The Mad Month of March!

Whenever the month of March arrives, I always think of Mad March Hares! As a child, I think we were all told about how they box and seem to go ‘mad’ and this eccentric behaviour endears us to this elusive mammal. Alice in Wonderland is also responsible for heightening the hare’s reputation, as it is one of the strange creatures stuck in an interminable tea party with the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse.

With its long ears, long legs and saucer eyes, the brown hare is a beautiful, yet sadly rare sight in most of this country. I have never seen one in the Westcountry, but I did see some when I lived in East Anglia, many moons ago. Once a common sight, it is thought the brown hare in the UK has decreased by up to 80% in the last century, thanks largely to changes in farming techniques. Where have we heard that before?

Long and brown and fantastically fast moving (up to 40mph!), the brown hare is a member of a group of mammals called Lagomorpha. For many years it was thought they were rodents but we now know that hares belong to their own separate family. The other common Lagomorpha is, of course, the rabbit.

Although vaguely similar, on closer inspection, there are several distinct differences between the two. While rabbits are known for having long ears, the ears of the brown hare are much longer and have black tips. As the two animals move, you can see that the back legs of a hare are much longer than on a rabbit – this makes it look like a rabbit hops and a hare sprints. Rabbits live underground in warrens whereas hares never go underground, preferring ditches along field edges.

Hares are famous for their energetic behaviour, and March, in particular, is when they are known to ‘box’ frantically with one another. These mad March hares are in their mating season, with the males (bucks) seeking out any females (does) that have come into season. However, it’s not the males that are responsible for the boxing (not with each other anyway) it’s the females who start the punch-ups! This usually happens when a male is being too pushy with a female, chasing her across fields in an attempt to mate. Eventually, when she has had enough, she’ll turn around and try to fend him off in a boxing match! Girl power!

Hare mythology has fascinated us for centuries. Ever since the Romans first brought them to Britain, hares have had a role to play in legend and myth. In hare mythology, the hare is a creature with pagan, sacred and mystic associations, by turns benign, cunning, romantic or, most famously in March – mad! We see images of hares everywhere, they are found in carvings on ancient buildings (particularly here in Devon) and are popular in paintings and statues of ‘moon-gazing’ hares are commonplace. The hare and the rabbit are often associated with moon deities and signify rebirth and resurrection.

A study in 2004 followed the history and migration of a symbolic image of three hares with conjoined ears. In this image, three hares are seen chasing each other in a circle with their heads near its centre. While each of the animals appears to have two ears, only three ears are depicted. The ears form a triangle at the centre of the circle and each is shared by two of the hares. The image has been traced from Christian churches here in Devon right back along the Silk Road to China, via western and eastern Europe and the Middle East.

 

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Are there fairies at the bottom of your garden?

The ‘real’ fairy house Julia found on Dartmoor!

Your response to my recent Fairy Doors products shows just how popular these little folk are! Even in 2018, there are signs of fairy life as discovered by my partner in crime writing, Julia, when she moved to a new village on Dartmoor. On one of her first exploratory walks with her dog, Moss, she came across two wooden fairy doors in the base of a living tree. Fascinated, she has kept her eye on this magical phenomenon as she passes the tree at least once a week… She has seen tiny figures come and go, little offerings left at Christmas and Easter, and coins pressed into cracks in the tree’s bark. Yet, she has never seen anyone else nearby…!

Intrigued, I decided to have a scoot about online and see what other fairy evidence I could come up with…

Most of us think of fairies as beautiful, tiny creatures, flitting about on gossamer wings, – but history and folklore tell a different tale. When belief in fairies was common most people didn’t dare mention them by name and referred to them as the Little People or the Hidden People. Many explanations have been given for belief in fairies. Some say that they are like ghosts, spirits of the dead, or fallen angels, neither bad enough for Hell nor good enough for Heaven. There are hundreds of different kinds of fairies – some are minute creatures, others grotesque – some can fly, and all can appear and disappear at will.

Sometimes the term fairy is used to describe any magical creature, including goblins or gnomes, while at others it describes a specific type of more ethereal creature or sprite. As so often happens when I look into ‘traditions’, I find that the Victorians are largely responsible! They were the ones who made fairies tiny and twee… resulting in fairy tales for children. It was during the Victorian and Edwardian eras when fairies were extremely popular that winged fairies became the norm. In folklore, wings were very rare and even tiny fairies flew by magic, sometimes flying on ragwort stems or the backs of birds.

Hobgoblins are guardian fairies – they are the useful ones that secretly come and do housework and odd jobs around the house. Unfortunately, they never seem to come and visit me! In Aberdeenshire, Scotland they are hideous to look at, they have no separate toes or fingers and in the Scottish Lowlands, they have a hole instead of a nose. Banshees are less common and more sinister, they usually only appear to foretell a tragedy. Goblins and Bug-a-boos are always malignant – and we should avoid them if possible!

