Something About Knockers

Resisting the urge to make this blog title an innuendo. I love a good pun as much as the next person, but there’s a time and place for smut and this ain’t it.

This blog post was planned for early January, meant to come straight off the back of my Christmas wreath lecture – as the two were connected, as you’ll see – but well, January got in the way of my plans, with its god-damned sheer Januaryness.

We got through it all, more or less in one piece, but it’s only now that temperatures have begun to climb and snowdrops peep out, that I have had enough mental energy to think about writing – there are plenty more real-life doings and happenings to talk about, but I did want to start the year with the post I had originally planned, even if it is a month late.

Back, then, to the knockers – when I was scouting around for my favourite wreaths at Christmas, I noticed a rather fine door knocker in the shape of a bee.

A few doors down, a lovely dragonfly –

And on the same street, another bee, but this time in gold (no photo of that one, sorry) – all three within the same half dozen row of houses. Clearly two of the neighbours must all have admired the original bee and been inspired to copy it, I do wonder if they are all friends or if the original adopter of a quirky knocker resents being imitated? Either way, the fun of spotting unusual knockers became a new game.

It had never really occurred to me that there were options beyond the typical D-shape knocker, circle or vertical strip – and I’d never really looked closely at them, since our door doesn’t have one, it’s never been on my radar. (Though I did have one at the old house, a boring D-shape one, I can’t even remember if I considered other options, or gave it more than minimal thought).

On New Year’s Day we went to Greenwich – lots of character in some of the little grids of terraced streets around the Park and river frontage, and I bet there would be even more unusual knockers if I had a proper explore around the grander streets, but I found the cheeky frog (above), and Romanesque-looking lion with a mane like a Medusa’s locks (below).

Closer to home, I found another, more conventional lion, and a handsome fox:

This was my last quirky knocker for a while – I have been keeping an eye out, but the standard styles are so universal, at least on our regular suburban streets, it’s really hard to spot anything different. Then today, just a stones throw from preschool, I saw perhaps my favourite yet:

Is it an eagle or a Phoenix? Whichever it is, I love it. It’s got a very Hogwarts feel to it.

My architectural excitement for the day was not over yet, though, as looking at that particular house got me looking higher up at the frontages of the row as a whole, and saw something I’d never noticed before, a beautiful decorative portico:

And the house next door had one too

I must have walked past these houses a hundred times and never noticed how ornate they were. It just goes to show, wherever you go – remember to look up!

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The Wreath Lectures, 2018

It’s the last Sunday evening of 2018, I have gin, chocolate and Star Wars on TV, just enough time to wrap up my favourite wreaths of the year.

This year is going to be short-ish on text and big on images because there were just too many to choose from – in fact I’ve gone so far as to make collages, fancy!

First off, if we have a theme this year, it’s that wreaths have gone BIG. We have baubles, gold and silver trimmings, plastic cherries and wheat, red ribbons, cinnamon sticks and dried fruit – and they are all BIG! Some of these four are a little too artificial for my personal taste, but the effect of them is very impressive.

This one was probably the biggest of the lot – practically a third of the door space taken up. Huuuge! Eucalyptus leaves seem to be quite a trend this year, too.

Some others I really liked: silvery-white all natural wreath with what look like frosted apples and pears, red and white rags, heart shaped and star shaped. (Red and white rags possibly my personal winner this year, really stood out from all the rest).

EVEN MORE, red leaves, red ribbons, bells, robins, hearts, baubles. Bottom right was a first for me: a wreath hung in a window rather than on a door (on closed shutters) – looked really good.

Final four combo: totally plain fir tree branches against a geometric glass door, big brash wreath with white roses on a yellow door, big red ribbon on dark green door, and one with a wooden heart in the middle. Loved all of these ones.

