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Children's illustrator and cricket lover cultivates vegetables and cats in rural Oxfordshire.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ah, the slight awkwardness of work getting in the way of life and blogging. Work continues and not much else. Several days spent developing a new teaching, pattern and with that in mind, I have organised a new workshop for them, which is to be held on the 30th April at 'Make It' in Manchester which is already booking up after two days and only a few spaces left. You can book directly through the site here. The bunnies and I will be pleased to see you. What else? Oh, putting together my first basic needle felt kit, which I should have done ages ago, considering how many times I've been asked for them. I looked at similar starter kits and in some cases was appalled at how little wool was offered, for the price charged. So I have tried to include as much as was physically and economically possible in mine, as well as a sponge mat, pack of decent needles and a wooden holder. And at last, my February newsletter is out, with a free and simple pattern for making sweet little strawberries - these only take a small amount of wool, and a few hours (in my case) to make, depending on how wild you go with the decoration. There's also an article about a very odd and as yet unfinished piece of work...you can get the newsletter and pattern here - without even signing up.
Apart from that, I appear to be surrounded by many small, unfinished things. Such is life.
Nothing going on, except a lot of planning, designing and unfinished work - here's a little something I have actually completed, with amber chips on a bronze wire. Yes, it's yet another hare. Well, it is nearly Spring!
Three year ago, my darling Andy passed out of my life and out of so many others. Always missed, always loved, never forgotten. Wherever you are my love, I hope you're dancing.
Once upon a time, I was an art student, then I was an artist, and then an illustrator. Always in watercolour. However, I've had a painting block for nearly four years and one of my things for this year is to pick up things I've neglected - mostly for unavoidable reasons.
Actually, my biggest painting block is with oils - it was my first love when I was a teenager and yet I've only been able to make myself paint one (still unfinished) oil in 25 years. Yes, over two decades. That's some block.
When I was taking photos for my first newsletter, I included a work in progress, Aunty Pat. And I was taken with the light in this picture, as it made a nice portrait. I hunted out some old brushes and paints and set to work before my stupid neurosis could take over. So my studio table was cleared and refilled and a little canvas started.
Here is where I made the first basic error - putting in a warm, creamy brown background, which in hindsight, would have been better as a cool grey or blue. At the time though, it was enough just to be actually painting again and to my surprise, feeling quite happily at home with it.
It went quite well to begin with, until I looked at it later and realised the light was all wrong; in the photo, the light falls from the right, so I painted her that way. But the background is lit from the left. I had forgotten the most basic thing I'd been taught, 'always look for the light'.
The next day, I set about correcting it and while it was now pedantically accurate, I had lost the freshness of the paint strokes. However, this was not about doing a perfect picture, it was an exercise to get me painting regularly again.
In putting down a similar background colour and tone, I found it almost impossible to get Aunty Pat's furry (or rather, woolly) head standing out as sharply as I wanted, without bringing in too much white. And then I added too much black (which I rarely used in the past and now I know why) to her foreground ear and it just looked messy and dead, colour wise.
But I persevered, and finished it. I don't like it. I know it's the thing nowadays to be terribly pleased with anything one has created, but I had an old fashioned art training, which taught me strict self criticism, in order to be able to improve. And at the end of the day, I broke my oil painting hoodoo. And that was what it was all about.
I'm going to write this one off to experience and do it again.
I did sign it though.
I envy people who can just pick up a brush and sail away happily. For me, it has been like not being able to eat my favourite food: it is, as they say, complicated and may even sound odd. Nonetheless, my inability to 'just paint' has been very real and frustrating. Like being able to swim well, but not able to enter water and still wanting to swim.
I'm off to spend some kindly given Christmas money on some decent brushes, paints and a couple of canvases. I've got a lot of painting to catch up with. Twenty five years, to be precise.
If you haven't signed up for my newsletter and would like to see the other photos of Aunty Pat, as well as read my tips for getting equal length limbs, you can find the archive here. (You're not obliged to sign up, just click the link for the January newsletter)
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.
Well, that's that out of the way and I seem to have my life back again. I don't usually do stalls, as it's an almost impossible (and expensive) thing to do when you don't drive and live in remote ruralsville. But this one was only a couple of miles away and Brian-next-door helped me get everything over, on a stormy day with gale force winds and driving rain.
Thankfully it was all under cover. This is the annual Christmas Fair held at Concord International College, at Acton Burnell. It was bigger than I expected - much bigger. My heart quailed, not for the first time, but I got stuck into setting up. I'd been planning this for weeks, so it was just a case of popping everything out.
