Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Life right now

I have planned this post for a long time. Months.
This was supposed to be my goodbye post. The one where I finally admit, in print, that I am turning the last page on my blog and saying goodnight.
Weirdly, though, in recent days as I've pulled myself together to come out and say goodbye, I find the word in my heart is 'hello'. I think I'm coming back.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Wandering: visiting the National Trust's Speke Hall in Liverpool

We bought a family one-year National Trust membership and it was one of the best investments we've made for our family. This is because we use it. Every weekendwe have time for a family day out, we consult the National Trust map and off we go. Nice day? Somewhere with lots of outdoor space to explore and picnic in. Less nice? A house that will take time to look round, with activities for younger children. Meeting with friends? Yep, we National Trust it. We can't afford to be members every year so we go crazy with the National Trust properties while we can, then take a few years off until the boys are older and it's all fresh again.

A week or so ago we visited Speke Hall in Liverpool.
It's a beautiful Tudor property set in landscaped grounds, surrounded by a wood. And it has something extra that I don't think any other National Trust places have... it's right next to an airport. So you get the added extra of - wow! - aeroplanes taking off above you. It really helps to have a bit of variety to entertain little ones! So, I guess you want to hear some of the other plusses? We really did have a fabulous day out with our friends.
The architecture is beautiful. For us 'grown-ups', from every angle there's something new to look at and different buildings to appreciate. For your children, there are little carved faces where you don't expect it, a moat (now grassed) to run round or roll down, and the house itself is just the right scale for littler ones.
There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and woodland walks to take. Because the scale is smaller than a lot of the grand National Trust properties you may have visited, it is much more suited to little legs and it is much better for more independent exploring. As parents, you want your children to learn the thrill and the responsibility of being independent from you, but that desire clashes against a primal need to watch over them and protect them. Speke Hall just felt like the perfect place to find a harmony between those two needs.
The house itself is beautiful. Unlike more museum-like places, it was set up with signs of life (like this Singer sewing machine - you can't expect me to ignore a sewing machine!) as though the Victorian inhabitants of this Tudor manor had just downed tools and popped outside for a moment.

There was a great trail indoors for the children to do. I thought my then-two-year-old and four-year old would be too young but they weren't at all. The house was just disrobing itself from its winter hibernation, and so most rooms had a large, hidden picture of a bug in them that you had to find (huge fun at that age) and note in your little booklet. The Little One loved practicing his writing (b-e-d) and the Tiny One liked the funny bug names and their descriptions.
We all loved looking for signs of spring in the kitchen garden and on the woodland walk. They loved climbing in the playground near the entrance (blowing off those long-car-drive cobwebs) while watching planes soar overhead. They loved the second, surprise woodland playground even more - tree trunk steps, zip wires, climbing frames, houses. It was always close to rain but we managed to miss it. It was cold enough to legitimately deny the ice-cream pleas (why is a cake never enough?!) but throw the coats off while running across the grass. We managed a picnic (coats on). We were home in time for tea.

You really should go.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Baking: a toffee apple cake for my three-year old

Happy Birthday Tiny One! He turned three. It feels like he's on an express train to grown-up some days.

He asked for an apple cake for his birthday. He also asked for a lion cake for his lion birthday party. I won't show you the lion cake. It was atrocious. I mean, he was happy, and it tasted really good, but it was the ugliest cake I've ever made for a birthday. And considering that I have three boys, 15, 4 and 3, that's a lot of birthday cakes it comes behind.

But the apple cake a few days later was a winner. I looked at quite a few recipes, but apple cakes are quite teatime-ish and not so very birthday-ish, aren't they? Then I stumbled on the Apple Cake with Toffee Topping in Tessa Kiros' Falling Cloudberries. It's a lovely plain cake sat atop melded apple slices and topped with toffee sauce, both of which take it most definitely into the birthday category. We are still enjoying it! It's lovely with a cuppa mid morning (who, me?!). You can find the recipe if you 'look inside' on amazon, p.269, but I'll give it to you here too, in my own words, as the Amazon version is in US measurements...

