Monday, 23 September 2013

Growing - Part 1

This year's spring and summer have been so very full that when I started to look through my photographs I was a little overwhelmed at the prospect of narrowing them down to a select few to post here. This summer's weather has perhaps been the best that I can remember for a long time which has been a true blessing for the family that spends a good deal of its time outdoors. Browsing through these pictures I see that we have certainly made the very most of those long, largely sun-filled days. We have walked, played in and explored more corners of this special place than ever before - particularly enjoying the good number of swimming and paddling spots in these valleys. Lumb falls, Blake Dene, Jack Bridge - we've done them all, complete with neon-orange arm bands which seemed to glow in the dark of those shady brown pools. We even found the almost mythical Gadding's Dam - a reservoir high up on the moors with its own little sandy beach.


As well as the paddling, there's been horse riding and bike riding, running and climbing, building and gathering, and watching our allotment grow and produce. The more we've been outside, the more at ease I have watched my children become, hair increasingly tangled and streaked with blonde; skin darkening and gathering scrapes and scratches, each telling a tale of an act of bravery or folly. They have grown alongside the vegetation they crawl through, becoming more sure-footed, more confident in their bodies with each passing adventure. They have discovered more by observing more - spotting bugs, birds and berries with the excitement of growing familiarity and knowledge. My own looking and understanding has been stretched with their help, their constant questioning and enthusiasm pushing us all to discover more, love more deeply.


I have realised too that we are shifting out of the little years; I am gratefully aware that I can now shower whilst the boys are awake - something I feared may never happen - and there are short fleetingly precious moments when I'm not immediately required and am able to daydream a little; creating tiny bubbles of sweet space for my weary brain. They are growing up I notice, and I am caught between wonder at the independent boys they are becoming and sadness for the babies they no longer are. I try hard to keep in mind that they grow lean but no less loving, they talk with more knowingness but make me laugh more and, perhaps the most beautiful thing for a mother, they grow better friends with each passing season. Of course they still bicker and fight (a lot!) but they've also become co-conspirators, accomplices, comrades. They pore over books together: imagine worlds and hilarious far-fetched scenarios; help each other when they're hurt and come running for me when one or the other gets stuck up a tree. Like peas in a pod, where you find one you'll invariably find the other: my little adventurers - curious, kind and always together.


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Malham Cove - spring.

For miles as we approach, we can see Malham Cove rising out of the green rolling landscape like a stony dam. Its mineral brightness jars with the mellow Dale's landscape and I feel a thrill at being able to see our destination before we arrive, like a first glimpse of the sea when headed for the coast. The weather is kind, as it has been for days - the sun mostly winning through the cloud.

Our picnic is finished swiftly in the boot of the car and we set off slowly, the children dreamy and playful. There are gloomy predictions from the man of the family about ever reaching the top of the cove 'at this rate'. But I know these boys of mine - we are daily adventurers together and I can see that they are just limbering up and getting into their stride. We pass perfectly polite blue-grey Dale's cottages clothed in wisteria and delphiniums, surrounded by genteel green fields and leafy oaks. Like pictures from another time they stir in me a strange familiarity, perhaps in childhood I dreamed of standing at similar doors in similar gardens; belonging in this gently rural place.

The main footpath up to the cove is busy with folk as we join it. Monty skips and jumps, full to the brim with child-simple joy - shouting to all who'll listen, 'I like dogs!'. I'm not sure if he's trying to get people to let him pet their dog or whether he's just enjoying the game - but it's interesting to observe some people smiling with him, whilst others look away. Eli seems out of sorts so I point out to him the wobbly silver lines of dry stone walls snaking across the hills, some now no more than fallen and heaped rubble, bleached by centuries of exposure. He looks and nods but he can't seem to shake his subdued mood until he sees some water. The stream that burbles at the bottom of the flat approach to the cove is shallow and inviting and the boys wade and paddle their way upstream towards the sheer face of the cove, little legs pink with stinging cold. Jackdaws sit in gnarled, still-bare ash trees at the water's edge.

We stop to chat with a couple whose teenage children are chasing their dog through the water; the parents look wistfully at Monty and talk of how quickly time passes. I can see watching him play they miss little voices and limbs; my thoughts fall forward to a time too soon approaching and I can't help but wish that just sometimes we could all slow the bitter-sweetness of growing children.

Walking on, we find that just before the cove the RSPB have set up a viewing station for spotting peregrine falcons high up on a treacherous ledge. The man tells us they are being shy today but when I step to the telescope I see a bright eye, a beak and a turning wing, 'I see him!' I shout, and turn excitedly to see doubtful faces; perhaps they think I am mistaken or lying. They come to look but he is gone - I keep looking for a while longer, fruitlessly hoping to catch another glimpse of the elusive raptor.

