115: lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Ok, I might be exaggerating a bit here, but one of the wonders of living out here in sunny Essex is the variety of wildlife we get in the garden. The majority of it is welcome but some – like the odd rat – is less so. Living near farmland and with a watercourse near the house it’s inevitable, of course, but I still don’t want them snacking on the bird seed.

My favourites at this time of year are the blue tits who colonise the nest box and produce a brood of noisy chicks demanding feeding. The first sight of the babies as they peek out of the hole and glare at us is always an ‘aaahhh!’ moment, and one of the very bedraggled and exhausted parents paid us a visit one evening this week too. Rather foolishly, it had stopped for a rest on the fence outside the back door which surrounds the cats’ outdoor space – Lulu thought it was her birthday but Thing 2 came to the rescue. The bird was remarkably tame (or possibly just knackered) as we were able to get very close. It flew from Thing 2’s hand to my head before we were able to put it safely out of reach of the cat.

The local shrew population has less luck when it comes to Lulu. The occasional one ventures in to the cat space (probably after the strawberries) and doesn’t live to tell the tale, instead becoming a love gift for my (and her) beloved. She’s always most annoyed when we take them away from her. She did bring a mouse in just before Christmas which we didn’t realise until it peeked out from behind my sewing machines, leading to a frenzied twenty minutes with a wooden spoon, an empty cheese sauce pot and finally a rehoming in the compost bin.

Today I have been joined in the garden by a baby sparrow, and every year we have robins, blackbirds, dunnocks, goldcrests, woodpigeons and collared doves. There’s a raucous family of magpies too, whose antics make me laugh. They are scrappy and behave like human siblings, arguing amongst themselves and rough and tumbling in the garden. The poor mother (I assume!) takes refuge on our neighbour’s roof, and as soon as the juveniles spot her they all go and join her. On one occasion there was a panicked squawking as one landed on the telephone wire and ended up upside down without enough sense to let go….

Other garden birds are woodpeckers, the odd sparrow hawk, starlings (nesting in next door’s roof), red kites soaring overhead, moorhens in wet springs and for the first time this year parakeets have flashed past. For several years we had a very tame pheasant who our builders named Colin after one of their colleagues who also strutted about. This year Richmond the Rook is a regular, stalking about in his fluffy rook trousers and hanging about with a couple of jackdaws.

The less feathered friends turn up too: we’re privileged to have badgers visiting from the Common as well as foxes, rabbits and the occasional muntjac. We can usually track their progress by the nibbled plants, much to my Beloved’s disgust. A slow worm can often be found in the greenhouse enjoying the warmth, while toads lurk under stones and tarpaulins and newts haunt the flowerpots. Most years we have a bumble bee nest somewhere, as well as squirrels and tiny mice.

One of my friends described coming through the back gate once as like walking into Narnia – sometimes I think she’s not far wrong!

Other things this week have included cheering on the RideLondon cyclists as they zoomed through the village, binging Stranger Things seasons 1-3 in preparation for season 4, seeing this year’s museum fox cubs playing in the sunshine, Thing 3 going off on his first solo sleepover at London Aunty’s house (it’s fancy, apparently), much crocheting of a shawl which is taking forever, a glorious swim, a mooch about the market, an early walk, and making some tiny things.

This week it’s half term and there’s only three days in work thanks to some Queen or other having a jubilee. The village has broken out in bunting already. I have promised my beloved that I’ll sort out my shed next weekend….

See you next week!

Kirsty x

The Betrayal of Trust/The Various Haunts of Men – Susan Hill

Villager – Tom Cox

102: growing up isn’t easy…for the parent

This was secondary school week, when our year six kids find out which school they’ll be off to in September. For the lucky ones (including us) it’s your first choice school but others may not have fared so well. In our village, it’s a bit of a lottery – the majority of the children will have selected the school in Epping and will probably have got in, but if they’re in the half of the village that’s past the library they won’t be entitled to school transport as they’re closer geographically to the school in Ongar. Unfortunately as it’s so oversubscribed they haven’t got a chance of actually getting into Ongar – we got Thing 2 and 3 in on the sibling rule as Thing 1 started there when it wasn’t oversubscribed as Ongar parents didn’t want to send their darlings to a new school.

This is the first year the school has had a full cohort of students from Y7-Y13, as it’s been building year by year as a new academy. It has its issues (a severe shortage of maths teachers this year) and I shall be watching their options system with interest as it appears to be more focused than I’d like on the government’s EBacc targets than on the children’s own wishes, but we’ve been happy with it for all the kids. One of the reasons I chose Ongar was because it had more of a creative focus, and you all know creativity is one of my favourite things, but that does appear to be changing. Thing 2 will be making her GCSE options next year, so I will have my eye on it.

Still, that is not the subject of this week’s blog really – it’s more of a long-winded intro. This post is really about me, and Thing 3, and growing up and stuff. He wants to be allowed to walk home from school on his own which might not seem like a big thing in the grand scheme, but…

…one of the best things that’s come out of the pandemic is that I’m still working from home quite a lot and doing the school run a few afternoons a week. For me this is still a novelty. Apart from when I was on various maternity leaves, when school run was a pain as it meant wrestling the others into a buggy and coaxing a tired little one along the mile walk home up a big hill, this is the first time I’ve really had to do this. Our wonderful childminders did it for years, which I can’t complain about as we couldn’t have managed without them, but not me.

