Posted in Personal life

Where the Grass is Greener

Every month I write a column for our village newspaper, the Hawkesbury Parish News. This is my column for the August issue, written for its mid-July deadline. The weather has changed a little since then, but our garden has felt the benefit!

sample of our lawn grass

Ours must be one of the few lawns in the parish that has become progressively greener during this hot, dry weather, rather than turning to hay. However, the lawn had to get worse before it got better. It turned chocolate brown, in fact, as my husband, who never does anything by halves, dug for victory over the weeds and took large parts of the lawn back to bare soil.

Top tip here: if you want to cultivate a forest of dandelions, leave a trampoline in place for a few years, and they’ll colonise what was once grass. Until we moved the trampoline to clear that patch, it became our cat Dorothy’s favourite shady retreat, the thick bed of sap-filled leaves cooling her furry tummy.

view of lawn with ladders, husband doing woodwork, tools, etc
Our back garden is a hive of activity these summer days
photo of grass bordering flower bed
Lush new turf provides a neat edge to a parched flower bed

But then out came the grass seed, scattered across the fine tilth he’d created, and lovingly watered in, until that part of the garden began to resemble the early stages of a hair transplant (for someone with lime-green hair, that is).

A few days later, a kind neighbour gave us some leftover rolls of turf. Now parts of our lawn look like a thick, emerald-green wig.

But if you really want your grass to keep its colour, come rain or shine, my dad’s solution is hard to beat: astroturf in his Bristol townhouse back yard. It’s the perfect answer for those who are allergic to grass pollens (I wrote about hay fever in last month’s column) – or indeed for those who are allergic to lawnmowers.


set of four Sophie Sayers books
Best Murder in Show is first in a growing series of village mystery stories

Fancy a summer read while it’s still just about summer? (in the northern hemisphere, anyway!) Best Murder in Show kicks off at the time of a classic English village show – just like the one we’re currently preparing for where I live (though preferably without any murders).

Posted in Travel

A Summer of Extremes: From Ithaca to Inverness

This post about my summer holidays first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser’s September issue.

Photo of an Ithacan beach with clear blue sky
Soaking up the sun beside the Ithacan sea

I shall remember this summer break as the holiday of two extremes – scorching, dry sunshine and chill, torrential rain, as I flitted from Ithaca to Inverness.

Bust of Homer on a pillar on Ithaca
Statue of Homer on Ithaca at daybreak

Our trip to Ithaca was a busman’s holiday for me. I was helping to run the Homeric Writers’ Workshop and Retreat, so called because the island was the start and finishing point of perhaps the most famous journey of all, that of Odysseus, as chronicled by the ancient Greek master storyteller, Homer.

Our Scottish trip was occasioned by my husband’s own odyssey – to climb all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of 3,000 feet or more, named after the man who first mapped them.

On Ithaca, the weather was idyllic: constant sunshine, cornflower-blue skies, refreshing sea breezes, all day every day. The locals apologised that there were clouds in the sky – tiny Persil-white puffballs – apparently not usually seen between June and September.

A few days later, when we flew into Inverness to meet my husband (already there in our camper van, with 20 more Munros crossed off his list before we arrived), steady rain was falling from steely skies. As we headed west for Ullapool, the clouds became more leaden. Linen sundresses, so comfortable on Ithaca, were supplemented with leggings, t-shirts, cardigans, shawls – all at once.

Steely-skied Aberdeen beach with sign listing all the hazards there
Not quite so enticing – the beach at Aberdeen

On Ithaca there are constant reminders to conserve water, always in short supply on this tiny island. In Scotland, there is evidence everywhere of the abundance of local water: high and raging rivers, waterfalls and landslips beside the roads. New flood defences are under construction wherever we go, and not a moment too soon. If there’s ever a global shortage of water, Scotland’s a dead cert for world domination.

Yet as we retreated southwards, I realised that my two holiday destinations weren’t so different after all, and not just because they both prompted us to haemorrhage money on dubious souvenirs.

Both have a vast diaspora, thanks to economic migrants driven to North America, Australia, and South Africa by the Highland Clearances in Scotland and by the 1953 earthquake in Ithaca.

