Monday 30 September 2013

September 2013 in pictures

I can't believe that it's the last day of September already!  These are my highlights of the month, in photographs.  We've had a fantastic month, full of fun!

Today also marks the end of #BlogYourSocksOffSeptember.   I've had fun blogging daily--well, almost, I did miss a day--although it is hard work!  Not quite sure how pro-bloggers manage it daily for years on end!

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Sunday 29 September 2013

Book review: Doctor Who--The Silent Stars Go By

I've been enjoying reading Miss Melvis's book reviews at Me, Bookshelf, and I for some time now so I thought I'd try my hand at my own review as I've always got a book on the go.  With the Kindle, it's actually more like ten on the go at any one time, but crucially, no one can see!

I grew up on Doctor Who in an age before TV series were repeated ad nauseum or easily obtainable on DVD/Blu-ray. So, in the dark half of the year when I couldn’t get my weekly fix of Who, I made to with the Target novelisation of each serial.. Luckily our school librarian was very understanding and made sure to buy every single one.  After Who limped off our screens with the truly dreadful "Survival", I started buying the BBC Past Doctor books and following the TV movie, the 8th Doctor books. These newer offerings had much more complex storylines, excellent characterisation and did a wonderful job of keeping the series alive for fans.

I should probably stop reminiscing and talk about the book in hand, huh?

The Silent Stars Go By has a Christmas special feel to it, but in a good way.  This is mainly due to The Doctor initially trying to get Amy and Rory home for Christmas, but also because the TARDIS materialises on a Winter world.  The ice planet or Winter world is a familiar trope to sci-fi readers/viewers (hello, Hoth!) and personally, I adore it. You can always have so much fun with it.

The settlers of this inhospitable winter world are the Morphans, who have struggled to build lives for themselves on this new Earth and indeed, to build the Earth itself. They are terraformers. Life has been hard for them, but lately it has been even harder as they seem to be in the grip of an ice age.  Winters have been getting colder instead of warmer and now animals and people are disappearing.  When The Doctor and his companions arrive they are treated with a great deal of fear and suspicion.

Abnett has a great sense of comedic timing and several times when reading The Silent Stars, I found myself bursting out into gales of laughter.  His characterisations of The Doctor, Amy and Rory are spot on with nice strong character voices.  I've read some reviews that criticise the book for having Amy and Rory relegated to the periphery of the book; I very much disagree with this.  We follow Amy and Rory separately on several occasions and my belief is that this is a Doctor Who book, rather than an Amy and Rory book, so it’s balanced just right.

The Silent Stars came out before the Ice Warriors returned to our TV screens in “Cold War” this year.  Therefore, these are still the old Ice Warriors with slow, cold menace (and LEGO-esque hands) but the details added about their society and culture made for compelling reading.  My only complaint is that the final act of the book feels rather rushed, everything seems to be resolved at breakneck speed, but on the whole I found it a fun read with a slightly more complex storyline than the regular line of New Who novels.

If you're a Whovian, I'd thoroughly recommend this!

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Saturday 28 September 2013

Lovely things to do in Autumn

Autumn is my favourite season by far.

It's so refreshing to escape the heat of the summer--wasn't this year a doozy?--and not only sleep well again, but also wake up to lovely crisp mornings with dew sparkling like diamonds on spider webs.  Leaves are falling with every small gust of wind, soon the trees will be bare and we'll be waking up to frost.

Here are some of my favourite things to do in Autumn...

Go for a walk in the woods (and jump in a leaf pile)
Jumping in a big pile of crispy, dry leaves is one of Lucas's favourite things to do in Autumn.  I really like it, too!  The woods are beautiful at this time of year, but they can be a tad muddy.  Wellies (and jumping in muddy puddles) would be a very good idea!

Go apple picking
It's almost time for the apple harvest.  Due to the weirdly long winter we had in the UK, it's turned into a bumper year for apples.  (I don't understand it either, this is just what very excited cider makers on the TV tell me.)

If you don't have your own apple tree, odds are that there'll be an orchard somewhere nearby, well, maybe not if you're living somewhere tropical (but if you are, go and pick whatever's on the trees).  There are plenty of of fun apple events around; go and have a go at the apple-on-the-spoon race and eat loads of apple pie!

