A chilly tale (or is that tail?)

Open fire in a brick fireplace

When we first arrived in our new home, we had the chimneys swept professionally, which was fascinating to watch. A sweep turns a dirty job into an art form, understanding what is happening in the darkness beyond the fireplace purely by sound and feel. They also show great skill in containing the soot, leaving the room as clean as before he or she starts the job.

Once the sweep had done the initial clean, however, D decided that he would like to keep on top of it himself. Following the example set by his father when he was growing up, he armed himself with a set of drain rods and a brush head and had a go. An old sheet was sacrificed to the cause, with a hole cut into it to allow the brush to go through and, on the whole, he has done a good job ever since. He tapes the sheet to the brick fireplace and then off he goes, adding rods as he pushes the brush further and further up the chimney. Sometimes the tape holds and sometimes it doesn’t, so I usually act as a backup, holding the sheet in place to prevent the soot billowing forth into the room.

Recently, our very old boiler decided that, at the ripe old age of 30, it had had enough. It valiantly carried on as long as it could, leaking water over the garage floor as it worked, but it became obvious that the time had come to say goodbye. The heating engineer who had ostensibly come to service it broke the bad news to us and ceremoniously switched off the faithful machine, leaving us with no central heating and limited hot water from the equally geriatric cylinder in the airing cupboard. “I don’t know how you haven’t been ten feet underwater long ago”, he told me sombrely. “The cylinder is nearly as corroded as the boiler – they both have to go.” Reeling from the news – not to mention the potential cost of replacing the system – we faced a cold and bleak couple of weeks until the engineers could return with a new combi boiler which would replace both boiler and cylinder.

The cats were less than impressed. The first week wasn’t too bad – we lit a fire each evening, which they quite enjoyed and, if they felt a chill in the air during the day, they could always come and snuggle down on my knee while I worked, sharing our body heat to keep us all warm. However, week 2 was our week in Aberdeen so no fires, no humans to snuggle. We did our best for them, creating tunnels under the duvet in the bedroom, igloos out of their blankets on the sofas and opening cupboard and wardrobe doors to give them somewhere safe from draughts. According to our cat-sitter, they ate voraciously through the week in an attempt to lay in more fat stores and were otherwise very subdued.

Grey and white cat sitting on a white lace mat
“I’m cold!”

We returned late Friday night, both suffering from colds and tired as usual from our long drive, to a cold, cold house and two cats who wanted us to know – in detail – just how traumatic their week had been. We all huddled together under the covers that night and, the next morning, we planned to light both open fires to try and warm the house through a little.

As the living room chimney hadn’t been swept for a while, D decided the next morning that he should give it a clean, especially if we were going to have fires lit all day. With his usual thoughtfulness, he gathered his tools and got started while I was still in bed, as I was still feeling ill. The first I knew of it, apart from the odd scuffling noise, was a heartfelt “Bugger!” carrying up the stairs. Dragging myself out of bed, I went to see what the problem was.

As D had worked, the tape holding the sheet at both sides had failed him, resulting in soot belching out in both directions out into the room. The fireplace, walls, floor and furniture were covered in black dust. When I lifted a leaflet that had been left on a chair, its shape was perfectly delineated, a clean rectangle surrounded by black. It also showed us how many cobwebs were on the walls, previously unseen and now leaving black tracks down the plaster-coloured walls. Fortunately, he had shut the door against the cats before he started, worried that they would try to “help” and be intent on climbing the chimney themselves. If he hadn’t, I am sure we would have had two black cats to go with the rest of the room and a series of black paw prints throughout the house as well. They did come to investigate as we cleaned up, although chiefly to demand why the fire wasn’t lit yet.

Two weeks later, we are still finding areas we missed during the clean-up. I suspect we will be finding soot for some time to come. And what of our heating, you ask? Are the cats cosy once more? That, as they say, is another story …

Grey and white cat asleep on a cream rug in front of an open fire
Warm at last!

 

How I became a blogger

Laptop with blogging mug of tea

I never set out to write a gardening blog. In fact, I didn’t think that was what I was doing. And yet, recently, I was telling a friend an idea I had had for a new post. “But that’s not gardening,” she said in surprise. I had to think about that for a bit. Is that what I do? I thought I blogged about life, about the cats, about curtains even and about the – oh, yes – about the garden.

When I first started thinking about a blog, I was still living in Scotland and grappling with the practicalities of moving four lives 350 miles south to Yorkshire. We just couldn’t work out what order to do things in. Do you find jobs first and then buy a house? Is there time to house hunt from a distance if you have a new job to go to?  Renting wasn’t really an option with the cats and we were too far away to look properly anyway. Maybe you move first and then find work. But then how do you get a mortgage with no job to go to? And, most important, what sort of cat carrier is suitable for moving cats such a distance? Hmm, it was all very confusing.

Princess with carrier
“I’m not getting in that!”
Grey and white cat in a round fabric cat carrier
“I’ll try it!”

