Occasionally – perhaps once a week – I take advantage of a gap in my to-do list to breathe in some fresh air and stroll over to the cafe in our shared community-school library for a quiet moment. Even if the knitting group is chatting and laughing and pre-schoolers are running about, it is peaceful.

I used to take marking with me, to excuse my indulgence, but no longer. I’m practising for retirement.

The magazine racks face into the cafe, and my choice is usually The Simple Things, a UK magazine about…simple things. It is very calming to look at. The other day I spent quite a while just looking at a page of shepherd’s huts. It was an advertisement, such as you used to see for gypsy caravans. Shepherd’s huts are perhaps the more PC name for them. There is complexity in their simplicity when you consider how well they are designed and how beautifully they are presented. There is irony in their appeal to people (like me) who endure the discomfort of work for the comfort of money and rein in the inner Toad. Most ironically, it would be a well-heeled purchaser (with money from mining, munitions and corporate farming) who could park a hut at the bottom of the garden under the apple tree, overlooking the rolling Sussex Downs and, even though plumbed in and connected to electricity (the hut not the purchaser), picture herself trundling along a dusty road behind a Clydesdale horse – or a traction engine. Now I’ve gone and spoilt my simple moment by over-analysing and being cynical.

On looked up rolling Sussex Downs to see if they exist, I discovered that “Rolling Sussex Downs” is the name of a shepherd’s hut glamping site. A pastoral idyll. Now there’s a farmer diversifying – as all UK farmers will need to do without EU subsidies.

Take a deep breath, back to simple things…

The magazine is dated February 2018 but all the back-issues have appeal. There are unfussy gardening pages, stories of people making-do gracefully, poetry, a list of songs to go with the theme of each magazine and, in this issue, recipes for smoked parsnip soup, chai coffee with steamed spiced milk, and lemon cake in a mug. The theme is “Breathe”.

Iced coffee was my choice on that 30 degree day in a southern hemisphere February. The feverfew and lavender in an olive-jar vase on the table was perfect simplicity.

The little things

In a place like Wanaka you could be overwhelmed by the scale and grandeur of lake, mountains, sky – or even of the massive crane on a lake-side building site, as yet another speculator tries to make millions from this desirable place. A grand scale clash of values.

Smaller details have held my gaze this year. The stump of a silver-dollar gum, tiny fox gloves (which I later found are moth mullein or goldenrod), fuzzy grasses beside a stone seat…

This morning, tiny blue moths (later research revealed these to be the common blue butterfly) fluttered across the path I walked. They were too tiny and too fast to photograph. Other small details stood still long enough.

Even more exotic, were these lilies in the Winders Street garden I admire every year.

There are rowan trees everywhere.

Along the lake-side, half hidden and covered in leaves, are several small dinghies and catamarans. Have their owners grown and gone?

Kind conservationists have provided several nests for grebes, such as this.

Spring Hill – where said speculators try to tame nature – continues to provide spring water where people (me included) fill their water bottles.

In the shady courtyard of Soul Food I enjoy the morning paper with a ginger spice juice, with aluminium straw.

The local fruit is delicious.

Other small delights include scones at Edgewater, warm woollies for colder days, locally made clothing at Glowing Sky (the translation of Rakiura, Stewart Island), the Sunday market, the Thursday yacht race, favourite restaurants and cafes, swimming on hot days while little dogs show off their dog paddle as they fetch sticks.

The wind can howl through here and no one ventures on to the lake to entertain us (the cowards). The nor’ west makes my hair rise comically with static and I get shocks from window latches and even the kitchen sink.

I had to photograph this sign on Golf Course Road. Mum offered to pose in front of it. I would have done just as well.

The evening sky draws me away from the little things to the grandeur again.

As it grows darker, lights come on around the curve of the bay. Water laps against the boats in the marina. The breeze is soft and warm.

