Archive for October, 2011

October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

When you live with small children, Halloween is basically one long sugar-fest, interspersed with a bit of craft and dressing up. May I present a selection of this year’s offerings…

Bats in the kitchen…

Spider in the sitting room..

…and a pumpkin in the garden!

If, after consuming too much sugar (in the form of stolen Haribo from the kids) you fancy a something a little more grown up for Halloween, then may I direct you to the writing of G H MacDonald.

A collection of Victorian, gothic and ghost stories, this writing is truly ‘forget-to-breathe-until-I-get-to-the-end’ stuff. I particularly love the Parisian story  ‘The Red Men’ which is stunning. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading this work as much as I do.

Happy Halloween everyone!

October 29, 2011

Facing my fears in London.

There are many cities in this country that I know very little. I’ve visited them all, but it’s been for work, so I know the well-trodden route between train station and office, and not much else. Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle fall into this category, but the city that takes the crown is London.

I have to admit that I’ve been scared of London. I know that this makes me sounds like a provincial small town girl, but the sheer scale of the place, coupled with my deep mistrust of the Tube  has turned me into a nervous wreck every time I go there for work. I’ve been once as a tourist, in the summer of 2006 with one of my closest friends who did her best to help me overcome my fears, but the heat of June, my early pregnancy, and the number of people crammed into a Tube carriage because of political marches above ground did not really reduce my anxieties – although deciding to get on a boat to Greenwich was a wonderful solution.

Still, they say the best way to overcome a fear is to face it head on. I’d decided to spend a day alone in London as a tourist as part of my 35:35 Challenge, when I was given the opportunity this week to tag along on a trip there with a friend, who was going for a medical appointment prior to her emigration to the USA. She’s clearly far braver than I am, and will be heading out there soon to live with her equally lovely husband, who once sent me new socks all the way from the States because I was moaning so much about having only odd ones…

After a pleasant journey down, during which we caught up on the gossip in each others’ lives and ate Danish pastries, we got to Kings Cross Station. Apart from when I travel there for work, the only time I am in Kings Cross is when I am running in a blind panic between the train and St Pancras International to get the  Eurostar. It’s not a lie to say that every time I have had a connection to Paris, the first train has been delayed. There is no wonder the mere mention of London makes me anxious!

We spent a little time in St Pancras international. It is a stunningly beautiful station and full of lovely shops, including a branch of Paul, the wonderful French bakery where I stocked up on lunch (a sandwich and a palmier) before getting our first taxi of the day to the doctors.

After a successful medical appointment, we then set off for the touristy part of the day. Unfortunately, as it was half term week, the rest of the world had also decided to visit the Natural History Museum, and with a two hour wait in the rain looking likely, we sought refuge in the Victoria & Albert museum instead.

In the window of the V & A

Which, if you didn’t know (like me) – is just next door. First up, more food, in the form of tea and scones, then a tour around the Medieval tapestries, silver, stained glass, and the theatre and costume sections of the museum. We also had a look around the temporary exhibit, ‘The House of Annie Lennox‘, which contains, amongst other things, a selection of Annie Lennox’s video costumes, creatively curated in a space that I found reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.

Silver Lion

Finally we headed back to the station via Peyton and Byrne where I bought my fourth cake of the day (I know, I know, but I’ve eaten cabbage all week) a raspberry cupcake. I actually managed to save this one for the next day, so it doesn’t count anyway…

Raspberry cupcake heaven

What I’ve learnt from the day (apart from just how much cake I can consume and not feel sick) is that I am not scared of London. What has caused the fear is just getting the Tube (which I will really never like) from station to station and not really having any understanding of where anything is in relation to anything else. As well as not knowing that the V&A is next to the NHM, I didn’t know that the Wolseley café restaurant is next to the Ritz hotel, or that both of them are on the same street as Fortnum and Mason. I didn’t know where they were in relation to the theatre district. I didn’t know where Regent’s Park is in relation to Westminster. All of these things, I discovered in one day’s worth of taxi rides. Being above ground instead of under it means that every time you turn a corner, there is another landmark you recognise, another museum or store you want to visit or restaurant you want to eat in. It shrinks the city into something more manageable. And I’m not scared of it any more. I want to go back; to explore a corner of the city on my own. So to my lovely friend, thank you for helping me start my love affair with London. I am already making plans for my next visit!

