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Happy Halloween!

Skyline pumpkin

Happy Halloween!

I hadn’t carved a pumpkin since I was a little girl, so this weekend Harry and I decided to give it a go.  I’d forgotten just how much mush, seeds, grunt-work and elbow grease are involved in hollowing out pumpkins; any tips for shortcuts would be very welcome for next time.

For Harry’s we used cookie cutters and a hammer to stamp out bat shapes, and then for mine I used a black Sharpie pen to hand-draw the London city skyline, including Big Ben, Tower Bridge, St Paul’s, the London Eye and – of course – the Gherkin :-)

London Skyline Pumpkin

I used a drill with various sized drill bits to punch out holes all along the skyline for windows and lights (if it’s tough to hollow out a pumpkin, it’s gloriously satisfying to drill through it; like a knife through (soft) butter – I could do it for hours…).  Then a craft knife, for bigger, squarer apertures.  Much duller and requiring considerably more concentration and steadiness.

And now it’s Halloween, our pumpkins are glowing and the night beckons…

have a good one, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing!

Pumpkin cityscape

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October!

I love October.  There’s something about the changing of the seasons and the arrival of the first frost …and the very, very first beginnings of the whisper of Christmas (I know, I know!! I can’t help it).

Here are some of the things we’ve been upto;

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Making yummy gingerbread ghost cookies with some spooky Halloween cutters (recipe here).  I made and froze some extra batches of gingerbread to use at Christmas.  The smell of it – melted butter, ginger spices, caramelising sugar – is just divine.

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We used the cutter to cut the same shape out of rolled fondant icing and then added googly candy eyes for maximum effect.  Almost – but not quite – too good to eat.

And then outdoors, planting bulbs for the springtime.  We jammed large terracotta pots full of these feathered tulips bulbs from Amsterdam (my favourite!).

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…and then hyacinths too; I hope these ones will flower in time for Christmas.  We’ve popped them in the shed to kickstart them in the damp and dark before bringing them in in December.

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We’re revelling in a change of pace with half-term break this week, but before that there was a scramble for finishing homework and spellings and projects like this one; the brief was ‘make a Paddington Suitcase out of a shoebox’.

Hmmm.  Quite possibly one of the messiest things EVER, but a very cool result.  I might jettison my reliable overnight bag and take this little number next time I’m travelling with work;

Paddington Bear Shoebox Suitcase

And finally, baking chocolate brownies!  Because this season of jumpers and jeans and big boots and soft scarves can hide a multitude of sins, and there’s no time like the present to begin..

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(Our favourite recipe for the choc-raspberry brownies is here…)

Have a lovely week, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing!

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In Praise of Autumn

This weekend has been a beautiful one so far, in the way that only a crisp, October weekend can.  Chilly mornings, pierced with brilliant sunshine and a newfound freshness.  In the park, horse chestnuts crunched under our feet and leaves swirled in the breeze; we wore our coats and scarves for the first time; shedding them after only a few minutes as the warmth broke through.

Inspired, Harry and I carefully picked some pumpkins and gourds and gathered armfuls of pine cones in the forest.  Last night, with a glass of wine in hand, I made this Autumn Lady who now graces the kitchen and wears the season in the folds of her skirts….

Harvest Lady

Built around a simple chicken-wire base, her dress begins with scraps of leftover silk fabric (from long-ago curtains). then branches of willow sprayed with coppery glitter. Dried poppy seed heads (from these flowers!) and faux crysanthemums mix with tiny fir cones, parting to reveal a giant, Cinderella-esque pumpkin…

Pumpkin dress

 

Pumpkins and gourds

The top of her dress is a simple length of linen, wrapped and tied with one of my belts (I am reassured by the fact that it strains a little more on her waist than mine…)

Autumn lady

Her presence in the kitchen has received a mixed reception from the household; it’s true that she does impede the direct line between kettle and fridge.  Also true that when you venture downstairs in the early-dawn, her profiled, looming figure can look startlingly like an intruder hell-bent on murderous attack (takes a few minutes to recover from that, I can confirm).

But still, she’s staying awhile…

p.s.

A winter dress, and a breath of Springtime.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

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Dream house Renovation: The Dressing Room

Dressing room ladder

It seems inconceivable that just five years after moving into our rambling, creaking old house we could be decorating a room for the second time.

Harry’s then-nursery was the first room we did anything to on our list of priorities (a list pages-long, that still sits tacked to a noticeboard somewhere in the hallway, the paper curled at the edges now, with a faltering list of ticks and crossings-out).  We wanted a room that felt, to him, exactly like the one he had left behind; a cocoon and a place for dreaming and comfort.  We picked the smallest room in the house, and used Cole & Sons ‘Woods’ wallpaper for a magical night-time feel.

