Monday, 29 September 2014

Festival goer

Massive crowds, long queues for portaloos, a everyone there a massive fan: festivals are as much a fixture of the year as Wimbledon or the Proms. But you can keep for Glastonburys and your Reading festivals; the one for me is Yarndale.

Last year I blogged about the first ever festival of all things woolly and yarn-related in the beautiful Yorkshire town of Skipton. This year, the team of 5 behind the event learnt from last year's successes and glitches to stage a show that was bigger, better organised and still remained incredibly friendly and welcoming.

My Very Excellent Mate Rachel and I went to Skipton by train, then caught the courtesy bus to the show grounds. The lovely old Routemaster with its jaunty bunting was a lovely way to travel.   As we pulled up and saw the queues to get in, I felt a little smug about buying tickets in advance so we could just saunter past them all.

Our carriage approaches!
About 100 yards of people queueing
Last year's bunting filled the halls and decorated a cafe area, but the wall of crocheted mandalas sent in by over 1100 fans of the Attic 24 blog was the eye-catching exhibit this year. They were fantastic. I wish I could have shown you them all but my photo of them turned out blurry - I guess I was jostled as I took it.  I guess that shouldn't be a surprise to me. For the first 3 hours we didn't so much walk around the displays as get swept along by the tide of people cramming the venue to bursting.

The problems of last year - not enough toilet facilities, nowhere near enough catering, nowhere to sit - were much improved. Lots of portaloos, a new large cafe area and some stall spaces left empty except for chairs so there was a place to sit and eat sandwiches or just rest aching feet. 
Rach said it was crucial we had tea and cake at some point during the day. We passed so many little cafes and tea shops on the bus up to the grounds, but knew they'd be closed by the time we left the festival. Despite her intentions, when we got to the front of the cafe queue in the venue itself it was the locally made pork pies that had her waxing lyrical. It was one of those "didn't know you'd missed them until you had them again" moments - a proper, hand made pork pie with wonderful pastry.
(I'm taking her word for it. I don't eat meat. The custard tart was nice, though)

One of my favourite things about Yarndale is how lovely the people are. A stallholder called Jo taught me how to crochet without needing a foundation chain. That will mean nothing to most of you but to me it means I can tackle loads of projects I'd shied away from because I am RUBBISH at foundation chain crochet. I am very grateful to Jo for taking 5 minutes to show me until I understood how to do it myself.
I bumped into the teacher of my NCT antenatal class from 15 years ago, a woman I took sugar craft courses alongside and a former neighbour.  we hailed each other like long lost mates, all caught up in the friendliness and enthusiasm of the day.

Jo Speckley from the lovely Baa Ram Ewe spent ages with Rachel helping her choose the ideal yarns for a very gorgeous and adventurous scarf. Rach now knows precisely what she wants for Christmas from her family. I love the colours of the Titus yarns nearly as much as I love the names - eccup, chevin, aire...

While Rach shopped, I did a workshop on advanced crochet booked months ago. Finding myself rows and rows behind the others in the the workshop after 10 minutes, I had an urge to scuttle out in embarrassment. I wasn't a complete beginner but perhaps trying 'advanced' was sheer chutzpah on my part.  However,  it wouldn't be in keeping with the spirit of Fearlessly Attempting things to give up. I was clearly the duffer of the bunch but with perseverance I learnt some fab new stitches and feel confident I could do them again. 
What was particularly lovely was the effort and thoughtfulness of the tutor, Maureen, in hand-making each one of us a Work in Progress bag to keep the project in - complete with french seams, beaded drawstring and a little lavender sachet to stop our yarn getting musty. The bags had yarn, patterns and a crochet hook in as well. It was fab of her. 

When we met up again, Rach took me to a stall with knitted knickers as bunting and a fantastic pair of fingerless gloves with 'tattoos' on them. I also loved the shawl/scarf in bright triangles. Fellow Yarndale fans on Facebook tell me it's a pattern called Wingspan. I'd love to try it.

I loved this collection of tiny needle-felted birds that charmed all my kids when they saw the photo. That small lad's hand reaching out to them on the photo was typical - no one could resist touching them.

