Savouring

Aquilegia by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.owlingabout.co.uk)Coffee breaks at this time of the year are to be savoured. Today the sun is out as I take up a comfy spot on the garden bench made for us by prisoners at HMP Dartmoor. Behind me buds are forming on our yellow rambling rose, Malvern Hills. In the beds, purple and cream aquilegia sway in the slight breeze. Two goldfinches flit around impatiently in our neighbour’s cherry tree, waiting for me to leave so they can visit the feeders. There is a gap between our new flagpole cherry and the shed, and I have been contemplating what we should put there. I have been looking at an Alder-leaved Serviceberry tree. Do you know it? Any thoughts? We needs things of upright habit in our little garden. Big Dreamer pricked up his ears when he heard it has edible fruits. Oh the homebrew possibilities! But I haven’t made up my mind, because that’s half the fun of gardening isn’t it? Chewing over the options and considering the possibilities. Humming and hawing with like-minded companions about the merits of this plant and that. Savouring the wonder of green growing things!

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Sailing dreams

The bank holiday saw the end of our sailing dreams. For those of you who don’t know, we have been renovating a little sailing boat. It’s been lots of hard work but we’ve had some lovely outings on her. Sadly this weekend saw her last voyage. As Big Dreamer and my brother-in-law rounded the buoy, heading back for shore, something snapped and she sprang a fatal leak. She capsized, tipping Big Dreamer, my brother-in-law, Little Owl, Finch, and my niece into the water. Fortunately the water wasn’t deep, the lads were able to stand. We had to wait until low tide to be able to get the trailer out across the sands to rescue her. Little Owl thought it was quite the adventure. Finch has sworn he will never get in a boat again! It was all very disappointing but in the end, we think she’s just too old and was left neglected for too long.

It got me thinking a bit about disappointment. When I talk to friends of ours who are the same age as Big Dreamer and I, we all agree we were told some pretty unhelpful things about life when we were school age. We all got a lot of the ‘dream big and work hard and you can do anything’ train of thought. Most of us have learnt the hard way that you can work as hard as you like, there are a whole host of reasons why your dreams won’t come true. When I talk to friends who are a bit younger than us, they got more of the ‘it’s all about talent, find your strengths and mould your dreams to those’ message. All that did was make them feel that if something didn’t come naturally almost immediately then there was no point carrying on.

Most of us feel now that ‘talent’ doesn’t really exist but is the lucky combination of motivation and practice. The kid who loves kicking her football around every day doesn’t notice how much work she’s putting in, then is suddenly labeled ‘talented’ at age 11. But the journey to dream-fulfillment is paved with a whole host of other factors: opportunity, exposure, support, finances, time, health and physical suitability. Most of these are outside of the scope of one individual to influence. ‘Talented’ people are often just ‘lucky’ people: born in the right set of circumstances with the right mentality. Two children alike in all ways, but one born in a year group with a higher birth rate, have vastly divergent chances of going to university purely based on volume. Yet, our highly individualised society places the responsibility for ‘failure’ and ‘disappointment’ squarely on the shoulders of an individual young person.

The thing we say to our kids is to try lots of different things but to be realistic. Have a go at horse riding but realistically, we’re not a family with the sort of income or connections that can support a young person to the Olympics in horse jumping. We also say that to be good at things everyone needs to practice. Once they find a few things they really like doing, they’ll need to practice to get better. We tell them that sometimes they’ll hit a wall and feel like they’re not progressing, and that’s when they’ll have to look around for advice and guidance. Everyone needs help now and again. They will need to put themselves in the way of opportunity. We tell them there’s no such thing as failure and that mistakes are an essential part of learning. We tell them that disappointment happens to everyone, sometimes something you’ve worked hard towards just doesn’t work out. Then it’s important to take a moment and consider your options. It isn’t always right to keep on hammering away at something. That’s the point to make sure you really know yourself. Sometimes the hidden opportunities found in the darkest of moments were the right ones all along.

We tell them to do their best and be thankful in the moment they’ve been given to be alive. Who knows what wider trends will be exerting influence on their lives at crucial moments? Perhaps a financial crash just as they launch their new business idea or a dodgy housebuilder goes bust just as they’ve exchanged house contracts. We’ll tell them to concentrate on their own journey and not to get caught up in looking at what other people appear to be doing. We’ll tell them that sometimes going back is actually going forwards. Hopefully in those times they’ll remember capsizing out of a little wooden sailing boat that had had copious amounts of time (in a time-pressed family) and cash (in a cash-pressed family) spent on it. Hopefully they will remember that their Dad and Uncle called it a day with a weary smile but were immensely thankful for happy memories of pottering about on the water with their kids. Disappointing but not a failure by any stretch of the imagination.

