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!

 

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.

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 Trip to the Vet

The Princess has been under the weather. She had been biting at her back paw for a few days, so we were keeping a watching brief to see if it developed into anything serious. She spends so much time stalking the hedgerows, we wouldn’t be surprised if she got a thorn or something lodged in her foot.

Of course, she waited for the weekend before showing any sign of being ill. On the Saturday morning, she lay in the study doorway and showed no signs of interest in breakfast or attention. Fearing that we had, indeed, missed an injury which had become infected, we picked her up and inspected the paw. It looked fine but she growled at us anyway and that was enough for us. The Calamity Cat growls at anything but it’s not seemly for princesses, so ours doesn’t do it very often. Fortunately, our vet has a Saturday surgery so we popped her into her cat carrier (I am making that sound much less challenging than it is, although she didn’t put up as much of a fight as usual, a sure sign that all was not well) and off we went.

Why, oh why do cats always come alive when they get to the vet? You give the vet a tale about how they haven’t moved all morning, how lethargic and unresponsive they are. In the meantime, said cat has leapt down off the table with great agility and enthusiasm and is prowling around the consulting room, sniffing in all the corners and finally coming to rest by the fridge, just in case there is something more interesting in there than prescription drugs. The Princess was so alert, she was keeping watch through the glass door when the vet went to get a nurse to hold her and they couldn’t get back in until I scooped her up and put her back on the table. We told the vet our theory about the paw and she prodded and stretched her limbs with only the smallest complaint from our girl. Just when the vet was giving up, she must have touched something raw and the growl came from deep within. So she touched the same area again – nothing. She tried the other leg and again, she growled. Aha! The vet went back to the same spot and got no response – all very contrary and confusing.

In the end, unable to find anything specific, she wormed her, gave her an anti-inflammatory injection and sent her home, with strict instructions for us to bring her back if she became worse. From the loud complaining coming from the carrier all the way home, she was fine and most indignant about being poked and prodded for no reason like that.

Grey and white cat sitting with eyes closed on a pale blue patio table
This is one of my favourite photos of the Princess when she is well – enjoying the sunshine on the patio table

Once home, though, it was a different story. She retired to the safety of the wardrobe to groom the vet smell out of her fur and then went back to her spot in the doorway. She became increasingly unwell throughout the rest of the day, barely looking up when I touched her or offered her water. Mid-afternoon, she dragged herself downstairs to be sick, then went straight back up to the study, not moving again for the rest of the day. Mind you, I shouldn’t think the rodent she threw up had had the best of days either.

I got very little sleep that night, worried sick. And then – in the dead of night, I suddenly heard a noise downstairs. Was that, could that be – crunching?? The Calamity Cat isn’t that fond of biscuits, whereas the Princess is known for her midnight feasts. I had to check. I got up and bumped into her on the landing, on her way back up from her snack. She followed me into the bedroom and proceeded to jump on me, headbutting my nose and purring very loudly. It seemed normal service was resumed. Heartily relieved, I fell asleep with her curled in next to me on the pillow.

The next day, both cats asked to go out before breakfast as usual. As the Princess seemed fine, we opened the door and out they trotted. She wandered up the garden, having a good sniff at everything to see what she had missed the day before. She was on her way back down the path, clearly heading back to the house for breakfast when, without warning, she collapsed. We rushed outside and brought her in, where she lay on the table, apparently unable to move.

As soon as we could, we got her down to the emergency vet. By then, yet again, she appeared to have recovered and was making her feelings known very loudly about being stuffed in a cat carrier and taken back to that horrible place. At least it wasn’t full of dogs on a Sunday. It wasn’t full of anything when we got there – including the vet, who had been held up at a previous call-out.

The upshot of the whole saga is that our beloved girl had had a seizure, probably brought on by eating something diseased or poisoned. However, after a raft of blood tests the next day, I am pleased to say that they all came back clear. We kept her in for a couple of days, much to her disgust, and then, our hearts in our mouths, we let her out again. It didn’t take her long to prove she is back to full strength, hunting once again and even paying the neighbour a visit, as he told us the next day: “I was sitting in my front room, minding my own business, when this little grey face peeped around the door …”

Grey and white cat on hind legs on a windowsill, trying to get out of the window
“Pleease let me out!”

