Friday, 24 June 2022 joy

I don't consider myself a 'proper' gardener. My garden is very small, untidy, overgrown and...well, just plain wild in places. I don't have the knowledge/know-how or (more importantly) physical strength to try and tame it (small though it is), so Mother Nature and I just muddle along together, and sometimes the ivy, dandelions and brambles make way for me, and sometimes they grow unchallenged for a while. I feel very protective of this little patch of land though, and whilst it may appear unkempt to my tree-felling, slab-laying, artificial-grass-loving neighbours, it's beautiful to me. At the moment there is literally nothing that makes me happier than my morning and evening rounds with the watering can, tending to my 'crops' - nibbling on delicious, crunchy mange-tout peas and gathering little handfuls of raspberries to eat with yoghurt and honey. The slugs and snails (a.k.a. The Enemy) seem to have been ever so slightly deterred by the eggshells I've been spreading around my strawberry plants - so I'm currently harvesting at least two strawberries for every one they hollow out with their thousands of microscopic teeth*. Hooray! The blueberry bushes I planted last year have started to produce fruit, and my blackberry patch is covered in flowers, but the big success story of the year is lettuce. Four different varieties in heavily fortified containers, with 'moats' and copper tape to keep The Enemy at bay - I reckon I might be self-sufficient in lettuce all summer! 

*It's true, they do have teeth, I saw it on Q.I.!
The tables outside the kitchen window are where some of the most intensive growing action takes place. The planters on top are a lot easier to tend to (less bending), and a little easier to patrol - it was my (sadly mistaken) belief that very few of The Enemy would be willing to make the climb to get to them. Turns out it's actually the most determined/elite specimens that ascend to the summit, and they don't just pose for a photo and head back down once they do. I'm trying to abide by a 'live and let live' policy with The Enemy, but it's hard to show mercy when they munch through entire crops of seedlings in the space of just one if they're captured on the table top they get lobbed as far away as I can muster - usually into the ivy on top of the garage*. Currently growing in this area are mange-tout peas, chives, sage, lettuce and tomato seedlings, some sweet peas, a rogue foxglove and a wonderfully flamboyant nasturtium plant, which is spreading like wildfire.  

*Yes, I know this is ultimately a futile gesture, as (a) they have a 20 metre radius homing instinct, and (b) I throw like a girl. It just makes me feel better to think that I've ruined their day.
The nasturtium and an accidental poppy that appeared in one of the blueberry pots have been the floral highlights of my summer so far. I really can't decide which I love more. Nasturtiums make me incredibly nostalgic because my Mum always had them growing in the garden, wherever we were living, but this is a particularly magnificent poppy, standing around three feet tall and simply covered in buds. I can never seem to grow poppies on purpose, so I make sure to really appreciate them when they arrive by chance. I think this one may have been 'planted' by a bird, as it's directly below one of my bird-feeders. 
Speaking of birds, this is 'Girlie', a very tame female blackbird who comes and calls for meal worms every morning, sitting on the fence, or the extension roof, saying "Bip! Bip! Bip!" until I  give her her breakfast. She is quite unperturbed by me moving around nearby, watering the pots or having a cup of tea on the bench. This gives her a decided advantage over the other birds (mostly sparrows at the moment) who watch impatiently from the hedge until I go inside or move further away.
When I looked more closely at the photo below, of the windowsill birds and the nasturtium flowers, I realised that it also captured Girlie sitting on the fence, and the little red dot of the accidental poppy in the distance. Simple pleasures - garden joy!

Monday, 6 June 2022

...postcards from Alnmouth

We booked four nights away in a cottage in Alnmouth earlier this year, before my Dad's heart attack happened, and were due to depart just two days after he came out of hospital. At one point I was thinking of cancelling our plans, but as luck would have it, my sister had the same week off work, and was keen to come for a visit - she lives 200 miles away, so can't just pop round the corner for a cuppa like I can. She suggested that she could stay at our house while we were away, meaning we could have a reasonably worry-free break, knowing she was there to help/support and generally keep an eye on things. It was the perfect solution!

So we headed North, past the Angel at Gateshead...  

...arriving at Alnmouth in the late afternoon, where we quickly unloaded the car and headed for the beach. Alnmouth perches on the side of the estuary where the River Aln meets the sea, and the river runs across the beach for some distance, almost dividing it in two when the tide is out. There are signs warning against paddling or bathing in the river as it is too fast-flowing - so if (like me) you enjoy the feeling of bare feet on sand and the invigorating sensation of chilly North Sea waves lapping at your toes, you have to walk along the beach for a while to get it!