Then within a couple of years, Harry graduated to a bigger room; one with enough space for books and toys and a bunkbed; for den-building and story-telling.  I slowly took over the old nursery as a room to store clothes and handbags, but it looked very much like a room with an identity crisis…

nursery wallpaper

…so last week I funally took it in hand and gave it a makeover to be a proper dressing room.

Dressong room peg rail

I used Piet Hein Eeek wallpaper on two of the walls for a Scandinavian, cabin-like feel; the room gets a weak, Northern light so the cool, bleached look of the plank-wood wallpaper suits it perfectly;

dressing room with Scrapwood wallpaper

The eagle-eyed may remember that I used the same wallpaper, hung horizontally, on a chimney-breast in the main bedroom;

Piet Hein Eek wallpaper on a chimneybreast

I added simple peg rails made of unfinished timber and shaker pegs, painted with a single coat of chalk paint to blend in with the walls (I left the pegs in their natural state).  It echoes the guest room with its wall-to-wall peg rail.

Peg rail with shaker star

I borrowed a comfy chair from the kitchen which has rapidly become a place where discarded clothes accumulate daily.  I hasten to add, having looked at this picture (below) more closely, that I don’t wear these cut-off shorts and heels together.  Channelling Pretty Women is never a good idea.

Dressing room chair

I moved an old chest of drawers down from the loft  (*I lie; I had nothing to do with its journey down from the loft. That took lots of effort and cursing from two grown men and I made myself scarce as soon as the difficulty of the situation became apparent).  I painted the knobs silver – after purchasing the wallpaper, new knobs seemed like a luxury too far – and from a distance they could be mistaken for pewter.  A distance, okay?

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Dressing room tableau

This matronly mannequin has moved from the spare room and now houses bits and pieces of jewellery, pinned to her ample bosom;

vintage mannequin

And one of my favourite new additions; Ikea cabinets make the most of the super-high ceilings and provide a home for my handbags.  The only problem?  I can’t yet fill them all.  What a nice problem to have. (On the other side of the room and not shown; Ikea ‘PAX’ tall mirrored wardrobes which bounce the little available light around and are crammed full of everything else…)

handbag cabinets

it’s an unashamedly girly room, and as such, I have it completely to myself in this house of men; the mysteries of women being very much a fontier not to be breached.

Now, to the handbag-cabinet-filling opportunity…

 

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Tales from a vintage kitchen

Tales from a vintage kitchen

Last month, I was browsing in a local antiquarian bookstore and chose a couple of old paperback novels.  When I got home, I flipped one open and this carefully folded letter fell out…

vintage letter with recipes

‘Dear Miss Cole..’ it began, and then carefully detailed several recipes for sweets that the two correspondents had obviously discussed.  It’s a charming, curious letter so redolent of a bygone era when new friends would still address each other as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ rather than use first names; I’m guessing it must be at least several decades old.

The other thing that struck me is how simple the recipes were.  Where today you might find an elaborate list of ingredients (‘scrape a vanilla pod’ …’add a pinch of sea salt’), the caramel toffee described by the author Nancy Evans contains just butter, golden syrup, sugar; a gloriously simple trio. Nancy goes on to describe ‘American Sweets’ such as nougat, marzipan, cream almond and peppermint creams, warning with admirable self-control that ‘all of these sweets are better if not eaten for 24 hours’.  Nancy strikes me as a woman of discipline who would find the impulsiveness of our household a challenge…

vintage american candy recipes

So of course, I had a go at making the caramels, to see what happened.

The instructions are sparse (rather like the technical challenge in TV’s Bake Off programme, they leave much to the wits and imagination of the cook), offering only that you melt the butter, combine with the other two ingredients, boil and stir.  I duly did this – whilst uncorking a bottle of wine with my other hand and pouring a glass – and then poured the boiling caramel toffee mixture into lined loaf tins to set.  Once cooled, I placed them in the fridge for 30mins, at which point they looked like this (below); a shot that will not win any mouth-watering food styling awards..

making caramels

…and then I sliced the caramel into inch-long pieces with an oiled knife and rolled each one in a small piece of greaseproof paper.

Apart from 3 small pieces which I ate, because it was the only responsible thing to do.  They were…. delicious, if a little bland.  I’d add a pinch of sea-salt, if you try this yourself, and so I duly sprinkled a little on the top of the second batch.

