Sunday, September 18, 2022

Two Go To An Island

Oh Lindisfarne, you are so beautiful and strange. Driving over the causeway, a mild frisson of fear that maybe you've got the tide timings wrong, and the sea is going to come rushing at you as you get halfway, is always something special. The vast flat expanse winks with shallow saltwater pools as you cross. One day, I've promised myself, I'll do it by foot to get a real idea of what it would have been like, back in the 7th Century, to undertake that crossing. A leap of faith that even I, a faithless person, can appreciate the magnitude of. 

Whizzing across on tarmac just doesn't contain the same profundity. 

And once across, everywhere you look, that shimmering North Sea surrounding you, the air full of gull cries and oozing seaweed smells. Boats lean drunkenly into the sands, lobster pots sink into each other with resignation. Years ago, when I first came here, there was a sandwich shack selling fresh crab sandwiches. I couldn't see one this time around. 

There was also that strange glitter in the eye of residents, a twitch to the professional smile, that indicated they were, at the end of this long summer, coming to the end of their patience. It's a look I recognise. It's a look I once had. It states very clearly, to those in the know, that the person before you has dealt with approximately eleventy-billion people asking the same damn silly question about the tide/Vikings/whereabouts of ice cream/Lindisfarne Gospels/insert own tic-inducing question. 

Like a parent of small children, they will have been repeating the same information/issuing the same demand (do not feed the dog pickled onions! Yes, you have to get across before the sea starts coming in! Do not put your sister's fingers in the electric socket! No, you cannot eat ice cream in the museum!) since time immemorial (or, generally, since around March when the weather starts to get a bit nice and people think they'll start taking trips again) and they are oh-so-tired. 

To wit: the exchange I overheard in the Lindisfarne Gospels shop and experience entrance, where we'd gone looking for a bit of Viking history on the island - everywhere else having been a bit light and sniffy on the subject. 

"So, these are the real Lindisfarne Gospels in here?" asked a very English woman (no, not me) as she clutched her battered debit card (a day on this island is an expensive day) to her quaking bosom. Bravely asked, I thought, having recognised the glaze and twitch of the stout woman behind the counter and also having clocked the sign outside that said 'replicas'. There is an intake of breath and, as one, the entirety of the population in that space, including me, leaned forward for the answer...

"NOOOOOAH!" Came the roar of a woman asked that question just once too often in a 24 hour period. "Those are in London [she all but spat the word]! These are REPLICAS, like it says on the sign! But you can see allll on 'em pages 'ere. You can't in LONDON!"

At which point, I quietly put down the postcards and headed outside so I could laugh without having a replica holy book thrown at my head, so I missed finding out whether the customer paid up and went in anyway. I suspect she did. It's what the English do. 

And where was N? Leaning on a wall outside, eyes closed and wishing he was in a pub after having suffered through the castle and then the priory. To be fair, he enjoyed both but his stamina for old buildings and epic vistas is not quite as well trained as mine. I'm working on it. By the time we get back from Bruges later this year, he will also be able to show unlimited enthusiasm for flying buttresses and an unflagging determination to see one more gargoyle/Medieval masons mark. Or I'll have completely broken him and he'll refuse to go anywhere with me ever again, preferring to whimper quietly on his own at home, rocking gently back and forth, whispering "please don't tell me again why the Dark Ages is a misnomer". I'd say we're at the 50/50 possibility mark of him going either way at the moment. 

ANYWAY, back to Lindisfarne. The castle is a stunning piece of architecture and has been nicely done up by the National Trust who've employed their now-standard method of interpretation, printing bits of letters and diaries on to unlikely places. Here, their focus is on the early 20th Century and the members of the Bloomsbury Group who came here, particularly Lytton Strachey, who could be a bitchy little number when he wanted. I always wonder why people invited him anywhere. But there he is, snarking all over a tablecloth or a coat, wittily snarking no doubt, but snark nonetheless. He'd not have got to pudding stage at my house, much less been allowed to stay for weeks as he did here. 

