Saturday, 20 December 2014

U is for Unforeseen circumstances and the Unnecessary madness of Christmas

Dear Nigel,

The Christmas preparations are well under way all around me and I've discovered that it it is the very worst time of year to decide to be ill. Not only do you have little choice but to carry on regardless, but appointments bank up at the hospital and 'a month isn't a long time to wait', apparently. The huge machine of ritual that is Christmas chugs on, and all around you the expectations of friends and family seek to hem you in. I never understood why anyone would want to be away from all their loved ones and holiday in the sun at Christmas, but this year me and my sore jaw would happily take a vegetarian chicken leg and go and sit and watch the Northern Lights (somewhere much colder than here).

For the little ones, of course, it is totally magical and no one should take that away from them. Watching their faces all lit up as the Steam train pulled in to take them to see Santa the other day was wonderful. I suppose for each of us there is a memory in our distant past - probably of something very small indeed - that rekindles itself every time we see that look of pure wonder on a small child's face. There are so few times in any lifetime when we experience something so perfect.

The school Nativity play goes past without a hitch. Molly, a decidedly unpregnant-looking Mary, decides that baby Annabel - dressed in a pink babygro, like all good french baby boys - was going to be Jesus, whatever...

Sophie is dressed as a Star, along with little Alfie (one of the younger ones in Reception, who has Downs Syndrome). All the children have learnt 'We wish you a Merry Christmas' in Makaton and it is lovely to see Alfie joining in with the others with the sign language- very much a part of our little family school. The children say that 'Alfie just hasn't grown out of being a toddler' and accept him for who he is, unconditionally. At their age they are so accepting of difference wherever they find it. If only it would stay that way.

The dinner I am making tonight is 'Aromatic Pork with Cucumber' (page 347). It is a lightening-quick dinner on the plate and tastes wonderful, and my guest thinks so too. Sometimes, especially at this time of year, when I'm busy cooking other things for Christmas, the last thing I want to do is spend ages cooking dinner as well. I'm busy filling up the freezer, with all seven of my children due home in the next couple of days (and Chris's Brazilian girlfriend Beatriz, too). I prefer to sit back with a glass of wine and enjoy spending time with my family at this time of year rather than slaving away in the kitchen. They all have much more important parties to go to for New Year so our time together is short and sweet.

The emails advertising this and that come in thick and fast as the great day looms. Gentle reminders to stash in piles of fluffy white towels and individual candle bowls for 'all those individual guest bathrooms' leave me laughing on the floor. In our house there'll be a long queue for the one bathroom and much banging on the door methinks. James is already planning to get up a rota.

I think my ideal would be to hire some large place in the country that would take all the family who care to spend Christmas with us - all under one roof, in a certain amount of comfort. It occurred to me that there must be a good number of suitable homes available for 'a house swap' at this time of year, what with all the Royals going up to Balmoral and everything. Perhaps someone should suggest it to Kate.

The tree in the corner appears to have a drink problem again this year. Last year we narrowed it down to the dog, this year it seems the cat is taking a liking to pine-infused liqueur. It just keeps me busy down on my front trying to fill it up again.

The village newsletter is delivered by Melanie on her rounds. It covers five tiny villages in this little area of the Peak District, including ours. I leaf through and note that Annie the vicar is doing a candlelit carol service on Monday evening at one of our neighbouring villages. I don't often go to church these days, but there is something rather awe-inspiring about a small candlelit church in the middle of winter, that beckons. The girls love singing carols (and more-importantly can read the words now) so I'm thinking that this would be an ideal time to go and remember the other side of Christmas, too often forgotten in the wrapping and unwrapping of presents and over-indulgence at the table.

It's a time for remembrance too. I'm still tippling back a thimble full of the sloe gin my brother made several years ago now and raising a toast to him. And this year I have three people close to me who will be having a harder Christmas than most to remember. I do what little I can to show that people do care and remember their pain. We can all do that for someone around us - light a tiny candle at the end of the tunnel to guide them home again.

Martha



Saturday, 15 November 2014

A guest at my table - Danny Boy

The last time I saw Danny was about seven or eight years ago, or more. That's what happens when you have a baby; suddenly everyone you'd been seeing week in week out for years on end suddenly become invisible in your life as you get pulled in another direction. Even good friends are cast along the wayside and stop listening to your empty promises to meet up.

