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…

 

 

 

Welsh Patagonia

It’s been quite a long blog break! This spring has been very busy, probably even more so than usual. If I can snatch the time I’ll come and tell you about some of the things I’ve been working at but for now I just wanted to show a new spinning fibre blend I’ve created and which will be available from this weekend.

When something interests me I like to look around and read around the subject rather than just focusing on one aspect. The collateral research enriches both my appreciation of something, further embeds the knowledge I’ve gained and frequently sparks new areas of interest or creativity.

I’m always on the lookout for new seeds of inspiration and in the past six months or so I’ve deliberately turned away from seeking that inspiration from within the same areas I work in and towards other sources. As a visual person I find it easier to look at something creative and then translate it into dyeing or textiles or colour schemes. But sometimes I think I’m at risk of repeating the same things because they appeal to me and so getting into something of a rut. So this has been a personal challenge to whet the blunt edges in my mind and hopefully spark new areas of interest or ideas.

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One such small “spin-off” has been designing a new fibre blend. Whilst studying the work of two Welsh creatives, one a late artist and one a contemporary weaver, I found they had common ground in that they both travelled and studied in Welsh Patagonia. These travels informed their body of work and although I’d come across this Welsh colony in South America, coming across it again twice in quick succession intrigued me and made me look into this a little deeper.

The brief outline of this colony is that in the 19th century, a North Walian patriot, Michael D. Jones, proposed establishing a new Welsh colony overseas away from the influences of the English, to preserve “Welshness” and the Welsh language which he felt often disappeared in close proximity to other cultures and languages. The leaders of this movement considered several options around the globe. At that time, Argentina was offering incentives for peoples to emigrate and settle tracts of land and so the Welsh nationalists took up the offer and a colony settled there.

There’s a great deal more to the story; the misleading information given to the pioneers who struck out for a new world, the hostile environment they landed in, the hardships endured and losses encountered and the living they scratched and hacked from the harsh Argentine landbase that so very nearly conquered them. The co-operation of the native Tehuelche people (or Patagones as the Spanish called them) in assisting them to settle and the slightly dubious pay-offs from the Argentine government that induced them to “welcome” these benign Celtic invaders to their land. It’s not the purpose of this blog post to detail the whole story but it makes an intriguing, if rather baffling, tale for those who are interested in finding out more.

What struck me though was how very, very Welsh this story was. So gloriously and stubbornly Welsh…

In seeking to preserve a language and a culture, to give up homes and extended families, communities and comforts and transport ideology across an ocean to make more of a home in exile than the home you already live in. To chose separation from the thing you love best and to sacrifice that for a belief in a better version… I cannot really understand it. I admire it whilst at the same time feeling slightly … I don’t know… shocked? Perhaps that is too strong a word. Perhaps I am just too much of a British mongrel to understand the depth of Welshness. Perhaps I am too much of a home-bird to make sense of voluntary exile…

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The second thing that struck me however was how wonderfully balanced the current Welsh Patagonian community are between their Argentine land and their Welsh roots. Speaking Spanish and Patagonian Welsh, with their unique blend of Welsh chapels and Chapel Teas and asados and gauchos, it would seem at first glance that the founding fathers had lost the end game of retaining the Welsh “purity” they seemed to value above all else.

And yet I can’t help feeling that this shows the power of humanity at its greatest, being able to retain its cultural identity whilst adapting to those around it. Blending those things so that they lie comfortably together and make something new and strong that they would not have had without each other.

It made enough of an impression on me that I wanted to further explore this in fibre!

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So I’ve created “Patagonia” which is a rustic yet soft wool blend with subtle depths and textures.

Patagonia is created from Black Welsh Mountain and South American wools – Patagonia being a vast sheep farming area producing wool from mostly Merino, Corridale and similar breeds. (The pure Merino I already use is from either South America or South Africa from non-mulesed flocks). These very different wools are also blended with soft alpaca to represent other important fibre-producing animals from South America.

It spins up to a yarn with plenty of body and character which is great for those who find it harder to spin thicker yarns. I feel it would lend itself to great sweater – or poncho! – yarn (I fancy this is a project in my future!) and make garments that would be as equally at home on a Welsh mountain as on the pampas.

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I’ve gradient dyed this batch and it will be available for sale at Wonderwool Wales this coming weekend 22nd-23rd April 2017 at Triskelion Yarns (stand G8 – Hall 1).

A further selection of dyed, carded and blended spinning fibres will also be available there too and I really recommend that even if you aren’t a spinner or felt-maker that if you’re a knitter going to Wonderwool this year that you put Triskelion Yarns high on your shopping list; gloriously saturated colours on interesting yarn bases hand dyed in West Wales.

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That top quarter of Hall 1 is a pretty exciting place for hand-dyed colour-lovers altogether really as there are a cluster of amazing hand dyed fibre stalls up there including HilltopCloud and Oliver Twists the silk specialists, MandaCrafts (with amazing Qaria cashmere) Freyalyn’s Fibres and The Threshing Barn amongst others. If you’re ever stuck for inspiration as to how to spin indie-dyed fibre, Katie Weston of HilltopCloud is also launching her new Spinning Hand Dyed Fibre guide at the show. Written by a sought-after UK spinning teacher, this is sure to be packed with useful tips and information for getting the best out of your show purchases so don’t forget to go and get a copy!

