Friday, 18 April 2014

Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly Farm

One of the highlights of our trip to Stratford last week was a visit to the Stratford-upon-Avon butterfly farm. You can use Clubcard vouchers to pay for entry. Stupidly, I didn't check the website before we went. I won't make that mistake again! The butterflies were spectacular, and the photos speak for themselves.

The butterflies obviously felt that we smell sweet!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


Most regular readers of my blog will know that DS is a keen wildlife photographer. As he is eleven years old, I can't really send him off to nature reserves by himself. There is only so far you can get on a scooter! This week I took him to Warnham nature reserve, which is council run nature and hence very cheap to get into. It's great for a few hours out in the afternoon. The people there are very friendly and very encouraging to my mini-naturalist. They have an extensive bird feeder section and I was pretty pleased to get a photo of this greater spotted woodpecker, which was on a niftily designed woodpecker feeder.

Sunday, 13 April 2014


We are a one-holiday-a-year family; usually in the UK and normally self-catering in a cottage or tent. This week was a bit of a change for us - we spent a few days in a hotel, (albeit of the budget variety), in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Stratford is mostly known for being the home of a certain W. Shakespeare. Here is his birthplace, which we didn't actually visit:

The prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company is based in Stratford in the aptly named Royal Shakespeare Theatre, (somewhere else we didn't visit!):

Stratford developed around the river Avon, and boasts its very own canal which runs up towards Birmingham. The hotel we were in, (think large cheerful comedian!), was on the canalside, and we could walk into town along the towpath in ten minutes. We were all fascinated by the locks:

There were many narrowboats moored along the canal, some of which had their own garden areas!

Stratford has lots of quirky shops, especially this one:

I was rather surprised that we didn't meet Harry Potter coming out! One of the attractions that we did visit was the MAD Museum which stands for "Mechanical Art and Design" and was full of complex, intricate, artistic and ultimately pointless machines.

A lot of them were marble runs - the children both enjoyed working out the different paths taken.

We spent hours in here; it appealed to DH's logical engineering brain. For me the most enjoyable part of the break was wandering along the riverside in the sunshine, watching the hustle and bustle and knowing I didn't have to do anything!

Monday, 7 April 2014

Learning to cook

DD is in her third year of secondary school, and has two hours of "Food Technology", (commonly known as cooking), every fortnight. In that time she has learnt how to produce two main meals; curry and pizza! Words fail me...
I am fully aware that teaching my children to cook is up to me, and they do help out in the kitchen. However, feeling slightly nervous that she will spend her early adulthood subsisting on ready meals, we have decided that during school holidays that she will cook one main meal a week from scratch. I found an out of print cook book for young people in a charity shop, and off she went. In February we had a pasta dish, and this week she decided to make chicken nuggets. 

I don't know about DD; but I learnt a valuable lesson - always read the recipe carefully before agreeing your child can cook it! This particular version required DD to deep-fry the nuggets. I have never deep-fried anything, and I wasn't very keen to leave my 13 year old in charge of a pan of hot fat! We decided to use a small saucepan, and fry in batches.

The results were very tasty, if not exactly the healthy meal I was hoping my daughter would be learning to cook! They would give McDs a run for their money. I will post the recipe if anyone is interested.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Hoping for chillies

DS has always had a passion for trying to germinate all kinds of seeds. Over the years various pots, containing apple pips, orange seeds or avocado stones have graced our windowsill, with varying degrees of success. One apple seedling did make it as far as the garden, but had a dry and dusty demise.

I cook quite a lot of spicy food and usually buy little packets of fresh chillies from the supermarket. I have often thought about growing my own, but never actually gone for it. Today DS took the initiative, and now I have a chilli nursery on my dining room windowsill. Like all good maternity units, the pots are carefully labelled. Pete, Toby and their siblings won't get mixed up!