Make some truly decadent hot chocolate
Really good hot chocolate begins with some good dark chocolate and melted into a blend of milk and cream, and definitely has a pinch of salt to bring out all the flavour of the chocolate.  None of this powdered hot chocolate in a jar nonsense.  Treat yourself to the real stuff.

(And maybe add a hefty glug of Baileys or Advocaat instead of whipped cream on top...)

Make a bowl of porridge
Porridge is the perfect warm and filling breakfast for a chilly Autumn morning.  Don't let childhood memories of salted or just plain unsweetened porridge put you off!  You could cook up a cinnamon-laced apple compote and let that nestle on top of a bowl of creamy porridge to sweeten every mouthful.  Or stir through some maple syrup, and crumble pecans on top.

For loads of great porridge (aka oatmeal) ideas, check out Kath Eats Real Food's Tribute to Oatmeal.

Knit a scarf
© Old Nan's Needles
The cooler weather in Autumn makes it perfect for knitting.  A lapful of yarn will keep you cosy while you knit yourself a new Winter scarf (or two).  If you've been meaning to learn to knit, a scarf is a brilliant beginner's project.  I've been working on this Game of Thrones inspired scarf designed by Elissa from Old Nan's Needles.

Go to a bonfire party or a fireworks display
Firework display
There's always a huge bonfire and fireworks display in our village, so we never bother with lighting fireworks ourselves.  Plus, it's much safer to go to a display.  If the weather's a bit rubbish we all crowd into Lucas's bedroom and watch it with him.  We often go to a friend's fireworks party and feast on BBQ--much as I hate to admit anyone is better at cooking than I am...he does do amazing brisket and pulled pork!

What are your favourite Autumn activities?

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Friday 27 September 2013

Friday Favourites

Happy Friday, everyone!  The weekend is just around the corner and I'm looking forward to a nice quiet one (she says hopefully).  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D airs tonight (Channel 4 in the UK) and I'm really excited about watching it!  Joss!  S.H.I.E.L.D!  #Coulsonlives!!  I'll stop geeking out now...

Favourite Recipe to try: Paleo Banana Bread Truffles

© Clean Eating with a Dirty Mind via Civilized Caveman Creations

I love the Civilized Caveman's paleo banana bread.  It's a fantastic recipe which doesn't require any added sugar and really tastes of banana.  It's also got a fantastically "normal" texture for something made with coconut flour.  I'm a bit of a cheapskate and adapt the recipe to use coconut butter (whizzed up dessicated coconut) rather than use a full jar of super-expensive nut butter in the recipe and it works beautifully.  It also makes this a suitable lunchbox snack if your kid's school is nut-free!

If these truffles are half as good as the banana bread, then they'll be awesome.  I'll be making them as soon as possible--I signed up to do a detox next week, so I'll have to wait a little while.  Something to look forward to, though!!

Favourite discovery on the 'net: The Monster Engine

© The Monster Engine, Dave Devries
Most kids will draw a monster or two as they grow up.  Lucas does tend to draw mainly superheroes but I do recall a monster and alien or two when he was a little younger.  I'm sure a psychologist would say that they're trying to make sense of things that have scared or worried them, but kids like scary and revolting stuff in my opinion.  Roald Dahl shared the same opinion!

The Monster Engine, by Dave Devries has a simple premise: What would a child's drawing look like if it was painted realistically?  The answers range between funny, scary and shocking (I was quite shocked by the rather realistic crucified man drawn by a child, which actually looks less scary as fully-realised art.)

Favourite blog tip: HTML tips and tricks--signs and symbols

I can never remember how to add a Copyright sign to an image caption, something which always looks way more professional than (c).  This brilliant post from Bonjour Blogger! will soon have you sorted out and you'll be adding pretty little hearts, stars, snowflakes and all sorts to your posts.  If you find yourself wanting more, you can find fractions and degree signs (posh up your recipe posts) here.

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Thursday 26 September 2013

Do you like where you live?

Walking home from school through the woods
Liz over at Violet Posy asked this question recently after writing a love-letter to Cambridgeshire.

We live on the outskirts of Bristol.  On one hand, we've got the countryside on our doorstep, with horses occasionally trotting through the common and woods behind the house...on the other, we're just a few miles away from the city centre which is a brilliant mixture of old stone buildings and gleaming modern ones.

