Sunday, 18 December 2011

Knowing the neighbours

We host a jolly mulled wine evening to get to know our neighbours better. Inevitably the conversation turns to our other neighbours,
the sheep.

"Did you hear about the tup a few weeks' ago?"
Tupping. I've learnt that one. Tup must be a male sheep.
"No, what happened?"

Turns out the tup had died, probably a side-effect of competitive headbutting. Our friendly neighbour notified the farmer, but he already knew.
"I'm waiting til dark to remove him," he explained. "I don't want to upset the new people."

Did he reckon the sight of a large sheep being dragged unceremoniously by a quad bike would have been too much for our kids? Or was he worried it would blemish a Londoner's romanticised view of the countryside? Either way it was very thoughtful. I'm just glad I didn't spot him dragging the carcass under the cover of darkness. That would have seemed far more sinister.

But apparently not all sheep lying on their backs with their legs in the air are heading for the knacker's yard. They may just be 'rigged' (or stuck to us newcomers), particularly heavily pregnant ewes who haven't been sheared because of the cold. Like beached whales, they just can't get going again without a little help.

Our friendly neighbour describes the technique for righting a rigged sheep. Sounds tricky. Alternatively, just phone the farmer. 

Friday, 16 December 2011

Monday, 12 December 2011

Snow castles

It's actually snowing!
"Shall I tell the kids?"
"Don't bother them now. They're just going to sleep."
So I go and tell the kids. They're slightly interested.

Next morning I'm first up, looking out the window.
I tell the kids and they're quite interested, but they'd rather hold the guinea pigs.
I finally get them outside in the snow. It's only just getting light (sun rises late in these parts) and it's blooming freezing. The kids humour me for a few minutes before escaping back to the warmth.

I grab the camera and enjoy the frosted views and crunching footsteps for myself. Slowly, reality dawns. School starts in half an hour and it's a 10-minute drive away. I've never driven in snow. Certainly not down a pot-holed farm track.

"This will be fun!" I tell the kids from behind the steering wheel, trying to convince myself. The farm track is ok, but ahead cars are struggling to make it up a small, icy hill. One by one, they give it a go, then slip back down and park at the side of the road.

Put it in second gear and rev it, a distant memory informs me.
Yes, yes, go, skid, eek, go, skid, eek, yes!
We've made it up the hill but I'll be blown if I'm going to risk driving my darlings down the other side. Pull in. Think. Chat about the weather. "Isn't this fun!"
The kids aren't fooled; they know I'm panicking.

Salvation comes in the form of a shining white 4x4, transporting a friend from Rosa's class. I flag it down and Rosa jumps on board. That leaves Joe and me kicking our heels in the snow, buying essentials from the village shop and waiting for enough cars to slush up the road so that we can drive home safely.

"Mummy, can I have a bucket and a spade?" Joe asks when we eventually make it back. Poor boy, I think. He has no memories of snow and he must be a touch confused. But actually it's a brilliant idea. We spend the rest of the morning making snow castles in the garden and kicking them down with glee.

Oh, I do love snow. So long as I don't have to go anywhere.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sausage anyone?

"Practise saying 'no' in the mirror," a mum friend belatedly advises.

It's not even that I said yes, I just let slip that we have a BBQ and that Malcolm has the day off on Friday. Well it was the Deputy Headmistress...

So I've lumbered my husband with barbecuing 100 sausages in the school playground. In December. In Lancashire.

The morning of the school fair, panic sets in over the small matter of buying charcoal. In December. In Lancashire. Sainsbury's? No. B&Q? No. Various friends and acquaintances? No. The random garden centre in our village that we've never visited before? Yes, yes, yes! (We also discover an old man called Arthur who runs a model shop up the rickety steps of the old mill building - a little boy's and big dad's treasure trove - but I digress.)

As the rain sets in, we overcome the next hurdle: fitting the BBQ in the car. We think we're home and (not so) dry but there remains the biggest challenge a man can face. Making fire. On a freezing, wet and windy day. (Did I mention Lancashire in December?)

