Further West Country Rambling

It was quite a thrilling moment, crossing the Tamar to get to Cornwall. I hadn’t gone to Cornwall via that route since my first trip there, and that was only to have breakfast at a Little Chef after getting off a Brittany ferry in Plymouth.

Yes, my parents were trolling me – I had begged for years to go to Cornwall, inspired by Over Sea, Under Stone, naturally – so what did they do? They took me there for breakfast. And then drove home to Essex. I held that grudge against them for years.

I’d been to Cornwall a couple of times as an adult – one brief trip over the border from Devon during a weekend break, and a proper holiday there circa 2002, but neither trip had taken us over the Tamar bridge, so I commemorated it with this rather poor photo.

and found myself remembering a favourite line from ‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ – ‘What’s he mean, Logres?’ demanded Jane. ‘He means the land of the West,’ Barney said … ‘It’s the old name for Cornwall. King Arthur’s name.’

I have loyalties and affections in many corners of the UK – raised in East Anglia, family roots in Wales, very drawn to the wildest furthest bits of Scotland and islands in general – but nothing quite matches Cornwall for me for magic, and it was probably the influence of Susan Cooper which put the germ of it there.

I did also have a great fondness for Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, which covers the most famous Arthurian and Cornish legends with a light touch, though it didn’t shy away from the more down-beat elements of Arthur (spoiler: there’s a big battle and it doesn’t go well for him).

I hadn’t thought of it for years, but as luck would have it, the holiday barn we stayed in had a copy, and the 5 year old was enchanted by it. (She’ll come to Susan Cooper in time, I hope).

View near our holiday barn, Tregear

I seem to have veered off the original topic, which was meant to be a holiday round-up – but there was a point in there somewhere.

My daydream version of Cornwall as a child was all tied up in magic and mystery and legend, all of my favourite things – the reality I learned from this holiday is that Cornwall has buckets and spades and holiday parks and heaving beaches and cafes of questionable quality, just like any other British seaside district.

It isn’t all mists and stone circles and empty cliff tops, which was much more the experience I had staying there in 2002 – of course, that was pre-children, and a very different kind of holiday. I hoped to find more of what I had loved about it back then, but searching for wild and lonely places whilst also trying to have a family-friendly holiday is a bit of a challenge.

Holywell Beach, nr Newquay

We certainly saw areas which looked like they’d seen better days, and plenty of inferior boxy housing going up – plus some very nasty mock-Georgian stuff on the edges of Truro, which has a new Waitrose, presumably put there for the horrid grockles like us (and of course we did use it.

I suppose what troubles me is that in Cornwall, the place which felt like home to me before I’d even been there, I know I am truly an outsider. In Wales, I feel at home because I can pronounce Machynlleth without fear and know to say diolch instead of thank you.

In East Anglia and the Kent/Sussex coast and the Lake District I’m in the places I spent my childhood holidays, so I feel very at ease. In Cornwall, though, I’ll always be a grockle. The question is how to do it without feeling too guilty about it.

Staying well away from the tourist hotspots and the coast was a big advantage – we were beautifully isolated in our holiday barn at Tregear, with the most complicated network of tiny lanes crisscrossing the fields to get us there (I was reminded of what Britain must have been like in wartime, with all the signposts gone – how do you navigate when every field and junction looks interchangeable?)

View from Tregear Barns

The location, despite its peace and quiet, was actually very well placed for driving to either the north or south coasts, (once we’d escaped the jumble of lanes) and convenient for Truro and that damn Waitrose. I had assumed we’d mainly stick to the south coast, but we ended up exploring both, and I had a proper sense for the first time of how different their characters are.

Perranporth Beach

The huge stretches of sand at Perranporth and Holywell in the north reminded me of Brittany, and diving into the waves at the Baie des Trépassés, aged about 15.

This time, I was practically the only person swimming (ok, jumping in the waves and paddling a bit) there rather than surfing, and it did make me wish I’d signed up for a body boarding lesson. Perhaps signs of a mid-life crisis but when I saw everyone but me doing it, I wanted to give it a go!

The south coast, on the other hand, was more like bits of Devon I’d been to years ago, and we found some pleasingly wild places alongside the more manicured and tourist-friendly. I was pleasantly surprised by Falmouth, which was much more upmarket and yachty than I’d realised – the place to go if you want to shop at Joules or Fat Face – but was still somehow a proper place, not all full of Hooray Henries, and the maritime museum is brilliant.

