Goodbye Guitar

We’ve been trying to have a clear out. I’m a bit of a hoarder so it’s hard. My old guitar is a case in point

I got it for Christmas one year when I was a child. I’d had piano lessons but thought that guitar was a much cooler instrument to play. Although I tried, I never got away with it. My hands are small and I don’t have a lot of movement in my left wrist so I struggled with the frets, even though the guitar was only 3/4 size. I did get a feel of the basics though: how to tune the guitar and so on, which has stood me in good stead for learning the ukelele, which I find so much easier: the neck is smaller and there are only four strings to think about. I still find some ukulele chords virtually impossible to play, but I improvise and somehow it works and I enjoy it.

For much of the time I was growing up, the old guitar became little more than a fancy dress prop for various family members. Remember that scene in A Shot In The Dark when Inspector Clouseau is making enquiries at a nudist colony, wearing nothing but a strategically-placed guitar? I remember my brother re-enacting that with my guitar. Hilarious!

A generation later, our son learnt how to play ukelele at school and then picked up my guitar and taught himself to play that. He graduated to the full size guitar he got as a birthday present and has become a lovely player, although seldom outside his bedroom. It was wonderful that the old instrument got a new lease of life, but since Son outgrew it, it had been gathering dust so it was time for it to go. I advertised it on our street Facebook page and quickly got a reply from a neighbour. She arranged to pick it up today and I left it by the front door for socially distanced collection.

I downloaded Marie Kondo’s book “The Art of Tidying” a while ago when it was on special offer. I probably wouldn’t have done so otherwise, but I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I found some of the techniques useful but a lot of it was a bit to extreme for me. Getting rid of items that no longer “bring you joy” is hard enough, but the idea of thanking those things for their service and saying goodbye to them, seemed very weird to me, but I suppose that’s exactly what I’m doing here, paying tribute to my old guitar as it leaves for its new home as it helps another person learn to play. Goodbye old guitar!

Do you find it difficult to shed old possessions?

Autumn Walk at Druridge

Yesterday turned into a lovely day so we arranged to meet daughter for a walk at Druridge Bay Country Park, close to where she lives. The last time I posted about a family walk there it was January and freezing cold. This time is was mild and we were treated to a little early autumn colour.

There were all sorts of berries on the trees and bushes.

There were loads of lovely ripe blackberries – daughter was keen to pick some. She has some apples from my mother’s tree, which has cropped very heavily this year, I’m not sure whether she will make bramble and apple gin or add the brambles to a crumble with the apples – she had a good bagful in a short time.

But berries are not the only way that trees and shrubs produce their seeds. This little oak tree was covered in acorns.

The Ash has elongated winged seeds, known as keys, that hang in bunches.

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The field maple bears pairs of winged seeds.

Down by the lake there was a clump of reedmace, with distinctive velvety brown spikes.

The swans, ducks and gulls gathered by the boat ramp, waiting to be fed, while a lone paddle boarder floated by.

I was just beginning to think that despite all the colourful berries, there was very little autumn leaf colour, then I saw these beauties.

Close to the park exit there was a large stand of teasels. The spiky seedheads looked stunning in the late afternoon sun. We have some in our garden that I hope will attract flocks of hungry goldfinches.

What a lovely way to spend an afternoon!

What signs of autumn have you noticed?

Making the Most of Nature’s Harvest: Bramble and Apple Gin

Bottling up the Sloe Gin the other day reminded me of some photos we took a few weeks ago. Even in late August the beginnings of a bountiful hedgerow harvest were in evidence. Back then the sloes were turning from green to blue-black.

They seem to briefly take on an interesting turquoise shade when they are half ripe

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the blackthorn bushes were laden with blossom rather than fruit. In this strange year time has passed in an odd way. Somehow the hours pass slowly and the days pass quickly. This was taken in March.

Dog rose featured in one of my Wildflower of the Week posts . The roses were replaced by bright orange hips.

In the same way, the hawthorn blossom of May has given way to berries that will be enjoyed in the weeks to come by the birds, especially hungry new arrivals migrating here for the winter. In August the hawthorn berries were just starting to ripen and are now turning a darker red.

The blackberries/brambles have been amazing too. We pick some every year, but the crop seemed particularly prolific. We picked almost 3 pounds of fruit in a relatively short space of time, getting our fingers stained in purple juice and covered in tiny prickles. The fruit has been in the freezer since then.