While the kids drag me around the cosy, packed and buzzing school fair, Malc struggles on alone in the cold. A whole pack of firelighters later and there's a glimmer of a glow. He puffs... and he puffs... and he puffs... and eventually there's a sizzle, sizzle, spit.


Fast forward two hours. The BBQ coals are burning bright. There's an abundance of well-cooked sausages. And most people have left the fair. Some never even knew there was a BBQ.

That evening I look in the mirror, carefully form the word 'No,' and check I don't have MUG written across my forehead.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The cathedral challenge

I don't know what makes me think the candlelit Advent Carol Service in Blackburn Cathedral will be suitable for a five-year-old and a three-year-old. Maybe it's the prospect of singing carols, or the word advent with all its calendar-opening anticipation.

Anyhow, ignoring the fact that it's a service and that it's an hour and a half long, I persuade my family to miss Strictly Come Dancing and jump in the car for an adventure. I'm in grave danger of overusing the word adventure.

Luckily for us, Joe falls asleep on the way, stays asleep as we carry him past the slightly intimidating Blackburn youths, and doesn't stir throughout the first half of the service.

Luckily for us, we're seated in the north transept. The service starts in semi-darkness, with the candlelight and choristers gradually making their way around the congregation. The north transept is their last stop, so we have plenty of time to whisper to Rosa and feed her snacks.

The singing is sublime. Piercing medieval plainsong, crunchy modern chords, lilting Victorian melodies, all in an impressive modern cathedral with underfloor heating.

Then the moment of truth. The bishop, the choir and the candlelight reach the north transept just as Joe wakes up with a coughing fit. I hold up his favourite plastic dinosaurs to distract him, at which point he noisily bashes their heads together (silly me for choosing a herbivore and a carnivore). So I frantically unwrap a Kit-Kat - crinkle crinkle - and thrust it into Joe's hand. Sticky chocolate silence.

More singing, a few prayers, another Kit-Kat, a reading and then... a hymn. Allelluja! As the organ pipes up and the congregation scrape to their feet I make a getaway with Joe to the loos in the crypt.

We process out at the end of the service and notice that ours are the only children present, with the exception of the choristers. As we shake hands with the bishop there's a familiar feeling of foolhardy triumph.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Bucket and spade

We decide to go to the seaside for the weekend. In November. In Lancashire. We're not being over-optimistic, just nurturing our sense adventure.

We drive to a chocolate box town, leave the car and take the train across rugged farmland, past Railway Children stations, a brief pause in respectable Lancaster then on to the end of the line. Morecambe.

I admit I'd only heard of Morecambe because of the cockle pickers. And even then I thought it was in Kent. In fact it's a stunningly situated seaside resort, with views across its extensive bay to the hills of the Lake District.

I've looked up what to do if it's raining and the best I can come up with is tea at the elegantly restored Art Deco Midland Hotel. Well I have married an architect. Fortunately the sun is out, albeit very low in the wintery sky, turning the exposed mud flats into a vast lake of molten silver. We make straight for the beach and issue the kids with a bucket and spade each.

That's the next two hours taken care of, as if the bucket and spade are magic keys to a world of harmonious pottering. And curiously the perfect castle-building sand takes second place to the mud and gloop and seaweed and unmentionables that constitute the ingredients for 'chocolate pudding'.

It gets cold and pretty dark by 3pm but before we succumb to the allure of the Midland Hotel we happen upon an accordion player on the pier and a maze cut into the stone: more harmonious pottering, now with a musical accompaniment.

It's the simple things in life. We reach our B&B hardly noticing the amusement arcades, the Wacky Warehouse, the discount stores and the derelict buildings. I haven't a clue what the rest of Morecambe's like (apart from a surreal dog show on Sunday morning), but the seafront on a sunny day is pretty special.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Whistling at turkeys

In London we had our regular walking routes, the ones we had to do to get anywhere, namely:
- the school run (or rather drag)
- to the park (usually by scooter)
- to the library or cafes (same as the school run, but without the need to drag)
- to church (short-cut through an estate and past the police station, often by bike)
- to one of three bus stops.