Happy spinning!

 

A River Runs Through It

The river theme for my yarns started with this yarn I blogged about yesterday. When I was planning it, the lustre of the wool once scoured really caught the light like sunlight playing off water and so I thought a watery theme would give a good yarn name as well as giving a sense of place. It helped with my decision to enhance that by adding 20% silk for a really shimmery lustre that is brought out strongly on the dyed shades.

I’m lucky enough to live in a really beautiful place. Wales is a very varied country and the scenery never fails to nourish me whether I’m at home or travelling elsewhere. At home we are on the top of a hill looking down into valleys – or cwm – whichever way we look.

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We catch quite a lot of weather here! The high level of rainfall drains off our wet clay soils and, along with the natural springs that rise all over the land, flows into the ditches we have to maintain. And at the bottom of our fields, this water run-off starts to form a very baby stream which almost dries up in summer. In the rare summers that it is scorching hot, it’s nice to go down under the trees and listen to this tiny waterway trickling its first “steps” to the sea.

It flows into the brook down to the village and from there into the first small river it turns into – the Afon Miwl. This joins up with the River Severn which is our local main river – or Afon Hafren in Welsh – and from there carries on to England and meanders its way south before heading out into the Irish Sea at Bristol. From small beginnings powerful things can grow and I liked the thought that the small batches of fleece my sheep were growing on our little fields were slowing gathering together before being turned into a proper grown up yarn.

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Late last Autumn I started to wind and dye a few skeins to test out my colour palette. When it came to photographing them, I knew I had to go down to the river and take the wool back to where its namesake flowed. This walk down the Captain’s Pitch is one that Marley and I enjoy occasionally – despite the fact it’s reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a local man murdered on his way back from chapel in the distant past!!

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The October light filtered through the trees for just half an hour or so as I tried to catch the colours (and not topple my basket of yarns off the bridge into the stream!)

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The colours played nicely against the moss of the bridge.

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And the soft shaded light really brought out the lustre.

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There are remains of various mills around this area. The farmer who lived at our smallholding before us was very interested in local history. Before he died he tried hard to enthuse me in the same passion. Sadly in my late teens and early twenties I didn’t fully appreciate all he wanted me to understand, nor had I yet developed the love for my new home, something that takes time to root and flourish. I thought he’d told me that the mills along here were sawmills and that the oak they milled from this land base was felled to provide timbers for the ships for the Royal Navy fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.

I asked for help from someone who has long been associated with local history and textiles in this area and who was also a mutual friend of my farming mentor and she kindly corrected my hazily remembered misinformation, for which I was very grateful. She explained that although later they were converted to grain and sometimes sawmills, in the 19th C they were in the main fulling mills used for the local flannel cloth industry which was in its heyday in this area. As you might imagine, I was delighted to know that the mill was used for woollen textiles rather than wood!

She also directed me to the Cynefin project archives of the tithe maps for the area so I could see for myself the “flannel racks” or tentering frames where the wet woollen cloth was stretched and dried outside after fulling. They’re marked on land behind the trees opposite the bridge where I took the yarn photos above. This shows very clearly to what use the power of the river was being put – and in the 1840’s it was most definitely for wool! This screenshot detail of the overlaid map shows the racks as well as the Walk Mill woollen factory and river.

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I’m a bit clumsy with technology, although it is undeniably as useful to me as it is to others. In the main I prefer to do things by hand, it sits more comfortably with me and I find working things out by hand less frustrating. So when it came to making yarn labels for this yarn and for my other dyed yarns I wanted to draw – literally – on the landscape around my home. Whether looking west to the Cambrian Mountains as above or Snowdonia

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or behind us to the Kerry Ridgeway bordering England or to the soft undulations of the fields around my home…

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…wherever you look are hills, mountains and misty valleys; sheep, cattle and trees. They are connected to each other sustaining, shaping and evolving with the humans that tend them all. I started to sketch a stylised version because these are the things of my daily life.

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Which eventually turned into this label for the Hafren and Gwy yarns.

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And in the case of this Afon Miwl yarn, I’m able to bring the detail right down to the animals names!

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Afon Miwl is quite a sleek drapey yarn with little elasticity. Although it knits as a fingering weight / 4 ply yarn, its dense 80% longwool/ 20% silk worsted construction means its yardage is closer to sport weight yarn at around 290m / 100g (or 317yds / 3.53oz). It is in 100g hand-dyed skeins and is priced at £22.50 per skein. Colour batches are small, around 3 skeins in each colour batch.

It definitely lends itself to shawls and lace knitting. I think it would be amazing woven and hope there may be a few remnants after skeining that I can try this with myself.

I haven’t skeined all of the yarn yet but there will be around 150 skeins in total. And that’s it. I’m unlikely ever to make this yarn exactly like this again. The first batch of around 50 skeins will go on sale shortly once all the labelling is complete. Do feel free to sign up for my newsletter (subscribe button on my website www.barber-blacksheep.co.uk) to be informed of the planned update time.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my yarn project and will maybe want to knit with it too!

