For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, this is when you have a dinner party on the move - starters at one house, mains at another, dessert elsewhere. And as if having 15 couples traipsing through the village between courses wasn't intriguing enough, you don't actually know who you'll be hosting before they turn up, and no idea where you're headed next until you open the envelope at the end of each course.
They are also called "safari suppers" but this seems a slightly odd name considering there's no big game to spot and not a pith helmet in sight. "Progressive supper" is far more fitting as you get progressively chattier, progressively squiffier and, as I found out, progressively more likely to misplace your mobile phone as the evening goes on.
So, as you can imagine, I wasn't rising early the next morning, and probably wouldn't have done so before midday had my daughter not bounded into the room and declared "We're going into the garden. Are you coming?".
Yes, there comes a time each year when the garden rather than the house suddenly seems to be the kids default entertainment space - and Sunday was it.
In no particular order, the children...
And in no particular order, I...
Buy cheap, buy twice.
I employ this phrase quite regularly. It's a useful way to pretend you are a prudent investor whilst simultaneously spending far too much money on an item.
I've said it a lot recently.
The reason? A swing.
You see we have an old swing in the garden but it's becoming a bit too 'swingy'. I know this is like complaining that rain is too wet or a Danish drama about murder is a bit too gloomy, but it is true. Whilst I find it perfectly normal behaviour for the seats to rock back and forth, it becomes slightly disturbing when the entire frame follows suit.
Also, in common with most other play equipment, our swing set is only made for children. In my opinion this is an error. Swings, like university, free time and youth, are wasted on the young. If I'm buying a new set of swings I want to make sure I get to go on them.
This (and my aforementioned gravitation towards the pricey end of the market) led me to put in an order last week with Sitting Spiritually. They have a sturdy, classic design in oak or cedar and, not only do they take adults as well as children, they even have a drinks shelf option. Genius.
Sadly, none of this comes cheaply so I am justifying the purchase as my birthday present. Thankfully it's a significant number this year (let's pretend it starts with a '3' - it doesn't, but, hey it's my blog) which makes the extravagance a little more bearable. However, a word to the wise: "I'd really like to be able to swing on my birthday" is not such a great phrase to use.
It has been a week of ups and downs here. Admittedly, not of roller coaster proportions but more akin to driving slightly too fast over a hump-backed bridge.
The down has to do with chickens.
This, some of you may recall, was one of the many failed resolutions from last year that I was planning to atone for this month by, at last, getting a chicken house and starting work on my WIR (walk in run - thanks to Jane Perrone for my new favourite three letter acronym). Then a friend pointed out that I might want to double check on the toxicity of yew to chickens, as a hedge of it would border the entire run.
Pah! I thought. No problem! Birds are OK with yew - in fact it's their penchant to eating the berries which help the plant spread. Of course, I do know it's poisonous to humans - and much livestock for that matter. I'll admit, I only know about that second group because of an episode of The Archers where some of David Archer's cows were killed after eating dumped hedge clippings. As an aside, this was a typical Archers storyline because it gave David the chance to do what he does best - sound both world-weary and exasperated whilst at the same time adopting the role of rural vigilante - a kind of Charles Bronson in wellies. Indeed, in my head he will always be "David Archer: Badger Killer!". But I digress...
Sadly, it turns out yew is poisonous to chickens and, although they would probably avoid it and other harmful plants whilst roaming free, having it constantly at their disposal may well be pushing my luck. As my son has already been reduced to a blubbering wreck by the death of his Triops and Stanley the Sea Snail, if I also manage to poison his chickens it might be the final straw.
On a happier note, I have, this week, been spraying a lot of white lines. This is more exciting than it sounds (not a hard feat) as the purpose was to layout the 300 metres of path about to be added to our village playground as well as deciding on the spots for the hard surface playing area, BMX track, double slide, climbing wall, picnic tables and bird nest swing. Yes, this week sees work begin on the final £45,000 stage of this redevelopment, made possible by a grant from WREN.
Being me, I'm more excited about plans to leave some small sections of the field unmown to encourage wildlife and gain a more interesting looking site, but I have a feeling the children will prefer the play equipment. Tsk, kids these days!
The work should take about four weeks so I will update you on progress as it goes. So far, we're on Day 2. Sadly Day 1 was mostly taken up with the site manager carefully respraying somebody's very shoddy white lines...
I was somewhat depressed this week by the realisation that of my five new year's resolutions last year, I only managed to tick off one (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, my father actually completed this on my behalf).
I still don't keep chickens, there is no Pete Beale style market stall for the kid's to flog their produce, the school has singularly failed to take up my offer of helping with Gardening Club, and most pathetic of all, I can't seem to blog on even a weekly basis.
