Duke of York

I have gone with Duke of York for my new potatoes again this year. Despite initial reservations they were delicious last year, and much better than the Charlottes I tried the year before, which are always so nice from the shops but were thick-skinned and tasteless when I tried to grow them. Our windowsills are full of chitting potatoes, or “chatting”, which is what Wren misheard, and is a funny thought.

We have had a frosty, sunny spell here, which has been lovely. My favourite sort of winter weather. The mild, damp is set to return however. It was already on the turn on this morning’s bike ride. A light, icy rain speckled my glasses making it almost impossible to see where I was going without multiple stops to wipe them on my trouser legs. As I cycled back through Exeter’s historic quay I caught a whiff of freshly-baked goodies from the bakery based down there. It spurred me on home with thoughts of breakfast.

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Picture Books 2019

In my fit of gardening optimism, Finch and I went to the allotment to clean the greenhouse at the weekend. Okay, it didn’t go quite like that. I cleaned the greenhouse and Finch made obstacle courses for woodlice in the soil. Then Storm Brendan blew in and it seemed the best thing to do might be to snuggle up in the warm with a good book. Cue my annual tradition: my round up of the picture books we were bought, given, or borrowed in 2019 and LOVED. 

Last year we enjoyed Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zummer’s collaboration on the fold-out book The Street Beneath My Feet. This year we have loved Yuval’s solo outing The Big Book of the Blue (pictured above) exploring the creatures who live under the sea. This has been most relished by Finch and my dad who have spent hours together pouring over the pages, exploring the details. It’s full of fun facts too which are simply pitched so that Finch has been able to sound out the sentences himself.

The Tide (pictured above) is by my lovely friend Clare Helen Welsh (I’m not biased at all!) and illustrated by Ashling Lindsay. It explores the topic of dementia through the eyes of a little girl whose grandfather is losing his memory. His memory is like the Tide, “sometimes near and close and full of life. Other times, far away and distant.” It’s a gentle introduction to a difficult subject which is only going to affect more and more of us. Deservedly, it won the North Somerset Teacher’s Award last year.

Six Dinner Sid (pictured above) by Inga Moore is an old classic which was around when I was a kid, and which I had to get for my lot. Sid manages to deceive the residents of Aristotle Street so that he gets six dinners a day. That is, until the fateful day when he gets a cold. It’s a brilliant story and makes Finch howl with glee at Sid’s craftiness.

The General (pictured above) by Michael Foreman and Janet Charters is another old classic about a general who learns to turn his back on war to embrace nature and beauty. Written in the midst of the cold war its message feels as appropriate as ever with all the recent sabre-rattling that’s been going on. And of course, Michael Foreman is a master-illustrator so the illustrations are just a feast for the eyes. The General is a masterclass in colour and design.

The Secret Sky Garden by Linda Sarah and Fiona Lumbers is about a little girl who creates a garden from a grey, disused car park in the city. Along the way she also makes a friend. This book has loads of great messages for children about being yourself, being positive, making room for nature in our modern lives, and building relationships. 

I’ll be honest, we got the Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield for the illustrations. It’s a similar story to Mr Big by Ed Vere but doesn’t quite manage to match Vere’s incredible sense of pacing and light touch, however the illustrations are fantastic. It’s about a bear in a forest who learns to play the piano and ends up heading off for the city where he plays to sell-out theatres. It’s all about belonging and finding your place in the world, and there can never be enough stories to help children navigate that difficult terrain.

My Two Blankets by Irena Kobold and Freya Blackwood is one we bought with Wren in mind. It came out a few years ago and is fantastic. Cartwheel is a migrant and at first she struggles to settle into her new country. Everything is so different and strange, but with the help of a new friend she begins to find her place. It’s a gorgeous book and I can’t fathom why Freya Blackwood is not better known outside her native Australia. I remember mentioning her at my Picture Hooks interview and was met with blank looks. This story is particularly apt for Wren, whose current best friend at pre-school is a little Syrian girl. The fact that neither of them speak very good English doesn’t stop them from dressing up in all sorts of finery, and clattering around looking after their dollies together. 

Looking After Daddy by Eve Coy is a sweet and tender story of a small girl ‘looking after’ her little boy, William (aka Daddy). The illustrations are stunning. It’s lovely to see more and more books like this, reflecting the reality of modern parenting. While there may not be lots of exclusively stay-at-home dads around us, I’d be pushed to name any families we know where both parents aren’t working. Certainly ‘daddy-days’ are a regular feature of my kids’ lives, especially with me working weekends. 

