Monday, 9 November 2015

Making winter like the Danes

Like Silverpebble, I am not a fan of winter - far too much mud and rain and greyness for my liking. But this year my aim is to embrace winter, to revel in all the good things and to do more than simply hide in the house and wait for spring to come.  Life is short, much too short to discount a whole season, and winter can be fun.  Even a spring fanatic like me would have to admit that every winter I do enjoy some things.  So my aim is to find more to love about winter and more ways of filling the winter days with good things.  To this end I think we could learn a lot from the Danes.

The Danes have a concept called hygge (pronounced hoogah).  Most articles I have found about hygge tell you that the word translates literally as cosiness but then immediately go on to explain that the whole idea is far more multilayered than that.  This blog, written by Alexandra Beauchamp who has a Danish mother and a French father, contains the most helpful explanation I have found and is a lovely read too.  So hygge seems to be about warmth and light, physical warmth in the glow of a fire and spiritual warmth in the company of people you love.

So how can I bring more hygge into my life?

More fire seems like a great idea.  Even an outside fire like this chases away the winter demons.  And we are lucky enough to have a woodburning stove which should clearly be lit every evening to fill the sitting room with the warmth and sound of a wood fire.

The Danes seem to be very big on candles too.  We have lots of candles but somehow we don't use them as often as we might.  I shall resolve to light them for the beauty of them instead of only when we have a power cut.

And for comfort we have cushions and blankets.  I should bring these out for the winter instead of keeping them for when someone is unwell.  Can you have too much cosiness? Probably not.

This is a little lap blanket which I made for the shepherd's hut but it is just the right size to use sitting by the fire in the house.  I have been making new cushions as well.  Perhaps my interest in hygge had kicked in without my being aware of it.

But in this house I don't see that you can have hygge without thinking about food: spicy soups, casseroles, pies and homemade bread.  We love our food up here and food is for sharing.  And that I think brings me to one of the most important aspects of Danish life.  Did you know that the Danes consistently report themselves as the happiest people in Europe?  And that seems to me to be partly at least because they are a society which relishes relationships and companionship.  In fact older Danish people object to the idea that you can have hygge on your own.  Young Danes would find hygge in a cup of hot chocolate by the fire by themselves.  The older generation would want you to share that moment with someone you love.  So food brings us to sharing and companionship.  It is easy up here to hunker down in winter and to see far less of our friends and neighbours.  I shall try this year to do more sharing of my warm and candlelit room with friends over good things to eat.

I have almost persuaded myself.  Maybe winter won't be so bad after all.  Have a look at silverpebble's blog about the idea of making winter and see what others are saying and doing about it.

Sunday, 1 November 2015


I've always been good at sleep.  My mother used to say that as a baby I slept through the night well before any of her friends' babies.  She thought that was something to do with her mothering skills until she had my brother who didn't, and she realised that babies will do what they are suited to!  As a child I loved my bedroom and I loved my bed.  I liked to have the door closed so that nothing could get in during the night (I still do, to my husband's amusement) and I loved the sense of my bed as a nest, warm and snug and mine.  In winter I loved my flannelette sheets and the comforting weight of the blankets.  In summer I loved turning over my pillow to get the cool side against my cheek.  Bed was a place for dreaming, for reading.  I was an outdoor child and for me inside was for making and eating food at the kitchen table or for bed.  You can tell I was a child from an age where television was a rare thing!

I love sleep and I need it.  When my children were small babies I quickly became a milk spattered zombie, groping through a sleep deprived fug, barely able to speak but miraculously restored to competence by six consecutive hours of night time sleep.  I don't sleep well in the day and if I do nap in the daytime I struggle to sleep at night.  So adult life has fallen into a pattern; day for wakefulness, night for sleeping, now, without the demands of work or children, bed at around eleven and ideally around nine hours of sleep.  How I would have longed for that when my children were small.  Easy.

