A little sad, a little happy…

June 2, 2017

Well. Been busy again… a few weeks back, we had some frantic emails round the Committee of our local Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers, of which I am a member. Some looms and spinning wheels from an old weaving workshop, including a very-historic original Huguenot silk loom, had been stored in a thatched rural loft, which had fallen in. If we couldn’t do something to rescue them fast, they would have to go into a skip…

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So off a couple of us trotted, into the wilds of beautiful rural Dorset, where we found a muddle of loom parts in the loft, wherever the thatchers had stacked them, and some spinning wheels, in varying condition, stashed away in a tent on the lawn. Most of these things were hardwood, 30 or more years old, but in fair-to-middling condition, all apart from one wheel, made of softwood & ply, which had been rather well-nibbled. My colleague teaches spinning, with as many pupils as she can handle, most without wheels of their own yet, so she took the wheels. And the owner’s family & I arranged for the truly massive & very historic silk loom to go to the Huguenot Museum in Rochester.

Which left the rest… There were 4 complete looms; a big Harris upright rug/tapestry loom, which I got very excited about, as I’ve always wanted to weave Scandinavian-style rag rugs, an 8-shaft 3′ Harris table loom (and a stand & treadles which it will fit on, although not original) a 4-shaft 2’6″ Dryad floor loom and a curious little 8-shaft beastie with a very innovative system of pulley-operated shafts & upright split-metal heddles.

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The rug loom came home with me, and the other three, and some oddments, went to a Guild friend’s barn. With the help of some of my fellow Ravellers, we’ve now identified the little sample loom as a Pioneer, from the NorthWest Loom Company . I got in touch with them; they reckon it’s about 50-60 years old, one of their originals, and should clean up nicely! So the Guild will be renovating that one & keeping it for shows and demonstrations. The other two are awaiting new homes…

Sad to relate, the upright Harris rug loom is just plain too massive for the only space in this house I could possibly keep it… as soon as we got it into place, I realised that it just wouldn’t be fair to my family to hang onto it; they’d be forever clonking heads on the bits that stick out, and our 24’ conservatory just seemed to have vanished! But it’s found a new & enthusiastic home already, I’m happy to report, with someone who is just back from studying tapestry weaving in Peru. So I shall be saving up like mad for one with a smaller footprint and a “lighter” presence.

And that’s what I’ve been up to, quite apart from the hurly-burly of everyday family life and running a micro-business, and that’s why I’ve been a little bit quiet for a while. Trying to house the loom forced me to clear a lot of the mess and excess stock lurking around in the conservatory, so there have been benefits in this little escapade for all the family. And now I can see my way clear for where to put the next one…

Not following the crowd…

April 9, 2017

I’m just back from a delightful mini-break in Cornwall, with my second darling daughter. It was only a couple of days, but we had a lovely time and great weather. We walked a lot, and explored a few old haunts and new-to-her corners. On the way back, we stopped at Cotehele House, a gem of a medieval manor house in a stunning setting that I’m well-familiar with, having grown up very close by until my early teens. It was pleasantly uncrowded and relaxed, despite the glorious sunshine. When the time came to leave, I took the little back roads up to cross the river at Gunnislake, to the north…

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Cotehele House

We passed mile after mile of glorious green hedgebank, splashed with primroses, violets,  campions and the odd late daffodil, nodding drowsily in the sunshine. These are mostly single-track roads, with passing places, but there are also plenty of wide verges where it would be perfectly safe to park out of the farmers’ way and spread your picnic cloth, as we used to back in the Dark Ages when I grew up there. Kites and buzzards wheeled lazily overhead, spooking the well-fed pigeons, and cock-pheasants wandered along the roadside, gazing at the van in mild perplexity. Despite it being school holidays for most of the country, we hardly saw another car, until we reached the main road.

Then – mayhem! Almost the first thing we passed was a roadside hostelry, with a well-packed car park and a long queue to get into it, reducing the road to a single track at a most-inconvenient point. Grizzling children who’d clearly spent hours cooped up in a car, and mightily-stressed adults obviously on the verge of tearing their hair out. Yet within a couple of hundred yards, there’s all the lovely countryside you could wish for. I know it doesn’t come equipped with loos and hygienic hand-driers, but hedges take no harm for a bit of extra watering, and taking your own picnic means that your children do get to eat what they like, and your money gets saved for more worthwhile purposes than yet more chips for lunch. A wet flannel in a plastic bag keeps hands just as clean as a well-used public tap. Just remember to respect the country code; clear up after yourselves, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints, as the saying goes.