Actually, that's another striking aspect of the day. It's a tactile overload. The yards were so soft or luxurious or scratchy - we shopped by feel just as much as by eye. Some of the fine carded wool was so soft and snuggly you longed to surround yourself in it and fall asleep - what a cloud would feel like if dreamt by a child. I bought some beautiful and very expensive merino and silk mix yarn in lace weight (that means very fine) as a present for Mark's mum. She wanted to make a shawl and asked me to keep an eye out for something special.  It felt so lovely it almost seems a shame to do anything other than stroke it. I think it will knit up beautifully.

For myself I bought a much cheaper yarn to attempt a crochet pattern I admired and a kit to make a hooked rug Christmas stocking from Hooked By Design. I'd admired the kits she had last year but had run out of money. I was determined to keep enough cash on one side to buy one this year. I also picked up a pleasingly dinky tin of pins from The Stitch Society. Their gorgeous attention to detail in packaging and a shared dislike for cutesy embellishments had Rachel and I hankering after most of their stuff. Some teal merino and silk yarn from the Mrs Moon stall was to die for, but they hadn't got it in stock, only made up in a shawl on their display.

It's a good job Yarndale works on cash only - I spent all I'd brought right down to my last £1. Had I been able to use a credit card we'd have needed a new mortgage to cover it.

Obviously it would be madness to go to Yarndale and not say hi to Lucy from Attic 24. It must be weird to find yourself such a celebrity at the event you've organised. There was a queue to speak to her some of the time.  Every time we passed the Knit and Natter lounge I could see she was surrounded by people. She was friendly, welcoming and interested in people. I expect she'll sleep for a month and be a hermit to recover after such intense socialising. It must be absolutely exhausting.

 Rachel and I stayed at Yarndale to the very end. Then we walked back to Skipton along the Yarn Walk in the evening sunshine, charmed by wild rabbits grazing, a hot air balloon drifting though the trees and a park decked out with bunting, yarn-bombed bikes and lampposts, and brightly crocheted signs.

See you next year, Yarndale!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Water Works

While the kids were in the Costa del Sol with their cousins, Mark and I had 8 days to ourselves. We could go out every night! We could have parties! We could watch the telly with the volume up after bedtime!

Instead, we built a pond.

Our garden is very long for an urban semi. This means we need to make things quite large to keep them proportionate. It also floods when we get heavy rain - damn that Yorkshire clay. Our former neighbour built a small pond in her garden that spread across the paved area every time it rained, which looked ridiculous and would hardly be good for fish or wildlife.

Therefore we needed a large raised pond.  The easiest way to have sturdy sides is to use railway sleepers. They require a lot less skill than building with brick or breeze block, they look good and they are pretty quick to build with.
The space to clear

Currently occupied by a fire pit, now partly disassembled

However, before we could build up, we needed to clear the space and dig down.  I cannot fully express how much we loathe digging. A square metre of sticky waterlogged clay is utterly exhausting to excavate.  But help was at hand - my Very Excellent Mate Cally most fortuitously married a madman who runs up mountains for fun and likes digging.  We dismantled the climbing frame (complete with labelling and photos as a primer so he could rebuild it for their 5 year old) in return for the lovely Seth digging for a day.

And dig he did.
With Seth digging, Mark barrowing the clay to the skip and me travelling by train to Manchester Airport and back to drop the lads with my parents in time for their flight, we had the pond footprint ready by nightfall. (I know the pond didn't require my trip to the airport but it was still a long day and I want to feel like I was involved.)  The skip was very full indeed.

After just 3 hours! Loads more to come
The following day Mark and I spent a fair bit of time laying the timber out to establish which order, orientation and sequence we wanted the finished timber frame to have. Then we built the first layer of the railway sleeper box and barrowed in loads of sand to the site. We spent just A G E S getting the thing level. Checking levels, moving sand about, tamping down, checking levels, move minuscule amounts of sand from one end to the other, check again. And again. I've never spent so much of a day peering at a spirit level in my life.

The timber we used wasn't actually reclaimed sleepers. We'd used old sleepers in our previous garden and found them gut-wrenchingly heavy and extremely hard to cut. Instead we were using new pressure treated, stained timber which was lighter, cheaper and easier to handle.

Once the first layer was complete we cracked on with the second. It was secured to the first layer by the longest wood screws I've ever seen. They must have been over a foot long.

Obviously I kept checking the levels were OK. I had spirit level fever - I'm sure Mark was rolling his eyes at me when my back was turned as I insisted on checking and rechecking each stage.