So when you do finally get your life back together you find that things have changed. What seems at first a most familiar landscape has pockets of history that you've completely missed.

Danny and Amy were regulars at the pub. A young couple in their twenties who seemed to have the golden ticket in their hands. Some couples are just gorgeous - good looking, good jobs, plenty of money, everything going for them and their whole lives mapped out. Amy, certainly, had a plan. She was used to making an entrance each week so that she could show off her new designer handbag, the shoes, the outfit. She glowed, and Danny stood beside her glowing in her wake.

A wedding seemed in the offing; the talk between them centred on possible farmhouses they might buy (-not your average first time buyers' house for Amy). They posed with other lovely young couples, laughing, smiling, looking round for approval. Or perhaps that was only Amy. But Danny had bought into her dreams as well.

The other week I thought I saw the back of him ambling away from the bar. He seemed to be rather drunk and was leaning to one side as he walked. His clothes were a mess and there was mud in his hair. It wasn't till he came back the other way that I realised that he wasn't drunk, or if so, only slightly. His whole left arm was missing and he was overcompensating for the loss of weight on one side as he walked towards me, as if he was still getting used to things.

Amy had disappeared, it seemed, and had since married a farmer in the next valley. All his bricks had come tumbling down at once - job, home, girlfriend - the whole mapped out future was torn to shreds. He was still coming to terms with this. Some things had slid, but that was temporary. But the pain on such a young face was evident. Still barely into his thirties, I thought, and yet he carried the weight of the world on one shoulder, hardened to his predicament and to the intense sympathy of others.

It had been a farm machinery accident which tore the whole limb. Whether it was his own fault or not was hard to say. Some said he had been drinking. It mattered not. And he didn't want to hear yet more sympathy for something that he couldn't change. He wanted me not to notice and to talk about the changes at the pub (none), the likelihood of snow and the planning application that everyone was in uproar about. His eyes begged only for that. I understood what he was saying.

'Why don't you come to supper?' I heard myself say,'We won't talk about ANYTHING,'

I was surprised, really, when he agreed. Our conversations had been almost superficial up to now, I thought. But Danny was desperate to gain some kind of normality into his life again and he didn't know really where to start. They'd kept him on at the farm but he could only really help out. He knew they were doing him a favour and he had swallowed his pride. What choice did he have? The regulars were still the same crowd and it was here he felt most at home. As the evening mellowed out and people seemed to forget he could become himself once more. His crowd of friends had altered. The shiny people seemed to have moved on elsewhere. He seemed far older than his years.

I watched him as I sat talking to a friend. He was still a very good looking lad; almost throwing himself into pointless conversation with a renowned pub bore just to keep himself going. I wondered what such a tragedy really does to a person, deep down. How hard is it to keep clinging on, to rise above a wave of depression that could so easily drag you under if you let it. Is it better to go looking for a possible future or to simply hold on to a fragile present. I didn't know that I would be able to help him answer that. We each surf that wave at times, and each behave differently. It's so easy to stand on the outside looking in and judge another's pain without having the remotest idea how the cycle of feelings, thoughts and behaviour really affect another person.

Danny had built a wall in front of himself and he needed this wall to make him strong and stop him falling apart. We talked about his brother's family and his sister's new boyfriend; his Dad's minor heart operation and the beleaguered cricket team's bad year. He was desperate to keep things light and I had no intention of treading on sore ground. I still wondered what we'd find to talk about. I wasn't used to this level of very casual conversation. It seemed pointless to me, somehow, and yet Danny was desperate for that level of pointlessness. Like an orange with a tightly-bound skin, there seemed no way to get into this man's inner world.

I was at a loss to know what to do. I hoped that a good meal would do the trick. Food has that way of unlocking the most complex of doors. To share food, to sit alongside another and eat separately in unison, is bonding. We are the same, you and I - we both eat. You can trust me because we have eaten together. The wall you have built can remain but if you let me scale it's huge height we might between us find some kind of answer to that question that you are unable to articulate. I was prepared to give it a go, should the opportunity arise.

As I take the dish out of the oven I see his brother's car draw up outside. Part of me automatically thinks to invite him in as well as it is quite a distance for him to travel, but I know Danny would not appreciate this. I rarely find myself so unsure of how to be. I need to take my lead from him and remember that he is actually only a handful of years older that my eldest son. He has lived a lot in the last few years.