It’s something we often notice here too, living in a holiday area. The main roads are jam-packed, sometimes gridlocked, in summer, the “attractions”, well-known beaches and eateries full to bursting and not much fun at all. But stray a little off the beaten track, and you can walk for miles in some of the loveliest countryside these islands have to offer, liberally sprinkled with ancient monuments, and hardly see another soul. Visit a beach that doesn’t have an ice-cream kiosk, equip your kids with I-Spy books, buckets, spades and shrimping nets, or teach them to skim stones, and enjoy some space and peace. (Possibly even without anyone whining that they haven’t got a mobile signal.) Go to a stately home, rather than an over-priced adventure park with hour-long queues; they’ll have play areas, quizzes, and farm animals, and quite probably proper food at not-unreasonable prices rather than burgers, fries and nachos. Almost certainly there’ll be somewhere congenial to eat your picnic, too,  and plenty of space to let off steam.

I’m the first to look at Tr1p Adv1sor before going anywhere new, to get an idea of the area & what’s available locally. But I also look at physical maps, and “drive” around a bit on Google Maps, to recce likely stops and shops. Following the herd and sticking to the main roads means safety and convenience, but also crowds, queues, stress and noise. Straying a little off the beaten track often leads to delightful surprises and unsuspected loveliness…

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Primroses & violets in a Cornish hedge-bank…

 

A riot of colour…

February 5, 2017

Another little tale from yesterday… I went down to the local market, which always has a very good car boot section on a winter Saturday. Although I just needed some ham ends and some garlic for the household, I had my “work” purse with me too, so I strolled through the stalls on my way to the food area. One stallholder, who has a house-clearance firm based down in a town on the coast, called me over; “I have something you might like… a bag of Indian stuff, I think.”

Oh yes…! A big bag of jumbled old saris. Some clearly in fairly bad way, but others didn’t look too bad. I estimated there would be at least 9 or 10 in there – saris are long, usually about 6 yards/5.5m of fabric – and most were of decent quality originally, many of them silk, and in a riot of glorious colours. I asked for his best price and was instantly able to see that this was a good bargain, although it involved handing over all of my “working” cash and some of the housekeeping too! But I would still have enough left to buy what I’d actually come for.

When I got it home (thanks to a lift from a kind neighbour, also on the hunt for bargains) I was delighted to discover that there were actually 17 full saris, plus a decorative offcut from a sari “fall” or pallu. One or two of the chiffon or thin silk crepe lengths were beyond use “as is” but have beautiful trims, which are worth rescuing in their own right, and much of the fabric is rescuable and has other potential uses. Most of the loveliest woven or beaded saris have some stains, alas; I think what I have here is another crafter’s stash, going by the cut-off pallu, rather than someone’s actual wardrobe. And three of them were “spoken for” by one member of the household or another, straight away. None of them are the sort that I normally buy in, i.e. traditionally-patterned printed silks. But some were instantly saleable, either as inexpensive party-wear or decent fabric with lovely trims, so they’ve gone straight onto my stall at a very-reasonable price, to cover my costs.

I shall say no more, except to say that if I’m quiet for the next few days, it’s because I’m either dealing with yards and yards or fabulous fabrics, or I’m dreaming of what I can (and must!) do with them…

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A riot of colours and textures…

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Stunning contrasts…

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Fabulous trims…

A huge pat on the back…

February 4, 2017

… to local firm Stoate & Sons! I enjoy baking, and particularly like to make long-fermented breads and traditional fruit cakes. And as far as I’m concerned, the most vital factor in how my baking turns out isn’t the temperature of my oven, how long I’ve kneaded it (or not, as my current favourite is a no-knead sourdough) or how fresh my eggs are, but the quality of the flour. And Stoates flour is always absolutely excellent.