A Welsh Yarn

This is a story about Wales, about sheep, about wool – a Welsh yarn. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin…

I’ve been dropping hints about yarns for a long time now. Creating and selling proper Welsh grown yarns from my own sheep is something I’ve desperately wanted to do since before I started selling my fleeces as BarberBlackSheep.

When I first started keeping Gotlands and crossing them for different coloured fibres I had this idea I’d somehow handspin everything. Hmmm… maybe not!

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Having yarn spun commercially from individual fleeces or from breed specific flocks is actually quite tricky. Within the UK there are now very few commercial mills that can cater to the small market and of the mills that can spin the kind of worsted yarn that benefits the kinds of fleeces I grow there are only two. And only one of these can deal with the tiny quantities of fleece I have.

When I switched from keeping commercial meat sheep to Gotlands I did so with the aim of looking for the “perfect” sheep. Over 10 years later I think I’ve now realised that this doesn’t exist within the parameters I was looking for; an animal is always going to lean towards one characteristic or other.
I was going through a rather zealous eco-friendly stage after a prolonged period of ill-health that forced me to give up my job in my mid-20s. Having ignored and even scorned the knit-your-own-yoghurt / wholemeal-socks brigade as we thought of them I was forced to think differently – but there’s nothing like chronic illness to burst an arrogant bubble.

My long and uncomfortable quest to find my health again involved facing a few home truths I’d chosen to ignore and realised that what we eat, wear and live in has a major impact on what we are. Having gratefully clawed my way out of debilitating pain over 18 months I threw myself 110% into natural food, clothing, toiletries and even housing in that way that converts do! I was interested in permaculture concepts and became somewhat obsessed about sustainability, often setting the bar impossibly high. No aspect of my life was spared the scrutiny of sustainability and that included the animals we were keeping.

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The meat sheep we’d kept till then were bred purely for the European export market. The fleeces went to the BWMB for not very much money and the sheepskins from the fat lambs would have been a waste product, I believe most likely going to China for making trainers (although I’m not certain!). I don’t have a problem with animals being farmed for meat or eaten as a moral principle I do however feel very strongly that nothing should be wasted, that we should never take lives unthinkingly and few things make me as angry as meat or animal products that gets thrown away. I wanted a sheep that’s fleece was as valuable as its meat but unfortunately we consumers dictate demands that often require a specialist breed rather than a dual purpose one.

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Wool growing sheep are usually rangy rather than meaty but we like juicy plump joints of meat; those sturdy, well muscled breeds that provide the kind of cuts the butchers require don’t have soft, snuggly fleeces for fine spinning.
I considered several traditional breeds for some time and narrowed it down to either Wensleydales or Shetlands for different reasons.

In 2006 I went to the Royal Welsh Smallholders Show which also included the Green Building Exhibition and the very first WonderwoolWales – fraction of the fabulous show so many of us went to last month. I had recently taken up knitting again and was learning to spin but I’ve always been a bit obsessed with textiles so I was blown away by the idea of an exhibition about textiles and wool.
I got chatting to a lady on a felt making stand and said I was hunting for “the perfect sheep” and she said “Gotlands!” and I said “whats?!”. She pointed me in the direction of Sue Blacker who had just bought Natural Fibre Company and was moving it from Wales to Cornwall (Oh how I wish it were still in Wales though!) and also had a flock of Gotlands and was manning the Gotland breed stand with another Gotland breeder. Gotlands in the UK are marketed as “the three crop sheep” for wool, meat and pelts (back in Sweden they are generally used for pelts).
There weren’t any Gotlands on show but she had photographs and Sue told me what massive personalities Gotlands have and then I saw some of the handspun overdyed yarns the other lady had spun and I was sold from that second.

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Over the next few years I fiddled around trying to breed from my two foundation ewes I acquired and crossing a Gotland ram onto another couple of different breed ewes we already owned. I quickly discovered I liked crossing for fleeces types more than I liked breeding pedigrees!

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I also realised that creating a “perfect” sheep is not a question of putting one breed onto another and hoping for the best. Genes will play the lottery, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes the results are predictable, other times not. First crosses can vary wildly, new breeds are created by selectively breeding those first crosses back to each other to reinforce the desirable characteristics whilst culling any that don’t meet the grade and I quickly realised also that a 15 acre smallholding combined with a shepherd with a complete inability to part with anything as adorable as a Gotland sheep is not cut out for creating a new sheep breed!

However I did get some interesting sheep and fleece types out of my experiments. One of the most special is what I refer to as Swedish Mule (neither a slipper nor a cocktail – a sheep!). A straight Gotland/BFL cross, it’s like the best of both breeds with none of the downsides. I bred 4 of these before I sold my ram. I’ve only ever sold a couple of their fleeces, I’ve carefully stored them over the past 4 years and last year I had enough to reach the minimum quantity for processing.

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Artisan yarn like this is really expensive to produce; having discussed the yarn a year ago I had to save up the capital to do this project and so it was late autumn before I could afford to ship the fleeces to Natural Fibre Company with my heart in my mouth for the next stage of a project I’d wanted to do for so long.

