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Children's illustrator and cricket lover cultivates vegetables and cats in rural Oxfordshire.
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I mentioned some time ago that I was changing my direction with my work, and doing something somewhat different to the toys that I have been making for around eight years. Typically I chose a challenge. It kind of began with this Staffordshire cat, which I sold a couple of years ago. I meant to make some more but never did.
Anyway, I started in earnest earlier this spring and made a copy of another traditional Staffordshire design, this time a rabbit.
A greyhound was next. I work from one photo, to get the first angle and work out how the rest of it should look.
Which isn't always easy.
Each design has it's own quirks and foibles, and with Staffordshire, they are very 'folksy' and quirky. Trying to replicate a design which isn't my own (and which, by the way, I believe is out of its copyright period) has been something I've found really interesting, although the hours put in on each one are a bit excessive.
The poodle almost finished me off. The shape wasn't too hard to replicate, but this poodle design in it's various forms has stippled, 'salt glaze' on parts of the body, which I tried to emulate by sewing on a silly amount of tiny beads. Eighteen hours of sewing on beads. Yes, I did time myself.
Despite the amount of time they take - 35/40 hours each - I've had fantastic feedback on my Facebook page and Instagram account, and it is nice to take a break from toys.
Although both cats are sold, the dogs and rabbit are now listed on my new site, in the Staffordshire Animals section. Making things in wool which were originally made in clay.
Last weekend saw me back in Oxfordshire again, at the Witney Sewing and Knitting Centre. Witney is a bit of a 'home town' for me; I've known it most of my life, since I first moved to the area when I was 19. I haven't been back there since Andy and I upped sticks and moved to Shropshire, so I was ambivalent about seeing it again. However, I did the stiff upper lip thing and didn't have a meltdown, but concentrated on my workshop instead.
It is a lovely space to work in with great all round lighting and people quickly started doing the pattern of the day, which was my old 'Doglets' pattern from 'Mollie Makes' (issue 13 2012). Another odd thing as I was moving away from the area when it was published and so much has happened in the ensuing four years. However, lovely doglets were made, and amended in some cases. I'm not a stickler for people sticking to my patterns and if people want to go off piste, I actively encourage it. My next workshop is down in Hampstead, London on Saturday October the 1st at the Village Haberdashery. It's limited to six spaces and there are a a couple of places left, so if anyone fancies it, the booking link is here.
I was away for a couple of days and stayed with friends. There was decent beer.
And a vintage 'Magic Roundabout' playground which was dragged out of the attic and played with. And photographed.
Back in Shropshire, I have been spending most of my time working on my new independent website, 'Lost Arcadia' where I am now selling my paintings and needle felt work. My latest small painting 'Country Church' is a nod to my old home of the Cotswolds and the myriad small, sweet churches buried within it's rolling landscape.
It's been a long time since we went for a bike ride what with one thing and another. So this week we went off in search of Langley Chapel, less than four miles away. I had done my Google map research and was convinced it would be fairly easy to find, despite being in the middle of a Shropshire field. We cycled up to the small but pretty village of Acton Burnell.
Once through the village however, it all became very uphill-y and with our cycling legs being a bit rusty, there was a lot of pushing. Alright, pretty much all pushing.
As we climbed higher, the views were spectacular. This is looking across to our main town of Shrewsbury. Somewhere in there towards the right, I think.
I found a lovely roly-poly field formation for painting inspiration. There aren't that many dry stone walls in Shropshire and this picture reminds me of the dear Cotswold countryside, which is lined with them.
Joe found me a tiny cottage in a field, sadly ruined with no roof, but very sweet seen through the hedgerow.
Anyway, we got higher and higher, in search of Langley Chapel - or even a handy signpost - until we got to a point where I knew that it became EVEN MORE hilly. And unfit as we were, we decided to turn back. Happily, it was downhill all the way to Acton Burnell.
Now, we had seen a footpath sign in the village and wondered if we had managed to miss the chapel. So Joe went ahead and explored, and waved me to follow. He had found something. We followed the field footpath and discovered a promising looking portico.
However it did look familiar and as we neared, we realised it was the beautiful Catholic graveyard for the old 'big house' which we had investigated last year. Slightly daunted but determined to have one last shot, we tried another part of the footpath. Which was very pretty but showed no sign of a chapel. We found a few wild damsons though and jolly nice they were too, after all that exercise.So well exercised but feeling a bit defeated, we hastened home, with rain clouds looming overhead.
Back home, we looked at a map and were chagrined to find that had we ventured a little further (towards the EVEN MORE HILLY bit), we would have found Langley chapel. It was about five minutes away from our turn-back point. So that's a trip for another day. Nonetheless, it was lovely to get out and explore. We may not have found Langley chapel. But we did get some exercise.
Last week we had a very rare happening - visitors! A very nice Welsh Springer Spaniel and his humans came to stay for a couple of days. We didn't do much as it was nice just to take some time off and relax. We did manage a short walk nearby.
