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Monday, 5 April 2021

A wildlife friendly garden - making a pond

 You might think that making a wildlife pond in your garden is a major undertaking, both in terms of financial outlay and time and energy taken.

I can assure you that it doesn't have to be a big job.

This pond went from a delivery in a cardboard box to complete in under an hour and a half, and the whole thing cost around £40.

First, the pond liner from Amazon:

I also got some oxygenating pond plants:

1. Decide on your spot.  You want somewhere that gets some sunlight, but not all-day direct sunlight otherwise it will get pretty warm and evaporate quite quickly, as well as going green.  Of course, you can dig a hole and sink your pond into the ground if you want.  I've done this in the front garden with exactly the same type of liner.  However, you don't HAVE to do this, and it's absolutely possible to put a simple pond on a patio.  Mine is in a gravelled corner next to a wall and near an olive tree.

2. Build up some support underneath.  I was considering buying some 2x4 timber and building a support for my pond, but decided that with the curvy edges that didn't fit with the "easy project" I was looking for.  However, you need to bear in mind that water is heavy, so you will need something underneath your liner to give it some support around the edges.  I put some bricks underneath the shelved areas and built up with some rubble that we've had stacked against the wall for a couple of years.   

You may wonder what the yellow hose in this picture is... it's the overflow from our water-butt. It's gravity fed over to this corner to keep it away from the timber of the garage. I've just bent it around and left it some space.  To be honest, the water butt doesn't have much in it at the moment, as I've now put most of the water into the pond!
3. Next, put some pot plants around your pond.  This not only disguises the black plastic of the pond liner and the mess of the rubble, but it also gives a stepped access for your wildlife to get to the pond.

4. Naturalise a bit.  As you can see, we've not only planted up some of those pots with a range of plants and planted some bulbs and seeds, but we've also added some branches from the holly tree I severely pruned last year to create a wildlife ramp and to disguise that black plastic a bit more.

5. Put some wildlife shelter inside the pond.  If you want bugs and amphibians to take up residence in your pond, you need to give them some appealing real-estate.  They aren't going to be taken with an expanse of shelter-less black plastic.  In my pond I installed a terracotta plant pot, a couple of broken pieces of slate, some gravel and some pebbles of various sizes.  This gives lots of nooks and crannies to allow the wildlife to get in and out and to provide them with some cosy places to live.


6. I'm pretty pleased with how this is looking.  Time to start adding some water.  Here's some oxygenating plants to put in too.  At some point I'm going to add some more pond plants - I'm looking at flag irises as they are very attractive to things like dragonflies - the adult clings on to the plant as she deposits her eggs in the water, and the larva will later climb up the iris to emerge as an adult.
It's important to use rainwater rather than tap water, as tap water has chemicals added in to make it clean for us to drink, but not so welcoming for the wildlife! I filled several watering cans from my water butt.

And here is the finished pond looking very happy in its corner.  With wildflower seeds sown in the planters, and plenty of nooks and crannies for wildlife both in, under and around the pond, I can't wait for the wildlife to move in!  I've already seen a blackbird and a pigeon having a good drink (and a Cocker Spaniel, but she doesn't count), and a blackbird helping herself to the wildflower seeds I'd planted.



Please note - this post does contain some affiliate links.  That means that if you follow my links to buy the products on Amazon, I get a small commission.  It doesn't affect the price you pay at all.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Flying the Flag?

 This post appeared on the Your Herefordshire Facebook feed this morning..

I wrote this reply, but in the end decided not to post it, because I couldn't be bothered with the diatribe of abuse that would no doubt follow from the angry people who seem to populate Facebook (and especially Your Herefordshire's Facebook feed).
However, I thought I'd still go ahead and share my thoughts with you on here.  What do you think?



Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Quick crafty ideas - Harry Potter Party bags


Fabulous daughter is turning 10 this weekend.  For her lockdown birthday, she is having an online party with three friends, using Zoom to do a virtual escape room together.

She is very keen on Harry Potter, so I've put together a party bag for each child, which I'll be dropping off at their homes on my daily exercise on Friday.

I had some plain white paper bags, like this:

They struck me as a bit boring, and as many of you will know.  I don't do boring if I can avoid it.  So I followed the instructions on the brilliant...

Drawinghowtodraw.com

on this page:


I drew them in pencil first, then painted with water colours and finally went over all the lines with a black fine-liner.

Here are the resulting party bags:









I'm so proud of them.  Do you like?

In each party bag, I'm putting:

 a wooden door plaque

Some Harry Potter badges

Some Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans

They will also get some snacks to eat while playing the escape room, and a Chocolate Cupcake (still to be made) with a Harry Potter cake-topper.