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The yarn came back a couple of months ago – it’s truly beautiful and I’m very happy with it. The yarn I designed is a worsted spun 4-ply/fingering weight yarn blended with tussah silk to enhance the wool’s characteristics – specifically created for a drapey, lustrous luxurious yarn perfect for lace shawls or other items where lustre and drape is an advantage. It’s limited edition, it will be costly and there isn’t actually a huge amount of it. It will also probably never be repeated exactly like this because I now have only 3 of the sheep whose fleeces it’s made from, having lost Boudicca to pneumonia last year. So I wanted to be sure exactly how I was going to sell it, skein size, colours etc.

If this project works well then there are other kinds of yarn I’d like to create from other fleeces I have stored once I’m able to afford to do so. I’m aware that my tagline “made in Wales” that originated from starting with my own fleeces is drifting further away from it’s roots in my products although everything I dye or card myself is made here in Wales and strongly influenced by the Welsh landscape and everything I stock has been carefully chosen for a reason such as the stunningly beautiful Haunui New Zealand Halfbred which has such great provenance behind the sheep and the business.

A couple of months back I realised that the Cambrian Wool project (part of the Cambrian Mountain Initiative) which had been in discussion for some years was getting close to launching so I started making enquiries about stocking their yarns to dye myself to compliment my own homegrown ones.

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It’s beautiful and I’ve spent some times in recent weeks finalising the palette of twelve shades I will be offering these lovely Welsh grown yarns in … as well as future yarns I hope. I’ve chosen initially to stock the DK weight to compliment the 4ply/fingering weight of my own yarn and it’s created from Welsh Mule, soft but robust and springing, perfect for garment knitting.

So there you have it – two contrasting Welsh yarns, spun in England and dyed in Wales. Coming to a shop near you soon!! ;0)

In my next few blog posts I’m going to tell you about the new colour palette I’ve been creating; it’s inspired by Wales and by my childhood memories so each of the colours has meaning for me and make my heart sing when I look at them. I can’t wait to share them with you now it’s done!

Welshie Buns

When I was little my Granny used to make a Simnel Cake each Easter. I remember her making the 11 toasted marzipan balls it’s traditionally topped with (to represent the 12 disciples minus Judas) and secretly hoping she’d make 12 after all and give Judas’ share to me…

Marzipan seems to be like marmite – you either love it or hate it. In our family we’re split between marzipan-lovers and marzipan-shunners. My youngest brother and I were definitely in the former camp and would make marzipan fruit at Christmas stuck with a clove “stalk” and calyx and painted with edible food colouring. Neither of us was that keen on heavy fruit cake like Christmas or Simnel Cake but we’d beg the almond paste and fondant off our other brothers’ share or anyone else overcome with the sugar rush of too-thick icing. My best friend is the marzipan queen though – for many, many years part of my Christmas gift to her was a box of marzipan that I had moulded into sweet shapes – plums with a “stone” created from a whole almond and dusted in sugar. Little white marzipan pigs with white chocolate drop trotters, ears and snouts. Tiny teddy bears coated in dark chocolate. Each year got I more and more inventive trying to outdo the year before but truly, I think she would have been just as happy with a big lump of plain marzipan to sit and nibble on!

A few days ago @knittingtastic mentioned Simnel Cake on Twitter and I fell to wondering if I should bake one after all – purely for memory and old times sake. There are only two of us here at home though and heavy fruit cake still isn’t my most favourite thing although I no longer pick off the icing and leave the dark, crumbling cake on the plate…

One of my favourite baked goods is Welsh Cakes which along with Bara Brith are two of the traditional tea time treats offered in Wales. I was thinking how amazing it would be if you could combine buttery Welsh Cakes with marzipan and Simnel Cake and all the good bits of these time-honoured baked goodies. I’ve also been meaning to make some Kanelbullar, the Swedish cinnamon buns served with coffee for fika – the fabulous tradition of pausing with coffee and pastry and just being present in the moment; so much more than a snatched coffee break. Or as my friend Jo used to call it “meeting up for a cup-of-coffee-and-a-sticky-bun!”. I decided I’d make a version of Kanelbullar with marzipan tucked inside and create a sort of mash-up of my favourite things as an Easter treat. Normally we have Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday; I thought it might be nice to try something different.

I decided to use parts of some recipes and adapt them to include other things which is my normal method of using recipes – I’m not sure I’ve ever used one except as a rough guideline to quantities! Mostly I prefer to cook ad lib according to taste and whim and I decided here that including the cinnamon and cardamon of Kanelbullar was probably a flavour too far with the other spices and marzipan so I went with a more traditional Chelsea Bun approach instead.

I wanted to use some of our own Welsh honey from my mum’s bees – not only is honey more tasty than sugar, it also acts as a humectant and helps keeps baked goods moist. And although sadly no sugar is actually very good for you, I like to think that raw unfiltered honey has some microscopic goodness suspended in it’s amber depths that the empty calories of refined sugar crystals completely lacks. So I swapped out the sugar in the dough for our own honey and also cut back on the quantity of butter which seemed alarmingly excessive – I think in future I could probably cut back even more, these ones certainly didn’t suffer from the reduced fat content!