It's a funny thing, but even though we are in a very rural part of Shropshire, there are few footpaths and barely any quiet places to walk. And with this being the busiest bit of the farming year, the little lane we were in had it's fair share of large agricultural vehicles managing (somehow) to make their way through.
So the next day was mostly spent in the garden, with lunch (mostly cheese) and beer.
Knitting was done - my knitting - though not by me. This is something I started and almost finished but couldn't. So my knitting expert friend managed to sort it out for me.
In return, I let my friend have free reign in my studio and she had a couple of impromptu painting lessons.
But play has to end eventually and when they were headed home, I finished off a couple of my own paintings, which are up for sale in my Etsy shop. I seem to be heading for autumn a little prematurely, but then we are having an upsy downsy summer. In my big studio tidy up, I also found a box of the last lino prints I made in my previous life, including the popular 'Little Hare. It feels a bit strange and very sad looking at old blog posts like with pictures of of the other cottage, such as 'Printing Little Hare' and 'Monsieur le Roitelet'. So to raise a few pennies, I've put the remainder back up for sale, at single figure prices in my shop print section.
I'm hoping to sell enough to be able to buy some WD40, to get my trusty old printer back on the road, so that I can print again. Sadly it's been in a damp shed for too long and needs some de-rusting before I can use it.
Back when I printed the lino cuts in November 2011, I was trying to juggle needle felting with printing and painting. Then Andy and I began the big move to Shropshire and just over a year later, Andy was dead. Now my life is back on track, with a different love and I am still needle felting, starting to paint again and hopefully printing soon. In those days I was lucky enough to do it as a part time job. Now it's a life necessity. But I try not to analyse it too much; it's all a bit odd really. Such is life.
Blog: Middle of Nowhere
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This is how the so-called 'herb patch' looked a couple of weeks ago, still with the plug-ugly plastic coated washing line post firmly cemented into the earth. So as the weather had picked up, I did my scorched earth weeding and Joe got to work with Brian-next-door's sledge hammer.
After a long tussle and removing lots of rock debris, we tugged and pulled and shoved and eventually we dragged the monster out. We could just about manage it between us.
Unfortunately, someone DID like the overgrown mess and we found this lovely toad nestling in a pile of bricks. We left her undisturbed, but she vanished overnight. We are hoping that she has found a nearby home.
By the end of the day we had almost cleared everything.
The garden originally came with two little old troughs which were destined to be made into miniature ponds. This is a fairly ordinary cement one, which had been upside down since I moved in over three years ago. I had assumed it was a block of stone until Joe turned it over and discovered the secret.
The previous owner told me that this bigger one was an antique 'pony trough' which came from a nearby town, but then he told so many fibs about the property that I am inclined to take that with a pinch of salt. It is a nice old thing, anyway and had been languishing uselessly in the drive.
The fun part was putting the stones and pebbles in and filling it.
By now it was early evening and the cows had made their way up the field. They seemed curious, but I don't think they cared about our lovely little pond.
The ponds have provided a source of constant amusement. Despite having to empty them and paint them with concrete sealant. Because we didn't realise that the stone could leak. But since then the garden birds have been enjoying the novelty too. Joe has taken quite a few photos. At first the blue tit was the sole bather.
But then a tribe of sparrows moved in and claimed both ponds for their own.
Anyway, to cut this long pond-y story short (forgive the length, neither of us have ever had ponds before), this part of the garden is finally starting to be ours and looking like a proper place. Not a wilderness of weeds.
Today however we have had rain and I went back to proper work, heralding autumn with this little painting, 'Acorn Cottage' which (naturally) is for sale in my other Etsy shop, 'Lost Arcadia'.
So the time came when my studio needed a serious make over. It's been a bit of a tidy pickle for the last three years, and there were so many things on the floor that there wasn't enough room for my big feet to move around without stubbing a toe. Or even work properly.
And this area was particularly confused. I seem to remember that I just shoved a few bits of spare furniture up so that I could unpack some favorite books and it became a bit of a dumping ground. So the mammoth task of sorting out began.
The key to the entire operation was this lovely old (apparently Georgian) bookcase that Joe bought me well over a year ago, for the studio and which had become another dumping ground downstairs. We shifted the old futon out and I began reorganising my books. And stuff. The first day was complete carnage.
But by the second day it began to take take shape. And I found I had masses of floor space!
I'm still not sure how I found the energy to blitz it into shape in 48 hours, but I now know where everything is. This is the only area which remained untouched.
The old fireplace (sadly blocked up by the previous tenants) has been set aside for a printing area. The next task is to renovate my poor old flat bed press.
So I did finally get round to finishing a batch of small paintings and yesterday I reopened my very first Etsy shop which I've had since 2007 and listed them all at ¬£35 (about $45) each. I was amazed to sell two paintings overnight. and somewhat relieved.