My last favourite isn’t even really a favourite – it isn’t the sort of wreath I’d normally stop to admire, but it reminded me of something and I couldn’t think what –

Then it struck me, the frosted-tinsel look with red ribbon was exactly what the 5cm high wreath I used to hang on the door of my dolls house looked like. You can still get them, exactly the same as they were, and sold in a two-pack, exactly as I had (why, when the dolls house had only one door? – always puzzled me!).

So the frosty wreath on the red door gets a thumbs up from me.

That’s all for me from 2018 – I didn’t quite stick to my goal of blogging at least once a month this year, and certainly this has been the least garden-focused year I’ve had since I started, but branching out (pun intended) into other areas has been fun. And carving out time to write whilst rebuilding a career and keeping family life on the go has been good for helping keep the brain clear of other distractions (I finally gave up Plants vs Zombies, yay me!)

I do hope the poor garden gets a bit more love next year, but for now, a very happy New Year and back for more of the same in 2019!

No Room on the Tree

I can’t say that this has been the most stressful Christmas run-up we’ve ever had – no-one has been seriously ill (so far – touch wood), we aren’t moving house, I’m not pregnant or clutching a baby – but it’s certainly been the most relentless.

The timing of term dates means means school doesn’t break up until tomorrow – the 21st – and we’ve already done nearly all the big festive run-up events, some of them weeks ago now. Christmas markets, tick. Preschool nativity, tick. Tree’s up, tick. School Christmas fair and school play, tick. Family get-together, tick. Preschool outing to Winter Wonderland, and end-of-term party, tick!

All that’s left to do (all!) is festive play date with old friends from baby playgroup days, visit the tree in Trafalgar Square, make mince pies and biscuits, another family gathering on Christmas Eve, and then the big day itself.

But we are all, undoubtedly, shattered already – the Mr working long hours and me spinning all the plates trying to keep everything under control while finishing off my last few work tasks for the year. It hasn’t helped that it’s rained endlessly for the past few weeks – mornings so dark and children exhausted after school – any brief patch of daylight has me scurrying for fresh air and the outdoors.

This has been the first year, though, where Christmas has felt like a routine – and I don’t mean that necessarily as a bad thing. Both children are old enough to remember previous christmases – I realise that this is IT, now, these are their memories being laid down for the future, when I hear them say ‘I remember this decoration!’ or ‘oh, this one is my favourite’ or ‘I made this one last year’ – those, suddenly, are the moments to grasp hold of and think, I hope you remember this!

My usual goal of adding new decorations to the tree – and making some – is curtailed this year simply because there is no more room! We’d need a foot taller tree next year – which could fit, just about – to find space for anything else, although that hasn’t stopped me cramming a few new things on.

We have, above, lovely personalised baubles made by an old colleague, Stacy (you can see her calligraphy here), a cat from Southwark Cathedral (meant to represent, though nothing very like in reality, Doorkins) and a pair of Gisela Graham gingerbread bears because they were just too cute to resist.

I haven’t been completely uncreative – I had a ball of white wool doing nothing at home (I’ll never be a knitter) so I spent an evening making pom-poms for a snowball garland in the children’s room – using the old cardboard disc method they didn’t come out very successful, but they have the authentic hand-made look, and luckily someone is getting a pom-pom making kit with a wooden frame for Christmas, so I hope to have better luck next time.

What I’m perhaps most fond of, though, is the little fake tree in the girl’s room – a cheap piece of tat bought from B&Q when I was very pregnant and determined to do something special for the big girl’s last Christmas as an only child. It had fibre optic lights which finally gave up working this year, so it’s not quite as magical for children as it was before – but everything on it, (see photos above) they chose, or had a hand in making, from the very earliest playgroup trips to the angel made at preschool this year.

As with the big tree, there’s barely room to fit any more on – but wild horses wouldn’t part me from any of the things on it now.

Anyway, on to the final push to Christmas, and I’ll be back before the end of the year with my round-up of my favourite wreaths – it’s been a bumper year!

