Bread to make you happy

making bread

“That was the best focaccia I’ve ever had,” my neighbour tells me. She’s talking about some bread that I gave her, and her praise is all the more pleasing because I made it. My son is a fan too. What’s more, although my pernickety daughter will certainly not eat anything with herbs in it, the sandwiches I made for her packed lunch from an everyday bloomer, also of my making, were eaten, down to the last morsel, crusts included. Unheard of!

I should at this point put my cards on the table, and say I’m not a baker. I might like the idea, and once upon a time, I did make cakes: a flourless chocolate cake in a Baby Belling in the health-hazard shared-kitchen in my student halls of residence began my chocolate cake specialism, and I produced a hundred white rose topped cupcakes for my art-deco style wedding. Since having children, however, my star has faded, and the idea of making my own bread has always been one I have swiftly dismissed.

What changed? Nigella Lawson once described herself as ‘a lifelong sceptic of the bread-making tendency’ but her mind was changed by taking part in a bread-making workshop, and so in this I am in good company. I went to a Bake Me Happy bread making class, based in Rusthall and run by experienced cookery school teacher, Joy Alexander-Neal. In the company of five other bakers in Joy’s well-equipped, relaxed and sunny kitchen, we weighed our ingredients, kneaded our dough and received reassurance that it was meant to be that sticky!  Thanks to Joy’s calm, knowledgeable and pragmatic instruction, all our doughs rose beautifully, and at the end of the three-hour session we had three loaves to take home with us; an everyday bloomer, a focaccia and a spelt and oat soda bread, as well as the recipe sheets so that we could recreate them at home. The lovely smell of the fresh bread meant that there were plenty of takers when it came to eating it up – and all too soon only crumbs remained.

Anyone interested in a Bake Me Happy bread making workshop can contact Joy on or call 07730436736


Meeting a mindfulness practitioner.

Mindfulness is a word we hear often these days. Like many, I think it sounds like a lovely, soothing idea; but I have to admit, I didn’t actually know what it is! When I heard that there were mindfulness drop-in sessions and courses in my village on Tuesday evenings, I was keen to invite the practitioner to tell me more.

Laura Acosta describes mindfulness as working towards a, “stillness and balance of mind,” and “living in the moment, choosing not to anticipate the future or dwell in the past. Learning to approach life in a way that is non-judgemental, kind and patient to ourselves can help us to have better concentration and focus, more authentic relationships with others and our self, to deal more skilfully with anxiety and stress, and to live life more fully.”

Whether I am living in the past, present or future I am always dealing with reality; and so inevitably my inquisitive nine-year old son, (who should have been in bed), made an appearance at the interview. “I’m learning mindfulness at school,” he says, sidling through the living room door. Laura is delighted; she thinks mindfulness is fantastic for children. “Tell me what you’ve been learning,” she asks him.

“We talk about muddy puddles. If you swirl them all the mud is going around but when it’s settled the mud is at the bottom and there’s clear water,” my son tells her. “You learned that at the school right here in Rusthall? That’s a nice image,” Laura says. “So your thoughts are the same; if you let them settle then you have a space in which to make choices.”

Laura’s passion for mindful living comes through in the enthusiasm and knowledge with which she speaks, and the way her hands move to emphasise her points. Leo is fascinated. “Are you watching my hands?” she asks him. “My family comes from Spain, and one of the things that is very typical of the Spanish is that they use their hands for expression.”

Child despatched back to bed, Laura tells me more about how she came to be a mindfulness practitioner. “Some difficult things happened to me in my life. I went through different kinds of counselling, and it never quite helped me move forward with my life. Then I read about mindfulness. I realised all I really needed to do was focus on the present moment – it gave me a whole new way of dealing with what was going on in my life. So then I started to do the courses and went from there. I don’t know why nobody ever said, just focus on the present, because it was the only thing I could influence.

The thing I found amazing about mindfulness was that it liberated me from judgement, criticism, lack of kindness towards myself – it gave me space to say I’m not ready to deal with that yet, or, actually I am ready and I need to do it now.”

