Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Vintage Year

I have been standing watching the rooks dancing in the dusk. It is a sight that never fails to move me, even though it is repeated every 24 hours. Their morning flights are wonderful too, but at twilight they circle and turn and flood across the sky like waves rushing up the sand, and I am always left wondering how each rook knows which move is coming next, where he is supposed to be, which way to turn.
Who, I wonder, is the lord of their particular dance?

I was thinking, as I closed the shutters against the coming night, that tomorrow will allegedly be a whole new dawn, a fresh-minted world, a slate wiped clean and ready to be rewritten.

New Year has never been my thing. I love Christmas, with its lights and twinkle, well-worn traditions and cosiness,  but he idea of setting out on a pristine, crystalline adventure doesn't always fill me with eager anticipation.

I was listening to a very interesting documentary on the radio today as we drove into Sligo. It was about sound - music, notes, all kind of sound. Apparently when some people hear sounds, they see colours or shapes, or both, and, as everyone knows, sounds come across differently to each of us.
I think the year is like that. For lots of people, the year is like a circle, so December melds seamlessly into January - it is all a continuous whole.

For years, I didn't think about it at all, until someone described their vision of this circle to me. It was only then that I realised that my year was a long, straight line, and when I got to the end of December, I sort of metaphorically fell off, and had to flail around trying to find the start of the next year to grab onto.

It isn't quite as bad as that anymore, but I certainly see the year in colour, and I guess part of the glitch for me is that December and January are starkly different, and don't meld together at all. December is multicoloured with warm, golden overtones - but January is a pale icy blue, hard and light. There is a definite break between the two swatches, almost a chasm that has to be leapt, and let's face it, it's hard to leap when you're full of Christmas cake and chocolate.

I'm not great with the New Year Resolution bit, either (though I do have something in mind this year), but perhaps the best thing about the end of December is taking a moment to look back over the months gone by. They seem to fly more and more swiftly - if that's possible - and sometimes one can only be glad to see the back of them. Only yesterday a friend said it had been a ghastly year for her household, but I feel very blessed because, looking back, 2013 seems to have been a wonderful year in so many ways.

Not as far as the economy is concerned, it's true. Most of us in Ireland have had another really tough twelve months, but I've given up thinking about it - I've certainly given up worrying about it - which leaves a lot of head-space for all kinds of other things, most of which bring happiness in their wake.

It's been the year of the Wwoofers' return. Our gorgeous Frenchman came in January; lovely Heather and Aaron brought their adorable baby Gavin to meet us in April, and my beautiful Chloe returned in July. It was wonderful to see them all, and we felt honoured to still be part of their lives.

 And we've met a whole new batch of Wwoofers who came to help us in the garden this summer as well. Olivia and Marie Christine, sweet Jil and Marko. A new set of lives entwined with ours. 

Amazingly, we had our first holiday in years - we went back to one of our most favourite places of all, Paris, thanks to our friend, Sarah.

A vast 'family' of dogs playing in the Seine

And the In-Charge went to Berlin in the spring and Venice in the autumn on 'School Trips' with his college.

Plus we had a brief but wonderful weekend in Dublin for the opening of a friend's sculpture exhibition - a quick reminder of the joys of cosmopolitan life. Thank you all over again, Jil and Marko, for looking after all the dogs and cats and hens and household while we jumped ship!

Dublin's wonderfully quirky, but boringly named new Theatre

I've spent more hours gardening than I care to catalogue, but it repays me, over and over, for all the time I put in. And other peoples' gardens are all the joy with none of the work, so it's been great to see lots of those this year, as well as visit garden shows.

Sadly, my parents have both been quite unwell recently, but it's meant that I've spent more time with them in Suffolk this year than in the last I-don't-know-how-many. I was with them for my brother's wedding in August.

And at home we celebrated the In-Charge and dear DodoWoman's birthdays in style, with a wild, windy, wonderful party. The greatest compliment of the day came from the ten-year old son of a friend. 'Great Venue!' he said, nodding enthusiastically. It still makes me laugh now.

Moreover, I've learned to crochet, found my old knitting needles, have taught 6 people to knit, and have been immersing myself in colour during every spare moment of the year. Heaven! I've even made a few extremely bright throws, and actually sold some of them to raise money for Irish animal charities.

Two friends and I helped an animal rescue re-home a load of battery hens back in September, and as a result, in November the three of us set up Creating Creature Comforts on Facebook to raise money for Animal Charities. Just this morning I  worked out that already we've raised over €500 each for two charities (with our Animal Calendar), and passed on donations of €100 each to two further charities. There are a lot of animals in serious distress in this country at the moment, so it feels good to be doing something to help.