Cats’ memories are relatively short. It may take us a little longer to recover. Every time she lies down, we jump up and feel the need to check on her. Every time she leaves the garden, we don’t totally relax until she is safely home again. We have been reminded that our precious girls’ lives are so much shorter than our own, with dangers at every turn. All we can do is value and make the most of the time that we do have together and shower them in all the love and care they deserve.

 

A match made in Heaven?

Grey and white cat sitting in a raised garden bed

It is often felt that cats and gardening do not mix well. Where a dog is hailed as a suitable faithful companion for the gardener – Monty Don’s Nigel and Nell have made careers out of it after all – the cat seems to be seen more as the gardener’s nemesis. After all, they dig up beds, hunt birds and other wildlife and use gravelled areas as litter trays, don’t they?

When we bought our house, the cats’ needs were very much at the top of our agenda and we loved the garden for its feline possibilities as much as for our own. It has been one of our greatest pleasures to share the outside space with them and watch them enjoying adventures only they truly understand. Spring has again given them a new lease of life that belies their 13 years and we feel we have proved that it is possible to be gardeners and cat-lovers at the same time.

The lawn has become a playground since we found a bright yellow bouncy ball in one of the borders and the Calamity Cat particularly loves to chase it across the grass, reaching speeds we never thought she could. When the grass is long, it turns into their own private jungle, where they stalk bees and butterflies (never catching them though) and occasionally each other, hiding behind a bush and jumping out at each other before they both tear off like crazy things under the hedge and into next door. The grass is also a valuable source of fibre in their diets, which has in turn inspired us to take an organic approach to our lawn-keeping. It is rewarding our hard work by greening up nicely.

Grey and white cat lying on a lawn, washing behind its ear
The Calamity Cat enjoying some spring sunshine

Yes, the cats dig the beds that we have lovingly prepared but mainly when they are empty. After all, they have watched us dig in there too and they want to help. They also want to try out our assertion that they are “beds”, settling down for a quick snooze in the sun now and then. As soon as things start to grow, though, they tend to lose interest and find somewhere flatter to sleep. And if they do dig up a few seedlings here and there, what are a couple of plants between friends?

Grey and white cat lying in a raised garden bed
“Well, you did say it was a bed …”

We did wonder how they would react to the gravelled paths in the veg plot as we had heard that gravel made a good substitute for cat litter. We made sure we bought the larger kind and we have had no problems at all. In fact, the Calamity Cat doesn’t even like walking on it.  On the whole, they both prefer to come in and use the litter tray anyway – their view seems to be that they would have to be mad to go outside when they can use a perfectly comfortable toilet area indoors – and who can blame them?

They both show an interest in our gardening activities, with one or the other of them usually accompanying us up to the kitchen garden to keep an eye on our efforts. They have explored the new greenhouse and decided it is worthy of their presence, being a cosy space when it’s a bit breezy outside. They have learned the hard way to be wary of the dreaded watering can. They keep us company while we work, then return to the house with us to demand their tea, exhausted after a hard day’s supervision.

Grey and white cat and a pair of secateurs sitting on a green garden kneeler
Can I help?

The wildlife is a harder one to stomach I admit. They rarely catch the insects they go after and fortunately the birds tend to be quicker than they are too. Unfortunately, the Princess has more success with small rodents and we are waiting with trepidation for her to start her reign of terror in the hedgerows this year. So far, she has shown little interest, preferring to sleep in the house for most of the day and then lounging around on the woodshed roof in the evenings. We are also waiting for the frog season to start in earnest – the Calamity Cat has already started to check out the drystone wall daily to see if her friends have returned but there is no sign yet. Perhaps, with the new rose bed replacing the water feature, there will be fewer this year.

And it isn’t just our cats who enjoy our outside space. Several other cats from the area use our garden, either as a cut-through from the back to the street or simply to sit and take in the view. After some fights and arguments last year, our two seem to have decided that it isn’t worth objecting – they usually pretend they haven’t seen anything and the guest moves on before it becomes an issue. Both the Princess and the Calamity Cat make sure they patrol carefully after these visits, reasserting their claim on the territory, but in a suitably pacifist sort of way (i.e. when they are sure that the other cat has gone and they will not be called upon to defend their garden further).