So here I am in yet another studio, painting again and enjoying my books. It's nice but odd, just another layer of things coming around, the same but different. And a little fragile. Like my tiny houses.
Last month I was back in Oxford at at Hill End, returning after my earlier bear making workshop two weeks previously. 'The Willows' waited quietly in the already hot morning sun.
This workshop was a little different in that it was for a hen party - bunting was obligatory. I quickly set the workshop up. I like this peaceful part of the day, when I can settle myself and calm my nerves.
I had some samples ready for inspiration.
I'd also set up a display of work and a collection of photos of my first pieces of work. The photos are useful as I can show people that I myself started somewhere and my early work was far from perfect.
While I was waiting for everyone to arrive, I sat on a big stone outside and watched baby bunnies creep out of the bramble patch to nibble grass. Of course there was also an obligatory robin.
But then I cast my eyes to the left and was amazed to see a young fox slinking out of the undergrowth. He clearly hadn't seen me. I slowly got my camera ready and held my breath as he came towards me.
I have never, ever been so close to a fox before. He got to just a few feet away and then clocked me.
He made a stealthy but quick get away, heading towards the baby bunnies who made an even speedier escape!
Then the hen party arrived (all ten of them) and it was business as usual. Only one person there, the bride-to-be had needle felted before or even knew what it was. But I gave them a pep talk and got them working. Pink fluffy deely-boppers and all.
And in the end, they all did fantastically. One or two designs became other things - which is why there is a parrot in the flock.
Back home, I have been busy with getting my life back on track - more tidying and unpacking. I did make this little Staffordshire style cat last week, and posted a picture of it being made in progress on my Instagram account, where he was bought at once. That has sorted the electric bill out. I don't have a lot of time to sit down and blog properly, so my IG account is a way of keeping in the loop, as they say.
So on the hottest day of the year, a couple of weeks ago, we rose at 6.30am, caught a taxi and three trains to the pretty town of Ormskirk, finishing off with a bus journey to Edgehill University campus, where Joe's graduation ceremony was taking place. We were already melting by the time we arrived.
It's a very impressive campus and has a pleasing amount of topiary trees. Around the back of the historic part, the more modern additions are discreetly concealed.
The first item on the agenda was for Joe to get togged out in his graduation robes, before an extraordinary amount of photos and selfies were taken with his colleagues. Me, I stayed in the background and had a crash course in ladies shoe fashion for 2016. A loose count showed that ankle straps are 'in' this year and that 'flesh' (or as I believe it is called, 'nude') is this season's colour. I was in cheap baseball boots. Not being in heels, I was one of the few females on campus able to walk in a straight line.
At last we were able to head off for the ceremony.
After a long wait for everything to be organized, and having the most fidgety child on the planet next to me, it all got rolling with the expected pomp and ceremony; the procession of the University staff in suitably impressive robes and hats, and a fanfare of trumpets. Literally.
After several long speeches, the graduation ceremony itself began. Joe was about third from last, by which time people were a little restless. Having patiently waited for nearly two hours for his moment of glory - the shaking of the chancellor's hand - I had my camera poised, zoomed and in focus.
Then just at the very second of the hand shake, a big bloke in a white shirt came bustling down the aisle stairs behind me and barged right in front of my camera as I was pressing the button. I may have sworn loudly. (OK, I did). So all I managed to get was this...
Then the lovely chancellor made the most interesting speech of the day, cracked a joke about the University board being 'the entire staff of Hogwarts' and everyone waggled their caps in the air. Apparently throwing them up willy nilly is not the done thing anymore.
After a quick go at the buffet, we started our homeward journey. Did I mention it was hot? And so we got a bus, three trains and another taxi back to the cottage. The English countryside quietly sweltered in the sun. The train guard handed out free bottles of water on our last late, overcrowded train, where we stood in the corridor all the way back to Shrewsbury.
We eventually arrived home, flopping and half asleep, at about 8pm and went to bed almost at once. A long day, but one which Joe worked hard for and despite my humorous tone, I was actually very, very proud of him. He is now a fully qualified counsellor.
Last night pizza! The day finally arrived when Joe had completed the course that he has been studying for the last two years. Since we first met, we knew that this day would come, but in the meantime, there has been a constant back and forth between my place, in Shropshire and his place, in Lancashire.
Considering that neither of us drive or has any money to speak of, it has been a bit of a palaver over the last 19 months and yet we somehow managed to spend about two thirds of our time together. Because we needed to. But we have longed for it all to be done and to start our new life. So having passed his course, things were put in motion for him to vacate his flat and move into the cottage.
We had the best kind of 'man and van', who was helpful, friendly and businesslike. In less than twenty minutes we were loaded up at Joe's end and on the road.
Then it it was goodbye to Preston and everything there. Heading home to the Midlands, passing the wind turbines of Cheshire.
Taking a brief foray into Wales and then back into England - hello Shropshire!
Off the main roads and heading down the familiar bumpy lanes leading home. Almost there, and the Wrekin in the distance. Right at the back, poking it's head in the clouds.
