Wood Anemone in the rain by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
Wood Anemone in the rain

It is April and the rain continues to poor. Growers and farmers bemoan the wet and the burgeoning mollusc population. I looked for those precious bright days that often pepper March, but they did not appear. Anyone who works outside is weeks behind on their jobs, grounded by squelching mud and saturated soil.

Memories from 2020 pop up on my phone. A glorious spring in those awful early months of the pandemic. Didn’t we need it? My heart turns up its own store of memories from the day we brought Little Owl home, just forty-eight hours old, delicate March sunshine warming her face.

Winter felt long and grey and wet, now spring seems much the same. Coughs and snotty noses linger. Middler wondered aloud, when his cold would ever end.

Despite it all, the flagpole cherry at the bottom of the garden and the young pear tree are both blossoming. We excitedly spot wood anemones in the Old Wood at Pocket and wood sorrell where we have cleared selected pines in the Plantation. These plants are both indicators of ancient woodland and salve for our souls.

But the wet stalls us there too. The path to the growing field is too boggy for my wheelbarrow. I’m itching to ferry woodchip to mulch the newly planted hedgerow and coppice. Instead, we clear hanging dead wood from the Pine Plantation and make great stores of firewood. We watch the water as it runs off the top field and down the hill, ponder about springs (of the bubbling up from under ground sort), and make plans for ponds, ditches and drainage channels. Careful water management is only going to become more important in the changing climate. This spring reinforces that. But we can’t embark on a thing until it stops raining.

Slowly, slowly, my fretfulness at the enforced stasis over the past weeks has given way to gratitude. The wind and the rain imposed a stillness which has allowed me the space to navigate rough terrain in other quarters and I wonder to myself if I might have fallen if I’d had more fronts open. Colleague’s difficulties at work bubble and burst, leaving me holding the fort. Things shift and realign in my writing world. Some writing projects pause while others (more manageable ones) open up. The children embark on rites of passage that leave them uncertain and needing warm arms to hold them.

I find myself thinking a lot about authenticity and the courage required to take up space or hold necessary boundaries. I read a quote by Maya Angelou,

“When you know you have worth, you don’t have to raise your voice, you don’t have to become rude, you don’t have to become vulgar; you just are. And you are like the sky is, as the air is, the same way water is wet. It doesn’t have to protest.”

So, I watch the trails of raindrops running down the attic skylights, scrub my boots of Pocket mud, and take inspiration from the water that just is.

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Orchard planting day

New sapling about to be planted in the orchard. By Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

When I imagined us planting the orchard at Pocket, I’d imagined a still, dry weekend, everyone gathered together, savouring planting the trees slowly and carefully, retreating to the Home Glade to graze on a spread of home-baked goodies beside the fire whenever they needed a break. So much of the work we’ve done at Pocket has been preparation for this moment. I wanted to mark it with an air of celebration. We are learning that not much in landwork goes to plan.

It’s been a wet February. There’s even standing water on the ridge line of the land, which is testament to how sodden the landscape is. Storms have swept in and swept out, barely a breath between them, accompanied by unseasonal warmth. The birds sing riotously in the woods. A hedgelaying friend tells us he’s done his last job for the season, it’s time to leave the hedges to the wildlife. In the past, he’d have carried on working through March. And still it rains.

But there are some jobs we couldn’t delay for the weather, like planting the orchard. So, in a brief let-up between downpours yesterday, we slogged to get twenty-seven fruit trees in the ground, mulched, staked, small mammal guards on, before another weather warning hit over night. Wet, hungry, cold, tired, grumpy and extremely muddy, we flung ourselves into the pick-up in the gathering gloom and gratefully drove home to a warm house, hot food, and an episode of Gladiators by the stove, just in the nick of time, rain pebble-dashing the windscreen.

As my wet jacket steamed in the pick-up, I reflected on the strange feeling that crept over me as we’d moved down the steep orchard field, a feeling of being watched.

Or perhaps, appraised, might be a better word.

A sense of these trees as a community, as living beings with their own personalities and their own feelings about being planted at Pocket. And an air of celebration. As if they’d accepted an invitation, and though Big Dreamer and I grumbled in the mud, they were here for the inaugural orchard day party! As the last tree was firmed in and we gazed back up the hill, there was a definite sense of the slope having been peopled. It had become a place.

I’d read the Bible verse that morning about anything not done in love being a waste of time. Cold and wet, I’d snapped at the children as we’d planted, not been available for them, lukewarm tinned soup for lunch: not at all the orchard planting day I’d imagined they’d reminisce to their own grandchildren about. And not much love, I thought. Another mum-failure day.

