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Children's illustrator and cricket lover cultivates vegetables and cats in rural Oxfordshire.
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We're properly on the verge of winter now and I am working my fingers off making new things for a local Christmas fair, But sometimes it's good to get out, so Joe took me to Squirrel Park, where I was promised - well, squirrels.
And there they were, looking ridiculously seasonal and doing proper squirrel things with nuts.
Bounding about with enviable energy.
Not only burying nuts, but finding hidden stashes...
...and having an early nibble.
Although we hadn't done any bounding about, the wind was getting up and the afternoon darkening. So as I was in need of a little sustenance myself, we headed over to Patisserie Valerie (again), where Joe treated us to hot chocolate brownies and double chocolate gateaux. Because winter needs cake. Or nuts, if you're a squirrel.
I've been carting this old Adana flat bed press around for about eighteen years. It's always been knackered and the roller perished before I was born, I think. It's hard to find out much about this type of Adana, but my persistent foraging in Google convinced me that it was an early model, probably from the 1930s.
Being in need of funds and something to flog, I dragged it out of the shed. Brian-next-door came round with his tools and inexhaustible knowledge of all things mechanical. It was gradually taken apart.
Uncovered, the metal looked even worse. But Brian was quite sanguine about it. 'Soon clear that up' he said.
We saved the bits carefully.
I plonked myself on the drive and cleaned the small stuff.
Brian got busy with a drill and wire brush attachment. It was quite astonishing how well it came up. Brian, of course, was right.Every bit was cleaned, but not overly so; I wanted it to retain its history and life scars. We all wear patinas as we get older.
Then it was mostly put back together.
Looking as if it had a new lease of life.
There was a problem with the roller mechanism, which was so jammed up even Brian couldn't immediately undo it. But he took it to his magic shed and after some work, dismantled, cleaned and oiled it so that it will be more user friendly for the next owner.
The wooden top was sanded lightly and soaked in woodwork treatment, just to be on the safe side and I beeswaxed it. Then it was ready for the final assemblage. Which we did in the kitchen, Shropshire style.
We tried to remember what screws went where. Brian confessed that his memory is not what it used to be and what I know about nuts and bolts can be scratched on the head of a pin. (And there would still be space).
But between us we managed to work it out.
And eventually, the final screw went back in.So this neglected old press went from this -
- to this. It's now on eBay, as sadly, I need to sell it. So on the off chance that anyone knows anyone who is looking for a simple flat bed printing press, it is on auction on the UK eBay site here until Tuesday 17th November. Keep your collective fingers crossed for me please!
A new experience for both of us; coffee and cake is always good, but this takes it to a whole new level.
It is, quite simply, a beautiful experience. Stylishly laid out with comfortable red leather and Art Nouveau décor, Patisserie Valerie was jam packed with all kinds of everyone. And so nice to see the younger generation enjoying proper afternoon tea.
The staff were absolutely charming - friendly, polite and attentive. Despite a short wait, due to the abundance of customers, we were given wonderful service, starting with huge mocha coffees (which were excellent and the right balance of bitter sweetness) and there were many apologies for the short wait.
But the delay was barely noticed, as there was so much gorgeous cakiness to look at and admire. I had asked permission to take photos, which was freely given, and snapped away happily.
Our waiter was charm itself and soon our cakes arrived.
The cake portions are properly generous and almost too exquisite to eat. Joe opted for cheesecake, adorned with a small piece of modern sculpture.
I went with the double chocolate gateau, with a fat, sticky profiterole nestling on top. Both were perfection to look at - and eat. My chocolate paradise was densely cocoa flavoured without being over rich, with a light, moist sponge and a rich, oozing filling. We exchanged forkfuls, but not many words. Cake eating is a serious business.
Afterwards, with happy sighs, we laid down our sticky forks and sat back. It was a complete meal in itself. We watched people coming and going, some queuing for tables, some popping in for take away portions. All the time, there was a constant crowd of people peering in at the window, admiring the pretty display.
We agreed that this has to be a regular event. And best of all, there are not only branches across the UK, but one has recently opened in my patch, Shrewsbury. So there will still be cake at Patisserie Valerie, even when Joe moves down to the cottage.
Sometimes you look forward to something, only to be slightly let down by the actual experience. This exceeded expectation and we are now loyal customers. It only took one cake each and superb customer service.
The last two weeks have been rather full on with work. A deadline for a new needle felt pattern, which is the largest thing I've designed instructions for. And because of a workshop happening up in the middle of that, a lightening 48 hour trip back down to Bampton, to my favourite haunt, Folly Fabrics.
Sharon (lovely shop owner and my host that night) took me on a little scenic walk around the village, where I snapped the 'Downton Abbey' church. Again.
