Are cardigans an endangered species?

My feet hurt, my back aches and my head is throbbing. Yes, you’ve guessed it, I’ve spent the morning trailing around Milton Keynes, looking for that most elusive of garments – the humble cardigan.

Now if you’re aged under 40, I don’t suppose you even know what a cardigan is, well at least judging by the complete dearth of them on the shelves in practically every fashion outlet in the town. But for me, they’re a pretty useful item of clothing – put them on when it’s chilly, take them off if you get a bit hot. I’m not talking about the strange cape-like, floor length things without buttons ( how are you supposed to wear those?) or those  itsy-bitsy little tops that leave your midriff exposed (surely the whole point is to keep you warm?) no, what I want is a simple full sleeve, button down the centre knitted cardy, like the ones I had way back when…

But oh deary me, clearly I am well off piste as far as the fashionistas are concerned, because finding a simple traditional, shall we even say a conservative cardigan is like finding a gold ticket to a chocolate factory.

I started the day at our nearest TK Maxx (I love those stores and normally do really well there), but not only did they not have any cardigans, they didn’t have any knitwear rail at all! Since when has the cardigan been a seasonal line? Surely in this climate, no sensible woman would be without a cardy on a cool summer evening…

Well, having failed at TK Maxx, I headed off to M&S. Here I thought I would have no problem, after all they supply a ‘classic’ range, aimed I suppose at the over 60’s – just right for me then. But alas no. A few items of knitwear masquerading as cardies, but as most of them had been constructed using a nasty nylon thread that practically gave off static shocks as you walked past and with holes big enough to be suitable for fishing endangered fish species – you know the ones that let the small fish pass through them – not at all the simple black and navy blue, round neck or v-neck, button up, long sleeve cardigan that I had in mind.

Having then failed at Next too (although to be fair to them, I hadn’t really expected to get one there), I was faced with the daunting task of driving up to the town centre itself. At least I consoled myself with the thought that John Lewis would certainly have a nice classic cardy for me. OK, I might have to pay through the nose, but I’d already begun to lose the will to carry on, and even if it was cashmere, I might not have refused to buy.

But it was all academic, for the hallowed halls of John Lewis also failed to supply any nice normal knitwear. In desperation, I trawled the whole shopping centre – if you know the place, you will now be experiencing sympathetic foot aches – two and a half hours after my little expedition started, I finally found what I was looking for – guess where.

And the prize for number one cardigan retailer of the day goes to, wait for it, drum roll…H&M. God bless them. It took a few minutes to find them, nestling in amongst the rather pretty but very flighty looking blouses and other tiny confections, but there they were, just waiting for me. Navy blue and black (also quite a lot of other colours), and would you believe it, only £9.99 each.

Here is a retailer who know their customers are going to need a layer to keep them warm, even when the sun does sometimes shine. What a splendid lot. But above all to be commended for their conservation work, for without them, who knows how long it would be before we became a nation bereft of the humble, but terribly useful cardigan.

Now my advice is that you stop whatever you are doing at this moment and go out to H&M and buy a cardigan. This will send them a message that they are doing the right thing. Then when you get back, write to your MP and demand that the dramatic decline in cardigan stocks in the UK be addressed as a matter of urgency. Do it now, because before you know it, it will be winter again and by then it might just be too late.

Ringing the Raunds…

At the weekend we went on a ringing outing with friends (have I mentioned that I’m a bell-ringer?) – don’t let it put you off, we’re mostly nice people. Anyway, we went off to Northamptonshire and explored a few of that county’s lovely village churches. The last tower in the day, was Raunds. Ever since the tower list came out (the itinerary for the day), I’d had a feeling that we must have been to Raunds before, because the name seemed familiar, but I couldn’t remember when.

Anyway, as we walked in through the door, it suddenly became obvious why I’d recognised the name – I hadn’t been there before, but I’d certainly read about it, because this is a church which retains some magnificent, and very large, medieval wall paintings. They really are quite amazing, and give you a fantastic feeling for what pre-Reformation churches would have looked like. There must have been so much colour in these buildings, it’s hard to imagine unless you see the scale of something like the wall paintings at Raunds.

Anyway, if you’re interested, and would like to see more, click here – it’s a fabulous website with excellent photographs of the wall paintings and the rest of the church – what a labour of love!


Hardwick Hall Gets Our Thumbs Up.

If you’re in the Peak District, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Hardwick Hall. We’ve just returned from a few days camping and cycling between Buxton and Bakewell and decided to take in the Hall on our way back to the M1 (it’s just off Junction 29).

Glorious Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.

