Poem of the month: #October


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picture by Neil Smith on  RSPB website

picture by Neil Smith on RSPB website

I love this time of year. That bittersweet time as you say goodbye to one golden season and move onto the next, which is greyer in hue. The seasons do seem to come round faster every year as one gets older.
I was looking at Yeats’s October poem recently in preparation for teaching a class. It’s the first one on which  I tried out my tentative literary criticism skills back in the mid eighties when I started my A levels, when shoulder pads and hair were big and my knees actually worked quite well. It’s wasted on the young (this poem, not my knees!) but anyone of my vintage will find it speaks to them.
Incidentally,as we were speaking about literary criticism,  if you are an A level or GCSE student (or the parent of one)  in the Bath/West Wilts area, who needs some tuition in English Literature or Latin, from Christmas I will have some spaces for individual or group slots. Contact me by email cally@countrygate.co.uk

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Education, education, education….


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I’m off to the Guildhall in Bath to take part in a debate on the Future of Teaching as part of the Bath Children’s Literature Festival and I can’t wait.

Today my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of the latest initiative to drive up standards. There’s another pronouncement from Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of OFSTED that children are losing valuable teaching time because the problems of low level disruptive behaviour in school is not being sorted out by Headteachers and teachers.We also hear that from 2016 a new GCSE in Cookery will be offered to help promote healthy eating amongst a generation who are reportedly going to cost the NHS billions in healthcare for obesity related illness.This comes hot on the heels of reports on the numbers of children leaving reception classes who are deemed unable to function in full time school, complaints from universities that students entering first year courses are ill-equipped for the rigour of degree study and changes to GCSE courses from 2017, which will mean that it will be much more difficult to gain a top grade.

Underlying all these initiatives and reported failings, do I detect a feeling that the future wellbeing of British society depends almost entirely on the teaching profession and that they are seen to be falling short? Certainly teachers have their part to play but I’m not sure that a profession who has little control over the quality of the raw material they have to work with (children) can be held responsible for all deficiencies. Don’t we all have a responsibility for educating the next generation?

My children had plenty to say on the subject at breakfast. I suppose it’s not surprising that they have views on something of which they have direct experience and in which they have a vested interest. What shone through from the discussion round our kitchen table, in between mouthfuls of toast, was a feeling that education is best carried out in partnership – where children, parents and teachers work together.

Lets take cooking as an example, seeing as it is in the news.

My middle child has cookery lessons in school for about an hour a week for part of the school year. Currently he is learning about foods which give energy, how they can be used as part of a balanced diet and how to make an array of biscuits and snack bars.

At home recently he has learnt to make omelettes, scrambled eggs, yorkshire pudding, pizza, pancakes, macaroni cheese and an array of salads. He can lay a table, load and unload a dishwasher and make a grocery shopping list.

As a result of watching The Great British Bake Off he can recognise what an over proved muffin looks like and what he could do to make a better one. (I ought to let him loose with a bag of flour at the weekend).

Teachers do not have time to take on the entire job of making him into a passable cook, who can fend for himself in a healthy way. That’s our job too. To borrow a phrase from Sir Michael Wilshaw….”it’s not rocket science.”

Whatever the ‘future of teaching’ is, I hope it allows an opportunity for parents and teachers to work together to educate the children in their care, where teachers feel valued and respected, where children feel engaged and parents feel involved.


The remembrance of things past


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the past viewed at The Ashmolean

the Roman past viewed at The Ashmolean

I’ve been using lavender furniture polish for the first time in decades. It’s startling how the aroma it leaves around the house can recall so keenly all the Sundays of my youth spent sitting in the choir stalls of a rural Pembrokeshire church. Is this true of everyone or am I peculiar in remembering events best on the strength of what they smelt like? (See below).

Perhaps it’s natural for a woman of my age, whose children are fast growing into young adults to think back a little more than she was wont to do. Or perhaps it comes as a result of returning to the study of Latin – and more specifically the Cambridge Latin Course (Chanel no. 5)- which was one of the highlights of my school Tuesdays and Thursdays, along with double hockey (muscle rub) and spiced apple crumble (cinammon and cloves). As you see, all my memories are carefully intertwined with the odours surrounding them.

My return to the Cambridge Latin Course comes as a result of funding from the DfE which is there to encourage non specialist teachers to train to make Latin available to state school pupils. Universities love a student who has studied Latin apparently, especially those hoping to study Law, Medicine, Languages, Ancient History and English Literature. And with a dwindling number of specialists able to teach Latin, it makes sense to find more creative ways to make it available. My recent six day course at Oxford University was one of these. It wasn’t a PGCE course in six days  (This was what the visiting lady from the DfE suggested!!!?) but a week’s intensive study for those who were already qualified and experienced teachers with some knowledge of Latin.

