Creativity rules in the #Christmaskitchen


, , ,

Chilli jam for Christmas hampers

Chilli jam for Christmas hampers

Those of you who hang around here a lot will know how I bemoan the lack of creativity afforded to teachers. Where league tables, exam performance, measurable improvements and accountability rule, a creative approach to education is out of the window. And yet the very skills and characteristics that are developed when children are allowed to be creative in their learning, solve problems, design and make and work together to complete a project are the very skills which employers want.

Personally, unless I have spent some time outdoors every day and have made something – or at least made progress in a creative project then I’m slightly out of kilter.

The run-up to Christmas is the perfect time for a little of the creative spirit and so I will be tweeting and facebooking my #Christmaskitchen exploits. Nothing is difficult and all can be achieved with and by children with differing amounts of support. Make gifts; fill up your store cupboard with seasonal treats; experiment; have fun.

Autumn Term rituals….and some seasonal bakes


, , ,

Autumn colour_3

Glorious Autumn days are for walking but it’s time to get seasonal in the kitchen too

Our Autumn term Wednesday evening ritual is well underway as we approach the semi-final of the (Great British) Bake Off. We love the exploits in the tent, the baking triumphs and disasters, the hints and tips and the historical snippets. We love Mel and Sue and their ability to ease the tension. And we love the introduction to new and interesting flavour combinations.

Children can learn a lot from the Bake Off – how to face triumph and disaster with equal grace,  the importance of planning and practice, how to cope with deadlines and pressure, how to adapt the knowledge you have to new situations which you haven’t faced before and how to smile sweetly at Paul Hollywood when he picks faults in the work of hours without bopping him on the nose.

However the ambitious nature of some of the challenges for youthful bakers is akin to me attempting a triple salko on the ice when I’ve only just learnt to let go of the side. In reality, brave but ill-judged and over ambitious. My other ‘must have’ in my kitchen exploits is more than a sprinkling of seasonality. So in the Country Gate kitchen this week we are attempting Apple Muffins and Beetroot Crisps – seasonal, healthy and oh so yummy.

Here’s how.

beetroot is a superfood

Beetroot Crisps

A healthy alternative to shop bought potato crisps, beetroot are uber-healthy.

You’ll need three beetroot, a few drops of olive oil, some coarse sea salt and fresh thyme

Remove the stalks of the beetroot, leave them unpeeled, wash them under cold water and dry them in a towel ( Use paper towels as beetroot can be messy).

Slice the beetroot as thinly as possible with a mandolin or a very sharp knife.This is a job for a grown up helper.  Place the slices in a bowl, add the olive oil and use your hands to smear the oil on every slice. Every slice should be covered in a very thin coat of oil. This is the bit children love to do.

Line several oven trays with baking paper and place the beetroot slices on the baking paper, one next to the other so that they can bake to a crisp.

Bake at 160 degrees C for 20-25 minutes (depending of how thin they are). You will know that they are ready, when they start to shrink and become crispy.

When ready, take the crisps out of the oven, sprinkle some coarse sea salt, leave them to cool and then add some fresh thyme if desired.


Apple MuffinsApple harvest

Muffins are delicious gardening snack food at any time of year but it’s good to give them a seasonal twist. We have apples in abundance and so, what better flavour in Autumn than apple and cinnamon?

Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Grease six muffin cups or line with paper muffin cases.

Stir together 1 1/2 cups plain flour, 3/4 cup caster sugar,1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp cinnamon. Mix in 1/3 cup vegetable oil, an egg and 1/3 cup milk. Fold in 2 peeled, cored and diced cooking apples. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling to the top of the cup.

In a small bowl, stir together 1/2 cup demerera sugar, 1/3 cup flour, butter and 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon. Mix together with fork and sprinkle over unbaked muffins.

Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until a skewer inserted into centre of a muffin comes out clean.

We may not have Mary, Paul, Sue and Mel but we have bunting, a great view from the kitchen window and a passion for baking.

A quick trip through history – roundhouses, marshland frontiers and a Palladian villa.