October 23, 2011

Expecting the expected.

I had a lesson this week in expecting the expected.

There is a hole in the roof of my house and it’s come as a bit of a shock. In order to get it fixed, I’m going to have to spend the money I was saving up for my trip to Rome in the Spring. I was talking this through with a friend at work, someone who I consider to be something of a mentor, about the situation and the conversation went something like this:

Me: ‘There’s a hole in my house roof! I cannot believe this has happened, it’s a complete disaster. I have no money to fix it, so I’m going to have to spend my holiday money. I just don’t believe that such a horrible disaster has happened, I’m in complete shock..etc etc’

Him: ‘ When was your house built?’

Me: ‘1878, I still have the original deeds.’

Him: ‘ Has the roof ever been replaced?’

Me: ‘No’

Him: ‘Well…it’s not a huge surprise, surely that a roof that’s been around since 1878 might need a bit of work doing on it, is it?’

Me: (In a manner approaching stroppy teenager) ‘Er…no. I suppose not.’

Him: (Knowing that he’d crossed the ‘colleague’ line a bit by now, but going with it anyway, mostly because he knows he’s right) ‘Maybe you could think a bit more about what might go wrong in life, and then you can prepare for it a bit more?’

Afterwards, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this. I have come to the realisation that he’s right. Over the past few years, I’ve spent more time thinking of what I would do if I won the Lottery (buy land and several Chanel jackets, build community orchards and set up a charitable trust) than how I would fix a broken boiler (still no idea). Which, given that I don’t even buy a Lottery ticket, is crazy behaviour.

My friend is right, dark times come to us all. I need to get out of a complete Pollyanna state of mind, without giving up on my enthusiasm for life. After all, there are some things we can never plan for. Illness, accident, disease, natural disasters and death. Cheerful stuff like that. With a bit of forethought though, I could plan and therefore cope better with the smaller things. Broken boilers, missing roof slates, worn out car tyres. Those kind of things that always come as a shock, even though they are really to be expected, because life doesn’t always go according to plan. So, even though the really deepest darkest things will always be horrific, the smaller, more everyday problems should become things I can take in my stride. I basically need to save for the ‘missing roof slate’ type things as well as the ‘eating own bodyweight in Italian gelato’ type things – which I’m far better at saving for.

So, I’m finally, setting myself up a ‘home emergencies’ savings account. It’ll be different one to my ‘holidays and sunshine’ savings account because even though it’s all coming from the same salaries (mine and the lovely and long-suffering husband’s), I still like to keep things in little pots, dedicated for a sole purpose. Which is why there are little caches of cash all around the house. Some is food kitty, some is bus fares and never the twain shall meet. Unless I forget to expect the expected!

On the strength of this, I’ve started a list of other things I never expect, and yet should…

  • Christmas. It’s on the same day every year. So, why do I always panic? And why do I spend money in January on things like ponchos in the sale, instead of Christmas cards, wrapping paper and gift tags? It’s always struck me as a bit tight-fisted to do that, but given the number of times I have worn said poncho (once, even though it’s John Smedley and therefore as nice a poncho as you could ever hope to meet) I have come to the realisation that it’s merely being more organised.
  • Half term. It’s always nearly half term. I should know that I need to organise childcare before the day it actually arrives.
  • Other annual, regular things – MOT, insurance renewal, dentist appointments…they’re always on the horizon, so I should be better at planning for the expense.
  • Summer holidays – I will always be rushing to try and lose a few pounds and get a bit fitter, because in the Spring, it feels like it’s ages away. It’s not!!
  • The months between April and June when half of the people I know, and most of the people I’m related to, have a birthday. Feels like a major birthday extravaganza – which thankfully finishes for a few weeks with mine (yay!)
  • But then again -My birthday…booooo. I struggle with my birthday. I always want to do something amazing, and often have to settle for a glass of prosecco and a takeaway. Mostly because I’m not a multi-millionaire with my own private jet ready to whisk me off to Italy at a moment’s notice. (Although my real birthdays are actually lovely, if only I didn’t have to get a year older each time, I’d love them. Especially the home-made cards from my children)
  • Cat ownership. If I expected the expected, I would know that they usually come with the odd flea and the desire to shower you with gifts of the rodent variety. So, it should come as nothing of  a shock to find yourself creeping out of the back door of your house, in your pyjamas, carrying a mouse filled children’s saucepan (only thing to hand) to carry the gifts back outside to the field near your house…apparently!