Here we drive to get anywhere so walks are just for the sake of walking. Because the air is fresh and the countryside is beautiful. Neither of these reasons work on the kids, so we have to come up with alternative incentives. These are the ones that work:
- jumping in muddy puddles
- watching sheep do poos
- decorating the glade in the Christmas Tree Forest
- playing pirate games on top of the reservoir
- finding dandelion leaves for the guinea pigs
- foraging for firewood
- feeding the friendly horses.

This Sunday we took a different route to feed the friendly horses and happened upon a field of turkeys and a goat. I don't think I've ever seen a live turkey before: dangly, red face growths, impressive peacock-esque feathers, and they really do go "gobble gobble". As we stood transfixed, their owner came out of her house accompanied by our landlady. They'd been having a brew together. Next time we're passing the owner has offered to let the kids feed the turkeys and stroke the goat. Her parting gift was a well-kept turkey secret: "If you want them to gobble at you, just whistle."

So I can now add whistling at turkeys to our list of walk incentives.

Tupping update

I've just noticed a sheep with a rusty red head. Poor thing.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The high road to Lidl

Nelson (the town) has seen better days but one shop has found a home for itself, billed by my parents as the next best thing to Waitrose, or even better when judged purely on price: Lidl. According to Dad, Lidl tops the Which smoked salmon list.

So it's a Friday after school and we're off to buy some weekend treats: honey waffles, ice cream, marmalade and, of course, smoked salmon. From school it's a longish schlep along a boring urban road. To get back home, joy of joys, I find a rural short-cut. Literally two minutes out of Lidl car park and you're up on the moors. It feels (and looks) like we live in the middle of nowhere but we're actually only a 12-minute drive from the best supermarket smoked salmon.

Not only that...

During our last summer in London, Rosa was increasingly aware and interested in other cultures and countries. Wary that we were about to leave for a rural monoculture, we travelled the world within our own city: lunch in Chinatown, Turkish takeaways, a visit to the Hindu temple in Neasden and a fabulous Asian sweet shop. Fastforward four months and imagine my surprise and Rosa's delight when we find an Asian sweet shop in Nelson, only a short walk from the Lidl's car park. Our weekend shopping has just got better.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Why Joe wants to go back to London

1) I want a blue door.
2) I want to press buttons to open the gate.
3) I want a normal house with bedrooms downstairs.
4) I want just one car.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Nature is all around us. So is farming. Of both I'm quite ignorant. The farmer explains why he washes the sheep's white faces and dyes their fleeces golden: it's to make them look bigger and more handsome when they go on sale.

I'm confused therefore several weeks later when sheep in another field are smudged rusty red. It takes a visit from our London friends to enlighten me. Look closely and one of the sheep has a rusty red tummy. The other sheep are either all white or have rusty red backs. As time goes on, more sheep are of the red-backed variety and fewer remain all white. All clear?

You've probably figured it out way before me. Just in case you haven't, here's the missing clue: the red-tummied sheep is the only male.

Apparently it's called tupping. Not one for the kids and I'm glad I didn't ask the farmer.

Miniature bottles (a confession)

When I was a teenager I collected miniature alcohol bottles, mostly of spirits. The contents didn't interest me, but the different bottle shapes and labels were really pleasing. I thought that on my 21st birthday I would have a mad party and drink them all. I didn't. Then I thought that one day I might play an epic game of draughts, Graham Greene style, where the bottles are the pieces and you have to down each one that's captured. I haven't.

So my miniature bottle collection has followed me into adult, married life, and it's spent most of its existence wrapped in newspaper in a cardboard box.

No longer.

The niches in the chunky stone walls of our farmhouse are crying out to be filled with curios. We have a plastic skull in one, fossils in another and, to the left of the aga, a perfect home for my miniature bottles.

Now we reach the confession. As my collection has matured, so have I. What could be better, on a cold dark night in a handsome yet chilly farmhouse, than to sit in front of the fire sampling an unusual spirit. I don't know much about peaty overtones and oak casks, but I know that this Vieil Armagnac, picked for its stubby green bottle whilst camping with my family in France in the '80s, tastes pretty special.

Fortunately the curios look just as good empty or full. Hic.