That night it rained. The weather had become very cold for August - only 10 degrees. Bother. Had it rained the next night instead it might have helped us fill the pond. As it was I needed to get into that deep muddy hole and bail the water out before we could proceed. It was an unstable surface of sucking mud, it was cold and I was not having any fun. 

After taking all the water out of a hole I planned to fill with water later, I needed to line the pond base with sand. This was to make doubly sure there were not stones or sharp edges to puncture the pond liner under the weight of all the water.  I barrowed, tipped, raked and tamped in the cold morning while Mark dug a trench to bury the electrical cable we'd need to power the pump.  His trench was filling up with water pouring in from under our shed and the neighbour's garden as fast as he could dig. Good job the cable would be protected in some conduit pipe.

By late morning the pond had a layer of sand and was ready to be carpeted.

Carpeting the garden is an odd experience.  It wasn't precisely carpet, more a blanket, but it needed to cover every last bit of the pond and up the sides.  This underlay was made from recycled material needle-felted into massive sheets. Where there was an edge or potentially awkward bit I used several layers as a cushion - for example, where we'd put a paving slab on the upper shelf to prevent a fragile edge from crumbling. I didn't want the edges pf the paving slab to rub against the liner.

Once the pond and edges were covered, I put the liner in.  Poor Mark; I'm a dictatorial rotter at times. I'd pictured doing the job in my head a few times to think about which way to install the 8m by 6m liner as easily as possible, tweaking my approach until I thought it would be pretty easy, then was exasperated with him because he couldn't see into my head to follow my instructions. However, we unfolded the liner and I got to work fitting it to the awkward shape as best I could.

When we paused for lunch I sent time googling how to fit a 2d liner neatly into a 3d shape with sharp corners on more than one plane at a time.  Eventually I found a website that referred to it - "Flexible liners are extremely easy to fit, unless you are building a formal pond with right angles. Then it becomes very difficult and a rigid liner is a simpler choice."
How unhelpful.

Once the initial liner is approximately in place, you are supposed to fill it with water and straighten out the liner as you go, using the weight of the water to hold it in place.

Can I just reiterate the part about it being 10 degrees Celsius? TEN. Cloudy, breezy, occasionally drizzly and 10 degrees.  Guess which lucky soul got the standing-in-freezing-water job?

So there I was in my swimsuit and a T shirt, trying to smooth out the liner at the bottom of the deep end. The previous night's rain made that deep end a mire that the sand and underlay only partially helped to stabilise, so as I moved around the ground was shifting about underneath me spoiling the bit of liner I'd just smoothed.  I had a very cold an frustrating afternoon.

Once I got out I found I couldn't force myself to get back in again. It took 2 1/2 hours to get the feeling back in my toes.  Discretion was the better part of valour and I called it quits for the day.
Yet again it rained overnight.  Mark's trench -  and the soggy area around it he'd dug out to fill with hardcore - filled up as water poured in from the neighbour's very-slightly-higher garden. It was now a waterway about a food deep.
This is not supposed to be the pond
He bailed and dug, I clambered back in the actual, intended pond and returned to smoothing the liner out. It was a lot of pulling, stretching, folding and then making exasperated noises but eventually the liner was as straight as I could make it, the folds were stuck down with pond tape and the pond itself was 3/4 full.
It was blessedly sunny all afternoon. Sitting in what was essentially a giant paddling pool in my swimsuit felt like an indulgence. No risk of hypothermia - indeed I caught the sun on my shoulders a bit. Definitely the most fun of the whole project. I needed to let the liner settle overnight before trimming it, so we move on to the electrics.
Mark and I fed the cabling through the flexible conduit and from the shed floor out alone the deep trough to the deck, where he secured it to the frame underneath the deck and to the junction box.  

The next day I folded and pleated the top of the pond liner to be as flat as I could get it and Mark knocked a few tacks in to hold it in place.  Then we were able to start on the capping boards.  These were to be laid flat on their broad side so we could sit on them rather than stacked on their edges. We manoeuvred them into place, pre-drilling some of the holes that would be inaccessible against the fence once they were in place, and screwed them securely to the rest of the frame.
Getting started on the capping level
Just the waterfall wall to build
 To build the water feature, Mark chiseled out a gully in the top of a short piece of timber and slotted the fountainhead in it. We extended the extra height around the corner a bit to give it a more finished look and topped that L shape with flat capping pieces to match the rest of the pond.

