The Wreath Lectures, 2016

We are definitely into the post-Xmas slump, it’s New Years bloody Eve after all, but the decorations are still up, just about, so it’s time for another wreath round-up.

I did worry, again, that I would struggle to find new and interesting wreaths this year, but as with 2015 I tried out a few new roads on my walks and I struck lucky. 

There are definitely a few common trends I spotted this year; last year was all about heart shapes, and while there are still plenty of your classic holly, ivy, evergreen and red ribbon wreaths out there, I just didn’t take so many photos of those traditional types this time round. As ever, the pictures are a bit wonky but I have tried to crop out house numbers where possible.


This year, everything seemed to have gone silver, white and sparkling. The spiky one above was a rather dramatic example, and after spotting that one it seemed everything I saw was sharp-edged, metallic, glittering and monochrome. 


And rather than holly or ivy, what I saw on wreath after wreath was mistletoe. It was definitely a bumper year for mistletoe (if only the artificial kind).


The wreath above on the yellow door with fake pearls for mistletoe berries I thought was particularly glamorous. That one is a favourite, I think.

 

The silver theme continued with these two, one with tinsel and bells and another livened up with a large pink bow.


Another spiky leafy wreath, all cream this time.


And to prove there was some colour out there, a spangly rainbow wreath to cheer things up a bit. (Stop press: I actually had this same wreath on last year’s round up, but it was too good not to include again).

If I was trying to be clever, I might say all these sharp, glittery edges and artificial textures over nature is indicative of the strange modern times we find ourselves in this year. Or maybe it’s adding a bit of sparkle and fun in the face of humdrum harsh reality. 

As I said at the beginning, there were still a lot of natural wreaths, I just didn’t photograph so many of them, but I couldn’t resist a few, as I love a good wreath/ painted door contrast.


Smoky blue door (how I love that colour!) with bright orange accents on the wreath, and pink door with a white and pine cone wreath. 

Finally, from Hatchlands Park just outside Guildford, a natural wreath with a bit more than just plain holly and ivy – look at that old man’s beard, and a gorgeous pine cone detail. Really special.


That brings another year of blogging to an end, and I hope a good 2017 awaits you all. It may not have been a memorable year for all the right reasons, but 2016 has taught me to be grateful for all the good stuff as well as weathering the less good, and I’ll try and make sure the good stuff is what I take with me into 2017.

The Twelve(ish) Books of Christmas

This blog is rather unapologetically taken over by Christmas at this time of year, and I realise the posts have got rather repetitive (though rest assured I am not missing out on my annual wreath round-up, no siree). 

And then I remembered I had not done a post about my favourite Christmas books. Hurrah! Problem solved. And then in a piece of perfect serendipity, I was reunited with a favourite Christmas book I’d loved and lost years ago: 

 

The Lion Christmas book was a book I poured over for hours, all year round – if I ever wanted to evoke the spirit of Christmas, I simply picked it up and dipped in.

It is the perfect Christmas anthology in that it has a balance of stories, crafts and baking ideas, poems and non-fiction (‘Christmas traditions around the world’, etc).

There is a lot of religious content, but much of it used to explain Christmas traditions – the origins of St Nicholas, the legend of a frosty spiders web inspiring tinsel – and it tells the Christmas story beginning to end, including Herod and the flight to Egypt, so it pulls no punches there.

It is sentimental, terribly naff and much too godly for my tastes now, but I still love it. I was thrilled to find a copy on a charity bookstall and after years of wondering if I’d ever see it again, am delighted to own my own copy once more.

The first Christmas book I remember, though, I have never parted with (and no intention of ever doing so). I was surprised to discover that my copy from 1981 is a first edition, I assumed it was much earlier than that, as the feel of it is more 1950s-60s.

Nevertheless, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas is very reminiscent of my 1980s childhood in lots of ways, but with an added bit of Shirley Hughes magic – look at those lush borders around the edge of the page, hung with gingerbread men and all sorts of other goodies. 