But as we rolled out of the pick-up into the house, more tired than I could begin to describe, the question popped into my mind, love for who? The truth is my children have plenty of me most of the time. They have never known want or true fear. They know they are loved.

Yesterday, I loved a new orchard into being. And though it wasn’t accompanied by paper hearts and doves, each tree diligently lowered into the ground, each spadeful of warm mulch, each stake to support the growing tree, were all acts of love.

Tomorrow, gale force winds are forecast. Big Dreamer and I will hope for the best, and head out to put up the last layer of protection on the orchard trees: deer-proof guards. And though my prayers and blessings for these trees may be uttered through gritted teeth as the wind whips away my words, I will heap them on these welcome guests who have come to make Pocket, not just a place, but a home.

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One year on

Copies of The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair by Hannah Foley, published by Zephyr Books

Friday marked one whole year since The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair hit bookshop shelves. I spent that day visiting schools and bookshops to talk about the book and sign copies. The following week I would visit more schools to celebrate Children’s Mental Health Week (Children’s Mental Health Week 2024 started today in case you’re wondering!), culminating in a fabulous launch party at my local indie bookshop, Bookbag. I’m so grateful for the support and kindness people have shown this book. One year on, I’m still hearing from readers, how much they love it.

On another Friday this January, I stumbled out of bed in the dark, put on my snuggest land clothes, filled my thermal mug with hot tea and drove away from the city in my little mini, following a dot on my phone map. It was bitterly cold, frost thick on the car, the roads icy. The sky was still dark when I turned off onto a lane, and then another narrower lane, and another, narrower still.

It is no accident that the name of the ancient Celtic tribe who lived in Devon, the Dumnonii, translates as deep, wooded valley dwellers. You go down until you think you really cannot go any further. And so did I that morning. Down, past a sign warning of an upcoming ford. And then I lost signal. Rookie error. I should know this county better by now.

Gripping the steering wheel, I charged the ford, the steep opposite side of the valley shining in my headlights, shimmering with black ice. How I got up that hill, I have no idea. Prayer and some divine intervention, I’m convinced. But that wasn’t the end of it, down again, and up again, and long winding lanes that seemed to twist back on themselves in impossible loops. I could have wept when I found a village I recognised, from then on, entrusting myself to a paper road map.

At last I arrived at the farm I had been trying to reach, just as the edge of the sun’s glow was beginning to lighten the sky, making all the land glitter in frosty finery. In a warmly lit barn I met friends for breakfast and, hands wrapped around my thermal mug, felt like I’d survived something pretty epic.

Having a book out in the world can feel a bit like surviving something pretty epic. But to have my precious story (and it is a precious story) in readers hands and hearts, and to be sitting here, looking back on the wonderful experience of publication from the warmth of now, there is also a sense of completeness. I still marvel at the skill of my editor, the talent of the cover designer and illustrator, the hard work of the PR team and generosity of so many people, writing reviews, coming to events and sharing this book. Some journeys, like near-death car trips, are best appreciated in the afterglow.

Devon dawn by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
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Shining moon

Midwinter decorated tree by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
The tree we decorated at Pocket for the winter solstice

The darkest days of the year are the weeks either side of the winter solstice, when not just the light seems to have been sucked out of the sky in the UK, but also the colour from everything. During this time, traditions connected to light and thresholds abound. In our richly illustrated copy of The Wind In The Willows, Moley encourages Ratty out of his depression with images of the special joys of Midwinter. I’ve come to love the idea of a season of its own in these darkest weeks, a season outside of the usual march of the calendar, a time to take care of our souls and each other in the particular grey, gloom that envelopes the British Isles at midwinter.

That grey, gloom seemed to envelope our immune systems too this year. It feels like we’ve been ill endlessly with waves of viral chestiness, headaches and weariness. We’ve all had smatterings of days off but nothing would set us properly aright and we felt as though we were limping along.

Boxing Day dawned bright on our visit to family in Yorksire, the first such morning in weeks. The setting moon balanced huge, on the edge of the Dales in the distance, a shining pink orb. Wren and I watched it slip below the purple hills through a fretwork of dark tree limbs. In the opposite direction, sunlight blasted the houses, making windows shine. I wrapped my arms around Wren and felt her exhale at the sight. The year had turned.

The days are lengthening. That, and the general slowing of these dark days after the frenetic activity of the lead up to Christmas, despite continued work for those of us in healthcare, seemed to be the thing that healed us in the end. This dark season gives permission to switch off, tune out, disconnect, and then connect in the most important ways.