The S Word

No, not that one. As the season of over-spending approaches, I’ve been thinking rather a lot about shopping, and how complicated it gets, the older you are.

I don’t struggle to spend money on other people – I have already way over-catered on stocking presents for the children, and I started my Christmas shopping in the summer holidays – that’s dedication! But when people ask what I want for a birthday, or Christmas, I struggle to think of anything that people can actually buy me.

Smellies are not much use to me – eczema means most hand creams don’t like me – I have more jewellery than I could possibly ever need, and ever-disappearing shelf space means I mostly get books from the library (though I’d never turn down a book, of course).

I don’t mean that I’m asking for intangible, precious things like hope, world peace, inner calm – though all those would be nice – I’m thinking of practical, useful things I want, but which no one else can realistically buy me – for instance, I badly needed a new bra, but who can buy me a bra?

So in the pre-Christmas shopping melée online, instead of spending money on others, I bought a new bra half price, and applauded myself for my frugal sensible habits.

Then, I needed new smart boots for going out to Christmas parties (oh, my calendar is PACKED, believe me, everyone wants to hang out with 40-something self-employed mums in Boden tops) – my old ‘mum boots’ are now pushing 6 years old, bought when the big girl was still in a buggy, and far from smart any more.

I’d had John Lewis vouchers for my birthday, and I took a wild punt on buying boots online – and they turned out to be just what I wanted and beautifully comfortable. Again, another personal shopping triumph for a person who hates shopping for themselves. I began to feel quite smug.

I didn’t stop there – I’d always wanted a Tatty Devine name necklace, and when they had a pre-Christmas offer on, I bought one for me and one for a friend. Ridiculously extravagant – I begin to think it’s the effect of having a little extra money to go round, I keep thinking of things I can’t possibly do without, and hey, presto! – I’ve bought them.

The closer to Christmas, though, the more I have to hold back – because what if I buy a thing and then get given it for Christmas?

Having a November birthday, I always have the option of dropping hints after my birthday of things I wanted but didn’t get that time round, and know I have a fairly good chance of getting them six weeks later. (One of the few advantages of autumn birthdays, bah!)

But that means I have to hold off even buying things I actually need – look at the state of my gloves, for instance – and I have two other pairs just as bad.

Can’t replace them, though, ’cause what if I get given new ones? I would feel obliged to wear the present ones even if I liked better the ones I picked out for myself.

I don’t quite know what the conclusion of this blog should be – except to say, don’t feel bad about giving vouchers. People can use them to buy things they need, and that’s priceless, especially if it’s a bra! And it’s nice to be able to tell someone, that voucher you gave me, I bought myself new boots, and I love them! Isn’t that just what we’d all like to hear someone say?

Changing Rooms, Changing Times

I had a very bad first Monday back from October half term – Mondays are always long days, and this was the first back after the clocks change, the first school run for a week, and we have swimming after school on a Monday – all perfectly set up to be a day of maximum stress for me.

We’d had an idyllic half term in Norfolk and Suffolk – nearly all sunny, just one wet day – and the fresh air, sunlight and time away from the city all badly needed.

The autumn term is definitely the longest slog of the year for me – another mum recently argued (good-naturedly) that she thought half term was too disruptive when children were just settling in to the school routine, she thought they should have an extra week in summer or Easter and lose autumn half term.

Hah! I responded that for me, October was the last chance for us to get a good chunk of daylight and time outdoors until probably March – I couldn’t get through to December without it. And bearing in mind February half term is often disrupted by illness and Easter often a washout – October has become the one reliable short break of the year. The idea that disruption to childrens’ learning should take priority over their access to the outdoors, I just can’t get on board with.

Anyway, back to Monday. We’d come home on Saturday, I had to work on Sunday and be prepared for a big work event happening midweek that still wasn’t quite ironed out. Monday morning spent chasing up all the small tasks that hadn’t been done while I was away, and a few frantic phone calls still to do.