As well as using our own free range eggs from the hens and our honey, I like to use organic, stoneground flour where possible – my favourite flours are milled just 4 miles away at Bacheldre WaterMill. Heavier than regular flours, the slow stoneground method keeps the flour cool and so doesn’t destroy the wheatgerm in the way that more modern methods of milling flour do. It tastes far nicer and is better for you. Sadly I didn’t have any to hand. I rarely bake these days and when I do, prefer to buy artisan flour freshly milled so it doesn’t go rancid. So when the urge to bake hits you late in the evening you just have to go with whatever is on the shelf!

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I soaked the fruit beforehand to plump it up – instead of rolling it up inside the dough swirls I wanted to incorporate it a la Welsh Cakes. I wasn’t sure how much the honey would alter the dough texture but I’m happy to improvise and this actually worked out spot on with the reduced butter content.

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It kneaded beautifully and I put it in a warm spot to prove.

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More melted butter was needed for assembling the swirled buns (against my better judgement – high fat diets not being my thing!). However, this was meant to be a treat so I tried to ignore the nagging voice that was squeaking with alarm at the amount of naughties going into this concoction and set to rolling out the dough and marzipan.

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This is where baking in the evening becomes a problem – the heavy fruit and butter filled dough is slow to rise, as with homemade Stollen. I decided instead of trying to get them to rise sufficiently in a warm place and end up baking them at one ‘o’ clock in the morning or something crazy, that I’d allow them to rise gently overnight at room temperature and bake the next morning. This worked really, really well for this heavy dough and I’ll do this overnight slow rising in future when I bake other fruit breads I think.

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So this morning these beauties were almost ready but I gave them a little longer in a warm place to sit and think about things whilst I threw open my house to the glorious Good Friday sunshine and fresh air and indulged in a spot of Spring Cleaning before turning the oven on. Soon the house was also filled with the warm scents of spice, yeast, honey and marzipan as it melded into one delicious almondy fruity chewy tray of baked gorgeousness.

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Mum and I “tested” them and declared them fabulous. I also tried them out on my friends Dawn and Laurie who called round this afternoon to see if Marley and I wanted to join them on a walk to make the most of the beautiful weather before the forecasted storm closes in tomorrow. They also agreed they were yummy – Dawn commented that they were “like Christmas and Easter all rolled into one” which is exactly the flavour I was aiming for!

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I’m pretty happy with how they turned out. I’m calling them Welshie Buns in honour of their hybrid ancestry and the land of their birth – and I’m thinking I might make them my new Easter tradition instead of the heavier Simnel Cake in the same way that for us a small Stollen has replaced the big traditional iced Christmas Cake I always used to make when our family was larger.

I’m planning – all being well – on writing up the recipe tomorrow to include in my first newsletter this weekend. If you’d like to try making Welshie Buns too make sure you hop over to my new website barber-blacksheep.co.uk and subscribe to my newsletter (scroll down to the bottom of the home page and you’ll find the subscribe tab). I’ve got a couple of new woolly things to talk about and I also thought maybe a nice baking recipe might be a good way of wishing my internet friends a Happy Easter too.

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Of Kites and Kerry Hills

Come take a walk with me?

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Marley and I have a new favourite walk. It’s quite a long one so we don’t do this every day but we’ve walked it a couple of times a week since New Year – I’d walked and ridden parts of this before many times as part of it are country lanes around my home and sections are bridle path I rode when Cobweb was in her younger days before she retired. I’m wary of walking footpaths across my neighbours’ land however though. Even when there are public rights of way I’m very aware of the frustrations this can cause farmers and landowners. On the one hand it’s great that everyone can access beautiful countryside and get exercise and enjoyment out of our gorgeous land. And we should definitely encourage people to get out more and what better way of keeping healthy as well as learning to appreciate our natural resources.

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But many of my friends are farmers and although the majority of walkers and ramblers respect others and the countryside, there are always a few who spoil it for everyone. Some of my friends have had to deal with the consequences of walkers not shutting a gate, or shutting one that’s meant to be open.

In one case this caused weeks of extra work and expense and resulting in the deaths of sheep when a walker carelessly left several gates open on a footpath and my friend’s rams that were many fields away from his ewe lambs that were too young to be mated wandered over and did what sheep do and the resulting mayhem 5 months later completely messed up their lambing season, already a stressful and exhausting  time for sheep farmers, extending it by several weeks and costing money in unwanted vets bills for caesarians on some ewes and loss of animals for the ewes and lambs that didn’t survive. Other friends have a footpath running close to their house and it’s not unusual for walkers to take a short cut through their yard where their working sheepdogs run free and their children play. Most people are apologetic when they realise they are trespassing, but some are rude and belligerent when politely asked to return to the footpath – which doesn’t help matters.

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There is also the matter that farmers have to take care which animals they put in fields where there are rights of way to ensure that members of the public are not put in danger. So whilst it’s up to you to keep your dog under control and not stray from the path or annoy livestock, the farmer also has to ensure that aggressive animals are not kept in fields where they might attack people using those paths. If walkers chose to take short cuts, not only are they trespassing but they’re also potentially putting themselves at risk by entering fields where animals who are protecting their young or guarding their females might take exception to the presence of strangers or dogs.

