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Quirky museums for Easter holiday fun

The year seems to be galloping by and, tomorrow, it will be April! If you find yourself looking for a way to entertain youngsters during the school holidays, why not try some of the country’s more quirky museums? There are some amazing ones around – have a Google and you’ll see. I’ve picked out a few ‘interesting’ ones that you might like to visit…

(Click on the museum names to visit their websites).

The Dog Collar Museum

Copyright: Leeds Castle.

I absolutely had to include this museum! Leeds Castle (which is in Kent, not Leeds) has a unique collection of historic and fascinating dog collars that is now the largest of its kind on public display anywhere in the world.

The colossal collection of canine neckwear, spanning five centuries, is fun for children and adults alike. There are over 130 rare and valuable collars with the earliest dating back to the late 15th century – a Spanish iron herd mastiff’s collar, which would have been worn for protection against wolves and bears roaming Europe at the time.

Other collars range from 16th-century German iron collars with fearsome spikes to ornate gilt collars of the Baroque period, through to finely-chased nineteenth century silver collars and twentieth century examples fashioned from tyres, beads and plastic.

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

Copyright: Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.

Located in the picturesque Cornish harbour of Boscastle, this museum was started in 1960 and is now one of the most visited museums in the Westcountry. It claims to have the world’s largest collection of items relating to witchcraft, magic and the occult. Exhibitions change regularly so there’s always something new to see. 2017 boasts an exhibition of ‘poppets, pins and power: the craft of cursing’, which sounds well worth a visit! Being in such a lovely coastal setting, there’s plenty to see and do as well as explore this mysterious museum.

The Bakelite Museum

Copyright: The Bakelite Museum, above, and main header.

Anyone who has clocked up their half century will have come across Bakelite! The first proper plastic, Bakelite was a revolutionary material. It enabled mass-production and was known as ‘the material of a thousand uses’ and, in various guises, was used by everybody. The museum is an enormous collection of vintage plastics, from the earliest experimental materials to 1970s kitsch. It includes Bakelite objects in a huge variety of shapes, colours and functions – radios, telephones, eggcups, musical instruments, toys, tie-presses and even a coffin. There are also domestic and work related things from the Bakelite era, mainly the 1920s to the 1950s, and the whole collection is a nostalgic treat, a vintage wonderland and an educational eye-opener.

The exhibits are displayed in an atmospheric 18th-century watermill, in the heart of the beautiful Somerset countryside between Taunton, Minehead and Bridgewater. Williton Station, on the West Somerset Railway, the longest stretch of restored steam railway in the country, is just a 20-minute walk away. They also serve Somerset cream teas – so what’s not to love about this museum as a great day out!

Gnome World

Copyright: Gnome Reserve.

Yes, really! This north Devon attraction promises ‘a completely unique 100% fun experience, simultaneously 100% ecologically interesting, with an extra 100% wonder and magic mixed in’.

Set between Bideford and Bude, the 1000+ gnomes and pixies reside in a lovely 4 acre-reserve, with woodland, stream, pond, meadow and garden. Visitors will be delighted to learn that gnome hats are loaned free of charge together with fishing rods and you are encouraged to embarrass the family with some truly memorable photos for the family album!

The House of Marbles

Copyright: House of Marbles.

I don’t know why most of these museums are in the Westcountry, I was looking nationwide… goodness knows what it says about those of us that live down here! Anyway, I absolutely must give a final mention to The House of Marbles, here in Bovey Tracey, Devon, owned by some old friends of mine. Whenever you look up unusual museums or great places to visit – the House of Marbles is up there at the top of the list. No less than three museums, an enormous marble run and the chance to see glass being blown, it’s a great place to visit whatever your age. Oh, and it also has a very popular restaurant and great shops!

Have fun!

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Divide and rule!

David Perry demonstrates how to divide a clump of Miscanthus.

This week, I’m handing over to my partner in crime writing, Julia, to tell us about her latest trip to RHS garden Rosemoor where she received some seasonal advice.

It is such a treat to visit Rosemoor on a regular basis, as I am doing this year attending a series of talks, and to see the garden evolving with the seasons. Last week, I went on a garden talk entitled ‘What now? Spring’

The course notes said: ‘Let the RHS experts help you through the gardening year providing a whistle-stop tour of techniques, tips, tricks and advice on seasonal tasks so that you know what you could be doing when. Spring topics covered – dividing and planting herbaceous perennials, spring shrub pruning, cutting back of ornamental grasses, plus other topics of seasonal interest.’

This was exactly what I needed as I am never entirely sure what I should be doing when especially when it comes to pruning. Somehow, I had it firmly in my brain that I had to cut everything back in the Autumn… and was then surprised how many plants I manage to kill off every year! There really is no excuse for such ignorance as there are tutorials online and thousands of excellent gardening books but, somehow, it is always better to be shown how to do something first hand.