So, three afternoons a week I put the laptop to sleep and head off up to the school to collect Thing 3, and I get to brace myself as he hurls himself across the playground at me for a hug. I do the playground thing and chat to other parents, and I know which parents are attached to which child. I get to walk home and chat with my son as he tells me all about his day. This week we’ve compared secondary school notes. Sometimes I’m able to return the many favours my friends have done for me when the Central Line has failed or when I was ill last year, and pick up their children as well. It’s been easier to say yes to playdates. It sounds daft, but these are some of the things I missed as a working parent – once, when Thing 1 was in Year 4, my beloved and I both did school run and another parent did a double take and said ‘I didn’t realise you two were together‘. That was how often I wasn’t there…

And now he is into his last two terms at primary school and from September he’ll be on the bus with his sisters or my beloved will be picking up, and I won’t get to do it any more. So, sorry son, but I’m making the most of you while I still can.

A finish or two

This week I have a couple of days off as I didn’t have any time off in half term, and am plotting and planning what to do with that free time! I’m thinking the new Folkwear Basics jacket, and maybe an afternoon nap or two.

Until week 103 (wow!) then…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Library at the End of the World – Felicity Hayes-McCoy

The Innocents – Harlan Coben

Doctor Who: Tenth Doctor Novels vol 2 (Audible)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry/The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce

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)

64: short and sweet

64: Short and sweet

A very quick post this week as a) I forgot it was Sunday and b) it’s hot and I’m in the garden with the family using the wonders of mobile technology! The summer seems to have finally arrived without even a sheepish look to excuse its lateness, the pool is up and the place is filled with the timeshare teenagers, the horde and the grandchild as well as the usual added extras.

Yesterday was another hot one and we dragged the kids plus one up to Audley End. Thing 1 was going to a barbecue with her boyfriend (if you want to see the absolute definition of embarrassment, look for a teenager whose parents might bump into the boyfriend’s parents…) near Saffron Walden so it was a good excuse to revisit the gorgeous gardens.

The house is partially closed for Covid reasons, of course, but we could see the main rooms. I’d love a private library and one that the rest of the family could use! You’d never see me in public again.

The formal gardens were alive with bees on some sort of minty stuff (that’s the technical name) and we watched a pair of crows chasing off a red kite in the field behind.

The organic kitchen garden, on the other hand, was being brought to life by a historical interpreter in role as Mr Vert the gardener, who chatted to the kids about the difficulty of keeping apart the housemaids and the garden apprentices. Mr Vert is known to me more often as my friend Chris, a hugely talented interpreter who has delivered Vikings, Victorians and engineers for me in the past as well as many others for Historic Royal Palaces pre-pandemic. We met him in the cut flower garden, surrounded by irises and peonies, before indulging in an ice cream.

Audley End is run by English Heritage and is well worth a visit, if you haven’t been. We have visited before but discovered new areas this time like the lily pond and rockery, where we saw the swan and cygnet above.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Not much cross stitching has occurred but I did start on a gift for an impending big sister – by LauLovesCrochet who designed the cow and calf I made a few weeks ago. This time it’s a ladybird with an aphid friend, who will have a leaf sleeping bag.

There will be a gift for the baby as well, which I got my colleagues to vote on the pattern for.

So that’s week 64. Short and sweet… like me! Normal service will resume next week.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Pel and the Prowler/Pel and the Paris Mob – Mark Hebden

The Vine Witch – Luanne G Smith

Attention All Shipping – Charlie Connelly

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)

Week twenty two: faeries at the bottom of the street?

Last week’s ‘What I’ve been reading’ included the latest in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, a long awaited event by the many fans of this urban fantasy series. (Side note: it ends on a cliff hanger and the second part isn’t due till September. Argh!) Urban fantasy is ‘a subgenre of fantasy in which the real world collides with the decidedly supernatural or magical world’ (blog,reedsy.com). A J Blakemont, an author, goes further and says,

“Urban fantasy is a hybrid genre that lives at the crossroads between fantasy, horror, science fiction, hardboiled, thriller, and romance. One might say that urban fantasy is a liminal genre; it exists where the other genres meet. It lives at the frontier between the mundane and the fantastical, the natural and the supernatural, between technology and magic. Every urban fantasy story involves some supernatural beings and/or humans with magical abilities; yet it’s also rooted in reality.”

Whatever it is, I love it. I don’t know whether it’s the crossover with hardboiled noir (see my girl detectives post for more ramblings on this subject) or whether its the idea that fairies and other fantastical creatures might be hiding round every corner, but I love discovering a new series – even more so if I am coming late to the discovery and there’s a lot to catch up on. Of course, then you have the problem of finishing the back catalogue and having to wait for the next one, but there we are!

I can thank my Dad for my interest in SF/Fantasy – his enormous library was where I started, with Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, Robert Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock series, as well as Tolkien (of course). Dad shouldn’t be left unsupervised in Forbidden Planet, and Hay-on-Wye is a treasure trove for the whole family.

So this week I’m sharing some of my favourites with you. Please do share your own recommendations, I love a good read.