Both landscapes are scarred by the ruins of abandoned, simple stone houses, surprisingly similar in structure and appearance.

magnetBoth populations departed with a deep love of their homeland imprinted on their hearts. Whenever they can, they return. Australian, American and South African accents abound on Ithaca. In Scotland, 2014 has been declared Homecoming year, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, at which the Scots trounced the English. (By chance, my husband hails from Bannockburn.)

I feel privileged to have been able to holiday in places that so many people, all over the world, will always regard as home. Yet I’m also glad to return to the Cotswolds, which, as a small child on holiday there, I resolved I would one day make my home.

Because as Homer himself once said: “Nothing is sweeter than home”. At least, that’s what it says on my Ithacan souvenir fridge magnet.

 

Posted in Family, Personal life

As Safe As Hawkesbury Houses

(This post was written during the downpours at the end of last month, which now seem so long ago after the spring sunshine we’ve enjoyed this weekend!)

Post of Sandra Boynton cartoon  of Noah's ark
I’ve had this poster since I was a teenager. Ever the optimist…

“Mummy, do you think we’ll get flooded here?” my daughter asked during one of the many February downpours.

Vivid news reports of British homes and fields underwater strike fear into anyone living on low ground or close to a river. But flooding is one thing that needn’t worry Hawkesbury Upton folk, because elevation is one of our village’s many charms.

It’s an uphill journey from whichever road you enter Hawkesbury Upton. At its highest point, the village rises to over 600 feet above sea level. That’s not counting the top of the Somerset Monument. Perhaps my daughter had visions of us all taking refuge within that tower, fleeing up the unsafe stairs as the water rose about our feet. Should that ever become necessary, it really will be ark weather.

When I first moved to Hawkesbury Upton over 20 years ago, my elderly next-door neighbour, James Harford, passed on a useful tip about the local climate: “When it’s jacket weather in Sodbury, it’s overcoat weather in Hawkesbury.”

My parents live 20 miles away in the heart of Bristol, and I’ve noticed that their daffodils are always at least a fortnight ahead of ours, reflecting the city’s warmer climate.

In the past, it made me sad that we lagged behind. There’s nothing like Spring flowers to banish the February blues.

But now, as the downpours continue, I’m very happy to take the Hawkesbury Upton high ground – one of many compelling reason that I’ve vowed never to move house again.

(This post was originally written for the March 2014 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News.)

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Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel

Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Hawkesbury Sun

(In which the English heat wave of July 2013 has me raiding my old Greek holiday wardrobe, conjuring up nostalgia for island-hopping holidays and Greek island society – with Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” never far from my mind.)

Cover of record of Noel Coward's Mad Dogs and EnglishmenThe Gloucestershire village that I’ve made my home is not known for a warm climate. There’s a reason that the Tropic of Hawkesbury Upton did not feature in Noel Coward’s wonderful song about hot places, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”. But this summer its lyrics have been playing on a loop in my head. 

Perched high up on the last rise of the Cotswolds before they fall away into the Severn Vale, Hawkesbury usually has lower temperatures, higher winds and more snow than in Bristol, at sea level, just 20 miles away. Even nearby Chipping Sodbury has a warmer microclimate than ours.

“When it’s jacket weather in Sodbury, it’s overcoat weather in Hawkesbury Upton,” was a favourite saying of James Harford, the aged sage who lived next door when I moved here 22 years ago.

Yet the current Hawkesbury heat wave has had me rummaging in my wardrobe for clothes that haven’t had an airing since pre-baby holidays on the Greek islands.

Transported to Greece

My favourite Greek holiday wear - a Mediterranean turquoise beach kaftanMy favourite Greek holiday clothes include an airy turquoise beach kaftan and a Mediterranean-Sea-blue sarong, patterned with the sea turtles indigenous to the island on which I bought it: Kefalonia. Teamed with earrings from Lefkas, enamelled in the colours of the Ionian Sea and sky, they transport me back to my halcyon days of island-hopping.

Fortunately, these items still fit, despite subsequent post-motherhood pounds. You’d have to have a lot of babies to need to upsize your earrings.

