The Importance of Rituals


Ritual plays a big part in our home. October Half Term is THE time for making the Christmas cake. Recipes come and go but the ritual of buying ingredients, soaking the fruit and mixing the cake two months before Christmas remains the same. Mary Berry’s version (above) with the odd twist from me is this year’s cake of choice. (I used homemade cherry brandy and a slightly different combination of dried fruit.)

There was a time when I had three little helpers in the kitchen. This year I have one away preparing for a university cycling competition, one upstairs doing his A Level coursework and one relaxing with friends before the next spurt of GCSE mock revision. They’ve all ‘checked in’ that the Christmas cake is in hand.

Being a Celt and a mother it’s not surprising that food plays a big part in our family life and that I share kitchen rituals from my own mother and grandmother with my own children and, one day perhaps, they’ll share the same ones with their own children. Of course they’ll change some; they’ll adapt some; they may even abandon some but that connection and routine is important to our well-being and sense of identity. If you want to read more about the importance of ritual and routine try this as a starting point.


Creativity, Community and Crab Apple Jelly

Schools are frantically busy places in the Autumn. Much of the teaching takes place in the Michaelmas Term at my current school where we teach on Saturdays and finish at the end of June. Consequently there is little time to do much else between the end of August and half term in October. Frantic bursts of work followed by short periods of creativity and slow living work for me.

October Half Term is a golden time of Autumn walks, putting the garden to bed for the winter, planting bulbs, and finding sheltered places for the tender plants, preserving our harvest bounty, baking the Christmas cake and spending time with my own family beside a log fire with a steaming cup of something good in my hand. Spicy apple cake, squash and sage risotto and ginger Parkin will feature In the kitchen. I guess I have a deep-rooted urge to be creative away from the classroom.

This year I am the happy recipient of one of my teaching colleague’s crab apple largesse. There’s quite a creative kitchen community among the staff – I’ll be sharing round the quince after the holidays. After Wales narrow rugby victory yesterday I celebrated by boiling up the 1kg stash of beauties with 1200ml water, a couple of cinnamon sticks and a small handful of whole cloves until they were mushy; then left the whole lot to drip through a jelly bag overnight. This morning I added preserving sugar to the luscious ruby red liquid after I’d boiled it up, stirred to dissolve and then put it on a rolling boil for 9-10 minutes, until it reached setting point. Poured into small sterilised jars,  I have another beautiful item for the Christmas hampers.


To everything there is a season…

Apples courtesy of Habitat Aid.

I’m back to school at the end of this week after a summer when, as ever, I completed about half of the tasks on my list. Note the use of the word ‘completed’. The garden is in better shape than it was at the beginning of July, some decorating has been finished, books have been read and chutney made with produce as it comes into season. It’s a bumper year for. Apples. They’ve been falling from the trees for weeks. I spent a happy half hour in Grandad’s London garden sorting the good from the bad with the aid of a ‘sorter’ fashioned from an old brush handle and a plank of wood. (You can never retire from engineering!)

This year we have a phased back to school and work routine. Next week one of the bright young things returns to school, the middle one returns a few days later (after a week of work experience) and the eldest starts at University after that. Ample opportunity to indulge the family stationery fetish! I’m sure all teachers have one.

One of the great joys of life is the pleasure you can take from the changing seasons – not just the way nature, the garden, the weather, the light changes but all those rituals associated with different times of year. I have a sizeable bulb order arriving within the next few weeks. That will take up a few evenings after school in the new term. There is apple chutney to make, quince jelly to create, the chimney to be swept, logs to order, a Christmas cake to prep in October. The list goes on.

Whilst I’ll miss the not so lazy days of summer there are pleasures aplenty to come in every season. They give a shape and familiarity to the year which energises the body and quietens the soul. Modern society can leave us cocooned from seasonality. Centrally heated houses can feel the same all year round, you can put fresh strawberries on a pavlova in February and keep your Christmas lights up all year round. That’s not for me.

The joy of coffee and cake

I’ve written about taking afternoon tea before and it’s still ‘a thing’ in this house. Yesterday, between the showers we popped over for a stroll around the stones at Avebury and the Manor garden followed by high tea. (More march than stroll to allow for calorific cake consumption).The table was laid with mix and match china, 1930s tunes played quietly in the background, there was proper tea and coffee in pots and the cake was deliciously naughty . My cheese scone was beautifully moist and came with a dish of spicy homemade tomato chutney and there wasn’t a mobile phone in sight. (Every mother’s dream.) As a family we had a proper natter of the kind that is difficult when there are five busy people in a house with competing sporting, school and work commitments, making sitting down together more of a rarity than it used to be.

A glance around the tearoom revealed plenty of smiling faces engaged in relaxed conversations. I guess it’s what the Swedes create when they indulge in the art of fika- meeting up for coffee and cake, even if it’s for 15 minutes. School staff rooms up and down the country would do well to encourage some fika, even if it’s only once a week. If I was a Head I’d be baking on Thursday evenings in preparation for our Friday fika. In fact, it might not be a bad idea for the new term.

And at home with the eldest about to make his way in the world at University a spot of fika once a week is precious time well-spent.

Summer 2019 : 5 reasons why the seaside is the place to be

It’s August and in August the Country Gate gang head to the beach.

A visit to the seaside is a treat for us at any time of year and for well over a decade, as the children grew up, every school holiday the waggons to rolled to West Wales. We couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. Whilst friends flew to Spain, Majorca, Croatia, New Zealand, Japan and Greece we spent time doing essential home maintenance on our ‘ethical holiday home’ (family home inherited from my late parents and occupied all year round by an aged aunt).