Two grey and white cats lying on a blue patio table looking out in opposite directions
On guard – sort of. Keeping a watchful eye anyway

I am, therefore, proud to say that we are living proof that it is possible to be both cat-lovers and gardeners and that owning cats (although we all know really that they own us) has very much enhanced our gardening experience. In return, sharing our garden adds a new dimension to all our lives. It has become a valued family space for all of us, one I hope we can all enjoy for many years to come.

 

 

 

 

The joy of cupboards

Grey and white cat on a pale blue patio table

A closed door is an affront to a cat. I am firmly convinced it infringes their feline rights. When it is shut, our two sit fixedly by the patio door (their usual exit into the garden), occasionally glaring at us with an accusing “Why is this shut?” sort of look. As soon as we open it, they thrust their noses into the space to have a good sniff at the outside world, just making sure that their empire is still intact, but they show no inclination to actually go out. They are simply exercising their right to have the option. During the summer, we leave the door open for them to come and go, although it does occasionally backfire when other cats are about, as it did last year. However, in the winter even we draw the line at sitting in the cold, just so they can get some fresh air. One day recently, I had the impudence to try gently encouraging Calamity outside with my foot. She looked round with an expression of utter outrage on her face and backed away from the door. “I was only looking!” she seemed to be telling me – and loudly too. “Would you want to go out in this weather?”

Another of Calamity’s demands recently has been to explore all the built-in storage in the house. There is a whole collection of tantalising closed doors, just teasing her with their possibilities. You may remember we hid their Christmas presents in a cupboard in the study and it seems to have left a lasting suspicion that she is missing out on something interesting. The hall cupboard holds a particular fascination and she will sit and cry outside it until we open it for her to get inside. Once in, she realises that there isn’t really anything worth her notice to be found, and she wanders out again nonchalantly. We close the door and half an hour later, we repeat the whole process. Sometimes it is the fitted wardrobes in the study – she may never have been in a particular cupboard before but she is suddenly desperate to get in and her cries can be heart-rending. Occasionally, she will curl up inside one of them for a nap but most of the time she has a good look, and then comes back out, looking bewildered, as if she isn’t quite sure why she wanted to be in there in the first place.

Grey and white cat in a cuboard storing fabric
“Hmm, this looks interesting … “
2 grey and white cats in a cupboard storing fabric
“What are you doing in there?”

This very peculiar habit hit a new low recently, when we were awoken in the night by a blood-curdling howl. We shot up in bed, convinced that there was something seriously wrong with one of them. We found Calamity sitting mournfully next to the wardrobe in the bedroom. “It’s shut”, she appeared to wail, “and I need to get inside”. We tried to distract her with promises of cuddles but she would not be moved. In the end, we opened the door and, once she had convinced herself it didn’t hold anything more interesting than our hanging clothes and their travel baskets, she came back to bed and settled down.  A couple of nights later, we went through it all again. In order to get an unbroken night’s sleep, I spent the next Saturday morning clearing out the bottom of the wardrobe and turning their travel baskets into 2 cosy cat beds. We now ceremoniously open the doors each night as we go to bed and haven’t been disturbed since. Of course, Calamity has spent every night curled up with us. She has the option to get into the wardrobe and that is the battle won.

2 sheepskin cat beds side by side
The comfy beds remain empty while Calamity snuggles in with us

Pruning the apple tree

Apple tree leafless canopy in winter

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and other social media will know that we have been very busy in the garden over the past week or two. I’m sure you are dying to know what we have done in the veg patch, but I am going to make you wait another week. First, I want to tell you about our apple tree.

We have been working up the courage to tackle the apple tree for some time now. It is very beautiful and gave us more cooking apples than we could eat last year, but it has clearly been some time since it has been pruned properly. Huge branches overhang next door and loom large over our veg patch as well. Being novices at this gardening lark, we are fairly reliant on what we read and watch to tell us when to do things and, according to the guru Monty Don, late winter is a good time to prune apple trees. So we girded our loins, took the saw and the ladder up the garden, and set to.