So I've decided to treat my resolutions on the same basis as I treated every single weekly essay in college. I shall ask for an extension.
I shall also... hmmm, how shall I put this? Cheat. A bit. Just, you know, to make sure I keep this blog a little less sporadic.
Yes, much in the same way I always borrowed Jen's revision notes because they were more thorough than mine, better thought through and best of all, legible, I shall, on occasion, use a blog post to point you towards superior content online. This will hopefully mean you see interesting things, whilst I can bathe in the reflected glory of someone else's genius.
This week, a sandpit caught my eye. I spotted it on the Studio 'g' blog but the original idea was actually from Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning - an Australian blog. Very simple, very cheap (provided you can find a tyre to recycle) and incredibly effective. The long bamboo poles can be covered with sailcloth or a similar outdoor material but you could just use an old sheet and simply accept it will have a shorter lifespan.
For anyone offended by the black rubber exterior, it would be easy enough to plant around the edges and soften the look. In a sunny spot, something like Stipa tenuissima would give movement and is a very tactile plant for kids.
Source: A Place Imagined
My four, yes four, Christmas trees are still fully decorated, the kitchen cupboards remain stubbornly coated in paper snowflakes and I'm about to bake a batch of mince pies. It would be an understatement to say I'm a bit of a fan of Christmas and, quite frankly, I'm going to milk my full 12 days worth.
Sadly though, I will have to think about moving on tomorrow and, for me, this is going to involve a little garden planning. I usually ruminate on ideas in January in the hope that I can have come to some conclusions and pulled my finger out before we're well into spring. This year I have more pressure than usual as I'm due to open my garden in six months time as part of the National Gardens Scheme and I want to add a few more areas of interest, especially for children.
If you're looking for a little design inspiration, I would recommend stopping by Pinterest. This is a kind of virtual pin board where you can collect and organise images. Although you can apply for an invite to be a 'pinner' there is still a lot to find by browsing other people's boards.
Of course it covers everything under the sun, not just gardens, but there are plenty of pinned images with a horticultural flavour. Rochelle Greyer, editor of the new online Leaf Magazine and the woman behind Studio G blog always has brilliant boards to browse - you can check them out here. For more specific kids garden ideas I've put together this board (which includes the playhouse image above) but there are plenty more out there - just put in your search terms and then look at either pins or boards that use those keywords.
Happy pinning. I'm off to roll some pastry and hum a few carols.
I worked in PR for many years but I'm starting to think that I never really left behind my life of 'spin'. You see, reading this blog you could get a warped sense of my existence. It may appear, for example, that I am a hands-on mother with a Maria von Trapp complex who leads her children in an endless round of healthy, outdoor activities.
You would be wrong.
In fact my children watch a lot of telly, play endless games on the Wii and have more than a passing acquaintance with computers and the world of Nintendo DS. Of course, in common with most mothers, I have developed a deep sense of guilt about this which I have learnt to live with in the same way I have learnt to live with most other unsettling thoughts - by studiously ignoring them.
Then a few months ago I read about a woman who led her family in a technology free month. " Wow" I thought. "That's impressive" I thought. "We should so do that" I thought.
Of course, I am nothing if not a realist and I knew that a month would be pushing it. As would a week. Or, you know, an entire weekend. But, hey, a day a month is a start, isn't it? Plus, I didn't want to shock the kids with too much cold turkey.
So we let the children know the plan earlier in the week and made it sound exciting (as I say, you can take the girl out of PR...) then, on Saturday night, I unplugged the telly and Wii, packed away the laptops and put the DS' out of sight before heading to bed.
So, how did it go?
Well, my biggest worry was Archie who, at three and a half, is transfixed by anything on screen. He will alter the wallpaper on my iPhone on a daily basis, execute some impressively complex moves to Wii Just Dance and happily recite dialogue from Tangled - his current movie of choice - at the breakfast table (and believe me "I AM THE LOST PRINCESS, AREN'T I?" yelled over the cereal bowls doesn't make for a relaxing meal).
But surprisingly, he didn't seem too bothered. After finding none of the tellies working and getting a swift 'no' to any other screen requests, he followed his siblings outside. Here they entertained themselves for quite some time - mostly in making 'magic mixtures'.
For the uninitiated 'magic mixtures' are really just buckets of water to which sand, soil, feathers, twigs and general garden debris are added and mixed together. The 'magic' prefix is obviously just proof that the talent for positive spin is carried in the genes.
There was also some bug hunting, trampolining, flower arranging, painting, reading, playing with expensive midget animals (or Sylvanian families as they are more traditionallly known) but in a 'time entertained' vs 'parental effort involved' magic mixtures topped the poll.