The following morning we set off up the beach again, following a 4.7 mile circular route from the Andrew's Walks website. I was fascinated by the weathered wooden groynes halfway along the beach, which had been sculpted and coloured by sand and salt-water over time.
There were some wonderfully menacing dark clouds overhead, and the heavens opened just after we turned off the beach, so we sheltered under some trees until the rain blew over...
...the second half of the walk took us inland, with views of the River Aln meandering through the fields and glorious blue skies overhead. We did get very wet at the end of the walk, when (having discarded a few layers in the sunshine) we were caught in a torrential downpour of rain and hail only minutes from the door of the cottage, but that just made a lazy afternoon snuggled up indoors seem all the more rewarding.
The next day we crossed over the Aln and walked along the coastal footpath to the beach on the other side of the estuary, with lovely views of Alnmouth behind us.The track we took through the sand dunes was beautiful, literally carpeted with buttercups, daisies, pink stork's-bill and blue speedwell flowers. I've been listening to Anne of Green Gables on Audible when I can't get to sleep at night, and couldn't help wondering what fanciful name she would have given it - 'The Path of Tiny Blossoms', perhaps?!
The beach was completely deserted - like Robinson Crusoe, ours were the only footprints in the sand. We walked south, facing into a very brisk wind, until the sand scouring our faces got too gritty to bear, then took refuge in the dunes to eat our sandwiches and gaze out to sea for a while. Sheer heaven.
We retraced our steps along the Path of Tiny Blossoms and back over the river, taking a slightly different route 'home' along the side of the estuary and then up through the village for another well-earned afternoon snooze on the settee!
On our last full day we took the bus into Alnwick in the morning, had a mooch around the shops and market stalls, called in at the famous Barter Books shop, and shared an enormous slab of chocolate brownie with a couple of cappuccinos at a little cafe on Narrowgate. In the afternoon we walked off the brownie (or at least some of it) during a final stroll along the beach, pausing to take even more photos of the beautiful wooden groynes.
Before setting off for home on the last day it would have been crazy not to take a short (17 miles) detour up the coast to my very favourite St Aidan's beach at Seahouses - I love it so much that it made me cry with happiness to be there, as wildly over the top as that probably sounds! There is just something wonderful about the spaciousness of it, the blueness of the sky, the wide, pale, reflective beach. Often I become mesmerised by patterns in the sand or seeing what the tide has left behind, but on this morning the wind was erasing our footsteps as we walked, and the beach had been swept clean of all but a few scraps of seaweed and the occasional pebble or shell.
The wind was blowing dry sand across the beach in hypnotic rippling patterns like water - incredibly beautiful to watch. Here is a brief snippet of video:
I'm including this final photo because it functions as an optical illusion puzzle (for me, anyway). The circular shapes are lugworm holes - perfect concave circles sunk into the sand - but my brain keeps 'reading' them as convex (nipple-like!) shapes protruding from the sand. I really struggle to see them as holes, even though I know that's what they are - and even when I briefly succeed in seeing a hole they seem to switch to nipples before my very eyes! Most peculiar...or is it just me?!

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

...when May went West

May started quite well.
[Although not for the XXSCat Dog,
who had all her floofy fur cut off,
and had to curl herself up in a little tight ball,
with all four paws tucked in,
to stay warm]...
...I finished the crazy psychedelic painting for the special 'Thank You' card...

...plugged away at my #100grannies100days squares...
...made a cupboard for the mouse house,
to ease my nerves,
whilst overhead, on the flat roof,
a couple of agile workmen
tore up the old roof and laid down a new one,
finally making us watertight again...
...the woods filled with bright green leaves,
purple Honesty, 
and Queen Anne's Lace...
...inspiring a fresh 'batch' of daily squares...

...and then everything changed in a heart-beat,
when my Dad came in from the sunny garden, 
looking grey, 
with pain in his chest, 
spreading down his arms.

My Mum phoned me,
and I said "Phone an ambulance!", 
then hurried round to wait with them.

Two nice young paramedics arrived,
quicker than predicted,
checked him over, 
and took him straight to hospital.

Bloody Covid.

He had to wait alone for twelve hours,
sitting by himself, 
in a cubicle in A&E,
until a bed became available 
in the acute cardiology ward.

Almost miraculously we brought him home
just three nights later,
with only minor damage to his heart,
and a list of medications as long as his arm.
We are all a bit shaken up, 
our hearts bruised but thankfully not broken,
and all so very glad
that my lovely Dad
is still with us.

