Homework

Cosmos at the allotment by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
Cosmos on the allotment

Little Owl looked up from her homework the other evening, “Did you know Edward the Confessor died with no hair?”

“Really? Wow, that’s interesting…” A long silence as I registered what she’d said. “No hair? That’s a funny fact to be learning.”

I looked over her shoulder at the text. Edward the Confessor died with no heir.

Last week was a week for homework grapples. Finch has a whiteboard to do his sums on. It’s the modern equivalent of a slate and chalk. He slipped it under my nose as I was cooking tea one evening. He’d written 3 and 5 in two boxes next to each other. He bounced about enthusiastically. He loves maths. 

“How many numbers can you see Mummy…” he lowered his voice, barely able to control his excitement. “…with your eyes turned up to top volume?”

“On top volume? Well…” 

Meanwhile Wren is busy learning her sounds for phonics. She has flash cards, which we go through each night as well as her reading book. I turned over the next card in the pile, ‘Sh’.

“S, H makes sh,” I said.

She stared at me then burst out laughing. “Oh Mummy, no it doesn’t! Sh? Pfff!” 

And that was that. She will not have that S, H makes sh. Every time she looks at me she laughs about it, as if to say, honestly, the things my mum comes out with! Good luck to her teacher is what I say. I’ve never yet been able to change Wren’s mind about anything she’s convinced herself of. It looks like she’ll be reading “she” in her own special way for some time to come. 

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A moment

Photograph of raindrops on rose leaves by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

I am not long back from school drop-off, and I’m taking a moment before I head off to my writing desk. I’ve made myself a coffee. Now I’m sitting, mulling things over, watching the rain trickling down the windows. I hope you get to take a moment too amidst all the busyness and uncertainty today. Sending love 🙂

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Seasonal rituals

The children went back to school and it all seemed to be going okay. Then the news came that gatherings were being restricted to six people due to a rise in Covid numbers. My heart sank. After all that has happened since March, all the juggling to keep home and work going without our usual support. After all the effort to get the children back to school; the physical as well as emotional work it has involved. I couldn’t bear the thought of schools being closed and having to start from scratch again. 

Then Wren came home from school with a runny nose and sore throat on Friday and my heart sank even further. We watched and waited. No cough and no temperature. Thankfully, by Sunday evening she was only a slightly hoarser version of her normal self. But by then Finch had caught it, and with his asthma. it went straight to his chest. He wheezed and he spluttered. Did that count as a cough? We got out the timer. The wheezing-splutteriness came every three hours or so. Was it a cough and was it continuous? No sign of a temperature. We decided it was safer to keep him off on Monday. After all the hullaboo of getting him back to school it was more than depressing that he was off again so soon. 

Then Little Owl’s throat started getting sore. We watched and we waited again. No wheeze this time but definitely some spluttering. We still weren’t sure whether it could be counted as a cough. You’d think, being a nurse, I‘d be able to define a cough, but it turns out it’s more nuanced than even I realised! We decided to keep her off for the day to be sure, but it disturbed the momentum she’d built up coping with the big-overwhelming-scariness of high school and there were tears going back this morning.

At work we were getting into gear to start flu vaccinations this week then someone was off because her husband had a cough and another was off because she had a cough, neither able to return to work until they’d had a clear covid test…the nearest test available being in Glastonbury. These absences came on top of another team member getting caught out in a quarantine area after travelling to Europe to see her elderly parents, now completing her two weeks of isolation. If Wren had turned out to have a cough I would have been off too. What with spluttering kids and coughing husbands amidst the inevitable winter sniffles, gloomily I wondered to myself whether we’ll be fully staffed at all this winter. I’m trying hard not to dwell on it but the implications of a tickly cough are enormous.

The days have been golden here but there is a chill in the air. I love this time of year. Seasonal rituals continue and thank goodness for that. My dad helped me finish off shifting that manure at the allotment and I started sowing field beans for a green manure. Jagged lines of geese fly over head. In the garden the children and I filled tubs with tulip and crocus bulbs. Little Owl planted pansies in window boxes, and put an especially cheery one in a little terracotta pot outside the kitchen window. I smile whenever I see it.

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End of an era

Photo of new school shoes by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk).

Wren started school this morning and with that, a phase of my life has passed. I have such mixed feelings about it! I can’t say I enjoyed having little babies. Before I had one myself, I imagined cuddling my baby all day, dandling it on my knee, and gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. No one tells you that the times a small baby is either awake and happy, or asleep and happy, are the minority. Your baby will grizzle, whine and gurn for most of its early life, and you will spend endless hours stood up, rocking it to pacify it…and if you should even think about sitting down, the baby will go off like a rocket. At all costs you must never, ever stop moving, necessitating endless pram-pushing in all weathers. And as soon as you get the baby to sleep, bring the pushchair in side, the postman is almost certainly going to ring the doorbell and wake the baby up. At least this was my experience, but I’ll own, it did get slightly better with each child as I got better at knowing what on earth I was doing!