Best of all, No 1 son came home for a brief visit with a gorgeous young lady. Alas for us, but not for him, he is currently working in the Caribbean, so we haven't seen him since. His beaches are even more beautiful than ours, but hopefully he won't be there forever and we'll see him again soon.

We haven't been lucky enough to see No 2 son this side of the Pacific this year, but he's well and happy which is what matters most, and can be found on a slackline somewhere down under in Oz.

And - hard to believe - in 2 days time, we will have had the SuperModel TeenQueen for a whole year! It barely seems possible, but what a difference the year has made to all of us. She is so much more relaxed and happy, so much fatter and fitter, and she has helped to fill the enormous gap left by our sweet boys.

A good year!
A vintage year, even - to be laid down and re-tasted often.
I hope 2014 will be just as wonderful - for us, and for you, wherever you may be.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Christmas Holidays

We've had a real Christmas holiday day. We got up late, had breakfast and then set out for our favourite beach. We've been wanting to go, but it has either been too stormy, or just so windy and wet that we haven't felt like going near the sea.
But today dawned blue and still - a rare treat at the moment.

Unfortunately, the rivulet on our favourite beach was in such flood that we couldn't get across to the sands beyond, so we went on to our second favourite instead, which turned out to be a Very Good Decision.

Pocketfuls of dog treats

Wandering along the stony sand, we picked up fragments of sea glass to add to our huge collection, listened to a warbling bird that we couldn't see or identify, admired the patterns the water leaves behind, and waved to a fisherman pottering on his boat, bobbing at anchor just a stone's throw out into the bay. The air-sea rescue helicopter droned in, low over the water on the far side of the bay and hovered over Strandhill for a while, but it was too far away to see anything except the constant line of breakers creaming in from the Atlantic.

Sand patterns like armies of woodlice

It's a wonderful beach. It has a long spit that curves out into the bay, and nestled in on the land-side are mud flats, some sheep pastures and sometimes fishing boats laid up for the winter.
But today the tide was in across the mud flats, and the dogs went crazy, chasing each other in and out of the shallow water.

An inland sea

 Model Dog practiced being a fish.

The TeenQueen practiced being a 3-legged dog.

 And we all practiced wading.

From the long arm of the beach, there is a wonderful view of Knocknarea, Sligo's No 2 mountain just across the bay, but you can't see the huge neolithic cairn on its summit from this angle, even though it's one of the largest in Ireland (and dates back to 3000 BC). The grave belongs, they say, to Maeve, the ancient Queen of Connacht, who was buried standing up so that she could keep watch over all her lands. By the time she died, her lands were extensive - due, no doubt, to her Lucretia Borgia approach to the acquisition of power. On a clear day you can see across 5 counties, I guess, as well as Sligo Bay and Donegal Bay. On a bad day, you are battered by the four winds of heaven and may see nothing but the vast tomb - 10 metres high and 55 metres wide.

We didn't mind not seeing Maeve's Lump (as it's affectionately known), as we see it from the road all the time. Instead we watched riders on the far beach beneath her. They were having a lovely time, with their dogs streaming in front like outriders.

We inspected the skeleton of a boat left to commune perpetually with the wind and the tides.

And we stopped at the pile of stones that always looks - from a distance - as if it started life as a beehive dwelling for a lonely hermit. When you get up close, you realise that it is, probably, just a pile of stones.

We decided that we'd round off our lovely, seaside morning by stopping at The Beach Bar for a drink and maybe a toasted sandwich or something for lunch, but then we discovered that although we had lots of dog treats, neither of us had so much as a brass farthing, so we went home instead. 

And this afternoon I finally put out the last of the compost.
The long border and the Moon Garden are officially bedded down for the winter, and I can go away with a clear conscience. They are done and dusted, and already the merry-go-round is bringing spring closer with every passing day. Even so, I put extra handfuls on all the little blades of green poking out of the soil. It is much too early for bulbs to be pushing up.

Oh what a lovely sight

And my reward for all the hard work?
A little posy of winter roses from the two bushes I cut back.

Winter roses

Monday, 23 December 2013

The First Present of Christmas

Howling gales again today, and worse promised.
It is 4pm, and already twilight, but we are back in the cosy kitchen., the dogs curled in their baskets and my little Christmas tree glowing in the gathering dusk.
Despite the wind, it's been a lovely day. True, we did get caught in one torrential shower while replenishing the bird feeders, but Model Dog and I carried on regardless, although the TeenQueen was having none of it. When we looked round for her, she was nowhere to be found - until we discovered her sitting in the woodshed, watching us from her nice, dry vantage point.
She explained that she dissolves in the rain - or rather 'absolves' as we say in this house - so of course she needs to be extremely careful.

