Remember, Remember, 5th of November

18 years ago this evening I picked up my first dog that was truly my own.

He was technically a rescue for complicated reasons I can’t go into, but he was a very young puppy. I have very strong feelings about buying puppies and about the need to take in adult dogs who don’t have a home and family to love them through no fault of their own. So Guinness – as I named him – was the only puppy I really remember us having.

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Our very first family dog was a puppy about the same time I was a “human puppy” – we grew up together, so she was my litter mate and I would refer to her as my sister. It left me with a lifelong passion for dogs and quite a few holes in my clothing and shoes whilst she teethed.

Guinness was my baby though. He held – and still holds – a very special place in my heart. He was loving and complicated, crazy and gentle. He drove me to despair in his very long teething phase, chewing items I didn’t know a dog would tackle. He cost me rather a lot of money in the process, fixing and replacing during the maelstrom caused by my very own Black Hole exploding into my life on Bonfire Night all those years ago. I still miss him even though it’s more than 2 years since I said goodbye and kissed the furry dip between his eyes one last time…

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Of course the inimitable Marley quickly filled the Labrador-shaped hole in my life. He’s so different to Guinness there was never any danger of replacing him, they’re each endearing and exasperating in their own individual way! It took time to settle in together, rehoming an adult dog with a past requires masses of time, patience and work and although I enjoy the reward of it, it’s not for everyone. For every behavioural glitch that had to be worked through, there was a bonus to compensate. No toilet training, fewer commands to learn, no teething chewing.

I did try to foster a beautiful abandoned dog over a year ago. But one of Marley’s insecurities means that dogs on his own territory is something he struggles to cope with and makes him stressed and difficult. It was clear that it wasn’t the right time to introduce another dog to our household and another adult male might be the wrong type. So the lovely lurcher I’d started to fall in love with, even though he wasn’t even meant to stay with us forever, had to go to an experienced rescue centre before Marley got really upset. I cried for days. I know he went to a nice family very soon. But those eyes still haunt me.

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They say the eyes are the window of the soul. When the language between friends can only be expressed through those eyes, they can tell you so much – if only you are willing to listen. It breaks my heart over and over to see dogs who have stories written on their faces of humans who let them down, who hurt them, who just didn’t take the time to think before taking them into their lives and then chucking them out again when it didn’t work. Of those others who wonder where their elderly owners went so suddenly. Who wonder why no one speaks their language and yet demand they learn a confusing and bitter tongue.

If it was down to me – and Marley would tolerate it – I’d have several more rescues in my life. There is no end to the dogs that need good homes. With our 3-legged rescue collie nearing the last part of her life though it was clear that whilst Marley is a different dog to the one we took on, who loves playing with other dogs providing they aren’t aggressive or very timid, it would be hard to find another rescue to keep him company whose own set of problems wouldn’t be exacerbated by Marley’s. Once a rescue has been let down, you owe it to them to give them the best second chance they deserve. Putting them in a house with a dog who won’t share toys or make them welcome isn’t really the kind of chance they need.

I’d resigned myself to a future of having just one dog for as long as Marley lives. He’s great fun and good company; I’m lucky to have him. But then my mum decided she really did want another dog whilst we still have Badger here in her old age and moreover she was taken with the Welsh Sheepdogs that our neighbours had just bred. So this week, Jess came into our lives just as Guinness did half my lifetime ago.

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Just as Beth our old collie cross acted as nanny to Guinness, Badger our old Border Collie has been puppy-sitting Jess.

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Jess has been rushing around the yard in the wet fallen November leaves like Guinness used to.

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She’s been wearing the same little quilted lamb coat we popped onto Guinny if we had to work outside for a bit when the wind is chilly – turning a puppy into a super-hero by the addition of a little blue cape. Moving everything out of reach before puppy teeth can sink into them, eyeing up everything as a potential choking hazard or cliff that an adventuring pup can fall off.

Trying not to trip over unexpected small bodies in the kitchen when the puppy battery suddenly runs out mid-play session.

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Arranging playdates, scheduling trips to the surgery for vaccinations and check ups, starting the educational marathon that never really ends with dogs, starting the 8-12 week socialisation period that is so vital to a well-balanced adult.

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Marley tolerates a baby dog better; she isn’t a threat to him. If he growls when he’s had enough she knows to be submissive for a few seconds and then bounces back to tease him again. She’s not frightened of his very vocal play behaviour unlike adult dogs who get confused by his blood-curdling growling that accompanies the frantically wagging tail and slink away in case they get hurt. Marley doesn’t understand – and at 6 years old can’t relearn – not to vocalise aggressively when he plays games and so sometimes he ends up provoking dominant dogs and scaring timid ones. I can’t unteach him behaviours he learned in the 4 years of his life; we’ve worked on some things but others are just part of him and he can’t help it.

Jess however is learning to play with him on his terms and still somehow get what she wants. It’s working out very well and I hope they will be really good friends once she’s grown up. Already Marley has met his match with a tiny dog that is relentlessly cheerful in the face of his possessive behaviour over toys and doesn’t fight fire with fire but simply flutters her eyelashes before going in for the kill!

It’s all so familiar and yet so long ago. I still wish I’d got room for a rescue dog to love. But in the meantime, we’re lucky to have this small baby dog burst into our lives like a fluffy blue-eyed shooting star this time instead of a chocolate-eyed Black Hole.

Same little firework though!

