Welcome to my Country Days Blog!

I’ve lived in Devon for over 30 years and while I spend most of my time working in my studio, or in front of a TV camera or on an exhibition stand, country living does give me some time and space… to think about my next project!

A crafter in the country is never bored – nature is a huge treasure trove! Beachcombing, walking on Dartmoor, or rummaging about in hedgerows (while Richard pretends not to notice) produces all sorts of goodies. Shells, feathers, wildflowers, leaves – natural things are so often the ‘light bulb moment’ that gives me an idea for something new!

I have hundreds – actually, make that thousands ­– of ideas and projects from crafts to cookery to flowers that I thought I could share with you through a weekly country-inspired blog.

I love hearing from fellow crafters and swapping ideas and useful hints and tips, so do please feedback your comments on my blog, I’m sure it will be a lot of fun!

Secret gardens just waiting for you…

Spring is so slow to get going this year that I am trying to convince myself it will be doubly good when it finally does arrive!

In eager anticipation of this, I thought that I’d mention the National Garden Scheme in this week’s blog. Some of you may already know it – it’s often referred to as ‘The Yellow Book’ scheme – if not, you are missing out on a real gardening treat. The National Garden Scheme (NGS) is a wonderful idea that not only raises lots of money for charity, but also allows you to visit some absolutely stunning private gardens.

Most gardens that open for the NGS are privately owned and open just a few times each year. Some gardens open as part of a group with the whole community involved. The gardens give all the money raised directly to us (including from the sale of teas and plants); the only exceptions being in some cases they ask that a small proportion goes to a nominated local charity.

When a garden is open, it puts out a distinctive yellow poster – look out for these! A few years ago, I had a wonderful afternoon wandering round a garden that was right next to somewhere I’d lived as a child. It had been home to Enid Blyton many years before and the current owners had done a fantastic job restoring the garden. I had been visiting the area and drove past the end of the road and saw the sign – pure chance. Sadly, that particular garden isn’t open this year, but there are no less than 3,700 across England and Wales that are, and some of them are bound to be near you. 

Buy a copy of their ‘Yellow Book’ Guide and it will tell you all the gardens that open, and when. There are some absolute gems! Their website is also very useful and includes details of when you can stay near particular gardens, details of plant fairs and nurseries etc.

 

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Crème De Cassis Chocolate Cake

This cake is a mega treat and the one we made for this photo was gobbled by the staff in super quick time, apologies if anyone got chocolate cake crumbs in their order! It’s not as hard as it looks honestly, there’s no creaming and it’s well worth trying out!

To make the cake

  • 200g Dark chocolate, 200g Butter, 1 tbsp instant coffee granules
  • 85g Self-raising flour and 40g Plain Flour, 45g Ground Almonds, ¼ tsp Bicarb
  • 200g Dark muscovado sugar and 200g caster sugar
  • 25g Cocoa powder, 3 Eggs and ½ cup Crème de Cassis
  • Preheat the oven to 160c/140c fan and line a 20cm tin. 

 Method

  1. Put the chocolate, butter, coffee granules and 125ml cold water into a pan and heat until all melted.
  2. Mix the flours, ground almonds, bicarb, sugars and cocoa powder in a large bowl, use your hands if needed to get rid of all the lumps.
  3. Beat the 3 eggs in another bowl and stir in the Crème de Cassis.
  4. Now pour the chocolate mixture and egg mixture into the flour and mix until just combined.
  5. Pour into your tin and bake for about 1 ½ hrs. 

Decoration

  • 200g Dark chocolate, in small pieces, 284ml (1carton) double cream
  • 2tbsp caster sugar, blackcurrant jam (or if you can’t find use a tin a blackcurrants drained and mashed)
  • Chocolate curls for top and side.

Method

  1. Heat the cream and sugar until just boiling, take off the heat and pour over the chocolate pieces, stir until the chocolate has melted.
  2. Cut the cake in half and fill with the blackcurrant jam with a few extra drops of Crème de Cassis added too and also a layer of the chocolate mixture. Cover the rest of the cake with remaining choc mixture and decorate with chocolate curls, either homemade as I have done here, or bought.

 

 

 

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Here be Pixies!

Did you know we have pixies down here on Dartmoor…? Little people, or ‘Piskies’ as they are usually referred to, that stand no higher than your knee and live among the rocks and combes.

Numerous places are traditionally connected with their revels, one of the best known being beside the River Dart near New Bridge where grassy banks make a delightful picnic place for folk large and small.