And took touristy photos of pretty cottages and houses. I still miss the Cotswolds, despite loving Shropshire. And despite the fact that I could never afford to live here.
One of the things I miss most, is the combination of mellow light on Cotswold stone, against a darkening sky. It brings out a horribly poignant homesickness. 'The Land of Lost Content' indeed.
The Land of Lost Content
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A. E. Housman ('A Shopshire Lad')
I am sure that many of us have those places. I do find it painfully ironic that this particular excerpt comes, of course, from A.E Housmans 'A Shropshire Lad' - and that one of my favourite musical collections by Ralph Vaughan Williams is 'On Wenlock Edge' - which I now find almost impossible to listen to.
'On Wenlock Edge' is, as you may know, based around 'A Shropshire Lad'. The real Wenlock Edge - in Shropshire of course - is also close to the ancient green woodlands where Andy rests. All of these interwoven strands combine to make a tangled knot of intense sorrow and melancholia, which I try not to dwell on too much.
So let's not. Let's have a photograph of Sharon taking a photograph of wildflowers. As you do.
She was collecting autumn inspiration colours, and these 'Fox and Cubs' (as I know them) are the most gorgeous fiery blood orange.
That night, a cake was decorated for the workshop. They are always themed to fit whatever we are making.
And there everyone was, the next day, with the usual combination of chatter and concentration.
It's always lovely when people come back to my workshops and this time, four out of the nine places had been taken up by people I'd taught before.
Teatime and the traditional toadstool dance around the cake.
I never cease to feel so rewarded at the end of a session, when everyone has worked hard, ploughed through any difficulties and gone home with something they love.
I returned home to Shropshire that night (via train as usual), a little shattered, to find a box of macarons waiting for me; a present through the post from Joe. So sweet and so pretty; the only thing to do was to Instagram them. And then eat them. And feel lucky that I have a man who sends cake through the post.
The rest of the week was spent getting on with my pattern deadline, which was all business as usual; it will be published by Christmas, and it's my favourite one yet - I can't wait to show it off!
Jean and Brian, my wonderful neighbours, are having big clear outs this year. Having introduced them to the notion of 'vintage', they always let me know when they're getting rid of stuff and I am usually approached with
'Is this of any use to you? It's been in the shed/loft for years and it's got to go'.
One of the many things which 'had to go' - having been languishing in one of Brian's many sheds for decades, was this fabulous wall mount. 'You don't have to have it, if you don't like it'.
I may have squealed with delight when he handed me this. Joe is rather keen to have hanging baskets at the cottage and this is the most perfect hanger imaginable.
Brian's sheds throw up many interesting things, some of which I find intriguing, if baffling. This is a 'something or other' which he gave me to put on to eBay; however, I find I am curiously attached to it, having a weakness for old painted things. Even if I don't know what they're for. He did explain it to me, but it it went in one ear and out of the other. This is a keeper though, whatever it is.
'You're not putting that dirty old thing on my clean table cloth' Jean protested, when Brian brought this sweet little lamp inside 'in case you're interested'. 'It's just an old thing I've had for years' he said as he handed it to me, Jean grimacing slightly.
To her dismay, I cradled it lovingly in my hands, crooning with pleasure. It just needs a bit of a clean and a candle.
Less disreputable, old Kilner jars which belonged to Jean's mother. Which of course 'are of use'.
Sometimes I'm given things which flummox even me, and I give them a punt on eBay. After all, pieces of toast and the legendary 'old rope' have been sold there. Then I have a bit of creative fun with the descriptions.
'This quirky and kitsch little swan pretty much sums up a lot about the 1960s. It looks as if it was designed to hold one of those highly perfumed bath salt blocks that my mother was so fond of and used to be given at Christmas. If only she'd had one of these! Made in England and designed by Jean Sorell Ltd, it measures approximately 8 x 8cm.
The box states that it will float when not holding bath salts, but I cannot guarantee this.' Or how about another swan -
'Where to start with this one? Well, it is basically a nice hand blown glass swan, which is all fine and well. This one is a little unusual in that it is apparently a 'magic swan'. How so, you ask? Well, it comes with the original dyed papers which turn it various colours. Such fun!
The instructions read as follows -
'To colour, fill the body with water and insert dye paper for one minute. Place thumb over aperture and and turn swan over. By a series of small movements the air bubble will gradually leave the head. Turn the swan up again without allowing the air back into the head'
There is no mention, however, about what you do with the plastic rose. In a further gesture towards beauty, I imagine it is stuck elegantly in the hole at the back, once you've managed to fill the swan with coloured water (and not getting it everywhere in the process).
This is why we invented the internet. Having said all that, it is a very pretty piece, never used, 'hand made by craftsmen from the finest British glass' and in its original box with packing. What's not to like?