We had been once before. That was years ago, when the girls were really small and if I remember rightly it was rather a dull day. But I very much wanted to go again and have a better look at the famous tapestries and other needlework pieces.

Well, what can I say – to date, this has to have been the friendliest National Trust property we’ve visited (and that’s quite a lot).

Right from our arrival, all the people we met were incredibly affable, knowledgable, and thank the Lord, child-friendly. I just want to say an enormous thank-you to all the volunteers and other staff who’ve proved that it really is possible to run an historic property in a way that welcomes all kinds of visitors.

Hardwick, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a huge Elizabethan prodigy house, built by the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick, four times married and ending her life as the Countess of Shrewsbury (having seen off her poor fourth husband). This woman was probably the second most powerful and richest lady in England after the Queen herself. Her life was pretty amazing – and very long too. I’m not sure you’d particularly have liked her, but you have to admire the spirit. There are lots of books about her if you’re interested. (I haven’t actually read any, so I’m not going to recommend which one to read – but Google Bess of Hardwick, or look on Amazon and you’ll see quite a lot of choice).

Bess was quite a needlewoman and Hardwick has a wonderful collection of textiles (OK, I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t help being a bit of a needlework freak – bear with me). But even if a pile of musty old tapestries only makes you want to sneeze, it’s still worth going to Hardwick, because it’s the most amazing building. The windows alone mark it out as an architectural triumph, but it also has an interior that simply takes your breath away.

After going around the Hall, we strolled out into the gardens. A herb garden has been developed, and frankly I think I could go and spend an entire afternoon there (OK, herbs are another passion, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of…)

The girls stayed and played games on the lawns in front of the Hall – like I said, the Trust have got it right here.

If you’re a complete historic house geek (like me!), you’ll be delighted to know that the ruins of Hardwick Old Hall are quite literally on the doorstep of the new Hall, so you can have a double helping.

Do go and have a look, it’s lovely.

Hardwick’s official website has details of opening times etc.



What Do You Buy A Man For His Birthday?

There’s no way to avoid the horrible truth, in two weeks, it will be the husband’s birthday.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no killjoy, I love birthdays – even some of my own – it’s not even that I’m bothered by him getting older, in fact I’d have to say he’s doing rather well on that front (note to self: check attic for portraits), no, no, my problem with his birthday is simply that I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO GET HIM!

In all the years we’ve been married, I’ve barely ever managed to come up with anything to surprise or delight him. The closest was a bespoke bicycle – but that was back in the days before children, when I still had a few spare pennies and neither of us felt guilty spending them.

He’s not an aftershave sort of man, he doesn’t fish, play football or golf. I already bought him a brew-your-own kit, so the beer route is covered. I did buy him a rather magnificent telescope once upon a time, but that really pushed my technical powers to the limit and I was extremely lucky to find a retailer who could talk ‘wife with no technical knowledge’ to help me. It’s not something you can repeat, and as I discovered at the time, it takes a LOT of wrapping paper and is a veritable pain in the backside to hide.

Clothes are a total ‘no, no’ – I got that one wrong before we married, apparently white polo shirts are anathema.

I thought I might be in with a chance this morning, when he was chatting to me about electric guitars, but within about a nanosecond, he’d veered off into some weird alternative universe and was talking something unintelligible, so I’m none the wiser. Anyway, he doesn’t have an amp, and I wouldn’t know what sort to buy him either.

He did once mention wanting to learn to play the double bass, but quite frankly even if I could afford the gift-wrap, I think the house would burst at the very thought of finding space for it.

So – what shall I get for him that adequately reflects how much he means to me? Somehow I don’t think a new inner tube will cut the mustard.

If, like him, you spend most of your time communing with computers’ innards, ringing church bells or cycling, please, oh please tell me what sort of present you’d appreciate, you’ll be doing me a real favour.

Feeling smug sort of morning.

Well I’m sitting here at the Mac feeling very pleased with myself. This morning I have already managed to make the beds, tidy the house – including the girls’ rooms, take the children and their assorted bags, instruments and other paraphernalia to school and iron a not insubstantial mountain of clothes – oh, which I also put away – then I hoovered downstairs, emptied the paper bins and cleaned the kitchen. So that’s me done for the day on the domestic front – well apart from cooking a meal later. The rest of the day is ‘mine all mine’ (feel free to imagine me wringing my hands in glee at this moment).

What has bought about this transformation, after all, it’s not so long ago that I thought housework was the biggest drudge of them all, a constant flow of tediousness that bought no recognition and was never surmountable?