There was a small emergency when I had to get Brian to pick me up again so that I could dash home and print off more price labels (which I thought I had, but patently hadn't). And also borrowed an extra table cloth from Jean, having scrounged some extra table space. I even unearthed my old stock of cards, and sold quite a few.
In the end it all went well. My old retail skills kicked back in and I had a pleasant smile glued to my face. There was a large footfall of over 2,000 visitors, not including the college students. My stall was nice and busy and I sold enough gubbins to make it worthwhile. My new Paypal card reader worked and the three hours flew by.
I was inevitably asked about my prices for my own needle felt work. One couple directly asking me why it was priced 'so high'. Once upon a time, I might have shrunk under a stone, but now I've got more confidence. For a start, I answered (keeping my pleasant smile) the smallest thing on my tree took at least four hours to make. I am a published professional in my field, very well known, with over eight years of full time practise. And my work is collected, especially in America, where they really value good craftmanship. So the prices reflect my time, my skills and my name.
It's hard not to be British sometimes and undersell yourself. I now realise that I have to be my own walking, talking CV; there's no point in being overly modest. What I didn't add was that with the hours of work I put in on each and every piece, I am still working for less than the UK minimum wage which is £6.70 at present. So I am pricing as low as I can afford to, even if it seems 'high' because this is not my little hobby, but my livelihood.
But here's the thing - although I only sold one piece of my own work, the look of joy when so many people came up to my stall and admired the displays was immensely rewarding. I put on, as they say, a 'good show'. And sold a lot of kits and supplies on top of that. I have to admit, I treated myself to a celebratory bottle of cheap wine and a pizza on the way home when Brian drove me back. He refused petrol money point blank.
I also had many people asking me if I was holding a local workshop, which is now on the cards and spurred me into setting up a monthly newsletter, which will start in January. It will be solely about needle felting - workshops for next year, tips on working, my own work in progress, new kits - that kind of thing. So there is now a sign up page on my website, here. Of course, your details remain completely confidential. I've already had quite a few subscribers, so I'd better start planning the January edition...
Joe and I managed to get together for a couple of precious days, to celebrate our first anniversary. No champagne or roses, just the pleasure of being with each other. A week later, after a few mysterious hints, a box arrived in the post. It was opened with ceremony, over Skype, twenty first century style.
I was still baffled when I opened the lid. Apparently these have been widely advertised on TV, but I watch very little TV. So imagine (as they say) my surprise. And delight. Rendered, for once, speechless.
A selection of my needle felt creations, printed onto strawberry marshmallows from Boomf! The perfect anniversary present. Of course, I can never eat them. They are too, too precious, in so many ways and not just because my toys are on them. Besides, Sasha has already staked her claim on hers.
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I've made just under 50 patterns in the last four years, but this one has to be one of my favourites, a Scandinavian style village in a terrarium.
It's also my third cover for Mollie Makes, which is a bit of a proud moment. As usual, it's been beautifully styled and photographed at the other end.
Like all of my patterns, it started off with sketches which progressed from initial brain storming ideas -
- to experimenting with various shapes and arrangements.
Before settling on what would be more or less the final design.
For my American friends, I believe it becomes available early next year from Barnes and Noble, Books A Million and outlets of Jo-Ann. A full list of countries and overseas outlets can be found here on the Mollie Makes site. I'd love to see any examples of villages made from my pattern. I'm also holding a 'little houses' needle felt workshop at my old haunt, Folly Fabrics, Wiltshire, on February 27th next year. For more details and to book a place from their site, click here. I've been pleasantly surprised at how many people have signed up for my needle felt newsletter, and am planning the first edition for mid-January. If you'd like to sign up for it too, the form is here on my own website.
How can something so innocent looking cause so many headaches? And yet it did. Back in the spring, I decided to have a bash at making a needle felted teddy bear. Not my usual thing, but I wanted to see if I could. And it took months. Months of picking it up, putting it down, leaving it for weeks at a time and almost giving up. Bits were cut off, bits were stuck back on. It became known as 'The Teddy Bear of Doom'. But I persevered and eventually finished the darned thing. Then came the knitting.
I rarely knit. But I wanted to make a little vest for him. By now it was a 'him'. I used four needles, as I'm more comfortable with four (like socks, which I haven't made for 25 years). Bought a gorgeous ball of soft aqua wool. Cast on, using my own apparent common sense.
How hard could it be to knit a little vest, freehand? All weekend difficult, that's how much. I discarded my first attempt and began another.
So small. So fiddly. So infuriating. It wasn't going to beat me.
After many, many knitting hours, I had finished. Only to discover the big, glaring design flaw. I hadn't thought about the head opening. So it sat on his head like a mushroom cap. At which point, I gave up.
So I did what I should have done in the first place and needle felted him a vest. Took a couple of hours. Not a couple of days.
