...

The day was muggy and warm and we felt in need of a swim. Bird had remained in the car during our visit and again while we were at the beach as he seemed strong and happy enough in his little boxed world. He sang like an angel all day (it was like having an aviary in the car with us) and every time he opened his wide beak for food his throat was bright red and healthy looking. I was already looking forward to putting him in his cage and watching him hop about and even, possibly, start to peck at some food himself. I imagined him on the terrace in his new sky blue home, looking out at the world he would soon inhabit, singing his little heart out.

We started to feel that we had turned the corner, that he was growing stronger by the day and we felt suitably chuffed. Step 7 had certainly proved true, and maybe Step 8 had been eluded after all...

 
Day 7
We had friends stopping by for lunch on their journey down to elsewhere. Bird had spent the night with the girls again and I left them to do the looking after. I felt there was less need now to be quite so vigilant but I kept reminding them to feed him and change his nappies nonetheless. What I didn't do was actually look at him properly. Instead I busied myself cleaning the house, doing laundry and trying to finish all that in time to go to a local market. G, meanwhile, dedicated herself to lining the bottom of Bird's new cage with long green leaves while he sat on the grass in front of her. I took a quick photo. She popped the nest and Bird inside to see how he liked it while L was determined Bird should stay in his box and was busy cutting a window in it so Bird could see out, now that he was getting bigger and stronger.

We missed the market so had to go to the supermarket to buy food for the late lunch with our friends who were having a terrible journey. Bird was with us and G did mention in the car park that she thought he was chirruping less. I didn't really have time to concentrate on it much and told her to give him some more food. We then rushed home to get everything set up and prepared. G told me again that Bird was rather quiet but I was too busy getting lunch sorted. The friends arrived and we chatted and ate for an hour or so. As they were about to leave G was getting increasingly concerned about Bird, so they left with the words 'go and look after Bird!' and we waved them cheerily goodbye. 

I then, finally, turned my attention to dear Bird. The moment I looked at him I realised there was actually something terribly wrong. I saw that his throat was no longer bright red but grey; he was weak; he was opening his beak to chirrup but no sound was coming out. Just yesterday he was so full of beautiful song. I couldn't believe how quickly it had all changed. I rushed to boil an egg to give him some nutrition and I gave him a bath as I saw all the little creatures had returned. He was so weak and I dried him quickly and kept him cuddled in paper towels in my cupped hands. I desperately tried to get some of the egg down him but it was no good. He was fading away before my eyes. I realised it was hopeless, that I had left it too late to react, that this little life which we had done so much to nurture, was now slipping away. I went outside and sat at the table where we had been so happily eating lunch such a short while ago, still holding this fragile creature. I saw the glazing over of his eyes, once so bright, just moments before he noiselessly opened his oversized beak for the last time. I saw him take his last gasp of breath and could tell the very moment his little soul slipped away. It was absolutely heart-breaking and I felt so guilty. If only I had looked at him earlier; if only I had paid more attention to what G was trying to tell me...

I cannot really describe the next few hours. I wept and wept for Bird. He had come into our lives so unexpectedly but, just as Step 7 had said, he became part of our lives so quickly. Looking after him took me right back to looking after my new-born babies - they are so utterly dependent on you. And I failed him just when he needed me most. I know this sounds ridiculous - it was only a bird who would probably have died anyway. Such is the fragility of all living creatures. It's just that we were doing so well, I did not believe that it could change again so quickly. I had imagined the next stage in his sky blue cage, and had visualised the day he would fly off into the trees and bushes around us. I knew the immense pleasure and satisfaction that would have given us all. But it didn't happen like that. Life rarely does what you expect, does it? Eventually I knew I had to let Bird go and I decided to put him back at the base of the bamboos from which he'd come. I noted how much heavier he felt now that life had left him and I stroked his once perky little head before laying him down amongst the dead leaves before gently covering him with them. It was so very hard to walk away...

I was surprised the girls did not seem as upset as I was as they settled down to watch a film - perhaps because I blamed myself so much. Yet later that day E suddenly came to me in tears, the reality suddenly hitting. 