Old stories often relate that pixies helped farmers by threshing corn, churning butter and keeping cupboards free of cobwebs, especially if a dish of cream was left on the hearth as a reward although their good deeds would stop if they suspected they were being spied on.

Dartmoor’s numerous rock formations shelter many a cleft and cave and one particular cave has long been associated with the little folk. Known as Piskies’ Holt, it stands on private ground at Huccaby Cleave. Sadly, today it’s out of bounds to anyone without a fishing licence but this was once a popular place where children would leave a shell, a pin or a piece of cloth as presents for the pixies. I read an article a recently where the writer had been given permission to visit the spot and there, on a rock shelf in the cave lay an array of tiny offerings, some obviously recent! The spooky, but beautiful, Wistmans Wood of stunted oaks on Dartmoor, home to many a pixie, surely…?

Piskies are not only found on Dartmoor there are stories from around the world relating to the ‘little people’. In Cornwall they are known as pisgies, in Somerset they are pixies and in Dorset they are called pexies. It has been suggested that in early times they were all fairies but in the West Country they separated off to become piskies, pisgies, pixies or pexies.

There are many ideas as to how piskies originated. It may be that the piskies are pagan spirits who because of their beliefs are unable to enter the kingdom of heaven. Or, more likely, they are early Christian inventions used to discourage people from worshiping their banished pagan gods.

Whatever the truth behind these little folk, the myth lives on and there are still people today up on the moor who will tell you they have seen them. I haven’t been so lucky, but you never know…!

Are there tales of ‘little people’ where you live? We’d love to hear your stories!

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Wonderful Josephine Wall fantasy card

Josephine is my favourite fantasy artist. Her work is very definitely feminine and appeals across all ages. There is always much more to her pictures than first meets the eye and they can give a lot of pleasure to the recipient.

This particular card was made using an image from the Josephine Wall project book and CD and is fairly simple – the crucial thing here is printing the topper and papers out using photo setting and in the case of the topper – glossy photo paper. This gives the best depth of colour and definition.

The dolphin backing paper in the photo is also the source of the single dolphin embellishments – just pick a couple of the smaller ones on a spare portion of the backing paper. The lovely middle patterned sheet is made by spraying cosmic shimmer sprays onto pale card. You could also achieve a similar effect by using the alcohol inks.

The metal corners could be bought embellishments, as in this case, or you could die cut some corners from mirri card and it’s always fun to distress it to make it look antiqued rather than shiny gold.

Whatever design you make with this wonderful image, you will spend hours gazing at the detailed underwater scene beneath her hair and the dolphins leaping in the sky – I told you it was fantasy!

The mirri card, cosmic shimmer sprays and the Josephine Wall project book and CD are all available on our website.

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Making scent of it all…

OK, I admit it, I am old enough (just!) to remember steam trains. I am also now of an age to get nostalgic about pretty much anything from my childhood.

We are lucky to have a couple of steam railways near us down here in Devon. One skirts the coast and goes from Paignton to Kingswear – just across the water from the lovely harbour town of Dartmouth. The other, the South Devon Railway, runs beside the river Dart between Ashburton and the town of Totnes. When the river is high, roaring over rocks and surging under bridges it is quite an exciting ride!

When I went on it recently, the smell of the steam engine and the leather of the upholstery transported me instantly back to my childhood in Buckinghamshire and the steam trains that puffed back and forth along the Thames Valley. Steam trains also make those wonderful rhythmical sounds, clanks and bangs and little snorts that all add up to make them seem friendly, almost human, with characters of their own, something the poor old diesel trains never had a hope of achieving.

But thinking about the lovely smell of the steam (I suppose it’s the soot really!), it set me thinking about how evocative smells can be. A particular scent can instantly recall long-forgotten memories as if it were only yesterday. Mostly, the memories are happy but some, often floral, remind me of someone I’ve lost and while it is sad, it’s also good to pause every now and then in our hectic lives, and remember them, and smile.

And so, here are some of the other smells that ‘set me off’:

  • Freshly mown grass – school sports days, ugh!
  • Two-stroke petrol engines – an early boyfriend!
  • Geranium leaves – fresh, earthiness in a damp garden.
  • Gunpowder – Guy Fawkes night and the joy of childhood…

What about you? What smells bring memories surging back? Let’s hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile… happy Easter and don’t eat too many eggs!

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