Posted in Personal life

Hung Up On Laundry

My column for the June issue of Hawkesbury Parish News was all about laundry and wardrobes, from ancient times to the age of IKEA

Wearing the ancient plaid at the HIghland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
Sometimes my daughter and I hanker after a simpler wardrobe (at the Highland Folk Museum in Scotland last summer)

Sorting out a big basket of line-dried washing recently, (ah, it must be spring!), I fell to pondering why we have so many clothes.

A bulging closet allows us to get lazy with the laundry. Getting to the bottom of the basket often results in a surprise reunion with an item that’s been languishing for weeks, forgotten, awaiting its turn in the washing machine.

Not so for our Victorian ancestors. Instead of having wardrobes heaving with clothes, needing fancy IKEA gadgets to make the most of any storage space, they made do with a couple of hooks.

I discovered this to my cost when I bought my first house – a two-up, two-down nineteenth century artisan’s cottage. I went to put away my newly unpacked clothes in what I’d taken to be a built-in wardrobe when I viewed the house, wearing my rosy-tinted house-buyer’s spectacles. I found it was just a shallow cupboard with two wall-mounted cup hooks. The cupboard wasn’t even deep enough to accommodate a coat hanger.

It occurred to me that this would have been plenty for the house’s original owner, who probably only had two outfits: workday clothes and Sunday best.

What a simple life that must have been – with so little time required to do the laundry.

For a moment, wearily folding the seventh pair of black leggings to fit in a drawer, I’m taken by such minimalism. But then I realise this justification ranks in the same league as my grandmother’s delight in having all her teeth out: it meant she could eat sweets in bed without worrying about cavities.

Stashing the fourth cardigan of the evening onto my jumper shelf, I decide I’d rather stick with my present lot. After all, the Victorians didn’t take many baths or showers either.

Ikea wardrobe system
If IKEA doesn’t already have shares in clothing sales, perhaps it should… (Pic from IKEA online catalogue)

More posts about laundry (not that I’m obsessed with it, you understand)

How to Cut Down On Laundry (one of my most popular posts of all time)

Why I’ve Given Up Ironing (no regrets there)

Posted in Family, Travel

Girls In Their Summer Clothes

Debbie and Laura about to buy Sancerre at source
"Have red shoes, will travel" (Buying Sancerre at source in France last summer)

If the weather turns wintry tomorrow, blame me. Because this afternoon, I dragged out from under my bed the big plastic storage box in which my summer clothes have been hibernating since October (cue for a snowstorm).

As I spread flimsy dresses and crisp cotton shifts across the bed, images of last summer flitted across my brain like the apocryphal flashbacks of a drowning man. All of these images featured me in these clothes.

There I was on the Avignon tourist trail in a floaty, floral Cath Kidston number. This cool cotton lawn frock was the only thing keeping me on the right side of sanity in the sticky, seething streets. And it was the perfect outfit to  “danser sur le Pont” (as you do).

And then there was the cappuccino sleeveless linen shift, short skirt sticking to my legs as we cycled across the cobbles of Senlis to reach the open-air municipal pool. Splashy French shrieks of excitement and distant foreign children’s laughter lured us in the right direction, even though we couldn’t see the pool till the very last minute. It was raised on a balcony above street level – an upstairs open-air swimming pool! Who’d have thought it?

Debbie and Laura on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Summer 2011
No prizes for guessing which city we're in! The terrace on top of the Arc de Triomphe provides a whole new perspective on the Eiffel Tower

The tiered navy sleeveless Gap drill dress didn’t show the dirt on a hot, dusty day spent giving my daughter her first taste of Paris.  Laura didn’t like Paris. “It’s too city-ish.”

It obligingly withstood another day’s wear at Disneyland Paris – a twelve-hour shift to get our money’s worth. Now that Laura did approve of.

And then there was the blue and white stripey jersey shift, too short and shabby to be worn beyond our back garden really, but perfect for the long haul south in our camper van, my feet on the dashboard as we ambled down the valleys of the Loire and the Rhone to Provence. (Don’t worry,  my husband was driving.)

