Sunday, 22 March 2015

Spring cleaning the shepherd's hut and welcoming the daffodils

Daffodils sing of spring and spring arrived this weekend in a glow of sunshine and yellow flowers.   I have been out in the garden all day long, spring cleaning the shepherd's hut and tidying and weeding everywhere. Spring hits me like this every year, giving me a great rush of energy and sending me outside at every opportunity.

All the furniture came out of the shepherd's hut, except for the built in sofa which folds down as a bed and everything was laid out on the grass.  I swept the hut out, wiped down all the woodwork and cleaned the windows.  Then back it all went.

Rugs were beaten, curtains shaken out, and the woodburning stove cleaned out.

Today I painted the door and tomorrow I will rub down and paint the windowframes, as long as it is dry.  I have a yen to change the cushions and the rug and to move from a palette of soft creams, pinks and greens to something in blue and yellow.  It must be spring!

As a break from cleaning and weeding I wandered around looking at the daffodils and seeing what is out.

The first daffodils to come out up here are the Welsh daffodil, known as the Tenby or narcissus obvallaris.  These are a small, upright daffodil with neat, slightly glaucous foliage.  we have hundreds of these, spreading around the trees in the little orchard.  I know that I planted five hundred bulbs and I am pretty sure they are spreading of their own accord these days.

Following close on the heels of the Tenby daffodil is February Gold.  I love the slightly swept back shape of the flower.   These crowd behind the swing in the field.  As time goes on they will be joined by Thalia, a creamy white daffodil, and Sweetness, a jonquil type with a delicious sweet scent.

Jack Snipe is coming out along the side of the drive and little Tete a Tete is blooming in the kitchen garden.

I have recently started to grow narcissus pseudonarcissus.  This is the British native daffodil, the dancing daffodil of the Wordsworth poem.  It is a graceful, delicate little daffodil, less sturdy than the Tenby.  So far these have not begun to settle and spread for me but I hope they do.

These are one of my favourites, Telamonius Plenus, an old double daffodil which has grown in cottage gardens since the early seventeenth century.  Later there will be narcissus poeticus, Pheasant's Eye.

This is an image from the RHS.  It will be a few weeks before mine are in flower.  I love how different the later flowering daffodils are from the early ones: pale rather than bright and with an open face rather than the hanging head or swept back petals of the earlier ones that I grow.

So for now it is daffodil time up here.  Even though there are so many I find myself visualising even more.  I think maybe there should be more up by the shepherd's hut....

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Dartmoor sun and splitting snowdrops

Our weeks have now settled into a pattern which involves a lot of driving up and down the country in order to spend time with my father.  Normally we make a flying visit to Devon but this week we stayed longer and took a day in the middle of the visit to walk, in the morning, and to visit younger son and his family in the afternoon and overnight.

It was a cold bright morning with an edge to the breeze and a milky light.

We parked high on the edge of Dartmoor and walked immediately out onto the moor, heading for Cox Tor.  The grass was bleached to straw by winter and everywhere stones were piled on either side, crusted with lichen.   Underfoot the grass was springy to walk on.  Blackfaced sheep grazed, their rumps marked red by the ram, not yet ready to lamb.  They are a hardy breed to lamb up here.

The tors rise up in piles of stone.  They look man made but they are not, although the stone is piled like liquorice cakes.

It is extraordinary to think that Dartmoor, like the Clwydian hills where we live, is a place of ancient habitation.  People have lived on Dartmoor for five thousand years or more, since the Bronze Age at around 2300 BC to 700 BC.    All over Dartmoor are standing stones or menhirs, stone circles and stone hut circles.  The Iron Age which followed, running from 700 BC to the arrival of the Romans in the first century AD, has left the remains of hillforts.  Dartmoor and our own high hills are empty today and they can feel desolate and inhospitable.   To the twenty first century mind it is hard to see why people would have chosen to live in these high places when there is softer, gentler land close by. It is hard to imagine that when the country was heavily forested it was the lower lands that were hunting grounds and places of darkness and danger and the higher places which provided refuge and safety, the chance to build settlements which could be defended against your enemies and the chance to see your enemies coming!

