Summer 2019: Charity Shop Finds

Yesterday on St Swithun’s Day – a golden day – I drove across the Wiltshire downs to Marlborough for a mooch around the bookshops and charity shops.

A lovely shabby chic pot holder and pots caught my eye. I’m going to smarten it up at the same time as repainting the terrace table and chairs – an annual task as they’re outside in use all year round. They’ll hold herbs in the summer and candles in the winter, I think.

I also found a copy of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, ripe for making copious director’s notes in preparation for next summer’s show at the Tithe Barn in Bradford on Avon, which I’m directing. A gloriously atmospheric gothic tale of Cornish smugglers.

Teacher’s are never idle in the summer holidays

Positivity, problem-solving and permaculture.

If you want to change the world, it starts with your next thought.

Several years ago, when I was developing an outdoor education programme for primary schools, I signed up for a permaculture design course. I endured the inevitable jokes from family and friends about knitting my own sandals out of lentils but it didn’t take me (or them) long to realise that what had started as a way of making school growing spaces sustainable and productive, in fact, was going to change my approach to more than just gardening. Permaculture design has the power to reframe how we see the world. It is truly transformational. Holistic, solutions-focused, creative and with a firm belief in the power of making connections and working cooperatively, it has much to offer the classroom teacher, school manager and student.

As a teacher I try to employ permaculture principles in everything from classroom management to curriculum design. Nevertheless in the cut and thrust of daily life in the classroom with its focus on an increasingly heavy knowledge-based curriculum, assessment objectives and target grades, it’s sometimes difficult to get beyond a ‘design’ and ‘do’ approach to solving problems. The school holidays provide the time and space for the reflection, thinking, researching and redesigning necessary to do the best job possible in the classroom.

This afternoon, while my daughter spent a few hours running around a rugby pitch training for the next Dorset and Wilts game I read Looby Macnamara’s accessible book on creative thinking, permaculture-style. Much of the advice I already knew but a gentle reminder about what’s important is vital when you’re reflecting back over the last six weeks and deciding upon your approach to the second half of term, especially with GCSE and A level classes. It’s a good read.

I have highlighted below my top ten pieces of advice from Looby, which any teacher or student might find useful. They are in no particular order but all are part of my approach to teaching and learning.

  1. Celebrate what you have done, rather than focusing on what you have left to achieve. Glass half full, in other words. A positive attitude can keep you afloat even when your workload seeks to drown you.
  2. Talk and respond to each other in nurturing, kind ways. Kindness is monumentally underestimated. Try it. You’ll be surprised not only how good it makes you feel but how much more productive it makes you and those around you.
  3. Think in terms of ‘responsibility’ not ‘blame’ and ‘contribution’ not ‘gain’.  We live in a fractured society where who is to blame and what we can gain seems king. A classroom where everyone is encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and make a contribution, where blame is not the culture and competition is second to cooperation is a happy and productive place. A microcosm for society I hope.
  4. Identify the outcomes you hope for; then actively seek ways to bring them about. Every journey starts with a single step. It’s not rocket science. Working backwards from the end point allows students to plot a course through the most demanding times in their school careers  – public examinations. Often they will visualise a worst case scenario and how they got there so that behaviours can change before it is too late.
  5. Foster beneficial working relationships; build a sense of community; align yourself with like-minded people. Think beehive or ants and what they manage to achieve together. It’s powerful.
  6. Harness the natural ebbs and flows of energy of yourself and others. There are times in the day and times in the week when I feel more or less energetic. It’s a waste of time marking at midnight, for instance. Saturday morning lessons with my students are not the times to introduce new concepts. Experience has taught me to schedule work according to energy levels. There is no point fighting this. I work with it.
  7. Take time to be still and reflective. All the better if this also involves a walk in the fresh air. Creativity can only happen when you have time to do nothing. And I mean nothing. No phones or tablets. We would all be wise to heed this mantra.
  8. Live in the present but think for the future. Does what it says on the tin. Live every day as if it is your last, but bear in mind it probably won’t be and act accordingly.
  9. Seek ways of moving from your comfort zone into your stretch zone. Solutions come through movement. If water doesn’t move, it becomes stagnant. And so do we. Be prepared to take some risks. Students and certainly parents in general seem more risk-averse than they did when I started my teaching career in the 1990s. This is not a good thing.
  10. A diversity of interests, skills and opinions brings about the best solutions. This is true for individuals and groups. Harness the power of teams of individuals with different skills. Encourage students to use skills developed in other subject areas in your own classroom. My love of gardening and cooking has taught me much about being a good parent; directing large-scale theatrical productions has improved my ability to lead whole-school initiatives and deliver them on time and under-budget.

