Gillian Monks

'Making Fairytales Come True'

Category: Out and About (Page 1 of 3)

What’s In A Seed?

Kale Seeds

Amazingly there are approximately 5,000 magical little parcels here.

I was harvesting seeds today – the last plant of dwarf curly kale from last winter’s crop which I had allowed to go to seed purposely so I could do this. The seed pods have to be allowed to fully develop and then to dry out or else the seeds inside them might not be fully matured. After harvesting I still leave my seeds for a few days in the warmth by the Aga to make sure they are absolutely dry, otherwise I might open up the airtight container in which I have stored them over winter and find a horrible mouldy mess!

Harvesting seeds from one’s own plants makes a huge amount of sense. For one thing, you don’t have to keep on paying several pounds for each new packet of seeds you buy every spring. Perhaps more importantly, keeping your own seeds from year to year allows you to develop your seed which is bred to thrive in your particular soil and weather conditions. It makes absolute sense. (Just be aware that if your plants are F1 Hybrid they will not come true from seed harvested from them.)

Sitting outside my backdoor listening to Classic FM on my little battery-powered radio while I crushed the dried pods and shook the seed free, I was suddenly aware of the huge and absolute potential in each tiny, compact, round ball. Each one represents a whole plant, two and a half feet tall or more, bearing many crinkly, vitamin-rich green leaves which will stand through the worst frost and snow of winter providing precious fresh food for numerous meals. How amazingly wonderful is that?

As my bowl of seeds began to fill, the thought suddenly struck me that perhaps – if such events are allowed to take place next spring – I could packet up some of my harvested abundance and take a little stall at Conwy Seed Fair next March. It is always great fun to attend, whether as a trader or a customer.

And then I thought to myself, why confine my little green garden offerings to one fair – why not resurrect our village artisan market which we supported for five years but which faded without trace about seven years ago? Perhaps in this time of greater need for outdoor, local, ethical and environmentally friendly produce it might once again be successful and appeal to a wider section of society?

In my mind’s eye my vision began to fill with crowds of happy faces, laughing and talking across open air stalls as all manner of local foods and goods change hands. I see similar little markets popping up in every village and area of larger towns and cities. Perhaps we could have a swaps stall and another area where people simply offer to donate their time, effort, or particular skill, or another stall where people offer to work in exchange for what is on sale so that money does not have to change hands… my mind was really racing now… and then I saw all the other local gardens where my saved seeds had been shared and were growing and flourishing to help provide good, fresh, healthy and sustainable foods for other families…

Here, indeed, is to sowing seeds… magical seeds full of dreams, inspiration, endless possibilities and positivity… seeds to charm us all into opening our hearts to each other and the land around us in mutual support and true community… so my little kale seeds whispered to me today as I glimpsed a wonderfully vivid new future…

The Garden Of Hope

Herb Garden

My herb garden!

As the saying goes, we live in interesting times! One – among many – blessings of having to stay at home is that I now have enough spare time to venture out into my much neglected garden. My herb garden in particular has been abandoned for at least five years, first while I helped to look after an elderly neighbour and then laterly when I became so involved in my writing.

Herb Garden

This is certainly not ‘gardening’ for the faint hearted… more a form of jungle warfare?

Perhaps it is because of the menace of Covid-19 that I now feel the call of this sunny little corner, wedged into the right-angle of two protective boundary slate walls. I first designed and built it over twenty years ago when I was recovering from a long term illness. I was also having problems with my shoulder joints – commonly called ‘frozen shoulder’ – but discovered that, while small repetitive movements, such as peeling potatoes, would greatly exacerbate my symptoms, hauling slabs of slate around and heavy digging actually improved them.