Saturday, 25 October 2014

T is for Treacle Toffee

Dear Nigel,

Was it only just over a week ago that we watched the last of Summer's footprints evaporate leaving no trace? There we were, cycling along one of the many old railway tracks that serve as cycle paths here in the Peak District, weaving themselves over and through the hills; coats left in Archie because an unseasonal warm wind was fanning our path, and the sun glowing that Autumn gold that colours the landscape sometimes like a badly-exposed print at this time of year.

We took the Monsal trail which goes through the side of a hill in two places. Coming out of the soot-lined tunnel we blink in multicolour and stop on top of the viaduct to gaze at the tranquil ribbon of water beneath. Sophie whizzes past on a bike that is much too small for her now. She is enjoying the freedom that comes from suddenly being able to take off and go. There was no teeth-pulling endless learning to ride with her - wobbling and grazed knees each day. She simply decided one day she could do it, borrowed someone else's bike and rode off. That's the sort of laborious parenting I like.

The warm currents of air have also brought the butterflies out in force. A cloud of Red Admirals enter the cottage and take residence along the beams of the living room ceiling. They come probably from the Buddleia just outside the window, but show no signs of wanting to leave. Each day they sleep and in the evening when the cottage warms up they wake up and fly around the room as we eat our supper. One lands on the back of Sophie's hand and stays there, happy to bask in the warmth of her skin for a while. It is most odd. Sometimes, the sun wakes them during the day and I open the window and chivvy them on their way. But, by night time they have all flown back in again and are perched in exactly the same individual spots as the day before. If I were so inclined I could find myself believing that there is a message there in all this. Instead, I simply marvel at this peculiar thing and pick up my knife and fork and tuck into my supper as our resident friends dance at face height over the table and settle over by the window.

The supper I am making tonight for my guest is 'Sweetcorn Crumb-crust Pie' (page 333). It is the sort of easy family meal that I know my kids will like too, with nothing they can complain about (except, perhaps, the odd bit of green parsley - but let them complain). As a huge fan of all shallow oven-baked dishes involving potatoes and cream I am looking forward to this one warming up a dismal day outside. The weather has changed radically here and so suddenly and the summer is all but instantly forgotten. How short our memories are as we battle through driving rain,doing battle with our swords of flimsy metal spokes and nylon against mother nature's outrage.

Each year the pile of old coats gets larger and tattier, threatening to pull the coat hooks off the wall. Each year I promise to send them all winging their way to the clothing bank. And each year they get a sudden last reprieve, like condemned prisoners on death row, and I feel comfortable once again walking the dog in an old favourite battered and faded jacket that has become my friend over the years. Both of us have seen better days, I think.

There is another convict on death row whose fate is the talk of the pub as I go to play my fiddle. Many of the regulars actually come from the neighbouring village of Eyam (famous for being the village that cut itself off during the Plague). Where Andy lives, his neighbour has a now rather famous Welsummer Cockerel called William the Conqueror, who is known to have an exceptionally loud crow in the mornings.

Now, I'd always rather assumed that if you chose to live in the country, then you accepted cockerels crowing and birds singing the dawn chorus as part of life - even welcomed it? Apparently not. Someone in Eyam has made a complaint to the district council about William and a man from the council has been sent out to investigate. Poor William was clocked and registered (and an ASBO tag fitted to his leg perhaps?) and deemed to be above the required decibels that is allowable for Cockerels. (If only we could do that for people...now there's a thought...)

The outcome is that poor William either has to be dispatched or sent away from home, as he apparently refuses to sleep in his new modified coop. Poor eighty year old Mr Sutcliffe, William's owner, has found no takers for the bird and so it seems William's days are numbered.

However, a backlash is afoot. William apparently has his own facebook page with over two thousand supporters from all over the world, and Mr Sutcliffe has written to his Derbyshire Dales MP Patrick McLoughlin to complain that you can't stop a Cockerel from crowing. Meanwhile, district councillors have given William a few more days reprieve.

Ahhh... such is village life.

