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.

‘Tis the season to be glittery…

It’s been a peculiar start to Christmas – windy, but not remotely cold, everywhere still green and fresh but not sunny or cheerful; we were in short sleeve t-shirts yesterday which felt very odd. Then, just as we were hanging the decorations, we were hit by the unwelcome arrival of the infant tummy bug. 

Nothing like a wave of baby vomit to dampen the festive spirit, and to throw into relief the contrast between the Instagram-filtered ideal Christmas and the slightly more rough-and-ready reality – although Christmas scented candles and home made pomanders do help cover the smell of Dettol and sick quite well. (The pomanders were courtesy of the Christmas festival at Morden Hall Park – a craft activity supposedly for children, but I enjoyed it so much I made a second one when I got home).
  
Luckily the sickness has receded and we can start to feel a little more cheery now. There has been no great effort at creativity from me this year (pomanders excepted) – hands are quite full enough, frankly, but a few decorations needed a bit of mending and tinkering with, so that has made me feel like I’m doing something constructive.

We have a smaller tree this year, after last year’s effort ended with an unfortunate fall, and I’ve even been so restrained as to hold back some of the larger decorations for reasons of space. I have allowed a few new favourites to creep in, though….

  
This jolly reindeer was a bargain from the local Cancer Research shop.

  

  
These lovely baubles were a gift from a friend who went to Mexico – if other people are going to start getting me decorations, well, next year we could be here all day….

  
Then these red-hatted and jumpered figures I bought because they reminded me fondly of the Danish tree decorations my grandparents gave us when I was little, although these ones I’m afraid came from IKEA. 

And it does feel slightly, now that the tree has Mexican baubles on it, plus Viennese rocking horses and Canadian puffins, as if it is becoming gradually more eclectic and less exclusively Scandi-themed. And that, I think, is OK. 

In any case, I think this year will be the last one where I get any sway over the tree – the big girl already moves things around to her preferred locations: ‘not THAT branch Mummy!’ – and of course everything she’s bought home from preschool has been liberally coated in glitter. 

We have glitter on the sofa, glitter on the floor, glitter on the baby and glitter on every inch of the table, despite endless rounds of wiping. 

It can only be a matter of time before glitter rises up to overwhelm us all – in the mean time, I will enjoy tinkering with my tree, whilst the small humans still let me.

Christmas blog part two – my round up of my favourite wreaths – is being fine tuned as I type. (There are some real good’uns on it this year). Until then, here is the slightly smaller, slightly chaotic, but still resplendent 2015 tree.

  
(I know it looks like there’s a big bare patch at the bottom. It bothers me too, more than I like to admit – but these branches are actually much flatter and smaller than they look in the picture and no good for hanging anything on. Would be ideal for tinsel, but I don’t do tinsel).

 

Wreathed in glory – the 2014 reboot

Our Christmas spirit came to a rather abrupt end today when we came home from the New Year’s Day trudge round the park & lunch to find our tree had fallen over! Either a draught coming in from somewhere (it has been very windy) or our tree stand is not going to last us another year.

Still, no decorations were broken and it would have been coming down in 2 days anyway, but I’m keeping all the other decorations up for a few more days to compensate for the loss of tree. And we had spent the morning hanging pictures which had been stashed away since before The Builders, so the house was already looking a bit less bare, luckily.

To make the last bit of Christmas cheer last into 2015, though, I’ll share with you some of the lovely wreaths I’ve seen around our local streets lately. Lots of interesting colours and decorations beyond the usual holly and red ribbons, I’m pleased to report!

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A very bright red berried wreath against a pale blue door in winter sun – this was the first one I spotted and I loved it!

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A simple but pleasing wicker/straw and ribbon affair.

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What a beauty – pine cones and dried orange chillies against a royal blue door. Gorgeous colours!

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All in shades of green, against a grey door. Classy.

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Possibly my favourite of the year, a lovely natural wreath incorporating dried hydrangea heads.

