Putting the ‘festive’ back into Christmas shopping!

In my opinion, Christmas shopping – whether you are battling a busy high street, overwhelmed in a mall or sitting hunched over your keyboard shopping online at 3 in the morning – none of it is as festive and fun as it should be! So why not take the stress out of your festive shopping with a visit to a Christmas market?

I’m going to start with a fairly local one in the very pretty town of Tavistock on the far side of Dartmoor.

Tavistock Dickensian Christmas – 25th November 2016

The Dickensian evening includes the switching on of the Christmas lights, and an opportunity to start your Christmas shopping and enjoy the festive atmosphere. Be transported back to the ‘olde world’ with shop owners and staff wearing Dickensian dress, stalls selling roasted chestnuts and even steam engines adding to the atmosphere. You can find out more here.

Blenheim Palace Living Crafts for Christmas fair 17th – 20th November

On a rather grander scale… stock up on stocking fillers at the Living Crafts for Christmas fair in this stunning Oxfordshire stately home, where you’ll find more than 150 selected designer-makers, including artists, milliners and jewellers. Indulge in some hot chestnuts or a hot chocolate, then choose handcrafted decorations to adorn your home. Magical! Click here for more information.

Bath Christmas Market – 24th – 11th December

I love Bath any time of year, but this magical Christmas market makes it extra special. There will be more than 170 traditional wooden chalets lining the streets of the centre of beautiful Bath, transforming Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths into a wintry wonderland. Along with stalls from craftspeople from all over the South West, there is also the chance to go ice skating, ride on a carousel or enjoy a glass of mulled wine in the Après Ski Bar.

Find out more here.

Edinburgh Christmas Markets 19th November – 7th January 2017

If you really, really enjoy Christmas markets, then Edinburgh is the place to go as this lovely city has TWO markets, one Scottish and one European and they run through into January! The Scottish Market in St Andrew Square showcases food and drink from the country, including seafood and sausages, chocolate and cakes, plus handcrafted items. The popular European Market has been running for 20 years and is held in East Princes Street Gardens, offering traditional toys and gifts.

Click here for more information.

And finally… another Dickensian market. The trouble is the Victorians and Mr Dickens, did Christmas so well that, for many of us, it has become the ideal Christmas!

Ulverston, Cumbria Dickensian Christmas Festival – 26th & 27th November

Ulverston puts on a tremendous show every year marking the start of the Christmas season and bringing a little Christmas magic to both young and old. The historic market town is full of fantastic shops, great pubs, cafes and cobbled streets. The Dickensian Festival boasts a huge variety of free entertainment, free events for children, fabulous Christmas market stalls with lots of unique gifts and festive food, costume competitions, horse-drawn carriages, music and dancing. If you really want to get into the spirit of the festival, why not come in costume and take part in the grand parade around the town?

Find out more here.

Photo credits, top to bottom:
tavistockbid.co.uk, nmctours.co.uk, www.bathchristmasmarket.co.uk, Visit Scotland, OxfamBirdsEye.

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The gorgeous gourd!

Alongside the glorious rich colours of autumn leaves, I think one of the most iconic images of autumn is of squashes – those wonderful shaped and coloured gourds or, to give them their proper name, Cucurbitaceae.

A gourd was probably one of the earliest domesticated types of plant as examples have discovered in archaeological sites dating from as early as 13,000 BC. Gourds are immensely versatile and can be found used in all sorts of ways throughout history, including as tools, musical instruments, objects of art, of course, food.

Squashes, pumpkins and gourds belong to the same family as cucumbers, melons, marrows and courgettes. There is an amazing variety of sizes, shapes and colours, and although most are edible, some are used for decoration only. All squashes and pumpkins have a tough outer rind, an inner cavity filled with hard seeds and sweet, rich, well-coloured flesh with a dense, nutty and earthy flavour.

As a child, I remember being served plain boiled marrow (ugh!) and carving pumpkins for Halloween but that was about the limit of my exposure to these vegetables. Now, we veggie gardeners grow courgettes by the ton and regularly shop for butternut squash and spaghetti squash, as well as turban squash, onion squash, acorn squash and even kabocha – this Japanese variety of squash.

Apart from being good to eat, they are also beautiful to look at, and their shapes and colours are incredibly diverse. I love seeing them arranged in a bowl almost as a work of art, and they will keep for ages.

