In a Vase on Monday: Quinces and Valerians

This week’s Monday vase is inspired by The Runaways by Elizabeth Goudge. First published in 1964 as Linnets and Valerians, it’s an adventure story with dollops of magical realism all skilfully woven together with wonderful descriptions of the characters, the rooms and landscape they inhabit and the food they eat. It had me entranced and I loved every minute of reading this delightful, comfort blanket of a book. It is a children’s book but do not, for one minute, let that put you off. If you haven’t yet read it and you’re in need of a reassuring and satisfying read, I highly recommend it.

The valerians in my jug are red valerian aka Centranthus ruber. This is an incredibly hardy plant which some people view as a weed but I admire its tough constitution and ability to keep on flowering for months and months. There are no linnets, obvs, but there are sprigs of rosemary – “…But you must each have a sprig of rosemary in your pockets. Ezra says rosemary is a holy herb and not much harm can come to you if you have it in your pocket.” That’s good to know 🙂 Joining the valerian and rosemary are white and pink Japanese anemones, because they’re prolific here at this time of year, and some stems of guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) which are starting to show their gorgeous  autumnal hues.

There are no quinces mentioned in The Runaways but I feel sure that wise Ezra would definitely bake them for supper or include them in a steaming apple pie. Just look at their fluffy skins! They’re rock hard and seem incredibly dry when you peel, core and chop them but bake or stew them with brown sugar and they turn into the most deliciously fragrant fruit you’ll ever taste. Culinary magic.

We were lucky enough to be given a bucketful by a friend who has loads this year and I put a few in a ‘windfall cake’ yesterday. We ate half of it for pudding with lashings of custard and it was heavenly. I adapted a recipe from Sarah Raven’s  Garden Cookbook (she originally got her recipe from Monty and Sarah Don). This is a much simplified version:

2–3 medium-small quinces (or 1–2 large ones)
2 cooking apples
zest and juice of 1 lemon
200g brown sugar
150g butter
2 eggs
85g self-raising flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
100g ground almonds

Preheat your oven to 170 degrees C (fan oven). Peel, core and chop the quinces and apples and pop them into an ovenproof dish, sprinkle with the lemon zest and juice and 50g of the brown sugar and bake for about 20 minutes, until softened. Grease a deep 20-cm cake round cake tin.

Wait until the fruit comes out of the oven before you make the cake batter so that the fruit can cool a little. (You could bake the fruit well ahead.) Cream the butter with the remaining sugar and add the eggs one at a time, beating well. Fold in the flour, baking powder and ground almonds.

Lift the fruit out of dish with a slotted spoon (there will be juice) and fold into the cake batter. Scrape into the prepared cake tin and bake for 30–40 minutes. Put a piece of baking parchment or foil on top if it’s browning too much. Eat hot, warm or cold with custard, cream, ice-cream or yogurt or all of them at the same time. Close your eyes and feel the love.


I’m joining Cathy at Rambling in the Garden for her usual Monday vase gathering, so do hop over to her blog to see her dahlias and what other bloggers from around the world have put in their vases today.

Wishing you a good week.

PS Thank you very much for the lovely comments on my previous post. I’m sorry I haven’t replied yet. I will get round to it.

Quality time

One of David’s work colleagues took early retirement this week. I asked what he was going to do next and my straight-to-the-point husband answered ‘Not work…’. This guy is a shining example of someone who lives a simple life – he has no mobile phone, no email address, no social media accounts and he is extremely content. It amazes me that anyone can get by these days seemingly so unconnected but he obviously can. His wife does have an email address, though; I think it would be almost impossible to function in today’s society without one. There are a few people in this village who only have a landline and a postal address – you remember – how we all lived about 20 years ago?! It’s extraordinary to think that since about 1997, we’ve gone from being perfectly able to live happy lives reading newspapers, talking on a phone in the hall attached to the wall with a wire, handwriting letters and cards and watching the news on the tv once a day to being connected All The Time, always checking emails, social media accounts and beeping phones, with so much news about the whole wide world coming at us thick and fast. We can find out anything at all – from how to debone a partridge to how long it takes to climb Kilimanjaro on the best route – in minutes. This can be a very good thing and a very bad thing (think self-diagnosis). It’s no wonder our lives are overloaded.