Mindfulness is a route to wellbeing, but she’s keen to stress that it isn’t a cure for stress or anxiety, although it can help these things. “It is something that’s available to everybody, of every background and age. It’s secular but not incompatible with religious belief. The way it should be introduced is that it offers strategies for people to live their lives in a more present way – trying to focus in on the present moment, noticing what’s happening now, rather than being dragged off into the past or pulled into worries about the future. Enjoy what’s going on in the present moment. It’s not about blocking out the past, or future, but allowing things to be how they are. Good and bad things happen, but you can learn to be comfortable with how things are?”

Laura has trained with Bangor University and the organisation Mindfulness for Schools. She has lived in Rusthall for four years, and before that in Groombridge.

“It’s a passion, something I really believe in, and if I can open it up to more people then that’s what I want to do, and there’s such a lovely community here and I’ve met some more people and I want them to experience mindfulness in an authentic way. The people who’ve come to my drop in sessions, they’ve only been a few times, but I can see it’s making a difference to them already. It gives me satisfaction, I can see it’s really worth it.”

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To-do List Terror

It’s time to get organized.

Like lots of people, I’m leading a busy life and have limited free time. I divide my attention between three things – my children, my part-time MA in Modern History and my job as deputy editor of two hyper-local magazines. To this I also add my blog here – which has been hugely neglected of late due to seminar readings, essay deadlines and paid work, as well as my own doubts about how much people really need to spend time reading me writing about myself all the time – but which is actually important to me. It might not have quite the priority that the first three things do, but I still want to do it and need to schedule time for it.

How do I balance all these things? The short answer is, not very well. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings I have three hours of pre-school delivered time in which to work. I go home to my laptop with my head full of about twenty things I need to do; things like reading books, writing articles, organising my daughter’s birthday party, tidying the house, shopping for food, writing a blog post…there are so many conflicting demands, I’ve no idea which to tackle first. Too often, I make coffee, eat toast, load or unload the dishwasher, put laundry away, answer an email or two and return to the pre-school pick-up line with a disatisfactory sense of having squandered my time.

It might sound like I’m putting the ‘real’ tasks off because I don’t enjoy them. This isn’t actually true. I love being involved with the magazines I work on, and really enjoy meeting people, finding out about what they’re doing and then finding ways to write about them and their place in the community. I’m fascinated by the reading I have to do for my Masters course, especially now I’m getting into greater depth and detail on the changing role of women in the twentieth century. What I’ve come to realise is, it’s not the work itself I’m dreading; it’s the organisation and prioritisation of it. Put simply; I just don’t like planning.

I’ve always read about the importance of the to-do list. I’ve heard other women talking about how they live by their lists, and I’ve thought, yes, I must do that too. I can only imagine the satisfactory sense of efficiency that must be gained as each task gets ticked off. The trouble is that when I sit down to write a list like this of my own, I  get overwhelmed. Sometimes my mind goes blank, and I just can’t think of anything to put on the list, even though I know there are lots of things because I wake up at 4am and can’t sleep for thinking of them. Sometimes I go into micro-detail; make dinner, load dishwasher, fold laundry, cut my nails, buy cat food. Other times I’m too expansively vague. Write novel, build a website, get an MA, be like the Alexandra Shulman of local magazine publishing. Mostly the list is never written, because just the thought of everything I want to do or have to do or maybe it would be nice to do gives me such a racing sense of anxious, can’t breathe panic that putting it onto paper is impossible.

This is the substance of my confession here; I can’t write lists. I can’t and I don’t. I love the idea of them, but instead I rely on keeping the revolving themes of my life in my head. This means I walk around, or wake in the night, with random headings of varying priority popping into my head like titles on a screen – at the moment they are things like ‘maths tutor’, ‘birthday party’, ‘presentation reading’, ‘proof-reading’ and ‘copy deadline’. This kind of works okay. Things get done and I pretty much get by. Except when I don’t. For example, there was that time I missed sports day, and the many times I realise too late I don’t have some vital breakfast ingredient for the next day. And there is also the constant sense of anxiety I feel, as though I’m always about to drop something, which clearly isn’t ideal.

