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...