I started teaching a fast track GCSE course last week in a Wednesday twilight session for A level students. (I’m not one to hand around as you know.) We’re using the Cambridge Latin Course but (as ever) I’m tweaking it to make it a truly worthwhile experience and giving value for money by using it to hone A level study skills and to make links between Latin studies and that of their other A level subjects. There’s space for a few more students on Wednesdays in my kitchen (which will smell of freshly brewed coffee and cake of some description). Email me for details if you or someone you know might be interested.

And if you’re interested in lavender furniture polish, here’s how…..

Homemade lavender furniture polish recipe

I had some beeswax leftover from making calendula salve over the summer and grated that into some olive oil from my cupboard. 2 parts olive oil to 1 part grated beeswax or thereabouts. Fill a jug with olive oil up to 200 mls and grate enough beeswax into it to bring the measure up to 300 mls.

Place the mixture into an old saucepan and melt very slowly… the work of minutes. Add about 12 drops of lavender.Take it off the heat and stir gently. Leave to cool for a few minutes, stir again then pour it straight into a shallow wide mouthed jar.

And that’s it! Smells great, no nasty chemicals, useful and inexpensive. Packaged nicely it would make a great addition to a Christmas hamper for a friend or a present for a teacher.


Five go on a Dorset adventure


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With just two more days left of the school holidays and last week’s washout of a Bank Holiday renamed ‘Monopoly Monday’, yesterday we decided to go on an adventure in Dorset. Our destination was Corfe Castle. My three have devoured most of Enid Blyton’s books over the years, as their parents did before them, and so a trek to Dorset’s iconic medieval castle, inspiration for Kirrin Castle was on the bucket list of things to do before they all reach secondary school.

20140901_150837I’d like to say that we packed a picnic in a wicker basket with homemade ginger beer taken from the larder and the sandwiches were wrapped in brown paper and string. However, as we’ve done that before and this was a day off for Mum as well as the rest of the family we took the wicker basket to a well known supermarket deli and chose our own salad selections, boiled eggs, pork pies and cakes.

On arrival the car was parked at the National Trust visitor’s centre, (an airy space with comfy sofas, good coffee, ice creams and clean toilets) and we set off with our picnic in true Famous Five style along a path, through several kissing gates, across a railway line and along a farmer’s field to our chosen picnic spot. To add to the atmosphere a steam train puffed along the track right on cue. We waved to the passengers and they waved back.


Our picnic consumed, we retraced our steps to the visitor centre and set off towards the castle. Even in flipflops the steep climb was easy as the path was wide and well made, climbing slowly, skimming the edge of the river in places and providing enchanting glimpses of the walls as we headed higher. Dotted along the way of this ‘Wildlife Walk’ were interpretation boards with fascinating facts about the wildlife around the castle.


The castle itself has a full programme of seasonal events for families throughout the year, including Christmas, and plenty to keep children interested including giant outdoor games and the Castle Quest, complete with dressing up clothes.

20140901_134042Sadly mine regard themselves as too old for this and eschewed the chance to put on very authentic looking helmets and engage in sword play. For us it was enough to explore the romantic castle ruins and marvel at the way the walls are still standing despite major subsidence due to attack by gunpowder during the Civil War.

20140901_134645We spotted arrow loops and murder holes, took in the breathtaking views

20140901_132432and checked out the wildplants that grow there. Before we left the castle we inspected the Mason’s Lodge, a traditional timber building in the Outer Bailey used to teach traditional skills and crafts. We wouldn’t have minded rolling up our sleeves and taking part in some daubing. Maybe next time or in another place?

20140901_135458An explore of the village outside the castle revealed plenty of opportunity to replenish lost energy…..

20140901_135946…and the diminutive Ginger Pop Shop, dedicated to all things Enid Blyton, complete with Wishing Chair outside, minus wings today, and with no pixie, making it perfectly safe to accommodate two happy children.

20140901_141112The village itself is pretty, with a parish church, with a medieval tower, shops, cafes with enormous cakes and a common worth exploring.

Taking the playful route back to the car to burn off those ice cream and cream tea calories we headed off.

20140901_145622It was well worth the two hour car journey from Bradford on Avon. No downpours, no phones or computers. A good family day out and a great way to round off the summer holidays.


Oxford Blues


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views of Oxford

views of Oxford

I’ve just got back from a week in Oxford (re)learning a dead language and am missing it like crazy. A week of intensive study at St Catz, fab food, the company of enthusiastic teachers and an opportunity to wander around Oxford after dinner. Who wouldn’t have the Oxford blues when it’s all over?

The study week was organised by the Cambridge School Classics Project in conjunction with the Classics department of Oxford University and was funded by the Department for Education to encourage the teaching of Latin in state schools and help increase the number of qualified Classics teachers, of which there are increasingly few.