We popped to the rather astonishing Pike's Waterlillies in Garforth to pick up a few plants to get us started off. That remarkable business is down a long, rough farm track which ends at a slightly chaotic looking yard and a rather dilapidated house. Chickens and a dog came to investigate us as we got out of the car. There was a scruffy looking long green house filled with big bathtubs of plants.  To the side of the farm buildings were two massive ponds - almost lakes - completely covered in flowering waterlilies. I've never seen anything like it. Mark said the buildings looked like somewhere the serial killer stored heads in a crime drama, which looked incongruous next to the amazing display of waterlilies and bulrushes.

The bloke was very helpful and informative (and nothing like a serial killer). We chose some rushes - both dwarf and full size - and a deep pink waterlily as well as a pile of oxygenating plants.  To fetch the latter, he pulled on some waders and headed into one of the lakes to yank up a potful.
We only got a few plants because we were conscious of rising costs and that with luck the rushes would spread in the spring. We can afford to bide our time getting the pond established.

With a few plants and the pond wired for lights and water feature, we were all set for the kids to return home from Spain.

Ta Da!

Illuminated rill

The view from the deck as I have my cuppa
Since those photos were taken I've built an exit ramp of river stones into the corner against the fence and the deck railing so any beasties falling in can clamber out again. I used 2 upturned crates to make a shallow shelf. I put some transplanted dwarf rushes on the new shelf and covered any visible bits with the stones. Then I piled more stones in a slope from the shelf up to the capping sleeper.

We've added a couple more plants donated by my good friend Andy and introduced a few fish now  the water has had a few weeks to settle in.  They're busy scoffing the bugs and larvae whilst keeping out of reach of the cats' paws. Ferris Mewler and Isaac Mewton are VERY interested in the new occupants!

Come next spring we'll add more waterlilies and hope all the plants grow and spread.  As the pond is south facing and isn't obscured by any trees we hope for loads and loads of waterlily flowers.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Please sir, may I have S'more?

Last night, having broken Sober September for a bottle of prosecco, I rashly agreed my middle child could have two mates for a sleepover tonight. Discovering this heinous betrayal this morning, Miss B was incandescent with outrage. "He has sleepovers ALL THE TIME. That's SO unfair!" She has a point - some weekends we barely see Zach for sleepovers, or his room is filled with sleeping bags.

As it turned out, one of his mates couldn't come. But the other could - the one whose younger sister is a big mate of Miss B's. At a stroke I could make her happy and give my lovely mates Kirsty and John a child-free night. So I did.

A chance comment of B's reminded me I had nothing in for snacks.  I had foolishly established a 'Midnight Feast' tradition for sleepovers many years back.  That translates to snacks in bed  - usually eaten within 10 minutes of bedtime rather than late at night - and is a crucial part of the fun of a sleepover.

It's raining. I'm wearing not-suitable-for-viewing-by-other-humans clothing (old stained T shirt, long comfy skirt in jersey, no bra because I hate the uncomfortable things). I've been doing stuff in the kitchen, so the Tshirt is more water and ingredient splattered than normal. I am NOT popping to the shops.  So I rooted around in the kitchen and online for ingredients and inspiration respectively.

I decided to try a bar tray bake based on S'mores.  The recipe I saw was here. But I don't have graham crackers, I don't have digestive biscuits (the usual UK replacement) and I repeat I am NOT popping to the shops in this outfit. Or in this rain. Heck, I don't have chocolate chips either (used them all up earlier in the week) but I have a bar of chocolate I can smash up.

My kids love shortbread. I figured shortbread was worth trying as a graham cracker replacement. It works for millionaire's shortbread and at least one of my offspring thinks that's the pinnacle of baking. Here's the recipe I usually use :

  • 250g butter
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 50g corn flour
  • 200g plain flour
Cream the butter and sugar until nearly white, add the cornflour and plain flour and combine thoroughly.  

You can use damp hands to roll it into balls and squash them into biscuits, form it into a sausage wrapped in cling film and popped in the fridge until you slice circles off to bake as and when, mix in chocolate chips or fruit zest or poppy seeds and make flavoured biscuits. Or, in this case, press the dough into the base of a lined tray. mid was 23cm square (9 inches in old money)

Bake at 180 until done - usually about 13-15 minutes for biscuits, more like 20-odd for a tray bake. Then I pulled the shortbread out and turned the oven off.

I let the shortbread cool for a couple of minutes while I turned the grill on high. I sprinkled enough mini-marshmallows to mostly cover the base and popped it under the grill for a couple of minutes. Keep an eye on it if you try this - it can burn really quickly.