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War and Peace

This weekend has been something of a contradiction – going forward into the future and travelling back in time. My local town has been celebrating the 750th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Montgomery; a pivotal point in the relations between Cymru/Wales and England. It heralded the start of a very short period of time when Wales – and its ruling Prince of Wales – was recognised by the English throne as an independent and self-governing country.

The Treaty of Montgomery of 1267 was contracted between Henry III of England and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Gwynedd, Prince of Aberffraw, Lord of Snowdon. It recognised the latter’s right to rule and to be Prince of Wales. Wales in the 13th C consisted of various kingdoms and cantrefi – the Welsh mediaeval subdivision of principalities into areas – “cant” meaning 100 and tref the Welsh word for town or settlement. Cantrefi were further subdivided into cwymydau. Each cantref had its own court of the ruling landowners, a Welsh assembly called the uchelwyr – the nobility. The governing Welsh princes of each cantref did not necessarily get on well with their neighbouring kinsmen and Wales’s strength as a nation was sapped by internecine strife.

Llywelyn’s grandfather, Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great), saw this – much like Alfred the Great of Anglo-Saxon England several centuries earlier in his attempts to unify those areas that he could and make treaty with those that were beyond unification. Llywelyn Fawr knew that Wales had a greater chance of peace and prosperity beside Norman England if they had but one Prince to lead them. He was married to the daughter of King John of England and the history of Wales and England was inextricably linked by marriage, land and treaty. The border area of the powerful Marcher Lords was a melting pot of disunity and grumblings that flared and threatened to spill over into both Wales and England in various skirmishes and crumbling agreements between monarchs and nobility.

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd had made several overtures of treaty towards Henry III which were turned down. Nevertheless in 1267 after a month-long period of talks in Shrewsbury, agreement was reached in the Treaty of Montgomery and was signed at the ford at the Afon Hafren/River Severn just outside of the town. This is considered the high point of Llywelyn’s reign. The terms of the Treaty were somewhat punitive in cost however; as well as homage to the English king, the amount Llywelyn was required to pay both upfront and annually was eye-watering. Henry’s son and successor Edward I had little patience for Llywelyn’s inability to pay his debts or the tardiness of his paying homage to the new king and before a decade was out, the Treaty was dead – as was Llywelyn the Last himself by the last weeks of 1282, slain in battle near Builth Wells in Mid-Wales.

Writing this blog post on the damp, windy first day of October, the achingly beautiful elegy by Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch for his fallen king seems even more poignant.

Do you not see the path of the wind and the rain?
Do you not see the oak trees in turmoil?
Cold my heart in a fearful breast
For the king, the oaken door of Aberffraw.

The failed Treaties – the glorious but pricey Treaty of Montgomery and the later, even more stringent confines of the Treaty of Aberconwy – signify the approaching end of an independent Wales. But the loss of the visionary Princes of Gwynedd stretching from Owain Mawr (Owain the Great) to his great-great grandson Llywelyn, Ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn, Our Last Leader) also spelled the end of the grip of the North Wales kingdom’s power over the rest of Wales. The bard’s prescient fearfulness heralded true and Wales was inexorably folded in time to the iron will of Edward I.

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I’ve been mindful of the Treaty for some time – not just because I am a marcher born Celtic/Anglo-Saxon hybrid myself and not only because this significant point in history was enacted in my adopted home town (and also bargained for in my birth town!) but also because the anniversary falls on my birthday. Being someone who feels more connection to the past, as I trundle forward into another year myself, I like to look back into history too.

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Montgomery Castle – the building of which commenced 43 years before the Treaty – has long been one of my favourite places. I first visited around the age of 6 years on one of our many day trips to the area. It was the choice for many of our family celebrations, birthdays and visitors – we’d head to the Castle Kitchen for tasty vegetarian wholefood meals (and in my case, a large hunk of Hot Chocolate Fudge Cake if my memory and predilections serve me correctly!) and we’d burn off the feasting after with a short sharp climb up to the castle where my brothers and I would clamber around the ruins, I’d pick daisies or gather autumnal leaves depending on the season. It’s also where I encountered my first sheep up close in the form of a lamb that had separated from its mother and was bawling inconsolably and I got my clothes all sheepy-smelling by cradling it in my arms trying to reunite it with its mummy.

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Later when we moved here when I was 18, I’d hike up to the castle after working shifts at the local hotel and a few years later, in my lunch hour when I was working as a vet nurse at the veterinary practice that nestles at the foot of the castle cliff. I have photographs of me standing against the castle walls hugging my new puppy Guinness on a stormy November afternoon – my 21st birthday gift to myself. I’ve spent many memorable hours here, both with friends and family and also alone lost in thought. It’s a place that comforts me; the encircling walls hold you still and the huge views out over the town and stretching out across Wales and Shropshire give a sense of freedom and clarity.

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I’m fascinated by the thought of walking the same ground as so many figures from previous centuries; mindful of standing literally in the footsteps of key players who shaped not only the history of this country but also by definition, of the history of huge parts of the English-speaking world. It intrigues me that our local history – here on the Welsh Marches – is also the shared history of some other countries settled by British natives from previous centuries.

The town had arranged several events including a re-enactment of the Treaty signing at the ford with local school children taking part (and local councillor and occasional Mayor, Mike Mills acting a very stylish Henry III for the day!), a mediaeval banquet in the evening and, on Saturday, an encampment at the castle with re-enactment groups displaying some of what life was like in the 13th century. I didn’t attend the Friday celebrations but it looked like huge fun and you can view some of the festivities on the Visit Montgomery FaceBook page!