Sunday
G woke this morning and came to our room in tears as well, remembering how just yesterday she had woken to Bird's chirruping. And finally it sunk in with little L as well and the next thing we knew she was digging him up and saw how his belly had swollen and burst open. I did not want her to remember Bird like that. Lots of tears followed and her desperate desire to bury him was met by N who dug a little grave and put him in his nest and then covered it back with earth. We then found a square of old wood flooring and L diligently carved 'Bird' on it. This lay on top of the grave with some flowers sellotaped onto it with a little picket fence all around it that L had constructed to keep the little grave sacred. We said a prayer to Bird and took a photo. He had finally been laid to rest.
 

In the week that we shared with Bird he (or, indeed, she - we never did discover how to tell whether it was male or female) gave us all - grumpy old N included - such immense joy. The tiny little songbird in his cardboard fan box. If nothing else, it has taught the girls something about nurturing, life, death and the harshness and, yes, transient beauty of Nature. It's amazing how one week and one little creature could give us so much to remember. 

 

 
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Footnote:-

After Bird died, I spent a lot of time agonising as to what it was that went wrong. I thought at first that we had drowned him (it is very easy to get water in their windpipe which is under their tongue - some websites actually say you should not give them water for this reason and that they will get what they need from their food), but in the end I decided that he most likely died from acute anaemia and then organ shut down. I later discovered, by searching the internet, that the little spider-like creatures I had seen, some white, some dark in colour, were actually bird mites which are blood-sucking parasites. Instinctively I had done the right thing by washing him and cleaning his nest, but what I didn't realise was what a serious problem they were, especially during the night - indeed, nests are frequently so badly infested that the fledgling birds leave it purely to escape the unwanted attentions of the mites. I had noticed Bird hopping out of it and now realise why. What I should have done is got rid of the nest completely - instead I had thought of it as his 'comfort zone' and somewhere he felt safe. The mites had literally sucked the life blood out of him.

It was simply my inexperience which had caused Bird to die - if I had known better he may well be alive and singing his little heart out in the garden today. But as a friend kindly pointed out, in his one short week of life our little song sparrow had enjoyed more love than any other like him. That much, at least, is true.
 
 
* I've also subsequently learnt from a website that it is a fallacy that, once a baby bird is touched, the parents will not return to the nest. Apparently birds have a very poor sense of smell. It would no doubt have been better if we had left Bird well alone and his mother would have eventually responded to his calls. The wisdom of hindsight.

Friday, 2 August 2013

New Posts

Just to let you know that I posted a little update on The Gardening Habit (click here) about the difficulties of leaving a garden about to reach its zenith, while at Fridge Food I put together a little something involving pork loin, prosciutto, apples and apricots (click here). 




Saturday, 29 June 2013

Ode to 50

Am I really 50? So how did that happen then? Well, to answer my own question I guess my parents had sex, I was the result, and on 8th June 1963 I came into the world. Simple as that really.

The years have certainly slipped away easily enough since then. I have the same vague memories of toddler-hood that I always had (my older brother ramming me and my pushchair into a coniferous hedge in a park indelibly stamped) and my childhood passed smoothly enough in a string of memories of bike riding, card playing, swimming in outdoor Lidos with fountains and peeling turquoise paint, family walks, picnics and skateboards. Was it all idyllic? Probably not - I remember a 3-day stand-off that my parents once had and dropping the hamster cage (complete with hamster) down the stairs - but it was certainly relatively carefree.

Exams and university Finals are all distant memories and it's hard to reconcile that my own eldest is soon to embark on that particular trail of misery. Yes indeed, I am all grown up, but you know what? I've just had the best birthday ever after a month of diverse and wonderful celebrations with friends and family. I have my health, I have my happiness - can a girl really ask for more? I think not. Indeed, completing half a century of life has turned out to be rather better than I could possibly have imagined...

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Counting Steps - A Book for Father's Day

If you are looking for a present for Father's Day on 16th June, then 'Counting Steps' - the debut book from fellow writer and blogger, Mark Charlton (Views from the Bike Shed) - could be the answer.

