Sunday, 30 December 2007

A Cough and Cold Christmas

It is usually about this time over the festive period that my feet get itchy. I'm bored now with the fairy lights, tinsel and too much food. Now I want something more austere. I want space, clear rooms, new toys to be put away in their new homes. I need fresh, light healthy food, and I need exercise.

This Christmas saw us all fall prey to colds (if we're female) or flu (the one isolated male). We've been coughing all night and sleeping all day. Luckily the TV has provided plenty of entertainment to keep small, poorly children occupied while the adults nod off on the sofa. Christmas present DVDs have assisted too, but there's a chunk in the middle of Shrek the Third that I have yet to see - I slept through it when we saw the film at Theatr Mwldan and I slept through it again at home on Boxing Day.

The house reeks of Vick, we've used up bottles of Calpol and Tixylix Night and snowdrifts of used Kleenex are piling up in the cimne fawr. The main victim of this illness has been the food, which we haven't really felt like eating, so much of it has been cooked, picked at and then frozen.

But we've had nice visits from jolly friends too - most of whom arrived with their own version of the cold/flu, as well as gifts and bottles of wine. So we coughed and spluttered and picked at food together over convivial glasses of wine in front of roaring fires to warm our aches and pains.

So it is now time to think of 2008 and and make a few resolutions. Last year's were to lose weight, get fit and write my novel. For once I actually achieved two of those: The getting fit part failed, but I did lose a stone in weight and write the first draft of my novel.

This year's resolutions are to lose more weight (and get fit), rewrite my novel, tidy up the house and redecorate it, and tidy up the garden and plant it.

But there are still two days to go before I need embark on my grandiose plans for 2008. Two days of eating, drinking and being merry, although I'm not at all a New Year party type of gal. I prefer to be on my own or just with my husband on New Year's Eve. The days when I hauled myself out to the local pub to be forced to kiss God-Knows-Who drunk on Heaven-Knows-What are long past. I'm not the sort to join the throngs to watch the Big Ben bongs either. I'd rather do that from the comfort of my sofa.

Except when 1999 became 2000. I did venture out then to watch some fabulous fireworks, then returned home to watch the New Millennium being born on TV. But then, clutching my glass of champagne, I heard more bangs, and ran outside, into the field outside the house and upwards to the highest point of our land. All around me the sky was flowering with fireworks and I got an almost 360 degree panorama of a display, only the hill behind was blocking out all but the most exuberant rockets in the direction of Cardigan. Down below us, towards Tenby, Haverfordwest, Pembroke Dock and Milford Haven I could see hundreds of fireworks being let off. Then I realised it was raining, it was muddy and I was wearing my slippers. I was still carrying my glass of champagne too. I toasted the fiery sky, then headed back inside to my husband who rolled his eyes at my muddy socks and opened another Budweiser.

I'll leave the last words on New Year to Mark Twain:

"New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions."

Friday, 21 December 2007

A wintery walk

I thought I'd take you on my afternoon walk with my dog, Mido. The ground has been frozen solid now for three days and the frost glitters beautifully in the low, slanting winter sunbeams.

The garden looks a little untidy. Brian has been chainsawing trees and trimming bits of the hedge where needed. We are currently removing sycamores and replacing them with oak saplings that I have grown from acorns picked up from under our existing oaks. It's a long term project! The three white blobs in the left hand corner of the picture are our remaining ducks. They are looking a bit guilty as they have climbed over the bank and are where they are not supposed to be.
Our walk takes us past the garden, through double gates, across the yard and on to the bridlepath. Mido has to go on the lead because the sheep have access to the green lane and the ram is with them. This means it not a good time for Mido to 'play' chasing the sheep. Actually there's never a good time for that.

A quick pause to look at the sunlight on this beautiful tree. The picture does not show that the bank has been washed away from under the tree's roots by the rain and it is hanging precariously over the lane. But it must be fairly secure with its remaining roots, as it has been like this for years.

Time for a zoom about. This is Parc Maen Hir (Long Stone Field). It has a lovely steep slope which is perfect for tobogganing, but it makes me feel sad because my lovely and much missed horses are buried at the bottom of the slope under the shelter of the hedge.

The Preseli Hills are a bit hazy today. This is the highest in the range and often wears a shroud of sea mist or low cloud. They look a lot nearer to the naked eye, but the camera makes them appear much further away.

It's a really steep slope in this field. So steep even the dog grinds to a halt for a breather at the top. There's not a cloud in the sky and the moon is nearly full.

Pippin and Bullseye were both lying down having an afternoon nap in the sun, which actually feels quite warm, although the air is bitingly cold. They got up to see who was looking over the hedge at them.

Back out on to the green lane. This is an ancient right of way. The trees curve their branches over it and in the summer it is a tunnel of green. In the autumn we find little chewed hazelnut shells which could be from squirrels, but I really hope they are the remnants of a dormouse's supper.

Back home now and in the warm. This is the window next to the corner where my computer sits on a desk. I have just lit the woodburning stove, so there is a lovely woodsmokey smell. There's a cup of tea by my left hand and behind me Hannah and Rosie are sitting at the dining table drawing pictures.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

A slight technical hitch...

I've had a slight technical fault with my car. This morning the oil fell out and landed in a big shiny puddle on the driveway.

Most inconvenient.

Apparently the oil filter was loose. That would explain the drips of oil on the driveway under the car for the last week. Much-Maligned Husband fixed it, of course, then got to drive it to work by way of a reward (it has a CD player; the other car doesn't.)

The whole scenario, of course, signals the difference between men and women. Men, I'm told (by M-MH) would have spotted the drips of oil and fixed the leak. Women, according to M-MH, would have ignored the leak, hoping that it would 'go away' or 'mend itself'. He is also firmly of the opinion that, had the warning light come on during the school run, I would have carried on driving until the engine seized. Now, I know I'm not that stupid, but it's best if he's kept in the dark about that.

"Why have a dog and bark yourself?" I told him, handing him a jar to open.


So Christmas is nearly upon us. Cinderella and Beach Barbie (aka Hannah and Rosie) have performed their school show three times now. They only had small parts, being at the littlest end of the school, but had a thoroughly good time. Parents and Grandparents sat on tiny little chairs and clapped enthusiastically through the pain of our numbing buttocks. The show ran for two hours as every one of the 103 pupils at the school had to have their moment of fame, but it was two hours of solid entertainment, with some astonishingly talented young performers. We smiled proudly and mopped sentimental tears.

The children are so tired today though after two consecutive evening performances. They were due to have a day off school to recover, by order of the headteacher, but instead they have a seasonal visit by Jane Hutt, Assembly Education minister, so had to be coaxed from their deep slumbers and made smart. There will be a pretence of working at the curriculum which has been abandoned for the last few weeks in favour of show business.

Tomorrow is the big school Christmas party when uniforms are cast aside with the curriculum and the fun starts again. Sion Corn (Santa) is scheduled to visit, perhaps for final confirmation that every one of the children has been most exceptionally good this year.

Back at home the presents are (nearly) all wrapped and the fridge is beginning to fill with the necessities for a seasonal feast. I'm not sure if everything is ready, but for once I'm so full of the spirit of Christmas, that I'm not too worried about anything else. There are a few outstanding bits and bobs, but I haven't got to worry about braving the festive crowds: I've sent M-MH off with a list!

Friday, 14 December 2007

It's Christmas time!

I love Christmas! Only 11 days to go now and I am really beginning to feel festive. I think Christmas is even more fun now that I have little children of my own; like many parents I am conscious of making it magical for them (and me!).

We have "written" letters to Santa. The inverted commas are because we did them just before Rosie's fourth birthday and, although she can manage a passable 'Rosie' she's not quite up to a full scale Santa letter yet. So instead we took the Argos catalogue and other Christmas brochures apart, got out the scissors and the glue and did collages.

Last night we sent them to Santa via the medium of smoke. Brian opened up the wood burning stove and popped the letters onto its roaring logs. Hannah and Rosie told the resulting smoke that they had been good girls and mentioned the specific presents they would most like to have (Mummy took notes).

Then there was the tree. We built it together - because of the wood burning stove which, at full throttle, is hotter than lava - we have an artificial tree which has a central stem and poke in branches. It isn't the same as a real tree - but we tried a real tree once and had a naked tree standing above a pile of needles by December 2nd.

Once the tree was made the girls elbowed me aside and grabbed the box of decorations. I stood at a safe distance, just popping in to remind them to decorate the back too.

Meanwhile I fashioned a wreath out of holly, ivy and some rather voluptuous viburnum, added some fairy lights and baubles and hung it on the door. The icicle lights are up, as are the twinkling lights on the beech hedge and we're nearly ready for Santa.

All that remains now is to make some reindeer food (bird seed, loads of glitter, mix up, then sprinkle outside on the driveway on Christmas Eve - the glitter disappears eventually.) and hang up our stockings.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Road rage on the school run

I have just suffered from a bit of road rage. I'm not entirely sure if I came out of the encounter entirely well, either.

