Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Sarah Raven's Perch Hill Feast

Months ago Ian came in from his office, as we grandly call the overcrowded and chilly porch where the desktop computer lives, and said "Listen to this.  You would like this."  It was an email invitation to Perch Hill, home of Sarah Raven and Adam Nicolson, to a summer event, a feast, with names from the world of food such as Yotam Ottolenghi and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.  Visitors were to stay in tents.  It was to be a weekend for wandering around the garden and eating glorious food.

I would like it.  I would like it a lot.  Within an hour I had established that Ian was not bothered about going himself but happy for me to go, approached a friend who is always up for doing something new and interesting, even though she is not a gardener and much more interested in eating food than cooking it, and by ten past nine the next morning we were booked in.  The speed and decisiveness aren't too uncharacteristic but they don't usually get used on something which is essentially a big treat.  It is sort of a birthday present.  It is also a grand gesture towards looking after ourselves in a challenging year.

And so it was that on Friday 12th July I set off on the train down to London with a rucksack on wheels, catching the fast train from Holyhead that rumbles along the North Wales coast before picking up speed and whizzing down through England to Euston.  It was strange, a blast from the past when this was the train that took me to work in London in my business clothes, carrying a briefcase and laptop.

I had plenty of time so I walked from Euston to Charing Cross.  This, and a little further East into Fleet Street and the City, is my part of London.  I know it.  I know its squares to the North and its byways and alleys around the Aldwych and the Strand.  The noise and the traffic buffeted me but I enjoyed the anonymity London gives you, a middle aged woman with a pull along bag, invisible through Gordon Square and down Kingsway, anonymous along the Strand and darting down to Embankment gardens.

I caught a slow stopping train which puttered down through Kent and Sussex and arrived at Stonegate station, the only passenger to emerge onto a silent platform.  Amazingly all our long distance arrangements had worked and there was Erica, all the way by car from Dorset.  "Did you have a plan b?" she said when we met and hugged.  The answer was no.  Had she not been there to meet me I would have had to have a sit down and a think.

It was grey and softly raining on Friday evening, the view hidden in misty cloud.  What seemed like hordes of young people swarmed cheerfully about, arriving with wheelbarrows to move our bags from the car, smiling and chatting with the charming, easy enthusiasm of loved and loving youth. We were sleeping in bell tents set along the edges of a couple of fields, the tents looking hard for the flatter places in a land of soft hills and gentle slopes.  Our slope was side to side, not head to toe, so every morning I woke up just a little closer to the tent wall.  But the airbeds were deep and comfortable and it was a relief to have a duvet and a proper pillow instead of being tied up in a sleeping bag.

Here we are, just to the right of the post.

Unpacking was putting my pajamas under my pillow and then we set off up the slope to the marquee, which served as a dining room and gathering place, and the greenhouse and classroom, which provided sitting space and much more plush and acceptable loos than the portaloos in the field.

I suffered from serious greenhouse envy.  It was a fabulous structure with tomatoes and herbs at one end and big tables and pots of succulents and scented leaf geraniums at the other.

I wonder why we bother with houses at all.  I think I could happily live in a greenhouse.

Dinner was at nine, an Ottolenghi inspired, many flavoured and luscious meal, a real feast.  When Ottolenghi talked, his confident, passionate delight in food and its capacity for infusing life with pleasure and good company spoke to something at the very heart of my life's experience.  Many of the great memories of my life involve cooking in company with my mother, who loved a full table, and with my sister and my daughters, and latterly my niece, producing food to be lingered over.  It made me smile to feel the connection running so strongly between a forty odd year old, male,  Israeli born, academic and journalist turned restauranteur and my English, eighty year old mother who died last year, but it leapt across age and background like an electrical charge: the same generosity, the same adventurousness, a pleasure in food which is both deeply serious and utterly relaxed, about as far from Puritanism as it is possible to be.  Mum would have loved it.  Lovely meal, lovely man.