The truth is, that I have come to realise – very late I know – that once I have the house half way acceptably clean, tidy and presentable, I get a warm, calm feeling, from which I find myself better able to launch myself into other work. It’s a bit like the effect you get when you clear your desk before starting a new project and instantly feel more focused – well for me, I’ve learned that being on top of the housework gives me the same serene starting place.

Now I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression here. I am no paragon of virtues on the household front. I’m talking pretty much the minimum you can realistically get away with; don’t attempt to run your fingers along the tops of the doors unless you’re prepared for a nasty shock, and definitely avoid looking under the sofa, but you probably can safely sit on the sofa without having to worry about what’s lurking between the cushions.

So what am I going to do with the luscious hours of freedom today? Good question. Probably going to sew some more tapestry (canvas-work really) and listen to the rest of How to Get Rich, then again, I might just come up with something a tad more interesting, but I certainly won’t be doing any more domestic chores. Deep contented sigh.

Thank you Felix Dennis

If I ever go on Mastermind (unlikely I know, but bear with me), my specialist subject my well be ‘the drivel written in self-help books’. Like so many women of may age, oh and a few million other men and women of all ages come to think of it, I’ve paid good money to read utter rubbish. My husband tuts whenever he sees a new title appear at the side of the bed. But what started as a cry for help, has by now developed into a major critical study and just occasionally into an excellent good laugh.

As you may well know, my biggest grudge is with the so-called ‘life-coaches’ who try to tell you how you can have it all. I once did some thorough searching into one author’s background and discovered that they were actually selling an online course at a not inconsiderable price, which included details of how to exploit people’s most desperate needs.

Now I have long understood that many of these authors are in fact living their own dreams of celebrity and riches because of their ability to tap into the fears and needs of we poor unfulfilled souls, self-help book sales are astronomic, and of course there’s always the additional workshops and private counselling to ‘add value’, but to see the core principle flaunted in black and white was quite something even to an old cynic like me.

From time to time I find a book that does help me in some form or another. It isn’t always in ways that perhaps the author would have imagined, but nevertheless I wouldn’t actually want to tar them all with the same brush. Now just yesterday, having quite a lot of credits available on my Audible account, and not having anything much better to do, I ended up browsing their self-help section. I spotted Felix Dennis’s How to Get Rich and it sent all my finely tuned alarm bells clanging.

So imagine my surprise when I read the reviews (on Amazon – that’s the sort of preparation I like to do) and discovered that it was well received – OK, I thought, I see the issue here, all these reviews are clearly written by sad men. No woman would give it the time of day, after all it’s not a title that’s going to slide seductively into the usually repressed English woman’s Mulberry is it?

But yesterday I was in a bit of a mood. Not exactly what you could call a “Help me I want to get rich” kind of mood, more a ‘Good Lord, what can all the fuss be about, and what sort of tripe is this joker selling’ kind of mood. So, cutting to the chase, I downloaded the audiobook.

Well, I’m still listening to it (I’m a slow listener), and I just wanted to say, ‘Thank you Felix, I haven’t enjoyed anything so much for ages” No, don’t worry, I’m not suddenly going off to make mega millions, because as Felix so wittily explains, there’s danger in confusing desire for compulsion, and anyway, for quite a lot of the time I feel as if I have pretty much all I want already. No, the truth is, this is a fabulous, entertaining, witty, clever and engaging listen. It probably reads well too, but as I mentioned, I’m just listening to it.

I will certainly suggest that one or two other people I know read it too, and I love being able to read some of my own prejudices being expounded by someone who’s actually made it big. I’d quite like to have some of his quotes made into badges or T-shirts.

So well done Felix (not that you need me to say that I’m sure), you don’t go on my list of people destined for the new ring of purgatory which I have reserved for the usual purveyors of self-help tripe, no indeed, you go into the much more illustrious, and far more comfortable realm of the ‘actually pretty entertaining and even quite helpful’authors. Praise indeed.

Kicking Ass Feels Good


One of the messages that I’m trying to make my inner critic hear, is that ‘I AM AN ARTIST’. Now, if that doesn’t resonate with you, then you’re probably not one of us frustrated people, who once knew they were at the very least ‘artistic’ and even harboured vague ideas that we may in fact be artists, but somewhere along the journey, we were persuaded, either by our own inner voice, or by the very real voices of others, that in fact art was not something right for us.

Well for some time now, I’ve realised that I am in fact an artist. I’m probably a pretty rubbish one, but at my core, I simply know that I am here to create art in some form or other. The trouble is that I’ve spent very many more years listening to the voices that told me art was only for the über talented, or those who had no need or desire to make a living form art.

