Tuesday 31 December 2013

2013 in review

The year is drawing to a close, so like 99% of the blogging community I've been reflecting on the happenings--both good and bad--of the year that's passed.  Without further ado, let me present my highlights of 2013:

♥ I've got to say that January did not have the brightest of starts.  Christmas Eve had been spent in hospital having a biopsy on an "interesting" lump in my nose to see whether it was cancerous or not and I spent most of the month in a hideous limbo before the all-clear came.  Still, I'm told that my post-op ramblings were fun on Christmas Day!
♥ We were Romans for a day at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester.  Amazing statues and mosaics!
♥ Later in the month, we woke up one morning to find that it had snowed.  Lucas was incredibly excited as it turned into his very first snow day from school (as the teachers couldn't get to work)!  I was less excited as I am like Bambi on ice when it comes to snow!

♥ We geeked out this month and went to the London Super Comics Convention.  2014 will be its third year and it's managed to zoom to the top of my list of favourite cons!
Lucas meets Beast from the X-Men
Duella Dent, Batman and Batgirl
The standard of cosplay is always incredibly high at this con.  Aside from admiring all the costumes we caught up with some friends and creators that we know, and had a wonderful weekend!  Definitely the highlight of the month.

♥ March was all about Dave's birthday.  At the con in February I conspired with one of his favourite artists, the very lovely Ian Churchill, to commission a 40th birthday sketch of the sensational She-Hulk as a surprise.
♥ There was also a R2-D2 cake, which was a bit stumpy, but still recognisable (thankfully)!

♥ In April we veered between two extremes.  We zoomed around the annual Bristol Italian AutoMoto Festival, shopping for our dream fast cars, and then took things slower by walking around Oxford for a day.
Bridge of Sighs, Oxford style

♥ In May we flexed our National Trust membership again and wandered around Dyrham Park.
Dyrham Park
Lucas is all, "Welcome to my crib."
♥ This month I went under the knife again--sigh--and had a small but very fast-growing mole removed from my arm.  Thankfully it wasn't cancerous, but I am much more wary of the sun now.
♥ I'm not sure much else happened!

♥ Gromit Unleashed started this month!  I took Lucas to our closest Gromit, Roger, on the very first day.  He was so excited!
♥ It was our tenth wedding anniversary this month!  Ten wonderful, wonderful years with Dave...

♥ We went on holiday in Cornwall, and I had my first--but definitely not my last--hedgehog.
♥ Oh yeah...I also started this here blog.  Hurrah!

♥This month, Dave and I were proud as punch as Lucas learned how to ride his bike!
♥ We also helped save Somerset from a Dalek Invasion...You're welcome.

♥ We went to a huge family reunion picnic in The Forest of Dean.  I was relieved to learn that it wasn't just me that was confused about who was who in Dave's astonishingly huge and bewildering family tree!  Lucas gave up on names and climbed a tree instead.  Very sensible.
♥ Dave treated me to an extra-special visit to Greenway, Agatha Christie's summer house in Devon.

♥ Lucas turned seven this month.  Man, do I feel old!
♥ I was invited along to the Pretty Nostalgic Gathering at Kings Weston House and got to meet some lovely local bloggers.
♥ Finally, I carved my first pumpkin.

♥ Doctor Who turned 50 this month and we went to the celebrations in London.  Lucas and I met the utterly fantastic Sylvester McCoy!
Bonus Colin Baker (6) in background!
♥ Dave and I started December with a luxurious and relaxing weekend away in Yorkshire at Swinton Park, as a belated anniversary celebration.  I will blog about it properly at some point!
The Drawing Room at Swinton Park
♥ We had a magical Christmas experience at Tyntesfield--probably my favourite NT property--and we all met Father Christmas.

2013 may have started in a stressful fashion but the year has ended on a real high.  I'm hoping that 2014 will be even better for our little family  and that our house continues to be full of love and laughter.

Happy New Year to you all!  May the New Year bring you both joy and prosperity!

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Monday 30 December 2013

A stroll around Lacock Abbey

Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire
The sun always seems to shine when we go to Lacock Abbey.  It blazed in October, when I took Lucas to the spooky Halloween goings on at the Abbey, and today the weather was cold, crisp and sunny as we all wandered through the grounds.

We didn't go to Lacock for the culture, or for some exercise--although we got both in spades--we went in search of a picturesque location to give our new cameras a workout!  Dave and I both used our Christmas money to buy new cameras.  A sexy little Lumix for me, and a new Canon for him.

Panasonic Lumix GF6, my lovely new camera
My Christmas camera (and new love)
After several months of almost exclusively using my iPhone for blog photos and feeling frustrated that I couldn't achieve the shots that I wanted to, I decided that I wanted my own camera.  I had the use of Dave's old Canon, but really struggled with the viewfinder, so a camera with a nice big LCD screen seemed like the best option.  I'd had my eye on the Lumix GF5 for ages, and had watched the price tumble nicely, but after Christmas Dave suggested that I get the newest model instead.  Hurrah!  It arrived on Saturday morning and it's been a whirlwind love affair ever since.

