My top five festive reads

One day, I will have more time in my life to read. But at the moment my hectic lifestyle means that there is rarely time for me to sit down and get immersed in a book – despite it being one of my greatest loves! However, this Christmas, Richard and I are having a relatively quiet time, so I am optimistic that I will get a chance to get my nose in a book… but it’s just as likely that book might be the second novel I am busy writing with my partner in crime Julia!

But anyway, let’s suppose I do get a chance to read – here are my top five recommended reads for this festive season:

Recipe for Life – Mary Berry

Gosh, I do admire Mary Berry! She built a successful career and raised a family at a time when it was still a very unusual thing for a woman to do. She’s suffered tragedy and ill-health and come through it all with the support of her husband and family. Now, aged 78, when most people are putting their feet up, she’s possibly more famous than ever through her part in the ‘Great British Bake Off’! I’m really looking forward to reading all about her

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (AKA JK Rowling!)

Like many people, I hadn’t heard of this book until it emerged that the author was J K Rowling, so I decided to give it a go – and very good it was! Rowling is a wonderfully talented author and, although this is a million miles away from Harry Potter, all her dash, style and storytelling skills are in evidence. It’s quite gritty, a bit quirky but the lead characters are endearing. As a bit of a detective fiction fan, I hope she writes more novels featuring Cormoran Strike… which, surely is a bit of a Potterish-name for a character!

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells – Sebastian Faulks

I have always been a Bertie Wooster fan (I adored the TV series with Fry & Laurie too!) and I just love the gentle and utterly ‘silly’ old-fashioned humour. So I was somewhat shocked when I read that Sebastian Faulks had been commissioned to write a ‘new’ Jeeves and Wooster story. But the reviews of this book have all been so positive that I have hinted (unsubtly – how unlike me!) to Richard that I would really like a copy for Christmas! 

Preserves: River Cottage Handbook no. 2 – Pam Corbin

As you know, I love preserving and I really liked this little book. It has a lovely ‘feel to it’ (yes I know I like Kindles, but there is something very tactile about books!) and the recipes are straightforward and delicious. There’s also lots of really useful practical advice like sterilising, filling and sealing tables. If you’ve never preserved anything before – this book will give you an excellent grounding. Pam Corbin is a friend of Julia’s and used to run a jam company. Hmmm… jam company now I wonder why that sounds familiar…?

A Sticky End – Joanna Sheen & Julia Wherrell

Oh come on! You didn’t really think I would leave my own novel off the list, did you? It’s the perfect Christmas read, light and funny and, we have been told, hard to put down! The reviews on Kindle, and the lovely emails and letters we have received from readers of the paperback have been truly heartening. If you haven’t already bought a copy… go on!

It’s available on Kindle or through the website.

Happy reading!

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Festive decorations

I don’t have many decorations around the house – the main focus is always my huge Christmas tree. I have an eight-foot high Nordic spruce and we love covering it with happy family memories and decorations made by both the girls over the past 30-plus years. This year there’s going to be a small angel on the top with ‘Grace’ embroidered on her skirt – thank you John Lewis website!

The other items I concentrate on are a lovely wreath for the front door and, lastly, a table centre for the big meal itself. This year I decided I wanted a combination of the lovely country look of oranges and cinnamon with the elegance of orchids and roses – and it looks amazing! I am not blowing my own trumpet – this year my wreath has been made by Karen at 2020 Flowers who is an outstanding florist based here in the village. She delivered the wreath this morning and it really is fantastic. It must have been hard to incorporate everything I asked for and to get it just right, not that I am a demanding customer or anything!

I hang a wreath outside on my front door as I am lucky enough to live in rural Devon where the crime rate is pretty minimal, so I never worry about people stealing it from the door, which I realise might not be the case in a more urban setting. There are good things and bad things about having a wreath outside. It’s great because the cool air keeps it fresher longer and, as it is made on an oasis ring, it’s really easy to water. However, if we are unlucky enough to have a frost over the next couple of weeks, the orchids will get more than a little grumpy. Being near the coast, we often escape really bad frosts and it has worked pretty well most years – but then of course I haven’t had orchids most years!

I’ll keep you posted on how well it’s lasting!

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Fascinating and fun day out!

When I wrote my ‘My Top 10 days out in the West Country recently, I listed ‘The House of Marbles’ as one of my top choices. I am somewhat biased here as this is run by friends of mine, but it really is a fascinating place to visit and has something to interest visitors of all ages.

They manufacture glass wear in the traditional old pottery buildings on their site and I always find glass blowing absolutely fascinating to watch. There’s a museum with lots of interesting facts and examples of old-fashioned games and marbles of all sizes and antiquity. 

There are lots of nice little touches aimed especially at children throughout The House of Marbles. Hidden in among displays are moving life-size model animals such as gorillas with swivelling eyes or slumbering bears, that ‘breath’ and ‘snore’ as you wander past. Children absolutely adore things like this. There’s also a ‘wobbly’ distorting mirror that both children and adults seem to find endlessly fascinating!

The shop is huge and sells everything from exquisite glass wear to modern games and jewellery. If you are looking for unusual gifts – I’d be amazed if you couldn’t find something – it is packed with original items both fun and educational. 