Looking all innocent now…

Is it just me? Are there things that you should really expect, but don’t? Let me know…

October 17, 2011

Slow Living.

On Sunday morning, I sat on the sofa and watched my children play together.

Not a big deal, you might think, but actually for me it was. Usually, they play (or fight) while I am moving about the house, trying to do too many things at once. Tidying, cleaning, cooking, washing, project planning… Even if I am sitting down, I’m writing notes to myself, reading a book or looking things up on the internet, rather than giving them my full attention, which is just the way I try to cope with being a parent and full time employee, as well as keeping on top of my many interests.

One of the things I have been planning recently is my daughter’s birthday party, which has been a bit fraught as she has just started school and so has signed the ‘Schoolchild Secrets Act’. If you’re a parent, you’ll know what I mean when I say that getting any information out of her about what she has done with her day is almost impossible. So, learning about her new friends and therefore who she actually wants to come to this party has been something of a challenge!

Then there’s my son, who is two and a half and has just started pre-school, which means I’m having to cope when he has to be pulled, kicking and screaming, from my arms to go into his pre-school for the morning. It only seems like yesterday that I was in that place with my daughter and she will soon be five.

It is something of a cliché to say that time flies, but clichés are just a well worn way of telling the truth. My babies are growing up, and if I don’t spend more time just sitting on the sofa watching them play (and joining in!) I will miss that happening, and on the rare occasion they are playing nicely together instead of bashing each other, it is important for me to notice! After all, to paraphrase Ferris Bueller (a cultural icon of my youth!) life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and take a look around once in a while, you might miss it.

I’ve been struggling a bit recently. Life does sometimes get the better of me, and I have periods of stress and anxiety. A perfect time then,  to slow down, stop trying to do everything all at once, and live a bit more in the moment. I’ve been re-reading several old favourite books on this subject: ‘In Praise of Slow’, by Carl Honoré and ‘How to Be Idle’ and ‘How to Be Free’ by Tom Hodgkinson.

There are also lots of comforting Autumnal activities which, even if I could do quickly, I’d rather not:

  • Stirring risotto
  • Making pies
  • Crafting decorations for Halloween and Christmas
  • Walking through the local woods
  • Planting garlic, over-wintering onions and Spring flowering bulbs
  • Sowing sweet pea seeds
  • Planning my Spring allotment crop rotation
  • Re-reading an old favourite novel
  • Watching a film with my children.
  • Teaching my daughter how to bake.
So, I am going to slow down, embrace the day I am living in, spend more time playing with my kids and hopefully find a bit of calm and peace in my busy world.

A moment of calm in a busy day...

October 14, 2011

Quernus Margot and Barbara

I am very happy to introduce you to a Quernus version of Margot and Barbara, made for me to celebrate the launch of this blog by the very talented Kirsten of Quernus Crafts. As usual, the attention to detail given to these two by Kirsten is astonishing.

Margot and Barbara, my alter egos for this site, are from The Good Life tv sitcom of the 1970’s. I know that those of you who love the show will recognise them, even in mouse form! The Good Life is one of my favourite shows of all time, one that I return to time and time again, especially in times of stress. When life gets a bit overwhelming, there is nothing better than a genuinely warm and funny tv show, especially when you already know all the dialogue.

