92: squelch squerch

This week my walking buddy Jill (cover photo artist!) and I have made the most of being off for Christmas and headed out ‘early doors’ (she’s from Yorkshire) for a couple of welly walks. We love our walks: we put the world to rights, appreciate the scenery, stomp on icy puddles and squish our way through the muddy ones. Some weeks she is grouchy, other weeks it’s me. We test out ideas for work or catastrophise in the knowledge that we can go into the office the next day with our heads back on straight. It’s like therapy. There’s something about walking next to someone, not facing them, that allows stress and those wake-you-up-at-3am thoughts to spill out.

Some days we go further than others: round the roads to Tawney Common, or across to Toot Hill, or round past Dial House and the farm to see the cows, or the old golf course and flood meadows. Sometimes it’s the short 5k through the woods and back, or to the end of the village. Whatever, I always come back feeling better and ready to face the week.

It was a week of extremes: one day it was -4°c and the world was white. The sun was coming up in spectacular fashion, the puddles were frozen and we crackled our way down to the farm and home via the station. The plan was to check what time the light fantastic train was running that day so we could drag the kids up to Marconi Bridge to watch it go through, but they were only doing the Santa Special till after Christmas. We allowed ourselves to be seduced by the smell of frying bacon from the station cafe and indulged in a bacon roll and tea, listening to the brass quartet playing Christmas carols and watching overexcited kids waiting for Santa’s train to arrive.

The following day was much warmer so the puddles were squelchy once more (as you can see from the cover photo). That day’s route took us through the fields to the radio station (hence Marconi Bridge) and past North Weald Redoubt, finishing up at Jill’s house for tea and a rummage through boxes of craft stuff from a friend’s house clearing. I was very good and only came home with a few balls of yarn and some toy eyes. My plan this week was to try and destash some craft things from the shed, not bring home more – I did send some yarn up to Jill’s mum, and got rid of a whole lot of jewellery making stuff, which was a start.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed at least a few days off and will be grabbing the opportunity for a Boxing Day welly walk – we have A, H and the grandchild over today, but I’m looking forward to a few more walks this week.

All can now be revealed…

As it’s after Christmas I can share the gifts I made – the wall hanging was for our Dungeonmaster and his wife and I made them open it while I was there playing board games on Monday. The ‘Eira Owls’ were for their daughters. The little pigs in granny square blankets have been ridiculously popular and I ended up making more than 20 of them as Christmas ‘cards’* for colleagues and my swimming buddies, and then as requests for people who’d seen them on Facebook. They’ve gone off to Wales, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and London. I still have several to do after Christmas but I have to get two presents out in January and a couple for February first!**

(* I don’t send cards to anyone but immediate family, but donate to a charity every year instead – this year it was the Trussell Trust. I make little decorations that can be brought out year after year – I love seeing people’s photos of their trees with my work on!)

(** Yes, I am taking orders. They are £6 each plus postage!)

I hope you’ve all had a great Christmas with family and friends, that you’re all safe and warm and looking forward to 2022. By the time next week’s post appears we’ll be in a whole new year!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Untold Story – Genevieve Cogman

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (Audible)

A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

The Toast of Time – Jodi Taylor

The Long and the Short of it – Jodi Taylor (Audible)

66: happy birthday to me!

Yesterday was my 48th birthday, and among the presents I requested from the various people who asked was an Ordnance Survey map of Chelmsford and the Rodings, and one of their Pathfinder books of circular walks. I bought another map (Chelmsford, Harlow and Bishops Stortford) with one of the Amazon vouchers I was given as well. Those of you who have ever been anywhere with me and experienced my sense of direction might wonder a bit at this, of course, as I am the adult who once got so hopelessly lost in Sainsburys in Whitechapel that I handed myself in at Customer Services and waited to be collected. I am also regularly flummoxed by Google maps on my phone: it’s all very well showing me where I am, but it still takes a few false starts, watching the direction the arrows are moving when I walk, to work out the direction of travel.

Still, you all know I love a good walk, so my thinking is that with the aid of these maps I can explore a bit more of my local area. North Weald sits on the border of both these maps, rather than conveniently in the middle, hence needing two of them.

I have a vague plan that for my 50th birthday I will walk the whole of the Essex Way over a series of weekends, in the company of whoever I can persuade to do various stretches with me. I have a couple of years to plan this adventure, fortunately! I have done some of the local stretches on training walks, and I am keen to do the rest. If I was the sort of hardy hiking person who could be bothered to carry lots of equipment on my back I might do it all at once, but that’s never going to happen!

I like marking big birthdays. I haven’t worried about my age since I was 27 and I cried all day as I was so old. Back when I was still in infant school in Cardiff our class teacher, Mrs Price, asked us to work out how old we would in the year 2000, and 27 was the answer: it felt such a long way away, and such a vast age to a six year old, that I never forgot it. No other birthday has ever felt so traumatic!

My 30th was a mad evening out in London with friends, where we did the Jack the Ripper walk after a few drinks in All Bar One at Tower Hill (chosen as it was formerly the Mark Lane underground station, and I am nothing if not a nerd). My 40th was a barbecue in the back garden, with a ball pool for the kids and surrounded by friends. So I am planning an adventure for my 50th: it’s a big birthday, so I ought to celebrate it by doing something interesting with people I like. Volunteers for future weekends on the Essex Way welcome!

Other gifts included yarn, rhubarb and ginger gin and books: you all know me so well!

There has, of course, been other things in my week: my second Covid vaccine, so I am now fully 5G enabled or something (I don’t care if it causes me to pick up Radio Caroline, quite honestly, as long as it means I can see my parents and sisters). It was the monthly sunset/full moon swim, and this month the moon was up but covered in clouds so I still didn’t see it from the lake. There has been lots of making, but nothing I can share yet!

There has also been a lot of reading: a book that had me grabbed from the first page, and which would have kept me awake into the early hours to finish it if the battery on my Kindle hadn’t died. Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, was one of those 99p Kindle deals that’s been lurking on the virtual shelf of shame since then. I finally got round to it this week. It’s one of the best books I have read for a very long time – if you haven’t run across it already, go and grab it. History, magic, mystery, the Thames: what else do you need?

And now I must head for Tesco, as the cupboard is mostly bare and the Horde need feeding! Same time next week?

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Once Upon a River – Diane Setterfield

Madame Burova/The Keeper of Lost Things/Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel – Ruth Hogan

Cider with Rosie – Laurie Lee (Audible)

62: Or, what I did on my holidays

This time last week I was in Criccieth, North Wales with London sister (LS): we were peering out of the window at the torrential rain and howling gale and wondering what to do with our day. Luckily, having spent most of our childhood holidays in Wales, we are waterproof and hardy.

We drove up on Friday, via Abergavenny and mid-Wales: through convoy road works, diversions for road closures (including the old Severn Bridge) and finally up through the Dolgellau pass where the car in front of us burned out their clutch, the clouds were down on the road and there were free range sheep on the roadsides. We were staying at the Lion Hotel in Criccieth, where LS explained she was learning Welsh. She asked if it was OK if she practised on them and they promised to help. The hotel is family-run and so friendly, with hot showers, big breakfasts and comfortable beds. We ate in the restaurant on our first evening: whitebait and a freshly baked steak and ale pie for me, and spring rolls and gammon for her. The gammon steak was HUGE, from a local butcher, and came with egg and pineapple – none of this ‘or’ malarkey! They even had a gin menu, featuring local gins – I tried the Rhubarb and Ginger gin.