So I’m now on a quest to get my artist out. And let me tell you, that takes courage. Not being endowed with a massive range of supportive people to help me on this particular quest, I have discovered that there are some fabulous voices out there in print, telling me all the things I need to hear. So Amazon are doing well from my developing sense of the artist within, but I don’t begrudge them a penny, because at last I feel as if I am being admitted into a club that I should always have been a member of.

One of the many books that I’ve read recently, which I put firmly in my ‘supporters’ category is ‘Kick-Ass Creativity’ by Mary Beth Maziarz.

This book is like a whirlwind of enthusiasm and encouragement. Reading it always manages to lift my energy levels to a higher place. Much of the message isn’t new to me, but the way in which it is written, gives me the impetus I need to carry on, and to make lasting change. Now I’m not sure that everyone who reads it would put aside their scepticism and believe the core truths that Mary talks about, but my view is that we find these books at the right time for us. For me, it is the right time.

If you are a frustrated artist, either with a capital ‘A’ or without, and if you could do with an injection of red-hot energy into your work, or even to get you going in the morning, then take a look at Kick-Ass Creativity – maybe it’s right for you too.

Take a peek at her website here.

The Wisdom of Pigs

One Happy Pig

Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

I love that quote. Ever since I was a small child, I’ve been fascinated by pigs. I wonder if in some previous life I was one. There’s something so knowing about their faces, so intelligent, so wise. I’ve always felt that the best person to talk to in a crisis would undoubtedly be a pig. You can really imagine sitting on the wall of their sty and discussing matters of great philosophical import.

I’m sure they have the answers to all the essential questions in life.

I also quite like the idea of eating and sleeping all day – seems good to me.

Am I marginally mad? Well possibly, but I’m not bothered – and I’m not alone. Many of the nicest people I know are pig admirers too, and I’d always be slightly distrustful of anyone who wasn’t at least a little bit pig friendly.

Getting down to business

I procrastinate – I put things off, I bury my head in the sand – well, not literally you understand, that would be pretty terminal – but I am definitely one of life’s putter offers. I still get a horrid feeling on Sunday afternoons, forty-one years after leaving full-time education, because this is the time in the week, when I will have to get all the homework done, ready for school on Monday. I would of course have had plenty of time to get it done, but not until the eleventh hour, would I actually manage to sit at the desk and get it done.

I’d like to think that in the intervening years since I left school, I might have managed to overcome this rascally little character trait, I’d like to think that I’m now one of those people who carefully plans her time and her schedule, one of those paragons of virtue who never leave a bill unpaid until the red reminder – or the court summons – turns up, or that most idyllic of heroines, the woman who always has plenty of fuel in her car tank because she thinks about filling up before the red light does its manic flashing routine.

I’d really like to think that’s who I am now, but in truth, I’d be kidding. There are some things I’ll do fairly fast – I’ll email my best friend in Australia when she wants something, I’ll grab my purse and the car keys the moment I decide I need something from TK Maxx, but beyond that, well, I’ll get round to it, sometime.

I’ve just refined one of my new business ideas from the primal slop that is my imagination, into an elementally rough pencil draft on paper. This means that I now have ‘something to do’ and I’m going to be getting on with it – anytime now. Just as soon as the kettle boils and I make a coffee, oh and it’s stopped raining now, so I’ll put the washing on the line too – shouldn’t take long.

Carving out time.

Are you like me? Do you start some days with good hopes and expectations of the things you want to do and what you want to achieve, only to find that as the day goes on, ‘things’ happen to get in the way and before you know it, the creative, productive part of your day is over? This happens to me a lot. I tell myself it’s just the way of the world, that planning is only partly useful because, as they say ‘stuff happens’, but some days, it does flip over into feeling a tad personal, as if for some reason I attract these deflections.

Well, you can imagine from me writing about this today, that this is one of those days for me. It’s only lunchtime, so I’m hoping that I can get back into the flow and do some of the things I had planned between now and picking up the girls from school time, but the hardest thing is finding that access back into flow.

I’m going to light a candle and burn some incense to quieten my mind. Hopefully that will help me to focus on the things that I want to do now, instead of having that awful sensation of a thousand thoughts flying across your brain, all looking for your attention at the same time.

Slowing down to find myself is one of the hardest things I try to do, but I think it’s getting better.

Right, enough of this for now, I’m off to find the matches.

It’s raining!

Well here it is at last – the rain. How incredibly welcome it is, as we had reached the point of having to water not only the pot plants, but also the plants which were planted in the ground last year. Sadly I think I’ve already lost a few, I was just too late getting out there with the watering can, but hopefully, most of them will live to fight another day.