So, Lacock Abbey...
Lucas running around at Lacock Abbey
Lucas was really excited to return to Lacock
Lacock Abbey dates back to the 13th century, when it was a nunnery of the Augustine order.  After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 16th century--I've been avidly watching Tudor Monastery Farm--the Abbey and its grounds were sold to a wealthy landowner.  Various alterations were made over the years, and eventually the property passed to the Fox Talbot family who gifted it and Lacock village to the National Trust.
Clock tower and archway at Lacock Abbey
Beautiful clock tower and gateway at Lacock Abbey
Beautiful leaded windows

Dog waiting at the foot of a stone staircase
Waiting patiently
The cloisters and courtyard at Lacock
Harry Potter fans might recognise some parts of the Abbey and village as filming locations for the films.  The Abbey cloisters doubled for Snape and Quirrell's classrooms in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and were also used in the second film, too.  The Mirror of Erised scene was also filmed there.
The cauldron in the Warming Room at Lacock Abbey
Harry Potter filming at Lacock
The huge black cauldron in the Warming Room is quite a surprise if you've never been to Lacock before.  It reminded me of Lloyd Alexanders's "The Black Cauldron", but luckily this cauldron was a gift to the nuns in the 15th century rather than a magical one capable of creating a zombie army!
A close-up of a sundial
It's pretty difficult to take a bad photo at Lacock, there's something about it which makes the light perfect and there's no shortage of extraordinarily beautiful things to photograph.  That said, I really love this close-up that I took of the sundial.
Vadering (apparently this is a thing)
Windows at Lacock Abbey
The oriel window (L) where Fox Talbot created the first photographic negative
An interesting plant
Not sure what this plant is--possibly a triffid?
Pretty little details around Lacock Abbey
As we were leaving the Abbey, we popped into the Fox Talbot Museum and had a quick look around.
The Fox Talbot Museum

Wood-beamed cottage in Lacock village
A knitted nativity and a wreath-adorned door
I couldn't resist taking some pictures of the cottages in Lacock village.  Almost every door was adorned with a wreath and the shops all had beautiful displays in their windows.  Lucas spotted this fabulous knitted nativity--knitivity?--in the window of a house on the High Street that positively demanded my attention!

I'm really pleased with the pictures I managed to take, and we had a lovely afternoon at Lacock.  I'm looking forward to going back and seeing the gardens in Spring and maybe taking a picnic in Summer...

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Saturday 28 December 2013

Christmas lights

One of our favourite things to do at this time of year is to take a drive around Bristol and look at the beautiful (and gaudy) lights that are adorning the city.  We discovered the Brailsford Lights in Brentry a couple of years ago and have loved seeing the display grow and grow every year!

The display is run by the Brailsford brothers, two builders from Brentry who put up a few lights on their Mum's house a few years ago.  When people liked it, they started buying more and more decorations in the sales and now they collect for the Wallace & Gromit children's charity and people come from all over Bristol and the surrounding areas to see the lights.

Just up the road from the Brailsford lights there are another two houses bedecked!

Love the polar bears and penguins!
Brentry is definitely THE place to go for "light-peeping"!  Closer to home we discovered a giant reindeer which is all kinds of fabulous!!  It's almost as tall as the houses beside it!

Have you gone out for a drive (or a walk) to see the lights in your area?  Or have you bedecked your house in them?

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Friday 27 December 2013

Christmas Day, 2013

Merry Christmas
via Flickr
I hope everyone has had a wonderful Christmas!  Lucas gifted Dave and I with a wonderful lie-in!  He tip-toed into our bedroom at a blissful 8am.  (Apparently he woke up at 5am, opened his stocking, and then fell asleep again while he was playing with his toys.  Bless!)

Scrambled eggs a la Heston served on toasted brioche with smoked salmon
After a lush breakfast cooked by Dave--with some help from commis chef Lucas--we opened the rest of our presents.  The look on Lucas's face when he opened the Pacific Rim toys that a friend of ours brought over from the States was amazing.  I've never seen him speechless before, and he actually looked like he was going to cry with sheer joy.  He's been having pitched Jaeger versus Kaiju battles ever since, and he's so happy it's unreal.  I'm getting good at tuning out the noise.

Dave and Lucas spoiled me with some Doctor Who goodies, including the seriously huge and amazing Doctor Who Vault book with loads of behind the scenes nuggets of information.  It's so much fun to dip into--I'm going to bursting with obscure trivia!

As is traditional, we went over to Dave's parents house for Christmas lunch and more presents..  We let the kids open their presents before lunch, which is a fantastic way of distracting them from rumbling tummies.
Dave's Mum and Dad love cooking for all the family, and this year there were eleven of us around the table!  The table groaned under the weight of turkey, beef, roasted potatoes and every conceivable trimming and sauce!  It groaned again later on when the dessert buffet was laid out!!  (Wish I'd taken a photo of that, but I was too busy making a beeline for the Black Forest Gateaux!)

Unsurprisingly, we spent the rest of the afternoon in a bit of a food coma and slowly worked our way through the adults Christmas presents.  I think everyone was pleased with their presents from us, and I am certainly very happy with the brilliant combination of Doctor Who DVDs and baking books that I received!  You know this is going to culminate in a TARDIS cake, right?