The cottage being on a small and busy country road meant that parking was a problem, as it was when Andy and I moved in. So yet again I called on Brian and Jean next door, who moved a car so that we could park up their drive and not get clunked by a tractor.
We unloaded and then began the little procession of humping it all up the lane. Joe and I and the van driver and Brian, of course.
Dumping it in the front yard.
Thankfully there wasn't too much and it was soon inside, if in a considerable muddle. We are now in the process of sorting it all out. But the most important thing is that things are settling down now and our adventure begins.
Well, that's been a bit of a hefty blog break. Busy times. Sometime last month I had a birthday, and as some people may know, I am not a huge fan of birthdays. But there was a beautiful card from Joe, who also ordered a fabulous Clangers cake - and they spelled my name correctly, which is always nice! Yes, I adore the Clangers.
He bought me far too many presents, including some CDs of my favourite noisy bands, and a colouring book...which sadly I have not had time to play with yet.
Although I have made time to get on with my own painting.
Last weekend was my two day trip to Oxford, where I held my bear making workshop in the Willows, at Hill End Nature Centre, a truly delightful work space with lots of light and room.
I had nine attendees, four of whom were returns from previous workshops and it was lovely to see them again. It was a very busy, friendly session, and if you want an outside view, there is a lovely blog post about it on 'Tales from the Weekday Home'.
It is always nice to get to the end of the day and see the more-or-less finished results.
Apart from that, we have been trying to straighten things out at the cottage. I am still only half unpacked since moving in three and a half years ago. It was all a bit too much with everything that happened subsequently, and I've been quite happy or rather, resigned, to live like this. But things are changing and this dumping room needed sorting.
It's actually tidy compared to how it was. We've gone through boxes and boxes of stuff, put various things into lots for auction, charity and attic storage. Sometimes it was particularly painful, but it had to be done as life is starting to settle down and there is a lot more which needs sorting out. One can only live in carnage for so long.
Blog: Middle of Nowhere
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Tiny Polar Bear (sold)
I recently updated my website and for the first time (ever) catalogued all my designs by year and month. Nine years of almost non-stop needle felting. It took many days of hunting on various camera cards and through this blog and Flickr, but eventually I got there.
Looking through it was a bit of a wake up call and I was able to look at my work and realise not only that I've done a phenomenal amount of work, but also that I've not really moved on, stylistically. Although, to be fair, the last few years haven't exactly been the time for creative navel gazing.
I think it has a lot to do with the last few years of creating commercial patterns, which have to be easy to make, and doing so many workshops, ditto. So I've not really stretched myself.
I think making myriad cute toys has almost run it's course for me, after all, I've been doing them for nine years. So I've been finishing off several bits and pieces, including this set of tiny animals and bird dolls, which despite being small, take around six hours plus to make
As usual, I've bunged them on dear old Etsy. I'll be starting a shiny new website soon, for my new work.
I started a new and very 'grown up' line of work this summer, but it is under wraps until I have several pieces. Suffice to say, I am stretching myself at last.
While I'm cheerfully shoving things for sale under your noses, I may as well add that I've got some fabulous new workshops in the UK, for later in the year. I have two winter workshops in Hampstead, London at the Village Haberdashery - my first time in London! It's going to be the red eye train at crack of dawn for those two.
In other news, I've finally started painting properly again. But I'll spare you that for the time being.
Yesterday we made a pilgrimage to see Andy's tree. Brian-next-door kindly drove us over, as it is some distance away in the heart of the Shropshire hills. Set in ancient woodland, the South Shropshire Remembrance Park is the most peaceful and tranquil place - beautiful even in the rain.
It's been just over three years since Andy's ashes were laid to rest under a silver birch tree sapling. It has grown considerably since them, which considering how tall Andy was, is appropriate. The little glade where his tree is situated is up on a wooded hill. Joe and I made our way there while Brian waited in the car park, to give us some privacy.
I'd brought some things to tidy up with and the first thing I did was to give his stone a good scrubbing, and remove the moss which grows so quickly. On my hands and knees, in the muddy grass, in the rain. Because it is the only and last thing I can do for him. And it still doesn't feel like enough. I don't think it ever will.We'd brought a bottle of his favourite beer.
Which I poured on his tree roots, with a little salutation to 'the big man'.
It was Joe's first visit and although it was sad, we both found it less painful than anticipated. And will be coming back again, soon.
Then the heavens really opened up to a deluge. We headed back as quickly as possible, to the car, soaked to the skin.
Brian took us home via the 'scenic route'. Little twisty Shropshire lanes, which, as we found, were flash flooded. This is why a 4x4 is useful in the countryside.
With Brian's careful driving, we negotiated the small rivers that covered the lanes for long stretches.
Some readers may wonder how I could take photographs during such a difficult and personal time, and share it so publicly. Well, Andy was always part of this blog. Taking photos, writing about it, and recording it helps me to sort things out in my head and makes it all seem a little less weird and messed up. Just a little.