We went for a walk before dinner, as the rain had stopped and we needed to stretch our legs after the trek up from London: straight to the beach, where we watched a surfer and I got water in my wellies attempting to cross the stream. I squelched for the rest of the walk, causing LS to snigger a lot.

LS had planned our weekend itinerary, and Saturday saw us heading for Aberdaron to pick up the Wales coastal path on a route that would take us to the most westerly part of North Wales….after breakfast, of course, where we discovered that no one knows the word for ‘hash browns’ in Welsh. Google has it as ‘brown hash’ but LS decided ‘tatws wedi hashio’ was better. Not sure we convinced the waitress though!

The sun was out, and we got to Aberdaron in time to buy freshly-baked pasties from Becws Islyn for a picnic lunch on our walk. After a few false starts (getting on the wrong bit of beach, for example) we picked up the coast path and, using the trusty Ordnance Survey book, we headed up. And up. And down. And up. There are steep steps cut into the cliffs and in some cases the path takes you right down to the beach and back up again – Porth Meudwy, where the boat for Bardsey Island leaves from, is a prime example here. It’s a narrow cove with a slipway and not a lot else. The weather by this point was glorious: breezy and fine, and we even had to remove a layer of fleece.

Mynydd Mawr was our destination point: there’s a coastguard station on the very top and the remains of a wartime radar station. The walk instructions at this point were ‘keep walking upwards’: straight to the point there! After a quick peek at the coastguard station we found a spot on the cliff to eat our still-warm pasties and, as we were facing westwards, we could see Ireland in the distance as the weather was so clear. We waved at Ireland sister but we’re not sure she saw us! We moved round the mountain to drink our coffee, eat Snickers bars (the perfect walking snack) and admire Eryri (Snowdonia) in the distance.

The route back took us through some farmland – we were diverted from part of it due to landslips and erosion, and then we rejoined the coastal path back at Porth Meudwy – sadly at the bottom of the steps, so we still had to climb up again! We admired bluebells, foxgloves, late primroses and lots of gorse, and learned about the National Trust’s activity to replace the gorse with heather to create heathland. The final stretch was a scramble across the rocks at Aberdaron as we couldn’t face the final set of down and up steps: the tide was coming in but we raced the waves and rewarded ourselves with an ice cream on the beach. After nine miles of mostly hills we had earned it!

Back in Criccieth, I decided to go for a swim. LS sat on the beach with her book and a G&T. The sea was calm and the beach shelves very quickly, so you don’t need to go out very far to submerge. The hotel landlady thought I was quite mad, and now we get to say ‘o mam bach!’ instead of OMG…

We had fish and chips on the beach for dinner – quite the best I have had for a very long time – accompanied by prosecco and hovering gulls. We didn’t share.

Sunday’s weather was the complete opposite of the previous day, so we headed to Caernarfon for the family zoom call to wish Ireland sister a happy birthday, and then to Newborough Forest and Traeth Llanddwyn on Anglesey for a walk. The Forest is a red squirrel sanctuary, but we didn’t see any: I suspect they were tucked up in their drays hiding from the weather! We did see a woodpecker, two ravens and a lot of sand dunes, and made the sensible decision not to go to the island to see the chapel as we’d have been blown away. We drove back via Llyn Padarn and Llanberis, being awed by the waterfalls in full spate and the number of idiot drivers, and then in the evening we ate at Dylan’s in Criccieth: a beautiful Art Deco building designed by Clough Williams Ellis in the 1930s. No mussels were available so more whitebait, crab arancini and then crab salads.

On Monday’s homeward journey we called in to see our cousin Myfanwy and her husband in Fairbourne, where sheep roamed the streets and the bakery makes excellent brownies. It was lovely to see them – last time I met them it was in Kings Cross so the scenery was very different!

I think the kids were pleased to see me when I got back, it’s hard to tell…

Reality…

The excitement continued on Wednesday as it was the monthly sunset and full moon swim at Redricks – this month was the flower moon, so there were some mad hats on display. The lake looks so pretty lit up by torches in drybags and glowtubes.

On Thursday I had my last day on site at the museum, as we had to be out on Friday for the building work to start. It looks so empty! We recycled and donated as much as we possibly could: scrap metal and wood, charity shops, the Scrap Project, schools, other museums, churches and charities. It’s going to be an adventure for the next few years to say the least!

Baby cow, do-do-do-do-doooo

A finish this week has been this cow and calf, which is probably one of the weirder things I have made – it was a commission from a friend as a gift for her sister in law, who loves all things cow.

I also frogged half my latest sock (Mulled Wine by Vicki Brown Designs) as I decided I didn’t like the solid colour I was using. I took it back to the toe and redid the foot with a self-striping yarn from West Yorkshire Spinners – Winwick Mum in the Wildflower colourway.

The year of handmade gifts

I had a brainwave a few weeks ago and made a chart of all my work colleagues’ birthdays so I can plan a bit better! I am now ahead of myself, having finished the next one and kitted up two more – one for work and one for a friend who is getting married soon.

I have also picked up the Hobbit Hole pattern again, which has been on hold while I’ve been making gifts – I was stitching in the garden yesterday, and while watching films last night.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…

So that’s been my week! A lot of heavy lifting, glorious walks, time with my sister, cross stitch and crochet. And it’s a bank holiday weekend too – hurray!

See you for week 63, which won’t be nearly as exciting as this week I am mostly doing spreadsheets.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure – Joanne Harris (Audible)

Attention All Shipping – Charlie Connelly

Pel is Puzzled/Pel and the Staghound – Mark Hebden

57: a cheese and pineapple hedgehog for sixty, please.

It’s 7am on Sunday morning and thanks to Thing 2 I have been awake for an hour. She has a habit of setting a 6am alarm (‘but Mu-ummm, it’s on silent‘) and leaving it on a shelf by her bed, where it’s magnified by the wall so it wakes all of us up. Last night she’d had a nightmare and crept into my bed….where she is still fast asleep in a cocoon of blankets, having managed to be the only person who slept through her alarm.

She did have an exciting day yesterday, at a birthday ‘pamper party’ where all the girls got their make up and hair done. She’s a fan of TikTok and YouTube, so she had a lovely time being made up properly. (I have absolutely no idea, to be honest – as far as I am concerned if I can get my eyeliner on both eyes to look almost the same I think I’m pretty much winning). I was doing some gardening while the party was going on two doors away and it sounded like they were having a good time. I think birthday parties are one of the things they have missed most over the lockdown: that permission to eat lots of party food and run around shrieking and giggling in the sunshine. I think we have all missed that, to be fair.

