The Christmas Chronicles Part VII – Midwinter reading

 

The Christmas holidays is perfect for kicking back and escaping into the home library, which sounds rather grand but is, in fact a few piles of books that I haven’t had time to read yet, placed strategically on bedside table, kitchen dresser and the corner of the room which contains all those things which are in transit between house and recycling centre, the ironing and numerous cardboard boxes. Most of this year’s Christmas books have been a treat.

I loved Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles. In fact the lovely Mr Slater is living my life of cooking, pottering round the garden and shopping locally but without the mothering and the demands of having to be part-cheerleader, part-parent, part-mentor and fount of knowledge on how to achieve a decent examination grade to a few hundred teenagers. He writes with joie de vivre shot through every sentence and is the master at conjuring up the essence of a life lived simply and well.  Monty Don is similar in his approach and desire to impart the tips and tricks of soulful gardening in tune with the seasons. Mary Beard’s witty and erudite musings on women’s place in society, a couple of classic detective yarns and an interesting commentary on helping adolescent boys avoid the pitfalls that modern society lobs at them almost filled my fortnight. I’ve just started to re-read David Wood’s playscript of a classic wartime story which I am directing in July along with some useful historical research on the experiences of evacuees. And bringing up the rear is Susan Hill’s latest ‘book of books’.

I’m always curious about other people’s bookshelves and really enjoyed Hill’s last foray into the genre ‘Howards End is on the Landing’. She is strongly opinionated, drops names liberally and has a rather disconcerting habit of hopping between topics – but I’ve learnt to expect that from Hill. It’s refreshing, revealing but too much to take on Twitter where I find myself getting irritated by what I regarded as some of her ill-informed opinions. At a supper party I would thoroughly enjoy a frank exchange  with her but Twitter is not the forum for that. In the book however I loved the mash-up of nature notes, book recommendations and anecdote. Her comments about J B Priestley will form the basis of some useful discussion with my GCSE class and there are some memorable one-liners (Has Donald Trump ever read a book?). Describing Coleridge as being shot through with “a streak of lightening” is clever and I’m always grateful for a booklist from which to choose some that I would never have considered without a steer.

There is an underlying sense of discontent which pervades this book however – not just an element of grumpiness about some aspects of  life. Maybe the move to Norfolk from the Cotswolds has thrown her out of kilter and it does have aspects of a book which was dashed off to a deadline. On several occasions Hill repeats herself almost word for word. A more considered approach and judicious editing would have smoothed this out  but these are small niggles. Whilst it is not as The Times reviewer said of her previous volume in a similar vein “totally beguiling, utterly persuasive” I was informed, entertained and made to reconsider my own opinions of the books and authors she mentions. A few hours well-spent, after all.

The Christmas Chronicles Part VI – All is quiet on New Year’s Day

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My timeline is full of people congratulating themselves for having taken down the Christmas decs and given the house a thorough clean ready for the new year. My day is less fraught with activity. The tree still graces a corner of the kitchen and the Christmas candles are throwing a rosy glow over proceedings. Today’s activity is firmly rooted in my plans for the coming season.

There was a year when I spend a few carefree hours turning the compost but as a nod to the damp weather, today’s activity is cerebral. A pile of seed catalogues are lined up on the dresser awaiting perusal – although my seed merchants of choice are online – Higgledy Garden and Real Seeds. I like their ethos and seed germination rates have been excellent over the last few seasons.  I’ve made a list (unusual) and among the abundance of cut flowers this year I am making room on the plot for some purple podded climbing beans, heritage lettuce and purple carrots. I’ve also plumped for field beans ‘Wizard’  rather than broad beans. Only two of the household are fans and these are hardy. A more organised woman would have sown them back in October but teaching is so often an all-consuming activity and so a few will be sown now and the rest later. I still have tulips to get in the ground, after all!!

If you want to make this year a better one than last then you’d do well to spend more of it in the garden. This is a good place to start with #five new year’s resolutions for gardeners. It’s American and written in 2012 but those of you who have followed this blog for a while or subscribed to Our Flower Patch will be familiar with the principles. I’m going to take my own advice because 2018 is already shaping up to be busy with the children being variously occupied with driving tests, university applications, GCSEs, county rugby and a production of Goodnight Mister Tom to direct, thirty years of marriage to celebrate and the usual frenzy of life at the chalkface.

And after the seed order is in I will continue with my pile of new books (reviews to follow) and a spot of baking.

Simple pleasures.

The Christmas Chronicles Part V – New Year’s Eve

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It’s New Years Eve –

homemade leek soup, a strong cheddar and crusty bread

a country walk around nearby Great Chalfield manor, stopping to recreate a gateway photo ten years on with the family and a coffee in the blissfully quiet Field Kitchen in Holt,

a potter on the allotment to check the emerging bulbs and gather kindling

and an evening beside the fire playing board games.

January never feels like the start of a new year to a Celtic teacher with an agricultural heritage although there have been new beginnings on New Year’s Eve like the year we got married or the year we drove to have lunch in the Cotswolds and returned home to find that I was incubating our first child.

