The festive whooshing noise.

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Maybe I am a bad mother after all: I’m sure that there are superhuman lifestyle/mum bloggers out there who have spent the last couple of weeks wrapping presents in coordinating papers, baking their own zimtsterne tree decorations and photographing springs of holly in mason jars with artistic bokeh effects. I, Unfortunately, have been even more disorganised than usual this year: unlike the lovely Eileen of The Kita Diaries, I haven’t made a Christmas cake, and I’m uncomfortably aware that the number of cards I have sent remain very firmly in the single figure range.

If I haven’t achieved anything else, though, I have managed to find the boys some Christmas jumpers…  They’re modelling them rather dashingly below, and they would like to assure you that they, and I, are wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Eoin and Ronan ChristmasThey promise they’re going to kick me into shape next year. Perhaps literally (they’re pretty tough customers). In the meantime, they’re going to chasten me by unwrapping all my presents, stealing the mince pies, and sitting on the Christmas tree decorations. Merry Christmas!

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Same bat-time, same bat-channel!

About this time last year, we discovered we had bats living in our roof: I think we eventually counted something in the region of 60 bats making their way out from under our eaves in a night.

This year, the bats are back, and we are very happy to see them, even though so far the count is only in the early 40s. We think they are probably common-or-garden pipistrelles, as they appear to be living in the tight spaces behind the barge boards of the house. Contrary to all the bat myths out there, they have been no bother at all, and we are rather honoured to be sharing our house with them.

Tonight, we set up the camera with the macro lens and the tripod, and, after a lot of struggling and cursing (on my part) and patient fixing of the tripod (on Stephen’s), we managed to catch one of the bats leaving her roost for a night’s hunting.

bat1 bat2bat3bat4These photos certainly won’t win any prizes for nature photography, I know, but they are better than I managed last year, and I’m pleased that, not only did we catch her in the act of emerging, we also got a view of some tiny batty ears in the second picture.

I’m off to bed, hoping to sleep sound in the knowledge that the bats are hunting down the midges, mosquitoes and other nasty bitey creatures of the night. Good luck to them!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Changing Seasons

fire catchingAlthough we’ve escaped without seeing any snow here in South Wales, it has turned decidedly chilly. Breaking out the newspapers, the kindling and the mysterious blocks of what appears to be compressed sawdust (it took a while for our logs to be delivered, and actual firewood was not to be had in the shops for love nor money), we have ceremonially lit the woodburner, and are spending as much time as possible snuggling in front of its cheerful glow.

For Eoin, the whole experience has been a combination of fascination and terror. He loves watching the flames dance from a safe distance, and will spend ages gazing into the fire, imagining goodness knows what. However, we have clearly dinned our warnings about not touching hot objects into him well: he gets really nervous whenever we are re-fuelling the stove, and has even tried to shut the door of the fireguard with me half-way though it, shouting “Close! Close! Hot!” in a rather panicky fashion. Gates are there for your safety, and should be closed at all times, you know.

For me, the lighting of the logburner has involved a crash course in laying a fire, and particularly in the making of eeks. This is a family idiom for those long strips of rolled newspaper which you fold into knots and lay beneath the kindling. When my mum was a little girl, my grandfather used to tickle her with the rolled-up newspaper strips, while making an “eek eek!” noise. My mum was so convinced that these newspaper strips were actually called eeks, that she described them, quite seriously, as such while taking the test for a Girl Guides badge, in which laying a fire was one of the required skills. Whether or not she received the badge, history does not relate, though apparently she gave the examiner a the best laugh they’d had all day.

logburnerNow that the stove is lit, it’s beginning to feel an awful lot like winter, rather than just the chilly, damp, dark tail end of autumn. All we need is a stove-top kettle and some potatoes to roast in the hot ash, with maybe a snifter of Glühwein or a hot toddy when the nights really draw in, and we’ll be set for a few months of hunkering down, staying cozy and generally going into semi-hibernation.

Ikea Hackery: Latt Table and Chairs

As we’ve just passed the 25th anniversary of Ikea opening in the UK,1 it seemed like a good time to post my first ever Ikea hack. Having moved to Cardiff, where the closest store is only five minutes from our front door, Eoin and I spend rather too much time in the big blue box of happiness, admiring the fancy light fittings and stuffing ourselves with meatballs and cinnamon buns. We have also bought or inherited a certain amount of furniture from there, largely on the grounds that it has been cheap and practical, and that the couple of hours of struggling and swearing en famille as you erect the darned things gives you a sense of achievement you just don’t get from shopping at John Lewis. I accept that, as with any large store, there are some issues with buying from Ikea, not least that, if you live as close to one as we do, everyone’s homes start to look worryingly similar, and, if you spend too much time and money there, you wake up one morning to find that you are sleeping in what appears to be page 72 of the catalogue.2