Or perhaps not quite so easy.  Because sleep, it transpires, even for one like me who seems to have been built for it, is the measure of a quiet mind.  If Ian and I have one of our rare but brutal arguments I might as well spend the night reading in a chair.  When I have known that one of our daughters or daughters in law was in labour I have bobbed in and out of sleep all night like an apple in a bowl, coming up for air, wondering why I am awake and immediately remembering.  How is she?  Is there a baby yet? How is the baby? Is everyone all right?  And the night before I see my father, roughly once a week these days as his motor neurone disease paralyses and silences him, I both struggle to go to sleep and wake at three or four in the morning.  I have grown accustomed to making myself sleep on these nights by sinking half a bottle of wine at speed when we arrive at my sister's house after a five hour drive.  Is this wrong?  Probably.  But it works and leaves me with only the darkest hour to contend with.

I have become good at not allowing my father's illness to overwhelm my life in the nearly two years since my mother died.  I have learnt to focus on the fact that I am doing my best for him, that I am a wife, a mother, a friend, a grandmother, a sister, as well as a daughter and I know he wants me to live as well and happily as I can.  I can see that even now he can no longer tell me because he himself lives as well and happily as he can, an extraordinary example of what can be done in adversity.   So it is only in that dark wakeful time that I am invaded by thoughts of what it is like to be him now, paralysed and silenced, staring into the dark.  I can't seem to stop those dark minutes but I have learnt to go with it, to breathe slowly and calmly, feeling the breath coming in and going out as we do in my yoga class, accepting that it is what it is and letting it go, opening my hand and seeing the thoughts fly away like the swallows above our bakehouse.

So I can't really give anyone else any advice about sleep.  For me it seems that sleep is easy when life is easy and hard when life is hard.  I know all the advice about restricting screen time before bed and gently raising your temperature with a warm, not hot, bath.  Mostly if life is ok and I cannot go to sleep it is because I have not enough done enough physically to make myself tired and getting up for an hour before trying again seems to work.  I certainly do not recommend my half a bottle a wine technique except in extremis.  And night waking for me is the simple result of the fact that not everything can be slept away.

But sleep is to be treasured and the place that you sleep to be cared for: a clean bed, a calm and quiet room, an electric blanket in winter and dark and star filled skies, if you are lucky.

How do you sleep?

Saturday, 17 October 2015

The season turns

It has been an extraordinary autumn.  Morning after morning up here on our hillside we have woken to golden light and heavily dewed grass.  We face South East and the morning sunlight pours in through our bedroom window, pooling gold on the carpet.  Outside everything is still flowering and glowing.  By lunchtime it is warm enough to eat outside.

On many mornings the sky has been full of sun while the valley below us is brimming with mist.

But by lunchtime the world emerges bright and clear and warm.

Sedum throbs with bees and butterflies.

Everywhere berries are ripe.  Cotoneaster herringbones its way up the stone wall by the drive.

Rosehips swell.

The walnut tree is laden with nuts in their glossy green cases which stain your hands a vicious black.

In the edge of the hen enclosure I find this huge fungus, the size of a small plate, ignored so far by the chickens.  They are moulting and looking a bit scraggy, their feathers lying on the grass. There are very few eggs right now.  We let our hens stop laying in the winter.  This happens naturally when the days shorten sufficiently although you can keep them laying by providing artificial light.   We prefer to leave the natural course of things to play out.

I have planted many more new daffodils, Actaea, Cheerfulness and Minnow, up round the shepherd's hut.  I used to try to do this with a bulb planter, taking out a core of soil and trying to achieve a good depth of planting, but now I try to do it for the least effort possible.  The best technique for our stony soil seems to be to lift a sod halfway using a small spade, leaving one side still attached, cram as many bulbs as will fit underneath, and stamp the sod back down again.  I still have all my tulips to plant, both for pots and for the cutting garden, but they won't go out until November.

More sunshine please!

