Beside the seaside

Predictably, despite my panics, the summer holidays are absolutely flying by. Only just over two weeks to go, and then we’ll be back in the school-run routine again. I’m taking advantage of a very rare window of peace and quiet when Anna is round at her friend’s building a den to hold the meetings of their secret society (“I think ‘society’ sounds much more grown up and important than ‘club’, doesn’t it, Mummy?), and Sophia is having her nap. Aannnnd breathe…

The lovely thing about this summer is the amount of time we have been lucky enough to spend at the seaside, first of all in Anglesey and then in West Cornwall. I love the sea. Somehow gazing out to sea, breathing the tangy saline air, feeling the sand between my toes manages to calm and energise and inspire me all at the same time.

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It’s also been brilliant watching how much fun the children can have with a good old bucket and spade – damming streams, digging holes, building sandcastles.

One of my worries about these school holidays was that the disparity in ages between Anna (8) and Sophia (2) would make it really difficult to entertain both of them at the same time, but a beach really is a happy place for all of us.

Of course, it has also helped having lots of family around. We were in Anglesey with my parents and, for half the time, with my brother and SIL, and my MIL was with us in Cornwall. They were around to give me a chance for a solitary walk along the beach of an evening, to teach Anna to play French cricket, to pass a rainy afternoon in reading stories or teaching origami, to take care of Sophia for a few hours and enable us to have a lovely long cliff path walk with Anna. Thank heaven for grandparents and aunts and uncles!

looking at the view

Just looking through my photos as I prepare this post has given me a renewed sense of calm and tranquility. The challenge now is to maintain that in the hustle and bustle of daily life a long way away from the sea. The little cafe just off the beach at Lligwy, where we stayed on Anglesey, had this poster up:

live well sign

Yes, it’s a little bit hippyish, and yes, these things are all easier to achieve on holiday by a beautiful beach than they are on a grey November morning when you have to do three loads of laundry, clean the loo and pay the credit card bill. But despite this, it actually feels like pretty good advice. I suspect that when my life starts to feel overwhelming and out of balance it is because I haven’t been spending enough time doing some of these.

It can’t always be sunset over Penzance Harbour or Lligwy Beach, but I really want to retain some of the magical peace of these beautiful places now I’m back home in East London.

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Beside the seaside

It’s an appropriately grey, rainy and blustery day for the first day back at school, preschool and work after a (mainly!) sunshiny half term at the seaside.

We rented a cottage in Hastings for the week, and had the most idyllic time imaginable. I’m surprised Hastings isn’t better known as a holiday destination, because it is perfect in every way, from the narrow, higgledy-piggledy streets of the Old Town lined with independent cafes and delightful antique shops, to the dramatic cliffs rising up straight from the town, their tops a lush carpet of wildflowers leading to the South Downs beyond, to the waves crashing on the beach and the fishermen pulling in their catch, to the traditional family holiday amusements of fairground and crazy golf it has everything you could want.

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We spent hours on the beach, paddling, wave jumping, hunting in rock pools, searching for pretty pebbles and shells, burying each other’s legs and damming streams. The children were both in their element. The miraculous thing about a seaside holiday is that, even though we took practically no toys (Anna had her Kindle and her favourite soft toy, Sophia had a handful of picture books as well as Mouse and Bunny, who are indispensable sleep aids), and we bought a couple buckets and spades, and they were both totally content with these for the whole week.

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We had a morning at the fair, and an afternoon playing crazy golf (which by some fluke I won, managing no less than two holes in one!), and then a couple of day trips out to National Trust properties in Sussex. Bodiam Castle is the ultimate child’s storybook medieval castle, complete with moat, and we got there by steam train! Bateman’s is  Rudyard Kipling’s old home, and dreamily beautiful. June must be one of the best months to see an English country garden, and this one was spectacular.

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I was feeling totally fed up with cooking and housework at the beginning of the holiday, and really needed a break. I was a bit worried that self-catering meant that I wouldn’t get one, but I needn’t have worried. We had fresh sourdough bread and pastries from the local organic bakery for breakfast each day, picnics for lunch – either humous and oatcakes or sausage rolls from the same bakery and a bit of cucumber and some cherry tomatoes to keep scurvy at bay, and then dinner was either fish and chips, a Waitrose ready meal courtesy of the Ocado delivery I booked for the first day, or something really simple like locally smoked mackerel and salad which was well within husband’s limited culinary capability. All delicious, no-one starved, and I have come home with a renewed enthusiasm for cooking. As for housework, well, we were out pretty much all day every day, so things didn’t really have a chance to get messed up.

