Mud. Mud and books

Last week, Louis and I and my cousin and her son made our now annual pilgrimage to the Hay Festival in Wales. A whole four days of my nine year old and I gloriously lost in authors and words with no hint of an internet connection. It was wonderful. Wonderful and muddy.

But the mud didn’t deter us one bit.

Because as well as a frankly jaw-dropping and eclectic line of up of speakers and authors - Arianna Huffington, Ian McEwan, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Hieatt and Judy Dench anyone? - Hay is also the venue for the extremely impressive Hay Fever for kids, with children’s authors, illustrators, story-tellers and cartoonists inspiring and shaping young minds at every corner.

We went to comics workshops and listened to children’s authors tell rapt audiences how they get their inspiration and why they write. We delved into the science behind Star Wars, spent a hilarious hour with Murderous Maths author Kjartan Poskitt and listened to Mitchell Symons perform his wicked but oh so funny cautionary tales.

We met War Horse, went to see Michael Morpurgo talk about war, met fantasy monsters, heard tales from New York author Kate O'Hearn, saw Rob Brydon, Cerys Matthews, Sean Locke and Dick and Dom and even appeared on Friday night’s One Show (blink and you’d miss us!). We bought tonnes of books and came away happier for the experience.

If you haven’t been to Hay and if, like me, you have a child who loves reading, it is a must. Held every year at the end of May, it runs concurrently with the HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy and music festival in the town of Hay so there’s always plenty to do and see. Plus it is set in the most beautiful Welsh countryside.

What’s not to love about Hay? Well, maybe the mud. Did I mention the mud?…. 

STILLS: A WEEKLY COLLECTION (8/52)

Oh dear, no post for a whole week but it’s been half term here so there’s not been a lot of time for blog posts.

We had a lovely half term. Drawing, playing Lego, heading to Cotswold Wildlife Park and finally getting a chance to visit our old favourite, the newly re-opened Oxford University Museum of Natural History (hoorah!), taking a run out in our beloved old campervan and recharging our batteries at home.

February half terms carry few expectations but always deliver lots of happy times.

Nature in the Home: Autumn Week 5

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One of my favourite books is Roald Dahl’s Danny Champion of the World. I loved it when I was younger and will treasure the memories of reading it to Louis each night when we first moved to the countryside.

It’s a wonderful book made all the more magical by the fact that our cottage sits right on the edge of a wood just like the one Danny’s dad poaches and, like Danny’s wood, ours is FULL of pheasants. Louis and I have discussed just how much sleeping powder we’d need to pop into a raisin, we know what time of night we’d need to go and we have concocted all sorts of getaway plans if we were caught. Of course, we’ll never enact our plans - poaching simple isn’t our game (!), but it’s fun to imagine Danny and his Dad creeping through our little wood.

At the weekend, the boys went into the woods with their friend and came back full of wide-eyed stories about finding a pheasant’s feather and coming across a supposed poacher’s trail. They came back with their mini-poachers’ loot and handily gave me a subject for this week’s Nature in the Home.

An old-fashioned birthday party

Xavi turned six on Friday (six! where did the time go?). We had a family tea party after school on Friday evening and held an old-fashioned party in the meadow for him and his friends on Saturday afternoon.

We had egg & spoon races, sack races, running races, bush craft stalking games, a bit of French cricket and an old-fashioned sweet shop. We decorated the meadow with bunting, balloons and our trusty old bell tent and barbequed mini burgers, hot dogs and corn-on-the-cob for Xav and his little guests.

I made confetti strawberries and this camp fire cake (although stupidly I forgot to photograph it in all the excitement - doh!) and the boys munched on rocky roads melting in the sun.

Instead of party bags, we grew and potted baby sunflower plants for each boy to take home along with a bag of sweets and a slice of chocolatey camp fire cake.

The sun shone, the meadow echoed with boys’ laughter, there were only a couple of prickles in grubby hands and just one punching-in-the-stomach-incident. And after the party, the parents stayed and chatted, drinking wine in the sunshine as the kids made their own fun.