Office building near Temple Meads, John Foster's Almshouse, Christmas Steps
There are beautiful parks to explore and play in...

Every summer the skies fill with hot air balloons.

The Bristol Balloon Fiesta
If the wind's blowing in the right direction, we can watch dozens of balloons float over our house and wave up at the pilots.

Bristol has always been focused around the river, and the Floating Harbour, which turned the city into a bustling port for two centuries.  The waterways are still important to the city, and we celebrate each summer with the Harbourside Festival visited by dozens of tall ships.  The Matthew sails daily around the Floating Harbour and you can join scores of school children exploring Brunel's SS Great Britain, or maybe take a Pirate Walk.

There are always festivals going on in the city.  A cider festival, chocolate festival, a festival of puppetry, circus festival, food festivals...we have them all.  I always try to make a trip to the organic food festival.

Bristol is also the sort of fantastically wonderful place where a zombie can walk down the street, covered in blood and brains, and no one even blinks.  Shopping trips are occasionally livened by bumping into Daleks, Chewbacca, and Judge Dredd fundraising for charities.

Bristol is awesome.  I can't imagine living anywhere else.

I love living in Bristol.  Do you love where you live?

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Tuesday 24 September 2013

The Big Knit

My innocent Big Knit woolly hats
Over the last few years I've noticed incredibly cute woolly hats appearing on bottles of Innocent Smoothies in the Autumn.  At first I was clueless...I thought it was just an advertising campaign, but then I discovered that the Innocent Big Knit was a yearly event which raised money for Age UK to help the elderly stay warm and healthy over the cold winter months.  For every behatted bottle of smoothie sold, Innocent donate 25p to Age UK.  What a great cause!

This is the first year that I've managed to get my act together and knit some tiny little hats for them and while I haven't quite managed to knit the hundreds that I'd envisioned, I'm happy with the twenty or so that I've made.

Strawberry hat
A lot of the patterns that I've used have come from Jo's Big Knit, a fabulous resource for anyone who wants to knit for The Big Knit.  Unsurprisingly the Minions are Lucas's favourite and he helped me knit the very first one.  Give it a few more years and he'll be knitting all by himself!  The cupcakes are one of my favourites, and have a knitted cherry on top that has saved me from the trauma of making miniature pom-poms!

As we've had such a lovely summer rambling around Bristol in search of Gromits, I decided to knit a woolly Gromit hat for The Big Knit.  A small tribute to Bristol's favourite pooch, much loved by the old and young alike.  Plus, Gromit is a knitter, too, so it seemed fitting.

The last date for posting to Innocent is the 1st of October 31st October (innocent have extended the date to get as many hats in as possible).  So get those needles clicking!

I'm linking up to Hookin' on Hump Day.


Woolly Gromit
This is based on the Sweep pattern, on Jo's Big Knit.  This is the first knitting pattern I've written in years, so it's a bit rough and ready.  Hope it works out if you try it!

Cream, black and brown DK yarn
4mm knitting needles
Wool needle
Ideally, sew-on googly eyes, but if you can't get hold of them, just glue on some regular craft ones

Using 4mm needles cast on 28 stitches with cream.
Purl 2 rows
Continue in SS and work 4 rows.
K13 in cream, change to black to create the nose (don't cut the cream yarn):

K into front and back of next stitch to create 3 stitches, repeat this with the next stitch.  You should have 6 black stitches on your needle.  Turn and purl these stitches
SS 4 more rows
K2tog, K next 2st, K2tog;
Turn P2tog twice

Turn return to cream and K to end of row
Continue in SS and work 9 rows.
K1, K2tog to last 3 stitches, k2tog, k1
P1, P2tog to last 3 stitches, p2tog, p1
(K2 tog) repeat to end
(P2 tog) repeat to end
(I elongaged the shaping for the head in an attempt to make it more Gromit-esque.)
B & T tightly

Ears--make 2
Start by casting on 2sts in brown yarn.
Row 1 inc knitwise in both stitches (4 in total)
Row 2 purl
Row 3 knit
Row 4 inc purlwise in first st, p to end of row
Row 5 knit
Row 6 purl
Row 7 inc in first st, k to end of row
Row 8 purl
Row 9 knit
Row 10 purl
Row 11 knit
Row 12 purl
Row 13 knit
Row 14 purl
Row 15 K2tog to end of row
Row 16 purl
Row 17 knit to last two stitches, K2tog
Row 18 P2tog to end, past first stitch over the second
B & T; this forms the top of the ear.