I was on my way home from taking Rosie to school at 1pm, when I encountered a shiny black car coming towards me. I slowed, but realised he was right by a large passing place, so I carried on, assuming he'd pull over. He didn't. He carried on. We stopped and eventually, with much huffing and puffing he reversed alongside the passing place, which was on HIS side of the road and beckoned me to pull off into it, so we would pass right side to right side.

Now, there are not many things that annoy me more than being told to pass right side to right side. I was brought up in Pony Club and at riding schools and on ponies you always pass left to left. That goes for cars too, especially in Britain, where we drive on the left. So I said no.

We sat and contemplated each other for a while. He waved for me to pull over to the right. I indicated back that I would drive on the correct side of the road, while HE pulled into his side of the road. Then he got out of his car.

If he had jumped out of his car and run down the road towards me, I think I would have wound up my window and reversed out of trouble. But he didn't. He climbed laboriously out of his car (which served him right for pulling in so close to MY side of the road!) and limped towards me. As he got to the front of my car he made very big and obvious gesticulations that I should pull over onto the pulling off place. So I stuck my head out of my car window and said (in my best Margot Leadbetter voice):

"In this country we drive on the left. I will pass you on the left, if you pull in."

He approached the window and replied (in a heavily German accented voice): "Since you made no effort to back up for me..."

"You were nearest the passing place!" I objected.

"Zo I zinc the least you can do is pull over for me," he continued.

"In this country we drive on the left!" I shrieked at his departing back.

He turned, shocked. (Perhaps he heard me the second time!) I pulled over into the passing place. I could see this was not an argument I was going to win. I had said my piece and by that time I was shaking with rage.

He seems to be the sort of man who thinks he can push 'little women' around. I have reversed for him on many occasions. He has forced me to pass him on the right hand side before too. I think that, since the passing place was a tiny bit muddy, he wanted to keep his shiny black car clean and it would be okay, as far as he was concerned, for me to get my car dirty.

And I have already been berated by my husband for saying this, but he was old enough to have been in the last war on the other side. He was certainly looking as if he wanted to order a firing squad for me! He wanted me to obey. I didn't want to and I am still angry that he made me obey eventually.

Look! He's made me go all non-PC! I know really, as a responsible citizen one is supposed to allow people like him their little foibles. The Barefoot Doctor says in such situations you should smile and allow the person to carry on and do their thing. But Barefoot's a Buddhist and I'm not.

What, I wonder, will happen next time I meet him on the road? I may have appeared racist towards him, but I didn't know he was foreign until he spoke. But we DO drive on the left, he SHOULD have pulled over on his side of the road.

Brian says he's going to get me the biggest 4x4 we can afford. Something with bull bars: a Nissan Patrol or a big Mitsubishi. I asked for a tank and was told to get my head out of the Second World War.

It seems, when confronted with a German, I turned into Basil Fawlty. Oops!

Friday, 7 December 2007

What's in a name - part 2

Thinking of the funny names people sometimes have - and I forgot the chap who is rather wonderfully called 'Friend Wood' - also made me think of place names.

I remember being delighted as a child when we passed a signpost pointing one way to Ham Sandwich, while Pea Green was in the other direction. We also lived near the delightfully named Wyre Piddle, Grafton Flyford, Libbery and Upton Snodsbury. The thing is, I never thought they were funny when I lived near them. Now, living in Wales, I think they are hilarious.

That part of Worcestershire has some lovely names. My primary school was in Himbleton, a lovely bimbling sort of a name, pleasant in the mouth, rather like Ombersley which isn't all that far away. Imagine a Grundy saying those on the Archers (and we are talking Archers country here) and you know why the rural Worcestershire accent sounds like it does!

Many of the names pop up in David Mitchell's wonderful book 'Black Swan Green' which is an evocative tale of a Worcestershire childhood. Here the author uses the village names as names for people, such as a Mr Ockeridge. It's a really good read anyway, but knowledge of that particular part of the world turns the book into an absolute joy.

Now I live in an area with names almost incomprehensible to the non-Welsh, such as Mynachlogddu and Eglwyswrw. I was once told by the manager (yes, we had got that far) when I rang the AA for insurance that my house name couldn't possibly exist. It isn't a word, apparently. What a cheek!

At least, in Welsh, the place names mean something. Maenclochog, for example, means stone (Maen), ringing (clochog). A lovely little cottage nearby is called 'Travel' which has evolved from 'Ty'r Efail'. In England it would be called 'The Smithy'.

And that is another bugbear. People do move into the area, which is fine. But when they then immediately change their house name from something Welsh, such as 'Felin', into the English 'Mill', they don't exactly win friends or endear themselves to the local people. A delivery driver called round last week with a parcel. He then was looking for somewhere in the village called 'Little Stream'. He had no idea. He then worked out that what he was looking for was 'Fynnon Bach'. Ah ha! He's non-Welsh speaking too, but speaks 'place name Welsh'.

I do feel a little sorry for friends and relatives, though, particularly at this Christmas card-writing time of year. They do their best. Poor old Grandad Bob, for example, sends his letters to a mish-mash of our address, ending in 'Penbrookshire'. Close enough. Most try to make English sense out of the Welsh by adding a vowel or two, here and there, to make it more acceptable to the English palate. Our postman manages to find us, although sometimes we get letters with blue biro notes on saying things like: "NOT Carmarthenshire" or "near Maenclochog".

I once did a news story about a letter which was delivered to a woman in Fishguard. It had come all the way from Germany, if memory serves me correctly. The front of the envelope included a head and shoulders photograph of the woman, and the words: This Lady, Fishguard, Wales. It took only a day or so to reach her. Clever old Postie!

Thursday, 6 December 2007

I'm plucking up courage...

I'm plucking up courage to post an extract from my NaNoWriMo novel on my blog.

The first step is to post some fiction I already have had published, so I have created a new blog, . I can park the fiction there, away from the more mundane stuff on here.

The story 'Like a Lamb to the Slaughter' was the first piece of prose I wrote when I joined a creative writing class about six or seven years ago. It was published in Cambrensis: Short Story Wales, issue number 48. Cambrensis is a small circulation literary magazine published in Wales (in English) with the support of the Wales Arts Council.

It was a huge thrill to have fiction published; I was then a reporter on the local newspaper, so I was well used to seeing my name and my new stories in print. Fiction was a different matter altogether. It was even reviewed in the paper I worked on. I remember the reviewer - a respected colleague - described my story as 'cynical', which I suppose it is really.

The story also features one of the characters from my NaNoWriMo novel, except in 'Lamb' he is called Matt. When he reappered in my novel he had changed his name to Nick, but he's definitely the same guy!

It's funny really, I had always planned to write slushy romantic stuff, as that is what I enjoy reading. What comes out is more like the Bourne Identity, all conspiracy and intrigue, but enjoyable to write nonetheless.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

What's in a name?

Talk of favourite names over on the Purplecoo site the other day reminded me that I used to collect a list of interesting names when I was a reporter.

My job of course brought me into contact with a diverse range of people and some had the most amazing names. One I remember vividly was a woman I had to ring for a story involving access to one of our local beaches. There was some dispute over whether it was sensible for people to be allowed to continue to drive onto the beach in their cars. The woman's name was Sandy Beaches. She assured me that it wasn't a joke!

Another time was when there had been a rather wild and windy night with heavy rain. The roof of a local nightclub had been damaged and the club had suffered flooding to its dance floor. The manager was called Ivor Squelch. I realised the significance of his name halfway through the phone call then spent the rest of the interview trying desperately not to laugh. At one point I actually snorted down my nose and had to pretend it was a sneeze!

I also remember the delightfully named Hope Lemon, who was a really lovely person, but I also remember encountering a Mr De'ath. I don't think that apostrophe really fooled anyone. I was reminded of him when I was watching Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman on 'Long Way Down' on Sunday night. They were travelling with Dai the Doctor, which is a name I am sure, that has the potential to be slightly alarming.

Doctor: "Hello, I'm Dai, the doctor. Where does it hurt?"

Patient: "No thanks, Dr Die, I choose life."

Names, for a reporter, are a minefield. It did not help that I had the habit of instantly forgetting the more mundane names, such as John Brown. I once spent the day on a feature about the local traffic police, being ferried around the county, sometimes at hair-raising speeds with the 'blues and twos' on. At the end of the day I realised I had forgotten the police officer's name. Then I had a brainwave: Ask him how to spell it. So I did.

"S. M. I. T. H." He dead-panned. I felt like the village idiot.

And then there was poor Mr Thoms. I wrote about him a few times, the final time, sadly, was his obituary. Every single time I put his name in, the sub-editors changed it to 'Thomas', despite notes to the contrary and a bit of foot-stamping in subs' corner.

