Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Child's Summer in Wales

Dear Nigel,

Summer came and went with the swallow. Blink and you missed it.  But we were lucky enough to catch its tail end in a campsite dropping off the end of the Llyn Peninsula in Wales. It is a magical spot we have been to for several years running now, set on a small farm overlooking Bardsey Island with nothing between you and the feint outlines of Ireland but a wide expanse of sea.

On a good day there is sky, and the sea is the colour of blue lace agate with its threads of greys and whites tacking over the surface like a tailor's dummy. The sea and sky meld and fold into one another in a seamless crease. On a bad day the mists are low and I am sitting there outside my tent in the early morning whiteness with my mug of hot tea waiting for the mist to rise. Then a sudden burst of hot sun on damp tent causes rising steam and an uncomfortable rainforest fug prevails that irks until it too finally disperses and the day can begin.

Most of the time the days are hottish and long (albeit with windbreaks on the beach) and the kids spend their time in wetsuits in the sea trying to adopt all the spare children they can lay their hands on. I am reading cheap trashy novels of the type my mum would definitely not approve of and unwinding to the pace of life which only a tent can command. Every little thing takes so long in a tent; you are constantly in a kind of slow meditative motion, like Tai Chi, froing between the camp cooker with its whistling kettle which takes about a week to boil, and the moving of drying towels and snakes and ladders and small piles of sand that threaten to invade your sleeping bag.

It is not for the feint-hearted, or anyone probably with any degree of sense, but it is extremely cheap if you make it so. Invariably we don't, as the next sea fret of an evening sends us down to the chip shop in Abadaron for piping hot crisp-battered haddock and chunky golden chips - always best eaten by the sea. Sophie and I share a haddock.

Molly, my ragamuffin daughter, is in her element running barefoot the whole time in cotton dresses with her long toffee-coloured hair unbrushed and flaring out behind her. She is a wild child, unkempt and smiling with shiny eyes and a forceful nature. I try and tame this wild child of mine with platted hair and white socks but she will have none of it. And in tentland she is free to be herself.

We make barbecues on long, calm evenings outside the tent. The sun has set and the sea is in sepia. The flames from the barbecue die down enough not to burn the lamb chops and burgers the kids prefer, with just enough over to toast marshmallows on skewers over the white embers. I have remembered a very  helpful idea of Annie Bell's and am also equipped with Tunnock's teacakes. These do not have that caramelised surface that real marshmallows in their gloop are famed for, but they have other interesting properties worth investigating, I think.

Gently piercing the surface chocolate and marshmallow, you anchor your spear in the biscuit base. The good thing about this is that the teacake can be rotated evenly over the heat without threatening to drip off the stick. Once there are tiny bubbles on the chocolate surface it is ready. The chocolate doesn't seem to move, and biting in the mallow is soft and unctuous. Only camp food can do this for you. When else would you be seen cramming your mouth with molten mallow and chocolate and still feel faintly virtuous, as if the cold air insisted that you needed an influx of calories to drive out the damp?

Round the campfire we tell stories of fairies and selkies (the seal people). Molly is animated in her telling, her eyes bright as the flames light up her face. Of all my seven children it is the last, my baby child, who has the gift to carry a story and the passion to make it burn and live.

I am reminded of another story telling session of my own childhood years. Not the romantic headland setting of this night but an ordinary little front room in an ordinary little 1930's house. My grandpa is sitting in his powder blue wing armchair and we children are perching on its uncomfortable arms. There is a three bar fire in the corner with orange glowing strips which stand out against the dark. We sit and listen intently to his lilting gentle voice recounting, perhaps the same tale yet again, of pixies, ghosts and Scottish glens, the scent of highly polished wood drifting over from the grand piano and the street lights trying to push in through the outlined edges of the heavy curtains. I feel safe inside.

A few days later there is an opportunity to go to a real Story Telling session set in a Roundhouse a few miles away. The buildings are based on ancient designs, set into the earth with straw and clay walls, and thatched with reed. There is a huge copper fire pit burning brightly in the middle and candles on sticks jammed into the earth between the stone slabs light up the outline of the Story Teller as he stands to begin his tale. An expectant hush descends on the gathering as the Story teller picks up his Welsh Harp and plays us into his magical world. His broad grin and smiling eyes scan the room taking us all into his world. He has fine lines carved into his face and tightly packed curls which bounce light from the fire. He carries us with him on his journey into the night. And all is silent and intent.

My two are mesmerised, their ears hanging on his every word as he recounts his tale. Molly is particularly taken by the Welsh Harp and, at the interval he lets her sit and play. I am surprised and intrigued to see that instead of taking a finger and drawing it across the strings, she has sat beside him watching intently. Plucking the stings with the thumb  and fourth fingers of each hand she starts to play a fairly tuneful melody from out of nowhere.She is as spellbound, I think, as I am and back home at the tent next day she decides she will make her own Welsh Harp. As you do. So we set to with a biscuit tin and elastic bands from the local post office and a wooden spoon to thread them on to make the acute angle for a range of different notes. She is pleased with our attempt, thank goodness, and demands that we go back to the next session so that she can join in and play.

