Tuesday 31 December 2013

A Season of Light and Warmth

I love this time of  year, our winter festival of Christmas and New Year (not 'The Holidays').  I love the brightness and warm of the Christmas decorations, the coming together of friends, the exchanging of gifts (modest is fine by me, it's the thought that counts), the feasting on good food and drink.

It makes such wonderful good sense to have a time in the midst of winter when we can hibernate, if only for a little while.  A time to keep warm, to recharge batteries, to remember what is good in life.
I  often wonder how people living in the Southern hemisphere get through their winter months without Christmas to break the gloom.

I did have to go into work for a few days over the Christmas period, but it wasn't for full days, not unlike those working in shops, many of whom only got Christmas Day off, such is the greed of big retaillers to make as much money as they can,  even if it means that their staff can't spend much time with their families.

 The weather was very blowy and blustery, with lots of heavy rain and strong winds, especially on St Stephen's Day. It was not at all favourable for the long walks I'd planned, so  instead, I stayed inside,  read some of my Christmas books and rearranged the cushions!

Although most of the days were dull and gloomy, the sun burst through this afternoon. It bathed the garland on the stairs in a golden light and prompted me to get my camera, jump in the car, and drive to the shore to catch the last sunset of 2013.

As the sun set on 2013, I was thankful for a year that was mostly good, and that 2014 will bring happiness and prosperity to one and all. Happy New Year.

Saturday 21 December 2013

It's Almost Here

Finally it feels like Christmas.  The weather is suitably bleak although the  forecasters are undecided as to whether there's any chance of snow.  The romantic in me hopes that we will have snow as there's nothing like waking up on a  Christmas morning to a world that's covered in  white to make  you believe in magic again. It's almost as good as catching Santa Claus leaving presents at the bottom of your bed. 

The tree is up, the house decorated, the cards sent and the most of the presents wrapped. After a couple
of hectic weeks at work, when I thought I'd never find time to get organized for Christmas, I'm suddenly ready for the festivities. 
 I am looking forward to relaxing, spending time with my family, catching up with friends, sitting in front of the fire in the dark, with just  the glow of fairy lights and the flickering of candles. There's books to be read, movies to be watched and music to be enjoyed.

Tomorrow I'll exchange gifts with some of my dearest friends,  we'll visit relatives on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day will be just for ourselves, cosy at home, enjoying good food, walks with the dog, and  phone calls to loved ones overseas. A quiet low-key  time, just as we like it.

The message of Christmas, of love, friendship and generosity is found in our hearts, not in the ringing of tills or the Twelve Pubs of Christmas.  I  hope each and everyone has a joyful Christmas with those you love.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Confessions of a Lazy Photographer

Everyone loves a spectacular sunset or sunrise, those moments when nature dips her paintbrush in  warm and vivid hues and applies it with abandon on the blue canvas of the sky.
These are the moments which stop us in our tracks, cause us to pause and look up from the humdrum of everyday life, draw our breath and soak in the beauty.
The time around sunrise and sunset is known as 'the golden hour', when the light takes on a special  quality sought after by artists and landscape photographers.
I love to capture a good sunset. I'll check the time when it's due as well as the tide times and, if possible, I'll head to the shore  in the hope of catching some moments of beauty and tranquility. If, busy in the kitchen I glance  up and see a rose coloured sky, I'll grab my camera, run outside and try to find the best possible spot to get an unobstructed view of the sunset, waiting for the unfurling kaleidoscope of colours.
Sunrises, however, are a different story. I love my sleep and I don't want to risk setting my alarm clock for a sunrise which fails to deliver.
This time of year gives me the chance to experience breathtaking dawns. It's a rushed affair, no time to see the best vantage point, just time for a quick snap while my porridge is cooking in the microwave.
And when I see a sunrise like this one, I think that maybe, just maybe,  a new year's resolution will be to get  up early and find the perfect place to watch the sun rise.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

In Praise of Christmas Cards

I was feeling poorly over the weekend. Nothing serious but enough to sap my energy so I didn't do any Christmas shopping, didn't clean the house, didn't put up the Christmas tree. But I did manage one ritual which means a lot to me - I wrote my Christmas cards.

These days, the only time I take pen to paper, apart from work of course, is when I write cards. Sometimes, however, it's easier to send an email or text message, or  follow the Facebook prompt to wish someone 'Happy Birthday'.
Even writing cards is no guarantee that they will be posted. Often I find a grubby, creased, and very out of date card lurking in the depths of my handbag, the occasion for its sentiments long past.
This, of course, is a sad state of affairs. There is no romance, no sentiment, to sending emails or text messages. It's too automatic, too businesslike. And most likely the greeting will end up deleted.
I've seen it suggested that it's not 'green' to send real Christmas cards but I think sending cards is a small price to may for something which can form part of our family history for future generations to appreciate.
There's nothing to cherish with a virtual message. No picture to linger over, no rich paper to touch, no greeting to memorise, no handwriting to admire.
And what history of the little celebrations in our lives will we have if we don't send cards?