It was only by happenstance that I discovered that the Flying Scotsman was travelling this afternoon through Shropshire. If Brian-next-door hadn't popped round to tell me he was going over to Craven Arms to search for lawnmower parts, I wouldn't have scrounged a lift to the village Post Office and heard the news. Because due to too many enthusiasts causing disruption in the past, the precise times of it's passing had been kept as hush hush as possible. But the nice people at the post office knew. and I told Brian. And so this afternoon, Jean and Brian and I hopped over to a very small country bridge in a nearby village. There is Jean in her sun bonnet and Brian nearby in blue, fiddling with his big camera and trying to remember how to turn the flash off. And a local bobby. Just in case.
There were a few of us there, but no serious 'train spotters'. The policeman said they were all crowded up on the other country bridge further up. The sun was very hot. We wilted in the heat and listened for the train, patiently and with good humour. A small boy was hoisted onto his father's shoulders for a better view and the policeman told us that the Flying Scotsman had just left Shrewsbury and was passing Sainsbury's supermarket; it should be arriving soon. Five minutes later, we heard rumblings and squeakings. Here it comes, around the corner...
Such excitement! Brian had worked out how to turn off his flash and turn on his burst shooting and I just managed to snap it as it thundered through our quiet countryside.
Then it was off and away towards the blue hills of Shropshire, where it would stop briefly at Craven Arms and then head off again to the county of Herefordshire, next door.
As we waved it goodbye, a more modern and dowdier cousin passed it. And then all was peaceful again. The policeman returned to his car, the cyclists headed off and there were friendly waves and nods, as we all shared the happiness of seeing something very special indeed, if only briefly.
It's funny what lurks in sheds. Brian-next-door was showing me a pair of old oil lamps and I spotted this. I squealed. I really did squeal. He was a little confused at my delight as it was 'just some old shelves' which he uses to store oil and paint cans. The back has rotted and was replaced with paste board, which is also rotting.
Although my lovely neighbours have become accustomed to my love of what they consider to be junk, I think this one had Brian stumped. But bless him, he removed the cans, levered it from the dirt floor, chased away a colossal fat, black spider and together we dragged it out into the sun.
It must be about seven feet long and quite low. I think it was probably once the base to a huge farm dresser. The cupboard space is deep, however the doors are long gone. I can't remember the exact story Brian related, but it seems to have lived in a few local places, including an uncle, before being entombed in the damp old privy.
Look, I know, it's a bit shafted. Apparently it's been used as a workbench in previous lives. Hence the paint blobs, the oil spills and the gouges.
But imagine if it were cleaned up and restored. It's a good, honest chunk of country pine, crying out for some attention and a good dollop of beeswax.
Brian did his best to dissuade my enthusiasm, seeing nothing but a knackered old unit which would otherwise serve it's purpose and eventually fall apart. And the surface damage bothered him. I said repeatedly that I liked that and would probably leave some remains of it, if I sanded it down, to show the history. I think I lost him there; he would replace it with a new bit of wood.
He was convinced that the top might be an add-on, as it appeared to be screwed down and maybe underneath there would be a better, original slab of wood. So he got his screwdriver out. I held my breath and tried not to wince.
But no, it was part of the piece. So, having convinced Brian that I really did love it, warts and all, it is now mine. But it has gone back into the shed, for the time being. The cottage is still in a state of partial renovation, and walls need plastering before anything else goes in. It is going to look amazing though.
So the garden continues to be gradually tidied. By the end of the summer, this plot should be cleared for a herb and pot garden. Once we've managed to dig out the remains of a hideous washing line pole, which the previous owner had cemented into the earth with a huge dollop of concrete.
What remains of the potted plants and herbs I brought to Shropshire four years ago are pruned and potted up and as they've survived the neglect, they are now thriving in their new homes.
There is a courgette in the coal bucket and basil on the windowsill. And a sweet pepper plant, gifted to me by a gardening neighbour.
I now have a cuttings area and two tomato plants, the first I've had for a few years. These may sound like very small things, which most people do all the time, but for me, they are big steps in the right direction. The garden is finally beginning to feel like home.
We also have a resident toad - so small and delightful.
It was released into a denser part of the garden, but first it had it's portrait taken with some old fungi.
Since uprooting from the Cotswolds in 2012 and with everything that has ensued, my life has felt a little like these potted auriculas; choked with weeds and pot bound. They have somehow endured and so have I.
Now my life is getting tidier and I feel more like a freshly potted plant. With regular care and a bit of sunshine, our roots should grow back and we may even flower again.
This month's workshop was held at the 'Make It' shop in Chorlton.