I did however nip up to the castle to see the re-enactment displays yesterday and it was so interesting. Although the weather threatened – and eventually delivered – typical Welsh drizzle, the spirits were cheerfully high as soldiers charged into carefully choreographed battle,

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gingerly swinging their weapons with a surprising equality in the body count…

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and a certain amount of confusion over whose side one was meant to be fighting for…

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So just like nowadays then!

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The military endeavours were wildly applauded by visitors and young recruits alike from both the 13th century and the 21st…

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I was impressed by the detail in the costumes and artefacts. There is a crossover between the world of textiles/ crafts and re-enactment; those historians who make their own authentic costumes and craftspeople who find an increasing interest in the history of their own skills. Their knowledge and passion was impressive and I’ll definitely make the effort to go to other re-enactments.

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It’s great how it can visually bring history to life, especially for school-children and reinforce that history is our story too just as one day we ourselves will become the past. I think it also brings into focus the cyclical rather than linear nature of history – that not everything we have achieved in the common era is necessarily progress and that progress itself can ebb as well as advance.

Although the celebrations centred around the male-dominated Treaty and masculine players in history, it’s perhaps no surprise that I was more intrigued by the few female characters on display. Of the several interesting people I talked with, I think this lady fascinated me the most.

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At first, drawn by the smoke of her brazier I assumed she was cooking.

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When I approached her I spotted several vials and a bowl of dried elderberries and realised that she was in fact making medicines.

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Our brief conversation was speedily catholic in its compass as she answered my questions – I could have talked with her for hours so interesting was her knowledge of science, archaeology and history and I wish I could remember half of what she told me. Nevertheless it piqued my interest and gave me new things to look into and for that I’m very grateful.

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I was particularly interested in the surgical instruments hanging in a roll beside her. Designed by the surgeon Al-Zahrawi of Córdoba in the 10th century, it’s fascinating that whilst surgical instruments have been refined over time, that they are still recognisable in their crude original form from a thousand years before. Whilst the instruments I’m used to seeing our veterinary surgeons use might be more delicate – and certainly more hygienic – there were some intriguingly familiar shapes there of forceps, probes, retractors, elevators and curettes.

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And, neatly linking one of my other main interests, this other lady also obligingly stopped for a moment and posed for me. As countless women have found throughout time and place, the constant need to clothe everyone meant the need also to spin, spin, spin, wherever you might go.

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A week is a long time…

You know how sometimes time drags and at other times it flies? I can’t say that time has exactly dragged in the past 7 days but it does seem to be an eternity since last weekend because so much has happened. It’s sort of dragged and flown at the same time! Flagged?…

Some of it hasn’t been great to be honest. It seems like an awful lot of the people that I care about are having a really hard time just at present – and my thoughts are with them almost constantly which makes for reflective times. This week has continued that vein and it’s making me even more thankful for the good things I have and appreciative even when it feels like things aren’t really going your way!

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It’s also been a week where some really great things have happened too. I’ve had the opportunity to catch up with some friends I’ve not seen for a while and in one case, friends from New Zealand that I hadn’t seen for some years. It was so good to spend time catching up with them and other mutual friends – even if it does seem a bit scary to be reminded just how quickly 15 years has apparently flashed past!!!! Whether it’s an evening walk in one of the beautiful areas we have here, meeting with like-minded people or catching up with those I used to work with or live near in a different time, I’m always thankful for the lovely people I have in my life and for the laughter, love and friendship shared.

The veg garden continues to be a mixture of great success and damp squibs this year – but that’s gardening in a temperate climate for you! I’ve got a few photos but I’ll put those in a separate post I think. The main gardening feature of the week was that we decided to order a large load of mushroom compost bagged up and wrapped on 2 pallets. Having it delivered was exasperating and didn’t really go to plan and meant I had to spend most of a day carrying the bags down individually from the side of our gateway on the road which wasn’t how I’d expected to spend the day!

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The landscaping part of the gardening has sort of come to a halt but I hope to pick up with that again later in the autumn. I’ll have to change my plans around that work for various reasons but for most of the summer, what we achieved over last autumn, winter and early spring with the help of Phil, James and Gareth has given us much pleasure.

The top of the path is a new place we can now sit for a few moments to catch the last of the sun’s warmth before it slides behind the house so although it’s unfinished still, it’s been nice to have a drink or even a meal there at the end of the day. Although I think my grandparents old garden bench we’ve recently parked up there needs an overhaul too as the weathered wood seems a bit more bendy than I’d like when we’re both sitting on it!

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I’ve not got so much done on the fibre front. It’s been harder to fit in making stock recently. But I did manage to dye up some silk bricks lately and they sold very well which along with the lovely feedback was an encouraging boost to my “flagging” spirits. I do love silk!

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This week I’ve dyed a little more of my own yarn Afon Miwl spun from some of my own sheep and also blended with silk – this is for my next shop update. I’m getting low on undyed skeins of this and I’d really like to get a new yarn design I’ve been trialling spun up. A project for the autumn perhaps.

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I’ve also dyed a load of Haunui NZ Halfbred in gradients but I’ve yet to photograph them. I’ll be sending out a newsletter when the shop update is due though so make sure to sign up for these on my website if you want to be the first to know!