I can trace my grandparents's romance through the beautiful postcards they sent on a daily basis. There are the postcards my mother sent home from her first holiday overseas. There are the cards congratulating her on her wedding, on my birth. She kept every birthday card I received, just as I have kept those sent when my son was born and for his birthdays. There are Valentine cards, anniversary cards and good luck cards which recall the milestone events of our lives.
Some may think Christmas cards terribly outdated in this day and age of instant messaging but I like the tradition of sitting down, thinking of a friend, selecting a card, and writing a message. Maybe it's just a short greeting, wishing them a Happy Christmas and all the best in the new year, but it's a sign that you have thought enough of them to make that effort. Even better if there's a short letter and a few family snapshots included.

Every year, I keep one or two cards which I  particularly like. Maybe I fear the sender won't be around in future, which sadly happened this year, or maybe I just liked the picture. Either way I am building a collection of memories for years to come.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Winter Light

Irish winters are dull and dreary. For days, nay weeks, at a time the sky is laden with low-lying grey clouds which seem to sit just above the hills and fields.  The air is cold, damp,  disheartening, sucking energy and enthusiasm from our souls.
But every so often, the sun breaks through. There's a special quality to this winter light, coming from a sun that's low in the sky, that's different from any other time of year.

Sometimes it's so beautiful and unexpected that it stops me in my tracks. I come to a fork in the road. A  shimmer of light glimpsed on the waves sees me turning right, driving a little further, hoping against  hope that I'll be in time to capture the magic before the clouds gather in. I catch it and my  heart sings.

At home, the winter sun weaves its magic, creeping through the windows and transforming the familiar into something new. More moments like these and I could learn to love the winter.

Monday 2 December 2013

Creamy Vegetable Soup

I  love making soup. I love serving up tasty homemade goodness to my family. And since discovering Knorr Stockpots (and no, I haven't been sponsored to say that), I realised I can make soup whenever I want, and not just when there's a chicken carcass in the house. Besides, I doubt if boiling up stock for hours is economical given the cost of electricity.
I have a couple of favorite recipes for soup and was  on the lookout for  some more when when I came across one for wholesome vegetable soup on Donal Skehan's blog.
I'm have to admit I'm a big fan of Donal's. His recipes strike me as very practical and I just love his food photography. I've dropped hints that I'd like his new Kitchen Hero book as a Christmas present. I even forgive him for being in a boy band.
Anyway, as luck would have it, I had all the ingredients needed to make this delicious soup in the house. Indeed, some had been lurking in the bottom of the fridge for rather too long but were fine with some judicial trimming. And as I had some left over cream, I decided to add that too.
A little olive oil,
1 onion, finely chopped
1 leek, washed well and sliced
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 parsnip, chopped
3 sticks of celery, chopped
1.5  litres vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
A little cream for serving
Fry all the chopped vegetables in the oil in a large saucepan for a few minutes, then cover and sweat  until translucent.
Add the stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for around 20 minutes, until the vegetables are soft.
Check the seasoning, blend using a hand blender or food processor  and stir in a little cream in each bowl. Garnish with chopped parsley. (Didn't have any to hand when I took this pic). Serves six.
The soup was declared delicious by my menfolk, including my celery-hating  son.

Saturday 9 November 2013

As Time Goes By

This  old silver pocket watch belonged to my maternal grandfather. It's one of just a few things belonging to him which have survived to this day. It doesn't work and I don't remember it ever telling the time, but that doesn't stop it from being a priceless family heirloom. 

My grandfather died long before I was born, having  married late in life. I don't know much about him other than that he was a carpenter who took pride in his work. Born in the latter half of the 19th century, he went to America  but, unlike most emigrants of the time, he returned home.

He also took pride in his appearances  as there's a photo of him, outside a carpenters' shop in New York, with a bushy beard, which was fashionable at the time.  He alone isn't wearing a leather carpenter's apron as he took it off before the photograph was taken as he deemed it improper for a man to be photographed wearing an apron! There are other photos of him, looking dapper in a shirt and waistcoat, which the chain of this watch clearly visible.

On his return to Ireland, he had the cottage where he was born remodeled into a two-storey farmhouse.
I live there now with my husband and son, and we are conscious of its heritage. When we had it renovated some years ago, we retained as many of the original features as we could, including some woodwork which I think my grandfather would have crafted himself.

Monday 4 November 2013

Seduced By Light

It was the late afternoon winter  sun that did it. The ordinary task of a trip to the clothesline was transformed by rays of sunshine into a special moment. Golden light shone through the ivy.

I swapped the laundry basket for my camera, washing forgotten.

Enchanted by this gift of winter light, I followed the beams through the garden, watched as they set the ash on fire, illuminated the last leaves on the apple tree, and put a spotlight on the holly branches.

Then, as a final reward, I spied a little warbler providing evensong among the haws.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Reclaiming the Garden

Armchair gardening
I've been away from here for so long that I've a lot of catching up to do. But seeing as it's November,  the month when writers and  bloggers are typing their fingers to the bone,  I've decided to see if I can maybe, just maybe, write a post every day, and finally put all those half composed thoughts and waiting photographs where they belong.
Although it seems a long time ago now, memories of the Summer of 2013 will linger. It was the perfect summer, full of warm sunny days, when all sorts of records were broken for the warmest, driest, sunniest summer in years.
For us, it was also the summer of the garden.
I've always been an armchair gardener, with dreams of a wonderful cottage garden but no desire to do any hard work to achieve it.