I wish I'd kept the list now. By the time I left to go on maternity leave (never to return!) I had a substantial list of sometimes quite delightful names. Including, it is alleged, a girl called Jenny Taylor. It sounds innocuous, but try it a few times...

Monday, 3 December 2007

A sad day

Well, it was inevitable, I suppose. Three of our ducks are missing, presumed dead. We had six charming mostly white ducks. They are a cross between Appleyard, Call Duck and Mallard.

We had four drakes and two ducks, which was going to prove a problem when they were older; indeed we had even talked of the necessity of serving up some of the drakes 'a l'orange' but we didn't get that far.

Last night, as dusk fell, I went out to put them to bed. I've been training them: I say "bedtime duckies", they quack and queue to go into their pen, indian file. They were beginning to get the hang of it too. Last night there were only three to say "bedtime duckies" to.

I searched, as darkness fell, knowing all the while that it was a futile search. This morning we found a patch of forlorn feathers. The missing ducks are, of course, the prettiest. We only had one which had the typical call duck call: She's gone.

The missing ducks are the one at the back above, not in the water, with the coloured back feathers; the one nearest the camera in the water (the noisy one) and the one just seen beyond her.

I was heartbroken. I really shouldn't keep ducks, I get too fond of them.

Hannah, who is five, said something along the lines of: "Never mind, Mummy, I expect a fox and his family had them for their dinner. There was a daddy fox, a mummy fox and a baby fox and they all had a duck each." Every cloud has a silver lining, apparently. So we lost three ducks, but the foxes had something nice to eat. Gee, thanks, Pollyanna!

So we have three left. Today. But Mr Fox, Mrs Fox and Master Fox know there is another feathery dinner in my vegetable garden. Sitting there. Like ducks.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

I'm the invisible woman

Well, it seems I have disappeared. I was standing outside school with the other mums and dads, all the children came out - except mine - and the school doors closed.

I could see my children and they could see me. But the teachers couldn't. I hastened to the door, raising a fist, ready to yell:"Give me back my children you blighters!" But Hannah and Rosie popped out with "Where have you been?" and "Why are you so late?" looks on their faces.

But I wasn't late, I lamented. I had been there for ten minutes, waiting patiently, while teachers flitted in and out, passing children to respective collecting people, plonking others onto buses and strapping them down. The teachers had even looked at me and smiled. I had obediently stood in the usual place, with the usual people, watching the usual hustle and bustle. They did not see me. I did not exist.

It's to easy to feel invisible as a stay at home mum. You can so easily get overlooked. You don't get any 'water cooler chat'. Nobody makes you a cup of tea so you can gossip round the kettle about the new girl in accounts. Days are highlighted with nuggets of human contact. The postman gets such a warm welcome he's beginning to look warily out of his van, throw the post into the battered old bread bin and reverse away as fast as his van can. I adore the nice man from Parcelforce too, and Graham who delivers all too infrequent Boden parcels.

Then there are the snatched conversations outside school. Lifebelts of adult contact in a sea of Playdoh and Tiny Tears. We talk about the weather, about getting to school on time and "Isn't it cold." We look up at the rain and say, ruefully, "Lovely day." Then we part and disappear from thought and from view.

I chat happily to the dog, who grins back, tongue lolling. He's a little taciturn for a conversationalist, but he never disagrees.

I don't mind it that much. Some days one wants more companionship than others, but becoming invisible was not something I had bargained for. When the school doors closed with my children still inside and the last parent left clutching theirs, throwing a pitying look in my direction, it really was the last straw.

"What about ME? ME? ME?" I wanted to yell, childishly. Why couldn't they see me?

I'm going shopping tomorrow. What I need is a high vis jacket. Or a flashing light for my head. Or perhaps something orange. Loud shoes. A noisily patterned jacket. Pink hair? Large earrings? Megaphone? "Hand over my children please and nobody will get hurt." Well, I won't anyway.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Something simple after all!

It's strange isn't it, how small children's minds work and how parent's minds can then work overtime in response!

Thank you to everyone who left lovely comments on my "Something Spooky" blog yesterday. Of course I had another opportunity to see what was happening with them and their room this morning, while helping Rosie to get dressed. Hannah, who was sitting on the top bunk had a bird's eye view, of course.

Rosie wouldn't stand on the rug again, so I gently questioned her as to why not. She was facing the window again and she said: "I don't know." Then she turned around, facing in the opposite direction and said: "It's the no door."

Ah ha! Since we had a bit of building work on the house we haven't got round to putting the door back on the bedroom.

Hannah then piped up from the top of the bunk about the door they had on their bedroom when they stayed at Auntie Laura's and slept in the bunkbeds there. It seems they accepted the "no door" while in two seperate beds, but had assumed a new door would arrive with the new bunk beds.

Rosie seems to be worried about somebody suddenly popping around the corner on the landing and suprising her while she is concentrating on getting dressed or playing.

Hannah says she wants the room to be more like a tent and, of course, the tent had a door to their sleeping part and to the outside. So we are going to pin up a pair of muslin curtains to give the doorway a tent-like feel and see how it goes.

Parenting is confusing sometimes. It seems I was just looking in the wrong direction!

Friday, 16 November 2007

Something spooky...

This is something that has been vexing me for a while. My children, Hannah, aged five and Rosie, aged four, are scared of something in their bedroom.

It isn't there at night or when they are in their beds, only during the day. Hannah will not go up to the room on her own and Rosie, although happy to go up to the room on her own, is frightened of a particular spot on the floor. The don't really play in their room very often, preferring instead to fetch toys downstairs to play with.

The particular spot is in the corner of the green rug, about where the bedtime story books are sitting in the photograph.

I thought the problem had gone away; that the pair of them had grown out of whatever it was, save for Hannah's absolute refusal to be in the room on her own, but it has become a problem again.

I was just helping Rosie to change into her school uniform and was trying to get her to stand in front of me on the green rug, but she was completely freaked out about 'something' and insisted on sitting on her bed, which is the lower of the bunk beds (just seen in the right of the photograph). She was shaking, her eyes looked truly scared, and she had goose bumps.

We have just moved the room around. Until last week Rosie had a cot bed by the window where the chest of drawers is now, and Hannah had a toddler bed on the opposite side of the room, where the bunk beds now are. I wonder if, by moving the furniture around, we have disturbed it, whatever 'it' is, again?

They are both intelligent, sensitive children, so I believe that they are sensing something real, not just 'putting it on', however irritating it is to be dragged up there to accompany them every time they want to change their shoes!

I would love them to feel happy and safe in their room. It would be a bigger problem if it bothered them at night, but they have both always slept soundly in there. Even Hannah is happy on her own in there at night. So it is definitely a day time problem, not a night time one.

This is a very old house, dating from the 1500s, possibly as far back as the 1300s or before. The whole farm is a very spiritual place. We have an ancient green lane and various standing stones (all Preseli blue stone as used in Stonehenge).

I just wonder if there is a solution to that small area in the girls' bedroom, so that it is a happy space during the day, as well as at night? All suggestions gratefully received!

Thursday, 1 November 2007

We're off!

Well, I have started it! Day one of National Novel Writing Month. It's been a busy day, what with going shopping for the usual half-term stuff of shoes, boots, insulation for the bathroom walls etc, but I have managed to bash out my first 1,989 words. I'm not sure what I'm doing, but I've done it and that is what counts! One thing that is very enjoyable is that it is allowed to be - and positively encouraged to be - absolute rubbish. Editing is banned, the word count is what matters. Only another 48,011 words left!

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Goodbye grotty bathroom!

We have a grotty bathroom. It has a corner bath, which I can't stretch out in, and how I love to stretch out in the bath! It is a horrid beige and is a 'whirlpool', which, to be honest, I find just disturbs a peaceful bath and plays havoc with my bubble bath. I once forgot about the bubble effect and disappeared under a heap of foam! The novelty of that soon wore off.

Now it looks like this! Brian has spent the morning hauling out the offending corner bath, while a lovely roll top bath from the Bathstore sits promisingly on the path outside the back door, with a new loo, wash basin and ladder style radiator.

But we have just spent a good ten minutes with me sitting on the lid of the old loo and Brian standing in the middle of the bathroom gazing with amazement at the incredible creativity of previous plumbers. The cold water supply for the whole house comes in through the middle of the wall under the window, goes round the bathroom, stops off at the loo, then out through the wall to the washing machine, back on itself to the pump and then, presumably, upstairs to the tank. It comes from the Antarctic, filtering out the icebergs on the way, so is FREEZING. The warm, moist air of the bathroom hits it and the result is gallons of condensation. Added to this, the geniuses who built the 'wheelchair path' (complete with steps) around the house put it above the cold water pipe, which is a foot higher than the bathroom floor level, hence the damp.

So, as with all jobs, what seemed to be a simple task of taking out one bathroom and replacing it with a new one has turned into a marathon of digging up concrete, relocating pipes and making good. When we finally do get our new bath in, boy are we going to deserve it!