I remember sitting next to my friend’s great-grandmother at a wedding when Little Owl was a baby and asking her for advice. She was very straightforward about it, “Get on and have another one.” She was right in lots of ways. Having another puts everything into perspective. Is there anything more precious than a first-time parent? I certainly was. She was also alluding to the old adage, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Babies are meant to be born into communities, not cared for exclusively by one person. Ladies, we were never meant to do this alone. My babies were always much more contented when the house was full of hustle and bustle: the radio mumbling away in the background, the clatter of cooking, a visiting grandparent with their nose in the paper and one foot on the bouncer, an older sibling dancing about and randomly shoving interesting things in their direction. I read recently that most parenting theories about humans are based on studies of primates, specifically chimpanzees, who carry their single offspring around for a whole two years. In contrast, studies of human hunter-gatherers from the 60s found that in these societies, a human baby would be cared for by up to thirty-six different adults in the first week of life. A village.

But after the little baby phase is the big baby phase, and the toddler phase, and then, my absolute favourite, three to four years. They are so much fun and such good company at this age. I love their mispronunciations, their wonder, their kindness, and with Wren in particular, their fierceness! Wren has been my most fiercely independent, heartily determined to do everything “mineself”. So I have no worries about her at school. She is a jolly, curious, dinosaur-roaring fireball. As for me…I’m going to dig this big pile of manure at the allotment. Digging always seems to help work through complex feelings!

Pile of manure at an allotment by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk).
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Writing life

My writing desk by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

For those of you who don’t know, this week, two years ago, I won the Kelpies Prize at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. On Instagram this week, my publisher posted a photo of me accepting the prize from the wonderful Lari Don, and wonderful memories of the night came flooding back. The rain pounded down in Edinburgh that evening, just as it has been here this week. It made me realise how little I talk about my writing here, or anywhere publicly really. A casual reader might never know what a big part it plays in my life. Delayed by Covid, my middle grade novel The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle will be published by the Discover Kelpies imprint of Floris books in spring 2021. I’m getting better but I still feel all wriggly about saying that. Regular followers of this blog will know I have huge legitimacy issues! I harp on about nearly every other aspect of my life but not writing. Yet I love reading about other people’s writing process, how they juggle writing with the rest of their lives, and the craft of writing. So here goes. Let me tell you a little bit about my writing life…

Average author earnings in the UK are around £10,000 a year. This figure is median earnings, which prevents the data being skewed by big-hitting outliers, giving a good idea of what authors are actually earning. Figures reported by the Guardian in 2005 show that only 17% of children’s authors earned over £30,000. There’s no reason to think things have changed much. Winning the Kelpies Prize was not going to see me quitting my day job any time soon. It’s been a bit of a journey getting to where I am now (that’s a story for another day and I don’t want to bore regular readers), but where I am now is working two and a half days as a District Nurse, mum of three, allotmenteer, countryside rambler, and children’s writer.

I am incredibly lucky to work fixed days as a nurse; no nights, and one weekend in four. This is as rare as hen’s teeth. There is a reason why nurses call their work pattern “off-duty” rather than rota or roster, schedule or timetable. When you are off duty is very important. This is because the nursing profession demands that nurses be infinitely flexible to meet the demands of the service, potentially available to work any day or night of the year. Nursing managers aren’t total sadists so generally you get four shift requests over a four-week period which they will try to honour. Once you’ve done birthdays and hatches/matches/dispatches there isn’t usually much left over. Like I said, I am very lucky with my shift pattern. Fixed days means I can plan and I don’t pay out on childcare I don’t end up needing. Nursing covers my bills, gives me sick pay and a pension. I don’t have to worry about any of these things. It’s also a job I can only do when I am with my patients. Once I leave work, I can’t do any more. That’s not to say I don’t worry about things when I get home, it’s a very intense job after all. But in general, I work with an amazing team who will pick up anything that needs sorting. It’s not a job like teaching say, which from the outside at least, seems to be all-consuming and relentless (teachers, you are amazing). 