Man sawing branches off a tree in winter
D working hard up the tree

According to the Gardener’s World magazine, you can be quite ruthless with apple trees. Monty Don’s advice is to open up the branches sufficiently for a pigeon to be able to fly through with ease. I’m not sure that was really what we were aiming at – we would settle for it not taking all the light from our neighbours’ vegetable plot. Up the ladder D went and started to saw. It felt pretty brutal to me, watching from below while steadying the ladder and receiving the shorn branches, some of which were fairly big, but I knew it had to be done. The little boy next door, who at four is extremely bright and totally fearless, helped us from his side of the fence, lifting offcuts larger than himself over to our side. Trying to keep their dog from bouncing around just where the branch was about to fall was a bit more of a challenge though. Sensibly, the cats kept out of the way while we worked, although they took it in turns to supervise from the new woodshed roof, making the most of the winter sun and ensuring that we did a good job.

Grey and white cat walking up roof of an outdoor log store
“Make sure you leave enough tree for me to climb”

Slowly, the tree started to take shape, with me advising from the ground on what to cut off to try and tame the worst without losing the overall shape of the tree. I quickly discovered how compulsive it becomes – there was always just one branch more that needed to go. The discarded wood, looking almost like reindeer antlers, piled up and up on the grass until we started to fear there was more on the ground than on the tree. You still couldn’t fly a pigeon through the middle but one of the starlings that nest in our eaves might be able to have a go.

Pile of tree branches on grass
Just some of what we took from the tree

In the end, we decided to stop before it got totally out of hand. Then, as it was still early February, the race was on to cut the wood and move it before dusk fell and we ended up working in the dark – again. Chopping it into pieces small enough to go into the garden recycling was a long and extremely tedious job. It would have been great to keep it all and to use the smaller twigs for kindling, but we decided life was too short (well, the day was anyway) and we had no chance of cutting it small enough to use before it went dark. We did manage to save some of the larger pieces for the fire but it will need some drying time, as it was too green to burn – a good job we have a nice dry woodshed!

Hopefully the tree will respond to our well-meaning attempts and continue to thrive, bringing the fleeting beauty of blossom in Spring and fruit in Summer and Autumn for many years to come.

 

Pink apple blossom
Last year’s blossom

 

Winter mornings

2 grey and white cats sleeping on a chair

I spoke at the beginning of the year about how inspired I had been by Monty Don’s Nigel to be a better writer as well as a gardener and one particular chapter, about how Nigel the Golden Retriever goes about getting his breakfast, resonated with me even more than the rest, reminding me of our own Calamity Cat and her morning routine.

The Princess and I are not morning people, especially at this time of year, when it is cold and miserable. Every morning when the alarm goes off in the dark bedroom, she and I both curl up tighter and pretend still to be asleep. D and the Calamity Cat, on the other hand, see each new day as an adventure waiting to be had, springing from the bed wide awake and chatting to each other about the first excitement of the day, which is, (at least for Calamity) – breakfast.

Grey and white cat asleep on purple bedding
“I’ll just stay here … “

If D dares to stop off in the bathroom for a shower or a shave first, she sits on the edge of the bath and tells him off. Occasionally, she even comes back to the bedroom to complain to me that he isn’t moving fast enough and she is quite hungry now please. The Princess and I react exactly as we do to the alarm – we pretend we are still asleep – so, in the end she goes back to D and continues to protest to him until he is ready.

I hear the clatter on the stairs as she bounds ahead of him, her legs almost going too fast for her, often getting under D’s feet on her way past. Once down, she has a quick check of any bowls left down overnight to make sure she hasn’t left anything and finishes anything still there as a quick starter before her main course.

While she eats, D usually takes the Princess’s breakfast up to the landing and tries to tempt her with it (a hangover from when she was ill a few years ago and we would have done anything to encourage her to eat). In the summer, she is up and waiting for it, her usual regal “You may serve me here” expression on her face. However, the winter is another story and she is just as likely to decide not to bother. She snuggles yet further into a ball as I drag myself out of bed and stumble downstairs, bleary-eyed. If she comes down at all, it isn’t usually for long – just long enough to confirm that the weather really is as bad as she feared and she really shouldn’t have made the effort to get up. Within minutes, she takes herself back to bed, grumbling about being woken up in the first place.