Halfterm, part two

After a day and a half to tidy the house and buy some guinea pigs (!), our next visitors arrive and bring with them a comforting dose of Stoke Newington. The kids just disappear and play brilliantly together (actually that never happened with Joe in Stokey - he must have grown up a bit) and we congratulate ourselves on no longer having babies or toddlers.

Coaxed by 'walker treats' we route march the troops across fields and moorland - a necessary part of visiting Sheep Poo Land, specially when the sun is shining. It's lovely to see them frolicking on the pirate ship in the middle of the lawn, and hair-raising to watch them totter over slippy rocks to collect water from the river (to wet the ship, of course).

Halloween is a brilliant excuse for a party. We light the conservatory with pumpkins and nightlights and eat crisps and hotdogs. The kids look priceless in their fancy dress: Witch (Rosa), Witch's Cat (Liv), Skeleton (Joe) and Pumpkin (Johnny). Jen's fab festive game is apple bobbing followed by no-hands retrieving sweets from a cake of flour. Crusty white faces all round. Then sparklers and toasted marshmallows by the fire before rushing in to watch the Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special!

We get that back-to-school feeling after our friends have gone, coupled with a reminder that we've very far away from the bustle and familiar faces of Church Street. At least we know that they're still there and we can always go back. Would be nice if they could all move here though.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Halfterm, part one

We've got two sets of friends coming to stay from London over halfterm - yippee! A chance to share our random rural location in all its glory.

The sun shines on our first visitors. We baffle the sheep with pirate games on the hillside. The kids make fairy decorations that they hang on branches of the Christmas Tree Forest. It's Joe's turn to strip off and swim in the magic waterfall. At the Fallen Tree Cafe the children treat us to Roasted Grass Salad followed by Red Berries with Sheep's Wool Ice Cream. And at Bolton Abbey we happen upon a pumpkin trail, picnic on the flat rocks of the Strid, then finish off with pancakes at the Yorkshire Dales Ice Cream Farm.

In the evenings we're all exhausted and go to bed early; and in the mornings, joy of joys, the kids choose Jim's bed to jump on not ours.

On Jim and Klara's final day, which happens to be my birthday, we treat ourselves to the unknown: The Children's Variety Show in Colne Municipal Theatre. The flyer promises puppets, a clown, ballet, magic tricks and singing. It's not wrong, but somehow the comedy acts appear tragic and the ever so sincere excerpt from Swan Lake has us almost rolling in the aisles. When the heroine laments that we are all stuck in the Abyss we have deep sympathy. Fortunately, the Wicked Witch is finally foiled by the moonstone, the superinjunction is lifted on the hero who can at last reveal that he is Ryan Giggs, and happiness is restored to Mysteria. All this before noon. It definitely calls for a stiff Fish and Chips with a brew (which sadly means tea in these parts).

We wish fond farewells to our friends at the station and wonder what our next guests have in store...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Forest school

This afternoon's forecast is for heavy rain, 8ยบC and winds of 18mph. I refresh the 'Come play in the woods' Facebook page. Still no cancellation message. I guess that means it's on.

MooBaaKids is the website for keeping mums sane in this area. I looked up pre-school groups and among the usual singalongs and storytimes, playing in the woods jumped out at me. Isn't that why I moved to the country?

So I drive with Joe through stunningly desolate and foreboding moorland, speckled with half-derelict farms and splashed with reservoirs. The rain's holding off but the wind's picking up. I've located Griff Wood on a map and drive as close as possible. No sign of life and certainly no mums on a day out...

At this point Joe refuses to leave the warmth of the car and the Secret Seven audio tape (yes - my vintage 4x4 only plays cassettes). I have to practically drag him up a muddy footpath, his coat trailing behind as he refuses to put it on.

The mature trees tower over us and still there's no one in sight. Suddenly there's the squeal of a child and a whiff of wood smoke. We stumble upon a merry gathering, cordoned off with bunting: kids' wielding trowels, parents chatting as if this is the most normal thing in the world and a blackened kettle steaming invitingly on a campfire.

Thus Joe and I are introduced to Oakworth forest school. He can't resist the urge to dig up some moss, climb a fallen tree trunk and tuck into a foil-wrapped, fire-baked apple. I can't resist a tepid mug of tea, the rest of Joe's apple and a few songs around the fire.