Tessa Kiros' Apple Cake with Toffee Topping

For the cake, you'll need: 3 apples, 100g softened butter, 200g caster sugar, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 3 eggs, 200g plain flour, 2 tsps baking powder, 60ml milk.
And for the topping: 20g butter, 115g caster sugar, 125ml single cream.

Preheat the oven to 190oC and grease and flour a 24cm springform tin. Peel the apples, and cut each into 12 pieces, removing the core. Arrange the slices in the tin (they fit in two tightly packed concentric circles).

With an electric beater or whisk, cream your butter, sugar and vanilla until pale and creamy. Then add the eggs one by one, beating well each time. Sift and beat in the flour and baking powder, followed by the milk. Plop the smooth, fluffy batter onto the apple slices, smoothing the top. Then bake for 35-45mins until a skewer comes out clean (I use wooden skewers or a piece of dry spaghetti). Remove from the oven to a cooling rack, but keep it in its tin.

Time for the toffee: cook the butter and sugar in a small pan for 3-4mins until the sugar melts and turns a light caramel. Add the cream very slowly at first. Lower the heat and simmer for another minute. If your caramel solidifies in the middle of creamy sea (yes, that was mine), just heat slowly and use a sauce whisk. To start with the caramel will stick to it but be patient - eventually you'll be lump-free and caramel-coloured!

Run a palette knife around your cake sides then add the toffee sauce. Leave to cool before removing the side of the tin. Ice-cream or cream would be lovely with it, but we had neither and loved it still. It keeps well in the fridge - we're on day 3, it's still yummy and there's still 1/4 left. Not for long!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Making: a quick & easy DIY thread necklace

So here's what happened, in order:
- Firstly, I spent a fortnight doing DIY in the bedroom at every possible moment. This meant no sewing. A week of no sewing and I get really desperate to get back to it. A fortnight? The unspent creative juices were threatening all kinds of mayhem.
- I read Monica's post about her quick necklace making. It struck a chord. It hid around in the recesses of my mind waiting for a moment to pounce.
- I had fifteen minutes the next day before going to collect the Little One from school. Fifteen minutes at the end of the day for which my main plan had been do some sewing and my achievement had been do no sewing. There was a broken necklace in a pot by my sewing table. There was some bright darning thread/yarn in my box. There were fifteen minutes.
Ta da! Fifteen minutes very well spent. I love the bright pink-red thread (though I think it's going to get pretty fluffly pretty quickly). And the once forgotten, now re-loved beads. It was just what I needed. A little happy makery to conclude the day.

The bedroom, by the way, is finished!!! Well, there's still a floor to paint at some point and a whole lot of upholstery to sort out. But the walls, ceiling and woodwork are all done. Applause! Curtsey!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Mothering: being the best mother I can be

My boys. Yesterday I was tired, and did a crazy crash-and-burn as the school run ended. Imagine a toddler on a sugar high and then the sugar runs out. I'd had three cups of coffee (my upper limit) to get through the day and yes, I was that mum when all the caffeine ran out. I shouted. I was impatient. There was not a lot of nurturing. They were playing up and it was the end of a long week but once they were asleep the guilt kicked in and I vowed to do better tomorrow.

Mothering is a funny thing. When you first start out, you try to be the best mother as defined by some book, some zeitgeist, or some universal ideal. It takes a while, but you learn that actually so much of mothering is defined by who you are, who your children are, and your family's needs and priorities. If you were a career-minded, over-achieving, OCD-leaning woman beforehand, it's unlikely that you're going to be a happy and thriving mother if you're trying to fit he 'earth mother' model. You discover the best kind of mother you can be, for the person you are and for the children you have. And that's the gold standard that you hope to hit every day.

