thank you neon

Husband and I were talking over dinner last night, and somehow the subject of who we were most grateful to came up. We challenged each other to name the five people in our lives to whom we felt we owed the most gratitude, excluding people we were related to. It was a thought-provoking discussion. After a little consideration, my list, in chronological order. looked like this:

  1. Mrs Wadsworth – she was my English teacher in years 9, 10 and 11, and she really inspired me with the love of the subject I went on to study at university. I had always loved to read, but she helped me to go further, to think about and analyse what I had read, and to get more out of reading by doing so. She gave me confidence in my ability. She also gave my friend and me a catchphrase we regularly use to this day – “Don’t worry, just work”. This was in the run-up to our GCSEs when it was easy to get paralysed by panic, and to spend longer working out your revision timetable than actually revising. Mrs Wadsworth’s breezy “don’t worry, just work” was excellent ‘get on and bloody do it’ advice, which I still remind myself of frequently when I have a difficult or unpleasant task I am anxious about. Stop fretting and get it done!
  2. Mrs Wilson – was my Head of 6th Form. It was she who persuaded me to go to Merton College, Oxford, for a student open day when I was in Year 12. I was highly sceptical, convinced that Oxford would be snobbish, elitest and not for people like me. However, Mrs Wilson stuck to her guns, and in doing so did me one of the biggest favours of my life. It only took ten minutes wandering round Merton’s exquisitely beautiful quads and garden for the chip on my shoulder to vanish, replaced by a steely determination that this is where I would study. I succeeded, and had three incredibly happy years, made some amazing friends, and met the love of my life.
  3. Jo Naylor was the Infant Feeding Advisor at the hospital where Anna was born eight years ago. For one reason or another we didn’t get off to the best start with breastfeeding, and I found many of the midwives looking after me to be unhelpful at best. But Jo was amazing. Warm and caring and sensitive, but also sharing my total bloodyminded determination that this baby was going to be breastfed. She gave me confidence in my body and in my baby when I needed it most. She taught me to express and finger feed so that I could be sure of Anna getting some food, even before she was able to latch on properly. She visited me several times a day when I was in hospital, and then came to see us at home afterwards. We got there, and I am so grateful to her because breastfeeding my babies has given me some of the most precious memories of my life, as well as hopefully getting them off to the healthiest start possible.
  4. Professor Lesley Regan – runs the Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary’s Paddington. We were referred here for investigations after my third miscarriage. I saw many lovely junior doctors and nurses, and had a plethora of scans and blood tests, culminating in an operation to see what was going on in my slightly defective womb. They discovered that half my womb was actually missing, a condition known as a unicornucate uterus. The doctor who performed the operation and gave me the results was incredulous that I had already had a full term pregnancy, and was extremely pessimistic about my chances of doing so again, and I was heartbroken. We then had an appointment with Professor Regan herself. She looked at my notes, and commented that she would never have believed my anatomy to be compatible with carrying a healthy baby to term. However, she said, you’ve done it once, so I don’t see any reason whatsoever why you can’t do it again. Those words imbued us with the confidence we needed to try again, and risk putting ourselves through the heartbreak of miscarriage again. She also advised us, contrary to our inclination to wait for a few years to let ourselves heal mentally, that I was nearly 33, that I wasn’t particularly young in child-bearing terms, especially as I had had complications, and that we should get on with it. I was pregnant with the baby who turned out to be Sophia two months later. I didn’t see Professor Regan again, but her clinic was then fantastic at supporting us through those tense and panicky early weeks of pregnancy.
  5. Francesca Best – Francesca was the commissioning editor at Hodder and Stoughton who made the decision to publish my first novel, Two For Joy. This achievement is one of the things I am proudest of, and I will always be grateful to Francesca for spotting my potential and giving me the chance. She was also a brilliant editor to chat with and work with and helped me bring my work up to a standard I wouldn’t have believed possible, and which, indeed, wouldn’t have been without her input.