Oh yes, and it measures 13 x 13 cm.
However, if I can sell things such as this rather crazy old flocked lion, which found a loving home several months ago, then I remain hopeful. Beauty in everything. Even Jean is almost convinced.
I've made very few of my own personal creations this year; partly because I am still struggling to recover my creativity after the awful, life changing events of 2013. *Warning* This is an old post that some people who don't know what happened may find upsetting, but I've put it in, as this is to some extent my personal blog and anyhow, it's been 'out there' since it happened.Grief doesn't just stop once the initial agony subsides; it continues to send out ripples and in my case, this has meant a rather grey no-man's land as far as inspiration goes. Bit of a problem when your only income is creatively based.
So I have been busy flogging whatever I can on eBay, to pay the bills. Once upon a time, this wasn't such an issue, but my circumstances now mean that anything which doesn't bring in an income has to be forfeited in favour of things which do. But I have cobbled together a few things. Just to keep my hand in.
These odd looking beasties - 'Hawses' - were a bit of a self indulgent experiment and a move away from my mainstream cute style. If nothing else, it was good to try something different.
The rest has been more familiar work. I've fiddled about unsuccessfully with different ideas, including the 'Teddy Bear of Doom'. One of the most difficult things I have ever attempted, shown here at halfway stage. Limbless, unloved and a bit wistful. Little blighter.
On another note, my kits have found their way to Berlin, via the gorgeous AMODO shop - I feel as if I have gone international, albeit in a very small way!
But sadly, a squirrel and a simple circus bear have been pretty much the only finished work so far this year.
I continue to weather things out and as always, try to look on the bright side. Despite everything that has happened, and some recent health issues, I have so many blessings in my life and count them every day.
At this time of year the kitchen is a magnet for crane flies and at night, if the window is left ajar, they clamber inside and head for the one light.
It's a love hotel for daddy long-legs.
While I'm not over fond of them flitting about my head, they make the most incredible shapes in their courtship dances.
My object was to capture the detail of my little short lived companions, as they danced their way through their brief existence. But I found the 'mistakes' even more attractive, and while the dim light meant 'off' colours, it simply added to the atmosphere
Where my camera could only catch traces of wing movement, graceful scatterings appeared. And with a bit of dickering about in Photoshop, the results are even artistic.
I can't help but imagine these images reproduced on huge canvases with somewhat pompous and meaningless titles such as 'We Are Building a New Kingdom'
or 'Towards the Celestial Light'
or even, ooh, I don't know, how about 'Within all of us - the Apocalypse!'
They would be displayed in the kind of understated but expensive foyers found in modernist buildings in the financial districts of large cities. Perhaps people would look at them and ponder the meaning behind the shadows.
I say unusually, as I have to admit, it hasn't been a main feature on my non-existent bucket list. But when someone special whisks you off for a weekend away, it doesn't really matter where it is. And this country mouse was rather surprised at what a fabulous time she had.
Perhaps it's my Brighton roots, maybe it's having lived on the Devon coast in my childhood, but I have a soft spot for the seaside and all the paraphernalia which goes with it. And what's not to like about Blackpool Tower?
We took a wander down the small but famous pier.
And went along the the sea front. Another secret pleasure of mine - the glitz and tack which goes with the British pleasure beach.
We hunted for a place to gorge on ice cream - and they had to be proper old-school Sundaes (or in my case, a Knickerbocker Glory). We found them at Cafe Palma, just off the sea front. And returned the next day for more.
Later, we returned to the sea front to watch the first round of the International fireworks competition - this night it was China putting on a fabulous display.
However, we weren't just here for the ice cream and sea views, we were here for the first Blackpool Comic Convention. Another thing I never envisaged myself writing about on this blog, but then, there have been a few of those.
Queuing for two hours round various blocks to get in was mitigated by some fabulous costumes on display and the genial atmosphere of the crowd. We were lucky to get in at all, as we found later, many people queued for longer and were turned away, even with pre-booked tickets.
The Winter Gardens is a spectacular pile, in typical grandiose Victorian style. Today it was rammed with comic fans.
Joe's the geek and comic hero fan, but I was happy just to enjoy a new experience and take numerous photos of Joe with his heroes and heroines.
I think he was particularly pleased with this one, alongside well known cos-play actress Kristen Hughey.
What you need after a day traipsing around a super hero event is a super hero meal. So we returned to Cafe Palma for tea. Fish and chips for me, second time in two days. And meat pie for Joe. And more ice cream.
It's been a long time - too long - since I had such simple, unalloyed fun - and I'm looking forward to a promised return trip. Because I haven't quite ploughed my way through the entire ice cream menu at Cafe Palma.
Summer, such as it has been, seems to have flown by. Now the tractors are up and down the lane from dawn till dark, carrying loads of straw and potatoes. Already the fields are being prepared for next year's harvest.