Toffee surveys the improvements

A combination of miserable wet summers and a lack of enthusiasm for embarking on outdoor projects unless the weather is perfect, meant that our garden had become seriously neglected and overgrown.
Think jungle without the tropical climate.
At  one stage, I dared to suggest that perhaps we'd need to get 'help' in order to reclaim it. This was just the sort of challenge that my husband needed, and, with the surprisingly willing assistance of the teenager who had finished his exams, he set to ensuring that I'd eat my words.
First, I  had to accept that we were never going to have a cottage border and that the weeds were always going to win. Out went all the plants except the forsythia, down went black matting and gravel.
Colour could be provided by plants in pots, containers, boxes.
Then, the piece de resistance, which strangely enough was the part of the project which captured our son's imagination and made him a willing worker,  a corner arbour.

Newly erected arbour

We first saw one in the showroom of B&Q in Newry, just across the border, and after a few days deliberation, decided that we must have one. But getting it proved more difficult that we'd imagined.
We discovered that we had missed out on buying the last one in the Newry store and they didn't know when they'd get another one in. I phoned around all the stores in Northern Ireland and it was the same story.  Frustratingly, there was no shortage of arbours from several DIY stores and even supermarkets for gardeners living in the UK, but Irish gardeners, were, it seemed, out of luck unless they  had the budget for a bespoke creation. I told a friend about the difficulty we were  having and she suggested I'd try B&Q in Dublin. I'd forgotten that they had stores in the Irish Republic, and one phone call later and the arbour was ordered. Even better there was a sale on.
The finished product - painted

Once it was delivered a few days later, husband and son set about erecting and then painting it. It looks even better than we had hoped and has proven a great addition to our garden.

Me time

When the weather was good, I liked to sit out with a cup of tea and read. Most mornings during the summer, I took my breakfast outside and enjoyed a few minutes tranquility before heading for work.
Arbour with a view

Even now when the weather is colder, it's a good spot to sit, sheltered from the wind, and watch the pets.


And best of all, I've now got the enthusiasm to do some gardening even when the weather's not perfect.
When I was on holidays last week, I planted lots of daffodils in containers and am looking forward to seeing them bloom in spring.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Time to Remember

It's been a while. I thought that when the balmy  days of our wonderful summer ended,  I'd find time to sit down and share some words and  photos from this corner of Ireland.

But news came which made my heart heavy. A friend, who had fought bravely with cancer,  wrote a farewell message that her time was limited. As I grappled with that sad news, and struggled with words to express my feelings, an old school friend also died.  Both women left heartbroken families and friends. Both, I think, would have been surprised by the outpouring of grief which their deaths caused, demonstrating how they had touched the hearts of many.

Suddenly, I found myself thinking about death in a way I hadn't previously.  Although I  lost both my parents at a relatively young age,  the death of a parent is something which we sadly expect to  happen in the natural cycle of life.  I took inspiration from their lives and hope that they would be proud of the life I have carved out.
I missed them most when my son was born, sad that they never saw their grandson,  sad that he never got to listen to my father telling stories or taste my mother's delicious home baking.  Now, when I work in the garden, bake bread, or put seed out for the wild birds in winter, I  think of them doing similar everyday tasks, of a circle continuing.

However,  when a contemporary is taken from this world, with so much of their lives ahead of them, it stops you in your tracks. I still consider myself 'young', take it for granted that I'll have many years ahead of me. But, unless I'm to receive the President's cheque, the reality is I've more of my life behind me than in front of me. It's a sobering thought as there are still so many things that I want to do, so many places I want to visit, so many books I want to read. Most of all, however, I want to see my son grow up,  find his place in the world, and hopefully fall in love and have children.  He's nearly as old as I was when my mother died and will be heading to college next year, so I feel I have at least set him on the road to adulthood,  hopefully well equipped for whatever life throws his way.
I've also resolved to pick up the phone, type that email or send that card to friends that I mightn't have been  in touch with as regularly as I should be.
For who knows who next will 'fall in love with death in October coloured weather'.

Sunday 15 September 2013

A Parting Gift

Summer returned yesterday and bestowed on us the gift of a pet day, as my mother used to call an unseasonably warm day which came when we had given up on summer.
It was a day for basking in the warming rays of the sun, for sitting in the garden, for drying clothes, for being grateful for just  one more good day before autumn's chill takes hold of the land and our hearts.

The butterflies  reappeared,  with Small Tortoiseshells joining the busy bees as they feasted on the sedum and daisies beside the front door.

A Speckled Wood fluttered in the garden hedge and rested on a leaf just long enough for me to click the shutter. And then it was off.

I've been a bit bee-hind with blogging of late,  not sure where to land, as I flutter from one social medium to the next. I'm still striving to find a voice, to find a balance between words and images, between reportage and personal disclosures.