‘So what?’ some people may think. ‘Who needs to learn a dead language anyway?’ One of the most eloquent and sensible voices to answer that question is that of Charlotte Higgins, chief Arts editor of The Guardian. I had the pleasure of chatting to Charlotte on Thursday after her lecture at the Classics department, where she was talking about her latest book, in which she answers that famous Monty Python question ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ by travelling around Britain in a camper van. Her enthusiasm for the subject  is infectious. You can read what she has to say here

Charlotte Higgins showing that the Romans may have discovered twerking.

Charlotte Higgins showing that the Romans may have discovered twerking.

I admit I enjoyed the week away from home rather too much and felt energised rather than worn down by intensive study from 9am  to 7pm. We covered a two year GCSE course in one week! Makes me think that university is wasted on the young. :-)

Until recently the preserve of public schools, Latin is now beginning to make strides into the state sector after the absence of many years. Sadly my local comp prefers to turn out Mandarin speakers instead.  There’s room for both, as far as I’m concerned and those who know me will not be surprised that I have set up a ‘resistance movement’ and am teaching Latin to my own children (and some others) via the eminently accessible Cambridge Latin Course at home. I shall start by putting it in context, spending a rainy afternoon watching the Vesuvius episode of Dr Who, as recommended by one of the teachers I got to know last week. Ironically Caecilius, whose family are the main characters in the first part of the course, is played by Peter Capaldi!

Quam felix sum!


A visit to the Old Operating Theatre Museum



The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret

The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret

No visit to London is complete without an exploration of an area we haven’t visited before with the children. Earlier this Summer we decided on Cheapside and Sothwark enabling us to take in The Globe, the Shard, the Tate Modern, St Paul’s and some vibrant food markets. Of course it also provided me with ample opportunity to wax lyrical about ‘local boy’ Geoffrey Chaucer and Ian to pull out of the hat a visit to a museum I had no idea existed. However with two aspiring doctors in the family, it was a ‘must see’.

A few minutes’ walk from London Bridge tube station The Old Operating Theatre Museum is the oldest example of its kind in Europe and has a large and somewhat gory collection of surgical instruments which kept our would-be medics fascinated for a couple of hours. Located atmospherically up a windy wooden staircase in the quirky, herb garret of St Thomas’ Church, it tells the story of early surgery and medical training at St Thomas’s hospital. There are two main parts to the museum. The first is their permanent collection of items, including extensive information on herbal medicine, which kept me fully absorbed. The second is the operating theatre itself in which an extremely engaging and knowledgeable guide (wearing the most magnificent pair of Doc Martens I have ever seen), drew a vivid picture of early surgical medicine.

Certainly worth a visit – even if you don’t have a desire to practice medicine or a keen interest in medicinal herbs. Then you can nip along to the Tate Modern and spend an hour or two wondering if some of it really is ‘Art’. :-)

50 things to do in the holidays


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haunts of the summer holidays

haunts of the summer holidays

This holiday was always going to be a busy one with trips to family we haven’t seen since before Christmas, promised beach trips, rugby camps, youth club camps, a study week (for Mum), decorating and work to be accomplished. There’s been little time to get bored.

Thursday work space at The Courts

Thursday work space at The Courts

As you see, I’ve been back this year working for the National Trust on Thursdays running free activities for explorer families who have a whole summer to fill with great memories and plenty of material needed for that all too familiar first homework *Write about what you did in the Summer Holidays*.

We’ve already taken part in the Big Butterfly Count and made colourful butterfly feeders, found out about bees and explored the benefits of growing one of my favourite flowers Calendula. Did you know that it was used on the battle field in the civil war to help the wounded and that my great granny used to use it to give the butter she made a fabulous golden colour? These days it gets used by me as a cut flower or to make calendula salve but whilst it’s growing on my allotment the bees love it. It’s a great plant for children to grow because you can collect the seeds so easily and grow more next year….and spread the love to your friends by giving them some seeds in a pack you’ve decorated yourself.

This week whilst I am on a study week at Oxford University the Wild Art session is being run for me by Lucy but I’ll be back for the last Thursday of the holidays to tour the kitchen garden at the Courts, with its cucamelons, electric daisies, red flax and quinoa and to show children how to make an edible pea shooter.

summer fun - 50 things to do

summer fun – 50 things to do

Messing about with flowers


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cally and flowers

with homegrown flowers

It’s been an exhausting and enjoyable week. The entire family have been involved in a production of Jane Eyre at the town’s ancient Tithe Barn. The eldest child charmed the punters front of house and ate his own weight in leftover cake. The middlest nimbly lugged scenery around backstage.  The youngest endured the horrors of Lowood School and after a quick costume change reappeared as Betsy, a rosy cheeked country girl.  The man of the house  appeared dripping in stage blood as the ineffectual brother of the madwoman in the attic and I provided comic relief when life was looking a bit drear at Thornfield Hall (and a passable Gloucestershire accent).

