Doing the Green Thing

I’ve been wanting to write this a long while – gathering thoughts, memories, photos – and trying to work out how to write it in a way that doesn’t come across as too much ‘look-at-me-aren’t-I-good?’ – and then I read this by the genius Melissa Harrison, and realised whatever I wrote will be futile and meaningless.

But I’d already thought my thoughts and gathered my photos – so what the hell, write it anyway.

Here’s my new soap dispenser, Joseph and Joseph, from John Lewis. One of our little efforts in the war against plastic. We can now get a refill of hand soap at a couple of local shops, ditto washing up liquid and shampoo.

Life has made it convenient for us, with the shops right there on our high street (we are peak South London gentrification after all) – so I can do it without feeling like it’s a hair-shirt thing.

I don’t have to be a martyr to the cause, and yet I never need buy a bottle of shampoo again. It’s a weird feeling – but freeing, somehow.

I used to feel reassured every time I bought new cleaning products or toiletries; somehow as if owning more of this stuff shored me up against domestic chaos: look, I have Windolene and Mr Muscle and oven cleaner and a range of wipes and dusters and sponges.

I am a real grown-up with a cloth for every occasion, and good tea towels still in their wrappers. I’m not like my eco-conscious parents using my dad’s old pants to polish shoes. I refuse to reuse my old pants; they go in a clothes bin and presumably get turned usefully into rags somewhere far away where I don’t have to think about it.

But. But. That doesn’t work now, does it?

Now everyone cares about it. Now it’s not just the weird hippy stuff my parents did. We’ve gone back to glass milk bottles, we have keep cups and shun straws. We’re all doing our bit. And we all know that not everything we put in recycling bins ends up where it’s meant to.

I like the bonus feeling of less stuff cluttering the cupboards, of not accumulating new hand creams and shampoos just because I feel compelled to spend my money on something.

Owning those objects no longer feels like a proof of adulthood – rather, paring back makes me feel I’m shedding layers, freeing myself of unnecessary tat for the next stage in life. Not just sending plastic to the recycling, but stopping it even getting on my shelf in the first place.

It’s not actually a smug look-at-me feeling it feels calmer and more internal than that: but it must be look-at-me too, otherwise why would I be writing this blog, if not to show off how good I am?

What about the bits we don’t want to deal with, though? Here’s our new bamboo toothbrushes, but guess what, I don’t like them. I want a proper hard bristle brush that will make the back of your mouth feel really clean. This one just doesn’t feel right in my mouth. Same goes for the wooden washing-up brush; it looked the part, but the bristles got messed up too quickly and within weeks we had to chuck it.

Here’s my zero waste cupboard with chia seeds for my breakfast cereal, nuts and dried mango for snacks, all bought in Tupperware at the local shop. But if I have this to snack on why am I still buying Graze boxes?

And I vowed this year to stop buying palm oil products, but they still creep into the house – I might do ok with spelt oatcakes and palm-oil-free peanut butter, but what if I buy mini rolls for the kids? If I think of orang-utans every time I reach for the mini rolls, will I shame myself into not buying them? And will the kids not mind if they are given fair trade choc buttons instead?

So, what next? One minute we are told the individual small actions make all the difference, en masse; the next we are told none of it matters if governments and fossil fuel giants do nothing, and we wring our hands and keep recycling, or sit in paralysis and worry.

I’ve already done the ‘big’ thing in my life – I haven’t flown on a plane since 2013 and I see no reason I’ll fly again next year or the year after – how long before I’ve ‘earned’ the right to have a flight? Do I ‘deserve’ one return flight to somewhere I really, really want to go one day, like Venice, to offset all the flights I haven’t taken?

What about all the people jumping on planes every few months or even weekly? When does that stop being acceptable, and who am I to say my friends shouldn’t get to visit their families and loved ones around the world?

These are all choices I made long ago, so for me personally there’s no big struggle in giving up flying – I knew once I’d ticked off the major transatlantic places I most wanted to go, I wouldn’t feel a massive pull to see more of the far-flung places, and I haven’t regretted that; there are plenty of places closer to home I wanted to see and I’ve seen and done many of them.

Plus travelling shorter distances with small kids is much more conducive to our family life: we’ve found what works for us and largely stuck to that. So, in absence of any other solutions, I’ll keep on with the Tupperware and keep cups, and maybe we’ll get the train to Venice one day.

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You Can Never Go Home Again

It is nearly a year since I wrote about the one that got away – the house we were never going to buy, but which I could happily weave a lottery-win fantasy renovation around.