And that generosity was the running undercurrent of the weekend.  Ottolenghi and his partner and little boy stayed the weekend in a tent and, like all the speakers and participants, wandered about and were as much part of the event as the rest of us.  The gardens were open and accessible all weekend long and, while there was the opportunity to go round the garden with Sarah as part of an organised talk, it was also fine to wander in on your own and mooch about amongst the dahlias and sweetpeas.

There was abundance everywhere, in the food and the flowers and the company.

On Saturday morning I woke with no sense at all of what time it could be.  The sun through the cream canvas made me feel I was sleeping in a bubble of light.  I felt around for my watch and eventually made sense of what it said: half past four.  I rolled over, pulling myself back from the approaching tent wall, and went back to sleep.

Breakfast too was generous, with fresh rolls and bacon and home made jam, yoghurt and granola and sweet cherries and lots of tea and coffee.  Afterwards I chose to walk with a group going round the farm with Adam Nicolson, rather than those going round the garden with Sarah.  If you have been reading this blog for a while you will know that my relationship with my garden has been derailed this year by my wish and need to spend time with my father and with my father in law, both failing in different ways, one at one end of the country and one at the other.  There is neither time nor energy for my usual obsessive thinking and dreaming and working in the garden.  Right now the garden would be like a half finished embroidery or an abandoned manuscript, set aside for another day, were it not for the fact that it keeps on growing, disappearing under a welter of weeds, not a love affair but a vast reproach of outside housework.  And walking is one of my great pleasures anyway so I thought it would be safer to walk with Adam Nicolson.

What a great thing to do!  I knew him as a writer.  I particularly enjoyed "Sea Room", about the Shiant Islands in the Outer Hebrides.  His writing is thoughtful, moving, passionate, knowledgeable.  What I didn't know was that the man himself is funny, one of those charismatic, witty raconteurs who make you laugh with every second sentence even while they are telling you serious stuff about how often you have to move your sheep from field to field.  Every two or three weeks.  Who knew?  So we walked across sheep filled fields, along muddy paths, down under trees, past Batemans, where Rudyard Kipling lived and back up a long slow hill and it was good.

Lunch was another plateful of total deliciousness.  There were various options in the afternoon but I decided I was not going to open a restaurant in this life so chose instead to wander about the garden and to retire to the tent for a snooze.  I had made a pact with Erica that while we were at Perch Hill we would not talk about illness and decline.  I would simply be where I was, in a field in Sussex in summer.

Before dinner Jackson Boxer talked to us about making cocktails.  Like all the speakers he was deeply knowledgeable and passionate about his subject.  I don't even drink cocktails but I came away convinced I needed some Fernet Branca.

The cider tasting the following morning converted me to cider.  The bread making session, where I thought I knew a great deal, taught me even more.  We have been making all our own bread for twenty years or more but I didn't know what I didn't know.

More demonstrations from  Gill Meller and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall from River Cottage and another feast-like meal in the evening.  This is Gill in the tent showing us how to make salads to accompany mackerel with gooseberries.  I loved the mackerel but this for me was the least successful meal, judged against the astonshingly high standard of the weekend, principally because I was unpersuaded by the use of strawberries rather than tomatoes in a panzanella.  Too sweet, too mushy with none of the tang that tomatoes bring.  The meal did however include probably the best dish of the whole feasting, a starter made with fresh lamb's liver.  I had no idea a lamb's liver in its whole state was so big nor that it could produce a starter of such extraordinary, savoury creaminess.

We chatted to people at our table, all brought together by a love of food or gardening or both (and the not so little matter of having the time and the money to spare to be there).  I had wondered if those attending would be predominantly the privileged: middle aged and middle class women from the Home Counties.  The audience though was more mixed than that, men as well as women, younger people as well as the middle aged, and from all over the UK and beyond.  I talked to a woman from Switzerland who had very enterprisingly come on her own and we drifted across to the bar,  bought another glass of wine and sat by a fire pit, listening to live music which led to probably my favourite moment of the whole evening, when one of the young men serving at the bar proved to know all the words to "American Pie" and the whole bar sang along.