I can buy small 1.5Kg bags at our very-excellent local health food shop, but sadly they will only last us a week or so. But we’re lucky enough to live less than 20 miles from the mill at Cann, and often have reasons to go up that way, so when I’m passing and the mill is open, I’ll pop in and stock up on the 8Kg bags, which will last us for about 3 months. However, when my mother was very ill, I ran out of time to go up there, so placed my first order online, which most impressively arrived the next day. Since then, I’ve worked out that if there is no other reason to go up there and combine errands, it is actually marginally cheaper to buy it online, as my van, though wonderful in many ways, is not the most fuel-efficient beastie on the roads. And it also saves me some time, which always seems to be in short supply just now.

Anyway, I placed another order one evening earlier this week, and received an email the next day saying that it had been dispatched and should arrive the next day. I was at home all day, but the doorbell never rang. And though I was in and out the next day, one or other of the girls was in all day, and again, the doorbell just didn’t ring. However, this morning, we found a very soggy cardboard box on the doorstep… the box disintegrated when I picked it up, and sadly the flour sacks inside were damp too.

So I rang the mill and left a message saying what had happened; not blaming them at all, but despairing at the lack of common sense shown by their carrier. The weather forecast was terrible, and there wasn’t a moment when the house was left unattended, and both doorbells work perfectly well. For a while, I thought I might have to rely on supermarket flour until I could get up to Cann again. But as I was unpicking a fabulous metal trim from a lovely but damaged vintage sari this afternoon (more about that soon) the doorbell rang…

There on my doorstep stood the miller himself! His wife had an errand to run down our way, so when he heard my message, checked the order and realised where we were, he popped some sacks into the back of the car & dropped them off directly to us. It’s not often you get service like that these days; well and truly above and beyond the call of duty. So I’d just like to say a huge thank-you to Michael Stoate; that’s what I call good customer service!

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No-knead slow-risen sourdough made with 2 cups Stoates Organic Strong White and 2 cups Organic Maltstar, a tablespoon of salt and half a jar of sourdough starter. 

Why my Mum doesn’t cook…

January 22, 2017

It has always been a puzzle to me, how much my lovely, intelligent, adaptable & creative mother hates cooking… but I’m beginning to understand now. The other day, she casually mentioned that until she married my father, back in the immediate post-war years and aged just 21, she had never cooked or prepared a meal in her life. On the first morning of their married life, she woke up in a blind panic because she had no idea what to do about breakfast – not a clue. She had never even fried an egg.

I was somewhat amazed at this revelation; she grew up in a multi-generational household, as her mother died soon after she was born and her father was away on the North-West frontier most of the time, and re-married before too long. So she was raised mostly by her grandmother, who had grand ambitions for her; her grandfather was Chief Engineer at the local paper mill, and her aunt and uncle both had good clerical jobs, so by the standards of the time, they were solid middle-class citizens. Old photographs show a lovely dimpled child who was clearly everyone’s pet, and she went on to grammar school, where she excelled at music in particular. But sadly she failed the Matriculation, by just one point (in art, of all things) so dreams of university had to be shelved. She spent some time pursuing her musical talents, but by that time she had met my father, curate at a local church, and was sternly told that she could either sing OR marry. Luckily for us, she chose to marry…

But no-one ever taught her how to cook. It may well have been that my great-grandmother was living a little in the past, and thought that cooking should be something that cooks did. It’s certainly true that for most of my mother’s teenage years, rationing made ingredients hard to come by, and even harder to stretch, and as they lived in a town, they didn’t have access to the large & productive rural garden that my other set of grandparents had, or the time to work it; running a paper mill in wartime was a dawn-to-dusk, and sometimes beyond, commitment. My great-grandmother pooled the family’s rations to keep them all fed, but discouraged any “help” that might lead to wastage. Thus she failed to pass on the basic skills that would have kept my mother afloat when she suddenly had to feed two people, and sometimes entertain, too, on strict rations and a pretty low income.

However, she persevered; she tells tales of surreptitiously buying recipe magazines, despite not even knowing what half the ingredients were. And plunging into despair when the recipes started with sentences like, “First bone and roll the joint” or “Rub in the lard” – rub it into what, exactly? Your hands? The chopping board? How do you “bone” a joint? The bone doesn’t just pop out… To someone raised to be a blue-stocking, 1940s cookery books might as well have been written in a foreign language; they assumed a level of basic knowledge that she just didn’t have.