Living in interesting times

Samuel Pepys was familiar to me as the writer of an entertaining diary which gives us a picture of life in 1600s Restoration London. I expected to find, when I recently read Samuel Pepys, a Biography by Richard Ollard, that the subject was a rich socialite with time on his hands to enjoy all manner of entertainments. Instead, I discovered a much richer picture of a person of humble origins who was significant in establishing the means by which a well-organised navy could function to defend English borders and trade.

Pepys’s administrative talents enabled him to cross class barriers in ways I thought were not possible in those times. His skills were recognised by Charles II, even as Pepys struggled to get funding and a serious approach to the navy from a king who was continually distracted by pleasurable pursuits. Pepys was not averse to pleasurable pursuits, either, with sexual exploits (and exploitations) disturbing to the modern reader. He lined his own pockets with bribes – which seemed a common practice expected of people in office.

Pepys was helped by people who recognised his talents and supported his education and the positions he held. Similarly, Pepys helped others in the same way, even some who tried his patience at times. His support helped those people to better their lives. He supported the education of boys at the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital. It was important that educated people were available to provide effective roles such as his administrative work with the navy.

Pepys had valued friendships with a varied group of intellectuals. He collected a significant library of books and art, carefully housed and protected through plague, fire and political intrigue and surviving until today. I was fascinated to read that, while incarcerated in The Tower during the Papal Purge, he was able to use contacts to clear his name, giving clear instructions about how to conduct the investigation into the allegations. This uncovered (for me) an underworld of criminal intrigue with connections extending into France.

Pepys was frustrated by the tendency of aristocratic ship captains who took it upon themselves to mount ill-advised attacks on Dutch ships, often with disastrous consequences. In one such case the Dutch retaliated, sailing up the Thames and inflicting considerable damage and causing panic among the citizens with those who were able retreating into the countryside for safety. Pepys preferred the “tarpaulins”, sea captains who had worked their way up from ship’s boy and who knew how to handle a ship and its crew.

Pepys travelled to Tangier which was, for a time, in British hands, and to Spain briefly before sailing home. He truly lived in interesting times, which doesn’t seem to have been the curse it is purported to be.

Ollard’s writing style makes the reading of the biography a treat. I was particularly taken by his description of the clock as a device which at first entertained with its workings before its effects in “dismembering” existence were felt. The same could be said of many technological developments today.

This biography has been sitting amongst my history books for many years waiting for me to read it. More recently, I picked up a pictorial publication by the National Portrait Gallery entitled Pepys and his Contemporaries by Richard Ollard. It refreshed my recollections of the biography and the impressive variety of people who were influences in Pepys’s life. It concludes with an essay by Catharine MacLeod entitled “Pepys and the Resoration Art World” detailing Pepys’s relationships with portrait painters, particularly, who he commissioned. It also mentions Pepys’s enjoyment of music; he was impressed that the painter Cooper was a skilled musician and speaker of French. In the early portrait of Pepys by John Hales, Pepys is shown holding a piece of music: “his own composition, a setting of a poem by William Davenant, ‘Beauty Retire’ “. The collections of portraits, seascapes, landscapes and prints Pepys left are significant resources.


Usually, we are pretty relaxed at home.

Then it began to get busier. Flowers arrived.

People arrived from Sydney, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Wellington, Ashburton and Dunedin.

Can you guess the occasion?

A huge gathering of Nola’s children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren met at Sarah and Mike’s house. She didn’t want fuss – a bit overwhelmed.

Wild or Tamed

When our bowl of supermarket blueberries ran out this morning it was satisfying to be able to pick more from the garden. I don’t think I’m imagining that these home-grown berries are tastier than the others. I am not an over-gardener, if there is such an expression, more laissez-faire. There is no spray used or fertilisers apart from my own compost or, in the case of the berries, bark and pine needles for mulch. Perhaps the natural approach makes a difference to the taste – or is it the freshness?