It is a book rooted in nature, landscape and relationships, exploring through its 26 named chapters the experience of fatherhood and the light this throws on his relationship with his own father.

The evocation of landscape and Mark's physical relationship with it through cycling, climbing, walking, running and canoeing, runs as a theme throughout the book. It's Mark's relationship with the landscape which is also self-revelatory: he refers to the 'capacity of landscape to hold a mirror to our feelings, to embody our spirit in physical form' and how 'we return to certain places not so much to look at the view as to look at ourselves'.

Indeed, a few years ago I found myself doing just that. After a hugely difficult and challenging period in my life, I took 'time out' and went back to a childhood haunt in Cornwall. The north coast bays and beaches around Padstow had been etched on my soul during carefree holidays with my parents. Now here I was returning, battered and bruised in my forties, to use the constance of a beloved landscape as a haven in which to reflect on all that had happened and to reconnect with the person I once was. I was viewing the same scenes, but with different eyes - yet their unchanged nature allowed me to recall the essence of myself and to reaffirm my desire to retrieve the elements of my personality that had been lost.

Returning, though, can have its pitfalls. While one draws comfort from returning to certain landscapes, the memories they stir up - particularly when many years have passed between visits - can sometimes be painful: an acceptance is required, for example, that you have aged and that your physical capabilities are not what they once were. Mark, on returning to run along Stanage Edge in the Peak District, where once he easily managed the whole 17 miles, reflects: 'But that was 20 years ago, and though returning is one of my chief delights, I know that some things can never come again.'

The process of maturing is another recurrent theme through 'Counting Steps'. Mark records how his older sons have progressed through their childhood into the teenage years and how he has had to adjust his relationship with them accordingly - he too has had to change.

The loss of unborn children is also sensitively and painfully recorded, in tandem with a physically punishing mountain bike ride, in the chapter 'Push, Pull Through'. It will resonate with any parent who has had to go through this tragic ordeal.

The following chapter, in contrast, is a peaceful reprieve, a coda from the drama and pain which went before the happy arrival of his third and youngest son. It is an evocation of a father's unqualified love for his son and ends, quite simply, with 'Happy birthday Dylan, it's the least and most I can say'.

In poignant contrast, in the chapter 'True Geordies Cry', we are reminded that unconditional love in a parent-child relationship is not always a given as here Mark explores the difficulties in his relationship with his own father which in childhood were not comprehended but are more clearly seen through adult eyes.

Mark's quiet reflections throughout 'Counting Steps' are essentially a set of observations and responses to life before fatherhood, and life since; on the people and places that hold meaning for him and the shifts in attitude and perspectives which have taken place within him because of the love he has for his wife and children and the nostalgia he has for certain landscapes. Immersing himself in these landscapes allows him to better assess the changes that have taken place within him, together with an acceptance of the fact that there are some things he can't control; he also comes to understand that an over-immersion in work and the pressing need to 'progress' can result in a loss of self. The final acknowledgement is how becoming a father himself has transformed his life, taking him on the journey of a lifetime for which there are 'no maps'.

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Counting Steps is published by Cinnamon Press and is available to buy for £8.99 through Cinnamon Press, from Amazon or from Mark's own blog page, Views from the Bike Shed




Sunday, 2 June 2013

Ten Years On

Saturday 25th May 2013

As we head south on the M40 on a beautiful sunny evening (long-awaited), it is strange to think that ten years ago this weekend we were heading up the same motorway in the other direction to start our new life in the north. Today in the back of the car, on our way to holidays, we have three distinctly growing girls: ten years ago we had a baby, a toddler and a pre-schooler. Where did those years go? I ask myself.

I struggle to accept that then I was on the cusp of 40, still able to kid myself that I was young; today, on the cusp of 50, I fear the same can no longer be said! The years have passed both in the blink of an eye - and slowly and surely. On the one hand it all seems like yesterday, on the other a lifetime of experience has been accumulated in a decade.

The friends we left behind are still there, of course, but new ones have been made and form the backbone of our happiness in the High Peak. For two of our girls it is truly home - it is all they really remember. For the oldest it is home too, but she has memories of our life in London which hover around the edges of her mind, coming to the fore in unexpected moments.