More recently, I had a far more surprising and emotional experience whilst browsing local Rightmove: my old house, my own little house that I bought myself, was there – 6.5 years since we closed the door on it in December 2012.

I have walked past it, of course, and seen that they changed the curtains and repainted the door (pillar box red, initially – ouch! – and now tasteful pale green) – but I always wondered how it would look inside. And now I had a chance to snoop.

Dear old house; it had once been the tattiest house on the street, with wonky windows and missing gutter and the shrub growing out of a drain, and I had coaxed it into being a nice respectable tidy house – but no amount of fancy dressing could hide that it was a plain little box of a terrace, no fancy fixtures like cornices or ceiling roses or original fireplaces.

But what’s this on the estate agent description? – ‘numerous original details’? What could they be? The bannister rail? The internal doors? Already that slightly baffled me. And ‘late Victorian’ – well the house was built in 1905, so yes, Queen Victoria was pretty late by that point, I seem to recall.

Back to the house – I was pleasantly surprised to see the living room looking much as it did, my shelves and cupboards exactly as I left them, the only change was the chimney breast picked out in plum colour.

Awkward corner to the left of the chimney breast is still awkward – I squeezed the TV unit into there anyway, in a space that didn’t quite fit. Lovely shutters that I spent all my money on still look lovely. Nice to see it looking cosy and welcoming just as it was in our day.

Having started this blog after I’d done the bulk of the renovation, I missed the chance to do a proper Insta-story mega renovation diary. No swipe to reveal the ‘before’.

So indulge me whilst I do a bit of compare and contrast with the house as I inherited it and left it….

Here is the same room ‘before’ – same cupboards, same shelves, awkward TV unit, different sofa, baby. Before before, in 2008, it was all peach walls and navy blue wallpaper borders, I kid you not.

The kitchen was another story altogether….

These two photos aren’t mid-renovation. This is the actual kitchen I lived with for a year and a half. Bare walls was where cupboards had been ripped off to install a boiler – the boiler beforehand was a back-to-back 1970s affair behind the gas fire in the living room, so for my own safety I had that taken out soon after moving in, as ‘avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning’ had to take priority over ‘making it look nice’.

The order of stuff that happened after I moved in (May 2008) was:

Spring/summer 2008:

Replaced broken gutter

New front door

Fresh paintwork around front windows and tiling on bay window

(All of which meant the house no longer looked like the shabbiest on the street – even though it was a wreck inside, I wanted it to be presentable outside)

New boiler and radiator installed in living room

Autumn 2008

Wonky bedroom floor straightened out

Bedroom and living room cupboards and shelves built

Bedroom carpet installed

Winter/spring 2009

Turned box room into bathroom

Summer 2009

Gutted ex-downstairs bathroom and knocked through into kitchen

Installed new kitchen, new hardwood floor across entire ground floor, new downstairs loo, new patio and flowerbed, new back door and windows.

Autumn 2009

New carpet and wardrobe in spare bedroom.

New stair carpet and spare hardwood floor used on upstairs landing

Ran Out of Money.

2010 – lived in house

2011 – used money present from grandmother to finish doing up garden

2012 – had baby, sold house

Quite an epic journey, all told.

Here’s the kitchen as it was, properly lived in by me, and full of clutter. Very quickly ran out of storage space, as always seems to happen in every kitchen I’ve had, but it functioned very well as a kitchen, apart from the crappy washing machine, possibly one of my worst ever purchase decisions, and the useless under-counter lights which broke easily and were near-impossible to replace.

Here’s the kitchen as it appeared on the estate agents site now. Much the same, so nice to see the tiles I chose still in place – I loved those tiles – and the (old bathroom) windowsill full of plants, just how I imagined it might look back in 2007 when it was a wreck. Looks like they’ve added in some extra shelf space above the sink which is eminently sensible. I can’t fault that.

Here’s the garden once we’d finally finished renovating. It was such a short time we had it ‘done’ before we moved out I’m sad I didn’t enjoy it more – hardly any photos of peak summer 2012 when it was fully planted up and full of flowers.

Too busy taking photos of a baby that summer, which is fair enough – though I do have a couple of photos of my beloved roses.

Finally, I did take a photo on the day we moved out, Dec 2012:

I felt like I was handing over a fairly low maintenance courtyard garden, mostly patio, good storage space – but evidently not low maintenance enough, the new owners have ripped out most of the plants and put in AstroTurf. I could cry. I guess this is what people with small gardens want, small boxes with no plants that they don’t have to worry about or spend time on.