Bleeding heart flowers

Usually I’d have my own birthday party, which before last year was a (very) relaxed afternoon barbecue in the back garden. My birthday is in June so I can count on reasonably good weather, our back garden is made for kids with lots of space and a tree to climb so there’s no need for people to find sitters. I am much better at grown up birthday parties than I have ever been with the kids, sadly. The thought of 30 children running around screaming fills me with horror, as does the idea of entertaining them, so from quite early on I was a big fan of the pizza and pyjama party for the girls: order Dominoes, watch a film in your onesie, and let them entertain themselves. No washing up, apart from anything else, and who doesn’t love pizza? I can manage a reliable birthday cake, or Colin the Caterpillar* is always acceptable.

Ivy graffiti on the tree trunks we use as borders.

Kids’ parties these days are also very different to when I was a child. Way back in the seventies and eighties your parent would deposit you at the front door of the birthday child’s house and run away to do whatever parents did while their child was at a party. Probably shopping, or a quiet sit down with a deep sense of relief that someone else was in charge of the 30 kids hopped up on E-numbers. You knew what you were getting as a guest, too: a couple of rounds of pass the parcel, cheese and pineapple on sticks, sausages on sticks, chocolate fingers, jam sandwiches and crisps, sleeping lions and a piece of cake wrapped in kitchen roll on your way out of the door. Pizza and chicken nuggets were unheard of, and as for carrot sticks and hummus….

Now, especially when the children are younger, there’s an assumption that an invite to a child’s party is also an invite for the parent and all their younger siblings, which means – if you have the whole class invited – you’re suddenly feeding 60+ people on party food. If you’re a parent who does the daily pick-up, you probably know all these parents (or at least the childminder) and have some idea who they are. I, on the other hand, have really only started doing pick ups regularly in the last year or so, so when the kids were younger I had no idea who anyone was. Thing 2 was never a child who could be left at a party as she was so shy, so I always had to stay with her (usually with her physically attached to me like a limpet for most of the party). There was also a hardcore clique of parents at their original primary school and – as a working mum – I was never part of that so parties were an exercise in isolation. I really hated the idea of inviting 30 people to a party who would basically ignore me…so I didn’t. The primary school Thing 3 currently attends is much more welcoming, as are the parents! I still go down the small party route, and Thing 3 prefers a birthday treat like the cinema and a McDonalds. These days the request is usually to go to the fun session at the swimming pool with some friends, and one year I took Thing 1 and her best friend to HyperJapan for the day. You have no idea how much of a relief this is…

*Other caterpillars are currently available, at least until M&S win their case against Aldi.

Image by Aldi

Jab one done: the rest of the week

On Tuesday I had the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccination, at the centre in Loughton. It was incredibly well-organised, and I was in and out in less than an hour and on my way home. I had the AstraZeneca vaccine, which my beloved had had a few weeks earlier, and the side effects kicked in after 24 hours. I was fine all the first day, apart from feeling a bit dopier than normal, and then – bam!- it was like being hit by a tree. I spent most of Wednesday on the sofa asleep and then was fine on Thursday apart from a sore arm. Not much fun, but I’m halfway there now and hopefully it means at some point I’ll be able to visit my parents.

As usual, I got several rounds of my crochet done while I was waiting – I am making these lacy socks from Simply Crochet issue 108, in Marriner Yarns’ Cosy Toes sock yarn. It’s the first time I have used this merino blend yarn and it feels lovely and soft. I’m using the jellyfish colourway which is soft greens and pinks and I am trying to be good and measure the tension so they actually fit.

Toe-up

On Thursday night I went for an evening dip in glorious sunshine. I didn’t swim far as I was still feeling the last of the vaccine but just being submerged in the lake was enough. We were some of the last people out before the lake closed for the evening so were lucky enough to see the fish jumping for the gnats, and I also spotted a parakeet, a red kite, a cormorant and a heron.

Finally, last Sunday we dragged the children out of the house for a family walk (I do mean dragged) to the flood meadow and back. The meadow is currently covered in a carpet of cowslips and deadnettles. The children also managed a two whole minutes without arguing, which was nice.

So that’s it from me! Tomorrow night I am looking forward to the full moon swim at Redricks, and have managed to do the waterproof test on my underwater phone holder thingy so might manage to get some swimming pictures.

Same time next week! This week’s cover photo was taken from a prone position in Victoria Park, at a team picnic in the sunshine.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Another Time Another Place (Chronicles of St Mary’s) – Jodi Taylor

The Quantum Curators and the Faberge Egg – Eva St John

The Quantum Curators and the Enemy Within – Eva St John

Chocolat – Joanne Harris (Audible)

56: We got both kinds o’music!

I am under orders to ‘write something good’ this week, as instructed by a friend in a message yesterday. No pressure then! It’s early Sunday morning, I walked 15 miles yesterday, Thing 2’s alarm woke me up at 6am (no, I have no idea why she sets a 6am alarm either) and now I have to ‘write something good’. Ha!

This particular instruction came from an old friend from home. We used to drink in the same pubs, with excellent jukeboxes and good company, so it makes sense to write about music and memory this week. There’s a lot of science-y stuff around music therapy and the benefits of music for people with dementia and acquired brain injuries, but – making a rash generalisation here – the music we listened to as teens/young adults has the greatest power to cast us back in time. (Even Radio 3 agrees, so I must be right). Followers of my Facebook page will know that I have what I call my mental jukebox: when a song pops into your head and you can’t get rid of it. I don’t know what triggers the songs and refuse to take any responsibility for them (and sometimes they are extremely random). I just share them via YouTube. The playlist has been stuck in the seventies for a while, but I’m not complaining.

Here are the last three offerings from the mental jukebox:

Warren Zevon – Don’t Let Us Get Sick (2000)

Gordon Lightfoot – Sundown (1974)

Albert Hammond – The Free Electric Band (1973)

I wasn’t born till 1973, but I know the Hammond track from a ‘Greatest hits of 1973′ CD that someone bought me for a birthday present once, and the Lightfoot track was covered by a band called Elwood in 2000. In the year 2000 I was living in London and listening to a lot of music – I’d always choose music over turning on the TV, even now. The research says that songs that were on in the background become the soundtrack to your lives.

Warren Zevon

I discovered Warren Zevon myself, as – other than Werewolves of London – he didn’t get a lot of airplay on mainstream radio. I always loved Werewolves and went off to find the rest of his back catalogue later. The instruction to ‘write something good’ came in a message chain that started with ‘I’m listening to Warren Zevon’. Zevon is a clever, funny lyricist: I love people who can play with words and write whole stories in a few lines of a song.

Later, when I started finding my own musical taste, I discovered Bruce Springsteen with the help of Born in the USA and then a babysitter who was a huge fan. He’s another person who can pour whole worlds into a song and over the course of a live show can take you from joy to tears. He’s been in my life for the last 35 years, and probably counts as the longest soundtrack ever. U2 are up there in my lifelong soundtrack too: The Joshua Tree led me into their back catalogue

I grew up on the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, John Denver (my mum’s all time favourite), Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley, Don Williams, Dr Hook and a host of country singers, Ray Stevens (thanks Dad), and those songs have the power to cast me back to long car journeys to West Wales and later to Spain for family holidays. These songs say summer to me: hot weather and the excitement of heading off for a couple of weeks on the beach. I can still sing along with most of them, and they always make me smile.