When I went to boarding school aged 12, I used to phone home once a week from the phone box down the road and calls weren’t long. My mum used to write me letters once or twice a week with news from home and that was it. That was all the communication I had with home aged 12. Today, my 18-year-old son has a mobile phone and a laptop – we can call him, text him, email him or Skype him and his brother and sister can see what he puts on Snapchat or Instagram (I can’t because parents and children don’t mix on social media in this household). I am certainly not speaking to him every day but I’ve had a couple of text exchanges and two chats in the past week and I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not. On one day I can hear that he’s discovered that his weekly contact hours with the uni are shockingly low, so I spend a sleepless night worrying, and the next day hear it’s ok because he’s chosen his modules and there are more hours and his course sounds brilliant. On another day I hear that he feels very isolated because his halls aren’t on campus and his flatmates are a tad annoying, I fret about him being lonely and then hear that he’s met up with a school friend who is living in halls on campus and has had a great time with him there. Maybe I should tell him I’ll speak to him once a week when he can give me his edited highlights.

I definitely feel slap bang in the classic middle life sandwich situation at the moment. I spent an exhausting and emotional two and a half hours with my mum and a psychiatrist yesterday. He was the first person I’ve seen with her who seemed to have a complete handle on what is going on – he was practical, kind, organised and reassuring; just what you need in a doctor and it was such a relief. Mum has been diagnosed with dementia on top of the Parkinson’s. This is not particularly a surprise for us but it is still a shock and we know now that she’s going to be in for an even tougher ride and we have to pull together even more. There are difficult conversations to have, legal stuff to put in place and practical considerations. I’m not sure I can really continue to write about it here. Personal blogs are just that – personal – and people write about what they want to write about and others either read it or they don’t, but I don’t know if I want to write about it or, even if it helps me to write about it, whether it’s right to do so. My head is in a spin. There is such a thing as too much information and definitely such a thing as too much sharing. I may go quiet for a while and pop up occasionally with flowers. Or I may rant and rave at the world and tell you what we’re having for dinner. Whatever I do, I hope you’ll bear with me.

Right! I have a dog to walk, meals to plan and food to buy. My brother is coming over tomorrow and we’re getting together with my parents for some quality family time. We need to make the best of it while we can. We all need to pack it all in and make the most of every day. Wishing you a lovely weekend, making the most of it with your loved ones.




In a Vase on Monday: flowers to the rescue

My usual approach to a Monday vase is to pick whatever is in abundance in the garden (or whatever is flowering) and hope it’ll work together. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t. Today, there are two jugs of flowers because it was the latter, although I think they work well side by side. In the blue jug there are a few dark purple osteospermum, lovely pale burgundy-tinged Calendula officinalis ‘Sunset Buff’ (self-sown from last year), pink Japanese anemones, red salvia and lavender seed heads. In the flowery jug there’s a tangle of Clematis tangutica ‘Bill McKenzie’. I’d been chopping this back because I thought it was the invasive wild form but will stop hacking it now I know that it’s not! I love the little yellow lanterns, fluffy seed heads and twirling tendrils of foliage.

I’m glad to be joining Cathy at Rambling in the Garden for her weekly gathering of Monday vases. She has a lovely sky blue arrangement today, so do click on the link to see it and find links to many others from around the world.

A little flower faff is just what I needed today. Along with hundreds of other parents all over the land (we passed several on the M25), we drove our son to university on Saturday. It was pouring with rain when we arrived, there were families huddled under umbrellas trying to keep piles of bedding dry, scurrying from cars to halls as fast as possible without dropping anything. We helped our boy unpack and find a place for all his stuff in his very small room; he put his pictures up on the wall and logged into the wifi (essentials first). We popped out to buy him the groceries we’d accidentally left at home in the fridge… Then we said our goodbyes and headed out into the gloom. I’m sure you know exactly how that feels if you’ve been there. If you haven’t, I can’t really describe it yet. I’m still a bit dazed. I know he’ll be fine, he’ll work things out and, hopefully, he will enjoy the whole experience and come out with a degree at the end of it. As for us, we will get used to him not being here all the time – there will be lower food bills, less laundry, fewer missing glasses and mugs, it’ll be quieter – but in the meantime, the dog is doing her mournful small whine (she knows something isn’t quite right) and I am trying to not think about it.