The next session has a guest Story teller even bigger and bolder than the last. Eric the Brave with his mop of silver hair and sawn out cheekbones has giants to slay and a history of stories of the Llyn to tell. There are perhaps a hundred people gathered round the fire pit tonight, crammed into the alcoves around the edge, huddled on benches and on cushions on the floor.

My two are sleepy as the evening wanes and the tales drift around their heads like the swirls of smoke from the fire. Every now and then a swallow swoops down, wheeling in the smoke, rising with the heat, and roosts back down in the apex of the round thatched wheel above our heads. It is cosy and we have brought cushions and blankets of our own with us. The cushions are old, made from a long discarded worn out blanket from my own childhood, torn up and refashioned as cushions with blanket stitch edges. Time stands still. Past, future. All is still in the telling. Whirls of smoke take the fragments of story out into the ether. This is the skill of the Story Teller. It is one of those perfect evenings.


Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Secret Garden revisited

Dear Nigel,

Summer is raging on apace and Autumn weather beckons, it seems. And yet the Holidays have hardly begun for us. The garden has taken over once more and I have given it free rein to design itself this year. Flower begets flower in a passing parade of heady blooms peeping out from a tangle of weeds in the border. Over by the path there is a heavy crop of blackcurrants glimpsed through an undergrowth of dense green foliage. They should have been picked some time ago and yet I let them go, promising myself 'manyana', as always.

I return from town to find Kevin's cockerel and his harem have invaded our space. He takes one look in my direction, and, like a sulky teenager, does just what he always intended - swaggering over with his hands in his pockets and starts to eat the polished black fruit. I shoo him away and one of his giggling entourage makes a dash for the tiny cottage window (thinking it the entrance to a hen coup, no doubt), banging her head again and again against the glass to try and gain entry. Remind me please to source my eggs from responsible chickens with a higher IQ next time - no doubt the yolks will be darker and richer in iron than from this daft bird.

The other reminder, as if I needed one, that Summer is rocketing by at startling speed and leaving me in its wake, comes with a visit from a confident young surveyor. Having assessed the height of the stream and its likelihood of flooding (very unlikely on this gradient), he then turns his attention to my overgrown garden. In particular, the vegetable patch seems to catch his eye. Here, to be fair, it is more jungle than veg. at the moment, and I am a little embarrassed in its defence. There are, however, if you were to look really carefully, lines of carefully planted spinach, rhubarb chard and rocket, but these have bolted now and wave around at waist height looking slightly unseemly.

The surveyor informs me that I am harbouring a dangerous criminal in my midst and severe measures will have to be taken so that I can comply with whatever needs complying with. I frown. I am a little perplexed. I am the harbourer of Japanese knot weed, he claims, looking at the bolted rhubarb chard, and it will need the most potent chemicals to eradicate it ( and which will no doubt undermine my personal organic certification). Hmmm....

I look carefully at his Japanese knot weed which I have lovingly planted, seed by seed, from a packet of Unwins' finest; watered, grown, and tipped into endless stir fries and eaten; and smile back at him. Bless, he is only trying to justify his pay rise.

So, in a bid to prevent the thought police from hounding us out of the district on grounds of letting down the 'best kept village in bloom', or whatever, we start to attack the worst offenders. Will makes short work of the grass, mowing down weeds when the fancy takes him, and I collect in the soft fruit. Apart from the black, red and white currents there are bowls of Gooseberries for freezing. I like to save these for the very end of summer when a soft, tart bowl of whipped fool reminds me of 'Summer's lease', as we sit out, perhaps for the last time that year, and savour all that Summer has to offer.

There are pinkie, hairy gooseberries too - edible ones my mum calls 'the gardener's perk'. But these are fewer and far between. I eat them in passing every time I go up or down along the path. One is enough. Bursting with gelatinous seeds, like an English passion fruit in texture, it is a momentary treat.

They are still collecting in the last of the hay. The little old red tractors are out in force amongst their big green brothers, bringing in the smaller brick-shaped bales from the smaller fields, which horsey people find more convenient to carry. There is a constant to-ing and fro-ing to the barn beside me of these sweet golden parcels. I love the smell of this fresh hay before it is properly dried and make sure I always inhale when passing.

It has been an odd year this one, so far, for me. Much of it has been spent in a great deal of pain, wishing the days away and watching the clock for the release that the next lot of painkillers will bring me. Waiting in a queue for operations has taught me patience and to draw back. That my pain - however severe I feel it to be - is no more important that another person's pain. We are all so used to going out and getting things for ourselves - putting ourselves first at the expense of others without a second thought. And yet it surprised me that I would feel more in tune with others at the very point I should have wanted to put myself first, because of its severity. We should never lose the ability to surprise ourselves.

But it is done and dusted anyway now and life has returned to this old bird - lately turned fifty, and enjoying every minute of it. The garden is a metaphor for a life left to renew and replenish itself at will. Manicured lawns and mixed borders are all very well when life is in control and, like a newly spring cleaned kitchen, a small bit of effort here and there will keep things up to scratch and ticking over. But we all, from time to time, need to let the grass grow between our feet and feel the surge of nature which allows both growth and change and brings us back to ourselves once more, renewed.

Hoping that your Summer has been a more productive one,