Saturday, 19 April 2014

How to hunt an egg

Firstly find the free National Trust voucher that came with the yoghurt a couple of months ago.  Tell the children they will be going on an egg trail with the possibility of chocolate at the end of it.  Spend the next fourteen hours trying to contain the eggcitement.  Pack enough food for a siege and set off for Tyntesfield.

Get there a mere forty minutes after they open and park in one of the last remaining parking spaces in the main car park. Join the mile long queue to go in.  Discover that you have inadvertently turned up on Knights Weekend, when most of Bristol have also turned out to join in the revelry.  After ten minutes, send other half to the book shop to prevent spontaneous combustion.  After fifteen minutes, send the children to join him.  On nearing the front of the queue, admire the shiny sign that says, "Members only this side".  Walk a hundred metres back to the end of the correct queue and spend some time hoping that the book shop is really interesting.

Finally herd family through the correct door.  Despite having a free voucher, part with a nice fat chunk of cash for having an extra child and for the privilege of joining the Egg Hunt.  Join the queue for the Egg Hunt stuff, leaving other half outside to befriend other eggxasperated men of a certain age.

Once you have three Egg Trail cards, passports, free pith helmets, a map, membership leaflet, information leaflet, two separate receipts, Knight's Day schedule and all of the children you started with, you're good to go.  Once you've queued for the toilets.

Spend the next hour trotting round behind supercharged egg-hopeful boys, lugging the world's heaviest picnic, five large drinks bottles, a large blanket and three pith helmets.  Snap away randomly as you jog to keep up.  Something to remember the magic of the day by.

Find some yew, a favourite thing.  Try to find someone to share the excitement.  Fail.  But look, fifty-seven yew trees!

Give in to popular demand and crack open the picnic.  At least it'll be less to carry now.  Narrowly avoid being too slow to get a vegetarian sausage roll.  Spend the next six minutes focusing hard on the food.  It's eat or be eaten now, kill or be killed.  Not a time to lose concentration.

Re-pack the bag, which mysteriously appears to weigh exactly the same as before.  Decide to tackle the house while the children are lulled into a slight post-prandial stupour.

The morning room.  Where the lady of the house used to sit in the morning to do a little needlework or correspondence and give the housekeeper the day's instructions.  Sigh.  You would have been so good at that kind of thing.

Once deep into the bowels of the house, you will need to retrace your steps to find a toilet.  All the way back out.  Against the tide of people behind you.  It will take a while.  The queue for the two toilets is approximately twenty people long.  Send the person in question alone into the gents instead.  Loiter very close to the door.  Look through the door every time it opens.  Try not to catch anyone's eye or be offended when the door is closed to prevent viewing.  Edge a little closer to the door.  Wait.  Listen at the door.  Smile reassuringly at anyone who appears to find your behaviour unusual or worrying.  Finally, you're back on track.  Back to the house to find the rest of the party.  Anyone with you will slip through the crowds with ease.  You will not be so lucky, so at this point you will be separated from everyone.  Shove past the hoards, like some classless fishwife with no interest in history or culture.  But hold your head up high anyway.

Find the rest of the fam. Your other half may be grilling a hapless guide about the unsympathetic replacement of the glass in the windows.  It was done in 1870, so not strictly his fault.  Press on through the house.  By this time the children will be getting a bit lively, it's no time to dawdle or a game of tag may break out.

Fresh air.  Space.  Cookies and a sit down.


All the food is now gone.  Everyone is fully fuelled, but it's important to leave enough time to get home before they turn feral.  Three egg clues remain.  Onwards.

A really fast turn about the walled gardens, greenhouses and kitchen garden.

This may be your favourite bit, but don't falter now, the egg is in sight.  Back towards the house.

On the croquet lawn there's a medieval scrap.  Knights hacking at each other with swords, axes and hammers.  Be sure not to miss this, small boys love this stuff.  So many new ideas for their arsenal of deadly moves.  Stand behind them and watch them absorbing the information with utter relish.

Run through first aid procedures with other half and ensure you both know the opening hours of the local Minor Injuries Unit and the quickest route to Children's Hospital.  

Explore the Medieval village.

This is especially recommended as any boys you happen to have with you will be allowed to hold any weaponry they may choose, thereby getting a feel for the weight of it and the amount of cut and thrust required to disembowel, main and decapitate.