On Sunday, I harvested almost 800g of blueberries and black currants which was more than enough for two shortcakes. There are still more berries to be picked, and the raspberries are beginning to appear. Mostly, we just graze on those, like bears in the woods!

There’s something quite feral about eating from your own gardening. Picking berries seems very hunter-gatherer. The garden itself is quite wild and I resist keeping it too tidy. Mowing the grass/clover/various weeds which masquerade as a lawn, tying back plants so you can walk up the path, and dead-heading is about as good as it gets. Having said that, there are weeds I target: convolvulus and oxalis among them. I watch out for acanthus spreading too much.

Violas have chosen that high spot, somehow. The runner beans have come up by themselves. I read somewhere that if you leave them they will die back and come up again each year. The runner beans in the foreground are growing up one bamboo stake and one gone-to-seed silver beet plant. The broad beans were a disappointment – just a few pods (but they were delicious). Perhaps the trees (self-sown pseudopanax, ake ake and cordylines) shade them too much. Speaking of trees, there’s a volunteer “forest” of kowhai at the front of the house, and pittosporum comes up regularly. Perhaps original forest is regenerating.

I love the way violas pop up everywhere, particularly between paving stones. A friend gave me a geum, and it has spread to a number of places, notably the path where it leans delightfully across the lawn (sorry, grass). Sweet William, Mediterranean daisies, aquilegia and fox gloves pop up in various places and, of course, there’s feverfew, which I tend to refer to as “feverseveral”. These free-range plants provide interest and happiness – so important when you don’t have a view otherwise.

Plants come in waves over spring and summer. The forget-me-nots have been replaced by feverfew. Here it is looking quite fetching with hydrangeas and a carpet rose which I won in a raffle at work and put into a rare spare space. I can’t claim to have had much of a hand in all this.

Obviously, I plant most vegetables, but what happens next is beyond my control it seems – but I am on to pinching off the laterals on the tomatoes.

The kale has sweet peas scrambling over it which came up by themselves from last year’s crop and are all pink. The stakes are for the sweet peas I did plant this season, but that area has been taken over by feverfew and borage, so the sweet peas are growing up those plants rather than the stakes.

Sometimes I almost feel like tearing my hair out about it all, but lately I’ve been more relaxed. I read about a book called Wilding by Isabella Tree in a magazine called The Simple Things. The author has let her whole farm grow as it likes, with amazing results: regenerating plants and rare wildlife. I enjoy watching the finches which come in little flocks to feed on the borage seeds. One good thing about not having a cat or dog anymore is the increased birdlife in the garden. They make a fruitful garden a lovely place to be.

When I go walking I like to look at people’s gardens. It’s sad to see fewer and fewer trees and those rather monotonous easy-care “gardens”. Due to my ‘Wilding’ reading, I look more kindly on neglected gardens. There will be a whole ecosystem in there. Occasionally, there’s a charming garden with a little cottage peeping through the flowers and trees. A high-point of my walk is a new house with beautiful landscaping on a stream boundary. It has the original trees from the previous house and huge square steps rising up through bright green mounds of native moss.

This grapevine in my garden has the most rapid growth of all. It’s advancing across the garden shed at one end and all amongst the trees at the other. I do cut this back, having learnt that the grapes need to be in the sun. There are always far more grapes than we can eat or give away.

This apple tree is showing signs of another great crop. We use most of the apples, but happily share them with the birds as well.

Sturmer apples

Flowers become tamed in the domestic setting.

The yellow roses fell apart after a few days, but there were more ready to pick this morning.

Finally, the last of the cherries. Most of the crop was eaten by happy birds.

So wild or tamed? A balance of both, I think, as I put on my red-band gumboots and disappear into the overgrowth with the grubber.


It occurred to me the other morning that I was dressed like my Sindy doll.

I rescued her before Mum’s house was demolished in 2015 and we were doing a clean-out. Her original jeans and red, white and blue striped top were long gone, and at some stage I made new clothes for her out of material scraps.

