November flowers

Hannah Foley, Illustration, illustrator, natural historyRain pounded down all day yesterday. My pink geranium, still flowering copiously in the shelter of the side return, looked a bit absurd against such a grey November backdrop. Funnily enough pink geraniums don’t appear in Margaret Erskine Wilson’s page on November from Wildflowers of Britain Month by Month. Instead we get another lovely pink flower, that of Euonymus europaeus, otherwise known as Spindle.

Spindle gets its name from its use in making spindles for spinning and holding wool. Its wood is creamy white, hard and dense. It was also used for making skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles. Apparently the fruit was often baked and powdered as a treatment for head lice. That’s one to try out on the kids if we get a visit from the dreaded nits!

Like Dogwood, Spindle is one of those small broadleaf shrubs that I barely register in amongst the undergrowth. In the park more showy cultivated varieties of both plants are at their best at this time of year. There are some particularly wonderful dogwoods with brightly coloured gold and red stems that we pass every day on our way to school.

For myself, I find that something important happens when I can name a plant or animal or insect. Suddenly it seems to pop out everywhere. By naming it, I recognise it as distinct, with a whole set of unique qualities that contribute to this funny little patch I call home. So from now on I shall make the effort to notice Spindle and Dogwood, although I don’t think I’ll be making my own knitting needles any time soon!

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More beating the bounds

Hannah Foley, illustration, illustrator, children, kids, picture books, wood, forest, fox, rabbit, bunny, snapWe have been lucky this week. The days have been bathed in a soft autumn light picking out all the shades of bronze and gold in the fading leaves. On the old tythe maps the parish was covered in orchards and nursery gardens. It must have been beautiful at this time of year. One of the parks near our house has a special link to horticultural history. As part of my beating the bounds project (read about it here, here, here, and here)  I have been learning a bit more about it.

This park was once the grounds of a magnificent commercial plant nursery started by a man named William Lucombe, and the first in the South West of England. I would have loved to have seen the nursery in its hey day. In the nineteenth century the nursery was renowned for its vast glasshouses filled with orchids, gardenias, and rare palms. William Lucombe himself is best known for breeding the Lucombe Oak, of which I hear, there is a splendid example in Kew Gardens. The Lucombe Oak is a hybrid between the Turkey and Cork Oak (no that means nothing to me either). Apparently William planted lots of these oaks around his nursery but they must have all been felled because there are no oaks in the park now. Lucombe lived to a grand old age of 102 years old, and kept planks from the original hybrid tree to make his coffin. According to Wikipedia, William kept the planks under his bed, where they eventually rotted in the Devon damp, but many an urban myth has been started by Wikipedia so who knows! All that is left of the nursery are some enormous yew hedges and the most majestic wisteria arch you have ever seen. It is 135 feet long, supported by a metal framework and is a local celebrity in its own right.

The other week I was able to go even further back in to the history of this park. My mum had been regaling one of her friends at her quilting class with my passion for local history. This particular friend is 91 and grew up in the parish where we now live. She is also a bit of a local history buff too and kindly sent photocopies of her research via my mum, for me to peruse. She had traced the roots of our parish right back to the first Saxon settlers who cleared a patch of land out of the forest.

The Saxon farmstead in question stood up on the hill above the park. There is a Tudor manor house (converted to a pub) well known for its secret passages and hidey-holes, that now stands on the spot. Over time the Saxon farmstead developed into a settlement and a little church was built there. In medieval times the land at the bottom of the hill (now the park) was cleared to form water meadows, and around these meadows monks would have walked on daily trips between the old Saxon church and their priory down by the river. Hence the name of the modern road that occupies the same route, Church Path Road.

My favourite fact in all this concerns Roly-poly hill. The old paths I have followed on my beating the bounds walks up over the hill to join the Saxon road on the ridge, run along the boundaries of some allotments. According to my mum’s friend’s research, those allotments occupy the very same field first cleared by the Saxons. I love that. The first patch of land in this parish where someone staked a claim, put down roots (literally!), and started to build community, is worked and loved by the community to this day.

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Savouring slowness

rabbit, bunny, wood, insects, singing, picture books, children, kids, Hannah Foley, illustrator, illustrationFinch has a cold and has been wandering around the house wheezing like a little train. It’s gone to his chest and he’s asthmatic. He clamped on some child’s ear defenders from the bottom of the toy box proclaiming that it helped his earache, then spent the rest of the day yelling at us. Outside the weather has been golden and mild. Little Owl collected red leaves in the park and made a bouquet, while humming ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’. Next week it will be back to school again and the mad tumble to Christmas will begin. For now, we are going to bake Delia’s Parkin ready for Bonfire Night and savour our slow mornings.

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Loving Vincent

Vincent Van Gogh, art. illustration, painting, drawing

One more quick one before I go away…my friend and I saw the premier of Loving Vincent on Monday. It was played live from the National Gallery to selected cinemas around the country and it came to Exeter. It’s a animated film of Vincent Van Gogh’s life completed entirely in oil paints. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Technically incredible and very moving. Alright, now I’m going!