Then I decided to scan and print the letter to make up a couple of gift bags so that friends could glue their teeth together too, at the earliest opportunity;

A paper bag of caramels from a vintage recipe

Tales from a vintage kitchen

In truth though, the caramel toffee-making was secondary; it was finding a very old letter tucked away in an dog-eared novel belonging to the mysterious Miss Cole that was the real magic…

Have a wonderful weekend!

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and p.s. thanks for all the lovely comments on this post, which had me smiling all week  x

 

DIY Driftwood Boats

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I love the sea.  Specifically, I love wild, empty beaches and the magic of a newly-washed shoreline and all the treasures that the tide leaves behind. Whether it’s Christchurch, New England or Monterey, my family has become wearily attuned to coming home with a large, suspiciously-smelling bag full of beach finds.  I keep a big bucket in the art room, labelled ‘Driftwood and the Sea’, and last weekend I finally had a rummage through and began to craft a small fishing fleet…

How to make a driftwood boat

DIY Driftwood fishing boats

And because every fisherman needs a warm and and inviting home to navigate back to as dawn breaks; a couple of cottages too, complete with chimneys and freshly laundered sheets drying on the line…

Fishing cottage made from driftwood

I started by sorting out some of the most interesting looking bits of wood I’ve collected over the months (ok, years..)

Driftwood

…and then rummaged through the art room to gather together all kinds of bits and bobs I might need.  I used…

  • Old nails and screws to make masts, chimney pots and washing line posts.  If you don’t have any old or rusty ones to hand (we have an ancient shed full of them), you can paint them or even rust them yourself with tutorials like this (but really, you could so something much more exciting instead I’m sure)
  • Eyelets, to make windows and portholes
  • Wire, for sails and bunting and washing lines
  • Paint – any paint – and sanding paper, so that when it’s dry you can gently buff it and make it look more weathered and aged
  • Beads, shells, bells and any other things you have lying around
  • Scraps of linen (from a favourite, ancient pair of trousers that finally became too holey and revealing to wear)

Materials for making driftwood boats

Painting the wood is simple; I used a couple of layers of colour, blended unevenly, in complementary sea-like tones…

painting wood for driftwood boats

And as for the rest?  It’s entirely upto your imagination and whatever you have to hand.  After all, each boat should be unique, and none of them need to be remotely sea-worthy.  In case you’re interested in giving this project a go, and have a similar haul of driftwood (or an opportunity to go collecting), here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how I made each of these.

Driftwood Fishing Boat deconstructed

Driftwood Fishing Boat 2

Driftwood Fishing Village 3

p.s. three other nautical projects; paper boats, beachcomber table settings and cork boats… and one of my favourites ever; Harry’s Ark.

Have a wonderful week!

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How to print a fish (and other useful skills you didn’t know you’d been missing)

Have you ever heard of Gyotaku?

Gyotaku fish printing DIY

It’s the ancient Japanese art of printing beautiful pictures from fish, and artists devote years – lifetimes, even – to refining the skill.  I stumbled across this by accident, and came across a myriad of sites which explain how to catch and then carefully cleanse and fillet your fish, before stuffing its every nook and cranny with absorbent tissue  and gently pinning its fins into a delicate, aesthetically pleasing fan shape before beginning your print.

Or. Or. You could do what I did and choose two sardines from the supermarket for the princely sum of 75p, and use those instead.  Yes; with apologies to the Gyotaku community of practice, here is the simpleton’s guide to achieving an acceptably pleasing print within a morning, and then being able to cook and eat your fish for lunch afterwards.  Just rinse it first, would be my insider tip.

gyotaku (Japanese fish printing) materials from Katescreativespace.com

You’ll need;

  • A fish.  Two if you can afford a spare.
  • Rubber gloves.  Because it is a dead fish after all, and remember that you have a fresh manicure that it is not worth sacrificing for this project.
  • A piece of foam board or polystyrene that you can carve out for your fish
  • Pins, if you are keen to arrange your fish.  Skip this bit if your constitution is even remotely delicate.
  • Paint; I used silver, black and grey for my prints
  • A piece of silk or thin cotton, or super-light silk paper like this or this (try art and craft shops; it’s often sold with giftwrap or in small, single sheets).

First, rinse and pat dry your fish.  Oh, put the gloves on first.  Sorry.  Start with those.

Let’s try again.  Put the gloves on and then rinse and pat dry the fish.  Do not look it in the eye; it will only make it harder.

Then, draw around the shape of your fish on your foam board/polystyrene and cut out a shallow hollow for your fish to fit into.  This will stop it rolling around when you paint it and make prints.  Then, place your fish in the hollow you’ve made and daub colour all over your fish.  I used silver paint, and then added grey and black in the areas of the fish that looked the darkest.  I peeled off my gloves and took this single picture to help.  Then it just got too messy to take pictures of anything.  Too many fish scales; too much paint.