There are tarns and streams in these high places and more life than you would expect.  All morning we walked under lark song.

The moors are dotted with Dartmoor ponies, stocky and shaggy in their winter coats.  In the village on the edge of the moor where my sister lives the ponies move into the village in winter, crowding the lanes, grazing on the green, invading gardens if the gates are left open.  This pony was surprisingly friendly and unphased by close human contact.  Dartmoor feels like undiscovered country to me.  I hope we get to explore a bit more.

And at home again today I have been splitting snowdrops.  This is such an easy thing to do and makes a real difference to how quickly snowdrops spread.  For the last five years I have been counting my snowdrops every year (I know, I know, I need to get a life) and I have seen them steadily increase.  The first year in which I counted was 2009.  It is not the most scientific process in the world and I am pretty sure that I miss things and miscount from time to time but I use the same approach every year.  In 2009 there were 725 snowdrops in the garden.  That year I split the larger clumps and spread them about and by 2010 there were 1094.  When the flowers were going over but the foliage still green I split them again and by February 2011 when I counted towards the end of the season the numbers had jumped to 1480.  Then I had a couple of years when I didn't do the splitting on the same scale and 2012 produced 1486, followed by 1580 in 2013.  I decided to return to splitting them up and moving them around in 2013 and was rewarded in 2014 by a great rush of growth to 2693!  Last year I didn't get round to it and this year's count was 2504.  So this year I am lifting all the larger clumps and pulling them apart.  The bulbs are then planted out in groups of seven to ten, still with their foliage and some of the last of the flowers.

So next year I hope there will be snowdrops all along the drive, washing out in a wave of foam from the base of the side garden wall and pushing up amongst the hellebores down by the native trees. And it is becoming clear that I need more crocuses...

Friday, 13 March 2015

Inside and out in the middle of March

I do love a good project and living somewhere like this means there are always things on the go. Inside there is usually something on the needles or on the sewing machine, especially in winter.

Outside is ignored when it is cold and wet but it begins to call about now and I have spent a couple of days working in the garden.  So just for the record before inside gets abandoned for the spring and summer, here are this winter's projects plus a new one cast on yesterday.

Here are some curtains made from dinosaur material for grandson number two, aged five.  The material comes from textile express, a great business based in Oswestry with a really good website and web presence.  I make lined curtains about once a year and every time I have to go back to square one in terms of reminding myself about the order of events.  Last time I did it I made three pairs in one marathon effort for the holiday cottage so I took the time to write down all the things that were at the forefront of my mind as I was finishing them in this blog.  I was really pleased I had done that as I saved myself loads of time by referring back to it when I would normally have been wondering whether to do the hems before the header tape!  Joseph had been waiting for these very patiently but I was distracted from finishing them off by another request from him.   When asked whether he would like me to knit anything for him he thought carefully - he is a thinking sort of a child - and said eventually "Could you make me a flying pig?"  I had been thinking more in terms of a jumper but I can quite see that a flying pig is a lot more useful.

So here he is.  Ian suggested that his wings, as befits a Welsh flying pig, should be dragon wings so I invented what I hope are the wings of a baby dragon.  He has flown off to South Wales now and I hope is settling in nicely.

There was also this jacket for grandson number three which I really enjoyed making.  It comes from a Debbie Bliss pattern book.  I love her patterns and her yarns and the way you can produce something from them which is just a little different.

Then there was the window seat cushion which I slipped in sometime in February.  Both of these last two have already appeared in the blog but I include them again for completeness.  I thought I would shelve inside projects for now as the days lengthen and things start to grow in the garden but, as is often the case, somehow I decided to fit just one more thing in.  After all although it was sunny and mild on Tuesday, today it is pouring with rain and an inside project seems just the thing.