, ,

My children love finding out about the past and for that I am grateful, especially as this means they are more than happy to accompany me on numerous fact finding missions to a variety of heritage sites to see what’s on offer for ‘explorer families’ or school parties.

In the latter part of the summer holidays we stopped by three heritage sites for a brief reccy, packing the picnic hamper and the cricket bat along with a desire to follow the odd trail around house or garden. Doubtless we’ll return in the future to continue our exploration.

All three are  worth a visit which we didn’t have time to do full justice to this summer.  

a whistlestop tour through historical Welsh buildings

a whistlestop tour through historical Welsh buildings

 St Fagan’s National History Museum of Wales is currently undergoing a major revamp funded by the  Heritage Lottery Fund and the Welsh Assembly. Entry is free with the exception of the £4 parking charge and there is enough to keep explorer families like ours happy for a whole day. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, the historic buildings (rescued and reconstructed on site or built from scratch according to traditional methods) fascinating and the grounds extensive. Definitely one to visit again and again. There’s also an extensive programme for schools.

a stroll around the Essex marshes

a stroll around the Essex marshes

Wat Tyler Country Park (also free to visit) has been developed since last I visited. It too has some traditional Essex buildings, extensive grounds,  rich in biodiversity and history.

A forest school holiday club meets there during the school holidays and there are some organised wildlife based activities on a regular basis too (pond dipping, bug hunting…) On the day we visited it was teeming with young families playing in the playground and on the bouncy castles and enjoying picnics. And these are the ‘bread and butter’ customers who will return again and again to enjoy a few hours in the open air, letting their children run and play.

On the downside, for explorer families with older children the opportunities to engage with the site are few and far between. The advertised exhibition had been dismantled and the Explosives Trail and World War II trail, wherein lies the heritage of the park were little more than a badly photocopied sheet guiding you around an area with little or no interpretation.

We enjoyed the walk nevertheless, talked about Great Expectations and the marshland landscape haunted by Magwitch and stopped off in the reasonably priced cafe for coffee and cake.


Roman architectural inspiration and a restored garden

Roman architectural inspiration and extensive grounds

Chiswick House is the perfect stop off point for lunch on our journey from East London to Wiltshire and a favourite haunt of the joggers and dog walkers of West London. The architecture and art of the house itself is well-served by a 45 minute audio tour but the restored gardens have their very own audio tour which is the real gem. 

Not a bad way to spend a few hours during the summer holidays.

Plant potions


, , , , , ,

Calendula salve, an easy make for children

Calendula salve, an easy make for children

Today at The Courts, despite a forecast of torrential rain and thunderstorms we had a lot of fun under the trees making ‘plant potions’. To many children ,particularly those who have experienced the delights of forest schools, plant potions usually means mixing up mud, sticks, leaves and water to make a sludgy brew. It’s great fun. Today however, rather a lot of children and quite a few interested adults went home clutching bags of beautifully scented pot pourri and recipes for comfrey feed, calendula salve and hints and tips for drying flowers, cooking with lavender, how to make dandelion jelly and why nettles are good for you, good for the wildlife in your garden and have dozens of uses. There are a thousand and one useful things that can be made from your flower patch

I promised a few people that I would pop up links to posts I’d included previously. Just click on the appropriate highlighted links above. I also said that I would include the recipe for calendula salve, which is one recommended to me ages ago by permaculturist and all-round good egg Carl Legge. Click on Cally’s Plant Potion Recipes for the recipe sheet we handed out today. Thanks to Jane Ingram for the design.

With a little supervision, even young children can make something useful and which looks professional enough to give as a gift. Calendula is one of those plants which has been used by herbalists since ancient times. It is known to have anti: allergic; inflammatory; microbial and oxidant properties. So it’s perfect for treating cuts and grazes bruises, sores and rashes. We always keep a jar handy in a kitchen drawer.

Calendula is one of my favourite flowers. It looks so jolly, is great for bees, cuts well for the vase and as well as made into a salve it can be eaten in salads or, as my granny used to do, added when making butter to make it beautifully yellow. The seeds are rather quirky too and look almost as though they might crawl out of your hand. They are easy to sow, grow well and self seed prolifically. Children can also collect the seed very easily and pack them up to give away to friends. A perfect addition to any garden, as far as I am concerned.