So this morning I’ve been out doing a little weeding in the soft earth, accompanied by blackbirds and thrushes, who were having a feast on the worms and grubs coming up in the rain. The garden is so dry that the soil I hoed around is dust just under the surface, but with any luck we’ll have some more rain over the weekend.

I love the smell in the garden when it rains – earth combined with the essence of flowers.

I went to sit on the bench under the leylandii and was delighted to discover that the canopy is now so big, that I can sit there comfortably without getting wet. What a treat to be able to sit outside and experience the rain – fantastic.

Coffee and Cake at Powis Castle

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Have you ever walked around a ruined castle and wondered what it would have been like if it hadn’t been ruined? Well, for me, Powis Castle, just outside Welshpool in the English/Welsh Marches feels like an ancient castle that survived intact. We stopped off there at the weekend on our way home from Snowdon.

Powis Castle sits on top of a hill, which must once have been heavily in its favour as a defensible site. From the outside it looks very much like a medieval castle (which is what it started life as). Inside, it’s more of a mini stately home or country house. It boasts extraordinary terraced gardens, which are wonderful if you’re fit enough to attempt the steps – more of a challenge for the less fit. As ever, I saw a mother lifting a baby’s buggy up the steep flight of garden steps, while her partner stood at the top watching her!

With spring being so forward this year, I was fascinated to see so many irises in flower – mine are either backward, or just not playing the game, as there’s no sign of a bloom – but at Powis, they’re lovely.

Probably the wisteria is the garden’s current big star – simply beautiful swathes of pale bluey/lilac cascades, draping the orangery.

We weren’t alone on our visit – it was heaving. Who can blame us all for heading out there to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the holiday. But I think the National Trust were struggling a bit to cope with the numbers. There were anxious faces and quite a lot of overt reminders of all the things visitors are not allowed to do.

I do think the National Trust is on thin ice regarding it’s conservation policy at the moment. Have you seen any of the programmes from Petworth, with Andrew Graham Dixon? Of course we have to applaud efforts to maintain the treasures that the Trust is responsible for – but how do they reconcile the very obvious need for our money to fund their efforts, with the fact that we pay to experience the treasures, not to be treated as a nuisance? Visitors might bring in damaging dust and leave behind particles of dead skin, but without these ‘paying guests’ the treasures would be left looking for another benefactor to fund their conservation.

I think my personal jury is currently out on this one, although it really concerns me. The National Trust has had a chequered past where visitor relations are concerned, and it’s worrying to think that just as many of their properties are getting more right, their conservationists are in danger of setting them back again. Extremely prominent signs at the entrance explained the various ways in which visitors can harm the interiors – is this really the way to welcome the people who actually care enough to pay to enter? Surely the way to get visitors ‘on-side’ is not to lecture us, and certainly not to make us feel that it would be better if we didn’t go at all.

Ultimately they will have to do better if they want to encourage more paying members, because what we don’t want, is to feel that they’re only interested in us for the money we give them (pay attention here The Historic Houses Association – you have a VERY LONG WAY TO GO) – the more people the Trust sign up, the more visitors they will have to expect and prepare to welcome.

But griping aside, there was one place at Powis that was coping beautifully, and where the service was excellent, and that was at the little coffee shop in the garden – Lady Voilet’s. Here we enjoyed an excellent cream tea and the girls raided the ice cream cabinet. I wonder if it’s success may have been due to the long walk to get there, or the very subtle signage, which I suppose might just have reduced the numbers of people who managed to find it – anyway, well done to the caterers for getting it right.

We decided to have a look around the interior of the castle later in the afternoon, although it was not our first visit and I’m glad that we did. It’s a charming building, especially if you’re a fan of the heavy oak, Jacobean textiles and family portrait brigade (which I am). I think there should be a special mention for the people who provide the flower arrangements. So often in National Trust properties, I find that these temporary works of art are more alluring than some of the items the conservationists get all het-up about.

We ended up in the ‘old kitchen’, which certainly had a kind of atmosphere. Suffice to say, I’m glad it was busy and that I wasn’t the room guide attached to it. Perhaps it was just the cold permeating from store rooms below, but it definitely sent a shiver down my spine.

Oh, and one more gripe – sorry – I do wish the National Trust wouldn’t position gentile matrons at the exits, requesting us to buy raffle tickets ‘to support the restoration’. It’s tantamount to asking us to pay to get out, and that really isn’t the way to leave us with happy fluffy feelings, or to encourage us to return.

So our visit to Powis – a bit of a curates egg. Gorgeous house, amazing gardens, good refreshments. Needs to do better on the customer services front.