Thursday, 26 June 2014

Morning walk

Come on, it's a beautiful morning, come for a walk with the dog and me.  Don't worry if you're not keen on dogs, he's got to stay on his lead today because he can't be trusted not to chase after the baby bunnies we sometimes see on this walk.  We'll take this path ...

We're a couple of miles from Winwick, very close to IKEA and Marks and Spencer on the Gemini retail park in Warrington.  In fact, if you've ever been to those stores then there's a good chance that you'll have passed the entrance to this path but probably never have noticed it.  We've come through the gate and immediately it's as if we're miles away from anywhere, whereas in fact we're in the middle of an urban area.  Stand still for a moment and listen.  There are birds all around us, singing in the trees and rustling in the bushes, and the beep-beep of a truck reversing just on the other side of a large hedgerow.  Nature and industry side by side.  The dog's keen to get on so we'll carry on walking.  Come on, it's this way.  Mind your step under these trees, it's quite muddy just here, but it smells fabulous; woody and earthy - delicious!

This plant is Himalayan balsam.  It's quite an invasive weed and there's plenty of it around here as we're close to water.  It's very tall and has lovely pink flowers which develop into seed pods that explode later in the year, firing their seeds up to four feet away.  I love the way that all the plants have turned their leaves to face the sun.  This is the one sunny spot between large groups of trees and it's as if they're all sun-bathing.

You can turn your face to the sun here, too.  There are a few clouds but I think they'll be gone soon.  Although it's only about nine o'clock in the morning, it's warm enough to penetrate through the branches already.  I bet you're glad you didn't bring your big jacket this morning, aren't you?  I've got my jumper wrapped around my waist already, enjoying the sun on my arms as we pass between the trees and open sky.

Look, some of the Himalayan balsam flowers are out just up here.  They're quite exotic-looking flowers, aren't they?  They remind me of little faces!  

Right then, which way shall we choose now?  The path goes to the left or the right and is regularly mowed to produce these grassy islands; over to the right are more of them and some picnic benches.  It's a good place to bring children to play.  The dog has decided that we're going left - there must be a good smell down there.  I'm sure you don't really mind which way we go?  All the paths link up together in the end anyway so we won't get lost.

If we look behind us, you can just about see the M62 motorway in the distance, reminding us that we're not so far from civilisation.  The planners at Warrington Council were always very good at making sure there was plenty of green space around their housing and industrial areas; they seem to have let that slip at bit with some of the new housing estates that are being built which is a shame, but times are different now and house-builders want to squeeze every bit of cash from the land.  Flowers and trees aren't a high priority in these financially-constrained times - a bit short-sighted in my view as once they've gone, they've gone and it's not impossible to blend green spaces with housing as can be seen from other parts of Warrington - but that's how it is these days.  We have to breathe the fresh air where we can.

The elder flowers are just about finished now and the flowers are making way for the glossy black berries that will appear later in the year.  I made my elderflower cordial earlier this month and we've been enjoying it with fizzy spring water in this recent hot weather.  Last year, I made elderflower wine as well as the cordial but this year I just used the flowers for cordial - if I'm feeling adventurous when the berries are out I might try making some elderberry wine for a change.

Ooh, look at that sky now!  Isn't it such a beautiful colour?  There are all sorts of trees along this path; conifers, elder, willow, oak, maple, hawthorn, alder, horse chestnut - all supporting a variety of wildlife and all full of birds this morning.

It's not so difficult to work out which bird this feather came from.  There are lots and lots of magpies here, all chattering to each other in their harsh voices.  They're not particularly pleasant birds but there's something about them that I've always quite liked.  I think it's their formal black and white attire which makes them look like little gentlemen in tailcoats, or perhaps it's because when I was little I used to repeat the rhyme to myself ("One for sorrow, two for joy ...") and always say "Good morning, Mr Magpie" for good luck.  I liked the idea that seeing a particular bird could influence the way your day would go; now of course I know that you make your own luck and there are so many magpies around that I'd be constantly chatting to them!

We're out of the trees now, the sun's pretty hot and the dog's panting away on the end of his lead.  He can see Sankey Brook just over there through the grasses and he'd very much like to go in for a quick splash - unfortunately for him, that would mean me going in for a quick splash as well and that's not happening, so I'll distract him while we keep on walking. 

There isn't much further to go on this walk, but there are one or two treats to look at before we reach the end of it.  I love these grasses with their feathery plumes.  There's just something about them that makes you want to waft your hands through them.  I like the way that you can slide your fingers up to the top of some of the varieties and the seeds slide off to look like a little bunch of flowers in your fingers.  The dog likes them too - most dogs seem to like bounding through tall grasses - but we have to watch he doesn't get the seeds stuck in his ears.  

Look at these thistles, right at the end of the path here.  There are lots of ladybirds on the prickly leaves and although only one is in flower at the moment, the others are ready to burst open any day now.  I've always had a bit of a soft spot for thistles, probably because my Dad is Scottish and they're a symbol of a place I have a lot of affection for.