Back at the start, queue for an egg.  Feel an unreasonable jubilation at scoring the penultimate three eggs before a certain wait for a new batch to be brought by the Easter bunny.

Success is yours my friend. 

Wishing you a very Happy Easter.  

Friday, 18 April 2014

Simple happy things

It's been so beautifully sunny here that it's felt more like the summer holidays than the Easter holidays.  We've been pottering about our locality, not doing anything particularly incredible, but nonethless enjoying the simple things.  How fast the holiday days fly by.

We've been to the park again and again.  It might not be flash, but really, they love it every single time.  There's always something to do, sometimes climbing, sometimes football, both playing and watching, sometimes the stream (out of sight at the base of the tall trees), sometimes tennis (it's free!) and sometimes happy imaginative games.  And often there are different friends to play with.  I honestly think that this free local fun is one of their favourite things to do.  I join in or chat to another mum or occasionally just sit and read.  Yesterday I played football with the biggest boy and got kicked in the leg and did one of those huge two-handed falls to the ground where I rolled over a couple of times and laid there splat on the floor, just like a real professional.  I honestly think I'm improving a little.

We've been to the allotment again, a couple of days ago, and it was so dry that we did some watering.   Like the summer I tell you.

I found some tiny strawberry flowers.  I think it's a little alpine strawberry that grows like a weed.  I'll be interested to see what the fruit's like and whether it's worth keeping.

At home a couple of the squashes have germinated.  I do so love squash seeds, I think that's part of the reason I can't help growing them.  They're so big and chunnky and easy to deal with.  Not like the dusty ones that you can't quite believe are actually going to grow and that blow away in a puff of small boy sneeze.  This is a proper seed, and a seedling with attitude.  Look at it.  To give you some idea of scale, it's in one of the big pint sized yoghurt pots.  The seed leaves are nearly 5cm.

I'm off to enjoy the next two sunny days now, before a little rain falls.  I hope you have a lovely Easter and that the Easter bunny is good to you.  I need to find the plastic eggs that I hide clues in for the Easter morning treasure hunt I always set.  And to make sure I have all the ingredients for chocolate nests and other delights.

No doubt our days will continue to be simple, but the boys are pretty good at enjoying simple things.

Wishing you simple happiness too, CJ xx

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

April in the garden

A few beautiful warm days has meant that everything is looking a little more organised in the garden.

The weeding is done, the grass is short and the compost bin has been emptied onto the raised beds and the raspberries.

I managed to get some wonderful hazel poles from the nearby community woodland (the one I posted about here).

Sturdier than bamboo, locally grown and beautifully rustic.  I was thrilled.  Especially as they were only £3 for ten.  I tried to convey to the rest of the family how fantastic they are, but I'm not sure they got me.  But here in this space, I think some of you may understand.

Another thing I don't think they got.  My borlotti beans.  I grew some last year and saved some of the beautiful speckled beans.  I dried them for a while in a bowl on top of the piano and then I put them in an old envelope.  A couple of weeks ago I planted them.  I wasn't hugely hopeful, after all, they weren't proper ones from a seed company or anything.  But, they grew.  

It works!  There's no secret trick or complicated procedure.  Anyone could do it.  Even me.  Grow beans.  Dry beans.  Plant beans.  New plants!  Now please tell me you get how fantastic this is.  Around here everyone looks at me and quietly edges away whenever I show any signs of waxing lyrical about this small miracle.

More natural wonder on the pear trees.  Masses of blossom, but this year there are bees as well.  Last year I didn't see a single flying thing around the trees.  I did the thing with the paintbrush but it didn't really work.  This year both trees are blooming at roughly the same time (one is a little earlier than the other - they are Doyenne du Comice and Beurre Hardy) and if you stand close to them you can hear a happy buzzing sound as the busy bees work hard collecting the nectar.  

Even better than pear blossom is apple blossom.  Daffodils I can take or leave, but apple blossom I can't get enough of.  Often I'll go over and stare at it on my way up the garden.  So I'll apologise in advance in case I post too many pictures of it.  But it is pretty.  The white!  The pink!  The little touch of yellow!

Elsewhere there are tomatoes growing quietly away, blueberry flowers, hostas and the odd herb putting on new growth.