Judging by the amount of tweets from teachers over the weekend, I’m not the only one taking time to review my classroom practice and think creatively in the down time of Half Term. It’s what school holidays are for – along with cooking, sowing a few seeds, reading and spending time chilling with my own children.

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 IV – Hunkering down on Boxing Day

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.

On cake, gardening and getting your five a day

grow your own cake

I am an expert in secreting healthy vegetables into all kinds of foodstuffs for my children. I was the mother who whizzed up all sorts of goodies and called it pasta sauce, made the veggies they wouldn’t eat into soup and popped spinach into the berry smoothies. (Ssh. I still do the latter!) I have come clean about my penchant for cakes with vegetables on this blog before and now I am the proud owner of a whole book dedicated to the subject, which Sara and I were sent to review for members of our outdoor learning programme. What’s not to love about the heady combo of gardening, baking and eating cake? No visit to a garden is complete without cake. And no work in the garden can reasonable be expected from teenagers without stoking up with home-baked goodies.

Beautifully photographed by Jason Ingram, who is particularly skilled at gardening and cookery books, Holly Farrell’s book is for the cook, who wants to grow a few things to add to their baking repertoire or the gardener who would benefit from an idea or two to use up some of their produce. In fact, you could be a novice at both, for Holly includes plenty of hints and tips for the cook and gardener, making it perfect for my own young teenage children who are dabbling with growing and baking. There are general chapters on growing and baking as well as specialist hits and tips for growing specific ingredients.

The recipes and growing advice is divided into seasonal ‘chapters’ on cake, afternoon tea, pudding and savoury bakes with a ‘Grow’ section followed by a recipe. The first – Gooseberry and Elderflower Cake is just perfect for this time of year when I have both growing in abundance on my allotment. Most of the recipes are for sweet treats although there are a few savoury bakes and puddings for those with less of a sweet tooth. We love the poppy seed flowerpot bread and pesto potato scones.

Having followed Holly’s growing advice and baked her cakes, there’s no reason why you and your novice growers and bakers can’t be inspired to dig around for or even invent new recipes. Grow and bake yourself healthy. I can see several of the cakes becoming favourite allotment bakes to sustain us as we dig, prune, plant and weed.

Grow Your Own Cake by Holly Farrell with photography by Jason Ingram

ISBN 978-0-7112-3701-8

Copyright Frances Lincoln Limited 2016
More info, including where to buy from QuartoKnows.com

The art of ‘welldoing’.

 

do breathe

June is shaping up to be a very busy month for me. I have important writing deadlines to meet, a large outdoor theatrical event to manage, a new work project to get underway and three weeks’ classroom teaching covering  for a colleague that was totally unexpected. I am not one who subscribes to the glorification of busy. It’s overrated. Everyone needs time to chill, recharge the batteries, think through projects and directions and just be.  And yet, at this time of year especially it’s difficult to find down time. Teachers and students have reached that major stress point in the school calendar – exams. Time to take care of your wellbeing is so vital if focus and enthusiasm is to be maintained during stressful or busy times. I tell my students this all the time. Build relaxation time into your work schedule. Take regular breaks away from your revision books or pcs. Some follow the advice; others find it almost impossible. How opportune, then that a review copy of a pocket sized book by Michael Townsend Williams  should fall into my hands.

He’s a local man who exudes good health. Advertising executive turned yoga teacher and mindfulness coach, Michael is an advocate of ‘welldoing’, the art of leading a busy and productive life but not at the expense of one’s health.  Do Breathe his pocket sized reference explores some techniques to bring busy people focus, vision and organisation as they work through their to do lists. And it all starts with better breathing.

As one who is starting work on a new study skills and organisation programme with secondary school pupils, it has one or two tips I think I might use or adapt for with students. Organised into three steps – Prepare, Practise and Perform – Michael’s book leads you from the basics of confronting the stresses in your busy life , through the first tentative steps of setting up and sticking to new and better work habits to finally managing your time successfully and getting through an ever increasing list of demands, whilst keeping a healthy focus on your own wellbeing. There are hints, tips and exercises to try out and further reference material for those who want to delve a little deeper. Some of it is common sense, but scattered  throughout the book are a few gems you may not have thought of.