The path turns to the left and here we are on the bridge over Sankey Brook. The water looks quite brown and brackish today but it's pretty clean and I don't mind the dog going into it in some shallower places.  When the weather's been very wet, the level rises right up the banks and almost to where we're standing - those are the days I keep the dog well away from it as it flows very fast and I'm not sure he has the sense not to launch himself in.

We'll keep on this footpath for just a little longer until we get back to where we started from. Behind us is the road that cars travel along to get to the Gemini retail park so we've not come too far from it, although it's been lovely to listen to the birds and the water instead of rushing traffic.  I think it's time for a cup of a tea when I get home, and big daughter was talking about making some scones so a nice warm scone would go very nicely with it!  I'm glad you came with us, I've enjoyed your company - let's do it again some time!

Monday, 16 June 2014

The best chocolate brownies in the world

I've never had much success with making chocolate brownies, but when I saw this post on Jen's blog, I was tempted to have another go.  After all, how could anyone resist something billed as the best chocolate brownies in the world?  I have to confess that I am rather sceptical when someone claims to have discovered the best anything in the world (it always makes me think of this scene in the film Elf), but I've been reading Jen's lovely blog for some time now and I suspected she wouldn't let me down.

And oh boy - she didn't!  These really are quite amazing chocolate brownies! They're moist in the middle, firm on the top and are deliciously moreish.  And so incredibly easy to make - nothing more complicated than a fork for mixing it all together.  Whether you think you might agree that these really are the best chocolate brownies in the world or not, I would strongly recommend that you try them out because they're well worth the effort.  I've actually made them twice now in the space of a week or so which should tell you something!

I'm not going to repeat Jen's recipe because you can get it from here, but I have got a couple of things to add:

1     I used a bag of chocolate drops as part of the total weight of chocolate but I didn't melt them in with the rest of the chocolate, I just stirred them in at the end.  White chocolate drops are a lovely contrast with the dark chocolate of the brownie.

2      Jen suggests using a mixture of dark and milk chocolate, brown and white sugar and that's what I did too; it worked very well.

3     When you melt the chocolate and butter together, use a LARGE bowl or it all spills over and makes a dreadful mess.  You don't need to know how I know this (or how long it took to clean up), just rest assured that in my quest to bring you a scientifically researched post, I have tried out various options and a LARGE bowl makes for a much happier experience all round.

4     My baking tin is 18cm x 27cm although I may well experiment with other sizes in the future, and yes, the greaseproof paper is an essential requirement.

5     I cook on an Aga so for anyone doing the same, I suggest putting the baking tin on the grid shelf on the bottom set of runners with the cold shelf on the second set of runners.  I cooked my brownies for about 30 minutes, although I'd recommend keeping an eye on them so that they don't burn. 

I think it's always a good indication of how well a cake has turned out by how long it lasts in the tin.  By the next morning there were only crumbs left, so I can't give you any clues as to it's keeping quality, but it's clear that it turned out very well indeed and there wasn't any wasted - and that's a good thing, wouldn't you agree? J

Friday, 13 June 2014

Clearing out

We're lucky enough to have a small study in our house where we keep our computer, our stationery, phone books, that sort of stuff.  My husband and I both have a bookcase with a cupboard at the bottom to keep our text books and files in one place.  My husband's is always tidy.  He can always find whatever it is he's looking for and his cupboard doors actually close. Unfortunately, having a natural inclination towards the untidy, mine don't.  In fact, I try not to open the doors too often because I'm not sure just what exactly might drop out onto my feet.

But today was the day all that was going to change!  I'd had lots of good intentions of using the Flylady system of tackling it 15 minutes at a time, but after putting it off for a couple of weeks I decided to take the bull by the horns and just empty the cupboard.  It wouldn't take that long to sort it all out and put it back, surely!

I dragged everything out of the cupboard, avoiding injury, and dumped it all in the hall along with another pile of stuff that needed a new home.  The cupboard looked great!

Then I turned round to look at the hall and surveyed just what I was dealing with.  Oh dear.

Do you ever have the feeling that you're sorry you started something?  It really might have been better to have tackled it 15 minutes at a time.  I was tempted to put it all back into the cupboard and squash the doors shut, but I wasn't convinced I could get it all back in.  It seemed to have grown since I took it all out!  With a big sigh, I got started.  You would not believe the junk I had kept hold of, and I couldn't begin to tell you why I had.  Road atlases from 2009, more padded envelopes than you could shake a stick at (I'd clearly envisioned myself sending a LOT of parcels!), empty ink cartridges that I'd obviously intended to recycle but never quite got round to ... it's no wonder the cupboard doors wouldn't shut!

By the time I went to pick small daughter up from school, it was looking a little better ...

... but I was still going strong at 9.30pm (I had started at 1.00pm but had, admittedly, had a few breaks for dinner and small daughter's bedtime).  I was starting to despair of ever getting finished.  My husband had settled himself down in front of a detective programme and I was still clearing up in the hall!  Remind me never to pull everything out of a cupboard again!  Flylady does tell you never to take out more than you can put back in one hour, but I knew I'd never get to the bottom of the junk if I did that.

