Wednesday, 30 September 2015

On The Last Day of September

'The big ship sails through the alley-alley-o
The alley-alley-o
The alley-alley-o
The big ship sails through the alley-alley-o
On the last day of September

That's a children's rhyme, and I seem to remember there was a game that went with it - something to do with making an arch and children running through it. Like most of these old rhymes nobody seems to know where it comes from, whether it means anything, or how a ship came to sail through an alley in the first place. When we had flooding in Yorkshire we had dinghies and canoes in the streets, but nothing that came near big ship proportions. And why the last day of September?

There were other verses - 'the captain says it'll never, never do'. The cap'n was right, me hearties, because the ship ends up at the bottom of the sea.

But the thing about the last day of September is that it's so unpredictable. The last day of September can be bitterly cold or pouring with rain, or it can be, like today, gloriously sunny. (Hello, sun. Where do you think you were in July and August, then?) The rhyme always alerts me to the Last Day of September.

I have photographs of a Last Day Of September long ago when my children were small and we were all in summer clothes on the beach. LYS had just about sussed how to walk while holding on to something or someone, and we have pictures of him toddling through the waves while holding both my hands. The following year was another sunny Last Day of September, and I took the children to the playground. An hour later we were rushing Daughter to the doctor because she'd run headlong into a swing and been concussed.

That turned out to be a very long Last Day of September and an even longer first day of October. The nights were longer than the days. However, there were no lasting ill effects. (Note to Daughter and Daughter's Chap - any eccentricities are to do with the genes and the lousy upbringing. Or possibly the brothers. Not the swing.)

I hope you've all had a good last day of September. Have a great thirty-one days of October, and look out for small children near moving swings.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Crispin in Autumn

On the morning I was born there was the first night touch of autumn frost. The air and the fallen leaves were crisp, and that was how they chose my name. I've always loved autumn, I love the sense of everything being gathered in from this year and made ready for the next. All over the island, animals are cramming larders and storing up leaves and feather for nests. Tell you what, let's just shin up Urchin's favourite tree and see what's going on.

The otters aren't that bothered about food. They can find fish in the sea all year round. But they've organised a bucket chain to move stones and driftwood from the shore to anyone inland who needs them. The wood is mainly for firewood, but also for household repairs, and the stones are useful for holding down any bits of your home that might blow away in a high wind. Oh, and there's Fingal giving Fionn rides on his back. If he's had enough he just rolls over and she falls off. There she goes.

The squirrels have been weaving nets and baskets for storing winter nuts and are organising them into 'hazels' 'walnuts' and so on. Sepia gets the littlies to sing while they do that, otherwise they'd eat the lot. Urchin's taken about a dozen small animals to collect blackberries, and nobody minds if they eat half of those. A sword is very useful for chopping down the more vicious branches. It's a great way of keeping the youngsters happy. They spend all morning hunting, gathering and eating, all afternoon getting their fur clean, and all night sleeping like tops because they're exhausted. Hope and Scatter are - what are they doing? oh, they're planting a garden for next year. Mother Huggen and Wren are watching a lot of baby moles and hedgehogs rolling about in the leaves for the fun of it. Oh, and here's Almondflower coming to join them. Catkin and Oakleaf are gathering firewood. Smoke rises from bonfires, and from...

.. yes, from the gigantic pot where Apple is brewing up her latest batch of cordial. You can tell when it's the smoke from the cordial because it's faintly yellow and so is the grass around it. Animals give it a wide berth. Apple likes to keep it for a year before drinking. Urchin would say, a lifetime. For myself, I'd rather go back to the Tower, sit down with Cedar to some hot spiced blackberry and cinnamon, and hear about the plans for the Autumn Festival. If you see Urchin and Needle, get them to come up and join us, will you?

Sunday, 20 September 2015


I'm dead jealous of The Sunshines, who have been away red squirrel watching. Can't wait to see the pictures. Now -

I know a secret. I know where you can see a Geta Stone.

'What is a Geta Stone?' you all ask. Sit round the fire with a cup of hot chocolate and I will tell you.

In the third century there were two Roman emperors, brothers named Caracalla and Geta. The idea was that they would rule together, but they fought like Kilkenny cats until finally Caracalla had Geta murdered. But it wasn't enough for him that Geta was dead. He had to be eliminated, as if he had never been. Caracalla (which feels lovely to type) set out to eliminate his brother's name from the empire. Every stone, every tablet, every inscription with Geta's name on it was defaced. But in outlying parts of the Empire the job wasn't done quite so thoroughly. There's one in Northumberland which was later used for rebuilding, and the name 'Geta' can just be seen with a few deep gouges across it. Nobody's bothered about Caracalla now, but historians get all excited about Geta Stones.

Now, from the little I know of Geta and Caracalla they were both pretty unpleasant characters, but bear with me. There's a pattern here, a familiar pattern.

You send the beautiful stepdaughter into the forest to be killed. Oh, rats, she's back. And they don't call the story 'The Beautiful Queen', they call it 'Snow White'.

You want to take over an island and a certain squirrel gets in your way, so you get him OUT of your way, thoroughly and forever. And look what happens.

A Roman official and a few priests tried to get rid of an annoying Jewish chap. Now we've only heard of Pontius Pilate and Herod because they come into the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

You can't keep a good squirrel down.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Box of Stories

Thank you, Sam, for those ideas - you can't go far wrong with a dog story.

I like sewing, and generally crafty stuff. My hand-eye co-ordination isn't great so I'm not that good at it, but I do love it. I have a work basket that I've had since I was a girl - it's quite small, the hinges are broken, it's overflowing and the lining is coming off. Pity, because I really like it. I also have a knitting bag and a lot of surplus wool, canvas and odds and ends in a chest in the attic. And boxes around the house for beads, ribbons, buttons, and anything else that jumped out at me from a stall. I have been thinking in terms of a new work box so I can put it all together. A BIG work box.