But the rain blew away, and we spent a few happy hours gardening.
The flower garden hides behind high walls, and is relatively sheltered from the fierce south-westerlies that have been blowing these last few days. Unexpectedly the sky cleared and the sun came out around midday, so it was lovely to be out and able to carry on with my job of tucking the flowerbeds up for the winter under a thick blanket of compost.

His Gorgeousness, Henri

Henri, our beautiful boarder, doesn't garden - it is beneath his dignity, and anyway, it makes his socks dirty - but he did deign to spend a few hours outside today, toying with the idea of catching a bird or two. However, that also proved to be too much of an effort, so he retired to his other bed in the shed, and is now back in the kitchen where he is overflowing my lap and serenading me in dulcet tones. 

The In-Charge has gone to deliver the last few Christmas cards and buy some hen food so that we don't run out. Everything else has been bought, delivered, posted or collected and we are now officially on down-time.
Christmas is about to begin.
Oh what a lovely feeling!
And when I popped out to feed the chooks a short while ago, what did I find?
My very first Christmas present.

 Christmas presents

They're the first eggs we've had for months, since before the long, drawn-out autumn moult.
Not even the pullets have been laying, which is very odd, as that's what pullets are for!
But no matter. Someone has been doing their homework and discovered that it is traditional in this house for the first egg to be laid on Christmas Eve. (They are a day early, but we won't quibble over details, they're only beginners, after all.)

I think it must be the Littlies, or maybe the Phoenixes, because these dear little white eggs are very, very tiny.

With two bought free-range eggs

See how small they are, here beside the free-range eggs I bought at the market.

But they will be delicious, and are quite the nicest present I can think of.

Saturday, 21 December 2013


I lay in bed last night and listened to the wind howling through the trees and around the chimney pots, the hail spattering against the window panes and the distant rhythm of surf pounding on the shore.
Bleak midwinter indeed.
But, safe in my warm nest I didn't feel bleak. This is a time of year when there is something vibrant pulsing at the core, and when night enfolds you it is like black velvet wrapped around a bright kernel, so in the heart of the darkness, the wildness outside lulled me to sleep very quickly.
It is a time of year when the night is often better than the day. This morning was possibly the most horrible day ever spawned. Rain, rain and more rain, borne on winds gusting to 105km/hr.

A couple of weeks ago, someone told me we were going to have blizzards, and snow lasting into mid-January. To my mind, an infinitely preferable alternative.

But heigh-ho. It's only weather, after all, and I have spent the day in my kitchen, all the animals curled up in their various beds, snoozing the hours away. I've been decorating my Christmas tree, wrapping a few presents, and writing last minute Christmas cards.

My Christmas tree

My friend Mairead posted a lovely piece on her blog recently called In Praise of Christmas Cards which was very apposite and beautifully written. She mourns the slow decline of Christmas Cards, she feels they are an important part of our tradition and - perhaps more to the point - our personal history. She is, of course, quite right. How can an email possibly compare? However warm the wishes, it doesn't sit on your mantelpiece looking pretty and seasonal, or last. And as for texts - well, there is nothing to be said.

She and my mother are as one in this, although even Mairead probably doesn't expend as much zeal in the matter as my Mama. In truth, I have never known anyone who takes Christmas cards more seriously - she does a proper job, with news and personal letters enclosed - she probably thinks a 'round robin' is that plumptious little creature on her bird table. And she has them mailed in good time, not like my last minute scrabble to catch the final posting day.

It was today, the final posting day for Christmas. No surprise that I was writing cards, then.
I looked out of the window regularly, waiting for a momentary pause in the rain so I could scoot down to the post box, but the passing hours only brought more rain, blowing ever more sideways. Being washed down to the post office did not seem an appealing prospect , but then suddenly an angel appeared. It is traditional of course, at Christmas. This angel took the form of my friend the Talentui Goddess. I didn't see her wings at first, only when she announced that she was on her way into town did I spot the soft feathers fluttering behind her chic hat.
'You're not going to the post office?' I asked, hardly daring to hope for such a reprieve.
'No,' she said. 'But I can. I'm going past it.'
What a honey.

