As we stepped into mum's apartment the other day, my senses were immediately struck by a smell that I knew so well yet also could not quite place. I'd been caught by a scent that was both heavy and heady, yet full of light and shade at the same time. Each pace I took along the hallway the stronger the scent became... until, as I passed the kitchen doorway, I saw some narcissus in a small glass vase and was instantly transported to another time and place; to a time some four decades ago and a place some 3 miles from where I stood...
When we lived as a family at Le Pignon, a home near the centre of the island in the parish of Castel, I would walk with friends to school; Castel Infant School. I guess I was around ten or eleven, with no cares in the world and a host of unknown hopes and dreams ahead.
Our journey to school would be along Rue des Varendes, which lead onto Le Villocq, up Le Neuve Rue, right into Rue des Cauvains (avoiding the electric shock treatments of the Castel Hospital!!), then passed the King Edward VII Hospital, and then, as we got to the T-junction with Les Vieux Beauchamps there they were, directly in front of us.... a field of golden daffodils dancing in all their sunshiney glory. Yet for me it was not the yellow beauties that caught my eye, it was the yellow-eyed white narcissus that did, and they caught my nose too... and my imagination. These cherished mutli-headed floral gems were called Avalanche, and dad told me that they were from the Scilly Isles, which I always thought a wonderful name for an amazing multi-headed cascading fall of blooms... yet a silly name for a group of islands.
As we'd walk home from another joy filled day of school - and I do mean that as my schooldays were full of the joys of learning, of numbers, of letters, of nature, of play, and of friends - we would pick a bunch or two of flowers on our way. Diving into the field, we would gently pick a handful with the billy-goat-gruff farmer looking on... "Don't take too many... I gots to make my livin'".
As we walked to the back doors of our homes, where comfort and love abounded, the hands of each of my friends was the glory of a bunch of golden daffodils for their mum; in mine a multi-headed magisterial mystery of name and of place enveloped in gold and white petalled flows for my mum, Mary.
Those few steps into mum's apartment a few days ago really took me back... more than four decades... to a heady scent of the past.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 25
When we were in Guernsey the other day, mum started chatting about the houses that we have lived in over the years. She began with their first home, the one she and dad lived in when they were first married. Then the house that they built together with a States of Guernsey loan and where we grew up as a young family. The middle stages of our family life together came next at our house near the centre of the island; more convenient for dad to get to and from work and giving him more time at home. From there the move was to a brand new build on a small Clos, and from that home there was the one to where mum now lives, overlooking Belle Grève Bay, the islands and the White Rock where dad was a docker for much of his working life.
We then went back over the list, and the times that we spent at each. I noticed that these next memories were significantly around the gardens of each home.
The small garden in their first home, surrounded by vibrant farmland and in an area where and at a time when many still grew their own potatoes, some root veg and brassicas. Then at our next home, where I first came into being, was the beautiful lawn and vegetable garden that mum and dad created; a peaceful garden nourished by seaweed and which has formed the backdrop of photos of so many guests that stayed at mum and dad's B&B. From here was a move closer to dad's work, and for me my favourite garden of the homes in which we lived; one which was bordered on two sides by a growing bamboo fence line that seemed to stretch to the heavens and was as deep as any deep hedge can be. The dozen chickens would roam under the arching laburnum in their own vast chicken-wired homestead. We would grow in the greenhouse - tomatoes, melons and cucumbers - and Freddy the tortoise would hibernate in here overwinter, under the bench in a hay-stuffed box. My older brother kept pigeons in his pigeon hut; all fanciful feathers and courteous cooing. And then there was the seemingly vast area of orchard with eating apples, cooking apples, pears and a plum tree; trees ripe for climbing, pruning, fruiting and harvesting. Across the path was the ever so productive vegetable garden that dad would find his spare time in, and I would go and help him and learn and feel love. The leisure area of the garden was another large space sandwiched between here and the back of the house. A small-scale formal garden of canna lilies, fuchsia, hydrangea and strawberries sat alongside the vast patio where people would smile and parties would happen and the sun would forever shine. I guess these were very happy years; a family of five in full swing.
Moving on and downsizing, with the family with heartache doing the same, the gardens that mum and dad created around our Grande Rocque home were truly amazing, particularly considering there was nothing there to start with and that the base soil was significantly sand. There were wonderful borders edged with pink and blue granite and the bowling green lawns that dad created. These bowling green lawns were truly bare feet worthy; springy and soft, and lush and life-enhancing. I remember dad always having a little pocket knife with him; walking across the vibrant green lawn he would dip down and dig out a dandelion or daisy and they would get thrown on the compost heap. You see, dad wanted a pristine lawn, and that's exactly what his groundsmanship delivered. Then the palm trees went in, Cordeline Australis and a very spiky yucca that we smuggled back from Ibiza... sshhhh, don't tell! Mum would tend her roses and all the colour of the garden and the two of them would spend hours just being; the two of them in sync.
When it got to the stage where the garden and the painting of the house was really getting too much for them both, they decided to move to where mum lives now. A garden, of course, was essential, and if it be in many pots then that would do quite well.