In Tad by Benji Davies, Big Blub is the huge, grumpy fish who lives at the bottom of the pond and Tad is the littlest tadpole. Recently Tad has noticed that there are less and less of her tadpole brothers and sisters around. Could it be anything to do with Big Blub? Tad knows she must use all her wits to stay out of Big Blub’s way until one day he finds her and chases her through the water. It’s then that Tad has to make the biggest leap of her life, right out of the pond, finally discovering where all her brothers and sisters had gone. Benji Davies has really grown into his writing from his illustration roots and this is a lovely story about being the littlest and learning how to grow up. Of course, it being Benji Davies, the illustrations are fabulous, travelling from the murky depths of the pond, to the rainbow palette of the frog-filled forest at the end.

So there we go. There’s so many wonderful books out there, we really are spoilt for choice. These are just some of the treasures we’ve enjoyed.

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Happy New Year!

The festive holidays were bookended by headlice and a stomach bug. In between I didn’t have much of a break, juggling nursing with another round of edits. Still, we had a lovely time seeing family and friends. I think we managed to get the right balance of keeping it simple, plenty of fresh air, savouring the wonder, and over-indulgence. I hope you all had a good time.

Last night Little Owl and I spotted the moon from her bedroom window as I wished her goodnight. We have been so battered by grey skies and endless rain that it felt like greeting a long-lost friend. A stack of seed catalogues landed on the doormat this week and I felt the old tingle of anticipation as I flicked through the pages. We’ve got a way to go before spring gets here but at least we’re on the right side of the solstice now.

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Merry Christmas

At the weekend we completed our annual ritual of walk in the woods, sausage sandwiches in a twinkly barn, and Christmas tree purchase from the Dartmoor Park Rangers. Once home, we put on some Christmas tunes, fired up the wood burner and set about decorating the tree. Wren helped me put up glittery poinsettia garlands in the middle room. As the low winter sun crept around the house and found it’s way in at the window, Wren looked down at her arm in amazement. Glitter from the garlands had sprinkled all over her sleeve as we had tied them in place, and it sparkled in the sunlight. She looked up at me, her eyes full of wonder and whispered, “Mummy, I’m turning into magic!”

This is me signing off for Christmas. I’ll be working with my District Nursing hat on from Saturday through to Christmas Day. The children break up on Friday. The last of their Christmas plays was today. As usual, Little Owl stood behind the tallest girl in the class so that I could see nothing of her, but could definitely hear her belting out “…so bring some right here!’

Once again, a huge and hearty thanks to all of you who keep up with my adventures on this blog, especially now that I am following new creative (and not so creative!) paths. I shall return in the new year with more posts. In the mean time, have a really wonderful Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

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As you can see Finch has been working hard on his Christmas cards. Each one has had extensive illustration work done throughout. It’s taken him a loooong time but finally they are ready to go out to his classmates.

In contrast, Big Dreamer and I will only be sending a smattering of cards this year and I feel quite torn about it. Many regular readers of this blog have kindly supported my Christmas card offerings in the past, and I love receiving Christmas cards myself, especially if they contain a bit of news. It’s a good way to stay connected with people that you would love to see more of but, in this particular season of life, it’s just not possible. Buying cards from local charities helps to support good causes, and buying from local artists helps to support small businesses too.

But, with the rising cost of postage and concerns about the environment we’ve decided that our Christmas card budget might be put to better use this year. In the past, Big Dreamer and I have worked with various hats on in the area of youth homelessness. It’s an issue we both feel particularly passionate about. Kids who have had a rough start in life through no fault of their own, often struggle to leave behind those disadvantages and successfully transition into adult life, trapped in a cycle of poverty and abuse. Many of these young people can find themselves homeless. Hostels and shelters are frightening places at the best of times, and they are places where young people can be exposed to problems we would never want our own children to witness.

Given all this, we’ve decided to donate our Christmas card budget to Centrepoint this year. Every year Centrepoint supports 10,000 16 to 25 year olds into a home and a job. They do a fantastic job, providing mentoring and support so that young people don’t just flounder once they’re off the streets. So, I hope you don’t mind receiving our Christmas greetings via a good cause this year. Happy Christmas one and all!

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Lunch break spot on my rounds this week

The rain has finally stopped, and given way to frost, ice and spectacular wintery skies. A flock of long-tailed tits flew into the garden the other morning as I hung out the washing. They gathered on the Japanese maple, chattering loudly to each other, then flew off in one motion to explore our neighbour’s crabapple tree. There is something about long-tailed tits, fluffy lollipops in jolly unison, that makes me want to laugh.