Often it’s individual songs that take you back in time. Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69 takes me to a field in Tregare, The Violent Femmes’ Add it up to a dodgy student nightclub in Preston, Rage Against the Machines’ Killing in the Name to The Warehouse, Don McLean’s American Pie to the Griffin in Monmouth while Meatloaf’s Dead Ringer for Love means The Nag’s Head and playing pool in the back room. Green Day’s Basket Case whisks me off to a basement bar in Aberystwyth, Let it Go from the Frozen soundtrack to my sister’s car filled with kids, The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds means the Lake District to me.

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions are forever attached to my best friend, and I know that Dexys Midnight Runners Come on Eileen causes her to think of me – it’s the song that never fails to lift me out of any down moment. Joan Armatrading’s Drop the Pilot is another one. The Blues Brothers soundtrack makes me think of an old friend, as it was his favourite film. Robbie Robertson’s Somewhere Down The Crazy River is the Glen Trothy in Mitchel Troy. There are so many others that raise a wistful smile, or cause me to really really want a pint of cider and a cigarette, or to be in a car with the windows open and the volume up in the sunshine.

The lovely thing about music is that people just keep making it, and there’s always more to discover and add to your personal memory bank. Which songs take you back, and where to?

(Will that do, Nigel?)

Edit: I forgot to include Ocean Colour Scene’s The Day we Caught the Train and Frank Sinatra’s My Way, so a friend tells me – bringing the Durham Arms on Hackney Road back into sharp relief! Thanks Leddy 🙂

These boots are made for walking…

And so, luckily, were my trainers as my walking boots are now more than 20 years old and definitely on their way out.

Yesterday London sister found herself at a loose end so she headed over to Essex – I haven’t seen her since September, which is the longest time we have been apart since I was studying in Aberystwyth and she had just moved to London. She brought coffee and I brought cookies and we headed off up the hill to join the Essex Way at Toot Hill. The weather, despite a frosty start to the day, was perfect for walking – not too hot or cold, and gloriously sunny. We walked through to Ongar and back, with a rest stop at St Andrews Greensted, and plotted a longer walking break which we’ll hopefully manage in the next couple of months. I do love to walk, as you may have noticed, and I’m lucky to have some good footpaths in the area. We covered just over 10.5 miles along paths lined with blackthorn blossom and primroses, saw fish in the Cripsey Brook as well as a lot of bank erosion that must have happened over the winter, and met a friendly collie dog greeting walkers behind the church.

I’d already done a 4.5 miler in the morning, so I am more than a little creaky today! I slept well last night…

I have just had my breakfast – buttered Bara Brith warm from the oven, as my early wake up call meant that I could add the flour, egg and spices to the tea, sugar and fruit I left soaking last night and get the mix in the oven early. Usually I’d be taking it for a post-swimming treat but I have managed to double book myself today and have a life coaching session this morning. I have to think of a problem or question, but I think the problem is really that I am quite content at the moment! My Covid-19 jabs are booked at last, work is going quite well and I have enough time to read and make stuff. What’s not to be happy about?

Tunisian socks finished!

On that note I had better go and get myself organised for the day!

Kirsty x

PS – I forgot to share this V&A blog post the other week when it was finally published!

What I’ve been reading:

Angel’s Share/Rose’s Vintage – Kayte Nunn

Maskerade – Terry Pratchett

A Comedy of Terrors (Flavia Albia) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

54: one of those weeks

It’s been a funny old week, really. At work we were coming to the end of the consultation period for what we hope was the last phase of the restructure (for a while, anyway) and, being a union rep, its been a bit frenzied for the last couple of months. The people I have been supporting have been angry, confused, upset, worried – about themselves, their colleagues and friends, and the collection – and frustrated. It’s been made more difficult as there was an anonymous leak to the press before it was announced to the museum staff, so the process has been happening under scrutiny from the broadsheets, Radio 4, a few of the arts journals and even parliament, where an early day motion was brought about the National Art Library.

I have come away from the process knowing a lot more about the workings of the conservation and curatorial teams, and have seen the museum values of generosity, collaboration and innovation demonstrated by the staff on a daily basis. The term ‘grace under fire’ has never made more sense, particularly as some of the meetings were being led by people whose jobs were also at risk of redundancy. It’s never felt more important to be a part of the union.

The kids have also been at home for their Easter holidays, which always makes online meetings more of a challenge! At least I wasn’t trying to manage home learning as well as the meetings, which really would have been the final straw. As it was, I made it as far as Wednesday and then decided I’d take Thursday off to clear my head.

Wednesday evening was a bit of a treat. As part of the rehoming of the learning collection I had sent some boxes off to Northern Ireland to Time Steps Living History, which is a historical interpretation company. Owned by Ireland sister, Time Steps provides sessions in schools, community venues, care homes, and historic sites and celebrated 10 years in business this week. ‘Sent some boxes’ sounds quite straightforward, doesn’t it? It skims over the fact that in the process I have had to raise a complaint with Hermes who won’t accept parcels for NI as they think it’s international (their international site thinks otherwise), and have a lengthy web chat with DPD whose delivery driver was unable to raise the museum contact despite having two phone numbers, a one hour slot when people were actively looking out for them and detailed instructions on which gate to use. Still, they got there in the end.

Where was I? Oh yes, Wednesday evening. Ireland sister and I videochatted while she unpacked the boxes, as I’d forgotten what was in them. It felt like Christmas for me, watching her discover tiny clogs, lots of ephemera, historic costume replica, toys, and more. All these things have been hidden in boxes in our cupboards, and now they’ll be having a new life when she can get back into schools and the community. My niece and nephew were also on the call – she is a mini history buff and he is incurably curious, pouncing on the wooden toys and experimenting. After a really hard few days (weeks!) it was wonderful to bring a bit of joy to someone.

My gorgeous niece Catrin modelling a replica bonnet. Image © Time Steps/Stephanie Lavery

Thursday became a bit of a mental health day, with reading and making things and generally not looking at screens except when I wanted to. It was lovely to be able to talk to the Things without having to take a pair of earphones off, be able to listen to the Minecraft explanations without half my mind being on my next meeting, and to be able to sit in silence at times. Silence is under-rated in these days of working from home and hyperconnectedness.

I have also managed to swim twice this week. The urge to get back in the water – chilly or not – has been so strong in the past few weeks that I’ve been able to visualise the chill of the water as it creeps up the legs of my wetsuit. On Monday I was so happy afterwards I got the giggles, as well as the silly grin we all get. The air was warmer than the water, which was sitting at 9 degrees, so getting changed was quite pleasant. Yesterday, the water was 10.6 degrees and the air was in single figures with a biting wind, so I was glad of my onesie with no awkward fastenings. In the van next to us a little girl had put her face underwater and got brain freeze – luckily I still had some hot chocolate left in the flask to share with her!

Copped Hall walk

Last Sunday my beloved and I dragged Things Two and Three out for a walk (Thing One was having a bit of a wobble so didn’t join us). We parked up behind the cricket pitch in Epping, crossed over the M25 on the Bell Common tunnel and followed the footpath up to Copped Hall. I’d never been up there before, but had always had the footpath earmarked for exploration at some point.