In Shirley Hughes’ world, there are always roaring fires to come home to, snow at Christmas, real candles on the tree, (who ever does that, nobody in 1981 that I knew of) and Salvation Army bands playing in the town centre. 

None of that was really part of my childhood, but the book still takes me back there in other ways, as there is much that reminds me of the Christmas build-up – the home-made cards, the nativity scene, the waking up early on Christmas morning. 

It’s the tiny details that make this book lovely – the cotton wool snow and gold paper star on the Nativity is a particular favourite picture of mine, but it is also famous for acknowledging the times when Christmas isn’t so much fun.

Tom has a meltdown and goes out for a walk with Grandpa. As the book says ‘Just the two of them. The sun is very big and red’.

Simple, beautiful, and instantly brings back the memories of Christmas tantrums or cooking disasters or sickness (and she never ate blackcurrant Fruitella again), but also pitches you into a moment of pure sentiment if you, like me, wish you could have had just one more Christmas with your grandad or granny there.


Moving on from the slightly melancholic to cheerier things, I bring you Mog’s Christmas. This is much more Christmas as I knew it in the 70s/80s – more garish and kitsch, with streamers, balloons, tinsel and paper pom-poms, but rendered in Judith Kerr’s trademark soft pastel shades, it feels very homely and familiar. 

There is still snow, of course, and the story is so slight you could blow it away like a snowflake, but who cares, it’s Mog, and I love her.

That covers the top 3 books from my junior Christmas reading era, and to take it to 12 will mean either a very long blog, or several. 

I’m not sure I can even get to 12 books without more research and digging back into the memory banks, but I can do a quick run-down which hopefully may prompt me to return to this topic next year.

4. The Box of Delights: I loved the celebrated TV series as a child, but the book I’ve read countless times, one of my default comfort reads.

5. The Dark is Rising: such a well-loved fantasy book that it now has a Christmas readathon associated with it. I could write essays about this book, let alone one blog!

6. A Child’s Christmas in Wales: a staple of our family Christmas, especially the lovely edition we had illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 

7. The ‘Little House’ books: all of them have a Christmas chapter, but my favourite is By the Shores of Silver Lake, where the Ingalls family are left behind in South Dakota when nearly all the other prospective settlers go back East.

8. The Armourer’s House: one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s less well-known books, set during the reign of Henry VIII, but it reaches its climax at Christmas and delivers a supremely happy festive ending.

9. What Katy did at School: for the marvellous scene where Katy and Clover unpack their Christmas boxes and find all kinds of goodies inside. Actually the Christmas chapter in What Katy Did where she plans all kinds of surprises for her siblings is rather sweet.

10, 11 and 12 still remain unclaimed. Not even considered A Christmas Carol yet, as I suspect I’ve read it far less than the number of times I’ve watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. Another 12 months to see if I can think of something to fill in those gaps!

A Christmassy day at Standen House

We got into the Christmas spirit a bit early this year, and we had a good excuse for it – on the first weekend in December we had been given the grave responsibility of looking after the Class Bear. 

We had to find something suitably exciting and festive to do: a country house with a display of Christmas trees through the ages was just the ticket.

It would be fair to say I loved Standen House from first sight – I knew it was an Arts and Crafts era house, but it was far more higgledy piggledy than I expected – the house was extended from a much earlier farmhouse, so with that house, the courtyard, stables and other outbuildings, plus a couple of farm cottages down the lane, it had the feeling of being a tiny hamlet in its own right. 

The sight of so many huge chimneys, gables, archways leading to intriguing places with steps up and down and round corners, was pure catnip to me, so I knew I was going to like it, even without the extra sheen of Christmas.