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Another natural wreath, this one in autumnal colours against *another* pale blue door, and this one has an unusual shape with the sprays of leaves spiralling out.

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A wreath entirely of gold leaves and berries, a bit reminiscent of the laurel wreaths given to ancient Olympians (I think I’m remembering a gold laurel wreath which features in ‘Asterix at the Olympics’.

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Jingle bell wreath, pure and simple. We have some similar jingle bell stars hanging up in the windows which the toddler is very fond of, and whilst it wouldn’t be the sort of thing I’d have bought a few years ago, I want there to be a few decorations she feels are especially ‘hers’ and which she’ll get excited about them coming out every year – exactly how I remember feeling at Christmas.

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Finally, a vision of pine cones in purple against a dark door.

Those are all the wreaths – but I have one more thing to share, a picture of the handmade decorations I sent to friends and family over Christmas.

It all started with a kit for decorations (mainly felt & buttons) I bought in Oxfam, and have supplemented with other ribbons, my own button collection and Christmas fabric which was a very well-timed birthday present. Most had cloves inside so they smelt Christmassy too.

I had so much fun making them I now feel a bit bereft without a craft project on the go – my fingers are itching to start something new.

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In any case, it feels good to start the new year with a reminder of something creative I achieved in 2014 and something which also brought a great deal of enjoyment. If I feel really inspired for next Christmas, I might make enough to sell at a craft fair, but I doubt the hours spent hand-sewing and what I spent on materials would result in a very good return on investment – still, if I enjoy the work, that’s what counts, I hope.

The year in retrospect was dominated by the stress of the building project, but also a lot of good stuff too – our summer holiday in France gave me the chance to tick 2 things off my adult ‘life list’, the Bayeux Tapestry and the Normandy landing beaches (I’d visited both as a child but had few memories of either).

Both matched up to my expectations, and this time round will be remembered for many years, I hope – and it leaves me excited about what 2015 might bring, probably not any travel abroad but a chance to explore a corner or two of Britain we haven’t seen so much of lately. The main priority will be finding a good family-friendly venue for our main holiday, now that the toddler is old enough to really ‘get’ what holidays are about, we have to make sure it’s as fun as possible for her, whilst still keeping entertainment for adults in mind (even if it’s just remembering to bring board games this time…).

The other big joy of 2014 was seeing the toddler change from a baby, this time last year, to a fully functioning, chattering child. The growth in her language after she started at nursery in May has been phenomenal, and as her nursery is a co-operative run by the parents, I’ve been privileged to see a lot of her development and interaction with other children up close myself.

She will be ready to move to preschool and towards school itself before we know it, so this time spent with her at nursery has been precious indeed, and I know she has loved it too.

There is not likely to be any gardening happening soon unless the weather gets markedly better – so the next proper, meaty blog on that topic may be some way off…and there is still plenty to occupy us inside the house, too. So for now, a Happy New Year and hope that 2015 brings good and joyful things to you all!

I really like Christmas…

It’s sentimental I know…but I just really like it (to quote Tim Minchin).

I really like lots of things about Christmas, but like many people at the start of building life as a new family, creating our own rituals is part of the fun, and something I particularly looked forward to. The Perry Como-heavy Christmas playlist which is put on as we decorate the tree. Making mince pies while listening to Carols from Kings. Visiting the Norwegian tree in Trafalgar Square, because my mum was taken there by her father in the late 1940s, when it was a new tradition.

But most of all, for me, it’s about the tree itself. We don’t drape the entire house in holly and paper chains – too much dusting – and I’m aware in future years the house will be swamped with Christmas tat based on the demands of small humans, so for now, I’m keeping it simple. We have the wreath, of course, and a big bunch of mistletoe, but the focus has always been the tree.

As I wrote last year, my decorations used to be all silver and purple, very cool in a geometric and snazzy disco way, but not very ‘me’ now. And most of those decorations all came from one place – Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road, round the corner from my old office – so they had no ‘tale’ linked to them, no real sentimental value apart from the fact they’re pretty, and I suppose they do remind me of the years I spent living and working in that area, but they are made of glass, and not very practical now.

