snow

So, Matilda got her wish.

In a perfect world I think we could all have done with a slightly heavier snow fall.

But it seems that even a thin blanket of the white stuff exerts a certain magic: all three girls were out of bed and ready for breakfast by 7am. Unheard of on a school day.

And like the rest of the family, Sybil loves it too. Shame it’s all gone.

shadowlands

Matilda is on permanent snow watch at the moment. She bursts into whichever room
I’m in, brandishing her ipod touch, to announce the latest meteorological
developments. Or, in the case of Bristol, the lack of developments, because despite
grey skies and freezing temperatures, the snow keeps passing us by.

And to add insult to injury, every now and then the sun decides to put in an appearance. All of which is hugely frustrating for Matilda. But I quite enjoy the fleeting sunshine, especially when the back of the house is bathed in a strange golden light, and the walls of kitchen and garden are filled with wonderful shadows.

I think this makes up for the lack of snow. But it’s not good enough for Matilda,
who, although having only experienced two properly white winters in her life, has
come to regard snow as a given for this time of year. Her fingers are firmly crossed
for a snowy half term. And I have to admit, mine are too.

a wreath* lecture

I love walking around our neighbourhood in the run-up to Christmas. Day by day the windows acquire decorations and twinkling trees. Some of these appear as early as the 1st of December, others spring up on Christmas Eve. In some cases the front gardens are decked out with fairy lights as well. But it’s the front doors that I’m most interested in.

Wreaths seem to increase in popularity each year. Where once perhaps only a few doors would carry a wreath, now almost every door is resplendent with a Christmassy creation. I like the mix of shop-bought, homemade, natural, fake, gaudy, tasteful, chic and vulgar that can be found in this one neighbourhood. On a cold, bleak afternoon, a dutiful wander with the dog is improved immeasurably with a little wreath-spotting.

The girls think I’m mad to photograph them, and they are quite embarrassed when I stop to take out my camera (oh, god mum! come on, let’s go…). Even Sybil does a passable imitation of cringing shame as she tugs at the lead, ears flat trying to pull me on.

I have now amassed quite a nice library of wreath portraits. These are by no means the cream of the crop, but they are what I managed to snap over the past week or two.

This last wreath is my own rather shambolic affair, cobbled together just half an hour before our neighbours all came round for Christmas drinks on Tuesday evening. My plan had been to weave some pretty lengths of ivy, complete with flower heads and berries into an old ring of hazel twigs which I use each year as a base. But when the moment came to make my festive creation, I realised a) I had no idea where I’d put the ring after last year’s outing and b) we had no ivy – we’d cut it all back in the summer when we terraced the garden. Not to be defeated, I trudged out into the rain-sodden garden and gathered what I could – some hazel twigs, again, and lots of soggy dead sedum heads. It’s not as pretty or perfect as the other wreaths I’ve admired, but I like it all the same.

Time to go and wrap some presents now. Happy Christmas everyone!

*Slightly pointless pun on the Reith Lectures.

four seasons in a day

I’ve been trying to write a post about something nice and Christmassy that I did at the weekend, but I’m not getting very far. This is because I am also chasing last minute bits and pieces for an event which may or may not happen tomorrow evening, as it is totally weather dependent. Meanwhile, outside the weather is taunting me with an impressive medley and I keep leaping up to take photographs. I suppose I’m only encouraging it.

So far this morning we have had high winds and heavy, heavy rain; thunder and lightning; three separate hailstorms; sleety-rainy-haily stuff and now, brilliant sunshine.

I’m expecting a rainbow and perhaps some snow by this afternoon’s school run.

The other post will follow soon enough. But in the meantime Amy left a comment asking for the chocolate shortbread recipe which I mentioned in this post – here it is, Amy, and sorry that it’s taken so long for me to get round to writing it up. It’s not mine, but from The Great British Book of Baking (the first one, as I think there might be a second one).

Ingredients: 260g plain flour; 100g caster sugar (plus a little extra for sprinkling); 40g cocoa powder; pinch of salt (not necessary, I think if you use slightly salted butter); 200g unsalted butter, chilled and diced.

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4  Grease a loose-based 20.5cm cake tin

Put flour, sugar, cocoa and salt into a mixing bowl and stir well to combine. Add the butter and rub into the dry ingredients until it resembles fine damp sand, or sandy crumbs. Tip it into a prepared tin and press into an even layer using the back of a spoon. Finally prick the dough well with a skewer or a fork, and then score into 12 sections.

Bake in the oven for around 25 mins until just firm.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with a little more caster sugar and then, before removing it from the tin, carefully cut along into the pre-marked sections. Leave to cool before removing from tin. This might be difficult as it smells wonderful, and you may be tempted to eat it, but it is still quite crumbly at this stage, and will set firmer as it cools.

plant hunting

Over the last few months I’ve been peering into other people’s gardens at every opportunity, searching for plants that manage to hold their own through the bleak winter months. Naturally enough I spotted lots of jolly-looking hollies, spotty-leaved Aucubas and plenty of conifers.

The plants that really excited me, however, were the shrubs and herbaceous perennials that are overlooked in lists of winter plants and yet, if left alone (by which I mean not tidied up once they’ve gone over), gamely soldier on, earning their keep despite being dormant, dead or decaying. The old flower heads on this Hydrangea, for example, are as beautiful on a cold, grey morning as they are when bathed in summer sunshine. At the back of a border, they add drama and texture when it is needed most.

Yet more for the list.

NB: when I posted this in haste last night, I forgot to name the Hydrangea in the top two photographs, it is  Hydrangea petiolaris – the climbing hydrangea. And I also forgot to add the final photograph which is  Hydrangea aspera ‘Villosa Group’, a beautiful velvet leaved variety with a tree-like habit. As  you will see from the links, both plants are fabulous when in bloom.

medlar

This isn’t the obvious time of year to be looking at trees and assessing their potential for the garden. But when you think about it, a tree or large shrub is often only at its peak for a very short period each year – often spring or autumn –  yet what it looks like for the rest of the time is just as important. Lilacs look and smell wonderful in April and May (depending where you are), but their rusty dead flower-heads are not so lovely to look at for the months that follow. If you research Cornus (Dogwood) in most books you will see photographs of whippy stems in all their fiery winter glory, but this gives you no sense of what the shrub may look like for the rest of the year.

The hazel in my garden is a good example – I rather like it in the winter when the foliage is sparce and its sculptural criss-crossed trunks can be seen. In the spring the catkins are an attractive addition, but come the summer we have a drab green blob at the end of the garden. As I have said before, the hazel needs to go – the shoots it sends out at its base, increase its girth by several inches each year, and I am forever pulling up seedlings which, if left, are saplings in the blink of an eye. But what do I plant in its place?

This tree at the Botanic Gardens caught my eye. It is a Medlar (Mespilus germanica), and I have been watching it change week by week whilst studying at the Botanic Gardens. Over the past two months it has never looked anything other than lovely. I took the (not very good) picture below a couple of  weeks ago, and the one at the top of this post a week or so later when the leaves were all but gone.

I love its shape, its size feels about right for a small garden and I like the fact that the curious-looking fruits remain after the leaves have fallen. One of my classmates says that although the fruits are a little bland they make great jam or jelly. Anyway, I shall continue to keep my eye on the Medlar to see how it performs in spring and summer, before I commit – I have a sneaking suspicion that it may have a drab green blob-like tendency. With that in mind, I’ll be looking into Quince trees, pears and plums as well. I will keep you posted.