I think mastering the art of welldoing might stand me in good stead over the next few weeks.

Off the bookshelf: The New Kitchen Garden by Mark Diacono

The New Kitchen Garden
the latest inspiration from Mark Diacono

A few weeks ago I heard the sound of something solid and dependable landing on my daffodil doormat, as I pottered on the terrace, checking whether the twigs which pass for my lemon verbena at this time of year have survived the winter. It was a copy of Mark Diacono‘s latest, published by Saltyard Books. With unaccustomed patience I have waited until this Easter weekend to wallow in the aspirational and beautifully illustrated pages of commonsense gardening advice for those who fancy getting their hands dirty in the pursuit of a tasty morsel to excite the taste buds.

There was never any doubt that I would love this book. I have been a fan of the Otter Farm approach to gardening for quite some time. There are mulberries and carolina allspice on my allotment as a result of Mark’s suggestions and somewhere on his land there may be a patch or two of lime balm grown from seed I sent through the post by way of a thank you. It’s the kind of symbiotic relationship I create with my own pupils, recommending and lending books, reaping the rewards of seeing them flourish, experimenting with their own choices and form their own opinions.

I first came across Mark years ago when he was the head gardener at River Cottage. His vegetable garden was the backdrop to my evenings marking dozens of exercise books and making last minute adjustments to the following days’ lessons. The River Cottage experience on repeat play has eased me through the odd Ofsted inspection, GCSE coursework moderation and all-night report writing session. What teacher wouldn’t escape to River Cottage, given half a chance? In fact, I’d take all my classes there and teach them out of doors surrounded by borlotti beans and mint.

As time has gone on, I found an ally in Mark as he developed his own Devon smallholding. Always one to kick against my family’s postwar allotment approach to growing – hard double digging, oodles of fertiliser, the backbreaking work of planting up potato trenches on Good Friday, an assortment of mismatched clutter which ‘might come in handy one day’, regimented rows of cabbages and runner beans so abundant you had to leave them under cover of darkness on the doorsteps of unsuspecting neighbours –  here I found someone who positively encouraged experimentation, dabbled with companion planting, even mentioned moon planting, the benefits of growing herbs and making life easy for yourself by growing perennials. (I am sometimes a lazy gardener and often one lacking in time.)

The ethos of Otter Farm shines through this book and so it is the perfect reference book for anybody who fancies growing a little of what they love to eat, irrespective of their space, time or situation. The traditional kitchen garden – walled, south facing, beautiful, where fruit, vegetables and cutting flowers grow in abundance tended by an army of bewaistcoated gentlemen is beyond most of us but the spirit of such a garden is not. This book provides the inspiration, advice and the headspace to consider how anyone can create a patch which is both productive and beautiful, which will feed body and soul and will enhance what goes on in the kitchen, without it all taking over your life.

The substantial middle section of the book provides detailed reference material for growing anything worth growing – cut flowers excepted, but this is about taste after all. I suppose I could offer to write the companion book!) There’s the kind of no nonsense back to basics information about starting it all off and keeping it going. I particularly like the opportunity to have a nose around the existing gardens of other growers in the ‘Open Gardens’ section too. By the time you’ve finished the book you’ll be itching to get started, to work together with your neighbours, to grow a few herbs in pots, to pop a small fruit tree into a barrel, to edge your flower border with alpine strawberries or to plant a hanging basket with tumbling tomatoes. In fact, you’ll think anything is possible and you’ll still have time to go surfing, meet your friends for coffee or prepare for a visit from OFSTED.

And in case you think that I am writing this with the benefit of a weedfree allotment and a greenhouse stuffed with verdant seedlings, think again. I’ve been far too busy writing and teaching this year to have sowed a single seedling yet. Nevertheless, I have been able to cut a few daffodils and tulips for the house over Easter, harvest plenty of herbs, dig up some jerusalem artichokes and pick rhubarb and chard. My larder has a few pots of jam and chutney made from last year’s harvest and I have some pea shoots springing up on the windowsill planted in an old tin can bound with hessian and raffia whilst the kettle boiled. That’s a kitchen garden, after all. I’m sure Mark would approve.

Mark’s book is available to buy at a range of prices. Check his website for details.