Today, gourds are commonly used for a wide variety of crafts, including jewellery, furniture, dishes, utensils and a wide variety of decorations using carving, burning and other techniques. The Chinese developed a technique of tying a two-part mould around young gourds, or a part of them, so that the gourd grew into the mould and took its shape. Shaped gourds had various decorative uses, especially as boxes, bottles and other containers. And, don’t forget, that good old bath time companion the luffa (or loofah) is also a gourd!

Mini gourds are wonderful when included in floral decorations, such as wreaths, or table centres and you can buy a huge range online. Or you could grow them yourself, but drying, or curing, them takes time… let me know if you already grow them and I’d be interested to know how you use them!

Curing Ornamental Gourds

Curing or drying ornamental gourds requires time. There is no shortcut, like microwaving.

  1. Start by cleaning the surface of the gourds with soapy water and allow them to air dry.
  1. Place in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight, for about 1 week. The skin will begin to harden and change colour. After a week, the outside of the gourd should be well dried.
  1. Move the gourds to a well-ventilated, dark area where they can remain for at least 6 months. Spread them in a single layer and be sure none of the gourds are touching each other. Allow for airflow under the gourds by placing them on a screen or vented surface. It may be easier to hang larger gourds for drying.
  1. Check your gourds every few days and discard any that begin to decay, shrivel or get soft. If mould appears, see if you can wipe it off with a dry cloth or one dipped in bleach. If the gourd is still hard, it should be fine. Drying gourds is not a pretty process!
  1. Turn the gourd every couple of weeks, so it will dry evenly and to prevent rotting.
  1. When the gourds become light and hard to the touch, and you can hear the seeds rattling inside when you shake them, they are ready for use. At this time you can carve, paint, wax, shellac or decorate your ornamental gourds any way you wish. They should last indefinitely.

Gourd luck (sorry!)!

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The Wheel of the Year forever turning…

wheelyearblackberriesAutumn has most definitely arrived and we’ve had some gorgeous misty mornings and dramatic sunsets. I’m not sure if it is my imagination but there seem to be huge quantities of blackberries in the hedgerows this year and the rowan trees are thick with their red berries… I do hope this isn’t a sign of a cold winter to come! I came across an article in a magazine that was talking about it being ‘Mabon’, which I had heard of but didn’t know much about, so I did some Googling…

Mabon is the Autumn Equinox, or Harvest, on Sept 21nd/22nd in the ‘Wheel of the Year’ as followed by practicing Pagans. All very ancient and traditional, I thought… but it seems not! The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by many modern Pagans.  It consists of either four or eight festivals: either the solstices and equinoxes, known as the ‘quarter days’, or the four midpoints between, known as the ‘cross quarter days’. and tThe term ‘Mabon’ was only introduced in the 1970s.

While many historical Pagan traditions celebrated the various equinoxes, solstices, and the days approximately midway, celebrating all eight festivals is a new departure and, you could say, a jolly good excuse for more partying!

Joking aside, I love the idea of celebrating the changes in the seasons, the fruits of nature and the changes in the weather. Mabon, which is basically Harvest Festival, is the Pagan ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth and recognition of the need to share them to secure the blessings of the Goddess and the God during the coming winter months.

The Festivals of the Wheel Of The Year represent the active and dormant states of nature, man and agriculture. Each of the festival days was ruled by a governing deity, with each region having its own associated deity. From planting to reaping to winter to summer… the seasons were of great importance to our ancestors, for their very existence depended upon good harvests, mild winters and enough rainfall.

So, as it is Mabon, here’s a lovely recipe using quince which, apart from having a beautiful name, is a magical autumn fruit. When stewed for a long time, it turns aromatic and gloriously pink. Its syrup makes an excellent base for a warming autumn cider punch.

Quince, apple & cider punch

Serves 6

  • 250ml apple juice
  • 225g soft brown sugar
  • 1 quince, peeled, quartered and cored
  • 1 vanilla pod, halved
  • 1 apple, cored and sliced
  • 500ml cider
  1. Put the apple juice in a pan with 250ml of water. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.
  2. Add the quince and the halved vanilla pod.
  3. Simmer for at least 30 minutes, or up to an hour if you want a stronger colour.
  4. Add in the apple slices and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the cider and remove from the heat.
  5. Serve immediately, making sure there are some slices of apple or quince in each glass.
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Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all!

widecombemare“Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all!”

