Sunday, 20 May 2018

A Few Good Reads

I had the photos loaded and was all ready to write something after our book club meeting this week, determined not to leave it so long between blog posts but then suddenly it was all systems go! Youngest son viewed a room in a flat last weekend, decided he was moving out so it involved a trip into South London to sign contracts etc. Then we viewed a house too, the first we've seen and have decided we love it so it has become a matter of urgency to get ours on the market. The horror of the extent of our downsize is gradually hitting us... so much stuff to sort and get rid of!

Today I'm driving Jacob and some of his 'stuff'' to the south London flat (I'm not even thinking about everything that he's leaving behind)... but tensions are running high so I'm keeping out of the way and thought I would make a start on this while I wait for him to sort himself out. We were meant to be leaving twenty minutes ago but unusually for me, I'm keeping myself busy and my mouth shut! Instead I'll tell you about our bookclub book for this month, The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel.

The book is part diary and part nature book and is in many ways lovely. Full of beautifully written prose it tells of a year where John cultivates a small field, Flinders, using traditional methods without chemicals. He introduces long forgotten wildflowers and wildlife to his wheat fields. I enjoyed the descriptions of his farming metods and his day to  day activities but the book is also full of lists and literary references that I found interrupted the flow of the book, so I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I would have liked.

His list of different birds that came to Flinders was breath taking and made me realise that despite living in the countryside for nearly thirty years I am hopelessly ignorant. I can recognise some very common birds and this time of year I am familiar with the sound of larks soaring above the fields when I'm out walking... but could I recognise a lark? Not a chance!

He also constantly references corncrakes and to be honest not only do I not know what one looks like but I'm not sure I've even heard of them before. I guess the book made me feel a little bit stupid... ignorant of my surroundings and although I'm happy to learn more I guess none of us like to be made to feel ignorant. So yes a good book, especially if you are interested in the effects of intensive farming and wildlife but not a great book for me.

I seem to have read a lot this month, much of it easy reading escapism that I have obviously needed. I finished Hygge and Kisses which was very light and frothy but enjoyable enough and I immediately followed it up with another chick lit 'Faking Friends' by Jane Fallon. I admit, I couldn't put this one down! It is about getting revenge on a cheating boyfriend... one who was cheating with a best friend. I just happened to have a few heated exchanges with my ex husband at the time I was reading this so lets just say the thought of revenge was indeed sweet!

I've also managed to read a couple of somewhat more serious novels - Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was excellent and eye opening. It tells of the many Japanese American citizens who were evicted from their homes and sent to camps in the US during the second world war, which I found quite shocking. It is a fictional love story set in Seattle where some of these atrocities took place and I can definitely recommend it. The Patrick Gale book The Whole Day Through centres on a single day in the lives of Laura and Ben, a couple reunited and given a new chance of happiness together after twenty years apart. It is about caring - Laura is living with her ageing mother, Ben with his gay Downs Syndrome brother - and about the choices we make. Again I can recommend it.

But sometimes what you need to read for pure escapism is a page turning crime thriller and I confess to be rather addicted to Mark Billingham's rebellious detective Tom Thorne. I couldn't put this one down!

I am now back home after my trek south of the river and Jacob is set up in his room in his flat. There was a a slight panic as we headed down the A12 through Stratford to be faced with signs saying the Blackwall tunnel was closed. Jacob tried to find an alternative route on Google maps while I stressed ever so slightly about how I was going to get south of the Thames but it turned out that the tunnel wasn't closed at all and we got there without too much of a hitch. 

Tonight it feels strange that he's not here and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't anxious about how he will cope on his own given the difficulties he has had over the past year but I need to let go. And maybe this will be just what he needs.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Ashwell at Home

After my last blog post I was quite determined to get back to blogging more often but then somehow someone waved a magic wand and a week and a half went by - don't ask me how. So instead of telling you how lovely it was to have Gill visit, or what a fabulous day teaching I had at Art Van Go, how many more waistcoats I've made or cakes I've baked (that's misleading there haven't been any cakes and only one more waistcoat), about lunches out with friends and the evening spent with with my eldest son and his fiancee, I'll tell you about our day out on Sunday instead!

In all the years we've lived here I have never visited Ashwell at Home. Of course I have often been to Ashwell which is just three miles up the road but have never been to this particular event before. There was a bit of a hiccup to the start of the day involving a minor tantrum (not mine) that looked like it could thwart our plans but once things had been sorted we checked the weather forecast and decided to walk over. And what a good decision that was.