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Whistle stop tour of late September: another baby, another continent!

Bursting with news here!  The most important first.  There is another new baby in the family.  I know, I know.  My cup runneth over.  How delightful.  The family is full of babies.  Younger son and his wife had their second child ten days ago, another little girl.  She arrived in haste and was delivered by her father, fortunately a doctor, in a layby on the A38 as they were driving to the hospital.  We will be meeting the new arrival on Sunday.

I blogged here about the arrival of their first baby.  Every time a grandchild arrives is different and every time it moves me profoundly.  This is the first time we have been out of the country when a baby has been born and that felt very strange but we were woken early in the morning in New York with a facetime call from the jubilant parents and had the chance to see their faces and the first sight of the new baby.  Since then pictures and calls have kept us in touch but I can't wait to see her and hold her and to cuddle the nearly two year old who so far seems very keen on her new little sister.

So add to that a swift trip to the US, principally for Ian's work but allowing us the occasional bit of time off for sightseeing and the last couple of weeks have been a blur and a blast!

First New York: wander around Central Park, up the Rockefeller Centre to the Top of the Rock for marvellous views over the city in the sunshine.

The following day a delightful lunch with Frances of City Views, Country Dreams  and Elizabeth of About New York.  I have met bloggers before  for the first time in real life and once again I had that sense of connecting with old friends even though we had never met in the flesh.  It is not possible to hide yourself if you blog about your life over time and I have never met a blogger whose blog I enjoy and been surprised that they were not as I expected.  Sometimes the physical appearance of someone does not match the picture you had in your head (not the case with these two!) but even if that is your immediate response the reality quickly overlays your imagined version and the essence of the person emerges warmly and clearly in conversation.  We had lunch in a diner and walked the High Line and I had that sensation of sharing a corner of someone's life which is so much more interesting than simply being a tourist.  Thank you Frances and Elizabeth for your company and conversation.

Staten Island ferry just to see the city from the water.

Ground Zero, moving despite the press of people.

A walking tour over Brooklyn Bridge, through Brooklyn Heights and into DUMBO (down under Manhattan Bridge Overpass apparently!) with a great tour company and a knowledgeable and funny guide.

I love New York.  I love its energy, diversity and the way it thrums with life and light.  It is hard to imagine a much greater contrast with our peaceful, soft green and quiet rural life.  I love my life and where I live but it is great to have the pure shot of energy that comes from visiting a major city like New York, London or Berlin.

And then less than forty eight hours in Los Angeles.  Why should it surprise you that a place looks just like your image of it?  Of course it does!  Sun, brilliant blue skies, beaches, tanned and beautiful people and lots of even more beautiful plants.

And then San Francisco.

The Golden Gate bridge emerges, just, from the famous San Francisco fog.

The view from the top of Mount Tamalpais is endless bay and mountains.  What a place to build a city.

The Farmers' Market in San Rafael is full of colour and real food.  I could have pitched my tent close by and lived there.

And the houses on the Crooked Street in San Francisco were like a film set.  Surely James Bond has driven a car down here?  If not, he should.

We were staying with some old university friends of Ian's whose warmth and hospitality provided the perfect end to our trip.   It was great to catch up and to have an insight into life in California.

And then home.  It took close on two days of travelling, a dreamy blur of near sleep and no sleep at all.

Waking early on the first morning at home in the sleepy disorientation of jet lag, all the colours and shapes were gently, gloriously familiar.  The garden is full of grass and six foot long runner beans. There is a list of things to do as long as both arms.

It is good to go away.  It is good to come home.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

New Life

Today the newest member of our family, Grace Lois Joan, first child of younger daughter and her husband, is two weeks old.  Welcome to the world little girl.

I have written before about the birth of a new grandchild.  They are all different and this one has made me very aware of something I have thought before and never tried to articulate.  It is one of the great pleasures of life to see your children parenting their own children.  I never realised this when I was younger and I haven't seen much written about it.  The pleasures of being a grandparent are widely celebrated, and they are very great, but the pleasures of seeing your adult children caring for their children have rather taken me by surprise.  I never expected them to be so great and so lasting.