Please note - this post does contain some affiliate links.  That means that if you follow my links to buy the products on Amazon, I get a small commission.  It doesn't affect the price you pay at all.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Fabric Scrap Dolls

 

If you're looking for a quick and easy craft to use up fabric scraps and create something lovely, then this is right up your street.  These lovely little dolls are cute and can be as complicated or simple as you want.

I first came across these amazing little dolls at the Medieval Christmas Fayre at Ludlow Castle a few years ago. 

I lovely lady (who I knew from my previous existence in Medieval Reenactment) had a little craft activity where she showed how to make them, and also sold them.

I immediately bought this little family:

To make these dolls, here's what you need:

  • a circle-ish of cream or white fabric
  • a little bit of toy stuffing (just for the head)
  • thread (I use white/cream and black)
  • fabric and wool scraps, felt, binding, fripperies etc. 
  • pinking shears are very useful depending on your fabric - felt doesn't fray, but most other fabric will unless you pink or hem the edges

Instructions

To start with you will need your circle of fabric, your toy stuffing and about a metre of white/cream thread.
Place a little bit of toy stuffing in the middle of your circle.

Gather the fabric together and wrap the thread around tightly to create a head.  Fasten the thread around the neck.  You may need to arrange the fabric a little here so you don't have a big wrinkle where the face will be.

You now have a head, and four corners of fabric hanging down. Take one corner, fold it under and then gather up to make an arm. 
Take one of the loose ends of thread from the neck and wrap it firmly around the arm in a spiral down to the hand and then back up again.
 
 Hold it in place while you do the same with the opposite corner and other end of thread to make the other arm. This may take a bit of trial and error to get the arms the right length for the proportions of your doll.

Wrap the threads diagonally across the front and back to create a torso and waist.
You have now created the basic body and for a female you would just need to add clothes.

To make legs, you manipulate the final two corners of fabric and repeat the same process as for the arms.  These can be a bit rougher as most of them will be covered with fabric.
Next, make the clothes using fabric scraps:
  • Some bias binding or a strip of fabric wrapped around and held in place with a couple of stitches are good for leggings or trousers.
  • a little felt hat or a fabric scrap headscarf are good, or you can sew some wool scraps in place for hair.
  • A simple tunic held in place with a wool belt are nice and easy, but you can wrap fabric into a dress, skirt, cloak or apron, or even add wings for a fairy. You could also sew on little facial features.
My nine-year-old daughter sat and made these with me and was delighted with the results.  It's such a quick and simple activity, and a great way to make use of your scraps.
This is one of the activities in our "Year of Crafts". I'd love to hear how you get on if you try this activity. Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

 

Anybody here like cake?

Hands up?

Yes, me too. And this particular cake is a bit of a sweet-toothed 80s bright coloured throwback, to a time when exotic fruit in a tin was the highlight of the week.

Making this seems a long time ago now, as it's two weeks since I last ate. 

(Not strictly true, but I am sticking to the diet pretty well and cake is not currently happening).

This cake is the perfect comfort food for a winter's evening.  Enjoy with custard.

Ingredients

butter (melted)                   100g
brown sugar                       1/2 cup
pineapple rings (drained)     440g can
Pineapple juice                    2tbsp
Cream cheese                    125g
butter (softened)                150g
caster sugar                        1 cup
rind and juice of 1 orange
2 eggs (lightly beaten)
self-raising flour                    1 cup

Method

  1. Preheat over to 180 degrees Celsius.
  2. Tip the melted butter into a 24cm round cake tin, brushing it up the sides to grease. (If you're using a loose bottomed tin, like me, be aware that it will ooze out in cooking).
  3. Sprinkle brown sugar over the butter and then arrange the pineapple rings over the base of the tin.  I popped glace cherries in the centre of each one for a really vivid pop of colour.
  4. Mix the cream cheese, butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.  
  5. Add the orange rind and juice, 2 tbsp of pineapple juice, eggs and flour.  Mix well until smooth.
  6. Spoon the mix into the prepared tin over the pineapples.
  7. Put the cake into the oven for 40-50 minutes until a skewer comes out clean.
  8. Leave to cool for 10 minutes and then turn out carefully onto a wire cooling rack.
This is one of my creative endeavours this month in my year of creativity.  Considering I had five creative things to do this month I've made a remarkably slow start. 

The crochet is going well, but I'm not sure if I'll finish this month.  I have at least bought the bottles I need to make the wine. I haven't even begun to think about the cushion covers or the macrame and the stuff to make the little dolls is just sitting there waiting for some attention! 

On the other hand, I have been running two Beaver meetings and two Cub meetings via Zoom, I have a lot of Phonics videos on my YouTube channel, and the children are getting on well with their home learning. There's certainly been some creativity going on in the house, even if it hasn't all been mine.
Endangered animals masks made with Beaver Scouts
I really don't know the purpose of the cardboard fort or the Harry Potter x Victorian costume - sometimes it's best not to ask.