Having said that, it’s really important that we learn to appreciate both sides and so that farmers can work the land they rely on to grow food for us all and that those who want to can still experience the wonder and beauty of the countryside. Unlike some other countries, we’re not free to roam wherever we want – and given the small size of our country and the way it is farmed that’s probably for the best for everyone’s sake. However there are many fantastic walks to be had on existing rights of way and I’m pleased that around here people are trying to encourage landowners to maintain them so we can all safely use them.

So given my respect towards my neighbours which means I tend to stick to roads, I’d never yet walked the middle section of this route, it’s a public bridle path but it runs right through the middle of the farmyard of some of my neighbours. However some of my friends and I walked it with our dogs on New Years Day to walk off some of our festivities from the night before (fortified with leftover sausage rolls, pork pies and blackberry gin!) and it’s just so uplifting and gorgeous I just can’t help going back again and again…

We live almost on the crest (bryn) of a hill which borders England and Wales. To the front of us is a sweeping valley which means our view stretches away out over the entire breadth of Wales to the mountains of Snowdonia and the gap across to the Cheshire plain and Northern England. The vista is vast and almost scary at times it’s so huge.You can see miles of weather sweeping up country;  often a prelude of a few minutes warning before it hits us. The valley behind us is by contrast quite small – carved by ice thousands of years ago it’s just a short hop to the crest of the Kerry Ridgeway behind which splits England to the East and Wales to the West in this part of the borders. Sometimes I’m envious of my friends who live on this side – their valley is short and cosy, they get more sun. But then again all I have to do is walk up our lane and I can share that too so perhaps we have the best of both worlds being “the folks who live on the hill”.

So after days of rain we snatched a few dry hours and headed off in this direction. The lane winds down steep hills (exciting when there’s black ice or fallen wet leaves around!!) lined with overhanding trees and twists and turns for a mile down into the valley itself. We turn into a No Through lane surrounded by wooded hills and pasture land grazed by sheep. There is something very special about this to a spinner – these are no ordinary sheep, they are Kerry Hills belonging to my neighbours.

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And the pastures that they graze on are the land the breed was developed from at the foot of the Kerry Ridgeway itself.

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Kerry Hill sheep are primarily a meat breed. They’re striking looking animals with their black markings. Until a decade ago they were on the RBST list of breeds at risk but they’re more popular now, especially with smallholders and in other parts of the world so they’re no longer considered a rare breed. My neighbours actually farm them commercially on their beautiful and immaculately kept land and in an environment where continental breeds of sheep have now dominated the landscape as a way of merely breaking even for farmers, it’s especially gratifying to see the sheep in the land for which they were bred. I had the same feeling seeing Herdwicks grazing the glorious steep fells in the Lake District. I’d never really “got” the widespread attraction of Herdwicks but when seen grazing in their home environment instead of a show pen it suddenly becomes apparent that they are the perfect animal in the perfect place. And it’s the same with these jolly little Kerry Hills.

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They just look “right” with the Kerry Ridgeway behind them!

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Nowhere looks wonderful in midwinter unless it’s snowy and frosty. Our own land is tired and grey and muddy; we and our animals are longing for spring now and the grass to grow and the ground to dry out. These softer more gentle pastures however are managed meticulously and even in January look beautiful in the winter sun. I had serious grass envy!!!

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There are some rather cute donkeys with their big horsey chum in the smallholding next door too. A couple of days ago they were right next to the road and came over to the gate for a cuddle and to touch noses with Marley who got on his hind legs to bump the very tall horse on his muzzle. The donkeys looked hopeful but I only had dog biscuits in my pocket …

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After this we Marley has to go on his lead, we’re about to go through the farmyard with its beautiful old brick buildings and cows bedded down on straw for the winter (it’s too wet in Wales for cows to live outside, they poach the clay ground and wreck the grazing). Obviously I wouldn’t take pictures of someone’s home, but really I do wish I could show you. It’s so beautifully tended it’s such a brilliant advert for how good farmers can be. Sometimes I see the brothers who farm here and wave at them; one is married to the sister of my next-door neighbour. I think he’s a bit surprised to see me walking through their farm every few days now but at least Marley has been on his best behaviour whilst on their land!

Once out of the yard we head through a gate (that opens and shuts beautifully! This is unusual…) into some rough land where they have hayracks and troughs down for the sheep. This tells me they’re either pregnant ewes being fed before lambing or fat lambs being fed overwinter before being sold in spring. Either way, I’m still on private ground where livestock are so Marley stays on his lead here too although he has quite strong feelings about this! Especially if he spots a sheep peeking out from behind a gorse bush or tree …

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He pulls at the lead here; he wants to go explore but it’s out of the question. It’s a shame because the other day I was watching a pair of Red Kites soaring above us and it’s very hard to get a photograph of that with one hand when you’ve got an impatient labrador jiggling around on a lead on the other.

