Empty Nests and recipe postcards

Nineteen years ago this week our youngest child was born; and on almost the same day years later, she’s flown the nest to university. And so the next stage of all our lives begins; an exciting, sometimes scary, emotional rollercoaster of readjustment.

I’ve had SO much advice from friends, acquaintances and even strangers about how to cope with ’empty nest syndrome’ over the last few weeks but I think I’m more prepared for this than for any other event in my life so far. I’m prepared for the quietness, the abundance of food, the tidy house and the space that the two of us have for the first time in twenty two years. I’ve abandoned myself to the inevitable waves of grief that will wash over me. (I’m a Celt. My feelings are never too far from the surface.) “Grief is the price we pay for love,” my own mother told me, long before the press were quoting the late queen Elizabeth. Grief comes with the realisation that I am no longer part of my children’s day-to-day lives, that one or other of them will not be here to share a joke, or a moan or a funny anecdote about my day when I come home from work and that the old days of #teamsmart are in the past. I’m even at peace with the fact that we didn’t get to do half the things I wanted to do with them all, despite having twenty two years to accomplish it. Robert Burns was right about what happens to plans.

The natural rhythms of life prepare you for the changes ahead. Children grow up and spend more time with peers than parents before they move out. Temporary loss of those you hold dear prepares you for final partings. I have a faith and I’ve had a practice run with the boys. Now that the last of our chicks has flown the nest, I know how to trust that all will be well. We have nurtured strong, independent humans with good sense; they provide mutual support for each other rather than leaning on us; they know there’s a warm, safe space at home but they also know how to build a home away from home and that it isn’t always easy but it is worth it, because it is yours.

I won’t be turning bedrooms into sewing rooms or renting them out any time soon; neither will they be shrines to their childhoods. I won’t be initiating contact every day but I will answer queries straight away about black mould in showers, washing disasters and budgeting. I will enjoy being a couple again and never forget that we are parents. I am not defined by being a mother of three but it is the most important job I have ever done or will ever do. I have plenty to fill my time, some decisions to make and some changes to initiate but I am a Celtic mother. The Christmas pantry is already underway for when we are all together again in a few weeks’ time and I’m sending favourite recipes to three corners of the British Isles on a regular basis with handwritten notes. They are special postcards from the plot for three much-loved young people who are striking out on their own.

Equinox celebrations, flower and vegetable shows and harvest suppers

Despite the huge changes that are playing out in our country at the moment, it’s important to recognise that, as far as nature is concerned, this week witnesses a point of perfect balance on the journey through the wheel of the year. Night and day are again of equal length and in perfect equilibrium but we are on the cusp of transition. From now on, the year begins to wane. It will soon be time to focus on our inner world, to reflect, slow down, make plans. But before we do that, there’s time for one more party.

We have an equinox child with a birthday this week. Well, not so much a child as a young woman, about to embark on her first solo adventure to university. The garden is full of reds, burnished orange and gold and there’s plenty to harvest. Harvest suppers and flower and vegetable shows are being advertised. The mid day sun is still hot on our backs but there is a nip in the air at dawn, after dark and whenever the sun hides her face behind a cloud. I want to throw a party; the kind of party that takes place in the woods or the garden, with sweaters and blankets, fairy lights strung between the trees, lanterns, a campfire and a long communal supper table, the kind that local chef and foraging queen Beth Al Rikabi arranges in the nearby woods. (See pic).

Now is the time for completing projects, clearing away and letting go of what is no longer wanted or needed as we prepare for winter’s time of reflection and peace. I find it much easier to clear clutter in the autumn than the spring. It is also a time to plant the seeds of new ideas and hopes which will lie dormant but nourished in the dark, until the return of spring. I have plenty of fruit to harvest and preserve and a box of bulbs arriving to plant. Gardening keeps me in tune with the wheel of the year. So does walking. At this time of year there’s plenty to forage – wild damsons, sloes, rosehips, elderberries, blackberries, hawthorn berries and conkers. Our kitchen windowsill already has a few in a jar. And if you want to know what to do with conkers, in true Blue Peter style, here’s one I wrote earlier.