The path takes you down through a field where we could see a herd of deer ahead of us, and past a pillbox which is part of the Outer London Defence Ring – it was the second one listed in this blog post if you want more details! You then follow the road up past some very large houses (Rod Stewart is a former resident on the estate) and finally come up to Copped Hall itself. The kids loved climbing the tree outside and sitting on the haha watching the world go by. The walk back took us past woodlands swathed in primroses and violets, past the deer again and up a steep hill bordered by blackthorn in bloom. Copped Hall itself is being restored by volunteers, so it’s not open to the public apart from a few days a year, but we are planning to go back on one of those.

So that’s been my week! Today I was out at 7am ‘checking to see if the Easter Bunny had been hiding eggs in the garden’. I had hoped that this phase of my life was over, but the horror on the face of Thing Two when I tried to suggest that the Easter Bunny had already given me the eggs for them melted my resolve. This afternoon we are going to see Timeshare Teenager #1 and the grandchild for the first time since last summer, and the sun is just coming out so hopefully it’ll be a bit warmer! Happy Easter to you all: may it be peaceful and filled with the things that bring you joy.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

The Animals at Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey

A Private Cathedral (Dave Robicheaux) – James Lee Burke

A Dangerous Man – Robert Crais

Vesuvius by Night – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

A Comedy of Terrors (Flavia Albia) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week forty five: Pollyanna rides again

I was all set this week to write a thoroughly bad-tempered, miserable post, I really was. It’s been a long and frustrating week, after all. On Tuesday evening an article I’d written was pulled at the very last minute with no explanation or communication: by that point it had been through four editors, had been built on the web platform by another colleague, had had all the photos retaken, and was scheduled to go live. It was a piece I was proud of and had worked hard on, but with no feedback from the person who’d rejected it…what do you do? All writers (get me! a writer!) send work into the void, to a certain extent, but that void should not exist within your own workplace and certainly not your own department.

By Thursday I was so miserable about the amount of time I’d wasted on this piece – particularly as I’d sworn after the first experience back in October that I absolutely, definitely wasn’t going to do another one – that I’d decided I’d had enough of museum education and started looking on all the job sites for something else. (Dramatic, moi? Never!)

I had also had a conversation with one of our little team about the culture of toxic positivity that exists at the moment. Our reaction to everything that’s thrown at us is ‘yes, we can do that!’. I know we can do it because we are really, really good at what we do and we have an amazing project to showcase our talents, but right now thanks to Covid-19 we don’t have the breakout spaces to sit with our colleagues and share our fears and worries. We don’t have the space to think about failure and to work through potential pitfalls. Whether that space is a Friday lunch at the Japanese Canteen, pizza in The Florist, or a walk around the lake in Vicky Park, those moments with our work family are so important to our wellbeing. Sometimes we need to throw our toys out of the pram with people who understand the pressure we are under to deliver in a time of huge uncertainty, when the whole sector is in a state of recovery and restructure. Sometimes its having a safe space to say ‘well yes, of course we can do it, but we need x, y, and z to be able to do it properly’ without fear of being thought of as negative. I have so much faith in our project and the amazing things it will do, but sometimes our faith in ourselves wobbles.

Then yesterday I had my first session with a life coach. This was a contact from a friend who is training to be one herself, and she and her fellow trainees need people to practise on: I had never thought of this as something I needed to do, but why not help people out? It costs us nothing but time, they achieve their qualification and who knows, it might be interesting.

And oh, it was. I have done a coaching for management course so was aware of the process, but hadn’t really experienced it myself. When we had our introductory chat she asked me to think about something I wanted to work on – at that point I hadn’t just had a really miserable week, so didn’t have anything specific, but luckily my crisis of faith turned up at just the right time. We had an hour session, and it was so interesting to feel the way my energy rose when I was talking about what I love about museum education and why I do the job I do. We talked about some steps I could take to get some perspective on our project and to rebuild my confidence in my own skills, and by the end of the first session my sense of purpose and pleasure in my job was starting to be restored.

I ended the week feeling a lot more positive than I did at the start, and this post is considerably less grumpy than I’d planned.

The power of a puddle

Another thing that’s cheered me up has been a couple of good welly wanders with friends (only one at a time, of course). Yesterday, despite the miserable weather (promised snow, got copious rain) Miriam and I took her house-elves/hounds Dobby and Kreacher round the aptly-named flood meadow, then left them to warm up in the house while we carried on for another couple of miles down to Dial House and back. The rain mostly held off while we were out, and we had a good chat that didn’t include Minecraft at any point, which was definitely a plus!

Jill and I went out for our usual sunrise ramble this morning, making our way through the woods towards Tawney Common and round in a loop. We both slipped over on the ice – my hand and arm are really painful and I expect there will be a bruise on my nethers later, but when we’d finished laughing we carried on. The route we take faces due east, so we get the best of the sunrise over the fields.

Where we have had so much rain over the past few days and then a freeze overnight, the flooded fields had frozen around the plants and trees as well as in the footprints, leaving ice patterns. It was good to see from the hoofprints that even deer are prone to the odd slip and slide in the mud too!

We were in very good spirits this morning, frightening the wildlife with our renditions of The Hippopotamus Song and The Gnu Song, not to mention A Windmill in Amsterdam and stamping on the ice in puddles. We are missing the swimming but we’re so lucky to live where we do: it’s not Yorkshire, and it’s not Wales, but it’s not bad, as we are wont to say when looking out over the Essex countryside.

Ivy and fungus on a tree

Other stuff….

I haven’t got a lot to show this week as the main thing I have been working on will be a gift, but here’s the latest Temperature Tree (up to the 26th, I think – count the leaves!) to be going on with. My very colour deficient sister wants to know where the key is, but since she has difficulty distinguishing between shades of green and blue I’m not convinced a key will help!

I went to the optician’s this week for my annual eye test (only nine months overdue!). At forty I didn’t need any glasses at all, and was very smug at my glasses-wearing family. Then came the glasses for looking at the computer, which at my next eye test became my distance glasses and there was a new pair for the computer and close work. Now I need new distance glasses, my computer/close up ones are for middle distance and I require a third pair for reading and close-up work. This is just getting silly….

On Friday I took a day off as I had been asked to write a crafty piece for a charity’s website, which I was (and am!) really excited about: I love to write and to make things, so this was my dream project! Hopefully I’ll be able to share it next week, along with the citizen science project it will support.

A film I was interviewed for last year, about the importance of teddies and wellbeing, was finished and added to YouTube: I hate seeing myself on camera but I’m proud to be part of this. You can find out more about Workshy Films here. I have put the film at the bottom of the post, or you can watch it on YouTube.

It’s been a week of ups and downs, all in all, but today is the end of January which seems to have lasted about three times as long as usual, and this week contains not just Thing 3’s 10th birthday (how did that happen?) but my beloved and I’s 17th not-wedding anniversary and my niece’s 12th birthday. I have a box of deliciously gooey brownies from Ridiculously Rich by Alana which arrived as a surprise from London sister yesterday along with a new sourdough starter as I managed to kill Kevin (sorry Kevin), so snacks are sorted. I do love getting unexpected post!