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

A better day

Well the visit to the solicitor couldn't have been more satisfactory. She showed us our deeds and all the legal documents associated with them and it seems we have been right all along.

Our neighbour is not allowed to assume ownership of our side of the hedgebank and must stop his boundary in the middle, as is the local custom. He must remove the lean-to shed he has built on our side of the boundary too. The soliticor is going to write a letter to that effect.

Even more interesting, given 'C's assertion on Sunday that we 'only have right of access over the driveway', was the fact that not only do we own the driveway, there is no legal document giving them the right of way over it. They really haven't got a leg to stand on.

As I sit at my desk typing this I can hear 'B', just a few yards away, cutting the hedge. He waited until Brian went to work, presumably to avoid another altercation, which is sensible. But it is making me very tense. My mouth is dry, my heart is racing and my skin is going all clammy. It feels really uncomfortable. He's really revving the hedgetrimmer in a very aggressive and quite unnecessary manner. He has a weak heart, I hope he doesn't overdo it. And I have just survived an encounter with 'C' in the library van. No words were exchanged. At all. I can live with that.

Now we wait for the letter from the solicitor to arrive. We are going to pass on a copy of it to our neighbours, with a covering letter. It will not make them happy, but they have driven us to this point.

Brian has been talking about this problem at work, of course, and one of his uniformed colleagues has offered to come and have an advisory chat with both parties. I don't think our neighbours have noticed that Brian works at Police HQ now, they probably think he's still a journalist. That isn't going to make them very happy either, especially as 'B' already has a criminal record for dishonesty. But if it means we can step out of our house without fearing an uncomfortable confrontation, then it's a step I'm prepared to take.


Otherwise life is carrying on as normal. The girls are going to school as usual and they finish on Friday for half term. We have hair cuts planned for this afternoon and the school photographer is coming tomorrow for the annual 'look how they've grown!' Christmas card picture.

Brian has hacked off all the tiles in the bathroom in record time which was a real stress-buster apparently. And he has located where the damp is coming in, so the walls aren't going to look very pretty for a while until the damp is cured. Luckily we have chosen a roll top bath with feet, so it's moveable when the time comes to fix the tongue and groove to the walls. The new suite arrives tomorrow and I can't wait to have a bath in a full length bath, not a corner one. I shall get a lovely glass of wine, light a few candles and lock the door!

PS: Thanks to everyone for their lovely supportive comments. It really means a lot to me. My self confidence was rather battered after Sunday and it is nice to know that I have so many on my side. xx PM

Monday, 22 October 2007

Peace and goodwill to all men (but not neighbours, apparently).

Sunday was the first time I have been to church in ages. To my shame I haven't been there since Rosie was christened three years ago, but yesterday was the harvest service, we have a lovely new vicar and it was going to be fun.

I say 'was' because when we arrived we were pounced on by our neighbour and verbally abused. My husband and her husband had had a row in the week about the perennial problem - our adjoining boundary. They exchanged words. He called my husband 'stupid' and 'idiot', swore at him and came towards him as if to take him on. My husband called him a 'moron', but did not swear and stepped back when it looked as if a fist was heading in his direction.

So 'C', I'll call her, approached Mum, Me and my two little girls outside church and had a bit of a shout. She had been out when the row took place. I wasn't, so perhaps have a better idea of what went on. Not in her book. 'C' called my Mum a 'hypocrite' and called Brian 'evil'. She says he used four letter words, adding that she hoped he didn't swear in front of the girls (he didn't and he doesn't).

They were, obviously distressed, as was I, as was Mum. 'C' won't listen to us. She is sure she is in the right. Her husband, 'B', I'll call him, has, in the 22 years we have been living here, regularly come around to shout and to bully. He rarely approaches quietly, always arriving with a full on shout. He was so bad once that Hannah, who was then only two, had nightmares about him and was so scared of men in beards that her grandfather had to shave his off before she would stop screaming. 'C' says 'B' doesn't shout or swear. All they do is criticise and complain, never listening to our point of view. She kept saying how they had lived there for 30 years and we have 'only' been here for 22. One of the other churchgoers laughed at that.

'C' said they are a quiet couple, never bothering us. But that is not true. When the girls were babies 'B' was doing a lot of work on their house and had a concrete mixer running all morning and all afternoon. It kept my babies awake. As do his banging noises in his garage until late at night, and his pressure washer whining all day for several days each month as he washes all the concrete he has laid, and there is the constant lawn mowing, strimming and hedge trimming. After their meal they wrap their meat bones in plastic and burn them on their fire. They have a bungalow, so the smoke drifts neatly into our upstairs, meaning we cannot open our bedroom windows. They have woken us all up when arriving back late at night, slamming car doors and talking in loud voices. We have a shared driveway, which they used to regularly block or just open the gates into our farmyard and turn their vehicles around when they felt like it. That's fine, but they should ask first.

They are guilty of being thoughtless. Their thoughtless behaviour and arrogant attitude is causing us inconvenience and stress. But to them we are the 'bad' ones. Last night I couldn't sleep for worrying about this.

Tomorrow Mum and I are going to see our solicitor for advice. But this has been happening for 22 years to us. Before we moved here our predecessors were so upset by 'C' and 'B' that they dumped a trailer of manure outside their entrance. I wish we had known that before we moved here.

But I have been trying to remind myself that we are nice, popular people. Even if 'C' and 'B' don't think so. It was a lovely harvest service. We may have 'only' been here for 22 years, but whereas 'C' left straight after the service because she does not really know that many people, we were the last leaving by the time we had caught up with all our friends. We were the ones who did someone a good turn by returning a lost wallet. Presumably 'C' took her poison home to 'B' and told him how we had attacked her outside church. Since Sunday, and especially in the middle of the night, I kept thinking of all the things I should have said in reply. As it was, I headed into church with my two little children and just hoped that someone, somewhere, would provide some kind of solution, divine or otherwise.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Just for fun.

Yes, it is my mother’s middle name and she got it from my great-grandmother.

Yesterday during a row.

Yes, it’s okay.

Baked potato and cottage cheese with a green salad. Soup and crusty bread.

Yes, two girls.

Yes, I think so. I hope that I’m a warm, friendly and open person.

Sarcasm? Moi? Um, yes, unfortunately. Mostly on my husband.

Definitely not. Bad back and utter terror would stop me. I’d also be scared that my boobs would fall off.

Muesli, but the proper organic kind, not the dusty sweetened common stuff.

Yes, otherwise they won’t come off.

When the chips are down, yes.


Their smile.

Red if we are talking about colours, pink if we’re talking wine. I love a good crisp rose.

Physically, my post-baby belly. Mentally, my shyness.

My late horses Jamie and Orrie. My cats.

Yes, I’d love everyone to have a go at this on their blogs.

Chocolate brown trousers and no shoes, just my socks.

Lentil dhal and rice, followed by stewed apples and custard.

The dishwasher rumbling through its cycle. The TV in the living room where my husband is ironing his shirts watching SWAT.


My daughters’ hair, freshly baked bread, roast chicken, a box of chocolates, a new book, a new magazine, new shoes fresh from the box, mown grass, freshly baled hay, puppies’ and babies’ heads, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely perfume, coffee.

My mum to ask her what Sunday paper she wanted me to buy. She wanted the Telegraph, as usual.

Probably, although I have never met her!

Three day eventing. Last night’s rugby!

Reddy auburny brown.



Roast chicken and salad with crusty bread. Sticky toffee pudding with ice cream AND custard.

Happy endings. I’m not very brave about scary movies.

Ratatouille, yesterday with the kids at Theatr Mwldan. I laughed until my sides hurt.

Chocolate brown t-shirt.

Summer. Pimms with lunch in the garden, followed by a barbecue in the garden. Gardening in warm soil with the sun on my back. I like being outdoors!

Winter for cold frosty mornings and roaring log fires. Summer wins by having more pros than cons.

Coffee ice cream. Chocolate mousse. Sticky toffee pudding. Pavlova. Chocolate truffle torte. Chocolate cherry trifle.

No idea!

No idea!

Sea Room by Adam Nicolson. This is the tale of a man and a Scottish island. Adam, who is the husband of Sarah Raven, inherited the Shiant Islands off the coast of Harris from his father. His book is about the islands, their history and their inhabitants.

My mouse – and a picture of my two little girls at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

The rugby! Then a recording of The Tudors and QI from Friday night.

My girls playing happily and laughing. The blackbird singing in the garden. The chattering of the swallows on the TV aerial.


Norway on a family trip when I was four. I don’t really like being to far away from home.

I can’t think of anything in particular. I’m very average really.

Crowle, Worcestershire.


9.36 pm.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

A letter from Hannah

This is in 'Wenglish', a mix of Welsh and English, by my five-year-old daughter, Hannah. If you read it in Welsh, it sounds like English (if that makes sense!)