All in all, I think we did our little six-year old proud. Although my mum’s sage advice to offer him £100 next year in lieu of a party made a lot of sense as I sat nursing my aching body and sunburnt limbs on Saturday night…

Do you have a winning formula for children’s parties? Every year I think ‘never again’ but then Pinterest gives me ideas and off we go again!

Easter branches

This year, we experimented with dyeing our own blown eggs to create a homemade tree for Easter.

Having seen lots of lovely results on various blogs last year, we tried out three types of dye - two natural (red onion skins and red cabbage) and one with lilac food colouring.

Blowing the eggs was good fun. We made holes in either end of the eggs with a needle, then fashioned a wider hole in the top end big enough to push a matchstick tied with cotton to hang the eggs through later on. Trial and error allowed us to work out the optimal size for the holes. Too small and you’re blowing in vain for ages. Too large and the shells crack.

Then we started to prepare our natural dyes. Louis peeled the red onion skins and then we boiled for about 15 minutes until their liquid took on a hue slightly darker than we wanted for the final eggs.

Then once our dyes were strained and cooled, we added about 2 tablespoons of vinegar to each one (so much differing advice about when and how to add the vinegar and how much to add, so we just winged it) and decanted each one into a large kilner jar along with the eggs.

I’d like to say at this point that I was able to teach the boys an interesting science lesson about expelling air from an eggshell as bubbles in order for it to sink, but they pretty much gave up on the process when the pong of boiled red cabbage began to invade the kitchen so shortly after that, I was pretty much on my lonesome.

Anyway, ‘we’ left the blown eggs in their dye baths overnight, giving them the odd passing stir every now and then and hey presto, 24 hours later, two out of our three kilner jars revealed beautifully dyed eggs!

The natural dyes were a great success - although I was expecting the red cabbage ones to have been more blue, perhaps we added too much vinegar? But the food coloured ones didn’t take at all. I added the dye to cold water so perhaps this made the difference or perhaps food colour is just rubbish at dyeing eggs. Who knows?

And here is a (rather rubbish) picture of our finished Easter branches. I’m pretty pleased at how they turned out but have since endlessly rearranged the eggs’ positioning and have added some mini chicks to brighten them up a bit.

Happy Easter!

Little care packages for little boys

We’re off to Rome for a few days tomorrow *eeeep!* leaving my parents in charge of the boys. Can you believe it’s the first time I’ve left them for more than one night in all the time I’ve been a mum? How did that happen?

Anyway, whilst I’m really looking forward to our trip, the boys are a little sad so I’ve put together a little care package for them with a treat and a note to open each morning we’re away.

I started by making some labels and notes to go in each day’s package.

Then I wrote each of them a little note with instructions on what to do with their parcels - the main point being not to rip them all open at once on the first morning!

Their first day’s treat is a little cuddly animal each with a message telling them what each one’s name is and what he likes to do and eat. Their task is to look after their little cuddlies all the time I’m away.

I didn’t want to go overboard on treats for them but I did want each morning’s treat to make them smile. So Friday’s parcel contains a couple of chocolatey treats and a little note from me asking them how school was and reminding them to be kind to each other!

Faced with a long weekend looming ahead of them, I decided Saturday’s parcel ought to contain some ‘doing’ things so Xavi has a couple of cool picture books (including a story about a robot with no bottom) and Louis has a sketch pad and a book on how to draw cartoons. I am hoping these will give my Mum and Dad at least an hour of respite…

Sunday’s treats are all sweet-related. I figure by that point my Mum will be so exhausted she won’t care what or when they’re eating. I have put a note in telling them only to have one before breakfast though!

I am sure I will miss them like crazy but I hope these little packages will remind them each morning how much they are loved and will keep them happy. I am SOOOO excited about spending some time away. We went to Rome for our honeymoon a whopping ten years ago on Friday. It will be ace to go back again.

I’ve got a little baking blog post scheduled for Saturday but I’ll be back 'properly’ on Monday, catching up with the portrait project and sharing some bits on Rome too I’m sure.

