144: baby, it’s cold outside

Bloody freezing, actually (my garden thermometer is currently reading -5.4) and this morning I am a strange blend of disappointed and mildly relieved as the lake is closed for the weekend. The closure is due to access, as you can’t get cars in and out of the site, rather than as a way to prevent a gang of bobble-hatted loons giving themselves mild hypothermia. The disappointment is because cold water swimming – or dipping, in this weather – is such a rush, and the relief is because the temperature has rarely made it above zero this week and that lake will be COLD.

Last week was the coldest water we have experienced at 0.5 degrees, and it was trying to snow when we got there. A large hole had been broken in the ice to enable dipping, but there was no chance of a proper swim. People were going in, having their picture taken by one of the long suffering Redricks team to prove we were complete idiots, paddling about a bit and then racing out swearing profusely. I still haven’t put my wetsuit on this year, so was in my bathers and bobble hat with socks and glove, and I lasted about two minutes. I was extremely glad I had brought thermals to go under my trousers and a lot of layers – and my trusty hot water bottle. Top tip here: stuff your pants inside the cover while you swim and wrap your towel round the outside. I may need two hot water bottles, just so I can do my socks as well – the worst part last week was the pain as my toes came slowly back to life which made me want to cry. I was wearing my 3mm socks as I knew I’d want to get them off quickly, and they were not enough!

Many articles have been written on the benefits of cold water swimming over the last couple of years (here’s one) and there’s lots of handy advice out there too. Please note I am not including Wim Hof in either of these two categories as he is clearly quite, quite bonkers. And that’s coming from me. What I get from it is a mental reset at the end of the week, time with friends both in the water and during what Jill calls the apres-swim, as we hop about trying to get dry, get our trousers on, and drink hot chocolate with marshmallows. It’s usually child-free, it’s early on a Sunday morning, and the rest of the day is still ahead of us. Redricks Lake, where we swim, is also a fishing lake so you’re sharing the environment with cormorants and kingfishers as well as the usual run of water birds (and fish); there’s lifeguards on hand and you don’t get to go in unless you’ve had your safety induction, which is reassuring. They will also rescue you, strip off your wetsuit (wear your bathers!) and warm you up if necessary.

Later in the day a few of us braved the cold again (fully clothed this time) to go and see the Light Fantastic train from Marconi Bridge at the top of North Weald Common. Thing 2 joined me, and we were out when the snow started. ‘Flurries’ were forecast, but what we ended up with was a good six inches of snow which meant a snow day on Monday and travel chaos for the rest of the week. Today is supposed to be a balmy 7 degrees and tomorrow – gasp! – double figures, so we might finally see the thaw.

The rest of the week has mostly been crochet, as I had a stack of pigs to make after selling out at the Christmas fairs – seven big pigs, eight little pigs, one fairy cake, a Highland Cow and I finally got round to making a jumper for my own tree. I have a few more bits I want to make and then I really, really need to catch up with the temperature galaxy which hasn’t been touched since August. Eek….

Other things making me happy this week

  • Secret Santa exchange at work – this year’s theme was ‘adventure’ and my gift was a gorgeous Doctor Who bag charm, which meant I knew exactly who my Santa was!
  • Girly gossip with Miriam and Edith on Wednesday, accompanied by baby snuggles – there’s nothing quite like a sleepy tiny cuddling into your neck
  • Stomping around the garden in the snow spotting the rabbit, cat and fox prints.
  • The latest Audible version of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, with Bill Nighy as the footnotes and Peter Serafinowicz as Death
  • Ben and Jerry’s Minter Wonderland
  • Thermal leggings

Less happy was discovering when we got to the work canteen on Thursday that due to supply issues there were burgers instead of lasagne. Shades of Shirley Valentine: ‘But it’s Thursday! Thursday is lasagne day!’ The gloom among the whole V&A staff was positively Dickensian.

Only another five days of work to go and I can stop for Christmas – now excuse me, I have a cake to marzipan.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Hogfather (Audible)

Don’t Cry For Me, Aberystwyth – Malcolm Pryce

This Must Be The Place – Kate Racculia

140: so, when are we coming back then?