Wishing you a good week.

PS If you love ballet (even if you don’t), you might like to click here to read the latest Agnes Q&A with Royal Ballet Principal Francesca Hayward – she’s an inspiration.

Autumn light

My feet haven’t touched the ground lately and I’m not sure I’ll be able to string sensible words together to form an interesting blog post but here goes. I’ll keep it brief(-ish) as I just really wanted to say hello. I hope you’re well. Please forgive the random nature of what follows.

The light outside has been wonderful lately. I rushed indoors to grab my camera yesterday afternoon, took one photo and the battery ran out… These photos were taken over the last couple of weeks. As you can see, it’s also been warm enough to lie about on the grass. I wish! Cassie has been making the most of it.

I’ve been picking apples and pears before the insects get them – David made the first apple pie of the season yesterday – and raspberries galore. Any raspberries that aren’t scoffed straightaway or sprinkled onto muesli are turned into precious ruby jam. Most of our lovely giant tomatoes have been partly munched by flipping snails but the cherry toms are ripening well at last.

I haven’t kept up with my ‘end of month views’ of the garden; I missed August…

I’m project editing a food book at the moment. It involves being organised and on top of everything, keeping the work flowing and knowing what’s where and with who, and I love it. There’s been exciting work for Agnes lately, too – I had to interview someone over the telephone which took me right out of my comfort zone but it was great. I find I’m much more willing and likely to test myself these days.

My sunny younger son turned 17 last week. His brother made the usual coffee and walnut birthday cake (because he has much more time on his hands at the moment than I do) and we celebrated in a low-key fashion which was just what he wanted. He’s keen to start driving lessons as soon as possible and had his first go around an empty car park at the weekend. David sat in the passenger seat, I got out of the car and watched from a safe distance… We’ve promised him some proper lessons with a qualified instructor.

My first-born child is heading off to university on Saturday. David and I will be driving him and all his stuff there; his siblings are staying at home. He doesn’t want all of us there, squabbling over who’s carrying what and generally embarrassing him because, let’s face it, we are the most embarrassing family ever. His sister is a little put out by this but she’s not making a fuss. He and I have talked food budgeting and making the most of a pack of mince, I’ve imparted my 101 ways with a tin of tomatoes, we’ve discussed laundry (I am an optimist), hygienic bathrooms and enjoying Freshers’ Week but not so much that you miss when actual lectures start. He’s excited but also a little anxious. To be honest, I think he just wants to get there and get started; all this waiting isn’t good for any of our nerves. We’ve yet to discuss an acceptable level of communication with home (I suspect that a text a day might be too much) but we have agreed that we’ll wait until his birthday in November to go and see him. I know that David, who works about an hour away from the uni town, will find an excuse to drop by before then. He won’t be able to help himself.

My rational brain knows that this is all exactly as it should be – it is the order of life. My emotional brain is a complete mess and it wouldn’t take much for me to weep copious tears. Ridiculous, I know.

On that note, I bid you a good night. I’ll write again soon and let you know how it goes.

Wider than the sky

After yesterday’s heavy rain and winds, the garden definitely feels less summery – apples have dropped off the trees much to the delight of patrolling wasps, there are blackberries ripening in the hedge, fallen beech leaves are scattered all over the back lawn and the air has that smell of damp earth, fruit and slight decay. Autumn. It’s coming.

David has resumed the mammoth task of cutting our hedges, chopping back a large briar rose laden with hips in the process and this inspired my vase today. Joining the rosehips are a few nasturtiums, marigolds and geranium leaves with reddening edges. The photos are taken with my new 50-mm camera lens (it was my birthday yesterday) and the vase is sitting on a beautiful tray sent by my brother and sister-in-law – the perfect Monday vase prop.