  1. Ben Aaronovitch – the Rivers of London series. River goddesses (and gods), underground societies, a whole department of the Met to deal with what one of the characters describes as ‘weird bollocks’, and all set in modern London? Aaronovitch cut his teeth on the Doctor Who team so his credentials are excellent. The graphic novels alongside the ‘main’ novels are great too.
  2. Kim Harrison – the Hollows series. Set in Cincinnati after ‘The Turn’, this has witches, demons, pixies, vampires and all sorts of good stuff. Again, we had to wait a few years for the latest instalment in the series to land this summer but it was worth it.
  3. Charles de Lint – the Newford series. As far as I am concerned, Charles de Lint is the grandaddy of urban fantasy. I first discovered him via my Dad who had bought Greenmantle and Moonheart – neither of which are part of the Newford world but which were my introduction to urban fantasy. His books set in Arizona are also excellent. The magic isn’t far under the surface with any of his books, but the urban settings are realistic.
  4. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files – set in Chicago, Harry Dresden is the only wizard listed in the Yellow Pages. Organised crime, vampires, werewolves, pizza-eating faeries and more. I’ve just started rereading from the beginning, to keep me going till September and the next instalment.
  5. Mike Carey – Felix Castor series. Set in London, Castor is an exorcist. His tech genius is a zombie holed up in a cinema in Walthamstow, and his best friend is possessed. Not for the faint hearted, especially the last in the series (I hold out hope for more…)
  6. Neil Gaiman – if not the grandaddy, at least the great uncle. Neverwhere, which tells the tale of what happened to a man who accidentally fell into London Below after helping someone out, is one I go back to time after time. American Gods is also a good example of the genre, and I’m going to throw in Good Omens – not strictly UF as it doesn’t have the noir elements, but it does lead me on to…
  7. Terry Pratchett – the Watch strand of the Discworld series. Another stretch for the UF genre, but Ankh-Morpork is so close to Victorian London, and Sam Vimes is a proper alcoholic cop saved by the love of a good woman (and her dragons), and its my blog so I can say what I want. Pratchett’s characters – certainly in the later books, after the puns and comedy of the early novels – are well-drawn. They’re still funny, but a lot darker.
  8. Kevin Hearne – the Iron Druid series. These lost the plot a bit in the later books, but the earlier ones are excellent. Set in Arizona, the druid Atticus runs into all sorts of gods, and usually manages to annoy them.
  9. Charlaine Harris – Southern Vampire Mysteries.Yes, True Blood. Set in the American South, in a world where the vampires have come out of the coffin thanks to the invention of a synthetic blood subsitute that means they don’t have to feed on humans.
  10. Honourable mentions: Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson novels, Ilona Andrews, Tanya Huff, Faith Hunter, Seanan Mcguire, Kelley Armstrong. There’s a lot of very strong female protagonists (and authors) in this genre that haven’t historically been seen in High Fantasy or SF/F. This can only be a good thing!

Morgans and more

I started the Bento Box quilt patches this week, using a production line method which meant building every patch section by section and pressing in between. And then I ran out of fabric so have to wait for some more of the blenders. They come from Empress Mills, who are an excellent family business but orders are taking a while to process at the moment for obvious reasons. Worth the wait though!

So I decided to tackle some of my to-do pile while I’m waiting, as well as the new Adele apron dress from Alice and Co Patterns.

This is the third pattern I’ve made from this company – the Jump Up Suit and and the Intrepid boiler suit being the others – and they’re so straightforward. The instructions are clear and friendly, with good tips for fitting and customising.

I used the rigid denim left over from making my Morgan jeans a few weeks ago, and chose the crossover back strap option and to knot the straps rather than adding buckles/buttons. There’s a whole set of options for both the back and the waist ties, making this a very versatile pattern, and I can see it getting a lot of wear. Big pockets, too, which are a must!

I really need to go back to work so I can wear these things.

I made a second pair of Morgans, too, this time in a velvety soft black cord that came from Pound Fabrics. These were quicker than the first pair as – because cord doesn’t twist in the same way denim does – I could cut out the pattern on the double layer. I used leftover turquoise quilting cotton for the pocket linings, and left off the rivets, and they were finished in a day. It probably took me almost as long to remove the cat hair from the fabric as it did to sew them! Cord does attract every bit of fur and fluff for miles around…

Finally, I used a double duvet cover to make a swirly skirt using my favourite Simplicity 8446 pattern. I love duvets for this, as you get a lot of fabric that quite often doesn’t need much ironing, can be tumble dried and comes in some mad prints. I have Doctor Who and Marvel comic versions, as well as a cat one. This time I used a space print fabric. As we’ve been in lockdown for months too with its inevitable home-baked side effects, I also made the decision to forgo the side zip and hacked the pattern to use the stretch waistband from MBJM’s Four Seasons jogger pattern which is much more forgiving! It’s given the skirt a bit of extra length too, so its super swishy.

I whipped up a set of pattern weights using this tutorial at the end of the week – making use of a couple of fat quarters from the stash and some dried beans as fillers. Being superlazy, I used the overlocker for everything so it was very quick. Thing 2 has appropriated one to play with already.

My next project is the By Hand London Anna Dress which I have cut out in a yellow viscose which is very slippery – I have my doubts about how simple this will be to sew!

My new adventure pants get their first outing…

Yesterday London sister and I put on our adventure pants, dug out our walking boots and set off on a road trip to Cudmore Grove Country Park in East Mersea to blow the cobwebs away. Usually sisterly days out include Italian food, eyebrow threading and the odd cocktail, so this was a bit of a break from tradition. We left my Horde at home as we wanted a good long walk, turned on an 80s station to sing along to and headed off into the wilds of Essex.

Sisters on the loose

We read a blog post earlier in the week which talked about the lack of home-nation regional foods in London – specifically the Greggs corned beef pasty which is a staple in Welsh stores but can’t be bought in London. We love corned beef pasties and I remember being able to buy them in Preston, but not down here – surprising, given the number of Welsh people who have migrated to ‘Town’ over the centuries. So, London sister whipped up a batch of pasties for a picnic (I may have mentioned her superior cooking skills in a previous post!), added some cheese rolls just in case, a Snickers bar or two and some Cardigan Bay coffee .