Falmouth Harbour

And I did, eventually find – or rediscover – the place that really owns my heart in Cornwall, Porthcurno, but that deserves a blog all on its own. Plenty more to follow!

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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

Stormy seas and retro rummaging

Well. I’ve been rather slack, haven’t I? I was aiming for a blog post every two weeks, but every week since early August (when we got back from holiday), it was a case of ‘ooh I’ll do one next week’ followed by ‘perhaps I’ll get a chance on Friday night’, but one thing led to another and here we are in bloomin’ November.

What’s been going on? Voluntary work, juggled with trying to set up a business of my own, and parenting an actual human toddler. I’ve even managed to start a sewing course, dance at a ceilidh and, most recently, witnessed the St Jude’s Day storm at close hand.

We had planned a weekend on the south coast a while ago – wanting to revisit favourite old haunts, and explore new places, we picked Hastings as our base, as I had heard good things about the vintage and junk shops in the Old Town.

On first view, it didn’t disappoint.

Hastings fishing sheds and boats,

Hastings fishing sheds and boats, East Cliff behind

The seafront was a proper working fishing beach, with net-drying weatherboarded huts and shacks selling fresh fish alongside boats hauled out on the shingle. It felt real, with ropes and lobster pots piled up everywhere – but just one street back, you find yourself in a weird mix of chocolate box pubs, overpriced ‘vintage’ tat and sweetie shops.

Sweetie shop, Hastings

Sweetie shop, Hastings

Hidden amongst the gimmicky shops, though, were some genuine junk emporiums piled high with the weird, the wonderful, the forgotten and unloved, and a fair few bargains to be had. I was most impressed with the legendary Robert’s Rummage, and a shop over the road from it (have forgotten the name, sorry!) which not only had a basement full of glorious junk, it even had a second basement below the basement.

After splashing out with my tenner on several choice items, we caught the funicular railway up the West Cliff where we had a prime view of St Jude’s storm brewing, and saw the ant-like figures of daredevil people standing right on the promenade as waves broke right over them.

Hastings from West Cliff

Hastings from West Cliff

From there, we decided to drop back down into the Old Town, and the real glory of Hastings revealed itself. I’ve always been a fan of the alleyway, the ginnel, the cut-through, the switchback and dogleg, and the Old Town is full of them.

Alleyway, Hastings

Alleyway, Hastings

Everywhere we looked, there were stairways twisting away from us, archways to peep through and paths leading invitingly round corners.

Pedestrianised lane, Hastings

Pedestrianised lane, Hastings

On top of this, each cottage was cuter than the next (and yet not too chocolate boxy)….

Half-timbered cottage, Hastings

Half-timbered cottage, Hastings

…and of course there was garden after garden to admire; as we descended towards the high street, I found we’d saved the best till last. There was a flight of stairs with tiny cottages on either side, a plant perched on each tread of the stairs…

Staircase view, Hastings

Staircase view, Hastings

…and it led to the most beautiful, perfect wee jewel of a courtyard, crammed with flowers and even the obligatory friendly cat.

Staircase and flowers, Hastings

Staircase and flowers, Hastings

Cottages, Hastings

Cottages, Hastings

Courtyard, Hastings

Courtyard, Hastings

Cat, Hastings

Cat, Hastings

To find this fairytale courtyard, with its Goldilocks cottages and witches cat, was like stepping into a dream world, just a stone’s throw from a touristy thoroughfare full of DFLers (Down-from-Londoners) like us buying expensive nick nacks we don’t really need. There were even reports of secret smuggling caves and tunnels, which would have been the icing on the cake for me, but we didn’t have time to investigate those further.

There was more to the weekend, though – a trip to Eastbourne and Birling Gap where we saw the St Jude’s build-up at even closer hand, lashing against the Seven Sisters…

Seven Sisters from Birling Gap

Seven Sisters from Birling Gap

…a flying visit to Bexhill to see the De La Warr Pavilion at sunset…

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

and of course the experience of the storm itself; surprisingly calm overnight, as the bedroom we were staying in faced away from the sea, and stayed relatively quiet. The next morning we drove along to Brighton – again, seeing little damage as the Weald countryside inland had been sheltered by the Downs – and I had a happy 30 minutes browsing the perfectly-named Snoopers Paradise on North Laine.

Throw in a proper seaside chippy tea and some good coffee & walnut cake, and you have my perfect weekend pretty much to a T.