Tussie mussies, skeps and a bit of garden therapy.


, , , , , ,

Learning the language of flowers

Learning the language of flowers

I’ve been running summer holiday activities again this year for the National Trust at The Courts, Gardens in Holt. Many of the children who come along are under ten, but it’s a delight to me that many of their parents and grandparents are just as keen to get involved, curious to learn and make something from or for the garden.

Yesterday was no exception.

When I returned from a quick salad and ginger beer lunch at nearby Sam’s Kitchen, a group of ladies were waiting for me eagerly so that they could do a bit of therapeutic tussie mussie making. They even followed the trail around the garden to find out more about the language of flowers.

Neil, who looks after the vegetable garden at The Courts has been bitten by the cut flower growing bug this year and his blooms are a delight, as you see. I’m always happy to share my enthusiasm for cut flowers with everyone and with three buckets of herbs and flowers from my allotment and a bucket of cheery dahlias from Not so Secret Garden at Hartley Farm I did just that.

A tussie mussie is a small posy of flowers and herbs carried by people in Medieval and Tudor times to hide bad smells. They were also thought to protect people form disease – particularly the plague. We used mint, rosemary, bay, lavender or marjoram as the basis for fragrance – although any sweet smelling herb will do. Then we added a couple of flowers with a special meaning, bound the posy with raffia and wrote the message on an attached label.

Both children and adults found the activity highly enjoyable and everyone went away smiling, clutching a posy with a message for someone special.

Flowers seem to be appreciated universally and a walk around the gardens at The Courts is always therapeutic.

cut flowers in the veg plot

cut flowers in the veg plot

Cut flowers are good for bees too and last week’s activity shone the spotlight on the bees. Here’s Di, the beekeeper at The Courts telling everyone about her passion.


Di with some of her bees

Bee friendly

Bee friendly

While the adults listened intently the children and I took part in the’ Bee Friendly Games’, learning about how bees communicate with each other, protect their hives from intruders and make honey. Finally everyone followed the trail of beautifully handcrafted skeps around the arboretum to discover some fascinating bee facts.

And , of course I couldn’t return home without a jar to keep my family happy.

Local honey from Di's bees

Local honey from Di’s bees

Windmills and gardens in the sky


, ,

Views in and from the Sky Garden, London

Views in and from the Sky Garden, London

We usually manage to find something free to do with the children when we’re in and around London and last weekend was no exception. A chance remark from someone on Twitter led me to discover the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Streetopen to the public for free, if you book in advance and surrounded by some very swanky eateries.

It was the perfect day for exploring the Square Mile as it coincided with a family cycling event, which meant that most of the roads were closed to motor vehicles and there was a real party atmosphere, with jazz bands playing on street corners whilst we munched our picnic lunch. We combined our visit to the garden with a couple of free trails on the themes of architecture and Dickens (search online), a stroll through the foodie delights of Borough Market and a visit to the Museum of London, stopping off nearby to relax in a peaceful ‘art’ garden where the brave deeds of ordinary people are recorded on simple tile plaques. We shared the space with a group of mums who were enjoying wine and cake under a bunting-festooned tree.

Rather delightfully the building next door to the one housing the sky garden was graced with a living green wall and the Sky Garden itself, topped with a glass dome, not dissimilar in look to a small scale Eden project biodome. Native  Mediterranean and South African planting dominated over the several terraces of the garden (agapanthus, santolina, rosemary…) but it was easy for the children to spot which was the north facing side of the building from the predominance of shade loving ferns on one side of the garden.

The panoramic views over London were spectacular, superior even to those afforded from the London Eye –  and easier to cope with for those who have an anxiety about heights. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Upminster Smock Mill

Upminster Smock Mill

On the following day we headed out into semi rural Essex to visit the Upminster Smock Mill prior to its closure for an exciting Heritage Lottery-funded restoration project, which will take two years and see the mill restored to its former working glory with the added benefit of a purpose-built education centre on the site. Set in a field in the middle of a residential area of Upminter, it has story which deserves to be told to a much wider audience.