East Mersea (and West Mersea, of course) are on Mersea Island. Connected to mainland Essex by a causeway which disappears underwater if high tides are over five metres, it’s the most easterly inhabited island in the UK. It’s been popular as a destination since Roman times, apparently, and over the years has hosted pirates, WW2 defences, and a lot of oysters.

The country park has a large car park, the all-important toilets and a small kiosk with ice creams and coffee. We parked up, attempted to decipher the map and then decided to pick a path that went past the bird hide (closed due to subsidence). We could see a tree full of little egrets, which was quite exciting, and the path then takes you past a pillbox and on down towards the beach. We turned left first towards Brightlingsea and walked as far as we could, then hopped across some of the many little streams to rejoin the footpath. The beach is narrow but sandy, and we were amazed at the lack of windbreaks given the brisk breeze and the number of wind farms in the area. Even today we pack the windbreaks before anything else when heading off on holiday!

We then headed back into the wind towards West Mersea, following the beach as far as we could, staying well away from the crumbly clay cliff which has apparently yielded fossils and bones (hippos! in Essex!). It’s clearly unstable, and I think the whole island took a bit of a battering in the storms last year as the sea wall has been breached in several places. The wind was great for the kite surfers and we watched a couple doing amazing jumps over the waves for a while. Once we’d walked as far as we could we turned back and ate our picnic sitting on a slipway watching happy kids jumping waves.

We wandered back, found a picnic table near the adventure playground for coffee and a bit of cloudwatching, and then headed back just in time to get caught in the queue for the causeway as the tide was in. It was very exciting to drive back across the causeway with the sea still coming over the road in places!

This week’s swimming has been equally adventurous! Sue and I braved the water in ‘skins’ (without wetsuits) early in the week just to give it a try. The water was around 21 degrees at that stage, and while I loved it Sue wasn’t convinced. We also swam in high wind on Friday, where the reeds were blown flat against the water, and today I did one lap in my wetsuit and one without. The water temp was 19 degrees today and it felt great. I’m definitely keen to carry on through the winter!

19 degrees and glorious

We’ve been enjoying the produce from the garden this week – glorious tomatoes warm from the greenhouse, earthy chard, runner beans, potatoes, apples and blackberries. Thing 2 and I made apple and blackberry pie which was delicious, and she’s been baking them with honey and cinnamon.

And that’s been my week! This week will have to include the trauma of the school shoe shopping as the summer holidays are coming to an end. Compared to the end of the school year these six weeks have flown by.

See you at the end of week 23!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series (from the beginning!)

A Dying Light in Corduba (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Machine Quilting for Beginners – Carolyn S Vagts

Sarah Payne’s Quilt School

Week twenty one: Harlow – not just a geography case study

I seem to have spent large parts of the past month or so travelling through Harlow on my way to or from Redricks Lakes for swimming, including one this week as the sun rose and one in the pouring rain. I really am addicted to this open water swimming – I am not fast, and I can’t do front crawl as I don’t like putting my face underwater, but the sense of well-being I get from being in the water is enormous. You can read more about the health benefits here. I am very aware of the water around me, the wildlife I’m sharing the space with, and my surroundings in a way that you don’t feel in a pool. Today I swam two circuits of the lake – just under a mile in total – which is the equivalent of 60 lengths of my regular swimming pool. Swimming that distance indoors would bore me senseless – and because I tend to swim before work its hard to relax into the swim as I’m very conscious of what I have to do that day. There is always a clock ticking away in the pool too, which you don’t have in the lake. I have no idea how long the two circuits took me today – but it doesn’t matter!

Anyway, back to Harlow!

Harlow was one of the first wave of ‘New Towns’ created by the New Towns Act of 1946 to relocate people from bombed out areas (in Harlow’s case, mainly north east London). It sits about five miles to the north of our village and it’s where we go to the cinema, to buy school shoes and so on. It has a LOT of roundabouts. (I really mean this. A LOT.) Municipal Dreams (one of my favourite blogs) has a couple of good posts on Harlow New Town.

Welcome to Harlow (Image from BBC)

The first time I heard of Harlow was way back in secondary school in south Wales, in geography lessons as part of a case study on New Towns. To be honest, I didn’t take a lot of notice back then as Essex seemed a remote and exotic place peopled entirely by blondes in white stilettoes and Capri drivers named Kevin (this was the ’80s, and the ‘Essex Girl’ was a thing. Sorry, Essex people…). I certainly never dreamed I’d be living here – or that all three of my kids would be born in Harlow. We learned about the large quantities of concrete, the first pedestrian precinct, and the fact that the first residential tower block was built there. There’s also large areas of green space (Gibberd’s ‘Green Wedges’) and sculptures all over the place by all sorts of famous people. The town was rebranded in 2009 as ‘The World’s First Sculpture Town’. Museum Mum visited the town during lockdown and followed one of the trails – you can see her post here, and you can find the trails here.

The masterplan for the town was drawn up by Sir Frederick Gibberd, a modernist architect who spent the rest of his life living in the town. His home and its gardens were left to Harlow Council for the benefit of the town.

So this week my neighbour (and swim buddy) and I decided to drag our hordes away from Minecraft and TikTok and carted them off to Harlow to experience a bit of culture by way of a trip to the Gibberd Garden. Sadly the house is closed, due to the coronavirus restrictions, but the gardens have reopened. You pay for entry – £5 for adults, and children up to 16 years old are £1 each – and another pound for a really well produced map/trail that the children enjoyed using to identify the sculptures. There’s not a lot of information about each (spot the museum person….) but that’s what Google is for! Naturally Sue and I ended up carrying the maps in our usual role as parental packhorses, as soon as the children discovered the castle fort (complete with moat!) and giant swing.