An hour snatched in the garden

Honesty from Sarah Raven

The start of term and the only time I have to spend in the garden is an hour snatched here and there away from the busyness of back to school routines. Ironically I could do with spending all day in the garden to keep my stress levels under control but, an hour is better than no time at all. This afternoon I’ve begun to grub out an old hedge which was getting rather spindly and untidy, picked up all the windfall apples and planted some honesty seedlings to bloom next year. I have a mixture of purple and white which will look gorgeous and provide those lovely translucent seedpods which can be dried. My granny used to call honesty the money plant and I remember using the seedpods as money when playing shops as a girl.

Simple pleasures.

I’ll be replacing the hedge either with some step over pears or low-growing box. I haven’t decided yet but there’s joy to be had in the planning. Working at mother nature’s pace is good for the soul. I’d do well to remember that when I’m back in the classroom tomorrow.

Plant of the month: August echinacea

One of the beauties in the August border is echinacea, so called because of the way the seedhead resembles a hedgehog or sea urchin. I’m not a fan of the pink variety but I love the jewel-like red and orange hues and the zing of the lime green. Perfect for the end of summer, particularly this one with its uncertainty about the months ahead, as documented every day in the news. Folklore has it that carrying Echinacea will provide inner strength during trying times. Cut and placed in a vase it will draw prosperity into the home and protect the family from suffering in poverty. Ideal right now then. Plenty of people need echincea in their gardens and in their lives.

It’s a fabulous plant for pollinators too if gardening for wildlife is important to you – and why wouldn’t it be? Natural rainfall is usually sufficient for its needs but you’ll need to water in new plants in the current climate and it likes a nice mulch in the winter, but it usually doesn’t need much in the way of care. It will return year after year and if you don’t deadhead it, it will feed the finches and other small birds through the winter and what seeds are left will sprout new plants in the spring. What’s not to love?

You may have come across tinctures of echinacea in the pharmacy. Herbalists recommend it to shorten the duration of the common cold and flu, and reduce symptoms of sore throats, coughs and fevers. It is also said to help boost the immune system and help the body fight infections. Here’s the recipe for a homemade version. Bear in mind, I’m not a medical herbalist – but all of us have survived this far using this to boost our immune systems.

Echinacea tincture

1. Harvest echinacea leaves and blossoms. Avoid picking any which have started to wilt ot die back. Fresh and vibrant is what you’re looking for. Rinse them well under cold, running water and allow to air dry.

2. Weigh your leaves and flowers and place in a mason jar, adding food grade alcohol (190 proof) at a ratio of 2:1 . You want twice as much alcohol as flowers and leaves.

3. Screw on the lid and give it a good shake. Then unscrew and push all the flowers and leaves down beneath the alcohol so everything is submerged. Put the lid back on the jar and let it sit at room temperature for two weeks.

4 . Every time you walk past your jar, give it a good shake!

5. After two weeks strain out the flowers and leaves through a fine mesh colander and bottle up the liquid into amber bottles, preferably the ones with a dropper lid. Store in a cool cupboard.

6. Use as required. In our house at the first signs of illness, we take 1.5 mls or one dropper full every hour until symptoms cease. Alternatively you could dilute in a small amount of water or tea three four times daily.

Sloe (sic) down

I’m pretty sure time moves faster at the end of the school holidays. There’s the usual scramble to pack in so much to the last few days, not least because we have two September birthdays and three young ‘uns to see off to university in different parts of the UK. But this year I am determined to keep the calm summer vibe into the autumn. Having too many tasks to achieve in the time available is standard for a teacher it seems; ironically creative thinking and efficiency – essential for teachers – spring from having time to focus and reflect. I have always attempted to prevent cognitive overload in my pupils; teachers need to cut themselves the same slack, I think.

It seems as though Mother Nature is running at double quick speed too as the sloes have already put in an appearance. It’s usually best to wait to pick until the first frosts but by then they’ll have rotted on the trees. If they’re squashable, pick them now and stow them in the freezer for 24 hours to burst the skins. Then follow one of any number of online recipes to make sloe gin for Christmas. By then you are probably imagining being huddled in one room by the fire, wearing all your clothes at once to stay warm and keep spiralling energy costs down. A few glugs of sloe gin might be very welcome.