There’s a whole section full of individual marbles for sale that children cannot resist. They can select their marbles just like we used to ‘pick and mix’ sweets in the old days. It’s a lovely way to get youngsters interested in an old-fashioned game and makes a change from their X-Boxes and wiis

On the way upstairs to the first floor of the shop (I told you it was huge!) is, what I suspect is the most popular attraction in the shop – ‘Snookie’ the largest marble run in the UK and possibly the world! As you reach the top of the stairs you will see a crowd of people, most often the male of the species of all ages, standing mesmerised as they watch the marbles clank and skip and run down through the complicated marble run again and again. It is fun to watch, especially as the route the marbles take seems to vary at random.

The first floor of the shop is full of very tempting clothing and kitchenwear and all sorts of lovely things that you know you absolutely HAVE to own!

And, to cap it all, there’s The Old Pottery Cafe and Restaurant. Serving everything from a full English breakfast to very yummy cakes, coffees and teas to snacks and three-course lunches. The restaurant is always busy – always a sign of good food – and locals eat there just as much as visitors. 

And if the weather is fine, there’s a Games Garden where you can enjoy your lunch outside in the courtyard where skittles, chess, giant Jericho and of course marbles are there to be played.

There’s plenty of free parking and no entry fee. The house of Marble is open Monday to Saturday, 9am – 5pm and Sunday, 10am – 5pm. It is closed on Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

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Rare breeds are a rare treat!

A lot of you will already know that I am a bit of an old softie when it comes to baby animals and fluffy things in general… so you can image how incredibly soppy I get when surrounded by a farm full of gorgeous creatures that I am allowed to stroke and pet!

Totnes Rare Breeds Farm is a really rather special place. It was founded by Jacquie and Barrie Tolley in 2001, who were concerned about the decline of traditional British breeds. A scythe, a digger, and a lot of hard work later, they’d built a rare breeds farm, which opened in June 2002. Since then, the farm has been expanded and is still being improved.

What began as a collection of farmyard rare breeds has gradually grown. The smallest pygmy goats, and very inquisitive pigs! I am a big fan of pigs and can assure you, theirs are the sweetest!

You can also get close to the endangered wildlife of the English countryside, making this much more than just a petting farm. You can touch a hedgehog’s prickly spines or admire the gripping pads on a red squirrel’s foot.

Wizard the eagle owl – who is very large and actually a little bit scary – really seems to enjoy affection and he, and his eight feathered friends, can be seen up close and stroked. It’s amazing to be so close to these beautiful creatures and to be able to look right into their eyes.

What sets Totnes Rare Breeds apart is the opportunity it gives to really get close to the animals. The majority of pens can be entered, and almost all their inhabitants stroked, patted and cuddled. They will even give you a free pot of special food to take round to ensure you are the centre of attention!

The Farm is a non-profit-making organisation and relies on the work of volunteers and the support of its customers. You can sponsor the animals with all funds going towards vets’ bills.  And the final icing on the cake…? You can visit the Rare Breeds Farm in conjunction with the South Devon Steam Railway and there are joint ticket deals available. Heaven!

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Summers like they used to be!

Well, what a summer we are having here in the UK! It seems only a few weeks ago that the weather forecasters were telling us we had 10 years of wet cold summers to look forward to, and then suddenly 30ºc for almost two weeks, extraordinary. 

I haven’t really had time to sit out and enjoy the sunshine, but gazing out onto my (parched!) garden through a heat haze, my mind has wandered back to the summer holidays of my childhood. I don’t think you ever forget that wonderful feeling at the end of the school year when you knew you had six weeks of summer holidays stretching ahead of you with nothing more taxing than which game to play, ice lolly to choose or summer frock to put on. Hey ho, how wonderful it was to be young and carefree…

We used to have proper ‘bucket and spade’ British holidays – I think everyone did back then –  this was before the advent of package holidays. So it was donkey rides, with your skirt tucked into your knickers, ice cream cornets (usually with sand in them) and peppermint rock (I broke a tooth on some once). Why did we all clamour for it so much – I suppose it looked fun and the writing through the middle was definitely the best bit. 

Particular aromas always transport me back to the seaside of my childhood in an instant. The smell of Ambre Solaire suntan cream is so evocative, oh and candyfloss – marvellous! But I guess the smell of the sea has to be the overlying one. Some people hate it, I know, but I love that salty, tangy air, so healthy and bracing, it instantly makes me think of rock pools, beach huts and egg and cress sandwiches – and getting changed in that oh so British ritual, under your beach towel. I am sure people aren’t as modest now but on pain of death would an unnecessary square inch of flesh appear from under that towel!

Did any of you have a Ladybird brand ruched nylon bathing costume? I thought I was the bees knees in mine with a white bathing hat on! And then there were all the fathers wearing a shirt and tie on the beach –what’s that all about? Definitely no T–shirt or shorts for my father or grandfather!

Well, I won’t be on the beach much myself this summer but for all those of you that are, do enjoy it and remember to slap on the sunscreen!

So what are your childhood memories of summer holidays…? Do share, it’s always so lovely when I get to hear all your own memories!

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