Then he was thread jointed.
And so his head, arms and legs swivelled, like a proper teddy bear.
He is one of the largest things I've made, and sits snugly in the hand. I guestimated he took over 50 hours, but that was with a lot of tinkering and remaking.
And he was, in the end, worthy of his own special tag - named after a tiny village in Shropshire, not a million miles away from where I live.
The essential problem with him was that he was bigger than my natural making scale. I remembered an early project from long ago, when I was commissioned to make a monkey. I had to abandon my first gigantic attempt, but the second, smaller one was just right. I blogged my shame and called it 'A Tale of Two Monkeys'.
But recently, I got the urge to start another jointed figure. This time, non-teddy bear (not really 'me'), but a small fox. And this one is going exactly to plan. So far.
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Joe and I are enjoying our second Christmas together. Yet again it's simply a quiet time; a time of being thankful that we have a roof over our heads, food, logs for the fire and most importantly, each other. Whatever you do at this time of year - and especially if you are alone - we both send you the warmest of best wishes and hope for the future. Because there is always a better place, despite the long haul to get there.
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Taking a few days off over the holiday season meant some quality time plonked in front of the woodburner with some old board games. I introduced Joe to a childhood favourite, 'Coppit'. My 'vintage' version is, as you can see, a bit the worse for wear, but it is still a great game, even cut-throat - if a board game can said to be such a thing.
Once he got the hang of it (after one game), he won every game after. But I got repeated revenge with Scrabble and didn't gloat too much.
Another old favourite of mine is 'Tell Me' - I've had this game in various versions almost all my life. The two I have now are from the 50's and 60's. The same game, but with slight differences and not just in the box design.
It's a very basic concept; general knowledge questions are read out, the disc is spun and lands on a letter of the alphabet and the first person to call out a correct answer (or one which isn't disputed) wins the card. Winner is the person with the most cards. Although simple, the spinning disc brings in the element of randomness, so the answers are different every time.
The 1960s version is almost like the one I knew in the 70's, with fairly straightforward questions -
'something in this room' 'name of a member of parliament' 'an advertising slogan' (this one is not included in the 50's version; maybe a sign of the times?)
also 'a word used in radio' (very broad and up for debate) 'a means of communication' and a reflection of the growing prevalence of the one-eyed monster in the room, 'a television personality'.
The 50's version has many of the same questions, but also some odd, almost philosophical ones. We played both games, and this one threw up by far the most interesting discussions and verbal tussles. Here are some choice ones -
'What would you like to become?' - which could be anything from 'a better person', to 'a proper grown up' to 'a postman'.
'What or who annoys you most?' - again, a debatable subject, and dependent on the alphabet letter thrown up. And should the answer be silly or truthful? Should you say any answer so long as it fits the letter, or not answer because you honestly can't think of anything which annoys you beginning with 'X'?
'What or who do you love very much?' - same situation really, and we tended towards the silly and soppy.
'What frightens you?' Do we really want to go here? If the letter was the right one for one's honest answer, it could throw up all kinds of deep confessions, but we decided to stick with anything monster-ish or spooky.
'How do you feel at this moment?' Again, this one can lead onto quite interesting discussions and it's then that you realise how something as simple as a board game can be great conversation makers as well as entertainment.
'Something seen on a country ramble' didn't appear in the 1960's version - maybe it was deemed too old fashioned for the time. A bit 'Enid Blyton'.
'A word reading the same forwards or backwards' is very straightforward, but surprisingly tricky to think of at the time and led to a few drawn out silences as we racked our 21st century brains, more used to Google for the answer to anything.
An original owner of the 50's game had obviously decided to put in their own questions - I have a feeling this may have been 'Dad' as the block lettering is very much like my father's and other men's writing of that time. So we have something a little more modern
'A term used in inter-planetary space travel' - this was an ambiguous beast and some confusion reigned as to what kind of thing precisely fitted the question. I swung it with 'asteroid' but it didn't really feel right.
'Name of your favourite TV programme' - again, a more updated question, so maybe this family had a TV of their own. If so, they may have been quite financially comfortable as not many households at that time had them.
The last two seem to have their own little back story. There is -
'A county cricketer, past or present'
'Not a cricketer but a famous sports person'
I wonder if there was a cricket expert in the family, and the last altered question was put in to give the others a chance? We will never know, but I'm sure we had as much fun playing these old-fashioned games as previous generations have.
Berrington, the 'Teddy Bear of Doom' went up for sale in my Etsy shop and someone loved him enough to buy him. I know he's gone to a fabulous home, though I had to help him with the packing. So it's been a good start to the new year for both of us and I send everyone best wishes for 2016.