The year we arrived, 2003, was an exceptionally warm and sunny one (we have not seen then like of it since!). Already in London we had had hot sunshine since April, and I will never forget driving to our new house over the single track lane from Dove Holes into Combs: the yellow gorse glowing yellow in the morning sun, the roof of the car down, and the whole of the Combs valley and glistening reservoir stretching out below us. It was magical, truly magical.

Less magical was the fact I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders- and a mewling cat on the back seat of the car! The effort to make that move, un-looked for, unexpected, when I was not in good health and had just endured nearly four years of building works and house moves - one of them international - and new babies and a husband I hardly ever saw, was immense. And I had reached a point of such deep heartache and loss that moving somewhere where I had no connection and knew no-one was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I was lonely enough already; I did not need my sense of isolation to be compounded.

Yet somewhere in all that muddle and confusion and distress I knew that this place I had come to was special. I knew that, with utter contradiction, this move was what I needed to start the healing process. I needed the calm, the beauty - and it gave that to me in abundance that first summer.

It is true that the healing process took years - and much effort - to be completed. After about four years I started to feel that I no longer felt out of place. I had made some lovely friends and built up my domestic world so it was working for me rather than against me. Some of my vowels were staring to shift - and I'd got used to the cold! The strangeness, the lack of belonging, had diminished; enough life experience had been built up to form the memory bank on which one draws when defining that sense of attachment. Finally it no longer felt weird to travel north to get 'home'.

So have I become northern - the premise of this blog when I first started it in 2007? Well, truth be told, vowel-shifts and blood-thickening aside, I can never be northern. Ten years is not enough. It takes generations - like so many of the people who live around me here - and I can't compete with that. Yet there is no doubt that I love this place, despite the wind and rain and its remoteness to so much of the rest of my southern and European life. Somehow it enters your soul. The best I can come up with right now is that I feel as much at home up here now as I do down south - and there are a great many things that I prefer about life up here. My range of friends is hugely diverse, people are friendly and down-to-earth, I breathe clean air and I travel around more freely.

The down sides are that I am a long way from my ever-ageing parents and mother-in-law, my brother and all my other friends and relatives; we are a long way from the sea and further away from the European continent - a far cry from my former lives in the Alps, the Pyrenees, Milan, Padua and Paris.

Yet every day that I wake up and see the immutable views of Combs Moss or Eccles Pike and Kinder Scout from my windows, I feel lucky to be alive. And that, truly, is something worth moving for.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

New Gardening Habit Post

Friday 24th May
  
For those of you of a horticultural disposition who have been in despair over the weather, as I have been recently, I've posted something over on The Gardening Habit which offers up some small rays of hope despite the lack of rays of sunshine. The lessons to be learned from Nature are many, but right now it's these:
  • The closer you look the more you see
  • New life appears even when you think all is lost
  • There is beauty to be found in all things.   


You can see the post by clicking here.



Thursday, 23 May 2013

New Fridge Food Post

In defiance of the highly unseasonal weather I have put up a little tasty, summery salad number over at Fridge Food. Go take a look here if you are in need of something both sunny and healthy and filling, despite its size.


Friday, 17 May 2013

617 'Dambuster' Squadron 70th Anniversary

In March 1943, 617 'Dambuster' Squadron was formed from an elite group of military men who were chosen or volunteered for one of the Second World War's most daring and innovative strategic attacks on Nazi Germany. It was an attack which was to mark the turning point in the war for Great Britain and her allies.

I have just been watching the coverage on television of the tributes that were happening today here in the Peak District where the squadron honed their skills over the Derwent Dam and this evening at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire from where the 19 Lancaster planes set off this very night 70 years ago.

The skills that the pilots and their crew had to hone, with none of today's technology, in the space of eight short weeks, were incredible. The mission was to be carried out purely by the light of the moon and the eyes of the crew using sights which look like they'd been knocked up in the potting shed (some wood and a couple of nails) and some basic target altitude aids. Added to this, the Avro Lancaster bomber which they were flying was designed to be operational at far greater heights than the few hundred feet which were required for the success of this top-secret mission. These were brave and courageous men indeed and when they set out this night of May 16th, 1943, many of them knew they were unlikely to return.