This, of course, is where the hacking comes in. An awful lot of the budget furniture in Ikea is made of unfinished wood, and is ripe for decoration and customisation. I tend to browse regularly through sites like Ikea Hackers in search of ideas and inspiration, and have found some great work: the cutting table made from Lack side tables would certainly be in my fantasy sewing room, and, for children, the play kitchens made from the dirt-cheap Rast bedside cabinets are excellent. Some, notably this precarious bed, are a little worrying, but in general the projects are rather a useful spur to your own creativity. Recently, needing a table and chairs for Eoin, who is starting to get interested in crayons and play-dough, but who is too small to sit at the kitchen table on his own, I had picked up a Lätt set for the bargain price of £17 for a table and two chairs. However, I had to admit that it looked pretty depressing in its natural state. Though I had some ideas about changes I might like to make, I spent a couple of evenings trawling the children’s furniture hacks in search of helpful hints. Combining these with the thoughts I had already had, I think I managed to come up with something rather more attractive and practical:

Upholstered chairs, blackboard-topped table: this is how it was done…

I knew I wanted to paint the table and chairs (untreated wood was just too dull), and I’m a big fan of red, so I started by sanding and priming the wood, and then giving it two coats of paint (Plastikote spray, because I was afraid of brushes, in Bright Red Gloss) before I assembled the pieces. Taking a hint from the Ikea Hackers, I decided to paint the table top panel with a couple of coats of blackboard paint, so that Eoin could chalk directly onto it (instead of the floor, the oven and the sofa…). There was also a plan to attach a Bygel rail and hanging containers onto the side of the table, as per several of the hacks, until I realised that keeping any art and craft materials within the Little Dude’s unsupervised reach was, at the moment, a really, really unwise idea. The containers, with their chalk-and-crayon burdens, currently reside on top of the bookcase, and the rail will be attached as soon as Eoin can be trusted not to draw on the (non-blackboard-painted) furniture.

I also knew that I wanted to upholster the seats of the chairs in some way, as they look rather uncomfortable au naturel, and had even found some rather fabulous vehicle-printed oilcloth on special offer in John Lewis: with all these wheels, I was fairly confident it would go down well.

Indeed, Eoin did try to steal the uncut oilcloth several times before I actually had a chance to make the seatpads, which has to be a pretty good sign of acceptance.

Looking at the way the chairs are constructed (you slide the seat top board into some fairly narrow grooves in the frame to get it to fit), I knew I was going to have to assemble them the usual way and then construct a seat pad to fit on top, as adding fabric to the seat before fitting it would make everything terribly tight and difficult to put together. I toyed with a few ideas, including applying the upholstery directly to the chair, but that would entailed wrapping the oilcoth around the sides of the seat, and hiding the paintwork, which I didn’t want to do. In the end, I followed the advice in this hack to make loose seatpads, using some upholstery foam from The Fabric Warehouse and an off-cut of plywood from B&Q.  Stephen insisted on cutting the plywood, not so much because he doesn’t trust me with power tools as because he doesn’t want to share his toys. Admittedly, he did do a lovely job, shaping the wood so that it fitted neatly between the uprights on the back of the chair, while leaving room for the oilcloth itself. I completed the job using my pet toy, a Stanley Sharpshooter staple gun, which makes me feel satisfactorily tough and handy. We then attached them to the chairs by screwing through the support bar, as detailed in the hack. Overall, I’m awfully pleased with the result, and I think Eoin is fairly satisfied too.

Unfortunately for my sanity, though, it turns out that one of the most satisfying things a toddler can do with his lovingly customised furniture is to push the chairs vigorously around the kitchen floor, so that they make a high-pitched, nerve-shredding squeaking noise as their legs grind on the tiles. A physicist father adds a whole new dimension of fun: when Eoin and I use the table we draw cars, trains, cats, houses… I left Eoin with his dad for a few hours last week, and came back to find the tabletop chalked all over with cubes, prisms and what looked awfully like an abortive attempt at a tesseract. Heigh ho: at least I had fun making it.

I’m still searching the shelves in Ikea for more furniture to customise, but for the moment I think that all three of us are very happy with our work on the Lätt.

1In Warrington: perhaps they were tempted there, to the UK’s most central location, by the mysterious Eileen Bilton?
2Actually, I don’t think I’d mind that. Page 72 looks pretty comfortable.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Purple

This is my “purple” entry: my surprise passion flower, with its splendid purple corona and violet stigmata.

Why was it a surprise? It turns out that a climbing plant in the garden, which I initially thought was a boring old Clematis, is in fact a passiflora caerulea, which automatically makes it far more exciting. When I first saw a passion flower, years ago in Fiesole, I thought it was the most exotic flower I had ever seen (I know: I’m easily pleased). They’re also rather fascinating: having been informed that the parts of the flower symoblise elements of the Crucifixion, I now have an almost irresistible drive to count the petals to check the number of disciples represented (as you can see, it’s ten: Judas and Peter don’t make the cut). Unexpectedly having a vine covered in these lovely blossoms just outside my kitchen window gives my mood a little lift each time I see them.

Required: one belfry

Last night, we made a discovery. Sitting out in the garden after dinner, we spotted a bat flitting about. Then, we noticed another. And another. Eventually, we realised where they were coming from: the back attic of our house. One by one, they slipped out from a gap by the roofline and swooped away into the dusk. We spotted 23 last night, but then we had been caught unawares. Tonight, we were more alert, and the count rose to 56. It looks as if we may have our own bat colony, living somewhere above our heads.