I could have said, let’s not do swimming. Let’s write it off for one week. But I try not to do that. Lessons get missed often enough with holidays and illness, why skip it just because you’re busy and tired? So off we went, via the school office to deliver a message which added 10 minutes, pausing on the walk so I could make a phone call which needed to be done at that moment – we ran late, and made it into the pool just as lessons began.

Now, two children swimming on the same day means two bags and two big puffy new winter coats and way too many things to carry. Plus PE kit as it was PE on a Monday too (thankfully, since been switched to another day). I did on this occasion have a pound, so rather than lug the bags all upstairs to the viewing area, I threw it into a locker, feeling smug that I had at least got one part of the day right. (You can tell this is going to all fall apart horribly, right?)

Lessons over, I retrieved two children and got them dried and dressed with the usual banshee levels of screaming at them. Left changing rooms still with huge puffy coats under my arm (of course it’s hot as an oven in there), and in manoeuvring the door open to let the little one out, smacked the big one in the face with my elbow. Argh.

Sat down in the foyer comforting her (she bravely saying ‘I knew you didn’t mean to do it, Mummy’), I then began to sort out coats and bags for the walk home. Then realised, oh crap, no school jumper.

New school jumper could easily be bought the next day, you might think – but this one had the new and very proudly worn School Councillor badge – which she’d already been told the school would not replace if lost. We went back to the changing room. We went back to lost property. No jumper.

I felt terrible. My errands and phone calls had made us late for swimming, which had led to the rush in the changing room, which had led to me missing the jumper when piling everything into a locker. One of those horrible bleak moments where you question everything you’ve achieved as a parent and conclude that frankly you don’t come up to scratch.

She had been so proud of that badge, and we so proud of her – and I hadn’t taken care of something that mattered to her, one of my golden personal rules always being to take good care of others property, as I still remember the bitterness of favourite mugs being broken at my student flat (note for future self – don’t let kids take their favourite mug to uni in the first place, dumbass)..

Anyway – we went our sorry way home, but with a glimmer of hope – the jumper hadn’t been handed in to the lost property, so perhaps another parent had seen the name tag and was going to drop it to school instead. It’s what I would do (and have done in the past), so fingers crossed.

Next day after school, we tried the lost property box – and there it was, right on top, with the badge still there. There’s you good jumper karma and your happy ending to a bad Monday.

But it would be nothing without a ‘what have we learnt?’ moment – I realised how much times had changed: before, all I had to think about was getting everyone home from swimming in one piece, dry and warm and fed and to bed. Now, I was half distracted by work, and lost my focus.

Stuff happens, stuff gets lost – I’ve always been a bad loser (in that sense); I’ve never lost a favourite toy, fortunately, but I still mourn the loss of little trinkets disappeared along the way, photo albums, momentos, the stuff which endless flat moves seem destined to relieve you of.

Even worse with kids stuff – I can’t bear lost jigsaw pieces, or families of dolls with one missing, or incomplete tea sets – I will tear the house apart to find a missing item, but I try not to get so wound up by these things. The badge, though, mattered because of what it represented to her – chosen by her classmates to be school councillor, how awesome is that? How fondly will she look back on that, years from now, and how sad would she be if she thought I was the sort of parent who didn’t care about a thing like that?

Some things are worth hanging on to, after all.

Breton Stripes & Gripes

Summer feels a long time off, but I was determined to get another blog under the belt this month, and I didn’t want to let our summer holiday go by unnoticed.

It was a first time abroad for the smaller girl, a proud holder of an EU passport for a while longer, the first time we’d been on Eurotunnel since 2014, and a different kind of holiday in many ways – the first buggy-free, but at the height of a heatwave, the idea of doing the kind of hikes we are used to in UK holidays was off the table. Oh and there was going to be camping. That was new.