My daughter in law gave me a ball of the darker green wool as part of my Christmas present and I have been wondering what to make with it.  I contemplated another cowl or more fingerless gloves but I do have quite a number of both.  Then I found myself thinking about cushions.  A couple of years ago I had a bit of a run on cushions and made three for the sofa:

I really like them and am planning another go on the sewing machine for cushions for the holiday cottage but the cushion that has given me most pleasure is the one I made with wool I bought in the Outer Hebrides on our holiday there in 2013.

I wanted to catch the colour of the sea and the sky and the process of designing and making it and the finished product gave me a lot of satisfaction.  I am not an artist.  I am not even a craftsperson.  I am simply a knitter and sewer again, after years of no time when the job and the family filled every minute of every day and absorbed all of my time and energy.  Part of the drive in leaving my job was to spend time on things and people and places and parts of myself which had been neglected in the whirl of work.  For some reason knitting has filled the place which for others might have been used for art or music. Having worked with my brain all my life I find real pleasure in doing things with my hands. Throughout the frantic years cooking was the only way I held on to my interest in making things. Knitting needs time and a calm head.  Sewing needs space which is not full of teenagers and televisions.

So I bought some other muted greens and neutrals to try to have a go at a cushion which would echo the colours of our hills just now.  I am not sure I quite have it yet.  I need a more vivid green and a brown for the lines of hedges and bare trees.  I don't intend to produce anything which is pictorial and it is quite likely that no one but me will look at the finished cushion and see anything but stripes but for me it will have meaning and that is enough.

I was going to move on to outside projects but I will keep that for another day.  The big project is Ian's and the construction of a new henhouse but I will leave the detail of that for him to share.  In the meantime I leave you with a picture of the work in progress.

Where are you at the moment?  Inside or out?  How do you find your pleasure in creating things?

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Laying hens and turnip eating sheep

Hens are great heralds of spring.  Although it is still cold enough for the woodburner and the electric blanket every night, the hens are more responsive to the lengthening daylight than the temperature.  We have eight hens and one cockerel.  Throughout the short dark days of November, December and January we get just one or two eggs every couple of days.  It is hard to tell whether they are laid by our rehomed hybrids from the British Hen Welfare Trust or by our own Welsumer crosses as both lay a medium sized pale brown egg, though perhaps the Welsummer eggs are a little darker and more inclined to be speckled.  The Cream Legbars don't lay at all in the winter.  Their eggs are a beautiful pale blue and as the days get longer we check the nesting boxes hoping for the first sight of that pale blue gleam.

This one is so pale you can hardly tell it is blue in the picture but I promise you it is.  Now we have all the Cream Legbars laying and eggs coming out of our ears.  Spring is very nearly sprung.

And by the drive the very first of the cowslips is just beginning to open.  This is a pretty poor photo but you can just see the flowers emerging.  When they are fully out they will be held high on their stalk, quite distinctively and nothing like the ground hugging primrose.   This is a little patch which started as four or five plants a few years ago and is slowly spreading.  I have tried to establish cowslips in the field as well but so far only one solitary plant seems to have survived.  Surprisingly they seem happier in the poorer soil by the drive than in what seemed a more favoured spot in the field.

Up on the top of the Clwydian hills just half a mile stroll from home, the grass has not yet started to green up and only the windblown pines are green against the sky.  There are hawthorns up here too, twisted by the wind, but it will be weeks until they show their new spring green leaves.

There are cattle up here though who seem happy enough amongst the grass and gorse.

Sheep up here have their meagre grass supplemented by turnips in February and early March before the new growth comes.  That was a revelation to me when we came to live up here over nine years ago.  I never knew that sheep eat turnips!