It also gave me the perfect pair of alter-egos to  help me describe myself and my interests. If you want to read more about this, have a look at this page: Who are Margot and Barbara? and in the meantime, have a look at the wonderful Quernus version…

Margot and Barbara



And from the back...

Thank you Kirsten, once again you have exceeded my expectations, I love them.

October 13, 2011

Back into the kitchen…

Now I’ve got a few  larger challenges under my belt, I decided to scale things down a bit and returned to the kitchen for the next one. I’ve made creme bruleé and macaron on the challenge already, but it was time for something savoury. Something that I’ve never cooked before, obviously. Cheese soufflé.

In fact, I’d never even eaten any kind of soufflé for that matter but the point of the exercise was firstly to see if I could make it rise like it should and then eat it!

So, having made this decision, I turned to the cook I always turn to in times of crisis:


This isn’t to say that she’s my favourite food writer. That title belongs now and always to Nigel Slater. His writing is wonderful and his books are exquisite. I generally have one of them by my bedside and I try to keep them in good condition, especially the two volumes making up ‘Tender’, which are my favourite cookbooks of all time. Having said that, some of my older Nigel Slater books are stuck up with splatters from cooking, which is a good sign – one that it’s been well-used. My rather ridiculous cook book collection also contains Simon Hopkinson, Sarah Raven, Elisa Beynon, Nigella Lawson, Elizabeth David, Julia Child and many more…I could spend a fortune on cook books and have only just got into the habit of getting books out of the library otherwise the house would be over-run with them. There’s something wonderfully comforting about reading a cookbook, even if you only ever make beans on toast.

Anyway, the simple truth about Delia Smith though, is that there is no-one better at teaching you the basics. The ones that you would already know if you’d actually listened to what your mother was trying to teach you when you were younger. So, although my mother is the reason I can make a cake without needing a recipe book, make béchamel sauce from scratch and whip up a decent pancake batter (thanks Mum!) when there are things of this kind that I don’t know, Delia provides the information.

‘Delia’s Complete Cookery Course’, bought from a charity shop for 50p, is the source of all this information, and is probably my best charity shop buy ever. So, on Sunday, using some amazing Wyfe of Bath cheese, bought especially from Abel and Cole for the purpose of this challenge, I made four cheese soufflés. I used my second best ever charity shop bargain, Le Creuset ceramic dishes (50p for four!) to cook them in.

And here they are!

My first souffle

They rose wonderfully and tasted really good too – in fact, we ate all four of them standing by the oven in the kitchen…

October 11, 2011

An Autumnal Sunday.

I love a lazy Sunday at this time of year. This Sunday in particular, summed up what I love to do.

After a breakfast of Pimhill porridge (thank you Abel and Cole) with a drizzle of maple syrup courtesy of my lovely friend who lives in Canada, I pulled on my boots and went off to the allotment, leaving the kids in their PJs to spend a little time with their Dad ( and to have a lovely bit of peace and quiet myself!)

At this time of year, it’s time to take down the beans of the summer and get ready for autumnal planting of garlic and over-wintering onions.

Dwarf French Beans

In truth, I should have taken down the bean frames a while ago, but partly from sheer laziness and partly because I know that the beans fix nitrogen into the soil, I have left them there to dry up before pulling them out. I’ve grown runner beans every year on the allotment. They’re really easy to grow and I love the way they look, scrambling up their bamboo wigwams, but really, I’m not very fond of eating them. I much prefer the more temperamental and difficult to grow French bean, which this year, I’ve had more success with than previously.  I sowed three different dwarfing varieties directly into one of my new raised beds and they grew like mad, so next year I think more French beans and fewer runner beans – if I bother to grow any at all. A lesson of allotment gardening – grow what you like to eat!

So, the beans came out on Sunday morning, then I did a little digging to get the ground ready for garlic (Thermidrome) and onions (Radar), which have just been delivered from the lovely people at Tamar Organics.