I had a lovely group, including three people I either know or who read this blog. One of whom I have 'known' for nearly a decade, via the early days of this blog and I recognised her as soon as she arrived. And another blog reader who had brought 'my' book to be signed. As it was the end of the day by then, my mind was in several places and I stupidly signed it to the wrong person and had to write it again. But then, as she observed, it was the only one like that! (Apologies again to 'L')
I have also known Louise Peers for several years and have often seen her amazing little teddy bears on-line. what I hadn't realised was just how eye wateringly small they are; I had estimated them to be quite a few inches. In fact, they are just several centimetres. Roughly the size of a cotton reel, in the case of the little white fairy bear. Mouse sized. And all hand stitched, beautifully. No wonder they sell so fast!
And yet again, everyone produced a lovely creation - despite most of them being complete beginners. I always hope that afterwards they carry on enjoying needle felting as I know some of them will.
Next workshop in Oxfordshire is almost sold out, and it looks as if I may be holding one in London this year. All the details can be found in my April/May newsletter, which you can read (without subscribing) here.
The garden has been, to say the least, neglected. Andy and I moved here over four years ago in November 2012 and less than three months later, he was gone. As you can imagine, the last thing on my mind was keeping the lawn down or sowing hopeful seeds, as I used to. The bitter loneliness of planning a long yearned for garden, without the person you had once intended to do it with, would have been too much to bear. And pointless.
That didn't stop well meaning people advising me to get out there and tackle it ('it will make you feel better') or from giving me kindly meant plants which never got potted out. I think the best gift you can do give to someone in deep mourning and shock is simply to be with them, should they want it. But for some people, this may be the hardest thing to do. And so you get a geranium, which eventually dies as well.
I can't say that my old love of gardening gradually returned. To be honest, for the first year or so I was on a different planet and just getting on with whatever I had to do to keep my mind intact and to try to scrape a living. That last bit remains true and I still don't have much spare time. However, since meeting Joe and having someone to share it with, I have felt what you might call a few green shoots stirring within me.
So during one of my recent at-home stays, Brian-next-door and I got to grips with it. It was a little like Sleeping Beauty's Castle, without the castle. There was a monster vine - or creeper - which had run rampant everywhere, despite being the one thing I have occasionally cut back.
Not to mention the ivy, which has had free run. But last year the robins nested in it's deep green depths and we found their old nest, so it served some purpose. Brian tackled the vine, but the behemoth ivy was mine. I went to battle.
And Brian decimated the creeper. Or vine. Or whatever it was. And all the cuttings were carefully trimmed down to several inches, so that they would fit in the compost bags.
In a corner, we found the mother-lode. It still has to be dealt with.
Brian began dismantling the decrepit old dog kennel once it was free from the jungle of creeper, and the garden really began to open up. Hopefully one day we will be able to turn this side of the garden into a raised vegetable bed. All the spare bits have been carefully stored by Brian, 'just in case they may be useful later'.
And after many hours with the loppers and secateurs, I cleared most of the ivy. Except for the huge trunks and roots, which also have to be dealt with soon. Look, you can see the cottage!
It has been very therapeutic, which is why, of course, people initially urged me to do it. But I had to do it in my own time, and when there was a reason to do it. Thankfully, unlike myself, Joe enjoys mowing the lawn.
It didn't seem very golden at first. A chilly grey day with rain threatening. We went into town and went to this little shop, E & J Jewelers, in Shrewsbury, where we have made a few visits before. The owners are lovely. Then across town to The Armoury, a long, low red brick building situated on the side of the river. Where we bought a bottle of decent red wine.Ate exceedingly well and enjoyed fantastic service.
The golden day was hidden in a simple wooden box.
My engagement ring. I am not a big fan of gemstones. but I like a bit of classy understatement. So last year, when this was decided, I picked a simple ring of white Welsh gold from the Aur Cymru company. It may be plain, but it was not cheap. The gold is hand panned on private land in Wales and there is precious little of it left. Living so near the England/Wales border, it seemed appropriate.
Only a very few close friends were told. It feels right to share it here first, on this blog, as so many people have seen my ups and downs over the years that it's almost like having a distant, virtual family.
Nobody ever wanted to marry me before and to be honest, I never felt the need. However, after the perilous and messy situation I was left in when Andy died (and without a will, which made the whole nightmare even more grievous) it has taken on a new meaning and importance.
I only intend to do it the once, mind.
Oh where did February go? It ended with my first workshop of the year, a return to Folly Fabrics in Bampton, to hold a 'Little Houses' workshop. I was lodged for the night with the lovely shop owners and I took a jar of Joe's delicious blackcurrant jam as a little thank-you gift. So breakfast on the day was homemade bread and jam. And enough coffee to shake the cobwebs from my brain.
Then off to the shop, to set up. This is the calm before the storm.
It's always a full house at Folly Fabrics and I had a lovely mix of returners, some ladies who had seen my latest 'Mollie Makes' cover last year (and traveled a long way from 'down south' to attend) and a blog friend, from 'Tales from the Weekday Home' - it was really fabulous to meet her in person at last.