I am also very lucky to be part of a two-income household which massively takes the pressure off. I have a wonderfully supportive partner who thinks equal share of household chores and the mental load that comes with running a busy home is a no-brainer. He does his fair share of school pick-ups, cooking, cleaning etc, etc. This usually leaves me with one school-length day and one ‘office hours’-length day a week to write. There’s not much scope for snatched moments on a daily basis to write but I do try. I wake up before the kids every day to get some exercise in (hurray for bicycles) and our evenings are ever diminishing now Little Owl is a tween. I would say evenings are really out for me for writing in general. I’m so shattered by that time of the day and there’s really no other time to write shopping lists, do the cleaning and washing up, pay bills, do the laundry, and hold an actual conversation with Big Dreamer.

I am someone who is ‘writing’ in my head all the time. I find that tough going with three children. There is non-stop noise, chatter, and questioning in our house, all at a million miles an hour. Sometimes I feel like I might burst being asked about whether our house will be okay in worst case scenario climate change flooding, when (oh when!) can X have their half an hour on Minecraft, did I know something is burning, and could I get some clean pants down from the drying rack please, all the while untangling a knotty plot problem in my mind. I have tried to switch it off and be fully present with my kids, but it doesn’t have a switch, so on I go, writing as I live. By the time I get to my writing days I can barely type fast enough to download my brain. Often I have to disappear with a notebook for ten minutes now and again before my writing day, just to clear my head. Most of it’s drivel but it’s all part of the process. It would be part of my process even if I could write it down as I think of it so I try not to stress too much about it. I imagine if I could write it down straight away, there would probably just be more drivel! 

Holidays are tough though. As much as we would love to sustain that sort of writing pattern through the holidays, we can’t afford it, so childcare generally falls to me. I am usually sobbing with desperation to WRITE SOMETHING/ANYTHING by around this time in the summer holidays. This is when my magnificent mother-in-law swings in to action, sweeps the children off to Yorkshire for a week, and I get to write enough to see me through until term starts. This coming term will be my first with all three at school. This default of childcare falling to me is a tricky psychological balancing act. Not because I think I should get to have that time for writing and be damned with the cost, but because it sends out a message that my writing days are disposable. Some of my extended family would never dream of expecting me to pop out of a patient’s home to sort something out for them but because I work from home, and it’s not a real job with earnings that bear any sort of relation to the hours I put in, if needs must, Hannah can step in for almost every eventuality. It’s only in the last month or so that I’ve finally got my Dad to stop calling my writing days “days off”. So you’re off on Thursday are you? No, Dad, I’m not, I’m WRITING!

It’s a funny thing, all this balancing and juggling. On the one hand, I definitely need to build up momentum to write well. It works much better for me if my writing days come together. My most productive moments will often be those last couple of hours on Day Two before I power down and go back to the real world. I am always chomping at the bit to get back from school drop-off to crack on, and any request to run a ‘quick errand’ is met with disproportionate ire. I need every precious second to warm up, get into gear, and get those words down. However, if I am ever lucky enough to have more than three ‘office hours’-length days together, my productivity drops massively. After that third day, the pull of social media or a quick read over the news headlines is almost impossible to resist. It’s as though my brain needs the down time and the variety. I need to do something else for a few days to recharge and re-fuel. And while it would be wonderful to head off into the hills for long walks I’m not sure it would be the same. My chattering children, my brilliant patients, the general bustle of life gives me loads of ideas and inspiration. Often an intractable writing problem works itself out by the time I get back to my desk. 

There’s so much more to say: writing groups, feedback, working with an agent and editors, the editing process, where I write, how I write. Maybe, now I’ve started I’ll have more courage to talk about those things. And maybe you’ll find a little inspiration for your journey here, in the way I have in hearing so many other writers talk about their lives.

I won’t be posting next week. It’s the last week of the holidays in England before school restarts. We’ll be getting ready for Little (now big!) Owl’s first day of High School and Wren’s first day of Primary School. That’s a lot of uniform to label. Wish me luck and see you the week after!

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I-spy

Only this time last week I was sweating in PPE from places I didn’t even know I could sweat from. I came home from work last Wednesday evening, lay on our ceramic tiled kitchen floor, trying to soak up some of their coolness.  A buzzing from my phone in my pocket was a friend texting me to ask if I had got home yet. Through a dehydration-induced, bleary-eyed haze I answered, yes, just. Moments later the doorbell rang. She had arranged a delivery of ice cream to help me cool down. She’s a very lovely friend. 

While the heat wasn’t much fun for me, it was even less fun for many of my patients. Dealing with foul smelling leg ulcers, coping with layers of compression bandaging, or in the last moments of life, the heat was hard work. I wish I could have shared my ice cream with all of them.

