I was raised on a diet of homemade cake & gingerbeer.
Not literally, you understand, but of the literary sort – hours spent gorging on books by Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome. The Famous Five, Swallows & Amazons. A head full of island adventures in rolling British countryside, even as my body lay in quiet, grey suburbia.
An anxious & bookish child, these books gave me fresh courage & a 50s-esque stiff upper lip. Adventures were what happened when you were brave – and climbing trees, sailing boats and sleeping in forests were just incidentals along the way. I learned the word determined – although I pronounced it ‘determinded’ – & took on board the sentiment. Don’t give up.
Did you have a favourite childhood storyland? It never really leaves you behind. It was mine, I suspect, that motivated our move to the countryside after Orla was born. The city streets were trapping us, the stray blades of grass between concrete not nearly enough nature for this tiny adventurer I had birthed. I pictured childhood as something else.
Around this time, I listened to a Radio 4 documentary about growing up in the New Forest. A child recounted her mother handing her a kitchen timer, dialled to an hour, and letting her loose in the woodland outside their door. When the timer chimed, it was time to turn back for home. Freedom and trust, with no GPS tracker as backup!
It could have been total naïveté on my part. It could have been fanciful dreaming. Fortunately in this case, the gamble paid off, and our daily life changed in the ways I’d been hoping.
The village children run wild and free. In the summer they’re out camping, deep in the woods or at the bend of the stream where the rocks are smoothed into slides. They walk back to the houses in towels, shivering and shouting, and nobody’s frightened for their safety. It’s a slower, softer pace. It’s a little bit storybook.
At three, Orla’s already headed that way. Whole afternoons spent dashing her fishing net in an empty stream; piling up tiny silty stones in her bucket for hours on end. In winter we go weekly into the woods to gather kindling, and she happily stuffs the bags full. It is easier to get her out for these activities than it ever is to attend a playgroup or party. She’s happier with mud than with glitter.
And fires – oh this girl and fire! She gives me the vapours by a campfire because she’s so confidently entranced. Grabbing, adding, poking, dancing. I want to wrap her in asbestos and stand her in water, but of course, she won’t allow it. I remind myself of the Forest schools, and all the evidence supporting this stuff. This is all brilliant development, essential life skills. This is the childhood I craved.
Loved best of all, by mutual agreement, is the woodland picnic. Worn woollen blankets, Kelly kettle steaming, bread that wafts out that warm yeasty smell. She requests them, whatever the weather, & helps pack the hamper.
She acts them out on the living room rug.
In London last weekend I took her to a preview of new new StudioCanal release Swallows and Amazons. It was one of the stories I so loved as a child, retold now in a style gloriously reminiscent of those BBC Sunday night family dramas. It was such a heady rush of nostalgia for me I found myself in tears at the simplest of moments. It was like catching up with lost friends.
It was also Orla’s first cinema experience and I was unsure how she would fare; she was tired, so I suspected she’d fall asleep or need to leave. Instead, she sat wrapped in my arms (this preview had beanbags and wine, my friends! Conventional Cinemas are doing it all wrong) entranced the whole way through. She asked questions throughout – were those real pirates? Why was he in a blanket? Where are they going now?
She recognised Heptonstall, a local village used as an on-film location. She took it all in, and thought it all through.
And then she said, when we woke up in Yorkshire again this morning, on a chilly and drizzly day – can we take my tent in the woods today Mummy, & have an adventure?
& so naturally we did, & had a picnic, & then we sailed paper boats down the stream, hand in hand.
Swallows and Amazons – and tireless daydreamers – forever.