So I did what any normal 21st century woman who worked in IT would do. I turned to the Internet for my answers. Whole evenings disappeared in a blur of Rightmove, job sites and relocation company sites (not to mention sellers of luxury cat carriers), all offering to find homes and organise removals at undoubtedly extortionate rates. But nowhere did I find a friendly “this is what we did” account of relocating. I sought advice from Jenny, a friend who had also relocated from Aberdeen, moving much further than us down to Devon. (She never did do things by halves). “Oh don’t follow our example,” she cheerfully told me. “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing.” Her husband did have a job to go to, as I recall, but I’m not overly sure they had actually seen their first home in the flesh before they moved in.

“What I need,” I thought, “is a blog. Someone who has written a diary about the process, reassuring, helpful and informative.” And so I set to work to find one. Let me tell you, good people, I couldn’t find a single one. Not one. Surely someone must have done it? There’s a blog about everything, isn’t there? Apparently not. I grew quite excited. Maybe this was a gap in the market? Maybe I should write one myself. Silencing the little voice in my head that kept saying I hadn’t written anything creative since school, and ignoring the boxes staring accusingly at me from the living room floor begging to be packed, I set up a Google Blogger site and put together my first post.

It wasn’t very good. But it was a start and with much trepidation, I pressed “Publish”. That was it – I was officially out there as the world’s first relocation blogger. Two minutes later, I checked the site and discovered I had had 19 hits, mostly in America. It was all too much, I panicked and seconds later, I had closed the entire site down. I had written the post – I wasn’t expecting anyone to actually read it!

I shelved the idea for a while, getting on with the reality of the move, but it bubbled away in the back of my brain. I learned very quickly one reason why there are no relocation blogs – who has time to write one when every waking minute is spent working, packing, selling houses, packing, buying houses. Did I mention packing? (If anyone is interested, my friend had it absolutely right. The only way to relocate is to make it up as you go along, with a healthy dose of faith along the way. As regular readers may know, in the end we bought the house first and moved with no jobs to go to, which is why, 15 months later, we both work for the same Scottish organisations we did before we left.)

 

Grey and white cat in a brown cardboard box
“Can I help pack?”

 

Several months later, we were the proud, if slightly nervous owners of a Yorkshire home. As we settled in, my short-lived life as a blogger kept coming back to me and wouldn’t quite go away. Bad as it had been, it had unleashed something that I never knew was there. At the grand old age of 44, could it be that I had discovered I was a writer? Eventually, I knew I had to give into it. I had to try again.

Funnily enough, it was Jenny again who inspired me to take that first step. As a writer herself (a “real” one too – see my earlier post about our Devon holiday for more information about Jenny), she knew just how scary it is to put yourself out there but, ultimately, how rewarding it could be. And this was when I discovered the second reason nobody writes relocation blogs. By the time you have chance to process everything you have gone through, you have moved on – quite literally. And so my New Simple Life blog was born, because it’s where you are now that matters, not where you have been.

And yes, I know. It’s a gardening blog really – most of the time.

Carrots, small onions and potatoes in close up, all covered in dirt, newly harvested
A recent harvest

 

 

 

Coming home

As I start to re-establish the old routines after my recent time out, we have returned from yet another work trip north. We make the journey to Aberdeen each month, sometimes together, sometimes apart and those 350 miles feel a long way from home. For me, our Aberdeen weeks feel a huge compromise in the Yorkshire life we have chosen, although it is always good to catch up with friends and colleagues. D, as ever, takes a more pragmatic view and I know really that he is right – it is our jobs with Aberdeen organisations that enable us to have this life at all. If I did not make that journey each month, I would not have the benefit of working from home the rest of the time and D would undoubtedly have to commute further than his current 20 minute drive. My head knows this, but my heart is sad at having to travel away from our cats, our garden and the home that has come to mean so much to both of us.

At least if we go together, the journey up feels more like an adventure. We chat in the car, sing along to old and much-loved tunes and I work on my latest crochet project until I need to take my turn at the wheel. The journey home is more tiring and less like a party – we travel on a Friday after a full day at work, reaching home late into the night and sometime even the early hours of Saturday. We wonder as we reach the village what has changed over the week – is the house OK, have our plants flourished, will the cats have gained or lost weight?

The garden usually survives without us. We really need to devise an irrigation system for the summer months – something I am sure D will turn his mind to in time for next year. The cats, too, manage seemingly quite happy to stay indoors and submit to the care of our lovely pet sitter. She lives in the village and strolls round twice a day to feed them and talk to them. She says they are always very chilled while we are away, not asking to go out, chatting to her about their day (although I have my doubts about this – I think the “chat” is more likely to mean “where have you been, we are starving!”) However, there is no doubt that, when we return, they are glad to see us. As we push open the door, bringing in only the basics from the car, we usually see two grey and white ghostly figures appearing to greet us in the darkness. Bleary-eyed, as they had already settled for the night, one on the landing at the top of the stairs, the other often from the living room. Once they have fully woken and they have said hello, they have two things on their minds. Firstly, they need to assure us in no uncertain terms that the pet sitter hasn’t fed them all week so could they have a snack now please, and then they want to go outside. We oblige them with the snack, in the vain hope that they may allow us to sleep in the next morning, but they have to wait to go out.