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Milk Moon

octopus, colouring-in, black and white, The Wildlife Trusts, Hannah Foley, illustration, illustrator, non-fiction, educational, kids, children, families, sealife, learning, colouring, childrensbookartThe milk moon was enormous on Monday morning. It balanced on the ridgeline of the distant hills, silvery white against a dawn sky of orange and pinks. I watched a swan circle, its wings tipped with gold, then disappear behind the tree line. The weekend was a big one in our house. Little Owl went away on her first ever Brownie camp. The excitement had been building all last week as we gathered the kit list together. Big Dreamer took her and her friends to the rendezvous point and wished he’d worn ear defenders. Little Owl quadrupled, equaled an ear-damaging decibel range of high-pitched squealing and shrieking.

She returned on Sunday evening almost speechless with tiredness. We helped her straight into her pyjamas, spoon-fed her her tea, and tucked her up under her BFG duvet. Downstairs I unpacked her bags, relieved to find she’d come home with everything she’d taken and nothing she hadn’t. Tucked into the side of her suitcase was a white piece of printed paper. I straightened it out. It was a certificate, awarded to Little Owl for being the Most Helpful Brownie. What a proud mum am I!

The octopus above is one of four sea creatures commissioned by The Wildlife Trusts. They will be available at local Wildlife Trust visitor centres throughout the country over the summer so keep your eyes peeled!

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Huffy herons

Hannah Foley, illustrator, illustration, children's book art, children, children's books, non-fiction, farm, cows, ducks, chickens, rooster, pigeons, sheep dog, horse, pick-up truck, hills, farmyardBirds, blossom and buds are all flourishing along the river banks now the weather has warmed and it has finally stopped raining. There are rabbits everywhere. I have disturbed the grey heron from his huntings several times on my bike, causing him to lope off on enormous wings with a huffy look on his face. Those black streaks over a heron’s eyes always look like ferocious eyebrows to me and they were definitely frowning in my direction. There is a swan’s nest on the canal bank which has been surrounded by orange plastic fencing by some helpful official. Having once happened on a group of school boys throwing rocks at a pair of swans on their nest on another canal, I am glad of this. It’s good to know people are keeping a watchful eye. Although, it must be said, the Cob looked perfectly capable of handling any trouble as I watched him seeing off some ducks who innocently infringed his personal space.

In other news Finch and I planted potatoes at the allotment last Saturday. While I prepared the trenches he undertook the important task of de-heading any dandelions he could find. He thought this was a fine job, especially if he could leap out and roar at them first. We also have a nearly completed loft conversion. Some stairs so we can get up there would just finish it off nicely!

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Cuttings

city, sunset, Hannah Foley, illustrator, illustration, children, kids, books, picture books, fiction, cat, boy, rooftops, chimneys, children's book art, picture books art, kid lit artLittle Owl went back to school today after two weeks of Easter holidays in which it was either grey and raining or grey and cold. Finch and Wren were bereft as they waved her through the school doors. What would they do without their ringleader? Where would they turn now for encouragement to cut chunks out of the front of their hair? (That was Thursday’s bit of entertainment).

All the outdoor painting, cleaning and repairing jobs I had penciled in for the holidays remain undone, awaiting warmer weather. The lawn will be a jungle by the time it’s dry enough to cut the grass. Still nature is persevering. I am sat at my desk watching two goldfinches work their way through the nyger seed in one of our feeders. We don’t get many birds in our garden over winter because of the lack of cover and the many cats. It’s a situation I’m working on rectifying but in the mean time it’s lovely to see them back. The blackcurrant is covered in young leaves. Will the cold weather have done for the sawfly or will this be the year I finally admit defeat and dig it up?

The Rudbeckia purpurea are making a brave attempt at putting up shoots but the slugs are currently winning that battle. I can’t usually be bothered with plants that need mothering, but the Rudbeckia are so beautiful and so wonderful for butterflies that I will be indulging in the odd handful of blue pellet slug-dynamite just for them. April is the last month for eating fresh mussels until September and I have a cunning plan down at the allotment. I have been collecting mussel shells over winter to crush up and deter the slugs. I daren’t in the garden however. We have developed an uneasy truce with the cats at the moment (aided by prickle strips, the new holly tree and lots of carefully placed rose clippings) but one wrong move might break the peace. Fishy-smelling mussels shells would be just the thing.