Well! A few weeks ago, Tony pointed out that we needed at least one more small table. I thought of the various junk/antique shops not far away and said I'd look out for one.

There's an antiques/crafts/junk shop halfway up a hill and only open on Saturdays. If you go past during the week you can't even see it's there, which makes it like a magical shop in a story book. But I went past on a Saturday and nipped in, looking for something to plant bulbs in.

I didn't find something for bulbs. I found HER.

She looks like a small table. But that isn't a table top, it's a lid. Lift the lid. Look! She is a deep and sensible workbox, with an extra drawer underneath, and she's on wheels. She looks a bit 1940s ish, and has seen some rough times because her top is scratched, but we can do something about that. Because of her worn appearance she was selling for not very much - and she is a Treasure Trove.

It wasn't just the workbox for sale, it was the contents. It must have been delivered to the shop just as it left the previous owner, presumably an elderly lady who is no longer with us but was a fine needlewoman in her time. There, inside, was the jumble of bits and pieces that accumulate in a sewing box, and this one had been accumulating for decades. Wool and knitting needles, crochet hooks in four different sizes. (I'll have to learn to crochet now.) A nearly finished tapestry and a half done tablecloth. Threads and embroidery silks, safety pins, papers and boxes of needles and pins. Stocking thread - who ever uses nylon stocking thread now? Poppers - 'snap fasteners' - with the instructions on how to use such new-fangled inventions. Three kinds of elastic. Buttons by the dozen. Mending wool. And my favourite -

It's only a paper of hooks and eyes, but it has a picture of a mother and daughter with 1920s or 1930s bobbed haircuts. And printed underneath, 'By Appointment to Her Majesty Queen Mary'. Queen Mary died in 1953.

She needs a name, an old-fashioned name. Nell, or Betsy, perhaps. Every time I lift the lid I think of her first owner, a hard-working woman, perhaps stitching by gaslight, darning socks, knitting sweaters, crocheting blanket squares.

And for every garment, every mend, there is a story. My workbox is full of stories. The red wool, maybe a sweater for a son or grandson. The pretty bobbly yarn, for a little girl's party cardigan. Every button has a story. And I will never know any of them.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Apple Tree

Hello, Rina, good to know that you're never far away from The House of Stories! Now that it's September and the publishing world is coming home from its holidays things are getting busy in the house and quiet in the garden. But not all that quiet.

The Sunshines came to stay, and how lovely that was! On Saturday Tony and LOS nipped over the border into Scotland to look at aeroplanes. (Tony and LOS are into aeroplanes.) Lady Sunshine and I pottled into town to do a bit of wandering, a bit of shopping, a bit of lunch, a lot of conversation, you know how it is. The sun shone for us. We met some amazing Puppet Factory animal puppets. It was a sunny autumn day (I always said she brings the sunshine with her), just the day for being outside.

It was still sunny, with that golden autumn warmth, when we got back to The House of Stories. The apple tree was weighed down with fruit like the tree in the fairytale and longing for somebody to harvest it, so out we went with the heavy canvas bags and a stepladder. Sometimes it was me up the tree and Lady Sunshine on a ladder and sometimes it was one of us on the ladder with the other one hanging grimly on, but between us we gathered two enormous bags full of firm green apples, some just a bit marked or misshapen but none the worse for that, and a few leaves and twigs that came down with them. One clever little apple decided to try out the law of gravity and hit Lady Sunshine between the eyes, which alarmed me no end, but she said it was only a little 'ouch', more of a surprise than an ouch really.

So when I'm not making apple crumble, stewing apples, or giving apples away I'm thinking about new stories. Animal stories, mainly. What animals would you like to see in a story?

No Sunshines were harmed in the making of this blog.

Sunday, 6 September 2015


Alnmouth. One of the best kept secrets in the north of England. I was telling you about it a week or so ago, and it's unfair not to let you see it. If you like Mistmantle you might recognise parts of it.

The Society of St Francis have this house. Many years ago, when we lived a few miles from Alnmouth, I used to go there a lot. From here you can see the windows of the Gathering Chamber.

And if you were a small animal, wouldn't you want to play here?

Now you know why I love it so much. But in case you're getting carried away, the pictures tell you nothing about the wind off the North Sea, only it isn't north, it's east. Just take my word for it, OK?

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Much, Margi and More

They two of 'em went out for an evening lately, getting together with some of their mates. 'Er what was the 'ostess sent a message saying 'is there anything you don't eat'?

Blooming stupid question, I said, there's loads of things they don't eat. Buckets, bricks, buttons, boots, plates, their mates and garden gates. Shut up, Much, says 'er, you know perfectly well what it means. What it comes down to is that 'er's vegetarian, 'er eats fish but not shellfish. Tony's no problem, eats what you put in front of 'im.

Much is trying to wind me up. I've never taken solemn vows about being veggie, but I feel it's they way I have to be. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to eat meat, but I do think t's wrong to eat it without taking into account

(a) the standards of animal welfare involved, and

(b) the amount of land, food, medicines, etc, used to rear an animal for food instead of feeding them for people.

Most of us in the developed world could eat a lot less meat and pay more for it. It's hard for small farmers to keep up high standards of production and still make a decent living. I feel a 'hug a farmer day' coming on.

On a completely different subject - I was telling you a little while ago about the church Jane Austen went to when she was a child. Here it is -

Can you picture her chasing her brothers round the churchyard? Sitting in the front pew swinging her feet?