On Village Life: Harvest Festival

We can always tell when it’s the children’s Harvest Festival coming up, as they both start chanting out songs about Michaelmas Daisies, purple in the border. I’m to attend the early showing, and I’m to brush my hair, not wear wellies and not to laugh too loudly.

My friend D ferries me to Hornton, and I look out over the fields as she drives. It’s proper Autumn today, and I admire the bright fireman-hat yellow of the blackthorn leaves. Mist lies like an exhausted child in the valley below the Hornton Road, and a silly pheasant heaves itself from the hedge, trying to claim right of way.

Autumn suits Hornton hugely well; its gorgeous golden houses are set off by the russets and acid yellows,  and the artless beauty of the falling leaves disguise the worse ravages of the retired gardener.  We manage to bag a decent parking space, and then walk down to the Chapel, the heels of our boots loud on the damp flagged pavement.Hornton Chapel, Hornton

Inside, it’s Arctic, and everyone’s still wearing their coats. D and I spot two chums on the third row back, and we slide into the chairs beside them. There’s lots of waving going on, and mouthing over heads. The New Parents are all in the front rows, having been here for half an hour to bag good seats. Us Old Parents grin and raise eyebrows, exchange rueful smiles – the here-we-are-again brigade.

The children start filtering in – oldest first – and my Elle waves with a tiny barely-there smile: she’s being cool next to a boy almost twice her height, whom she adores. Jess saunters in, one sock up, one sock down, her plaits already unravelling. She raises her hand in my direction, but doesn’t look, because audiences make her shy.  Both of mine disappear behind bigger, younger children, and I go back to gossiping with my mates.

Then there’s an endless pause, when half the children are in and Foundation are missing (‘Bet they’re all on loo breaks’ we say). The children all sit perfectly quiet, and the row of Old Mums are attacked by the giggles. The headmaster, Mr. Green, rocks on his heels and mutters something to his teachers. We only get worse when R’s handsome husband rolls up and sits behind us.  R and C grow particularly raucous and are shushed by me, because I like being bossy. ‘The children are behaving beautifully,’ I hiss. ‘You two are terrible.’ It only makes them worse.  ‘I’ve always got in trouble,’ says C, and we all collapse again.

Finally, all of the children arrive – the Foundation Year heart-breaking with their sparkly-bobbled plaits and brand-new uniforms.  ‘Can you believe they’re so tiny?’ we say. ‘Do you remember? And ours were like that so long ago-‘

And they’re off, the Michaelmas Daisy song belted out at full volume; Elle’s favourite teacher giving it the beans on the old up-right piano. ‘Big FAT leeks, STANDING up in order-‘. They’re following the words from a projector on the white vaulted ceiling behind us, each child tilting its head to look up. It gives them a touchingly angelic aspect, as if their singing was star-bound. Mothers bob up and down, taking photos on smartphones, loud with synthetic clicks.

Next up is a presentation on Water Aid, the school’s chosen charity of the year, which makes us all count our blessings. Two of the Year 6 girls tell us the stark facts of some other child’s life, and I touch my fingertips to the wooden surround of my chair, silently thankful that I am not the mother of that child. As the older ones speak, the younger ones gaze up at us, as if willing us into some sort of action.  I’m sorry, I think, impotently. I used to want to save the world.

Feebly, I slide my eyes to the left, and focus on a flower arrangement, gorgeous with gladioli and delphiniums. I imagine the hand that cut the stems, that arranged the blooms. I force myself to consider if the white spangles I see are chrysanthemums or late dahlias.

Thankfully, the presentation is swiftly followed by poetry, which is all very jolly and mostly in rhyming couplets, which always make me feel cheerful.

But the relief is not for long. The Year 6 girls stand up for ‘Global Child’, and their voices are so relentlessly sweet, the words so simple and affecting, that R and I turn to each other with pinkening eyes and pressed lips.

‘God,’ I say, at the end. I blink, in that face-up way you do when your mascara’s not waterproof.

‘Yeah,’ says R, sniffing. ‘Me too.’