Then the chill really sets in. We race back to the car and the warming tones of Enid Blyton. More layers next time. I might even persuade Joe to wear a coat.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Making a friend

"I was talking to my old primary school head at the storytelling session," Malcolm belatedly informs me. "I was at school with her son and he's just moved up to Skipton from Bristol with his wife and 3 year-old-son."
"Is his wife a Southerner," I ask eagerly. "Do you think we could be soul mates?"
"I think so. She was sitting opposite you."
"Well why didn't you introduce us then?!"

So I have to do my own detective work, track down a number and leave a jaunty phone message, basically saying "Will you be my friend," whilst trying not to sound too needy or desperate.

Our first play date is fixed for six days' time. The forecast is dry for once so we opt for a state of the art village park, newly and tastefully instated thanks to various outdoor grants. "We could bring a picnic," texts my date. "Owen will have his scooter so Joe might want to bring one if he has one." Now that ticks all my boxes.

We get there first, unfashionably early. It's ominously grey and very chilly, but no cancellation text materialises and soon Joe and Owen are scooting around the skatepark and digging in the sandpit and clambering over the play equipment while Kate and I chat about life without a city or friends but dangerously close to the in-laws. She even lived in Stoke Newington for six years and has brought buckets and spades for the sandpit.

We're in a picturesque stone village with a river babbling by, moors on the horizon, boys in their element charging around an empty playground and the regular hoot of a train passing the level crossing. What more could mums with young boys want?

A coffee. Where's a chichi cafe with quality take-away coffee when you need one? We try the pub. Closed. (Shame since we both need the loo by now.) The second pub? Unfriendly and doesn't do hot drinks and we don't dare ask to use the loos. As luck would have it, the little post office has a coffee sign outside and a hot drinks machine inside. Monmouth coffee it isn't, but hot and wet in a takeaway cup it is.

Somehow five hours go by in this little rural playground, including three trips to the post office drinks machine and one much needed trip behind a bush. Joe's definitely made a new friend, and I think I have too.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Watercress is the new plums

At the end of our lawn there's a stream. It's the run-off from our spring-filled reservoir. I still can't quite believe we flush our toilet with spring water. Apparently the reservoir used to serve the whole of Trawden. When it was announced that Trawden was going to join the mains water supply our landlady rushed to redivert the spring water to her farm. Well the reservoir is in her field and the water is draining off her land, so I suppose that's only fair. How exactly it's filtered I haven't dared to ask, but it tastes deliciously sweet.

The stream runs fast through a deep channel. We can cross it over a stone slab bridge to a pretty rockery beyond: very tastefully done with the exception of Rosa's Smurf village which is growing in size and oddments.

It was Mum who first noticed that the weeds in the river are actually watercress; in fact it's teeming with the stuff. And so our forager instinct kicks in and we turn to for tasty recipes: risotto, pesto, salsa, fritattas. Oh there's never a dull day in the country if you're prepared to put on your wellies and wade through a stream.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

There's Culture Up North

Call me a biased, London-centric Southerner (or something stronger...), but I imagined an inevitable side effect of moving to rural Lancashire would be less culture. So far, I'm happy to say, I've been proven wrong. Culture is definitely here, if you're prepared to look for it. In fact just across our farmyard there's an arrow for the Bronte Circular Walk.

So we begin with the Brontes. They lived within walking distance (in the hard-core, 19th-Century sense of the phrase). We've read the Usborne illustrated retelling of Wuthering Heights and we've had tea at Wycoller. Now we're off to Halifax's Viaduct Theatre - part of a massive mill re-development in Halifax - for the world premiere of Blake Morrison's We Are Three Sisters. It's a beautiful, haunting evocation of daily life in Haworth parsonage, as brother Branwell falls to pieces and the three Bronte sisters discover they each have a publisher. The soundtrack of wind whistling through the moors is barely necessary, as a storm whips around the building and water leaks through the dark vaulted ceiling. We can't resist taking the rural route home, up the cobbled streets of Haworth and straight past the parsonage itself.