We start to ascend the long stone staircase to the top of the cove; the rocks are slippy and worn and I worry for the boys who are racing each other up and up. I worry too for my sprained and swollen ankle, still tender and delicate - making me move slowly, like someone older, forced into frailty. I wonder whether you can measure sprightliness by the staircases you can climb? These giant steps are impressive, made of hefty rocks and slabs. It must have taken so much strength, time and commitment from people who had probably been volunteers - lending their limbs and spirits to lift and perfectly place one stone after another to make the high limestone pavement accessible instead of muddy and dangerous. As I climb higher, able to see further and further, I silently thank these willing strangers.

At the top, we can't see how to proceed. It takes a moment or two to adjust to this strange landscape, I hobble over the treacherous surface, scared again for my ankle and for the little legs clambering beside mine. But children are mostly sure-footed, having not yet learned to mistrust their bodies, their confidence often keeps them safe. I look into the gullies, searching the grikes between the slabs for plant life - remembering in The Wild Places, Robert McFarlane and Roger Deakin on their bellies in Ireland - peering into the fertile life of the gully, finding wild worlds in miniature. I'm not sure it's quite like that here, perhaps the crisp packets and plastic bottles distract me from the plant life, although I do spot some wood sorrel, herb Robert and stunted ash saplings amongst the ferns. It's hard not to compare these rocks with bones - long spines of ridged rock, each knobbly clint a vertebra or a knuckle. Teeth too point up from the surface - a true dinosaur graveyard for little minds ready to make stories and see monsters. There is a kind of magic in the contrast between the green tufts pushing between the bony platelets of the stone, all suspended on this high platform beneath the clouds, above the valley.

Monty treads carefully beside me, holding my hand. A family passes anxiously with a dog, his paws clattering and slipping on the rippling stone. I point them to safer ground and notice the parents looking wistfully at Monty, they gesture towards their own children and joke about big boys and big smelly feet. They miss cute, they say; and I understand...I am to treasure these moments, remember this day.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

A quick explanation

It's been a while since I last blogged - something to do with real life being full to bursting and doing some things a little differently.

My little slices of time squeezed in around home educating and all the other stuff have changed a little of late. Whereas I would pull myself up at some time dictated by the lark and spend it tapping away at this blog; I now peer bleary eyed at real paper and scribble with a real pen - writing just for me. It's been good - possibly essential - and I need to continue to do it, but I also miss the company of a blog; the visitors, the critics, the wider community of millions and I miss a place to put my photographs. So I'll try and be here more regularly again, for a while.

I will attempt to go back to the beginning and re-find the stories of our spring into summer. The weather has been mostly kind, the days long and fun-filled; it has been a season of goodness and growing - both boys and green things and it delights me to say that there is yet more to come for all of us.

In the Autumn I will be starting a new module of study with the OU - a creative writing module. It will take nine months to complete and if I do well enough, it will hopefully see me finish a degree I started sixteen years ago. When that course starts, I fear I might disappear again for a while, but we'll see. In the meantime I'll try and pop in even if it's just for a quickie because habit is good - it can get things done.

Sunday, 19 May 2013


These pictures are a couple of weeks old now - taken around Beltane, they captured for me the moment when spring finally happened. I had been watching desperately for it, through cold bare days of baited breath  and suffocated growth, at times wondering if it would ever come; wondering if perhaps our apocalypse would sneak up on us in the guise of everlasting winter. But come it did, and for a few sparkling days the earth glowed and sang.

I honestly know of no greater joy than to witness things growing. I am eagle-eyed at this time of year, watching earth and branch almost hourly - seeing birch buds, starting as no more than pin pricks, gradually uncurling like tiny scrolls giving the woods a greeny sheen. Beech leaves too, opening like folded paper fans, translucent with newness. Palmy fronds of rowan emerging, waving in the sun

The empty ground starts to sprout a spreading carpet of wild greens and seeded weeds; nettles and dandelions familiar amongst the delicate scatterings of wind-sown unknowns. In my slow, haphazard way I have been cultivating the land about me - some begged, some borrowed - planting bits and pieces here and there. I watch my small efforts eagerly for signs of life, rejoicing when the perennials appear as if by magic - bare earth giving birth to shoots forgotten since autumn; astilbe, astrantia, aquilegia - I hover like a nervous mother over their slug injuries and frost bites.

And those sycamores, their swollen buds bursting at the seams, releasing leaves too long confined, so glad to be free, shaking the sun along their veins and spreading a canopy of golden green glory...