For a second, I allow myself to  believe that the act of trying on my favourite summer clothes will magically transport me back to the south of France, far from the woolly jumpers of home. I gaze at my favourite cotton lawn sundress with the wistful longing that as a child I’d project on an old wooden chair, hoping it would sprout the wings of Enid Blyton‘s famous Wishing Chair and whisk me away. (How those magical children’s stories  stay with you forever!)

But this year we won’t be heading south, whatever we wear. We’re spending this summer is Scotland – and as my daughter likes to say, “You don’t go to Scotland for the weather”. I’ll still be taking my beloved summer clothes. But I expect I’ll have to wear them all at once.

Posted in Family, Travel

The Travelling Wardrobe

Tibetan Prayer flags
Tibetan prayer flags, reminiscent of my husband's holiday laundry (Image by Oliphant via Flickr)

Packing the ideal holiday capsule wardrobe for a 28 day tour of France in our camper van, I am torn between taking old clothes that I can jettison en route after wearing and aspiring to the well-groomed appearance of the average French woman.

I don’t want to clutter up the van with dirty laundry as space is at such a premium, nor do I want to use precious time and water (our tank is a small one) washing clothes.  This is a holiday, after all.

I compromise and take smart casual dresses and separates, but ageing underwear that I can bin with a clear conscience.  I’m gratified to discover that I have sufficient for the whole month and am bemused by the notion of leaving a Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail of discarded knickers across the country.

I’ve bought three dresses expressly for the holiday, floaty linen and cotton frocks that are easily rinsed and dried overnight in Provencal sun.  I abate any feelings of extravagance by remembering the experiences of a former colleague on her very first holiday abroad.

Margaret was about 22 and had never travelled far from her native Bristol.  In anticipation of a week-long package trip to Spain, she invested in seven outfits from her catalogue, so that she’d have something new and special to wear every single day.  The whole office was regaled with a detailed description of each outfit as the catalogue delivered it, and after waving her goodbye on the Friday, we looked forward all the following week to an account of her adventures on her return.

Sadly her investment did not pay great dividends.  Pressed for a description, she just shook her head.

“I think abroad’s very over-rated,” she said sadly and would not be drawn any further.

I have higher hopes for my holiday in France.

My packing strategy for my small daughter Laura is similar to my own and I look forward to a month without laundry.  Until Day 5 of our trip, when my husband announces, to my surprise, “Oh no, I’m down to my last t-shirt.”

Terse questioning reveals that he has brought with him just 5 t-shirts, 5 pairs of pants and 5 pairs of socks.  Considering he has approximately 40 t-shirts in his wardrobe at home and more underwear than Laura and I combined, I am not sympathetic.

The situation is partly remedied by persuading him to throw caution to the winds and wear his sandals without socks.  But I cannot extend the same philosophy to the other items of clothing in question.

And so for the rest of the holiday, the interior of the camper van is adorned at every stop with a varying array of his drying laundry, like a Tibetan prayer flag offered up to the god of hygiene.

So at least he can be considered hygienic.  Not so, it seems, his swimming trunks – but that’s another story…

The next post will reveal all – well, nearly all.

Posted in Personal life, Travel

How to Pack for the Summer Holidays

Rucksack
Image by brandsvig via Flickr

Packing. The very thought of it takes the edge off the excitement of going on holiday, at least till we’re on our way.

It shouldn’t be such a difficult task. As we spend most holidays in our camper van, we don’t have to bother with suitcases. We pack our possessions straight into the van’s streamlined cupboards, and here they stay, out of sight, until we need them. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

Years ago, when we were child-free, holidays meant sailing in Greece. Packing in those days meant shoehorning toy-sized toiletries and capsule wardrobes into a collapsible sausage-shaped bag, ready for decanting into ship’s lockers on arrival. A camera, notebook and pen (plus daily access to yesterday’s English newspaper for my husband) were our only desert-island luxuries. Leaving behind the clutter of everyday life at home and at work was exhilarating. Forget feng shui – there were barely any material items to arrange.