Finally a glimpse of this beautiful tree that's just beyond the end of our garden.  It's always full of birds and I can see it from the kitchen sink (somewhere I spend an unreasonable amount of time).  Right now it's in full glory.  I've no idea what it is, I shall keep a closer eye on it this year and see if I can work it out.

I'm going to have an evening on the sofa now, after a long afternoon of tying up canes, planting beans and sowing peas and watering things.  At one stage I was stood on a dining chair tying the tops of sticks together when it tipped over and I crashed to the ground, smashing the chair on  my way down.  Did I ever mention that I'm a touch clumsy?  Fortunately I'm also quite rubbery, so although I fall over a lot, on the whole I don't break.  I do feel a little bruised and a touch torqued though.  I sense that I may feel it a bit tomorrow.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Lulu 2009 - 2014

I was going to write about the garden today, but as it turns out I'd like to remember this sweet little piggie instead.

I noticed a day or two ago that she wasn't spending as much time on the grass as usual, and she seemed a little lethargic.  This morning she was clearly groggy.  We were out until lunchtime, and by then she was lying down.  I made an appointment to take her to the vet's, the earliest one they had at 4.40pm.  I had a chat to the children; she had stopped eating and really had gone downhill quite quickly, so I wanted to prepare them for the fact that she probably wouldn't come home from the vet's.

In the end they all decided they wanted to come with me.  They'd spent the afternoon sitting (miraculously) quietly with her.  We gently put her in the pet carrier when it was time to go.  Her breathing was laboured, but she was still able to move about a bit.  The biggest boy sat with the pet carrier between his feet on the five-minute journey, to keep it as still as possible.

When we got there he said to me, "She's gone".  We were parked in the vet's nice little car park, so we got out and sat on the grass.  We opened the carrier and she had indeed stopped breathing.  It was a peaceful spot, just us and a blackbird, so we said our final goodbyes to her as the sun filtered through the trees and we were all together on the grass.

We took her into the vet's where they checked that her heart had in fact stopped, and then we left her little body there for cremation.

So now we're all a little sad.  We got her when she was just a baby, and the littlest boy was just one, and she's been the very best first pet a boy could have.  I'm always quite concerned to make sure that our pets have the best possible life.  I'm very aware that a lot of their time is spent in captivity, so I won't buy the tiny cages that most pet shops sell.  And I make sure that they have the most highly recommended food, nice bedding rather than the cheap stuff and lots of different fresh things to eat.  The piggies go on the grass every day when the weather is nice, which they love.  In fact if it's raining and they don't get to go out they squeak and squeak at us.  So I hope she's had a nice life.  We've certainly loved her.  And we're really going to miss her.  Her cage mate Mrs Armitage will too no doubt.  Guinea pigs are not solitary creatures, they love company, so we are going to have to decide what to do about the future.  She is five now (as was Lulu), so she could have two or three years left.  It would be a shame if those years were spent alone.  The boys will spend time with her, but obviously it's not the same as having a piggie chum.

But that's a problem for another day.  Today I just wanted to remember Lulu and say thank you little pig, we love you.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Battered old measuring cups

I love it when a blogging friend recommends a recipe they have enjoyed, and I often give it a go myself.

These are Hagrid's (Not Horrible) Rock Cakes from the vegan blog Nom!Nom!Nom!  And if I fancy making a particular thing, I'll often end up looking for a recipe online if I can't find one in my cookery books on the shelf.  I've discovered some really delicious things like this, not least the Chocolate Chunk Cookies that I make all the time.  Here I've converted them to ounces, but being adapted from an American recipe (thank you Martha Stewart) they were originally in cups.

I do like the idea of measuring things in cups, it always seems quite simple and old-fashioned, and the kind of thing you could do if you happened to find yourself in a shack in the woods with no fancy equipment.  And I always like using my measuring cups.

They don't look like much, a little battered and dented, a bit tarnished and as if they have seen better days.  But to me they are treasured.  Back when I was a child, we had family friends who were from Bermuda.  My "auntie" had grown up there and moved to this country when she was a young adult.  And she still made occasional trips there and brought back wonderful pictures.  I remember doing a project on the island (for guides maybe?) and poring over her beautiful photos of this dazzling paradise of pink and white sand beaches and brightly coloured birds and palm trees.