As I slowly regained my health, my herb garden became my passion and my lifeline. I could be found out there, even in the cold and damp. If I wasn’t working in the garden itself – carrying a plastic chair about with me so that I could regularly sit down to take a rest and recover my energy – I would be sat in my little garden outside my backdoor – another link in my recovery… a story for another day – sowing seeds or potting up seedlings. When I was too weak, or the weather too bad to get out into my garden, I would lie in bed and gaze at the poster-sized picture of my garden in the sunshine which I had hung on the wall opposite me and dream and plot and plan and enter into another world altogether.

The natural world is naturally healing and for those of us lucky enough to have access to a garden, allotment or land – even a balcony or windowsills – we can use these small spaces to connect to the wider world and all the growth and new life which is bursting through the old, outworn winter dross. Perhaps there is a parallel to be found here as we leave behind our previous lifestyles and enter new, uncharted waters? Here we can find inspiration and healing, for the soil itself contains enzymes which mend frayed nerve ends and uplift our depressed emotions. Here, some of us might be lucky enough to find the way out of the conflict of life before coronavirus versus the new regime now imposed upon us, and the crisis of emotion and fear which has resulted from it. As in the case of my own neglected herb garden, none of us should have abandoned Nature and now she  holds the key.

In my own time of need, I find myself reaching out for the magical little plot of land which helped me once before. There is something unique about what can be created when humanity and the natural world come together and harmonise in a symphony of mutual respect, effort and growth. It is quite different from the wild, untamed spaces, or the distorted and abused areas of mass agriculture. When humanity and nature listen to each other and connect in loving like-mindedness, then truly can we create heaven on earth.

Herb Garden

Ah, there it is… found it! This shot taken from exactly the same place as the previous photo.

As for my own recent endeavours, I was fortunate to have help with the clearing of my faithful little plot. Under a summer-hot sun but cooled – and buffeted – by strong, warm winds, we valiantly wielded saws and secateurs as we carved our way through the over-arching brambles and cut back the prolific ivy which had encased the walls in three feet deep lush green growth. I would normally try to avoid strip clearing in this way, but in this case, there was no sensible alternative. The nine foot long brambles, multi-rooted couch grass and other so-called ‘weeds’ have loved and protected my earthy space while I was busy elsewhere, and it is time for them to hand that responsibility back to me.  Now the plot is practically a blank canvas. Only my lemon verbena bush and lad’s love (both wildly leggy and misshapen) remain, along with some red veined sorrel, agrimony, a few purple polyanths,  a feeble acer and a cypress tree which began life as a forgotten seedling in a six inch pot and is now a tree of over ten feet tall!

Herb Garden

Slightly different angle – it is just possible to make out the outline of the old beds.

I assiduously sorted through my box of old seed packets last week and have sown lots of test trays and pots to see what might still be viable. I prefer to bring plants from seed – unless they really are difficult or more rare – I’m not very good at stratifying stuff in my fridge! If possible, I would prefer to ‘use up’ what I have left over from other years before I am tempted to seek new seed. I find that there is an odd freedom in not having so much choice.

As my own personal symbol of Life and Hope, I shall keep you posted as to how my reclaimed garden develops. Next on the agenda… getting to grips with digging out the roots!!!

First Harvest Of The Year

Tree Felling at Cae Non

Coppiced elder as sustainable fuel source, ready for cutting into logs.

Harvest can happen at any time of year and we are just in the process of bringing  in our first crop for 2020.

In these uncertain and worrying times, it is wonderful to be able to still participate – and write about – something normal and positive. This last two weekends, my family and I have begun harvesting our first ‘crop’ of sustainable fuel from our land at Cae Non. Due to the almost continuous rain this past few months it is much later in the spring than we had originally intended but, despite the hindrance, all is now going very well. Even so, we have been working under quite difficult conditions, wading about in a good six to nine inches of water, mud and slutch and regularly getting our feet firmly stuck fast. Mud and cold water have splashed everywhere and tool handles have had to be regularly wiped clean, too slick and slippy to handle without the danger of the them flying out of our hands.