Whatever 2018 brings I hope your dark forests will be well-illumined by starry skies.

The Christmas Chronicles Part IV – Hunkering down on Boxing Day

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After the last minute gift wrapping and cooking of Christmas Eve and the traditions of Christmas Day family down-time takes centre-stage, today involving a muddy yomp to nearby Avoncliff along the canal towpath and chilling on the settee watching favourite films, drinking mulled cider (or honey and lemon in the case of those with Christmas colds). I’m starting to think about plans for the New Year. Good ideas come to those who are still and have time to listen to that inner voice

I love the quiet time between Christmas and New Year when there’s nowhere to go and friends might pop in on the off-chance. Country rambles, fireside browsing of seed catalogues and impromptu coffee and hot buttered crumpets shared at the kitchen table sums up the best of what this time of year has to offer and sets me up for the busy weeks ahead at school with the looming demands of finishing GCSE and A level syllabus and giving students a bit of help to deal with the post-Christmas blues.

Oranges, cloves, cinnamon and star anise feature in the puddings of days like these and, for now, I’ve turned my back on the Christmas leftovers. A pot of vegetable chilli bubbles on the hob to take to Grandad’s later. There’s a new beautifully illustrated 2018 diary to fill in and books by Nigel Slater and Monty Don to read. Father Christmas has been good to me.

The Christmas Chronicles Part III – Reflections on the Winter Solstice

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The winter solstice is again upon us. The year’s shortest day heralds the onset of deep winter but it also promises the gradual return of the sun after a prolonged period of darkness. Our ancestors knew this. Since ancient times, people have celebrated the solstice and observed it with many different cultural and religious traditions. Some of them survive to the present day. Amidst all the madness of the season find time to get outside into nature. I’ve been banging on about this for years – in the way we’ve raised our children, in the outdoor education work I’ve lead in schools, for social enterprises and the National Trust and in my writing. And if you’re still not a believer in the benefits of being outdoors in all weathers, feast your eyes on this article on why being outdoors makes you happy.

If nothing else I’ll be heading over to the allotment for an hour to chill, tidy up and pull a few leeks to make soup.

Happy Winter Solstice,people.

The Christmas Chronicles, Part II – ginger cookies, homemade gifts and new tuck tins.

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Whilst my daughter skated with her netball teammates at the ice rink recently I did a rare bit of shopping in the food hall nearby and picked out a replacement tuck tin for all those homemade cakes and biscuits I might have time to rustle up over Christmas when friends pop in. Flapjacks are a favourite at this time of year – apple flapjacks usually make an outing for bonfire night and regularly until the end of December. But stem ginger, cloves, star anise and cinnamon find their way into most recipes around Christmas.

I’ve blogged before about stem ginger shortbread. Today I might whip up some ginger cookies, the very ones which proved such a boon many moons ago when I had a touch of morning sickness in the early stages of pregnancy and whereas I’ve never been able to face camomile tea since those heady days, I love these beauts. Now I have an enthusiastic baker daughter vanilla fudge, gingerbread and mince pies are also on the cards. The fudge is likely to make their way into some pretty bags as a homemade gift for her friends who have birthdays this week. My own friends know that at this time of year I usually turn up clutching something edible.

The best stem ginger cookie recipe is this one from The Great British Book of Baking. Turn up with these over Christmas and you’re guaranteed a warm welcome

350g self-raising flour

1 tbsp ground ginger

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

200g caster sugar

115g unsalted butter

85g golden syrup

1 medium egg, beaten

35g stem ginger, drained and finely chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 170c/350f/gas 3

2. Melt the butter and syrup over a low heat. St aside to cool.

3.Sift the flour, sugar, bicarbonate of soda and caster sugar into a large mixing bowl. Once your butter and syrup mixture is barely warm, pour this into the flour mixture and add the beaten egg and stem ginger. Mix with a wooden spoon until thoroughly combined.

4. Roll the mixture into 24 walnut-sized balls using your hands. Arrange them on three baking trays lined with baking parchment. If you only have one baking tray (like me) you can arrange them on baking parchment and swap it out once your previous batch is done.

5. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown (they shouldn’t be too pale). If your cookies brown unevenly, you could turn the tray halfway through.

6.  Leave the cookies to cool on the trays for a couple of minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely. Store these in an airtight container. If your cookies turn crunchy because you’ve left them out too long, you can add a slice of fresh bread to the airtight container to soften them.

The Christmas Chronicles, Part I – Door wreaths and horticultural projects

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I’d forgotten how much full-time teaching is so all-enveloping. You find yourself spinning in a vortex of lesson preparation, marking, exams, reports, meetings, extra revision sessions for keen students and duty nights for weeks and then, at the end of term it spits you out and you land with an almighty thud, able to pick up the pieces of the rest of your life which have had scant attention since the last school holidays.