So when I bought my old house, and had my white walled living room with red rug and red sofa, I decided to match my Christmas decorations to the room, (I even had a ‘red party’ for my first New Years Eve, where everyone had to wear red), and in the following years I added to the collection on my travels.

Now, at last, I have some decorations that actually remind me of places and happy times, and this year I’ve even had time to make a few things myself. Here are some of my favourites.

Icelandic felt bauble

Icelandic felt bauble

This is a felt bauble I bought in Reykjavik in November 2009, my birthday weekend. Christmas decorations in an Icelandic tourist shop cost an arm and a leg but I couldn’t resist buying some from there, right on the edge of the Arctic Circle!

Ampelman from Berlin

Ampelmann from Berlin

Earlier that year I went to Berlin, and was charmed by the Ampelmann, the quirky little silhouette used by the East Germans in their traffic lights (and is a useful way to remind yourself which part of the once-divided city you’re in, if you are a wandering tourist). I found these decorations in a tourist tat shop just near Checkpoint Charlie (this is the Green Man, but I obviously have the Red one too, to make sure they aren’t lonely).

Gisela Graham star

Gisela Graham star

This gingerbread Gisela Graham star was part of a set given to me by an old friend as a housewarming present and went on my first tree that year.

Canadian snowman

Canadian snowman

This cheeky snowman came from our holiday in Newfoundland in 2011. I think it was bought in the delightfully-named Rocky Harbour, where I ate cod tongues – don’t knock ’em till you’ve tried ’em – and partridgeberry pancakes.

Viennese rocking-horse

Viennese rocking-horse

Later that year, we went to Vienna for a weekend (last trip abroad pre-baby) and I bought this rocking-horse from the gift shop of the Spanish riding school (the one with the prancing white horses).

Wooden decoration from the National Gallery

Wooden decoration from the National Gallery

This wooden decoration came from the National Gallery shop in 2011 – we had gone to look at the Trafalgar Square tree, and with a bit of time to spare before, I’d gone into the gallery. I discovered to my surprise that nice decorations were already being reduced, before Christmas had even happened, so I snapped up some bargains. We went back again this year and found exactly the same thing – so that’s my London-insider shopping tip for Christmas, go to the National Gallery.

Home-made snowman

Home-made snowman

This is one of my new decorations in 2013 – made by me, using a kit from my Crafty Creatives Christmas box. I used items from the same kit to make the stocking below…

Home-made stocking

Home-made stocking

I also used the contents of my button box to decorate this felt tree.

Home-made tree

Home-made tree

Finally, I have to share with you what goes on the top of the tree: this is the one item which survives from my original silver and purple collection. Back then, I added a fluffy, sparkly felt fairy as an ironic touch to a sophisticated silver tree, but she fits in now with the new tree, with absolutely no irony at all. And the final tree tradition I have is that she gets added last of all.

Fairy on top of the tree

Fairy on top of the tree

I could go on writing about my tree decorations for hours more – I haven’t mentioned the squirrel and hedgehog, or the gingerbread house, or the baubles and bells (there are plenty of both), or all the things with heart motifs. Nor have I mentioned how some of my childhood tree decorations ended up on a BBC Wales News picture gallery last year, which was very exciting…because I do have to stop *somewhere*.

But I’ll finish with a picture of the tree itself, with small human in foreground, and a pledge to try and blog a bit more next year (promises, promises), and wish you a Merry Christmas & a very happy 2014.

Lovely tree

Lovely tree

A house becomes a home

As we approach Christmas, I keep remembering this time last year, when we were scrambling to pack up the old house and I was phoning the solicitor daily, pleading with her to try and get our contracts sorted so we’d have any kind of hope of moving before Christmas.

When we did manage to move just days before Christmas, it was a huge relief, not least because I could put up decorations and immediately make the house feel cosy and homely.