Our much-loved five acre plot officially came into our possession in June, 2011. The following January I spent some interesting days out in the bitingly cold wind and rain/hail planting my first small stand of willow. I had no idea what I was doing and set the willow whips far too close together – lesson learned for next time! We also put in a small patch of alder at the same time and these have also just been cut for the first time.

I cannot say that it has not grieved me to see our first trees – which I have talked to, loved and encouraged to grow – felled to the floor, but I always knew that that was our plan. I know that they will rise again. Indeed they are already doing so! We have not clear-felled but left some of the trees so that the land and the wild life aren’t impacted too drastically. It will be another seven years before they are coppiced again and the landscape will flow backwards and forwards between sparsely dotted with trees and more heavily wooded; a constantly changing palette of colour, shape and texture.

Tree Felling at Cae Non

Car loaded up, plus fuel can, saw and the ubiquitous picnic basket with milk can sticking up – my menfolk need their teas and coffees!

In the meantime, my son has been wielding a nifty little petrol-driven chainsaw; otherwise it would have taken us all week to fell, trim and log our first crop. We shall transport the logs back to where we live a car-load at a time. The first lot arrived yesterday. The car was not as full as it could have been but once my menfolk noticed the bulging tyres, (green alder is a very dense and heavy wood) they decided that they had packed in enough!

Meanwhile, I was left back at home to clear out a part of our very ancient greenhouse where the firewood is to be stored. Over the summer it will dry out naturally to a certain degree, to be finished off to a kiln-dried consistency later in the year in our Aga ovens. (Agas are simply wonderful! They fulfill SO many domestic functions – apart from cooking – mine is like having an extra member of the family in residence.

It was a glorious spring day… washing was flapping animatedly on the line, the blackbird and robin were conducting a duet from the top of next-door’s fir tree, I spotted my first bumble bee of the year and the blossom on the cherry tree is just beginning to emerge.

Tree Felling at Cae Non

Beginning to stack the first load – there will be many more to come.

Of course, there is always a downside to everything. In this particular case, I was so enamoured by the energy and beauty of the natural world reawakening that I didn’t pay enough attention to what I was doing. Suddenly, I found myself doing a brief pas de deux with a knobbly stick which had become entangled in my skirts and the next thing I knew, I had fallen flat on my face on the unforgiving concrete floor. I will not dwell upon the loud groaning noises which I made for a while before the pain and nausea subsided and I was able to pick myself up. Suffice it to say that today I have knees which are an impressive grey, yellow and red, an arm wonderfully grazed and I feel as if I have been hit by a bus.

But the first of our logs are in! A little insurance and assurance against the possible freezing temperatures of next winter. Meanwhile, I shall thoroughly enjoy concentrating on and enjoying the spring. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I hope that you can stay well and do the same.

 

The Very ‘Hairy Child’

Front of Bryn at SunsetMisbehaving moustaches, inventive costumes and props, imaginative sound effects and a very supportive audience. All successful children’s nativity plays have a team of hard-working and dedicated adults behind them. Our own Christmas celebration at the Quaker Meeting House yesterday was no exception.

Our Meetings for worship are usually largely silent, but once a year, just before Christmas, we break with tradition. Each year a theme is chosen. This year it was the turn of the lowly shepherds. Interspersed by periods of reflective silence we gustily sang shepherd-related carols, (in both English and Welsh), listened to beautiful music composed by Schubert and played by one of our members and heard a poem by Welsh writer R.S.Thomas about welsh hill shepherds read aloud.

However, the highlight of the whole proceedings was surely the children’s dramatic contribution! Based on a mediaeval mystery play entitled ‘The Hairy Baby’, the story was of shepherds guarding their sheep and the daring – and very desperate man – who comes and steals one of the lambs with which to feed his starving family.

The enterprising thief had disguised himself in a voluminous black cloak and recalcitrant paper moustache which persistently floated to the ground, only to be pounced upon by one or other member of the cast and unceremoniously slapped back into place on the hapless young actor’s face. Gales and winter storms were conjured by use of a long plastic tube which was periodically flailed around the head of the pianist causing the Master of Ceremonies to cringe and duck for fear of getting a clout around his head.