In my own personal yarnie fun, I’d been knitting a shawl in my hand dyed yarn – the pattern is Birds of a Feather by Andrea Mowry – and I’ve run into a glitch which must be down to me because no-one else who has knitted it mentions it and the pattern errata is for a different section not this one. I can’t work out what I’m stuck with though and even got my mother to count my stitches to check! By the time I finish work for the day it’s usually around 9pm and I just want to knit without thinking and not faff about ripping things back so I’ve not been in the mood to fiddle with it and get back on track. I’d actually cast it on for holiday knitting (below) back in July and did manage quite a bit of it until now so I do need to stop ignoring it! It’s dreamy and light and I’m really looking forward to wearing it!

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I’ve put it to one side for a few days though until I feel like it and picked up a weaving project I’d been meaning to do for ages.

I’d put some handspun yarns together last autumn to create a handwoven blanket.

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Because I have a rigid heddle loom which is relatively narrow, I needed to weave a length of cloth, cut it into sections to seam together and then “finish” or full the cloth in the usual way. Because I wanted to weave a plaid – or tartan – type blanket I needed to work out a repeat so the sections matched up once seamed. Again, as this is something that needed me to plan it out rather than sit down and do mindlessly, it also fell victim to the “I’m too tired to do anything but flop” evenings and so last Sunday I put aside my day off to move a bit of furniture, warp up my loom and just get on with it. Thus solving one procrastination by substituting it for another. Good eh?

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By the way, Marley would like you to know, he doesn’t think weaving is really his thing…

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I wove a small amount to work out my pattern repeat – a combination of planning and just winging it! – but then the “flagging” week overtook me and so I’ve only just sat down to it again today.

As it happens, I didn’t do a great job of winding my warp. I didn’t have enough spacers in it and although it doesn’t look horrendous in the photo above on the grand scale of bad warps, it could definitely be better. So I’ve just slackened it off so as to re-wind it with a roll of wrapping paper I found under the stairs. It won’t solve everything – I need to pay a bit more attention to my weaving techniques I think and also practice a lot more! But I’m pretty happy with the pattern and the cloth feels nice (in it’s unfinished state). And it’s the right balance between order and rustic ruggedness that I was aiming for. So far!

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Better crack on with it, September has started in a rather miserable way and I think I’ll be needing all the shawls and blankets I can lay my hands on this autumn!

In The Night Garden

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Photo: stock image

Creeping out into the bustling stillness of the night garden. Feeling my way with widened eyes adjusting to the dark. The heavy scent of stocks and lavender hangs about the cooling air. Lying on cool slate chips, the ancient stone digging into my back. Wrapped in handspun wool and silent thoughts that weigh me down. The stars slowly emerge from the darkness and the milky stairway to heaven splits the sky.

I wait.

The sounds blanket my ears. Music playing long into the lateness drifts up the valley. A clutch of half-grown hens shuffling feathered feet on perches, irritably jostling for room like the arguing teenagers they are. A pop and crunch – I swear I can hear the snails snacking on the hostas by my head.

A ginger cat materialises out of the dark as if summoned by magic. Thrilled at finding a prone human on his patrol, he scrambles aboard for mutual warmth. Kneads ecstatically at my wool-clad belly, settling first this way and then that. His contented rumbles drown out the neighbours faint party. Paws velveted, sometime catch my skin with accidental claws; I sit up, clutch him tight in defence to settle him and his purr crescendos to a roar muffled against my chest. I bury my nose in his fur and breathe.

Now and then, meteors glide silently above us encircled by shadowed trees. Every which way, dust from time before knowing to eternity, flame for a second and die over our eyes in the night garden.

The cat and I part cordially. A half moon rises like a lantern to chase back the falling stars; a midnight dawn.

Tour de Fleece 2017

And they’re off!

Well the spinners started yesterday but I was up in sunny Anglesey for a couple of days and so missed the first day of spinning as I was driving home again.

As usual we have a small but friendly team of cheerful spinners on Team BarberBlackSheep – the lovely members of the group have already kicked off in style and produced some beautiful singles yesterday from various BBS fibres as well as those from other dyers and fibre suppliers. It’s so nice to spin along in company and it’s always good to see pictures of what we’re all doing! If you think you’d like to join us this year, it’s not too late – hop over the Revelry group and pitch in! You can spin anything you want (but please note only BBS fibre is eligible for the randomly-drawn prize I award at the end of the tour).

For myself I’ve been caught up in lots of non-spinning stuff recently so I’ve only just got myself sorted out with my first TdF spinning fibre today. We discussed the popular “Combo-Spin” technique a few weeks back which involves spinning sections of fibre in a random order to make a variegated yarn which could have a certain amount of planning in its design or be completely down to chance and how your fibres turn out. It’s a good way of putting together those one-off skeins that somehow wheedle their way into our lives but stubbornly resist getting involved in a project because of being just 100g or 4 oz or so.

I decided to put a BBS “spin” (see what I did there?!) on it by spinning random chunks of my Haunui/Merino batt sets together to combine.

When I designed the forerunner of these multi-colour-packs aeons ago it seems – the SweaterBox batts and then the Three Of A Kind batts – I put in the listing that they could be spun in several ways including being spun in random sections. I’d always intended it as an option for you … but haven’t got around to doing it as a project myself.

I don’t actually need a sweater quantity just now (a quick look in both fibre and yarn stash reveals enough sweater-possibilities to last me till Doomsday!) but I do want to try it so I’ve scaled it down for an amount that would work for a shawl or perhaps a hat/mitten set or something.

I found an image I liked that served as a starting point (I can’t copy it here without infringing copyright unfortunately but the general principle of using images to inspire colour combinations is very useful for a starting point that you can bend to your own tastes.