By Sunday morning we had got into the rhythm of things.  A question and answer session, chaired by Adam and involving Sarah, Yotam, Valentine Warner and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, was funny and inspiring and challenging by turns.  One of my absolute favourite sessions of the weekend, the bread making session led by Elizabeth Weisburg of the Lighthouse bakery went by far too quickly.

Here is Elizabeth, deftly, wryly, amusingly, making me feel I should branch out with our bread.

Valentine Warner demonstrated some dishes before lunch and was so unaffectedly funny, passionate and expert that I surprised myself by deciding to buy his latest book, "What to Eat Next", from the many possibilities in the shop, having originally intended to buy an Ottolenghi.  I also bought Adam's "The Mighty Dead:Why Homer Matters".  I have been reading this every night since I came home, torn between wanting to keep reading and gobble it all up and wanting it to last, not wanting it to finish. It is part literary commentary, part history, part archaeology, part philosophy, part personal treatise.  It is years since I read the Iliad and the Odyssey and then only in translation.  I remember loving them, particularly the Odyssey, as a teenager but I would have been hard put to remember why.  Will I go back and read them again?  Probably, particularly the Fagle translation which I am pretty sure I have never seen, but it is also likely that I will read Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad".  As a woman I am ready for a change from all that rampaging violent masculinity in Homer.

The Perch Hill feast wound to a close at about three o' clock in the afternoon.  We packed the car and said our goodbyes and made ready for the drive to Dorset where Erica was kindly giving me a bed for the night before I carried on to Devon to see my father.  The whole weekend had seemed a very long way from North Wales where I live.  Perhaps that sense of being away had been what I needed.  It reminded me of the fact that I too am passionate about things other than my family, even if family is my core and for now family fills most of my view.  Gardens, food, literature are all things which make up who I am.  If all I do with that reminder immediately is to commit to cooking a different thing in a different way for the lovely jolt of the new I will have taken a lasting benefit away, along with the reminder that it is possible to snooze in the afternoon and to make a floral headdress.  So thank you to Perch Hill, to Adam and to Sarah and all the presenters and all the other guests I talked to and wandered about with. Thank you to all the people who worked so hard to make the feasting happen.   Thank you to Erica for her cheerful, open minded witty company and hospitality.  Thank you to Ian whose idea it was.  I had a great time.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Doing nothing

"What are you going to do today?" Ian asks.

"Nuffin" I reply.  "Except something will probably sneak in and derail it."

Ian goes out to look at the brakes of the Subaru and I sit in bed with my cup of tea, musing.  We rarely do nothing.  I was joking.  At the best of times our lives are full of lists and jobs.  Living with two acres of garden and a house and a holiday cottage to run there are always things waiting to be done, both inside and outside.  Just now with my father and my father in law both struggling with their health, life is dominated by visiting, and by the driving up and down the country that is necessary to make some of that visiting possible so the garden lies neglected while we keep our heads above water.  Last week we also made a flying visit to Oxford to older daughter and her family who are moving to Wales, providing a bit of help with childcare (me) and taking down shelves and moving things from the allotment (Ian).  There is the cottage changeover, other adult children and grandchildren to see and to support and tiny bits of gardening to do so that the whole garden does not completely disappear under a welter of nettles and bindweed.  I have so much to do all the time that I run blindly from one thing to another, starting things without finishing them, or I find I cannot bring myself to engage with things because I know I have not got time to do them properly.

So doing "nuffin" was not a serious suggestion for a moment.  But I sit there musing about the idea of nothing and suddenly I wonder if it can be done.  I come downstairs, deliberately putting aside the list of "what next" in my head and make scrambled eggs for breakfast.  I read a bit of the weekend paper while I eat my eggs.  Going back upstairs to get dressed I resist the urge to throw my gardening clothes on and get out of the bedroom in less than a minute.  I shower (yes, of course I shower normally but I shower in less time than it takes most people to turn the shower on) and shave my legs and stay in long enough (all of five minutes) for the mirror to steam up.