As always, an enormous thanks to all those who follow this blog and support my creative offerings to the world. It has been wonderful to have The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair out on bookshop shelves and in readers’ hands. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas. Happy New Year one and all!

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An acorn

Pocket of Frost by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannahcatherinefoley@gmail.com)

Finch stuck a perfect golden acorn to his bedroom door with blue tack. Right in the middle, where his nose might hit the door, if he didn’t stop to open it. He didn’t say a thing about it. It just appeared and I noticed it when I took a pile of clean laundry up. I knelt down and considered the acorn. Golden like a toffee caramel, sitting in a patterned green cup. I could see why he’d decided to honour it. A tiny thing, capable of growing a giant tree, put on a plinth. We don’t often elevate the little things, but they are what makes the world go round. A little insight too, into the beautiful mind of my boy.

Another little thing, much revered in our house because Wren is named for them, I watched a wren hopping over logs, picking out the bugs from the crevices. Hop, hop, blink, blink. One bright eye, then the other, watching me. She didn’t sing but it is not the time of year for that. Now is the time for filling up on protein to see her through the cold months.

I watched a nuthatch too, in the top of the goat willow, tap, tap, tap. An ink-streaked dart, clinging at impossible angles. I wonder what he makes of Finch, pulleying a pallet into the goat willow for a treehouse. Tap, tap, tap goes Finch, clinging at impossible angles. Later, when he’s not looking, we’ll make sure it’s safe and add a few struts to be sure, but for now, we don’t want to intrude on his dreams.

December: frost makes the pavements twinkle in car headlights; clover leaves are encrusted with glistening jewels in the top field. I pin a card to the inside of the allotment shed, wishing the new tenants the very best of growing. Deep breath, it’s a big moment to hand on this patch of soil that has taught me so much. We put the last tools in the back of the pick-up and secure the bench with ropes. I padlock the gates, and that’s that. Not quite. Our plot neighbours call to us to pop back for tea, we know when they’ll be there, the same as usual. And they’d love to visit the land.

The house is a hive of festive activity: learning lines and arguing over costumes for school plays; Christmas songs jingling in the kitchen; hunting for change for the school raffle; half-written Christmas cards; letters to Santa ready to post; boxes hidden in the back of the wardrobe; advent calendars propped up on the piano; plans to make my own mincemeat abandoned; paper and ribbons. Little things that make the world go round.

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Wave breaking on the shore in North Devon by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Two thirds of the windows of our half-term holiday let are filled with sky, the remainder with the rise and fall of the tide in the estuary. Just up the road, great rollers unfurl onto the shore with plumes of spray like clouds of steam against an autumn sky that pivots between gun metal grey, rainbow bolts and sheer bright, blue. The children bounce through the surf, jumping and laughing with each dunking. Among the dunes, we pull ourselves free of our wet suits, and rub ourselves red and dry.

The windows of the local chippy are steamed up like the cab of our pick-up truck. We don’t mind. We are warm and tingly happy. We stuff hot chips into our mouths and snuggle up together to watch a film.

The next day I find two conkers and a limpet shell in the rubber seal of the washing machine. There is enough sand in the pick-up to start our own beach. We carve cat faces into pumpkins from the farmer’s field and make pumpkin muffins with the scrapings by the lanterns’ flickering light.

Sometimes I wish I could make time stand still.

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Child holding apple. Photograph by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Thursday evening is bell ringing practice in the parish church behind our house. One of my favourite things is to open one of the velux windows in the attic, and lean out, listening. The waning Harvest Moon lights up a cluster of clouds from behind, casting a soft glow over the darkening sky. The bells peel out across the mellow Autumn air. A plate of nasturtium seeds sits on the sideboard, drying. Finch has collected them with plans to stealth seed bomb the park in the spring.

It has been extremely mild here, sunshine tinged with the freshness of the changing season, scented with apples and dry leaves. At the weekend, we joined a local community group to pick apples in steep orchards a couple of miles away. It was warm and still between the trees. As we trundled up and down the grassy slopes with bags of red and gold produce, we soon shed our jumpers and coats. Babies, toddlers and dogs all helped out. It was a festive gathering, picnics spread out in the sun, apple picking baskets on long poles dancing through the laden boughs like jigging maypoles, and regular excited shouts for help with a particularly juicy looked branch load.

Our loving Wren wanted to kiss each apple. Finch and his friend found a badger set. They rolled a few of the best apples they could find down the tunnel so Mr Badger might have breakfast ready and waiting for him outside his front door when he got up that evening.