The sculptures are scattered throughout the gardens, which are laid out over nine acres – some are items of architectural salvage, like the columns and urns from Gibberd’s reconstruction of Coutt’s Bank on the Strand – and you come upon them accidentally as they peek out of hedges and grottoes. There’s a beautiful walk alongside the Pincey Brook, which has been dammed to create deep shady pools as well as diverted to feed the moat. The children particularly loved the ‘Rapunzel Tower’.

The Gibberd Garden is currently open on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, there’s lots of free parking and refreshments are available – including lovely local ice cream which for the children was the best bit. I had a gorgeous, tangy lemon sorbet. I don’t think we managed to see all the scupltures, so we’ll be going back when the house reopens.

We were back in Harlow the following afternoon – this time for a trip to Harlow Town Park. The park was designed by landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe, who was a consultant on the Harlow New Town development from 1948 -58. One of the largest urban parks in the country, it’s got pretty much everything you could ask for including a Pets Corner, skate park, adventure playground, inclusive play area, sensory gardens, a paddling pool, water gardens and ducks. This being Harlow, it also has the odd sculpture…

We parked near the Greyhound pub in the pay and display car park – there’s a war memorial there, with a beautiful yarnbomb installation of knitted and crocheted poppies and forget-me-nots. It was also where we found the ice cream van, which is always what the children are looking out for. There is a nice cafe, I’m told, but we didn’t make it over there.

The weather was a bit erratic, with thunder and the odd shower, so we didn’t cover the whole park but we did spend some time at the outdoor gym before heading to the adventure playground where Thing 2 made a beeline for the top of the spiderweb climbing frame.

We walked over to the water gardens and through to the paddling pool, which is empty but the kids managed to find a puddle to jump in. They found a hill to roll down too, and spotted a carp in the pools. The ducks seemed a bit bored!

As an aside – I do love a bit of architecture and town planning, and developed a walking session called ‘The building of Bethnal Green’ for secondary and university students for the formal learning programme. This one focused on a section of Bethnal Green where you could see evidence of every urban planning movement from the original slum clearances of the late 19th century to the late 20th, including a peek at the last bomb site which is now a nature reserve. It covers Keeling House, designed by Denys Lasdun, which used to be the view from my bedroom window on Hackney Road.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

It’s been a quilting week again! I finished the Space quilt (Lockdown Quilt 7) and I’m pretty pleased with it. The attention to detail in trimming the blocks to size paid off, and the sashing looks quite square even if some of the cornerstones are a bit out of line. I tried using a walking foot to quilt but the machine (the Singer Samba again) didn’t like it much so some of the quilting is a bit skippy. I used some bicycle clips to help hold the quilt while I quilted it, which you can see in action below. You can also see my diagram for working out how many sashing strips and cornerstones I needed, and a cat who was not inclined to move while I tried to photograph the quilt laid flat.

It’s come out at just over 5′ x 4′, and it’s backed with a double duvet cover which meant no piecing. I used the backing fabric for a folded border as it echoes the stars theme. I LOVE the glow in the dark panels, and I added a little label – I bought some printed ones to add to my makes.

The next project is a Bento Box quilt using Rainbow Etchings jelly rolls by Stuart Hillard for Craft Cotton, and some pretty cream-on-cream blenders from Empress Mills. I cut the pieces yesterday, and raided the cupboard for all the plastic boxes I could find to separate the warm and cool colours and the different sized strips. I’ve never really thought about colours in terms of warm/cool before, so I bought a cheap colour wheel which helped me sort things out.

Here’s the first block finished. I have cut and sewed all the centre pieces, so now need to add the outer pieces – I’m going to try the quilt-as-you-go method with this one. I’ve broken out the other vintage sewing machine as on that one you can drop the feed dogs, so if I’m feeling brave I may try some free motion quilting. Possibly! It’s a high shank machine, so I’ll have to buy an adapter to be able to use the snap-on quilting foot I have.

Vintage Janome sewing machine.
Block 1

Things 1 and 2 have also been creating this week! Thing 1 has been customising a denim skirt that she bought in a charity shop (and raiding my jewellery making stash to do it!). She used my mannequin so she could work on the skirt easily.

Thing 2 has been tie-dyeing everything she can get her paws on. She bought a tie dye set with a voucher from her Granny, and it’s been great fun. Co-op reusable bags have never looked so good…

Thing 3 has been creating in Minecraft. All three of them enjoy building in the game, and play quite nicely together.

I’ve heard this week that I should be back to work part time from 1 September, which I’m very much looking forward to! Still working remotely for a while, so not back in the museum yet, but how exciting!

See you at the end of week 22…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Low Action (Vinyl Detective) – Andrew Cartmel

Peace Talks (Dresden Files) – Jim Butcher

Time to Depart (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

Week seventeen: The Case of the Disappearing Nine Patch

I confess to being a little bit down as I write this, as – had it not been for some pandemic or other – I should be tapping away on my tablet, sitting in the garden of a farmhouse in sunny Pembrokeshire surrounded by my family, some of whom I haven’t seen for two years. Yesterday my mum and dad would have arrived from France, my far-away sister and brother-in-law and their children from Northern Ireland, my London sister from the other side of of the M25, and my beloved and I and the children from Essex. We’d be planning a day on the beach at Newport or Newgale, or a mooch around St David’s or Fishguard, making a stack of sandwiches and coffee and counting the windbreaks. At some point in the week we would have seen the extended Wales family of cousins and hopefully my beloved’s Welsh family as well. Instead, here I am in rainy Essex, suffering from mosquito bites after a bike ride on Friday (how do they bite through leggings? How?) and waiting for the kids to emerge from the tent demanding Sunday pancakes. I bear a strong resemblance to Tove Jansson’s Little My in temperament today.