We browsed the museum and then saw Morris Men doing what they do best,

We visited the imposing church,

And several beautiful Open Gardens... whilst I resolved to try harder with our own garden. There was a chance to read up on local history and past residents, especially those who had served in WWI or campaigned with the suffragettes.

We learned about bee keeping and listened to some musicians of both  ancient and modern varieties.
As we wandered around the village streets we bumped into people we knew and took time to stop and chat.

We ate homemade cake for lunch (justified by the 24,000 steps clocked up for the day) and then finished our day at the Ashwell Springs, source of the River Cam

All in all it was a delightful day and I'm not sure why we've never done it before.

Whatsmore I  managed to avoid falling in the water despite someone threatening to video me whilst I negotiated the stepping stones

This week it is back to making waistcoats and other chores and despite good intentions, it will likely be another week or so before I'm back here! But who knows I might surprise you!

Do you think this counts as a sixty x sixty as I've never done it before... running out of time and ideas!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

What a Difference a Day Makes

Our various trials and tribulations are still ongoing but a shift in perspective has made the past few days easier, helped enormously be the arrival of warm dry weather. Nothing like a bit of sunshine to lift the spirits. I felt like baking again for the first time in ages and made some granola bars, just for us. That was on Thursday but they are gone now. I'd forgotten how quickly cakes disappear in this house. When I first met Stewart he told me he didn't have a sweet tooth... Oh how we laugh about that now!

I also made a savoury 'cake' for supper. Not a cake at all really but a vegetable pasta bake that just happens to be made in a cake tin. It was rather fabulous and I'll definitely be making it again. Joe sent me the link to the recipe (you can find it here) all the way from Costa Rica. He's been growing vegetables in his little back yard so I think he must have been Googling vegetarian recipes.

It was meant to feed six... it fed three of us. Just saying!

I've cracked on with the wedding waistcoats and have now finished the third one, in a lovely pale mint green linen. This one is for the groom. Number four is cut out ready to go.

We've also worked in the garden, tidying and weeding and making the most of the lovely bank holiday weekend weather... my newly finished warm shawl obviously did the trick and has been consigned to the back of the wardrobe until autumn... let's hope I've not been a bit premature!

I hope your bank holiday weekend is going well too!

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

I'm Still Here

Did you miss me?
I'm okay, but busy... and finding life just a tad stressful which has made it difficult to write. Nothing new... mental health issues (not mine), unemployment (again not mine), anxiety, another brief A & E visit and family tensions... it's all a bit crappy if I'm honest but you've heard it all before so I won't bore you to tears all over again because there's good stuff too.

I had a fabulous weekend teaching in Coventry, almost two weeks ago now. Such a lovely fun group of ladies and all so enthusiastic. There was much beautiful work produced by everyone and I played around and stitched some sunflowers while they were all working hard. I got to swim in the hotel pool in the mornings and ate croissants for breakfast, so it almost felt like being on holiday and not a bit like work. And in the evenings I managed to relax with my knitting. The fact that it matched the hotel bed linen probably pleased me more than it should have done but... small pleasures!

Back home I took my portraits along to Art Van Go and set up my mini exhibition. It seemed a bit far fetched to call it an exhibition when the entire collection fitted in a shoe box.

But they made a good display when hung together. While I was there, Viv just happened to ask did I have any other work I could bring along as the gallery was looking a little sparse.

I didn't need asking twice, so this week I brought along everything I could find behind cupboards and under beds and I really do now have a solo exhibition at Art Van Go of a variety of work spanning the past eighteen years! It will be up until the beginning of June so do pop in and have a look if you are in the area.

I'm rather excited at my first ever solo exhibition... definitely a sixty x sixty!

I have snatched some odd bits of time here and there and have finished the second of the wedding waistcoats. Number three just needs the buttonholes doing... so only four more after that!

I was also in a musical variety show with the local Amateur Dramatics group last week, comprising of readings, short sketches and lots of fabulous rousing songs, which was just what the doctor ordered. Nothing like a good sing song to release tension. Fortunately our audiences seem to enjoy it too.
And in between times I've indulged in some very light, feel good reading, not too deep, not too sad, not too taxing... again just what the doctor ordered.

And I've finished knitting my very cosy warm shawl, which I'm hoping will encourage the warm weather back again. We really all have had enough of the cold and rain... it's May for heavens sake! So like I say, I'm still here, muddling along like you do.