But it is charmingly done, and we enjoyed it, although we (I) lamented the lack of information about residents and owners pre-1800 about from one timeline. We also enjoyed the sight of the staff running around like startled chickens when the fire alarm went off. The newest and youngest member of staff, poor lad, repeatedly asking his walkie-talkie "is this a fire alarm?" as if it were some sort of Delphic oracle. As both N and I have health and safety training under our belts and were the nearest responsible adult to him, we informed him that, yes it was a fire alarm, and his procedure right now should be to evacuate people. Yes, even the old lady determinedly doddering off in the wrong direction. 

On second thoughts, maybe never invite us anywhere? We can risk assess a scenario in our sleep. We are the most fun at parties. But at least you'll never be sued over a trip hazard. 

Luckily for all, it was a false alarm caused by someone vaping (what is the matter with these people?) under a smoke detector, and we were able to troop back in after a half-hour wait surrounded by glorious views. Quite the nicest fire alarm evacuation I've ever been involved in. There was much rejoicing when the all-clear was given. 

Then to the Priory, which contained a nice line of simple, hands-on activities (fit the task into the slot) for kids (and me), some nice finds and the most glorious architecture. That's really what you come here for. The sight of those towering arches, the broad sweep of the walls, the expanse of what would have been windows looking out over the sea. You can imagine easily how it would have felt to see these strange ships appear on the horizon, land. Those strange men in their furs, armed with axes that would wink maliciously in the sun, a completely pitiless band of warriors. Would they have been silent, or howling a war cry to the skies as they made their way up the dunes?

I couldn't tell you because there is No Viking History on the island. Despite the Vikings definitely having made history here. It is very strange. I've been told several times that I should go to Yorvik in York for my Viking fix. But I have been there and I have no need to see freshly-graduated students, the ink on their acting degrees still wet, stomping around the entrance asking "do ye be a witch?" in cod-rural accents ever again. 

Regardless, Lindisfarne is eerie and beautiful, strange and glorious all at the same time. I wish I could be there in winter, watching the storms rage around the ruins. One day. Maybe. There are other places to get in touch with my Viking ancestry after all. If I really wanted to.  

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Two Take a Trip

As previously mentioned, N and I took a trip up to Northumberland the other week - our first holiday since Brighton last September and we were both feeling the need of it. Admittedly, I was more vocal in my need for it than he was, which is a good thing or we'd have just limped on. If there is one thing my Mum has taught me, it's that holidays need to be insisted on, and taken, with regularity. 

Unlike my Mum, I did not insist on the Seychelles (where my Dad once played pool with Michael Schumacher's bodyguards), but on Northumberland, a county I have loved since I stepped foot in it about 18 years ago, and where we have friends who had been saying "come and see us!" for about a year. 

So we packed some bags, handed keys over to the Kid, who was cat-sitting for us, and set out on what I anticipated would be a hideous journey as we were leaving on the day after a Bank Holiday. I have long refused to leave the house for several days either side of a BH on the grounds that the roads are chock full of drivers made crazy by the urge to get there-or-back-again in the shortest possible time. It only took one particularly long and winding journey for me to decide that it simply wasn't worth the candle. 

But, with one thing and another, this year, only this week was feasible, so I gritted my teeth, got behind the wheel and embarked on...a stress - and incident - free journey in which N navigated with aplomb (he is better than any sat nav in getting us out of lane closures and potential sitting-on-a-motorway-for-hours scenarios), and we arrived at Newbiggin by the Sea, which is exactly as it says on the town sign - by the sea, at exactly the time we'd planned to.

I have chalked this up to an early Christmas miracle.  

Exploring around after a much-needed tea at the cafe, we found the church on the cliff top, looking out to the sea, surrounded by graves that are being eroded by the storms, and those superlatively big skies that Northumberland is so good at. 

I mean, just look at it. Beautiful. I love the way it shifts and changes from moment to moment. 

Most of these were taken the next morning at around 7am when I decided to take myself off for a walk along the beach front before N, and the rest of the world, got up. There was just me and some dog walkers, plus one very hardy couple bobbing gently in the sea. I quite envied them, being only brave enough to dip my toes. There is something about the way the North Sea sucks and roars at the sand that makes me wary. But I do long to be brave one day. 