Onion sets and garlic for planting

After a little digging (not too much, the joy of raised beds) and some lunch it was time for one of our family ‘Nature Walks’, which we like to do every so often to get everyone outside, away from the TV and enjoying the outdoors.

We are lucky enough to live near several large green spaces, including Temple Newsam estate, which has woods and parkland as well as formal gardens, a playground and the all-important team room! We walked through the woods, looking for sweet chestnuts, conkers and acorns and walking through the rustling autumn leaves, although it wasn’t long before the kids decided they were tired so I cheered them up with a few sweets each, then we set off for home. The trick to the family Nature Walk is knowing when they’ve had enough, and for my kids who are only 2 and 4, that’s obviously not a very long time!  Little and often feels like the best way to keep their interest. That, along with a bit of imagination to help make up stories, a bit of knowledge so you can answer questions about what they have found and a bag of sweets…

For dinner I made my very first cheese soufflé, for one of my 35:35 Challenges; more on that next time. Then we spent a quiet evening curled up on the sofa with a pile of books and magazines, and a spot of TV. A lovely way to spend a Sunday.

October 7, 2011

Home Spa.

Now I don’t have training to do for any physical challenges, it’s safe to say that I have slowed down a bit and haven’t made it to the gym as often as I should. I’m also trying pretty hard to deal with my sugar addiction.  No more full sugar coke and Danish pastries for me for a while – at least until I sign up for another challenge. Then I’ll give myself licence to eat a bit more!

What I tend to do when I’m trying to avoid food, is turn to the bathroom. Indulging in lotions, potions and other lovely things stops me from putting my hand in the biscuit jar too often – it’s pretty hard to eat and paint your nails (using my new NARS polish in Orgasm) at the same time! Plus, it makes it easier to eat better if you feel as though you’re looking after yourself on the outside too.

So, I thought I’d share some of my favourite products with you. We all like a nosy around each others bathroom cabinets to see what other people are using, so here’s my ‘I’m on a Diet’ Spa Evening…

All the ingredients for a great spa evening…

The first thing I do is light some candles (preferably from Jo Malone, The White Company or Dyptique) and  run a bath, adding REN Rose Otto bath oil. A classic, this foamless oil has the best  Moroccan rose essential oil scent ever, so it’s truly relaxing and moisturises your skin beautifully. I leave the bath to cool a little while going through the rest of my home spa routine.

I have a quick shower, using Lush’s ‘Rub, Rub, Rub’ salt scrub. It’s bright blue with a floral scent, and most importantly, it does a great job of tackling the bumps (keratosis pilaris) on the upper arms.

Then once I’m out of the shower, it’s onto a facial. My cleanser of choice is Eve Lom. The slightly medicinal and eucalyptus smell (always reminds me of horse hoof oil), takes a while to get used to, but I do love it now. Partly though, it’s because I know how well the product works. I massage it into my dampened skin and leave it on for a while before using the provided muslin cloth to take it off again. It cleans, exfoliates, decongests and soothes. I cannot cope without it now, and notice a real difference to my skin when I run out!

For my Spa Evening, I often exfoliate as well as use the Eve Lom muslin cloth. A recent discovery is Dr Brandt’s Microdermabrasion exfoliating cream, which I apply onto damp skin and massage gently round the face, especially the t-zone. It has a lovely lemon-y scent and really fine grains, making it really gentle but effective.

After relaxing in the bath, I’ll then apply a facial serum, often Caudalie’s Vinoperfect radiance serum. Serums make all the difference to a daily skin-care routine, adding so much more than just a moisturiser, especially now I’m in my mid-thirties. My skin isn’t too bad, but I am noticing more issues, so I want to try and deal with them without resorting to extreme measures. Having said that, I have started doing that thing of looking in the mirror and stretching my skin back with my hands to see what I might look like after a face lift! Oh dear…

As an aside, my favourite moisturiser at the moment is also by Caudalie – Vinoperfect Day Perfecting Fluid. A moisturiser that tackles imperfections, pigmentation, texture, and radiance – basically all the problems I have at the moment!