We got stuck in a horrible tailback at the tunnel – the hot weather meant it couldn’t run at full capacity, but after a few hours hanging around we were across the channel and heading to our first stop in Rouen.

I remember being very impressed by Rouen as a teenager, and the cathedral is certainly epic. It didn’t quite have the romance I remembered, but then that’s probably what 25 years difference makes. The hotel was outside the old town and was fairly unglamorous, but if I’d known it was one of the better nights sleep of the holiday, I would have given it more credit!

The next day certainly delivered on romance and drama, as we drove to Mont St Michel – somewhere I hadn’t been for even longer, a holiday when I was 4 or 5. I knew it was a tourist trap and crowded and on a full-on heatwave day, likely to be hellish, and yet, and yet, how could you not want to go into a place like that?

The winding lane up through the ‘town’ was not quite as I remembered it – it had become my childhood blueprint for ‘medieval citadel’ and I’d forgotten how much of it was actually tourist tat shops, and restaurants that were all full (we had lunch in a place a bit like a French version of Upper Crust – although of course the baguettes were much better – as it was the only place not turning people away).

It was still ridiculously pretty, and thanks to the narrow streets and high walls, there was some welcome shade. Plus, I’d worried the girls would find it dull and too hot to enjoy themselves, but luckily they loved it as much as I had at the same age. (Phew!)

I failed to take any photos of the winding lane or the cute alleyways – minus points to me, it must have been the heat- but I did take one of the view across the sands which was rather impressive:

From there we went to the campsite – one of those sprawling enormous ones which the Eurocamp brochure would have praised for its family-friendly facilities and fabulous entertainment, whereas my parents would have gone for the ‘quiet, shady sites with larger than average pitch size’ and given this one a big swerve.

Luckily, our tent was on the very edge of the site and a long way from the night time fireworks and open-air live music – although a bit dwarfed by an enormous hedge around the perimeter which made it feel a bit like we were next door to an angry Leylandii neighbour.

We were also cheek-by-jowl with some very tiny shoddy-looking caravans, though with a sunset and rainbow like the ones below, you can’t really complain, can you?

Well, of course you can complain, and we are born middle-class grumblers who would like to be well away from other people and not have to use toilet blocks, but the girls loved the water slides and sleeping in the tent.

Eurocamp give you proper beds rather than camp beds these days, but beds that have sat in a tent for a while get a bit rickety and creaky, and over-excited children take a long while to get to sleep, so we all slept badly the first night, and as we were so shattered, fairly well the second night – that was the second good nights sleep of the holiday.

Then it was on to the gîte, the bit we’d been really looking forward to after the camping – proper beds, proper showers, a hot tub – and it really was idyllic. (First photo is the instagram moment, a moss and fern-covered staircase leading to nowhere).

It was also the place to go if you like hydrangea (luckily, I do).

At this point, the heatwave receded for a few days, in Brittany at least, but if you’re staying in a thick-walled farm building with bedrooms in the attic with tiny velux windows, at night it’s beautifully cool downstairs but hot as an oven upstairs.

It felt like a terrible con to be staying somewhere so lovely and to sleep so badly every night.

We managed to make the most of our days, despite the disturbed nights – the most memorable place for me was Huelgoat – probably because it was most like our typical British holidays – and it was shady.

It’s an amazing wooded gorge which is full of weird rock formations, including one of those mythical rocking stones you can supposedly move with one hand (you can’t). This was probably the longest walk we did the entire holiday, very different from previous years.

Our other major day trips included Carnac – amazing to see the standing stones and very doable with small children, despite the heat, thanks to being able to go round the site on a small train. You can also get off and walk, though as at Stonehenge, you can’t get too near the stones.

Then we did the afternoon on the beach at Carnac, but the lack of shade made it a bit of a struggle – the same with Le Pouldu which had been recommended as a good beach. Found myself wishing for a good old British windbreak…

On the last day in Brittany, we found the perfect balance – another scorching day, but we went to Lac le Guerledan, where you can hire pedalos, and swim, and afterwards (oh joy!) sit under a tree in blissful SHADE to eat ice creams.

