Stumbling block

After years of my time belonging to others, I find I am rather poor at filling empty spaces in the day. I am slightly clumsy at this new, slower pace, and not sure how to appreciate it. My mind races with possibilities and ideas and is unsure how to organise them.

Sitting in a little gallery in a nearby Northumbrian village, I inhale the waxy perfume of candles and envy the prism-shaped logs stacked neatly at the sides of the stone fireplace. The sky outside is a cool grey, stubborn and still. This is a village where curtains twitch and the man on the next table is reading the Daily Mail.  He also says ‘scone’ to rhyme with ‘bone’, which concerns me, though not as much as his reading matter.

I sense an awkward juxtaposition between the harmless tapestries of ferns and the absence of youth. Where I live it is so pretty, bordered by the frothing North Sea and the majestic Cheviot Hills. My town is topped and tailed between two great cities, Newcastle and Edinburgh, but is completely removed from any urban buzz. The gentle honey stone of the houses and the coastal castles make this area a magnet for wealthy retired holiday makers during the term time, whilst families from the trendy south escape for a dose of sea air in the school holidays.

I once met a woman in Cambridge, where the girls and I were youth hostelling for a few days. She worked in a museum and wore tunic dresses and a matt red lipstick. As my daughters dressed up as polar explorers she told me that she loved to spend holidays in Northumberland, but was always glad to come home.

Recently I have started sporting a red lipstick and I wonder where it will take me.

Attachment theory

Over the last year, I have seen life as I dreamed it as a little girl fall from its pedestal and smash spectacularly in front of my eyes. I used to find my desire to achieve perfection and happiness an attractive trait, but now see I been naive and unrealistic. This is a hard lesson to learn. I have been lucky for so long, blessed with opportunity and energy, but the control freak in me has run out of steam. I can’t fix it all or make everything look pretty, I am, boringly, ‘making the best of things’.

I generally find this hard to do. I was brought up on a diet of adventure, determination,  and excess, believing I could have it all. And in many ways I do have it all, I just have to alter the filter a little.

The day has been saved in the guise of an open-minded headteacher at a tiny school by the sea. She has offered my three littlest girls the opportunity to flexi-school; M will be there for three days each week, learning to play the violin, speak Spanish and climb (as well as the more traditional elements of the curriculum, but I’ve cherry-picked the exciting bits!). She will benefit from having a different type of family around her and being given the space to be herself. Little M, who has never been to school and is not keen, will just go once a week. She gave her first day a paltry 6/10, but I think there is room for improvement. Baby F, also doing one day in the nursery, ran through the door and told me the very best thing about her new school is ‘all the new friends’. She is an extrovert like her mummy and at her very best in front of an audience.

B has only a few weeks left as a primary student, and has needs of her own. It is B, remember, who led us on this journey in the first place. School is no place for her right now, she needs to be held close.

But for one day each week I can breathe more slowly. I will use this time to earn more money. I have talked often of the lack of time to work being the biggest compromise a family can make when they choose home education. I need to win some more bread now, and flexi-schooling will allow me to do that. When I see this in black and white, it feels like more than making the best of things, perhaps I am having it all. We are still home educating and benefiting from everything that offers, but there are other things too. Certainly when B and I ran across the gleaming sands at Embleton Bay yesterday after we dropped the girls at school, I called over to her that we must be the luckiest girls in the world to start our day like this, racing into the sun, salt spray on our faces.

This year is also, for me, a lesson in attachment – when to embrace and how to let go.

Walking with ghosts

There are certain places where history seems to swirl in the air. I felt it a couple of years ago, driving west through the Tyne valley along Hadrian’s Wall, and again today as we climbed to the summit of the hill near Flodden, where that mighty battle took place over 500 years ago.

Our day out started at Etal Castle (tip: I’ve booked a series of these English Heritage trips this summer – free for home educators and really easy to book online). Etal is a tiny estate village lying just a few miles south of the Scottish border. The surrounding fields are lush and green, gently overlooked by the Cheviot Hills, still streaked with a few strands of snow. Today, although it was breezy, it was warm enough to lie on the almost-dry grass and smile at the blossom appearing on the trees. Winter has outstayed its welcome once more, and we were all giddy in the spring sunshine.