I’ve made up half-size batts picking out colours from both the Josie set and the Passiflora set pictures above. Which gives me a colour combination like this.

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My intention is to spin randomly for one ply and then to use another ply of undyed Black Haunui to create a random barber-pole yarn. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of barber-pole yarns as they are but they do usually knit up beautifully in plain knitting. I have the idea of how this works in my head – the proof will be in the making though! I’m literally nailing my colours to the mast by telling you before I start!

The possibilities for scaling this up into sweater quantities are pretty much limitless, either by combing more batt sets or by using multiples of the same colour way. I’d love to see if other people use this idea for Haunui / Merino batts too – if you do, please post pictures in my Revelry group so we can all see!

Butter Fingers. (Or Post-Apocalyptic Skill #143)

When I was 11 my parents gingerly stepped onto the long winding path to self-sufficiency, with me caught up in the slipstream of their dreams. A goat or five installed here, a fistful of chickens sprouting up there. Another sliver of garden being dug up for veggies. A steaming compost heap or two adorned with exotic-looking fungi courtesy of the deposits harvested from the circus elephants stationed in the town park once a year…

For 6 years we continued to live our own version of The Good Life in respectable, staid suburbia – a village of the kind that on the whole doesn’t keep farm livestock on the lawn and stash cockerels in the cellar to stop them from crowing at crack of sparrow. Most people grew begonias and roses in neat beds, not rampaging artichokes and a thicket of raspberries laced with goosegrass. They mowed their lawns at the weekend with petrol mowers not small tribes of friendly guinea-pigs in rectangular runs moved block by block up the lawn in a stately progression of increasingly nibbled patches.

Behind the polished brass knocker (one of my pocket money chores) of our conventional front door, I would lie on the living room carpet, chin in hand, and pore over Home Farm magazine and other such edifying publications of the day for those who aspired to knit their own yoghurt. Chief of these was John Seymour’s classic The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency. I would study the sepia pen and ink illustrations for hours, noting the perfectly square 5 acre plot with stream, woodland, barns and garden all in precisely the right places and aspects for maximum efficiency.  If 5 acres was too hot to handle then there was an alternative 1 acre diagram – but I always got the feeling that Guru John considered it very much a poor relation and only for those slackers who wimped out of the full-fat version. These curiously weed-free sketches were a thing of beauty in which he laid down the law on crop rotations, the requisite livestock and sundry skills needed to keep such a utopian dream ticking over like a harmonious baler. They were my childhood holy grail – a box-ticking list of things You Have To Have To Survive.

Guru John, it turned out, was painting pictures to sell dreams neatly packaged up in words to fund his own self-sufficiency. When we finally landed some years later, limbs and brains akimbo, surrounded by colour-coded packing cases, bewildered goats and transplanted chickens on our 15 acres (fifteen, John!) of north-facing Welsh hillside we quickly learned you don’t buy the dream as a plan. You sweat it out of every pore and your haemorrhaging wallet…

Still, 20 years on, what’s left of the original troops seem to have thrived, Nietzsche-style. No one would paint sepia-tinted images of our lives, least of all me. But by sheer bloody-mindedness and sometimes farcical twists of fate, I’ve accumulated a CV that consists of a range of post-apocolyptic skills that could give an Amish a run for their buttons. I may be entirely unfitted for the 21st Century Big Smoke but I have scratched a number of obscure notches on the barn door frame. What can I say; it makes for novel party conversation…

One other tome I had devoured actually included a prescriptive List of Things You Should Be Able To Say You Have Done. I’ve forgotten most of them but one that did stick in my mind was making butter – and I’d knocked that one out when I was a mere 14 years old. It took about 3 days and gallons of goats’ milk settling in shallow bowls, frantic skimming off the top and an awful lot of shaking this cream up in an empty jam jar. The resulting tiny soft white lump of grease I ended up with looked unappealingly like lard thanks to the lack of carotene in goat’s milk that makes cow’s butter a rich yellow. It probably took more calories to make than it would replenish. But my dad kindly ate it all the same whilst telling me about my thrifty grandparents in their pre-fridge days close on the heels of rationing, shaking up tiny pats of butter from spare cream so as to avoid wasting it.

Shortly after my parents scored a huge antique butter churn in an auction for a few pounds. It leaked like crazy, spraying liquid up the walls as it was cranked and would have required huge amounts of cream to justify putting it into action (even if said cream wasn’t going to dribble straight out between its wooden ribs). And I wasn’t about to try harvesting that much from our goats slight offerings or risk imbibing who-knows-what from its musty-smelling wooden interior. I think it got left behind when we moved. Still, the knowledge I’d actually done it once – tick! – gave me a warm buttery glow even if I’d not repeated the experience for a quarter of a century.

Until the other week that is, when I passed an array of Kilner products in the local kitchen shop. It amused me that something you could only dig out of a garage sale two decades ago was now being manufactured for the Country Loving lifestyle. It amused me so much we just had to buy one…

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It stipulated whipping cream but I think I’d try double cream next time. You also have to leave it to stand for a few hours to get to room temperature so that it will separate out as you churn. Anyway, 600ml later and we were off.

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The instructions say it would get frothy after a few minutes. After 5 or so it would thicken, after 8-10 it would become stiff and then suddenly separate out into butter and buttermilk shortly after.

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After 10 minutes I handed the churn full of still-liquid cream to my mother and rubbed my aching forearm…

After 5 minutes more churning she too paused. We agreed to adjourn the dairy activities and allow it to warm up for another hour.