It’s not just the hedgerow fruit that is abundant right now. The apple tree in my mother’s garden is so laden with fruit that the branches are drooping under the weight, even though several bags of apples have already been picked. We have an apple tree with plenty of fruit too, but they all seem to be near the top, well out of reach!

With last year’s sloe gin bottled, that freed up some Kilner jars. With this in mind and such a plentiful supply of apples and blackberries, I decided to make some bramble and apple gin.

There were quite a few recipes online. Some had added vanilla, but this one from Larder Love involved bayleaves. It made me think of the Jo Malone Blackberry and Bay fragrance which is rather nice. The apples didn’t need peeling or coring either – I’m all for that!

I increased the quantities proportionately as I had a litre of cheap gin instead of the standard (750mls) bottle used in the recipe.. This was enough to fill two 1 litre Kilner jars, which had been sterilised. I used

  • 300g blackberries (mine were straight from the freezer)
  • 300g apples, unpeeled, uncored, roughly chopped
  • 266g sugar
  • 2 small bayleaves
  • 1litre cheap supermarket own brand gin

I split the fruit and sugar between the two jars and added a bayleaf to each, then topped up with the gin. Then I sealed the jars and shook them to dissolve the sugar, repeating every so often until fully dissolved. Within a few hours the brambles were releasing their juice into the mixture, turning it red. The jars will now stay in a cool dark place, to be shaken up every so often (light makes the gin turn brownish). In a couple of weeks it will be ready to strain, bottle and drink – much much quicker than slow sloe gin!

I’ve already made some apple pies, frozen some and given a couple away. But what else shall I make? Chutney? Jelly and jam? All suggestions welcome!

Slow Sloe Gin

We just bottled the sloe gin mad from sloes we picked last autumn. It’s been steeping and maturing nicely and is now ready, freeing up the jars for this years crop. We use 1 litre Kilner jars (the ones with the rubber seal and the metal hinge and clip that holds the lid on with an airtight seal) and sterilise them in the dishwasher before we start..

We use this recipe. To start it off you just half fill each jar with sloes (picked after the frosts or saved in the freezer, so the skin splits and liberates the juice). Add four ounces of sugar and top up with dry gin and seal the jar. Shake the jar every few hours until the sugar dissolves then store in a dark place for a couple of months, shaking up again every few days. Most recipes specify caster sugar, but as it will all dissolve in the end that’s not crucial. It just might take a bit more shaking! And there is no point in using expensive gin. Cheap supermarket own Brandis perfectly fine for this.

Most sloe gin is actually gin liqueur, which makes it far sweeter than a flavoured gin, almost syrupy. You can bottle it at this stage, but for the last couple of years we’ve tried a second stage, which produces something more like a flavoured gin, less sweet but still having a rich red purple colour. After the first two months of steeping you simply pour half the contents of the jar (fruit and liquid) into a second sterilised jar and top both up with gin. By diluting with more gin, the drink becomes stronger and less sweet. The fruit is left in so even more flavour comes out into the liquid. We’d left it like that for quite a few months before we got to the current bottling stage.

Out came the jelly bag and stand to strain the liquid. We always scald the fabric with boiling water beforehand – it still bears the stains of many a previous batch of sloe gin or bramble jelly.

Then it’s simply a matter of filling the bottles using a funnel (all previously sterilised too).

Any screw top bottle will do. Our original two jars of mixture were diluted with gin into four jars and that resulted in four standard (750ml) bottles of sloe gin. If you’ve saved any smaller bottles to fill with the drink, especially decorative ones, they make great gifts. You can use your sloe gin as an after-dinner liqueur, knock it back as a shot or fill a hip flask for an outdoor tipple on a cold day. It’s also lovely diluted with tonic, soda or lemonade and for something really special, topped up with Prosecco. Drink responsibly!

You can even use the by-broduct: the gin-soaked sloes left in the strainer. It’s a tedious process and we didn’t bother this year, but if have the patience to remove the large seed from each individual sloe berry, there’s a use for the fruit. You can simply serve it over ice cream for a very grown-up dessert, or melt some chocolate, stir in the fruit and let it set. Break it up into bite-sized pieces and enjoy. Gorgeous!