Our first hint that Standen was somewhere really special, though, was the tree in the courtyard outside the house. Not your typical red and gold baubles and tinsel – 

This day-glo colour scheme with pom-poms and tassels was so incongruous: such a glorious bright sight on a winter day – well, I applaud whoevers’ idea it was.

When we got inside the house, the first few rooms contained more conventional country house trees, but what was really special was the atmosphere of the place. Every room lit by flickering (fake, but good fake) candles, and that unmistakeable feel of a real home lived in by real people.

I particularly liked this huge tree in a stairwell with a vaguely Victorian theme – tassels and paper tartan fans, who knew fans would make such perfect tree decorations?

There was a very tasteful tree all in silver and white, but the last room had the best tree of all, one from the era taste forgot: drenched in the shiny, too-easily-shattered baubles of my childhood, snowflakes and lametta.

There were more delights upstairs as there was an exhibition of work by the textile designer Kaffe Fassett – my idea of patchwork heaven.

All of that without mentioning the Arts & Crafts interior, the artworks and lovely William Morris decor: no time to look at it all properly but there were certainly works by Burne-Jones among others. (Just room to squeeze in a pic of this turquoise pot). 

Outside, it was just as delightful. There was a tiny outbuilding which had been a playroom upstairs for the children, (still kitted out with a nice range of toys – some antique and some that could actually be played with), and downstairs was a little nook with a bench, clad in Dutch tiles.

Then we walked on a footbridge which crossed a ravine (yes, really) and took a path along the edge of the valley until we got a spectacular view across Ashdown Forest in the last of the afternoon sun. The gardens themselves are probably better seen in a return visit in spring, but the walk for this view alone was worth the trip.

 

The class bear was treated to a good day out, and the spirit of adventure he brought out in the children helped – we don’t tend to take favourite toys on days out, in case of disaster, so the bear being with us was a proper novelty.

I could write about Standen House for a LOT longer, and I am delighted that there is more of it to explore another time, but what stayed with me was the unity of the place: not just lovely gardens (usually my main criteria) but an interesting house filled with beautiful things and a magical setting. Top marks all round.

A walk around…Bodnant Garden

Half term already seems aeons ago – I was all set to blog some more about our trip to Wales, then the small matter of the US election (falling on my birthday, in a choice piece of bad timing) plunged me into too much gloom to think about writing much. 

So a month has passed, and I’ve cheered myself up by starting sewing again, which definitely helps, but an unwritten blog nags at the brain and demands to be finished. 

Bodnant Garden had been on my must-visit list in Wales for a long time, and the chance to go at the height of the fall colours was too good to pass up on. (Yes, I know it’s an Americanism but doesn’t ‘fall’ sound so much more evocative than ‘autumn’?)


The first thing that caught my eye was a border packed with verbena and dahlias (well, my mum said they were dahlias, I wouldn’t know one from another, I get them mixed up with chrysanthemums). Despite not being a great admirer of dahlias, I had to gawp in amazement at that shocking red and purple together, how suprising but how effective! (was the planting trying to emulate the much-anthologised poem about the woman suddenly starting to wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t match?)

After traversing a series of formal gardens with trellises and ornamental ponds we came to the start of the really exciting bit, a ravine which suddenly dropped away with steep paths switching back between towering trees. (This was taking the step free route, there were masses of paths and routes criss crossing the site).

It was like stepping from the dainty floral world of, say, Mary Mary Quite Contrary into the Brothers Grimm or Tolkien – I felt a bit like I might be a hobbit on the slow and weary approach to Rivendell. There was a trail of pumpkins leading down the path which was a great trick to keep the children interested – although we had to stop the toddler trying to lift up pumpkins almost as big as her.

At the very bottom of the valley, just to add to the fairytale feel, was an weir and old rustic water mill, with a very welcome bonfire burning outside – plus (the incentive to get the children there), craft activities for Halloween going on inside. Two pipe cleaner spiders later, we headed on down the valley. 