Martha




Thursday, 16 October 2014

A guest at my table - Ruby

The image which we portray to the outside world is largely of our own making. It can be how we see ourselves, or the person we believe ourselves to be, or what we want others to believe about us. There is nothing wrong in all this - we all dress up and play a part every day of our lives, whether we realise it or not.

When I first saw Ruby I was so transfixed by the multitude of colour and texture of her clothes, her rich velvet scarves, auburn hair and startlingly green eyes that I thought she must surely be one of the most interesting people I'd ever meet. She was probably in her later 50s, rosy cheeked and quite a large lady in all directions, but it was difficult to tell under all those layers of clothing. She dressed to please herself and the clothes themselves owed more to Vintage dressing-up box style than any high street chain store. She wore jewel-coloured silks and lace and velvet and leather all together; the colours toning and contrasting with each other. I suppose it was simply an extension of her day job which, (when she wasn't caring for her elderly mother), was in making handmade quilts for commission. She supplemented her carers allowance with a day course which she taught at the local college one morning a week. It was her get-out-of-jail card, she said. But mostly work had to fit around her caring responsibilities, which made having a life difficult.

As the only one of her siblings who wasn't married with a family it had rather been expected that she would give up her secretarial job and look after her mum as she got weaker and her condition worsened. She wasn't resentful of this exactly, she said, as she loved her mum dearly, but the broken nights took their toll on her sense of humour as there was simply no let up. Sometimes, she told me, when her sister came over to visit, she just slept. Her sister Annie would take their mum out in the wheelchair for a couple of hours and she would put last night's stinking bedding in the wash, take the phone off the hook and go to bed. She was supposed to be working or taking some time out for herself but sleep seemed more important. A carer's life is often a lonely one, relentless and thankless. She was supposed to be going to a support group with other carers but couldn't actually fathom up the energy to get there.

All this seemed a mile from the Ruby who greeted us so enthusiastically each week on a Tuesday.This Ruby was very upbeat  and exuberant. Her one great love was colour. She loved to open draw upon drawer and throw fabric across the table, and find two or three others that would give exactly the effect she required. Perhaps it would be a corner of a ploughed field and the tones would be in old gold and nougat. Or greens against a hedge where the sun cast a shadow of almost inky black.

We were making a communal quilt which was to be auctioned for an overseas charity, alongside the single bed quilts which we were all making to take home. I was making one for my daughter Hannah in shades of blue and pink, as she shared a bedroom with her younger brother William. Each week we were given homework to finish which was a block in a different style or pattern - like a living book of quilt designs which would week-on-week mount up to the finished quilt.

Sewing had never been my thing. Ever since Miss Bingham had made us sew what looked to me like maternity smocks at the age of eleven at Buxton Girls School (it was 1976), I'd gone right off the whole idea. And found my way to Top Shop. But here, in this old room with its high ceilings, arched windows and plan chests, an eclectic group of women of all ages met for a few hours each week to unpick the seams of our lives and to sew new ones for posterity on our communal project.

In America, sewing bees were once quite common social occasions which women were 'allowed' to go to. There is something in the making of stuff that loosens the tongue. Perhaps the concentration takes away any awkwardness or shyness. Either way, it has a profound effect on conversation. Things are said that would never otherwise have been aired in public. I wouldn't have learnt so much about the frustrations and numbness of Ruby's other life if she'd been teaching and I'd been listening. But in the act of making all manner of things come out of the woodwork and are woven into the weft of the cloth.

This is the Ruby I am waiting for now. She is late and the dinner is getting cold. To me she is always dressed like a most splendid Christmas tree, yet I'm sure at home it's a different story. There is lot of hands-on physical stuff involved. These are her glad rags which she saves for Tuesdays and brightens up all our lives. She throws stardust into the fire to make it crackle, and we all leave, a different set of characters to the ones who came in. I know it is as much therapy for her as it is for us, but I do hope that someone can bring a bit of sparkle to her life as she so generously gives to others.


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

S is for Squiffy cows and Seasonal warmth

Dear Nigel,

The hedgerows are still rich with jewel-like berries and the Autumn-fruiting raspberries ripen as we pick. This has been such a good year for berries, and the mild warm weather has allowed us to stay longer in the garden and go picnicking with flasks of soup and warm quiche wrapped in foil. It is a fine season.