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October flowers (and nuts)

Beech mast by Margaret Erskine Wilson. All right reserved ( weather was glorious at the weekend so we took the chance to get out on some lovely walks. We collected acorns, raced autumn leaves down a brook, crunched our way over beech husks, spotted a jay, and found a pale tussock caterpillar. Here is Margaret Erskine Wilson’s wonderful painting of beechmast. I’ll be honest I’m a bit confused about the word “mast” and am not entirely sure how to use it. Does it refer to just the nuts or the husks as well? Are beech nuts always called beechmast or only when it’s a particularly productive year? Is “mast” a verb as well as a noun? If any of you are able to clear that up for me I’d be super pleased.

In other news Finch has been learning the song There was an old lady who swallowed a fly at pre-school, and it has been causing him some consternation. Without any preamble, and at the most inopportune moments he keeps pronouncing, “Perhaps she’ll die!” You can imagine how that goes down in the Post Office queue. One evening he raised his fork and glowered across the table at Wren, “Stop talking Wren or you might die!” Big Dreamer nearly choked on his spaghetti but she just shook a fistful of bolognese back at him. It’s like having a pint-sized Private Frazer around the house. Anyway, I’m looking at sending him back to the factory for a reboot soon so I’m sure normal service will resume after that (I’m joking!).

We are away on holiday next week so no post from me but I shall return!

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Christmas cards

toy shop, Christmas, market, cards, children, toys, wooden, lights, seasons, illustration, illustrator, snow, presents, I’m so sorry to do this to you. I’m well aware it’s only October. Here goes…Christmas cards! There I’ve said it. I’ve got Christmas cards to sell. The reason I’m posting about them now is because I will be seeing my mother-in-law over half term so I can pass on any northerly deliveries to her should any of my lovely regulars up there want any.

The picture on the front is inspired by my sadness last year at there not being a wooden toy stall at the Christmas market we went to. Instead I decided I’d just have to draw one for myself to make up for it! They come in packs of ten, with white envelopes. I’m charging £6 per pack this year (plus postage and packaging should you require it) because in all my rush to be organised I failed to ask the printers to put a Christmas greeting on the inside, hence they are blank on the inside. Drop me a line if you would like a pack at: I’ll blog about them again nearer Christmas for those of you who (quite sensibly!) can’t bear to think about the C-word just yet.

toy shop, Christmas, market, cards, children, toys, wooden, lights, seasons, illustration, illustrator, snow, presents,

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Photo of tomatoes ripening on a plate. All rights reserved ( hang on, a bit busy with deadlines. Bear with me. In the mean time, look some of my tomatoes have actually ripened!

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Action packed

It has been an action-packed week. Big Dreamer and I have a new niece. She is sparkly-eyed, with the most beautiful little mouth and chin you’ve ever seen. Oh she’s scrumptious! A hedgehog also briefly took up residence in our garden.

One evening last week our next-door neighbours found this hedgehog on their front doorstep, and it just wouldn’t go away. Our doorsteps are not particularly hedgehog-friendly as they are straight out onto the pavement so our neighbours couldn’t work out what was going on. The hedgehog didn’t seem to be injured but it wasn’t very keen on moving on either. At last they took it inside, put it in a cardboard box, gave it some cat food and wondered what on earth to do next. Cue a phone call to us to see if there was room in our hedgehog hotel for it.

Now, our hotel has been sadly lacking in hedgehogs after I upset the one that had been living in some old hanging basket liners under a bike tarpaulin (this was last year, in our pre-shed days). It was so offended it didn’t even consider the hotel and we haven’t seen hide nor hair (or should that say prickle?) of it since. Well, our neighbours brought the hedgehog round and all the children oohed and aahed at it. As you can see it was an enormous hedgehog so it didn’t actually fit in the hotel. Fortunately we’d really gone to town last year in trying to woo our prickly friend and had created a whole entire hedgehog village at the bottom of the garden by putting a couple of up-turned, broken plant pots filled with straw around the hotel. The hedgehog fitted inside one of the flowers pots perfectly. It stayed for a couple of days and munched its way through all the cat food we put out. But yesterday morning the cat food was still there and it seems we have been rejected again.

Our brilliant neighbour (the one who throws snails into the alley for the blackbird and drives a three-wheeler like a demon) says that she thinks it must have been the female of a pair she has seen round about. The male fell into her garden drain and as he’s only a juvenile, she thinks the female is giving him the run around! We’ll have to see if he can persuade her and perhaps there will be hedgehog babies around here in the spring…and maybe, just maybe they’ll come and live in our hedgehog hotel!

Lastly, here’s a pic from the produce tent at a local ploughing match we went to at the weekend. That’s a long runner bean! Wouldn’t fancy eating it mind you!