I wish you all a good week, and I’ll see you at the end of week 46!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Nice Jumper – Tom Cox

Ring the Hill – Tom Cox

Educating Ruby – Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas

Week forty four: I think I need a hobby

Last week my walking buddy Jill said ‘I think I need a hobby!’ I am probably the last person you should ever say that to, as you know, but I limited myself to just the one suggestion and that was to take up cross stitch. It’s pretty straightforward: if you can count and thread a needle (and there’s gadgets to help with that) you have the basic skills to take up cross stitch. OK, OK, I know cross stitch for me was a gateway craft which has led to all sorts of other things – up to and including a shed – but I’m assured by some other people that it is possible to have just the one hobby. No, really, it is. Stop laughing!

As I have mentioned before, my adventures in cross stitching started when I couldn’t find a Valentine card for a boyfriend back when I was 21, and it all got a bit out of hand after that. I spotted a design in a magazine and decided it couldn’t really be that hard, so I took myself off to B’s Hive in Monmouth (a much missed town feature as I discovered earlier this week when I posted an image on Facebook of a paper bag from the shop). I bought fabric, needles and floss with the help of one of their very knowledgeable staff, and became hooked pretty quickly. Those were the days before internet shopping – 1995, in fact – and these bricks and mortar shops were treasure troves of yarn, fabrics, beads and buttons. B’s Hive even had a tiny one-table cafe. The boyfriend didn’t last, but the hobby did.

A B’s Hive bag which held some navy 14-count aida. From the days before 01 and 6 figure phone numbers in Monmouth!

And now I have been stitching for 26 years, and have my own trove (well, shed) of fabrics, floss, beads, buttons, hoops, frames and all the other things a crafter accumulates over the years. You don’t really need all the bells and whistles, of course, but things mount up.

So here, for anyone who might be thinking of taking up cross stitching, is all you really need* to be getting on with it:

  1. Something to stitch. This could be a kit, of which there are millions out there to choose from, or it could be a pattern. I’d suggest a kit to start with, as they come with the fabric and floss that you need, a needle, and sometimes a hoop that you can use as a display frame when you have finished using it to hold your WIP (work in progress). Black Sheep Wools or LoveCrafts are good sources of quality kits for beginners with good instructions. There are a lot of cheap kits on Amazon, of course, but many are from Chinese sellers and the instructions may not be as helpful as you’d like. You could also choose a chart to start from – either a paper chart from a shop or website, or from a magazine or book, or if you’re a nerd like me you’ll find designs from every fandom and for every level of ability on Etsy. If you choose to start with a chart, you’ll need to buy all the other bits to go with it, like….
  2. Fabric. ‘Proper’ cross stitch fabric is a woven grid with holes in so you know where to put your needle to make each cross. I usually use aida, which comes in a range of colours and sizes. The ‘count’ of the fabric refers to the number of holes per inch – I like to work on 18 count aida but for a beginner I’d recommend a 14 count. This is the same fabric that many people encountered in school, with much larger holes – usually a 6 count binca for young children. You’ll also see evenweave, linen, jobelan and more – but the key thing is that they all have an even grid of holes. Aida fabrics are quite starchy, which helps keep your stitches nice and even. With the higher count fabric – 28 or 32, for example, you’ll usually work over two threads otherwise your design will be tiny.
  3. Something to hold your work. Some people like hoops for all their projects, others prefer to work ‘in hand’. For small projects like cross stitched cards I like to use a hoop (they come in a range of sizes) that’s a bit bigger than the design I’m working on, as I find that moving the hoop around can crush the stitches. For larger projects I use the Elbesee easy clip frames which also come in a range of sizes. You don’t need them, but you can buy a seat stand or a floor stand to hold these, which keeps your hands free for stitching. There are lots of tutorials on YouTube on how to mount fabric in hoops and frames.
  4. Needles. I use size 24 or size 26 which you can buy in packs from any needlework supplier, and these are usually the ones that come in kits. Gold plated needles are nice, but I find the plating comes off easily and then they catch the fabric. There are easy threading needles, ball point needles – all sorts of needles, but all you really need is the basic one.
  5. Floss: Six stranded cotton, embroidery silks, threads. These are the colourful skeins of thread you see on carousels in the stitching shops – you may even have bought them to make friendship bracelets back in the day. The two main brands in the UK are Anchor and (my preferred brand) DMC although some places stock some beautiful hand dyed threads, and you can often pick up packs of unbranded floss in places like Poundland. Beware of the quality of these though – some of the cheap ones get knotty and fray easily and are really frustrating to work with. There are specialist threads too – metallics and rayons, but wait till you’ve conquered the basics as these can put a beginner off for life. Trust me on this! You cut your length of thread from the skein and peel off the number of strands you need for your design – two or three strands for 14 count, for example.
  6. Sharp small scissors. Nail scissors will do, or embroidery scissors. Small scissors give you more control over how close to the fabric you cut your threads. Hide them from your family in case they use them to trim bacon or something. Bacon does not add to the finished design.
  7. Something to store your threads in. You can buy special plastic or card bobbins, or stitchbows, but I use basic envelopes – the kind you buy in packs from all paper shops etc. I write the number of the floss on the top right hand corner, and when I am working on a project with lots of colours I draw the chart symbol on it too so I don’t have to keep referring to the key. When I am done with the project the envelopes get filed in numerical order in plastic storage boxes (again, nothing special – I think these were from The Range) and then I can easily see what numbers I have.
  8. A cotton bag – this is where all those free tote bags from conferences come in useful. Keeping your project in one of these, or a pillowcase for larger projects, keeps it clean. Unless you have a cat, in which case tweezers will be your friend for removing the stray hairs you have just stitched in. I say embrace the cat hairs or you’ll drive yourself mad.
  9. A highlighter pen for marking off the stitches you have already done on your chart. This is very useful, especially if you are doing blocks of a colour and you have to put your work down a lot. I’d also advise photocopying and enlarging your chart to make it easier to see – you can’t photocopy a chart to give someone else due to copyright, but you can make a copy for personal use. If you have an Android tablet there’s a new app called Pattern Keeper which is brilliant for keeping track of where you are on the chart, and allows you to highlight the colour you’re working on.
  10. And lastly – this is a new entry to my top ten – magnifying specs. You know, the kind you can buy in the chemist for reading. I have only got the 1x strength but as my eyes get older along with the rest of me they have made stitching SO much easier.

*this is a very personal list, of course: everyone has their favourite gadgets and methods! You also need good lighting, a comfy chair, someone to make you copious amounts of tea on demand, and an ability to ignore the housework in favour of stitching. This last item comes magically the more you get addicted to your new hobby. You can thank me later though your family probably won’t.

As for the how to cross stitch, there are so many tutorials out there – pick up a cross stitch mag from the newsagent and you’ll find a how-to in the back of very issue, look on You Tube, buy a book, ask a stitchy friend for a crafty bee afternoon.

The year of the handmade gift

I have decided that this is the year of the handmade gift, so if you know me IRL you’ll most likely end up with something crafty this year. If you are one of the lucky recipients (and even if you don’t like it) know that if I have made you something it’s been chosen because I think you’ll like it, because I like you enough to spend my time making you something, and that a lot of thought and time has gone into it.