The New Moon yesterday brought transition, transformation and new intentions into sharper focus. Home alone for a few hours I sat outside after dark with candles, a coffee, my notebook and a pen. I’m a born again listmaker, as those of you who have been here before will know. I let my mind wander and noted down what appealed.

There are big changes afoot as we get used to the empty nest. As summer moves into autumn, as well as reaping the harvest, thoughts inevitably turn to the cold, dark days ahead, to death and renewal. Bear with me – I’m not remotely maudlin. Now seems a good time to pay attention to the detail and put in the work to shape a different and, in some ways better future; one where every day brings moments of deep contentment, taking me closer to what I really want out of life, rather than relegating this to the school holidays. I’m thinking big but starting small, clearing the emotional (and actual) clutter. I’m attempting to live in the moment, giving it my full attention, avoiding whatifs and, on no account, striving for material goods. Enough is plenty.

I’ve neglected my passion for amateur theatre since before lockdown but am about to go into rehearsal for Blithe Spirit in November and I’ve long wanted to volunteer to do some bereavement counselling so have sent an exploratory email to Cruse. Little acorns which will bring me fulfillment in the future. I hope whatever the next few months bring for you there will be moments of deep contentment. Lots of them.

A slight nip in the air

plot in late Summer
Sitting in the garden with a coffee this morning, there is a definite nip in the air. I have a sense that the year has now turned – and so have I.  A prolonged dry spell brought a premature end to a fair few plants this year and there are some bare patches in the borders. Blackberries and autumn fruiting raspberries have put in an even earlier appearance than usual and I am already sweeping up leaves. Now the dahlias, rudbeckias and echinacea have their time in the spotlight. The blues, pinks and purples of early summer have given way to the deeper, richer hues of burgundy, orange and yellow. We can see the results of our neighbours’ annual sunflower growing competition poking above the fence and we have a bumper apple crop to deal with.

I’ve always loved this time of year. Harvest festival was my favourite as a child and, as you know, I am an avid chutney maker at this time of year. There’s something primordial about building your storecupboard for lean times ahead. It’s the very beginning of the move from outdoor-living to more time spent indoors, from looking outwards to inner reflection. As I get older, spring seems to have taken on a new attraction for me, a reminder that I have another year to enjoy but autumn will always be my favourite. Ever a fan of the bitter-sweet, of pleasures which have been hard won and may be transient. It’s a reminder to make the most of the good times before harsh reality sets in, to live in the moment but to plan and prepare for the future at the same time.

Of course now is the time for preparing to go back to school, to give in to my stationery fetish and think ahead to the new school year. This year we have no children going back to school – only three preparing to return to (or begin) university. We’ve swapped shoe and uniform shopping for touring the charity shops for suitable crockery and utensils. I am returning to school however and there’s a lot to be done in the next two weeks to be ready for the busyness of life in an academy trust comprehensive with its crazy work hours, endless focus on driving up improvement and data, twilight revision sessions, meetings and marking. Lots of marking. I sense that somewhere in the last two years I have changed. I sense a nip in the air and am returning to school with a heavier heart as well as the usual August teacher dreams of not being able to find your classroom, locate our resources, remember the names of the children or keep order in the classroom. I suspect this might be the last time I go back to school after the summer. I have changed and new adventures beckon. But for now, I’d better get on with the preparations.

The Good Parents’ Guide to Results Day

With results due this week and next, we are now getting to the business end of the Summer holidays for anyone who sat A Levels and GCSEs this year – even more of an undertaking as this year’s cohort were subject to the most COVID-related disruption and seemingly endless rounds of interim assessments. I thought now would be an opportune moment to share what wisdom I have gleaned as a veteran teacher and the parent of three students, one of whom is waiting for Thursday, seemingly with the sword of Damocles over her head. So here is my guide to negotiating the potentially choppy waters of the next two weeks, if you are a parent of students.

