Winter sunrise from our attic this week

I managed to catch a dry spell last week and headed to the allotment to dig up the last of my root vegetables and plant some more field beans for green manure. A little robin followed me around, pouncing on any exposed worms. Fortunately my allotment drains well but still, I hope I haven’t done more harm than good stomping around on wet soil. On the radio hanging in the green house I listened to farmers unable to drill their wheat seed into waterlogged soil, or get heavy machinery onto their sodden fields to harvest potatoes. What a wet autumn it has been. 

Despite the rain that continues to pour we have had some wonderful wintery skies here. Long shifts in my formative years means I have a peculiar fondness for the daily commute home in winter. While I still had hours left at work, I envied the trails of headlights making their way back to cosy homes accompanied by familiar voices on the radio. Now, as I head home on my nursing days, I love to catch glimpses of window-framed, back-lit domestic vignettes from the houses I pass, in the moments of growing dusk before the curtains are drawn. It makes me think of Little Grey Rabbit’s Christmas, where the animals peak in at a lit window and learn what a Christmas Party entails from the children inside the house. Of course I realise that the homes I glimpse will not always be capsules of domestic bliss, but just for a moment, looking in from the dark wet evening, they seem like glowing treasures. 

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First frost

We woke this morning to the first frost of the season, the clothes I had forgotten to bring in yesterday, frozen to the washing line. It’s a welcome change to all the rain we’ve been having. I might finally get down to the allotment this week to finish my autumn tidy up. The children ran across the sparkling grass in the park on the way to school, leaving footprint trails behind them. Finch came to walk beside me, a serious look on his face, keen to discuss his latest ideas for his letter to Father Christmas. At the weekend I drove up to family in Wales to swap presents. Back at home I start to pick out carols on my Nan’s old piano of an evening. I won’t mention the C-word just yet but it’s coming folks!

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The temperature has dropped. There are reports of snow up on the moors. I have a little scrap of thin plastic attached to my NHS issue raincoat which is supposedly a hood. It doesn’t do much to protect me from the icy rain showers as I dash between patient visits. 

Back at home Wren gives me a stern look when I pass her a dessertspoon to eat her yoghurt with.

“I want a little spoon,” she frowns.

I pick up a teaspoon but she shakes her head vehemently.

“That’s not a little spoon, that’s a small spoon. I want a little spoon.” 

I stare at her, mystified. If a teaspoon isn’t a little spoon, then what is? Wren repeats herself, speaking very slowly, as if I were the three year old.

As luck would have it, Little Owl flounces in to the kitchen at just this moment.

“Little Owl, apparently this is a small spoon, and Wren wants a little spoon,” I say, waving the teaspoon at her.

Little Owl rolls her eyes, and heads for the cutlery drawer.

This is a little spoon.” She flourishes a plastic baby spoon at me and flounces off again.

Wren nods with satisfaction. 

Who knew? It must be tough having me as a mum.

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Crackle and sputter

sparklers on bonfire night. Hannah Foley

The rain stopped and the clouds cleared just in time for our bonfire night celebrations on Saturday. We snuggled up around the fire in my mum and dad’s garden, fingers warmed by mugs of hot soup. In the distance fireworks popped and whizzed, lighting up the night sky. The children traced them along the horizon, joining in with their own glittering sparkler dance. As the evening rolled on, we hunted out the baked potatoes in their blackened foil wrappers amongst the embers, slathering on layers of butter and cheese. It was a soft evening of quiet laughter and murmured stories gathered around the flames. Somehow a fire creates a communal space in the open air where little needs to be said, sitting comfortably in each other’s presence watching the crackle and sputter.

The weather is looking good for tonight too when we will be heading to the school fireworks display. Organised by my PTA pals, it is always held after the date so as to get the cut-price fireworks left over from other displays. It’s a great occasion for the whole community to gather. The place will be rammed, and the display is guaranteed to be a perfectly choreographed spectacle of high level precision, timed to music. We will ooh and aah, and drop burger relish down our coats, before heading home for bed, smelling of gunpowder. 

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Don’t tell my dad…the delphinium he gave me is flowering for the second time this year. Not one of his own flowered even once. Shhh – he’ll be so cross!

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Tin Coast

Having grown up in a seaside town I have a pathological aversion to anything touristy so Cornwall has never really appealed. I went on a school trip to St Ives once, and I’ve been through Cornwall lots of times to get to the Scillies, but that’s it. Hence, I hadn’t realised that there is this whole bit west of Penzance and St Ives which isn’t touristy at all, especially if you visit in October! Any of you who have enjoyed the latest Poldark TV series would recognise much of the area. Porthcurno beach and the abandoned tin mines at Bottalack were all used as locations. Last week we stayed in an old cottage, with walls a metre thick, in the middle of the Tin Coast which runs from St Just to Pendeen, so called because of its mining history. One of the mines, the Levant, extends for over a mile under the sea. The men dug out the rock but it was the hardy Bal Maidens, working on the surface in all weathers, who sorted the rocks into their useable parts.  Miners and their families came from all over the country to work in the mines but particularly from South Wales. The rows of miners’ cottages and the old Wesleyan chapels lend a Welsh Valleys flavour to the area.

We filled our week with beaches, clifftop walks, rock scrambles, fires in the log burner, hot chocolate, and board games. It was a much needed time to get away from it all. Big Dreamer and I seem to be in a constant state of self-analysis at the moment, desperately seeking ways to manage our time better so that we can prioritise the things that really matter. We go round and round in circles on it, painfully aware that our children’s childhoods are flying by but a million different competing demands pour in from every direction. 

