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!

Speedy gift tags

Much as I love making handmade cards, there are occasions when I just don’t have the time to complete a card – or when I am wrapping a present for someone and just want a speedy gift tag.

Here are some ideas to inspire you – all of these were made from odds and ends left on my desk – so zero cost involved really as I suspect they may have ended in the bin on my next ferocious clear up. (Yes, like you are going to believe I have those often – well I do, just not regularly!)

The stamped gift tag could really be any House-Mouse image (or any other suitable stamp) and it is just simply stamped and coloured and then I have mounted it onto a slightly larger piece of pink card and added some ribbon. So often you might have stamped images you have started using and then abandoned – make them up into random gift tags and keep in a box – bet they might come in handy!

The blue flower was rescued from a card that went horribly wrong – you know the ones that get thrown in the bin in a temper. What you don’t have those?! Well I certainly do – very frustrating when they just don’t work and I try and salvage any ‘bits’ and keep them on my desk for another project. This flower had been sitting in my in tray, glaring at me for ages – so here I used up some scraps of green card and die cut them with a Crealies punch, added some ribbon to a scrap of white card whisked over with some Peeled Paint distress ink pad (and an Inkylicious brush) and finished it off with some pearls. Not a tag that will ever win prizes but it looked pretty on the gift I was wrapping up and brought pleasure to the recipient!

Finally the green tag came about because I was making traditional red and green themed Christmas bits and pieces and had quite a lot of green card left over. I do have family birthdays during December as well so I wanted a tag that used up some green scraps but wasn’t Christmassy – here I coloured some cream satin ribbon with a Promarker to match the card and then added a leftover pearl or six and two lonely looking lilies that must have been from another of those abandoned cards!

So grab all those bits and bobs and have a gift tag session – next time you wrap a present you will have a lovely selection of tags to choose from and the gift will look extra special!

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The start of a new year…

Once Christmas is over and we’ve all seen in the New Year, things can feel a bit flat. Thankfully, December and the first week or so of January have been very mild down here in Devon so there are some uplifting and very welcome signs of life on the garden.

As many of you will know, hellebores are one of my favourite flowers. I think they are beautiful in both their range of colour and also in their slightly spiky architectural look. But I love them probably most of all because you can be sure that, even in the darkest, dankest January day, if you have hellebores in your garden, you will have flowers!

In fact, the whole of last autumn was relatively mild and wet. The ground temperature has remained warm and, as we know, plants like plenty of rain, so now they are probably thinking: “Hmm, winter must be over, let’s start to flower.”

Lots of shrubs are sprouting in my garden and I noticed a neighbour’s rhubarb was already sending out new bright pink shoots.

As it’s been so mild, snowdrops and primroses are already making a show – I have heard that in some areas, snowdrops were out before Christmas! Such delicate flowers, they are really beautiful if you stop and take a moment to look at them in detail. A cluster of snowdrops pushing through a mossy bank is a delight to behold.

The primrose is the flower of Devon and, believe me, they really do flourish down here! Because of Devon’s climate, soil and geographical position, the wild primrose can be widely found in woodland and countryside right across the county.

I read recently that, in past centuries, Devon’s old paper mills used to send primrose blooms to customers because the flower was seen – even then – as a symbol of a breath of fresh Devon air.

In a month or so, the banks of our steep Devon lanes will be smothered in primroses, and then I will know that Spring really has arrived.

 

 

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Cross-stitched herbal sachets

These pretty little sachets are made from a cross-stitch kit we sell, I wish I could say that I had stitched them but sadly … no time … but they were beautifully made for me by Gladys Dorr and don’t they look lovely!

I love having fragrance around the house and sachets and little bags of goodies feature heavily in many of the rooms here. Some I fill with lavender, little sachets for example in drawers and with the linen and towels in the airing cupboard. But sometimes I want a different effect, which is where making your own pot pourri comes in handy!

It depends what type of smell you enjoy the most – some people are very flowery, others prefer clean piney smells – I am very fond of citrusy smells and often use oranges and lemons for these projects.

This is a recipe for pot pourri I have used for many years:

Strawberry and orange preserve pot pourri

  • 2 cups chopped dried orange peel
  • 2 cups rose hips
  • ½ cup black peppercorns
  • 1 cup white peppercorns,
  • 1 cup strawberry leaves
  • 1 cup orris root soaked in 2tsp strawberry oil
  • 1 tsp sweet orange oil
  • A few drops of black pepper oil

Combine all the ingredients and leave to mature in a sealed ziplock bag for 3 weeks. Then display or fill little sacks like these.

Another idea is something much more feminine –  and dating back to Elizabethan times

Spiced roses for your linens

Rose petals dried in the shade with cloves ground to a powder and some dried mace.

