Monday, February 28, 2011

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills

As I drove over the hills of Mid-Wales yesterday morning on my way to and from church, I found myself pondering the psalmist’s words and realising that this is something I’ve been doing all my life. From my childhood in Lancashire onwards, hills have been the backdrop to my life and I have rarely lived out of sight of them.

I was born in a straggling east Lancashire cotton town in a steep-sided river valley

and spent my childhood in a small village scattered across the fringe of the West Pennine Moors.

These aren’t the high, bleak Pennines, as immortalised by Emily Brontë in her Wuthering Heights, but lower, rolling moors, bare of trees, but covered in tussocky heather and cotton-grass and peat-bog and almost always windswept.

Moving from this wide, austere landscape with its smoke-stained millstone grit buildings to the soft, gentle greenness of Oxfordshire and the honey-coloured stones of Oxford itself

was the first really big change in the physical and mental landscape of my life. It was the first time since I was six that I had lived for any time surrounded by buildings and I missed the moors. Occasionally, in open spaces, I caught sight of the low hills to the west of the city, but they are so small and tree-covered, that I hardly recognised them as such.

It was only when I returned to the area for the last three years of my working life that I really came to appreciate the understated charm of Oxfordshire’s hills.

After university I moved north with my brand-new husband to settle in Cumberland within sight of the westernmost Lakeland fells. Here we bought our first house, a neglected but typical Cumberland farmhouse, and it was here that DH got his first job and our two children were born. At weekends we would sometimes drive to Wastwater

or Ennerdale Water

to walk or picnic alongside the lake and soak in the very different beauty of the towering and often precipitously steep slopes of the fells and the wide expanses of water. Being on the very edge of the Lake District, these less well-known lakes were off the beaten tourist tracks and we frequently had their splendours almost entirely to ourselves. Here my love of wide, empty spaces intensified and has probably coloured my life ever since.

Four years later we moved area for the last time as a family and came to Mid-Wales. After a year on the coast near Aberystwyth (but within sight of the Cambrian Mountains) while I was at library school,

we took a final hop over those same mountains and came to rest in the wonderfully varied hills among which we still live nearly forty years later.

We knew when we moved here that we wanted to live in the countryside, but we had a very tight budget, so our choice was limited to just two houses.  The first was in the valley and had potential, but was uninhabitable without major work, and we had to move quickly, as I was about to start my first job. Following the agent’s directions we went to view the second and found ourselves climbing up and up a steep hill, between high banks and overgrown hedgerows, until we emerged at a cross-roads on the crest of the hill at about 1000’.

We turned left and then left again down a rutted track to a house which was invisible from the road. It was a decrepit old farmhouse (we seemed to go in for those) but it was inhabitable (just about) and the views from the upstairs windows were breath-taking.

We gulped, bought it and have been here ever since. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

A good read

Life has been a bit full since I last posted and anyway I need to prove to myself that I can post short as well as long. J  So I’m just going to introduce you to one of my favourite authors and leave you to get acquainted.

Like a lot of clergy, I love detective novels. Perhaps it’s something to do with the eternal struggle between good and evil, the need to try to restore the balance between right and wrong. Whatever it is, and I’m too tired today to try to analyse it any further, I read a lot of them and enjoy discovering new authors, as well as returning to old favourites.

At the moment I’m reading Wilful Behaviour by Donna Leon, an American who has lived for many years in Italy, and whose knowledge and understanding of this complex and often corrupt society comes through very clearly in her writing.  Like all her books, it’s set in Venice and features her wonderful main character, the unforgettable Commissario Brunetti.

Donna Leon is very much in my top ten list of favourites for a number of reasons. Her writing is elegant and spare and superbly atmospheric. She knows Venice intimately and makes it into almost another character, rather than just a backdrop to the main story. Her characters are finely drawn and utterly believable, and it’s satisfying to watch them develop from book to book. Her plots are well-crafted, often sombre and almost always ambiguous.

Don’t read Donna Leon if you want nice, neat, happy endings, but if you prefer a story that will challenge you as you read it and linger on in your mind long after you’ve finished reading, then do try her. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Image via Wylio

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The joy of socks

Today has been an odd, bitty, drifting sort of day, because I’m worried. I’m worried because just as I finished yesterday’s post, I learned that my younger sister is ill and in hospital for tests. 

She lives a long way from us, but close to her children, who are keeping us, her sisters, updated whenever they learn more about her condition. I know she’s in the best place and being well cared for, but still I’m worried and I’ve been finding it hard to settle down and concentrate.

So I’ve drifted.

I drifted on to the computer and sorted out the mini-avalanche of email which has been coming and going for the past 24 hours.

I drifted round the house, tidying up after DH’s return yesterday, but he has been too busy dealing with a client’s urgent problem to be able to stop and take my mind off my worries.

I drifted back to the computer to try to catch up with a few of my favourite blogs, but I’m afraid my heart wasn’t in it and my mind was definitely elsewhere.