Book review: A Year at Otter Farm by Mark Diacono

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I have to say that the arrival on the doormat last Saturday of Mark Diacono’s new book was greeted with more than a little excitement at Country Gate Towers. ‘A Year at Otter Farm’ charts the first few years of dreaming, planning, growing, rearing and eating on Mark’s Devon smallholding. I read it on a short break to rainy West Wales and loved the dreamy mix of anecdote, aspiration and good advice on growing and cooking.

You may know Mark from his time spent at River Cottage, where he wrote three of the River Cottage Handbooks. You may know him from his award winning recipe book or his blog or his climate change smallholding. You may not know him at all. Never fear, I am here to correct that wrong. Anyone who can show me an edible use for those stalwarts of granny’s gardens everywhere –  fuscias – deserves world-wide recognition. (Not included in the book, however.)

Mark’s approach to growing is based on producing tasty food. How refreshingly sensible! He has a whopping  17 acres to play with but even a few pots of unusual herbs and a mulberry bush will make a difference to what you can serve up to your family and friends. I know, because that’s what I started with on a windy North London balcony many years ago. This book will inspire you to experiment in the space you have available. It isn’t the work of a trained horticulturist or chef but that of an experienced,experimental and observational gardener and cook with a knack of communicating just the right balance of inspiration and realism to make you believe that your life will be made that little bit richer by planting salsify, foraging for wild garlic or keeping chickens.

Divided up month by month Mark documents activity on the farm, outlines which crops are at their peak and gives hints and tips for growing them successfully. At the end of each quarter a few delicious sounding recipes are included as a starting point for what you can rustle up in your own kitchen. There are one or two of his famous cocktails and plenty of original ways of using veggies. I may have fallen in love with Jerusalem artichokes again as a result of his Jerusalem Artichoke cake!

If you’re interested in a warts and all account of growing exciting and unusual food successfully despite changing weather patterns then this is the book for you. Engaging, humorous and rooted in reality (see ‘Dear Henry’on page 54)  it’s beautifully photographed too – mostly by Mark himself. Some people are sickeningly talented, aren’t they?

The only omission is the lack of a cut flower patch on Otter Farm to provide beautiful blooms for the table. But I can advise on that. Mark – cut flower patch – do it now. You’ll be able to eat many of the blooms too. Win. Win!

Published in hardback by Bloomsbury and available priced at £18 from here.

Tulips, books about compost and the start of Summer.

tulips

It’s May Day. How did that happen? I’ll tell you how. In between all those trips to the hospital with the member of the family with the smashed elbow and the frenzy of mothering, writing, teaching and allotmenteering which is my life, the blossom unfurled, tulips blossomed and slugs munched happily on new shoots. I admit to being a little out of kilter when it comes to seasonal preparations this year as a result. My seed sowing was late; the Simnel cake got its marzipan covering on Easter Monday five minutes before tea and a flurry of family birthdays were handled with military precision at the last minute rather than in my usual, relaxed way. And now it’s the start of Summer – at least if you’re a Celt.

Beltane, May Day, Calan Haf – whatever your take on this time of year, know that my ancestors and probably yours were bedecking themselves with flowers and ribbons, dancing round the Maypole and driving their cattle out to Summer pasture through the smoke of bonfires lit to bring health and fertility to their crops and livestock in the coming year. In this house we are celebrating with a working oven which should bring health to the cook in the household as the stress of living in an episode of Butterflies was all too much.

Talking of stress, I can’t recommend enough growing tulips as a crop in trenches as opposed to spending hours placing them in groups in your border, only to see them open, flop and look messy in the blink of an eye. It took me half an hour to plant loads on the allotment. They looked a picture and I have brought bucket loads home to place in vases round the house and to give to friends. We picked up a couple of bags for next to nothing at the Sarah Raven sale and popped them in a trench bed at school (as you see above) and have sold them to parents on our Friday afternoon flower stall. I’ll never plant a tulip any other way again.

My second stress buster has been turning the compost. I’m evangelical about compost as you know and was delighted to find out recently that another Wiltshire resident is equally committed to getting the compost message out to the next generation of gardeners. Ben Raskin is Head of Horticulture for the Soil Association. He’s written a great family friendly book about making great compost. Kids will love the format and parents will find the information useful. If it doesn’t have you getting out your hammer and knocking a bin up from old pallets, nothing will. Ben was kind enough to talk to me about the background to the book and his own experience of gardening as a child and as a father of two. You can read the interview in full here.

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