Welcome to my Country Days Blog!

I’ve lived in Devon for over 20 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, while taking our dog Welly for a walk, 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 start sharing 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!

Tuesday
Sep022014

Cut flowers – one of summer’s many pleasures

Wandering around the garden with a pair of scissors, snipping here and snipping there, is a bit of an August treat for me.

While some people are expert flower arrangers, or just have a natural flair, others just plonk flowers in a vase. But it doesn’t matter what level of skill you have, truly, as decorating the house with flowers from your own garden is one of summer’s many pleasures.

How and when to pick your flowers

  • Don’t pick flowers in the heat of the day, as they will quickly wilt. Pick last thing at night or first thing in the morning.
  • Don’t try to arrange your flowers straight way. Instead, stick them into a bucket of tepid water and allow them to recover for a few hours or overnight. This will prolong their vase life.
  • Remove the leaves from the bottom half of the stem – you don’t want any leaves left below the water level, as they will rot. If there are fewer leaves there is less demand on the stem and the flower is less likely to flop.
  • When picking annuals and biennials take out the leading shoot by cutting just above a side branch with a bud. This will encourage more flowers.
  • The more you cut some annuals, such as sweet peas (one of my absolute favourites!), the more flowers the plant will produce.
  • Take care with lilies – I think we probably all know this, but I’ll say it again – the pollen can stain hands, clothing and upholstery and is poisonous to pets.

Even a very simple arrangement can look stunning. I remember going to a very ‘laid back’ wedding reception that was held in a barn. They had two long tables covered with gingham cloths and the only table decoration were rows of jam jars filled with hedgerow flowers barely arranged, just left to tumble and froth as nature intended - and the effect was enchanting!

Here, I’ve used a plain glass vase - but it could just as well be a large jar, and a zinc bucket, for a more rustic look. To start off, place the flowers in your vase stem by stem and vary the heights. You will need some tall – two or three times the height of your vase – and some shorter stems for support. Don’t be tempted to overfill the vase as this can make the arrangement look cramped. Add foliage such as a favourite grass or leaf stem to give an interesting contrast. 

The important thing is not to worry too much about creating the perfect arrangement. Too neat is not a good look, go for ‘natural’. A pretty vase and plenty of colour are really all that is needed. And if the flowers are fragrant that’s an added bonus.

Have fun!

Friday
Aug292014

Edam: much more than just a cheese!

Richard and I have had a lovely long weekend this summer visiting Amsterdam and the surrounding area with our American pals Cheryl and Randy. Wow it was so much fun!

Amsterdam is great with lots to see, river cruises, loads of walking (and I mean eight miles a day walking) but all counteracted by wonderful food! As Richard and I had been to Amsterdam before we concentrated on the surrounding areas and just had the best time.

We booked a private tour of Edam and a couple of other towns and this entailed just the four of us and a very nice guide, escorting us on trains, buses and by foot around several little towns. But for me the crowning glory of the entire trip was Edam.

Now we have all heard of Edam cheese and indeed we did find some exciting cheese tastings and attractive cheese shops – see the picture for an example – isn’t it pretty? But more importantly the canal in Edam is lined by the most gorgeous houses, oh goodness I loved them. The feature that captured my imagination the most were the little buildings at the bottom of the garden, close to the canal that were called tea houses (see the round house in the picture). These were like little summerhouses where the ladies drank tea in the afternoon in times gone by (and even now for all I know!) and they just grabbed my heart.

I have a round summerhouse in the garden but it’s very tiny and very full – so no tea drinking happening in there. Maybe in the future, or in another house, I could have a pretty painted summerhouse where we all drink tea? Talking of drinking tea – we did stop later that day and have a great cappuccino and yummy cake at the cafe in the picture surrounded by flowers – gorgeous!

The Netherlands are relatively quick and easy for us all to access, we managed some really cheap flights and I highly recommend the countryside around Amsterdam – pretty, interesting and we had just the best weekend away ever!

Tuesday
Aug262014

With Love

This card shows off the Sue Wilson dies beautifully. The dies used in this case are from the Spanish range – Granada and Galicia. The lacy paper is from our One Summer’s day CD.

This is an 8” square card which always gives you lots of space to really showcase the focal point of the card. The lovely little stamped flowers in the centre are fuchsias from our embroidered flowers stamps. I have had so much fun using this stamp set. I cannot give myself enough time to embroider flowers at the moment and it’s great fun being able to use a stamp to create a similar effect – and yes, embroidery fans, I do realise your embroidered flowers are much more wonderful but this helps me get an effect!