To mummy get wel swn.
ai hop hut yw get wel swn.
ai wis hut yw wil get wl swn.
lost odd luv
hugs and cisis
from Hannah

In English, it reads:
To mummy get well soon.
I hope that you get well soon.
I wish that you will get well soon.
Lots of love
hugs and kisses
from Hannah.

Hannah has just been elected to the Pwyllgor, the school council. She had to decide if she wanted to stand for election, go out into the neuadd (hall) and think about what she wanted to say, then go back, stand on a chair so everyone could see her and make a speech.
She was duly elected and went to her first meeting, followed by lunch "with the big kids". We're proud of her achievement, of course, and quite astonished. I'm not sure I'd have had such self-confidence at the tender age of five, like Hannah. But even as a tiny baby she liked to be in charge and I've always had the sneaking suspicion that, on the day she started school, she looked at the head teacher's job and thought "that's mine".
Her election manifesto was that she would ensure that the school and Parc Bro Cerwyn (the sports field) were kept clean and tidy.
All of these details were, of course, extracted gradually over the few days after her election success. Sometimes, getting details of the school day is like pulling teeth.
School is a big secret to the parent. Occasionally you are allowed a tantalising glimpse into life inside the school gates, perhaps at a school meeting or parents' evening. Otherwise what goes on during school hours is one big secret between your child and her teachers.
The child will come rushing out of school, pleased to see you. You ask eagerly: "What did you do today then?" and they'll reply, opaquely: "Oh, lots of fun things," waving you away with a nonchalant hand, whilst piling you with discarded coats, jumpers and bags.
Mostly, with little ones, you can turn detective and work out what they were doing by the state of the uniform.
"Oh, you were painting today were you?" Looking at big splodges of orange paint down the front of the shirt. "What were you painting?"
"A violin." An actual violin or a picture of a violin? I may never know!
"What did you have for lunch?" Various coloured stains on the rest of the shirt: "Umm, baked beans? Yoghurt? Let me see.... (sniff) ...Toffee yoghurt?"
"Yes, Mum," comes a bored voice.
"What did you do, who did you play with?" Their eyes are rolling at this point.
"Can't remember," comes a grumpy voice.
"Well, there are grass stains on the back of your trousers, mud on your shoes, twigs in your hair. I think you played football, climbed the fence and went to play under the trees?"
"Yes, Mum," the child replies, stifling a yawn.
It's all a bit worrying, really. If they are like this at five and three, what are they going to be like at 15 and 13? It's a scary thought!

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Busy old Brock

Our badgers have been busy. That is possibly an understatement. I'll show you.

This is Parc Yr Odyn, around six acres or so of organic pasture. It looks a bit scrappy, but it's my favourite field. It faces south, warms up and grows quickly in the spring. It is right next to the house and has a lovely spring or two feeding into the little stream which pops into the bottom corner by the buildings to water the animals.

Now it is a field of two halves. Here is the other half:

The badgers have been digging for grubs. They are probably after leatherjackets, the larval stage of the daddy long legs or crane fly. The badgers, in their quest for a tasty snack, have removed the grass and it now looks like the surface of the moon.

I can only imagine what someone who was earning their living from the land would think, looking at this. Imagine if it were a silage field, all that lovely grass ruined by Brock's industrious front paws.

But we only have thirty sheep and their associated lambs. Luckily. I don't earn my living as a farmer. Luckily. The farm, all 22 acres of it, is Soil Association registered land. We're not supposed to plough, but the badger don't know that. The day after tomorrow a woman from the Ministry is coming to see us, but she's coming from the environmental point of view, to assess us for suitability for management under the Tir Gorfal scheme. Hopefully our vigorous badgers will earn us extra points.

Now, gather round gardeners, and look at this:

Lovely, crumbly loam. Tip-top top soil. The picture doesn't really do it justice, but it's good stuff. Which is why I've already annexed part of the field to grow flowers and veg on and have designs on the rest, particularly the section which currently looks as if it has been ploughed.

Instead of tearing my hair out at the damage, I was rubbing my hands with glee!

That's my hand print in the middle of the soil above, below is a badger's foot print.

It is a great deal of damage and at the moment it looks terrible, but they do it every year and by next spring it will be all green and grassy again. But there is a very large part of me that wants to run a fence along the middle, scrape up all the pulled off grass, and go mad planting up the lovely soil with all the plants currently waiting in pots.

We don't really need to grow grass on it do we?

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Golden autumn day part two

So, we went to Colby Woodland Gardens in search of a golden autumn and found it, of course. Colby is such a beautiful, peaceful place to visit. It has a calming influence on all of us, save for Rosie, who has a habit of bellowing: "Hurry UP Grandma!" or " Can I have an ice cream NOW?" But that's excusable in a three-year-old.

Hannah filled her pockets with acorns. In the kitchen we have a small collection of acorns, peach stones, plum stones and conkers to plant. We also have last year's haul of acorns growing happily in pots. They are a couple of inches tall now. By the time the children are my age, they'll be big trees. I love the idea of planting trees for posterity. In the first house I lived in, a 1970s built house in a little hamlet in deepest rural Worcestershire I planted acorns in between Mum's roses. When we moved from there in 1975 there was a little oak sapling. I wonder if it is still there?

Colby Woodland Gardens were restored by a Mr Peter Chance, who donated them to the National Trust in 1980, which explains why we never went there as children, despite visiting Pembrokeshire every weekend to go sailing. Instead we went to the Malvern Hills, clambering up to the top of Worcestershire Beacon and rolling back down again. Then we'd have lunch at the tea rooms, which my childhood memory tells me were the Copper Kettle tea rooms, but I could be wrong on that. We used to have ham or cheese and salad. I saw them recently on television, actually, when Monty Don took his group of drug addicts there for a meal. The tables were in a long conservatory looking out at the view. On Monty's programme (Growing Out of Trouble) it still looked exactly the same.

I'm conscious, taking my little ones out for the day, that I'm forming their memories and I hope they will have happy ones of lovely, calm, family friendly Colby too.

I love the contorted branches of the old rhododendrons. They are quite Tolkein-esque. The sort of trees that would have alarmed a Hobbit, adventuring far from the Shire. Today I alarmed my girls by reciting Jez Alborough's Eddie's Teddy story and they got worried about bears in the wood. They're a bit young for Hobbits, yet, but I'll think we'll come back looking for Frodo and his diminutive pals when I've infected Hannah and Rosie with Hobbit-fever too.

We bought dolly mixture from the shop on the way out and headed home, stopping at Bethesda on the way to buy milk and double cream from the fridge in the farm's dairy.

On the way there we went to the garden centre at Tavernspite for sweet pea seeds. did I just get my seeds? No, of course not! I also got a tray of beautiful little cyclamen, a gorgeous variegated ivy and two packets of tulip bulbs. Hopeless!

Golden autumn day

It's a gorgeous day here on the Preselis. The sun is shining quite like it should have been shining in the summer holidays, but I'll forgive it the holiday absence for turning up so smilingly today!
As usual I'm overwhelmed by so many different things to do, but failing to do any of them. The lure of the garden centre is too strong. The lovely Monty Don mentioned on last night's Gardener's World that he's going to plant his sweet peas seeds next week, so I need to go and buy some. My favourite varieties are the old-fashioned fragrant ones like Matucana. I don't really like the ones that are pretty, but without that lovely hit of properly strong sweet pea smell. A bit like a non-fragrant rose or Kate Moss: gorgeous to look at, but possibly quite pointless.
Last year I didn't plant my sweet peas in the autumn and the slugs ate all my spring sown ones. They are just not as tough if they haven't overwintered. The same goes for broad beans. I get a fabulous crop if I sow in October or November, subsequent sowings are a complete waste of time.
I love seed buying time. Poring over the catalogues, deciding what to grow to eat and what to grow for ornament. Then the packets arrive, full of promise. I divide them into their planting categories: root, flower, leaf and fruit, and file them accordingly in an old shoe box, where I can look at them from time to time over the winter months. But it is nice to go to a garden centre and see the packets 'in the flesh', although such trips are fraught with expensive danger. I can come back with quite unsuitable seeds which look great on the packet, but ignore the fact that I don't have fancy propagation equipment, just good old trays and peat-free compost.
I once bought some asparagus peas, but I have never got round to planting them. Asparagus pea sounds too much like an oxymoron to me now, although it seemed a good idea at the time! They would probably have been quite interesting, but I never really worked out where and when to plant them.
So it's off to the garden centre we go, then to Colby Woodland Gardens, which should be looking gorgeous on such a golden autumn day.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Searching for Aber

It is a funny thing, going back to places you knew well, but years ago.

Yesterday we went to Aberystwyth where I was a student from 1987 to 1990. But it wasn’t there. Instead there was an interloper town. An Anytown, full of Argos and Morrisons and Focus and car parks where there were once wide open spaces. And people, so many people thronging the pavements and eating in cafes. Walking around clutching blue boxes of fish and chips to eat sitting outside the station, part of which is now a Weatherspoons, or outside a dispiritedly closing down shop. I thought Aber used to be a seaside town, with a seafront.