Diligent research on The Bat Conservation Trust website (which rejoices in the URL http://www.bats.org.uk) informed us that the little creatures were unlikely to cause us any problems, or to chew through our electric cables. We are, of course, forbidden to do anything to disturb them or impede their access to the roost, but, after all, why would you want to do that? We are far happier sitting in the garden, watching them go about their batty business.

After a lot of waiting and fruitless pressing of the shutter-release button, I finally managed to catch one of our furry guests on camera. It’s not the world’s best photo, I know, but at least the bat is there and in mid-flight.

I’m heading to bed, secure in the knowledge that our bats are out there, keeping the local insect population in check. It’s only a shame they couldn’t take on a slug or two…

La lutte continue

C’est à dire, la lutte contre les limaces et les limaçons.*

Like most of the rest of the country, the Vale of Glamorgan has been spectacularly rain-soaked and windswept over the last couple of weeks, and the damp has been getting into everything, bringing with it its own attendant perils.

Look who I found crawling up the wall of the house:

Marauding mollusc on the masonry

Yesterday, when we went out to a friend’s birthday party, there were two of them on that particular patch of brickwork. When we came back, only a couple of hours later, there were four. As the weather was by now getting apocalyptically bad, I didn’t check back on them, but, given my past luck, it’s entirely possible that their numbers went on increasing at an exponential rate all evening.

Before I went inside, though, I noticed something disturbing. I appreciate that my previous molluscular misadventures may have scarred me, but I swear they were attacking the seal on the window. Call me paranoid, call me delusional, call me a slug-obsessed headcase, but I say it’s only a matter of time before the molluscs find their way back in. Could somebody pass the salt, please?

* “The struggle continues. That’s to say, the struggle against the slugs and the snails”. </show-off>

Weekly Photo Challenge: Arranged

If you’ve read this blog before, you may be aware of my slight obsession with utility china and teapots, particularly the kind that don’t have slugs lurking in the bottom. As you can imagine, one of my first acts on acquiring a new kitchen was lovingly to arrange the burgeoning collection in its own dedicated cupboard. Well, I say “arrange”. Those of you with more artistic or domestic ability would probably say “plonk”, or even “cram”. If you were being particularly kind. you might go as far as “stack”.

To me, though, it’s still an arrangement. It’s a very heteroclite collection: very little of the china actually matches. It’s a jumble of styles, colours, makes, shapes. Somehow, still, it all manages to coordinate. And it gives me immense pleasure to see it sitting there, glowing with pastelly gorgeousness, and the promise of tea and cake to come.

The tortoise has landed!

The previous owners of our house left us a lot of useful things when they moved out: curtains, several wardrobes, a spare bed, a rather nice bottle of champagne… They also, rather less intentionally, left us one of their tortoises, who had hibernated somewhere in the back garden at an inopportune time, and could not be unearthed for the move.

We weren’t expecting to meet Madge for some time, as she didn’t emerge from hibernation until June last year. However, it seems that, after an unseasonably warm spring, a young reptile’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of wakefulness and lettuce. This is what Eoin and I saw, just outside the kitchen window, as we were finishing our lunch today.

Eoin quickly realised that Madge did not have wheels, nor was she obviously edible. His interest in the new reptile inhabitant of the garden gone, he pootled off for a nap without a backward glance. I, however, spent the next half hour constructing a temporary tortoise-shelter, which meant I hastily unpacked one of our languishing book boxes, and lined it with packing paper and tasty salad.*

Madge’s owners are picking her up later this afternoon, but she seems happy enough for the moment.

You! Human! Hands off my lettuce, you hear?

Little does she know, though, that I had conducted a box-gathering raid at my local Co-op when I was originally packing the books up. I took anything they would give me, and that included packaging for some pretty ropey stuff. Poor Madge: her temporary home is not a wine case, an organic cheese box or anything stylish like that. It’s an erstwhile multipack of Space Raiders.* Oh, the shame! And they weren’t even the pickled onion kind…

*I was hoping that the box I chose might have contained some cool, esoteric literary texts from the glory days of my PhD, or, failing that, something actually useful. What did it contain? Novels by Mrs Henry Wood and Charlotte Mary Yonge, and the second half of The Newcomes. I guess I’ll be reading sensation fiction and incomplete Thackeray for a while, then.
*Possibly the cheapest, nastiest brand of crisp out there, for anyone reading this from outside the UK. The sort of thing that makes Monster Munch look subtle and stylish.

Moving on

I’m afraid there’s going to be another hiatus around here: tomorrow, the movers are coming to box up everything we haven’t managed to pack so far, and the next day we will be on our way to a new house, where, at least for the immediate future, internet access is going to be in short supply.

To give you an idea of the general chaos, here’s Jenny, my lovely spinning wheel, waiting patiently amid the packing cases to see if the movers have a box to fit her.*

See you on the other side!

*Yes, yes: I called my spinning wheel Jenny. Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the bad puns. And yes, she is backwards. Oops.