I was quite happy it rained all day yesterday as we had no great plans other than to go out for lunch. Afterwards there was nothing for it but to curl up on the sofa and do very little indeed. I managed to persuade my family to play a round of Rummikub (“Ok, Mum, but only one round…”), then I watched a film (It’s Complicated – undemanding and funny in parts), Fake or Fortune about some Henry Moore sketches (much more interesting than the show title suggested) and the new Sunday evening drama, Bodyguard, which had us gripped. It’s the longest I’ve sat and watched TV for ages and it was great.

My eldest returned home from Reading Festival today. He looks as though he’s spent five days in a field (which he has) and his voice sounds as though he’s been shouting and singing for five days (which he has) and he smells… not too bad, considering! He has existed on cereal bars, tap water, alcohol and cheap burgers so this evening we are having roast chicken, roast potatoes and all the veg, followed by a vanilla sponge filled with strawberries and cream made by my daughter. This is tripling up as a birthday, exam results celebration and welcome home cake.

Thank you very much for all the kind and generous comments on my previous post. You are a lovely lot and I am grateful for your understanding and compassion. One of my favourite Emily Dickenson quotes is “The brain is wider than the sky.” There is always something to learn about oneself, about others and about the world and by facing challenges, whatever they may be, we learn what we are made of.

Until next time, my friends. x

PS Thank you, as always, to Cathy at Rambling in the Garden for hosting the Monday vases. Do pop over there to see what she and other bloggers have found to share today.

Roller coaster

It’s fair to say that I’ve been struggling since we returned home from our holiday at the end of July. Not that anyone would know it, unless they knew me extremely well and even then perhaps not. The signs were there before we went away but I managed to keep all the important balls in the air and the slight wobble in my voice under control. Recently, though, the big ‘life issues’ that are going on here have overwhelmed me and have tipped me into a form of panic mixed with inertia. Classic rabbit-in-the-headlights. I’ve been waking in the night, my heart racing and my mind working overtime.

I know that if I sort, tidy, put away, throw away, wipe, brush, scrub, and so on, it will help me to feel a little more in control but I am in a slump and finding it hard to shake myself out of it. I’m on top of work, putting meals on the table, walking the dog and doing the laundry but that’s about all I can manage at the mo. Another tell-tale sign that I don’t have my sh*t together is that I haven’t been posting much here, so I’m making time today to write in the hope that it will give me a boot up the bum to get my act together. A happy medium mindset somewhere between Eeyore and Pollyanna would do. I was going to put together a quick Monday vase but I feel the need to write about other things – I hope you don’t mind.

The main issue by far that has been occupying my mind is my dear mum. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease back in 2012 which was a shock for us all at the time. She isn’t the first person in our family to be affected by Parkinson’s. David’s dad lived with it for over 20 years before he very sadly died a few years ago, so we have some experience of it but how the disease affects one person isn’t how it will affect another. It is a disease of the brain and although it does cause physical symptoms it also alters people’s mental state and personality. It’s hugely complex and my poor mum is coping with a complicated set of symptoms that seem to grow by the week and are getting increasingly worse.

It doesn’t help that there isn’t one point of contact – there are different medical departments involved, different doctors all prescribing different medication. And then there are the cancelled or postponed appointments and the phone calls. We haven’t so far been able to get a handle on what exactly is going on which is incredibly difficult. And, of course, all this is understandably affecting my dad. My mum is only 74, he is a few years older; they had so many plans. I have been through a whole range of emotions over the years – anger at the unfairness of it, frustration at her apparent acceptance, sadness for her and my dad and because my mum is no longer able to do ‘mum’ things. She was the first person I would turn to in time of need but I can no longer do that. Now she and my dad need my help. I confess that my heart feels broken – for them and, selfishly, for me.