We walked, my eyes scanning for signs of the old Aber. We encountered groups of students, some wearing the hooded university sweatshirts I used to be so proud to wear. I sought their faces, hungrily looking, for what? For myself? For something, someone I recognised? My brain couldn’t really accept that these were students 20 years on and if I did encounter someone from my university days they too would be older and greyer.

My feet took us on through the crowds, past Monsoon and Waterstones and Boots – still shrouded in scaffolding. Has Boots been hidden by scaffolding for 20 years? Do they ever let it see the light of day? The street (two back from the sea front), I lived in is still there, and the house I lived in was undoubtedly there too, but I couldn’t remember the number or trust my feet to find it, and anyway my elderly landlady will be long gone. Who would I find there now? Someone else’s posters hiding the hideous turquoise and purple wallpaper in my old room?Someone else’s 50ps in the electricity meter?I wonder if they put crumbs on the windowsill for the blue tits?

When I was in Aber they knocked down the old Kings Hall. As if by some crazy miracle a new Kings Hall has sprung up in its place, but my eyes sped on past, as if they couldn’t believe it, but also to seek out the sea. There it was! Some things never change. At least the sea front was still there. Carpenter Hall is still blue. The Belle Vue is still there. I forgot to look for the Mariners where we had windsurfing club meetings every Tuesday night. How could I forget to look for the Mariners?

But the sea front was strangely forlorn and lonely. A few people wandering about, some no doubt off to kick the bar, if that tradition still lives on. But the sea loses out it seems now, 17 years after I left clutching my 2:2 in Agricultural Economics. It’s as if this Anytown has turned its back on its heritage and bought retail greed instead. It was crowded, it was messy, and it was awful. The first thing I saw on entering this new Anytown Aber were the golden arches of MacDonald’s, then a retail park with its homogenous, faceless stores offering the same old same old. They’ve castrated my old town and stuffed it full of tat.

Perhaps one shouldn’t go back to places you once loved. The same has happened to Birmingham. I went there five years ago after a gap of 15 years. I couldn’t find Birmingham. No Bull Ring with big black Caribbean ladies selling delicious slices of pineapple to hungry broke teenagers like I was then. It had gone all posh. I think Aber’s trying to do that too. I didn’t like it.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

It's a simple life

Life, at the moment, is a fairly simple affair for me. I sometimes wonder if I should be doing more; if life is perhaps ‘passing me by’. But then I remind myself that my children are small and that everyday brings a stage in their lives that will pass and never return.

I wish I could remember each of their little misunderstandings that make us roar with laughter. Like Rosie yesterday saying (when I brushed something off her ear): “Don’t touch my ear! That’s disgusting!” Me: “What does disgusting mean Rosie?” Rosie: “Don’t know. But don’t touch my ear, that’s disgusting!”

Rosie, who is three and nine months, has just started school and, after initial angst on both sides, has settled in well to the routine of going in the afternoons. Hannah, five, is enjoying her role as the big sister who ‘knows’ about school and, in the car on the way home yesterday, was trying to explain to Rosie about the end of the school day rituals. Rosie didn’t like putting her hands together under her nose and closing her eyes.

“That’s prayering,” said Hannah, knowledgably.

“Don’t like it,” says Rosie.

“Yes,” adds Hannah, “It’s prayering, like Amens.”

One day I will explain that ‘Amens’ are usually called angels, but Hannah’s word is descriptively better and it doesn’t bother her at school because I expect she knows the correct term in Welsh.

This morning, in lovely warm September sunshine, Rosie and I planted the seeds which will hopefully turn into cabbages for next spring. Then Rosie picked an armful of sweet peas which are now spilling fragrantly from a vase in the living room. The sweet peas are just about in full bloom production; they’re a bit late because the first batch of seedlings were cleared overnight by a plague of voracious slugs (is there any other sort?). It is rather lovely to have them flowering so enthusiastically at this time of year. It makes the house smell like summer.

The ducks were allowed out to roam around the garden in the warm sunshine dabbling for slugs and taking it in turns to splash in their ‘pond’. ‘Pond’ gets inverted commas because it is the girls’ old baby bath. Three ducks can fit in it alongside each other, while the other three look jealously on. I wonder if I should offer them some soap and a loofa, or possibly some white fluffy towels for after their dip?

Friday, 14 September 2007

The elephant in the room

I have learned a couple of things over the past few days. One is that do get things done, you must ‘eat the frog first’ – or, in other words, do the thing first that you least want to do.

Another is the Purple Cow theory of marketing. If you want your product to stand out and be a success it must be a ‘Purple Cow’, not another black and white one.

And a conversation I had on my walk with Julie this morning reminded me of another one – ‘the elephant in the room’. This popped into my head because Julie’s farm had been visited by a nice chap looking for old batteries. To speak he had to press a button on his throat, so he sounded a little odd. Julie summoned her husband, whose first words to the poor bloke were: “Lost your voice then?” Straight for the elephant. He found out that the man had suffered throat cancer, hence the hole in his neck and the electronic talking equipment.

It reminded me of trips out with my mother’s late partner, Michael. Michael had chronic kidney failure and was on peritoneal dialysis. This is not as effective as blood dialysis and the un-cleaned out waste collected in his extremities causing infection. To cut a long (and unpleasant) story short, he had lost both legs below the knee and most of his fingers.

The legs were largely undetectable to the public at large because the artificial limb centre in Swansea had fitted Michael out with a sporty pair of legs and he walked about with a walking stick like someone with arthritis. The fingers, however, would often become the elephant in the room. We were well used to them, of course. Something you look at soon becomes normal, however horrid it make look at first. But other people, encountering the amputated stumps for the first time would, usually, look horrified, and then try to cover it up and ignore them, out of politeness or embarrassment.

Occasionally, however, someone would spot Michael’s hands and straightway it would be: “Woah! Look at that elephant!” They would be interested in how his hands got that way and would want a conversation about it. Michael was happy to oblige. It was much, much better than being ignored. I think it takes a certain amount of bravery and interest in humanity to be able to dive in and talk about the ‘elephant’. I’m not sure I could always do it, but I do try to remember that behind every missing limb or facial disfigurement there’s another Michael.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Smells and sounds to stir my soul

Here are my 12 things that ‘stir and reach my inner soul’. In many cases these are things from the past – often childhood – that when you hear or see them they evoke a surge of strong memory.

Sometimes it could be a horrid smell – like the inside of a rubber plimsoll and the school gym, or the urine soaked bone-chillingly cold smell of the mental hospital in which my grandfather was once – mistakenly – interned.

There are sounds and smells that etch themselves on your soul, but the memories are just of sadness, like my beloved and much missed horse James whose rich, rumbling whinny and warm, brown horsey smell meant so much to me in my teens and twenties.

I think, instead, the list should be things that bring back memories of happiness, or triumph or rest or peacefulness. The smells and sounds that whisk you back to the past in a blink. So here they are:

The smell of fibreglass resin – this reminds me of my childhood when Mum and Dad went through their boatbuilding phase. The first was a mirror dinghy built in the kitchen. Luckily they remembered they had to get it out through the door just – just - before it was too late… The next two were bigger boats with cabins. The first, ‘Solent’ I think she was called, was fitted out in the garage, then towed to various holiday destinations. During one trip – somewhere near Dartmouth – Dad rowed off for supplies, the tide went out and he walked back across stinking, black mud, pulling the dinghy behind him. Mum welcomed the supplies, then, as Dad put a filthy boot up to climb into the boat, she told him exactly where to go (and it wasn’t on the boat!)

The smell of my children’s hair. Both different, both totally yummy. Freshly shampooed as well as the ‘we’ve been to the beach, it’s hanging in rat’s tails, can’t remember when we last washed it’ hair. Connected with this is the smell of a freshly scrubbed baby, preferably my own, but now they’re little girls rather than babies, I’m not averse to a quick sniff of friend’s babies’ heads. Puppies, too, have a lovely peppery smell.

Coffee. This is sound, of course, as well as smell. That lovely hot, wafty aroma, that charges up your nose to administer a swift kick to your senses. Not a subtle scent, more demanding and punchy, and with it the lovely gurgly noise of a coffee maker. Mine is one of those stove-top Italian espresso jobs with lots of hissing and spitting. I also like my sister-in-law’s filter machine which has a lovely lazy Sunday morning gurgle.

The Bassets Liquorice All-sorts factory in Hillsborough, Sheffield. This is right by the leisure centre I visit with my sister where there is a big pool with a water slide and waves. I first went there the night before I took my journalism exams and Jax took me for a swim to take my mind off my nerves. We had a great time then emerged to a gorgeous waft of hot aniseedy liquorice. I passed my NCTJ first time, to my great relief, and the smell of that factory will always remind me of that time.