To make up
Use the black tail ends to create the right shape for Gromit's nose.  I used little stitches to 'catch' the base of the nose against the cream of the head, and then did a gathering stitch around the base of the nose, pulled fairly tight, then tied off the yarn with a knot on the reverse side of the work.

Once that's done, you can join the back seam with the cream tail ends.

Sew the ears to the top of the head.  I tried to get them to arch up like Gromit's but it hasn't worked out quite right.  Hopefully you'll have better luck with them!  Don't forget to work in the ends.

Lastly, either sew or glue on googly eyes.

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Monday 23 September 2013

Gromit Unleashed round-up, part four

Sir Gromit of Bristol; your knight in shining armour!
I managed to get along to The Greatest Dog Show on Earth this morning--queued for less than an hour, result!--so I thought I'd best get a shuffle on with my round-up posts so that I can bring you my favourite parts of the exhibition later on in the week.  Can you say epic pic-spam?  Brace yourselves!

(clockwise) Patch, It's Kraken, Gromit, Poochadelic, Gromitosaurus, Sir Gromit of Bristol, Fiesta
Two cracking Gromits in this first batch.  I loved It's Kracken, Gromit for its superb punning and the fantastic design.  We discovered it on a rather sunny day, so the picture isn't all it could be.  It's very dramatic and a little bit Lovecraft.

Sir Gromit of Bristol is surely every girl's knight in shining armour!  Lucas and Dave decided to pose heroically, and now I quite fancy a Wallace & Gromit re-telling of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table...

Shipshape and Bristol Fashion
Shipshape and Bristol Fashion was a fantastic 'Bristol Gromit', celebrating lots of our famous landmarks and areas.  He also had a splendid backdrop of Brunel's Suspension Bridge.

Train station Gromits
Here are the three train station Gromits.  Luckily for us, Dave had to go up to London for work while the trail was running, so he claimed Classic Gromit for us when he was passing through Paddington Station.

We popped into Temple Meads Station one afternoon after we'd been at a Doctor Who convention in Yeovilton--I really need to get around to writing that up--and saw Isambark Kingdog Brunel and just inside the station, May Contain Nuts and Bolts.  Both fantastic Gromits, and much hugged by Lucas.

(clockwise) Doodles, Poetry in Motion, Malago, Gnashional Gromit, Vincent van Gromit, Lancelot
I'm not a cat person, but I really liked Simon Tofield's Doodles Gromit.  I might have to check out his Simon's Cat books.  Talking of books, I grew up reading the Beano comic book, and it was really fun to see Dennis the Menace and Gnasher decoupaged all over Gnashional Gromit!

Newshound & Tutan Gromit I at Bristol City Museum
I wrote about our adventures at the City Museum a little while ago when we claimed Newshound and Tutan Gromit I.

My favourite Gromit: Golden Gromit
This Gromit is absolutely stunning!  There's a fascinating 'making of' video that you can watch to see how he was created.  I love how it turned into a family affair.

(Clockwise) A Grand Day Out, Bushed, Lodekka, Dog Rose, Hullaballoon, Bumble Boogie
Bumble Boogie was a really fun Gromit.  There was a big red button in front, which Lucas made a beeline for...Being a veteran of many disaster movies I know that one should never press a big red button!  Just as I was about to scream, "Nooooo!" jazz music started blaring.  It turned out that Bumble Boogie was designed by Jools Holland and was accompanied by music by him.

Bushed was a real disappointment.  It seemed like a really low-effort Gromit design, and I didn't feel any warmer towards it after viewing it again today at the exhibition.

(Clockwise) Sheepdog, Carosello, Collarful, Grosmos, A Mandrill's Best Friend, What a Wind Up
We found Carosello and What a Wind Up with some of Lucas's friends from school.  We spent a fantastic Friday morning rambling around Bristol with loads of kids in tow, having masses of fun!

Sheepdog was quite clever; if you look closely you can see Shaun the Sheep driving Gromit.

(Clockwise) The Snow Gromit, Canis Major, Nezahualcoyotl, Grrrromit, Paisley, Why dog why
Lucas was super-excited to see Grrrromit, who was decorated like his tiger-striped Trunki.  He did look pretty fierce!