He used seeds from a supermarket chilli, so I shall be interested to see if they germinate. If you look very carefully through my window, you can see our rabbit in its run. I will introduce him properly one day, because he is rather lovely.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Continental washcloth

A few weeks ago I decided to have a go at learning continental knitting, and optimistically started out on a simple washcloth. For the technically minded, I used Norwegian purl for the moss stitch and normal continental purl for the stocking stitch. The knit stitch is very simple but the purl took a bit longer to get the hang of. It is not the most beautiful piece of knitting; but it is a forgiving pattern and my deficiencies aren't obvious.

I have been knitting in the English style for over 30 years. So, is continental knitting quicker? Was it worth the effort of learning a new style? Being of a mathematical and scientific bent, I timed myself knitting English style and continental style. Remembering that I am very much a novice continental knitter, I am already quicker at the continental knit stitch. However, at the moment I crawl along at continental purling at about half the speed of the English purl. I obviously need more practice! Well, a girl always needs more washcloths!

Friday, 28 March 2014

The easiest chocolate cake decoration ...

Last weekend we popped down to see DH's parents. The weekend fell neatly between his Dad's birthday and Mothering Sunday, so cake was definitely in order.

This is possibly the easiest way to decorate a chocolate cake. A warning though - it's not the cheapest and it is definitely the most calorific!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Is blogging hereditary?!

Those of you who are particularly observant may have spotted a new blog in my blogroll. Blogging is a bit of a family obsession; I have lost count of the number DH has. For about a year DS has been nagging us to let him join in.  After a bit of discussion we have allowed him to go ahead, with some safeguards. Frankly, anything that encourages an eleven year old boy to write has to be a good thing!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

A breathing space

Today has been unbelievably mild for March in our corner of the South East of England. DD had her practice walk for her Duke of Edinburgh award this morning, so DH and I took DS to Warnham Nature Reserve. It is a hop and a skip from home, and is one of DS's favourite places.

We only had a short time there, and spent most of it in one hide, just watching the birds. DH and I shared my camera.

A grey heron was stalking along the opposite bank. He was hunting, and caught an unwary frog. (DS got a photo of that, which I may link to soon.)


Who can resist an iconic swan photo?!

 A buzzard rode the thermals into the bright blue sky.

A tufted duck kept his golden eye on us.

It was a peaceful, serene hour in the midst of a busy week.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Carrot and coriander fritters

For about a year we have been enjoying a weekly vegetarian meal, spurred on by various bloggers who sent me recipes and wrote encouraging comments. Recently, DH and I have decided to increase it to twice a week, partly because it is cheaper but mostly to reduce processed meat. (Oh sausages, I will miss you!) 

My veg box always contains a good supply of carrots, so this evening I had a go at carrot and coriander fritters from "Frugal Feeding". The recipe is available here. It uses gram flour and sunflower oil to bind the grated veg together. I had never used gram flour before, and after traipsing around the baking and gluten free sections of the supermarket, I finally tracked it down in the Asian section. It is basically ground up chickpeas, and I was a bit dubious about using it as it is very strong tasting. However, having bought a bag of the stuff I felt duty bound to try it. The mixture was very gloopy, and I was worried that it would fall apart in the frying pan. I also cheated and used ground coriander instead of grinding up coriander seeds.

It would be fair to say that I was amazed at the results. The fritters held together beautifully. I served them with pitta bread, mango chutney and the forlorn remnants of last week's rocket. They were delicious! Both children demanded a speedy second attempt. It's just as well really, as I have a whole bag of gram flour to use up!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Continental or English?

No, not breakfast, but knitting! I have used the English knitting method for years, nearly forty in fact. I finished my latest crochet project last week - a dismembered rabbit is awaiting safety eyes and stuffing - and I fancied doing some knitting. I also want to knit using the continental method; my great-grandmother had French antecedents and apparently her needles flew. For some reason, maybe patriotic, my Mum was taught the English method which she passed onto me. I am very comfortable using it, but I am ready for a new challenge.