It can be a challenge to meet the learning needs of each child, but the museum at Etal Castle had something for all of us. Baby F and Little M gazed in awe at the huge weapons on display, M designed her own coat of arms and B researched Lady Waterstone for the sequel to her Rebel Girls book. The girls were enthralled at the idea of the River Till running red with the blood of 11,000 soldiers, and we wondered what had happened to all the bodies. The woman in the shop told us that very little evidence had been found at the site of the battle, and Baby F concluded they must just be very deep under the ground, while B thought they could have floated away down the river.

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Heading out to explore the castle, the girls quickly assumed characters and reenacted a bloody feud. Was it the original portcullis or a replica? Why wasn’t the castle situated on a hill? Why was it ruined? We mulled all of these questions over whilst nibbling cold pizza and apples in the fresh Northumbrian air.

All invaders slain, we hopped in the car and drove a few miles to the battlefield near the village of Branxton. Leaning into the wind, we imagined the clatter of metal and the horrific shouts of the men who clashed and died in just over two hours in 1513. The incline was covered in bright yellow rapeseed, disguising the horror that had taken place all those years ago. This was M’s favourite part of the day, her imagination running away on the wild wind.

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I love these adventures when learning comes to life for us all and we can get caught up in the moment. I’ll take it and put it in my pocket, save it for a rainy day.

Ten in the bed

The sky outside is lingering between blue and grey, and it’s hard to tell which way the weather will go today. The clocks have nudged life on a notch, swallowed an hour that I will not get back, but perhaps given me the momentum to move forward.

Upstairs, my bed has been taken over by three sleeping children: one by one, accompanied by a little sob, they crawled in beside me, clutching a favourite teddy or blanket. The smallest one, baby F, has resumed her habit of waking just as I hit that delicious part of sleep, early on in the night, the best bit that is the hardest to wake from. She will quickly settle again once she is next to me, while I lie awake and wonder whether to read to slow down my racing brain. Little M is only an occasional visitor, preferring to creep in quietly at a sociable hour with pink cheeks and a pinker unicorn under her arm. Last night, though, her leg was sore, so she joined the scrum. M is the rarest visitor of all, fiercely refusing to leave her bed until the sun is well up in the sky and she has at least ten hours under her belt. She is hot though, feverish and weepy, and falls into a snuffly doze on my pillow. Each way I turn now there is a daughter and I have to accept the the bed is no longer mine.

I tiptoe down to make some tea, checking all of the clocks to confirm the hour, as I do every time the clocks change. Is it 5 or 6? Should it be lighter this morning or darker? Steaming mug in hand, I rekindle last night’s ashes and wonder how long it will be until it will seem ridiculous to light the fire, how long it will be until the air does not slap my skin when I open the door each morning.

I have taken to standing on my doorstep and watching my little street. This town, that has at times felt far removed from where I thought I would one day end up, has been so kind to me recently – friends have held me close and been gentle my children: one woman brings them cheese straws and plays Uno with them while I work; another adds M to her own brood and feeds her before Brownies each week; there are invites to tea and frequent texts. I’m a lucky girl. The familiarity of the view from my tiny front garden is soothing; I can rely on it not to change, and for that I am so grateful.

It occurs to me often that I can’t easily know the impact of these days upon the girls. When baby F kicks me and shouts, is it because she is three years old or because she is trying to tell me she is sad and confused? Little M has been a delight, giggly and chatty and making such progress with her learning, but a couple of times she has told me does not know what is happening. I suspect it is enough for her to take each day as it comes otherwise her world becomes too big to comprehend. M is the eternal optimist, and she has mainly stayed true to that, only occasionally crumpling into my lap in a teary huddle. B has an ongoing battle with change, and this is tough. Her life looks quite different now and she is willing it to revert to the familiar. I recognise her alarm; the unknown is frightening and sticking with what you know, even if it’s not great, can seem like the better option.

The sky outside is now light blue and cloudless, and the shadows on the roofs opposite indicate sunshine. Winter is being chased out by spring…

A Family

For months my mind and my stomach have wrangled and churned, as life exploded and burned all around me. In the midst of the chaos, I have tried to stay solid and firm, a tree standing tall with its branches flaying and cracking in the storm. And now I am exhausted and shocked by the force of my heartbreak, my spirit flickering oh so small somewhere deep down within me.

Time to rebuild and remember who I am, reshape my future and find some new dreams; the ones I have held onto for so many years have floated away, out of reach now, and my eyes sting if I think of them too closely. My options now are quite different: limited in some regards, but perhaps expanded in the sense that now it is just me, and only I will be to blame if I don’t fulfil my potential.