…so goes the well-known Devon folk song about a man called Tom Pearce, whose poor old horse dies after someone borrows it to travel to the fair in Widecombe with his many, many friends. Although not at all funny for the grey mare, it is a humorous song and often performed by rowdy crowds (all NINE verses of it!) that have enjoyed a little too much cider! It’s such a well-known song that the term ‘Uncle Tom Cobley’ has come to be used as a colloquialism meaning “anyone and everyone”.

widecombehistoryPossibly because of the song both Widecombe and its Fair are famous throughout the country. Widecombe-in-the-Moor, to use its full name, is a picturesque village in the middle of Dartmoor, with a magnificent church (the interestingly named Church of Saint Pancras!), visible from all the surrounding hills and tors and known as ‘the cathedral of the moor’.

widecombeproduce

Widecombe Fair takes place annually on the second Tuesday in September, attracting thousands of visitors to the tiny Dartmoor village. It is still a traditional event full of farmers and local craftsmen and as popular with locals as visitors and well worth a visit. My partner in crime writing, Julia, went along this year to take some photos and soak up the rural tranquillity and a way of life that has gone on for centuries in the Dartmoor valleys.

widecombeanimals

There were sheep shearing competitions, cattle, sheep and pony classes, vintage cars and agricultural machinery and some stompingly good live folk music in the beer tent from morning through to midnight! The obligatory produce tent, crammed with huge vegetables, jams and flower arrangements (and you wonder where we get our inspiration for the Swaddlecombe books?!) is always worth a visit. There was also an interesting area dedicated to ‘Living History’, complete with thatchers and other traditional craftsmen demonstrating their skills. Add to this ferret and terrier racing and the intoxicating smell of steam engines and you have the perfect rural day out!

widecombeadam

Left to right: Was the Reverend Ruminant present at the Fair? Certainly looks like his car! Adam Henson and his BBC film crew… and a traditional bit of ferret racing!

Such is Wideombe Fair’s fame, Julia spotted Adam Henson, the farmer presented from BBC1’s ‘Countryfile’ programme, busy filming at the fair… so, if you keep your eyes peeled you might get to see it on TV!

 

 

 

 

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Giving it some welly!

When you live in the real countryside, ’sensible’ outdoor footwear is something of a necessity. True Devonians will always smile and say you can ‘spot the incomer’ a mile off by their inappropriate choices of heels, open toed or pale coloured shoes. You can buy all sorts of fancy boots but, at the end of the day, the wellington boot is the countryman’s footwear of choice!
WellyDrain

I shared this fun photo (right) on Facebook this week as it made me smile and think that Albert, the lead male in our Swaddlecombe Mysteries, would find this a good use of a leaking welly. In contrast, Victoria, our leading lady, would probably use a pair of old wellies as planters for some organic herbs…

So what’s the history of the wellington boot? How did this rubberised footwear come into being? The wellington boot is associated with Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). The Iron Duke, as he was known, instructed his shoemaker, George Hoby to modify his hessian 18th-century boot and make it out of calfskin leather.

WellyMontageWellingtons first appeared in 1817 and proved popular with the troops because they were hard wearing for battle, yet comfortable for evening wear. The boot leather was treated with wax to make them softer and more waterproof. The new boots became a very popular fashion accessory for gentlemen. Considered fashionable and foppish in the best circles, they remained the main fashion for men throughout the 1840s.

American, Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), who invented a vulcanisation process for rubber, began making rubber boots. Hiram Hutchinson saw the potential for agricultural workers in France and bought the patent from Goodyear in 1852. The new waterproof boots were quick to become established and sold well within the large rural population. Amazingly, by 1857 the company were hand–making 14,000 pairs of boots per day!

Fellow American, Henry Lee Norris, moved to Edinburgh and started producing rubber wellington boots in 1856. Norris believed Scotland was a good place to manufacture wellingtons because of the country’s high rainfall – good decision! He founded the British Rubber Company and four former boot–makers from New York trained the Scottish workforce The company went into production first making rubber shoes and boots and then quickly expanding to produce an extensive range of rubber products, included tyres, golf balls and hot water bottles.

Come the outbreak of the First World War (1914- 1918) the trench war ensured high production of rubber boots and again, in the Second World War, the armed forces used vast quantities of rubber wellington boots.

And so to today, when the Wellington boot has gone full circle and become highly fashionable again. When I was a child, wearing wellies was deemed very boring. They were always plain black and not very comfy and you would go out of your way to avoid wearing them. Now, when we are so sophisticated with technology coming out of our ears, I find it amusing that something as simple as old-fashioned as a boot made out of rubber is so much in demand. You can have them in various designs and in any colour and, if you choose green ones, you can even spend a fortune on them!

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