Most of the nature fairies are probably descendants of pre-Christian gods and goddesses or are the spirits of trees and streams. Black Annis, a blue-faced hag, haunts the Dane Hills in Leicestershire and Gentle Annie who governs storms in the Scottish lowlands, are believed to be descended from the Celtic goddess Danu, mother of Ireland’s cave fairies. Mermaids and mermen, river spirits and spirits of pools, are the most common nature fairies.

A famous fairy story

One of the most famous fairy stories, and the photos that we have probably all seen was of the Cottingley Fairies who appeared in a series of five photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths two young cousins who lived in Cottingley, near Bradford. In 1917, when the first two photographs were taken, Elsie was 16 and Frances was 9. The pictures came to the attention of world-famous writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (he of Sherlock Holmes fame), who used them to illustrate an article on fairies he had been commissioned to write for the Christmas 1920 edition of The Strand Magazine. Doyle, as a spiritualist, was enthusiastic about the photographs and interpreted them as clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena. Public reaction was mixed – some accepted the images as genuine, but others believed they had been faked.

Interest in the Cottingley Fairies gradually faded after 1921. Both girls married and lived abroad for a time after they grew up, yet the photographs continued to hold the public imagination. In 1966 a reporter from the Daily Express newspaper traced Elsie, who had by then returned to the UK. She left open the possibility that she believed she had photographed her thoughts, and the media once again became interested in the story and I can remember reading about it myself and wishing the photos were genuine.

In the early 1980s Elsie and Frances, by then very old ladies, finally admitted that the photographs were faked, using cardboard cutouts of fairies copied from a popular children’s book of the time, but Frances maintained that the fifth and final photograph was genuine. The photographs and two of the cameras used are on display in the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

How extraordinary that such a hoax could go on for so long, even deceiving Sherlock Holmes’ creator. It just goes to prove how many of us dearly wanted to believe it was genuine and to believe in fairies… do you?

 

 

 

 

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The chandelier – a touch of glamour in the gloom…

Goodness – I am glad to see the back of January – what a wet and miserable month it has been. February is our shortest month… so before we know it we’ll be in March and spring will be well underway! In an attempt to avoid the gloomy weather, I’ve been distracting myself with some very fanciful ‘window shopping’ although these days, it’s more a case of ‘screen shopping’ as I sit in front of my laptop. I have been cheering myself up rummaging around websites full of lovely bits and pieces for the home. Do I need anything new? Of course not, but it’s fun to look and it’s free!

A snazzy pink number from Next.

One of the areas that seems to have undergone a massive change in the last couple of years is lighting, both indoor and out. Solar powered fairy lights are brilliant and mean we can all light up our gardens without any need for an electrician or any DIY skills at all and they are quite cheap to buy too and cost nothing to run… although it’s true they do need sunshine to charge! For interiors, there are some absolutely stunning lights around and metallic effects seem to be very ‘in’ at the moment and there are some lovely copper lampshades and light fittings to be had. Copper is lovely and warm and would give a soft light for winter.

A dramatic smokey style from B&Q!

But if you want to really ‘go for it’… what about a chandelier? Years ago, a chandelier was the height of opulence and only really wealthy people with large, high ceilinged rooms could have them. But not any more! There are some terrific ones available now from as little as £20 and they come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Dunelm, B&Q and Next (to name but a few) have an amazing range and most of them just fit onto your light fitting like a normal lampshade. Their twinkling light cannot help but cheer up the dreariest winter day.

Originally, chandeliers were made from expensive materials such as rock crystal and bronze so they were well beyond the means of anyone except royalty. The name ‘chandelier’ comes from the French ‘chandelle’, which means candleholder. It was that modest monarch, Louis XIV of France, who really bought into the chandelier when he filled the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles with them. It must have been the most breath-taking sight in an age (1600s) long before electric light, and when the soft glow of a few candles in a candelabra was normally all you could have of an evening. Louis’ massive crystal chandeliers were themselves lit by candles, but their light was reflected both by the thousands of crystals and the mirrors on the walls so it must have been an absolutely dazzling spectacle – can you imagine!

What an amazing spectacle the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles must have been, lit by hundreds of candles, their light reflected thousands of times.

Murano glass tends to be a very ‘Marmite’ design, either loved or loathed!

During the 18th century, glassblowers developed more elaborate creations with bevels and facets. Then the Venetian glassblowers of Murano got their hands on the chandelier and transformed it, yet again, into a sprouting profusion of flower-festooned stems and leaves. You can still buy this style of chandelier made in Murano, but they will set you back a bit!