The transformation is almost complete, I type to a window of fully clothed hillsides. It is raining, and cloud hovers in the valley, the greening is settling down from limes and acids, to emeralds and olives, maturing and solidifying with the aging season. I miss the sun, the way it dances between the branches with the newly minted leaves, casting shimmering shadows on the floors where I walk.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Green Beltane soup

Although the weather here in the Pennines is still a bit stuck in winter, the year moves on all the same and now here we are at Beltane! As I've looked out at bare trees and grey skies these past couple of weeks, it's been hard to really drop into spring. Those hope-filled warm days, that make me feel like running about the countryside barefoot, have been hard to come by. It's difficult to imagine that our ancestors would have cavorted about the countryside around this time, making merry in the fields and hedgerows. 

Beltane was the great fire festival of growth and fertility, the most potent and active time of the year. In warmer springs it's easy to feel the strong green push of the earth - as the ground becomes carpeted with tiny opportunistic wild seedlings and the tight fat buds of the trees burst at the seams. But in this cold grey half-season it's harder to sense the throb of a land on the cusp of summer.  

And so, I offer you, nettle soup...

It's a simple affair, but full of the rich green goodness that we are so in need of just now. I've only been aware of the food potential of stinging nettles for a year or so, I'm still exploring its many possibilities but it seems to me that soup is a good simple way to enjoy them. And as long as you're using only the freshest tenderest growth, delicious too.

So...take some scissors and a pair of gloves and chop off the young growth at the tops of the plant. For a decent amount you need about half a sink full of nettle tops. Then wash them really well as they are beloved of many wee beasties. Whilst they're having a bath, chop up a big onion or a few small ones with some garlic, and peel and chop a handful of potatoes. Then melt a hefty chunk of butter in a very big pot and fry the onion and garlic.

When the onions are soft, add the potatoes and a couple of pints of good stock. Cook until the potatoes are almost done then add the nettles and cook for a further five to ten minutes. Blend. You could add some cream or creme fraiche at this point but it will somewhat dilute the deep grassy hues of the finished soup.

And that's it. The simplest way to eat your weeds. Obviously this verdant broth is bursting with all kinds of greenly goodness as nettles contain iron, calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin K and chlorophyll . Nettle has a long and full history as a medicine plant with herbalists prescribing it for all kinds of bodily complaints from kidney problems to asthma. It puts a spring in your step and a twinkle in your eye, so I'm told, making it the perfect Beltane tonic. Maybe it will finally enable us to to launch fully into this season of growth and light. Let the frolicking commence!

(With thanks to Sam Lowi and Jesper Launder for the nettle wisdom and my ever-growing wild food cupboard)

Sunday, 21 April 2013

A Sky Above

As most parents of small children can testify, time together without children is a rare thing at this moment in our lives. For us most evenings we're too tired to go much beyond the most basic communication and weekends are a series of desperate negotiations to try and ensure everyone gets a little of what they need, which for the adults of the house mostly means some quiet time alone. Sometimes it's hard to know whether you still even enjoy each other's company. It takes planning, thought and willing grandparents to really get some time together, all of which we luckily managed to achieve whilst staying in Wales recently.

Generally I find that when in Wales, it's good to walk up big hills when presented with the opportunity, so having gratefully arranged for a whole day of childcare we seized upon the rare chance for an adult-paced stomp. We opted for a straightforward seven-miler which the walking guide reassured us was nothing that a reasonably fit seventy year old couldn't manage. Our intention was to find one of Wales' oldest churches, Llangelynnin, which looked suitably remote and romantic as well as boasting a sacred well in the grounds. We'd also read that the lands about it were home to some prehistoric standing stones and burial chambers and being a bit nerdy about that sort of thing - we set off.

Although down on the valley floor the snow of recent weeks had melted and vanished, up high it still lay deep enough to cause me some concern - it was wet and colder than I'd realised. These days my old walking boots are leaky and stiff and I'd forgotten my hat. As we set out a group of walkers with sensibly thorough attire passed us, giving me a few moments in which to worry about my own lack of preparedness and envisage a shamefaced call to Mountain Rescue. I was reminded briefly of a cringe-worthy moment of my girlhood, when on a school trip to climb Moel Famau wearing only a pink jumpsuit and canvas pumps, I'd had to be carried back down the hill  in the early stages of hypothermia by an irate teacher. During the half hour I spent thawing out under a toilet hand-dryer, I vowed not to repeat this harsh lesson in the importance of appropriate clothing, and yet here i was some years later risking humiliation again.

Before children, this was the sort of expedition we undertook often - map in hand, flask in bag, we'd walk the wilds together. There were many days spent trudging moorland, grassland and coastline, many nights spent huddled in our little mountain tent, listening to rains, gales and the eerie calls of unseen beasts. We camped near a lonely beach in Mull one September, where the rocks were pink and the sea a perfect clear turquoise. We watched giant crabs crawling under our floating bodies, swam to sun-baked rocky islands  and wobbled home to our tent in thick treacly darkness with golden whisky in our veins.