It’s only near the very end of the Assembly that I realise something awful. I’ve rushed out of the house with my mobile, three crumpled green poobags and a tub of lip balm, but absolutely no money for the retiring collection. We’ve been told each new well for Water Aid is £40, and the school has so far bought two. I want, more than anything, to put my money in the plate with everyone else.

I’m forced to scav off my mates, and they all drop coins in my cupped hand, joking about me running off with it and going on a penny-sweet rampage. I laugh, and take their teasing, silently vowing to go on the Water Aid site when I get home.

And then the children are being shepherded back to school, and Jess files past me, refusing a kiss. I pout, and make her cross.

‘Silly Mummy,’ she says, severely.

We all start to leave: the fresh air soft on our faces, the rest of the day’s To-Do list ticking busily through our brains. I drift along with the rest, walking down the Chapel steps, still chattering.

On the last step, I’m almost knocked off my feet by Elle, racing to kiss me goodbye.

‘It was sad, Mummy, wasn’t it?’

‘You sang beautifully,’ I tell her, squishing her to me. I kiss her silky head, silently marvel at her height, her strength. She who was once so tiny.

She’s swept away in the stream of her friends, and she doesn’t turn back to wave. I watch her dark head weaving back down towards school, and I feel that thing in my heart; that knowledge particular to being a mother, that hurts as much as it fiercely pleases.

For a moment I touch my cheek, teetering on the  Chapel step. I feel a boundless gratitude; a tacit understanding of the absolute fluke of fortune. The recognition of grace, of sheer luck,  that enables our children to live the lives we choose for them.


On Plants: Gall Wasps and Knopper Galls

I have recently learnt about gall wasps (Andricus quercuscalicis) and Knopper galls, and now I’m becoming obsessed with galls.

Basically, a gall is like a nest, or development nursery, for an insect or bacteria or whatever, and they grow on anything. The ones that I noticed were on the oaks around Horley. Essentially, the wasp lays eggs inside growing acorns, and as the grubs grow, they distort the acorn into a weird, sticky thing, like an unshelled walnut without the symmetry. Then the Knopper gall goes brown and falls with the rest of the acorns, ready for a wasp to emerge in Spring.Knopper Gall - should've been an acorn

I know it’s nature, but it freaks me out, especially as Elle and I had collected a few Knopper galls in our pockets. The thought makes me shudder, and I keep imagining some dreadful moment when grubs spill forth from our clothing, like maggots from a dead blackbird. It would probably be at the school bus stop, and none of the children’s little buddies would be allowed to come and play again.

Anyway, at first it seemed only the little oaks were effected, the ones in Emma’s Bottom Meadow, but then we found them on one of Dave’s huge oaks in the field beneath the cricket pitch. It’s not all of the acorns, there are scores of beautiful golden ones, but every few feet, you find a Knopper.

Learning about the Knopper Galls, I also found out about spangle gall, which is what’s on the oak leaf below. I always asumed it was some sort of weird mould, but apparently not. It’s – Neuroterus quercusbaccarum, according to Wikipedia – another type of wasp.

oak leaf with spangle gall - wasps!

Neither types of wasp appear to harm the tree long term, but I wish I could understand more – what do the wasps do, for example? Are they food for birds? If anyone knows how I could learn more – do say, I hate being so ignorant.

Blackberry and Elderberry Cordial

I’m hugely rubbish at making jam, and I didn’t really know how to preserve all the fruit we grow in the garden, or that we forage. My lovely neighbour, Caroline, suggested I make cordial, and she started a huge craze for the children and me – we have a freezer stuffed full of gooseberry, raspberry, strawberry, black currant and loganberry cordial.

Anyway, I keep being asked what recipe I use for the cordial, so I thought I’d put the blackberry one up here.

So…go pick your berries.

Blackberries destined for cordial-making

Take off any leafy bits, and as many elder stalks as you can bear before you go mad. Then give them a good wash in a colander (or a salt bath if you suspect any grubs).