We cycled out spontaneously one morning, when the sun made a joyful appearance, and headed over to Venus Pool to see what was going on in the bird community.
Quite a lot, as it happened. We settled in one of the waterside hides.
The geese were gathering in numbers - flocks of them have been flying over the cottage regularly, heralding the end of summer with their haunting cries. There were the usual Canadian Geese and a crowd of Grey Geese. Keeping their distance, faraway, were three pairs of Cormorants. A dignified Grey Heron mingled in a rather aloof fashion.
I told Joe how Andy always referred to these birds as 'grey greasy fishermen', from the way they seem to slink and slide as they are hunting or flying.
There was one unexpected visitor, a Little White Egret.
Such a pretty thing, delicately picking its way past the waddling, guzzling geese.
It's on the amber list of birds, so this was a good 'spot'.
We headed over to the little woodland hide, where numerous bird feeders attract the smaller birds. Nothing unusual here (though I did once watch a rat squabbling with a pair of ducks). The birds do very well here, with plenty of peanuts provided for the Great Tits and suchlike.
One last glance at Venus Pool, with the Wrekin looming in the background, before heading home to beat the incoming rain.
Autumn is definitely on its way.
Joe spotted an old wasp nest in a muddy bank - I have to admit I walked right past it, thinking it was a disintegrating plastic bag.
Exquisite constructions; delicate paper palaces which will gradually dissipate over the season, leaving nothing but a few tiny, desiccated corpses.
We picked blackberries on the way home; our summer has been somewhat mixed and fruit in general is not great this year.
But we foraged enough for a crumble.
True to form, the British summer closed in and as we arrived home, the rain was tumbling in from Wales. This was the view from the garden...before taking cover.
After a good morning of wandering, and with calories to replace, there was home made trifle for lunch. This baby had my own lemon drizzle cake lining the bottom - which gives it a nice zingy cut though the sweetness of cream, jelly and custard. And, of course, hundreds and thousands.
This month saw me down in Buckingham for a repeat workshop at the Buckingham Summer School. It was great last year and it was great this year - with the small problem of my stupidly arriving on the wrong day. Something I only realised on my arrival, when I was greeted with 'hello Gretel, lovely to see you again - a day early'. At which point my brain caved in somewhat, as I had booked my motel room for that night only. I also had been asked to do a live interview from the cottage with BBC Shropshire (on the day that my workshop actually was) and had pre-booked train tickets.
I'm not normally this daft and I can only blame it on my being a bit under the weather this summer and my head not being in its normal steady place. After recovering my senses, I set about sorting things out. I cancelled the interview (which was to be about this blog), managed to book the last room at the motel for an extra night - at some cost - then rang Joe and whined at length, before settling down for a dull night in a bland motel room.
I was saved by the lovely lady (who had just ferried me from Milton Keynes train station to the school) who rang me to say that she was sorting out her spare room, so that I could stay the extra night with her. Thankfully I was able to cancel my booked room and things started to look a little better.
The next day, when I had mistakenly expected to be doing my workshop, I ventured into the pretty and bustling little town of Buckingham and pottered about taking photos. I even managed to locate a nice sweet shop, where I was able to buy Joe some of his favourite truffles
Back at the Summer School, I was just in time to snaffle some afternoon tea.
The previous day, I'd been introduced to a fellow felt maker, who's name I know from reputation; the lovely Sue Pearl. At precisely the point when my head was imploding. I hadn't really made good conversation, apart from the occasional whimper.
Sue was also holding workshops at the school. Today, she was holding a natural plant dying class and I popped in to say hello properly and have a look around.
We had a good old chat and I had a peek at something which I've not encountered before. All of her students had produced beautiful work and Sue herself had examples of her work for sale. As you can see, she is multi-talented. Compared to her I'm just a one trick pony, but I do love seeing other people's work.
After that, I trailed back to what was to be my workshop room and spent a couple of hours in solitary splendour, doing my own work. During which time, I was rung by the nice people at BBC Shropshire, who told me that they really, really wanted to go ahead with the interview and could I do it by phone instead? So that was another thing sorted out.
Later, I was picked up and taken out to dinner by my guardian angel. I don't often eat out, so this was a proper treat and a chance to catch up with someone who has become a friend, since attending my last year's workshop.
And so the next day began with a live early morning interview on BBC Shropshire, about my blog, and why I do it. I managed not to make an idiot of myself and Jean-next-door heard me as she was having her breakfast.
At last the workshop started. All of my class were totally new to needle felting. And they were, without exception, fabulous.
As was lunch. I have very happy memories of last year's lunch, and I was not disappointed this time.