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Another year

tudor, garden, hannah foley, illustration, illustrator, childrens' books, childrens' book art, non-fiction, history, gardens, morning, winter, topiary, maid A year has passed and I don’t need to look back at old blog posts to know exactly what I was doing this time last year. April is my mum’s birthday and to celebrate, every year my mum, my sister, and I head off for the day to explore some old stately home or beautiful garden. We chat, we stroll, we drink tea, and we eat cake. A gift shop, a tearoom, a plant sale and a second-hand bookshop are essentials. We don’t get tapped or tugged, we don’t wipe any bottoms other than our own and we get to finish our sentences. It’s wonderful. So this time last year I know I was sat on a springy lawn surrounded by snake’s-head fritillaries, the sound of the sea in the distance, dressed in a short-sleeved dress.

A short-sleeved dress! Don’t make me laugh! That’s what my sister said. But I was. I have the photo to prove it. Not this year though: this being the year of not just one but two proper coverings of snow, and the threat of a third. The year of dead geraniums and new potatoes still waiting to go in the cold sodden ground. Don’t get me wrong, this year’s trip was lovely but there was no way I was taking my coat off as we sat on a bench in the orchard demolishing our sandwiches.

It’s another year of Finch too. Soon he will be four and heading off to school. News of his school place should arrive any day. In the last year, that boy has developed a stunning capacity to have an answer for everything. Why are you licking the wet bike shelter Finch? I was thirsty mum. Why have you flooded the bathroom Finch? The floor looked dirty mum. Why have you posted your train track down the back of the radiator so we’ll now have to take the radiator off the wall to get it out Finch? I was keeping it safe from Wren Mum. Why are you putting yoghurt up your nose Finch? Silence.

Why are you putting yoghurt up your nose Finch? I don’t know mum. I’ve made a bad choice haven’t I? Yes Finch, you have. To Finch’s future teachers, wherever you may be…make the most of your current relative tranquility because he’s coming!

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Home

Home is…knowing a good paddling spot

This is a long one. You’d better grab a cuppa. Recently someone I know wrote an online article about home, and it got me thinking. The topic of ‘home’ is one I have gnawed and gnawed at over the years. My explorations into seasonal and simple living, researching the British calendar of feasts and festivals, discovering local geography and ecology, last year’s beating the bounds project, this year’s diary of walks, have all been, at their heart, about that word, HOME. In the article the author talked about “growing home”, about establishing “routines and rituals”, about “putting down roots”. I’m overly familiar with these phrases. I have turned them over and over, and inside out, in one form or another over the years. I did the same as I walked the country lanes, towpaths, and busy streets that make up our parish boundary last year. And in the end I’m not sure making somewhere home is something that we have as much control over as we think.

As you all know, Big Dreamer and I have lived in a lot of places. We have loved some and tolerated others. In each and every place we put in maximum effort to put down roots. We dug deep. We fertilised. We mulched. We watered. In some of those places we arrived with the full intention of living out our days there. When we left, I often felt we had failed somehow. I hadn’t attended enough WI meetings or been chatty enough at the Toddler Group. We had introverted hobbies. We weren’t free on Wednesday evenings. After a while I began to recognise the draught from the door closing, a strange sad diminuendo sort of feeling accompanied by an even stranger sense of the rightness of it. We didn’t fit. This wasn’t our hinterland. The people weren’t our kith. This wasn’t home. That strange, sad, right feeling was the feeling of being rejected. Oliver Balch in Under the Tump says: “We talk of ‘putting down roots’ as though the work is entirely of our own doing. Us cementing our place. Us anchoring ourselves in. Yet if the ground is stony or the earth is barren, such efforts will be in vain. If anyone is to stay and grow and weather the years, the place itself must welcome them, must nourish them, must allow them to flourish…”

We’ve all visited those homes where the walls and floors are the same magnolia and beige put in by the developers. There’s no pictures on the walls or rugs on the floor. Forget dormitory towns, these are dormitory homes, homes literally just for sleeping in. Work, family, the gym, grocery shopping is all a car journey away. In our modern age I think there are more and more people who are ambivalent about the term “home” and the word “community”, often because of all sorts of very valid social and economic factors. But that’s not me, and it’s not us. For us, ‘home’ matters. Some of you will remember a blog post I wrote when we lived in Scotland that recounted the moment hiraeth hit. Hiraeth is a beautiful Welsh word that means homesickness. Hiraeth is the call of home, not just missing people but missing place too. For me, growing home was also about going home. And so we upped sticks and came back (at least for me) to Devon. Big Dreamer (being a Yorkshire man) was worried he would come out in a rash being so far south, but fortunately none appeared.