Friday marked the end of the school year for Things 2 and 3, and for Thing 2 also her final year of primary school as she will join Thing 1 at secondary in September. The school organised a socially distanced leavers’ assembly on Friday morning, so they didn’t miss out on all the usual events: yearbooks, a chance to sign each other’s T-shirts (not while they were wearing them for a change!) and to see their friends. Thing 2 is not going to our local large secondary, and she won’t be in the same school as most of her little gang so it was quite a sad moment for her. I think the teachers have definitely earned their summer holiday this year (as they do every year, of course) but this year some won’t have had a break since February half term, and their heads are probably spinning with all the things they have had to adapt to – remote teaching and pastoral care, social bubbles, and much more. I have said this before but I really hope that people start recognising the amazing work teachers do not just this year but every year – and trust them to do what’s best for our kids rather than scapegoating them.

Thing 1 had a birthday last week – she was 14 – and despite a few wobbly moments of anxiety leading up to it I think she had fun. Two of her friends came over and they had a cake picnic in the park, frightening the local youngsters with their mad hair, and taking a lot of selfies. She had her undercut dyed pink on Friday – one of the good things about lockdown is that it’s allowed her to ‘experiment with her aesthetic’ (as she tells me) without the restrictions of school uniform requirements. It’s done wonders for her confidence, and I am loving the baby Goth look she’s developed – I have serious envy of her birthday-money shoes! My hands are still tinged with hot pink from the dye-fest – I did her older sister’s hair too, and forgot the gloves.

Baby goth – Hello Kitty Gothcore, I am told.

I was abandoned on Thursday by my walking buddy, who had a bad back. I went out solo and enjoyed the sunshine on a four mile ramble through the lanes and fields on one of my favourite routes past Dial House and North Weald Redoubt. The hedgerows and verges are now showing the fruits of the flowers from earlier in the season, and they’re alive with insects still – ladybirds and crickets, and so many butterflies (none of whom would stay still long enough to photograph).

There’s also a new set of wildflowers popping up – the bank of willowherb on the farm track is a luscious wall of pink, and the purple of thistles and vetch is lovely.

Back to the title – what’s that all about?

The Case of the Disappearing Nine Patch..

I’m a reader. A big reader. A REALLY big reader. One of the first things I did when I started uni both in Preston and in Aberystwyth and when I moved on to London and Essex later was to find and join the local library. I can sniff out a second hand bookshop or charity shop at a hundred paces. When I visit you, if you leave me alone in your living room I’ll be snooping your bookshelves. I am that person on your Zoom meeting who’s peering past you at the bookshelves. The joy of finding a fellow series fan is unbounded – meeting a fellow Pratchett fan in the wild, noticing a Rivers of London reader on the Tube, those who know the significance of the number 42. (The museum world is a good place to find these people, by the way). We be of one blood, you and I.

But the first series I really got into – I mean, really got into – was Nancy Drew way back in the early 80s. I read them all from the library, snapped them up on market stalls, bought them when they went on the discarded stock shelf. Classic Nancy – not the later series. One of my best sewing buddies was introduced to me first as ‘Ah, Alli likes Nancy Drew too – you two will get on really well’. (We do) I wondered what happened to them all when I left home and then a couple of years ago a younger cousin messaged me and asked if I wanted them back. Why yes, I said, the kids might like them.

Who was I kidding? *I* wanted them back. I wanted to read them all again. I wanted to immerse myself in the adventures of the titian-haired detective, her tomboyish friend George and Bess, the girly one. Cool coupes! Lawyer dad Carson! Ned Nickerson, the handsome boyfriend! Honestly, that girl could not go anywhere without falling over a clue, a secret, a mystery of some kind, which she would solve with her loyal girlfriends and her brilliant deductive skills. I never trip over mysteries – except the old ‘where did all the money go this month’ one that we all encounter once we hit adulthood.

So just as soon as I finish my current series, I am opening up that box of delights and taking a trip back to my childhood.

That sort of childhood passion doesn’t really go away, of course, and I still have a sneaky fondness for ‘girl detectives’ though they (and I) are much older now. I’m currently working my way through the wonderful V I Warshawski novels by Sara Paretsky. I first encountered VI at uni, where I was reading American Studies and Indemnity Only was one of the texts on a unit called ‘Images of the City in the American Mind’. VI is a tougher, more streetwise version of Nancy, who fights for the underdog against corporate America. The joy of Kindle is that I don’t have to wait for the library to reopen, of course, to catch up on the later ones.

VI opened up a world of grown up ‘girl’ detective novels – I won’t go into them all in detail but here’s some of my favourites:

  1. Kinsey Millhone by Sue Grafton. I am heartbroken that the author died before ‘Z’ was published.
  2. Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich. Brilliant cast of comic characters.
  3. Ruth Galloway novels by Elly Griffiths (and an honourable mention for her Stephens and Mephisto books too)
  4. Carlotta Carlyle by Linda Barnes. Tough Boston PI who drives a cab on the side.
  5. Rev. Merrily Watkins by Phil Rickman. Set in Herefordshire, so makes visits home a bit spooky at times.
  6. Kate Shugak novels by Dana Stabenow. Alaska! Moose! Bears!