The rest of the day flew by on needle felted wings. One person had brought along some foraged sheep's wool, hoping to make it into something - which she did, making a delightful little lamb.
By the end of the day, there was a flock of geese. It is always so rewarding when the day's labours have produced fabulous results.
As for me - I was taxied back by my friend to the train station for my return trek home to Shropshire. Great relief when I discovered that there was no extra fee to pay on my train ticket. And on the way, I was rung by a charming chap at the BBC, asking me to do another live interview on the Friday night with Georgey Spanswick, broadcasting on all of the UK's local radio stations. And again, miraculously, I managed to chat about this blog without any pratfalls. Most of the conversation was about jam, as recorded in my last blog post.
So despite a nightmarish beginning, it all worked out in the end, mostly thanks to someone going the extra mile for me. I am due to do one of my last workshops this year at Indigo Moon, Montgomery, in Powys on Saturday October the 17th. We will be making decorative acorns. (And yes, I really have got the date right this time!) There are still spaces left and it would be great to see you.
When Jean and Brian invited us to help ourselves to however many blackcurrants we wanted from their garden, it was the perfect excuse to delve into a new activity. I myself prefer making chutney (less faff, more fool proof), but Joe had a hankering to try jam making.
There were certainly plenty of currants, and within 20 minutes of concentrated picking, we had 3 kilos.
The thing with so many currants, is that there is a lot of fiddly de-stalking to be done. We didn't bother with taking the dried flowers off, because as we later discovered, they simply disappear in the boiling process. I mention this specifically, as I searched the internet for ages trying to find this fact out, with limited results. So if you're reading about this via a search engine - don't sweat about the tops, just try to remove as many of the little green stalks as you can, without your eyes going squiffy.
Then we unearthed an ancient old pan of mine (now officially the 'jam pan') and began cooking. Had I realised how simple jam making is, I would have taken it up years ago. And it makes the kitchen smell delicious!
I even managed to find some waxed jam discs which had been lurking in a box for Lord knows how many years. Sterilised jars were filled.
And the next day, suitable labels were made. All a bit home-made, but pleasing nonetheless.
Bread and jam has become a very acceptable and affordable meal. We're about to make our third batch.
The day after my last needle felting workshop, I was invited to a workshop of another kind. My bete noir: wood. I have never been good with wood. I have no feeling for it, no magic in my fingers. But Ian the Toymaker was going to initiate me into the gentle art of whittling. I wished him luck.
We had limited time, so I was to start a little bird project, from an original design by a Czech puppet maker, Martin Lhotak. A little bird wired to a peg. It's the simplest of moving toys. How hard could it be? We started off with a block of lime wood and I drew out my design, with a little advice from Ian.
The next stage was to cut the lumps out, on a saw. I think it's a band saw, though I'm not very good with electrical stuff. Actually, I have a healthy respect (fear) of any moving sharp things, so Ian started me off, showing me how to gently guide the wood through the blade.
I managed to get the rest of it done on my own, with much deep breathing and concentration.
Then the next stage - the whittling. another sharp blade. A Swedish whittling knife. Again, I'm a bit lethal with sharp objects. Except felting needles, I'm ok with them.
This is Ian showing me how to polish the blade - you don't sharpen it, but it does need polishing, which helps shine up the wood as you work.
And off I went. Totally out of my comfort zone, feeling a little like many of my students must feel when they are picking up their first needle felting project.
The workshop is a wonderful treasure house.
Intriguing little drawers and boxes full of useful things. Rather like my own studio, but less haberdashery.
And works in progress, displaying clever automata mechanisms which make things move.
After less than an hour - and having been taught the correct way to hold the knife and carve - I had, to my amazement, managed to create a crude bird. Admittedly with some help from Ian. And even more miraculously, I had not cut myself.
I swapped a needle felting kit with Ian for a lump of lime wood, determined to go home and try some more whittling. It's a little like needle felting; addictive once you get going.
So later, with my special new birthday whittling knife from Joe, I finished my little bird. He remains pegless, and resembles a shark without fins. I poked some bead eyes in him, so that he could see. I no longer fear wood. But I am much better with wool.
Ian was a fabulous teacher and often holds workshops with similar projects - the results of which can be found on his website, here.
My birthday treat was this year's Shrewsbury Food festival - it first started three years ago, with immense success, but (as some of you may know) I haven't been in the right mental place to enjoy such things. There were also wonderful birthday presents from Joe, including a Swedish whittling knife, of the type recommended by Ian the Toymaker. And a humungous bottle of my favourite (and rather expensive) perfume. Summer had finally decided to arrive in the UK and we were glad we got there early - the Saturday country bus deposited us in town before 10am, so we arrived before the crush. The festival was held in Shrewsbury's beautiful Quarry Park, where the legendary Percy Thrower was the Superintendent gardener for 28 years.