With no shelf space or mantelpiece to hang up cards, we improvised with string and clothes pegs, which looked surprisingly good…and leaving our tree-buying till the last minute meant we had to get an old-school needle dropping variety, with predictable messy results (it did smell properly Christmassy, though). It was an instant injection of colour and personality which the house badly needed – and when my own home-made wreath went up, I felt I’d already put my own small personal mark on the house.

Trying to make our house a home after Christmas was a bit more of a challenge, as it coincided with the baby becoming a toddler, and learning to crawl…and then walk…and climb. We hadn’t had to put anything out of reach at the old house, but it suddenly became a priority – and we didn’t have any fitted storage downstairs at all, so nothing could be shut away or put out of her reach unless we kept it boxed up and invisible.

So after the urgent work was done – electrics and boiler – we had some shelves fitted in the dining and sitting rooms. I am particularly fond of the dining room shelves, as they come into view as you walk down the stairs, and the clutter which has accumulated there over the last few months makes me feel at home.

DIning room shelves

Dining room shelves – a bit wonky!

The shelves started out with some of my favourite ornaments on the lower shelves – the Australian boomerang, the Chinese fan, my Silver Jubilee mug, my teapot – but small hands soon began to grab at these, so we had to do a bit of rejigging.

The bottom shelf now has children’s books and a crate of Duplo, and the breakable items, including some of my favourite vintage pieces, have moved higher and higher up, as the toddler learnt how to scramble up onto the sofa to reach the second and even third shelves. They are now a pleasing jumble of books, china, ornaments and children’s toys, and I like them all the more for that.

Living room shelves - left of chimney breast

Living room shelves – left of chimney breast

The sitting room shelves are on either side of the non-functioning chimney breast, and to quote Anthony Powell, confirm that ‘books do furnish a room’. In a rather dull, characterless room like this, (and also long and narrow, an unhelpful shape for a living room), books add depth and colour, and some much-needed noise absorption. The room felt rather bleak and echoey before, and now, with curtains pulled and the Advent candle lit, it’s cosy and snug.

The shelves also provide a good dumping ground for things we want to keep out of the toddler’s way – remote controls, fiddly toys which she would lose pieces of, and now various Christmas bits and bobs too. The carpenter even built the right-hand shelf around a pillar, which created dinky little alcoves just big enough to take our clock and a few other ornaments.

The lower half of the sitting room may be – and usually is – a tidal wave of toys, discarded shoes and board books, but at least I can look at my lovely shelves and feel quite at home.

It also reminds me of previous places I’ve lived, and how the most unlikely things can make you feel settled. I remember the housing association flat in SE1, where I had no furniture to speak of and had to sit on a futon mattress with no base, far more fondly than the grand Georgian flat in Kensington where the blocked-up marble fireplace had been lined, interestingly, with corrugated plastic.

I don’t have photos of either of those flats – the days before digital cameras and smart phones – but I do have a few of the cutest, dinkiest flat I ever lived in, on the first floor of a handsome mansion block in Bloomsbury. There wasn’t space to swing a cat, but I loved it.

It was the first place I’d ever lived properly on my own, and it became my retreat from the world during days when work had become dreary and I was rather lonely. The living room was particularly snug and dark, like a little she-bear cave, and it had a lovely deep mantelpiece which I piled high with nick nacks and scented candles and the like, so I decided what it really needed was pink fluffy fairy lights to complete the look.

Bloomsbury mantelpiece

Bloomsbury mantelpiece

I justified this utterly uncharacteristic girliness on the grounds I’d probably never live anywhere else suitable for pink fluffy fairy lights – and so indeed has been the case.

Making a family home from a rather ordinary house has been a challenge all of its own, and I’ve had to learn to dial down my love of pretty objects and scented candles, so I’ve given away the fairy lights – there simply isn’t room for so much clutter. And will there be room for a decent sized Christmas tree? That’s the next task ahead of us…