We all thought that Why, Dog, Why? was a bit of a disappointment.  I expected something more witty than a gold-painted dog with a question mark sign.  Luckily Nezahualcoyotl, I refused to even attempt pronouncing that one, was much more interesting.  He's a funky Aztec-inspired Gromit and was a lot of fun to visit. 

We're all done!
Here's Dave's last Gromit, Gizmo!  (I claimed Classic Gromit a few days later when he returned home to Bristol.)

...and we're done!  What a cracking summer thanks to Gromit Unleashed!  

Missed a few Gromits?  Check out my previous round-ups: 

Part one | Part two | Part three
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Sunday 22 September 2013

Extra-thick ginger crunch, perfect for picnics

Extra-thick ginger crunch in the wild
If you've never tried ginger crunch, then you absolutely must.  This stuff is ridiculously amazing.

Ginger crunch (or ginger slice, or ginger crunch slice) is a Kiwi classic that doesn't seem to have made it big in the UK in the same way as the pavlova and flat white.  This is a tremendous shame for us, but I suspect that the Kiwis are quite happy to keep this luscious treat to themselves.  Well, mostly.  I'm going to spill the beans!

Firstly you've got a highly satisfying crunchy biscuit base, with a generous amount of ginger--I've seen some with crystallised ginger added to the base, which could be quite fun--and then a smooth, fudgy and seriously more-ish icing on top.  We're not talking a thin glace here, this is unapologetically calorific and packed with flavour.  If you're a ginger lover, and I totally am, you'll love this sweet treat.

I made this for a huge family picnic that we went to a few weeks ago.  And when I say huge, I'm not exaggerating.  There were over fifty of us, all busily raising gazebos, unfolding picnic tables, and lighting BBQs before coolers of food came out.  Dave's family are professional picnic-ers...his Aunt brought along a whole cooked salmon, table, chairs and a tablecloth!  I need to up my game for next year!  (I'll be the one digging a fire pit and roasting a pig...)

Ginger crunch helps you climb trees. Fact.
Sadly for everyone else, I'd barely begun to hand round the biscuit tin before the rain started.  Clearly the weather doesn't read the Met Office's forecast, as the light rain forecast manifested as an absolute deluge.  Luckily we were all absolutely stuffed with food by then, and starting to contemplate afternoon naps...

I feel I should warn you all...this will disappear from your biscuit tin incredibly quickly.  Lucas insisted on having it as his treat in his packed lunch at school, and Dave took some to work, and I wound up eating the crumbs at the bottom of the tin.  Hide the tin!!

Extra-thick ginger crunch
Adapted from Cafe@Home by Julie Le Clerc

200g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
100g caster sugar
125 g unsalted butter, cubed

150g unsalted butter
80g Golden Syrup
250g icing sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon ground ginger (I recommend sifting the ginger with the icing sugar)
40g crystallised ginger, chopped finely

Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan oven) Line a 17x27cm deep sided slice tin with baking paper.

Place the flour, baking powder, ginger and sugar in the food processor, pulse to mix. Add in the cubed butter and pulse until it’s like fine breadcrumbs, it should start to stick together very slightly. The mixture is dry, not sticky.

Put into the baking tin, it will seem like there is a lot in there, but this is the right amount.

Press firmly into the tin making sure that you have even coverage. If you end up with some parts thinner, the base will cook unevenly.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until the base is golden brown in colour.

Making the ginger crunch
Remove from the oven and set aside while you make the topping.

Place the Golden Syrup and butter in a medium saucepan and melt together. Add in the icing sugar and ground ginger and stir well to mix, cook for roughly 1 minute stirring the whole time.

Add in your chopped crystallised ginger and stir well.

Pour the topping over the still warm slice, and let cool a little before cutting. If you let it cool completely you will find it breaks when you cut it. Cut into squares when still warm but the icing has mostly set.

The slice should keep for about 5 days in a biscuit tin, assuming you don't scoff the lot before then!

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Saturday 21 September 2013

Gromit Unleashed round-up, part three

Oops a Daisy poses with Lucas
Bristol has gone Gromit crazy all over again.  People have been queueing for as long as six hours to visit The Greatest Dog Show in the World exhibition!  I thought the queues would be bad, but not this bad!  Suffice to say that we have abandoned our plans to go on Sunday!!  Instead, I thought that another Gromit round-up would be a nice idea...