While I was staying with Joe, I knocked up this little prototype, so that people had the option of making that or creating their own. Everyone got to work.
And that was it for four hours. Towards the end, the customary cake came out. Don't be deceived by it's innocent simplicity; this view hides the one inch thick filling of chocolate buttercream.
I can't remember a workshop where there wasn't a cosy mix of wool, cake and mugs of hot drinks.
Meanwhile, my friend the shop owner, had been quietly making her own delightful little Scottish croft in the background. It's finished off beautifully. I have bit of a 'proud teacher' feeling about this, but it's mostly down to her own patience and persistence.
So, that was it for February. My next workshop is in Manchester, on the 30th April, with limited spaces, which are filling up; we have just four places left and bunnies to make. If you'd like to come, the booking form is here on the 'Make It website.
Last July I was introduced to whittling - a craft which I was somewhat apprehensive of. Especially as it involved using an electric saw to cut out the basic shape. I came away with a stick of lime wood. It was put on the kitchen side, gathered dust, was moved around quite a lot over the months and never got used. Because I don't have an electric saw and although Brian next door gave me a little coping saw, my history of hand cutting wood is not one upon which I wish to dwell.
However, when I was back in the Cotswolds, running my last workshop, I stayed with some old and dear friends, one of whom is an antiques restorer. And he has tools. And a big electric cutting saw thing. I had brought my stick with me, in the hopes that he would help me cut some whittling shapes out.
And bless him, he did. We went to his workshop, which is just a little paradise.
Full of jobs in progress and treasures he has collected over the years.
Not to mention an immaculately tidy workbench. I do like a good work bench.
As it happened, I didn't have to get to grips with the large band saw, for which I was grateful.
He kindly cut out all my little chickens for me. Yes, they are all the same shape; my theory is, that if I practise on the same thing a few times, I may eventually learn something. And yes, to answer another question, they ARE chickens. Really.
I have finally started one off, with the nice and ever so ouch-sharp Swedish whittling knife which Joe bought me for my last birthday. I can't say as my skills have matured since my last attempt, but let's celebrate the lows with the highs.
If I sound a little defensive about them being chickens, it may be because 'someone' (Joe) said they look like almonds. Or livers. I think they are patently chickens. Because look;
Many fat chickens do look somewhat almond shaped, do they not?
Well I think so anyway. I'm sure once I've got the eyes on, it will (sort of) resemble one of these. Or maybe not. Wood carving is not something which comes naturally to me, and yet I feel strangely drawn to persevere with it. Because I love using tools and more importantly, I won't be beat.
While I was down in Oxfordshire holding my last workshop, I visited a potential new workshop space. This is in an area just three miles outside of Oxford itself and somewhere I been past countless times over the years I was living here. But never ventured inside.
This is the little lane which leads to Hill End nature reserve and activity centre. It's been here for decades, educating and encouraging children (and adults) to enjoy and appreciate the great outdoors.
I was met by my contact, dosed with coffee and then shown my potential workshop spaces. First was this nice fat barn.
It was very spacious and light, and I did consider using the cosier overhead gallery. But decided that it was just a tad too big for my needs.
Next was another nice conversion, again with lots of light flooding in and it was almost right...but not quite.
We walked a little further, past some Hill End sheep. Hill End is situated on the edge of Wytham Woods, which has been shown many a time on the Inspector Morse and Lewis series.
Did you spot the giant wire toadstool in the background? No? Look -
It was here that I found my new workshop space, a little cottage which has been converted into a study and classroom area. As there was a group already inside, I could only take a photo of the outside, but I have been assured that it is quite light and comfortable. And it does look delightful.
So I took a deep breath and booked it. This is the first workshop I've organised entirely on my own and it's a bit of a gamble. I am not sure yet what we'll be making. However, it is going to be an all day workshop, costing ¬£55. There is no cafe on site, so it will be a 'bring your own' lunch affair, which if the weather is fine, can be eaten al fresco. I will endeavour to supply cake and there are drink making facilities.
As I'm yet to decide on the subject matter, it isn't up on my website yet, but please contact me at email@example.com if you'd like to book early. One space is taken already! Oh and the date of course - July 9th 10.00 am until 4.30pm. So you get plenty of teaching and making time. If you're too far northwards to consider Oxford, there are still a couple of spaces left on my Spring Bunnies course, on April 30th - click here for more details.
It's been nearly four years since I last did any watercolour painting. Last time I looked, my trusty collection of tubes, which I'd collected over many years at some expense, were in a sorry state and many old friends had dried up. Unable to afford to replace them, I looked around for a cheap way to get going again.
And I found these nice little sets - Koh-I-Noor palettes. They are dry blocks, which I haven't used since college. I subsequently began using good quality wet tube paints, which I found better for large washes. Like my old college paints, they are a bit chalky. But this set of 36 colours cost very little, the pigments are reasonably bright and they stack oh-so conveniently. Thankfully my brushes had not deteriorated.