 

Grey and white cat lying on purple bedding
“You woke me up … “

 

Eventually, we get to bed and they come with us for a much-needed cuddle. We never sleep well on our first night back. The Princess abandons her regal demeanour in her enthusiasm to welcome us home, settling either on my chest or on my pillow, purring loudly and head-butting my nose every so often. “I’ve really, really missed you and I love you very much”, she tells me fervently – hourly through the night. When the weather turns a little colder, she demands to get under the covers between us so that she can reassure herself throughout the night that we are still there.

The Calamity Cat snuggles in next to me, firmly sitting on my arm so that she can groom me and then, as she sleep, she wriggles ever closer, slowly pushing me further across the bed so that she can have more space. Eventually, though, she will disappear and we are sometimes woken by her soulful cry at the bottom of the stairs as she calls for us, unsure of where we are and fearful that we have left her once more. We go downstairs, pick her up and bring her to bed with us, just for the cycle to start again. She may do this for several nights when we first come back until she is reassured that we aren’t disappearing again – at least until the next time.

The weekend is always a process of readjustment for us all – a chance for the four of us to explore the garden and check on its progress in our absence (the cats are always keen to make sure it hasn’t been taken over while they have been inside). Indoors, I feel the need to potter, re-establishing my connection to the house and making it ours again, so that we can fall back into our usual routines until the next time we need to go away. And, while I know leaving next month will be a wrench all over again, I am grateful for the opportunity to appreciate our home and surroundings afresh when we return.

How many potatoes can 2 people eat, anyway?

A couple of weeks ago, I promised a veggie tale, following on from the success of our fruit this year. What a productive summer it has been and what a bountiful autumn is promised! While the fruit keeps on coming (our freezer is full of apples, plums and rhubarb to see us through the winter, plus we get the occasional strawberry treat), the veg haven’t disappointed us either.

We started our potato harvest pretty early, with first and second earlies sprouting in the greenhouse from late spring. This was closely followed by more earlies in one of the beds and then the main crop Maris Pipers and Desires, which have been prolific and are now safely stored in hessian sacks in the cool of the pantry to keep us in potatoes for several months to come. Some of the Desires were particularly fun, we thought – like little characters all of their own!

Red Desire potatoes in a basket
The one on the right looks like it’s about to get up and walk …

Not for us the usual 4 bed crop rotation advocated for very sensible reasons by experienced gardeners such as Kettle Acres. One potato bed just wasn’t enough. The one we used for the earlies is now stocked with sprouts and cauliflowers which are bravely resisting the onslaught of the dreaded cabbage white butterflies and, having dug up the last of the main crop last week, D has been busy filling the space with leeks, onions and a couple more caulis which – hooray! are starting to show little white heads peeping through the green.

So you might be forgiven for thinking that we would be proud of our success with the humble tatty and calling it a day for this year. However, you would be wrong. Way back in the early summer, our thoughts turned to our Christmas table. We had tried to buy late crop seed potatoes last year and been unable to find any in our usual garden centre. However, this year we had more success and we may have gone a little mad, planting 5 bags in the greenhouse. Not as mad as they have though! We did plant them a little earlier than we had planned, as they had started to chit all by themselves and, in early September, they are starting to flower already. The chances of them getting to anywhere near Christmas are slim unless we store them very carefully.

5 green sacks containing growing potato plants
Our Christmas potatoes, out of the greenhouse for now. Maybe that will slow them down a bit?

It’s not all about potatoes! Last year, in our first attempt to grow carrots, they averaged about 2 inches in length and were mostly as fat as they were short. Some were almost square. The hard work digging the new beds this year appears to have been successful, and some of our carrots have been a little more traditional in length and shape. Not all though – one looked suspiciously like a demented octopus and we were breaking off tentacles for dinner all week.

The garlic has been disappointing in one way – it looks very limp, not very well-grown and definitely in the green. When we pulled one up, to see if it had grown at all, there was a single spring onion-sized clove, rather than a bulb, hiding under the soil. Once I cooked it, though, I stopped being disappointed very quickly. I have never tasted such sweet, delicious garlic. I used it in a tomato pasta sauce, made with entirely home-grown ingredients, and, once peeled, it mashed effortlessly into a paste to flavour the sauce. Our onions have been very similar – much smaller than those you buy, but sweet and mild, perfect for eating raw in a salad or on a sandwich.

And there is so much yet to come. The corn on the cob, which we bought on a whim and which has been a revelation to us. Who knew that it would sprout ears just like any other corn, but that the cob actually grows much further down the stalk after forming a hairy wig worthy of Donald Trump himself? The parsnips, also grown with Christmas in mind. We have discovered you need patience for parsnips, sown in April and to be pulled once the weather turns colder. Not as much patience as you need for asparagus though. For its first year, it has grown well and, following everything we have read, we have resisted the urge to harvest a single spear, allowing them to flower and then die back. Apparently, we can eat a couple of spears next year and then a few more the year after – they are definitely a commitment.