But in the shelter of our fold of the hill where the wind is soft and the sun has warmth in it, primroses are flowering.  There are so many contenders for my favourite flower at this time of year and the flood of native daffodils is still to come.  I am still loving the snowdrops and hellebores but perhaps right now, today, primroses are the flower that whispers spring.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Tentatively thinking about gardening

As long time readers will know, last year was a disaster in the garden.  The sudden death of my mother, my father's deterioration with Motor Neurone Disease and the decline and subsequent death of my father in law all conspired to produce a year which was entirely overtaken by family and family responsibilities.  The garden disappeared under a tide of weeds and unchecked growth and the state of it depressed me so much that I could only manage by not looking at it, not spending time in it, not thinking about it.  Wandering around left me desperately aware of everything that needed attention and attention was the one thing it could not have.  I shut myself off from the garden as much as I could and when I did think about it I was assailed by a sense of failure.  Even what I had done in creating some parts of the garden from a field felt hopelessly inadequate.  My vision of what I was trying to do slid away like water down a drain.  I hardly felt like myself without my garden obsession but then I hardly felt like myself anyway, without my mother, watching my father being slowly rubbed out like a pencil drawing.  Ian kept the grass cut.  That was about it.

But now maybe there are shoots.  Is it somehow part of the process of adjusting to what life is like now?  Is it something to do with the way life goes on?

There are snowdrops and crocuses and the early beginnings of primroses.

There are hellebores, the whites and creams and purples and speckled creams of hellebore orientalis in quantities and the acid green of hellebore foetidus against the dark narrow foliage.

There is the foliage of cyclamen.

The white stemmed birches are growing slowly but are now just about large enough to shed the brown and orange bark of their immaturity and reveal the whiteness shining in the sun.  There are seven of these.  "How long will it be before they are a real presence?" I find myself thinking.

Ian has moved a little black mulberry into the bottom garden and planted a line of beech hedge to increase the sense of enclosure down here.  This bottom third of the field is the only part of the field garden which does not look out across the valley and up to the hills.  The bottom boundary is enclosed by trees and down here you can for the first time look inwards rather than away to the skyline.  The mulberry could be the contemplative centre of that, spreading gently when it reaches maturity.  That might be ten years away but suddenly I found that I was thinking about the garden again, tentatively, slighly warily.  I walked around again, looking again, sometimes really looking but mainly glancing sideways.    I stopped and looked out again towards the hills.

I almost don't dare to fall in love with the garden again.  It is too painful when it doesn't work and who knows what this year will hold.  Perhaps I will simply do a little, take my time, one step at a time.  In a month or so there will an awful lot of daffodils.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Driving, stretching, knitting, baking, being alive

Did I tell you we bought a Landrover?  There is a justification for a four by four vehicle up here on our hill and we also need something from time that will tow the trailer.  I test drove one (not a new one, an oldish one!) to establish that I was happy to drive it, we bought it and then very conspicuously I did not drive it at all.  I am not generally a driving wimp.  I happily drive on motorways and up and down the country and in all sorts of weather conditions.  So why wasn't I driving it?  I think I was just a little bit nervous that I would meet someone coming up our single track steep hill and, instead of merrily reversing up hill, down hill or around the corners,  as I do in the cars, I would make an idiot of myself.  But Ian is away working at our son's house in Manchester today so I had the Landy and, without anyone to watch me, it was time to have a go.  And it was totally fine, although I did not have to reverse downhill around a corner so perhaps it was not a true test.  It is good to be so high as you drive, peering over hedges and seeing our world from a different angle, fields full of sheep waiting to lamb.

First of all to yoga class where the wonderful Patti smooths us out and calms us down and makes my shoulders a little less like a block of wood.  I imagine that all the driving we are doing up and down to see my father is not helping my shoulders but as I can't do much about that I can make a big effort to stretch out my shoulder muscles.  I try to tell myself I will do the exercises at home by myself but it is surprisingly difficult to discipline oneself to do it and impossible to do any yoga exercise at home half as well as I do it under Patti's careful and sympathetic eye.

Then shopping, baking and a little wander about in the gently lengthening day.

Trees and hedges are still bare and stark but there is something about the quality of the light which says it is not too far from spring.  The sheep will be out in the fields in a little while but for now they are lower down closer to the farms.

