It's hard to believe that we're halfway through August already and it's been a year since I wrote my first blog. It won't be long until we feel the first chilly mornings or need that extra woolly jumper of an evening, and the smell of wood smoke and garden bonfires is in the air. I'm not complaining though; I love autumn, the changing colours in the garden and the bounty of the hedgerows with their jewel colours.
When my children were small, we would go foraging for elderberries and blackberries to make jam to last us through the winter. Now there's just the Old Bean and myself at home I only make one autumn jam, which is a jelly! I use a mix of elderberries, blackberries and crab apples, all gathered from the hedges in the lanes around the house. My hedgerow jelly has the most luscious colour, a clear dark purple, and the taste is fruity and smoky, and perfect on hot buttered crumpets or as an accompaniment to cold meats.
Damsons and Sloes get a different treatment, however; they're perfect for fruit gins.
Here's my go-to recipe from Susan Hill's evocative book Through The Kitchen Window, which is beautifully illustrated by Angela Barrett.
450gms Damsons or Sloes, pricked all over - it's traditional to use a thorn from the Blackthorn tree which gives us the Sloe fruit, but a pin will do the job.
Place the fruit in a large bottle or sealable jar, with 2 spoonsful of split, blanched almonds and 100gms caster sugar. Pour in one litre of gin (the cooking gin will be fine for this!). Seal. shake well to dissolve the sugar.
Leave the bottle in a cool dark cupboard for at least three months, shaking the bottle vigorously every week. Strain and re-bottle when required; if you time this right, it's perfect for a Christmas tipple.
Before we start to think about the autumn months though, let's enjoy the last of the summer sun and look back over the year so far. Because of the various restrictions due to COVID I haven't travelled far this year, which meant that I've had time to concentrate on different projects here at Ty Seren. One of these was an embroidered panel for a collective piece of art titled The Unity of Small Things. The brainchild of Amanda Attfield, Karen Meiklejohn and Rose Tinted Rags (Hereford), the work will consist of a large hanging collage made from fabric swatches stitched and donated to them. Each swatch had to incorporate one image and word which helped us stay connected to others during the pandemic; the finished artwork will be exhibited alongside Grayson Perry's tapestry series The Vanity of Small Differences when it comes to Hereford Art Gallery and Museum this autumn.
I chose 'Sunflowers' for my image and word as it embodies a sharing experience with people I have never met. As well as my own Instagram account, I have an account that features my teddy bears, Violet and Little Rose (@honeyboughbears) and, along with some other bears, they organised a sunflower growing competition. Bears across the world wanted to take part but places like Australia and Canada were either entering their winter season or still under snow and ice, and others lived in apartment blocks with no gardens. We decided that those of us who had room in our gardens would grow surrogate sunflowers for those who couldn't.
The contest became extremely competitive as we all documented our flowers' growth. There was drama, tears - and even mischievous skulduggery! Plants were eaten by slugs and demolished by squirrels; secret formulas for spectacular growth were fomented, and one very naughty bear told my bears that if they soaked their seeds in weed killer before planting it would help them grow better …
Everybody had to send in the measurements of their tallest flower by a certain date and it transpired that we had grown the third tallest; unfortunately for my bears though, it was one of the surrogate sunflowers grown for a bear in Australia! It was such a fun thing to do, something that connected us all in a way that was positive and caring in such a strange, discomfiting time.
I feel so privileged to have the garden here at Ty Seren. It has been my haven in these last extraordinary 18 months and last year it was exciting to see Bluetits nesting in one of our nest boxes. I was lucky enough to catch the moment they fledged early one morning as I wandered around the garden in my customary fashion, pyjama clad, coffee in hand. Sadly, there were no takers for the bird boxes this year, but I did spot a pair of wrens building a nest in the hedge; I watched with bated breath as they brought leafy material and strands of gossamer to build their home.
Then came days when there was no activity and we wondered what had happened. We cautiously checked the nest after one week and found one egg but no parents. We can only conclude that the nest wasn't in the most secure of places - too near the ground - and had caught the eye of our resident Magpie family or Daisy Cat. I still see and hear the wrens in the garden so presume they found a better location to raise their brood; I hope so.
From photographing tiny birds, I had the opportunity to watch a flock of something much bigger at a friend's lake; Greylag Geese had arrived! It was a magnificent sight as they circled the house and lake, calling to each other before lowering their landing gear and elegantly gliding to the ground. Some of them plummeted down from a great height (a technique called 'whittling', so I'm told) before spreading their wings to slow them enough for a landing.
The experience left such an impression on me that I designed a lino-print around it. I kept the geese as solid shapes against the detailed background to intensify the feeling of them as grounded, contrasting with the moment before, when they were circling the lake preparing to land. The swirls and whirls of the background denote their circular journeying from pond to lake to feeding grounds, imagining the flight path through wind currents and eddies that we can't see. I framed one of the prints as a gift for our friend, to say Thank You for the experience.
For the past three months I've been working on a set of prints ready for an exhibition at the lovely Canwood Gallery here in Herefordshire; I'll show them in the next blog, but I mention them here as it's been quite a stressful experience! I had forgotten the pressure involved in preparing for a 'proper' exhibition, so it was a a relief to have a couple of the youngest grandchildren to stay for a weekend. I covered the kitchen table with newspaper and got the acrylic paints out. It was wonderful therapy for me; I had forgotten what it was to just paint for the sheer enjoyment of it, to see something develop out of my imagination and to delight in colour and texture as layer upon layer was brushed on. When the children had gone home I decided to carry on working on my effort; it's now framed and hanging in pride of place in the hallway. I think I might have to do more painting...
I'm going to finish by wishing you all a happy up-coming August Bank Holiday and hope it's barbeque and not sou'-wester weather! Take care, be creative, stay safe.