Hopefully I'll not be away quite so long next time!

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Since Last Week...

My weekend away teaching went well and it was good to be back at Missenden Abbey again. I miss being there on a regular basis but the new School of Creative Arts seems to be going well and there were lots of people and a good variety of classes on offer.

I arrived on Saturday morning to beautiful sunshine and it was actually warm enough to sit outside with a cuppa before teaching began. Not a bad place to be going to work!

I had seven very enthusiastic ladies in my class who all worked hard to translate their landscape inspirations into textured textile pieces. Despite a wide range of experience from beginner up, they all produced a picture of which to be proud. Most are not quite finished but still looking good, every single one.

Back home I've struggled with headaches, blurry vision and queasiness all week, something I get about three or four times a year, usually lasting several days at a time. Never bad enough to incapacitate me (although I had to lie down this morning for a while) but enough to make me feel less than 100%. I think they are probably a migraine and the sensible thing would be to stay away from the screen and sewing machine etc and rest, but then sensible was never my strong point - too much to do, too little time.

The cupboard clearing has been limited to the airing cupboard, prompted by our shower pump (housed in the airing cupboard) packing up. As it is the original pump we assumed it had died but it turned out to be a blown fuse. At least the bed linens and towels were sorted out. I won't embarrass myself by telling you how many duvet sets are going to the charity shop, but lets just say it's been a long time since anyone had Mickey Mouse bed linen in this house!

Finally this week winter seems to have left us and we have by-passed spring and launched straight  into summer. It won't last I'm sure, but it was a good excuse to do some much needed work in the garden yesterday, plus it was a break from the sewing machine and screens. My head felt slightly better as a result although I walked over to book club last night and it although it was a fun evening, there was so much noise and laughter, my head was pounding again by the time I walked the mile home. Our book was The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, a fictional diary of an 83 year old in a care home, which was met with mixed reviews. Some people found it really sad and depressing whilst others thought it was hilarious. I found it a mix of the two but enjoyed it nevertheless. The idea of having an "Old but Not Dead" club for a select group of the care home residents really appealed to me... old people going out having fun and eating and drinking. My sort of club!

I had one portrait left to do for my 'critical mass', each one stitched on a normal domestic sewing machine I might add. I don't have an embroidery machine! I had hoped I might get to twenty five but sixteen will have to do. I managed to finish it yesterday morning but it was a struggle with my funny eyes and flashing lights. I wasn't sure it was as good as some of the others as a result but the family recognised Johnny Cash... can you spot him?

And my exciting news is that next week these will all be on display at Art Van Go in Knebworth - probably the closest I'll ever get to having a solo exhibition. I might sneak that one in as a sixty by sixty! I won't bore you with sixteen individual photographs but here they all are...

They are all fairly random choices based on their distinctive characteristics if I'm honest. The whole point is that they are recognisable. The first one came about because I was researching tattoos for something else entirely. I found a picture of a Amy Winehouse tattoo complete with roses which fitted the bill, so stitched that. But when it was complete I abandoned my original idea and mounted the embroidery in a hoop instead, which I quite liked.

Then David Bowie died and as a long time fan I decided to stitch him, closely followed by Prince. At this point Stewart named them my 'Dead Singers' so Freddie Mercury followed but was never finished. The roses stuck as a sort of signature.

They were then abandoned for eighteen months but at the beginning of this year in an effort to finish things off I got Freddie finished and just carried on making them. I'm not superstitious but it was with a bit of trepidation that I stitched my first couple of portraits of people still living. As far as I know they are still well! Have you got a favourite... I'd love to know?

So that's my week since last time really. Still no more waistcoats done but they are on the list for next week. I would like to be out in the garden again today but I need to accompany my Mum to hospital this afternoon. This evening we are off to see Westwood at our local Picture Palace and then tomorrow morning I am off to Coventry for another weekend of teaching. I'm hoping the head feels better by then.
I hope you've had a good week!

Thursday, 12 April 2018

So Much Stuff, So Little TIme

For some years now we have known that we should downsize and find a new home with fewer rooms and a smaller garden. But whenever we start to think about it seriously we can't quite manage to do anything about it. We are lucky to have a beautiful house with lots of space, I have the perfect kitchen, a dedicated studio and the garden is spacious, backing onto open fields. I have lived here for twenty eight years, my children all grew up here and so there feels like a lot of emotional investment has gone into this house. It is the longest I have lived anywhere - almost half my life. Plus we love the village and village life and have many friends here, so we would be loathed to move away from the area. But the time has finally come when we really do need to make the move and so very slowly we are starting to make lists of things we need to do, whilst keeping an eye on any suitable properties that might be coming on the market in our area.