Last Sunday I watched this video on youtube and it gave me hope. Amy Schmittauer says the to-do list is too messy and vast in itself to use to plan your time. She recommends breaking it down into four categories – ‘Important and urgent’, ‘Important not urgent’, ‘urgent not important’ and ‘not urgent and not important’, and then using this schedule of priorities to put the tasks into your calendar for the week. Obviously, this still involves having a list, and prioritising it, which I’m not going to like. It will be time consuming. The main thing I took from this method, however, is the use of scheduling things on a calendar*. This is pretty basic and perhaps should have been obvious, but nevertheless, I wasn’t doing it. Up until two weeks ago, I didn’t have a diary. Even when I have had a diary in the past, I’ve never used it properly. I’ve put appointments in it, but I’ve never mapped out all of my time – when the children are with me, when they’re not, when I’ll read this chapter in that book, and when I’ll write that article for the magazine. It seems to me that if I did, the sense of panic might leave me, because instead of reading the book while thinking about all the other things that might be more important for me to be doing at that moment, I’d be reading the book thinking this is the right priority now, and I’ve written down in my diary when I’m going to do all the other things.

It sounds so good, doesn’t it? I’ve been thinking about it all week, and I really think this method is going to work. I’ve not actually done it yet, no, possibly because it does involve listing in the first instance and, you know, there’s the racing panic again. I’ve been looking for on-line calendars that might enable me to really go with this method of organisation – the one on my laptop doesn’t seem quite right. A new pop-up heading has begun to go round my mind; ‘find perfect calendar for planning my entire life’. Obviously, I’m going wrong again. I already have a diary. In fact, I made a special detour to Lambs’ Conduit Street to buy it. All I have to do is write everything in it, as it occurs to me. I don’t need a ‘master list’ because that’s not how I work. When things pop into my mind, from now on, I’m going to mentally prioritise it and if it’s important or urgent or both then it can go in the diary. If it’s not important, then I can stop worrying about it, or delegate it. That’s the theory, anyway. As to the practice, I’ll let you know. Just as soon as I’ve scheduled ‘Write weekly blog post’ into my diary.

*The other thing I got from this video is that I want Amy’s hair. Now how would I prioritise ‘haircut’ for inclusion in my diary…that is the question.


My new job and the work-life balance

Last week I had a really special experience.

I said goodbye to my daughter at pre-school, and went to visit a lady I was going to write a profile about for the local magazine I’ve recently started to work for.  This was to be my first proper interview; by which I mean I wasn’t just chatting with a friend and jotting a few things down while our children ran rampage.  This was going to be something more professional with someone I’d never met before.

At the same time, I was aware that I should also start the reading for my university seminar on Women and Work in the twentieth century with Professor Amanda Vickery  – her module, Modern Girls, is the reason I ever conceived the idea of doing an MA.

The questions we were going to be discussing included, ‘How compatible was work with marriage?’ and it was perhaps with this at the back of my mind that I asked my interviewee what job she’d had before her marriage.

This is how she came to tell me about working at a famous bank in the City in the 1950s. I was enthralled by a story of typing pools and partner’s secretarys; the wonder of a first photocopier; the strict segregation of the sexes.  All the women who worked there were secretaries and, ‘you didn’t carry on once you were married’.

It was a more rigid and formal world than we know, but it was also fun.  Friends travelled together on the steam trains up to London to their work, and when they got home again their evenings were spent at cocktail parties and balls.

She was happy and lucky in her marriage.  She also often did have jobs alongside raising her children, although commuting to London was no longer an option.

Everything she talked about will not only go towards an interesting article; it was also incredibly relevant to my study of the changing role of women in the last century.   Last week my work, studies and home life coincided in a happy harmony.  It probably won’t always feel this serendipitous, but I am feeling lucky. I can work from home and have the flexibility to organise my work and life as I want – a relatively new experience for me.

