Return to routine

September has to be a contender for my favourite month of the year. Especially on days like this when the golden sunshine highlights the leaves which are just beginning to change colour, and there’s that hint of crispness in the air. September is a month of anticipation; I guess a hangover from childhood when you had that thrilling triumvirate of Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and Christmas to look forward to. And as I was a fairly geeky and Hermione like child, I’m not at all sure that I didn’t enjoy the return to school, complete with shiny shoes and a lavishly stocked pencil case, more than breaking up for the summer in the first place.

We have had a very enjoyable summer. We’ve paddled and built sandcastles and walked on cliff tops. We’ve made good use of our National Trust membership with visits to Plas Newydd, St Michael’s Mount and Speke Hall. We’ve spent time with friends and family, we’ve been to the zoo, we’ve eaten a lot of ice cream. We’ve had busy days, and days where no-one moved very far from the sofa. We’ve played frisbee in the park and visited innumerable playgrounds.

We’ve baked, and cooked, and swum, and crafted. We’ve kept the sticker book industry in business on various lengthy train journeys. I’ve read a million stories, and also made good use of the wonder that is CBeebies. And though I might feel like I’m the only person in East London not now sporting a Tuscan or Provencal tan, we did make the most of the changeable British weather. But now, I’m ready to get back into our normal routine, and I think the children are too.

I love my daughters more than I can say, and I know I am extremely lucky to have spent the last seven weeks with them. However, I think I may love and appreciate them just a little bit more when I have some time to myself. The windows of time  when Sophia is in pre-school and Anna is at school, and I get to write, or catch up on chores, or go to the toilet by myself, are so precious and they fill me with renewed energy and enthusiasm for spending time with my girls when I pick them up.

I also love September for the feeling of (generally unjustified) optimism at how organised and efficient and productive I am going to be in the coming school year. How my children will gobble up the delicious and perfectly nutritionally balanced meals and snacks I have prepared for them. How our mornings will be be calm and smooth, ending in both children dropped at school with a loving kiss and no cross words exchanged. How our after-school activities will be fun and active and creative and hardly ever involve Peppa Pig. How I will hit the sweet spot of time management which will enable me to utilise my 10 hours a week of childcare to write, to exercise, to relax and to do boring but necessary household tasks. Obviously this is all very unlikely to happen, and in a fortnight’s time I will be, as a friend put it this week, ‘crying into my gin in the corner’ after we make it to the school gates after an hour of ceaseless nagging with only 20 seconds to spare, and both children reject anything which bears even passing resemblance to a vegetable in their lovingly prepared dinner, and I realise that I just spent an entire 2.5 hour pre-school session staring blankly at Facebook whilst eating a family sized bar of Dairy Milk because Sophia has a cold and I was up with her four times in the night. But just for this next week or two I can plan, and I can hope, and I can buy a lovely new notebook to make lists in, and I can enjoy the smugly serene conviction that this is the year I will nail it.



Something old

There was a bit of an autumnal chill in the air this morning, so I pulled an old tweed jacket out of my cupboard to go over the ubiquitous skinny jeans and Breton top mumiform. Anna immediately commented on how nice I looked, and asked if the jacket was new. It most definitely isn’t, it’s just that she hasn’t seen it for a while –  last autumn it didn’t fit me post-Sophia, and the autumn before it didn’t fit me pre-Sophia, and I don’t suppose Anna can remember three years ago! tweed-jacket

When started to think about it, I realised it must actually be one of the oldest items in my wardrobe. When I bought this jacket, from H&M (who says they don’t make things to last!), I was 22 years old. Then-boyfriend-now-husband and I lived in a scruffy and extremely untidy rented flat in Moseley in Birmingham. I was still a graduate management trainee for the NHS, and Anna and Sophia were nothing but twinkles in my eye and a panic-stricken glint in my husband’s. I bought it to wear over a dress for the wedding of a university friend – said wedding was taking place in Scotland, in a marquee, and I have an intense dislike of being cold and a profound mistrust of Scottish weather. I then wore it with tailored trousers and heels for work, and now with jeans and a t-shirt on the school-run.