As I sit, writing this, in the house that Flt Lt William 'Bill' Astell DFC was living in with his parents and three sisters at the time of his active service, I feel both extraordinarily privileged and very moved. It was to this house, in this quiet Derbyshire village, that he returned having been awarded his DFC for fortitude in Libya, to rest and recuperate prior to his involvement in the Dambusters' Raid. It was a place he loved, as confirmed to me by his sister Betty in a brief correspondence we enjoyed before her own death a few years ago. She said how happy they had all been living here and that, indeed, the only sadness was that their beloved brother died in action while they still lived here.

Edmund Bradbury, member of the British Legion and long-term resident of Chapel-en-le-Frith, worked tirelessly to bring together today's commemoration of Bill Astell who died just 53 days after Edmund was born. The sun shone on Chapel's market place - site, too, of the War Memorial where William Astell's name is etched in the stone like too many other fallen comrades of the First and Second World Wars. A message was read out from Her Majesty the Queen; flags were raised and lowered; a lone trumpet played The Last Post; a minute's silence was held and its end marked by the Revalle; hymns were sung, prayers were said and readings given; wreaths were laid and the Chapel Male Voice Choir sang the famous Dambusters' March. BBC and ITV news were both there filming and interviewing and military and local dignitaries were joined by a good crowd of invitees and passers by.

Refreshments were then offered in the Town Hall where a local business, Cup 'n' Cake, had provided a generous spread of home-made sandwiches and cakes; a two-man band played songs from the 40s following speeches of thanks and a special presentation to Edmund Bradbury from two current young members of 617 Squadron.

At around 12.40 we all moved outside onto the High Street and lifted our eyes, cameras and videos to the sky to capture the moment that the only remaining flying Lancaster in Great Britain (there is also one in Canada), the 'City of Lincoln', flew over Chapel-en-le-Frith. Responding to a special request from Edmund, it took this short detour on its way to the Derwent Dam where many more people were gathered to watch this magnificent and iconic old lady of the air make an emotional sweep through the same skies where the crews had trained so intensely and secretly during those extraordinary eight weeks. Friends in Combs arguably had a better view as the City of Lincoln swept majestically over the village three times, its engines roaring and its four propellers glinting in the sun. I was told that it actually went over our house and I thought how very fitting that was - although the pilots would have had no knowledge of that particular significance.

If you will indulge me, I would like to write out some paragraphs from a book called 'The Peak District at War' by Peter Clowes which Edmund so kindly sent me before today's Remembrance Tribute:

'When Flight Lieutenant Bill Astell drove to Chinley Station one sunny morning in 1943 there were only two people with him in the family's black Austin car - his mother and his nine-year-old sister Heather. After all, he was just returning to his base after a normal seven-days' leave.

The 11.15 train to Sheffield pulled out of the station on time and Bill, his peaked cap askew on his head, waved cheerily until his carriage vanished in drifting smoke. His mother and sister drove back to their home at Spire Hollins in Combs unaware that Bill knew he was about to take part in one of the most hazardous operations of the Second World War - the famous Dambusters' Raid.

Bill had been awarded  the Distinguished Flying Cross earlier in the war for 'displaying great courage and fortitude' after being shot down in Libya and surviving a five-day walk across the desert. He returned to Combs to recuperate, smoke his favourite pipe and sometimes go on rabbit hunts in the fields on Ladder Hill, his shotgun echoing around the hills that rim the Combs valley.

His wounds healed, he was eager to return to the war and, early in 1943, began to fly four-engine Lancaster bombers. Then he joined 617 Squadron at Scampton in Lincolnshire where the Dambusters' Raid was being prepared. When he reached Combs for a final leave in May 1943 he was quieter than usual and contented himself with long walks in the Peak District hills. He hinted to his sister Betty, who was in the WRNS, that 'something big' was coming off but that was all.'