So there’s my top five! Of course it’s an artificial list in many ways, because the rules of our game excluding family meant that I had to miss out many of the people (my parents, grandparents and husband spring to mind) to whom I actually owe the biggest debts of gratitude for their constant and ongoing support and inspiration. I am also lucky enough to have many friends to whom I am grateful for many things, but the five people above are ones who gave me what I needed at crucial pivot points in my life, and indeed have influenced for the better the whole course of my life.

What about you? Who are the people who have made the the biggest difference to your life, and to whom you are most grateful?


On the Third Day of Christmas

I’ve blogged before about my frustrations with pregnancy tiredness and lassitude, and nowhere has that been more true than with regard to my writing. I launched my second book, To Have and to Hold in June – luckily this was all finished, bar a few edits, before the blue line in the pregnancy test appeared – and would have hoped that five months later my third book would be well under way. It hasn’t quite worked like that. For a start there have been many days when my body saw me sitting down as a cue for instant, overwhelming sleep, and so I could virtuously settle myself down with my laptop only to wake two hours later with keyboard imprints on my face. And then there was the problem of what to write

The book I started, with a plot which had been spinning around in my head for a long time, focussed on three couples experiencing the miseries of fertility problems and miscarriage. It’s a subject close to my heart, and in large part I think I had planned the book as catharsis; a way of coming to terms with the babies I had lost, and coping with the fact that my much-wanted second child might never be born. When I was lucky enough to become pregnant, this subject suddenly felt far too loaded. I struggled on for a few chapters, but always ended up depressed, anxious, in tears or, frequently, all three. The combination of hormones, my ongoing anxiety that this is indeed too good to be true, and that something will go wrong with my pregnancy, and an emotive storyline proved too much for me. I decided to shelve that project, at least for the time being. The characters are still in my mind, and I have a feeling that I’ll come back to them one day, but now is not the time.

on the third day of christmas coverSo, if not that, then what? Almost without thinking about it I decided that a short story would be the perfect project and, as Toby and Julia, the lead characters from my first book Two for Joy are very close to my heart, it seemed natural to return to them. At the beginning of Two for Joy they are both thirty, and the reader discovers that they have been friends since meeting at university 12 years earlier. There are a few hints and flashbacks throughout Two for Joy, but the entire time I was writing it I felt that I knew Toby and Julia’s back story, just as clearly as I know my own or that of my friends. And so I wrote it down. As readers we share Julia’s trip down memory lane as she reflects on the Christmas she has just spent with Toby, and what it might mean in the context of 12 years of their friendship and romantic near-misses. The result is a short story/novella called On the Third Day of Christmas which will be published as an e-book on 4 December 2014 (coincidentally just a few days away from my due date!), and is available to pre-order now. I hope it will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Two for Joy, but it is also a stand-alone story.

As for Book Three, well, I do have a new idea I’m working on, but there’s absolutely no way that the book is going to beat the baby. And although it’s nearly six years ago, I do seem to remember that life with a newborn isn’t exactly conducive to literary endeavour. Or getting dressed, washing your hair, brushing your teeth, leaving the house etc etc. So I am going to award myself a few months of maternity leave from writing, although I will continue to blog when time and sleep levels permit. When I emerge from the fog of the early stages it will be brilliant to have something all lined up and ready to work on. I definitely found that having one child increased my motivation, efficiency and productivity, so am hoping that a second baby will have a similar effect. In which case I could be looking at a third book by my baby’s first birthday. Watch this space…


Round about the time my daughter turned three we started to get a bit broody. We weren’t ready to start ‘trying’ for baby number two, apart from anything else we were running out of room anyway in our tiny house, and trying to find somewhere bigger to move to was the priority. However,these things don’t always go quite according to plan, and a sunshiny holiday in Italy with a few glasses of Pinot Grigio later, and we were looking at a positive pregnancy test.