My family is altered, and the hardest thing I have to face is time away from my girls when I want to be holding them tight. We are not that type of family any more. Sometimes it will be just me, and I will have to do something with that empty space. Our lives look different now, we have told the girls, but we are still a family. We all still want the best for each other.

For now, taking each day as it comes seems to be the best way to achieve calm and happiness. And for four little girls, today is all they can manage. Right now, they are running outside in the February chill, creating a world of their own in the sunshine as I type and watch them through the window.

Writing forces me to reflect, which I find painful at the moment. Time to head out, breathe some spring air and think about how lucky I am right now. I can’t change my past or dwell on what could have been, just keep the good bits locked inside me for when I can think about them without crying.

The subtitle of this blog is ‘learning as we go’, and that rings very true today. We are all learning, none of us is a complete being. These days will shape me, just as every other day has. The mystery and, I hope, the joy, is wondering who I will become.


Hazy days and Mondays

It’s been an intense couple of weeks, with A abroad in the states visiting friends and B starting her new course at Dance City in Newcastle. There’s not enough of me to go around and I’ve been hugely grateful to friends and neighbours for ferrying kids and babysitting when I’ve been working. Hoping for more of a routine now A is back but also feeling the pull of the city as the drive down from rural Northumberland three times a week takes its toll.

I’ve always been a city girl, straining at the leash to leave home as soon as I turned 18 and spending 10 hectic years in London. We moved up to the North, where I had lived as a teenager, when B was not even 2, propelled by joblessness, post-natal vulnerability, a need to be nearer family and a mouse infestation in our Nunhead flat. Many times since I have wondered how I thought I might fit in to a small farming community after the edgy diversity of Peckham. Our proximity to the shiny, bare Northumberland beaches has done much to soothe my restless mind but I need lots of people around me and am enjoying the trips into Newcastle, despite the upheaval to the family timetable.

This morning was dank and hazy, and B was in a foggy mood. The very best thing for her is a race along the beach, so we donned wellies and drove to our nearest village by the sea for some coastal therapy. B and M enjoyed taking pictures – we talked about close-ups and landscape shots, while baby F pretended to be a fierce dinosaur chasing down the ever-speedy Little M. Dropping from the footpath down to the beach, we collected stones to paint and spotted some brilliant birds – a cormorant on a rock, its wings spread, creating a bold silhouette; a heron waiting to grab a fish, greedily eying the water; a massive black-backed gull that B willed to be an albatross;  sanderlings, oystercatchers and redshanks darting along the shoreline. Some colour returned to B’s cheeks as the sea worked its magic.

Home for music, as M tackled some theory to help with her piano and drumming and B selected some songs for her grade 4 singing exam in December. Little M has just started the piano, concentrating well for one who, for now, likes formal  learning in very small doses. I’m a big advocate of music as an enrichment activity for children. Even though Little M is still sounding out most of her words and learning the trickier blends, she is enjoying decoding the notes on the stave and listening to the harmonies of our duets, and she loves to sing. It’s all great for memory, hand-eye coordination, concentration and motor skills. I remember B really struggling to write when she first started school because her hand hurt when she held the pen. It made me wonder if she needed to be writing at all – maybe the pen was trying to tell her something?! Now she beavers away writing poems and diaries and song lyrics with no complaint at all, but it took some time to convince her that writing could be fun. This way, Little M can write when she is ready.

This afternoon A tackled earthquakes and fairies with the little ones while B and I took the train into Newcastle and spent a gorgeous hour in the Lit and Phil. This is possibly the best place in the world for a bookworm like B, and we crept up the iron, spiral staircase where the old maps and musical scores are stored to explore. An enthusiastic librarian showed us a metre-high linen map-book, hand printed in 1896, and we pored over the vast creamy pages, remarking upon tobacco factories and tramlines.  Next we examined a unique book of pianoforte music for ladies, printed at the end of the 18th century, as the librarian told us about Jane Austen’s skills as a musical composer – information devoured by us as we are enjoying reading Pride and Prejudice together at the moment. We discovered that the oldest book in the library is a 16th century book, and that it is also in possession of original writing by Galileo!  B found a book from 1825 and ran along the rickety corridor with wide eyes to show me the date etched inside the frail black cover.

A is working for the rest of the week, but Grannie and Grandad are visiting tomorrow promising adventures in the allotment and homemade curry for lunch, so I am spoiled for help this week. And I’ve just booked flights to Belfast for a child-free weekend in November with a dear old friend (more dear than old if you’re reading this P…!). A bright and breezy start to the week.