It’s not actually my oldest item in regular use, however. I have a very much washed, faded, oh-so-soft t-shirt which was actually my uniform when I helped out at a summer school when I was at university. tshirtThe summer school was designed to encourage bright kids from deprived backgrounds to consider Oxford as a university choice, as research had shown that such students were as likely as any other applicant to get a place, but far less likely to apply originally. It was a cause very dear to my heart, and I absolutely loved doing the summer schools two years running, even though taking responsibility, at the age of 20, for a group of eight 14 and 15 year olds, many of whom were away from home for the first time, was umm, interesting. A development experience, as they say. For some reason, the t-shirt became my adult comfort blanket. I only wear it to sleep in, and because it is now quite threadbare I save it for times when I really need comfort – when I asked husband to bring t-shirt and leggings to the hospital when I was spending the night on a camp bed next to Sophia, this was the t-shirt he brought.

But if we move away from clothes and onto jewellery, then my 15 year old t-shirt is suddenly the new kid on the block. When I was about 13 or 14, my nanna gave me some jewellery which had belonged to her mum. It was only costume jewellery – mostly rings. They were too big for my nanna, and my mum, so one thing I know I inherited from my great-grandmother is my chubby fingers! ringsI loved them right away, and although my tastes in almost everything have changed since I was 13, I still love these rings. I save them for special occasions now, as in my everyday life I spend too much time changing nappies/washing up/cleaning/wiping sticky faces and fingers/kneading dough to cope with big rings, but I still think they’re beautiful. And, as my nanna was born in 1921, and they belonged to her mum, they may well have broken the 100 years barrier to become not merely vintage but actually antique!

What’s the oldest item you regularly wear?

Back to School

After a warm and sunny summer it felt appropriate that we woke up this morning to grey skies and drizzly rain. And, of course, inevitable that the rain cover on the new buggy promptly broke. It was a bit of a squelchy school run, but that didn’t dampen Anna’s enthusiasm at all. She’s been a bit nervous about the big move up to Juniors over the summer, but then getting together with some of her friends at the park last week for a class picnic, and then again yesterday for a cinema ‘n’ Pizza Express birthday party seemed to remind her of how much fun she has at school with her friends, and excitement took over from nerves.

One of the children at the party who has an older sibling told everyone that they had to have their own fully equipped pencil case, so we had an emergency trip to Wilkos yesterday afternoon. I wasn’t exactly reluctant – I absolutely love buying new stationery, and in between the pencils and rubbers I also managed to sneak in a couple of pretty little notebooks for me. Ahem. Oh, and a full set of multi-coloured pens. Husband did question the necessity for those given that Anna isn’t allowed to write in pen at school yet, and when she does it will be with a specially approved ‘handwriting pen’, but I thought they might come in useful for, ummm, stuff. And they’re so pretty!

back to school

Having been really looking forward to Anna going back so that I get that golden nap-time window all to myself each day and can start to try and organise the chaos that our lives and home have descended into over the summer, inevitably Sophia fell asleep in her (damp) buggy at 9.10am just after dropping Anna off. Grr. There’s no point fighting it, so instead we splashed down to Boots and I cheered myself up with a new nail varnish (Rimmel, ‘London Bus’ – a girl can never have too many red nail varnishes). Of course she then wouldn’t settle in her cot for an afternoon nap, so I ended up letting her amuse herself playing with a feather duster and a handful of fridge magnets while I hoovered, before setting off with the buggy to walk her to sleep for another little nap to prevent an evening meltdown. So much for time to myself for organising everything!

I really missed Anna as well, and the house felt very quiet with just Sophia and me in it. Thanks to my MIL looking after Sophia, though, I got to go and pick Anna up by myself and take her for a milkshake at our local cafe so that she could give me a proper debrief on her first day without interruptions from her little sister. It all seemed positive, with the highlights being a reading corner they are going to decorate themselves with covers of their favourite books, and the news that for the first time since Reception there is a class bear who will come home with different children over the course of the year. I’m hoping we’re fairly early on before the competition intensifies and we end up having to take Humphrey to Euro Disney or book a box in Covent Garden in order to show him a good time.