Mr Country Gate had last visited the windmill as a young cub scout and knew that it would fire the imagination of a wife who has spent the last two years telling the story of another heritage site with a rich history and bringing it to the eyes and ears of a young local audience.  Little had changed in the intervening years internally, although the Friends of the Windmill have continued to spread the word about it and fundraise to carry out essential repairs. We were guided around the interior by a friendly and knowledgeable volunteer, spending an enjoyable hour exploring the space, understanding how the machinery worked, discovering the story of the millers who worked it and realising what a truly green, local industry looked like.

It truly is a gem. I shall be following their progress with great interest as they move towards becoming a working mill again. You can follow their progress on Twitter.

Get me out of here – learning in the open air


, , ,

Explorers – then and now

My children have been outdoor explorers for years.

Teenagers now, one of them is halfway up a small mountain in the Lake District with a small band of Explorer Scouts on a quest to secure a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. His mobile phone has been unused, but I’m sure we’d have been contacted if he wasn’t safe.

The other two have occupied the first few days of the summer holiday alternating between sorting out their wardrobes, recycling an accumulation of bits of paper and string, pre-season rugby training, playing badminton in the garden and emailing their friends about swimming dates, shopping trips and holiday plans. It’s hard to stay away from screens entirely but my three are not completely bereft without laptop or phone. (We don’t have tablets or games consoles)

It seems parents who want their children to spend time having outdoor adventures in the school holidays have a champion in Chief Scout Bear Grylls. Recently he launched a summer manifesto of suggestions to get young people out and about enjoying the great outdoors. For those of us who work with children in this context it is nothing new, but Bear Grylls gets noticed so why should I complain that he’s taken up the flag that others have been waving for years? 

Not so many weeks ago,  school children were stuck in classrooms for days on end tackling examinations – SATs, GCSEs, A levels,school’s own. For weeks beforehand many pupils were undergoing booster sessions or completing practice papers on a daily basis in an effort to improve their chances of obtaining a higher level and the school’s chances of creeping up a few places in the performance league tables. PE was on the back burner for some. Yet in enlightened schools, headteachers prescribed time spent outdoors as relaxation for stressed out pupils.

Being outdoors is good for children. There have been numerous studies citing the positive mental and physical benefits of being outside looking at nature. Nature has a rejuvenating effect on the brain, boosting levels of attention and improving performance in cognitive tests. As well as outdoor PE, some schools run Forest School sessions and horticultural programmes as an alternative to traditional classroom based lessons.

Children are genetically predisposed to move, to explore the space around them, and to discover its contents. All green spaces offer physical activity and free-range learning. The richer the  environment, the richer the learning will be. Schools with extensive grounds have an advantage but for those who don’,t local parks are a great alternative.

For some time now I have been working with Eco Kids in Northampton on a lottery funded project to explore Abington Park,an urban green space with a rich history, as an outdoor classroom.


Many outdoor learning programmes already exist which cater for children’s emotional and social needs and provide practical, problem solving opportunities in an outdoor environment and an antidote to the sedentary, screen-based activities which fill the days of a number of youngsters.

Heritage sites provide rich hands on activities for studying history and the natural environment is well catered for in environmental education centres up and down the country.

Many children do not learn effectively, exclusively within a classroom. They need alternative, hands-on learning environments to match their varied learning styles.

The packs I’ve written for Eco Kids, in addition to learning about the flora, fauna and history of Abington Park itself provide teachers, parents and youth leaders with the tools to encourage them to take learning outside and reap the rewards of this approach.

Learning in the open air builds resilience, encourages creativity, develops resourcefulness, sparks discussion, fosters team building and inventiveness.

What’s not to love?

Abington Park in its heyday

Abington Park in its heyday


Why a bit of drama is good for you.


, , , , , ,

Ophelia brilliantly played by teenager Astrid Bishop Picture by Ellen Day

Years of research show that involvement with the creative arts is closely linked to almost everything that parents say they want for their children: academic achievement, social and emotional development, life skills and equality of opportunity among other things. As creative arts subjects in schools are squeezed further by the demands of the National Curriculum and the current regime of being in thrall to league tables and continuous testing, one of the few places where valuable life skills can be fostered in teenagers is by involvement in a local drama group. You know the skills I mean? All together now.