And then - hallelujah! - at 10.30pm, I finally finished!  A box to go into the attic, a bag for the bin and a washing basket full of paper for recycling.

This is what's gone back into my cupboard - hardly anything at all!  I do feel very pleased with myself, I have to say - I found a building society account book of big daughter's that we thought we'd lost about three years ago, a bank paying-in book that I'd misplaced, umpteen school photos of my girls that I'd completely forgotten about ... and I've put them all away where they belong.

Am I sorry I got everything out in one go?  Well, a little, to be honest.  These things always turn into bigger jobs than you think.  But am I pleased with the results?  Oh, you bet I am!  I just have to try not to get to the point where I'm doing it all again in a year's time!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

A week in pictures

It's been a funny week, weather-wise - bright and sunny one moment and throwing it down the next.  I've been wet more than once whilst out with the dog this week!  Even so, I've still made a point of trying to find something interesting to look at rather than down at my feet as we hurried along.

Monday... I spotted this tree in a neighbour's garden.  It's a pine and I love the way the new growth is bright green and contrasts so well with the older needles.

Tuesday... a young robin.  Unfortunately he's not as clear as I'd like him to be as I only had my phone to take a picture with and not my camera, but he still had his fluffy baby feathers on his back and sat and watched the dog and me for a long time, cocking his head from side to side as he regarded us with his beady eyes.

Wednesday ... look what arrived in the post!  I can't tell you how amazing it is to have a book in your hands with your own name on it!  Small daughter designed the cover for me and I don't know which of us is more excited!  It's now available on Amazon in paperback as well as Kindle and I'm well on the way with writing the next one.   

Thursday ... it was Celebration Day at big daughter's school, an annual tradition for those in Year 11.  All the students wear fancy dress (on the way to school, small daughter was delighted to see three bananas, a pirate, several cowboys and lots of other weird and wonderful characters) and big daughter chose to go as Pocahontas.  We decided to make her costume, using pattern inspiration from this book and we're pretty pleased with how it turned out. 

Friday ... this morning's dog walk was with a friend and her dogs.  The sun shone, the dogs were well-behaved (apart from needing to wallow in every puddle and mud-hole they could find and then shake themselves all over us!) and we were delighted to see this family of swans.  The sun was so bright that the adult swans seemed to glow!


Saturday ... I managed to find some time to finish off my Yarndale Mandala which I'll be posting off to Lucy of Attic24 on Monday.  I didn't spot any of the bunting I made last year when I went to Yarndale so hopefully I'll be luckier in spotting this Mandala - although as the current count of them being sent to Lucy is in the hundreds already, I may not!

The rest of this week has passed by in something of a blur and my to-do list seems to be getting longer, not shorter, but it's nice to look back and see some calm moments - this has to be the joy of blogging as it makes you stop and take notice in the midst of the weekly rush!

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Monthly Musing - June 2014 - Prom night

At the end of this month, all of big daughter’s exams will be over and she will be looking forward to the next event on her calendar – her school Prom.

I have to say, I’ve been a bit cynical about this whole Prom thing.  My school never had anything like a Prom (or even a disco, come to that), and as far as I’ve always been able to see, it’s something brought over from America in another attempt to turn a simple leavers’ disco into a commercial event.  What do they need a Prom for anyway?  Big daughter has listened patiently to my mutterings, reminded me on a regular basis that we need to buy a dress (politely declining my offer to make one!) and squabbled with friends at school over how they’re going arrive at the venue in suitable style (a limo is required, apparently).

I resisted dress-shopping for as long as I could until finally, in February, I thought we’d better go and take a look.  And just in time, it turns out.  Wow! The Prom dress business is big business, possibly even equal to the wedding dress business, and if you’re buying an off-the-peg dress and need it altering or making in a different size, you’ve got to get in early or there’s no choice or time to get it altered.  Naturally, all of this confirmed my cynicism – and also changed my mind.

We were lucky – we found The Dress in the second shop we visited and watching big daughter trying it on and seeing her face change as she saw herself in the mirror brought home to me just what a milestone a Prom is for a teenage girl.  I saw it again this week when we went back to the shop for a fitting; five other teenaged girls stood in their sparkling finery waiting patiently for the seamstress and although their dresses needed taking up here or taking in there, they clearly all felt like princesses.

And that, I realised, is the point.  In this age where our children are encouraged to grow up too quickly, most girls want to play at being princesses for only a short time.  Disney does its best to perpetuate the princess ideal, but by the time our girls are teenagers they are caught up with other distractions and princesses, like fairies and unicorns, are left far behind.  From September, life will be different for big daughter.  She’ll be off to sixth-form college, will make new friends and her next goals will be A levels and university.  She will “put away childish things” as the Bible says, and there will be fewer moments to remember what it’s like to want to be a princess.  It’s important that we all cherish those moments when we can, and for that reason, I take back all of my mutterings and wish that perhaps my school had had a Prom after all.
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