Monday, 25 April 2022

...grannies galore

My 100 Day Project (#100grannies100days) is doing nothing to curb my crochet enthusiasm. During days 26-50 I worked on a series of spring-coloured squares that I thought could potentially be made into a baby blanket (if the right baby comes along)...
...then during days 51-62 I worked on a series of 12 squares inspired by Kandinsky's 'Squares with Concentric Circles' (which he almost certainly painted with granny squares in mind). I enjoyed this bit of the project so much I could hardly bear to limit myself to just one square a day! Each square consisted of four rings of colour within a square border. Sticking to three rings of treble crochet and one ring of half treble crochet per square allowed me to vary the thickness of the bands of colour, and I added embroidered (chain stitch) rings when four colours weren't enough... 
...I had so much fun trying to replicate the different squares. I couldn't match Kandinsky's original colours all that accurately because I was just using up yarn I already had, and I  wasn't a massive fan of those clashing reds and yellows either...
...but I absolutely love the finished set. Again, not sure what to use them for - a cushion cover, perhaps, or a bag - I'm sure an idea will present itself eventually.
Next came a new pattern trial (the 'Compass') and a series of six squares in more soothing 'clematis' colours for days 63-68. I joined these into a strip as I went, thinking they'd make a groovy headband/ear-warmer (it's still quite chilly in April when the sun's not out). However, after a style consultation with my husband and daughter, it was decided that I haven't yet achieved the level of eccentricity required to pull this look off, so I will probably just make a few more and turn the headband into a cowl instead. One should always know one's limits!
Day 69 was a one-off square - the 'African Flower with 8 Petals' - which went a bit wonky because I got the tension of the longer spike stitches too tight...
...and days 70-71 have seen the trial of another new pattern - the 'Sunburst Granny Square' - which I tracked down a tutorial for here. I was thinking that I might finish up the 100 days making a scarf using all my favourite blues and purples, but the puff stitches in Round 2 of this square have driven me absolutely insane, so I might need to keep looking for the perfect pattern - maybe this one  or this one or this one
When I'm not working on my daily square, or combing the internet searching for the next pattern to try, I'm reluctantly creeping towards the end of the Rose Cottage blanket I've been making for my daughter. I'm half way round the final row of the border edging, and I'm eking it out for as long as I can - I'll be lost without its lap-warming companionship in the evenings, not to mention my daughter's companionship when she moves into Rose Cottage - possibly at some point in June if the stars (and solicitors) align in her favour...
...and when I've completely exhausted my daily round of crochet-related activities, I've also been working on a couple of card commissions. I've just completed a 'Leaving' card for a cycle-loving, Everton-supporting colleague at my old workplace (slightly edited here to remove some personal details)...
...and I'm midway through another design for a special 'Thankyou' card...  
...which is just at the awkward 'is this going to work or do I need to scrap it and start again' stage. One thing's for sure - I've got granny squares on the brain! Just look at those concentric circles of colour. This design might not make a good card, but it would certainly make a lovely crocheted blanket!

Friday, 1 April 2022

...Marching on

  • I continued with my 100 Day Project, one square at a time, channeling poppies and primulas, daisies and forget-me-nots...
...then adding in some stripey squares for contrast. I'm still not sure what to do with them - make a baby blanket perhaps? I'm currently on Day 47 and thinking about a change of direction at Day 50, so maybe I'll wait 'til the project is finished and then decide!
...and more natural scenery. The goat willows were just starting to come into flower, bright silver buds swelling into almost irridescent yellow-green honeycomb shoots before bursting into blossom where the sun shone brightest.
  • We always buy pots of live flowers for my mother and mother-in-law on Mother's Day, so that they can enjoy them for longer, planted out in the garden. These stunners were our choice this year - my husband chose a big pot of the purple-and-white ones for his Mum, and I went with two smaller pots of the pink-and-white and plain purple ones for mine. The photos really don't do justice to the rich, vibrant colours of these flowers - they were eye-poppingly gorgeous!
  • Our central heating boiler broke down towards the end of the month, and it took over a week to be repaired. The first half of the week we were blessed with mild Spring weather - blue skies and sunshine - but we had sleet, snow and freezing cold winds to contend with for the last few days, and it was pretty miserable indoors and out. The XXSCat dog chose one of those final Wintery days to have a comprehensive roll in fox poo at the park, and had to endure the indignity of an improvised bucket bath in the back garden. To be honest, she was lucky I didn't just throw her in the lake!
  • I bought some cheap and cheerful seeds and propagator trays from the Central Aisle of Joy at Aldi, and I am so excited to see them growing - some of them almost visibly - every day. The photo below is the current vista over my miniature fields. Lettuce in the foreground, then spinach, beetroot and carrots. I'm very inexperienced with growing vegetables/salad, so this may be as good as my farming adventure gets, but a girl can dream...