  • Communication
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-evaluation
  • Teamwork
  • Creative thinking
  • Marketing
  • Working to a budget
  • Meeting deadlines

 These are the skills everybody needs beyond school. Testing does not prepare a student for the real world. Life skills are what students need and what employers want.

Last week my local drama group put on a production of Hamlet in a fourteenth century Tithe Barn in the heart of town. It played to an audience of 900, over four nights and involved a team of over 60 diverse members of the local community, some of whom were under 18. The team has been working on the project for three months. Some of the youngsters appeared on stage, but there were more in the backstage crew and I am so proud of them all and what we achieved.

So exactly which skills did we foster in the last three months. Let’s explore my observations from last week.

Project Management.  A stage production is basically a business project involving multiple teams of people working together to bring in a project on time and on budget. If you do it well, you’ll make a profit and entertain a lot of people. Choosing people with the right mix of skills to get the job done, empowering them to make things happen and supporting them whilst they do it is part and parcel of the production manager’s job. Then there’s monitoring progress, filling in any gaps, trouble shooting and ensuring deadlines are met. It’s all in a day’s work for a production manager. Having youngsters assist or shadow a production manager is one of the most valuable opportunities you can offer young people.

Learning to improvise. The great thing about being on stage is that almost anything can happen when you’re in front of an audience. Forgotten lines, missed entrances, or malfunctioning props require you to improvise while maintaining your cool. You learn to focus, think quickly and find solutions. The same is true off stage if a prop goes missing, an actor is not where they ought to be or the lighting fails.

Working hard Entire weekends can disappear in the building of a stage set. Members of a production team can be set painting at midnight and sewing into the wee small hours. They may have banged more nails into their fingers accidentally than they care to remember and have to turn up early after a production to clear away the set and tidy up the performance space rather than basking in the glory of a job well done.  In life there will be periods of time with unbelievable workloads in which there are sleepless nights, endless days and tireless work on projects that will be presented and then will be over. Sometimes the critics and the audience don’t like what you’ve presented, irrespective of how hard you’ve worked. This will happen in life too.

Working with limited budgets.This is one of the most valuable skills you can learn. Most amateur shows are produced on a shoestring budget, which forces you to be creative, imaginative and thrifty. Sounds to me like a sound recipe for life.

Dealing with people/customer service and getting along with colleagues. Working with people of all types is essential in life and in am dram. Everyone has a part to play. Some people may be difficult but it’s important to try to understand, appreciate and effectively communicate with them all. The fact that sometimes the pressure is on and people feel stressed adds extra sizzle to the melting pot.

Doing whatever needs to be done. Any amateur theatrical company cannot afford the luxury of too much specialism. Therefore, even if you act, the chances are you’ll also be called upon to do any number of other jobs. You have to learn to do it all. Lighting, engineering sound, directing, production management, PR, marketing, set design, set construction, ticket sales, budgeting, customer service, Front of House duties, make-up, costume. I can’t begin to tell you how valuable it is for youngsters to be involved in developing skills in real contexts, be that woodworking, using their IT skills to work on sound, lighting or graphic design, baking, buying supplies, sewing, selling…. This fosters a  can-do attitude in young people and that is a valuable skill to take forward into the world of work.

Making difficult choices and dealing with disappointment In the world of work difficult decisions must sometimes be made. Putting yourself up for audition and not being cast is the start of learning that sometimes things don’t go your way,however much you feel you deserve it or however hard you’ve worked. Being on a casting panel and letting people down gently is a valuable skill to learn too.

Presentation Skills. Whether you’re acting, serving interval coffee and cake or selling programmes the ability to connect with people is essential. Practice makes perfect and youngsters who belong to theatre groups get plenty of that. Taking things a stage further, the abillity to stand up confidently in front of a group of people and effectively communicate a message while  being motivating and a little entertaining is rare. To develop this, try acting for a local group.