The following weekend finds Rosa and me taking the train into central Bradford for the matinee of Joseph at the Alhambra theatre, the West End production now starring the runner-up from the TV series Any Dream Will Do. We were both enchanted and sang all the way home. 

Just a week later, the lesser-known Yorkshire village of Glusburn has its inaugural arts festival: Fall Fest. It's an ambitious weekend of talks, concerts, exhibitions and children's activities. I have the dubious pleasure of reading a few of my books to a small gathering of under fives, and the daunting privilege of interviewing Simon Beaufoy (Oscar-winning screenplay writer) in front of a paying audience. Gulp. Thankfully he was chatty and charming and the audience chipped in with questions much more intelligent than mine, so the event was a success.

Then, just when we thought culture could go no higher, we are invited to Rosa's Harvest Festival Assembly. Years 1 and 2 group together to chant seasonal classics including:
- Big, Red, Combine Harvester
- Pumpkin Head
- Don't Go Pecking in the Cornfields
(the words and actions are indelibly marked on my memory).

We manage to position ourselves directly in front of our daughter, much to her embarrassment. She feigns ignorance throughout, until the rapturous applause at the end, when she lets slip a wry smile as she spies her teddy cat Kitty sitting on her Dad's lap, waving a little paw.

We're looking forward to seeing what the Hippodrome Theatre in our local town Colne has to offer. It's entirely run by volunteers and beautifully renovated inside. Rosa's school will perform there this Christmas, so we'd better book our front row tickets now...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


For the last five years I lived on the same road as Yoga Home, a popular venue for all sorts of exercise classes of the more stretchy variety. I kept meaning to go but never quite managed it. I think I thought I'd feel out of place.

Why then am I so excited to discover that my new village hall has weekly Pilates classes? Today I even summon up the courage to go.

The hall is packed with women quite a bit my senior, but then it is 2pm on a Tuesday and most people my age have proper jobs to go to. A tall, lithe Lancastrian lass leads the session which starts quietly enough but is soon accompanied by giggles and grunts and "You must be joking!" These ladies are regulars, and regardless of their wrinkles their pelvic floors are most likely much stronger than mine.

"I've got a confession," says our teacher, halfway through.
"You 'ad fish and chips for lunch," comes a voice from the floor and everyone chuckles.
"How did you know?" replies the teacher, genuinely surprised.

The hour is a long one.
We're reaching breaking point when the teacher calls out, "Eight more lifts."
"Hey, it's not our fault you 'ad fish and chips for lunch," comes another voice.
Cue general merriment.

I reckon anyone would feel at ease in this class, even a posh Southerner who's never done Pilates before in her life. I think I'll become a regular.

Rosa and Joe's observations, number 2

The Lancashire tooth fairy is rubbish.
(She'd taken two nights to arrive - oops.)

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Unbelievably glorious

Note to self: read this on one of the very cold, very dark days to come, when I'm wondering why on earth I agreed to move up north to the middle of nowhere...

In the stunning sunshine of the recent freak heat wave, our farmhouse and surrounding countryside looked unbelievably glorious: the pink morning glow oozing over the moor, the brook sparkling fresh from our spring, Pendle Hill looming out of a witch's mist, the view through BBQ smoke and our homemade pirate ship down the sheep-dotted valley... Mum, Dad and Skip the dog were here on their first visit and it felt like we were all on a magical holiday.

I promised myself that I wouldn't gush about rural life, because I know I'm only trying to make myself feel better about being stranded with no friends (well maybe two and a half now) and no cafes (at least within walking distance). But last week was an exception; one of those little gifts to treasure and peek at occasionally.

And one moment stands out in particular: Malcolm feeling the call of nature, stripping down to his boxers and wellies, and plunging himself under our secret waterfall. If I knew how to insert an image then I'd do it now, though maybe it looks better in the imagination...

