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Children's illustrator and cricket lover cultivates vegetables and cats in rural Oxfordshire.
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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)
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.
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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.
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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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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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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.