The other thing that struck me personally is perhaps less positive.  The world of work in the 1950s and the society around it is completely alien to us in the 21st century, but the world my interviewee experienced when she’d had children was extremely recognisable.  She found ways to work alongside raising her children; she used school hours and friendship networks; she juggled in ways that we still do now.

It can’t be surprising, then, that parents of 2016 often feel frustrated; we belong to the 21st century, but we’re trying to operate within a structure that was already feeling worn out in the 1960s. The role of women has changed; but society’s expectations of us as mothers hasn’t changed enough, and neither has the ability of the workplace to accommodate the needs of both parents – to give everyone a better work-life balance.


Leo goes to university

‘This is a well-oiled machine, now, isn’t it?’ says Liz, my daughter’s childminder as she drops my tired but happy daughter home, and I’m surprised to realize that she’s right.

I wasn’t entirely sure what it was going to be like when I decided to go back to university to study for an MA.  I was pretty sure I would love it, and wasn’t thinking too much about the intelectual demands it would make on me or whether I’d feel self-conscious about being older than the other students. My main worries were along the lines of ‘Will I persuade my children to get up in time to go to their childminder at 7.40am?’, ‘Will my train break down?’ and ‘Will my children be stressed, anxious and clingy as a result of being passed from one form of childcare to another all day?’.

All my concerns were about the logistics of getting to my weekly seminar and how my children would react to me disappearing into East London for a day each week.

I needn’t have worried – basically, my children love being away from me, and I couldn’t be more pleased.  ‘Could you be late picking me up from after-school club?’ my son asks most weeks. ‘I don’t mind.’

My daughter is equally delighted to go home from pre-school with her friend’s mum instead of me.

This is very much a tribute to the brilliance of all the people who look after them so well, from 7.40am to 5pm.  I know they’re in good hands, and that’s what makes it all work so well.

Everything is going well, so far.

This week was a little different however.  Yesterday there was an inset day at my son’s school, and after a little thought about which friend might like to host him for the day, I realised that the easiest and nicest thing might be to take him with me.

He’s eight, and has therefore reached a reasonably civilised age.  What’s more, he’s clearly very intrigued by my return to studying, and what the university is like, so I felt it would be nice for him to see it for himself.

‘Absolutely, bring him along, that’s fine,’ agreed my tutor when asked, and so Leo and I set forth on the 8.16am train to Canon Street, armed with many quiet forms of entertainment (books, drawing pads, papers, the flight notes for a Lancaster Bomber, a muted ipad).

While I was a little nervous of my fellow students reaction, Leo was greeted only with friendly positivity.

‘He looks so sweet and content back there,’ said one of my fellow students, as he settled himself into the back row.

‘I’m so relieved I’m not going to be the first person who has to bring their baby with them  – I was sure it was going to be me!’ said another, who had given birth to her son during her second year at university.  I’m happy to break this ice for her, actually, and it’s nice to remember that although I am the oldest student in the room, I’m not the only one who is navigating studies alongside parenthood.

‘What should I do now?’  Leo asks.

‘Anything you like, as long as it’s completely quiet.’ I say.

My son is actually as good as gold, and I am pretty much able to focus on the seminar – although it’s surprising how noisy ‘good as gold’ can be.  When a respectful hush falls for Dr Helen McCarthy’s lecture on 1930s politics, the only sound I can hear is my son sucking chocolate buttons, and I’m also hyper-aware of how loudly the tapping of the ipad screen seems to resonate accross the room!

It’s good to report that we survived the experience pretty painlessly; what’s more Leo was impressed by the size of the university campus and the sheer scale and number of books in the library.

As my life gets busier, inset days can be a problem to work out, but I’ve always welcomed them as a chance to spend time with just Leo – a thing that doesn’t often happen.  I’m glad I got to take Leo along with me on this occasion, and we also had time to have lunch at Wagamamas on the Southbank, and explore the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe a bit too before we made our way home.


The sad end of children’s rhyme time in the library.