Monday, 14 March 2022

...Bulb Watch and other activities

Over the past couple of years I've been investing in bulbs - building my own personal hedge fund, you could say! When we first moved into this house we inherited a few clumps of snowdrops, a little patch of bluebells, and an ocean of montbretia. For a long time I simply sat back and enjoyed the modest annual returns, the slow but incremental growth. My portfolio began to expand when I started planting occasional Christmas present hyacinth bulbs into outdoor pots after they'd finished flowering indoors, and realised that (in spite of being totally neglected and ravaged by slugs throughout the year) they were making regular returns. Eventually this emboldened me to diversify further, investing cautiously - just one or two little pots per year - in daffodils, crocuses and muscari. Last week I conducted an informal performance review, and discovered that these modest investments have really started to pay dividends:
All these beautiful flowers had emerged from the soil as if by magic - with zero input/effort from Yours Truly! Bulbs really are the gift that keeps on giving.

The most recent additions (cheap and cheerful from Aldi in February) are some perfect butter-cream yellow crocuses...

...and some slowly unfurling magenta tulips, planted in an improvised raised bed made from the top half of a ceramic pot which had cracked completely in two this winter but was too pretty to throw away. The soil in this bit of the garden is quite poor (lots of tree/ivy roots) so this provides them with a little more growing depth, and a visual reminder of where I've planted them!
I think all these Spring flowers have been subliminally influencing my colour choices in the granny squares I've been making for #the100dayproject. 
I'm now nearly a third of the way through the project, and I've adapted it slightly this week. I originally planned to make 100 different squares over the 100 days, but by Day 25 I was starting to run out of patterns I liked the look of or wanted to try. I'd consolidated my knowledge of the basic stitches, learned some new tricks (bobbles, clusters and popcorns), tried my hand at some fancy 3D effects, and generally improved my technique, so I decided to focus on colour work instead, and stick to variations on the same pattern for the next 25 days. The Spring vibe is even more pronounced in these squares:
I'm currently thinking of combining them to make a scarf or cowl - after all, my self-imposed ban on handmade neckwear specifically refers to knitted items  - no-one said anything about crochet!

In other news, I've expanded my Wiksten top collection with this little number...
.. made from upcycled second-hand curtains from my favourite charity shop! 100% cotton, a hard-wearing but lightweight canvas-like fabric, and  an absolute bargain at £5 for a tunic-length top with at least a metre or more left over as well. Matching tunic and cushion covers anyone?! If I ever get to the point in my sewing career where I feel the urge to make a test garment/toile, I could even use the poly-cotton lining fabric up too! This top makes me so happy. I love the bold, colourful fabric, and the comfortable, practical garment it's been turned into, but it also pleases me to have put a discarded item to good use and donated to charity too. It's a win-win situation all round.

Something that made me less happy (at least until it was finally finished) was this little knitted baby rabbit - a birthday gift for my mother-in-law: 
The pattern designer, Claire Garland, is amazingly talented. Her patterns are available here - and they are so cleverly constructed and lifelike, they blow my mind. I just wish I'd gone for the Baby Bunny pattern rather than the Teeny Tiny Bunny pattern, because she wasn't kidding about the teeny tiny part. To get an idea of the level of teeny-tinyness, those are forget-me-not flowers in the picture above, and we all know how teeny tiny they are! Less than perfect eyesight, slightly arthritic fingers and working with mohair and laceweight yarn held together on small-gauge needles - I felt like I was losing the will to live by the time I'd got to the ears, with their two teeny tiny ear lining sections per ear! At one particularly fiddly stage (possibly picking up six stitches along one side of a teeny-tiny leg hole) I must confess I let out an actual roar of frustration...but just look at the clever shaping of those baby rabbit haunches...
...and that baby rabbit head! It is adorable. Look how snugly it curls up in a tissue-paper-covered houmous pot bed! Surely it was worth the hours of painstaking fumbling? 
Nope. I'd encourage anyone to buy any of Claire's designs - you're guaranteed to get a brilliant pattern, with clear, well-illustrated, step-by-step instructions, and the finished result may well be delightful - but I will never make a teeny tiny bunny ever again!