I battered the hell out of 100g of dark chocolate and sprinkled the bits over the toasted marshmallows. Back it went into the oven where the residual heat melted the chocolate over a few minutes. Then I left it to cool.

Incidentally, the corn flour makes shortbread crisper while remaining buttery. I like that in shortbread but if you prefer your a little softer reduce it or leave it out.

When it came time to sample the results, I found no shortage of volunteers.  The bars were lovely! Mark pointed out the shortbread was a little over baked. I'd left it in an extra 5 minutes because I was concerned about the centre being undercooked and the marshmallows making it gooey. I needn't have worried, 18-22 minutes would have been fine.
I'm sure there were more than that a minute ago

The visiting mates are here, the pull-out beds are made up, we're all set for Doctor Who tonight and we have shortbread s'mores. What more could a Saturday night offer?

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Saturday Swap Shop

Thanks to numerous events and our habit of living high off the hog whenever we do have money, we are going through a pretty skint patch. All the accounts are near empty except for the ones that are actually overdrawn. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it tends to be this time of year that we're checking the sides of the couch for loose change. So, time to tighten our belts, pull our horns in, cut our coat according to our cloth and other metaphors.

First job was to declare it Sober September.  I flipping loathe Sober September. At our house there is always wine with dinner (and often wine after as well.) Dinner seems a bit, well, sad without an accompanying glass of wine. However, there's no money for wine so we must do without.  Luckily there's all that lovely seville orange gin I made back in January, so I can have a G&T every now and again without spending money. (75p a bottle of cheap unbranded tonic is within the budget).  Mark - a far more disciplined person who coincidentally doesn't like gin - has had one pint of beer at his mate's birthday bash and otherwise abstained entirely. Most laudable.
Coming in handy
Next up was cutting back the amount we spend on food.

First came changing where I shop. We had some vouchers for Tesco and Waitrose. By choosing carefully from each store and only spending the minimum amount to get the £13 and £15 off I got the staples for less than I'd usually spend. Waitrose is a bit more expensive than the other supermarkets but not £15 more, so it still worked out cheaper.
For perishables, Leeds Market is much better in my experience. I bought great bags of cheap veg and cooked them straight away, freezing all the extra portions. I swapped cod for coley and made fish pies, got ricotta on offer and made cannelloni. I bought frozen broccoli and cauliflower rather than fresh so I could use what I wanted without having some to throw away.  I bought meat from the 'Use by today' section and Mark cooked it straight away in lasagnes to fill the freezer. (Quorn lasagne for me. I don't eat meat.) Some slightly sad looking veg in the cupboard became a great vat of vegetable soup. I love soup.

This is all obvious stuff. Why don't I do it all the time?  I guess because it takes time to think of the cheaper meals, there is more prep work involved and more visits to different shops to get the lowest price.  When you can afford it, it's just so easy to grab a ready meal curry or some take away on a tired and busy night.

However, having filled the freezer with meals I think I can avoid that particular lazy urge. Just bung them in the oven for 45 minutes and dinner is all taken care of - Yay!

Another expenditure is clothes. Over the summer my 2 pairs of cropped jeans and one pair of regular jeans got holes too big to patch. I am short on long sleeve tops and I just can't resist a maxi dress of 5.

I got an email from Monsoon advertising their 20% off day. I love Monsoon dresses. They really suit me.  I popped into the shop when I was in town anyway and tried on clothes with the idea I'd put them on one side for the 20% off day to save money.  This was a mistake. I ended up with three dresses I just loved, and was halfway to convincing myself it would be a great idea to buy them. The nice assistant put them behind the counter for me. Then I went to the cash machine to check on my finances.

Looking at the (lack of) balances, it hit me that 20% off is still 80% on. I might like to kid myself I was spending wisely by doing it on a discount day, but I was still spending.  I told the salesperson not to hold the dresses. I felt VERY glum.

Then lovely helpful Twitter came to the rescue. Someone's list of things to do on the weekend included a clothes swap in the city centre. I never bother with clothes swaps. As a plus size woman (ok, fat) I never find stuff in my size. Charity shops are similarly useless. But this clothes swap was only for size 16 and above. Worth a punt? At the very least I would clear out a few things in the cupboard I never wear.