Mentions also for Dr Temperance Brennan, Bubbles Yablonsky, Trixie Belden, Jimm Juree and Precious Ramotswe.

I don’t limit myself to girl detectives, of course, but my heart will always hold a sneaky place for these feisty, clever, quick-thinking females.

Their male counterparts will have to wait for another day, but will probably include Harry Bosch, Marcus Didius Falco, Brother Cadfael, Dave Robicheaux, John Rebus, Dr Siri Paiboun, Bryant and May, DI Thomas Lynley, and Richard Jury. Perhaps detectives and their sidekicks are a whole other topic…

If they come with a side-order of the supernatural, so much the better! I’d better come back to that one as well.

Where did that nine patch disappear to?

It hasn’t disappeared at all, really – it’s the name of the quilt block I ended up using this week. Its not one from the book I mentioned last week, or any of my quilt pattern books, but one that popped up on my daily digest from Bloglovin’.

I’d spent a couple of days trying to decide what to do with the blue charm packs I’d bought, and had pretty much decided to go with basic squares again. I discarded the brighter blue solids and some of the prints, as they didn’t quite fit, so I was left with teal, candy blue, buttermilk and buttercup for solids. I still wasn’t entirely happy with the basic layout so I didn’t start to stitch them together – and I’m glad I didn’t! So I grabbed some of the leftovers from the row layout and did a test block, then abandoned the rows entirely in favour of these nine-patches.

Test block

Since each row had been sorted for colour already, I started to build the nine-patches from the rows, making sure I had one of each solid colour in the block with five different print patches. I ended up with 20 blocks, which I trimmed to 12″ squares before stitching them together to make the final quilt top. Some of the patches had directional prints which limited which way up they could go (in my head, anyway).

I really like the way this has come together. It needs a border as it’s not quite wide enough, but I think I have enough neutral solids left to make one, and it’ll need to be backed and quilted before it’s finished. I’ll be backing it with a large curtain I picked up in a charity shop ages ago, so I won’t need to piece a backing.

This week I am going to finish the commission dolls, try open water swimming with friends, try some more drawing, and try not to feel too out of sorts about not being in Wales. At least school is over…

See you at end of week eighteen.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

V I Warshawski series (only 1 more to go!) – Sara Paretsky

Last Act in Palmyra – Falco series by Lindsey Davis

Learn to Draw: Buildings – David Cook

Week fifteen: sourdough and split ends

I am not a natural chef. There are things I do well: banana bread, for example, a foolproof chocolate cake, and according to the Horde I make a very passable chilli. There are things I do very badly: scones and pastry, and Anzac biscuits. I quite literally cannot produce a consistent boiled egg, let alone an edible one. It’s not that long ago that Thing 3 responded to the smoke alarm by running off to his daddy shouting, ‘Dinner’s ready’. When my beloved installed an extractor over the cooker I tried telling the children that dinner couldn’t be burned, as the alarm hadn’t gone off: Thing 2 looked at me, looked at her admittedly charcoal-toned dinner and said, ‘You cheated, mummy, you turned the thing on.’ Thing 1, memorably, peered at the grill pan once while I was making fish fingers and said, ‘Haven’t you burned them yet, mummy?’ This, at the age of about four.

I used to envy those classmates who did Home Economics at school. Note for young people: this is now called Food Technology, and comes under the DT syllabus. Back in the olden days it was a whole separate subject.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes… my classmates that did Home Ec. They got to go off down to the art block at lunchtime to do arcane things like ‘feeding their Christmas cake’. I, on the other hand, got one out of ten for fruit salad (really, don’t ask). When I took my bread and butter pudding home – quite proudly, I will admit, as it wasn’t burned – and handed it to my mother she said, ‘how lovely, let’s put it in the freezer and we’ll have it another day,’ and it was never seen again. Luckily for my parents, we only did a half term of Home Ec every year.

My London sister, on the other hand, is a talented and brilliant person in the kitchen and whips up clever things. When lockdown began, she had recently been made redundant and she decided to try making a sourdough starter. Christened George, we had daily updates on his progress and she began to turn out beautiful loaves of bread. A whole new vocabulary comes with sourdough: words like levain, and discard, and bannetton (a proving basket, I think).

For my birthday. she arrived bearing a pack of N’duja* (the good stuff, I am told) and a jar containing a little bit of George. I have christened it Kevin. An email followed with instructions on what to do with Kevin to make him earn his keep, and photos illustrating the joy of sourdough.

Now, despite the fact that she’s my little sister and tormented me for many years by doing things like telling new boyfriends that I lived next door when they came to pick me up, singing selections from Annie through the letterbox at me, or locking herself in the bathroom with the notes from a lovelorn swain (that I had torn up) and reading them out very loudly, I do trust her when it comes to cooking.

So, on Monday I broke Kevin out of the little pot and began my first sourdough loaf. Kevin Junior (the levain) didn’t bubble properly or grow to twice his size, just produced a few halfhearted holes and he didn’t grow much on the first rise. The second rise was more successful, and apart from the fact that I didn’t brave the slash before baking and the ‘dark’ crust was more charcoal than expected, the loaf tasted delicious. I made bread!

The next day she remembered to tell me that I should be using hand-hot water to make the levain and to feed Kevin, so last night (I’m writing this bit on Thursday as I was inspired!) I started my second loaf. Warm water is definitely the way to go – Kevin Junior doubled in size, and the overnight rise was very successful. I was out walking at 6am this morning and started the second rise when I got back – he’s currently shaped and supported by tea towels in the conservatory. I’m hoping not to burn this one…..