If pushed, I'd have to admit that it's not cards, but Christmas carols that are the essential part of the season for me. I don't mean bashing out O Come All Ye Faithful with some person coughing on your left side and someone else blowing their nose to your right, but rather the lucid perfection of King's College choristers singing John Rutter or The Coventry Carol or something angelic along those lines. It's not possible for me to make mince pies, or write cards, or decorate trees without those clear voices in the background. 

Essential Christmas

But I do love Christmas cards.
I don't send many these days - postage being so exorbitant - but I am very choosy about what I buy. They have to pass some indefinable yardstick. They have to really appeal to me, even if they are not conventionally beautiful. And - pleased as I am to receive any cards at all these days, I have a definite marking system for the ones I do get. Every year I keep one or two that I specially like, which are hung vertically on ribbons, and each Christmas all the 'specials' from previous years come out of their box and decorate the walls all over again.

One of my 'specials'

Perhaps loving Christmas cards is also about anticipation. To me, this last week or so before Christmas is almost the best bit of all.

I love midwinter, the days getting shorter and shorter, the trees bare against the darkening sky, the stars fierce and brilliant, houses filled with light and, despite the horrors of the world, everyone looking forward to something, whatever that may be.

Here we are, in the deepest dark of the year, the long, cold reaches of winter still to come, the slow return of the light tantalisingly ahead as the earth pauses - pivoting, slowly turning towards her next brave horizon; yet hidden within the folds of her dark skirts is Christmas, like a warm heart glowing in the depths of the night, a bright kernel shrouded in velvet.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Day That's In It

I took the dogs for a walk this morning, up along the river and into the cathedral of the woods, where the columns of trees arch high over the path, and the bare, black branches carve their tracery against the sky.
The river was still and full today - quiet, apart from the odd salmon rising, sending rings eddying to the banks. All the way we swapped beats with the herons, who didn't seem at all pleased to see us. We were interrupting their second breakfast, I expect.

Model Dog walks so close beside me that I often find her ear lying softly in my hand, like an end of velvet.
She paces like a great cat - her shoulders loose and sinuous, the fluidity of her gait swaying her slightly from side to side. The TeenQueen on the other hand, is like a deer - light on her feet, easily startled, fleet and silent - she is away in a rush of air if something catches her eye.

When we got home I put up the Christmas tree I bought at the weekend.
It may not smell of sharp, pine resin, but I will enjoy looking at it every day - I think it is beautiful.
It was made by a Sligo glass-maker I know, and I loved it the moment I saw it on his stand at the Christmas Fair. It will be even nicer on a sunny day.

My Christmas tree

The rest of my day has been calm and quiet. I looked up as I was filling the kettle to find a flock of goldfinches on the bird nuts and 'cupcakes' outside the window. I have only recently opened this new restaurant, and it has gone straight to No 1 in the charts, but the regulars are tits of all kinds, chaffinches and sparrows, with the occasional visit from one of my garden robins. I haven't seen the goldfinches since last winter and it was a good day to welcome them back. 

Some fuzzy goldfinches through the window

Armed with my hot drink, the dogs and I headed for the flower garden. I've been gradually putting it to bed, but some things don't want to go. Today I picked the last delphiniums, pink achillea and tall purple campanula (a flower that always reminds me of pixie hoods), and cleared another good stretch of the long herbaceous border, cutting back and weeding, but also taking time to split and replant various perennials before tucking it all under a thick blanket of compost.

It's a laborious job, but a satisfying one. A chance to say à bientôt and thank you after a long, long summer. And a chance to bury some treasure, as my friend, the Talentui Goddess, calls planting bulbs.
I am late with the bulbs this year, but as it still feels like October outside, I'm not too worried.
And when I see them again, in all their glory, the winter will be past and a new season of growing will have begun.

It was a good day to think of replenishment, I needed it.
Just as it was a good day to walk in the woods.
I used to walk there almost every day, but I've hardly been this year.
They are too full of ghosts, the woods, they make my heart ache.
But today it was a kind of solace to visit them again, the wind like wild water in the treetops.
It's a year ago today that Top Dog died and our world staggered on its axis. Dramatic to say that, perhaps, but true, and - daft as it may seem - I still catch myself thinking that he'll be back soon.

I saw a heartbreaking tombstone in a church once. It was for a young child, and all it said was: 'My beloved is in the garden, gathering flowers.'
Typically Victorian, I know, but it brought tears to my eyes. And I understand the feeling.
Top Dog is off somewhere, doing something. Chewing his bone in the orchard perhaps, or lying in the sun in the courtyard.
I just haven't seen him for awhile because dear Model Dog and I have been busy doing stuff too.