Charlie's tin can tealight candle holders that he made with Scouts.

Charlie's pelican, penguin, cat mash-up that he did for an Art lesson.


Saturday, 9 January 2021

2021 - Our Creative Year


One of my New Year's Resolutions is to allow more creativity back into my life. It's easy to become too "busy". I'm certainly guilty of wasting time on social media or on games on my phone.

This year I wanted to put the emphasis on my creative self. Creativity is a type of playfulness (see my other blog www.the-playful-way.com) and I think we all need a bit more of that in our lives.

It also allows you to express yourself, to find your self or your voice.

To help keep me on track and to explore a whole range of different types of creativity, I've come up with 52 different craft activities (this isn't even touching on the creativity I enjoy in the garden, in my writing or in my teaching or tutoring!).

I've divided them into seasons, with the intention that I'll do four or five each month. 

For example, this month I'm hoping to
- macrame a plant pot hanger for the bathroom (1st attempt at macrame)
- make wine (I've been meaning to do this for ages!)
- make at least one cushion cover
- crochet a window valance (like this)
- make some little fabric scrap dolls.
 
What I really like about this is that my daughter has taken a copy of my list. She's ticked the ones she wants to do with me, and has added her own crafts to replace the ones that she doesn't think she can do.  We're going to get crafty together!

I've not been terribly good at maintaining the blog in 2020. I'm hoping that I'll be a lot better in 2021, and blog regularly about my crafting, writing, gardening and family exploits, so you'll be able to see how I get on with some of these crafts.

What are your crafting and creative intentions for 2021?

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Resolution Time

It's that time of year again where we all start making plans for the coming year.

Creating my own resolutions got me thinking...

Where do New Year Resolutions come from?

We know that more than 4000 years ago ancient Babylonians
celebrated a New Year festival called Akitu. Akitu lasted for twelve days and in this time the Babylonians planted crops, crowned a new king or pledged loyalty to an existing one, and made promises to the gods to repay debts or return borrowed items. It was felt that keeping their word would give the gods cause to look favourably on them.

The Ancient Romans created the calendar as we know it, with New Year falling on the 1st of January, a month dedicated to the two-faced god Janus, who looked back into the previous year and forward into the next. The Romans made promises and sacrifices to Janus, vowing good behaviour for the following year.

So... 

What do people resolve to do?

According to statistics in the UK, almost half of the New Year resolutions made for 2020 were to do with losing weight or improving diet. Other popular resolutions were saving more money, taking up a new hobby or cutting down on alcohol or giving up smoking. 27% of people have never made a New Year resolution.

If you're looking to make a real impact on your life, it's better to frame your resolution positively. Decide what you are going to do rather than what you aren't. Instead of "eat less chocolate", try "eat more healthily". That way you can make a positive choice instead of feeling that you are sacrificing something or losing out.

After such a strange year as we've had this year, I imagine there will be a lot of New Year Resolutions about spending more time with friends and loved ones (as soon as we are allowed) or cultivating hobbies and activities we've missed out on. 

I know that during the first lockdown in the Spring there was a noticeable improvement in public spiritedness, a willingness to muck in, a benefit to the environment - as the covid crisis has continued those benefits appear to have worn very thin, but perhaps enough people remember that some of those might feature on Resolution lists.

Here are some positive Resolution ideas you might like to consider:

  • Create a positive morning ritual - whether you take your coffee outdoors or start the day with a meditation or you commit to a wholesome breakfast.
  • Keep a journal / take more photos - commit to preserving memories of your life.
  • Shop local - our independent local shops, restaurants and cafes have taken a massive hit over the past year. Supporting them keeps money in the local economy and helps preserve the individuality of your local area.
  • Find your tribe - who have you missed spending time with this year? Friends and family are so important as a support network. Loneliness and isolation are hard to bear - find people who resonate with your values and commit to spending more time with them for a happier life.
  • Learn a new skill - whether it's leather-working, computer-aided-design or speaking Spanish. Learn something new this year.
  • Volunteer - the world needs you, your time, your energy, your kindness and your skills. Whether it's the local Scout group, hearing readers at the primary school or gardening for an elderly neighbour, your contribution will make the world richer.
  • Go for more walks, in all weathers, to get to know your local area and to rediscover a connection with the wilder world.

My New Year Resolutions this year:

I'm quite happy with these. I took my time over the wording, as I wanted to frame them positively and for them to be about the life I want to live. Of course, my plans for the year also include more gardening, decorating the pantry and the dining room, lots of plans for Scouting... but I had to whittle it down to the core essence of what I want for 2021. These aren't measurable resolutions either, but I will know if I am following them.

Join me on my year of making it count, activity, living life more slowly, creatively and adventurously!

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

The Playful Way - and other stories...