To say we were thrilled was an understatement. The decision whether or not to have a second child had been one we’d debated pretty much ever since Anna was born – on one hand I’d always imagined a having two children and Anna growing up with all the joy of a sibling to share toys, experiences and arguments with, on the other hand I’d barely slept for two and a half years, and I have a form of arthritis which causes joint pain and fatigue, so I wasn’t at all sure I could cope with the demands of two small children. Our happy accident felt like fate deciding for us, and we were delighted.

Sadly, just a week or so later I went to the toilet and found some spots of blood. Over the next few hours the bleeding and the pain intensified, and I was in no doubt that I was losing the baby. Although this hadn’t been planned, although we were at such an early stage in the pregnancy, it still felt as though my heart was being ripped out. With a bitter irony, my first miscarriage came just two days before we moved into the three bedroomed house which would have plenty of room for two children.

I didn’t see a doctor at first, there didn’t seem much point. I just wanted to get it over with and get pregnant again as soon as possible – at least we now knew that was what we definitely wanted. A week later, though, I woke up with a high temperature, convulsive shakes and renewed bleeding. It was a Bank Holiday Saturday (of course), and NHS Direct recommended I went straight to A&E. To say they were unsympathetic would be an understatement. I was given a pregnancy test, when it came back negative the nurse told me “Well, you’re not pregnant now – if you ever were – you’ve obviously got a virus. Go home and take paracetamol.” I felt like a delusional hysteric. Had I imagined the four positive pregnancy tests after all? Being dismissed like that felt like losing my baby all over again. A few days later when I was able to get an appointment with my (very sympathetic) GP she referred me for a scan to check that the miscarriage was complete, and luckily it was. Over the next few weeks the sadness lessened and, although there were pangs, such as a friend announcing her pregnancy with a very similar due date to what mine would have been, we were ok. The whole time I was so grateful and felt so lucky that I already had one gorgeous child.

A few months later, while on holiday again, I realised that my period was late and my breasts were sore. An embarrassing trip to a French pharmacy which uncovered some distinct gaps in my A-level French (it’s ‘teste de grossesse’, by the way), and once again we were looking at those two blue lines. This time our excitement was definitely tempered with caution. We now knew a positive pregnancy test did not guarantee us a baby to cuddle nine months later, but we were still fairly upbeat. After all, lots of people have one miscarriage, I was young(ish!), I’d had one healthy pregnancy, the statistics were on our side.

Unfortunately, a week or two later, I felt a now hideously familiar cramping in my lower abdomen. This time, however, there was no bleeding, and for a few hours I clung on to the hope that it was just one of those pregnancy aches and pains. As the pain intensified that comforting fiction became harder to sustain. My husband was away with for work and uncontactable, so I sent out a mayday to my parents. By the time they arrived, having driven through the night, I was in agony. Worryingly, I felt, the pain had settled onto one side of my abdomen only, and there was still no bleeding. I started to be concerned it could be an ectopic pregnancy, and when I wasn’t able to get a GP appointment I decided (with some trepidation, given my previous experience) to go to A&E. My misgivings on the quality of care I would receive proved justified. Once again I was given a pregnancy test, it came back negative, the triage nurse told me I wasn’t pregnant and I should go home and see my GP in a few days if I felt no better.

If I’d been on my own then I think I would have done what she said. However, my mum was with me, and she is made of sterner stuff, especially if she feels one of her children is at risk! She pointed out that the pregnancy test I’d just done might be negative, but the one I’d done at home 24 hours earlier had been positive, so something funny was going on, and also suggested quite firmly that, given I was in too much pain to eat or sleep, and turned faint if I stood up for longer than a couple of minutes, that there probably was something wrong with me, and could we see a doctor please. After a fair amount of assertiveness (on my mum’s part), and tears and groaning (on mine) we finally saw the A&E consultant. She took one look at me, had me wheeled into a private room, cannulated and given an injection of strong painkiller and told me to go nil by mouth as she thought it could be an ectopic pregnancy and I might need surgery. From that point onwards the hospital were fantastic. A scan confirmed that it was an ectopic pregnancy, but because it was early and my hormone levels were low (measured accurately by a blood test) the gynaecologist was optimistic that it would self resolve. No chance whatsoever that the baby would survive, but given I’d been facing emergency surgery and the loss of my fallopian tube, this almost sounded like good news. And actually, bizarrely, although I was intensely sad about the baby that wasn’t to be, I did feel very lucky that I’d got through so relatively unscathed. It is still not unheard of for women to die of ectopic pregnancies, many more need surgery which can compromise their fertility, I’d got away with a couple of days of pain and a few follow up blood tests to check that my hormones had indeed returned to normal.

