A Family at Play

It’s lucky that we brought plenty of supplies with us.  Driving into Aviemore is not easy but we manage to top up with fresh produce thanks to Lucy who has snow tyres, and to Ryan who cycles in with a large rucksack to fill.  Ryan has already done a 20km ride on his mountain bike through stunning wilderness. He says he did not see another soul all day.

The children are either play-acting inside and outdoors with Dan and Barns, watching the latest kiddy movies on ‘deeves’ (Lola’s word), colouring and stickers in the kitchen or playing mothers and fathers in one of the ten bedrooms.  It’s fairly hectic and noisy but pretty much harmonious all the way.

After supper on Wednesday the adults have their own ‘make and do’ session.   Armed with raspberry jellies to dilute, sweetie feet and lips, strings of pink sugared pastille, and strawberry-flavoured jelly tapes, Charlotte and Emma take some jam tart baking trays and basins to create a gelatinous mass, and this will be offered to one of the unwitting cast for an ‘autopsy’.

Thursday brings us our treat.  Allan Heaney and Eleanor Honeyborne of OnePotBorrowed come to the house with all their ingredients and cook our dinner.  They have compiled a delicious menu for us which includes Mull Cheddar and cauliflower soup with a dash of wholegrain mustard, a venison casserole with herby dumplings, roasted and green vegetables, followed by chocolate and nut individual tartlets garnished with strawberries.

Thirteen of us sit down to enjoy this meal: Sam and Joel are allowed to stay up and we have invited Lucy, Walter and Helen.  It’s an opportunity to dress up, a chance for me to sport an aigrette!  This is, after all, an Edwardian country house which retains much of its character and most of its original features such as the oak panelling, open fires, period furniture including the 20-seater dining table in the central hall.

You might find yourself sleeping in Mrs Black’s or Mr George’s room, or even the French Maid’s.  Inshriach was built in 1906 by the Blacks, a publishing family, as a shooting lodge.  The walls bear plenty of evidence of its former occupants.

Before the younger children were put to bed there was the matter of the shooting of the innards’ investigation scene and Ruby, sporting improvised braces to place her in the character of ‘Blair’, was given the opportunity to discover that after a preliminary poke, a confection of jelly and sweeties actually tastes quite good.  In the interests of good taste of another kind, this moment does not make the final cut!

Other special effects are subsequently crafted in the cellar at Inshriach when Dan, Barns and Walter fine tune a minor conflagration involving a small fluffy toy dog.  These kids have fun too.  Smaller folk are long since tucked up in bed.

On Friday morning Nick will have to take Ems and Ruby to Inverness airport for their return flight to London.  This is the beginning of the Breaking of The Fellowship for this year.

Helicopters in the Snow and Entrails in the Larder

I drift up the foothills of awareness to dozy wakefulness.  Nick and I exchange a few words then I poke my nose above the coverlet and from my vantage point I can see out of the window and spy a winter wonderland.  It is a beautifully still view of trees laden with snow and the wispiest of flakes drifting down.  Leaping out of bed (relatively speaking) I can peer down onto the pristine whiteness carpeting the ground around the house and into the wooded slopes beyond the lawn and immediate confines of the house grounds.

Everyone is really excited.   There’s lots of looking out of windows and enjoyment of good fortune.  Last year we arrived to week-old snow which only allowed us a couple of days of winter sports before a thaw really set in.  We had resigned ourselves to a snow-less holiday this year.  Instead we have a fresh consignment of top grade snow delivered to our door.  Various children drift in and out of my room as I gaze in wonder.

To cap it all I am offered the ultimate treat: a breakfast in bed cooked by Daniel.  A boiled egg with a side order of bacon and grilled tomato on toast is presented to me by Sam.  Above-mentioned smalls get tastes before they are encouraged to leave Granny in peace.

Nick has dressed quickly and is outside shovelling snow from around the cars, and clearing a way down the drive.  We will need to go into Aviemore for supplies.  The cleared snow later serves to enable the creation of a snowlady whose head is topped with the blonde curly wig I tucked in my bag for Maria.  Before the children get togged up to go outside, I step out of the front door and teeter about in my fake Ugg slippers to take a few photos of snow, whose surface is pockmarked only by pheasant footprints.

The children spend the rest of the morning doing fun in the snow. Emma and I take Ruby in the backpack for a walk down to the river and along the bend where the rapids are.  The toboggans are again pressed into service until bit by bit cold wet children come indoors holding out hands on the margins of frostbite!  Good job there is a huge vat of spicy parsnip soup made by Emma and my homemade soda bread rolls at lunchtime.

As for the swede, clearly the snow has put the kibbosh on Star Wars, unless we take one snowy scene from the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.  Thoughts are pooled and eventually it is decided to swede The Thing. This 1982 John Carpenter cult movie is highly regarded by Dan and his contemporaries.  It was my late nephew Max’s favourite movie.  In it, scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills.  The beauty of the movie is the suspenseful power of the unseen horror.  Dan seems to think he can film a series of sequences which will engage the children without exposing them to the stuff of nightmares.  Filming has begun in earnest.