We wandered about. It was crammed with mostly local small producers There was cheese and pies and pickles and fudge and cider and bread and meat and stuff. And more stuff.
And rare lop eared pigs, from nearby Middle Farm. This was part of the 'farm-to-fork' section, enabling people to make the connection between what they eat and where it actually comes from. This is 'Beckfoot Damica' and her new calf, from Great Berwick Organics. She's an English Longhorn, one of the oldest breeds in the country, dating back to at least the 16th century. We stopped for handmade venison pies, and in my case (what with it being my birthday and all) I had a pint of 'Steam Punk' beer from Shropshire's own Three Tuns Brewery. Dark treacle-y and delicious.
By now, the crowds were building up and as neither of us do people en masse, it was time to head off. So Joe bought some sausages...
...and I bought some bread. And we headed back to the cottage after a lovely day out. Full of pie.
Goodbye lovely Shrewsbury Food Festival, you were great - and good luck for next year!
Is it just the British who have a penchant for pottering around stately homes when the so-called summer weather is typically 'iffy'? Not too far from here is the lovely Longner Hall, who were having a garden open day.
So Brian and Jean from next-door, Joe and myself all crammed into one vehicle and bimbled across the lanes to have a little look and admire the topiary.
I do like a nice topiary bird.
But I like even better, sinister green domes who seem to be watching you as the rather grandiose 'big house' looms overhead.
Some people like grand houses.
I am more taken with the ramshackle.
Such as this sweet little conservatory nestling between shapely hedges.
Or intriguing secret paths leading to who knows where?
And cunning doors which beckon you to enter...
...revealing the most beautiful Victorian walled garden.
And then the rain descended, as it had been threatening to since we arrived.
We all took shelter, packed like sardines in a funny little theatre shack and I passed round mints some found at the bottom of my bag. Jean found them a little strong and had a slight coughing fit.
Once order was restored and the rain passed, we carried on admiring the neat and orderly rows of vegetables, lined up like soldiers on parade.
One of the old glass houses has been restored.
And already filling up with tidy rows of geraniums.
In the manner of these things, just as we were heading off, the clouds cleared to reveal beautiful Shropshire.
Back along the ever-so-long drive. It's time to return to our own humble but much loved homes, full of grandiose ideas for schemes which may one day come to fruition. Who knows?
Sometimes I am asked to do private workshops and it is always a huge pleasure. Apart from the fun of going away visiting, I am always treated like a visiting princess and thoroughly spoiled. This month I stayed at the home of Ian Mackay, maker of exquisite automata and Fleur Hitchcock, the children's writer. Here is Ian, making a needle felt version of one of the chickens on his amazing pecking chicken machine. Needless to say, as a skilled craftsman, he picked it up at once.
It was a fairly informal workshop, and people pretty much free ranged their designs, which was interesting for everyone and made me think on my feet.
There are wonderful examples of Ian's work all over the house, with intriguing handles which beg you to turn them. And when you do, magical things happen.
Driftwood houses are so much the in thing now, with so many people making them, but Ian was one of the early originators and I loved this little wooden street.Lunch was pretty darned splendid.
Amazingly, after all that, people carried on working. This was a particularly splendid guinea pig.
I am always thrilled to bits when someone who has never needle felted or indeed crafted much, produces something lovely. Often they start out with a little trepidation, but at the end of the day, they have made something beautiful, and in this case, entirely their own design.
Naturally, mid-afternoon, there was cake.
The next day, I myself tried my hand at creating something outside of my own comfort zone, in Ian's workshop, but that's another story for a later date. Thanks so much to Ian and Fleur, for making my weekend really special and reviving my own creative batteries, which have been a little flat for the last few years.
Out with Marjorie the other week, pootling to the Post Office which is two miles away. On the way back, I spotted a notice pinned to a gate post and, as one does, stopped to investigate.
However, it wasn't a planning application for a new housing estate (although that is in the pipeline for this area). It was a Thomas Hardy poem. Rather random, but lovely.
You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.
I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way;
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.
Pondering this and wondering 'who, what why and when?', I cycled on. And came then stopped.
Another country poem, pinned to another gatepost, with the brooding Wrekin just showing in the background.
A sonnet, by John Clare.
A Spring Morning
THE Spring comes in with all her hues and smells,
In freshness breathing over hills and dells;
O’er woods where May her gorgeous drapery flings,
And meads washed fragrant by their laughing springs.
Fresh are new opened flowers, untouched and free
From the bold rifling of the amorous bee.
The happy time ofsinging birds is come,
And Love’s lone pilgrimage now finds a home;
Among the mossy oaks now coos the dove,
And the hoarse crow finds softer notes for love.
The foxes play around their dens, and bark
In joy’s excess, ’mid woodland shadows dark.