Still, the paddling was lovely, there is nothing like the feel of the sea rushing and foaming over your toes, sending a shock of cold whooshing up through your body. By the end of it, I'd thoroughly soaked the hem of my handmade (by me) skirt. 

I'd also collected 5 coke cans and bottles, 2 red bull cans and an assortment of 11 other bits of rubbish from the sand, deposited by the tide. In turn, I deposited them in the town recycling bin which had the legend "DRY recycling only!" What does that even mean? Did these count as dry now I'd shaken the sea water out of them? I decided they did. 

We spent that first day in Bamburgh with its castle on the high cliff above the sea. There was an aviation museum on site as well, full of incomprehensible information boards with tiny writing and complicated diagrams and models of planes that widows had "kindly donated after the sad death of their husband, Major Findle-bough Heetherstone-Pugh." I have been on the receiving end of those kind donations - "Eric was so keen for the museum to have them" - and let me tell you, each and every widow skips out with the relief of having got rid of "Eric's blasted models". It made me chuckle to see the same pattern being repeated. 

It was also full of men staring intently at sprockets Aiii6b to Eivx9h and multiple cogs and levers. Occasionally a family would wander in with their perplexed children, the female of the group doing a pretty sharp about turn to find the cafe while the male got that peculiar eye glaze and rate of breathing that men get in museums like this. 

My own male being on the mild side of this condition, I left him to it, preferring to watch the sea, imagining myself back to seeing the Vikings land at Lindisfarne (visible in the distance) and read up on my favourite legend - the Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh. My favourite mainly because it's so pleasing to say. The title has a nice bounce and rhythm to it. Also because, as a child, I was very taken by the notion of the castle by the sea and that giant poisonous worms could be placated by milk. 

After the castle, we popped into the Grace Darling Museum, which was splendid. Oh my word. Ignore the castle (overpriced and a little patronising) and head here instead, give it the money you would have spent on castle admission as a donation. It Is Good. Renovated a few years ago (grant money from the HLF), it's still small but perfectly formed with the poignant details of Grace's life well told. Letters written by her, the shawl she wore during the rescue. The actual boat (coble) she and her father set out in. 

It had a lovely line in interactives (something of a bug bear of mine, having seen too many swish tech options consigned to basements, broken after only a handful of months and too expensive to repair), where you pushed a button and it lit up a tiny figure such as Grace's father mending the nets, or her mother teaching the children. 

Best best best of all, there was the challenge of setting the lighthouse light glowing. You had to select the 5 essential tasks in sequence; once successful, the light at the top of the 4-foot-high replica in the middle of the display lit up and flashed around the whole room. There were genuine cries of joy and delight when people managed to do this, me included. Yes, this cynical old museum professional was charmed.  

Then, the coast road back to Newbiggin, winding through little villages, listening to the sea through the open windows. Getting lost a few times but keeping our tempers because it was all so wide and beautiful, familiar and strange. 

We did the things you are supposed to do on holiday - eat chips on the beach - and some of the things that you're not - write a quiz that should have been written before we left. We puzzled over hilariously divisive public art and soothed our sunburn under the wonderful rainfall shower (an absolute plus point of our Air BnB). 

Next time, the story of the Lindisfarne Gospels gatekeeper and little Dink's Great Adventure. 

Monday, September 5, 2022

A Found Thing

I had a bit of a blogging break recently as I rushed to get some work finished up before we went away. There was work that I'd not managed to do because the heatwave knocked me for six and other work that was fast approaching a deadline and more work that had been put aside because I'd got carried away helping a client set up an exhibition. 

Actually, the latter made me realise that, whilst the freelance life suits me, I do miss the energy and buzz of being in a museum, working towards a common goal, rather than sat solo in my little office, tapping silently away. It's nice to have a taste of it every now and then. So now, once a week, I catch the train into Gloucester and work and chatter and plan and help out. It's a lot of fun and very good for my soul. 