Out of the shower I decide to put my yoga clothes on.  In the last few months I have committed silently to getting back to yoga.  Physically I feel better for making demands on my body that it stretch and move.  Mentally a session calms me and lifts me and puts me in touch with myself.  Sometimes yoga opens me up in a way that is almost painful.  I stopped for a while after  my mother died because it made me cry unexpectedly and publicly.  Sometimes I do not go when a part of me knows that I most need to because it is easier and less challenging to sit in the chair and watch the TV and potter about the internet.  In fact the more I need to go the less likely I am to make it happen.  But I have recognised that and have been trying in the last two or three months to turn up, week after week, whether I feel like it or not.

We still have not sorted out the room that was my father in law's.  His bed has gone to someone else who will use it.  Many of his things have gone with him and even more remain.  This is not a big house.  We know that it would be a good thing to find a use for the room that works for us and in theory we have agreed:  a crafts room, a sewing room, a music room.  But this kind of change takes time and energy and both are squeezed just now.  But without doing anything which takes time or organisation or the blurry edged decision making which resonates emotionally and uncomfortably and feels too soon, too harsh, here is a space, with a red rug, open and empty, without much furniture and with light coming in through the deeply recessed window.  We don't have a lot of space here inside.  Here is a space where you can lie and  stretch without bumping into furniture.  When you sit back on your heels and then stretch forward, hands on the ground, folding yourself in two, the only thing which prevents your movement is your own stiffness, not bumping into an armchair or a sofa.

So I sit cross legged and move and stretch and try and inevitably fail to touch my toes.  I am not flexible.  My ham strings are as tight as a bow.  But the trying and the sitting and the focussing on my body and how it works slows me right down and shuts out for a brief moment the incessant chatter of what needs to be done.

Afterwards I change my yoga pants for my jeans and make a cup of tea.  I wash up and put clothes away and take Ian a cup of coffee as he finishes mending the car brakes.  Weirdly, perhaps as a result of deciding to do nothing, I feel focussed and energetic. I sort out clothes and toiletries of my own and bits of detritus in my father in law's room: tissues and old newspapers which somehow I have not noticed before as if I had not been allowing myself to look.  I read for a few minutes, only a few pages but I never read in the day and it feels oddly like being on holiday.  Then I make some pastry, put it in the fridge to chill and go out into the garden to pick gooseberries.

And by the end of the day have I done nothing?  Of course not.  Perhaps the day started more slowly but it picked up speed and between us Ian and I have picked and topped and tailed six kilos of gooseberries and have the scratched and battered hands to prove it.  We have visited his father and collected a bed to be delivered to older daughter from younger daughter.  I have made a quiche and a gooseberry tart and done all the small domestic things that you need to do to make the day go.  But somehow that quieter start, that stepping back and looking at the idea, however askance, of "nuffin" has slowed me down and stilled the incessant rumbling demands of what has to be done. It has made things go quiet for a brief time.   Maybe I will try it again.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Night in the shepherd's hut

June 21st, midsummer's evening.  We decide to sleep in the shepherd's hut,  a night away for the sake of walking across the field.  Inevitably there is some football on the television so for much of the evening we are in the house as Ian watches while I potter about the internet.  Then at around ten o' clock I gather up my reading glasses and my book.  I am rereading, for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, "Notes from Walnut Tree Farm" by Roger Deakin.  It is a book full of snippets of Deakin's writing, notes and diary entries, some several pages, some only a couple of sentences long.  Some are musings about writing or nature. He walks, he works on the land, he writes about what he sees.

I put my boots on as the grass is already wet with midsummer dew and close the house door behind me.  I should be bathing my face in this dew according to folklore, not padding through it in my wellies.  The sky is still light and the swallows are still flying although the shadows under the trees are dark. Night is starting to seep into the day.  I climb the steps and open the door of the hut.  Inside the air is warm with the day's sun.  I open a window and the top half of the stable door to let the air move gently through, a tiny breeze which just stirs the flowered curtains.  I look out across the field, over the valley and up to the skyline.  There is still sun on Moel Arthur although it fades even as I look at it.  The sky moves from pearly blue to soft grey.