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This was the best I could manage. I’m still quite pleased about it though, I’ve never managed to get any photo of Red Kites before. When we first moved here in the mid-90’s they weren’t around. I saw my first one here about 8 years ago and for several years it was still a matter of great excitement to spot one over the house but they soar so quickly on their huge wingspan that by the time you’ve run for a camera they’re far away. Once terribly rare, they’re one of Wales success stories and well known at the Red Kite feeding station. They’re now established here too in small numbers and I see them more often but it’s still something that makes me stop and smile. I was just lucky to snap this before the kite disappeared behind the hill and Marley dragged me off in the opposite direction in pursuit of Nice Sniffs.

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There’s this little stream winding though the woods and with all the rain it’s swelled and rushing with waterfalls. The air in here is fresh and bracing with the water spray’s negative ions and the damp sweet breath of the trees. I love this kind of place; it makes you feel 100% more alive. Marley seems to like snuffling a few extra deep breaths too!

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We twist up off the tracks now and up a steep muddy path between gorse bushes and shrubs. They’re already starting to come out although in the cold I can’t smell that wonderful warm scent of gorse – somewhere between coconut and bananas I think!

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I start to warm up on this hill climb; struggling with an over-eager Marley invariably means by the time we’ve reached these gorse bushes I’m stripping off layers and trying to wrap them around my waist without letting go of the lead!

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And then we leave this farm via a more rickety gate tied shut in time-honoured fashion with baler twine. Much more common and super-irritating to riders on horseback!!

I still tend to keep Marley on the lead here because he’s a bit unpredictable about his exploring and my training isn’t as effective as it might be (hence the pocket of dog biscuits!). But when he seems to be in a cooperative mood he gets to run free for a bit.

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You can’t see here but beneath those impatiently tapping labrador paws is running water; it’s been so wet this winter than even this forest path is like a thin stream. The first couple of times I walked this in my walking boots. Now I just wear wellies; the inconvenience of walking in them is offset by keeping my feet dry! It’s also a section that runs through a shoot. I think I’m safe on this path when I hear guns but then again sometimes I wonder …

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It’s not as pretty in this section of forest, it’s wilder and less tamed, sometimes even spooky, but I still love being in the trees.

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And there’s also native broadleaved woodland on the other side; it is managed by someone as evidenced by the tree guards.

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Finally we come out of the conifer section and to a clearing where they do clay pigeon shooting, the ground is littered with broken bright orange “pigeons” which seems a pity. Several forest tracks meet here – this is where I used to ride through on my pony years ago but on a different track going round the back of the hill. The piles of logs stacked here smell sweet in the summer sun, now they’re mossy and damp.

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We take the highest track out of the clearing; to me this seems like the last stretch although we’re more than half an hour away from home still.

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This week the snow was falling through the trees in this bit and it felt like Narnia …

The last section of woodland is planted with birch trees. I adore birches, especially Silver Birches – they’re one of the plants that remind me of my Granny who had some in their garden when I was a child. She was a really keen gardener and she loved her Silver Birches and would wash the trunks from time to time to keep them gleaming and white unlike these which are green and orange from growing in a damp woodland.

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The fallen birches sprout all sort of interesting fungi.

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Marley wouldn’t let me take any more photos of them though!! Woof! We’re nearly at the last gate and back into sheep country!

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Which means he’s back on the lead again as we top out of the woods and look back over the Ridgeway and the valley we’ve just climbed out of.

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The last bit also means we have to walk through someone’s yard although these farm buildings have been converted into beautiful holiday cottages. If I didn’t already live here I’d probably go on holiday in one of them! I did once house-and-dog sit in one of them though for my boss when his family rented one when he was building a new home.

And then it’s back down the drive to join the road again in our own wide valley looking North West to where in the far distance beyond these near hills you can see parts of Snowdonia when it’s a clear day (but not today!).

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It’s still 20 minutes trundling along the road to home but we walk it so often Marley and I do it without noticing, dreaming of hot cups of tea and a warm fire to snooze by…

It’s a long walk and a long blog post but I hope you enjoyed it. Not everyone is able to get out for a bracing country walk so perhaps this might make up for it a little.

Christmas, Marley and Me

Well Christmas can be a confusing time for a dog. So much going on, humans behaving madly, more food than even a labrador can scoff and no routine whatsoever. Watching TV during the day!? Walks at odd hours?!? Eating nonstop!!!!! (and that’s just the humans…)

Our previous dogs are used to Christmas; it’s always low key here and they would go with the flow. Marley by contrast is hyper-interested in everything that happens, he’s always sticking his nose into whatever you’re doing because he has to know what everyone is doing all.the.time. I wondered what he’d make of our little Christmas, it being his first with us.

Luckily for him we had no visitors this year which might have been too much for his little nerves to handle. But he knew something was up when a couple of days ago I started rearranging things and tidying up the house. Part if this also included making him a new kingsize dog bed out of an old mattress topper and duvet cover on top of his cushion which means he has somewhere comfy to sprawl on in the evening. This spot was also traditionally where I put my modest “Christmas Tree” and hanging shiny baubles and fairy lights in front of a dog that likes running off with things  and crunching them up was probably a bad idea anyway. So no Tree here this year; just a not particularly lit-up labrador!

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Yesterday he seemed a bit anxious, picking up on the fact that more people than usual were coming and going, new things were being brought into the house and we were disappearing off at odd times to do chores or visit neighbours to wish them a Merry Christmas. I took him with me for some of these but he was still a bit edgy.