First on the list is a serious declutter. There is twenty eight years worth of stuff in my cupboards! Bit by bit I am going through boxes and wardrobes, clearing shelves and cupboards, wondering why I've hung on to so much. There have been numerous trips to the charity shop and the local dump. Of course this has also turned up half finished projects and things put aside for when I get the time to do something about them. One of those things I have been meaning to do for ages was to make seat covers for a pair of cheap Ikea stools. And in clearing out I also found the perfect bag of left over yarn with which to do it.

And so of course, instead of doing all the things I really should be doing,  I found a a mandala pattern by Annemarie Huijser featured in Mollie Makes  (because I had been sorting and throwing out old magazines) and I set to work. The pattern didn't make a large enough circle so I improvised until it was the right size.

I admit there was some unravelling and rejigging to make it fit properly but I'm happy with the result.

Of course, this is only one stool covered and there isn't enough yarn to make a second matching cover but I'm ignoring that and just enjoying my one pretty stool!

Which is just as well as I don't need the distraction of another crochet project when there really is still much to be done in the clearing of this house and I should also be getting on making wedding waistcoats. Although before the wedding there is going to be a mini exhibition of my portraits in a week or so (all will be revealed soon) so I'm also madly stitching these in an effort to have a critical mass to put on show.

So far I have done fourteen little free machined portraits mounted into 5" hoops.

They are quite addictive and as I work each one, I think of another I could do.

But as well as all that, I'm also away teaching for the next two weekends so there are bags to be packed and materials to be prepared.

No time at all for writing blogposts really!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Salty, Sweet & Herby

I drafted this post about a year ago - well I uploaded photos, but for one reason or another that was as far as I got and it sat there unfinished. Then the wild garlic season passed and it no longer seemed relevant, so I forgot all about it. But as the wild garlic season is once again upon us and as it is a while since I wrote about anything food related, I decided to find this abandonded draft.

I was given this bunch of wild garlic by Helen when I took a bread making class with her last year. We used wild garlic pesto in some of the fabulous Italian breads that we made and I was bemoaning the fact that we didn't seem to have any grow near us. Although Helen was not willing to divulge her secret location for her harvest she did give me a huge bunch to take home.

Back home I made it up into a large quantity of pesto - some was used to make savoury pastry appetisers, some was stirred through pasta and the rest was put into the freezer. Easy to make and so delicious. If only I could find an abundant local source, although I'm reliably informed that Waitrose will deliver which rather seems to defeat the purpose of foraging.

Easy Wild Garlic Pesto

In a food processor whizz up 100g leaves (I added some rocket to my wild garlic), 50g pine nuts, 2 garlic cloves, zest of a lemon and 200g olive oil. Stir in 50g Parmigiano Reggiano and season with salt and pepper.

The beauty of a recipe like this is that you can substitute different leaves, oil, nuts and cheese depending on what you have to hand and get fabulous but different results each time. And so much nicer than anything you can buy

Another quick but tasty snack of which we we are rather fond are Rosemary Spiced nuts. We first tasted them with pre-dinner drinks at the Cambridge Cookery School Cafe and they were so good I researched several recipes and had numerous trial runs until I came up with something similar... sweet, salty and very addictive.

Rosemary Spiced Nuts.

Mix together 1.5 Tablespoons oil or melted butter, 1 Tablespoon nigella seeds, 1 Tablespoon of honey or brown sugar, half a teaspoon of sea salt, half a teaspoon black pepper, half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and 1 Tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary. To this mixture add 230g of nuts (I like a mix of cashews and almonds) and stir well. Spread onto a baking sheet and roast in a pre-heated oven 170 deg C (150 fan) 325 deg F for 17-20 minutes, giving them the occasional stir. Leave to cool, stirring now and then to break them up, and store in an air tight jar... although to be honest ours never get to the storage stage.

Perfect with a gin and tonic!

And while I'm talking recipes, five or six years ago I posted a recipe for bread pudding (probably the last time I made it) and I think it must be my most viewed blog post ever. New comments are always popping up as someone else discovers it. Obviously the tag 'bread pudding' must get put into search engines on a regular basis... or something like that, not that I claim to understand!