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I find being by the sea so therapeutic that I have come home refreshed, calmed and energised. Oh, and determined to start a fund to buy a second home in Hastings Old Town. Maybe if I start saving £2 coins…?

A week in Provence

My husband had a migraine yesterday. He’s started getting them periodically over the last year, and we’re still trying to work out the triggers, but one of them seems to be release of stress – he’s fine while the adrenalin is still pumping, but when things calm down his body protests. Apparently this is quite common, and the phenomenon is sometimes known as ‘weekend headaches’. In this case, however, the migraine came the day after we got home from a week’s holiday. I suggested that this time it could be straightforward nerves, as he is not only back to work today, but also starting a new job. He said it wasn’t, it was actually the release of stress after successfully completing our holiday, in particular the nine hour journey back from the South of France by train. Holiday planning and booking is very much husband’s job in our household, and apparently he was so stressed out by how annoyed I would be if he had messed up the bookings and we found ourselves stranded in Lille that it triggered a migraine. Oops. Note to self: Be nicer.

I wouldn’t say the journey home will go down as one of my favourite ever days. For a start we had been inadvertently booked in the quiet coach, and ‘quiet coach’ isn’t a concept you can really convey to a fifteen month old. Not an English one anyway. French children, apparently, not only refrain from throwing food, they have all taken a vow of silence. My attempts to exchange conspiratorial eye-rolls with other parents were met with frosty glares, and I actually thought the middle-aged woman across the aisle was going to spit on us. I felt slightly guilty about disrupting her journey, until I was pacing the vestibule area with Sophia and discovered that being a stickler for the rules on quiet carriages didn’t prevent her sneaking off to the loos for a sneaky fag or eight. Puh. However, none of this was my husband’s fault. And I didn’t shout at him. I just drip-fed Sophia raisins whilst internally exercising my A-level French to the max in order to compose cuttingly sarcastic comebacks which I would obviously never have the nerve to utter.

The week preceding the journey home was lovely, though. For a start we broke the outward journey with a blissful 24 hours in Paris, managing to cram in a walk along the Seine, people-watching and listening to live jazz in a street cafe, a sneaky coupe de champagne or deux, and a very decent amount of croissants, pains aux chocolats, quiche and profiteroles. Oh, and a four-hour stint kneeling on the wooden floor awkwardly leaning over the side of a travel-cot to which Sophia had taken exception, and would only consent to lie in if I stroked her tummy. Every 20 minutes or so she would look so deeply asleep I would think it was safe to withdraw, and every time eyes and mouth immediately snapped wide open. Finally, I discovered that singing to her had the same soothing effect without crippling me, so I lay in bed next to her, singing lullabies until fell asleep, and I assume she must have done too.

We were staying  the rest of the week in Marseille. Anna is now a huge fan of Marseille, largely because the flat we were staying in had a hammock in the bedroom and a treehouse in the garden. I was slightly less sure. The people were so warm and friendly, and the views from the many hills were spectacular, but there was a bit too much graffiti, noise, dog poo and dangerous driving for my lamentably Northern European sensibilities. However. We ate some truly fantastic food. Fresh seafood in a cafe where you chose what you wanted from an enormous ice-chipped counter, and then they cooked it for you fresh. With mountains of the best chips I’ve ever tasted. And home-made alioli. Stuffed vegetables and gratin dauphinoise from our local traiteur. Mille-feuille. Local strawberries. Cheese. Pate. Fresh bread and pastries. Ratatouille. Crepes. To be honest I’ve never totally ‘got’ French food before this trip, always finding it a little bit too rich and heavy and lacking in vegetables. Maybe my tastes have changed, but I also think that Provencal cooking has much more emphasis on loads of fresh vegetables to accompany the inevitable cheese/butter/cream fest, and I prefer it for that. Anyway, I came home 1lb lighter, despite eating like a pig all week!

We also had fantastic trips to Les Calanques – the dramatic rocky cliffs and coves around Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Arles. The weather was mixed, but good enough that my beloved Saltwater sandals got their first outing of 2016 and we could introduce Sophia to the delights of paddling.

The nicest thing about the week, though, was some proper family time uninterrupted by the demands of housework, paid work, school and all our various mobile devices. Absolute bliss. And now my husband has recovered from the migraine seemingly brought on by terror of me losing my temper, we all feel refreshed and ready for the new term. salawaters

My March Books

I absolutely definitely do not have time to write this blog post! We are off to France for a week on Saturday, and I have a lot to do to get ready. It is a home exchange holiday, so in addition to all the usual pre-holiday prep of packing and so on, we also have to leave the house in tip-top condition for our guest family. And, of course, the children need feeding, watering and entertaining as usual. Just to make life even more fun, our drinking water went off this morning, and so I spent quite a lot of time I definitely did not have boiling and cooling water, and organising an emergency plumber. And then a lady from First Utility called to have a matey chat about my kilowatt unit costs and how I could be reducing them. It felt too important to hang up, but wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending 20 minutes of Sophia’s precious nap time!