Four months later I was pregnant again. This time I tried so hard not to let myself get excited, and I felt I’d succeeded. Yet when I went to the bathroom and saw blood, the wave of despair I felt showed me that, actually, I had been hopeful after all. We were staying at my parents’ at the time, and I got an appointment for an ultrasound scan for the next day. It was a hard twenty-four hours to get through – on one hand I was bleeding, which clearly didn’t look good, on the other hand I was feeling increasingly nauseous as my early pregnancy symptoms ramped up. The alternating hope and despair was exhausting. When we were told there was a baby and a heartbeat we were ecstatic. The midwife doing the scan told me that, at this point, seeing a heartbeat gave us a 97% chance of a successful pregnancy. Frankly, those odds felt pretty good and, giddy with relief, we started talking about baby names.

A few days later I had a routine scan booked at my local hospital. I almost cancelled – after all, I now knew everything was ok, and I didn’t want to waste NHS resources. However, the lure of seeing that miraculous little heartbeat again proved too great, and off I went. The doctor doing the scan confirmed the heartbeat, and I lay in a happy daze, not noticing at first that her face had grown grave and she was spending a long time taking different measurements on the screen. Eventually I asked if everything was alright, and then listened, barely able to take it in as she explained that there might be a problem. The baby was a bit too small. The yolk sac was a bit too big. These facts taken in conjunction with each other pointed to a congenital abnormality which may lead to miscarriage. However, she could be wrong, there was a chance everything would be fine, and she would see me again in ten days to assess. The fact, though, that she then proceeded to give me instructions on retaining ‘the remains’ in a sterile container, should I miscarry at home, in order that they could be sent for testing, sort of gave me the hunch she wasn’t feeling terribly optimistic.

The next ten days were the worst of my life. Every twinge and cramp caused me to panic, and I tortured myself with endless Google searches. One moment I could be wildly optimistic having read of a woman whose measurements had been the same as mine and yet went on to have a healthy baby, seconds later I would be in floods of tears imagining myself going through the next seven months of pregnancy, feeling the baby grow, only to have a stillbirth or a child who wouldn’t survive longer than a few days due to a terrible chromosomal failure. When it finally came, the scan confirmed that the baby had died. I was booked in for what was charmingly called  an ‘ERPC’ – Evacuation of Retained Products of Conception. It was an absolutely vile day, made worse by the fact that the staff initially refused to let my husband stay with me while I waited for the surgery. It didn’t seem to matter that I was beside myself with shock and grief, or that he was losing his baby too and we wanted to at least draw what comfort we could from being together, Rules Was Rules. Except they weren’t. Finally a senior nurse came and told us he could stay, and they actually allowed him to be with me right up to the moment I was taken into theatre, which was hugely helpful to both of us.

The next few months were very difficult. We had been referred to a recurrent miscarriage clinic for tests, and until that appointment came through it seemed sensible to put trying to conceive on hold. In any case, we both felt too battered by three pregnancies in eleven months to even think about trying again. My longing for a second baby hadn’t diminished, but I seriously doubted both my mental and physical capability to cope with another pregnancy. I was also worried that in focussing so much on what I hadn’t got – a second child – I risked missing out on enjoying what I had got – a loving husband, a happy marriage, a perfect little girl, a fledgling career as a writer, and wonderfully caring and supportive family and friends. I still struggled with my sense of loss though – experiencing panic attacks, heart palpitations and overwhelming anxiety when separated from my husband and/or daughter, and when my GP suggested counselling it seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, that got no further than a brusque phone call from the private firm my local NHS outsources some mental health services to, which informed me that I was ineligible for grief or bereavement counselling as ‘miscarriage doesn’t really count’, and if I wanted to see someone I would have to go privately. I didn’t, not because we couldn’t afford it (although it isn’t cheap and would be a huge struggle for many families), but because having, against the grain, screwed up my courage to admit that I wasn’t coping, being told that what I’d gone through ‘didn’t count’ left me feeling like a whinging, underserving hypochondriac.