I had some sunshine yellow cotton yarn in my stash so I decided on knitting a washcloth. I have fancied knitting my own for a while, and the patterns are very simple, just purl and knit with no fiddly bits. I found a good pattern on Ravelry here. I also found video tutorials for the knit and purl stitches. In the end I decided to jump in the deep end and learn the Norwegian Purl first. This keeps the yarn at the back of the work, so ribbing is much easier. It is a bit tricky to learn, and I couldn't get on with any of the video tutorials - it all happened much too fast. However, I did find some useful pictures at the end of this article here.

Here are the results so far. I did the first three rows of moss stitch English style, and the rest is continental. The continental knitting is pretty loose! However, even now I am fairly quick on the knit stitches. I have a feeling this may become my knitting style of choice!

So, what do other knitters out there prefer? Do you stick to one method, or chop and change?

Monday, 3 March 2014

Panic over!

Thank you for the encouragement during the recent Ofsted visitation! I can't tell you the results, as Ofsted would have my head on a plate, but I have been served up as grilled governor twice before, and this time was the least stressful.

If by any mischance of Googling, a hapless chair of governors ends up on this page whilst preparing for an inspection, this is my advice. Anyone else would be better off coming back in a few days!
  1. Don't worry! The inspectors know we are volunteers, and in the end they are there for the same reason as we are - to give the children the best education possible.
  2. Take as many governors in with you as you can manage. I took in ten other governors, and I really valued the support and encouragement of each one. It creates a good impression to the inspector, and other people can chip in when you go blank!
  3. Know your school. Really be on top of your attainment data, data on quality of teaching and pupil premium report. 
  4. Have evidence of your challenge and impact. I took in a folder of all our the evidence from our monitoring visits, surveys, etc. It really helped to be able to give the inspector a piece of paper to back up my answers. 
Right, now that's over for a while, I must get back to my curtains! (Progress is slow but constant.)

Monday, 24 February 2014

Panicking slightly...

...Ofsted tomorrow!

If there is one word calculated to strike fear into the heart of anyone involved in education in the UK, it is "Ofsted".

As chair of governors of a large primary school I am having a chat with them tomorrow. I am taking at least nine others in with me, but I am not at all in the right frame of  mind. It may be a long evening!

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Fresh air!

Today has been the first really good weather day in the UK since before Christmas. It has been more or less continual rain, wind or usually both for weeks, resulting in the worst flooding for years across much of the country. We have got away fairly lightly, with an inch of water in the garage and a lawn the consistency of chocolate mousse. I am not complaining; many people have put up with far, far worse.

This afternoon the sun was shining, so we bundled up and headed out to Wakehurst Place, our favourite place for a walk. We never seem to get tired of it, and if you know where to go you can avoid the hordes of similarly cabin-feverish folk.

Blue sky!  Space!
Wakehurst is home to the Millennium Seed Bank, which has inspired some large-scale sculpture:

 There was also some fairly exotic wildlife:

This is actually a musical instrument, children (and adults) can hit various parts of it with wooden pegs. We all enjoyed trying it out, although I'm not sure what the North American animals would make of Sussex!

There were definite signs of spring, with swathes of cyclamen and snowdrops.

It was so good to just get out and breathe.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Cheesy broccoli pasta

I am still enjoying my weekly delivery of veggies. My supplier has a new family box cleverly called the "star-spudded" box. This is great because it is heavier on carrots and potatoes and lighter on fennel and aubergines. In other words, kids are more likely to eat the contents. Don't get me wrong, I am all for children being exposed to new vegetables, and I am sure many of you have offspring who will happily tuck into kohl rabi or Jerusalem artichokes. All of my efforts with DD have spectacularly failed and anything beyond carrots, peas and onions is definitely suspect.

However, broccoli does feature regularly in my box. DD will not eat it; for her it ranks slightly below Brussels sprouts in her league of most-hated veg. She does, however, love macaroni cheese so I had a go at a cheesy broccoli pasta bake, (recipe here).