The action took place across the whole of the Meeting Room and we, the audience, sat bemusedly in the round as irate shepherds with a varied assortment of ‘sheep’ – including a large woolly seal and a little lamb which had been sewn to his shepherd’s sock – dashed off amongst us in hot pursuit of their stolen lamb. I am not quite sure how even weary and simple-minded men were supposed to mistake one of their own animals for a remarkably hirsute human child! Eventually the true identity of the baby is revealed and the luckless family left empty-handed as the thief is discovered, only to be saved in the nick of time by the appearance of an angel, come to announce the birth of a much more important baby in a stable nearby. Drama was added to the action by the syncopated and regular sniffs of some of the cast who were recently recovering from heavy colds.

The enthusiasm and flamboyance with which our young members delivered this simple story was highly entertaining but also thought provoking. It was pointed out that here was the nub of the whole message of Christian Christmas. That the inspiration for kindness, humility and love had been presented in a way that everyone – even the lowliest and most humble shepherds – had instant and unquestioned access to. That this humble birth of a carpenter’s son represented a universal hope and entitlement that is as fresh and valued today as it was two thousand years ago.

So I give great thanks to the children of my Meeting for reminding me of this fact… and to their dedicated parents who made it possible. We all had a good chuckle and I am sure that we all were well entertained, but more than anything, I hope that we were touched by this blessed message – that of universal equality, hope and love.

Happy Christmas!

Christmas Grocery Shopping…

Gingerbread stall, Erfurt

A whole stall selling nothing but gingerbread!

Yesterday I ventured out into Retail Land and did my big grocery shop for the Midwinter period. I try to be as organised as possible – write out a schedule of special days for which I want/need to specially cater, decide on menus and write a shopping list accordingly. Most of my purchases are ingredients with which to bake or cook things, so I have quite a task ahead of me in the kitchen! But it is of my choosing and I feel that it is important to remember this.

Wandering around the shops in the centre of town and the supermarkets always has an odd effect on me – I often become very tired and a little depressed. there is just so much and all my senses go into overload. Yes, there are some lovely luxuries and tempting treats but if we all spent a million pounds we still wouldn’t be able to achieve the occasion which so many of us seek.

This is because some of the vital ingredients which go to make up the perfect Midwinter/Christmas celebration are simply not for sale. What really makes a special time are the instances when people come together in common understanding and love… when someone shows compassion or empathy… when a person suddenly volunteers to help or to do… when a habitually grumpy person suddenly cracks a joke and changes the whole atmosphere… when one or more people rally round and jointly make something good. In other words, when humanity shows love and care it creates a magic which nothing else can rival or achieve.

Astonishingly, this magical element is more often found in the most mundane of situations. It is in all the thought and planning and effort… the tidying of cupboards to contain all the extra provisions… the cleaning of the house to ensure that all who enter there at Midwinter are as comfortable and cosy as possible…the extra and unexpected card hastily scribbled… the effort to get all the boxes of decorations out of the garage or down from the loft… the peeling, chopping, whipping and kneading that goes into producing even the simplest dishes… the steadying hand on the shoulder… the wordless hug… the smile which needs no explanation… the unsolicited cup of tea… these are just a few of the tiny ‘magics’ which go to make up the magnificent whole!

In other words, it does not matter a jot what we do, buy, make or have – it is the spirit in which we live our days… each hour… each moment, which makes all the difference and which will ultimately make a wonderful and memorable occasion. It will be the people, the laughter – even the disasters, later chuckled over – which will be remembered long after the wonderful (or unwanted) gifts, the table settings and the decorations have been forgotten. Done with the right approach and in the right spirit of loving and giving, a single candle on a table set with a paper napkin and a sprig of holly… with sausage and mash to eat and little promises of loving or caring actions written on slips of paper instead of lavish gifts can mean far, far more.