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Swimming in the provinces

One of the hardest things to give up when leaving Stokey was Rosa's
4 o'clock swimming lesson. Don't get me wrong, I hated her swimming lessons: smelly, packed changing rooms, getting two children undressed and dressed again, hanging out with Joe in the freezing cold pool while 30 minutes took forever and not even being able to do a few lengths to warm up. (OK, so I usually did sneak in a few lengths but it looked a bit bad leaving a toddler bobbing up and down in armbands on his own.)
But I'd fought for those lessons. I'd got up at 6am to make sure she got a place. I endured 3 terms of 5pm lessons so that I could have the privilege of moving to a 4pm slot. And blow me if I was going to go through all that again.

So swimming lessons didn't feature high on my list of things to arrange in Lancashire. Then I began to feel that middle-class angst. Rosa had just started to swim without aids, she was gaining in confidence, she needed a regular commitment BLAH BLAH BLAH. Tentatively I phone the local swimming pool to find out what ghastly application process they use. Perhaps I could just put her on a waiting list. But the lady on reception was actually friendly. She was helpful. She seemed to even want my daughter to swim at her pool. "How about 4pm today?"
she asked.

And it was that easy. The pool was pleasantly empty. The other kids and their parents seemed lovely. The teacher was spot on. And Rosa took to it like a duck to water, albeit with a learner sign on her tail feathers.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Rosa and Joe's observations, number 1

Sheep are amazing.
They can eat and poo at the same time!


I largely thank plums for keeping me sane in the first month. Although we're in a farmhouse surrounded by rolling fields we're hardly living off the land. We've yet to befriend the local free-range-egg sellers and there's not much milking going on. There is, however, a 25-year-old plum tree positively drooping with fruit.

So I sit by the Aga with my old friends, Nigel and Nigella, thumbing through their recipe books. It's very satisfying turning free produce into something delicious, even if you have to go through the mind-numbing process of stoning kilos of fruit.

Stewed plums, plum chutney, plum pudding, plum crumble, roasted plum sorbet and - leaving the most obvious but trickiest to last - plum jam. I feel I'm now properly initiated into farmhouse cooking. Thank goodness there isn't an apple tree nearby.


Even before we left London we received the text and email that BT had successfully transferred our phone and broadband to our new address, at no extra cost, lovely jubbly. When we finally located the phone in one of our many packing boxes and plugged it in there was no dialling tone whatsoever. Try all the sockets in the house: no hint of a tone. We phone BT - how did people manage to fix their landlines before mobiles? - and get fobbed off with various things we're probably doing wrong. Still no tone. Eventually India detects that the fault is with BT and they'll sort it out within a week.

No internet - yikes. How do we search for a 4x4 car that we're now convinced we need after driving up our lane several times? Thank Apple for iphones. If you sit in the corner of the conservatory, or better still stand in the sheep field, you get two bars of internet reception. And that's where I learn you can buy a dinky 4x4 at an affordable price and in the right colour, but more of that later.

Fast forward a few days and a local BT engineer phones (my mobile, of course) to say he's on his way. Fantastic. He even finds the house without needing to phone again - "I use a map, not sat nav" - and after a few checks locates the fault 247m away. From the shelter of our conservatory we watch him tramp across a field in the rain and do I'm-not-sure-what for quite a long time.

Eventually he returns with the verdict:
"I've located the fault but it's underground, and I'm only an overground engineer." Of course.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Radio 4

One of the first things I unpacked was our digital radio. This radio, or rather the dulcet tones of Radio 4, has got me through the first five years of motherhood. Where would I be without Woman's Hour? It's not that I even listen to Jenni Murray, but her voice in the background gives me comfort and support.

There's no digital reception.

There's very little FM reception.

The only reception I can get is longwave, and that's only when I'm pootling along in my new (but actually very old) car.

Malcolm discovers we can listen to the radio on TV via the Sky box. But that's not in the kitchen and I prefer to have my radio station unadulterated by Rupert Murdoch.

ALLELUJAH! We have internet connection and it's strong enough, even here, to enable me to listen to the radio from my laptop. Breathe a big sigh of relief, settle down to Woman's Hour, and fail to listen to a word. I'm beginning to feel at home.

Going to Church

It's a bright Sunday morning and we're full of good intentions. We will not drive anywhere today. Instead we'll go for a walk across the fields to our local church. In time for the morning church service. Which starts at 9.15am. Already our mission is temporally challenged.