Last week we made an escape up to Northumberland, that beautiful county full of moors, hills, woodlands and beaches. Ruined castles staring moodily out to sea. Viking lore. Big brooding skies that stretch over wide empty sands. Hills turning slowly purple as the heather flowers. Yeavering Bell. Lindisfarne. The Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh. Grace Darling and the heaving North Sea. Corned beef pasties. Craster kippers. I'll blog more about it next time. 

The week has helped to reset my head and revive my energy. Grief is a strange, shifting thing that, this year, has made me mostly sad (as opposed to last year's incandescent anger) and feeling as though joy might have been locked up forever. I could find enjoyment in the moment of things, but that pure joy, with its giddy laughter and keen eye for nonsense, had gone. 

Or rather, not gone but hiding. Time away, some spent with good friends, and the absolute determination that I would not go through life joyless, found it for me again. I'm very grateful. 

And also grateful for the shift from August to September that occurred while we were away. There has been much-welcome rain. Dew on the ground. Stripy spiders creating complex and beautiful webs right across the very path you need to walk down. Socks are required once more and I had to, brace yourselves, Put A Cardigan On last night. When Mabel comes in at night, she is no longer dusty from lying under bushes, but speckled with water from damp grasses. The smell of the air is different and I can feel my lungs opening up to it. 

The Kid looked after both house and cats extremely well. So well that neither cat bothered to get up when we got back. Actually, that's their standard behaviour. The house was clean (we had given him 4 hours warning of our return) - even the bins had been emptied - and I think he'd seen it as a bit of a holiday for himself too. It is hard: at 24 you don't want to go on holiday with your Mum and her partner necessarily, but you can't always afford to go by yourself. Have decided to put the offer in of a break regardless and see what he says. 

A stay away always makes me think back to my stint in hospitality, over 25 years ago now. How I took pleasure in making sure guests had everything they needed so that the first thing they could do was kick off their shoes, make a cup of tea and just sit for a while in a chair that held them like a hug. I wanted them to say "oh it is good to be here." 

What does not make people say that is making them track down the nearest supermarket for milk the minute they arrive, or expecting them wrestle with a coffee machine/kettle that needs a NASA degree to operate and then sit on a sofa that fair rattles the bones. Luckily, we were only there for a couple of nights before moving on to our Friends in the North.

I think self-catering providers should be made to stay in their own properties for a month before letting paying guests in. Trust me, once I rule the world, that will become law. 

N starts uni on Monday and is keeping a very careful lid on how nerve-wracking he's finding the notion of returning to education. Rationally, we both know he'll be absolutely fine. Irrationally, I'm fighting the urge to make him a packed lunch and iron him a clean handkerchief. 

Later today, I shall take myself off to the allotment to see what it's been up to during my absence. Hopefully there will be more damsons on the wild trees for me to scrump on the way back. I'm going to make a hearty risotto full of mushrooms and garlic. I'm going to put on fresh bedding that carries the smell of autumn with it. I'm going to soak for a long time in the bath and remove the summer peach polish from my toenails. I'm going to book tickets for See How They Run. 

But first, I'm going to savour being back in my little office, tapping solo at my laptop, In Our Time teaching me new things at a low volume, gently closing the window against the sound of the aggressive needless lawn-cutting going on outside. It's good to be back.  

Friday, August 12, 2022

Into the August Mix

So far in August, apart from staring glumly into our rapidly emptying water butts and asking each other who's turn it is to cook ("I'm sure it's your turn", "Can't be, I did it last night", "we had sandwiches last night", "yeah but I made them", "that does not count as 'cooking'" and so on until we agree to have sandwiches again), we have enjoyed the simple pleasures of a drought and a looming wedding. 

I have discovered that swimming at my nearest salt-water lido early in the morning is a delicious, if breath-sucking, thing indeed. The birds are still yawning, the trees cast elegant shadows over the pool and lawns. Swimming capped ladies of a certain age, knobbly and soft with life, bob alongside each other, chatting. "I told him, it's no good you saying that Steve will fix the tap, we've seen hide nor hair of him for weeks; he'll only show up again when his latest fancy piece kicks him out." "Ooh, you never said that!" "I did, I'll not put up with idleness."