However you are spending this time of preparation – of Advent – and whatever you achieve once the time to celebrate actually arrives, make the very most of it. It is actually easier to get the most out of a few dishes, gifts, activities… to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy a single glass of wine rather than half a bottle… truly taste a couple of rich chocolates as you slowly consume them rather than guzzling down the whole box and then finding that you haven’t really tasted or even registered eating any of them. In over-abundance, so much can become obscured and lost.

Stollen stall, Erfurt

Thought that there is only one kind of stollen? Then think again. Here is every varied ingredient and type of stollen you could ever wish for!

Back to the two dreaded ‘c’ words – consumerism and commercialisation – try not to become distracted from the true relevance of what it is you wish to achieve. There are many occasions when the spectacular displays of the commercial world can be both enjoyable and inspiring (as in my recent visits to the German Christmas markets) so, go ahead, feast your eyes, and your other senses too – settle for one or two little treats which you can enjoy there and then or which will lift your special gathering when it arrives.

Remember not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Millions of people earn their livelihood from making and/or selling something, or supporting those who do. Just don’t allow it to get out of hand and, wherever possible, buy from local producers which then directly feeds money back into your local economy and supports your local community.

Lastly, don’t forget to have fun! Whatever you are planning for this weekend, stop, take a deep breath, give a smile, and remember to enjoy it!

Star stall, Erfurt

These wonderful stars really show up well in the dark of a winter’s night!

 

 

Hugs To All!

Sun behind treesJust a quick reminder to everyone that I shall be talking about my latest book, ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’, with Selina Mackenzie on Talk Radio Europe just after 1.pm. today.

In view of the slight furore which my query about ‘Black Friday’ and observation about the derivation of the name ‘Black Peter’ caused yesterday, I decided to look up what I had written in the ‘Alternative Advent Calendar’ for today. Door number 9 for the 9th December suggests that we give Christmas hugs to everyone. This is particularly good advice as words so often get in the way. How much can be communicated by gentle and loving touch when words just trip us up and obscure our true intentions and feelings?

So, to all my dear friends and readers out there… people whom I literally know or are – so far – only electronic or literary friends  with… there is a genuinely warm and caring hug winging its way to you across the internet and the ether right now. May peace and understanding bless us always… with my love.

Schöner Advent!

Me among the stalls

On arrival at Erfurt Christmas Market

I bring greetings and wonderful memories from some of the Christmas markets of Germany! While I was away this past week, I visited several Christmas markets, but by far the largest and most mind-boggling was the huge market held on the Domplatz in Erfurt.

Regardless of its huge size, it was very tastefully presented. All the trader’s stands were substantially constructed wooden booths – more like little log cabins – an absolute necessity to protect both the goods for sale and the people selling them as the market is open from 10.am. until 9.pm., seven days a week, from the end of November until the 23rd December. These booths are decorated with lots of living branches of fir, coloured lights and, up on their roofs, scenes of Father Christmas and winter elves and animals abound.

The single word which springs to mind to describe the Erfurter Weihnachtsmarkt is ‘traditional’. The main emphases of the all the decorations on sale is that of wood and light, celebrating man’s interaction with nature, the darkness of Winter and the huge importance of the rebirth of Light in that darkness. Whether lit by wax candles or electrical replicas, the towering pyramids constantly and energetically circle carrying their assortment of traditional religious figures, and well-loved local dignitaries, characters and animals. Illuminated flying buttresses depict winter woodland and village scenes, the trades and crafts of the area or, occasionally, religious scenes.

Market from Cathedral steps

Dusk is falling as the short winter afternoon draws to a close. A view of part of the market from the bottom of the cathedral steps.