It’s not just my old Mediterranean wardrobe that I’ve adopted to cope with this hot spell. Other useful habits acquired during our Kefalonian days include:

  • closing wooden window shutters against the heat of the day (though ours in Hawkesbury were installed to keep heat in))
  • carrying a water bottle wherever I go
  • savouring cucumber salads so refreshing that they almost qualify as a drink
  • looking forward to stepping outside at dusk, to be enveloped in air as cooling as diving into a swimming pool

Enamelled earrings bought on the island of LefkasAnd then there’s the perfume that instantly whisks me back to the Greek islands. No, not the sharp scent of wild herbs on arid hills, but the soft, fruity scent of suncream. These days my aura is Factor 50.

When we first started holidaying in Greece, my then boyfriend (now husband) and I were the classic Mad Dogs and Englishmen (sorry, Gordon, Scotsmen). We saw nothing wrong with going out in the midday sun.

Going Native

But after a few visits, I began to side with the locals, who spent the afternoons safely battened into their cool, bare houses. From beneath the shade of a beachside taverna, I’d smile and shake my head at conspicuously pale, newly-landed compatriots making a bare-headed beeline for the beach.

If smartphones had been invented in those days, I’d now be able to illustrate this point with a vivid image of a pasty English family of four, two adults, two teenagers, that I spotted one day in Zakynthos Town. Clad in Marks and Spencer t-shirts and shorts, they looked shocked that their cheap hats, emergency purchased from a nearby stall, did not make a dent in the afternoon sun. I suspect they bore that startled look for the rest of their fortnight on the island. It was as if they’d got off at the wrong stop on their plane:

“GREECE? What do you mean, we’re in Greece? Our tickets very clearly stated Grimsby!”

Only in the evenings, after dark, did the locals emerge en masse from their quiet, shady houses. Suddenly noisily sociable, they paraded gleefully about the town squares till well after midnight, toddlers whizzing past their ankles on tricycles whose saddles were too hot to sit on before sunset. It was as if this were a nightly wake for the overheated day: there was a real party atmosphere on every town square. On first encounter, this has much the same surprise factor for foreigners as the wooden silence of the Trojan horse transformed by hidden Greek soldiers’ battle cries.

English Summer Sayings

Beach sarong printed with pattern of sea turtles indigenous to KefaloniaWill there be such a wake in Britain for our current heat wave? I doubt it. Hot summers are so rare that we’re never happy to bid them goodbye. But when it ends, we’ll be very British and accept it. With heavy rain predicted for this weekend, it won’t be long before our recent mantra of “I daren’t complain about the heat after the winter we’ve had” segues into one of our commoner British summer catchphrases:

  • “Well, the sunshine was nice while it lasted”
  • “All this rain will be good for the garden”
  • “What a shame for the children’s school holidays!”

And I’ll be tucking my Greek clothes back into the drawer, along with heady memories of the 2013 summer heat wave.

For the full lyrics of Noel Coward’s wonderful song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, click here.

Debbie and Laura on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Summer 2011
Harking back to France

OTHER POSTS YOU MIGHT LIKE

What is it with me and holiday clothes? I’m easily brainwashed by my wardrobe, as this post about our French holiday shows:

Girls In Their Summer Clothes.

If you’re heading to France, read these words of warning about essential dress for men:

Many A Slip Between Piscine and Dip

Or ignore them if you’d like a laugh at your husband’s expense…

Posted in Family, Personal life

Stressing The Importance of Gadgets

Stressed cat
Stroke it the right way and it’d just be a pussycat

Years ago, when I was a fresh young executive in the dog-eat-dog world of PR, it was the done thing to complain about your stress levels. Anyone in the office who didn’t was assumed to be not working hard enough.

Our boss Jim*, an ex-hack in his early 40s, was a kind man. Under pressure from the agency owners to maximise profits, he did his best to resolve our anguish, while still appearing to crack the whip. It can’t have been easy to be in sole charge of a bevy of ambitious young women, many of whom were prone to tears when losing a pitch for new business. Always the rebel, I was aghast when I overheard two women senior to me seriously discussing the merits of crying in the workplace: “It’s every professional’s  right to express their true feelings.” I suspect there were days when Jim could have cried himself.