Mum and dad chose an apartment on the ground floor where they have spent many countless hours sitting on the patio taking in the sun and the sea and the salty air. At one point there were 84 pots of varying shapes and sizes containing flowers of various sorts, though the ones that have always taken mum's fancy are Arum lilies, hydrangeas, and geraniums and pelargoniums. On any drive around the island we would pass a house that used to sell these colourful scented plants on the roadside, it was just around from Port Soif. Whatever variety they had, whether crinkle leaf or flat or variegated, and whatever colour, whether white or pink or crimson or purple, these were always called Port Soif plants - mum's Port Soif plants. Many of them still flourish now and are topped up with other plants each year, all from cuttings mum so studiously loves taking. As it's now winter, and all in the pots is pretty sparse apart from a few geraniums still holding on to a scrambling of flowers, we left mum with 200 blue LED lights rambling through the dead and dying branches of the plants in the pots. Many of these plants will be back out next year, including the geraniums, and particularly the hydrangeas with their resplendent vibrant mop heads replacing the dancing feathery dried pom pom heads which are on view today. In the meantime, it will be the bright blue gems of LED that will dance in the breeze and please the eye.
It was in this 15 or 20 minutes of chatter, whilst Richard had a shower, that it brought me back to the fact that I know so well... Gardens in all their many guises are a haven for the body and a haven for the soul.
We are beginning to learn of and understand the benefits of gardening and gardens, and how the act of gardening and the time of spending time in green open spaces and gardens, alone and with others, is so beneficial to our mental and physical health. What dawned on me as mum and I sat chatting about the plants, the layout, the weather, and the times of fun that had been had in all these homes was that the memories of gardens, outdoor spaces and wonderful places nourishes and can live with us forever. It is through these moments of memory that we roll back in time and space. It is in these moments of memory that we literally do travel in time.
I guess these times and these memories are where the seeds for The Guernsey Gardener in London were sown. And now I can share these moments with others, if they so wish.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 18
So, as I alluded to in my last blog, a rather amazing and unusual thing happened as I was doing my final edit of 'Sensing the past...'.
As I sat quietly checking spelling and the grammar of the piece, a robin landed on my knee. Quietly, without fuss, and rather comfortingly. Now I have had birds land on me in the past, a robin or two and maybe some sparrows, though never inside our home!
You see, when I was editing my last blog I was sitting in our front room where we do Sunday Chat, I was on the other sofa - the 'Live' sofa. I'd heard a brief fluttering of wings which, with the front sash windows being slightly open, I thought was simply sparrows chomping at the cabbage palm tree seed pods. It's something that they do at this time of year; we often have sparrows in the palm trees and blue tits in our callicarpa, so a fluttering of wings is not unusual. However, the sound of the fluttering of wings was soon followed by a blur in my vision and then the complete 20/20 clarity of a robin landing on my knee... our robin landing on my knee. And yes, I'm totally sure it was the one that has been pecking to get into the house for some time!
My last blog, 'Sensing the past...' had proven to be quite emotional, as it took me back to very happy family times, with reminiscences of many happy faces around the Christmas table, smiling, laughing, joking, eating, drinking and being generally merry. The sounds and voices and smells and smiles were all at the forefront of my mind, when our little robin decided to land on my knee. For some reason it felt incredibly normal to have a robin on my knee... though of course, after a moment I realised that this wasn't at all usual, as we were in the front room!!
Our little robin then flew to the sash window, which as I have said was only slightly open, a few centimetres at the top and bottom to let the air flow through to room. My next thought was then to get this little robin out of the house as WE live in our house, in here, and HE lives outside, out there. So, nice and slowly and carefully, I moved to our front door and opened it wide. I then went and got the key to undo the locks of our front sash windows so that I could fully open them at the top, offering up another route for our robin to fly out. Of course, I was making sweet talk with Mr Robin all of the time, to calm him down, as well as myself.
"Are you OK Mr Robin? Do you want to go back outside?" Mr Robin didn't reply, in fact he seemed to feel quite at home.
By this time Mr Robin was sitting on top of our Virgin Media router, quite happy and contented, and then he decided to fly into our chandeliere-style lights and check out the view from there (as well as the dust on the glass drops I am sure!). Quite happily Mr Robin was going about what he was sure was his business. As I opened the windows he then went on to the cushions on the teal sofa, those that Richard plumps so carefully each day. Then it must have been time to check out the view from the top of our front room door, as that's where Mr Robin went next. Deciding he had had a good old mooch, he flew a few feet towards me, hovering in mid air for a short second as they do, wings all a flutter, turned back towards the door of the room, then took a swift right turn and made his way out the front door.
When I followed into the hallway Mr Robin was quite happily sitting on our coir front door mat, looking at me. He then made a few hops onto our pathway and started pecking away between the old red bricks of the pathway, and I'm sure finding tiny bugs where we would see nothing. He didn't seem at all concerned by his foray into our home.