  1. Don’t post your pride online: If all goes to plan, the results are fabulous and the pathway to the next stage is straight and clear, be rightly proud. Relax! Enjoy! You have done a great job as a parent and your child is secure in the knowledge that they have smashed it. I don’t know a parent who isn’t proud of their child and who wants to broadcast that to the world and believe me, there are endless opportunities to do it in the world of social media. My advice is don’t. These are their results not yours. Tell them you’re proud of them; phone up Great Aunt Ethel or your boss or the football coach; buy balloons and fill the house with them but have a heart and look out for your friends, neighbours and strangers whose children may be disappointed. Frankly you’ll be doing little more than rubbing their noses in it by clicking share. Why do you need to post it online anyway? Switch off the echo chamber of social media and bond with your child instead. They are the ones who need to know how proud you are of them and how much you love them. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.Trust me on this one.
  2. Don’t catastrophize but recognise it matters: If things don’t quite go to plan, you haven’t failed as a parent. It is not the end of civilisation as we know it. However, the chances are your child may not recognise this….yet. It matters to them and you should respect that. Your job is to validate their feelings but ever so gently to help them see that results are just one piece and not the whole jigsaw puzzle. Sure the pieces don’t quite fit in the way they were expecting but with patience and imagination a different and potentially even more beautiful picture will emerge eventually. They may be in catastrophe mode for a while. You should not be.
  3. Coach, don’t manage: Face it. For most of your child’s life you have been the manager, making the decisions, solving the problems, picking up the pieces. If you haven’t yet let go of that control, now is certainly the time to start. Stand alongside them, offer advice, ask if you can do anything to help but let them manage things. If you’ve spent the last few years gradually taking your hand off the tiller this will be easier but it’s never too late to start. I have seen plenty of university careers crash to ground because mum or dad decided on the course or the place. No university admissions tutor or course administrator wants to talk to you. Accept that gracefully.
  4. Preparation, preparation, preparation: This is a tricky one. If you have the conversation about a Plan B, be prepared for an angry accusation that you have no faith in your child. Nevertheless, a plan B is a good idea. Just don’t share it with them until they ask. There is plenty of advice online, on university websites and on the UCAS platform. Having the phone numbers of key institutions to hand would be a good idea. Knowing how you as parents feel about an unplanned gap year means that, if you need to have the conversation, you are prepared.
  5. Put the kettle on: give them space and keep them fed and watered whilst they come to terms with what has happened. One of my sons negotiated clearing a few years ago. He didn’t want a gap year. He spent the whole day on his own in the study through choice with laptop and phone. It broke my heart. The mother in me just wanted to hug him and make it better. But I bit my tongue and provided cups of coffee, snacks and sandwiches. He emerged at supper time with a few options and asked our advice. We did more listening and reflecting back what he said than talking. We were supportive, recognised his disappointment and advised that he needed to embrace the new opportunities fully rather than living on what-iffs. All was well.
  6. Be pleased (or disappointed) for them not with them: Results which are awesome or lower than expected are not reflections on you as a parent or your child as a worthwhile member of society. If you and they recognise that they could have worked harder, you know what? Now is not the time to air your views. Be reassuring that you do not feel let down by them but recognise that they feel disappointed. Your job is to encourage them to look forward rather than back. And NEVER say ‘I told you so’!
  7. Park the helicopter but keep the harbour lights on: You know what I’m saying here. Let them steer their own ship through calm and stormy seas knowing that there is a safe harbour with you, whenever they need it.

Like you I’ll be trying to live by these maxims on Thursday and possibly enjoying coffee and cake at one of our fave watering holes, Mes Amis in Beckington.

Good luck, everyone.

Summer 2022: Five (or fewer) go adventuring again.