Later on, once Lucas had succumbed to the heady combination of too much excitement and too much sugar, we sat on the sofa and chatted the night away whilst nibbling on mince pies and stollen.

A fantastic Christmas!

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Monday 23 December 2013

Festive baking: Jaffa cake cupcakes

Merry Christmas Eve Eve!

Lucas had a playdate with one of his friends today.  Since it's so very nearly Christmas I wanted to make them a really luscious treat, so after much thought--and the discovery of a severe nut allergy to cater around--I decided to make Jaffa cake cupcakes.  After all...what kid doesn't love Jaffa cakes?

This recipe comes from The Hummingbird Bakery's Home Sweet Home book which I picked up at the beginning of the month.  I was a bit sceptical when I saw their sponge cake method, but it produced really moist and delicious sponges with a great crumb.

The cupcakes were a huge hit with the boys!  (With everyone, in fact!)  I'm told that they "taste just like Jaffa cakes", which is probably the best compliments these little cakes could have!  I was really pleased with them--the sponge cake was fluffy, and the bitter marmalade balanced out the slightly too-sweet buttercream beautifully.  As a bonus, they also looked really pretty and festive in their gold cases.  I'll definitely make these again!!

Jaffa Cake Cupcakes
From The Hummingbird Bakery: Home Sweet Home

Makes 12-16 cupcakes

70g unsalted butter, softened
210g plain flour
250g caster sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
210ml full-fat milk
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g smooth orange marmalade

For the buttercream:

450g icing sugar, sifted
60g cocoa powder, sifted
150g unsalted butter, softened
60ml full-fat milk
mini Jaffa Cakes to decorate

Preheat oven to 170C (150C fan oven, or as per your oven instructions).  Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper muffin cases to make the number you require.  (If you don't have two tins, then just bake in batches--the mixture is surprisingly resilient.)

In the bowl of a free-standing mixer with paddle fitted (or using a bowl and electric whisk) combine the flour, baking powder, caster sugar, salt and butter.  Mix on a slow speed until a crumb texture forms.

Beat the milk, eggs, and vanilla extract together in a jug.  Slowly pour half the mixture into the crumbs. with the beaters on slow speed, until mixed in.  Then turn the speed up to medium and beat until the batter is smooth.  Turn the speed down to slow again and slowly add the rest of the wet mixture.

Divide the batter between the muffin cases in the prepared tin.  Fill each one about 2/3 of the way.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until risen, lightly golden on top and the top springs back when pressed gently.  Allow to cool in the tin for a couple of minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Once cooled, fill with marmalade.  If you have a Bismark tip, you can pipe the marmalade straight into each cupcake.  If not, cut out a little cone from the top of each cupcake, spoon in a heaped teaspoon of marmalade, then replace the top.  You could always use an apple corer.

In your free-standing mixer, combine the icing sugar, cocoa and softened butter.  Cover with a tea towel to avoid redecorating your kitchen!!  Mix on low speed until the butter is worked in--it'll have a crumb-like texture--slowly mix in the milk until you have a buttercream consistency.  Raise the speed to medium and beat until soft and fluffy.  (I usually close the kitchen door and let it run for at least 8 minutes.)  Add more milk if you think it needs it.

Spread or pipe the icing on top of the filled cupcakes and then decorate with the mini Jaffa cakes.  Enjoy!

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Sunday 22 December 2013

Deck the halls

This year it took the Christmas decorations going up to bring out my festive spirit.  As Dave flicked the Christmas tree lights on, I started smiling.  By the time the wreath went up on the front door, my happiness was complete!  I've been humming carols ever since, and outright breaking out into song in the supermarket!  (Apologies to local shoppers--Lucas started it.  Honest!)

In the hallway is my little 'twiggy tree'.  I was inspired by our recent visit to Swinton Park where they had gorgeous vases of twigs, liberally adored with a single colour of baubles, which looked fantastic.  I think my version looks pretty good!  I'm enjoying the display so much that I think I might keep the vase there all the time and treat myself to flowers.  It's also encouraging me to deal with the post more promptly, as otherwise it spoils the look.  Terribly shallow, I know, but surprisingly effective.

In the living room, we swapped the HOME letters that usually sit on our mantelpiece for NOEL, added a giant bauble and a shiny holly & ivy garland.  I keep meaning to buy a more convincing garland, but it twinkles really nicely when the tree lights hit it...

Dave and Lucas made the sleigh ornament for a competition at work!
It has proven ridiculously difficult to get a full-length picture of our tree.  We wound up getting a new one as last year's tree wasn't strong enough to hold my beautiful Doctor Who ornaments.  I wound up weighing the largest and heaviest decoration, fashioning something of the same weight, and wandering around shops trying it on tree branches until I found one sturdy enough!  I suspect that all the shop assistants thought I was utterly insane!

Finally, I've been slowly putting together a display of Christmas cards on the kitchen door.  It makes me smile every time I walk past it!

A Christmas tree of Christmas cards

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