Bill Astell's Lancaster hit uncharted power cables before it even reached the Ruhr dams and exploded in a ball of fire. He was one of the 53 (out of 133) crew who never returned that night.

As I drove back from Buxton this sunny morning along the narrow lane which tracks Combs Moss before plunging down into the village, I looked across the wide vista towards the peaks of Eccles Pike and Kinder Scout to the north, and Castlenaze to the south. I could not help but marvel at the beauty of the landscape and think how little has changed since Bill Astell walked these very hills, smoking his pipe and taking a pop at the rabbits. The Reverend Bralesford made the same observation at the tribute an hour later and it was hard not to feel both humbled by and proud of  the sacrifices this courageous and committed young man, like so many thousands of others, made during those turbulent, violent and uncertain times.

I will go to bed shortly, on the very night that he lost his life, and feel his spirit lingering quietly and happily in this place that he loved. I will imagine him strolling around the very same garden which I tend and nurture in the spirit of those who have gone here before me. I will imagine him walking out of the top gate and into the fields of Ladder Hill beyond, turning to admire and breath in the vista that so many have admired before and since, and will continue to admire for many years to come. People come and go, but landscapes such as these outlive us all.

We are simply guardians of stone and mortar for a moment in time, before we too have to move on. But in the meantime it is a privilege to be able to inhabit this place which he, too, called home.

Spire Hollins, Combs, 16th May 2013


 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A Special Invitation for a very Special Day

A week or so ago, after a telephone call from the organiser, we received this special invitation:-



I will tell you all about it tomorrow and the reason we were invited.

New Gardening Habit Post

Have just written a little something about the highs and lows of gardening in a very wet, cold climate over at The Gardening Habit (and all those of you who live in sunnier climes may rightly feel smug!).
 

Friday, 3 May 2013

The End of an Era

Wednesday, 1st May 2013

What a beautiful day to start May! Clear blue skies, warm spring sunshine, not a breath of wind - and I thought of Henri who used to walk these hills over so many decades but who will set foot to earth no more. As cancer took hold in her ninth decade, she said she had done with her life and now just wanted to float. She passed away on Monday and today I imagined her up there, smiling down on the place she loved so much and knew so intimately.

I have been here but a decade, yet the spirit of place has entered my soul completely. As I dug the earth to plant my columbines, primulas, pulsatilla, wallflowers, campanulas and aubretias, the sheep and lambs lay quietly in the filed, the birds sang their spring song at last and the drill of a distant woodpecker drifted across the valley. I thought of the kingfisher Henri always told me about down by the stream where she walked, and I missed her. The brittle clack-clack of her walking stick as she walked purposefully up the long hill past our house, heading for the beech groves or some such other place, her little 3-legged dog trotting companionably by her side and to whom she was devoted.

Henri (who made it quite clear to me from the start that she hated being called Henrietta!) was a trooper - a no-nonsense woman who had led her entire life in and around this village. I'm sure she had travelled but her home was essentially here, and this is where much of her extended family still lives, many of them working the land she loved to walk on.

It was through her love of walking that I first got to know her. She would put me to shame with her early morning yoga and twice-daily walks. I was always passing her in the lanes - especially when the girls were at the infant school, morning and afternoon, out with her dog, regular as clockwork. Her routine coincided with my drop off and pick up times and we would always stop and have a chat. She taught me most of what I know of this village, its history and its people. Early on she wanted to introduce us to her family and friends and I will always remember going to her delightful cottage, drinking sherry and meeting them. She was devoted to several other 'grande dames' of the village, always ready to help out her frailer friends. I certainly never imagined that she would be gone before they.

Even when I was no longer going to the infant school daily, I would frequently pass her on our lane as I dashed off somewhere else, but I would always put down the window of the car and have a catch up - or at least ask after her and explain that I couldn't stop. One of the last times I saw her was earlier this year. I passed by in the Defender as she was chatting with a neighbour further down the lane. I wound down the window to say a quick hello and Henri quipped, in her classically clipped no-nonsense voice: 'Are you safe to drive that thing?'!