Here I am at the start of tomorrow. I've washed yesterday out of my hair, both figuratively and literally. I have a house to tidy (my mother-in-law is due in two hours. TWO HOURS!!) There is a gymnastics class to go to, several meals to make, and a cake bake in the village to support. But through all of it I am going to be the best mother I can be. And that's one that loves and enjoys her children. Who listens to them. Who negotiates and explains. Who can be fun, who can be relied on, who is very cuddly. I will need lots of small successes on the practical side of life, but I will try and share as much of my day with them and try and see as much of their world through their eyes. Time to turn off the computer and go give some hugs.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Sewing - a cushion commission, and a little sewing business business

A lovely friend arranged for some cushions to be made for her sofa. And they weren't quite right. So they came my way for a complete re-do.
Let's first say, My, this lady has some lovely fabric taste! Don't they look lovely? That leaf-print was in serious danger of being stolen by me. Lucky for her, I'm a goody two-shoes!
The fabric was a thin, dress-weight, so not ideal for cushions. It needed reinforcing with some interfacing. The cushion covers had been made several centimetres too big so they needed cutting down to size and then sewing back up again. And the zips were much too conspicuous, so they needed cutting out and replacing with invisible zips. Basically, yes, I sewed four new cushion covers from scratch.
It was a fiddly job, I'm not going to lie. And I got it wrong several times before getting it right, mainly due to ridiculous attempts to recreate serged seams on flimsy fabric without a serger. But I learnt my lessons and ended up French seaming the lot. For those of you who don't sew, that's basically a seam that's concealed within a seam, leaving no fraying edges.
These were my first concealed zips and I'm pleased with the results. And it felt lovely sewing something for someone else to enjoy. It felt more like a real sewing job than anything else I'd done before.
There are five or six weeks left until the Tiny One starts his six-hours-a-week at nursery. It'll take a little while to settle him in enough to leave him both mornings, but I hope to get four hours of clear sewing time out of it, and then another two or three evenings a week, of at least two hours each. And that will be the start of my little sewing business. I'm starting small and low-key, while my mothering commitments so overwhelm my sewing time. Ten hours a week to start with, and then in September it will build up to about 15 hours a week. There will be individual commissions, and there will still be gifts to sew, but I will mostly be focusing on home furnishings, especially curtains, and the quilts.
I just have to start earning some money: the pinch point has come. My full-time mothering was a vocation we had longed for and planned for, but one which we knew would need to transition back to a career as a working mother, once the littlest of our brood was ready for nursery and then school. And to get to sew for a job! There are many other things I could do but here I am with the one chance in my whole life to try and make a career out of something that I love, something that is borne of my soul. It's a dream to be paid for your passion. And you all know that I'm a dreamer. Cross your fingers and toes for me that it works out.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Where I've been

I took a little walk around my house the other day. I thought you'd like a little look at where I've been. And after that, we can get to business.

I've been enjoying the colour and life that a little of nature in the house can bring. My tomato plant (well, they're not tomatoes but they look like them, and I can't remember the real name!) was a gift from my boys at Christmas time and I love it. I just need to figure out a pretty way to cover that plastic pot it's in. The rose on the right was from my love on Valentines. Now let me lower my voice to a whisper: I don't actually like the standard traditional rose. I find it a bit ubiquitous and unnatural looking. But I love that his thoughts and heart were in the right place, so I'm always appreciative. But one year, if the lovely husband gets me a bunch of tulips or country-garden bouquet, boy, he'll really see what natural joy looks like!

We've been putting the Tiny One's pictures up in the kitchen. We all love them! He turns around from his seat at lunchtime sometimes, just the two of us, and says 'do you like my elephants mummy?' He's so proud. And yes darling, I really do. On the right is a bit of hastily decked Christmas paperchain in the Little One's room. Yes it's March. No, he won't let me take it down. I wonder if I removed it surreptitiously one day he'd notice?
Sorry, sorry, it's a potty picture. We've been potty training the Tiny One. He's a month off three. And it took him half a day. No kidding, two wee's and he was sorted. Now you may hate me right now but I should also let you know it took the Little One nearly two weeks and on one of those days he went through every single pair of trousers, underpants and pyjama bottoms he owned. So I was owed a really easy one.