Anyway, tomorrow is another day. I have now at least made a list of all the jobs I need to do should I manage to get Sophia to have a nap in her cot. And we have crisp mornings, opaque tights, sausage and mash, cashmere cardies, and after-school hot chocolates and crumpets to look forward to over the coming months. Not to mention the fact that Anna just announced that now it is September she feels it is acceptable to start getting excited about Christmas…

Summing up Summer

I’m a bit slow off the mark with the obligatory summer in review post. I could blame the back-to-school rush, or the poorly catten, but I think my own disorganisation would probably be fairer.

For the past couple of years, when confronted with a six week summer holiday, I have scheduled, scheduled, scheduled in a desperate attempt to avoid boredom and cabin fever. This year was a little different. We had one week’s holiday in Cornwall planned, and I spent a few days with my parents in Liverpool right at the beginning of the summer, but otherwise we had a blank slate. I was a little bit nervous, but it turned out to be just what we all needed.

This was the summer that Anna learnt to ride a bike, Sophia learnt to crawl and I learnt the true meaning of multi-tasking. Feeding the baby her porridge, bidding on Ebay, eating my own breakfast and joining in a spirited Sound of Music singsong?No problem.

The weather wasn’t brilliant, but we had fun anyway, and spent time doing a lot of the things that just get squeezed out in term-time as weekends have so many competing demands. We had a pyjama day, took a selection of soft toys to the playground, made pizza, chilli, spaghetti sauce, butterfly cakes, chocolate cake and Smarties cookies (not all on the same day), did some gardening, started reading Famous Five, had some cycling practice, and got messy with paints and crafts. We spent a lot of time babyproofing and looking round for objects which could be dangerous to Sophia, and even more time removing the ones we’d missed from her mouth.

Mornings without the pressure of the school run were sheer bliss, and time didn’t hang heavy at all. There were days when I felt like I’d taken up a new, unpaid career in catering but generally it was a lot easier than I’d feared. There was a summer hero though. By about 4.30pm my nerves, patience and creativity would be stretched fairly thin and I still had teatime, bathtime and bedtime to get through. That was when the wonder that is Cbeebies came into its own, giving me breathing space to sit down for ten minutes and then cook tea with only one small person, who could be contained in her bouncy chair for a while, to worry about. Telly which is safe, fun, educational, perfectly targeted to young children and free from advertising is an absolute godsend, so I was more than a bit panicstricken today to learn that the BBC are thinking of scrapping it as part of their enforced cost-cutting measures. Frankly I would pay the license fee for Cbeebies alone, so I rushed to sign the petition against the cut. If you and your children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren have also benefited as much as we have from Cbeebies then I’d encourage you to do the same.

And now we have shiny new shoes, warm coats, school bags, PE kits, GBBO on telly, leaves turning colour…and the unbroken blue skies and blazing sunshine which were conspicuous only by their absence in August.

Love and parkin

For those of you who don’t know, parkin is  a special, and delicious, ginger cake made with oatmeal, traditionally baked in Yorkshire and Lancashire. As I have a foot in both camps – born and brought up in Liverpool but with my dad’s side of the family coming from Sheffield – this cake is something I grew up with, and it has come to have a very special place in my life and baking repertoire. Traditionally parkin was made for Bonfire Night, and I certainly associate it with autumn. I baked my first of the year this morning, even though the weather probably isn’t really cold enough to justify such nesting treats, and it has inspired a whole host of parkin related memories.

My recipe is handed down to me from my Granny, and I never bake parkin without thinking about her. It’s now nearly five years  since she died, and I still miss her very much, most of all when I am baking or pottering round my kitchen, as undoubtedly my love of cooking and of using the food I make as a way to show love for family and friends is something I inherited from her. I have very clear memories of standing at her kitchen table choosing the correct weight for her old-fashioned scales, or learning the difference between stirring and folding. We had all our best conversations in the kitchen. As my Grandad’s birthday was 1st November, we often spent October half-term in Sheffield with my grandparents to celebrate, and so, more often than not, parkin was on the menu. Sometimes Granny would have already baked it before we arrived, but my favourite times were when she hadn’t and so I got to help her.

When my brother and I were very small children my dad would do some fireworks in the back garden, and we’d have a packet of sparklers to share. November evenings seemed colder then, and so we’d both be bundled up in every hat, scarf and jumper we possessed. When they were finished and we came in, over-tired and over-excited, we used to strip off all the woolies and put them in a big pile in the middle of the living room floor, making a nest in which we could sit for our post firework supper of parkin (Granny had passed the recipe on to my mum) and hot Ribena.