Term ended earlier for me than for my children – one bonus of teaching on Saturdays – and since then I have had time to mooch around Bath doing some Christmas shopping, watch the middlest child’s football match, clutching a thermos mug of coffee and wearing a bobble hat on a foggy Sunday afternoon, buy a Christmas Tree at vast expense (but Woodland Trust certified), decorate the house and buy a holly wreath handwoven by Joe, who has learning difficulties but has found his niche on a horticulture project. I’m so pleased to see that gardening still has the power to transform the lives of young people who don’t always fit into a rigid school system. If you want to make your own wreath then you can always visit Our Flower Patch (our educational project which seems like light years ago) where Sara will guide you through the process.

And so ends episode one of my own Christmas Chronicles, (name inspired by Nigel Slater’s new book). In addition to the above I’ve made Christmas pot pourri, written and posted most of the Christmas cards, had the annual conversation with my sister about whose turn it is for the Christmas wreath on our parents grave and reminisced about dad opening the Christmas chocolates early and the year Mum bought such a monster of a turkey that we had to saw off its legs to fit it in the oven, hunted down a mini-poinsettia, decorated the fireplace with some new red baubles, dug out the wrapping paper and ribbons and thought about the Christmas foodfest….. at a relaxing pace.

Today the whiff of just made red onion marmalade scents the kitchen and my typing is frequently interrupted by the son with a throat infection looking for hot drinks and ‘food I can eat’. Homemade soup, apple crumble and stem ginger cookies await.

Happy Christmas, term is over.

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Exhausted and with a cold starting…feels like the start of the school holidays. I’m looking forward to the time to plan and cook family meals, read books in front of the log fire and get out into the fresh air as much as possible with my favourite people. Shopping doesn’t feature too heavily and screen time hardly at all. I believe it’s called Hygge on social media. To me it’s common sense.

Here’s hoping you all enjoy those special moments.

Half Term

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To misquote the late, great George Michael ‘Last Christmas I gave you my recipe for scented firelighters’ and, frankly not a lot since then. This blog, along with the taming of my overgrown allotment and baking has been one of the casualties of my return (virtually full-time) to the classroom. And before you ask, no I don’t regret it but yes, I do wish that there were more hours in the day.

Any teacher will tell you that when the school holidays arrive they are virtually on their knees and their own children may well have forgotten what they look like. School holidays are essential times for getting to bed at a reasonable time, heading out for a large dose of fresh air, baking, giving the house a thorough clean, ticking a few things off the seasonal jobs list and sitting leisurely at the kitchen table drinking coffee and catching up with own children, your husband and your non-teaching friends. Oh – and preparing your lessons for next half term, obviously.

It has been a packed year so far  beginning with selling the parents’ house ten years after my mother’s death and bringing to an end  a decade of family holidays in Pembrokeshire. The main highlights are…….

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snatching an hour to explore local gardens

 

 

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finally making it to the Scilly Isles

 

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playing the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet’

 

 

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memories of a Cornish family holiday

I rediscovered my passion for teaching English literature and milestones have been reached by the children – eldest starting his A levels and driving lessons; middlest heading towards GCSEs this summer and about to start his amateur football league refereeing career; youngest now playing Rugby for Wiltshire and Dorset Under 15s girls along with lots of trips for all three to Holt to ring church bells, visit friends and play netball. Why did we ever leave that village?

Meanwhile the allotment was set aside for a year disappointing the badger.  A few cutting flowers, pumpkins, leeks, runner beans, soft fruit and rhubarb was all I had time for but, with the help of my mate Tim and his expertise at chainsaw gardening the council and golf course hedges have been ‘tamed’. I have a box of Peter Nyssen bulbs to plant over the next few weeks but have finally got the biennials I sowed in August in the ground. One batch of rhubarb and ginger chutney is stashed away in the pantry and the Christmas cake fruit is soaking up a liberal amount of rum. I might even finish another batch of chutney before heading back to school to enlighten teenagers about Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Dickens, Priestley and the use of the gerundive in Book IV of the Cambridge Latin course. And a stroll around Stourhead in the October sunshine is also on the To Do list.

If I manage to do more than fly by the seat of my pants there will be another installment before too long.

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Crunchy autumn leaves – perfect for kicking up your heels

 

Betwixt and Between

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20161227_143238I’ve been getting creative in the downtime between Christmas and New Year. A more organised woman would have done this before Christmas and given away a few scented bags full as homemade gifts but organisation has escaped me this year.

And so a basket full of scented firelighters graces our own hearth to create a delightful orange-scented blaze throughout the twelve days of  Christmas and beyond.

To make them couldn’t be simpler. Melt a tealight minus its foil casing in a paper cake case in the oven for a  few minutes. Then add a drop of orange essential oil to each case along with a slice of  dried orange, a pine cone and a cinnamon stick.  Leave the wax to cool and harden. Then pop them into a basket to sit alongside your hearth.

Oil of cloves or myrrh work equally well at this time of  year. For Sumner firepits try lavender or rose oil. Pack up in cellophane wrap and tie with a pretty ribbon and gift label if you want something homemade to give as a gift.

Simple, practical and creative. The perfect way to while away a Winter afternoon.

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