I bought a cheap A6 sketchbook, so that it didn't matter what went in it. And after much anxiety and procrastination (really) I did eventually get started. I knew it was going to be a bit rubbish, but I did get my painting brain ticking again.
Admittedly, it wasn't the best paper for washes, but it was less scary than stretching out a sheet of the HP Arches I usually use. And after all, it's just to get me going again.
So I painted one of my bunnies, miraculously remembered my old techniques and finished it off with a sense of relief. One down, many to go.
The bunnies didn't say anything. They just gazed with their little beady eyes.
They were obviously reserving judgement.
In revenge, I am selling them via my Etsy shop. So if you want your own silent bunny, they are ¬£30/$ each, with free shipping anywhere. Yes, anywhere.
I do love good municipal park, especially on a warm spring day.
Wide open spaces and well planted trees. With areas of interest and intriguing paths to explore.
And picturesque steps.
Which seem to go on for a very long time.
It's lovely to reach the top and find a flat, wide promenade. The Victorians really knew how to design public places.
And if you look closely, you may find an iron dog or two, accentuating a bench handle, where you have gratefully plonked yourself after your step-climbing exertions.
There are grand old houses that look like wedding cakes.
And fierce, exotic creatures.
Sadly, the sweet shop was closed.
And I could have scoffed a whole bag of lemon bonbons.
But there was the treat of afternoon tea at Patisserie Valerie, as a reward for all those steps.
This is the story of the Cake of Doom. It's a reply to Lin's kind comment in my last post, 'What do you do poorly?'. Cake decorating Lin, it's cake decorating. And when I popped over to her blog, I found a gorgeous lamb cake, a delightful confection that I could only dream of creating. Here is my public shame. Because I'm not completely perfect.
Last time I stayed with Joe, there was a birthday and so there was to be a birthday cake. I don't often cook plain sponge cakes, but I found a recipe and made two acceptable square layers. They were nice and neat and tidy. I used an entire pot of Betty Crocker vanilla icing to sandwich them together, which may have been a bit too much. Then I decided to cut the edges off, to neaten the sides up. As you can see, this didn't happen and the results were raggedy, to say the least. At this point, I poured a large glass of wine to steady my nerves.
I then tried to rescue matters by slathering it in apricot jam...
...and trying to stick the trimmings back on. Of course, it was pretty difficult to find their points of origin, so it was all rather haphazard. But it held together, with a bit of firm squidging.
There was no way on this planet that I was going to make my own fondant icing, so I had bought a lump of ready-made. At this point, I should have taken the cake off the crumby paper, but at the time, I was beyond reason as I had a gut feeling it was going to end badly. Did I mention that I hate cake decorating?
I managed to get the icing rolled out and onto the cake, without major mishap, apart from the inevitable crumbs sticking to it. I hadn't bargained for corner flaps and had to do some quick Googling to find a solution. Which was basically to cut them off. By now I was frazzled, so I bunged it all in a tupperware tub and came back to it the next day.
It seemed ok in the morning, as most things do. The icing was holding the lumpy trimmings in, though it wasn't the pristine snow-smooth surface I had hoped for. Clean paper underneath helped. But the worst part was yet to come. Joe had requested a 'KISS' cake, with cut-out images of every single band member. His favourite band. To be rendered in black icing, from his own artworks, with each image resized to a 10cm square. That's less than 4 inches.
I'm afraid that's where this sorry saga ends, as I DID try thinly rolling out ready-made black icing. I DID get a sharp knife and endeavour to cut out tracings of the boys. But when I picked my first (and last) effort up, it was warm and soggy and fell apart in my hands. I dumped the mess on the kitchen side, took a deep breath and walked away. So it was a big birthday cake fail on my part, and to be honest, the cake itself was sickly beyond belief with all that fondant icing and buttercream. We have agreed that next year, we'll make alternative arrangements.
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At last, I've finalised the project for my Oxford workshop at Hill End Nature Centre which I visited recently. As it's an all day workshop, I decided to go for something a little larger than normal, so the project is to be stumpy bears. It's not a difficult pattern, but it will need the whole day and there is a choice of making a brown bear or a polar bear. As with all my workshops, the price per person is all inclusive of materials and use of tools. Details can be found on my workshops page. As I'm organising this all on my own (which feels a bit scary) I'm the contact for everything.
My new running hare design from my line of 'Flights of Fancy' range went to a new home last month.
And now I've finished another - a white hare with violet grey Siamese points.
This one is adorned with twisted silver wire, natural pearls and smoky quartz teardrop beads and is on sale in my Etsy shop. My Manchester Spring Bunnies workshop is at the end of the month, and we are almost full - just two places left! If you'd like to come to this one, please book directly through the Make It shop site here. They may look small and simple, but each one takes me about four - five hours to make. All that smoothing. Now I've got to crack on with my April newsletter - if you'd like to see any of my previous newsletters, without subscribing, they can be found archived here.