Our bottles are now labelled and ready to use. They are best best stored in a cool dark place but will last pretty well – at least a year or two in our experience. Some years there are no sloes to harvest at all. That happens if there’s a late frost just as the fruit is setting or if it’s too cold for the insects to be out pollinating the flowers (sloe or blackthorn blooms very early in the year)Worth making a large batch….just in case!

Have you ever made your own sloe gin or other fruit liqueurs?

I’m In A Spin (Part 3): A Week’s Worth of Spinning

Since I got my e-spinner – the Electric Eel Wheel Nano, I’ve become somewhat addicted! I managed to complete all this in my first week of spinning. In Part 2 I’d completed my first tiny skein of navy and white striped yarn. Next I decided to concentrate on improving my technique so I spun a couple of reels of the cornflower blue merino and plyed it together.

This is such a rich shade of blue! As you can see from the close up my strand thickness and ply is pretty uneven, but I think it was starting to improve by the time I finished these.

Next I tried colour blending. I’ve watched YouTube tutorials on this but I don’t have a blending mat or a carder so I improvised – I pulled out a long strip each of three colours of fibre (pale blue, deep denim blue and teal) and as I spun, I tried to make sure I was varying the colours I drew out. I also spun a reel of the plain pale blue yarn, then I plyed them together.

I found it quite difficult to keep the multicoloured strand even and vary the colours at the same time. The uneven-ness translated through to the the plying, but I rather like the randomness of it.

Finally I spun a bobbin each of pale blue, cornflower and navy. My strands were starting to get more consistent by now. I put them together in a 3-ply. My improvised Lazy Kate (cardboard box with knitting needles stuck through to hold the spools) needed an extra needle poking through to accommodate the third spool.

I was really pleased with how this turned out because I felt that both the spinning and plying looked more uniform. Result!

I’ve definitely caught the spinning bug. I find it very soothing and have really enjoyed learning the basics. I’ve eased back a bit over the last few days so I don’t totally deplete my fibre supply. I’ll have to buy more far too soon if I don’t spin it out!

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A Walk In The Woods: Thrunton

Autumn arrived with a vengeance today, but we’ve certainly had a good run of lovely weather over the last couple of weeks. One warm day we decided to head for the hills rather than the coast, which was still pretty busy at that point. We went to Thrunton Woods, which is off the A697, west of Alnwick.

This is a Forestry England site, planted with conifers. There are marked trails of various distance and difficulty and some lead to points of interest such as a cave (the refuge of a 19th century monk), Hob’s Nick (a gully said to be haunted by hobgoblins) and a prehistoric fort. Some of the routes are quite steep but lead to spectacular views from hilltop crags. Cyclists and horse riders are also welcome on the trails.

I was using my new mobility scooter. Some parts of the main paths are quite treacherous as they are very rough and stony, and I wouldn’t even attempt some of the more difficult routes, but that still left plenty to go at. Buddy the Labrador loves Thrunton Woods and it’s great for dogs, although ticks can be a problem. Dog owners should also note that there are no dog bins. We always see a lot of bagged up dog waste dumped near the car parks, which is horrible! Why can’t people take it home? If it’s away from a path, any unbagged dog mess left will soon decompose. The plastic bags won’t. Moving swiftly on…..

,There is always something very atmospheric about mature woodland and Thrunton is no exception. The rays of afternoon sun were filtering through the trees and it was very still: beautiful but almost eerie.

It felt warm in the sunny spots on the paths and late summer butterflies were fluttering about or alighting on the vegetation to soak up the heat.

It’s always interesting to look at the flora of different habitats. The moorland that surrounds Thrunton Woods is purple with blooming heather in late summer and there is heather on the trail margins in the woods too.

The damp ditches that flank the paths are filled with mosses and ferns.

There were large groups of fly agaric fungi, vivid red against the greens and browns of the forest floor. When the toadstools first push through the earth, they are white but the warty outer covering breaks up as the cap expands leaving white spots on the red. These are the classic fungi in children’s book illustrations, very pretty but highly toxic. In addition to the nausea, vomiting and sweating the toxins cause, there is a hallucinogenic effect, historically used in shamanistic rituals in some cultures – no wonder it is associated with fairies and elves!