Wren was to be a star in the school nativity this week but she turned her nose up at the star costume I offered her. No, she was adamant she would be wearing the second hand angel outfit from the dressing up box. She was so adamant about this that she didn’t just wear the angel costume for the nativity but has been wearing it all week, even in bed. She was briefly stumped by the logistics of a pair of wings and her coat but that didn’t last long. She put her coat on backwards and off we went to school.

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Winter sunrise from our attic this week

I managed to catch a dry spell last week and headed to the allotment to dig up the last of my root vegetables and plant some more field beans for green manure. A little robin followed me around, pouncing on any exposed worms. Fortunately my allotment drains well but still, I hope I haven’t done more harm than good stomping around on wet soil. On the radio hanging in the green house I listened to farmers unable to drill their wheat seed into waterlogged soil, or get heavy machinery onto their sodden fields to harvest potatoes. What a wet autumn it has been. 

Despite the rain that continues to pour we have had some wonderful wintery skies here. Long shifts in my formative years means I have a peculiar fondness for the daily commute home in winter. While I still had hours left at work, I envied the trails of headlights making their way back to cosy homes accompanied by familiar voices on the radio. Now, as I head home on my nursing days, I love to catch glimpses of window-framed, back-lit domestic vignettes from the houses I pass, in the moments of growing dusk before the curtains are drawn. It makes me think of Little Grey Rabbit’s Christmas, where the animals peak in at a lit window and learn what a Christmas Party entails from the children inside the house. Of course I realise that the homes I glimpse will not always be capsules of domestic bliss, but just for a moment, looking in from the dark wet evening, they seem like glowing treasures. 

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First frost

We woke this morning to the first frost of the season, the clothes I had forgotten to bring in yesterday, frozen to the washing line. It’s a welcome change to all the rain we’ve been having. I might finally get down to the allotment this week to finish my autumn tidy up. The children ran across the sparkling grass in the park on the way to school, leaving footprint trails behind them. Finch came to walk beside me, a serious look on his face, keen to discuss his latest ideas for his letter to Father Christmas. At the weekend I drove up to family in Wales to swap presents. Back at home I start to pick out carols on my Nan’s old piano of an evening. I won’t mention the C-word just yet but it’s coming folks!

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The temperature has dropped. There are reports of snow up on the moors. I have a little scrap of thin plastic attached to my NHS issue raincoat which is supposedly a hood. It doesn’t do much to protect me from the icy rain showers as I dash between patient visits. 

Back at home Wren gives me a stern look when I pass her a dessertspoon to eat her yoghurt with.

“I want a little spoon,” she frowns.

I pick up a teaspoon but she shakes her head vehemently.

“That’s not a little spoon, that’s a small spoon. I want a little spoon.” 

I stare at her, mystified. If a teaspoon isn’t a little spoon, then what is? Wren repeats herself, speaking very slowly, as if I were the three year old.

As luck would have it, Little Owl flounces in to the kitchen at just this moment.

“Little Owl, apparently this is a small spoon, and Wren wants a little spoon,” I say, waving the teaspoon at her.

Little Owl rolls her eyes, and heads for the cutlery drawer.

This is a little spoon.” She flourishes a plastic baby spoon at me and flounces off again.

Wren nods with satisfaction. 

Who knew? It must be tough having me as a mum.

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Crackle and sputter

sparklers on bonfire night. Hannah Foley

The rain stopped and the clouds cleared just in time for our bonfire night celebrations on Saturday. We snuggled up around the fire in my mum and dad’s garden, fingers warmed by mugs of hot soup. In the distance fireworks popped and whizzed, lighting up the night sky. The children traced them along the horizon, joining in with their own glittering sparkler dance. As the evening rolled on, we hunted out the baked potatoes in their blackened foil wrappers amongst the embers, slathering on layers of butter and cheese. It was a soft evening of quiet laughter and murmured stories gathered around the flames. Somehow a fire creates a communal space in the open air where little needs to be said, sitting comfortably in each other’s presence watching the crackle and sputter.

The weather is looking good for tonight too when we will be heading to the school fireworks display. Organised by my PTA pals, it is always held after the date so as to get the cut-price fireworks left over from other displays. It’s a great occasion for the whole community to gather. The place will be rammed, and the display is guaranteed to be a perfectly choreographed spectacle of high level precision, timed to music. We will ooh and aah, and drop burger relish down our coats, before heading home for bed, smelling of gunpowder. 

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