Happens every time

I don’t know why I should be surprised any longer. It’s the same, every time I step foot into this county (country, as many would have it).

Trying my best not to come over all Betjeman or Du Maurier, but you know… it seems to happen to a lot of people… that slow but definite sense of immersion into something otherworldly, a creeping feeling that you’ve slipped unwittingly onto a path running parallel. That step to the side of where you were before… it can leave you feeling refreshed, exhausted and ever so slightly unhinged, in a good way.

When I turned eight, my father made the decision to move us all to North Cornwall. It’d been something he and Mum had been planning for a few years. I had no idea. My brother I just knew Cornwall as ‘the place that takes 8 hours to drive to, and seemingly (sadly) no time to leave’. We’d holidayed there from a very early age, always trailing to the same curve and cup of coastline… bucket and spade in hand, and a promise of Prince’s Sardine and Tomato paste sandwiches. So to my brother and I, it seemed like a jackpot win: a never ending holiday.

The reality was, of course, a little different. As idyllic as the images may be that you’ve conjured up in your minds, living in Cornwall is NOT the same as holidaying there. As money become tough and then tougher still, life became more than the adventure that my parents had bargained on. Clothes were all second hand, and mended and extended. The 50p slot electricity meter was reviled and sworn at as much as the bank manager. Shampoo du jour was Fairy Washing up liquid, and bath water was used again, and again, and unfortunately for the last person, again!

Mum grew everything that she could. As I remember, we ate a lot of rabbit, pheasant, Congar eel, mackerel, liver (tubes and all, just cut them out) and ratatouille. I’m certain there was a huge variety of food, but these particular ingredients stick in the mind more than others. Also, cooking apples, every which way possible! It was all genuinely lovely.

There was no central heating (of course), but we had a little rayburn who performed the daily miracle of warming, drying and cooking all that was needed to keep full tummies and sanity in balance.

School was a struggle. Arriving from another part of England, I was considered ‘posh’ and so it was assumed that I must live in a posh house, and eat posh food, whilst wearing posh clothes and discussing posh pursuits. In truth, my past times were spent walking along the edges of streams counting badger sets, climbing overgrown field boundaries and chatting to imaginary friends that were a little more forgiving than those who I’d failed to charm at school. We couldn’t afford to drive me to potential friend’s homes for a play. We couldn’t afford to have friends come and play. Dad was always working; Mum didn’t drive. And so to a certain extent we became landlocked in this little pocket near the coast.

My brother and I had our chores and beyond that it was a team effort, wherever required. Whether chopping wood, mucking out chickens, cutting stingers, gutting fish or bleaching the mould mottled window sills of the cottage where we lived. We just got on with it.

Rod Stewart sang a lot about sailing and Wings banged on about ‘a little luck‘. (I discovered the sensual delights Marvin Gaye et al a lot later on, with no sense of reproach towards my mother who preferred classical music, or my father who’d rather watch a Western.)

The strangest thing is that although there were many pretty appalling scrapes and hard times, throughout it all, not once do I ever remember feeling that my life was ‘tough’ or untenable, or feeling envious of the seemingly bright and spangly lives of friends or cousins. I’m not sure how they did it, but my parents never betrayed any sense of the futility and frustration that, looking back, they surely must have felt at times. I never once felt that my life was lacking.

How clever they were. It’s not as if I didn’t know how shitty things were. I did. It’s just that they didn’t overdramatise it. They just got on and did their best to rise to the challenge, and move on. It didn’t dent their enthusiasm to stay and play the game they’d chosen.

As an adult now, I can see why their enthusiasm to stay never waned.