I was quite nervous about going. I wished I had a mate to go along with me. What if everything was too small? Or it was a club I was gatecrashing? Or I hated everything? Or everyone hated what I brought? Or I was too damned old for the clothes.  But as my Very Excellent Mate Alison pointed out, I'm supposed to be Fearlessly Attempting things. Onwards to the swap...

I must admit, it was not the most welcoming building. The door was only half open and the interior looked dark and uninviting.
I went into a small, rather basic looking bar, through a door at the back and into what I assume was originally a cellar or storage room. No windows, exposed brickwork, slightly damp smelling. No mirror (major oversight) nor changing room (we used the disabled loo). I remained nervous.

I was welcomed in by a very friendly pair of women in their 20s, paid my £1 entry fee and told to help myself to anything I wanted on the trestle tables.
There was loads of stuff. A table of dresses, two of tops, two of trousers and skirts. The sizes I saw ranged from 16 to 28, and more stuff was arriving all the time as new people came in.  I put out my contributions  and got rummaging.

Within 15 minutes I'd got a pair of cropped jeans that fit perfectly; a pair of bootleg jeans that need a belt or a tuck in the waistband; a casual dress/tunic that needs some repair but felt super comfortable to me; a lovely red linen maxi dress I felt marvellous in.

2 perfect things, 2 things that need very little doing to make them suitable. All for £1 and some clothes that were just taking up space in the far reaches of my cupboard.
ta da!

Take that, Monsoon!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

More Power!

Yesterday I got loads of apples from next door's apple tree. Today I wanted to make apple sauce with them.  Obviously the first job is to peel the apples.

This can be a pretty straightforward and quick job. Grab an apple in one hand, the peeler in the other and get to it. But why do it sensibly if you can mess about and make a colossal mess?

I saw someone use an electric drill to peel an apple on YouTube once. Despite my power tool aversion, it just looked too fun not to try. So here I am, fearlessly attempting it:

My daft and apple-strewn experience suggests a steady rate of rotation, an apple of a nice even shape (rather than a lumpy windfall one) and a good sharp peeler would make a huge amount of difference to the outcome. I had none of these. My first attempts resulted in apple juice and chunks of peel shooting pretty much everywhere, but it settled down after a couple of goes.

I wouldn't recommend it as a smart and efficient way to peel apples, but I STRONGLY recommend it was an entertaining way to try.

Once the apples were peeled, cored and chopped I cooked them down to a puree to which I added sugar and a small dash of cinnamon. That apple sauce went inside triangles of puff pastry painted with egg wash and granulated sugar to make apple turnovers.  Then I used a further 2 cups of it to make some lovely apple sauce muffins. The recipe is here, although I swapped walnuts for pecans because I much prefer pecans.  The recipe filled 27 large muffin cases. I'll pop most of them in the freezer to grab as lunch box treats for the kids, but a good few didn't make it off the cooling rack. They were so good I couldn't resist...

Summer memories

This summer started off with sunshine and happiness.  We had a wonderful family day out at Bolton Abbey, full of tree climbing, splashing in a river and eating ice creams.
It was so warm, happy and picturesque I felt like we were living a scene from Swallows and Amazons or Five Go Adventuring Somewhere Crime-Free.

A couple of days later we went to one of our favourite places: Chester Zoo. Part of our picnic lunch for this particular visit - at least for Zach and I  - was some lovely ripe melon. I think this had a large part to play in what happened next.

We headed into Luke's favourite part of the zoo, the Bat House. I always have to brace myself for entering it because the smell is appalling. I follow the advice of the bloke from Neal's Yard cheese shop of taking some big gulping breathes on the grounds I'll get used to it in 30 seconds. This never happens. The whole time I'm there I feel my nose is being assaulted. However, bats are cool and Luke is cooler, so I go in every time.

There is a little tunnel in the Bat House where hideous things like blind cave fish are kept. As we came out of it, Zach said there were loads of little bats whizzing around him. Luke dismissed this as the wishful thinking of someone mistaking the air movement caused by the larger bats and pooh-poohed the idea. However, standing near Zach very still for a while showed he was right.  Tiny fruit bats were circling his legs. As we all stood still they circled us as well and started to land on our fingertips. They were particularly keen on Zach and me. Several nibbled our fingers before flitting off again.  It was utterly remarkable. We stayed for a good 15 minutes in the centre of this colony of wheeling bats.