Finally I drifted downstairs again and my gaze fell on my knitting. Usually I knit when the TV is on. Knitting gives me something to do with my hands and part of my mind, while the rest of my mind follows what’s on TV. To be honest, half a mind is as much or more than a lot of TV programmes deserve.

This time I didn’t switch on the TV.  Instead I just sat and knitted and worried about my sister and prayed for her and those who love her and those who are caring for her and gradually, as I knitted, I stopped worrying quite so much.

Knitting can do that for me. The gentle, repetitive action is soothing and doesn’t demand so much attention that you can’t think at the same time. Even better, knitting is productive. The worse thing about worrying is that it is so darned unproductive, such a waste of time and emotional energy. Yet, when someone we love has a problem, it’s very hard to stop ourselves worrying. So, if you can’t help worrying, sit down and knit while you worry, and if you want to feel really productive at the end of it, knit socks.

I just love knitting socks. It was DD, my knitting guru, who first introduces me to the joy of circular knitting and especially to the joy of knitting socks. It was she who gave me my first balls of funky sock yarn and my first circular needles and taught me how to use them. I was instantly hooked.

Putting on my first pair of hand-knitted socks was a revelation. They fitted my awkward feet perfectly and were so blissfully comfortable that I didn’t want to take them off. After that there was no stopping me. I knitted socks for myself and DH. I knitted socks for my sister and our daughter-in-law and now I’m in the throes of knitting socks for DS. The only thing that stops me knitting socks for our three grandsons is the fact that their feet are growing so fast that I could never keep up.

Knitting socks satisfies almost every need I have in a handicraft. Socks are small and light, so you can put your knitting in your bag and take it everywhere. Socks also take much less time to knit than sweaters or cardigans, so you never get bored or daunted and feel like giving up. Yet socks are complex enough to give you a sense of achievement and the warm glow of self-satisfaction that comes from being told how clever you are to be able to knit them.

There is an endless supply of wonderful sock yarns in every possible combination of colour and fibre, so that each pair you knit seems quite new and different. Finally, and this is the truly wonderful thing about knitting socks, you need never run out of people to knit for. In this era of sweatshirts and fleeces, not everyone wears sweaters or cardigans, or even hats or scarves, but everyone I know wears socks, and, believe me, once you’ve worn hand-knitted socks you want to wear them again and again.

So as I sit and knit and worry, at least I know that my sitting and worrying will result in warm feet for DS, and for me a renewed awareness of the importance of the people in my life and how very lucky I am to have them to worry about.  

Image via Wylio

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Where did the years go?

Today is rather a milestone in the life of our family, being the day when DD turns 40. How on earth can my youngest-born be entering middle-age? Does it mean I can no longer claim that still desirable label for myself?

I know it’s a cliché to say this, but I truly can remember that day as if it were yesterday. She arrived 4 days before her due date, thus making life considerably more complicated for her parents than if she’d waited just a little longer.

I went into labour the night before DH had to travel halfway across the country for an interview. We lived around a hundred miles away from either set of parents, so DH had perforce to stay at home with DS, then a lively toddler, while I was dispatched to hospital in a hurriedly-summoned ambulance, which made an even more hurried return to the hospital. 

Clinging onto my seat for dear life, I asked the ambulance-man (this was long before the days of paramedics) where the fire was, only to be told that they’d had to deliver a baby in the ambulance the previous week and were taking no chances of a repeat performance.

Once we reached the hospital, the system swung into action and I soon found myself in a side-room on the labour ward – alone. The ward was not only very short-staffed because of flu, but also extremely busy, with three births imminent. This was the beginning of a long, painful (no epidurals back then) and tedious night (no birthing pools, music or other distractions either) but one which is also utterly unforgettable.

At intervals a kindly but harassed nurse or midwife popped in to check on progress, but otherwise I was left alone to put into practice all those exercises so carefully learned in pre-natal classes. Eventually I was trundled into the delivery room, where at 6.20 in the morning DD made her trouble-free entrance into the world and was placed in my arms.

She was our second child, so I should have been prepared for what happened next. But somehow, in that long, hard night, I had managed to forget temporarily just what that first glimpse of your new-born baby can do to you. I looked down into her face and fell instantly, helplessly and hopelessly in love with this little scrap of humanity, marvelling, as if no-one had ever done so before, at her gossamer eyelashes and miniscule fingernails, at her neat cap of hair and indeterminate button nose, at all the infinite potential of this brand-new person, our daughter.

It was as though I’d been filled up with all the love I would need to accompany  her through not only the joys of life, but through childhood knocks, adolescent growing pains and the difficulties and disappointments of adult life.

And what a very different world it was back in 1971 when she was born. A world without email, mobile phones or Facebook with which to tell people of her arrival. At that stage we didn’t have a phone at home, and as she was born in the middle of a national postal strike, with all the post-boxes sealed, I couldn’t even write to tell anyone.  All I could do was to get hold of the ward phone trolley and phone both sets of parents to ask them to pass on the good news.