After saying goodbye to him - "Bye bye Mr Robin. See you at the back door later" - and closing the front door, I just sat down and blubbed for 10 minutes. For me there is so much symbolism of a red robin being in our house, even more so at a time when I'd been thinking about so much joy in my past. Once I had come to, and composed myself, I checked around the downstairs and noticed there was a little bird poo in our kitchen sink. You see, the kitchen window was slightly open. As you may remember, a robin has been picking at our french windows for some time, and we have even thought about letting it in - and I have no doubt that that robin and our red-breasted house guest are one and the same.
Clearly, Mr Robin decided that morning that he had had enough of our inhospitality and chose to make his own way in through the kitchen window, and come and check up on me whilst I was editing my last blog.
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 15
Gosh, it was a rather busy and unexpectedly emotional day yesterday!
I said to Richard on Saturday that I wanted to make a Christmas Pudding, as it was Stir-Up Sunday this weekend which is the traditional day that people in the UK would make their Christmas Puddings; families all coming together and giving the mix a stir, each making a wish as they did so. It's obviously one of those traditions that is dying out swiftly now that we can go to any supermarket or corner shop and buy the pasty, sweet, microwaveable, unrecognisable Christmas Puddings that they sell these days. However, I was absolutely sure there is nothing like the real thing that mum used to make, and I wanted to make it. So make it we did!!
Now, I haven't made mum's Christmas Puddings for many decades. In fact, I don't think I've made a traditional Christmas Pudding since I last made one with mum when I must have been in my very, very early 20s.
Mum had given me one of her old cookery books some years back. It's an old Hamlyn cookery book with a pale blue cloth-like cover. The dust sheet has long been lost, and various splodges of cake batter and gravy now sit comfortably alongside the jaded and faded fake gold lettering on the cover binding. It wasn't actually the recipe for Christmas Pudding in the book that I was looking for though. You see, I knew that mum's handwritten recipe of HER Christmas Pudding was on a piece of paper cradled between two of the leaves of the book. I took Cooking In Colour off of my cookery book shelves (note... MY cookery book shelves, not OUR cookery book shelves!). I found the slip of mottled paper with red writing, and then remembered what I had known all along... the list of ingredients used and their weights was for 16 puddings, and I certainly didn't want to make 16!! So I set to and converted all of the ounces into grams and millilitres and then divided all of the total amount of each ingredient by 16. In the end, looking at the full list of ingredients and their weights for one pudding, I decided that I would do one and a half times this reduced amount of mix. It turned out that this was perfect for making 8 individual puddings; it was Richard's idea to make individual puddings rather than one large one, and I think that he had the right idea.
It was in the first moments of stirring this scented mix that the initial sense of the past came back to me... Standing around the dining room table with mum at my side and a huge plastic Tupperware in front of us. We would stir the mixture thoroughly, ensuring that everything was incorporated; no pockets of dry flour here, and no clumps of gooey, squidgy chopped prunes there. Just one unctious flavourful dried fruit, almond, sugar, suet, rum and stout paste. We'd have to take turns in doing the stirring as the quantity of mixture was so large it was really quite tiring on the arms!
My second sense of the past was when I could smell the puddings steaming. The gentle spicy aroma filled the kitchen, then our middle room, the ground floor, then the upstairs until the whole house was engulfed in scented memories. And boy did that aroma take me back decades again! I've obviously smelt Christmas Puddings over the decades, though none have given me this sense of days of old.
And then we jump forward to the tasting, and wowsers... didn't that bang me right back to being a child!! Sitting around the table at Christmas, with family and friends and some people that I didn't even know who they were. Presents had been opened and played with and the turkey carcass was sitting under tinfoil on top of the fridge. There we all were with our coloured paper Christmas cracker hats on, all feeling slightly boozy (even us youngsters as we were allowed Babycham!), terrible jokes had been read aloud, useless cracker gifts were spread around the tablecloth, some gleeful choir was singing updated carols and festive songs on the radio... and then would come mum's Christmas Puddings. Glistening. Flaming. And beautiful. In my opinion, heavenly. 😊
If you've seen the video of us making the Christmas Puddings you will see how I got rather overwhelmed by emotion. It was simply because the taste of this pudding just sent me back decades to all the memories above - to the joys of those people, of which too many are sadly no longer in our lives today, though they will live forever in our hearts... dad, my brother Perri, Aunty Phil, Uncle Len, Aunty Betty and Uncle Mick. Life is so short, yet it can also be so joyous.
And I guess that's the wonderful thing about food, along with many other daily necessities and luxuries.
In the depths of our minds we have so many memories that are associated with a smell or a taste or a sight or a sound, and even a touch. It's in moments like these, sometimes decades later, when these special times are relived, most often unexpectedly, that we're just taken back to our childhood or back to special moments of remembrance. It can be quite overwhelming, though it can also be so enriching too. I for one am so pleased that we have these moments as they highlight time's gone by; for me many are wonderfully sweet and happy whilst some are more bittersweet. However, these memories and events are part of the person each of us is today, and hopefully even more memories can be made for us to fall back to as we get older, and wiser, and remember.
And... as I sat in our front room this morning quietly doing the final edit of this blog before posting it, something quite lovely, unexpected and extraordinary happened, though this story will have to wait for another day...
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 14
...long term partners.