The scooter battery drained quickly as the trail went uphill and had to cope with the stony parts so we perhaps didn’t go as far as we would have done otherwise (I’ve ordered a second battery so hope to solve this issue). It was still the perfect place to be that day

Knitting With A View: Hulne Park

This was my view for most of today. We were stewarding at a pleasure ride in Hulne Park. Horse riders were able to ride a set route through the Duke of Northumberland’s Estate here at Alnwick, either a shorter route of about 7 miles, or with an additional loop across the moors to give them a 10 mile ride. I mainly sat in the car and knitted while K pointed the riders in the right direction!

The estate is kept in pristine condition, with perfectly maintained fencing and immaculately mown verges. Some is kept as farmland with grazing sheep, but much of it is used for shooting: there are pheasants everywhere.

The park is open most days from 11am for visitors on foot. No vehicles (including cycles) are allowed (we had special permission) and no dogs are permitted (in case farm stock or game is disturbed) There are marked trails to follow. The park is occasionally closed to the public but details of closures are on the website.

Sometimes the views are just a little too perfect to be natural, then you remember that in the 18th Century the park was redesigned by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who was famous for exactly that! There are beautiful specimen trees and well-constructed stone walls hidden in dips so they can can enclose farm stock without obscuring the view. The buildings are pretty special too, including Brizlee Tower, an 87 ft high, six storey gothic folly, designed by Robert Adam, and completed in 1783.

We were stationed at the point where riders had to decide on whether to take the long or short route. Apart from gusty winds, it was a lovely day, so most opted for the longer ride.

We saw everything from tiny children”s ponies to a massive Shire horse taking part, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

There are worse places to spend a Sunday!

Have you visited anywhere interesting this weekend?

I’m In A Spin! (Part 2) – More Spinning Adventures

Yesterday I said I was excited about getting some fibre to spin and my online order from Fibre Hut arrived today: all these gorgeous blue shades of combed merino: 100g each of Denim, Cornflower and Dreamy (a light baby blue) and a collection called Ocean – 25g in each of ten blue and aqua shades.

I chose one of the minis in navy and spun this bobbin. I think it’s much more consistent than yesterday’s attempt.

I got really into spinning this – the minutes just melted away. Spinning is just so relaxing!

When I’d finished spinning this fibre I decided to try plying it with the white I spun yesterday. For this I needed to improvise a Lazy Kate (something to hold the bobbins) – I used a couple of old knitting needles pushed through the box the Electric Eel Wheel Nano came in.

Plying the two yarns together involves the wheel turning in the opposite direction from spinning – you just flick the switch on the the machine.

This is the result. Stripy yarn!

My first mini skein of hand spun yarn……and a great sense of achievement!

I’m In A Spin!

I’ve been playing with one of my birthday presents. Having expressed an interest in learning to spin yarn a while ago, I was given this for my birthday. It’s an Electric Eel Nano: a portable spinning wheel. Less expensive than the traditional type and tiny: only about 14cm long.

It comes with a 2 power cables (UK and US plugs), a USB power cable and spare bobbins. There is no instruction manual, but a card with a link to online video tutorials and a yarn guide.

There’s an orifice hook that I have no excuse to lose, as it stays attached to the machine with a couple of tiny magnets. There is a speed control and a switch for on/off, clockwise/anticlockwise rotation.

I’ve ordered some fleece online, but I did have some roving that I use for needle felting, so I couldn’t resist having a go. I followed the instruction videos which were very clear and found the Nano quite easy to use.

This is the result. – not the most even of yarns but I’m quite pleased with my first attempt at spinning.

The next thing I need to do is try plying it.

Hopefully my online order will arrive this week and I can do some more. I can see myself getting quite addicted!

Have you started any new hobbies this year?

Buddleia and Butterflies

We have a buddleia outside our dining room window and the sunshine this week has brought the butterflies out to bask while they drink from the nectar-rich blooms. K went out to take some photos.

The first one he saw was this red admiral.

Then it was joined by a small tortoiseshell……

….and another.

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It’s lovely that two of our most common butterfly species are also among our most colourful.

The plant self-seeded and is not in a great position to be honest, but I’m reluctant to remove it when the butterflies love it so much and I enjoy watching them from the window. It will get cut right back, almost to ground level, after the flowers have finished. The common name of Butterfly Bush is very appropriate!

Have you had any interesting wildlife visitors to your garden recently?