I go for my usual run around the lanes and past the church. It is flattish around the village and beats the smell of rotting corpses in the gym. It stretches my lungs and maybe, if I work hard-enough, it will keep the asthma and bronchitis at bay. The damp Autumn air is not a friend to the asthmatic.

As I run, carefully avoiding the cowpats and tractor muck - an exercise in itself rivalling Sudoku - I pass the milkman on his round. I used to live in a town fifteen miles away, and opposite me up a little side street was a small dairy, bang in the middle of the town. The milkman from opposite my old house now winds his way through the smallest villages of the Peak District delivering his goods. I suppose if there are two supermarkets within spitting distance business will be slack, whereas out here where the nearest village shop is four miles away, a milkman is often welcome.

Like most milkmen these days he delivers newspapers and groceries too. And, so the sign on his bright yellow van tells me, it seems the cows of the Peak District are producing fine quality wines and beer these days. I wonder what they feed them on?

I come back to an upended bird table and bird feeders scattered in the rose bushes. It is next door's evil cat, the one we call 'Bandido' ( on account of his Zorro-like mask), I suspect. There is a tiny blue tit lying stone dead beside it. It is perfect and untouched, like a stuffed museum exhibit with stiff outstretched wire legs, or a child's discarded soft toy. It reminds me that life is short and to be treasured. I have enjoyed watching these little friends visiting my table and squabbling over the seed like unruly children. They have been greedy and busy and it has brought life back into a little space, and movement and energy. I don't know what the Chinese would say about bird tables but it seems a good bit of Feng Shui to me, instinctively.

There, two minutes on google and I find a Feng Shui expert called Rodika Tchi who says that 'bird symbols...have an intrinsic universal energy that doesn't need translation' (giving a) 'feeling of inspiration, freedom, and a longing for being united with the divine.' Maybe this is what saddens me so much, to see this perfect little creature lying dead. A close relative of mine has died and I am preparing to go to yet another family funeral. The Autumn is closing in around me. I turn to your book to find a warming dish to take away the sudden chill. I find it on page 245 - an 'Aubergine Curry' for an Autumn day.

There are times when I want to stand over a stove and toast spices in a dry frying pan and inhale the aroma. And there are other times when my stomach is talking to me as I cook, when I'm trying to help with homework or break up a fight in the other room, and the dog is getting under my feet because she knows it's her dinnertime too. These are the times when I want to bung it in a pan and get on with other things. You know this too because you say 'when I am in the mood, I will toast cumin seeds and coriander, adding dried chilli and turmeric....but on a weekday, when I'm quickly putting together a curry for dinner, I use my favourite curry powder.' So, I will no longer feel I'm somehow cheating.

This curry, for the most part, takes care of itself as the vegetables gently cook. It is refreshing and juicy as the thick slices of aubergines - mine are like tractor tyres - keep their shape and remain succulent. Altogether, a gentle fruity curry which warms the stomach without leaving you feeling heavy and bloated. I also think this dish must be really quite good for you and relatively low on the old calories (providing you don't overdo the naan bread - my weakness).

Yesterday was a magical evening. It started as a sudden urge to put up the string of white outdoor lights that I'd been planning to do all summer but never quite got round to. I think it occurred to me early on in the summer that these lights are only best seen when dark, and, as it never seemed to get dark-enough until well after ten (and I don't really have those sort of all-night parties anymore), there didn't seem to be much point.

I looped them all along the little picket fence at the back which stops people falling headlong into the stream. It is very dark outside at the back as there are no streetlamps around here and I usually have to remember to take a torch with me everywhere. Even going out to the shed for wood or dog food is an expedition in itself in the middle of winter, (especially if there's a foot of snow on the ground). I got out the fire basket and filled it with logs and placed benches around it and hung cheap zinc Ikea lanterns from the roof of the woodshed.

My moment of inspiration, however, for which I am most proud, was in bringing out the large green wheelbarrow and placing the outside door mat (one of those farmers' metal grid things) over the top. Onto this went the hot terracotta pizza stones from out of the oven. It was just magical to be able to sit there with my little ones and my eldest son, James, and watch the flames lick and spit.