Not so long after that I met her again and stopped to have more of a chat. I noticed how her face had grown thin, her once lively brown eyes more sunken. I asked how she was and she said, elusively, that she hadn't been well but it was clear she did not want to be drawn. Instead she asked after the girls, whom she had watched grow up these past 10 years, and we parted in due course, me none the wiser as to the gravity of her situation. Little did I know that that would be the last exchange we would ever have.

Henri was a part of the landscape of this village and it is hard to believe that she is no longer with us. She will be sorely missed by so many, not least of all, of course, by her immediate family to whom she was know, quite simply, as Granny. As her granddaughter-in-law said, it is truly the end of an era.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

How Runway on the Runway made Manchester Sparkle

Well, I think we can safely say that Runway on the Runway was a spectacular success. The hard work of the production and co-ordinating team, the schools, the charities, the contributors and the sponsors all came together to produce an outstanding event which can only raise awareness of teenage cancer and, hopefully, has contributed heavily to its funding pot.

We were literally swept into the Concorde Hangar by an arctic wind which those poor bods at the welcome desk were forced to endure most of the evening. Inside, it has to be said, it wasn't much warmer - such hot air as was being generated by heaters was whooshing straight out through the hangar roof! But it really didn't matter because, at the risk of using a well-worn cliché, the warmth of the mood inside was more than enough to keep everyone happy. Right from the moment you walked into the colourfully lit hangar where Concorde takes centre stage, you couldn't help but be impressed. The catwalk was running underneath those iconic triangular wings and was painted black with small red and white lights down the centre and sides to represent an airport runway. At one end three large screens were to tell the stories of the three Runway 'cover girls' - Alice Pyne, Lucie Carrington and Olivia Cork. The whole event was dedicated to the memory of Alice, who tragically gave up her battle with cancer on 12th January, and whose parents and sister were in the audience. However, her infamous Bucket Blog and the extraordinary sums of money she raised for charity, are a lasting legacy of a remarkable young woman who made the most of every moment she had left to her on this earth.

The schools were all incredible. They had worked so hard - the focus always on this one evening - to be the best they could, modelling the clothes of their designated designer with the best wit and style they could muster. Their obvious thrill at finally being on the runway, after all the months of preparation and anticipation, was completely infectious. James 'Caino' Cain (with a touch of the Alan Carr's about him!) was our exhuberant compere for the evening, adding loads of energy and humour to the runway. This was especially valuable when, shortly before the interval, there was a loud bang and suddenly half the lights (and the heaters!) went off. James coped with the hiccup admirably, masterminding the raffle and then encouraging us all to go and spend a prolonged break beside the cocktail bar!

Behind the scenes it was all happening with a new generator being brought in from a fair few miles away. In an admirably short space of time, given the potential drama, the show was up and running again as the final five schools came on to strut their stuff. The best, however, was saved till last when the final group of young people to take to the catwalk were the very people we were all there to raise money and awareness for - victims of teenage cancer. It was extraordinarily moving to see those who have suffered so much in their young lives giving so much back and so clearly revelling in their moment in the spotlight. All the more so when, for many of them, their future was still so very uncertain. It was a truly humbling moment and one which will stay with me always.

The objectives of the evening - to raise awareness in the North West of the three charities, to raise vital funds and to present a fantastic show in which the young participants could really sparkle - had been resoundingly and emphatically met.

For more information on the people and charities involved, or if you feel you would like to donate or become involved yourself in any way, please visit the Runway on the Runway website.
 

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Runway On The Runway - Fashion Fundraiser for Teenage Cancer at Manchester Airport

A friend of mine, together with a loyal group of others, has created, with total dedication over the last 12 months, a unique event called Runway On The Runway. It is a charity fashion show set spectacularly in the shadow of the world's most iconic aircraft, Concorde, in her home at Manchester Airport. The show, which takes place next Thursday, 21st March, is to raise funds for three remarkable charities: Make-A-Wish Foundation UK, Teenage Cancer Trust and Medcare.

The inspiration for the event came from the stories of the extraordinarily brave teenagers who suffer, in alarming numbers, from teenage cancer, one of the most aggressive takers and changers of young lives. One of the biggest issues is the delays which often occur in diagnosis, and the idea behind Runway On The Runway was to invite local schools in Cheshire to become involved, together with the charities and victims themselves, in an effort to raise awareness of the plight of so many young people in the north-west and around the country as well.