It was very easy to make and very tasty to eat. DH is lactose intolerant and we always use lactose-free milk. He loved it and didn't suffer unduly. DD picked out all the broccoli. Oh well!

Friday, 7 February 2014

A little taste of Italy

A new deli specialising in Italian and Polish food has opened in town. I didn't manage to resist. I might have to avoid that road in future.

The little pastry boats are "Barchette Giandua" and are filled with chocolate and hazelnut paste; (think Nutella). The mini cartwheel biscuits are light. crunchy and unfortunately very more-ish. I fear for my waistline!

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

In a bind...

I love new notebooks. They are full of possibilities; I could keep a journal, write poetry, make endless lists, change my life... They can also be beautiful and I am often to be found admiring them in the stationery aisle. They are also expensive so I have been playing with making my own.
I found the instructions in my "Homemaker" magazine which I have been given a subscription to. There is a similar set of instructions here. The paper was also free in the magazine and was designed by Alice Potter

It was a fun project, and a lot quicker than my usual makes! I am thinking that they would make unusual presents. After I've written that poetry and started my journal!

Friday, 31 January 2014

The owl has hatched

In August I blogged about a new crochet project. Confidently I wrote about how quickly I would finish it, given that it was made with four strands of super-chunky wool and the pattern was really easy. I should know better by now...

Well this particular owl took five months to hatch! He has now finally settled down to roost in the corner of our bedroom:

He is a bit of a monster, and is holding at least two duvet covers, sheets and assorted pillow cases. This photo gives you an idea of the colour scheme in our bedroom. It is deliberately very calm, and the owl appears quite at home.

Curtain update: I have cut out the panels of lining material, and am currently tacking them together to make the right width. 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Hot Cross Pudding

When I was a child, hot cross buns were a once-a-year treat, consumed eagerly on Good Friday; toasted and dripping with butter. I have always enjoyed them so I was pleased to find a yellow-stickered packet at the supermarket at the weekend.

I had been looking out for some as I had spotted a recipe for bread and butter pudding made with hot cross buns on Frugal Feeding. Like its name suggests, this blog is dedicated to producing excellent food cheaply. Bread and butter pudding is a great way of using up stale bread; it is a favourite of mine so I was keen to try a variation.

The recipe, (here), was clear and very easy to follow. The results were lovely; real comfort food. Everybody cleared their plates and demanded seconds - you can't get a higher accolade than that!

Saturday, 25 January 2014


Back in August, (yes, August!), I ordered some material to make curtains for DD's room. It has been languishing on the top of her wardrobe since then, while I made all sorts of excuses why I couldn't possibly start on them. Yesterday I finally stopped procrastinating.

This is the first time I have made curtains. Determined to finally master sewing, last year I invested in the book from "The Great British Sewing Bee". 

Image from Mollie Makes
It assumes no prior knowledge whatsoever, which in my case is a good thing! The instructions for making curtains appear reasonably clear. There is also an instruction video from the show here.

It took me a whole hour to figure out what size panels of material I need to cut out. The material isn't quite wide enough, so I need to sew two panels together for each curtain. To complicate matters further, there is a repeating pattern. I haven't even picked up a pair of scissors yet! For two pins I would put the material back on top of the wardrobe for another six months, which is why I am writing this post. Hopefully in a few days I will have some progress to show you!

Friday, 24 January 2014


These made me happy today...

One of the techniques which DH has been learning to help him cope with Aspergers is mindfulness. As far as I can tell it is trying to live in the present moment and noticing the world around you. As I had to take a short cut through some woods today, I thought I would give it a try. I noticed that the birds were in full song - a little early surely - and the catkins were out. I am no arboreal expert, but I think these are Hazel catkins. Spring is on its way!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Catching up...