When I visit (go home) I find that my breath becomes slower, my head becomes freer, my phone battery dies and is left for dead, and I fall in love, all over again…

The lanes, the hedges, the beaches, the bite of salt water on a fresh cut to a shoe-soft sole. Throwing on a t shirt that’s been line dried, but still feels sea air damp. Babbington leeks, honeysuckle and sheeps scabious launching out from hedges, leggy flowering brambles  grabbing at a bare arm as you tuck into a stone walled hedge to make way for a tourist driving wide-eyed and nervous, one wing mirror already lost in a lane battle (probably on the way down to Polzeath). The suck, lick and caress of the sea as it hits beach or cliff, gently enthralling those that choose to float on, swim in or paddle along the edge of its reach.

Everything about it is utterly captivating, whether the sun’s cultivating salt crystals on freshly sea-dipped skin, or the rain’s lashing it down. In fact I can’t deny that my enrapt state of joy increases in direct proportion to the increased knottage of wind and foul weather, such is my perhaps somewhat perverse definition of ‘wonderful’.

My parents gave me this… a yard stick to measure what’s wonderful, what matters, what’s really important. There are some times when as an adult now, I have some fairly tricky challenges to wade through, days when not a lot seems to be particularly wonderful. This yard stick has proven to be saviour of sanity and humour. This, and of course, Cornwall.

It’s perhaps here, where a food writer might post a favourite childhood recipe, that will evoke deep comfort and hearty joy in the reader. I’m not going to attempt this. But I can thoroughly recommend taking a walk along any narrow, high hedged lane, or sifting through a handful of sand and shell, at the tideline, where the last wave rested briefly before returning to the sea.



Bones, stones and shells

I suspect those who’ve dipped into this blog, have chosen to, with the assumption that I’d write about current work, books just illustrated, commissions just finished. I fully intended to do that.  But every time I look at a clean screen, the cursor heart-beating expectantly, I feel compelled to write about other stuff, outside of my work; no matter how seemingly insignificant and possibly overlooked, the stuff that resonates with me. There’s the slimmest chance they might invoke a similar echo within you, and for that I’m genuinely delighted. But if not, then feel free to head over to another, more focussed, blog!

I used to live very close to the sea.

Like most, having had that as part of my tapestry, I’ve found that, at times, I almost ache to be near again. Lest I sound ungrateful, I adore where I live now, surrounded by woodland and fields, that in some directions stretch out for miles before being dissected by a road. Here we’re raising three children, growing vegetables, keeping bees, and generally trying to live a life that’s balanced, has perspective and doesn’t fall into the bottomless troll pit of materialistic mud.

Nevertheless, when I do go back to the sea I find myself scrabbling in rock pools, ritualistically swimming in stupid temperatures, and collecting things. Many things. Things that once lived… gull skulls, fish vertebra, sand worn driftwood, seaweed.  Others things that once contained life. These are my weakness. These things are lovingly (sometimes secretively!) wrapped and packaged to bring home.

Deposited in jars filled with water, piled in corners of windowsills, reached for in the dark recesses of a bag, every time I pick up a stone, bone, shell, I’m transported. It’s a pulling, sensuous, tactile reverie. If I’m honest with myself, it’s an addictive state. I can feel the sting of spray, lifted and flung with an onshore breeze. I can run my tongue over my lips, the outer corners of my mouth and anticipate the salted skin. I can absentmindedly pull that wind-whipped lock of hair once more from my watering eye. I can look beyond to where the horizon is held back by the rolling swell of deepest blue/green. I can hear the sea.


My father... and other jackdaws

… I probably go on about them a bit…

But at this point in the conversation (because that’s what this is) I need to point out that I’m not a twitcher,birder or spotter. It’s not through a need to shy away from the sad misrepresentation of those ‘who do’ as being perhaps rather obsessive/enthusiastic, indeed ‘geekier’ than most.  It’s simply that I don’t know enough about birds to qualify as such a person. But I do love them. I really do. And it’s very much because of my father.

From previous posts, you’ll know that I was brought up on the North coast of Cornwall.