After being named and shamed twice in last week’s post, Jill would like me to point out that she not only made it down to breakfast at 8am yesterday, she arrived a whole five minutes before I did. And she absolutely did not have two naps on Friday afternoon in the Relaxation Lounge.

This weekend eleven of us have been away on an overnighter to Lifehouse, a spa and hotel in Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex as part of a ‘big birthday’ celebration. Booked last March, it’s been a long time coming and we have all been looking forward to it – and the wait was worthwhile. A few of us had booked Friday off work and arrived before lunchtime, while the others drifted up over the day. It’s just over an hour away from our bit of Essex, so not too far, but still far enough away for it to feel like a break.

Lifehouse, although set in some beautiful English Heritage gardens, is a contemporary hotel and the spa is very well-equipped: pool, hydropool (aka a bloody great jacuzzi thing), sauna and steam room, ‘salt inhalation experience’ and a plunge pool kept at 16 degrees, which after a sauna or steam feels a LOT colder. There are treatment rooms, a HUGE nail salon, and two lovely relaxation lounges – one dark with blankets, and the other light with views over the gardens. There’s a terrace balcony outside this one but it’s November so we admired it from within.

The pool was quite cool, so it was nice to hop out of there and into one of the hot rooms, and there were loungers around so you could relax and read (or crochet). It was quite busy when we arrived and when we left, but there were quieter periods in the day – it being Essex there was a terrifying amount of fake-tanned skin on display as well as our pale (but interesting) skin, and the friendly staff are excellent advertisements for the wide range of beauty treatments on offer. Various members of the gang indulged in massages, wraps, manicures and pedicures, facials, and two of us even did the guided meditation session. I always feel that a day in a dressing gown being terribly indulgent is a day well-spent, and we all made the most of it. Apparently there is also a gym, but I forgot my PE kit, honest. Somewhere there is a ‘hidden sanctuary’ for couples, but we didn’t see that! You can roam the hotel in your robes and slippers, but after 6pm you have to put your clothes on, bringing a whole new meaning to ‘dressing for dinner’. No wet bottoms are allowed in the bar or restaurant which caused much hilarity: maturity is not coming with age, it seems.

We made time in our hectic schedule for a few meals in the hotel restaurant: for lunch on Saturday I had cumin-roasted cauliflower which came with roasted kale, baba ghanoush, mint and pomegranate while others tried out various sandwiches and a risotto, and for dinner I tried the home made gnocchi with slow-cooked bolognese sauce. Chicken in a basket and scampi and chips were not featured on the menu, although I think a bar menu with more than peanuts would be a good addition. The menu is limited but done well, the staff are friendly and helpful, and it’s quite reasonably priced.

Breakfast (always a high point of any hotel stay) was excellent: hot and freshly cooked traditional ‘English’ selection (though it was missing black pudding, it did have good fresh mushrooms and tomatoes); fruits; porridge and overnight oats; cereal; continental meats and cheeses; pastries; toast and jams (Tiptree, of course) and juices. Coffee was generous and fresh, and they would probably have been horrified at the conversations the gang of 40 and 50 something ‘ladies’ were having over their bacon….

We’re already planning a return visit for some other significant birthdays that may be coming up next year…

Other things making me happy this week….

  1. A great night out with work colleagues at Draughts, where we played noisy board games and ate our way through the ‘Players Bundle’ menu. The Korean Fried Chicken bites were so good.
  2. Crochet, naturally. Still making tiny jumpers – now I am being asked to make them in football strips.
  3. Thing 1 is on the mend, and Thing 3 is in Wales with his aunty and our cousins enjoying his first rugby international.
  4. Working with Miriam on her social media posts. More writing!
  5. Sub-10 degrees swim in the lake this morning – still in skins, and according to Isla’s daughter we are ‘all maniacs!’.

This week I will be piloting new KS3 design sessions at a school in Ilford, making more stock for my stall, and dreaming of relaxation lounges.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

This Much is True – Miriam Margolyes

Don’t Need The Sunshine – John Osborne

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes – Rob Wilkins (Audible)

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)