We’ve spent a lifetime going on picnics, exploring National Trust properties and English Heritage sites, dressing up as Romans or Vikings or knights and completing treasure trails. Many of these adventures are documented over the years in this blog. Summer holidays were usually trips to grandparents – Pembrokeshire to do beachy stuff or London to do sightseeing and museumy stuff. It wasn’t a bad life and now that stage is passed I’m naturally nostalgic about it. Times change. In a few weeks we five will become two when the youngest heads off to University with her brothers. Grandparents pass away; children grow up and become more independent; priorities change. Disaster could strike when the National Trust family membership no longer applies and reenactment is deemed to be only for the truly dedicated.

For a few years now we’ve booked a summer holiday in the UK – smugly ahead of the game in sustainability and avoiding the potential for airport calamity. We’ve invited the children to join us but not necessarily expected them to be there for the whole week or, indeed at all. And yet the adventuring continues. What university student is going to turn down free pub grub and coffee shop visits for a week, I hear you cry. Quite often all five of us still do something together but it is more likely to be an ever-changing combination of two, three or four these days. There are even rare solitary moments of the type you can only dream of when you are the mother of toddlers. Who knows? In future it may be six, seven, eight or more. I hope so.

We’ve been to Devon, Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and Guernsey in recent summers. Last year we stayed at this National Trust Cottage in the grounds of Upton Park in Warwickshire – a real gem, decked out in an authentic thirties style with plenty of country walks from the doorstep. On our TV detective location tour we also visited Oxford ( Morse, Lewis), Stratford on Avon (Shakespeare and Hathaway) and Blockley (Father Brown) during the week. This year we braved the probability of rain every day in North Wales, staying in a lodge just outside Llangollen and visiting Chester, climbing up to Castell Dinas Bran, swimming in Lake Bala, checking out the ambience and vistas at the Horseshoe Falls and Pontcysyllte and exploring Chirk Castle and Erddig.

We’ve made more memories and established new family rituals. Lord knows, parenting is a dark art for which few of us are very well-prepared but one of the keys to successfully parenting adults seems to be a form of ‘build it and they (sic) will come’ and, in the words of Jim Burns, whose book I picked up in a charity shop recently “Keep your mouth shut and the welcome mat out.”

Happy parenting and happy holidays, people. I’d love to know your tips for negotiating the next stage of parenthood.

Summer 2022:Sturgeon Supermoon

Chances are we’ll all be pacing around the garden in the middle of the night again. The reasons vary at Countrygate HQ- menopausal hot flash, inability to get to sleep in the heatwave or Uni students horrific night shift hours. At least tonight we’ll be able to gaze up at the last supermoon of the year and dream.

Apparently the Sturgeon Moon is a time where things seem to be breaking down and falling apart but with purpose. It’s not all bad. The positive outcome is a greater level of awareness, a sense of awakening to new ways of being. Life is tough and unsettled for a huge number of people right now but if you can make peace with moving away from old structures which no longer work and do things differently, it will all be well, I suspect.

I hope that you get to spend some time gazing up at the moon tonight and making plans for the next phase of the year.

Summer 2022 – a greengage summer

I’m in my happy place dealing with the first glut of the summer. We returned from holiday to a bumper crop of greengages, many over-ripe so, apart from a handful eaten fresh from the tree and another of the best batch turned into a delicious greengage crumble the rest are destined for the kitchen alchemy of becoming gingery greengage chutney.

I am such a fan of chutneys – no fiddling around with setting temperatures, saucers stashed in the freezer and pushing spoons of hot jam around to see whether it wrinkles. Seriously, who has the time? Chutney-making is kids’ play. It really was when our children were little and tiny hands were eager to mix and stir, measure out spoonfuls of spices and throw piles of chopped vegetables and fruit into the pan.

Every batch is slightly different but a pick and mix of currants, raisins or sultanas, cinnamon sticks, pink peppercorns, ginger and cloves usually make an appearance somewhere alongside the obligatory vinegar, sugar and glut of fruit or veg. This pan will make several pots of lusciousness to be stowed safely in the pantry awaiting the time when crusty bread with a hunk of cheese and an apple is an economical way to fill a hungry hole. Some will make their way into Christmas hampers for friends and a special pot is on its way to our neighbours Dave and Dickie as a thankyou for putting the bins out and watering the pots when we were away. The best kind of thankyou – homegrown and homemade with love.

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