Not even going to share the photo, it’s too dreary entirely. I just have to hope Albertine is still blooming behind the new fence they’ve installed at the back. She would have been very prickly to remove.

There’s also the small matter of the asking price – they’re making potentially 200k off mostly my hard work and a bit of painting and tidying up by them. But then it’s also 6 years of property market nonsense which has potentially gifted it to them. And perhaps it will never make half a million – we shall see.

I spent maybe 2 days feeling sad about it, and thinking more about the old house than I had in years, but now, a week on? Well, it’s not home now, here is home, this house, this garden, family, all my happy things and memories.

But still I think of the work I did, the effort, the money I earned and saved to put into it, the fact every choice made and mistake and idea was my decision and mine alone – all unrecorded on Instagram or this blog – and I think I did this. I set out to renovate a house by myself, and I did it. And then I sent it out into the world, and now it will be someone’s new home, new paintwork, new flowers planted perhaps, new families growing, new memories. Life goes on.

All the Colours of the Rainbow* (and Joy)

*except possibly blue, green and violet.

It’s tulip season, and it has become a season of joy and colour, unexpectedly for me – I’d always usually say I prefer the earlier, paler spring flowers – narcissus and hyacinth, snowdrops, primroses: all the pastels, the more dainty and lovely the better.

I make an exception for bright yellow daffodils – my Welsh heritage for one reason – but bizarrely, ours didn’t flower this year – the leaves came up but no flower buds formed, and I’m sure it’s not the first time that’s happened with my daffs, I seem to remember the same happening a few years back.

Perhaps my bulbs are old and tired and have given up the ghost – not enough energy stored to make a flower? Is that a thing? Every year I plan to plant more bulbs for the next spring and every year I fail to – though I did successfully split a bunch of snowdrops last year which survived the experience, so that’s one small triumph.

However, when the girls noticed tulips in the back garden had flowered, I realised we’d gone straight into tulip season without even having daffodils, which felt very odd – but then I saw the glory of this front garden display while we were out and about:

and decided tulips deserved a blog post all to themselves – I mean, look at them! I dream of being able to maintain a front garden so well-ordered and full of colour, instead of the mishmash of gnarly old roses, sad-looking fuchsia and bluebell chaos in mine.

Then at Easter we went to Wimpole Hall (also the top picture) and saw all this riot of colour in their walled garden. I can’t decide whether I prefer the variegated ones or the single colours – the plain block of yellow is hard to argue with, though I’d never have believed a few years back I’d be drooling over plain yellow tulips!

Orange and dark pink together makes a pretty special show as well.

But also shades of pink and scarlet with white thrown in – somehow, whatever you put together with tulips, it all works.

Also in the orchard at Wimpole were these lovely white, yellow and lilac tulip-like flowers – I thought perhaps pasqueflower or something related to tulip, but Google doesn’t seem to think so – anyway they were dotted throughout the meadow and looked quite beautiful under the apple trees.

Back home and back to the school run – first day back was a shocker, raging hormones, preschooler and I winding each other up without the chilled-our big sister to act as a buffer, and the shock of returning to the routine made me a very grumpy bear – so on the second day, I tried to seek out a bit of calm.

This front garden (above) with cream and orange/yellow tulips against a beautiful range of greens and darker shrubs works a treat – the different heights make it look like a vista down a tiny rainforest valley.

This one with bright oranges, pinks and reds amongst the bluebells is another little window into a world of joy. These are the front gardens of dreams for me – the challenge is to actually put it into practice and plant the damn bulbs this year!

Fixing the Prickly Problem

It had been a year of thinking and wondering what to do about our troublesome front garden, overgrown with holly, and too-narrow drive, a year of indecision driven not by (as would usually be the case with us) not knowing what we wanted, but in this instance knowing exactly what we wanted, but that to do it justice would be way out of our price range.

The cost of the full works we wanted to do – widening drive, new drive surface, new fence or brick wall, replanting front garden, creating a bin store so the bins didn’t have to live on the drive – was just impossible; and while we did nothing, the front wall and gate post got more and more dilapidated.

So at the end of last year, I thought I’d take decisive action: stop wringing hands over the cost of the big job and break it down, little by little. First, get the holly cleared out, and most of the rest of the main flower bed with it, by our tree surgeon neighbour; little more than half a days work for them, in early January.

That gave us the chance to see how much wider the drive felt without bushes and a self-seeded tree encroaching on it (turned out to be a holm oak, not common – sorry tree, you were just in the wrong place, you had to go!)