There was a fork in the path, with one route leading to a lake used for skating on the edge of the estate, the other over a bridge and back towards the house, so rather reluctantly we took the sensible route and headed back. The path was not step free in this instance, but luckily with the toddler now quite sturdy on her feet, she acquitted herself well and the buggy was heaved up without too much trouble. Without a buggy altogether would have been better, though.

The real highlight, though, was coming to the acer grove, just where the ground levelled out again. We’d been told this was the best time of year to see it, and boy, were they right. 


Can you believe such colours exist? Aren’t they wonderful?

From the acers it was a short walk across a field back to the main entrance – the cafe is outside the main site and through an underpass where the car park is, so by the time we had gone all the way back through and had lunch, we had a baby in need of sleep and going back into the gardens seemed a bit of a tall order. So we left a good half of the garden unexplored – and there are new trails in the woodlands being opened up all the time. One to add to the list to visit again, though maybe in spring next time.

So, children, what have we learned?


Day out at the Horniman

It is almost the end of half-term, our first term of the Big Girl being at school. The week has gone by in a flash, bringing back memories of half term holidays gone by – the big rush to get everything done which we no longer have time to do during a regular week, buying vests and winter coats, the homework hanging over you, the frantic washing of school clothes – but it has also been a brief respite from the new regime and a chance to catch my breath.

So, how has it been so far? The bits which are easier than I expected – the settling in, and the parting at the school gates, not nearly as bad as I feared. We can go right into the classroom, I can hang up her coat and bag and see her settle down on the rug to begin the first task of the day, so it’s a very gentle process. There were a few grumbles the first week, but since then it’s been pretty smooth, and she is (as I fully expected), happy to be there. 

I dreaded the morning routine itself – the slog of getting out on time every single day, the clean clothes, the tidying of hair and cleaning shoes – but once you are locked into the rhythm, it just becomes what you do. I haven’t, as far as I know, left the house with toothpaste smeared on my cheek or in slippers, but hey, there’s plenty of time for that yet.

I expected to feel the anguish of ‘letting go’ of my child at the school gates; I worried that she’d ‘belong’ to school and not to us any more, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – she rushes out of school ready to tell me about the day, (luckily she’s not the classic schoolchild who forgets everything the moment they’re outside the school gate). 

I hear all the news and gossip, what she had for lunch, what happened at break time, what she made that day (so MUCH handmade craft & stuff coming home every _single_ day). 

Most of all, I know she was ready for the big change – she does talk sometimes about ‘missing preschool’, but there is no doubt the challenge of school has been a Good Thing.

Where the strangeness of it has hit me is in the little things – the fact that I had to clear out the Big Girl’s clothes drawer, and realised she hardly needed new clothes any more, just endless school polo shirts, whilst her little sister has an ever-growing pile of hand-me-downs to squeeze into. 

The fact that, even though the school day is so much longer than preschool, the day seems to flash by, and 3 o’clock comes round faster than I ever imagined. 

And I look forward so much to that walk home, her scooting alongside me and knowing we have the prospect of a quiet hour with cup of tea and a sit down waiting. Our days are less busy now, no more day trips or afternoons in the park after preschool, but getting home earlier means a calmer, better paced evening routine, which I appreciate.

The fact that when she leaves school, she doesn’t just tell me about her day, she asks what I’ve been doing with the baby sister, where we went, what we had for lunch, is lovely. She wants to know everything about everything right now, it seems.

Her curiosity about the world is undimmed, her enthusiasm, her own individual self-possessed self remains. I worried that school would be a cookie cutter, stamping out individuality, grinding down children into learning machines, in this bright new world of academies and SATS (or not so new, thinking of Gradgrind), and I know it’s early days, but I hope she’ll get through the system without losing too much of her spark. 

Now, just 7 1/2 weeks till Christmas. Bring it on…


Half term in Wales

A walk around….Chatsworth

At the end of our holiday (July – how long ago that seems now!) we broke the journey with a few nights in the Peak District, an area I hadn’t stayed in since I was a Venture Scout, and I was able to fulfil a long-term dream of visiting Chatsworth.