Some time into the second stint of churning (I wasn’t counting any more) it looked vaguely like it was thickening.

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We briefly discussed if it was cheating to use an electric whisk to give ourselves a boost and then return it to the churn for the finishing line…

Dismissing all unworthy thoughts of kitchen aids, I woman-fully resumed churning and soon it started to whirr in a slightly lower key.

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…and stiffen…

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…and then suddenly, as if by magic, the yellow butter grains appeared sloshing around in creamy buttermilk.

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I poured off the buttermilk (this tastes like skim milk and is great for baking with).

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You have to rinse every last trace of buttermilk from the butter – it’s less relevant in our refrigerator days perhaps but the watery component of milk and cream is an ideal growing medium for bacteria and leaving traces of it behind in the lipids would cause the butter to spoil (or go bitter just like poor old Betty Botter’s batter butter in the tongue-twister).

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You need really cold water – ice-cold – especially in a heatwave like we’re having at the moment. It’s probably over-stating the obvious to say if you use warm water it will melt your brand-new butter pretty darn quick. Marley appreciated the first rinsing with tiny blobs of butter grains floating about it in and chased his bowl around the kitchen getting the last licks out! A couple of rinses got clear water and then you work it with butter hands to squeeze out all the remaining water.

This being our family, we naturally just happen to have a pair of butter hands packed away. These got scrupulously cleaned of 25 years of dust and soaked in Milton to sterilise. They work really well to squeeze out the water – if you keep them dipped in cold water the butter doesn’t stick to them at all.

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Salt was traditionally added to help preserve butter. You don’t have to salt it though and those who try to reduce dietary salt might appreciate the pure taste of fresh butter. But mostly we’ve got used to the flavour of salted butter and I added a sprinkle of my favourite Halen Môn sea salt from the shores of Anglesey. And then worked it in.

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It occurred to me this action was not unlike mixing cement by hand with a shovel. Which is another of my random skills set.

I also nipped off a tiny amount to experiment with adding smoked sea salt which I love. This butter is pure indulgence and not something you will fry onions in. This is what you spread on a thin naked cracker and savour every tiny crumb…

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I’d watched butter-making demos as a child when visiting Acton Scott Historic Working Farm Museum. The “dairymaids” there would show the patterns imprinted into the pats of butter – an easy way to “label” a farm’s butter so people could know who had made it.

Imprinting pretty patterns wasn’t that high on my list but I did press a lattice into the top before putting it in the fridge to firm up as the temperatures are around 24 C at the moment – not your average Welsh weather!

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Yesterday my mother made a small batch of scones using some of the buttermilk. It was immensely satisfying to eat home made scones, with home made butter and freshly picked strawberries – even if we didn’t produce the cream!!

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Making butter this way clearly isn’t economic, although it was actually only slightly more expensive than buying it ready made – without accounting for the initial purchase of the churn. 600ml of cream produced just over 250g of butter plus around 300ml of buttermilk so it is fairly productive even if time-consuming. We don’t milk goats any more and whilst I’ve long wanted a Jersey cow, that’s not going to happen anytime soon and we’d be as fat as ticks living off that much dairy produce anyway. We’re not likely to buy cream just to make butter. Although I’d probably eat less if I did which would be a good thing.

But it was hardly the point of the exercise. Although I’d still buy butter to cook with, it’s nice to know that I can make butter if I feel like it for gifts. Or if there should be spare cream leftover so it wouldn’t go to waste – just like my grandparents did. With an awful lot less shaking and jam jars.

Way to go, Kilner, that was a better bit of butter than I’ve had for a long time. Now where did I put that scone…

Paint effects

There are a hundred and one things I keep meaning to do – things that aren’t important and so get put aside for “some day”. And some day never seems to come. Yesterday I did a couple of those things which made a nice change!

Some of the things included giving a coat of paint to various items that I liked but weren’t colours I was particularly keen on. I was given these lovely little lanterns ages ago – the original flat apple green shade of the powder coating really isn’t me but I liked the style and I often put candles on the table at dinner. So last year I redid one in Annie Sloan paints and waxes as an experiment and really liked the rustic distressed finish and how it matched my kitchen. I just never got around to doing its twin. I also have these little wooden tulips which were a gift from friends who holidayed in Amsterdam. They’ve sat on my shelf for a couple of years but I always wondered what they’d look like with a little bit of a colour change…

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I popped the glass out of the lantern and got to work.

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A flat finish wasn’t the point otherwise I would have chosen spray paints. I’m unconvinced about Annie Sloan paints – I’ve seen some fantastic things that other people do with them but I don’t seem to have the knack! However they are quite forgiving to use in situations like this as they apparently stick to anything! And the waxes are quite an interesting way to finish the surface.

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I rubbed it all over with the clear wax to seal the paint once dry and then daubed on spots of the dark wax and them buffed it off slightly. It’s meant to give it an aged patina. I’m not convinced I achieved this but heigh ho! I then dabbed some gold wax on areas for a bit of a lift.

Yesterday was quite gloomy and overcast so the “after pic” is quite grainy and indistinct. I might have to take another when the sun comes back! But on the whole I’m happy with the pair of lanterns now.

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The tulips got a coat of chalk paint and then I played around with the dark tinted oils sitting on the lids of the pot (I’d stirred the paints thoroughly to mix them but they separate out over time). I used the tints and to drag over the surface of the wet paint to give tulip-like markings and make the paint less one-dimensional. Because this was unmixed paint it took a lot longer to dry than regular chalk paint – I propped them up in a vase whilst they dried. I then painted the stalks with a tester pot of Farrow and Ball Inchyra Blue which I had left over from another project.

