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.

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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

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.

aplogo

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

 

Io Saturnalia! Partying just like the Romans.

ready to party Roman style
ready to party Roman style

Io Saturnalia!

This is the traditional greeting for Romans at this time of year, (the Io pronounced Yo!) When it comes to partying, noone does it quite like the Romans. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival honouring the god of agriculture Saturn, held on the 17th of December and continuing through to the winter solstice. In fact it’s still popular in Deva (Chester.) 

Saturnalia was celebrated with a public ceremony followed by private celebrations in the home, where the traditional roles were switched. A Lord of Misrule was chosen; masters waited upon their slaves (although the slaves had prepared the food, beforehand). Everyone got to wear colourful clothes and the red pilleus, or freedman’s hat; gambling was allowed and normal business was suspended during the holiday period. Elaborate feasts and banquets were held; candles were lit and it wasn’t unusual to exchange small gifts such as wax candles, oil lamps, small earthenware figures, small writing tablets, cups,spoons, items of clothing or food. Citizens decked their halls with green boughs, and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”

Thinking about the school Christmas dinner tradition this week, where everyone wears a hat and colourful clothes, teachers serve dinner to their students, the hall is decorated with greenery, ornaments hang from the tree and music plays, it’s not that far removed from Saturnalia.

Holding a Saturnalia party is a great way to round off the term with students studying Latin.  I have often helped local primary schools round off their topic work on the Romans at this time of year by teaching them a bit of Latin, making some Roman food and pilleus hats and recreating a carnival procession with singing. Obviously, we all dressed up and had a thoroughly good time.

I would urge all homeschoolers and primary teachers to do the same. Partying just like the Romans is a great way to reinforce learning. Preparations for the party involve research into Roman costume and hairstyles, worship of gods and goddesses, slavery, festivals, food, the role of women… And the sites and smells of Saturnalia will stay with your students long after the ink has dried on the page of their workbooks.

Io Saturnalia!

Half Term hijinks

a visit to St Pancras
a visit to St Pancras

We’ve had a busy few weeks. I finally managed to plant all the daffodil and allium bulbs I ordered back in the summer; we finished painting the front door and the children’s bedrooms; two school residentials to the Brecon Beacons and the Lake District have been undertaken; large batches of Christmas chutney have been made; I ran an Autumn themed workshop for the National Trust and we managed to fit in an exciting trip to London.

Sarah and I went up on the train for a girly jaunt around my old Bloomsbury and Euston haunts (including bumping into my old PGCE lecturer at the Institute of Education), a visit to the British library, which Sarah has wanted to do for ages and a stay in a hotel complete with posh bubble bath, facemasks and telly in bed! The boys used the car and stayed with the in-laws and visited the poppy installation at the Tower of London.

Spectacular_poppies_Tower_of_London_

We did meet up on Wednesday though – for the main reason for our London trip. The services of the youngest member of the family were required by Radio 4 Extra for a recording of Junior Just a Minute with Nicholas Parsons, Josie Lawrence and Jenny Eclair who were charming and hilarious in equal measure.

Now the children are back at school, Ian is once more trekking round the country, the Christmas cake is in the oven and I am back at work writing materials for the Abington Park Outdoor Classroom Project and Our Flower Patch.

I’ll be writing about the former soon on this blog. In the meantime you can read a bit about Our Flower Patch here in an interview we gave to Michelle Chapman. Incidentally we have a giveaway on the Our Flower Patch blog this week. All you have to do to win the best book I have come across on growing cut flowers at home (Louise Curley’s The Cut Flower Patch) is to leave a comment and subscribe to the blog. Simple!

Poem of the month: #October

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?

The remembrance of things past

 

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.

 

Oxford Blues

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!

 

50 things to do in the holidays

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

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

 

 

Flowers, fruit, writing and interviews.

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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