When my children were young I both dreaded and longed for the days when they would be grown and responsible for themselves.  I could not imagine them not needing me and not being at the centre of their lives and yet I could also see that at some point they would be gone, gone as in living elsewhere, having their own lives, however central they remained to my turning world.  Ours are all adult now and I am not sure whether this is not the most satisfying bit of being a parent, mind you I do tend to like whatever stage I am at!

I have been very aware of change and transition again as the new academic year begins and teenagers go off to university, younger ones make the leap to secondary school and even younger ones start school for the first time.  And new babies arrive.  Transition time, easier for those like me who love change than for those who don't.  I wonder how little Grace will be?  She carries the name Joan after my mother.  It moved me to tears when they told me and even typing it makes my throat thick again.  My mother loved change and challenge and new things to do and through her I must have learnt the confidence that new things are to be embraced, that change can be energising, is not to be feared.  I would wish that confidence for baby Grace but I know from looking at my other grandchildren that she will be who she is and that one of the great adventures of having children is to see the unfolding of the person.

One thing I know she will have is parents and a wider family who love her.  Visiting them in these early days has been such a quiet delight, seeing Maddy and her husband working together, focussed so deeply on the baby, learning how to care for her but with each visit seeming more sure of themselves, caught up in the bubble of early parenthood.  My father talked about what I am groping for, when he was still able to speak, the passing on of the baton he called it.  It is not simply the thrill of the birth of the new generation.  It is seeing your children, or in his case his grandchildren, step up to the plate and assume the responsibility, seeing their love, their patience, their absolute commitment to their children.

I feel it still with all our children.  The pleasures of the granchildren are to do with each of them as they become their own people: the rumbustious but gentle nine year old, the intense, deep thinking five year old, the laughing, adventurous nearly two year old, the cheery one year old.  Who knows what epithets will attach themselves to Grace as she grows?  But the pleasures of watching our children, both mine and Ian's, parent those children with love and confidence and generosity, firm when they need to be, helping them learn boundaries, giving them roots and wings, these are constantly renewing deep satisfactions which I never realised would be so great a part of later life.

And in a couple of weeks there will be another baby when younger son and his wife have their second child.  We are very lucky.  I know families can be difficult and complicated places and heaven knows ours is neither simple nor perfect but mostly it is a very happy place to be.  Thank you to my parents for what they gave to me.  Thank you Ian for being at my side.  Thank you children.  Your children are lucky to have you.

Friday, 28 August 2015

A walk from the door

I love walking.  The simple act of putting one foot in front of another always calms me, cheers me and makes me engage with the world outside me and stills the chatter of my internal world.  One of the great things about living here is that you can walk straight from the door into countryside that people would travel miles to find.  I used to walk in cities too, pounding the streets at dusk when you can look through newly lit windows into other people's lives.  I still like that but I love the fact that here I can walk out of the door and straight into the green world.

I have been here by myself for the last couple of days as Ian was working at our son's house in Manchester.  I am still catching up from our week away with the family, washing and ironing and gardening and shopping.  It was a glorious day here yesterday and as I trudged in from the car with bags to unpack I suddenly thought that rather than sit down with a cup of tea as a break I would walk up the hill,

No sooner thought than acted upon.  Out of the house, along the track through our neighbour's farmyard and out into the lane.  This is steeper than it looks!  There is always that moment when you need to push your legs into the next gear.

As you walk uphill the first bend in the lane reveals the first view, out across the stubble of newly cut fields and up towards the hillforts along the top of the Clwydian range.  Our little valley dips away and rises on the other side towards the rounded dome of Moel Arthur.