Kevin Senior is in a Kilner jar (minus the seal) in the fridge – I am now a slave to the sourdough. Kevin’s bitch. Oh dear. (*the N’duja remains unopened. One thing at a time, people.)

Update: yesterday I made sourdough pancakes from the discard (thumbs up from the Horde), and discovered that ham and Emmental sourdough toasties are the food of the gods. Next mission: pizza.

My other experiment this week was home made peshwari naan bread, British Indian Restaurant style – and it was AMAZING. The kids prefer peshwari to plain naan, and they don’t sell it in the little Co-op in the village. I used this recipe from The Curry Guy and though it took longer than I expected it was SO worth it. They tasted just like the ones from our local restaurant, and I could leave one plain for Thing 3 who doesn’t like sultanas. We’ll be making those again!

That was the week…

…that I also got completely fed up with my split ends. My hair is (or was) longer than it has been in about ten years. It’s the best part of six months since my last haircut, and my poor tresses have been treated to several home dye kits since then. I decided to take a leaf out of the kids’ book and watch a YouTube video on how to cut your own hair. My hair is pretty straightforward apart from being a bit unruly/wavy/curly: I have a heavy fringe as I’d still like to be Chrissie Hynde when I grow up (minus the veganism), and layers as that helps the curl behave. I watched this one by Liz Liz and this one by Marianellyy Diaz – much the same content, but the first one shows you how to layer round the face and the second how to take out the V-shape at the back. I think it was quite successful – I cut my fringe in carefully using the same technique. The colour is a very faded Schwarzkopf Live colour in Amethyst Chrome – supposed to be permanent but I find they fade quite quickly on my hair.

Layers! Post-straightening.

I got more practice in on the technique afterwards, as Thing 2 decided to cut her own fringe (luckily quite long, but a bit too wide) and I had to do a repair job to turn it into a layered cut for her as well. Thing 1 got an undercut, courtesy of her dad and his clippers, under her short bob (by me the other week). She now wants to have her whole head cropped, and to go to fashion school – she is equally excited by both things, and I have promised that this week I’ll start teaching her to sew (I knew she should have chosen Textiles at GCSE). She has been researching courses and summer schools already!

On the subject of sewing, I finished the green and yellow quilt that I laid out last week, as both the backing fabric and the binding arrived. I prewashed the backing fabric and I am very glad I did, as it lost lots of the lemon yellow dye. Putting it in with a light wash was a bad idea but – honestly – who doesn’t need lemon yellow pyjamas and running socks?

I had an idea that rather than quilting in the ditch between the squares, I’d use a button on every corner as I had some pretty wooden ones in the button tin, but when I tried it the effect wasn’t quite what I was hoping for so I snipped them off and went back to the machine (the Singer I wrote about last week). I was looking for a puffy effect, but because I was using 2oz wadding rather than the 4oz I used last time it didn’t work. I may try again with more wadding at some point! Fortunately I made the choice to change back after only eight buttons went on.

Buttons.

I have learned from the last two quilts, where the fabric bunched up during the quilting stage, to stitch my lines outwards from the middle and to make sure the fabric is flat as I sew. This time round I stitched outwards from the centre point to form a cross dividing the quilt into quarters, then worked through each quarter from the centre towards the edges. I did the horizontal lines first and then the vertical, and the bunching is much less in evidence. I also increased my stitch length slightly to accommodate the wadding, and that seems to have resolved the tension issue I experienced with the red quilt. The binding isn’t quite straight, but I think the sage green works well with the yellows and greens and picks up some of the florals nicely.

The next one will be blue – I have picked up a couple of charm packs from Amazon and some Kona solids in different blues from Ebay, and the plan is to make a larger one that might actually cover a bed! My bed, for preference…

No cross stitch update this week as I have been mainly crocheting. Late last year I was asked by a D&D playing friend to create a set of ‘voodoo’-style dolls of their RPG group – they were on a story arc in New Orleans, and he wanted some props. One of the group contacted me last week to ask if I could make dolls of him and his girlfriend, so they have been on the hook this week. I have been using the Weebee doll pattern by Laura Tegg on Ravelry (my user name is LadybirdK over there) as it’s super-simple, there’s some really cute outfits that can be adapted easily and – this is important! – there’s permission to sell the finished dolls. Here’s the first of the pair, awaiting hair and clothes. He liked the button eye aesthetic that the game dolls had, so we have stuck with that, and has requested that I make the doll look ‘witchy’. I love these commissions, they are such fun to make!

Doll 1

The rather dramatic header image this week was taken on my regular Sunday walk – this week we followed one of the Millennium walks through the flood meadow nature reserve to the local church and then back through the fields. The local farmers have planted a lot of borage this year, and the fields are the most heavenly blue colour that my phone camera completely fails to do justice to. A bit of Googling told us that borage is also known as starflower, is a source of Omega-6 fatty acid and is good in salads. It’s safe from pigeons and slugs, too.

The boxes in the second image are bee hives, and the field next to the flood meadow is covered in them – local honey must be on the way! There was a lot of industrious buzzing, I know that much.

So that was week 15! The pubs reopened yesterday (I didn’t go, but the noise last night suggests that some people made the most of it!). I made my monthly trip to Tesco on Tuesday and still can’t get any soy sauce but home baking goods are back on the shelves which made me happy.

See you on the other side of week 16!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

V I Warshawski novels (I’m up to #12 now – only 8 more to go!) – Sara Paretsky

The Iron Hand of Mars/Poseidon’s Gold (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)