As we left the Bat House and washed our hands, I remembered the ripe melon. I suspect the melon juice on our fingers attracted the bats once we were still enough for them to approach us. Knowing Zach, I am pretty sure he'd have wiped his hands on his shorts, too, hence them starting by circling his legs.

The rest of the day was fun as usual. I happened to be at the Giraffe House (my favourites - such beautiful eyes!) as they were getting their evening meal and enjoyed watching them run in. With such long legs they look like they are going in slow motion while moving very quickly. It's surreal. The keeper told me some new stuff about them - personalities, a possible pregnancy etc - which only reinforced my opinion that all zoo workers are lovely people.

The kids had a week at the grandparents' houses, swapping about a bit between them and generally having a wonderfully indulged time. They never miss us while they are away. This either means they are secure and happy or that we're just rubbish.  Pollyanna soul that I am, I'm choosing the former. Sad thoughts? La La La I can't hear you!

While they were away, some entitled soul smashed a side window in our front hall and snatched my handbag. This has caused more flipping effort than you would believe. It's astonishing how much stuff I keep in the handbag I use every day. It's not just the cash and the debit cards, it's all the other gear. Kids' library cards, gift cards, stamps, repeat prescription, Oyster card for London trips, photos of the kids and of my Dad as a toddler (I found it in my grandmother's things when she died and liked it.) Useful numbers, loyalty cards, a couple of tiny souvenirs that make me happy when I see them. Most of the make-up I use regularly. Indeed, I am mostly bereft of make-up as it appears I just shove everything in my handbag and apply it using the living room mirror. I lost 6 lipsticks amongst all the other stuff, which is VERY annoying.

Anyway, a good few days were chewed up by dealing with the police, crime scene team, insurance company, glaziers, and every single company I had a card with. My 'free week' felt a lot less free.

Fortunately, one of the highlights of my year occurred on the Friday - the annual trip to RHS Tatton with my Very Excellent Mate SJ. SJ is one of the most ace people I know. Unfortunately, my kids share that opinion so it can be very hard to have an uninterrupted talk when they are in the vicinity.  Tatton is our luxury - a full day looking at garden things, having a picnic and a damned good chat.

We got dressed up for Ladies' Day this year. Here we are reflected in chrome panels flanking one of the show gardens -
I am crediting my dress and the fancy hat thing I borrowed from my friend Kirsty for the fact that SJ and I were invited into one of the show gardens to sit in a remarkable globe chair I'd admired. Stepping over the barrier, I felt like royalty. Or Monty Don, which for gardeners seems to be the same thing. It was great fun.

On the Sunday Mark and I celebrated our 20th anniversary. Or 10th, depending how you count.  We spent the wedding money on the deposit for a house 20 years ago. Ever since then we've counted the day we moved in as our anniversary - other people had a wedding; we lived in ours.  On our 10th anniversary we went to the registry office with SJ and her partner Rich and got married. (We picked that date so there would be no confusion over when our true anniversary is.)
My idealistic feminism may reject the patriarchal institution of marriage but my pragmatic self wants access to Mark's pension and for him to have rights over the boys (they were born before the law about unmarried parents changed.) So, we think it's our 20th anniversary this year but other people might think 10th.

My lovely parents had the kids to allow us to go to London overnight. We ate a refined and delicious lunch at Rowley Leigh's Cafe Anglais on Sunday (Mark arranged it with himself in mind) and saw the truly wonderful Boyhood by Richard Linklater in the evening. We cried, we smiled, we were charmed beyond words. I do recommend it wholeheartedly.

The next day we went to the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern. Mark bought me a Matisse lithograph for my 40th birthday - made during his lifetime and overseen by the man himself. We didn't know the original would be included in the exhibition as it is in private hands. It was - hurray! And WOW is it ever massive! I was thrilled to see it in the flesh, so to speak.  The whole exhibition was marvellous.

We had lunch at Bocca di Lupo (which Mark arranged with me in mind. I think Italian is the best of all types of food) which was utterly amazing. If you ever get the opportunity to go, I urge you to order a granita cocktail. I had the Bramble - gin, lemon, blackberry liquor - and Mark had the Bloody Mimosa - blood orange juice and prosecco. It was a good job the food was so amazing; in any other restaurant those cocktails would have been the highlight of the experience.

Back home we had a day divided between the den building event in town and the free Breeze festival, which involved me, the kids and a whole pile of their friends.  I used my Christmas vouchers for a patisserie day at Betty's (just fabulous). We had a big get-together with many of my Very Excellent mates and their families that ended with 16 people sleeping in our house. There was barely a patch of floor not covered in sleeping bags.