We lugged the harvest down to the barn where the apples will be sorted, and, in two weeks, pressed in the village hall. The juice will be given out to anyone who comes with a container, sharing the wonderful bounty of Autumn.

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Skeins of geese fly over the roof tops, honking gentle encouragement to each other. It is a time of change in the natural world as creatures all over the planet follow the irresistible, internal tug to migrate. The geese trace the path of the river, so low over our house, we can almost see the colours of their tail feathers. Their call is an atmospheric sound for me, the sound of Autumn. With it comes a chill in the morning air and low mists trickling through the streets around the river.

It is a time of change in the human world too. The children are back to school, new shoes creaking, bringing home the inevitable school-swapped colds and bugs. They are excited about being in a new year, new teachers and new classrooms. It is bittersweet for me. They are another year older, growing wonderfully, just as I would wish, but another year of their childhood gone. Such precious years.

It is bittersweet at the allotment too. This is the last time I will take down the bean poles here. This is my last winter on the plot. I am moving to our new growing space in the spring. It has been a good year with lots of successes. I have jars of dried beans and peas for hearty stews over the winter. Pumpkins are curing on a sunny windowsill. There are leeks, parsnips and beetroots happily bedded in for us to pull up as needed in the cold months. So far, I am winning the battle with the slugs and caterpillars and pigeons for kale and red cabbages. This soil has nourished us in a multitude of ways. It has taught us about belonging, story, hope, nature, the point of human beings and joy. It has set us on the path we are following. We are migrating like the geese. We will be forever grateful.

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I rolled bundles of hay across the slope to make haycocks to keep the rain off and allow the grasses to continue drying. For those that know hay, it’s not really. It’s fibrous weedy stuff from species-rich grassland we optimistically call the Orchard Meadow, left too long and cut now with a scythe. But it will make an excellent mulch for fruit trees and the grass needs cutting ready for tree-planting later in the year.

The children watched the bundles roll over, alert for short-tailed voles. I had spotted one as I’d rolled and managed to catch the snub-nosed little creature in my hands. It peeked out at the children from beneath my fingers, whiskers twitching, one bright eye watching us. After much delight, we released it into one of the newly made haycocks. The kids spotted several more but only Finch was quick enough to catch one, and then only for a few seconds before it scurried out of his hands and away into the grass.

Short-tailed voles feel like a good sign, an important part of a living habitat. Though dear things, they are also important food sources for so many other creatures we love. Coming back through the lanes, we spotted a barn owl swooping low.

Way back in January last year, I wrote here: ‘[We] have other dreams we want to pursue, dreams and hopes that slipped in under the door like the rays of sun on the dawn of the first day of Spring, unexpectedly bright, and unexpectedly right.’

Dreams are strange, slippery things. The dreams I was talking about were old ones really, dreams we had dreamed as young people when we barely knew ourselves and had only the smallest idea of the limitations and restrictions of the world. But they resurfaced and we started to wonder, what if?

And so in June, we became custodians of a piece of land: woodland, coppice, pasture, meadow and stream. Nature, climate and family are some of the words that best encapsulate what this is about for us.

No more voles to find, the children clambered through the dark limbs of a field-edge goat willow and we put the kettle on the fire to make tea.

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Toad in the log pile

I was moving logs from the chopping block to the log store. The wood had been chopped the day before and a toad had taken up residence. I almost didn’t see him, then he was there, and completely impossible to miss. Isn’t that so often the way with nature?

Toads are such soft, ancient, fragile things, not made for the world the way it is now. I can’t bear to think of them exposed to birds, car tyres, polluted waterways, or worse, domestic cats. I picked him up very gently in my hands. He didn’t wriggle or squirm but sat, still and blinking. His warty skin felt soft as brushed leather. I took him down to the log store, where he will do us a good turn munching on slugs, if he decides to stay.

I showed him a gap between the logs. He immediately put out an arm, then lifted a leg, and scrambled in. Instantly he was gone, his camouflage making him look like a fallen leaf which had drifted down from the tree and settled in a crevice. So clever. What a special treat.

I have no picture of him, and there’s no picture with this post. I made a resolution this summer holiday, to rarely have my phone on me or even ‘on’. I realise that is only millimetres away from my parents’ neglectful approach to mobile phones. It’s a slippery slope I’ll happily slide down as I get older, I’m sure, much to my children’s annoyance! But for this summer, I wanted to be present in the moment, mesmerised by a toad, not running for a phone to take a picture. There is a visual image lodged safely in brain after all. I took it out and turned it over in wonder at home afterwards, reading Norman MacCaig’s poem, Toad. One of my favourites.

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