 I'm delighted to report that life "Chez Mel" is pretty good just now.

Out of school...

Earlier this year, during lock-down, I took the plunge and handed in my notice from my teaching job. 

It's something I've been thinking about for quite some time. It isn't that I don't like teaching. I do. I love working with children. To me, teaching children is all about finding that spark, getting them excited about learning and developing their confidence to take on the challenges and discover the world. 

It wasn't that I had a problem with the school either. The school I taught at was rated OfSted Outstanding and is a great school. The staff are caring and incredibly hard-working and do everything they can to make the school a great place to be. 

No, my problem is with the system itself. I think that OfSted and the Government are getting it wrong. The problem is that they are pushing for more and more "measurable" results, but this means that teachers and schools are focusing on teaching the things that are measured. 

The potential is that you can end up with children being taught methods but without necessarily any understanding, and deja vu classrooms:

  • if you go into one classroom at 9.15 in the morning, the lesson in the classroom 2 doors along will be structured exactly the same way.  
  • The display boards will all have the same information on them. 
  • The doors will all have the same poster on them. 
  • The maths equipment will all be laid out the same way.
In addition, children that fall behind this rigid routine are taken out for support, but this is almost always during the non-core part of the curriculum - depriving them of the opportunities where they might be able to shine - art, music or computing. 

While I agree that structure and routine are beneficial to many children, and that sharing good practice makes sense, I would argue that this takes the joy and excitement out of school and learning.  

Where is the space for that eccentric teacher so in love with their subject that the children will remember for the rest of their lives? 

Where is the space for spending longer on something that the children have got excited about, or that they need to work on a bit more to cement understanding? 

The flexibility and pleasure is being sucked out of our schools by the insistence that they all achieve more results and tick certain boxes. 

Of course we should weed out poor teachers so that all children have the chance to attain well. 

Of course we should look for quality in our classrooms. 

However, that quality can take many shapes and teachers and children do not come in a one-size-fits-all uniformity. 

While everybody needs to be taught to read and write, they may all learn best in different ways and at different pace, I don't think this is recognised by our education system.

So, off my soap-box... What am I doing now?

...and into writing

I think I've always been a writer. Writing is one of my creative outlets, but I've also found that since I'm able to coherently arrange words on the page, I am often called on to write newsletters, web-content, draft emails and so on. 

I have made some income from writing before, taking on several freelance projects when I was a stay-at-home-mum.

I decided it was time to turn my attention to this once more.

I started off by setting up a new blog - www.the-playful-way.com. The idea was that I could write about something I really believe in - "my niche" - and use it as a spring-board to write a series of books, online courses and articles, as well as being a brand for relaunching my Etsy shop, which I renamed "The Playful Way" and for a tutoring business.

However, I had a bit of a panic about no steady income. I'd assured Husband that within a few months I would be able to bring in as much money freelance as I was as a part-time teacher.

I suddenly didn't see that happening, so jumped at the opportunity for some regular web-content writing for a marketing guy. I was soon writing articles about electric guitars, comparing ecommerce, shipping and project-management platforms, writing about "Best peanut butters for dogs" and different Japanese dog breeds. 

You name it, I was writing about it. The pay was peanuts, there was no by-line, and with all the research and weblinks required, it was taking several hours to write each one. I realised that I'd sacrificed my actual passion and the potential to make real money, for the security of creating click-through content for steady pay.

After three months, I wrote my last piece for this stream of income last Monday.

I'm looking forward to completing my first e-book and course "Making Maths Fun - a guide for parents and teachers" by the end of January. Also back to the blog, and focusing on some other writing projects. This bit is about believing in myself. I know I can do this - I have to hold out for projects that I believe in, or that pay what I'm worth.

...and back into the classroom!

In the meantime, I was also approached by a friend and former colleague. She'd heard that I was doing a bit of tutoring, and wondered if I might be interested in helping out with Phonics Catch-up at the school where she is deputy-head. I'm there to help the children who, due to the covid lock-down last school-year, missed out on learning opportunities, reading material and, for some, even exposure to English. 

I spend two hours each day working with small groups in Key Stage One to support and teach phonics and help them with their reading.

It's a short-term post. I'm hoping to have made enough of an impact by Easter that they will have caught up and be able to read confidently. In the meantime, I feel inspired that I'm able to use my teaching skills to make a real difference to children who really need it.

I've also had a few enquiries about tutoring. However, because I currently run Beavers and Cubs from 4.30pm two evenings each week, and my children have piano lessons on a third evening, as well as all my other Scouting commitments, I have only managed to squeeze one tutoring client in! We're working on her confidence with Maths. 

And in other news...

This post has been a lot about my work life. I think I'll leave it there and post on another occasion about what else is going on... as a mum and wife, with the house, with the pooch and as a volunteer.