The flowers join lips below; the leaves above;
And every sound that meets the ear is Love.
A visit to the Museum of Lancashire, principally to see the Silverdale Viking hoard while it is still on display. Buried for more than a thousand years, it's an amazing find - and the painstaking conservation work done is incredible.
Yes, I do seem to have taken mostly photos of jewellery! Well, an ingot is just an ingot, isn't it?
The museum is dedicated to local history, in all aspects. Joe was particularly interested in the First World War memorabilia.
I always find the little personal details almost unbearably poignant and wonder how many of the card senders made it home.
Even I was taken with the Hussars jackets, delightfully glamorous - how hearts must have fluttered upon seeing an officer in one of these uniforms!
My favourite bits? Well, the entertainment section and the vintage Punch and Judy set -
My lovely neighbour Jean, confessed recently that she used to find Punch and Judy terrifying when she was a little girl. Brought up a sheltered country child, and in the days before mass entertainment, she found the whole thing a bit too much on the occasional visit to the seaside.
And my other top pick, this spectacular 'roller skating costume' dating from 1910, entirely made from sewn together cigar bands, cigar box labels and stamps.
It was designed by a cleaner, Charles Hamer, for his wife Anne; he saved the bits and bobs he found at work - both Charles and Anne took part in skating contest in the Burnley (Lancashire) area.
How wonderful that other people's rubbish was turned into such an object of beauty - and undoubtedly worn with great pride.
Kings and Queens will always have their place at the top of the history hall of fame, but I find the history of the humble 'common' people just as much - if not more - fascinating.
It's been quite a year so far for magazine appearances - a few weeks ago, my ever popular pattern for doglets were featured in the Comic Relief/Mollie Makes Crafternoon bookazine. This was the first pattern I ever wrote, over three years ago and people still seem to love it! You can still buy the digital version of this from Amazon UK via this link. I've also started writing patterns for the UK's best selling craft magazine, 'Craftseller' - my first contribution was in last month's issue, number 48, a set of three tropical bird brooches. This is a copyright free pattern, which means that people can make and sell their versions of it. You can buy the back copy of this issue directly from the Craftseller site here. This month's issue, number 49, sees me on the cover, with a cute trio of pet shop sweeties. These designs are also copyright free and they hit the selves on April 4th, so there's plenty of time to grab a copy and start making.
Craftseller is a UK based publication and on sale at WHSmith, good newsagents, large supermarkets and some craft shops. I'm really thrilled to have been asked to work for them and also to have snagged my fourth magazine cover. Bottoms up!
In non-needle felting news - lovely Joe has mended the shed roof after a couple of large chunks were torn off in recent gales. It's good not to be alone anymore, in so many ways.
My Conference pear tree has been over productive again this year. Too much fruit for one person and as I did last year, I let my lovely neighbours gather as many as they wished. Still the tree hung heavy with fruit. So I have picked my own small share. The split ones to eat now -
The perfect ones to store for a few weeks.
There are apples too - sour cookers of an unknown variety.
This is the trouble with fruit - I don't have the inclination or time to do anything with them and yet I hate waste. The birds will gorge on any windfalls though and in my garden I have a couple of very plump blackbirds who have done very well out of my lethargy.
I actually found myself more drawn to the spoiled fruit still clinging to the tree.
Such rich colours and close up, a fascinating surface; quite beautiful in its own right.
This is the problem with living in the country, where everyone has fruit trees and a glut of produce. However, I am bravely chomping my way through several pears a day and they are, without doubt, very sweet and tender. Everything will be eaten, one way or another.
This last weekend saw me packing up my workshop again and travelling by various means (taxi, train, bus, foot) to the Toft Alpaca shop, near Rugby. I was a little dead on my feet by the time I arrived, but a friendly and business like welcome - not to mention a fine bowl of creamy latte coffee - soon had me upright and setting my workshop up for the next day.
It's that time of year when people's thoughts turn to Christmas and I'd pre-made a little set of my own trees to act as visual aids and inspiration.
And then I set my sales table up, as I now sell not only my own kits, but tools and supplies now. I couldnt bring my entire range of 52 wool colours (which I have stocked in my Etsy shop) but I brought as many as I could.
I was fully booked with twelve places filled. The shop and cafeteria have a really great, busy atmosphere and soon my little band of needle felters were hard at work creating their own trees.
Lunch was a superb affair.
I took advantage of the time to pop out and get a quick shot of the stars of the show, the alpacas. There are many more than this, but these two sweeties are near the shop.
Next door to my class, a crochet workshop was going on - making the delightful creatures designed by Toft founder Kerry Lord, in her new book, 'Edward's Menagerie'.