In the holly trees behind the hut a bird is singing.  A solitary crow flaps slowly up the valley, out late.  The bird falls silent.  It is very quiet.  There is a whispering as the breeze stirs the leaves of the rowan tree.  From the farm next door I hear a dog bark, once, twice, then quiet.  Across the valley a car moves on the lane but it is too far away for me to hear the engine.  There is no noise, no hum from a fridge or a laptop, no central heating boiler or the sound of water running into the tank, none of the familiar background sounds of home.  Our house is quiet, with no traffic noise and very little noise from our only neighbours at the farm.  Visitors always comment about the quiet and the dark.  But the hut is silent, gloriously, deeply silent with no sounds other than the natural, the rustle in the hedge, the scurry by the step.  I hear a quiet tread and Ian arrives and pulls off his boots.

It is properly dark now.  The shapes of the trees on the field boundary show up against the pale grey sky, their silhouettes revealing who they are: the great domes of oaks, the shaggy upward fling of ash, the piling cumulus cloud of the sycamore.  We light a couple of tea light lanterns and switch off the lamp.  There is not enough light to read by, just enough for a tiny glow to reflect a pinprick of light in the dark glass of the window.

It is very quiet and very dark.  We sleep.  I wake briefly at dawn to find the hut aglow with sunlight and birds singing from the hedge.  I lie listening for a few moments and then drift back to sleep again.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Following my rowan tree towards midsummer

My little rowan tree took a long time to get going in spring but now it is full of leaf and going-over flower.  It stands protectively just behind the shepherd's hut.

There it is, just behind the chimney, growing up out of the hedge.  To the left of the hut the boundary is holly trees, somehow with an elder growing amongst them.  You can just see the white of the elder flowers in the tree.

The tree is multistemmed.  I imagine that might be as a result of the young tree being cut down with the rest of the hedge when it was smaller so that it has branched out like coppiced hazel. There are two other rowans in the field but the others are single stemmed.  They are graceful trees like that but I also like the gently spreading shape of the multi stemmed one.  If anything for me that increases the protective nature of its presence.

Look up into the canopy between the two largest trunks and you can see why rowan leaves appear in designs for fabric or wallpaper.  Their delicate, perfect symmetry is a pleasure for the eye.

The rowan rises out of the hedge now and the hedge itself is full of leaf and flower.  The lushness of a native hedge in summer always amazes me.  Dog roses climb through the hawthorn.

A month or so ago bluebells washed at the foot of hedge.  Now it is foxgloves.  Bees climb in and out of the bells.

The badger track which leads round the tree and out under the fence into the next field is even clearer to see now that the grass is growing long.

We cut back some of the smaller branches of the tree when the shepherd's hut went in to stop them rubbing against it.  The new growth from where they were cut seems to leap straight from the trunks.

Wherever I look, up, down or alongside, I love this tree.  It is a companion tree.  I am getting to know it so much better as a result of following it every month.  Thanks to Lucy  at Loose and Leafy for the idea.  Have a look at her blog for links to people all over the world following their favourite trees.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

It all depends on how you look at it

We are not on top of the garden.  The garden is firmly and cheerfully on top of us, like a toddler giggling and sitting on your face.  I have decided that this will just have to be the way it is this year. When I look at our diaries and see how much of this spring and last autumn I have been in Devon and how much Ian has been either totally committed to looking after his father or in Manchester working or building a kitchen it seems fairly extraordinary that there is anything out there looking even faintly like a garden.  This much land gardened in this way needs time and it has not had that sort of time.  But it is June and things are flowering and growing and glowing with life so we are going to choose where and how to look.