After candles came gaslights and then electricity and the chandelier has continued to evolve. The development of plastics and Perspex in any shape and colour today gives us inexpensive chandeliers that are lightweight and just plain fun. And why not? I’d quite like a natty little aqua blue one to hang in the bathroom… but I’m waiting for just the moment to suggest this to Richard!

 

 

 

 

 

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Time for tea – part two!

There’s nothing most of us like more than a hot drink and, in the midst of this wet and gloomy January, I am sure everyone’s kettle is in very regular use! A hot drink revives, comforts and warms you all in one go – can’t be bad! I wrote a blog about tea a couple of years ago and lots of you responded and said you’d enjoyed it… so here are a few more thoughts on what is, surely, Britain’s national drink.

I can remember when tea bags first became popular (yes, I am that old!) and loose-leaf tea was suddenly regarded as old hat and rather a lot of faff. In my family, we still used a teapot, but with the new-fangled bags. Nowadays, most people tend to just plop a tea bag into a mug, dunk it a bit – and there you have it. But tea times are a-changing… just as coffee has become a huge industry, with bean grinders, expensive coffee makers and exotic types of beans, so tea is reinventing itself as a healthy ‘on trend’ beverage. Actually, trendiness aside, the amazing range of teas that are now available to make tea drinking a lot more interesting and, in health terms, it’s pretty good for you.

 

Freshly picked tea leaves.

Returning to loose leaf tea isn’t just a trendy thing, you actually get better quality tea. Loose-leaf tea is made from whole leaves or large pieces of leaf that still contain aromatic oils. As you wait for it to infuse, or brew as we used to say, the flavour is slowly released into the water. Commercial tea bags are filled with small pieces of the lowest grade tea, making them quick to infuse. Like so many things in life – what you gain in time, you lose in quality. There are better quality tea bags around now, some with the pyramid shape that gives the tea more room to brew, but loose-leaf tea is still the best for taste.

Going back to brewing your tea properly will also help give you a better cuppa. Just as with coffee, there are now books and websites on how to do this, plus oodles of fancy equipment. But let’s be sensible here – we don’t all have time for an elaborate tea ceremony – so here are a few simple tips for how to get the best from your tea.

  1. Treat yourself to some loose-leaf tea
  2. Use fresh water in your kettle. If you live in a hard water area, filtering your water would be good but it’s an added faff.
  3. Get your water temperature right – black tea (the sort most people drink, like English breakfast, Assam etc.) wants boiling water, as do herbal teas. If you are making green tea, oolong or white tea, use cooling water. Boiling water burns the leaves of these delicate teas, making a bitter taste. Now I know where I have been going wrong with green tea!
  4. Make sure you get the right ratio of tea to water, read what it says on the packet, or do what my mother always did – a teaspoon per person, plus one for the pot! Then leave your tea to brew. Black teas need about three minutes.

But let’s not forget something very important… if we went back to loose-leaf teas we’d be able to see our fortunes! Tasseography is the art of reading tea leaves or fortune-telling. As a child, I remember my grandmother doing this and I was always enthralled! Make a pot of loose leaf tea, pour yourself a cup (ideally a white cup) sip your tea, leaving the tea leaves and a little liquid in the bottom. Then, swirl the contents three times and upend your cup carefully over a saucer, getting rid of the last bits of liquid. You then need to squint closely into your cup at the tea leaves still clinging there and look for the symbols. The common ones include stars for good luck, spirals for creativity and parallel lines for travel or change. Just think what we have been missing all these years!

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Willow Pattern extravaganza!

This lovely collection of projects all used our fantastic Willow Pattern dies. They are a collection that can be used individually or together to create some really special projects.

I have had willow pattern everyday plates for many years. I think it’s a classic design that fits well with my cottage style kitchen and the ones I have don’t cost the earth – if you happen to break one! There are many objects around that use the willow pattern story. There are several ‘legends’ about the meaning of the Willow Pattern and what it depicts – all fabricated it would seem. It was first published as “The Story of the Common Willow Pattern Plate” in the magazine The Family Friend in 1849… and there was me thinking it had oriental roots.

I looked it up on Wikipedia the other day and this is the legend mentioned there:

The Romantic Fable: Once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter (Koong-se). She had fallen in love with her father’s humble accounting assistant (Chang), angering her father. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social class.) He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.

On the eve of the daughter’s wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves (possibly a later addition to the tale, since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates).

If any of you are interested in making the tea set pictured here, made by the lovely Sylvie Ashton then drop me an email on joanna@joannasheen.com and I will pass on the instructions and templates she sent me not long ago.

Generally speaking the cards are all really easy to make as once you have your blue and white theme sorted out (ie white on blue or blue on white) the diecuts make the card by themselves really! Have fun, smiles Joanna.

 

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