To me, she was such an exotic person.  Slim, beautiful, classy, with enormous sunglasses and sometimes a scarf in her blonde hair.  She played tennis and had lots of friends whom she invited to supper parties where the food was complicated and different (taramasalata!) and everyone was so grown-up and witty and well dressed.  To a quiet suburban girl in glasses who didn't get around much it was all desperately exciting.  I loved visiting her house, and I remember sitting in the sun in her garden under her apple tree one evening and thinking that I wanted to be exactly like her when I grew up.

On one of her trips home to Bermuda she brought back these measuring cups for my mother.  They'd been doing a macrobiotic cooking course together, and often the ingredients were measured in the American way, and back then measuring cups weren't so widely available here.  So her gift was a really useful one.  And for the rest of my childhood they sat in the drawer in the kitchen, ready to be used any time the recipe called for measurement in cups.

When I left home at eighteen, somehow they ended up coming with me.  My mother died when I was a teenager, and I have one or two things of hers, including the cups.  And every time I use them it makes me think of my exotic auntie and Bermuda and how beautiful and sunlit her life seemed to me.  I love older things with a little history behind them.  So the fact that they're a little dented and tarnished is fine.  They're used every week, and every week they bring a little bit of Bermudian glamour into my small everyday kitchen.

Friday, 11 April 2014

At the allotment with boys

I had some dreamy utopian idea that over the Easter holidays we would all go to the allotment (me and the boys) and do work and we'd get loads done and it would all be wonderful.  Which in the end made me wonder how long it was since I'd taken them all there at the same time.  How on earth I had I forgotten what it's like when all three want to do the same thing, with the same pair of secateurs/hoe/rake at the same time and what unbelievable drama ensues when one person's samosa is perceived to be bigger than everyone else's.

I saw an experienced allotmenteer at the shops the day before and he laughed and laughed when I said we'd all be going along together to plant potatoes.  That should have given me a clue.  But I was blissful in my ignorance, so we wellied up, grabbed our chitted spuds and headed out.

Somehow I'd ended up with loads of potatoes, partly because I'd bought a big bag from the local garden shop, and partly because I'd then also been tempted by some other varieties.  In the end there were Nadines, Charlottes, Maris Pipers, Swifts and Pentland Javelins, all lovingly pre-sprouted in egg boxes on the boys' bedroom windowsill.

The children attended to the most important stuff first - getting the chairs out of the shed and eating the Wheat Crunchies.  They reluctantly did a very small amount of weeding after various arguments about trugs, trowels and mud being shaken in faces.  Honestly, there were so few weeds in the bottom of the trugs they needn't have bothered.

I took them one at a time to plant a few potatoes, which have taken up far too much room.  Already I'm thinking I won't bother with them next year (the potatoes, not the children), they'll need to be good to convince me to grow them again.  I think my main concern with them is all of the work, making sure they don't poke up above the soil and also all of the digging to get them up.  But you never know, I might be converted.  I'm sure we've planted them too close together, and in a quite higgeldy piggeldy fashion, but to be honest by the end of the morning I was just happy to have the things in the ground and not cluttering up the windowsill any more.

This was the view from my deckchair, once I'd evicted the littlest boy and found some spare Wheat Crunchies.

The shed belongs to the neatest plot on the site, I always like to stroll past on the way home, to see how it should be done.

And this is my plot.  Not the untidiest plot on the site, which is good enough for me.  I'm realistic - I don't have the time to make it into perfection, but so long as it's productive that's all I'm trying to achieve.  (The two littler ones are behind the rose bush playing Harry Potter with the rake and the Dutch hoe).

The biggest boy sowed some radishes very painstakingly, with every seed neatly placed about four inches apart.  I gently suggested he could put a few more in next time, so I think he sprinkled some extra in in the end - we shall see.

And then to restore entante cordiale I lit the pile of woody stems that were pruned from the blackcurrant bushes a while back.  Nothing restores brother's faith in brother quite like burning stuff together.

Oh happy day.  Behind the shed I found some rhubarb struggling through the grass.  This kind of thing makes it all worthwhile.  The first precious harvest of the year.

I made a crumble with it when we got home.  We'll gloss over the fact that the pinger went off when I was outside for a moment and I forgot about it and burned the edges.  The middle's still good, and sometimes that's as good as it gets.