A sunny seagull

seagull, Hannah Foley, illustrator, herring gull, illustration, seagull. children book art, children books, picture books, non-fiction, birdsPhew…busy here…and hot! Here’s a seagull for a sunny day.

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Happy Midsummer!

dragonfly, damselfly, beautiful demoiselle, banded demoiselle, river, hannah foley, illustrator, illustration, children books, children book art, picture books, picture book art, non-fiction, natural history, wildlife, children, kids, family, education, biology, insectsHappy Midsummer! This weekend was fittingly glorious. We hid fairy doors in the garden for the children and their friends to find, and discover little Midsummer gifts left for them behind the doors by the ‘fairies’. The river is bursting with life. Two lots of cygnets have successfully hatched and are already getting leggy. The parents sensibly remain wary. A fox crisscrossed my path several times this morning, too intent on his business to be nervous of the likes of me. There’s plenty to keep him busy. Baby rabbits lollop around on the banks, and I practically had to run a wood pigeon over before it would move.

Pottering around by a cool river on Dartmoor at the weekend there were a tremendous number of damselflies. Looking them up, they were mostly male (metallic blue) and female (metallic greeny-gold) Beautiful Demoiselles (a type of damselfly). Imagine having ‘beautiful’ as part of your actual name! There were so many they were landing on our arms and legs. One even had a rest on Finch’s head! There’s something truly wonderful about a wild creature using you as a resting post isn’t there? Apparently, one way to tell damselflies from dragonflies is that damselflies rest with their wings shut whereas dragonflies rest with their wings open. There are only two species of demoiselles in the UK and funnily enough we have seen them both this week: the Beautiful Demoiselles on Dartmoor and then a male Banded Demoiselle popped in to our garden the other day. The Banded Demoiselle is metallic blue like the Beautiful Demoiselle, but has a black band on its wings. It was a wonderful sight to see, a blue flash streaking across the lawn; more of a Midsummer fairy than anything we could conjure up. I can’t imagine what it was doing in such an urban spot though. The river near us is not exactly their preferred habitat. I hope it made it wherever it was trying to get to.

One of the male Beautiful Demoiselles



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Backwater wanderings

Photo of the Otter Estuary by Hannah Foley. All right reserved (www.owlingabout.co.uk)The summer term is cranking up a gear. School photos were last week, Finch instantly recognisable with his white blonde curly hair in the front row with his pre-school pals. Little Owl also easily identifiable by the chunk of hair she cut off the front part of her head over the Easter holidays, standing up at right angles where her clip has slipped. Then it’s sports days, library trips, and the Summer Fair. I’m on popcorn and candyfloss this year, all in a bid to avoid going back on the Hook-a-Duck stall. Never again!

For Father’s Day this weekend we walked up the River Otter. It’s the site of the much-covered re-introduction of Beavers by Devon Wildlife Trust. The scheme has been a great success. The Beavers are thriving and with them, the health of the river too. It is such a tranquil backwater that it’s hard to imagine it as the centre of trade it was in medieval times. The river is now heavily silted at the estuary at Budleigh Salterton, creating an amazing habitat for wading birds and all sorts of other wildlife. The government have just this month started a consultation on creating seventeen new Marine Conservation Zones, one of which is the Otter. It’s a really exciting opportunity to protect habitats and wildlife, so fingers crossed it goes through without much trouble. You can read more about the River Otter Conservation Zone here and the Marine Conservation Zone consultation here.

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Walks Diary

illustration, illustrator, Hannah Foley, boy, horse, woodland, magic, fairies, elves, pixies, natural history, trees, children, kids, children's book art, kid lit artThis weekend I was, at last, able to add another walk to my Walks Diary. I started this diary in the New Year and it hasn’t been going well. A cocktail of endless family illnesses, snow, and building chaos meant lots of blank pages. We love to walk and if asked what they would most prefer to do for the day, our kids will often say, go for a walk in the countryside. Long may it last! I remember Little Owl once loudly wondering to me that she hadn’t had a picnic on a tree stump in a while.

However, the silly thing we often do is go for a great walk and then say to ourselves something like, oh next time we’ll turn left there and do that extra loop down to the stream; or, that would have been a better place for the picnic; or, we should come back in spring when this place must be full of bluebells; and by the time we do the walk again, we’ve forgotten! Some of you also know my pursuit of simple, seasonal living as a defence against mental illness and some of the unhealthy aspects of modern life. I’d like our walks to reflect a natural rhythm: to walk where the flowers are blooming when they are blooming if you like.