Afterwards, I reward my fortitude with hot chocolate and a toasted tea cake. Sometimes I go in the evening, a welcoming cool down, but the conversation isn't the same - it's more likely to be that Steve and his fancy piece, plus approximately 5 billion kids and a similar number of teenagers casually trying not to catch each other's eye - and the cafe is closed. 

Trees at the Lido park

Bridesmaids dresses have arrived and are hanging in my wardrobe ahead of the Big Try On. A froth of netting, embroidery and chiffon, with a sprinkling of sequins, in blush pinks and creams. I can't decide if it looks like a cupboard some sinister fairy Bluebeard would have, or as though Tinkerbell sneezed in there. Either way, the nieces will look twirly and special on the day, which is all they're really worried about. I have threatened both nephews with a lovely peach satin page boy outfit, complete with dicky-bow, as spotted (and photographed for future sartorial threatening) but am graciously holding back on that reality. 

N and I have started a new Friday ritual where we go for a walk somewhere lovely and rural. After the other week's epic, uphill, flying ant experience, he picked a woodland walk that was on level ground and didn't take 4 hours. It was pleasant, a woodland I'd not visited before, and cool under the shady trees. Huge dragonflies zoomed around a clearing we stopped in for lunch, and there were dozens of butterflies leading the way along the paths. We're undecided about this week - part of me has given a small sob at the thought of 35 degree heat - and may decide to be sensible and forgo it until the following week when it is a sensible 22 degrees and I can move without melting. 

A walk that didn't make me feel like my lungs were about to fall out. Still nice though. 

There's been a new addition to the family this week. Well, 3 new additions. Earlier in the year, I'd pointed at the shubunkin in the pond and said, "that one looks pregnant," which N had scoffed at until Monday when he spotted 3 very tiny shubunkins flitted between the reeds at the shallow end. Babies! This is very exciting and has resulted in much peering over the edge and trying to spot them again. The other fish are too taken up with clopping at unwary flies on the water's surface to bother them now. 

We've also had our first ever dahlia success. Having been handed a bag on anonymous tubers and the vague instruction to "plant them in the spring", we weren't really sure what we'd get. Was it even a dahlia? I'm pleased to say that it was and that they are beautiful. Tiny wee firecrackers of colour, just as the nemesia are giving up the ghost. I can't go out and photograph them for you right now as I'd burst into flames. 

The Kid started a new job this week. After 4 years working in care, looking after adults with physical and mental disabilities, before, during and after the pandemic, dealing with an increase in aggressive behaviours during the lockdowns, struggling on the minimum wage. Excuse me a small amount of anger, but all that clapping resulted in absolutely zero in terms of better wages or better working conditions (fancy a 12 hour awake-all-night shift followed by a 3 hour 'essential' team meeting anyone?). 

All the most intriguing paths were strictly non-humans only

Anyway, he now has a job at the lovely Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, long one of our absolutely favourite places. When I asked him how it was going, he said, in a tone of great wonder, "I can walk into the research room any time I like". Which pretty much sounds like the dream to me. 

We have a trip to the sea coming up shortly. Not having seen our friends in the north for nearly a year, catch up is overdue. After my quick solo break in May, I made a resolution that we would get away more and remember to tell N about it as my finger pressed "BOOK" on the next break. We're going to see Lindisfarne, Bamborough and Alnwick, because he's seen none of them (he hasn't lived!) and then we're having a massive gathering of the clans, plus quiz, food and cake. I Can. Not. Wait. 

Today I did something I've never done before...I complained about a school. Bear with me. I'd been thinking about it for the past 2 weeks, but shied away as I'm not, by nature, a teller of tales or caster of stones. However, after the 4th incident of finding the grammar school were using a sprinkler on their goddamn CRICKET field, I properly lost my temper and did it before I could calm down again. I was, I think, calm and polite, yet unequivocal in how that's really Not On. So there. I am now one of Those People, who write do-gooding complaint letters and twitch their net curtains and write down reg numbers...actually, I draw the line at the last unless a Proper Crime has been committed, however badly the woman at No 1 chooses to park. 