Every type and shape of candle, candle holder, lantern, incense cone and incense burner, Christmas bauble and tree-topper imaginable are available. So too is every conceivable size and flavour of spice cake, stollen, and cookie, with stalls also solely devoted to gingerbread and chocolates. And there is a never-ending variety of tempting and delicious foods, snacks and drinks to fortify the crowds as they happily make their way around the colourful and brightly lit stands. Sausages of every size and flavour and other savoury favourites like the hot and sustaining Kartoffelpuffer, (hot flat cakes of cooked potato served with an apple sauce), which I particularly enjoyed. Chestnut sellers pedalling their wares offer a tasty chance to warm both hands and mouths. Then, of course, there is the ubiquitous Glühwein… made from as many different ingredients as you can possibly think of. I had a particularly potent mixture made from rowan berries mixed with rum – it certainly kept the cold at bay! And while you stop and take a break, there is music – both piped modern favourites, and traditional carols played by musicians be-robed in velvet.

Cathedral and stage

The darkening winter’s sky and one of the soaring cathedrals provides a spectacular backdrop for the stage where musicians begin to play… and some of the audience dance!

The Christmas Market is truly a feast for the senses… a kaleidoscope of rich colour… an intermingling of the scent of burning charcoal, hot savoury food, mulled spices and smoking incense… a melodious symphony of chatter, laughter and song. For Christmas is really coming, and these markets mark the celebration of the anticipation and preparation which is key to this very particular time of year… Advent. They are a perfect illustration of how we can all come together, and still include the more tasteful commercial aspect of the season, without loosing the excitement, the wonder and magic, and the warmth of community experience.

Long they may continue, for these marvellous markets do not merely provide an opportunity for consumers and commercial producers alike, they create a spectacle, an occasion, an experience, and generate a scenario in which warmth, friendship and happiness can flourish. Long may they continue!

 

Holiday Time!

Tomorrow, my husband and I are off to Germany to spend a week with his family. We shall be celebrating Christmas early with them and also visiting the huge Christmas market which is set on the medieaSprig of Hollyval Dom Platz at the heart of the old city. Visiting a genuine German Christmas market has always been a dream of mine since I was a little girl… now, at last, it is about to come true!

So I shall be out of touch for a little while but you can depend on it that I shall have lots to say – and lots of stories to recount – when I return home.

For all my American friends and readers, I wish you a wonderful and very happy Thanks Giving Day.

For everyone else, have a marvellous time with your pre-Christmas planning and the slow ‘building of the magic’! It will be the first Sunday of Advent this coming weekend – enjoy it all and don’t forget to sing some carols – alternative or otherwise!

A Wonderfully Unique Opportunity…

Jess' Workshop PictureJust a reminder that this amazing day of seasonal creativity and celebration is almost upon us!

I shall begin the morning by giving a short explanation of why we decorate our homes with evergreenery at Midwinter/Christmas and what some of the decorations specifically signify. Then everyone will have the chance to make their own decorations to take home with them:- fir cone gnomes, Welsh calennigs, Advent wreaths and kissing balls. There will be hot mulled fruit cup to fortify you along the way. This will be followed by a gorgeous, three-course, vegan Christmas Lunch, after which, Lee will give a cookery demonstration of how to make some of the dishes that were served at the Christmas meal.

Lastly, we shall gather around a blazing fire in the library where I will lead a discussion on how to celebrate the Midwinter and Christmas festival more authentically, ending with the singing of alternative carols by candlelight and hot chocolate to drink by the fire.

£79 for the day – including a recipe booklet especially designed for event containing all the Christmas Lunch recipes.

Bed and breakfast rates for those coming from further afield.

TO BOOK:

Tel. 01286 882 388 or email info@trigonos.com
For a booking form, visit Trigonos’ website www.trigonos.org
Address: Trigonos, Plas Baladeulyn, Nantlle, Nr. Caernarfon, Gwynedd, North Wales. LL54 6BW

 

Back on the Airwaves!

If you would like to hear me talking about both of my books and the connection that I have with druidry, then tune into talkRADIO 9.am., Saturday, 2nd November, when I shall be chatting to Penny Smith. Exciting times – and it will be great for me to know that some of my friends are out there listening in!!!

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