A family man with three lovely children, Jim was married to a former beauty queen. Although she adored him, I suspect she couldn’t offer him much practical help for dealing with women in suits. She’d probably have suggested a manicure to cure our stress. Jim’s solution was to send us on a stress management course.

Managing Stress

Goodness knows how much the firm paid for that course. We were all shipped off to a posh country house hotel where our training session lasted all day. The cost of the coffee break alone must have run into treble figures. Inevitably, when we returned to the office, the training course made not the slightest bit of difference to our stress levels. All it did was salve Jim’s conscience that he was looking after us properly.

At the time, I was the only dissenter. “Cure the cause, not the symptoms!” I implored him. “Just eliminate the stress, instead of managing it.” I never did like wearing a suit.

Avoiding Stress

Now that I’m working mostly from home, stress avoidance, not stress management, is my mantra. So when a nice man from confused.com challenged me to choose a stress-reducing gadget, with the chance of winning one for myself, I jumped at the opportunity.  Jim could never have solved our problems with gadgets: they simply didn’t exist. In those days, the golfball typewriter was considered cutting-edge technology. If we wanted a gadget, we had to improvise. One of my colleagues infamously did so: she lobbed an ashtray at poor Jim in the middle of a difficult meeting. (Yes, it was that long ago: smoking in the office was still considered an acceptable way to manage your stress levels. Jim’s chosen prop was the cigar.)

My own approach to resolving stress is more constructive. I’ve pinpointed the early morning as the greatest source of stress in my day.

The Scream by Edvard Monch
Oh no, not the Today programme at dawn again!

The stress kicks off when  the radio-alarm wakes me up, ensuring that the first voices I hear every day are not those of my loved ones,  but Messrs Humphreys and Naughtie on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Much as I admire these fine broadcasters, being woken by the news headlines is about as soothing as fingernails running down a blackboard. It’s less jarring when their gentler colleagues, Justin Webb and Evan Davies, are on duty, but even my favourite radio voice of all time, David Attenborough, could not make those news stories less than stressful.

The Antidote to Stress

Instead, what I really need to sound the alarm is an iPhone, loaded with soothing tunes, in an iPod dock on my bedside table.  Music, not news, would wake me up: so that’s one  source of stress that would bite the dust.

Another stress factor is checking the weather, so that I can put out the right school clothes for my daughter. Summer dress or winter pinafore? Light cardigan or sweatshirt? Boots or shoes? Socks or tights?  I’d therefore also download a local weather app on to my iPhone.  Then, each night before bed, I could  check the forecast and lay out the appropriate clothes, leaving one less thing to worry about in the morning.

Knowing the weather forecast, I’d be able to ensure that it wasn’t just any old soothing music that woke me up in the mornings, but music chosen to put the most positive spin on the weather. (Ah, you see, all those years in PR were not wasted.) Whatever weather we woke up to, its accompanying tune would be a pleasure to hear. For sunshine, the choice would be easy: “Here Comes The Sun” by George Harrison. In case of rain, “It’s Raining Men” by The Weathergirls would never fail to lift my mood. For exceptionally bad storms, I’d pick “Greased Lightning”, from the movie Grease. Snow would provide the perfect excuse to play “I’m Walking in the Air” from The Snowman. If the weather ever got too depressing, I might cheat and load ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, a song that my daughter and I had on permanent repeat in the car last summer to raise our spirits while driving through pouring rain. But you get the general picture.

Less Stress For All

The word music, annotated
Has charms to soothe the savage breast (William Congreve)

My system would be endlessly adaptable to suit all tastes in music. For those of classical bent, there’d be Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, although to reflect the impact of global warming and its ever-weirder weather systems, you might want to play the Summer movement in Winter, and vice versa.

You could also use the system to herald landmark days and events. “Get Me To The Church On Time” from My Fair Lady would signal a wedding. My daughter would not be the only one looking forward to hearing Alice Cooper sing “School’s Out”.

I’d even use it on days when I didn’t have to get up. I’ve thought of the perfect song for a lie-in, by possibly the most melodious duo  of all time:  Simon and Garfunkel. I bet you can guess what it would be: “The Sound of Silence”.

Soothed.com? That’ll be me.

This post was written for confused.com’s New Year Revolution Competition.

*not his real name