Which contains patterns for all these lovelies dangling here -
Meanwhile, back at needle felting central, I'd opened up my battered suitcase of treasure - beads, findings, threads and everything needed to beautify a Christmas tree.
This was a particularly talented class, and by the end of it I was incredibly proud of the gorgeous small forest of trees skillfully crafted that day. As for myself - well, I packed everything up again and made the return journey back home; a very busy two days indeed.
I have just two workshops left this year - one is fully booked, but there should still be places for an acorn making workshop on November 20th at the White Hart pub in Eynsham, West Oxfordshire. Details and booking contact can be found on my website.
Many of my lovely friends and readers will know that at the beginning of 2012, soon after moving into our new home - this little cottage from which I write - my beloved partner Andy tragically died. So many of you supported me in those lonely, heartbroken and dark times. Even though I may not have replied to every email or message, their presence helped me work my way through the excruciating period of grief which followed. Thank you seems hardly enough.
I cannot deny that it has been a long, solitary journey since then, despite finding odd fragments of joy. The constant battle to endure the loneliness, the worry of finances and trying as best I can to make some sort of business. For whom? Because life alone for me, is not a life at all. And so this poor blog has been often neglected. I have had little to write about, save work and more work. But now it is a New Year and a fresh beginning for me. And for another person.
Immeasurable joy has danced into my life and I have a reason for living again. A loved one to care for, to cook for and to hold. My bleak life has been transformed and I remember yet again the poem quoted to me in the early days, by a dear friend and soul sister.
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
At the time, it seemed a horrendous mockery. Now I read it with a sense of blessedness and newly opened eyes. Welcome Joe; welcome to my life, my heart and my many dear friends, wherever in the world they may be.
So many thanks for all the kind and lovely comments on my last post. Joe and I were incredibly touched that people were happy for us. Now that I have a real purpose, I've thrown myself back into work with a vengeance, starting the New Year with two little hare brooches in a newish style.
It's good to be making again.
2014 ended with a gorgeous feature in 'Filtz Fun', a popular German felting magazine - they made it all look beautiful, I think the prettiest magazine article of mine I've seen. I do need to update my publicity picture though. 2015 is starting to fill up with workshops - at the moment I have five definite dates, starting in March with a bang at the p-Lush alpaca show in Coventry, where I will be using alpaca wool for the first time ever. The next day I am in Oxfordshire at my regular venue of Folly Fabrics, Smith's Restaurant in Manchester in April and back to the Buckingham Summer School for two full days in August. (Summer, hooray!) More info and contact details can be found on my website. More to be added, with luck.
At the end of last year, I paid a flying visit to Manchester, to see my dear friend. Sue of 'Mouse Notebook'. Apart from catching up with news, I was also treated to a grand tour of her 'workplace' - the magnificent Chetham's Library.
I admit, that at the top of the stairs, when this Paradise of books opened up before me, I stood still and had a little weep. Only a true bibliophile will understand why.
Visiting is free, but donations are always very welcome (indeed, needed). Visiting times and details can be found here.
And as the lucky guest of a Chetham's librarian, I was treated to a quick tour behind the scenes - what we might call 'the staff room'. I will let the books speak for themselves, they will do it more eloquently than I.
Another insight into the life behind the shelves - inside the inner sanctum of the office, where a colleague was examining a beautiful antique book of real (and very much imaginary) marine life. I think the publication date was the 1500's, I was too lost in the engravings to pay much attention.
My friend's colleague, who had been browsing the book on our arrival, tried to find a particularly spectacular creature he had spotted earlier. Sadly, like so many mythological beasts, it remained elusive, despite much searching.
On the way out, still breathless from the presence of soaring shelves of antique books, I spotted this - as my long time friends and readers will know, anything letter press catches my attention.
Here are small enclosed areas, rather like individual shrines to the blessed book.
There was a distinctly cathedral-like atmosphere throughout - a hushed reverence and the way the fragile winter light filtered through the windows.
Partially drunk on the rapture of books, I emerged into bright winter sunshine and braved the Christmas crowds and the train journey home.
Two years ago today, my lovely Andy chose to leave this life. Today, I and all his many friends and family remember him with love. It is a bleak, rainy winter's day and the trees are bare, but I have picked all the colour in the garden for him and hold his memory close in my heart. Always.
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My first creations with alpaca wool - I was thrilled to be asked to host a workshop at the p-Lush Alpaca Show on March 27th. So I chose to make little birds, which are ideal for beginners.
Rather different to my normal merino - bizarrely, the fibres seemed finer and yet at the same time, more 'hairy'.
So although I strived for my usual smooth finish, they did come out looking a little fuzzy. But I rather liked the natural effect. There are only 12 places on this workshop and they are booking already - details and registration can be found on the p-Lush booking page here. Join in, it'll be fun!