Anyway, at last, this weekend I could photocopy the OS map, mark our route with a coloured crayon and make notes. The walk was in the area around Hound Tor on Dartmoor, taking in Kitty Jay’s grave, Bowerman’s Nose, and the Hound Tor medieval settlement. Kitty Jay was a young maiden betrayed by her betrothed who then hanged herself. There are always flowers on her grave and it is said they are put here by a ghostly hand who won’t let her memory be forgotten. Poor old Bowerman was an 11th century hunter who disturbed a coven of witches and was turned into stone for his trouble. Dartmoor is cluttered with these sorts of stories and I love it. Clambering over rock-strewn hilltops, and then down into deep, dark, mossy lanes, Dartmoor is one of the oldest-feeling places I’ve ever been. Everything about it tingles with an ancient and almost other-worldy atmosphere, even on a bright sunny day in June.

Funnily enough, it was the very real ruins of the medieval settlement nestled between Hound Tor and Greator Rocks that felt the most mysterious to me. It has the perfect vantage point, looking down the wooded valley towards Manaton. I could imagine lookouts posted on both sets of rocks to keep watch for marauders from the South and West. Originally Bronze Age, it was resettled around the 9th century. Now all that remains are a few gentle, overgrown mounds and piles of stones, perfect for hobbits. From up on Hound Tor it’s easier to see the intention in the layout, which sets it apart from the surrounding piles of rocks and mounds left by nature. Very little is known about the people who lived on Dartmoor in the Bronze Age. They seem so strange and distant, living before Hellenism and the post-Enlightenment paradigm of this age. How did they think and see the world? Recently the Woodland Trust and The National Trust undertook an archaeological dig at Wooston Castle, not far away in Fingle Woods. Wooston Castle is an Iron-Age hill fort in an unusual position, not up on a hill as is most often the case. You can read more about the dig here. I’m excited to hear the results when they come out.

In other news, look who’s been hanging around the allotment!

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Half term storms

exeter, hannah foley, illustration, illustrator, landscape, exeter, sunriseI am back at my desk after an action-packed half term. The camping trip was a surprising success considering we slept through an almighty thunderstorm. ‘Sleeping’ is probably a bit of a stretch but we definitely nodded off at some points during the night. It was all worth it for the amount of fun the kids had. We were camping on a small family-run, working farm not far from us. We watched the cows being milked, visited the pigs and chickens, paddled in the stream, and bought the milk for our breakfast from the farm shop in an old-fashioned milk bottle. Hopefully we made some happy childhood memories that will stick.

The rain has had an enormous impact down at the allotment. The odd untended plot sports shoulder-height grass. My little patch has come alive with weeds. It’s a job to sort the newly-sprouted seedlings from all the other sproutings! Down by the river the swaying reeds have shot up and the banks are dotted with the golden crowns of yellow irises. In other news, our loft conversion is finally complete. As nice as the builders were, it’s a relief to have the house back to ourselves. Little Owl was delighted to christen the new toilet. Finch keeps going up and gazing at it as if he’s never seen a toilet before, y’know, like the other one downstairs!

Here are my pieces from the Exeter Illustrators’ Be Inspired Exhibition 2018 which ended yesterday.

swans, feeding swans, cygnets, hannah foley, illustrator, illustration, children, children's book art, dog,

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Franklin Nights

There is an old Westcountry name for the nights of the 19th, 20th and 21st of May. These are the Franklin Nights, feared for bringing late frosts to the orchards and causing a bad harvest. Down this way it is believed that nothing tender should be planted out until these nights have passed. No one knows who Franklin is, possibly a disgruntled ale brewer or St Dunstan who sold his soul to the devil for these three nights. Whoever he was, we’ve escaped unscathed this year. The Franklin Nights have been warm and dimpsy. On Monday evening I watched a bat careering around our neighbour’s cherry tree in mad figures of eight, feasting on the evening’s insects. Aren’t they wonderful to watch? Amazing aerial acrobats!

Yesterday evening was another balmy one but I had somewhere to be. I have two pictures in the Exeter Illustrators’ exhibition Be Inspired 2018 at The Welcome Café on Exeter Quay. Yesterday evening was the Private View. It was wonderful to see all the fantastic artwork displayed in such a great location. I felt very proud to be exhibiting alongside such a fantastic bunch of illustrators. The icing on the cake was that the Lord Mayor came along and gave a speech! The exhibition is part of Art Week Exeter and is running from May 22nd to June 3rd. Head over for a browse and a cream tea if you’re in the area.

Next week is half term and theoretically we will be off camping (weather permitting!) so no post from me. I’ll be back the week after.

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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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