In my first term at university I was really poorly with a horrible and long-lasting case of Fresher’s Flu. After a couple of weeks of feeling utterly miserable, barely able to leave my room, I phoned my parents in despair. Now that I’m a mum myself I can fully empathise with how hard that phone call must have been for them, and totally understand why they did the 300 mile round trip to see me as soon as humanly possible. They arrived laden with vitamin tablets, hot water bottles and tonics, but, best of all, my mum had baked me some parkin. The other two girls on my staircase were from County Durham and Huddersfield respectively, and during those first few weeks any strange predilection the three of us showed for the likes of brown sauce, black pudding or mushy peas was explained to our new friends from Down South as “it’s a Northern Thing”. It rapidly became a catch phrase. Parkin was another one of these Northern things, and it proved a very popular one – all sixteen portions of cake were gone within about an hour. I was very lucky to have made amazing friends very quickly, and because I wasn’t well enough to go out, they came to me. Especially when there was home-made cake. Ginger is meant to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and they may have helped, but it was the feeling of being loved, baked for and looked after which really helped my recovery.

Pretty much this time last year, Bonfire Night to be exact, my husband was away with work and, although I was suffering the total wipe-out exhaustion of early pregnancy, I had decided that after nursery Anna and I would bake parkin together (another Northern tradition for my Southern baby) before heading out to watch the fireworks display in a local park. Unfortunately during the morning I started with the cramping pains that warned me another miscarriage, my second in five months, was on the way. I gritted my teeth and carried on – picking  Anna up from nursery, making lunch, baking parkin. I was scared and in pain, trying to hold it together for Anna and worried that I wouldn’t be able to, but I did find comfort from the memories of my Granny which the baking evoked, and I knew that, when she was confronted with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, getting in the kitchen and getting on with it was the way she would have coped.parkin

By the time the cake was in the oven, and the resonant buttery-gingery smells were wafting through the house, I gave in, realising there was no way I was going to be taking Anna to the fireworks that evening. I installed her on the sofa with a dvd to watch and sent out a may-day. My husband wasn’t contactable, so my poor parents were the recipient of yet another distressed phone call. Once more they found themselves unexpectedly heading south to come and look after me.

And when the miscarriage turned out actually to be an ectopic pregnancy, and my parents stayed to look after Anna while my husband was at the hospital with me, I felt just slightly better knowing that there was a wholesome, comforting cake at home for them to all tuck into.

This morning is the first time I have baked parkin since that day last year – for the rest of last autumn and winter it simply felt too emotionally loaded. As I looked for the recipe in my file I worried about how I would cope, but in the event I was fine. There’s a new layer; as well as remembering my Granny, and thinking about the times my mum has baked it for me with love, I now also remember a baby who wasn’t to be. There’s a great solace in baking a recipe which has been handed down through the generations, which has been baked through illness and crisis and bereavement and war, and each time has provided a cake to nurture and sustain. That’s what my mother and grandmother have done for me, and what I in turn hope to do for my own daughter. I’ve included the recipe below in case you want to create some comforting memories of your own.




4oz margarine

4oz brown sugar

4oz golden syrup 

4oz medium oatmeal

4oz self raising flour

1 egg, beaten with 3 tablespoons of milk

2-3 teaspoons of ginger (to personal taste)


1) Pre-heat oven to 160 (Gas 3). Grease and line a 7 inch square tin.

2) Melt sugar, margarine and syrup gently together in a pan, don’t allow to boil.

3) Weigh out dry ingredients into a bowl. Pour melted sugar mixture onto dry ingredients and mix, alternating with the egg mixture. Combine into a fairly runny batter. Be warned, it doesn’t look especially pretty at this point!

4) Pour into tin and bake for one hour, or until golden and slightly risen, with a knife or skewer coming out clean. (You can see from my picture that I was quite heavy handed doing that today!).

This cake (unless eaten) keeps beautifully in a tin for up to a fortnight. In fact many aficionados feel it tastes better after a few days – I wouldn’t disagree, but it often doesn’t last that long!