The stream still rushes on and an owl hoots somewhere out there in the night. This time is very precious to me. I have learnt from life's tumbles that we only ever really have today right now to cherish. My son is back from University and applying to join the army. I put away my fears and thoughts and enjoy the night. He is the happiest and focused that I have seen him in a long while; and who can deny him that. We each of us make our own path in life and desire only the love and support of those closest to us. The pizza stones stay hot on their grid, keeping the slices of pizza warm till the end. The citronella candle does its job in keeping the midges away. We have foregone the organised side of the garden and are perched on the concrete on old plank benches with the kids on wooden steps. It would have been an ideal time for toasting marshmallows but I don't have any. And anyway, that would have made it an organised occasion, and this is simply impromptu and unplanned. And the more completely lovely for it.

Martha












Thursday, 18 September 2014

A guest at my table - Rik

The first time I met Rik it was his boots I was introduced to - the rest of him was somewhere under a pile of heavy tarpaulin trying to mend something on a tent. He would have been in his mid-forties perhaps by then, although my sons were only young. They had moved seamlessly from cubs to scouts and were looking forward to a bit of sleeping rough, playing with knives and warming their hands over a box of matches, or whatever notion they might have. I was hoping there might be more involved.

His face, when he finally emerged, was flecked with something black and he had a huge grin as he adjusted his spectacles, flushed red to his ears and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He seemed to be having far more fun than any of the boys - in his element in his grubby shorts with freckled knees poking out. And this was a few years before Ray Mears had hit our screens. He wiped his hand on his clothes before offering it to me. His cheesy grin was so infectious it was impossible not to warm to this overgrown ten year old. The boys obviously loved every minute of it and there was an energy and buzz about the place.

The law on the sale of knives may have changed but back then a Swiss army knife was still a prized bit of every boy's kit. I checked the Scout website to see how things had changed in this regard. It seems that although it is illegal to sell a knife to anyone under eighteen it is not illegal for anyone to carry a folding knife like a Swiss army knife as long as the blade is shorter than three inches. Scouting policy is that knives should be carried only when they are going to be used as a tool.I remember how seriously my boys took the responsibility of having a penknife - almost because a level of trust was bestowed. And, although they could often be silly over other things, in this nothing needed to be said.

We soon got to know Rik better, and, when it came to camps, he often called on the extra support of his two older teenage sons. Rik's wife had died a few years previously and, rather than remarry, he had thrown himself into Scouting and bringing up his two equally lanky sons. I once had the privilege to visit his house and saw a completely different way of living which seemed to mark it out as an 'all male household'. There was a canoe lying in the hallway and various paddles stacked in the corner. The downstairs loo was more library than loo, and there were two pieces of wood joined together in a clamp in the middle of the kitchen table, which we were eating off. Toast and jam was a popular meal and all of them looked as if they could swallow a loaf whole without even noticing. It was Rik, I remember, who first introduced me to the delights of French toast - so much better eaten straight from a smoking black frying pan on an open fire - ...and I was only there for a visit, to drop something off.

There is something very compelling about finding someone in their element. It doesn't matter what they are passionate about; to be around someone whose very fibre fizzes over with enjoyment, their eyes lit up, blood pumping pinkness into their face, is highly magnetic. Perhaps we seldom see people in this state. Normal life rarely lets people be the people they would like to be. So we are transfixed because we see that they have something very special that we want for ourselves, if we ever let ourselves find that one thing with which we could be totally in flow.

The lamb and tomato and smoked paprika dish I am making will be gobbled up in minutes by my guest. I have never seen him without being in a state of measuring time as gaps between meals or snacks. He always seems permanently hungry. I have been at a camp and watched him and his sons eat vast quantities of stew as if they'd just returned from hunger strike or something. The boys around them couldn't match their pace. Indigestion and chewing each mouthful twenty times whizzed over their heads as they matched each other spoon for spoon. He will appreciate the simplicity of having plain crusty bread with which to dunk, and a bowl to nurse in his large calloused hands. If the weather stays warm we will eat in the garden. He will be happier kicking back and enjoying a pint as we talk. Houses don't really suit him anymore. When he's not camping or working he's off in his '70s camper van with a canoe strapped to the roof. I feel that when his boys do finally go he might rent out a garage to house his washing machine and line of canoes - and spend the rest of the time living in his van. He'd like that - a bit of discomfort - it would make him feel at home, somehow.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