I sit on my newly covered window seat to check my phone.  How long have I been planning a proper seat here?  Oh just the nine years or so.  No idea what took me so long.

A message comes through from my daughter in law thanking me for a little jacket I have just knitted for youngest grandson.  He is so round and smiley, like a baby from a picture book.

Outside the snowdrops are out.  It must be nearly time for the annual and anal snowdrop count.  Every year it proves to me that my snowdrops are indeed spreading and running their rivers of snow out across the garden.  I don't feel anal enough today and the wind has a keen, cold edge to it that sends me scuttling inside.

In the kitchen it is warm and full of the glorious smell of baking lemon cake.  There are tulips on the table, a gift from some lovely friends who came to see us earlier in the week.

At the moment Ian is reading "Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande, a Christmas present from me.  You may feel this is something of a morbid present but I don't.  I heard the author give one of the Reith lectures and admired his honesty, intelligence and compassion.  Here is a review if you want to know more.  The book examines our attitudes to ageing and death and looks at how the ending of life matters.  Is it the awareness of our own mortality that sharpens our perceptions?  It is a truism I suppose.  But somehow today, despite the losses of the last year or so as both my mother and Ian's father have died and despite the ongoing difficulty of my father's illness and decline, sitting on the window seat I found myself suddenly profoundly content, feeling the pale winter sun coming through the window, the tulips bright in the vase, the scent of the cake filling the room.   Life is good.

“The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”

― William Morris

Friday, 30 January 2015

My love affair with the woodburning stove

Today I have a heavy head cold.  I woke this morning to light snow on the hills and in the garden.  I had a hammering headache and streaming nose and eyes.  This was not a day for venturing out.  It was a day for sitting by the stove, snoozing, doing a little comfort reading.  I couldn't even find the concentration to knit.  But the day has passed away in a warm and comforting way because of our woodburning stove.

We have been using this stove for three seasons a year for nine years now and I could light the fire in my sleep. I start with quite a bit of scrumpled paper.  We use a broadsheet newspaper and I use about eight sheets.  I am pretty sure Ian uses fewer than that but that is what works for me!  Then kindling.  The kindling here was bought chopped during the period when Ian was languishing in bed with flu.  Normally he chops all ours.  How much kindling to use depends very much on how dry the logs are that we are burning.  If the logs are seasoned and dry they will burn with not too much kindling, perhaps half a dozen pieces.  If the logs are a bit wet you might need quite a bit more than that.  We don't buy seasoned logs as we are lucky enough to have a generous and kind neighbour who is a tree surgeon and who often lets us have wood.  We store it as huge pieces in a log store for a few months before it is chainsawed and split into logs the rightsize for the stove.   Then it goes into one of the old stone pigsties in a tidy stack against the wall.  Our wood burns fine but it is perhaps not quite as quick to light as the best kiln dried seasoned wood which you would buy from a dealer.  Mind you, you would pay a lot more for the privilege!

Ian made the kindling basket a couple of years ago on a course at our excellent and very local Woodland Skills Centre led by renowned basket maker Mandy Coates.  I love baskets and home made baskets in particular.  There is something so satisfying about the shape and texture.

Logs live in two galvanised buckets which sit in another basket made by Ian.  A couple of small logs go on the stove to start with and the larger ones are saved for when the fire is well established.  You get very used to a fire and you know that in the first half hour or so you need to give it some attention.  Once the fire is going strongly it only needs a bit of feeding but until it gets going properly you can find that getting distracted for forty minutes means that it has gone out while your back is turned.  Keeping an eye on it becomes as second nature as keeping an eye out for the baby when a fire is part of your life.

And there we go.  The fire is burning, the baskets are charged and the heat from the stove radiates out through the room.  Now it is time for a cup of lemon and ginger tea and the high indulgence (restricted to times when I am not well) of the rereading of one of the books from my childhood.  I am torn between "The Children of Green Knowe" by L.M.Boston and Elizabeth Goudge's "The Little White Horse".  How do you comfort yourself on those days when you are under the weather?