(clockwise) Two Eds are Better than One, The Wild West, Blossom, Five a Day Dog
I had to look up the story behind Two Eds are better than One. Apparently the two Eds in question are Ed Milliband and Ed Balls and the artist, Peter Brooks, is a political cartoonist.  That would explain why I was left absolutely cold by this one.  Lucas on the other hand thought it was very funny!

I absolutely loved The Wild West, though!  All the animals of the West Country, daytime and nocturnal, and with a badger on his bottom.  He was really fun, especially the ladybird eyes.

Blossom, as his name suggests, is absolutely covered in flower blossoms.  She was very pretty, and worthy of a cuddle.  Five a Day Dog wasn't quite as I'd expected, but had certainly had both some Victorian elegance and his five a day!

Gromberry deserves some extra love, I think!  He's been very cleverly painted to produce a seeded texture while remaining absolutely flat.  I had to touch him to make sure!  I love his collar, and the strawberry stalk tail is just perfect.

(clockwise) Bristol Bulldog, Creature Comforts, The Secret Garden, Eldoradog, Oops a Daisy, Harmony
We trekked out to the airport one day to find Bristol Bulldog--named for a plane, Lucas tells me--and also claimed The Secret Garden and Oops a Daisy while we were at it.  Oops a Daisy was awesome...such a simple design but it works so well.  He looked great in the courtyard at Tyntesfield.

Harmony and Eldoradog were a bit far flung, too, with Harmony in the beer garden of a pub in Hawkesbury Upton and Eldoradog just outside Westonbirt Arboretum.  I loved all the delicately painted birds on Harmony but found Eldoradog a bit garish.

(clockwise) Sugar Plum, The Green Gromit, Antique Rose, Feathers
Both Antique Rose and The Green Gromit were easy to find out at The Mall.  Antique Rose was designed by Cath Kidston, and was, well...very Cath Kidston.  The Green Gromit was designed by one of the lads from One Direction and thus had a lot of fans.  To us, however, it was a rather thinly veiled Green Lantern Gromit.  (Gromit would make a good member of the Green Lantern Corps, though!)

I liked Sugar Plum, outside The Redgrave Theatre in Clifton--very simple and understated.  Feathers, on Gloucester Road was at the opposite end of the spectrum!  Bright, bright, bright and really fun.

Apparently there have been rumours of another art trail in Bristol next Summer (so say a few people who've managed to get into the exhibition).  They'll have to work hard to top the sheer awesomeness of the Gromits!  I can't wait to hear how much they raise at auction (and whether any of them will stay in Bristol)!

Part one | Part two

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Friday 20 September 2013

Friday Favourites

Happy Friday, everyone!

We've had a lovely, relaxing week here.  I finally managed to get hold of a copy of Pretty Nostalgic Magazine which turns out to be a fantastic read.  It goes especially well with a big mug of coffee.  I hope your week has been kind to you all xx

Favourite book: Against All Grain

I've followed Danielle's blog Against All Grain for about a year now, and was thrilled to discover that she had a book coming out.  All of the grain-free recipes I've tried from her blog have been awesome.  I don't know why I didn't pick it up right away; it took some prompting from my friend GG to get me to buy it after she said it was awesome.

Tonight I cooked the Slow-Cooker Sesame-Orange Chicken and it was beyond awesome.  This is by far the best thing I've ever made in my slow-cooker, and the chicken thighs were amazingly tender.  I want to make the Pan-Seared Salmon in Red Curry Sauce next time, and maybe give the Coconut-Lime Cauliflower Rice a go.  Of course, I want to make every single dessert in the book!  The Double-Chocolate Pie looks divine...

Favourite Funny: Off The Leash comic strip

(c) Off The Leash

I saw this strip on Facebook and I couldn't help but laugh extra-hard when I thought of Michelle and her two gorgeous puppies, Betty and Pete.  You should totally check out the daily cartoons on their Facebook page--the artist nails dog behaviours

Favourite TV show: Poirot

After visiting Greenway--Agatha Christie's holiday home in Devon--on Monday, I am totally in the mood for watching some Poirot.  I've found a suggested reading order for the Poirot books, and I am giving some serious thought to watching the TV series in that order.  It'll mean a lot of flicking between different DVD sets, but I think it'll be worth it!