This week I have handed over two cross stitched things:

The off centre framed picture was a 40th birthday present for a friend – I saw the design on someone else’s timeline and immediately thought of Miriam (happy birthday Miriam!). She loves purple, so I found some mottled pale lavender coloured aida for the fabric. I handed it over yesterday with apologies for the wonky rush job framing as I thought her birthday was next month… the design is from an American mag called Just Cross Stitch (the Halloween 2020 special) and I bought it from Annie’s as a PDF.

The card was inspired by the news at the beginning of a team meeting that a colleague has had her contract extended, and by the note to herself that she had written to remind herself to keep us on track during the meeting. I occasionally describe her job – interpretation producer – as more akin to herding kittens as we do tend to head off after metaphorical balls of museum wool on a terrifyingly regular basis. Her note said ‘facilitate!’ so I immediately thought dalek. Lettering by me, Dalek-19 pattern by Highland Murr Blackwork.

My current project is a nice geeky one by Nerdpillo on Etsy, on 18 count cream aida.

Thing 2 has been enjoying tie-dying over lockdown so I challenged her to dye a piece of fabric for me for a watery design – this is what she came up with and I love it!

And finally here’s a blanket update and some French knitting with six pins!

Welly walks

We dragged all the children outside yesterday for a walk round the burial park in the village – it’s in local ancient woodland, part of the Gaynes Park estate, and it’s lovely. Thing Three was concerned about zombies, but as his father kindly pointed out, I’d had my morning coffee and would probably be OK till I got back.

The woods are filled with bird and bat boxes, and we spotted a mouse on a tree trunk, and the burials themselves are simple and marked with wooden memorials. There are dedicated benches and trees, and lovely carved wooden statues and figures like this hare below.

Thing Two stomped in puddles while One and Three complained that they were tired, their legs hurt, they didn’t like being outside…. I enjoyed it, despite.

In our own garden I discovered that we have some very early primroses, the skeletons of last summer’s physalis, and that fungus has colonised one of the trees.

This week’s cover photo shows the glorious sunrise over Tawney Common this morning: so beautiful that we kept stopping to take pictures as the light changed. You can see more of these on my Instagram feed as they have for some reason not pulled through into Google Photos yet.

And it’s finally snowing, so I am going to leave this here and go and watch the Horde playing outside.

Same time, same place next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Ordeal of the Haunted Room – Jodi Taylor

Nice Jumper – Tom Cox

Baking Bad – Kim M Watt

Urban Drawing (Tate Sketch Club) – Phil Dean

Week forty two: in praise of the humble wellington boot

About this time last year. my walking buddy Jill and I decided that the fields were so muddy and we spent so much time shrieking as our trainers got soaked by puddles that we’d just start wearing wellies instead. With the wellies came much more freedom: not just because we could stop picking our way across the swampy, horse-churned paths, of course, but we also found ourselves actively seeking out muddy puddles and splashing through them. We mutter ‘squelch squerch, squelch squerch’ as we squish through the mud – can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it! We stomp on icy puddles to hear the crack, and this morning we chose to come back through the fields behind the station as we knew it would sound really crunchy as the footprints – both people, dogs and deer – are filled with ice. Who would have thought that such practical footwear could spark such joy?

The fields are breathtaking this morning: it’s still below zero out there, and the trees are rimed with ice. It was still dark when we went out, the freezing fog was still hanging around, and the white trees loomed in front of us like bloody great ghosty things. A phone camera doesn’t do it justice, as you can’t capture the atmosphere, but these are from our walk this morning:

Walking through the ancient woodland on our way back was a more close-up experience: the frost was outlining leaves and turning the grasses and seedheads into architectural sculpture. It plays havoc with your walking pace but the wearing of wellies turns a walk into a less purposeful, more mindful experience – the word ramble comes to mind. With walking boots or trainers I always feel I should be pushing onwards.

Walking this week, both with Jill this morning and with Sue and the Bella-dog in the afternoons, has been a lifesaver. I had forgotten the home school/work juggling act, trying to focus on a meeting when there are two out of the three children either arguing with each other, with me or asking questions about their set work. Thing One – hurray – just gets on with it. Thing Three – mostly – just gets on with it but is susceptible to being wound up by Thing Two, who occasionally gets on with it but generally accompanies herself with a stream-of-consciousness blow-by-blow of whatever she’s up to. The Spanish lesson – accompanied in Spanglish – was particularly tricky (for me, at least).

However, I am so grateful to all their teachers for providing high quality work for them, as well as making daily contact via Zoom for Thing Three. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has put both his feet firmly in it this week by telling parents to email Ofsted and complain if the remote learning wasn’t high quality enough: I believe Ofsted were quite annoyed as well. Parents took to their email and to Twitter to praise schools instead, especially given that on Monday schools were ‘safe to open’ but by Tuesday they were all closed until half term. Twelve – twelve – hours to move entirely online, as the address by the man (described beautifully by my friend Chris as the ‘bloviating haystack’) wasn’t made till 7.30pm.

The other thing saving my sanity this week is – as ever – crafty stuff.

I finished the ‘Second Breakfast’ cross stitch, and have started the temperature tree that I mentioned last week. So far it’s all tree and no temperature, and I have used almost a whole skein of DMC 839. I chose to use sparkly white aida fabric for it for no particular reason other than that I had some and I like it!

All tree, no temperature

And that was my week: it’s been a quiet one, and for that I am grateful. Today my plan is to sort out my craft book shelves and see if I can organise them a bit, and to make oat and raisin cookies as they are a family favourite.

See you at the end of week 43!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

21st Century Yokel – Tom Cox

Educating Peter – Tom Cox

Week forty one: goodbye 2020

The wish ‘happy new year’ has quite possibly never been said by so many people with so much fervency (is that a word?) as it has been this year. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some bad years before: 1994 was pretty horrendous, as was 2003, but those weren’t universally bad. I was glad to see the back of them but felt pretty hopeful about the future. And, to be honest, announcements of vaccines this week are giving me hope for 2021.

Have a cat, because there’s about to be a lot of text.

And 2020, despite all the challenges, hasn’t been all bad. Yes, there were the cancelled holidays, the various levels of lockdown, Covid-19 as a thread across the year, worry about my nurse friends and my vulnerable family members, Christmas without family and so on, but to end the year I’m going to share the things that gave me joy. In no particular order, I give you…my top ten of 2020:

  1. I’ve had six unexpected months with the Things, which is the longest time I’ve been able to spend with them since maternity leave. Maternity leave is wonderful, but you have a tiny baby, no sleep, you’re juggling any other children you have, and trying to remain an actual person at the same time. In my case, too, I had post-natal depression with both Things 1 and 2 which made the whole experience somewhat frightening, especially with Thing 1, when I didn’t know what was happening to me. So, six months with my children, spending time with them now they’re independent, finding out what they love to do, going on walks, learning new skills with them: thank you 2020, for giving me that.
  2. The glorious summer! Can you imagine being in lockdown without that wonderful weather, in a typical rainy British summer season?
  3. The garden. My beloved and I were both furloughed, and had we not had the garden we’d have been under each other’s feet constantly. We are lucky to live where we do, and the garden at the end of this year – thanks entirely to my beloved – looks amazing. It’s filled with birds at the moment: as I look out of the window I can see an enormous rook, wood pigeons, collared doves, a robin, blue tits and great tits. We have goldcrests, dunnocks, sparrows, nesting blackbirds, occasional woodpeckers and jays. This year I have learned to love the noisy, scrappy, playful brood of magpies that hatched in a tree behind the garden – and to have great sympathy for their put-upon mother.
  4. Open water swimming. We came late to this, starting in July, but it’s been a sanity saver for all of us. Swimming in the summer was wonderful, surrounded by the coot chicks and the grebes, but if anyone had said to me then that I’d be looking forward to getting in a sub-5 degree lake on New Year’s Day I’d have laughed. I never thought I’d take up an extreme sport but apparently this is ice swimming – and I love it. I’m a head-up breast stroker, not a front crawler, but at Redricks this is fine: everyone is made to feel welcome. The mental health and physical benefits have been heavily documented by other people in much more learned spaces, but I have to agree with them!
  5. Our local countryside – I live in North Weald in Essex, and I do a lot of walking anyway, having trained for and completed a couple of walking marathons. This year there are no events, so I have been walking for the sheer joy of it. Being at home for most of the year and being able to just ramble, watching the hedgerows and wildlife, not having to be anywhere: it’s been so mindful, just slowing down and watching the world and the seasons change. On any walk I may see rabbits, red kites, muntjac and fallow deer, and hares as well as fields of horses and cows, friendly cats and lots of dogs. It’s cheaper than therapy, too: my friends and I put the world to rights, and when Thing 2 joins me we spend time looking for tiny fungi and mosses.
  6. Zoom and WhatsApp: I may not have been in Wales with my family but we can still see each other and chat. This year we have had a wider clan WhatsApp chat which gets very silly at times, I have conversations with my sisters and with the whole family. We can still share the things that make us laugh, and then we realise that the whole clan shares the warped sense of humour.
  7. This blog! It’s been such a cathartic experience: sharing when I am down or angry or frustrated, talking about the things I love to do, taking you all on a journey through my creation processes. It’s not a curated lifestyle blog, or a foodie blog, or a crafty blog: it’s just me. I try and be honest, whether that’s about my mental health or my reaction to government policy. I try and be wry and look sideways at disasters. Hopefully I succeed! I use Facebook as a daily microblog, too – keeping a count of the days, with three highlights, positives or disasters of the day. In work writing these days tends to be figures, and proposals, and reports – I have loved the chance this year to write because I want to – and to write what I want to.
  8. The people I work with: Microsoft Teams has kept us all in contact, as has Zoom for those social moments. I am so lucky to work with a core team of brilliant people – we are tightknit, we care about each other, and we have felt supported by each other throughout. The museum we are creating is going to be amazing, and I can’t wait for the days when Monday meetings are round a table and not on screen again. I genuinely love my job.
  9. Making, of course. Crochet, dressmaking, cross stitch, quilting: 2020 has given me time to hone old and learn new skills. Obviously there’s still more to learn, but the act of creating and sharing my creations has given me such pleasure this year. Designing my own cross stitches and sharing those has boosted my confidence, too. I just need to get back to work now to wear all those clothes….
  10. My friends: socially distanced coffees in front gardens, people to walk with, to see over Zoom and Houseparty, to make plans with for ‘when things are normal’. I have never been that mum at the school gate as I have always been working, but this year I have really appreciated the chance to walk up daily with my neighbour and their puppy, to see other parents, and to feel part of village life.
  11. Staged, with Michael Sheen and David Tennant. A comedy that perfectly captured the 2020 zeitgeist: Zoom, spending so much time at home, turning our focus locally, working so differently. And Season Two starts this week! OK, so that’s 11 – but this programme is definitely a bonus!
My top nine Instagram posts (@ladybirdkirsty)

So, 2020 – thank you for all the above. Thanks also to the key workers – not just the frontline NHS crews who’ve really, really, really earned a pay rise rather than claps, but to the retail staff, the cleaners, public transport people, and – the unsung heroes – the teachers who’ve been juggling conflicting and frankly bonkers government advice, online and in-person teaching, pastoral care on unprecedented levels, given up their holidays to care for key worker and vulnerable children, who are now spending this holiday trying to plan mass testing, remote learning and more while being abused by the red-tops for ‘laziness’ and ‘cowardice’. The two schools my Horde attend have been brilliant throughout and their care and dedication is being echoed across the country.

I am not given to New Year’s resolutions, but if I were, mine would be to take the positives from 2020 forward into this year: to slow down and watch the seasons change, to appreciate the time I have with my children, to keep being creative and learning new skills, to keep writing and swimming and finding the positives.

It’s not Christmas without a Dalek

One of the things I like to do between Christmas and New Year is a big jigsaw – you may remember this one from my charity shop trawl before Christmas. It took three days, and those Daleks were trickier than they looked. Things 2 and 3 dropped in to help occasionally, and I took up most of the table, and thankfully it didn’t have any pieces missing – not bad for £1.75! And all finished in time for this year’s Doctor Who special on New Year’s Day which was fantastic, to quote Nine – sad to see Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole go, but bringing John Bishop on board is going to be interesting. Catherine Tate was surprisingly good once I put enough distance between her and her sketch show characters, as was Matt Lucas, so why not John Bishop?

In crafty news, I’m still working on the Hobbit cross stitch… and have so many more geeky patterns on the to-do list! Not much crochet has happened, but it’s not going anywhere.

Do you think he knows about second breakfast?

Facebook memories threw up a quote I’d shared a couple of years ago the other day, and it inspired me to create pixel people of the family and to design a new pattern – I started with squared paper and pencils, as I’m not confident enough to work directly into StitchFiddle yet, and then transferred into the software afterwards. I made a lot more use of the floss chart, too, but need to test it against the swatch book as soon as I remember where I put it this time.

The pixel people templates came from here, and the fonts were from a book I bought a few months ago and this set on Etsy as I wanted to use a range of lettering. I am not sure about using the coloured dots in the ‘Friends’ font (the word ‘nice’), and I might go back to the original one from my pencil drawing. The idea was to incorporate some of the things the kids have enjoyed – Thing 1 binged Friends earlier this year, and Harry Potter is always a favourite.

The final pixel family – the kids love their minis, but my beloved thinks he should have a swagbag over his shoulder. Note that Lulu is next to him, as he’s her favourite human!

I’ve also done a lot of walking – very muddy, very icy, very beautiful.

I’m looking forward to my third dip of the week later this morning – we swam on the 29th and on New Year’s Day. We didn’t have to break the ice in the end, despite being a bit concerned as the temperature didn’t get above one degree on New Year’s Eve! It was so cold, but we felt amazing afterwards. The outside temperature right now is two degrees, but it is only 7am.

New Year’s Day at Redricks

On the subject of temperature, another new project I’ve decided on is a temperature cross stitch using this tree design, where you stitch the high temperature for each day. I’ve just seen that someone is doing two trees, one for highs and one for lows…. must. Resist!

So Happy New Year, everyone! Catch you at the end of week 42.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

That Old Black Magic – Cathi Unsworth

The Not Knowing – Cathi Unsworth

Help the Witch – Tom Cox

21st Century Yokel – Tom Cox