However. If I don’t write my March books up today, then it won’t happen until mid-April, so I have despatched Anna to tidy her bedroom (possibly for ‘tidy’ read ‘curl up on her bean-bag and listen to her Paddington CD), and Sophia is in her cot. The chatting and burbling indicate that she is in no way asleep, but I am choosing to ignore that for the time being and call it nap-time. So, March books here we go.

March booksCasting Off  and All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

It feels like a long time since I finished the final two novels in Howard’s amazing family saga, right back at the very beginning of March. Having absolutely loved the first three in the series, these two definitely did not disappoint. We follow the lives of the Cazalets into the social change and economic uncertainty of the years immediately following the Second World War. The characters whom we met as children are now grown up, many of them with children of their own. The intimacy of the writing is such that every turn of the plot feels like news or gossip about old friends. “Ooh, Polly’s had twins!” or “Thank goodness Hugh has met someone else at last.” or “I always thought that Wills was probably gay”. I absolutely loved, loved, loved these books, and know that I will return to them again and again.

A Summer at Sea by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde is one of my top go-to authors for romantic escapism and comfort reading. I can also report *gets ready to boast* that she is an absolutely delightful person. I met her at the Romantic Novelists Association awards when my own book, Two for Joy was short-listed for Contemporary Novel of the Year a couple of years ago. Sadly I didn’t win, but it was fantastic to meet Katie, and she was kind enough to say that she had really enjoyed my books, which was a fantastic compliment. Anyway, a new Katie Fforde is always cause for celebration, and although I buy most of my books in our fantastic local Waterstone’s, when I saw this on special offer in Sainsbury’s as I did the weekly food shop one rainy Monday morning I just couldn’t resist.

Emily, the central protagonist, is a midwife – a career I seriously considered myself for a while – so it was particularly interesting for me. As always, Fforde has obviously done her research very thoroughly. Throw in some beautiful Scottish Highlands scenery, a heavily pregnant best friend and a ruggedly handsome Scottish doctor, and you’ve got a total feel-good read which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

I don’t like writing negative reviews. I understand very well just how much effort goes into writing a book, and it feels downright churlish to publicly tear all that to pieces because it doesn’t meet your personal taste. I would never say I enjoyed something I didn’t, but prefer to operate on the principle of ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. In this case, though, the author has been dead for many years, and so is unlikely to be hurt by my saying that this was one book I just couldn’t finish. I got about half way through, but found both characters and plot so implausible I was actually looking for excuses not t0 read! I decided enough was enough, and just skim-read to the end to discover whodunnit. I won’t be counting the book as one of my 52, but I have included it here for completeness.

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster

After not enjoying Murder of a Lady I was looking for something to really get my teeth into, when this book by Margaret Forster caught my eye on a display in Waterstone’s. I still had book tokens from my birthday, so was able to treat myself, and I’m really glad I did.

The book does what it says on the tin. It is an account by Forster of every house she lived in during her nearly 80 years. She was born in a  two-up, two-down council house in Carlisle, and ended up with two homes, one in affluent Dartmouth Park on the borders of Hampstead Heath in London, and a holiday home in the Lake District. The book covers the personal – the story of her family, education, marriage, children, career and the illness which ultimately killed her, and the socio-political – how our homes and what we expect from them has changed over the course of the 20th and early 21st century.

Forster’s personality shines through her vivid descriptions, and so it was particularly poignant reading it just a few weeks after she died. The enormous importance and significance of ‘home’ to her is also something I feel very strongly myself, and so there was that fantastic chord of recognition which is one of the chief pleasures of reading.