The Great Cascade – looking up

On arriving at the house and considering all the varied and eye-watering prices for entering different parts of the site, we decided to forgo the house and just focus on the gardens and the farm/children’s play area, which could be entered separately. 

I would love to see the art collection – some other time, when not encumbered by a 4 year old and toddler – but the house itself was partly under scaffolding so the visual impact of it was somewhat reduced. In any case, for me it was all about the garden, so we got started by climbing to the top of the Great Cascade – a really impressive piece of engineering.


The Great Cascade – looking down

From there, we walked on to the rock garden, and it was here I began to see the influence of Joseph Paxton, a man I associate with my own dear Crystal Palace park, but of course his link with Chatsworth is perhaps even more enduring than that with the Crystal Palace


Rock Gardens

The tumbledown style of the rocks was very reminiscent of the earth works and rock setting of the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace park – but on a much larger, mountainous scale. It was perfect for scrambling and exploring, and whilst like any sensible parents we exercised caution, you’d be hard pressed to keep a child from climbing up these formations.

The next spectacle was the site of Paxton’s great greenhouse, and here I was surprised and initially disappointed – I had expected to see something like the houses at Kew, but there was nothing there, just a huge walled sunken garden. 


Then, on reading the display boards and recalling dimly something I’d seen on TV years ago, I realised there was no greenhouse. It was demolished, deliberately, after WWI because there were not enough staff to maintain it, and the walled garden was built around the foundations – you can still see the entrances and exits and the stairs. 

It was a beautiful, haunting place, with the ghost of the shape of the greenhouse still there, just like the great terraces at CP park hint at the huge structure that once stood there, albeit in a rather more shabby and unloved way (though the terraces and dinosaurs are getting some long overdue restoration, I’m glad to say).

I could happily have sat there for hours soaking in the atmosphere – and handily there were some outdoor games like Jenga to occupy the kids – but we needed lunch, so we headed back to the stables block via the back of the house. 

This gave us a chance to see a bit more of Chatsworth’s famous outdoor art, including Henry Moore.


Art at Chatsworth 

I also liked the memorial to what must have been a much loved pet, and the horse sculpture in the stable yard was a big hit – no one objected to children being lifted on it for photos (see above) and its back had been well-polished to a shine after years of children climbing up there. 

After lunch we went to the farm and play area – an extremely ambitious adventure playground, with a stream running through it and lots of sand and messy play. Here we came up against one big problem – we had (for the first time in a long while!) forgotten the changing bag, meaning no nappies or spare clothes – the horror! A kind passing mum who saw our plight was able to lend us a spare nappy, so we were safe on that front, but no spare clothes meant neither child was allowed to throw themselves into wet play with abandon. Boo hiss.


There wasn’t much in the way of garden to admire in this area, but there was on one side of the farmyard a beautiful wall, thick with moss, lichens and toadflax – a really gorgeous sight.

From the play area we walked back into the main gardens for me to have a final snoop around the remaining glasshouses (some of which didn’t have public access, in fact, nor did the areas I assumed from the maps to be kitchen gardens – these were all staff access only).

However there was one much earlier glasshouse – one of the first ever purpose built, in fact, housing a collection of camellias and passion flowers…


…and back on the edge of the lawn outside, a wild flower meadow – well, the most manicured, least scruffy wild flower meadow I’ve ever seen – with a range of colours of cornflowers the like of which I’ve never seen before. It may not be strictly as nature intended, but it was impressive.

My lasting impression of Chatsworth will be the sheer epic scale of it. The setting of the house itself was not quite as monumental as I’d been led to believe – I think I was expecting the drama of seeing it for the first time as Elizabeth Bennett sees Pemberley – but the surrounding car parks and the scaffolding detracted from that a bit. However, the impact of the grounds themselves, the scale of what was undertaken in a project like Paxton’s greenhouse, was unforgettable. 