At Kilmartin Glen we pitched our tent on the village green at the end of a formidable valley where the wind and rain were funnelled to a fine point ending precisely at the door to our tent. Through the worst weather Scotland had to offer we faithfully trudged from stone circle to burial chamber to cup and ring marked rock. The land there is littered with ancient monuments, giving a sense of being in a place that belongs to another race, ancient and unfathomable. There, as we traced the maddening marks of the cup and ring carvings we felt the deep booming fusion of person, place and time.

New and tender love seems to need exposure to the elements to help it grow - storms to strengthen and sun filled skies to make those early days glow in the memory. Many of us seem to know instinctively that there is something about journeying in the unknown, preferably in wildish conditions that helps bind two souls together. Perhaps, when it's just us and the land, it's easier to see each other. I know of many couples who spent a good part of their early relationships walking, travelling and wild camping, making memories to see them through the tougher times ahead.

I thought on these things as I slipped and stumbled my way through the Welsh hills, my knees twinging and ankles growing ever more wobbly. We had our moments of dischord - our usual grumbles standing over the map  showing that our ongoing mistrust of each other's sense of direction is still strong; I sought the comfort of the trail of footprints in the snow and was accused of losing my nerve. But mostly we relished the freedom - the simple joy of striding out. Along the way we got childishly excited at the sight of wild mountain ponies, marvelled at the huge white shining hills about us, were quiet and awed by the time-worn wood of the rafters of the ancient church and sighed in pleasure like grandparents at the sniff of flask coffee. And we discovered, reassuringly, that not a whole lot has changed in the six years since we last journeyed out together - sky above, a photogenic burial mound and the prospect of a decent pint of ale still makes us happy.

And there was something else, something revealed in the slight loss of springiness of limb and the teary tiredness that dropped about me towards the end of our walk. A little reminder of a girlhood gone; a reminder of children, responsibilities and of middle-age approaching. A reminder also that we've grown up together from  feckless twenty-somethings to slightly-less-feckless approaching-forties, that our adventures may be different but are no less exciting now that we have two small people to shared them with. And a hope that maybe one day I'll even grow up enough to be properly attired for climbing mountains.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Memory mapping

Last week we resurrected our weekly walk to kindergarten. With great breaths of gladness we strode out into a familiar but too long neglected habit. As we walked we were full of wonder at the great battle that is being waged out of doors. The sun is up before six in the morning and not sinking again until after dinner - the birds are singing of spring but nature is still very much in the grip of winter. Along the river the cold had made ice sculptures of roots, and chandeliers from hanging branches; water captured and petrified. The rocks and boulders of the river were coated in glittering frozen gems and the steep river banks were hung with shimmering icicles. We had seen ice forming around the river before but never quite like this.

I have many pictures of this walk in the annals; pictures with two tiny boys knee deep in swaying grass, of explorations of woodland and river edge. The longer I live in these valleys the more I value the familiarity of a well walked route. These well-known walks particularly seem to give children the chance to really know a place, and it seems to me that knowing then slowly becomes loving as the seasons unfold year on year. Each time we walk this way we are laying the pathways of memory, memories of carefree childhood for them - sweet and fleeting moments of motherhood for me.

We will remember the seasons by the horse chestnut that litters the ground in shiny conkers in the Autumn; the patch of Himalayan balsam where, in late summer we pop the ripe seed heads and nibble a few; the field, fuzzy with summer wildflowers, where the sky opens out; passing the house where alpine strawberries sprout from the paving stones, waiting painfully for them to ripen. And the watched elder where we measure the year in leaves, flowers and berries.

We will feel this place in our bones by the small repeated acts that become our habit over time. The boys will continue to walk the low wall that tests their balance and my nerve, we'll stop at the same place to drop ploppy stones into the gurgling river, we'll keep measuring rainfall by the ferocity of the waterfall, I will always feel uneasy when there are cows in the field and they will always reassure me that we're fine. The high path beneath the cathedral of beech trees will always slow us, while I naturally look up and they look down to build fairy houses in the roots of those towering trees.

After this walk, each winter we'll look for the place where the pipe comes out of the hill to see if we can discover the thick column of ice standing between it and the ground and we'll know where to look for the biggest and shiniest icicle swords. We may feel sadness when things change, like discovering that the trees had been cleared around the old tennis courts and that they're 'modernising' the facilities but there will be new things to notice and find each time we walk this was. And the newness of each season, delayed though it may be, will always stir in us a love for this place - our home.