It was unnaturally quiet in my local library when I visited last Tuesday.

For as long as I have lived in the village, Tuesday morning has been the time when the lobby is crammed with prams and scooters and a circle of eager babies and toddlers gather with their parent or carer in the children’s section to sing nursery rhymes.

It’s likely that this will no longer be the case.  There is no sign to say so, but from now on Bounce and Rhyme can no longer be led by a member of the library’s staff.  There is the possibility that if a volunteer is found to run the session then it can continue, however when I visited there was no visible sign in the library asking for such a volunteer to come forward.  Further, the volunteer can’t be the parent of a child attending the session for health and safety reasons.

As a tribute to Bounce and Rhyme, which appears to be passing away before my eyes with very little comment or protest, and the lovely library staff who have led it over the years, I’d like to pay a small tribute to everything this session has meant to me and my children.

I was seven months pregnant when I moved with my husband from London to a village.  I didn’t have a car, and I knew nobody at all.  My parents were hundreds of miles away in Lancashire, and my friends were scattered around the country.  I was experiencing something completely new and bewildering, and had nobody to compare notes to – to reassure myself, to share my worries, or just talk to another adult.  I was isolated and lonely.  Since lots of people decide to move house while heavily pregnant with their first child, I’m sure this will be a familiar scenario to lots of us.

I was lucky to meet three other mums with babies of a similar age at a midwife run baby class, and we decided we’d brave the library’s bounce and rhyme session together.  When we arrived there was hardly room for us, but we squeezed our way in, were made welcome and given homemade cake and tea afterwards. The session was clearly a thriving village institution, and although the cakes and tea have gone, this has remained the case until very recently.

This first singing session with my little baby gave me the confidence to try other parent and toddler groups in the village.  It was the small beginning from where my friendship network grew, and became an essential lifeline.  When my marriage ended last year my friends in this community were one of the consistent positive things – for help, support, encouragement and just knowing that things would be ok in the end.

I’m never not thankful to live in the community I’m part of, and very simply, the library was my way in; it was the start of it all.

In a community a consistent, week in, week out, time when parents can meet other parents is important, but why nursery rhymes?  The songs we sing to our children can be so familiar, it’s easy to forget how educative they are.

I’m pretty sure my daughter first learned the meaning of ‘up’ and ‘down’ from being lifted up and down during the singing of The Grand Old Duke of York (and the upper body workout we receive while lifting our children up and down is another benefit we get, whether we like it or not!).  Counting songs like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, once I caught a fish alive, could be our children’s first encounters with numbers.  The repetition of rhymes and songs helps children become familiar with new vocabulary, while the stories and characters described will expand their imaginations.

Nursery rhymes often form simple stories, with a beginning, middle and end; a classic structure which children continue to encounter during their early education until they begin writing stories of their own.  They include other literary devices, too: alliteration (goosey, goosey gander), onomatopoeia (baa, baa, black sheep) and rhyme (twinkle, twinkle, little star/how I wonder what you are).  Words, rhythm, pattern, language.  Nursery rhymes are beginner’s poetry, and a fairly sophisticated introduction at that.

By holding Bounce and Rhyme sessions in a library, several messages have been given. The simplest is just this: children and their carers are welcome in the library.  They don’t need to worry about making a noise, or being told off.  A library is a place of refuge to many, and this is no less true of children and the people looking after them.  Familiarity with the library as a place, the sense of being at home there, will lead to books being read, library cards issued, books being borrowed, and with luck, a lifelong love of reading, learning, knowledge.  Once again, the library is the first step on the journey.

Another message the library is sending to its youngest users is that they are important to the library; they are worth their staffs’ time.  Nursery rhyme singing at parent and toddler groups will often (although not always) fall to women, but because library staff are diverse and take it in turns to host singing sessions, children may get some inkling that caring and early education roles need not always be fulfilled by women;this can only be a healthy thing if we want the task of caring for children to be more equally balanced between men and women in the future.