Put them in a bloody big saucepan, cover with water, and add any spices or flavourings (I use a vanilla pod, or a bit of grated ginger, or cinnamon…whatever really. Oh! And we like star anise).

Bring to a rolling boil.

Once at the boil, turn down heat and simmer for about fifteen minutes. No big drama if you do it for more, but I suspect you might lose some health-type aspects. If you’re just trying to stop drinking supermarket squash, I don’t suppose it matters massively.

After fifteen minutes, strain in a colander into a big jug (or a series of jugs. Oh God, or any old thing, I think I’m being needlessly prescriptive). Our pan’s too big for my daughters to tip, so they dip jugs in and transfer the cordial that way.

Once strained, put back into first receptacle, but measure it – you need to know how much liquid you have.

Right, then add 3lbs of sugar and 2oz citric acid to every 3.5 pints of liquid.

I use a mix of dark brown sugar and white (I like the caramel-ness of brown). At this stage, it will taste disgustingly sweet, and you’ll be tempted not to use all of the sugar. Fine, you don’t have to, but the sugar is acting as preservative, so the less the sugar, the quicker the mould.

Heat gently until sugar’s dissolved, leave to cool.

Once cool, bottle in portions you’d drink within a week, and keep in the freezer, or as cool as you can if your freezer’s diddy. Keep in fridge once opened. Bottle-wise, our local Medical Herbalist, Fiona Taylor, uses 1 or 2 pint milk cartons – we use old drinks bottles, then decant into glass bottles for presents or to drink ourselves).

And that’s it!

We use it as cordial-with-water, in a jug for meal times. If you don’t add the citric acid, you can freeze it in icecubes and flavour water (doesn’t taste like cordial), or as shots over ice-cream, or in gin or sparkling wine.

My neighbour (the one who started me off) drinks hers with hot water.

I hope to never, ever again buy squash from a supermarket. Suspect may be drinking just tap water come next March.

Um, anyway. I love cooking and making stuff, and always like hearing other people’s ideas and tips. If you fancy, you can write them below, or leave links to your own sites or whatever… country folk-lore a-go-go…

NB: Our chickarockas go mad for the pulped fruit, so that’s where ours ends up…happy birds!

On Walking: Thursday 3rd October

It’s raining, and I’m walking over Dave’s bottom fields, peering out from under my cap. I’m already hoarse from shouting; there’s cow muck flung all over the stubble and Pants feels he must roll in it. I do not share this feeling. I chase him as if in a dream – my legs are moving, but he out-paces me so easily, I may as well not bother.

I’m distracted from my impotency by a new foot bridge. It’s three planks wide and has a handrail, so no more falling off into the sinister swathes of Bella Donna. Apparently, the council arranged for it to go in, which lifts my mood slightly. I’d far rather pay for footbridges than pointless mowing.Arfa Pants past the new foot bridge, Dora in the distance

We reach Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and I turn left, heading away from the village. Dora disappears into the stream and Arfa Pants follows  with a great splash, thank goodness. I encourage him back in to get rid of eau d’cow.

As I walk on, I spot some pinkish-purple clover, which my nature books insists is red.  It also informs me that red clover is useful for menopause. That word annoys me. I’ve recently learnt it’s French, from Greek, and I can’t help wondering what we called it before. Having said that, perhaps we never lived long enough to find out.

I keep going, thinking of things ending, of beards starting. Might I grow a beard? I imagine myself as an old lady, menopause a distant point behind, still stumping round the meadows of Horley. I think I’ll be one of those tough, stringy old birds with compost making dark crescents in my fingernails, and dog hairs all up my sensible navy trews. I don’t suppose I’ll care much on the beard front, although I shall care muchly if I lose my reading glasses or if I can’t hear the news on my radio.

My thoughts start to turn a bit dark, and I’m distracted by the leaves of the willow around my feet. They’re beautiful; some a pale lemon, others a rich yellow splashed with brown, like an over-ripe banana. Looking up at the willow branches, some as bare as wands, I see next year’s buds are already nubbed into the stems.

Such preparation for rebirth and Spring cheers me, and I pull down my cap against the rain, whistle my dogs.