Production week starts with the get in during the Friday and Saturday prior to production opening, when we move in the set which has been constructed like a giant piece of flat pack furniture elsewhere in our barn, over the previous months along with the lighting rig, set furniture, props, costumes and front of house kit. Experience tells me this is best done in rigger boots and not flip flops when you are the emergency stand in for a your sick son.

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre July 2014

Then, on Sunday we set up camp for a few hours to run the technical rehearsal, during which time we realise just how little time we have to move between scenes and try to remember our lines and stand in the right place whilst lights are readjusted and carpenters bang in nails around us.This is where the mothers on the cast really come into their own. The ability to block out superfluous sound and get a job done should never be underestimated.

our theatre for one week only - Bradford on Avon's Tithe Barn

our theatre for one week only – Bradford on Avon’s Tithe Barn

From Monday evening onward we’re into the real thing – with a dress rehearsal and a five night run followed by the get out the following Sunday. And all the while doing a full time job in the daytime and getting three very tired children out of bed and off to school in the morning and doing their homework as soon as they get home in the evening. But we love it, despite the fog through which we experience the following week.

Writing has been on hold for a few days as a result but I have enjoyed the calmness and routine of cutting flowers early in the mornings and arranging them for friends and neighbours. I even managed a meadow arrangement for a scene in the production. I love being involved in a project and this production has been an absolute joy but I shall miss working so closely with such a great group of people.

Of course, there’s only one cure for post-production blues and that’s to get involved in the next production. Sadly I am a little too busy at home and work to take that cure so messing about with flowers is a pretty good alternative. I’m harvesting lots of cosmos, nicotiana, cornflowers, salvia, malope, sweet peas, verbena bonariensis, snapdragons, dahlias and lots of foliage this week.

schoolroom flowers

flowers for a Victorian schoolroom



Exercise is good for you, laziness is not.


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Cally Smart at The Courts, Holt

in the kitchen garden at The Courts Photo: Nick Hook

I’m sure I’ve quoted Cliff Richard in this blog in the past and probably Shakespeare, Emily Bronte and Show of Hands. Today is a first for The Wombles. The middlest member of the family is still the only one mildly obsessed with the World Cup. Fortunately he is still young enough for it to manifest itself as a keenness to play football down the park with friends in an effort to recreate last night’s goal. The eldest has taken up cricket with a vengeance in addition to a spate of javelin victories.  The youngest has maintained her 100% record in winning the Sports Day sprint race. Fortunately, despite a failure to get to the gym I have been too busy to be accused of laziness.

In amongst the school Summer Fair, (where sales from the flower patch soared past £200 for this year so far) and signing up schools as Our Flower Patch members from September, I was interviewed and snapped by The Guardian, as you see,without having to dress up as a Viking or a Roman. Ellen at Frank and Elsie was on standby for a makeover if necessary. You can read the full article here and admire (above) the way Nick Hook has made someone who hates being photographed look so relaxed.

I’ll be back at The Courts in the Summer to run family activities on Thursdays on butterflies, bees, wild art and growing in unusual containers. They are all free to families visiting The Courts. Bring a sunhat and a sense of adventure.

Flowers, fruit, writing and interviews.


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Poppy pavement It’s a bit crazy around Country Gate Towers at present. Obviously, the middlest child is in the midst of Football Fever. The eldest is training hard to protect his position as school javelin champ and the youngest is practising her sprint starts and psyching out the opposition technique ahead of the cluster athletics competition tomorrow. The one sporting an elbow injury is back at work, leaving me free to write activities for Our Flower Patch and Abington Park Outdoor Classroom. In theory, at least. Except I keep being interrupted.

  • There’s the burgeoning flower patch in the garden to watch and keep slug free.
  • There’s the mini quince and plums on the trees we planted last year to admire
  • There’s the excitement of mulberries on our bush on the allotment for the first time ever
  • There’s extra flower orders to pick for and arrange for our growing band of customers at school
  • There’s making the most of endless days of brilliant blue skies and gorgeous sunshine
  • There’s the plantings at the station to admire whenever I get on a train
  • There’s the streets filled with wild poppies which someone secretly sowed back in the Autumn

as well as the inevitable business of family life. I hope life is less busy for you. And if you need something to while away the time while you sit outside and have a coffee, here’s what my partner in Our Flower Patch Sara Willman gets up to during the rest of her week, as reported and photographed by Katie Spicer to celebrate British Flowers Week. My publicity stunt happens this week with an interview with the Guardian about working outdoors, which I do a lot. I’m doing it tomorrow(excitement) followed by a photo shoot on Wednesday (mild panic). When it’s published I’ll let you know….possibly.


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