The canal at 7am. Gorgeous and shady. 

So I am a snitch but we are hours away from an official drought announcement and subsequent hosepipe bans. Some places are without water already. The allotment ground has cracks in it wide enough for a finger to fit in. We slop grey water from the house to the garden. Everywhere is tinder-dry. Whole crops have been lost and farmers are caught between a drought and a Brexit. Now is not the time to be scattering water like so much privileged confetti. 

And if they can just wait till Monday, there shall be rain enough to green their pitch. 

This morning I harvested a lot of wildflower seed heads from the allotment, so I can spend this afternoon decanting the seeds into tiny envelopes for our wedding guests. Some people pick sugared almonds (although why? Those things are harder than the science questions on University Challenge with Jeremy Paxman yelling "Come ON!" after 2 seconds); at my cousin's we all got little Burts Bees lip salves and hand creams, which was sweet. I like the idea of wildflower seeds though, and even if all they do is throw them away (as happens so many wedding favours), the seeds will still find a way. So if you'll excuse me, I need to get my shaking hand on. 

Have a splendid weekend, everyone. Hold on in there, rain's a-comin'. 

PS, I'm trying not to bombard you all with too much wedding talk, but it has to be said, the damn things take up a lot of time and attention. Tell me if you're bored and would prefer my hot take on the Tory leadership race. Although no one really needs that. 

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Leftovers Cake

I don’t often bake these days. Whilst being an enthusiastic supporter and consumer of baked goods, there just isn’t the call for it in our house. N will sometimes make sounds of appreciation over a sticky toffee pudding or a crumble, then put his portion in the fridge and forget about it for 2 months, which is no way to live quite frankly, and should, in all right-minded households, result in some sort of jail sentence. 

The Kid decided some time ago that he’s reached an age where my attempts at birthday cakes are superfluous to his enjoyment of the day. These days he likes his birthdays with a side of beer rather than a cake that resembles the leaning tower of Pisa, if the tower at Pisa had been constructed of sponge, cream and strawberries, or that has a strange blobby space monster blobbing it’s green tentacles all over a wonky moon. And the least said about the doughnut cake the better. 

My Nan used to make wedding cakes of 3, 4 tiers. Fruit cake heavy enough to knock out a burglar, stacked on silver paper covered stands, covered with thick marzipan and icing rigid enough to break a tooth. They would be decorated with flowers she had painstakingly made herself from the same icing, rolling it to a fragile thinness, cutting the circles and strips that would then be rolled, crimped, frilled and pressed into flower shapes to adorn the tops. Further icing swags, curls and dots would decorate the sides and the lack of a steady hand could be hidden with a quick design change or swipe of a damp sponge. 

I still have the blurred photographs she took to remember each creation; the flash is too harsh, the background too dark. I can recall the smell of the cake, the sweet grittiness of the icing. I was mmmph years old before I realised marzipan needn’t taste synthetic. 

She was a bakers daughter, my Nan, and I still have the recipe book she wrote when she joined the bakery at 13. I say “joined”. It was more in the way of the family National Service - the only person who escaped conscription was her brother, the great hope of the family, eventually brought down by gambling and ego.

In this hard backed, faded red exercise book, she wrote down the recipes for Eccles cakes, the coconut macaroons that would eventually become my dad’s favourite. Malt loaf made by painstakingly soaking the fruit in cold tea. Bread off every kind, cottage loaves a speciality. Her unsure, looping hand records how the ingredients are scaled up and up for batch baking, the demand in this Lancashire town never quite satiated. 

So when I bake, I’m small again. My own kitchen recedes and I’m stood on a stool to reach the counter, a riot of 70’s daisies spread over the apron that’s been tied around and around my waist. There is the smell of cold tea, coconut and sugar. I can feel the warmth of her oven and heat her telling me to “sift the flour, really lift it.” 

This recipe isn’t hers but it has her fingerprints all over it. 