Look this way at the glory of the chives and the mint garden, where spearmint, applemint, basil mint, common mint, lime mint and peppermint jostle for space.  The more vigorous mints, the common mint and the basil mint being the worst culprits, are bursting out of their slate boxes and invading other mints, looking for lebensraum.  I must go through and intervene.

Don't look this way, where the raised beds cleared by the teenage son of a friend a couple of months ago have already been taken back by a tide of opium poppies, grass and dandelions.  There is stuff waiting in the greenhouse to come out here so this will have to go to make room for that.

Don't look this way where a bramble and some goosegrass are fighting for space by the lemon balm.

Look into the tumbling spires of fennel, already higher than my head, holding the raindrops in its feathery foliage.

I was going to move these lupins.   They are so vigorous in the cutting garden that they are overpowering the new box hedge.  They are also so huge, another plant higher than my head, that they are not really suitable as cut flowers.  But never mind, look at them, reaching for the sky behind the Euphorbia Oblongata.  They may be in the wrong place, but they are beautiful.

And the poppies are beginning to come out.  For a few precious days these flowers are perfection.
I could live in them, drown in them, wrap the petals round me and sleep in them.

The bindweed might be trumping the jasmine in front of the house.

But the meadow is full of buttercup and sorrel and plantain and the alliums are singing out against the glossy deep green of the acanthus leaves.  It all depends on where and how you look.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Ten things to take away


What a lovely word.

I am not sure I will ever achieve the simpler life I longed for when we moved here.  Life is too complicated and most of those complications come from the relationships with friends and family which create the web of love and responsibility without which I wouldn't be me.  But things, what about things?

I have been amusing myself with a game of what I would keep if I could have only ten things to take with me from my house.  The ten things don't have to be practical so you don't need to choose a washing machine or a table or a bed, although I suppose you could if any of these is a special version which gives you real pleasure.  They are ten things that are personal to you, that mean something to you, that represent home.  Imagine if you like that they are ten things which you would take with you as a 21st century pioneer, the things that would go into your trunk as you set off for a new life in Australia or the far West of America.  They are the things that you would unpack when the trunk came out of the hold and you laid out on the table in the bare hut everything you had brought with you to make you feel at home, to make you feel like yourself.  You can have all the photos you like on memory sticks or in albums and any mementos of family too so you don't have to count those in your ten things.  These are domestic things, things from your present house that any house you live in would have to have in order for it to feel like home.

First I would need a jug.  I love jugs and have lots on a shelf in the kitchen.  It's hard to choose just one so I have whittled it down to two:

A beautiful Emma Bridgewater jug which makes any flowers look like an arrangement,

and this turquoise jug given to my by my sister on a rare trip away together to Ludlow.  I love its colour and its simple, pure shape.

I  would also want something from my collection of egg cups, probably these made by a potter in Devon called Abigail North.

I love the fact that they are not exactly the same.  They are the perfect size for a boiled egg from one of our rescue hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust.  Now the question is, do these eggcups count as two things?  If they do, I would have to restrict myself to one and take the one on the left. Why? It just pleases me infinitesimally more.

And then what?  This is quite hard!  I would take my cushion knitted from the wool I bought in the Hebridean Woolshed last summer.

I blogged here about the deep satisfaction in making something to remind me of a place.  This means something to me in so many ways:  the memory of the place, the thought that went into designing  the cushion, the playing with wool until I found out how to do what I wanted and the pleasure of seeing it emerge under the rhythm of the needles.

My knitting basket would have to come, for the basket itself which came from my parents' house, and for the contents, all the wool waiting to be made into things and all the remnants of earlier projects and then the work in progress, a simple cross over cardigan in cashmerino wool for the next arrival in the family, expected in August.

Is this cheating?  Having the basket and the contents as one thing?  Perhaps I will count the basket as one thing and the contents as another.  Still pushing it a little I know.

I would have to have some pictures.

Virginia Woolf has been coming with me from house to house for twenty five years or more.  It wouldn't feel like home without Virginia and I can't have her as part of photographs or family mementoes because she is neither.