Corn on the cob forming on the plant
Sweetcorn wigs

We have leeks in the beds, peppers in the greenhouse and tomatoes pretty much everywhere. D’s succession planting has kept the beds full and things moving and we are proud of what we have achieved in this, the second year of our New Simple Life.

 

Garden visitors

Peacock butterfly on flowering mint

At the weekend, I experienced one of those perfect moments, a timely reminder of how lucky we are to enjoy our new simple life. It was early morning, still very quiet and the sun was shining. I sat outside, eating toast with home-made plum jam, sipping on fresh coffee and sharing the patio table with the Calamity Cat, who was stretched out sunbathing. It was a moment to breathe, to feel fully in the moment, and I was making the most of it. Slowly, I became aware of a background noise – not the usual distant rumble of the A59, but a constant buzzing around ground level. The herb garden is next to the patio, so that we can collect the herbs easily and so that we can enjoy the scents that surround us as we brush past it – mint, lemon, rosemary and even the occasional whiff of Indian food from the curry plant. I have said before that the herb garden is a cut-throat world and it is again getting out of hand. The mints, always the chief culprits in their bid to take over the whole patch, are in flower and, along with the oregano, are trailing over the edge of the path. I have been planning to cut it all back to regain control but, as I realised on that beautiful Saturday morning, the pruning will have to wait. The bees, the butterflies and a variety of other pollinating insects are all absolutely loving it. And I love to hear the buzz as these creatures go about their business. There were literally dozens of them that morning and, every time I go out to gather some herbs for dinner, I disturb a cloud of flying visitors. Along with our revitalised buddleia and the petunias in our pallet planter, we are definitely doing our bit for pollinators. Even more exciting, we have several holes in our bug house up in the orchard plugged with leaves, which is usually a sign of solitary bees nesting within.

Bee on a mint flower
Just one of the many bees to be found on our chocolate mint
Wooden bug house with 4 holes plugged with leaves
Hopefully this is more bees nesting in the bug house on the plum tree

We have a range of other visitors. We rescue the odd frog from the garage (goodness knows how they end up in there but I have a feeling they too hang out in the shelter of the nearby herb garden, probably snacking on my insects) and one has happily taken up residence in our veg patch, helping to control the slugs and other creatures all too happy to dine on our hard work. I’m not sure who is the more shocked when we disturb it when we are watering – it leaps out of the potato plants and watches us from the edge of the raised bed until we have finished. The slugs and snails are far less in evidence than they were last year – hopefully the nematodes we apply every six weeks, along with the frogs, are keeping them at bay. I did find a snail in the petunias the other day, half way up the house wall – it was clearly going for a snail mountaineering award. It reminded me of my first holiday abroad as a child, when one of my sisters plucked snails from a wall and then frantically tried to stick them back on again because she thought she would get into trouble for playing with them. In this instance, I relocated the adventurer to the hedge, where it could do less damage.

Frog sitting on a potato leaf
Our new friend in the potato patch

The sparrows, fledged in the hedges this year in spite of the cats’ best efforts to reduce their numbers, are all grown up now and moving on, as are the starlings who nested in our eaves. The pigeons are as prevalent as ever, either roosting in the apple tree or feeding on our newly-planted onions (D has our veg on a very efficient conveyor belt and, as fast as we eat one planting, more are starting life in the greenhouse or being planted out to keep up us going later in the year). We often see the swallows swirling around in the sky above as we spend our evenings with a glass of wine in front of the chiminea and there was even an evening where I was buzzed by a bat as I went looking for the Calamity Cat.

The cats are spending long hours outside as if they know that very soon, the evenings will be drawing in, the weather will grow colder and they will be coming in earlier, so they need to take advantage now while they can. Calamity, usually the more home-loving of the two, is particularly reluctant to come in and sits under the hedge, just out of reach, steadfastly ignoring our pleas. She will sit there for most of the evening, lulling us into a false sense of security and then vanishing just as the time is growing late and we want her to return home. She is usually tempted out from wherever she is hiding – never far – by Dreamies, but she is becoming very skilled at taking them and the retreating at speed before we can catch her. The Princess is oddly far happier to come home, usually asking to come in around 7pm for a snack, before she quietly puts herself to bed upstairs.

It was with mixed feelings yesterday that we saw our first robin of the season, heralding the autumn and winter to come. It won’t be long before we will be lighting the fire again and snuggling down in front of it as we feel the summer slowly drawing to a close.

 

A fruitful harvest

2 bowls of Victoria plums and a basket of apples

August has brought us a bounty like we could not have imagined. All our hard work in the garden earlier in the year is now starting to pay off and the kitchen is full of the fruits of our labour – quite literally.

It felt for a while like the tomatoes were never going to ripen. We faithfully checked them daily, convinced that the wet summer was to blame for the fact that they stayed resolutely green. Even my sister, on a visit one day, went up to have a look at them. The Calamity Cat went with her and they had quite a chat about it, apparently. Calamity assured her that tomatoes were overrated anyway – she wasn’t keen, apart from when they were used to make a sauce for beef pouches of Felix.