Then we stopped for one night en route home in lovely Honfleur….

– if there is a more chocolate-box perfect (or Normandy biscuit-tin perfect) place, I don’t want to hear about it.

And the B&B place we’d booked rather uncertainly after failing to find a ‘family friendly hotel’, turned out to be an amazing apartment to which we had our own private entrance, and beds which delivered a final heavenly night’s sleep, followed by breakfast cooked by the owners in a courtyard garden below.

That was the point I started to wish we’d booked another night or two – but it was time to go home. À bientôt, Bretagne.

How Summer slipped by

I managed to lapse into a whole month with no blog, more by accident than design to start with – I had all sorts of ideas of things I was going to write about, but I seem to have spent August letting all sorts of things slip.

Fitbit targets have gone out of the window, I haven’t had my eyebrows threaded for months, or hair cut since May, summer holiday tasks and clear-outs I’d planned have not even begun, and the garden was looking, frankly, its worst ever by the time we went on holiday.

This was the dismal, withered state of the raised bed at the time we went away – thankfully now much recovered after the August rain.

What water we could spare went on the vegetables, though I felt like I was betraying my poor flowers – though the tomatoes were worth the effort, I must say.

The heatwave was, to start with, unbearable, but it’s amazing what you can put up with when there’s no choice.

You go everywhere slowly, you rest in the shade, you carry tons of water everywhere, you save every saucepan of water and ‘grey’ washing up water for the garden, you buy inappropriately thin clothes you’ll maybe never need again – and you adapt to the new conditions. It got to the point where I didn’t really care how hot it was in terms of my own personal comfort – I’d acclimatised to it – I just wanted rain for the sake of the poor brown garden.

For a really shocking contrast, here’s Greenwich Park taken in late July, the main open area (unwatered) below vs the Queens House/Maritime Museum side above, which was still being looked after. These two photos were taken literally on opposite sides of the same path. Just unbelievable.

BUT a great deal more has happened this summer, more than will fit in a single blog. Holidays and other new projects will wait for the next one, but the big double win for this summer was a girl finally out of nappies (except at night, obvs) and going buggy free.

Pictured here with the sunflower she grew herself at preschool – back in July when we were changing pants many, many times a day and I thought it would never end (and that my poor sofa would never recover).

People say ‘if they don’t get it straight away, it clicks after two weeks’ but 3 weeks in and we were still struggling. No going back, though, as she was nearly 3 and a half, and I was determined to be out of nappies for the summer holiday. By a miracle, we managed it, with just a couple of dodgy tummy incidents on holiday leading to ‘accidents’, and life without nappies has been marvellous.

The buggy-free thing came about because our first trip into town after the holiday was to see The Tiger who Came to Tea, going via Brixton where the lifts are out of order. I said ‘we’ll go without the buggy this time’ and since then she’s just got on with it.

Of course everything goes more slowly and we don’t cover the distance we used to – hence those lost Fitbit goals – but she doesn’t grumble or ask for the buggy and I am so glad to have my hands free instead of always pushing something.

I do obviously have to carry everything that used to go under the buggy, but I am learning to travel as light as possible (though still carrying tons of water bottles weighs me down a bit). Not carrying nappies now helps with the bulkiness, but spare outfits, wipes and nappy bags still needed for emergencies.

Compared to how emotional I felt at Easter saying goodbye to her old playgroup, losing the buggy and nappies has been a liberating experience; not a tear has been shed. She’s a big girl delighted at how grown up she is, and I’ve seemingly managed to let go of the physical baggage without any emotional baggage attached.

Mind you, if we actually dispose of the buggy I might feel differently, but it’s folded in the porch now awaiting its fate. I dare say on a rainy school run morning it may get used again, so we’re not quite ready to let it go yet.