Whatever the reasons for the end of Bounce and Rhyme sessions in my local library are (and I should make it clear that the decision hasn’t been made by the staff you see behind the counter in the library), I personally believe we are losing a lot.  It’s a sad cut to the timetable of village events, and a sad loss to the community; not only as it exists right now, but to all the future parents and babies who won’t actually know what they’ve missed.






How does my garden grow?

My feelings about my garden are a bit conflicted.

During the course of this summer, my children and I have been able to pull strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries straight from the plant to our mouths, or fill willing little hands and other depositories with heaps of soft fruit, ready for use in smoothies and pies, or as a side order to breakfast or pudding.  We also have a four year old tree currently loaded with fat and rosy apples.  Around the kitchen window trails a rose which in early summer flowers with heady scented and romantically huge pink velvet petals which harbour raindrops and sparkle in the sunlight.

Does this sound idyllic?  I know  it is, and I know I’m lucky.  I feel guilty about the reservations I’m about to voice.

I look out of the kitchen window right now, and mainly I see mess.  I mean, you could say it’s lush and verdant, but it’s also so so rampant, like nothing else in my life.

This isn’t a large space, you understand.  Perhaps I’ve given the impression that I live in the Tudor manor surrounded by orchards I dreamed about as a child, but no.  This is an ordinary sized house on an ordinary street, with a square of garden which, in addition to the things I’ve already mentioned, also contains a shed, a playhouse with slide, an old bath full of rubble and, until recently, tattered rhubarb (don’t even ask), 2 large rain butts, a composter and, towards the back, a hole dug in the lawn where my son, I think was trying to recreate the conditions at Verdun, and mud-wise largely succeeded.

How does my garden grow?  Too well, I fear.

The raspberry and blackberry plants it transpires have a natural instinct to take over beyond the bed they were originally planted in – I find their shoots at the opposite side of the garden, coming up through the lawn, under the apple tree and beneath the playhouse slide.  Left unchecked I believe they’d swiftly cover the entire village. The roses spread their tendrils over the central heating ventilation and block light into the kitchen.  The apple tree’s trunk has listed so completely to one side it is pretty much parallel with the ground, leaving some apples rotting on the grass and prey to wasps, while other branches reach for the skies in what is surely an unsustainable way.

Everything has thorns, like vicious teeth, which scratch and pluck at my skin whenever I make an attempt to contain their growth.

I have absolutely no idea what to do about much of this, and very little spare time or mental energy to spend on the problem either.  My helplessness mixes with guilty reproach every time I look out on the garden, and know I should be doing something.

If I’m honest, and if it had been left to me, what I would like from a garden is a pleasant place to sit, and a safe place for the children to play.  Part of the problem is that the garden as it is, is a reflection of someone else’s vision; it’s now mine to make my own, but I need to find ways of doing that in a way that is maintainable for me without losing what is good about the garden now.

I do appreciate the connection with nature my children make when they eat fruit they have just picked from their own garden; and I also love to see the birds landing in the apple tree, and the bees buzzing around the lavender and poppies which flowered in our front garden this summer.

I have a glimmer of the way forward when I start pulling up the now dead poppies from our front garden, their seed heads scattering liberally as I do so.  Flora asks how she can help, and Leo chats to us in a companionable way from out of the bedroom window.  Passers by stop to chat with us.  It actually feels nice.  Leo reminds me how one day when his father was in the front garden an older man stopped to tell him how during the war this small plot was planted with vegetables to supplement the family’s rationed diet.  It’s a reminder of how productively bountiful and life enhancing even a small space can be when carefully and properly tended.

Vegetable growing is definitely not the way forward for me – although I’ve enjoyed receiving courgettes and runner beans from my neighbour, and given her apples in return – my inability to cope with my fruit harvest shows me I don’t want to plant vegetables myself.

It’s right that the garden should provide continuity with our past, but it also needs to adapt to suit our current circumstances.  My future plans are to involve the children and engage their interest, so that slowly, we can make a garden which has elements of the old but also reflects a new unique story of our own.

This isn’t my garden. It’s Sissinghurst