Then it gets close to impossible.  This house is full of pictures that I love.  I have plumped at last for this "Bounding hare" by Marielle Ebner Rijke, an artist working in North Devon.  We have hares up here, higher up than our house on the slopes of Penycloddiau.  We have only ever seen one at a time though, not boxing hares but a sitting hare or a running one like this one.  I love them and I also love Marielle's work in black and white and the fact that she lives and works on the north side of Dartmoor where my father and sister and her family live.

Then there is this mask which hangs on our bedroom wall.  We bought in on a trip to Venice some years ago.  We had not realised we were arriving in the middle of Carnevale and the weekend reverberated with music and the passing of masked strangers.  The mask reminds me that life contains strangeness, travel, sensuality, that I am more than my domestic self.

And the last thing I think would be my mother's apron.  I don't know if this comes under the heading of a personal memento but the apron is a domestic thing, kept with other aprons and teatowels and oven gloves.  It fits me.  Lots of aprons are too long in the body but my mother was small and I am a similar size.  I don't wear it yet but I will sometime.  I love it.  I love its combination of the pretty and the useful and I love the way it ties me back to my mother and her mother before her.

I would love to know what ten things other people would take from their homes and why.  It would also be fascinating to know if you found it easy or hard to do this.  If you do decide to have a go please leave a link in the comment box so I can find you!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Today I have had a quiet day, quiet and still and mostly outside in the vivid green of May sunshine.  It has been a frantic few weeks with change on the cards for both my father in law, who has moved to a residential home nearby, and for my father.  It has also been my father’s eightieth birthday, celebrated with an afternoon tea party in the village hall in Devon where my sister lives, crammed to the gunnels with family and friends.  There has been much visiting and much whizzing up and down the motorway.  It is too early to tell how these new arrangements will play out.  Time will tell.

But today Ian went into Manchester to work on elder son’s new house and there was nobody here but me, a garden full of birds and the blowing sun. 

I sat for a while in the side garden with a cup of tea and the unopened newspaper on my knee.

In the trees behind the garden a heavy woodpigeon flapped to and fro, repeatedly crashing back into the top of the tallest conifer with all the grace of a small bus.  A blackbird came whizzing over my head in a silent, graceful swoop with a beakful of worms.  Sparrows dipped in and out of the hornbeam hedge.  In front of the house the swallows have spent all day throwing themselves around in great arcs above the stone pigsties, seemingly chasing each other,  swooping and diving only six feet or so away from me so that I could see the sun glistening on the flying arrows of their blue-black wings.   There were three, apparently playing together, flying for the sheer pleasure of the acrobatic dive, hurling themselves at the bakehouse roof and pulling out of the dive at the very last moment to skim over the ridgetiles and back up into the blue.  Yesterday there were flying ants in the garden and I watched the swallows purposefully cleaning up.  Today the ants are gone and I could see no reason for the wheeling and whirling and riding the air.  It was all too fast for my camera.

I wandered around the garden and remembered belatedly to visit my tree, a little rowan which stands in the hedge up by the shepherd’s hut.  Last month the rowan was resolutely bare but it burst suddenly into leaf three or so weeks ago.  Take a look at all the other trees through the links on Lucy's blog.

There are bluebells and stitchwort at its feet.  The rowan at the bottom of the field is in full creamy flower but this one up here catches the wind and is a couple of weeks behind. The densely packed flower heads are still green and barely visible against the foliage. 

I worked in the cutting garden for a couple of hours, digging out the couch grass and creeping buttercup which are trying to take back the beds which we have carved out and return the land to field.  I wonder how long we will need to take out these and the docks and dandelions which gleefully colonise any bare soil before we get to the stage we have in the side garden where there is little weeding to be done.  It might be more time than I have got.

It is so long since I have had one of these days to myself that I had half forgotten how the peace of the place seeps into your bones, like the warmth of the sun.  Now I am ready for company again and for Ian to come home.  Do you like time to yourself and if you do, what do you do with it?