Chemistry via breadmaking


Embleton Bay gleaming


Leaves on the ground

A gap of several months has passed since I last blogged here. Stormy clouds gathered over our house and it’s been a difficult time. Constant through all the turmoil though has been the energy and joy of my tribe of girls. The summer saw us camping in Paris, exploring the Bronte’s parsonage and youth hostelling in Cambridge. Everywhere we go people comment on how they have all grown, and they all look healthy with sparkly eyes and sun-touched skin.

B moved a mountain just before the summer when she was offered a place on the CAT scheme at Dance City in Newcastle. The terrified little girl who hid behind my leg at the school gate smashed her auditions and beat thousands to win a government-funded place on the course until she is 18. The dance teacher in the interview told us they love the ‘special qualities’ home-educated children possess, especially their mature interaction with adults. I spent Sunday night holding a weeping B as she sobbed, telling me she didn’t want to go to her first class, but it was all a little brighter in the morning and she ran out of the studio smiling, clutching her complimentary ballet shoes. It’s a huge commitment for the whole family – 2 evenings and a weekend afternoon every week, and it’s an hour away at least. Worth iit if it boosts B’s confidence, and I’ll be honest, I’m very at home in the city several times a week…

M has leaped back into home education with her characteristic energy and has taken up the drums. Not as hellish as I thought it might be in a smallish 3-bed terrace, although I’m grateful our neighbour is almost deaf. Found a great jazz drummer to teach her, and she seems really inspired by him, rocking away on her little second-hand kit.

Little M is now 5 and seems at last to have grown a bit taller, though she is still very skinny. She’s a very speedy runner, racing against her big sisters whenever she gets the chance. Totally different kettle of fish learning-wise to B and M, but that is the joy of a big family, everyone is so different. M can sit for hours working on a painting, meticulous with her details. She loves stories but needs lots of repetition to remember sounds and words. This week she has started writing a story so you have to admire her ambition. One sentence in so far…

Baby F is tough as hell and makes sure everyone knows exactly what she needs. She’s the only one at the little forest nursery now, chatty and exuberant, mostly to be found in her favourite brown flowery dress telling jokes.

This autumn we have signed up to the Crisis 50/50 challenge – hopefully an easy way to raise some money for homeless people and enjoy exercising together at the same time. At this time of year in Northumberland you still get the occasional little treat when the sun feels warm on your neck. The colours are becoming more bleached though, leaves are floating, curled, to the ground, and soon it will be dark when we wake.

And what about me? I’m trying hard to think about what is happening today, rather than cramming all of my ambitions into one overwhelming basket. I have no idea what is around the corner, I can just try my best to be healthy and as happy as possible.



Fresh start

Sad to read this article today about teachers leaving the profession, but a little reassuring to agree with everything they say and feel validated in my decision to deregister M.

Last week, M and I spent a long time drawing a mindmap and talking about how and what she likes to learn. Turns out she will miss being at choir, which is where being a singing teacher comes in handy. Otherwise, she wants more time to be outside, build models, play the piano, sing, draw, write stories, do science experiments and number challenges, read books and play. When we finally decided to take the leap, her little face flushed red and her eyes filled with tears. For one awful moment I thought we had made a big mistake, but then she said “I think I’m crying because I’m so happy!”. Big relief and we have had a great week.

Sunday night was a sleepover with the grandparents. Games of Uno, clambering in quarries, stories with Grandad, Indian number investigations and family history. My Step-Grandpa died this month and the girls were in charge of putting together a collage of old photos for the wake. Later in the week, at the funeral, M was enthralled by the process of what happens after someone has died. She is fascinated by all things to do with the human body. It was refreshing to see death and mourning through the eyes of a child, so practical and uncomplicated.

Tuesday was swimming (just me and the two big ones, not beaten by the ratio issues because the little ones were at nursery), robot-building and piano. Wednesday was science experiments and potato-planting with Daddy while I worked, then Italian with my friend (skill-swap – I teach her two girls music) and dance at the local theatre. Thursday was the funeral – lots of time with family. Friday was a walk in the sun and a cookery challenge, where B and M both planned, budgeted, bought and made a meal for us all. The first time M has not moaned about doing the supermarket shop…In the evening they watched me conducting my choir sing Vivaldi’s Gloria and were delighted when their friend won a prize in the raffle. Music and chocolate, you can’t go wrong. Today was spent pondering Brexit (blame First News, then in the park by the sea with their little cousin and Uncle G, followed by litter-picking with conscientious pals and hot chocolate in Barter Books.