I hope you all have lovely weekends x

And onwards to Trafalgar Square…

Xav has a book on London which he has memorised and keeps quoting all these interesting facts about our nation’s capital. One of the places he really wanted to visit was Trafalgar Square so after the Natural History Museum, we headed off on the tube again to show the boys the pigeons and the lions.

There was much chucking of coins in the fountain, the obligatory photographs with a golden statue man, a bit of pretend lion climbing and lots of running round and round Nelson’s Column.

Whilst they were mucking about, I watched a very brave tourist go down on one knee and ask his (dumbstruck) girlfriend to marry him. He had with him half a dozen heart-shaped helium balloons and a gaggle of mates with cameras and hand-written signs. Not sure what they said, but the fiancee’s slightly aghast face said it all. Talk about a pressure sell…

I also had a little mournful glance at the National Gallery. So close yet so far away. I have mentally noted it down for one of my Friday resolution trips sometime soon.

Indoor den building

It’s snowing again here and the boys have been climbing the walls a bit so this afternoon we got out the big guns and made an indoor den.

They normally build a complicated sofa-based hideout but today they wanted to cosy up as they watched the snow fall, so we converted our kitchen table into a special secret HQ. Apparently cameras were banned in this high tech secret environment so I was unable to take any decent photographs, but in surveillance conditions, I managed to capture these two suspicious looking characters loitering within tent (hehehe - see what I did there?).

I’ve shared this post with Emma over at Bradshaw and Sons as she has a fun little Indoor Den Building Week thing going on. I do love an indoor den!

Keeping up with the resolutions

Heavy rain on Saturday night saw off the last of the thick snowy blanket that has been covering our landscape for more than a week so on Sunday, amid blue skies, we set off to Blenheim Palace for a bit of a winter’s stroll.

The park was looking lovely in the low sun - the boys scooted along the wide paths around the lake, the tassles of their woolly hats streaming behind them and we walked briskly behind them. It really does us all so much good to get out in the fresh air.

The best sledging valley around

Just down the hill, across the pooh-sticks bridge, along the river bank, through the kissing gate and we’re there.

The place where the kids from the two villages - separated by the valley - meet to shout and scream in delight as time and again they whizz down the hill on all sorts of sledging creations - some big and on runners, others small and plastic. All designed for maximum fun.

We’ve had a great weekend in the snow. School was shut on Friday and thick snow fell all day. Perfect for a sledging expedition on Saturday and again today.

Hot chocolate and treacle spice sponge cake at the top of the hill kept us going and now we’re all pressing our noses against the window hoping for more snow so we can go out and do it all again tomorrow…

PS: please excuse the quality of these photographs - I didn’t want to take one of my ‘proper’ cameras out so relied on my very broken and scratched iPhone camera..

Gingerbread house making

A bit of respite from the end-of-year work madness this weekend to take the boys to ice-skating parties, football training, Elf-watching (the film not the helpers) and gingerbread house making.

We cheated and used kits - these are from Ikea and are great. They cost a whopping £2.49 and are just the right size. In previous years, we’ve spent a fortune on massive slabs of gingerbread that are a bit too heavy to hold together properly and make a mansion rather than an enchanted cottage. In the words of Goldilocks, these were just right.

Bits and bobs…

The boys went back to school today. There were some tears and quite a bit of laying in bed until the last, desperate minute but we managed to get there on time and with all the PE kits, book bags, parents’ evening slips and drinks bottles that we needed.

As they’re back to school, I’m also back to work and have spent a fair while staring in panic at my To Do list this morning. Oh well. Before I tackle that, I thought I’d share a few half term-themed bits and bobs.

We had fun. We did a Phoenix Comic workshop at Oxford’s Museum of Natural History with comic genius Neill Cameron, we got haircuts, we went to the Science Museum in London, we had lunch with friends, we spent lots of time in the autumn sunshine, watched DVDs, baked, coloured and drew pictures, had sleepovers, went to a bonfire party and to two birthday parties.

It was great. Only seven weeks until the next holidays *sigh*…