Our tutor at Rosemoor was Garden Manager, David Perry. Pruning is always a thorny topic, but within the first minute, David had explained two pruning terms that I had followed but did not know why – prune back to two buds and cut on an angle. Why two buds? If the top one gets frosted and dies, you still have the second one. Why cut on an angle? To provide a difficult surface for water, dust or parasites to settle on. Obvious, really!

The ‘bare bones’ at Rosemoor, beautiful in their own right.

Shrubs grown for their colourful stems or foliage, such as dogwood, need to be cut down in the spring to encourage new growth, known as coppicing. No wonder they hadn’t done well for me before, as I had chopped them off in November! He also demonstrated how to prune shrubs and roses into a ‘goblet’ shape, cutting out shoots that cross over, or were growing inward, to allow free airflow and a general rather lovely shape.

Buying plants can be expensive, so it is really useful be able to identify ones that can be divided to create more. All clump-forming herbaceous perennials, including ornamental grasses, can be divided and, when done regularly, helps ensure healthy plants that will continue to perform year after year. While perennials can be divided at almost any time if they are kept well-watered afterwards, David said it is best to do it when the plants aren’t in active growth. He demonstrated how to divide a substantial clump of Miscanthus using two garden forks back-to-back as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. He made it look easy!

It was interesting to see the ‘bare bones’ of the garden at this time of year. The shape of espaliered and step-over fruit trees were art forms in themselves and it was also great to see the wooden supports staff were creating with coppiced sticks – so much more natural than bamboo poles!

How to divide perennials

Here are simple tips for dividing perennials from the RHS website:

  • Lift plants gently with a garden fork, working outwards from the crown’s centre to limit root damage. Shake off excess soil so that roots are clearly visible
  • Some plants, such as Ajuga (bugle), produce individual plantlets which can simply be teased out and replanted
  • Small, fibrous-rooted plants such as Heuchera, Hosta and Epimedium can be lifted and pulled apart gently. This should produce small clumps for replanting
  • Large, fibrous-rooted perennials, such as Hemerocallis (daylily), require two garden forks inserted into the crown back-to-back. Use these as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. Further division can then take place
  • In some cases, a sharp knife, axe or lawn edging iron may be needed to cleave the clump in two
  • Plants with woody crowns (e.g. Helleborus) or fleshy roots (e.g. Delphinium) require cutting with a spade or knife. Aim to produce clumps containing three to five healthy shoots.

Top photo: Lovely pair of pottery chickens by Somerset artist George Hider.

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Custard, anyone…?

When I wrote about puddings the other week, I did suggest that custard was quite possibly the best accompaniment and that I would look at it another time… well, that time has come!

As I am sure you know, custard is based on a cooked mixture of milk or cream and egg yolk. Depending on how much egg or thickener is used, custard can vary in consistency from a thin pouring sauce, such as crème anglaise, to a thick pastry cream, or crème pâtissière, beloved of so many of today’s chefs, and used to fill éclairs.

Mixtures of milk and eggs thickened by heat have long been part of European cuisine and can be traced as far back as Ancient Rome – perhaps Caesar was a custard fan!?

Most common custards are used in desserts or as a sauce to accompany a pud and usually include sugar and vanilla. But you can also have a savoury custard which can be used for quiches and other savoury foods.

Custard is usually cooked in a double boiler (bain-marie), or heated gently in a saucepan on a stove, although it can also be steamed, baked in the oven with or without a water bath, or even cooked in a pressure cooker.

As anyone who has seen ‘The Great British Bake Off’ will know, creating a good custard is a delicate operation! A temperature increase of just 3–6°C leads to overcooking and curdling and Paul and Mary roll their eyes. Generally, custard begins setting at 70°C and a fully cooked custard should not exceed 80°C.

I am quite a custard fan, but making it from scratch is time-consuming. Nowadays, you can buy delicious fresh custard in pots in supermarkets in full fat or skinny options depending on your conscience. There is also good old Ambrosia tinned custard, always a handy option to keep in the cupboard for an emergency.

However… you do need the right custard for the job, instant, or otherwise. If you are making a trifle, do not do what I did many years ago and used tinned custard, it needs to be a custard that sets! My beautifully arranged cherries and piped cream all sank into the runny custard beneath and I ended up with a bowl full of mush that looked awful, although it tasted fine!

Bird’s Custard is a great way of making set custard quickly and easily and is just what you need in a trifle. However, it isn’t really a ‘proper’ custard at all… Bird’s Custard is the brand name for a powdered, egg-free imitation custard powder. It is a cornflour-based powder that thickens to form a custard-like sauce when mixed with milk and heated in a pan. Bird’s Custard was first formulated and cooked by Mr Alfred Bird in 1837 at his chemist shop, in Birmingham because his wife was allergic to eggs!