But by the weekend we were drowning. We went from heatwave to Biblical-style thunderstorms in a matter of hours, and it hasn’t stopped raining since. Like so many things at the moment we booked our camping weekend in Woolacombe with friends well in advance due to Covid restrictions. We knew it would be a lucky dip weather-wise, it being August and all, still, I don’t think we ever thought it would be as bad as it was. Lying in our tent listening to the inevitable drip-drip of the pounding deluge making its way through the roof I couldn’t help singing to myself the lines of that old Sunday School song: “The rains came down, and the floods came up.” Down the road in Barnstaple, the floods literally did come up.  Needless to say, our weekend camping was a washout. The following day the children decided they couldn’t get any wetter, so put on their wetsuits and ran into the sea.

Another advance booking was our trip to Paignton Zoo today. You spotted that was a tiger through the drips right?!

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Tram-tastic

With all that’s been going on with Covid, instead of our planned trip to North Wales the week before last, we decided to stay at home and do local day trips. One of these was a trip to Seaton. Seaton is a coastal town in East Devon, about forty-five minutes from us. Like many of the towns along that stretch of coast, it was once a busy and cosmopolitan place. In Roman times it was an important port but there had been settlements at Seaton for 4000 years before that. In the 14th century heavy storms caused a landslip which partially blocked the river, and the shingle bank started to build up. The town became a bit of a backwater. It was the railway that turned the town into an Edwardian holiday destination, and much of the town was built during that time. In the 1960s the branch line to Seaton was a victim of the Beeching cuts. It was bought by Claude Lane, the owner of Lancaster Electrical Company, manufacturer of battery electric vehicles. 

It’s thanks to Claude Lane that today you can see old-fashioned trams that would be most at home in Blackpool, sailing through the middle of the Devon countryside. Claude was a fanatic about trams. He had built many of his own, operating his tram systems at both Eastbourne and Rhyl. Sadly Claude suffered a heart attack in 1971, so it was down to his nephew Roger, and Claude’s long-time assistant, Alan Gardner, to complete the project of creating a tramline at Seaton along the old branch line and transferring all Claude’s trams on to it. 

Nowadays you can take the tram inland, through the wonderful Seaton wetlands nature reserve, via the crossing at Colyford, up to the old Saxon town of Colyton. Here you can have a peaceful meander through the ancient streets, a paddle in the river, and get a traditional Devon cream tea before heading back to Seaton for an ice cream by the sea. And this is exactly what we did on our day trip. It is honestly the funniest thing to see these little trams dinging their way along hedgerows, waving to fields of grazing cattle. Goodness knows what they think! As you can imagine, Finch thought it was marvelous and had a million questions for the driver. So, if you happen to be down this way, I would recommend an outing on one of Claude’s trams. I would also recommend a trip to the charming specialist children’s bookshop on Fore Street in Seaton where Jenny at Owl and Pyramid is a mine of information about children’s books! 

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Chips!

Summer's evening at the Allotment by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
Evening at the allotment

Our week of relaxing day trips was slightly scuppered by a phone call from the plumber to say he could start work on our bathroom. He’d first phoned us back in March to say he’d penciled us in for May, and then lockdown hit. For those of you who don’t know, we have a very cold and mouldy, single-skin, flat-roof bathroom off the end of our kitchen. It’s fine and I’ve been reminded countless times by my mum how lucky we are not to have the loo at the end of the garden like she had as a child, negotiating the path in pitch black because her candle had blown out! But after Little Owl took a rather nasty tumble down the stairs in the night, lucky or not, the time had come to split Wren’s bedroom in two and put in an upstairs bathroom. So, although we have been out for nice day trips we have also made a lot of builder’s tea and lost count of the times we’ve realised we need that thing upstairs which we now can’t get to. If only we’d gone to Wales! We have spent a lot of time at the allotment.

This week we are nearly there. Some more plastering, skirting boards, and a new window but that’s it. The resulting bathroom is very small but perfectly formed 🙂 . And Wren’s room is a decent size box room, freshly insulated as a result of the plumber discovering that bizarrely, but not entirely unexpectedly as old houses are full of surprises, part of one of the walls in the tenement is single skin. Decent insulation coupled with a new radiator means Wren should be nice and cosy going forward. She has also decided that the new bathroom is exclusively for her use seeing as it used to be part of her bedroom. Fortunately she hasn’t learned the word “en-suite” yet. 