Then, suddenly, we started to spot patches of red on the plants. We now have a wide variety of shapes and sizes – big ridged beef ones, round salad ones, oval plum tomatoes and small, extra sweet cherry tomatoes that I love to eat straight from the vine like the fruit they are. I have plans to make my own passata at some point – I’m just waiting for some new jars to arrive from Amazon.

2 clear plastic containers holding large and small tomatoes and several strawberries
A range of our tomatoes – and a few strawberries too

I have used all the jars we had in the pantry already, making jam. The fruit trees in the orchard have gone crazy this year. Although it is still relatively early, both the cooking and eating apple trees are covered in apples and we are picking up and using windfalls daily. Last year, I tried storing the cookers, wrapping them in paper and storing them in the summer house. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a success. All the apples either went mouldy or turned into dried up husks. This may have been because I totally forgot about them and didn’t try to use them until a few weeks ago or it may be because I just didn’t store them in the right place, who knows. What I did know was that, this year, I needed a different strategy.

I duly Googled “freezing apples”. Last year, I cooked and froze a lot of apple sauce and, while that was useful, there is only so much apple sauce you can eat, even in our favourite apple crumble. So, this year, I resolved to freeze the apples raw to maximise their use. It took us quite a while to peel, core and slice them, before dunking them in lemon juice and laying them out on baking trays to pop them into the freezer. The results were pretty good and I am hoping they will keep us well fed throughout the winter. The only problem is that, a week later, we have just as many sitting in the basket, waiting patiently for us to do something useful with them.

Sliced apples in rows on greaseproof paper
Ready for the freezer

So, my next plan was jam. Last year, I was disappointed that we had no plums on the tree, as I love them. It has certainly made up for it this year, though. We picked around 2kg, made the essential plum and apple crumble with a few and then I got adventurous with the rest.

I have made plum jam before, many years ago now, with plums given to me by a friend and it was fairly successful. I decided this time to make plum and apple (I didn’t want the apples feeling left out, after all). The recipe said to boil the fruit and sugar vigorously for twenty minutes. After an hour, where the jam stubbornly refused to set, I was tearing out my (by then very sticky) hair. The whole kitchen was sticky, for that matter, not just me and my hair. In the middle of it all, Calamity decided it might be fun to bring a live mouse into the house, and we had to spend some time trapping it in a bucket and returning it to the relative safety of the hedge at the back of the garden. It was a cute little thing, looking more curious about its adventure than anything, but it did distract me for a while.

Calamity clearly knew the best way to encourage jam to set – to walk away from it. On my return to the kitchen, I discovered that it was definitely looking better. More in hope and optimism than confidence, I switched it off and we started to spoon it into jars that we had sterilised in a very hot dishwasher.

Plums and apples cooking in a large pan
Is it ever going to set?

Several burned fingers later and with the kitchen even stickier than before, we had jam! We were a bit nervous when we opened a jar at breakfast the next day, I admit, but it was very tasty. Perhaps a little runnier than shop-bought, and definitely not as sweet but all the better for it. And it had used up all our plums – hadn’t it? Hmm, a week later and we had to go back up the ladder to pick more. I think we have even more this time so all plum recipes gratefully received!

5 jars of home made jam, with green and white labels
Hooray! We have jam!!

Along with the fruit trees, the rhubarb keeps on giving and we are rescuing at least a few strawberries from predators (in spite of the netting, they are still being eaten by something), so we have enough fruit to keep us going for a while. The only disappointments have been the blueberry which is a stunningly beautiful bush but any fruit has been swiftly found by the birds, and my much-loved and wanted gooseberry bush. Not only have we had no gooseberries, the entire bush looks like it is being systematically eaten by some sort of insects. I suspect we may need to replace and re-site it at some point.

And then there is the veg. But that’s a different story …

 

The Liebster Award

Liebster award in pink

Last week, I mentioned that the extremely well-named Lovely and Grateful (with the emphasis on the lovely!) had nominated me for a Liebster Award. Liebe is the German word for love, and this award is an opportunity for bloggers such as myself to share thelove and spread the word about other bloggers that we follow, in the hope that you lovely readers will enjoy them as much as we do. The result is that, as bloggers, we get more readers and, as readers, you discover new blogs to follow.

As a nominee my mission, should I choose to accept it, is to answer a few questions about myself then pass on the challenge by nominating other bloggers. So, here goes with my answers to Lovely and Grateful’s questions:

What advice would you give to other bloggers?

My advice to new and aspiring bloggers is to echo what I was told when I was agonising over whether to start my own blog – just do it! Don’t worry too much about your writing or what you have to say, all that will come with time as you discover your own voice. The best way to learn is to be brave and put yourself out there. And don’t be afraid to make contact with other bloggers along the way. I can honestly say I have only ever “met” really positive, inspiring, friendly people and some of them I feel a connection with that I truly believe would make us friends in the real world too. I hope you know who you are!

 

Other than blogging, what are your hobbies?

As a librarian, I have always read a lot and I also love to sew (which has inspired my ongoing career change into a soft furnishings maker). I have recently learned to crochet too and it is my new obsession. I am told my wool stash will only get bigger as time goes by, so I am always on the lookout for new storage solutions. And I am very excited about my first trip to Yarndale next month – I’m sure you will hear all about it after I get back.