As such I am now wondering how I can exploit this Nintendo alternative further. A bit of online research has shown me that what I really need is a mud pie kitchen. Like this:
Source: Rhythm of the Home
Source: The Child's Paper
Or even this:
Source: Pepper Paints
A perfect way to entertain the kids without a screen in sight.
Sadly, this still leaves the other problem with 'Screen Free Sunday"... me.
You see, whilst the kids were fine, I had to be told (several times) that "no, you can't look that up on the computer", 'yes, an iPhone still counts as a screen" and most depressingly of all "sorry, but you'll just have to record the Strictly Come Dancing results show."
It was torture.
So it’s been quite a summer holidays (and I am using the term ‘summer’ very loosely). Firstly a week on the windswept Lincolnshire coast near Skegness (ah, the glamour never ends) where I proved that there is no karaoke audience that can’t be won over with Ernie the Fastest Milkman in the West. And now we have just returned from a house swap holiday in Brittany which proved, just as effectively, that the appalling weather isn’t limited to the UK.
The holiday has also marked something of a milestone because I have, at long last, finished my book. It has been something of a labour of love, in that it has taken nine months, I felt overtired and emotional throughout and somewhere along the line I knew it would involve me holding my husband’s hands in a vice like grip whilst screaming “why did I do this?” and “it’s all your fault”.
Of course, there will still be a hiatus of six months before Garden Crafts for Children appears (it was supposed to be called Little Green Fingers but those pesky Americans only have plant-friendly thumbs) but at least I will no longer have to spend my evenings cutting out elf trousers, painting rabbits on plastic bottles or sowing microleaf farms in wineboxes.
I thought I would mark the moment by posting up a few shots of some of the projects (although, I would add that those in the book are actually taken by professional photographers so will look a bit less…. rubbish).
...take the screen with you.
So, OK, this might not be 'gardening' per se but setting up a garden cinema is the perfect way to get the family outside. Best of all, it is far less expensive than you might suppose (less than £350 all in) and relatively simple to do. Here's how.
First, you will need a projector and it's worth getting something pretty good. Having read countless online discussions on this subject (yes, that really is how I've spent my evenings) I picked the Optoma HD65 - it's simple to use, good quality and gets enthusiastic reviews. One of these things costs over £500 new but they often come up second-hand on eBay which is where I found mine for the much more reasonable sum of £250.
The other main item you need is a screen which you can construct, start to finish, in a couple of hours. I made ours from blackout blind material. You can buy this from Dunelm Mill for £4.99 a metre and it's the smoother, almost rubbery side you will need to project onto.
I used six metres, sewing together two three metre sections on the machine and then hemming the sides for a bit of extra neatness. The material doesn't fray so you don't even need to finish the edges.
The next step is to attach the screen to a length of wood. You can buy something for a couple of pounds that will do the job - like this - and then use either tacks or a staple gun to attached the material along the top edge. You can do the same to the bottom edge of the screen with another length of timber.
I wanted to be able to put up or remove the screen with as little fuss as possible, so I attached three hooks (like these) to the top edge (easily done by drilling through the material into the wood to make pilot holes and then screwing them in by hand). These were then mirrored by three vine eyes I had screwed into the wall where the screen would hang. Once the top edge was hooked onto the wall, I rolled the excess material around the bottom length of timber until the screen was taut. Then, when you want to pack it away, just unhook it and roll the whole screen up.
You will also need some speakers. I fully expected to make a major investment here, but actually we used some JLB computer speakers which cost less than £30 and they worked perfectly.
Finally, remember to house the projector and laptop somewhere dry as you will be watching movies at prime 'dew-falling' time - we simply put ours in an open fronted wooden box but you could easily construct something from old bricks or blocks and pieces of wood.
And that really is it.
We had our inaugural screening on Friday night - Moulin Rouge with a glass of champagne and a couple of camping chairs. However, the kids have plans of their own and apparently there will be a Scooby Doo triple bill playing sometime soon.
[If you want more information and ideas, check out http://backyardtheater.com/]
Yes, I know, the name needs some work, but Ava and Oscar have commandered this delightful spot for their first clubhouse. As a pliable adult, I was drafted in to help, so I hastily erected some brushwood screening and put up the shelf and blackboard. I even carted out an old chest of drawers from up the loft, but now I am surplus to requirements. This is their space. I am not welcome. Let their plotting begin...
They have of course made substantial improvements to the property. Note the well-stocked outdoor library, and the slightly nationalistic flower arrangement. There is also a supply of pens and paper and additional seating for some, as-yet unspecified, guests.
Even the name has improved slightly. It has been rebranded as 'Secret Activities Club' which makes me wonder if the 'gardening' element was just part of their first plot to get that 'shouty woman' onside.