It was my husband, my daughter, my parents, my brother and sister-in-law and my wonderful friends who got me through in the end. And in a funny sort of way, that became a blessing in disguise – going through a difficult time enabled me to realise how much I am loved, and that was enormously comforting.

There’s no happy ending – yet – although there may be a happy beginning. After extensive tests at the fantastic Recurrent Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary’s Paddington we learnt that, although I do have some gynaecological ‘issues’, there was no reason why I shouldn’t have a healthy pregnancy in future. At the time of writing I am 13 weeks pregnant, and the numerous scans I’ve had so far are looking good. I’m won’t be counting this little chicken as hatched until I’m holding him/her in my arms, but I do feel very blessed to have got this far, and with a much stronger sense that if this baby is meant to be in our lives then s/he will be, and I just have to let what will be, be. When we told Anna that Mummy had a baby growing in her tummy she was incredibly excited, but we also warned her that sometimes babies inside their mummies don’t grow properly, or die. “Don’t worry, Mummy,” she said as she hugged me “It’ll be really nice to have a baby, but you’ve still got me and Daddy anyway.”

This blog post was written to support the Mumsnet Miscarriage Care Campaign. It wasn’t especially easy to write, but I hope that by sharing our experiences women and their partners can realise that they are not alone, and politicians and healthcare providers can be motivated to improve the care that miscarriage sufferers experience. Follow through to the link above if you would like to get involved.

When we were thirty-two

Today is my birthday eve. I write this whilst consuming the last brownie I will ever eat as a 32 year old. Well, unless I go and order another one, they’re very good.

Thirty-two was a pretty significant age for me, in both positive and negative ways. And while I believe that New Year’s Resolutions are for September, I think that your birthday should be the opportunity to review and reflect on the year just gone. And now that I’m a blogger well, hey, why not inflict these musings on the world at large. It’s my birthday and I’ll indulge in self-absorbed naval gazing if I want to.

So, here’s my list, in chronological order, of Significant Things that happened to me while I was thirty-two:

1) I co-hosted my first children’s birthday party. Somehow, without my really being aware of it, the decision was taken that for a 4th birthday party, two children, some cocktail sausages and a cake wouldn’t really cut the mustard, and we were looking at something on a different scale altogether. Thankfully it was also decided that Anna would share her party with her best friend, and so there were two sets of parents to share the pain.

2) I discovered, to my delight, that I was pregnant. I had a scan, saw my baby complete with heartbeat, and everything seemed to be going well until…

3)…I had a miscarriage. Except I didn’t properly. A scan showed that that miraculous little heartbeat had stopped, but the pregnancy hadn’t ended naturally so I needed an operation charmingly known as Evacuation of Retained Products of Conception (ERPC). This was undoubtedly the worst day of being thirty-two, quite possibly my worst day ever. Yet I still think back almost fondly and nostalgically to it because, despite the pain, every day which has passed since that cruellest April has taken me further away from having my baby growing inside me.

4) I learnt, or re-learnt, just how lucky I am in my friends and family. While I felt like my world was crumbling, they stepped in and picked up the pieces for me and, most importantly, continued to provide Anna with the love and stability she needed.

5) I should have gone to Copenhagen, but was otherwise engaged (see above), and ended up going to Amsterdam instead for a bank holiday weekend. It’s a beautiful city, and we had a lovely weekend, but I suspect it will be a long time before I can think of it and not feel sad.