Favourite things to do this weekend!

  • We're going to try and visit the Greatest Dog Show on Earth, the last hurrah for all 80 Gromit sculptures from the Gromit Unleashed trail that took Bristol by storm this summer.  I say try...queues have been about 2.5 hours long, with the show closing several hours early each day due to the queue length.  Eeek!
  • I'd like to go down to the Weston-Super-Mare Food Festival this weekend. I managed to miss the Bristol Organic Food Festival this year, and it dawns on me that I haven't gorged on cheese samples in quite some time!
  • Spicer+Cole have opened up a new shop in Clifton.  After some truly shocking coffee in Costa this week, I need the good stuff!
Have a great weekend, everyone!


Cream teas and First Editions at Greenway

In true British fashion, we were greeted by a torrential deluge of rain as we arrived in Torquay and drove along the harbourside.  The rain couldn't dampen my spirits though...we were going to visit Greenway, Agatha Christie's holiday home in Devon.  "The loveliest place in the world," according to the Queen of Crime herself.

We arrived in Torquay with some time to spare, so after coffee and cake at Jade's Coffee House (giant lattes and glorious lemon drizzle cake), we wandered along to find Hoopers department store as Michelle told me that I shouldn't miss their Poirot gorilla. (Part of the Great Gorilla trail all over the English Riviera.)

Poirot the gorilla in Hoopers shop window. What a dapper gorilla!
Another heavy shower of rain put paid to our plans for a stroll around the harbour (and my plans for some pretty photos with palm trees).  I'm told that Torbay is also known as "Torbados".  I'm afraid that I didn't see much of a similarity between it and Barbados, other than the palm trees.  I stuck my hand out into the rain and it wasn't even warm!  We retreated into the Golden Palms Amusements Arcade and Dave wallowed happily in nostalgia.  (He was last there when he was 17 with a freshly minted driving licence and a thirst for arcade games.)

We waited for the bus to arrive at Cary Parade with one eye firmly on the skies and the other on the three Agatha Christie fans who had dressed up as Miss Marple, Poirot and Hastings.  Never in my life did I think I would see Agatha Christie cosplay!  They were rather fabulous and Poirot tipped his hat in a very dignified manner at everyone who waved.

Finally our chariot arrived.  The Greenway Vintage Bus, resplendent in classic racing green.

A few minutes later, we were off on our adventure!

It was immediately apparent why this vintage charabanc was called a "jiggle jerk".  Despite the jerking every time the bus changed gear, and the occasional bump or pothole launching me into the air, it was quite a comfortable ride.  We were told that our bus, Barnaby, dated from 1947 and had appeared in episodes of both Poirot and Miss Marple.

After much merriment, we arrived at the gates to Greenway Estate and passed a lovely little lodge.  As we trundled along Greenway's long drive, our driver pointed out Sir Walter Raleigh's boathouse, one of two boathouses on the estate.  This was the scene of poor Marlene Tucker's death in Dead Man's Folly where Greenway was thinly disguised as Nasse House.  I am really looking forward to seeing this story air later on this year as part of the final series of Poirot--they filmed on location at Greenway, so it is extra-special!

I caught the occasional glimpse of the River Dart through the trees, but then all my attention focused on Greenway as it hove into view.  The white stone shimmered in the sunlight against the bright blue sky, the river sparkled a blueish-green between the was beautiful.

GiGi gorilla enjoys the view over the River Dart
As we pulled up to the door, a special treat as this was an exclusive closed doors event, we were met at the door by Lucinda, the head conservationist, and Ken, one of the National Trust volunteers for Greenway.  They were both dressed for the occasion in fabulous 50s style outfits.

From the moment you cross the threshold and enter Greenway, it is clear that this was a family home.  Hats are casually left on an old chair (and jauntily perched on a sculpture), a tall metal pot bristles with a collection of umbrellas and walking sticks—I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t the classical elephant’s foot; good news for the elephant though--and the day’s post sits on a table alongside a vintage mobile phone.  It felt as though the family could come back at any time, perhaps from a day on the river.