I think custard is a very personal thing. I was very nearly put off it for life at school when we were served a quartet of custards of varying degrees of hideousness at school. In order of awfulness they were:

  • White custard – just about bearable
  • Yellow custard – a bit sickly and often lumpy
  • Brown custard – very unpleasant to look at and having no relationship with chocolate at all
  • Pink custard – utterly, utterly vile and sickly with a peculiar smell and very often with a skin on top!!

But each to their own. Perhaps you prefer cream, or ice cream on your pud or were so traumatised by custard at school that you don’t ever want to see it again… I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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In praise of pudding

This time of year, when the wind blows and the days are cold and grey, it is only natural that we think about ‘warming’ foods… and one of the most warming has to be pudding – just the word itself instantly makes me feel snug! Having said that, it isn’t the most healthy of options, but its role in life was always to be a stomach filler and a comforter, not one of your five a day!

Today, we tend to mean something sweet when we say pudding, and people will often suggest pudding when they mean dessert. But, of course, puddings were not originally sweet at all – they were savoury. The term ‘pudding’ is believed to come from the French boudin, originally from the Latin botellus, meaning ‘small sausage, so it referred to encased meats as used in medieval European puddings.

Puddings first popped up during Roman times when they were made using meat, blood or grains and stuffed inside animal intestines, like a sausage, or a cloth bag. Savoury ones still popular today include black pudding, haggis and of course, steak and kidney, but most of our puddings are sweet. Think spotted dick, sticky toffee or treacle pudding, doesn’t that make you feel instantly warmer?

In Medieval times, banquets would feature highly spiced savoury meat puddings and sweet puddings, still using intestines as a casing, that were then boiled, smoked or roasted. I’m not entirely sure I would have enjoyed any of those…

By the 14th century, things were looking up and Richard II’s cook produced a book featuring rice pudding and baked custards. During the next century, pudding cloths first get mentioned as an alternative to intestines… thank goodness!

In the 16th- century life became a lot sweeter with the arrival of sugar loaves (cones of refined sugar) and by the 17th-century cookbooks were being published, featuring puddings we still eat today, such as bread and butter pudding, one of my favourites!

In Georgian times, feasts became much more elaborate with jellies made in intricate moulds and ice cream became popular. But the traditional pudding was still a mainstay and appeared in all courses of a banquet.

The Victorians, who never did anything by halves, had a pudding for every occasion. Recipe books, such as the hugely influential Mrs Beeton’s ‘The Book of Household Management’ appeared, while many were devoted purely to puddings. It is at this time that jam roly-poly, spotted dick and treacle sponge first made an appearance.

Making puddings using a cloth or a greased pudding basin complete with baking parchment and string, plus hours of boiling, was pretty labour intensive. Unsurprisingly, in the 20th century as servants disappeared, so did the traditional pudding. By the 1970s and 80s, we were all into eating French gateaux and profiteroles and feeling very sophisticated. You did not expect to come across a spotted dick on the dessert trolley in a restaurant – very passé!

But then… as so often happens, old becomes new and puddings are back in fashion. Along with ‘heritage’ vegetables and homemade bread, classic puddings now pop up in 5-star restaurants as well as your local café. What should accompany a pudding? Is it ice cream, cream, or good old custard? I think the latter… but that is a whole other subject and one I might just have to have a look at in a future blog!

Meanwhile… Are you a pudding fan? If so, what’s your favourite? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

 

 

 

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The perfection of poppies

fourpoppies

Poppies are always such a popular choice. Obviously, there’s the Remembrance Day connotation but as a field and garden flower, they are definitely in the nation’s top ten!

I love the huge oriental poppies that wave majestically in the summer breeze with their huge frilly heads, I have some lovely pink ones in my garden. Size isn’t everything, and there are gorgeous small and dainty poppies too – like the Californian poppy that adds sparks of yellow and orange in the flowerbed. But for many people, a poppy just has to be red – whether a garden poppy or the glorious sight of wild poppies in the fields and preferably near cornflowers and wheat – a fabulous combination!

This card uses the poppy image from the One Summer’s Day CDrom which features artwork by Barbara Mock. There are so many brilliant ideas on there, whether main images for toppers or gorgeous backing papers like the pale lace backing paper used on this card, it’s a CD I would definitely take to my desert island! The dies here are from my Signature die range and I love the way they are cut in plain dark card and then again using the papers from the poppy image on the CD. The cut petals then slip inside the main outline and make a super match giving a great effect!

 

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