By coincidence we have brought an upmarket remote-controlled toy helicopter with us.  This was given to Dan for Christmas, got broken a few hours later and has been repaired by Nick and brought to Inshriach to hand over.  It is probably the one requirement for filming that we could not have improvised or found at Inshriach.  Amazingly, Walter produces just about every other prop that is needed, or the materials to manufacture what we need.  We only need to buy a few things in Aviemore, the Sue Ryder charity shop provides for the wardrobe mistress, and Tesco has a variety of jellies and sweets to make the entrails.  Let the fun begin…….

Stories at Seven

Nick and I have been given one of the bedrooms that contains a four-poster bed.  It’s very high and we find it easiest to clamber up using the wooden storage chest at the bottom of the bed.

In the morning Nick and I are broached, bit by bit, in our bed in the sky.  At some point Nick voyages to the kitchen below to fetch a mug of tea and I am left with 4 children and some story books.  This is a cherishable moment.

We variously have cereal breakfasts and when all are set for a walk round the estate and down to the river, I am left with the house to myself.  I hug the Aga, watch the red squirrels eating peanuts from the birdfeeder by the window and think I had better get on and trim the sprouts.  But I have to judge when it is time to put sausages in the Aga to cook and get all the other brunch ingredients ready to cook for hungry walkers.  Everyone tucks in and Lucy’s hens’ eggs are wonderfully yellow and tasty.  Amelie says ‘This is egg is so nice, I’m going to die!’

There is rugby on in the afternoon, and assorted activities take place whilst the pork is readied for roasting and Lukie and Barney prep a root vegetable mountain.  Somewhere around six o’clock we sit down to dinner, making sure to save plenty for the Sunburys.  They eventually arrive about 7.45.  It has been a long drive from Sheffield, longer in distance and time than they had reckoned.  I am sitting on the sofa reading bedtime stories when Ted slides into place, on my lap, cocooned by cousins.

The following morning we get more stories in bed then it’s cereal breakfasts all round.  Nick is away to Inverness airport to meet the Hackneys whose arrival has been delayed by snowstorms in New York, and the consequent cancellation of many flights.  Dan was due back on Thursday but finally got his flight out on Saturday. When they arrive all fifteen of us sit down to jacket potatoes with various toppings, Nick’s bread, pates and pickles.

In the afternoon there is a walk round Loch an Eilein for most of our party.  Ems and Charlotte go shopping in Aviemore and I opt to stay with the two girls.  After a spell of colouring Lola and Amelie accompany me on a walk.  We cross the lawn and walk up through the lightly wooded area and down the slopes to the river.  We eventually reach a bend in the river where there are eddies and rapids.  We ‘pooh’ a few sticks, then lob in a largish branch and watch it travel – crocodile-like – close to the bank, round the tight bend, pick up a drift of spume on its ‘head’ then spiral into one of the eddies.  On the way back we chant ‘We’re following the leader’, scramble back up slopes and clamber over barbed stiles, with the promise of chocolate biscuits at the house to spur tired young legs on.

The others are ferried back from their loch-side walk and already the family Swede is at an early formative stage.  We all came up here on the premise that we would be sweding The Sound of Music.  But it’s clear that some of the potential cast think it would be much more fun to swede Star Wars.  There is already thought about costume and props:   I have some earmuffs which will provide Princess Leia with her distinctive hairstyle.  A certain amount of brainstorming and internet surfing is set in motion.

We’ve made three fish pies with the fillet of Norwegian cod Nick brought back from his fishing holiday.  After the children are fed from one, and then bedded, we eat ours.  Weary ones (Ems and I) troop off to bed but the others burn some midnight oil on a Great Debate over the impact of the likes of Google, the i-Phone and just how far technology of this kind has gone, and might yet go.

But one thing had been decided.  We are going to swede Star Wars.

Ensconced at Inshriach

Lots of unblogged days have elapsed.  Nick and I have been rattling around at 88.  I have had to spend more hours than I would have wished at my desk digitising marine mollusc records for the Conch Soc and digging out material to concoct a half-way decent Marine Recorder’s Report.  Amazingly my initial pessimism is transformed when a week later (but not all spent toiling over the text!!) I have a reasonable story to tell.

We take one day out to drive to Dorchester to look at a house that might do………… but it won’t.  The hunt is on though, as our prospective purchasers may be breathing down our necks very soon.

So now we are on our way north.  A long way north as it happens, all the way to the Cairngorms National Park.  We’ve left Surrey at 5.30 a.m. and stop for coffee and a breakfast bap north of Birmingham.   We’ve also got various snacks to munch, fruit, and a flask of my frugal soup – all the bits of leek, cauliflower, broccoli which never make it to the vegetable tureen, bizzed up with potato.  When it’s my turn at the steering wheel it turns out that I am driving my very favourite stretch on the northbound journey.