As the recipe is so old there are no quantities but I used a large spoon of mace and clove combined with every cup or so of quite tightly packed rose petals. In Elizabethan times I am sure the rose petals would all have had a lovely smell, whereas today they rarely do. So add a few drops of rose essential oil before mixing everything together. Leave it overnight and then fill little bags.

Have a look on Google for a supplier of orris root or essential oils, they are fairly easy to find!

 

 

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Wildlife in winter

Winter wildlife in this country, in the town or country can be just as interesting as in the warmer seasons.

While winter is a time of hibernation for many species, it’s also the mating season for others. Vocal communication is vital for many species trying to attract a mate.

A sound typical of the season – and one that sends shivers up the spine – is that of foxes ‘screaming’ in the night. These calls let foxes know each others whereabouts, helping them to find a mate or deter intruding competition. Urban foxes can be seen and heard in most towns and cities and their screams can be haunting and quite frightening if you don’t know what they are!

Tawny owls pair up in winter and the classic “Twit – twoo” sound is actually a combination of calls from the courting male and female.

Barn owls suffer particularly badly in the winter as it can be especially hard for them when it snows and the small mammals they feed on become even harder to find.

They don’t have waterproofing in their feathers and so don’t fly in the rain. Prolonged rainfall can be deadly to a hungry barn owl. My Hen Pal, Julia, found a bedraggled young barn owl in her garden a few years ago and managed to get it to an owl sanctuary as you can see from the photos.

One of the most amazing wildlife sights I’ve ever seen is a group of starlings swooping and swirling in the air as if they are choreographed – interestingly the name for a large group of these birds is a ‘murmuration’! You are more likely to see them this time of year as the birds flock together through winter for warmth, protection and increased foraging success. Keep your eyes peeled – I saw a murmuration just before dusk over some farmland on the edge of Dartmoor, but it’s just as likely over a city – a truly magical sight.

And what of our dear little garden birds? Supplementary feeding is a tricky issue as many people worry about animals becoming dependent on handouts. However, the RSPB (who surely know what they are talking about!) advises feeding your garden birds through the winter months as they will be struggling to find food.

Be sure to provide water too as this is almost as important as food through winter. Birds and mammals will appreciate your efforts as their usual sources freeze over. 

Happy winter wildlife watching!

 

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Checkerboard cake – tastes as wonderful as it looks!

Happy New Year – here’s something just a little different to get the new year off to a flying start – and it tastes as wonderful as it looks! Jo Bridgeman, our accounts person, made this cake and brought it in to share with all the staff – yum, yum! I can tell you, it’s worth working here just for the cakes and recipes we all bring in. You can get the tins to create this clever checkerboard effect from our website if you fancy a go!

Cake

  • 85g dark chocolate
  • 4 eggs
  • 320ml milk (divided 80ml/240ml)
  • 1tbsp vanilla extract
  • 400g self raising flour
  • 400g white sugar
  • 2tbsp baking powder
  • 1tsp salt
  • 227g unsalted butter

Butter cream filling

  • 110g butter
  • 200g icing Sugar
  • 1-2tbsp milk
  • 1tsp vanilla extract

 Chocolate butter cream topping

  • 125g butter
  • 250g Icing sugar
  • 40g melted chocolate
  • 1-2tbsp milk
  • 1tsp vanilla extract

Method

Preheat oven to 350ºF/177ºc, grease the three tins and line bottoms with baking paper.

Melt chocolate over saucepan of simmering water, set aside.

In a bowl whisk the four eggs and 80ml milk and the vanilla extract, set aside.

In the bowl from your electric mixer combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, add the butter and 240ml milk and beat until combined. Then gradually add the egg and beat until combined.

Divide the mixture in half, and stir the melted chocolate into one.

You are then ready to fill the three tins, this can be done using two large piping bags or spooning the mixture in carefully. Place the divider ring in one of the tins and pipe or spoon the mixture into each section, alternating batter colours (example – outer and inner ring yellow, middle choc). The mixture should fill the tin about half full. Now carefully lift off the ring and wash, place into next pan and fill, when finished you should have two pans the same colour and one the opposite.

Bake for about 20mins and once the cake is cool, mix up the buttercream filling and spread thinly between each layer. We didn’t add any jam in this cake, but feel free to add an extra filling of your choice. Then mix up the chocolate buttercream and spread over sides and top of cake, grate some chocolate over the cake and add chocolate fondant flowers to the top of cake for decoration. The cake we made is chocolate and vanilla, but you could choose chocolate and orange, vanilla and rosewater, the combinations are endless!

You could just use two tins and two thirds of the recipe and make a two-layer cake instead of three if you’d like it to be a little smaller!

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