The other thing we got round to doing last week was Little Owl’s birthday tea at a local restaurant. Like the bathroom, it had been planned long before lockdown and the booking happened to fall the weekend after lockdown was announced so we weren’t able to go. Last week we arrived in good time for our slot, and were guided through the one-way system to our socially distanced cubicle by the waitress. The kids thought it was marvelous, and didn’t mind one bit. Finch bounced into his seat, picked up the menu and began scanning. He’s been working hard on his phonics recently so he sounded out… “Ch…I…P…S…ch-i-p-s…CHIPS! Mummy, they sell CHIPS!!!” The evening was a resounding success.

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Allotment Update

Sweetpeas, lavender, and sweetness by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Okay, I think we’re all in need of an allotment update aren’t we?!

Swiss Chard – middling. Growing but it’s getting a lot of attention from the pigeons. Unwanted attention from my point of view.

Asparagus – good this year but every time I took my eyes off them they grew about two foot!

Broad Beans – desperate. Completely destroyed by black fly. The nasturtiums I planted as companions were too late to entice the black fly away. I’m going to try an Autumn sowing which will hopefully be ready for early spring.

Cornflowers and Sweet Williams – didn’t even germinate. I’m slightly relieved in one way because I hadn’t realised Sweet Williams are biennial and that would have really messed up my crop rotation plans. Next year I think I’ll get the cornflowers started off indoors.

New potatoes – wonderful and delicious. Definitely late this year though.

Beetroot – good so far!

Carrots – only one has come up. I’m so sad.

Pumpkins – mixed. I should have fed them when I first planted them out and they were put off by the early hot weather. I’ve lost about half, and the slugs have been merciless. Keeping my fingers crossed for the rest.

Tomatoes – good so far. I’m being much better at pinching out, and thankfully Monty Don is doing a step-by-step guide on Gardener’s World this year, so hopefully I’ll finally know what I’m doing.

Sweet peas – As you can see – good!

Strawberries – A-ma-zing! We’re on to our second lot of jam. Big Dreamer has made wine, and we’ve had punnets and punnets to eat fresh. So many in fact that Finch says he’s gone off strawberries (!). There’s tons of unripe fruit on the blackberry brambles and we’ve had a handful of gooseberries and white currants from our baby bushes.

Perpetual Onions – looking good so far, but going to let them get a bit more established before I start pulling any up. Apparently they are also sometimes called ‘Walking Onions’ because they spread so well. I hope mine do!

Flowers – Dahlias are on their way up and so are the Rudbeckia. I’m hoping for lots for cutting. We’ve also been using nasturtium flowers and marigold petals in salads this year. 

I find I get to this time of year and I can already see what has and hasn’t worked, and just can’t resist impatiently plotting for next year!

School’s out for the holidays this afternoon. We were planning a trip up to Wales next week but have decided not to go. It was a real quandary as we want to support businesses who have missed out on income over lockdown, but we just felt we would give it another month before going further afield. Instead we will be doing some day trips from home so I’m going to take the week off from posting but will be back the week after. See you then!

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Bennett’s Cross

Bennet's Cross on Dartmoor by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

On Dartmoor there is a crooked stone cross beside the road between Moretonhampstead and Postbridge. Folklore has it that the cross was erected as a boundary marker by a tin miner named William Bennett in the 16th century. Looking out across the moor, the cross at your back, the rocky outcrop of Birch Tor rises up on your left, and the lumps and bumps of the old Vitifier Tin Mine slope down to your right. The tin mine is long overgrown but its labyrinthine trenches make a brilliant playground. The Redwater Brook flows along the bottom of the valley, bubbling through an open area dotted with the granite ruins of mine buildings. It’s a good place for a picnic and a paddle. Sitting in the sunshine, munching on your sandwich, it’s hard to believe this was the centre of the most extensive surface mining on Dartmoor, operating from Medieval times right through to 1925. The conditions at Vitifier Mine were supposed to have been awful. The air quality in the mines themselves is reputed to have killed many miners, and the accommodation was so bad miners had to take turns using the same beds. Apparently many of the miners were on the run for petty crimes, making them and their families essentially refugees to be used as the mine owners wished. 

We visited the mines this weekend. I disturbed a common lizard who shimmered away, a golden streak rippling over the heather. Dragonflies hovered by the stream. We chased minnows with Wren’s new fishing net. In the boggy places tiny blue and yellow wildflowers winked like stars. The steep sides of the spoil heaps were soft with bracken and grasses. It’s a salutary reminder of the Persian adage, “This too will pass.” So I’m back and feeling a bit better. The world might not be any less bonkers than it was two weeks ago but as I scrambled over the tor in the sunshine with my lovely little family, and ate juicy red tomatoes by the stream, I decided it can’t be all bad. And I’m not a 16thcentury tinner so…small mercies!

View from Bennet's Cross on Dartmoor by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

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