This “snap!” moment, plunged me into the depths of memory – and photo albums – for other such coincidences.

In 2014, I had had my bike a couple of days when I realised it was just like the bicycle on the tile I’d bought in the delightful walled town of Bergues in the north of France in 2005. I must, at least subconsciously, have been aware of the little bicycle every time I stepped onto my front porch.

Tile at front door since 2005
Bicycle – new in 2014

My sister, Sarah, has an impressive vegetable garden. In 2016 I took this photo of her with a freshly picked cauliflower.

It reminded me of the photo I had taken of Dad in just about the same spot. He also had an impressive vegetable garden. I’m not sure when the photo was taken. Probably late 70s early 80s. I can see a fine crop of broad beans behind him – and silver beet which Sarah does not grow!

Finally, two other snap moments from the distant past. The first is my border collie, Mack, with Mackenzie’s dog at Tekapo in 2002.

Thurza and Sam in the cherry tree 2004

And my niece, Sam, (on the right) with the little girl from down the road. When they met for the first time at my front door, they were momentarily transfixed as if looking into a mirror. Then they were off, exploding through the house and garden, delighted with themselves.

And I keep finding more… Here’s Sam in 2003 with “Hamish”.

We love reading. January 2003.

In fact, everyone seemed to like to read with Hamish.

Harry, Mack and Greer, December 2002.

More a photo opportunity snap than coincidence, but too charming to omit.

Reasons to be cheerful (Part One)

This Sunday morning, the view from my bedroom window was so cheering I had to sit a while and enjoy it. I’ve had those two geraniums in hanging baskets for years – as long as I’ve been in the house, which is over thirty years. The baskets are new, and the proliferation of flowers must be their cheerful response to being in fresh potting mix. The fox gloves beyond come up wherever they like each year, as do the aquilegias and geums, and are full of bees.

Usually on Sunday morning, a friend and I walk on the beach. Today was a little wet for that, so we opted to walk the new city promenade which opened today.

I took no photos. There was so much to look at, I didn’t know where to stop for a photo. I just had to keep looking at everything: the  sculptures, buildings, gardens, people…it was overwhelming and joyful, tinged with a little sadness and nostalgia. Every time I’m in the central city there is more to take in, more to hope for, more to farewell.

We walked from the Margaret Mahy Playground to the Pegasus Arms, pausing to fill in answers on the quiz cards handed out by volunteers to celebrate the opening of the promenade. We admired eight part-grown Paradise ducklings, the Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers, and the Pou Whenua in Victoria Square. I contemplated ways of removing the duck-poo which was all about, looked for Ada Wells among the women on the Kate Sheppard memorial, and touched the greenstone by Oi Manawa, Canterbury Earthquake Memorial. 

My friend left me at Turanga, the new central library, and I explored all four levels. I found it very moving; a wonderful building built for people  – and it was full of people of all ages, notably parents or grandparents, and probably aunts, with children. I took one very inadequate photo, and that was of part of the children’s section.

Children can sit on cushions on the roots of the tree sculpture. This section, on the first level, looks wonderful from outside too, through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The circular lamps are magical features and there were many cheerful children beneath them.

There are a great many books of all kinds, and play areas, reading areas, interactive areas, relaxing spaces, working spaces, discovery spaces – with people looking at home in all of them. This is a place with heart.

The view of the city from the upper levels is breath-taking, even when it is of the wrecked cathedral, and fenced-off spaces yet to be developed. I was drawn to the view of the cathedral, framed by a huge crane, with the hill suburbs in the distance and moody, misty skies above the hills. Below, opposite the other side of the library, there was a young girl dancing joyfully on the Gap Filler Dance-o-Mat and children playing on the giant green chairs beyond that.

And so, fully cheerful, I headed home for lunch. By the playground, I photographed the real roots of a poplar tree. There’s something magical about them too.