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Once dry, they also got a coat of clear wax to seal and then a little bit of gold wax to finish. They’re a lot more subtle than before – I just used these paints because they were colours I had so they blend in with the kitchen now. But if I was choosing colours from scratch I would probably have picked out rusty oranges and deep Burgundy and mustard to compliment the lighter bluey-green shades in this room.

But again, it’s fine. And was nice to spend time doing something different to textiles for a change!!

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Birds and Bees

Don’t worry, this blog post really is just about birds and bees!!

This week I’ve had to handle both creatures in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated a few days before! I happened to be in the right place at the right time for a little swallow that had taken a wrong turning on Tuesday. I was next to my mum’s conservatory whilst she was out on errands and heard some fluttering noises. I put my head around the kitchen door just in time to see a Swallow flitting desperately from one side to the other trying to escape through the glass. It came to rest in the corner and Ginger the big tom cat prepared to leap on it. I roared at him and also dived for the corner and managed to bat away Mr. Ginger and scoop up the poor Swallow just in time.

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Luckily it wasn’t harmed at all and flew out of my hand just after I took these and went off to catch more insects.

The Swallows seem to be all nesting in barns this year. The house eaves have been taken over by a population explosion of House Martins – which is a good thing as they are on the Amber list. They really seem to like the wood cladding and bulkhead timbers as well as the shelter of the big overhanging eaves of my strawbale house – perhaps they recognise a fellow straw-and-mud-building fanatic when they see one!! Joking aside, the fact that the timbers of my home are durable ones that haven’t had any form of chemical treatment to preserve them probably helps; we chose them specifically for our own health and for the environment so the stamp of approval from these little guys seems like a small justification for that.

I’m not sure if they re-use nests or build new ones every year. There are some fairly solid constructions up there already but these pairs seem bent on a place of their own. I’ve not seen any coming or going from this one for example – apparently goose feather decor is so last year dahling.

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I’ll have to keep an eye out in case it actually has eggs in; we’ll soon see some hungry beaks poking over the edge if it has!

On the other side of the purlin are a young couple hard at work and having major domestics about how to go about it. I have to say that I somewhat sympathise with them – it’s always easier to work on a creative project like house renovations on your own I find!!

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This one has really got an eye for detail – or thinks it has. It’s quite fussy and precise about where each beakful of mud and twigs needs to be put and takes its time over placing carefully.

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This one just hasn’t got the same flair – apparently. It got told in no uncertain terms to go fetch some more materials and just stop messing up the progress willya?

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So the next time it just did a quick drop off before heading back for more gloop!

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I know where they’re getting it from, there’s a muddy patch near a dripping water butt tap that is perfect for them and I see them when I pass there several times a day. It’s outside the barn where I shear my sheep too and as that’s been one of my tasks this week there are plenty of woolly, strawy materials for them to dunk in the gunk to make a really well insulated and strong nest for their coming babies.

On the other side there’s more building going on too.

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I think somebody has already started on their family as one of the old nests is in use.

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It was hard to try catch them in flight but although the photos aren’t good, it’s nice to see them frozen in midair as they zip about so quickly you just can’t see them properly at all in real time.

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The other thing I didn’t expect to handle this week was our bees. I used to look after them but I became allergic to them about 5 years ago and I don’t go near them now. I do think they’re a vital part of the smallholding ecology – without bees and trees there would be no nature. And I really love their honey!

My mum has been looking after the bees in recent years with lots and lots of help and advice from some good friends who live quite some way away. Like most jobs it’s easier to do things with two people and bee-keeping is one of them. It’s important to work quickly and quietly once the hives are open so as not to annoy them more than is necessary and not to chill the brood (baby bee larvae) and eggs. Full supers of honey are pretty heavy to lift as well – in all, an extra pair of hands really helps.

I know mum was anxious that the bees might swarm on a warm day earlier this week and they certainly looked and sounded like it was on the cards for early afternoon. So I said I’d give mum a hand; it would be a shame to lose either a swarm of bees or the honey after the work she’s put in (and me, I’ve been helping to build some new hive parts!) So I cobbled together a bee suit out of various weird odds and ends and we went through them and moved some bees around.

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Hopefully it’s given all the bees enough work and space to be getting on with for now.

I removed this chunk of brace comb from the brood chamber. It had capped brood in and a little honey but it needed to go and the hive was chockfull of baby bees in the making – so although I don’t like despatching even one bee, it had to come out. I left it in front of the hive for the bees to clean out. I’ll probably remove it soon and melt it down and filter it into pure beeswax to store.

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They’re all busy working today. Just watching them on the flight board this afternoon, it’s funny to see how many crash land and roll in! Their pollen baskets on their legs are so full, it must be really heavy to fly with and awkward to manoeuvre. I’m glad they have lots of flowers to work though. Such a busy month of May!

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Bodnant Garden

Hello! I meant to come back before now to share some of the photos I took at Bodnant, I’ve been quite busy in my own garden amongst other things and had not found the time.

But I’m amending this now – this will be a picture heavy post. If you’re ever in North Wales do go and visit, it is just incredible. Make sure to leave plenty of time to explore; the gardens cover a huge area and it’s like entering another world going down into the bottom of the valley to the waterfall and mill race.