If my skin is really congested I do also love to use Darphin’s Aromatic Purifying Balm. With twelve different essential oils, it smells amazing and I use it over cleansed skin at night.

The REN Rose Otto bath oil removes the need for a body moisturiser after the bath. So, it’s straight into clean pyjamas and having a warm drink, before going virtuously to bed…

October 3, 2011

Cycletta North

The day of Cycletta dawned bright and early – at 4.20am to be precise as my adrenalin fuelled body decided that was the time to wake up. Despite this, at a more sensible hour, we set off for Tatton Park and I did my usual helpful passenger thing of falling asleep the minute we set off.

When we arrived at Tatton Park, I went to get my hire bike, passing Olympic Gold Medal winner and Cycletta Ambassador Victoria Pendleton on the way. I’m such a name dropper…

Just got my hire bike, and going to the start!

As I was riding on my own, I was green with nerves at the start of the race, but was hugely encouraged by the positive and friendly atmosphere and managed to chat to a couple of other riders before we set off. Then, with a cheerful ‘good luck’ we were off, straight over a cattle grid, down the drive of Tatton Park and on through several local villages. Once we had set off, my nerves settled and I started to enjoy myself. The roads were relatively flat, with a nice long stretch to get us all into our stride before a series of junctions through the villages. My cycling ability, despite a worrying lack of training, was better than I’d anticipated, thanks to my gym trainer Lenka, which meant that I was easily keeping up with some of the people I’d set off with, despite riding a hired mountain bike (with, it has to be said, rather wonky gears) on the roads.  Of course, some of the elite riders who had gone out early were starting their return journey by this point and due to the course doubling back on itself, we were rewarded with the sight of them on their way to the finish, which I found quite inspiring.

As the roads were not closed, I did have to keep an eye out for traffic, but the whole route was really thoroughly marshalled and signed, with someone to support us at every junction. This was of great help as I didn’t have to spend ages worrying about getting away from a junction, particularly on the right hand turns. What was more worrying was my inability to stop myself from being nosy and looking at the houses we were passing – in one case a stunning manor house, with land and an indoor swimming pool which was up for sale, so if I win the lottery I know where to look! In a particularly ironic moment, I did swerve a bit as I saluted a single magpie for good luck, which I do automatically. Quite how I would have explained away any resulting accident, I don’t know…

After what felt like a really short time, but actually about fourteen miles into the ride, was the first rest stop, where I had a litre of water and some fizzy cola bottles before setting off again. Chatting to a few more people along the route, it was lovely to hear the stories from people about why they were riding and in some cases, how they’d been inspired to ride so they could join Cycletta. I didn’t stop at the second feed station, but did hear from other people that Victoria Pendleton had been there and chatting to people – what a great Ambassador for the event she was, even coping with a giant snaking queue of people waiting for her autograph later on.

In what really seemed like no time at all, but actually 2 hours, 3 minutes and 17 seconds after I started, I crossed the finish line with a giant grin on my face and a feeling of huge accomplishment and joy. I’m really happy with the time I made, even though I know that I could probably have gone faster if I’d chosen not to chat to some people and to take over others, but in truth, part of what made the event feel so great was being part of this wonderful group of women, all so very different but all sharing the same experience. I even managed to say a real life hello to some wonderful people I’d met on Twitter through a shared Cycletta ambition, which was a perfect finish to the ride.

Then, after a re-fuel at the Cycletta village, and a lovely mini-manicure, it was time to have another sleep in the car on the journey home.

Huge, giant thanks to everyone involved in Cycletta, you were all amazing. I have been extolling your virtues ( and that of Skyride, British Cycling, Breeze network, the lot…) pretty much relentlessly since I got home and if I get my way, I will be bringing along a team of women to next year’s event, at which I will be riding my own bike and finishing in under two hours!

Happy cyclist – glasses to make sure nothing gets into my eyes – contact lenses are a pain…