Gyotaku fish on board

Once you’ve painted your fish, you need to act quickly before it dries.  Pick up your piece of silk or silk paper and place it over the fish, and then pat it all over, making sure you press the shape of the fish and its fins into the paper.  Peel the paper off and place it aside to dry; you might get a second print, but usually you’ll need to reapply the paint to get a good second print.  Practice makes perfect; my first print looked like this….

Gyotaku fish printing DIY project

Recognisably a fish, but only just.  So next time I added more paint, including a good splash of black over the eyeball, and got a much better set of prints…

Gyozo fish print 3

Once you’ve made a print that you’re happy with, wait for it to dry and use your brush and paints to add any further detail or highlights that you want to.  I then cut out my fish print and glued it to a piece of white card so that the print stood out more clearly..

Gyotaku fish printing simple DIP project

 

Gyotaku printing project - make beautiful prints of fish!

 

Gyotaku printing onto silk paper

Once you’ve made your prints, you could scan them and print them onto different surfaces or make patterns.  Or use the originals for cards, as I did.  It’s a great project to try with kids, because it’s messy, involves dead things and paint (cool combination!), and the results are instant and gratifying. Just allow a bit of time for clearing up….

Have a great week!

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Olympic Fever!

Are you following the Olympics?  It is the highlight of the year as far as my husband is concerned, and so we’ve been glued to the TV and radio, following the inevitable highs and lows and moments of glory and dashed hopes that characterise every single day in Rio.  Lord knows what we’ll do next weekend when it’s all over.  Olympic fever peaked four years ago when London actually hosted the Olympics and we got to experience it all at first hand; to celebrate we held an outdoor Alternative Olympiad party at home, and a new tradition was borne… so this weekend, we did it all again!

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A wide range of friends were invited (grown-up friends; this was one party that was not aimed at kids..) and asked to come ready for a night of fun in Olympic costumes, national colours or simply clothes they could move freely in – and we began to prepare.  Harry was allowed to stay up to light the olympic torch and officially open the evening’s event; he and I wore simple t-shirt and short combos, but used this easy cool-peel transfer paper to add an Olympic image to our outfits….

Olympics kids outfit Olympics t shirt

We scanned eBay for some olympic accessories and found wristbands and medals; each guest was given a different colour band on arrival to create mixed-up teams; a great way of getting everyone mingling and finding the other members of their team.

Olympic party accessories

Dorothy, who lives in the bathroom downstairs, modelled some of the gear very fetchingly.

Dorothy

We strung bunting across the patio and lights in the trees, and set up pergolas in case of rain (this is England; there is always rain..).  We positioned the Olympic cauldron (usually a stainless steel firepit; briefly repurposed) securely on a table ready to be lit in the evening, and posters around the garden signed the different events .  Finally an olympic flag marked the entrance to the games.

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Olympic party flag

We set out a long table of drinks for both the serious athletes and those more intent on having fun!

Olympic party drinks

drinks olympic drinks

And then the guests began to arrive, looking wonderful in a series of steadily more impressive and outrageous costumes…

Olympics party guest

(including a WADA official, who looked highly corruptible)

WADA official olympic costume

Olympic party guests

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Olympic Guests

The podium we made in 2012 for our first party  has miraculously survived in the garden shed; far from stable, it nonetheless provided a fitting platform for posing.

Events included trampolining, where 2 members from each team were asked to work through a few simple moves remembered from childhood (the tuck jump, the star jump, and the seat drop), before busting out any personal sequences or flamboyant poses to attract additional points from the judges… and lawn volleyball, which roughly – very roughly – followed the rules of beach volleyball, though with the added hazards of the ball getting stuck in low hanging trees, or players attacked by the midges who felt all their Christmasses had come at once to find so many  people available in the same place.

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And then team relay races, including the Aquatic event, which required participants to don a large rubber ring, mask and snorkel and be wheel-barrowed by their partner along the race track to victory.  It was as ridiculous and glorious as the picture below suggests..

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Dinner was a BBQ between events, and then as darkness fell like a blanket we lit a fire pit and toasted marshmallows, and opened more wine.

You’ll notice the distinct absence of photos after 8pm; partly to protect the dignity and innocence of all involved, but mainly because life dictates that sometimes you just need to put the camera down and hurl yourself into the fray; far too much fun to be experienced from behind the lens :-)

An audit of the garden on Sunday (with a rather sore head, I confess) generated an eclectic collection of lost parts of costumes, spectacles, shoes, flags and pom-poms;

a night to remember, and one we might just find the energy for again in 202o!