But then, rationing dwindled away; my parents spent some years abroad, and along came the “new” cooks – Elizabeth David, Prue Leith, Josceline Dimbleby and the like, who explained things much more clearly, with pictures, and cookery started to become more than just trying to get the most out of very basic ingredients. But just as everyone else was discovering that food could be fun, and “exotic” ingredients and recipes were becoming easily available, my father died, leaving her with just £11 in the bank, living in “tied” accommodation which she had to vacate very swiftly, and with two young children still at home. She found a job, and kept a roof over our heads, but buying & cooking food were just chores she could have done without at the end of every tiring day…

She has always done her best, in every way, and we are all immensely proud of her and grateful to her. But our childhood wouldn’t have been the same without the cries of, “But it doesn’t look like that in Delia!” or “No-one said you had to turn the oven on!” I’m glad that now she’s 90, she has the option of buying good, nutritious meals ready-made, to just heat up. But I’m also sad for her, that something should be a fundamental and creative skill became such a panic-inducing chore. And I think there’s a lesson to be learned; never assume that your kids just won’t need basic skills. Things like knowing how & what to buy and cook can turn a boring necessity into an interesting challenge; knowing to knit, crochet, sew or do basic maintenance on your car can save you lots of money as well as being very satisfying and even creative, and knowing how to swim, or tie an appropriate knot, or what or what NOT to pick in the wild, can save your life.

Life may not turn out the way you’ve planned in every detail, for you or for your loved ones…

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Wild-gathered comfrey fritters… surprisingly delicious and more-ish!

Knit your own tree, part II…

December 24, 2016

Just a little festive tale, hopefully to amuse you all… every year, my kids always express a nostalgic longing for a “real” Christmas tree. And every year, being not only the skinflintiest of skinflints, but also someone who doesn’t like to feel responsible for encouraging the aimless slaughter of innocent trees, I say, of course we can have one, provided it doesn’t cost more than about £10 less than any “real” tree actually available in our neighbourhood…

I went to pick up Dear Son no.3 from his university city on Tuesday. I needed some lightbulbs and one or two other small things, and by this point in the festive season I’m always very short of time, so I decided to leave half an hour early & pop into a well-known Scandinavian emporium en route, rather than make a separate trip down to our nearest city, which would have taken over an hour.

For the last few years, they’ve done an offer of “buy a tree for £25, receive a £20 voucher” to spend in the New Year. Which makes the tree very reasonable; basically £5, provided you can get back there in January/February & spend the voucher on things you actually need. And indeed I will be going back there, and there are things  – like lightbulbs – which they do very well, and it does no harm to have a few extra in stock. But being so close to Christmas, I assumed they would have sold out of their very-reasonable trees long ago.

But whilst I was hurtling round the store, a voice announced over the tannoy that the offer had become rather better, as they’d been left with a fair number of trees & it was getting rather late to sell them. The trees were now just £5, but buyers would still get the £20 voucher. Which means, in effect, that they were (potentially) paying us £15 to take them away!

That, of course, was easily inside the arbitrary limit that I’d set. So a beautiful little Nordmann fir came home with me (little because our living room is little; they had bigger ones but I don’t have a bigger room!) and has been decorated with 1001 precious little memories, and is gracing a corner of our lives for the next 12 days.

We do have a very nice “fake” tree, from the same source, also bought for much less than the original price. But it will still be in the loft to be used next year, if I can’t track down a tree for free (or very little) that isn’t otherwise going to be used. But I doubt that I will ever again effectively be paid to take one away…

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Wishing you all a merry, lighthearted & peaceful Christmas – or Yule, or Hanukkah, or Midwinter festival.

Knit your own Christmas tree…

December 6, 2016

Not really! But surely I’m not the only person dismayed by the price of “real” trees and the profligacy of a society that just throws out perfectly good imitation trees just because they’re not this year’s colour or shape, or don’t fit the space available any more?