It’s not a warm and cosy garden, not intimate, despite all the secluded glades and winding paths – you are aware all the time that you’re on the film set of some epic family saga, with so many famous names associated with Chatsworth – the Kennedys as well as the Mitfords, Cavendishes and the royal family, Lucian Freud, and the other artists Debo Mitford supported. It was a thrilling experience – and I will be back one day to do the interior.

The Outside Room

This summer, it has felt like we’ve finally got the garden to work, as a part of the home, rather than just the nice green bit which sits behind glass and occasionally gets tended to. It turns out there are a couple of really simple things you can do to help make this happen, and one of them cost only £40, and the other was free. Let me explain…

Last summer, the first when we had the new living space at the back and the bifold doors, I certainly spent a lot of time sat on the sofa looking at the garden but not much time in it, unless I was doing actual gardening. 

Mostly, though, I was sat on the sofa, with a baby rolling around on the rug, drinking tea, and making grand plans for all the things I was going to do in the garden this year

Now, at the end of the summer, I cannot, hand on heart, say that I have created the den at the bottom of the garden, but it hasn’t stopped the Big Girl doing it for herself – round the back of the silver birch tree is her Ice Palace and there is usually some game being played there or story being enacted whenever a friend comes round to play. 

There is a lot I could do – and hopefully still will do – to make it into a proper child friendly play area, but of course what I should have known all along is that a child’s imagination will do all the heavy lifting – they don’t need lots of money spent to enjoy grubbing around in the soil with a stick.

We did still have the challenge of what to offer the baby sister, though, who was crawling at the start of the summer and walking by the end. As I wrote about here, the big thing preventing me from getting out into the garden during daylight hours was her love of climbing, scrambling and balancing on the edge of the raised bed in terrifying fashion. 

I realised we had to find some outdoor toy of some description which could occupy her safely, so that we could all spend time in the garden without having to repeatedly pull her down from the raised bed or patiently re-plant the sedums in my planter which she pulled up over and over again. 

Turns out the solution is very simple. I kept my eye out on Facebook, and when someone local offered a Little Tikes slide – the cube shaped one – for £40, we snapped it up. The first afternoon it was out on the lawn was the first ever I was able to drink a cup of tea while it was still hot, and without having to retrieve a grumbling baby who’d got stuck at the bottom of the garden.


It has been a huge success for her, as she is just the right size to climb up and onto it without help, but even better is how both the children play on it together. The moment the doors are open, they are both out there, sitting on top of it, hauling out trolley loads of toys and setting up tea parties.


I didn’t expect the Big Girl to be interested in it at all, so her willingness to join in has been a great delight. By next summer, I imagine they’ll both be too old for it, but the entertainment that slide has brought them for £40 was money well spent. 

The other thing which helped? Well, that was something we couldn’t have planned or predicted, but one day in early August we spotted a fledgling robin sitting on the garden bench (and using the arm as a pooing post, thanks robin!)

He (or she) was unusually tame and curious for a wild bird, as robins often are, so we started leaving out crumbs, and pretty soon he was a regular visitor.


Over the course of August he’s grown from a speckly, still slightly fluffy fledgling to an almost full-grown bird, and we’ve seen him virtually every day.


Isn’t he a cutie?

Of course he had to have a name, and between us, he was christened Cheerio Bubbles (don’t ask…)

It has been a key element of making the garden feel like a proper part of the house that we live in, knowing there is a friendly small creature interested in us, and busy making our garden his home, too. And of course it’s been a privilege to watch him growing and realise that the children are getting to see wildlife as a daily part of their life. 

Remembering to save some crumbs for him and put them out after breakfast, and looking out to be the first person to spot him that day, have all become part of the daily routine. We hope he’ll be one of the family for a long time to come.