There are worse places to go for a holiday than within a stone’s throw of Broad Haven South, Barafundle, Amroth, Newgale and White Sands Bay. We bathed, played cricket and frisbee, discovered bodyboarding, flew kites, read books and ate fish and chips whilst the sun went down. In the Winter we wandered in wellies or walking boots, thick jumpers and waterproofs. Whilst the wind tugged at out hair we sat on the rocks and drank hot coffee from flasks.

I worried that we weren’t giving the children a ‘proper holiday’ – whatever that means – but I needn’t have. We visited some fantastic places – many of which are documented in this blog – despite the bitter sweet feeling that the whole experience could have been better had my parents been alive to enjoy them with us. My great aunt died (at nearly 100) three years ago so we sold the house to a cousin, allowing the essential maintenance on our own house instead and in recent years we have visited Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, Guernsey and Devon. There’s a definite seaside theme here. “I could watch the sea for hours,” said my daughter this week, whilst gazing out to sea on the coastal path at Baggy Point near Croyde in Devon. My middle son tentatively asked if it was too far for a day trip to Broad Haven South later in the month. He’d like to go back.It’s in the blood. They speak fondly of those holidays just as I look back on all the evening jaunts to the beach after dad came home from work when I was their age.

For those suffering from stress or anxiety the seaside has so many benefits. If it isn’t available on prescription, it ought to be. Here are my five reasons why.

  1. Sun 30 minutes a day spent outside in natural light can significantly affect our wellbeing. The higher the level of Vitamin D in the body, the lower the blood glucose level, suggesting that sun avoidance may be linked to the onset of Type 2 diabetes. A deficiency of vitamin D leads to muscle pain, weak bones, fatigue, lowered immunity, depression, mood swings and sleep irregularities. Wear sunscreen but get out in the sun when you can and the beach is the perfect place to do it.
  2. Sea Sea water has antiseptic properties and may improve skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. (I can vouch for the latter.)The salt and potassium chloride content ”seals” the damaged skin and speeds healing. Obviously you need to wash the salt off and moisturise well after a few hours on the beach but it really makes a difference. Psoriasis reared its ugly head first for me  when I hit puberty and my self-confidence plummeted. I was persuaded to go sea bathing by my parents after the tourists had abandoned the beach in favour of their evening meal  and my condition improved so much.Sea water also has strong antihistamine effects and is a good decongestant. It may even help to reduce snoring – always a bonus.
  3.  Sand Sand acts as a natural exfoliant, helping old skin to shed more quickly and improving its natural regeneration. Walking, running or exercising on sand is also recommended as the extra resistance it imposes on muscles can maximise the effects of any fitness regime.
  4. Smell  The distinctive smell of the seaside is caused by dimethyl sulphide gas and breathing it in deeply will help you to sleep better.This is because sea air is full of negative hydrogen ions, charged particles abundant in sea spray and concentrated in fresh air, which improve our ability to absorb oxygen by neutralising damaging free radicals (positive ions). These negative ions can also balance levels of seratonin, the feel-good hormone, making us less prone to anxiety. Patients with respiratory problems and pulmonary disorders report improvements in their  condition after spending time at the seaside too.
  5. Seaweed I’m Welsh band you may be shocked to hear that I can’t bring myself to worship at the altar of  larver bread. If you can bring yourself to partake, seaweed has high levels of zinc, chromium, manganese, selenium and particularly iodine, all essential for good health. I can embrace a seaweed bath or face mask however to draw toxins out of the body and leave you feeling centred and energised.

So there you have it – a beach is the place for tired teachers to go on their summer hols – or any hols.


Summer 2019: A wander round the plot

I have to admit to being so exhausted at the end of term that once the GCSE examiner work was done and show week was over that I have done very little – except in the garden. Looking at my Twitter feed of teachers, the end of term zombie state is definitely ‘ a thing’. I have plenty to say about teaching in 2019 – where teachers give up their Saturdays willingly for collaborative training, where new mothers are embracing maternity CPD projects, where parents expect instant responses to emails about their children…..but this is for another time and another forum.

The garden remains my grounding place. I used to love it most in Autumn but now Spring is my favourite time – so lush, so burgeoning, so full of expectation. Summer is good too. It remains a work in progress – I don’t know a gardener who is content that all work is finished – EVER. There are beans, beetroot and strawberries to harvest, flowers to deadhead, weeding to be done, pruning to be done when plants have gone over and remodelling to be planned.

I’ve pictured the best of what’s on offer today.

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

Singing the Blues, pancakes and streaks of sunshine

We’re almost at the end of January and, unsurprisingly I haven’t managed to get outside for a walk every day since the start of term. In fact, I haven’t had a day free of schoolwork either and I am losing my battle with psoriasis – always a ‘thing’ in January with its lack of sunlight. Somehow a quick turn around the garden and sorting my seeds ready for sowing is a poor substitute for getting some dirt under my fingernails and the elements on my face.

At times like these you have to seize what crumbs of hygge you can.

Our teenagers are slow to rise on Sundays when there are no morning sports fixtures. Some want breakfast; others don’t. The whole day can have a disparate feel which throws me out of kilter. So yesterday, with the ironing finished and a glut of milk in the fridge I made pancakes. Everyone appeared around the table – even the son who didn’t want to eat – and we spent half an hour having a chat over coffee and lemony pancakes. I don’t want anything fancy in January.

And the sun popped out from behind the clouds for a short while and bathed the table in dappled sunshine.

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