Some shortish distance north of Lancaster the scenery changes to the unique landscape of the southernwestern Lake District.  Forged in an environment of colliding continents and vanishing oceans these soft grey flannel hills, with their curvy summits, talus slopes of shaly scree and gentle mossy green lower flanks, with fields at their feet, are the remnants of eons of rock weathering in that part of the British Isles which, for geologists, is the Iapetus Suture Zone.  In geological time where landmasses meet something’s gotta give, one continent subsumes the other in the subduction process.  To get some sense of this, visit the Restless Earth section at the Our Dynamic Earth Museum if you are ever in Edinburgh.  The violence of these Earth movements, the volcanic eruptions and the remnants we see today are clearly described Here.

Leaving the M6 north at Gretna Green we join the Clyde Valley Tourist route and cross from the delightfully named Elvanfoot to the outer outskirts of Edinburgh.  Once over the Forth Road Bridge we are into the last, ruggedly beautiful stage of our journey.  Places with evocative names: Kinross, Perth, Birnam, Pitlochry, Blair Atholl, Dalwhinnie, Kingussie, Ralia.

At Ralia we leave the main road to slip down to the tearoom for a cuppa to while a bit of time before we can politely arrive at Inshriach.  We have begged a concession to arrive a day ahead of our official booking, but they need time to ready it after previous visitors.  The tearoom is a very cosy octagonal building, with windows and bar stools around the perimeter inside, free wireless and very deliciously filled sandwiches to have with equally good tea or coffee.

At Aviemore we turn off the A9 and, picking up bread and milk on the way, we eventually arrive at Inshriach at half past four……eleven hours then.  Lucy Micklethwait is still getting rooms ready but is not too busy to stop and drink tea with us.  The year since we were last here melts away, as has, sadly, the snow, and we are back into our chatty banter.

Just after 7 Nick pops down to the station to round up the Cholsey contingent who, on arrival, burst through the front door full of how long and boring their train journey was.  Much later, when the children are bedded, Barns, Lukie, Nick and I eat a fiercely hot curry which even with the addition of a generous amount of coconut milk is still very warming to the palate.  I must remember that one and half Scotch Bonnet chillis is too much even for a large vat of chicken curry. That dozen of the cheery red crumpled chillis, that I bought at Hackney and froze, is going to last a very long time.

Happy Birthday, Happy Bunny

My senior grandson celebrated his 9th birthday a week ago.  I remember the day he was born very clearly and the absolute joy when Nick, Dan and I went to see him, a few hours old.  His proud father holding a swaddled bundle, a little golden child.  He has three siblings now and three cousins on his paternal side of the family.  He is the eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest daughter.  In terms of sibling expectation that’s quite a responsibility to carry.  Fourteen of members of the family sat down together for his birthday meal: a “hot lunch” as his brother Joel would say.  That is, roast meat and vegetables and a vital component, buckets of gravy.

Back at the ranch a few days later Nick has taken to the mop, the duster, the Dyson.  Estate agents are going to view our house and I am told cosmetic efforts beforehand are worthwhile.  As I sit in the clinical wasteland which is my life-launderd kitchen I feel some control is slipping from my reach.  Best I go outside and clear up all the rotting vegetation and yet another carpet of oak leaves.

Once outside I realise I haven’t worked in the garden for weeks.  The snow, French time, so many indoor jobs; all have served to cut me off from the great outdoors.  There is a positive surge of pleasure and energy in reconnecting with nature during a major clear up in the garden.  There are green shoots and on the terrace by the pond I find plantlets of desirables in tasteful crevices which I hope will be left by the wielder of the pressure hose.

Deer predation continues to be a problem but at least I can sweep up the small pellets they leave as contributions.  These are easily sprinkled amongst deserving pots.  I find self-set Hellebores and other perennial seedlings which I plant up in clay pots to wait in the wings.  I believe in working with the plants who will work with me.  Whilst working it strikes me that I should email my gardening friend, Anne, in France.  I will tell her I have been outside and I am ‘une heureuse lapine’, but I doubt it works like that in French!

A couple of days later I am sitting by my computer at the top of the house, with the last bowlful of a pheasant casserole, which serves as a tasty lunchtime soup, beside me on my desk.  The unmistakeable sound of a pheasant calling summons me to the window.  A large cock pheasant is perched on the wooden rail sleepers which serve as a terracing feature in our neighbour’s garden.  The call is described as a raucous cackle, but I think it sounds much more like a klaxon.

He stays around for a couple of hours coming down onto our lawn and amongst the beds and when I next hear him, it is a series of agitated calls.  Rooney has crested the side steps and confronted the pheasant at the lawn level.  The pheasant slowly retreats across the grass and up the steps, unhurried, sounding his horn, confident, I think, that he is just too big a mouthful even for our fat cat.  Rooney makes no effort to follow.