We have a playroom but the boys keep bringing their toys into the lounge. There's usually more room and less mess. Fireman Sam was the toy of choice for much of their half term holidays. They played so long and so well together (once we'd purchased a few duplicates with their Christmas money!!) 
I've been making squares of blue, green, yellow and brown diagonal strips ready to be assembled into a quilt for my brother and his wife. It's a nice, manageable activity with the batting/wadding already added. But I'm a bit worried about the assembly part - they are really skewing in shape as I assemble them, and I think some uneasy easing will be required to get a regular grid of diamonds at the end.
My brother found this beauty in a skip. In a skip!! If they're that easily rid off, no wonder a certain upmarket high street shop fills its windows with rows and rows of them. I now have one for my own window and I think it's just beautiful.
You know that nature on the inside thing I said earlier? This is my current favourite. Budding pine cone branches and a feather in a vase. Sounds much less than it is. It makes me so happy to see it there every day in our lounge. I wish I could keep it forever but I feel like it should really go once spring is upon us, to be replaced with an Easter tree of newly forming leaves. You know me, I like to be season-specific.
What would've been time at the computer or sewing machine is now often time spent in our bedroom, painting. We're slowly getting there. I can't wait to show you it when it's finished, but the re-do also involved recovering the chair in this photo and that's going to be a bit of a beast of a job!
And last of all, I didn't want to miss out any references to the Big One, who has just got a glowing report at school but is driving me a bit doolally at home. That is his room just half a day after his weekly enforced tidying. I couldn't bring myself to show it to you the day before. At least the fact you can't even see the carpet then covers the fact that I haven't been able to get in to vacuum for several weeks. Rant over!

And with that done, it's time to look forward again.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

costume change

blog redesign
Hi-di-hi readers. Just a little message to tell you I'm all fired up on the blog front again, pinning and reading blogging tutorials like crazy, taking beginner's courses on html and photoshop (hence the above!!) and even going old-school and buying a book. Please bear with me for a week or so while I do some redesigning!

I have to tell you I'm so fed up with the design of this blog and I feel like I'm writing for me, the writer, rather than you, the reader. It's time to take things up a gear.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Wandering: January walk by the reservoir

Just look at that:

We went for a walk along the reservoir with the boys. There are many reservoirs around here, pooling in the clefts of the Peaks, but this is our favourite for a little walk with little ones. There's a sailing club at its edge, which means we sometimes get to see races. It can be still as a millpond, like today, or choppy like the sea. A little path runs alongside it, on a wooded ridge between the reservoir and the stream, and next to that we occasionally pass beautiful waters edge houses that you would dream to live in. Sometimes, like today, we also walk along the reservoir dam, marvelling at the steep grassy slope to the other side and the fast rush of channeled water heading down to the natural river below. I tell you, Ratty and Moley would have the fright of their lives if their nonchalent river boat raced down those rapids.
The sun was not far off setting, but the birds and wildfowl did not seem ready for bed yet, and neither did the fishermen we passed. Neither did our boys for that matter. They consider this exploring territory. And there was the amazing skate ramps in the park at the other side. We had to drag the two-year-old away kicking and screaming, quite literally, as he just could not bear to leave the sight of the crazy Big Boys defying gravity on their BMX's. Something for everyone.

I should've taken a photo of them, but it didn't seem quite right to snap strangers and then stick them on the web, especially other peoples' children! Have a silhouette of a fisherman instead.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Wondering: The start of the day

These poorly focused phone photos are not from today. Today the rain lashed, the hailstones bounced, the wind whipped. And we three, then four, then five, all stayed at home. But a couple of days ago it was a glorious January day. The Tiny One and I took the Little One to school, and as we walked back home again - ah! just look at it!
I hate to be hierarchical about the weather, because a day like today - watching hailstones ping on the ground like they were dancing on a trampoline - well that has its own beauty too. But is there anything better than a cool, clear, crisp midwinter day with the sky the colour of a summer sea and the sun blinding you? I went right up to the top of the house with the Tiny One, who was rather perplexed at his view-drunk mother, opened the roof windows and took photos - one out the front, one out the back. Yes I knew they'd be grainy, just look at them. But those long shadows from the rising sun are there. The tinge of cold gold on the fields and houses. The start of something. The promise.

And it went on to be a good day. It lifted me up and sent me soaring onwards.