 

Do you have any pets?

As regular readers of the blog will know, we have two grey and white rescue cats, known as the Calamity Cat and the Princess, who are the real stars of my blog, as they supervise our attempts to manage a (for us) fairly large garden in beautiful North Yorkshire. If you are new to New Simple Life, then welcome – I hope you will explore and get to know our little family 🙂

 

Tea or coffee?

Both. I take my coffee black and strong and my tea (it has to be Earl Grey) also black but very, very weak.

 

What’s your favourite book and why?

Ooh now that is a hard question to ask a librarian! Probably Pride and Prejudice, thanks to a fabulous English teacher at school who gave me a lifelong love of Jane Austen. Although I also love Wuthering Heights (I have a poster on my living room wall which contains the whole text). And I’m a sucker for modern romances where the woman sets up her own small business somewhere beautiful, where there just happens to be a tall dark grumpy hero waiting to sweep her off her feet. Anything by Trisha Ashley for example.

 

Where in the world would you most like to visit?

I have wanted to go to Pompeii ever since I was 11 and started Latin at school. One day I will get there …

 

What’s your favourite quote or personal mantra?

At the moment, as I try to live life more mindfully, my mantra is to accept what is, look for the positives and to remember to breathe. However, I have always loved a quote that a friend sent to me when I upped and moved to Aberdeen all alone a few years ago – “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone”. It certainly did for me. the move brought me D, the cats and a whole new life.

 

Have you ever won any awards or trophies offline?

A Modern Languages prize at school (I bought an Italian dictionary with the voucher) and last year, I took 3rd prize in our Village Show in the Needlecraft section.

 

What’s your favourite weather?

A sunny spring day, warm but not too hot, with a nice breeze.

 

Are you an early bird or a night owl?

Neither really. I hate getting up in the morning but, if I manage it, I do my best work then. I’m definitely not a night owl – I am usually ready for bed just after 10.

 

 

Liebster Blog Award in pink on black background

So, now on to my own nominations. For information for those nominated, the rules are:

  • Thank the person who nominated you and link to their blog
  • Answer the questions your nominator asked you
  • Nominate 5-11 other blogs (and don’t forget to let them know)
  • Ask your nominations up to 11 questions or facts about themselves.

I would like to nominate:

  • Kettle Acres for the wry sense of humour and all the gardening advice
  • Nina the Writer, who has supported me all the way and who really knows her stuff
  • HomeduJour, who works incredibly hard to create a stylish and beautiful home
  • Madbirdtextiles, who took the time to respond when I asked for advice and who is a talented artist as well as a blogger
  • Herbalblessingsblog for more gardening advice, this time from the USA
  • Exploring Yorkshire, who blogs great suggestions for places to go to explore my adoptive county of North Yorkshire

There is absolutely no obligation to accept and I really hope that everyone who reads this will check out their blogs anyway, follow them and enjoy them as much as I do. However, for those who would like to take part, here are my questions:

  1. What led you into blogging?
  2. Which is best, the book or the film?
  3. How would you spend a perfect weekend?
  4. Tell us one thing about yourself that not many people know
  5. If you had to sum yourself up in 3 words, what would they be?
  6. Pint, cocktail or Pimms?
  7. If you have a pet, what is the thing you love about them most?
  8. What is the most challenging thing about blogging?
  9. And the most rewarding?

Thanks again to Lovely and Grateful for the nomination – I am truly touched that you enjoy my blog enough to think of me for this award.

Next week, I promise we will be back to seeing what the garden has been doing this summer. It’s been a while …

 

Being mindful

Mug with redcurrants design containing Earl Grey tea with no milk

As part of the process of weeding out my stress and anxiety, I have started a mindfulness programme. It is teaching me to live in the moment more, to fully experience whatever I am doing, rather than living on autopilot, which leaves the mind liable to stray into areas I am not yet ready to deal with. The cats are a little bemused – they have been trying to tell me for months that what matters is the here and now, and they don’t really understand why I need to practise. It’s even stranger when practice consists of me lying on the floor to focus on my breathing and on relaxing each area of my body in turn. There is an upside to this, of course – it makes me available for climbing over, sitting on and even occasionally settling on for a companionable sleep. I find the experience so relaxing, sometimes I join in with the nap myself.

Focusing on each experience is actually more challenging than it sounds. As a reader and a writer I tend to internalise everything I do, weaving sentences in my head, even as I am trying to give my attention to whatever I am up to. I listen to podcasts as part of the course, and the oh-so patient tutor reminds me in the recordings that my mind will wander – it’s what minds do. The trick is to bring it back to focus on whatever I need to and to do so without judging myself as having failed the exercise. I am learning to experience things in the moment with all my senses, enjoying the physical nature of a walk or eating a home-cooked meal. My thoughts and ideas, while still an important part of who I am, are being put into a wider perspective of the whole, rather than dominating my existence.