This week the sea crashed on cliffs where Bal Maidens had smashed rocks in times gone by, only a gorse-covered field away from our front door. Squalls blew in and out, but for miles there was nothing but surging ocean. There’s something about the coast on the west side of the UK isn’t there? It’s different to looking out on the English Channel from where we are in Devon. I suppose that’s it exactly, it’s not a channel, it’s the Atlantic Ocean, wild and vast. One night I woke up, rain battering on the window. I peeked out between the curtains at the endless black of the night. I couldn’t make out a single thing beyond the window frame but I knew it was there, the wild vast ocean, making me feel small but very alive. If only I could hold on to that perspective every day.

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Bath Children’s Literature Festival 2019

The Bath Children's Literature Festival 2019

We are very lucky to live within striking distance of the Bath Children’s Literature Festival here, which is the biggest of its kind in Europe. Little Owl and I headed up there on the train on Saturday. We hit the rugby traffic on the Bath train from Bristol, and I had to put Little Owl on a luggage rack to stop her being squashed, but otherwise our travels went smoothly. 

Our first event at the Guildhall was a discussion between authors Hilary McKay and Michelle Magorian. You might recognise Michelle’s name from the cover of Goodnight Mister Tom. She has written many books but that is the one she is most famous for. I still get goosebumps when I think about Goodnight Mister Tom and the impact it had on me when I read it in Year 6. I know it’s a special book for a lot of people and I enjoyed chatting to Michelle after the event about how her audiences are often multi-generational now that the book has been around so long. Hilary McKay is not so well known but has written a colossal amount of books for children which have a similar sort of feel to Michelle’s books. Last year Hilary won the Costa Book Award for The Skylarks War, which is a very beautiful book indeed and one I highly recommend. On stage they are both quite considered and softly-spoken people, which is unusual in the children’s book world where there are a lot of celebrities and big characters. What was very special for me was hearing about their writing processes and the lengths they go to get to know their characters. It was fascinating.

Liz Pichon, author and illustrator of the Tom Gates books, at the Bath Children's Literature Festival.
Liz Pichon, author and illustrator of the Tom Gates books…and super lovely person too as it turns out.

After lunch and the all important ice cream dessert, we went to see Liz Pichon who writes and illustrates the Tom Gates books. These books have been a world-wide sensation. In a similar way to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, they mix hand-written text with a doodling style of illustration. They have been credited with helping lots of reluctant readers get into reading, and they certainly helped Little Owl, who struggled with learning to read. Liz had a big screen up so that we could all see her doing some live Tom Gates illustrations. She broke them down step by step so that the children could follow along. Later on Little Owl was delighted to get her doodles stamped with the Tom Gates official stamp of approval when we went to get her books signed. I think one of the nicest things for Little Owl was discovering what a nice person Liz is. These events must be exhausting but Liz was unfailingly smiley, enthusiastic, interested in the children, generous and inclusive. I think children can tell when someone is tolerating them and when someone really likes them, and the sense we got is that Liz really loves children and being part of their world.

Children's doodles get the Tom Gates seal of approval at Liz Pichon's book events.

It was dark and raining by the time we arrived back into St David’s station here in Exeter. We sprinted past big puddles in the road so as not to be splashed by passing cars. Big Dreamer was waiting for us at home with mugs of tea and jam on toast, eager to hear of our adventures. It was a lovely end to a wonderful day.

Next week we are off on our holidays so there will be no post from me. We are heading down to Cornwall for a week of walks on the beach and board games by the wood burner. I’ll fill you all in on my return!

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Heralding the sun

It is dark now when I head out on my bike in the mornings. I nearly tripped over the hedgehog in the middle of the lawn this morning. I think we both gave each other quite a shock. By the time I return the sky is heralding the sun with golden fan fare behind the rooftops. Inside the house the mad rush of breakfast, teeth, faces, school uniforms, books bags, PE kits, lunch boxes, permission slips, last minute wees, shoes and coats begins. I stop for a moment before going back inside, taking a deep breath and savouring the special stillness of the garden in autumn. On nursing days I escape part way through the morning chaos, and Big Dreamer is left to try and tame it long enough for the walk to school. We scratch our heads at each other. How is it that after six years of doing the same morning routine five days a week, it still feels like a minor miracle when we deliver our children to their teachers in fairly good order and roughly on time?

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Wet girl

At the weekend we watched the surging grey seas smash onto the rocks as we climbed up to the top of the cliffs at Sidmouth and I made a mental note to pack extra sets of clothes for Little Owl’s school residential this week. Looking out on the rain that pours from the leaden skies today I wonder whether even the extras will have been enough. Wren is outraged that her big sister has gone on adventures without her. At each knock on the door she runs to see if Little Owl has come back for her. It is only two nights and Little Owl will be having a marvelous time but all the same we’ll be glad when she’s back, no matter how many bin bags of very muddy clothes she brings home with her!

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It is Ploughing Match season again down here in Devon. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky at the weekend as we followed the trail of little white signs down a myriad of narrow lanes to the allotted fields. The actual ploughing was nearly over by the time we arrived. We watched the horses, clinking in all their regalia, circle round for the last time. There were one or two vintage tractors making adjustments before completing their final furrow. We ummed and aahed about who we thought had done best, but in the end, we proved ourselves too shallow not to be won over by the prettiest tractor.

There were sacks of oats and barley, and piles of beets and maize, adorned with winners certificates, to peruse. In the produce tent we marvelled at egg yolks and runner beans. The cake stall sagged under a veritable mountain of mouth-watering home baked treats. As I took a generous mouthful of jam scone, I gazed out over the golden fields to the trees and green hills beyond and felt the old pang that this time of year brings. Dark nights beckon, but just for now, I’ll revel in the bounty of September.

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