Notes from the Country
From Gail, Manaton, 22 January 2021
Lovely though Christmas is, I must admit I also enjoy January. There’s something very satisfying about taking down the Christmas tree, tidying the house, finishing all the leftovers in the larder, putting up a calendar for the new year, opening a fresh diary and generally taking stock before spring arrives. This year, during our third lockdown, these small routines seem more important than ever.
There’s an austere beauty too in the winter landscape. The sheep have cropped the grass to reveal every dip and curve in the land, the bracken has died back and the trees, now without even their tattered autumn leaves, have become living sculptures of twisted branches reaching into the sky. The winter light, low as dusk approaches, transforms the landscape and spotlights here a ridge, there a cleft in the valley.
Mind you, as I write this, Storm Christoph is upon us, great curtains of rain sweeping across the valley, every path a running stream, the sheep huddled behind dry stone walls in the lower fields, and even the dogs reluctant to go beyond the porch. And the leak in the hall roof that we have been ignoring for months is now releasing a steady drip, drip, drip into the bucket beneath it. I don’t think we can ignore it for much longer, but for now I’m retreating to the sofa each afternoon to tackle a task that always seems to sink to the bottom of my to-do list – reading memoirs that we might reissue as Slightly Foxed Editions. So far this month I’ve enjoyed the company of a child living in what was then Rhodesia, a girl growing up in Germany during the war, a Victorian family Christmas, and a childhood and adolescence in that wonderfully secure and seemingly timeless middle-class town of Tunbridge Wells.
Meanwhile the kitchen is thick with steam and the smell of oranges. It’s marmalade time and my husband is in a state of acute anxiety. Will it set this year? How long did we boil it last year? Have we got enough jam jars? I tell him it will be fine, and delicious even if it doesn’t set, and retreat to the sofa again. There are a lot more books to be read.
In the midst of all this Sturm und Drang, both outside and in, I remind myself that spring really is on the way. A few early white and yellow crocuses have begun to emerge on our grass roof, and in the village’s more sheltered corners snowdrops are out, and even one small brave stand of daffodils. Our two witch hazels are also in flower, their bright yellow filaments glowing on bare stems and smelling sweetly. And seed catalogues have started to arrive, a timely promise of renewal and new life.
From Steph, Compton, 22 January 2021
The Christmas decorations are packed away, thank-you letters have been written and New Year greetings exchanged with family and friends. The list of resolutions that I used to enjoy drawing up is these days trimmed to a more realistic one or two. The French class, the ukulele lessons and Pastel-Portrait Painting for Beginners will have to wait until next year. For now I’ve resolved to read a book a week. However, starting with Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (joint winner of last year’s Booker Prize) was probably not the best choice because, wonderful though it is, it runs to 450 pages. Perhaps three books a month would be more sensible.
Outside, the non-stop rain, grey skies and muddy paths have been a little mood-lowering. There’s hardly anything colourful in the garden, but we do still have some remnants of summer planting. Chard, kale, beetroot, leeks and parsnips have been the staples of our January meals.
My cookery bible for the last couple of years has been Rukmini Iyer’s The Roasting Tin: Simple One Dish Dinners. It’s full of wonderfully inventive recipes that are both healthy and delicious. When the highlight of the day is quite often the evening meal, a few new ideas that aren’t too complicated and that don’t involve a lot of washing up are just what you need (as is persuading one’s partner not to make Middle Eastern flatbreads every night as a side dish and covering every conceivable surface with flour). The book also reminds me of a subscriber evening we had a couple of years ago at one of our favourite bookshops, Much Ado in Alfriston, East Sussex. It was then that Cate and Nash, who run Much Ado, recommended The Roasting Tin to me. The evening was memorable in other ways too. We had a wonderful turnout of subscribers and friends of Slightly Foxed, and Anna from our office met one of her childhood heroines, the author Jacqueline Wilson, who was just as friendly and engaging as her books.
Jacqueline subsequently wrote a piece for us on Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes which was the first book she ever bought for herself.
Our dogs do not like the rain either, but they do love the mud. Maggie, our cavachon, has recently been to the vet and is now wearing a fetching baby-grow to stop her irritating her stitches. She’s very taken with her new outfit and when it is removed for walks she carries it around the cottage in her mouth until I put it back on again. Like her namesake, Princess Margaret, she has also become rather demanding. During this month’s podcast recording, she suddenly let out a high-pitched yowl which stopped us all in our tracks and then reduced us to near-hysteria. Thank goodness for editing.
As the vaccination programme picks up speed and we begin to dream of the end of lockdown, I wonder whether any of us will miss this period of enforced quiet? One of my favourite books is Janina Ramirez’s ‘very brief history’ of Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century anchorite who retreated to a cell and there lived a life of spiritual contemplation. She became a spiritual advisor to many through her curtained window, and she wrote Revelations of Divine Love, the earliest surviving book written by a woman in English. During lockdown I’ve often remembered her words of cautious optimism: ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’