So far, so brilliant. It’s absolutely knackering working several jobs and home educating four small children, but for faces like this, it’s worth it.





My year so far has been shabby. 2017 did not bring the fresh start I had been promised, instead dragging remnants of a messy 2016 over its threshold and whipping up fresh mayhem. For a time I have felt bleak and vulnerable, struggling to combat the crap life has thrown at me. This week, though, a curious shift has occurred, an energy glows somewhere inside me and I’m ready to fight back.

The sense that I can choose my own life comes as a huge relief after many weeks of feeling     cocooned in some dark, stubborn world. The contradictions that inform my character have never been far away: I have been restless but needed stability, emotional but unable to communicate. I had been too much in my head, overwhelmed by personal challenges, and as a result I had lost sight of the here and now.

Trundling from day to day, I have continued to home educate B, little M and baby F, whilst M has been at school. It has never felt right having one of our tribe elsewhere, but it has suited me to see M reasonably happy and she wanted to know what school was all about. My initial allergic reaction to her new and very different educational experience had to be diluted if only to save my sanity. I have tried hard, with M, to be positive about school. And it’s not all bad. There have been some good moments. But she can do better. And we should be doing better for her.

While life has picked me up and tossed me around, I have chosen to put M’s deregistration to the back of mind. Or certainly further from the front. But almost a year has passed now. My little girl is nearly 7. We have created a life where she can learn freely, be outside as much as she likes and just be a child. If the last few months have taught me anything, it’s that I am not perfect, but I am doing my best and I should have the confidence, once more, to step outside the box and do something brave.

Tonight we read a book about the universe and it blew M away. ‘It’s just so exciting!’ she breathed. ‘I have too many questions! I can’t wait for the weekend so I can do some experiments!’.

Now is the time, as the air feels warmer against our faces and the blossom winks at us from the side of the road. Instinct tells me that a summer spent on the beach, painting galaxies, reading books, singing songs, asking questions and visiting exciting new places will be one worth remembering.

I’ve kept my side of the bargain, we’ve given school a go. But now it’s time to make the weekend last a little longer.



A mother

It’s been a month of marching, head down, against the cruel weather that life throws at you from time to time. I’ve been followed by storm clouds that have threatened to engulf me, and woke from an awful dream last night where I was suffocating.

When life gets tricky, a gulp of fresh air is essential. It’s amazing how a few hours out in the spring breeze can soothe nerves and restore calm. Today I loaded my tribe of girls into the car and we drove out to Wallington, the stunning home to a bunch of bohemian socialists, the Trevelyans.

Feeling trapped inside my head, the wide expanses of Northumbrian landscape provided the perfect antidote. I  am usually drawn to the beach, only minutes from our home, when searching for solace. Today, though, we headed west, up into the hills. You can still see the sea from the heights of the national park, and today was clear and bright blue, broken up only by the aeroplane trails cutting through the sky.

For much of the journey, weaving around the bends and dipping up and down hills, we trailed an ambulance. M, especially, was fascinated by the flashing blue light – it has been her dream for several years to become a paramedic, and she chatted about what the ambulance might be doing. Imagine her delight when an air ambulance loomed into view in a field alongside the road, although we all hoped for a happy outcome for the poor cyclist lying on the verge.

Minutes later we drove into Wallington. It’s one of our favourite places, and since M went to school, we have avoided going there without her if possible because it’s just too special for her to miss.

Today was all about scones in the sun, clambering over dragons, marvelling at a narwhal’s horn, and hide and seek behind the trees.

Often, it is easy to miss the simple pleasures that come hand in hand with motherhood. There’s all the slog – the nappy changing, the night feeds, the clearing up, the endless mess. And there’s the guilt that you should be doing something else, clinging onto the person you were before you were a parent, or making plans for life when they are not babies any more. Sometimes, with home education, I feel that our time must have more purpose – a throwback from my teacher training.

But today it felt amazing to just wrap baby F’s arms around my neck and stand still, as she pushed her cheek against mine. It felt perfect to lift little M up to a branch so she could stroke clusters of furry new leaves. M leapt and ran, noticing everything and grabbing at life. And B was at home, as she always is when she is outside, listening to birds and inventing worlds.

I watched all of this, and after weeks of my mind feeling tangled and agonised, it was the relief I needed to just enjoy being a mother. I realised that the four little girls, running across the lawn, clutching hands in a line, was the tonic I needed.