Then in time, we had a baby to pack too. Until babies are about three, there’s an inverse relationship between the size of the child and the volume of luggage it requires. Just as Laura’s own baggage was starting to reduce – no more bottles, bibs or buggies – she hit toddlerhood, when she didn’t want to be confined to a boat. She needed playparks full of children to become her new friends. Any nationality, language no object, provided the children were her size.

And so slickly we transferred, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, onto land. We traded in our boat for a camper van. Drier, less lurching, and less likely to strand us due to weather conditions, it was a welcome and natural evolution from amphibian to reptile. And while I was in charge of packing, it was still soothingly minimalist too.

But now that Laura packs her own bags for holidays, new challenges have arisen. Numerous cuddly toys and dolls anthropomorphise into inseparable friends who would simply pine away if left at home without her. By the end of last year’s summer holiday, Laura’s entourage took over the entire vehicle. So for our half-term trip to the Highlands, I decide to set a new rule: one bag of toys per person. A serious constraint for Gadget Man, but a less daunting challenge for me: most of my toys are books to read or write in. It is easy to smuggle extra rations onto the van’s built-in bookshelf.

I expect a rebellion before our departure. But no, Laura sits demurely on her booster seat with an old black barrel handbag of mine bulging at her side. On her lap is a single cuddly toy: Heather the Best-Dressed Rabbit. (Heather even has her own gas-mask case for this term’s World War II topic). I’ve suggested that instead of taking lots of toys Laura pack a bag of Heather’s clothes to ring the changes along the way. I am pleasantly startled to see she’s taken my advice.

Pointing the van north, we hit the road. The half-grown crops in the Cotswold fields undulate as we pass, as if waving goodbye. They will seem so soft and green on our return from serious Scottish mountains.

Four hours later, when we stop for the night at Morecambe Bay, the true contents of the little black bag are revealed. With a coy, self-satisfied smile, Laura unzips it and begins to pull out an endless stream of toys. It’s like watching a conjuror do the handkerchief trick. Three rag dolls, four horses, two dogs, a bird…. all these and more are soon strewn around the camper van, leaving my husband and I scrabbling, as ever, for a space big enough to sit in. One bag of toys it is, so I cannot complain. But what an astonishing mastery of the art of packing for one so young. I sigh and sit down next to Heather. When the summer holidays come round, I think I’ll put Laura in charge of loading the van.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, July 2011)

Posted in Personal life

Mix and Match

Marks & Spencer
Image by jovike via Flickr
Checking my inbox today, I find it peppered with emails from clothing suppliers trying to persuade me to buy a new winter wardrobe.  The thermometer having plummeted in the last few days, we’re all going to need our winter woollies by the time we come back from half term, so I take a look at what they’re offering.First on the list is a message from Marks and Spencer highlighting their new “coatigan” – a combination of a coat and a cardigan.  It sounds just right for inbetweeny, Halloweeny weather.

I’ve never seen a coatigan, but I don’t need to.  This portmanteau word conjures up a precise vision. I’m intrigued by the cross-breeding that fashion retailers believe is going on in our wardrobes.  First came the skort (is it a skirt? Is it shorts?).  Then last year the shoe-boot (no explanation necessary).  This was swiftly followed by jeggings: the spawn of jeans and leggings.  Whatever next?

If the trend continues, here are my predictions for your warmer winter wardrobe this season….

The Jumpover – as sleek as a jumpsuit but practical as an overall, this all-in-one  outfit will keep the fashion-conscious woman clean but elegant while working around the house.

The Underall –  not dissimilar to old-fashioned combinations, this underwear features the added benefit of practical overall-style pockets for storing essential tools.

The Shocking – a seamless, streamlined cross between high-heeled shoes and fishnet stockings for the girl who really wants to get noticed at the office Christmas party.

The Harf or Scat – a hat with scarf attached around the lower edge to avoid the annoying gap that lets the draught in between conventional hat and scarf sets.

But my favourite this winter will be Pyjippers – ending chilly ankles when I go down to make the tea first thing in the morning.  I wonder if I can get them patented in time for Christmas?

(This post originally appeared in the November edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News.)