R is for Re-Freshers' week and Ripening hedgerows

Dear Nigel,

Another school year starts for the little ones, and a new beginning looms elsewhere - number four son is heading off to University and I'm knocking around looking for a fifth set of pans and a few mugs and plates with a kind of deja vue feeling. Tom is excited but trying to remain fairly cool about it all as if it's no big deal. We leaf through the mail order shot from John Lewis and laugh at the NEW student 'must have's. There's something nice and homely about having a handful of hand-me-down cutlery and an old favourite mug, I think. The Bank of Grandma stumps up for a new laptop, thankfully, as it probably wouldn't impress prospective employers for a Computer Graduate to sit there with an old pencil jammed in the side of his laptop to keep the light on...but then again, maybe they'd see ingenuity in the face of a tide of student debt.

I'm watching the hedgerows ripen at lightening speed. The blackberries are already plump and heavy and still full of taste. I take a mental note of the best hedgerows round here and prepare for an afternoon's picking before someone else gets there. There's nothing worse than following on the back of a quick-witted picker who's had the same idea and got there earlier in the day, and to arrive home with half a dozen under-ripe specimens and the feeling of being hard-done-by. This weekend seems just right for a large dish of apple and blackberry crumble. We make ours with half rolled oats to flour for that flapjacky taste my kids love, and a mixture of cookers and eaters so that there are tasty chunks of real apple - the eaters - amongst the sublime mush of puree and muscovado sugar.

The red-haired Hannah is descending on us this weekend from the bright lights of the city and will no doubt have certain food expectations. They find it too quiet and dull here for their flitting minds, my city children. Chris, the other one, is planning to fly over from Frankfurt at Christmas. He calls it 'coming back to the Dale'. Technically right, I know (despite its Hobbit associations), but I am never quite sure if he's being complimentary or not. I have my doubts.

The dish I am making this evening reflects the change in the seasons. I love this time of year with its red  and gold leaves and a freshness in the air once more that stimulates the mind. It is a simple casserole of lamb and tomato and smoked paprika which has a warmth in it to both comfort and invigourate (Lamb, garlic, paprika and tomato pg236). As you say, 'There is much comfort in food that has been cooked in a casserole.' These recipes of yours are like stews that have been speeded up to reflect the fact that we may well want to eat dinners like this but often don't have the time to just leave things to cook. This dinner was prepared and cooked and on the table in less than an hour, which is usually my benchmark, and I've never been known as the fastest of cooks - I can quite happily while away half an afternoon chopping a few onions given the chance.

There is something magical about an Indian Summer, like the one we're having right now. We often talk in hope about them, but they come more infrequently than we seem to remember. Perhaps it is the warm breath of air which whips leaves from the trees yet still blows refreshingly across our cheeks. The temperature, a pleasant warmth - warm enough to sit out and have lunch - yet doesn't sap our energy and strength the way a warm day in Summer often does.

We sit out at the weekend with Hannah and eat the fish soup I've prepared. It is the season of soups in my mind, and nothing makes me feel more snug than a real fire in the evening and a bowl of hot soup for lunch. The garden and lane are bedecked with all manner of garden birds, all here for the feast of Autumn-cropping raspberries and hedgerow blackberries. We will agree to share, I think. We get our bird spotter book out and the children have a go at identifying them. I buy another bird feeder but forget the seed. Another visit. It's a thirty mile round trip to the shops so it'll have to join the list. Archie eats diesel, I think, but then again he's doing sterling work doubling as a cupboard for all Tom's mountain of stuff heading off to Uni. The cottage would be more than a little cluttered otherwise.

They say that people are divided into people who clean and people who declutter (and presumably people who can manage neither). I am a declutterer. I can cope with a little bit of dirt...in moderation...but I can't begin to think straight if there are piles of mess everywhere. It's not about being hugely house-proud or anything, but the layout of a space (for some of us) affects how we move and think and relax in that space. I have a friend who is the reverse to me. She has a wonderful living room with huge piles of magazines on which we place our wine glasses. A tower of books at one end is a focus for the eye. Every week she moves all these books and things, hoovers, dusts and then places them all back down as before. I've seen it done and marvelled at her determination to have things back exactly as she would place them. It's a hugely cluttered room with mobiles and wind chimes and sticks of incense everywhere, but opened up and cleaned like a piece of unfolded origami, and refolded once more; it is her space.

Martha