Back to sailing again and the ping ping ping sound of halyards on masts. When I was little we kept the third and biggest of our boats at Lawrenny, in Pembrokeshire. She was a 22 foot Ballerina called ‘Sea Dance’ and we drove from Worcestershire to Pembrokeshire every weekend to go sailing in her. We would have fish and chips in Llandovery on the way and then eventually arrive in Lawrenny and row out to the boat. My sister and I would fall asleep to the sound of the pinging halyards. When it was warm and dry Dad would lift the hatch in the deck above us and we would watch the sky for shooting stars. Occasionally my sister would kick me off my bunk and down the gap in the middle.

The smell of a winter morning, early before the sun has woken up at all, with thick chilly fog and crisp air with the promise, but not yet a threat, of snow. Warm welcoming porridge, with a spoonful of golden syrup waits indoors and fragrant wood smoke floats on the cold air.

Vanilla. The smell of it in cooking is sublime. When Rosie first learned to crawl her main aim in life was to burgle the vanilla extract bottle from the cupboard. I once found her sitting on her fat nappied bottom, head thrown back, vanilla bottle in mouth. Luckily she hadn’t worked out how to get the lid off! She still gives the lid a sly lick when we’re cake making, usually while I’m inhaling deeply from the bottle.

Whisky. Single malt. At the end of a hard day, with a little cool water. Heavenly. Preferably Tobermory to drink, but I used to love the warm, peaty smell of Dad’s Laphroaig.

Bono’s voice. Singing or talking. Especially in the songs ‘One’, ‘Pride, in the Name of Love’ and ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. Oh, and the line ‘tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you,’ in the Live Aid single. Spine tingling.

The sound of my children’s peaceful snores. I love to watch them sleeping, snoring and dreaming. Particularly after a day filled with sounds such as: “Mummeeeee! Rosie/Hannah hit/pinched/pushed meeeee!”

Cigar smoke. I hate the smell of cigarettes, mainly because the smoke makes me feel sick, but a tantalising waft of an expensive cigar is somehow evocative of hot summer days and lovely lazy dinners with fine wine and good company. It’s a shame that all the cigar smokers I know have now given up.

The sound of David Gilmour’s guitar. Particularly the guitar solos from ‘Comfortably Numb’. The man’s a genius.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

School days

It was a bit mean, really, the weather yesterday, and today for that matter. Broadly smiling sunshine on all the children as they went back to school after the summer break. For once it wasn’t even windy.

Hannah, who is five, went off happily to Dosbarth 2, feeling a little apprehensive, but only a little. She came home stuffed with confidence and was stroppy for the rest of the day. I was informed, by a mum at school today, that “they get worse as teenagers”. She, a mother of four, had just witnessed Hannah in the playground yelling at Rosie: “No! You can’t come and play, I’m playing with the boys!” before running off to join said boys (one of whom, I kid you not, looks like a mini Boris Johnson!) The game involved a row of children on one side of the fence and a herd of cattle on the other. Best not to ask!

Yesterday Rosie sobbed at not being allowed to go to school in the morning, especially as the lunch menu had promised meatballs. When she actually was allowed into school, at 1pm, she was so overwhelmed by all the attention that she cried again! But she enjoyed her first afternoon and was fine today, apart from sticking out a fat bottom lip for a bit of a wobble when horrid big sister said she couldn’t play. Thankfully she has other friends.

Here in West Wales children go to school in the term which includes their fourth birthday. The two children who started yesterday are not four until December, so they are very young really to be thrust into a school situation. But in Wales it is learning through play, this particular school is bilingual (ie Welsh medium education) and is truly the heart of the community. Staff members include Julie, the friend I walk with (who some will remember as Julieeirios from CL days) and two of the helpers from the village's Cylch Meithrin. The children seem to develop a bond when they have been to Cylch together and some of them Rosie has known since she was a couple of weeks old and going to Cylch Ti a Fi. So school is full of familiar faces and it is a very warm, friendly environment. Yesterday Rosie said she did “hop scotching” and Mrs D, the head teacher, told me today that they had played farms together. But Rosie refused to sing, which I think is the prerogative of a three-year-old.

I’m very proud of my two little girls, but I might have to have a little word with that cheeky monkey Hannah later. I think, though, she is feeling that Rosie has strayed onto her turf. She is going through a jealous phase (hopefully a phase) and complains if Rosie gets anything from toys to praise that she thinks she hasn’t had. We try to be even handed with the pair of them, but Hannah does demand a great deal in a loud voice, whereas Rosie is quieter and more self-sufficient (when she’s not doing her occasional a three-year-old Riverdance-style tantrum). They will have spats over toys and if Daddy is at home he will immediately confiscate the toy. Result? Two crying children. My namby-pamby liberal way is to wait for a gap in hostilities and suggest they find a compromise. Result? Two children happily playing. Daddy says his way is better, because they learn that if they fight over something, it gets taken away, so they learn not to fight. I say this teaches them nothing about conflict resolution and finding compromises. Perhaps they benefit from both approaches. Life, after all, ain’t always fair!

Friday, 24 August 2007

Daylight snobbery

What is ‘country’? I ask this because I stayed recently with my sister-in-law and her partner at their home in Lacey Green, just outside High Wycombe.

I regard visiting them there as a trip to the ‘bright lights’, to civilisation, to somewhere with daily buses, pubs, shops and entertainment within walking distance. I do not regard it as a visit to the ‘country’. But then I found myself in the middle of a maize maze and had to reassess my opinion of the area. The maize happened to be a maze too, but its primary function was winter fodder for the cattle. It was a great bit of diversification on this particular farm, a farm which, undoubtedly, is in the countryside, but jump into a car and head south and after a few minutes you’re in London (unless there is a traffic jam, then it takes and hour and a half to inch a couple of miles).

I suppose to someone from the middle of the city, that village is countryside, but countryside not as I know it. Countryside to me means wild remoteness, mountains full of sheep, cattle poo on the road, wide open spaces and gaps between houses, except perhaps in the ‘towns’ which are so vastly smaller than Lacey Green, one could argue their right even to call themselves a ‘village’.

Lacey Green, a village with a few shops, several pubs and a school, surrounded on all sides by arable land, with a working windmill and fields with fatly grazing cattle, is still a ‘country’ village, but with all the advantages of a town.

I suppose I am admitting here that I am an inverse rural snob, but what I really should be saying is that I have just woken up to the fact that there is a rural hierarchy. At one end of the scale you have villages within shouting distance of London (or Cardiff or Edinburgh) and the advantages (and, arguably, disadvantages) that proximity to the capital brings. At the other end of the scale are remote settlements on teeny tiny islands in the middle of the sea where you get post once a month.

In between these two extremes are a whole gamut of villages and rural hamlets. The nearer you get to the cities the more expensive property becomes and outside every house is a Porsche, Mercedes or BMW 4x4. The postman visits everyday, groaning under the weight of the Boden parcels ready for the weekend trip to Cornwall. The further away you get from the cities you start to hit the disadvantages of remoteness – it takes ages to get anywhere, you can’t walk to school, the nearest supermarket is 17 miles away, you can get cut off in the winter and you would love to wear Boden, but local wages are so much lower than in the cities you may only be able to afford a few pieces in the sales or second-hand from Ebay.

But perhaps the pressure is less, the further down the rural scale one resides. You don’t have to brush your hair in the morning because there is nobody to see, and if you do pop to the shop in sheep turd-encrusted wellies arms sticky with lanolin from the fleeces in the middle of shearing people won’t bat an eyelid. Although you might encounter someone from a city who has bought a picturesque stone cottage in order to live the country life who then has a lovely anecdote about the wild smelly woman with wool in her hair to tell to their city friends at the weekend.

How annoying is it that those who can afford to live in the country are those who live in the city as well, or have lived there in recent memory. Recent enough to have sold a semi in Hackney and then spend a fraction of the cash on a farm on a Welsh hillside. They can afford the renovations, the installation of shiny new Aga and the requisite 4x4 to negotiate the drive. They have a great time learning how to farm, then use their city-born entrepreneurial skills and marketing know-how to set up courses to teach other country-hopefuls how to do the same.

Meanwhile the farmer who used to live there could no longer afford to farm the land as the money came in at 1970s levels and went out at 2007 levels. He has to turn his back on generations of family farming and, perhaps because he hung on by the skin of his teeth until the bank owned everything, all he could do was sell up before bankruptcy claimed him.

So there are two tiers of rural living: the affluent rural and the cash-strapped rural. But hasn’t that always been the way? Twee Victorian paintings of ruddy faced yokels eking a living in thatched cottages with a pig in the garden and chicken scratching as they children played belied the reality of poverty stricken families starving while local rich squires hunted, shot and fished.