The drive felt bigger straight away – and when the Mr tried taking off the gates to see if he could back the car in more easily, the whole damn gatepost came down with it!

So much joy to see that ugly crumbling gatepost gone, and without even paying a builder to do it! At least it felt we’d made a start on it, and that was the push we needed to get to the next stage.

The Mr took his own decisive action and found a builder to get rid of the walls entirely and put us up a few courses of bricks with fence panels above – what most of our neighbours have, and by far the smartest option in my view.

This meant abandoning the plans for the drive, (which had been badly damaged by having a skip on it for 5 months back in 2014) but at this point, I was prepared to sacrifice that. Re-laying a drive to get it level is clearly a serious task and not one we could face at all at this point.

So the builders came in, and within 3 days we had quite a transformation. I don’t like the concrete pillars – I wish it could have been wood – but I love the shade of the wood panels, was very relieved it was a nice, tasteful dark brown not an orangey pine-colour.

Here’s the view from the front:

– and you know what, once the car is on the drive, it doesn’t matter that the drive is a state because, guess what? – it has a car sat on it, you can’t see the wretched drive at all.

The fence being thinner than the old wall means we have a few extra cm to squeeze in and out of the car, so no need to demolish half the flower bed to widen the drive – and when we change cars, the new one will likely be smaller, giving us more space to play with. And we can sit smugly glad that we’ve done our bit for London congestion by getting at least one parked car off the public roads and onto a private drive.

The plans for a fancy bin shed were shelved when we thought – why not simply store the bins round the side gate in our garden? More hassle putting them out, true, but no ugly bins on the doorstep any more, hurrah. One of those obvious solutions right under your nose that fixed the problem and cost us no money, just requires a bit more effort every week to do the bins.

A bin shed with green roof would have looked smart and had kerb appeal – but the shape of our garden, path and drive didn’t lend itself to having one there anyway, there was no practical obvious place for it to go, and far more kerb appeal is to have NO bins in the first place, surely.

Our next challenge was to give the gate a facelift – two children and one dad tackled this with face masks and spray from B&Q one weekend morning, and how proud am I of the result? For a resolutely non-DIY family to have done any part of this ourselves is still a source of amazement to me.

It is so much smarter than I dared hope, for a fraction of the cost I feared it might be, that it has been a good lesson in how to tackle the tasks I had previously found too overwhelming to contemplate. (I have written before about my ability to feel such a dread of small unresolved household tasks piling up that I deal with it by tackling none of them)

In future I will always try to ask myself:

– Does it all have to be done in one chunk or can it be broken down?

– Is there a cheaper (or even cost-free) plan B you haven’t considered?

– Can you live with some ugly bits if most of the ugly bits are gone?

– Focus on the practical and your top priorities above all else, and compromise where you have to.

Our main priority was to get rid of the wall before it crumbled away, and to be able to park on the drive more easily. Storing the bins in the back garden isn’t massively practical, but we can live with it, in order to get the car off the road.

Compromise won the day: once we (I) had accepted it didn’t have to be perfect, nor did it have to be the entire job tackled all in one go, it made it so much easier to deal with, and it has made me feel less nervous of tackling the other small and not-so-small jobs inside the house, bit by bit.

The final piece of the puzzle will be replanting the front beds – at the moment, the bed near the drive has just a couple of rose bushes saved from the cull, plus whatever bulbs are coming up. No rush to do this, as I want the bulbs to have a chance to flower and die back before we start on anything else.

Snowdrops have already been and gone, daffodils and bluebells are coming – I’m obviously hoping not to lose the bulbs, but plenty of ideas of what else to add in.

For the first time in this garden, an almost-blank canvas to work with – an exciting prospect. Phase two of the front garden revamp follows soon.

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!

****

UPDATE

Unprecedented, I know. I’ve never revisited a blog before – but this time, I feel I should have waited a bit longer before writing this. Just a few weekends later, we visited Cambridge for the first time in years, and spent a Sunday morning wandering round in glorious sunshine.

I should have guessed Cambridge would deliver good knockers, and it didn’t let me down.

Scallop shell designs seemed to be popular.

Bird knocking on wood (though not a woodpecker, surely a missed opportunity there!)

Definitely a favourite – a growing seed? Tree? Flames of a fire? Whatever it is, I like it.

Finally, a rather surreal disembodied horse.

Thank you, Cambridge, for giving me a chance to return to the subject (aka pad out a blog that was rather thin on content, you decide…)

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!