Death in Devon by Ian Sansom

I wasn’t sure if I was going to love or hate this book before I read it.  It is the second in a new series of detective fiction set in the 1930s. They are a very deliberate ironic pastiche of the Golden Age crime novels I love so much, and at first I wasn’t sure if I would find the satire annoying. In the end, I didn’t. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that it was an affectionate, ironic satire, rather than a biting attack, and I enjoyed it. The narrator, a Spanish Civil War veteran, is highly likeable, and the plot was cleverly thought out, with a shock ending in the best tradition of Golden Age fiction. I will definitely be looking out for more books in this series.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

I had a bit of a Wodehouse-fest last month when I wasn’t well. Thankfully I haven’t had tonsillitis this month, but we did have an evening with a financial advisor talking about life insurance. The intellectual effort of trying to bend my mind around figures and statistics and probabilities and the pros and cons of different models, combined with the existential horror of contemplating a scenario where I am a widow with two young children, or my babies have been left motherless or orphaned meant that by the time our (very nice, helpful, friendly and intelligent) financial advisor left, I was in no fit state for anything but a mug of hot Ribena, bed and an instalment of Jeeves and Wooster. That made everything ok again.

 

 

Tenth Day of Advent: Cornwall

Back in my NCT classes when I was pregnant with Anna, the teacher led a relaxation exercise, and asked us to envision our ‘happy place’. I didn’t have to think for a moment. My happy place is Penberth Cove, on the Penwith Peninsula, right down in the far, far west of Cornwall. Without consciously knowing I was doing it, I had already been employing this meditative technique for years. At the dentist having a filling, or struggling to get to sleep because I had a big day at work the next day, I would take myself to Penberth. I would imagine as much detail as I could; the saline tang of the air, the salt spray in my face, the swoosh swoosh (or crash crash, depending on weather) of the waves coming in, the bright yellow gorse, turquoise sea contrasting with uncompromising grey granite cliffs, and (in my dreams at least) azure sky. It still is my happy place, and now all the happier for being able to add the image of a toddler Anna exploring it into my mental picture.Anna penberth

I went to this part of Cornwall for the first time when I was nineteen. My boyfriend (now husband) had been going with his family to the same cottage every year since he was five, so it was incredibly generous of my parents-in-law to include his girlfriend of six months in this special family tradition. To say nothing of brave to commit themselves to a week in a tiny cottage in the middle of nowhere with a girl they barely knew. Probably fairly brave of me to accept the invitation too, given the infamous challenges of the in-law relationship, but I was so dizzily and madly in love that I would probably have taken a holiday in a war zone or a tent in the middle of the desert if my beloved had thought it was a good idea.

Miraculously it all worked out. My parents-in-law’s generosity extended to making me feel incredibly welcome and included, and I still have so many happy memories of that trip. Long, wet, windy walks along the cliff tops, and then back home to light the fire and sit chatting, reading or watching TV. Oh, and drinking gin and tonic. My tastes in alcohol weren’t particularly sophisticated in those days. My drink of choice in the pub with friends had been a steamboat – Southern Comfort, lime and lemonade. It’s main advantage is that it packs quite a punch without actually tasting of alcohol. But my mother-in-law’s G&Ts are good enough to convert a teetotaller. I dread to think what the ratios are – suffice it to say that the first time I ordered a G&T in a pub (a double) I nearly returned it because I thought they must have forgotten the gin!

It was the first of many Cornish holidays with my in-laws. One year we were up to our eyes in college work and couldn’t manage a whole week, so we took the train down to Penzance, spent the night in the cottage, went for a walk and the obligatory pasty the next day before getting the sleeper train back to Paddington. We were away from Oxford for considerably less than 48 hours, yet had travelled half a world away. Sadly my father-in-law died a few years ago. One of the reasons Cornwall is such a happy place for me now is that it is somewhere I have such happy memories of him.

Penberth was also the first place we took Anna on holiday, when she was just three months old. The next year she had recently started walking, and I have some lovely memories (and photos) of her finding her feet in the verdant garden and on the coastal path. t&a

We haven’t been very lucky with the weather in Cornwall the last few years we’ve been but, although it is particularly beautiful and enjoyable in the sunshine, I genuinely love it in all weathers. Wind and rain has a particular violent freedom in Cornwall which sends me straight to a Daphne du Maurier novel. And at any time of year the food is heavenly – Cornish pasties, fresh crab, clotted cream – some of my favourite things ever. Although I love it so much, I can’t possibly spend more than a week a year there or I will end up too fat to fit on the train down.

me, A and trainThe train down is another total joy. On a couple of occasions my MIL has taken Anna down on an early train, and husband has done a day in work and then met me at Paddington to take the 18.00 to Penzance. When that happens we make a real occasion of it. A glass of champagne at Searcy’s in Paddington station, and then the full three-course silver service dinner in the proper old-fashioned restaurant car. Watching the sun set over the Dawlish coast from a luxurious feeling train carriage whilst eating a delicious meal has got to be a lifetime highlight.
I might only get to Cornwall once a year or so, but the memories it has provided and the knowledge that it is there in my mind’s eye whenever I need it make me happy all year round.