She was born the week after Britain’s currency went decimal, when Ted Heath was Prime Minister and George Harrison was topping the hit parade with My Sweet Lord. When she was born the average house price was around £5000 and a gallon of petrol cost 33p.  This was the year when the digital age was also born, with the invention of the microprocessor and the floppy disk, the year when it became possible for the first time to dial direct from London to New York.

Forty years on, she is a happily-married mother of two lovely boys, a hard-working and competent professional, a woman who in her scarce free time likes to relax with music and books and knitting, and always and forever our loving and deeply-loved daughter. Happy birthday, sweetheart. 

Image via Wylio

Monday, February 21, 2011

While the cat’s away….

….the mouse gets busy (whisper it who dares) spring-cleaning. Not that it’s actually spring here in the Mid-Wales hills, you understand, far from it. Also, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm not the world's most ardent housewife, especially in winter, when the days are so short. However, earlier in the week, when the sun managed to shine for a few precious minutes, I had a good look round and was so horrified by the depth of the dust that I decided I HAD to do something about it. 

Fortuitously, DH had arranged to visit his mother this weekend, so the chance to get on unimpeded was too good to miss. Dear as he is, it's so much easier doing things like spring-cleaning when he isn't around. I can stop for breaks and meals when convenient, rather than at usual times, and can shift all his clutter into one big pile in his office or workshop, rather than have him yelping "Don't move that, I'm just about to deal with it." I've heard that one before..... So once I’d waved him goodbye it was out with the duster and the other implements of domestic torture and into the fray.

I started downstairs and that was reasonably straightforward. Granted, there was my knitting stuff to subdue and sort before I could find the settee, but after that it all went like clockwork. The dust was duly disturbed and went off in a huff, the Dyson lurched even nearer to total exhaustion, but at least I can see the surface of the furniture again and we now have a sitting-room where we can actually sit, a dining-table with room for the dishes and a kitchen which positively begs to be cooked in.

Buoyed up by my initial success, I tackled upstairs – or at least the state of chaos known as my study. I knew there was a carpet in there somewhere and I was determined to find it or die in the attempt. Tying a string to the door handle and holding tightly to the other end, I advanced into the jungle surrounding my desk. It was touch and go for a while, but eventually, after a fierce struggle, I emerged triumphant.

For the first time in aeons I can open the bottom drawer of my filing-cabinet without having to shift the tottering piles of books and papers which normally cover the floor in front of it. It’s not that I’m an untidy worker, really I’m not. It’s just that work is so much more fun than filing: a recipe for chaos if ever I heard one. Still, for this brief moment in time, the books have all been shelved and the papers are nestling comfortably in their correct files.

Of course this pristine state of affairs won’t last, but at present I’m so smug it’s quite understandable. I’ve reminded myself what colour the carpet is and can kid myself yet again that at last I’m getting organised.

But it was a slow process getting there. The trouble is that this wasn’t like tidying the kitchen cupboards. These weren’t boring old tins and packets I was sorting but books and magazines and papers, and what they all had in common was lots and lots of irresistibly tempting print. And what do I always do when faced with print – why of course I read it.

As far back as I can remember I’ve been in love with reading. As a child, I’m told, I taught myself to read before school age by constantly asking my parents “What does that say?” whenever I came across words, any words, even on the side of a bus. After that I couldn’t see a cornflake packet on the breakfast table without reading every word on it and my first introduction to foreign languages was the French bit on the HP sauce bottle.

Later my long-suffering mother was forced to take me off fire-lighting duty and give me another chore, because, instead of lighting the fire with yesterday’s newspaper, I would just sit on the hearth rug and read it. This passion for reading is probably why I decided to become a librarian and is certainly why housework comes so low on my list of priorities. If it were a toss-up between dusting and reading, any kind of reading – well, which would you choose?

Image via Wylio

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A toe in the water

I've been teetering on the brink of blogging for so long that it's starting to be ridiculous. I love reading other people's blogs, but reading isn't doing and so the time has come to stop standing on the edge and just dive in – or, being me, to dip my toe tentatively into the water.

Most people think of retirement as being a time to slow down, to stand back from the busyness of life and take up golf or something. Instead, for my DH and me, it’s been a opportunity to up sticks, at least some of the time, and to sample life in not one but two other countries.

Our base of operations is Wales, to be precise the beautiful, quiet and unspoilt area of Mid-Wales, equidistant from the tourist honey-pots of Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and the coast. We’ve lived and worked here for the best part of 40 years and now we’ve retired here, and it’s where we will always come back to.

But before it’s too late we also want to try out life in other lovely corners of the world. For us these are France, more specifically southern Normandy, and in the diametrically opposite direction, the far northern coast of Scotland. We divide our time between these very different locations and count ourselves lucky to be able to do so. Perhaps now you can understand why I chose this particular title for my blog……

Image via Wylio