Have a great week, wherever you are and whatever you’re upto

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Fat-Free Ice-cream Cupcakes! (*Okay, they’re not fat-free at all. Not even slightly).

Ice-cream or cake?  Cake or ice-cream?  Which to choose?  Debate no further; have it all.  Have both!  Well, almost…

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Last week I was inspired by this divine-looking recipe from Waitrose for cupcakes baked in an ice-cream cone and laced with marshmallow-style icing, with a hidden chocolate treat at the bottom – so we gave it a go.  Surprisingly, flat-based wafer cones (we used these ones) don’t burn in the oven, so as long as you wedge them firmly into muffin trays with some tinfoil, they’re pretty foolproof…

How to bake cupcakes in an ice cream cone

Cupcakes baked in ice cream cones

Once the cupcakes are cooled in their trays, gently slice off any tops which have risen above the cone; you want a nice flat surface for your icing.

Make the icing according to the recipe and then carefully spoon it into a large icing bag.  Unlike buttercream icing, it’s firm and pillowy and almost bouncy.  Voila..!

ice6You can test whether you have the right consistency via a number of different means.

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When you’re ready, pipe a swirl of icing onto the centre of each cupcake and then pipe around it, twisting off to give a soft-scoop flourish to the peak of each cake.

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For a true British seaside traditional effect we added a chocolate flake to half of ours…

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Marshmallow-frosted cupcakes with chocolate flake

And then scattered colourful sprinkles liberally over the rest..

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Once they’re set, the only dilemma is which one to try first..

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But be quick.

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For those in the US, the ever-ready Martha Stewart has a similar recipe here that won’t require you to juggle conversion tables for the ingredients.

Enjoy! And excuse us whilst we have a little lie down to recover from all the taste-testing…

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The Making of the Moon

Space fever has gripped our household and refuses to let go.  Ever since British astronaut Tim Peake went into space recently and begun sending back reports of the challenges of zero gravity, the peculiarities of space food and the challenges of showering, fascination with the planetary system has been all-consuming.

So we made our own moon…

papier mache moon

The beauty of this one is that it doesn’t take  years of preparation and three days of space travel to get there.  In fact, a mid-sized ladder would do it.

moon8

We started with a round balloon (ours was about 24 inches, from eBay, Amazon or party shops), and placed it on a waste-basket before covering it liberally with plaster of paris bandages.  We cut them into strips of about 6 inches and kept on going until the balloon was covered.  I wore rubber gloves.  Harry didn’t.  We still have a trail of small white handprints on every surface.

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Then to make craters for the moon’s surface, I cut the bottoms off a few paper cups and we glued them in place, before covering with more small strips of plaster of paris…

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moon1

Moon2

Moon3

We waited until it was completely dry.  The advantage of plaster of paris is that this took about 4hrs instead of a week.  And we only needed two layers.  For the terminally impatient and easily distractible (us, I confess), it’s perfect.  Then we took turns in daubing it with grey, black white paint, before adding a finally coat of shimmery ivory pearlescent paint to catch the light when hung from a bedroom ceiling..  moon4

And now we’re just bickering about whose bedroom it gets to hang in.

moon5A few tips if you’re keen to have a go…

  • At risk of stating the obvious, make sure you’ve got a round balloon to start with; most multipack balloons are oval, so look carefully.
  • The plaster of paris is great fun but takes a bit of getting used to (we got ours from Hobbycraft in the UK, in a pack of 10 rolls for £8).  We dipped our strips in a shallow tray of water and draped them quickly to avoid them getting tangled up.  You can smooth out the creases in situ.  And the moon is a very bumpy place, don’t forget.
  • To hang the moon, use a bradawl to make a tiny hole in the top and then push or screw in a small cup hook; use a dab of strong glue around it afterwards to ensure it stays in place, and wait till dry before hanging.
  • Invite all your friends over to gaze in awe and explain how it only took you about an hour and was effortless and not at all messy.  Keep them away from the scene of devastation that your crafting has caused.

Good luck!

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p.s. it’s good to be back…

A Pause.

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For those who check in regularly; I’ll be taking a pause from the blog until later in July, as life and work continue at a hectic pace.

There are bicycles to be ridden, beaches to explore, deadlines to meet, and a million small moments to observe as Harry grows steadily upwards at an ever-increasing rate of knots.  Time to lean in to the moment and enjoy it. The crafting continues of course, as does a new phase of house renovation – I’ll be back with all of this and more before the end of the month.

Wishing you a wonderful beginning to the summer, and a great long weekend for those celebrating 4th July!

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