Leftovers Cake: 

Ingredients - 1 pot of yogurt about to go off, 1 banana that’s too squishy for eating, zest of one lemon, 1 egg, self-raising flour, vanilla, any berries that need using up, caster sugar. 

1. Blend 1 cup of yogurt with the banana, half a cup of the sugar and the vanilla. Chop and add the berries. 

2. Stir in enough flour (to sift or not to sift, you decide according to time) to make it look like a proper cake batter - I think it took about 2 cups but I was ad libbing, talking to the cats and listening to the radio at the same time, so I can’t quite remember. 

3. Remember the lemon zest, grate it over the bowl, Drop the lemon into the batter, curse, wipe it off, continue grating till done. Stir in. 

4. Line the cake tin of your choice - I used a flapjack tin, about 15 cms wide because I appear to have lost all my roundy tins - with baking paper and tip the mix in. Sprinkle with Demerara sugar. 

5. Bakes for 20 mins in a 180 heat oven that you’ve remembered to preheat. If you haven’t remembered to preheat, do it now and make a cup of tea while you wait. Possibly talk to your partner/child/handy pet at the same time. 

5. Test readiness of cake with a skewer or, in my case, a wooden chop stick. If it comes out clean, cake is done. Allow to cool a little before lifting it out of the tin. Allow to cool completely before removing the paper. 

6. Slice according to portion preference. Eat. 

Thursday, August 4, 2022

A Returning

 Last Tuesday I declared to N that I was feeling restless, missing the big long walks I used to be able to do before the arrival of grinding arthritis in my feet. I felt that the steroid injection had done its job so well, that it was possible to tackle my first one in 4 years. And where I wanted to go was a bit of a trip down memory lane. 

You see, I used to live at the foot of this hill. In my dog days, I would walk with him to the very top on a regular basis. We saunter up past the standing stones, up along the crumply fields with their intriguing hummocks and folds, along through the copse full of twisted trees that soared over our heads, and out into the wide open space. 

This place. 

It has air. Big skies. A curiously shaped stone. A tiny whimsical tower. It has the curves and falls of its Iron Age fort. It has my heart. In a way I cannot define, I belong to this place and I’d dreamed these last 4 years of being back up there. 

The old dog is gone now but I still packed an extra sandwich, an extra bottle of water, like I used to do. And we walked and walked, slowly. Not saying much, focusing on each step. Drawing the thick summer air into our lungs. Feeling muscles sit up and say “I remember this”.  

At the top, we sat and drank it all in. Had the place entirely to ourselves - crowds get drawn to the Cotswolds, the Malverns. This is ours. I let myself feel the sheer joy of being back up here after so long, after thinking I’d never get to see it again. There were a few discreet tears of sheer bloody joy. Relief. Thankfulness. 

Buzzards wheel and scream freely up here. The wind tugs at your hair. Memories wave from the corner of my eye. Turn my head too quickly and they shyly hide again. The clouds tumble over themselves in the sky, chasing their own shadows on the ground. 

We walk the perimeter and I can feel the ghosts of the tribes that called this place home jostle beside me. They chatter and laugh, argue and fuss. They cook and craft, look after the beasts they’ve brought in with them for protection. Until one bloody day when their fortress falls. Skeletons have been found in the ditches. Broken weapons. This place holds them and me. 

And then we leave. I look back as much as I look forward. Tired and dusty back at the car. T shirts sticking to our backs, water bottles empty. Feet firmly back on the ground. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

July at the Allotment

Gracious, it has been a week since those dog days of oppressive heat and unforgiving sun, where N and I took to hanging damp towels in front of open windows and, at the worst points, putting even damper towels over our heads. We may have looked all kinds of ridiculous but, as we never left the house past 10am, no one was any the wiser. 

Do you know what has been absolutely loving this heat? The sunflowers. Yes, they have finally taken off from the thin spindly, slug bitten things that they were and are shooting skywards (you can see a video of their progress on my Instagram feed (pretty much the only social media I engage with now. Does Blogging count as social media? It feels too measured for that. Anyway, back to the point...). All they needed, it seemed, was a solid dose of Mediterranean temperatures to set them on the right course. It's quite reassuring to see, although I have been researching emergency florists just in case. 