Getting out and about is a vital part of this learning. I recently walked the city walls in York. Every time I found myself thinking about work or how I could write up my trip into a blog post, I stopped, took a couple of breaths and refocused on the beauty around me. It was a cool day, with a threat of rain in the air and I could feel the breeze against my cheek. Somewhere, someone had been cutting grass and its scent mingled with the unique smell of impending rain. I could hear the traffic on the other side of the wall but it faded into the background as I was enveloped by the peaceful scenes of back gardens in the Minster Close. As I passed families and couples also walking the walls, probably on their holiday, I caught snatches of conversation in a variety of languages and smiled at them all, feeling briefly like we had all ventured back in time just a little. Oops – there I go again, disappearing into my imagination …

 

Summer gardens and trees with York Minster in the background
View of York Minster from the City Walls

The walls around York are not complete, have never been complete as one side of the city was protected by a deep and treacherous pool of water. The pool is long gone, replaced by a retail park and my mind was definitely jolted back to the present and to the experience of the walk by walking down some steps and coming face to face with Carpet Right. I noticed the difference in the noise level and in the scents as I crossed the busy road to follow the River Foss around to the next section of wall. Even there, there was beauty to be found, as a family of black Canadian geese sailed up the river, avoiding the wide swathe of water lilies which spread across the water.

 

Black-necked Canadian goose swimming down the river with water lilies in the foreground
Canadian goose on the River Foss

And yes, I know, I have taken my physical experience and turned it into a blog post anyway. But at least I waited until I got home, rather than writing it in my head as I went round. It’s a bit like taking lots of photos wherever you go – if you aren’t careful, you only see the photo, rather than the view.

And on that note, I am off for a mindful cup of tea. Try it – next time you brew up, put your book down, switch off the TV and don’t think about your to-do list. Instead, focus as you drink – feel the weight of the cup, the heat against your lips, the flavour and how the hot liquid slides down your throat towards your stomach.  Savour every moment of your chosen beverage. I promise that, if you can do it (and it’s not easy!) your brain will feel as refreshed by the break as the rest of you.

I have something totally different for you next week. A fellow blogger, Lovely and Grateful, has nominated me for the Liebster award. Liebe is German for love and the award is a way for bloggers to share the love and other blogs that we enjoy. I am thrilled that Lovely and Grateful, whose blog I have been following for a while (she has the most beautiful cat called Mara – check out her site!), enjoys mine enough to want to share it with her readers and I am looking forward to doing the same for some others next week. I have to answer some questions about myself too so who knows, you might just learn something new about me as well as discovering some new blogs to follow!

 

 

Taking time to breathe

And so it seems that the stresses of modern life have finally penetrated our Yorkshire idyll. The huge changes of the past few years caught up with me in the end and I have had to take a few weeks out to assimilate my feelings and start edging towards a way forward for the future.

Stress is a little like bindweed, I think. If you keep your garden tidy, it is easy to spot and remove. You can never get rid of it completely, but you can keep it under control and stop it from smothering your chosen plants. We have a bed in our front garden that needs attention – I am planning to pull most of it up next year and start again. I walk past that bed for weeks, not seeing the tell-tale heart shaped leaves as the bindweed works its insidious way up the tangle of geranium and other plants which have run rampant. Only when it has taken a firm hold do I finally see it and removing it is much harder than it might have been. I see a few leaves first, start to remove them and then suddenly they are everywhere. Weeding them out is a daunting task.

 

Green heart shaped bindweed leaves and stems winding through a pink geranium plant
Bindweed leaves winding their way through our flowerbed

Stress is the bindweed of life. Whilst most areas of life are under control, it is easy to recognise and manage – never going away completely, of course, but at a level which can be used to challenge us, keeping us on our toes and even encouraging our creativity and fulfilment. However, as life throws more and more things at us, often so slowly we don’t see them coming, stress puts out its tendrils, winding through our lives until it feels impossible to eradicate. Finally, when everything feels out of control, just like our flower bed, we realise how we deeply entrenched it has become and addressing the problem can feel very daunting indeed.

No one thing can be held responsible for my stress. I love my life here as much as I ever have. The cats and garden are thriving, D supports me with his usual unswerving love and practicality and I still feel extremely lucky to be here. However, it cannot be denied that we have been through large life changes at a time when the world itself feels like it is shifting and changing in potentially dangerous ways and we have never really stopped to draw breath and consolidate the changes fully. I have needed the past few weeks to start that consolidation process.

Home has become my refuge and yet the best way I have found to start weeding out the stress is to go out and re-engage with the world. I have started small. Sitting in the gardens at Beningbrough Hall, listening to the bees in the flower borders and even on one occasion communing with a mouse who popped out of the wall to say hello. Walking down the towpath along the River Ouse, leaving the bustle of the city of York far behind me, greeting the dog walkers and ramblers along the path. Taking time to enjoy the garden at home and eating well, chiefly home grown fruit and veg. Spending time with the cats, with D and with family. Taking care of myself.