There are flowers along the edge of the lane, particularly after the tarmac stops and it becomes a stone track.  Knapweed is heavy with butterflies.  There were Red Admirals and Meadow Browns on the grasses but this Peacock was the only one I could catch.

Rosebay willow herb is just going over, revealing the elegant structure of the flower as the petals fall and before the fluffy seed heads blur its beauty.

There are thistles, the flowers crowding together at every stage from bud through flower to seedhead.

There is ragwort, not welcome in the fields because of the danger to horses, but rather beautiful just by the roadside, thronged with insects.

My favourite are the harebells.  There is no blue more intense and I love the delicacy of the flower.  As a child I loved Alison Uttley's Little Grey Rabbit books and the harebell always reminds me of them.  A bunch of them should be on Little Grey Rabbit's kitchen table.

There is beauty too in the shapes of the trees.  The higher you go the more they show the effects of the prevailing wind, the westerly that has come across the sea from Ireland and over the mountains of Snowdonia.

The track ends and if I had a lot more time I would go up here, on top of Penycloddiau, the largest hillfort in Wales.  Or I could go through the gate and look out across the Vale of Clwyd, across to Snowdonia and down to the sea.  Not today though.  Today I turn back at the gate and walk back home in the warm wind.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Reporting back

Well as we are now on week three of the new way of eating (not to be  called a diet as that sounds as if the intention is to lose weight when my intention is not to be hungry!) I thought I would take stock of what I have been doing and what I think about it.

Firstly and very clearly, having given up bread and wheat products is having a definite and good effect on my wellbeing.  In some ways I am quite sad about this as I love bread and baking so in a contrary way I was rather hoping that giving up bread would make no difference.  Not so.   There is not much doubt that my IBS is much better on a wheat free diet.  That is a bit ironic since I didn't decide to give up wheat with an eye to improving the IBS  but more because it seemed possible that it might help with hypothyroidism.  I have no idea what sort of impact it is making on the thyroid issue but there is no doubt at all that it is helping my gut!  Hi ho.  I will have to keep the very occasional slice of homemade bread for a treat.  I don't think I could bear it if I thought I would never eat bread again but I can bear eating very little bread in exchange for a much calmer and more comfortable stomach at the beginning of every day.

Giving up wheat has not in fact been as difficult as I thought it might be.  I have adopted rice cakes instead of bread and crackers and the fact that they are nothing like as nice simply means I eat fewer of them than I would of the bread and crackers they are replacing.   Most of my wheat used to come in the form of bread or flour in cakes and pastry.  I have also given up pasta  which is no real hardship for me.  I like rice and potatoes and they seem to be giving me the carbohydrate.  Eating at home is easy as I cook everything from scratch anyway so I am not being caught out by the sneaky introduction of wheat products into things which you would simply not expect to contain them.  Tomato ketchup for example, who would have thought it?  Eating out is a bit more difficult as is eating on the move when my instinct is to go for a sandwich.  In fact restaurant eating is easier than eating on the go.  In restaurants and cafes simply going for dishes which are pretty close to their natural state such as a piece of fish or chicken without sauce and plenty of vegetables seems to fit
 the bill.  On our weekly trips to Devon it is harder to find things to eat at motorway services where so many things seem to be bread based.  Salads are fine and with some hot dishes such as burgers I simply discard the bun.  So I am finding that it can be done.

I haven't really found myself missing anything desperately apart from new bread when it comes out of the oven!  I did have a piece when I baked earlier this week.  There are some pleasures which are necessary for a good life!

The other suggestions were to eat more protein and to reduce caffeine.  Again both of those have been fine.  One rather sad discovery last night was that gin seems to set me off.  I haven't had a gin and tonic for months and months but I had one last night and my stomach really didn't like it.  Poor form, stomach!  Ah well, at least there is still wine.  And fresh eggs!

So for now I will stick with it, at least for the couple of months I had originally intended.  I am also trying to walk more and do some yoga most days so with luck and consistency perhaps I will get my bounce back!