For this post I am imagining that you and I are having a chat over a cup of tea and a biscuit. As this is an English winter it is probably a bit chilly outside but the sun is shining. (Now you will need your imagination!)

So what has been happening in the Calmly Creative household over the last few months?

DS is still very much into wildlife photography. We were very excited and proud when he won "Young Photographer of the Year 2013" at a local country park with this photo:

Speckled wood butterfly
He was very keen on buying a new "bridge" camera which is somewhere between a point-and-shoot and an all-singing, all-dancing SLR camera. For six months he saved up his pocket money and drooled over camera web-sites. His 11th birthday was two days before Christmas, so we broke a cardinal rule and gave him a joint birthday and Christmas present. I really wish I had recorded the moment on Christmas morning when he unwrapped his new camera; it was very special.

Since Christmas he often has his camera trained on the bird feeders, and he has taken some lovely shots. He has started his own private wildlife blog, but hopefully he will let me share some of them with you!

DS is still waiting to be assessed for Autistic Spectrum Disorder. It has been quite difficult for the whole family to watch his struggles, but we are all learning to cope. On the other hand, DH has thrived since his diagnosis of ASD. He is on some very helpful medication and is on a much more even keel.

DD is in the throes of choosing her GCSEs, which are the examinations English children take at 16. She has a core of compulsory subjects, (English, Maths, Science), and then she can select from a variety of subjects. It is very hard to make such important decisions at 13 as whatever decision you make, you are closing down a number of future pathways. At the moment she wants to follow a career in design and so is making appropriate decisions. 

DD is also starting her Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award, which involves volunteering, learning a new skill, a physical activity and participating in an overnight group expedition. I was very pleased when she chose baking as her skill! She decorated DS's birthday cake, (with a little help from her mother!):

And what about me? I have been re-evaluating my life and my many and varied roles. I have been going to visit a very wise friend who gives me coffee and lets me talk. We crochet together and somehow things fall into in perspective. I am still mulling things over; no big decisions made yet!

It has been fairly quiet on the creative front, but I am starting to change that. I have discovered that creativity is important to me, so I need to make time for it. I have several projects on the go, and a stash of yarn which seems to multiply when I am not watching! So, no craft shops for me, but plenty of finished projects. Here's hoping, anyway!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Mincemeat muffins

I am very fond of mince pies, and most years I produce a fair few jars of homemade mincemeat in November, in anticipation of the creation of dozens of festive treats. Christmas this year was relatively quiet, and I only used one jar in anger. I didn't even manage to offload any onto unsuspecting friends. Apple and mincemeat crumble accounted for some of the surplus, and at the weekend I made mincemeat muffins. This is a recipe which a friend gave me about ten years ago, when muffins were the new baking trend. I have no idea where it came from!


10 oz plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
0.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda
0.5 tsp salt
3 oz granulated sugar
1 egg
8 fl oz milk
8 fl oz mincemeat
3 fl oz vegetable oil
3 oz sultanas (optional)
icing sugar for dusting


1. Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases, or you can just grease them if you want.

2. Sift all the dry ingredients, (except the sultanas, obviously), into a large mixing bowl.

3. Put all the liquid ingredients into another bowl. This is easiest if you use a large measuring jug and start with the mincemeat, then add the milk on top so that the level reaches 16oz and then add the oil. Break the egg into the jug and give the whole thing a good whisk. 

4. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry. Using a wooden spoon mix them quickly together, until no dry flour is visible. Strangely, the batter is supposed to be lumpy! If you are using sultanas, add these with the last few stirs.

5. Fill the muffin cases until they are three-quarters full and bake for 20-25 minutes at 190C/ Gas Mark 5. They are ready when the tops spring back when they are gently pressed. Dust with icing sugar when cool.


These didn't hang around very long! I prefer muffins to the sickly sweet cupcakes which supplanted them in the cake-eating public's affections. And as for cake is just too short. (Apologies to the very accomplished bakers who can actually make them!)