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South Stack

A quick 48hour trip to Anglesey last week to deal with some work things ended up being more frustrating than I thought. Sometimes life is like that no matter how carefully you plan but it’s still irritating. Normally heading to Anglesey is a happy thing for me even if it’s for work purposes rather than recreation, a change being as good as a rest. I think life got just so busy in recent weeks I lost the ability to stop and savour the good moments and my head got into a bit of a tangle and I felt quite sad and upset.

Life is short.

It’s something I appreciate more and more with each passing year and see the truth of this much quoted cliché in other’s lives as a flag that you really do have to make the best use of time. Sometimes people use this to justify selfish acts. I prefer to take this to mean how we work, how we act, how we behave to those around us. Not to be frivolous of time or resources and especially not with other’s love or feelings.

But I also think also means to take time to enjoy what we have and appreciate it in the everyday rather than going through life blinkered to that which is around us. Realising I’d temporarily lost sight of that whilst fretting about things that I couldn’t do anything about I decided to “seize the carp!” as I like to pun and went up to one of my favourite places to walk Marley for half an hour or so in the evening before the next meeting I had planned rather than just sit around waiting.

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South Stack is known both for its lighthouse and for its amazing seabird colonies. I’m no birder; I merely stand on the sidelines hoping to absorb new information with every encounter. Although I’ve visited South Stack since my earliest childhood, I’d never actually been inside Ellin’s Tower which the RSPB use as an educational resource and bird-watching hide for visitors. By the time I got there it was closed for the day but instead of heading for the lighthouse carpark and surrounding paths as I do normally I decided to walk along what the map showed as the lower path along the coastline.

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This was a mistake!! I hadn’t appreciated quite how close to the edge of the cliffs it was and for those with a head for heights this is fine as it’s actually quite safe. For someone like me who can make myself feel faint by looking at a photograph taken from a high viewpoint it was a Really Bad Idea. This is a normal coastal walk for most people. For those like me it’s a panicky adrenaline-fuelled torture of an over-active imagination and by the time I’d appreciated this it was better to carry on than turn back!

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Having a bouncy Labrador with a life motto of “act first, think later” on the end of a lead just added to the stress. Dogs are meant to be kept on the lead but I wouldn’t have trusted Marley not to absent-mindedly bounce over the edge in pursuit of a seagull anyway! I kept him very close whilst we were walking… err… crawling here.

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I couldn’t really appreciate the stunning beauty of this path because I was too busy reminding myself to breathe and kidding myself I was walking through a wood a very very long way away from a cliff… I did stop for a sit down for a minute though and took a couple of photos to appreciate later on when I was back on less worrying ground!

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The cliffs by the lighthouse were raucous with the sounds of the Guillemots and Razorbills, Herring Gulls and Black backed Gulls. Once I was back on terrain I felt comfortable with I felt it was a shame I couldn’t have got there earlier and gone inside the hide.

So the next morning although I was heading back home I decided to make another quick trip back specifically to go inside Ellin’s Tower.This was definitely not a mistake. Leaving Marley in the car this time and driving up I joined the tourists and students already gathered there. For dedicated and knowledgeable bird watchers this must be paradise. The RSPB staff were very kind and helpful in showing people like me how to spot different birds and explaining about their breeding habits. The webcam showed some Guillemots in close up getting ready to lay their egg on the cliff edge (“nesting” is a bit of a strong word to use for the haphazard parenting methods they use!) and we smiled as a curious Razorbill hoved into view and photobombed the webcam and unknowingly peered back at us!

This is the picture I took with my little compact camera I carry with me most times. I would have loved a long zoom and my DSLR though – I must remember to take it next time!

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People come to see puffins here too but actually there are not very many unlike on more remote islands mostly in Scotland (but including “Puffin Island” on the other side of Anglesey). The rats that steal their eggs from the burrows they lay in can still access puffin nests here on an island connected to the mainland. There are only a few breeding pairs here. The RSPB man I spoke to said they had spotted 6 puffins so far at South Stack this year – really not very many amongst the thousands of other birds. He’d seen one that morning on the sea and explained how a solitary puffin would hang out near a group of guillemots on the sea. After a bit he quietly said he’d seen it again quite far out and trained the telescope on it for me. This was so exciting as it was the first puffin I have ever seen … even if it was a very long way off and through a lens!

After a few minutes observing I asked an older lady if she would like to see it too rather than me hogging it. She was very excited too and got her husband so he could see too. Then the RSPB man spotted another puffin in a group much closer to us below the cliffs and trained the other telescope for this couple so they could both watch. I grabbed a pair of binoculars and found where he was talking about. I was very happy to have seen these colourful little birds even if they are much more accessible to humans in other areas in Scotland. They are sadly an endangered species and really need help to protect them or we risk losing them altogether along with so many other bird, animals and plants.

I didn’t see any Choughs which are well known visitors here. I was told if I walked along the cliff path I might see some but I politely declined that experience again… Apparently they are quite friendly and if you hang around any length of time you’ll probably see them. I ate my sandwiches but didn’t have enough time to stop any longer. I hope to see them next time I come back.

I approve of the picnic area seating though!

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I was really glad that I’d taken just a little time out of the trip home to come back, to see these birds and to learn a little more about them. I asked when they had arrived and was told just 48 hours earlier. So by seizing the moment I had been able to see something I might have missed later in the year. Instead of adding to the busyness it refreshed me and I felt better for it.

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Marley and I turned around from the tip of Wales and headed off back to the mainland and mountains of Snowdonia and the next stop I’d planned on the way home – Bodnant Gardens…