The courgettes have recovered from a similar case of slug attack too. They were nice and healthy when they went out; a day later they were stripped of all but one leaf. It's incredibly frustrating but other plot holders tell me I'm not alone - slug levels have been off the slimy record and we're all grasping at coffee grounds (the one I have had most success with), copper tape and wool pellets. There are slow worms on the site but it seems there aren't enough of them. I really must get my pond dug and frogspawn transplanted when the time is right. 

I'm reluctant to bring in hedgehogs as there are badgers here, and badgers eat hedgehogs (true and disgusting) and I don't think I could bear to be responsible for that kind of massacre. 

BUT, there are signs of balance. I've seen more ladybirds on the plot this year, keeping aphids under control with no intervention from me. Chives have seen off the white and black fly from the beans. I keep a shallow dish filled with water to encourage birds down. Crickets scatter as I walk, so I know they're around picking off pests. 

As usual, my low boredom threshold for weeding means that there are "wild flowers" galore, so the bees and butterflies are out in number, which is just fun to sit and watch. It also means that the ever present bindweed is really flourishing in parts, but I like to let that get to a decent length and then pull it out of the ground like spaghetti from a carbonara. 

The potatoes are nearly ready, I think. I'll be lifting a few at the weekend to check. The beetroot are slow but that's my fault for the late sowing which has meant the ground has been too dry to plant them out. The raspberries are mainly autumn fruiting but a few are already ripe, albeit small through lack of rain. These I pick as I go, handy snacks rather than a crop I make plans for. 

The Japanese wineberries are also looking ready to burst from their strange, sticky cases. They made a superb jam last year, but I'm not sure I'll have time to make jam again. Too much to do in the run up to September. Maybe a flavoured gin that can quietly steep while I'm busy and then be handed out to everyone who helped with the wedding? 

I like that idea. I also think gin will needed. 

In August, I'm going to order in a heck-tonne (an official measurement) of topsoil and compost so I can finish off the last 3 beds in the no-dig fashion. N has, reasonably, pointed out that digging through the accumulated nonsense - accumulated by previous plot tenant - absolutely breaks me, takes months and actually depletes the soil in the long term. He is not wrong, which is annoying. And I find that, in my 4th year of plot ownership, my enthusiasm for digging up that nonsense has decreased considerably. The arthritis makes progress slow and dispiriting, so better to try another method than involves no more than cardboard and a hefty topping of topsoil. Which I asked for for my birthday. 

Hey, some girls like diamonds, some like earth. 

The brassicas are HUGE now, having recovered from their dodgy start. N built me a new cage for them from bits of the fallen fruit cage, scaffolding netting and drainage tubing. They now have even more room to shoot up. Extra bonus: the netting is yellow and the pipes blue, so it’s a very colourful cage. 

I managed to put my back out slightly, lugging a half-full water butt into a new position. Annoying as it meant my planned 2 hours at the plot were curtailed by 40 mins so I could go home and lie down till the agony passed (it did) but also, hurrah for another water butt! 

This year is the driest I’ve seen the allotment. We haven’t had a decent rainfall for months. The canal level is low and a hosepipe ban is lurking just around the corner. Of lot of plants, under stress through lack of water, are throwing seed out early. The clay soil is crazed with deep cracks where it’s shrinking back on itself. 

There have been a few half-hearted attempts from the sky to throw some rain in our direction, but mostly it evaporates in the sky, or gets lost somewhere around Wales. Trying to weed or plant anything is like chipping away at plaster, so I have a number of plants in pots, waiting for the right time to go in. So we just have to hope August is a little kinder. 

At home, the garden is just about coping. We've lost more plants to the local fox family coming in and scent marking their way around (goodbye thyme, dwarf acer, ferns) than we have to weather conditions. Although the honeysuckle has never really enjoyed life here. The lettuces did lay down and die but the tomatoes are loving this, even though we are using grey water to keep them refreshed. 

Let's just hope they don't taste unusually fragrant when we come to harvest them. 

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