Pink poppies in a wide flower border with several insects feeding on the nectar
The insects are enjoying this border at Beningbrough Hall as much as I did

 

River with trees and lots of greenery on both banks
You would never know how close to York you are here – it’s so peaceful

I am starting to see my way back as I pull out more and more of the bindweed to reveal the flowers beneath – the things that really matter. I am lucky that I have so many positives in my life which I have never really lost sight of – they were temporarily covered but never totally buried. And when life goes back to normal, which it will eventually, hopefully I will have learned from the experience to take at least a little time to weed out the stresses early, while those bindweed leaves are still small and the stems weak, leaving me to enjoy the beauty of our chosen New Simple Life.

The Kitchen Garden

Last week, I focused on the flower garden and how it had flourished while we were away. But what about the other side of the pretty cream-painted wooden gate, I hear you ask. What about the kitchen garden?

It’s probably fair to say results are mixed. We had moved the seedling carrots, leeks and sprouts from the greenhouse to the kitchen for the catsitter to water, along with the larger cauliflowers that we had also grown from seed but not yet planted out. So they were fine, until we got back at least. The day after we returned, we put them back in the greenhouse, unaware of just how hot the day was going to be and, unfortunately, it was more than our newly-germinated sprouts could take. The next day, we found them shrivelled to nothing in their tray, in spite of the automatic roof vents. Another lesson learned – the greenhouse can get too hot!

All the potatoes were doing well and we actually harvested the two bags that we had started off in the greenhouse before moving them outside a month or so ago. The first bag was disappointing, I have to say – the crop was tasty but only lasted us a scant two meals. The second bag was a better haul though. There is nothing quite to beat the excitement of pulling up the stems and seeing what lies beneath, burrowing into the earth and finding the treasure that is a potato you have grown yourself. The miracle of nature and its cycle continues to make me marvel – the fact that the discarded plant goes into the compost bin to help grow the harvests of the future brings me so much pride and pleasure. We also pulled our first few carrots, also from greenhouse bags. Although they are bigger than those we grew last year, they were still a bit curly. We have been told they grow well (and straight) in sand, so we might try that next year.

Grey and white cat looking at a basket of potatoes sitting on a lawn
“Is that it?”
3 home-grown curly carrots sitting on a wooden chopping board
Definitely looking more carrot-like this year

The other veg are coming on slowly. We made a classic mistake back in early Spring when, excited by our work replacing the raised beds, we planted lots of things out too early and the frost hit them. Nothing actually died, but everything stopped growing and most of it is only just recovering now. The sweetcorn, planted slightly later, is doing better but has suffered from attention by, we think, the fat and well-fed pigeons who hang out in the apple tree and laugh at the cats. Still, we have some garlic coming up slowly, as well as leeks, onions, carrots and some parsnips that we sowed straight into the ground and that we are hoping will be ready for our Christmas table. The salad that had done so well over the winter is much less happy in this more clement weather, unfortunately, and has bolted. While the flowers are pretty, as far as salad goes, we will be relying on the various tomato plants we have around, which appear to be doing well.

In fact, most of our fruit is thriving. In the orchard, the cooking apple tree is already groaning under the weight of the coming fruit and we are back to picking up small unripe windfalls daily. The eating apple appears to be doing better this year as well and to my joy, the plum is also promising to bear lots of fruit after a barren year last year. The rhubarb loves its new home too, in spite of the apples landing in its bed each day. I can feel a jam-making session or two coming on over the next few months. As the new gooseberry is still settling in, we definitely won’t be seeing any gooseberries this year, probably to D’s relief, as he doesn’t like them but the blueberry is starting to show signs of fruit and is the most beautiful colour when you look closely.

We are getting a few strawberries too although, just like my childhood recollections, it was a toss-up whether we got there before the birds. In the end, D created a fruit cage out of spare wood from the garage, some netting, a couple of bamboo canes and a lot of ingenuity. One of the canes has weighted the netting so that it will sit in place, but it can be lifted back when we come to pick the strawberries. It makes the harvesting less of an adventure in a way, but at least we are getting some of them. The birds get up earlier than we do, so they were definitely winning the race!

Fruit cage covering strawberry plants in a small raised bed
Another example of D’s practical and creative abilities

And, speaking of birds, they are also thriving. There is a blackbird family next door and young birds of all descriptions everywhere you look. It is lovely to watch them but it is always with a little trepidation, in case one of the cats gets too close. The Princess, particularly, is hunting again when she can, although both the neighbour and I are determined to protect the blackbirds. We hear him banging on the window regularly to chase her off and we are constantly bringing her inside when we hear the shrill alarm call of the parent birds. We have found a few frogs as well, including one who had made it into the garage and resisted all attempts for us to rescue it for some time. Eventually D got it into a bucket and we decanted it into the aptly-nicknamed Frog Patch area of the garden, where they usually shelter in the undergrowth, enjoying the damper conditions caused by the drystone wall.

Hopefully, we are now entering the stage where the kitchen garden will be little work beyond watering, pulling up the odd weed and harvesting, while the flower and front gardens seem to require more input daily to keep on top of the weeds and the deadheading. We need to remind ourselves sometimes that a garden is also for sitting in, for meditating, reading, chatting and enjoying. The cats try to tell us – now all we need to do is listen.

Grey and white cat lying in a greenhouse
“See, this is what a greenhouse is for – sunbathing”