6) We successfully negotiated the school admissions system, and my daughter was offered a place at our first choice school. I have never known relief like it.

7) I had my first book, Two for Joy published. The launch was so special and memorable, it kind of felt like getting married all over again. And once more I realised how blessed I am with my family, friends and community.

8) We went to Nantes for a wonderful holiday with Anna’s best friend and his parents, and made the discovery that 4:2 adults to children is a very pleasing ratio, and one which allowed for a far more relaxed holiday than we’ve experienced of recent years.

9) We went to Corsica, just the three of us, and had a perfect, golden time. We ate lots of seafood, spaghetti and ice cream, went for gentle walks, swam in the sea and read lots of books. It was total bliss.

10) I waved my daughter goodbye on her first day of school. I’m still finding it hard to make the adjustment to the fact that this little scrap of a person who, surely, was a baby just yesterday, now has an independent life of her own. But she does, and I’m so proud of her for how well she has adjusted to it. And that her teacher described her as one of the most imaginative children she has ever met.

11) We adopted two kittens. It’s hard to believe that they’re only seven months old tomorrow, because it feels like they’ve always been part of our family. We’ve adjusted to eye-watering vet bills, ruined furniture, muddy paw prints on kitchen floor and the changing of litter trays. They’ve adjusted to our unreasonable refusal to let them eat our dinners off our plates (fish pie is their favourite) and to my daughter’s (and mother-in-law’s!) insatiable and determined desire to cuddle them whether they want to be cuddled or not. Like all the best relationships, compromise and understanding is always the key to success. Which leads me on to…

12) I celebrated my 3rd wedding anniversary, which was also the 14th anniversary of getting together with my husband. Mathematically able readers will spot that we’ve been together since we were eighteen, and, cliche though it undoubtedly is, I love him more and more each year. Becoming parents added a new and hugely positive dimension to our relationship as loving our daughter so much made us love each other all the more. And his extraordinary tenderness and caring has enabled me to cope, just about, with the loss of three pregnancies. I try not to plan for my daughter’s future too much because I don’t want to fall into the trap of living out my ambitions through her, but I do very much hope that she ends up in a relationship as happy as mine.

13) Concerned that even my ‘fat’ clothes were feeling tight, I decided to buy the first set of scales I have ever owned (well, first set for weighing me as opposed to ingredients for cakes for me to eat) and confront the horrible truth. It was pretty horrible. I have very mixed feelings about weight and dieting, and I deeply resent the idea that women’s worth is somehow linked to their dress size. However. I don’t want to put myself at increased risk of cancer, heart disease or diabetes through insensate greed, and my BMI and waist measurement were warning me that I was in danger of doing just that. So I joined WeightWatchers and have lost 18lbs. I’m now the same size as I was before having Anna (hello lovely leather pencil skirt I could never bring myself to throw away), and, although far from skinny, my BMI is now a healthy 23 and I feel absolutely great.

14) I signed a publishing contract for my second novel, To Have and to Hold, which will be published in June, and I wrote the first few chapters of my third book.

15) I hosted Christmas, and discovered that it’s all a lot easier when you’re not ill. I baked, cooked, cleaned, shopped, cleaned, tidied and even wrapped a little, and it was all very lovely.

16) I joined with the rest of the family to celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday. We had a great time, ate a lot of cake and, hopefully, made my dad feel a little bit spoiled as 99.9% of the time he is the one looking after the rest of us. My dad is a long-term and passionate supporter of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and, incredibly, the weekend he celebrated his 60th birthday they won their match 6-o. That really was the icing on his cake.

So there we go. My year in a nutshell. I was going to come up with 32 things about being thirty-two, but, re-reading this list, I now feel that 16 is more than enough. The other things which have made up my year are the day to day activities, shopping, cleaning, cooking, reading, playing with my daughter, baking, curling up with my husband, a dvd and a takeaway, chatting with friends, writing, walking, gardening, tidying, days out in London and further afield, visiting my parents, eating cake…and if I have a wish for my 34th year, it is that none of those things change.

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!