It’s so frustrating for a craft addict like myself – there are so many projects out there and I have oh so little time to get them started never mind finished. I wonder if I will ever get a patchwork quilt finished, that’s been a long held ambition of mine…

Friday
Aug222014

Putting on a bit of a show…

July and August are busy times down here in Devon. Of course, the tourism industry is huge in this area – we are blessed with beautiful countryside and a dramatic coastline – but it’s the strong sense of community and tradition in the countryside that also come to the fore at this time of year.

The rural community is still closely aligned with the farming world and country shows, town carnivals and village fetes are all still important (and popular) events on the social calendar.

Growing giant vegetables, showing your best breeding ram or entering your dog in the agility class are all part of the fun,­ although some people take it very seriously indeed! People go to enormous lengths to build carnival floats, groom and polish their ponies and traps and produce flower arrangements of great ingenuity. It is heartening to see such ‘traditional’ ways of life still carrying on so strongly in this technological age.

My partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, took the afternoon off to wander around a show local to her up on Dartmoor, the Chagford Show, and took some fun photos to give you a real feel for what goes on. She spent quite a lot of her afternoon in the produce and craft tents and when not in there, she was admiring the prize sheep and cattle, oh, and chickens of course. She says she most definitely did not go near the beer tent(!), but might have swung by the cream teas!

They always say ‘write about what you know’, so if you happen to be a fan of our Swaddlecome Mysteries series, this sort of rural entertainment will be well known to you! 

Tuesday
Aug192014

Albert’s chocolate and beetroot cake

Those of you that read my novels in the Swaddlecombe series, (the second one ‘A Violet Death’ is out now!) will know that one of the main characters, Albert, is an avid cake baker. Here is a recipe that he devised for an entry into the Swaddlecombe Show. The beetroot gives a lovely earthy richness to the cake and it isn’t too sweet – which goes down well with my co-author Julia, who says this is the only cake she’s ever really liked! Pah, says a lot for my baking efforts!! So, if like me, you do like things sweeter, I suggest you serve it with vanilla ice cream, or perhaps even add some chocolate frosting on the top.

You will need: 

  • 250g beetroot
  • 200g dark chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids)
  • 4 tbsp hot strong coffee
  • 200g butter
  • 135g plain flour
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • 3 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 5 eggs
  • 190g caster sugar

Method:

  1. Butter a 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin and line with a disc of baking parchment. Set the oven to 180ºC/gas mark 4.
  2. Cook the beetroot, whole and unpeeled, in boiling unsalted water. Depending on size, they will be knifepoint tender within 30 to 40 minutes. Drain and then cool under running water… at this point you may want to put on some rubber gloves to avoid having bright red hands from the beetroot juice! Peel, slice out their stem and root, and whizz in the blender to a rough purée.
  3. Melt the chocolate, snapped into small pieces, in a small bowl resting over a pan of simmering water. Don’t stir. When the chocolate looks almost melted, pour the hot coffee over it and stir once. Cut the butter into small pieces – the smaller the better –and add to the melted chocolate. Dip the butter down under the surface of the chocolate with a spoon (as best you can) and leave to soften.
  4. Sift together the flour, baking powder and cocoa. Separate the eggs; put the whites in a mixing bowl. Stir the yolks together.
  5. Take chocolate off the heat and stir until the butter has melted into the chocolate. Leave for a few minutes, then stir in the egg yolks. Do this quickly, mixing firmly so the eggs blend into the mixture. Fold in the beetroot. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold in the sugar. Carefully fold the beaten egg whites and sugar into the chocolate mixture, using a figure of eight movement and a metal spoon – do not over mix! Fold in the flour and cocoa.
  6. Transfer quickly to the prepared cake tin and put in the oven, turning the heat down immediately to 160ºC/gas mark 3. Bake for 40 minutes. The rim of the cake will feel spongy, the inner part should still wobble a little when gently shaken.
  7. Leave to cool (it will sink a tad in the centre), loosening it around the edges with a palette knife after half an hour or so. Remove the cake from its tin once it is completely cold. Serve with clotted cream, double cream or vanilla ice cream… and it should be ever so slightly squidgy in the middle - which is divine!