So what made home in the end for us? I’m not entirely sure. There’s something about the bits between the ‘rituals and routines’ the author spoke about. These are the things that can’t be organised. They are the things that happen just because you belong, like knowing you’ll walk down the high street and always bump into someone you know, or constantly discovering what a small world it is because it turns out so-and-so works with my cousin, and the lady serving me in the bead shop goes to the same quilting class as my mum. There’s something about the connections you have with people you wouldn’t meet for any other reason than the fact you live in the same locality. You share no hobbies, no life experience or politics but you’re both invested in this place you call home. And it’s not just people. It’s also knowing where the best blackberry patches are come the end of august, about the rope swing hidden in the trees at the end of the lane, or that the grassy bank over there will be covered in primroses in the spring.

So landscape is important too. I’ve heard people from Norfolk talk about the way the landscape there makes an indelible mark. All that sky! Every sky ever after is measured against it. For me, no matter how majestic the view, I’m always looking for a little glittering dimple of sea between green hills. Classic Devon. As I walked the parish boundaries last year, researching the local history as I went, I wondered how all that history might shape the lives of the area’s current inhabitants. Our parish was once made up of nurseries, orchards and gardens. William Lucombe built enormous glasshouses for his plant nursery and created the first Lucombe Oak in what is now our nearest park. I’m someone who couldn’t call anywhere home without a bit of earth to tend some flowers and veggies in. Does all that gardening history resonate through time in the spirit of this place? I’m also someone who needs at least two good green walks directly from the house. Our parish is marked by all sorts of ancient paths, holloways, monk’s walks, towpaths and iron-age roads, leading out of the city by green ways. Do their footsteps tap out a welcoming rhythm through time to me? Who knows, but whichever way I look at it, it is home and I’m glad.

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Happy Easter

duck, Happy Easter, Hannah Foley, illustrator, nature, wildlife, farm, children, childrensbooks, picture books, non-fiction

 

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Celebrations

How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim, Vivian French, Hannah Foley, Little Door Books, picture books, children's books, children, kids, hippos, swimming, illustrator, illustration

Early sketches for ‘How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim’.

It’s been a weekend of celebrations. Little Owl turned nine and it was my Mum and Dad’s ruby wedding anniversary. How on earth they’ve made it to forty years leaves everyone, including themselves, scratching their heads! This is a couple who can have a misunderstanding over something as simple as buying coffee and lose each other continually, even in their own house! It must be love.

But there’s one more celebration to come…on Friday How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim is officially out. There have been some lovely reviews of the book so I hope it does well. Here are some of my early sketches. It’s funny to look back and see all the initial thoughts swirling around in my sketchbook. There’s a whole page trying to work out Billy’s nostrils! And those long-legged flamingoes never made it beyond pencil lines.

How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim, Vivian French, Hannah Foley, Little Door Books, picture books, children's books, children, kids, hippos, swimming, illustrator, illustration

Early character sketches for ‘How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim’.

How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim, Vivian French, Hannah Foley, Little Door Books, picture books, children's books, children, kids, hippos, swimming, illustrator, illustration

Storyboarding for ‘How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim’.

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Mini Beast from the East

boys, playing, cars, garage, digger, lorry, children, illustration, illustrator, Hannah FoleyJust when we all thought it was safe to get going in the garden the ‘Mini Beast from the East’ struck. Were you all alright? I hope you managed to stay safe and warm. It caught us completely unawares. Despite the forecasts we couldn’t believe the snow would actually settle. This is Devon! We’d already had one dumping so that’s us done for the next ten years, right?! Nooo! Little Owl got another snow day from school on Monday. She and Finch played out in it nearly all day, creating magnificent snow forts and a whole pack of Snowdogs. Wren was full of cold so sat contentedly with me, reading stories by the fire. I cannot tell you how pleased I am that the builders had finished the roof. So, that should be it now, right……?!

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