Amid all the collectible items in the hallway sits the Baghdad Chest, which featured in The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest (1939), later expanded and slightly rewritten as The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (1960).  A wicker basket of Visitor Guides to Greenway sits atop it now.  There was also a large gong which featured in her short story The Second Gong.

(We took lots of photos while we were at Greenway and I really wish that I could show you some of them, but we had to promise that we wouldn't publish them anywhere.  It was quite a treat to be able to take any photographs at all, as this is normally forbidden, but they allowed us to take photos as a personal souvenir of the event.  The National Trust website has some lovely photographs, though.)

We were guided through the house by Ken who gave us a lovely glimpse into Agatha’s life by highlighting objet d'art which were particularly important to her.  We passed into the sitting room, which was painted a pale cream, like the rest of the interior of the house, with light streaming in through the large windows.

Ken explained that Agatha and her family were all collectors, and it became rather competitive between them all.  Agatha ended up specialising in papier mache furniture and ornaments “as nobody else would collect them”.  Interesting examples of her particular collection can be found throughout the house, but none so large as the lacquered table in the sitting room.

While Agatha never wrote at Greenway, she did read her just-finished manuscripts to the family while sitting at her bureau in the drawing room.  Apparently Max, her second husband, would often drop off mid-way through, and when Agatha paused and asked, "Whodunnit?" he would wake up and invariably guess correctly, much to Agatha's annoyance.

I was drawn to the magnificent Steinway grand piano in the corner of the drawing room where sheet music written by Agatha herself was on display, as well as a selection of family photographs.  I had no idea that Agatha was a talented pianist and singer!

In the winter dining room we were shown Agatha’s Dame Commander of the British Empire medal. When the National Trust volunteers were cataloguing the contents of the house, they found that the old larder in the winter dining room was stuffed full of boxes.  In one of these boxes they found Agatha’s Dame Commander of the British Empire medal, stuffed right at the back of the cupboard.  It strikes me that Agatha didn't put much stock in honours!

The library was perhaps the most exciting room in the house.  An extraordinary fresco runs around the top of the walls, painted by a US Naval Officer when the house was requisitioned during the Second World War.  When the American Navy returned the house to Agatha after the war, they offered to paint over the fresco.  Agatha requested that they leave it as it would become a piece of history.

Next door to the library is the formal dining room, which was laid for a formal dinner. Crystal sparkled on the table and an old glass punchbowl served as a vase.  The door was held open with a bronze spitting cobra door stop, its forked tongue and fangs covered by a cork.  It had snagged Rosalind’s stockings once too often, and she tried to throw it out, but Agatha insisted that it must say and simply shoved a cork over the offending part.  It remains that way to this day.

The tour of the house finished in Agatha's bedroom which was flooded with sunlight and had an amazing view of the Dart.  An intricate chest of drawers, covered in a mosaic of mother of pearl and bone, the Damascus Chest, that Agatha paid more to ship to Britain than it actually cost to purchase!

Ken turned on a small radio and we listened to a short recording of Agatha talking about her writing process, and asserting that there was no secret to it.  I loved these recordings that were dotted through the house.  They really brought it to life.

We were then ushered into what I believe was a secondary library upstairs and shown the first editions which had been selected for us to handle.  We washed our hands in Agatha’s bathroom (!!) and then very carefully leafed through the books, taking note of the inscriptions in the front of each copy.  Agatha signed most of the books to her daughter Rosalind.
The precious first editions that we handled
After we’d all had our fill of the first editions, we trooped downstairs into Agatha’s own kitchen—warmed by a huge old Aga—where we were met by tables that positively groaned under the weight of the immense scones that were piled upon vintage wire stands.  Dishes of Devon clotted cream, thick golden crust mixed in with the gorgeously gooey cream, were brought to the table along with huge Willow pattern teapots.  We slathered cream and jam on scones and feasted.

Agatha herself loved cream teas, especially the cream part of them.  At her 80th birthday celebration, which was re-created in a very special dinner that opened this year’s Agatha Christie Festival, she dined on hot lobster in cream, followed by blackberry ice cream served with fresh blackberries and plenty of cream.  She noted in her diary, when writing about her birthday dinner, “a special treat—half a cup of neat cream for ME while the rest had Champagne.”

All too soon, it was time to return to the 21st century.  We climbed back into Barnaby and waved a sad farewell to Greenway.  One day we’ll come back…

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