This week it became apparent that a small, pre-decorated Christmas tree might make a nice surprise for someone. So off I went to my favourite emporium, the local Tip, where needless to say they’ve been inundated with redundant Christmas trees over the last few weeks. A few pennies secured me a promising well-taped-up box, which said it contained a 6′ “Woodland Pine” tree. As the box was only about 3′ long, I was fairly sure that this would be easily re-jigged into a smaller tree, and so it proved when I got home; three graduated trunk sections, with lots of slot-in “branches”, taped with different colours according to size. It just took a minute with a pair of pliers to move the fitting that the top piece of the tree sits in from the middle to the lowest section of the trunk, and a small bit of masking tape wound round to make it stay put in the larger tube, making a 3-4′ tree. The smaller branches slot into the lower trunk perfectly well, and the plastic stand was unbroken. It’s not a thing of beauty, but I’ve tied a festive-coloured scarf around it so it’s not visible.

I happened to be visiting the city this morning, and visits to £land and W!lko’s secured me two small sets of battery lights, one clear and one coloured. The intended recipient doesn’t bend too easily, so I thought battery lights would be easier for them to cope with. I’d already bought some pretty acrylic “jewel drops” for our own tree; there were more in the box than we’ll need, so I put some on the little tree to scatter the lights. And I’ve made some felt hearts out of old, moth-eaten blankets, stitched round with gold thread rescued from old needlework boxes, and some of those have found their way onto the tree too.

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However I did bust the budget when it came to topping the tree; it had to be an angel or a star, and I didn’t have anything suitable, or enough time to make something. So off we trotted to a town up the road which has a an all-year-round Christmas shop, where I invested in a pretty little glass angel, which gives the impression of being lit up with an LED or two underneath her. But she is not in any way begrudged; I’m just glad that saving money on the tree itself has allowed me to buy the loveliest tree-topper in town!

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Farewell, Tino…

November 16, 2016
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Tino just before she sat on the Christmas cake…

Some years ago, just before Christmas, my youngest announced that she wanted a cat, a long-haired black cat called Valentino. As we already had several cats, it seemed necessary to gently discourage this idea, but she is a young lady of great determination…

At about the same time, I became aware of a little dark shadow, flittering around the edges of the garden at dawn & dusk; a very nervous cat. If I looked directly towards it, it would whisk away behind the nearest shrub. But not very fast; the poor little soul seemed to have a heavy limp, and never jumped, and seemed to be reduced to eating scraps that we’d put out for our handful of backyard chickens. Gradually it seemed to decide that I wasn’t much of a threat, and made itself more visible, and I could see that it was very thin, with a long black matted coat. On Christmas Day it seemed unfair not to leave a saucer of chopped-up turkey giblets down beside the shed that it seemed to be living under, well away from where the chickens could get at it. I never saw the cat, but the giblets had disappeared before the washing-up was done.

From then on, I took to leaving a little saucer of food out once the birds had gone to bed at dusk or before they came out in the morning. The cat slowly gained confidence, and came out to eat as soon as I produced the goods, or even sat & waited for it, up by the pond. It was still very shy, but more & more at ease with my presence; I talked to it and it seemed to listen. We were into the early summer before I casually reached out to stroke its head one day. Mis-step! It was horrified that I would take such a liberty; hissed, spat, swiped my hand,  and wouldn’t come near me for days. But offerings of food gradually won it back over, and we were eventually allowed to stroke its head – but only its head; a hand straying anywhere else was clearly a diabolical liberty.

We had no idea whether it was male or female, but it sprayed, so we assumed it was male. And needless to say, it acquired the name Tino, being suitably black & long-haired, and did seem to answer to that, although it was always clear that its hearing was not all a feral cat’s hearing needs to be; an approach from behind would cause utter panic, to start with. The poor creature also had a great big wodge of felted fur under its chin, almost from ear to ear and down to the top of its legs, which I periodically tried to loosen, thinking it must be very uncomfortable, but the cat simply wasn’t going to allow that until I introduced a pet-comb, which was evidently much safer than a hand. I was allowed to run that down its back, and tease away at the edge of the tangled beard-mat, which eventually fell off of its own accord, and with regular food and combing the long black coat became fluffy & luxuriously soft. Though in summer sunshine, it became chocolate brown, rather than black, except the head, tail & paws.

It was just about two years before she finally set one cautious paw on the threshold of our conservatory. And one paw was all it was, until the next day, when two paws & a head came in before nerves got the better of her; by then, a brave and knowledgable neighbour had managed to pick her up briefly and get a glimpse of her rear end to establish she was actually a female, something we’d never managed to do. A week or so later, as the January cold set in, she found a nice box with a wool blanket under the table in the conservatory, and took up residence indoors. Our other cats didn’t turn a hair… it was as if she’d always been there, and maybe she had been, tucked away quietly in the margins of our garden and our lives, invisible until she needed our help, and no threat whatsoever to our motley crew of resident moggies.