Doing the best you can with what you’ve got. Am dram teaches you that you can sometimes create magic with no need for the latest technology or gimmicks. A passion for what you do and a sincere commitment to making it work is enough. One of the most memorable moments from Hamlet involved two men totally believing in the moment, a wooden box and a prop dagger.

The power of thankyou Everyone likes to be appreciated. Make everyone with whom you’ve worked feel appreciated and they’ll work twice as hard for you next time. Fact. The actors get the plaudits but the backstage crew are working just as hard. Recognise this and learn to be appreciative of everyone’s contribution in drama and in life.

Sporty girls are healthy girls


, ,


Girls can play rugby

picture R Martindale


Sport has been in the news a lot this week – for all the wrong reasons. It’s time to look at the positive.

It’s Women in Sport Week and, in the light of Sepp Blatter’s resignation announcement, I was rather amused to hear some of his more cringeworthy comments. Notably the eye rolling one about increasing the popularity of women’s football by making them wear tighter shorts and low cut tops.

Time to celebrate the postives of women’s sport, I think. Taking part in sport can promote health, wellbeing, teamwork, camaraderie and confidence among girls that can last a lifetime. Something which is much needed if today’s published research on the massive increase in people being treated for eating disorders is to be believed.

School sport has moved on from circuit training in a smelly gym on ancient equipment. Truly there is something to suit everyone on offer in most schools although the demands of the National Curriculum has sometimes forced it into the domain of extra curricular activity, rather than being integral to the curriculum across all age groups. Local swimming pools regularly run free sessions for young people in school holidays and there are hundreds of sports clubs supporting girls up and down the country field  including Bradford on Avon rugby above where girls play on a level playing field with boys (excuse the pun) until they join the girls only Bobcats team at age 13. I know girls who do everything from competitive salsa dancing and badminton to triathlon and rugby and everything in between. And the element of competition is as valid for girls as it is for boys.Being able to face victory and defeat with equal grace is a vital life skill.

Celebrate Women in Sport Week by encouraging the females in your life to get active, get competitive and set themselves up for a healthy life, in the fullest sense of the word. There are plenty of sports to choose from.

...or girls can ride horses.

…or girls can ride horses.

picture T Fussell

The art of ‘welldoing’.


, , , ,


do breathe

June is shaping up to be a very busy month for me. I have important writing deadlines to meet, a large outdoor theatrical event to manage, a new work project to get underway and three weeks’ classroom teaching covering  for a colleague that was totally unexpected. I am not one who subscribes to the glorification of busy. It’s overrated. Everyone needs time to chill, recharge the batteries, think through projects and directions and just be.  And yet, at this time of year especially it’s difficult to find down time. Teachers and students have reached that major stress point in the school calendar – exams. Time to take care of your wellbeing is so vital if focus and enthusiasm is to be maintained during stressful or busy times. I tell my students this all the time. Build relaxation time into your work schedule. Take regular breaks away from your revision books or pcs. Some follow the advice; others find it almost impossible. How opportune, then that a review copy of a pocket sized book by Michael Townsend Williams  should fall into my hands.

He’s a local man who exudes good health. Advertising executive turned yoga teacher and mindfulness coach, Michael is an advocate of ‘welldoing’, the art of leading a busy and productive life but not at the expense of one’s health.  Do Breathe his pocket sized reference explores some techniques to bring busy people focus, vision and organisation as they work through their to do lists. And it all starts with better breathing.

As one who is starting work on a new study skills and organisation programme with secondary school pupils, it has one or two tips I think I might use or adapt for with students. Organised into three steps – Prepare, Practise and Perform – Michael’s book leads you from the basics of confronting the stresses in your busy life , through the first tentative steps of setting up and sticking to new and better work habits to finally managing your time successfully and getting through an ever increasing list of demands, whilst keeping a healthy focus on your own wellbeing. There are hints, tips and exercises to try out and further reference material for those who want to delve a little deeper. Some of it is common sense, but scattered  throughout the book are a few gems you may not have thought of.

I think mastering the art of welldoing might stand me in good stead over the next few weeks.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,409 other followers