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September flowers

It’s always good to find out that you’ve just been out cycling during a weather warning. That’s what happened to me on Monday morning. I did think that the head wind was a bit stronger than usual on the way home. It made me realise I have been in total denial about Autumn, which is not like me. I love Autumn and am usually ready for the change. Maybe it was because August was so awful and dreary. I don’t know. But Autumn is here and autumn is wonderful. Finch and I have been making pictures by printing with fallen leaves. Conkers are starting to make an appearance. In the hedgerows there are plenty of sloes and haws. No wonder the birds aren’t interested in our garden feeders. Here is a beautiful page from Margaret Erskine Wilson’s book Wildflowers of Britain Month by Month showing a veritable feast of autumn bounty. Over the hill I found a bank of cyclamen, sparkling like little pink and white stars against the mossy greenery. Apparently cyclamen are vital source of nectar for pollinators at this time of year as they build up their stores ready for winter.

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More beating the bounds…

bottles, vintage, ink, dip pen, sketchbook, hannah foley, illustratorI have been out beating the bounds again…and getting thoroughly lost! One evening I headed out hoping to pick up a lane that would bring me out down river from our house, so as to complete a southerly loop of the parish boundary. Looking at the OS map it seemed fairly simple so I didn’t bother checking street names and of course took the wrong one.

The choice was between Tan Lane and Water Lane. In hindsight the correct choice was fairly obvious. I know which one all of you would have chosen, making the quite understandable assumption that Water Lane might lead to some water and the nearest bit of water might be the river. Oh no, none of your logical thinking for me! I chose Tan Lane and ended up in an industrial estate; a really big industrial estate where all the names are a variation on a theme and all the units look the same. I discovered all sorts of niche products are manufactured just streets away from our house, and some so niche I had to google them when I got back!

It was some consolation to spot many of the plants I’d learnt about on the city wall wildflower walk, making their home in cracks and crevices all over the place. There was one particularly comic prickly lettuce who seemed to wave enthusiastically at me as I passed it for the second time. At last I made my way out of the labyrinth and found myself on the western bank of the canal. My aim was to join the brook that upstream forms the western boundary of the parish. After it leaves the parish it flows through the industrial estate, coming out alongside the canal and wiggling its way through reeds and marshy land until it reaches the estuary.

After some to-ing and fro-ing along the canal towpath I at last found the footpath I was looking for, veiled by overgrown vegetation. A laminated planning proposal flapped against an old fence post. The footpath is due to be scrubbed out in only a few months time to make way for a new train station to service the industrial estate. Scrambling through thigh-high nettles the path was clearly not in use any longer so I could see the sense but it did make me wonder what errands had caused the path to be formed in the first place.

Leaping the railway track and crossing a bridge the path brought me out on the far side of the brook and I headed upstream. I know this section of the brook quite well from childhood. I remember seeing it from our car window whenever Dad would take us into the industrial estate on the hunt for car parts. I can see it in my mind’s eye, trickling miserably down an enormous concrete flood basin. Opinions on flood risk management seemed to have changed since then because the brook is barely recognisable. The rough shape of the concrete basin is still evident but it is now bursting with grasses, reeds and wildflowers. In the dusky evening it was the most enticing array of olive and mossy greens, bronzes and golds.

Now, technically I wasn’t following the parish boundary anymore, in fact I wasn’t in my own parish at all. But who’s going to let a technicality get in the way of a good walk?! So I struck out to the southwest, leaving the brook and following a deep lane with a cobbled channel down one side in which ran a mossy spring. This lane is called Clapperbrook Lane and I’d been wanting to walk along it for ages. Clapperbrook Lane is super old, probably Iron Age. Bounded on either side by ancient walls and the windowless ends of old thatched cottages. It is narrow, dark, green and very very beautiful. If fairies live anywhere it’s in Clapperbrook Lane. As its name suggests it once led down to a clapper bridge and in aerial photos from the 1940s it is surrounded by farmland. This parish used to be a rural village on the outskirts of the city and its centre still feels very village-like. There’s the old church, the village hall, the school and lots of cottages jumbled around the central crossroads. But the coming of the industrial estate in the 50s and then the tacking on of various housing estates has changed it considerably.

Making my way through the village, admiring the many beautiful front gardens and trying to ignore a looming black raincloud, I crossed a busy road and met the brook again. This time I was back on home turf, in the valley on the far side of Roly-poly hill. Quickening my pace along the field edge I experienced that funny summer storm light you sometimes get. Do you know the kind of thing I mean? Where it is all dark and black directly above you but in the distance the golden sun is setting. Its long rays reach into the dark and catch the edges of the fat raindrops that are just starting to fall, making them glint and wink.

I left the footpath when it met a lane. The lane crosses the brook at a ford, with a little metal bridge for pedestrians. The brook swings out wide after the ford forming a tranquil pool with a shingly beach. The water reflected back the dark canopy of trees that shroud the spot. I could hear the rain hitting the canopy but beneath there was only the gentle drip, drip of the odd raindrop trickling down between the branches and plopping into the pool. In the growing twilight I turned for home, heading up Roly-poly hill and down past the allotments.

As you can see from the picture, I am currently drawing vintage bottles!

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