The next challenge is getting a three year old who is inadequately dressed in shorts and t-shirt (it's the rugby world cup so he wants to look like a rugby player) across a field of high, wet, sheep-poo-strewn grass. Ride on Daddy's shoulders: problem solved (if you ignore the sheep poo rubbing from boot onto Daddy's jumper).

And the third challenge is finding the footpaths. Yes, I do need to turn the map round until it's facing the way I'm going but no, that doesn't mean I can't read maps. How was I to know that the path went through someone's front gate and out the other side of the their garden? No matter. We go the long way round and realise we're almost half way and already 10 minutes late. Cue five year old's sense of humour failure and outpouring of why the countryside is rubbish.

Find something - anything - that will distract her. Horses. Sweet horses. Let's go and feed the horses. One black and two bays walk over obligingly and give Rosa a consoling nuzzle.

Sod church, let's make this our destination. It's a stunning, verdant valley, with moors looming to the right, rolling pastures to the left and a pretty stone village nestling in between. So we sing a few hymns to the wind and say the Lord's Prayer, followed by the children's rendition of "All pigs are beautiful". Job done. We find the short-cut home and celebrate with hot chocolate and toast.

The Country Life

Fortunately where we now live is the perfect antidote to the stresses of moving, renting out our London home and buying a car. Rolling hills all around, walks from our garden to waterfalls, cloughs and moorland, making mini rock gardens, sailing paper boats, picking plums and stewing them on the Aga... So far, we definitely get how people cope with living in remote places.

I say remote. Our landlady lives a stone's throw away, mows our lawn with her mini tractor and employs a gardener to sort out our flowerbeds. She's just fitted smoke alarms at our request, mended the shower and brought round a pole for the washing line that she's provided. Then there are the 20 and counting other people that live up this track. Still it's remote in Stokey terms.

The Move

3.5 ton truck or 7.5 ton? Risk not fitting all our stuff in or risk not getting the truck up the windy, pot-holed, narrow, steep track?

We chose Lancastrian removal men. They would know the lie of the land and not shirk at a few hills. We hadn't accounted for Ramadan and fasting in daylight hours. Luckily after travelling over 48 miles they were allowed to break their fast. Sadly they couldn't break the 56mph speed limit.

We arrived at 9.15pm, they arrived at 11pm. I sent Malcolm, fuelled with champagne, to guide them up the lane. Then I stood at the bottom of the garden, by the sheep field, praying that they'd make it round the tight bend. Eventually I saw headlights. There was an anxious moment when they came to a standstill but I later discovered the truck had met an obstinate sheep.

By 2am, whilst the kids slumbered on, we were unpacked.

How it Happened

To stay in London or not to stay in London? And if not London, where? Why? How?

It's a conversation I've often had with Stokey Mums. We love Stokey. Why would we want to live anywhere else? Everything is so convenient, so happening, so brilliant for young families. Except, except, except... Is it fresh air I'm yearning for? Adventure? A break from the pavement pounding, school comparing, humdrum bustle and occasional shooting?

The internet is a dangerous thing. So is Pick a location, any location; search for properties within a 5/10/20 mile radius; tour the rooms and the views and in the space of five minutes imagine an alternative existence for your whole family.

Practical husbands are also a dangerous thing, especially when coupled with daydreaming wives.

"I'll check out that farmhouse on my next work trip up north."
"What? No! I wasn't serious. I can't uproot the family. I'd never live that far from my parents. And it definitely won't look like that in real life."

One week later. Afternoon phonecall. "It is like the photos."
"Actually it's better."
Big gulp. "But can you imagine us there?"
"Yes. Yes I really can."

So we reserve the farmhouse, break the news to my parents, find a last-minute place in a fantastic-sounding primary school for Rosa, then twiddle our thumbs for TWO WHOLE WEEKS while Malcolm's boss is on holiday, before we discover whether he can reverse his commute.

No one else wants the job in Blackburn, we assure ourselves. Surely a year in a beautiful farmhouse isn't too much to ask? Will anyone in the office even notice?

It was an agonising two weeks' wait, but a reaffirming one. If they had said no, we'd have been gutted.