He knew things were really wrong this morning when I rolled out of bed as soon as my alarm went off instead of hitting the snooze button so as to turn on the oven and stuff the turkey. Whilst I was waiting for it to heat up I did other preparations like laying the lunch table so as to leave the morning free for other things – like dog walking! Marley didn’t realise this, he really didn’t approve of me slapping butter and bacon all over something instead of heading outside straight away like usual.

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He tried to get my attention by whizzing his toy up and around for a bit and swuffing at me in that half sneeze-half woof  way he does to try and tell us what he wants.

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But then after a while the early morning cooking session became a lot more intriguing as nice smells started coming from the oven – that big buttery bacony thing didn’t half smell good! Mmmm…

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Does that yummy smell really come from inside that hot box?! Best sniff it again…

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Yup! It really does!

Once the turkey was well under way we had to feed the other animals and straw down the sheep barn and fill up hay nets. Cobweb the pony got a Christmas carrot before she went out to the field. Petunia Pig was quite cheerful today too considering the nasty wet weather! Nothing like a turkey for taking the heat off a porker!!

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So as it was clearly going to drizzle all day we decided to brave it anyway and headed off for a walk to work up an appetite for lunch and take some of the fizz out of Marley.

Come on!! What you doing now!! I’ve been waiting for HOURS!

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Back home again it was time for me to take off the walking boots and put on the apron again. Marley is a good assistant chef – he loves raw vegetables so we experimented with some new seasonal ones. He ate all the sprout trimmings with gusto and much crunching and lip smacking but has decided that parsnip tops are a no-no. Cooking a turkey seems to take an awfully long time without anything interesting happening. But you never know if something exciting might happen so you have to be ready and waiting. There are watchful eyes everywhere.

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And I really do mean everywhere…!

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I managed to work my way through my Christmas Dinner schedule of events despite a slight hiccup over oven temperatures and then it was time to take the turkey out and put it on a plate. This was veeeeeery exciting to my sous chef helper and luckily I didn’t drop it. I did however managed to accidentally tip the turkey juices down the cupboards and onto the floor which suddenly made things really interesting! Marley as ever leapt to offer a helpful paw (or tongue in this case) and started to clear up the mess for me whilst I went to fetch the mop.

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He did a particularly thorough job of cleaning the grease off from round the handles on the drawer fronts too, no slacking here for Helper Marley! He might have just been trying to get closer to the giblets I’d put in his bowl for his supper though…

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After that bit of excitement and getting a taste of crispy skin as a reward there was a funny turn of events as the humans started ripping paper up. Normally Marley gets told off for ripping paper up – so it is a Very Confusing Thing indeed when the humans start doing it whilst laughing and ooh-ing and agh-ing and hugging and generally behaving like idiots. Marley could have told us how much fun ripping up paper was ages ago but would we listen to him?

He even had his own special paper to rip up. He was a bit shy about this in case someone changed their mind and told him to stop but nobody did so when in Rome…

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A little bit of help from opposable thumbs and he was away.

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Oh look! A squeaky armadillo just for me!

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After all this it was time to help the lunch settle and get some fresh air so we went for another walk – much more normal. The usual things started happening again; feeding animals and putting them to bed, the humans sitting down and doing the usual odd things they do in the evening like staring at books and the Talking Box. It’s a bit exhausting this celebrating lark. Time to get onto the new bed with the new toy  armadillo and play quietly and snooze.

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Maybe Christmas isn’t so bad after all!

Advent: December 24th

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So from the distant past to the here and now:

I took this photo this afternoon; the sun was shining (for a few minutes at any rate – we’ve had rain squalls continuously!) and the wind was keen and biting as it whipped along the hedgerows and lanes.

I spotted these early daffodils a week ago on the bank by my neighbours house. I couldn’t believe they could be out so early, I’ve never seen daffodils out in December before, not here in Wales, not this high up. They should be tucked underground for a bit longer and not flowering for another 12 weeks or so. This is the only clump – maybe 7 flowers. All the rest of the verges are wintery and void of colour.

It makes me think of Wordsworths poem ‘I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud”. The last verse as he muses on the “host, of golden daffodils” he’s seen on his walk o’er hill and vale he reflects…

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

I hope that over Christmas you will get to spend holiday time with people you care about and that your heart will be filled with the pleasure of good memories from times past too, especially if this Christmas is perhaps a hard time for you. May you dance with the daffodils.

The daffodil of course is also the emblem of Wales. So from this little spot in the Welsh hills on Christmas Eve, my animals and I wish you

Nadolig Llawen!

Advent: December 15th

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Deck the halls with boughs of holly!

Well, OK, maybe not this kind of holly!!

This is some Sea Holly I went looking for in the summer. When I was little my mother used to like the Sea Holly that grew on the sand dunes of the beach on our walk to the shops.

That area has changed a lot since the early 80’s and I hadn’t seen any in recent years when I’d been back but I spotted some this summer in its old place. It had not started to turn the beautiful shades of blue at this point but I love the structure of the flower head, so delicate and silvery.