Meanwhile, Calamity has usually cleared her plate (and sometimes her sister’s) and decided that is enough hard work for a while. She leaps on to the radiator bed and settles down for a morning snooze. I watch all this, as a cup of tea slowly brings me round to face the day and I increasingly find myself wishing I was a cat too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to look at the weather and think “Hmm, maybe I’ll just stay here in bed”. I admire and envy D’s attitude, embracing the day with a new energy and enthusiasm, but I can’t do it – I have tried.

Grey and white cat on a sheepskin radiator bed
“Now for a hard day’s napping”

However, until my next incarnation (I am definitely coming back as a well-loved feline companion), I must continue to get up with the alarm and face the day as best I can. It will get better as the mornings get lighter and as we start to put our 2017 plans into action. We have made a start already – more on that next week – and I can’t wait for spring to arrive.

We wish you a Merry Christmas …

Yes, I know it is still early, but we are in full swing here. Tonight, I made the gravy for Christmas dinner, which will be frozen and then taken with us when we go to visit family on Christmas Day. It is a vegetarian gravy recipe I have never used before but I’m hopeful it will be perfect on the day. I nearly fell at the first hurdle though, when I realised I needed leeks for it. It was 6pm and dark. “D – I need a leek” was always going to be an interesting conversation. Five minutes later, we were both tramping up the garden in the rain, so that I could hold the torch while D located suitable leeks in the veg patch, pulled them up and trimmed them, putting the waste straight into the compost bin. The rosemary also came from the garden, although sadly we had to buy thyme and carrots. Our own thyme has not survived, being totally trampled by the chocolate mint, which grew like crazy throughout the summer. It’s a cut-throat world, that herb garden!

The kitchen soon smelled beautifully of roasted vegetables, garlic and fragrant herbs, which I then simmered in stock and cider. Once strained and reduced, it suddenly became a delicious gravy. It is now tucked into the freezer, waiting to be joined tomorrow by the cranberry and chestnut stuffing.

In spite of all the “help” from the cats, most of the gifts are now wrapped. We made sure we waited until they were asleep before we wrapped theirs. Just for a second, common sense prevailed. “Am I totally daft, wrapping presents for the cats?” I asked D. “Maybe”, was the answer “but let’s do it anyway. It wouldn’t feel right when we all open our stockings together on Christmas morning if their presents weren’t wrapped.” We remembered that last year, our first in the house, they received a toy that they both wanted and there was a real battle on the bed. We have learned this year, and have enough of the same toys to hopefully keep them both happy. Cats and small children – there are lots of similarities.

Mind you, the Calamity Cat is still keen to earn her keep. The logs have been inspected and the coal bunker is so full, she can’t get into it to check that is all satisfactory, so she has had to look for other employment. She has been catching up on the blog and was fascinated to hear about Sonny, Nina’s feline office assistant, who dropped in as a guest some weeks ago. “Hmm,” she thought, “that’s a job I haven’t tried yet”. She gave it a go, but supervising D all became too much quite quickly.

Grey and white cat asleep on a laptop
“It’s hard work, this …”

Next week, I am up in Scotland, enjoying an office Christmas with a Secret Santa and undoubtedly enough decorations up to make our twinkly Christmas tree look dull. My colleagues really know how to do Christmas! And then once I am back, it will be Christmas Eve and I will be all excited, waiting for Father Christmas to come down the chimney. We are hoping he’ll pick the dining room one, or it might be a bit warm for him! We have hung the stockings in there so hopefully he will know where he is going. We’ll be leaving a mince pie or two for him too, and a glass of home-made bramble wine. If anyone follows my Facebook page, you will know that we visited D’s family last weekend and one of his sisters gave us a bottle of wine that she had made. It seems fitting that even Santa will be getting home-brewed wine from us, even if not made by us.

So, I will be taking the next two weeks off from the blog, and I will see you all again in 2017. On behalf of myself, D and both the cats, I wish you a very happy, peaceful Christmas and a wonderful New Year!