While all this is going on, we’re in exam results season. Last Thursday was A-level results day – those important exams where the grades take you on to university or not. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll already know that my elder son unfortunately didn’t get the grades he needed for his first choice of uni. An anxious and frankly flipping stressful 6 hours followed where my son, David and I rang every good university in the land to find out whether he was eligible for a place on any course related to history or politics. A lot of coffee and sheer adrenalin fuelled our quest and he ended up with a few decent options, finally opting for a course that seems tailor-made for him at Reading Uni. The word ‘relief’ doesn’t do the feeling justice.

He’s heading there, funnily enough, for the Reading Festival on Wednesday and we have agreed to postpone any talk of lists and plans in general until he gets home next week. I have had a peek at a few ‘Things you absolutely can’t do without at university’ lists on the internet, though, and have earmarked some of our old glasses, plates and other kitchen items that I’ll gladly send him off with so I can buy some nice new ones for us 🙂

Next, we have GCSE results day on Thursday and my younger son is getting a little twitchy. I think his brother’s results were a cold reality check and he now says he has absolutely no idea what to expect. I just want him to feel he’s done himself justice and hope he gets good enough grades to be accepted into the sixth form.

Thankfully, there have been moments of escapism among all this Real Life. My daughter took part in a two-week ballet course which culminated in a run of six performances of Coppelia. Weird story line aside, the show was a triumph and the sight of my girl dancing on stage brought a huge lump to my throat. I was hoping that the intense and exhausting experience, blistered feet and sore knees would put her off a career in dance but she still absolutely loves it. At one point, during the two weeks of rehearsals, she turned to me with a big beaming smile and said ‘I really feel I’m winning at life, Mum!’. I gave her a big hug and wished with all my heart that she could hold on to that feeling, dancing or not.

Two trips to the cinema last week also provided much-needed light relief: Incredibles 2 (fantastic, funny, clever) and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (daft, funny, colourful, musical and pure, unadulterated escapism). I’ve decided to try to go to the cinema much more often. And I haven’t completely forgotten the garden, although to look at it you might think otherwise. I spent a few hours vigorously pulling out weeds, wrestling with brambles and listening to the crickets in the long grass yesterday. I think I need to do more of that.

I know there are plenty of people who are worse off than me and I do have much to be thankful for, but sometimes sometimes the scales tip and everything seems overwhelming. It won’t last – I will give myself a good talking to, go and pick some raspberries, phone my mum and tell her I love her. Thank you for reading and I hope you have a good week.

PS You won’t ever see me on an actual roller coaster, btw – real life provides all the adrenalin I can cope with.

In a Vase on Monday: still hot

Phew, cor blimey and good grief! It’s still hot; hotter than is comfortable when you have to get on and Do Things. These temperatures are absolutely lovely when you can lie about reading, swim in a pool or the sea, then lie about some more but not lovely when you have to sit at a computer (which gives off heat), or scrub toilets or do anything that involves expending energy. Earlier this morning, I spent 30 minutes picking up the small apples that have dropped off the old apple tree in the back garden, deadheading a few plants and picking blooms for a Monday vase and that was enough! Any gardening has to be done early in the morning or late in the evening, so there’s not a lot going on here. Watering and dead-heading is about all we can manage.

Having missed a few weeks of Monday vases, it’s lovely to be able to join Cathy (who hosts this weekly gathering) and her dahlias today. I started off by cutting a few stems of Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ which were lying down (overcome by the heat, no doubt), then picked my way through the wild patch to reach two Buddleia bushes at the bottom of the garden – one is a common-or-garden massive weed but we have left it there for the butterflies and the other (the darker one – Buddleia davidii ‘Black Knight’) is one we planted. It smells lovely. I thought it would all look a bit too same-y, so I added nasturtiums (‘Jewel Cherry Rose’) and red salvia (I think it’s ‘Royal Bumble’) and a few amber Heuchera spires to make it more interesting.

It seems that here in the UK we’re not alone in having a drought. Jane, The Shady Baker, who farms in Australia, has written eloquently about the severe drought they’re facing. Her family’s livelihood depends on the weather and reading her post put my concerns about the garden into perspective.

Keep cool, wherever you are, and have a good week.