We moved down there when I was pretty young and set up in a cottage nestled amongst working farms, stream carved woodland and badger sets. My mother and father had chosen to do this because they were both very much attracted to a more meaningful, slower and real existence.  In truth, regardless of whether this lifestyle still held the same rosy appeal for them after a few years, they couldn’t afford to do much more than a “Tom and Barbara”, even if they’d secretly pined for the ‘old life’, as, with a lower income, things got pretty squeaky and we all had to be far more resourceful than before.

My father pursued a growing career as an antique furniture restorer, while my mother held together the house and heart of our family.  This family at various points became extended to include pets… the usual dogs and cats. We kept chickens, geese and guineafowl, but they weren’t supposed to be anything other than the next meal.

My father had found peace and a little time with this move to Cornwall, and with that I suspect a little more headspace too. Slowly, a softer side was occasionally glimpsed … one goose (‘Dorcus’) had taken a shine to him,  and would follow him to the back door for a crust. In turn my father started walking around with pockets permanently stuffed full of stale bread and corn (the bain of my mother’s existence as inevitably it would end up in the washing machine, pockets bloated!). A guinea fowl (‘Peep’) that began it’s early life living in my mother’s top pocket decided that Dad was his mate-for-life and as such trailed around after him as he moved through his working day. And naturally, as I took on the chores of feeding the animals they would start to follow me too.

This was my very first experience of someone depending on me, yes me, for food and company! As an 8 year old this seemed beyond any magical experience portrayed in a Disney film (even The Jungle Book).

I relished this new form of company. The love was unconditional, unquestioning and always available whenever I walked out of the kitchen door and around to the back garden or orchard (pockets bulging with corn!). School life, by contrast, was hell. So these feathered friendships were far more nurturing than anything in the school playground at that time!

Meanwhile, my father’s heart seemed to slowly unfurl to reveal someone in stark contrast to the sales manager of before. I came to know, love and admire my dad, probably for the first time. It’s only now, in my fourties writing this that I’m able to percieve this gradual change in our relationship as it truly happened.

My growing years were defined by birds, on so many levels. We’d be driving along in his white transit van, my brother and me in the back, no seat belts, free to bump around. On most trips it would seem my parents would spot a bird on the roadside. The unspoken rule was, if it was alive, my father would mend it; if it was dead, my mother would cook it!

So many bird moments; I could fill a book, but I won’t, at least not for public consumption.

Some memorable highlights as I grew up:

Sharing my breakfast with Gonzo the crow ( he particularly loved scrambled egg)

Having my teeth cleaned by Jack (the jackdaw.. contrary to popular belief they don’t go for your eyes!)

Revision for my Chemistry A level being interrupted by a buzzard, perched high on the dresser, firing a poo 3 metres through the air, only to land on my carefully annotated illustration of a Liebich Condenser.

Watching my father give mouth-to-beak resuscitation to a goose (it lived).

On another occasion I watched him grab a drowning gander that had fallen into a large bucket of water, and, finding no pulse, he took it by the legs and swung it around his head. A huge expulsion of water arced out; the young goose survived.

My father (on countless) occasions has played the part of mother bird to baby pigeon, crow, jackdaw. Carefully holding the youngster he would chew on a mouthful of chick crumbs, add water, swill and then wait for the fledgling to put it’s head in his mouth to feed. I have photos, but I don’t think he’d would thank me for ‘sharing’.

Watching him from my bedroom window, strolling out into the orchard, whiskey in hand, only seconds later to be tracked by a clattering of jackdaws. Two detached from the wild mob and swung down to land on his shoulders.  He always kept bread in his shirt pocket for his friends, and jackdaws will remain high up there amongst the best, most loyal of friendships that he’s enjoyed.

Writing this brings such a surge of strong emotions, you’d think I’m writing about a man who has died. He hasn’t; he’s very much alive and can be found most mornings strolling with geese. But he’s made a huge impression on me.

He’s given me a balance, a spirit level to hold up to my life. This life, it’s so fast, so messy, sometimes with an enforced level of materialistic values that make it umbearably heavy. To be able to walk outside, look up and listen. It makes life lighter, clearer, happier.