A host of well-known names in the fashion and media worlds have freely given up their time to help put together what will be a spectacular night. Yet the real stars of the show are the very teenagers for whom this is dedicated to: girls and boys, in the prime of their young lives, suddenly struck down by serious and life-changing illness. Prom night, for all teenagers finishing GCSE's, has become the highlight and culmination of all their hard work and studies at school - the night to celebrate their launch into a more adult phase of their lives. To have this compromised by a sudden and unexpected illness of such a serious and life-threatening nature, is a particularly cruel blow to have to take. And so it was decided that the theme of the evening should be 'Prom'.

The 10 schools involved have been fundraising for a number of months and have been encouraged to come up with lots of innovative ideas to raise money. They have also been engaged in a prom dress design competition and the winners will be showcasing their design on the night. All the schools have also been assigned a dress designer - from established names like Vicky Martin and Ted Baker to new kids on the block such as Manchester based Nicola Metcalfe - and a team of models from each school will be strutting their stuff down the 'Runway' on Thursday night. There will also be stands covering all elements of fashion just to add to the glitzy atmosphere.

At the heart of the show, however, will be the 'Cover Girls' for Runway On The Runway - Alice Pyne, Olivia Cork and Lucie Carrington. Their strength and courage in coming to terms with their illnesses is, quite simply, humbling. Just click on the names below to see their video stories.

Olivia Cork

Lucie Carrington

Alice Pyne

Click HERE to purchase tickets for what will be, without doubt, a very special and memorable event at The Concorde Conference Centre at Manchester Airport this Thursday, 21st March 2013.

 

Thursday, 14 March 2013

As my three years of gardening courses are drawing gently to a close, I decided that I would create a new dedicated gardening blog. That is not to say that I will not continue to write about garden things here at View From The High Peak. I just needed somewhere to focus specifically on my ever-evolving horticultural interests and my photography of plants and flowers. It is called The Gardening Habit. I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

On A Train


Friday 15th February, Virgin Pendolino

There are times when it's lovely to be needed, and times when it's lovely not to be. As I head south on my train this morning, from grey northern skies to southern blue, I can't help feeling both pleased to be free but sad that, one daughter at least, drifts ever further from my side.

Not so long ago, on a journey such as this, I would reflect on the little chicks I'd left behind and know their movements, their habits, their needs. These days I simply stand and watch as they make ever more adventurous forays into the outside world. Driving to the school bus this morning, I watched my eldest, out of the corner of my eye, applying mascara in the vanity mirror, overnight bag by her feet. Tonight she will be at another's house, a group of young teenagers, wired to sights, sounds and conversations that I can only guess at. Boys will feature that's for sure. The fragile boundary between childhood and adulthood, one foot in both camps.

Meanwhile, the middle child will be home on the school bus with her friend, laughing conspiratorily in anticipation of a long-awaited sleepover, 'Friends' dvds, hot chocolate and onesies.

And then there's my littlest; the delicate creature with a core of steel, the freckled nose and the mischievous eyes. She will be heading for her dance class, her pony-tail swinging, a little reluctance now entering her previously enthusiastic step. A child on the  threshold of a turning point. The point when the mother loses her little chicks for ever. The point where acceptance is required that these vulnerable and dependent young lives start to take their own reins; where horizons broaden and the possibilities are endless. The line between your wisdom and experience, and their innocence, becomes blurred. They are growing up and striking out, defining themselves, while you are left wondering who you really are, what you've really done with your life and what to do with the remaining years. 

Motherhood can sometimes be a very lonely place. When they are young you feel isolated by their dependence, and when they become less dependent you suddenly are aware of the emptiness they leave behind.

But right now I have an afternoon by myself in London. I have one fixed appointment to meet an old university friend (we've not seen each other in nigh on twenty years) at 5.30pm, but until then, I haven't a clue. I shall simply make it up as I go along, as, on reflection, I have done my entire life.
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