Bottle of homemade red wine, a full glass and an angel tealight holder
Merry Christmas everyone!

 

 

 

 

Advent antics

Christmas tree with bright coloured lights and gifts underneath

So December is here and Christmas is peeping round the corner. I am feeling particularly festive this year. Last year, we were so busy with the move that Christmas was just a chance to catch up on our sleep, so this year I really want to make the most of it.

It starts, of course, with the Advent calendar. I’m afraid I am a bit of a traditionalist, and there is no chocolate in sight in our calendar. It’s part of our family tradition that our dad sends us all one each year, always from the same range and I look forward to it every year. This year I have a house, and each window shows a family preparing for the excitement of Christmas. It is a real treat opening the window each day – one of the simple pleasures that epitomises the life we are creating here.

Advent calendar of a house
Phoenix cards advent calendar
advent-calendar-2
Detail of calendar

We couldn’t decide what to do about the tree. We have one in a pot that I have used for several years – it came down with us from Scotland and lives on our patio. Over the years, though, it has got bigger and heavier, and is in sore need of a bit of a prune to bring it back into shape. Reluctantly, we decided that bringing it in this year and getting it into the living room wasn’t an option. We had it in the dining room last year but it wasn’t the same somehow as having a tree twinkling in the corner of the lounge. So we went out to buy one instead. I’m not sure I have ever done that before and it was very exciting! We ventured into a village we had never been to before (which was beautiful. If we win the lottery, we may have to move …) and chose the perfect tree from the collection sitting in the corner of a farmer’s field. The car smelled gorgeous all the way home!

I thought the cats might be vaguely interested in a tree in the house but, after a quick sniff, Calamity decided it really wasn’t worth her while, at least until we had put some breakable ornaments on to it. The Princess barely even noticed it was there.

Grey and white cat by a Christmas tree
“So, where are the decorations then?”

There is something really special about bringing the Christmas boxes down from the loft, rediscovering lots of things from Christmases past. The nativity sets are always the first to appear and take pride of place in both lounge and dining room. And then the lights go on the tree and suddenly everything feels Christmassy. I have never had a themed or elegant tree – I believe Christmas is about fun and family, not looking like an interiors magazine. However, I would usually put plain lights on a tree and let the ornaments and the star shine through. D, on the other hand, had other ideas. He suggested buying new lights this year and picked up a set of multi-coloured lights with 8 different flashing sequences. Not quite what I had in mind but, you know, they make me smile every time I look at them, flashing away in the corner. We used the plain ones around a picture in the dining room to give that room a bit of sparkle as well. (Apologies for the size of this video – I can’t resize it!)

 

Putting the baubles on is my favourite part. We try and buy a new one each year (a Scottish Father Christmas was last year’s treat) but there are so many from previous years too that I love. We have one each for the cats, with their names on, and one in memory of my previous cat, who died at a ripe old age several years ago. A Christmas tree is so much more than just a tree – it contains so many happy memories and soaks up new ones, storing them for future years. A new star was the final touch (although it is a bit heavy and is currently sitting at a jaunty angle, as if it has been hitting the Christmas Baileys).

The only thing left to make it perfect is, of course, the presents. We had a lovely day last week with a friend who was down from Aberdeen, exploring the gift shops in York and buying gifts that are hopefully a bit different from the norm. We also sampled the mulled wine and cider at the Christmas market – well, you have to, don’t you! After the tree went up, we had a frenzy of wrapping and suddenly the cats started to see the point of Christmas. “Ooh, can we help? Let’s just sit here on this crinkly paper and supervise … ”

Grey and white cat sitting on Christmas wrapping paper
“What? I’m supervising!”

Having a pile of gifts for those we love under the tree gives me such a warm, happy feeling – it makes me smile almost as much as those crazy lights. We aren’t completely mad though. The cats’ present is well hidden in a cupboard – we wouldn’t put it past the Calamity Cat to find it and open it if it was under the tree. As it is, she keeps sitting outside the cupboard and letting us know she isn’t stupid and she knows it’s in there. Little does she know that we will be sending it to Father Christmas any day, so that he can deliver it safely into their stocking on Christmas Eve. She, like the rest of us, will just have to wait!