Miss B spent 16 days in Spain with her uncle and cousins. The lads joined her after a week, travelling with my parents. While they were at home without her we nipped off to watch Guardians of the Galaxy - top fun. We also had the highlight of Zach's whole summer: meeting the author of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels. Bryan Lee Scott was touring to promote his new graphic novel, Seconds. It's a more mature story; very much a novel that happens to be told in pictures rather than a comic. Bryan was a lovely bloke, very friendly and encouraging. Meeting him, getting an autograph and a photo with him put Zach in a giddy, euphoric mood for days.  He even enjoyed queueing for 2 hours to be at the front of the line because talking to the people in the queue "was like finding my people, Mummy!" 

While the lads and B were away Mark and I were very busy on our summer project. I'll post all about that in the next little while.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Lost for Words

It's been about 7 weeks since I last posted on this blog, and even that was a pretty brief one.  That's far too long.  However, despite having heaps to tell you all about, I've not been able to blog for ages.
I lost my words.

I don't mean I lost my actual voice (which wouldn't affect typing anyway) nor that I had some weird amnesiac moment.  I just couldn't find the right words to say anything I wanted to.  I'd type a sentence or two and then backspace through it. I'd compose partial paragraphs in my head and reject them. All my lovely words, my playthings and sparkly jewels, just wouldn't come. Expressing myself became more about frustrated shrugs and gestures as my sentences tailed off. I couldn't do light fluffy banter, I couldn't talk about big and true things either. I was a stilted, stifled imitation of myself.

I didn't like it at all.

My reading was affected too. No more long, new novels for me; it was all graphic novels and re-reading.  I couldn't face anything else. Great pages of words to keep in my head - I couldn't do it.  I needed few, or those I knew nearly by heart.

I read 8 volumes of the Fables graphic novels - fairy tale characters living in the real world, good fun. I asked my local comic book shop for examples of female-led titles that wouldn't drive me nuts with misogyny and they suggested Captain Marvel #1 and Pretty Deadly, both of which I quite liked. Before taking the lads to meet the man himself I read the truly wonderful Seconds by Bryan Scott Lee (of Scott Pilgrim fame). It's super.

Other than that, I read Regency romances by Georgette Heyer. Do you know them?  They are my reading equivalent of a hot water bottle and bar of chocolate. I am having to replace some of them as the bindings have fallen apart too badly to repair.  Normally I read one or two over the past 6 weeks of summer I read:

  • Arabella
  • Bath Tangle
  • Black Sheep
  • Charity Girl
  • Cotillion (one of my favourites. Had to bin my copy when I finished it because it was in 8 pieces, and have ordered another)
  • Frederica (Absolute top favourite)
  • Lady of Quality
  • Sprig Muslin
  • Sylvester
  • The Grand Sophie (one unpleasantly antisemitic scene but otherwise ace)
  • The Nonesuch
  • The Reluctant Widow
  • The Toll-Gate
I was in danger of speaking in the slang of upper class Regency gentlemen and ladies by the end. If I threaten to draw someone's claret when they annoy me, you'll know what's to blame.

Georgette Heyer clearly opens a book of maps and gets all her names from the same few pages - Arabella, for example, had a Beaumaris, Wrexham, Flint, Wigan, Blackburn, Bolton and Morecombe amongst many - which gets a bit surreal after 6 or 7 books. And every hero and heroine seems to have grey eyes. Do you know anyone with grey eyes? I don't.

Despite the repetitions and daft quirks, I thoroughly enjoyed my Regency binge-read. Everyone was beautiful - or at least fetching - and most were charming and graceful. Gentlemen ordered their coats from Weston and their carriages from Tattersall, ladies wore a pelisse and carried a reticule. Hearts were won and lost, rough diamonds prevailed over dandies and fops, old friends became lovers and all was well. As the real world seemed harsher and I could hardly bear to hear the news on the radio, my romances gave me safe harbour.

However, I have read 3 ACTUAL novels in the last week that don't rely on illustrators nor a Corinthian raising his quizzing glass to better appreciate the Season's latest beauty. One was about the heirs of Ghengis Khan, so quite a change of pace.

I suspect I'm mostly back now. Words aren't quite the source of joy and playfulness they normally are, but I'm nearly there.