I am not sure if the residents of Lacey Green regard themselves as living in a rural area or not. But they have an excellent farm shop, thriving horticultural society and annual show, they can walk to a pub for a good meal and a pint. The village has its annual rituals, its windmill open day and its maize maze. In fact they have so many things that I’d like, I think I’m jealous! Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live somewhere where there wouldn’t be a discussion before going out as to who was going to drive and not drink, or where if you do have fish and chips it’s still hot when you get it home; where you can get a decent curry or pizza delivered to your doorstep.

But perhaps I’ll stay here in the hills. I’ll forgo the fish and chips and cook my own instead (with takeaway alcohol). I can go blackberrying and sloe picking any time I like. If I leave my front door open my belongings will still be there when I get back and I don’t need to lock my car when it is parked on my drive outside my house. Shopping for food takes more organisation, perhaps, but organic veggies arrive either in the garden or delivered from the wholesaler and if we should get snowed in there are five organic lambs in the freezer to eat. I can drive 75 miles in an hour and a half and listen to Sally Traffic on Radio 2 and just feel glad that it doesn’t affect me. At night there is silence, except for the occasional twit-twoo, and it goes completely dark apart from the stars.

But when I visit places like Lacey Green I wonder whether I’d like to live there. Maybe it would be fun if I was rich enough to afford to live in the Preselis too.

Monday, 20 August 2007

A wild goose chase in the Chilterns

I always have mixed feelings about go away to visit friends and relatives. Going away is fantastic, but reminds me of how much there is to do at home. So I’m back now, amongst my muddle, dreaming of house extensions and minimalist living.

We have just been to stay with Brian’s sister and her bloke who live in the Chilterns. They are child free (by choice) and have just extended their lovely flint cottage which now includes three bedrooms and an upstairs bathroom. They live a tidy, orderly existence without clutter and the new bathroom has a minimalist hotel look.

Hannah and Rosie loved it, of course, especially the bunk beds they shared, and kept telling me which bits from the house they would like to have in our home. Sadly we don’t have the sort of income to buy such gorgeous things (like their lovely aubergine Aga and hand-built maple kitchen, for example), but I can pinch ideas and colour schemes for free.

Our visit, which was a bit of a last minute decision, was really to look at cars. We need to replace our estate and sadly defunct old Land Rover for just a single 4x4. I’m embarrassed to say that I need it for the school run, but I do! We are surrounded by rivers and a number of times it has been touch and go to be able to get to the village and pick up the girls from school. The estate struggles and I have repeatedly got it stuck in the verges, usually when forced to pull onto soft ground by other 4x4 drivers, so it is also part self-preservation, part necessity and part ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’!

But first of all before car viewings we visited Waddesdon Manor, near Aylesbury, a French chateau-style manor built in the late 1800s by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to display his art collection. It is famous for its parterre garden and Rococo aviary and has wine cellars containing thousands of bottles of Rothschild wine.

We picnicked in the garden, admired the gorgeous parterre and the girls had a lovely time playing on the new woodland play area. We had the obligatory ice cream sitting in the sunshine on a wooden bench in the garden watching the water dancing in the fountain. It is a beautiful place and we plan to return in the future to fully explore the house and grounds.

But we had to leave the Manor to go and view cars. We drove back into Aylesbury, found the correct car sales and immediately wished we hadn’t bothered. The car had four bald tyres and the spare was perished. The radio looked as if it had been jemmied out with a crow bar and another fitted with bits of foam sticking out. The clock didn’t work and there was a can of Diet Coke in the drinks holder. We said ‘no thanks’ politely, and left.

The next car had weird gouges out of the rear passenger doors – as if it had been used to transport pianos or something. We imagined little fingers picking at the gouges, spilling the filling, and imagined the repairs bill. We left.

The third was located in Chalfont St Peter. It was 4.45pm on a Friday afternoon and we were heading towards London. Were we mad? We arrived. The car was obviously an import. We left.

Cars could wait, so we spent Saturday amusing ourselves and the children in the Lacey Green Maize Maze. It is a genius idea, even in the rain. We collected our map and quiz sheet and rushed about in the maize losing ourselves and finding the clues. Then in the early evening we went to the local pub, The Whip Inn, and had a fantastic meal. It was walking distance from Brian’s sister’s home so I availed myself of a couple of pints of the local brew. Lovely!

We dragged ourselves away on Sunday and headed home via Brian’s Mum’s flat in Langley. Hannah and Rosie were fascinated by the planes taking off at Heathrow – the same planes which would later fly over the Preselis on their way to America. We had one more car to see, with the registration COO, but a black one not a purple one, so that wasn’t quite right either. We pointed our trusty estate car westwards on the M4 and headed on home in the wake of the planes we had just seen heading into the sky.

Monday, 6 August 2007

National Botanic Garden of Wales

Today we visited the National Botanic Garden of Wales which is one of our favourite days out. Just 40 minutes drive for us in the Preselis takes us to the garden which lies off the A48 between Carmarthen and Cross Hands.
The garden has been open since May 2000 and initially opened to great acclaim. I was fortunate to be taken for a birthday treat on a guided tour the year before the gardens opened. After that we fell into the habit of visiting at the end of August every year. But then something went wrong. One birthday - August Bank Holiday - we visited and it was a sad place. Lots of people were there, but they were trailing dispiritedly about. Around the Great Glasshouse people were sitting around as if miserably waiting for the last bus. It looked run down, neglected and depressed, like a supermarket with a closing down sale. Funds were short, our local newspaper reported, and it warned that the botanic garden could close unless a rescue package could be found. Monty Don mentioned the garden on Gardener's World and urged people to support it and help save it. So we did! Support it, that is, I can't claim to have saved it, that role belongs to some unknown genius or geniuses who worked out what needed to be done to save the place and did it.
The next time we visited the garden it had been rejuvenated. The plants were perky again, the rubbish had been cleared. The glasshouse was sparkling. The restaurant had an entirely different style of menu - lots of filling, healthy food. The shop had stopped selling tat, the amazing double walled garden had been designed and planted, and quite beautifully planted at that. That was two years ago and since then the place has - excuse the pun - blossomed and we love it.

There are rolling acres of mown grass to run about in, three huge lakes with ducks, glorious borders, wild flower meadows, dipping ponds, a rill leading from the Great Glasshouse to the circle of decision, the amazing double-walled garden, a new tropical house, woodland, farmland (all organic), a great children's play area... I could go on!

There is a very relaxed, laid back air to the garden. The welcome is warm. Today we were met as we walked from the entrance, up the hill following the rill to the glasshouse, by the land train and its jovial driver. His carriages were empty so he stopped and offered us a lift. In we got and were taken along past the lakes and on up to the Great Glasshouse. We love the glasshouse, especially now the plants have filled up all the gaps. It is divided into different zones, so one minute you might be in the Mediterranean, the next in Australia. The planting is imaginative. You sit down for coffee amongst the olive trees, then you cross bridges (there is a valley with a waterfall and pool in the middle of the glasshouse) and have to duck under deliciously fragrant blooms. Often we find ourselves following our noses, chasing the scent of one of the flowers. These pictures (above and below) show the Wallace Garden in front of Principality House. This garden's curving pathways reflect the shape of DNA and the planting shows the history of plant breeding and genetics. It has food crops and garden plants and this year the display of dahlias is breathtaking.

Across from the Wallace Garden is the Stable Block (above) which now houses the shop, ice cream booth (selling Mary's Farmhouse ice cream, made in the Preseli Hills), restaurant and gallery. When we first visited the garden in 1999 before it opened, this was being used as council flats. It was dilapidated and ugly. Not any more. The play park is off to the right, with willow tunnels and mazes, and a plethora of wooden play equipment - wobbly bridges, balancing poles, tunnels and a funky wooden xylophone.

The walled garden (above) has been divided into four quadrants. Three use plants to explain the evolution of flowering plants and the fourth is a kitchen garden. The brand new tropical glasshouse (seen in the background) has orchids, bromeliads, bananas and other varieties which will no doubt adore its warm, moist environment.

This tree pansy was looking fantastic with the sun shining through its leaves.

This little knot garden is tucked into a gap by the auricula theatre (below) between the two walls of the garden. The box hedges have matured now and I think it looks lovely. The theatre (below) currently houses a gorgeous display of streptocarpus.

The garden also offers activities for children, including pond dipping at just £1 per child. You get a tray, a net and go off to the dipping ponds to catch wildlife which you then take back to the Aqualab and peer at under the microscope. It is totally absorbing and fascinating. We caught a water beetle, water fleas, tiny water nymphs and a pond skater which made a bid for freedom before we got back to the lab. Other activities included using materials found in the garden to make a raft to float a grape down the rill. A genius activity for children, all of whom find the rill completely fascinating. It's great for a game of Pooh sticks too, but the rill does disappear into the ground and out again a couple of times which can be a little challenging for the average stick!
It takes all day to see the various components of the garden and I still haven't been to the Japanese garden. That's one for next time.