More cautious steps of the paw, and she started to turn up in the kitchen at mealtimes along with the others, who seemed to accept her as one of their own from the word go; she seemed to watch and copy them to work out how to behave in such as strange environment. Then one evening, a little head poked around the door into the living room; it was several months before she’d come up onto a chair with a human occupant, but eventually she did, and discovered that we possess the odd horizontal surface when sitting down. So she would slowly advance onto a lap, paw by cautious paw, then sit bolt upright in case the owner tried to commit any liberties. It was months before she relaxed enough to lie down & curl up, and the jumping-up never came easily to her.

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Tino on the sofa, bolt upright…

We took her to the vet, who pronounced her definitely female, pretty much healthy, possibly a bit arthritic given her trouble with jumping, and probably about ten years old. She showed no sign of ever having had kittens, so may have been rounded up & spayed as a kitten, as there’s a known colony of feral cats not too far from us. I will always think that she might have been rather older than that, but she’d evidently had a hard life before coming to us, and I don’t think she had ever been someone’s pet; when she first appeared, I checked with all the local vets and charitable organisations, and no-one had reported losing a cat of her description.

She brought many moments of sheer delight into our lives; watching her adjust to domesticity was a joy. Especially her little start of surprise & delight every time she wandered past the food bowl and found something edible  in it, though she was never greedy. And the moment when she inadvertently sat on the Christmas cake will always be a treasured memory.

A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that weight seemed to be falling off her rapidly, and her lovely soft coat was becoming thin; we took her to the vet, who diagnosed kidney problems. Sadly there was nothing much anyone could do, although she wasn’t in any pain or distress. But yesterday she lost all interest in food, something we never thought we’d see. So this afternoon we took her back and held her as she went to gently off to sleep; the final kindness. She’d spent the day either dozing in my daughter’s lap in front of the fire or tottering out to the pond to drink; she was never impressed with tap water and by the pond, dozing gently or watching life go by, was where she really loved to be best, weather permitting.

So, to anyone out there who is thinking of giving a home to a feral cat – it can be done, if that’s what the cat wants and you can be patient and win their trust. And it’s very, very rewarding; our lives have been the richer for having this small, cautious, fiercely intelligent & determined little soul under our roof for the last few years. Farewell, Tino; it’s been our privilege to share our lives with you for a while…

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Tino soaking up the sunshine by the pond…

There are times…

September 29, 2016

…when I have neither the time nor the heart to make much. September’s been a full-on month, with several commitments that I felt I couldn’t try to wriggle out of, whatever else was going on, a couple of vague attempts to make some money towards the festive season, and another heart-lurching health challenge for my elderly mother.

And it’s harvest time; my absolute favourite thing to do, ever, is to go foraging in our hedgerows, with the sun on my back, birdsong in my ears. Yesterday I managed a short run out to the woods, and came back with a basket half-full of little yellow crab-apples, a handful of blackberries (which, sadly, have started to rot on the vines, thanks to the rain & grey skies) sloes & rosehips. There are apples & quinces coming down in the garden, too. Yesterday evening & all day today, I haven’t been outrageously busy, so I’ve managed to carve out the time to chop & boil up the two quinces that had split, the crab apples and the little blackberries. Then to let the mush drip all night, add sugar and boil up until “wrinkly” today. Luckily I had a lot of clean jamjars to scald, too, with new lids.

So now there are 8 jars of lovely deep-pink Quince & Crab-Apple Jelly (recipe here) cooling on my kitchen table, and I feel as though my feet have touched the ground again… but there’s a good chance that I’ll need to make a quilt soon, too, as a house-warming  present! Fingers crossed for them…

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I have no idea why this pic has “tiled” itself… Good job it’s not a face!

Just a quick laugh…

September 7, 2016

Overheard whilst restocking my stall at the lovely Toad Hall last week…

“Oooh look, that looks just like Mum’s old one! You remember, the one we threw out last month?”

“Oh yes! But hers was filthy… shall we get this for her, to replace that one?”

Oh yes they did… sigh!