I wanted to show you this great piece on my home that`s just gone live with Design Sponge. Thanks so much to Keiko for taking such glamorous pictures!
Horrors! My weekly post is almost thwarted when I discover that my big green canvas sewing bag with the chair cover I want to tell you how to make is missing. I stomp up and down the stairs looking in every unlikely place because the shoots move my life randomly from room to room and sometimes forget to put it back again! A call is put out and I find it has accidentally been picked up with another stylistís props. After a flurry of texts the bag arrives safe and sound before the clock strikes midnight. The lost property thing works, too, the other way round in terms of the stuff accidentally left here: lens caps, jackets, I-phones, address books and once, a priceless bracelet dropped in the dog`s basket.
Having also removed the furry obstacle itís back to the subject of how to sew a simple linen tea towel cover, a kind of apron for any basic kitchen chair. MATERIALS 1 tea towel measuring 85x60cm, 2 metres white ribbon or cotton tape, white cotton thread.
Firstly (see above) , cut two 10cm slits in the tea towel where the cover will bend up from the seat to the chair back. Turn back and stitch narrow hems on the raw edges of the slits .
Press a 5cm turnover to the wrong side and to the first slit, on both sides of the tea towel. Fold the ribbon in half and attach it to the centre of the top of the tea towel. Press over 5cm along the top of the tea towel (see above).
Stitch the top turn over to the first turn over on each side of the tea towel (see above) but donít stitch through the front.
To carry the ribbon ties cut an opening through the turned over sides (see above) on each side of the towel towel and stitch button hole style, about 2.5cm wide. Pull the ribbon through on both sides.
Tie the cover on to the chair and use!
Itís been a whirlwind of a week in location house land: the walls are purple one minute, then lavished with paper in stylish patterns, the next. And thatís not including the 15 people who organise the Queen of Craftís natty cushions and heart shaped jam tarts. Itís good to get out of the way of drying paint and have the first hits of the season on the tennis court. I like Fabian the coach because he says lots of Ďwell donesí unlike the slightly tutting new accountant who I meet to discuss the bulging packets of receipts. The air is marzipan-and-lemon-scented. Spring has gone into overdrive in the last few days, and the white beads on the apple tree might blossom too early if this luscious warmth continues. Gardeners are always paranoid about the risk of frost at this time of year, but I for one, can only luxuriate in and enjoy the myriad hues of blue in skies that have been leaden for too long.
As well as enjoying the bundles of grape hyacinths (see last week) I walk the dog through glades of delicate blue Scillas (above, and another cousin of the hyacinth family) that is so much a part of spring. Iím a blue girl as much as a green one when it comes to having splashes of the colour around the house. I love old faded blue and white floral china (above) it looks great against white walls. Coastal blue and white Cornishware stripes are always smart. I buy it both new, and secondhand when I can find it at a good price. Readers of my books canít fail to notice my passion for blue and white checks. I think small check patterns are easier on the eye for accessories such as cushions and pillow cases. See an example here on the new Swedish style bed from Feather and Black. This is the one that replaced the vast low slung circular Ikea number that was great for 12 year olds on sleepovers, but hopeless for arthriticky relatives.
PS. No thanks, I don`t want any more royal wedding paraphenalia in my inbox: "A bed that is fit for a Queen, King sofa and Queen armchair`, or, believe it or not `Knit Your Own Royal Wedding` etc etc. But I don`t mind reading the low down on clever Emily Chalmers of Caravan whose new book, Modern Vintage Style, is out soon.
The new greens are in season. Whatever else might be thwarting my daily progress, young bean green shoots and fresh bright spring green grass are reassuringly sprouting and budding outside the kitchen window. I canít resist bunches of Ďmuscari Ď grape hyacinths (see above) delicate blue flowers on equally delicate lime green stems. They are packed fresh from the fields in a box propped up outside the florist with the logo, Cornish flowers on its base. At £1.25 a bunch I am surprised that by lunchtime the sales woman says that I am the first to buy some of these vibrant and colourful pieces of spring.
With its potent link to nature, green is one of my favourite colours to have about the home. (Have a look at the exciting greens for faux suede by Designers Guild). Its presence as a decoration tool can be as minimal, as a flash of a lime green painted flower pot to brighten up the bedroom, or as all encompassing, as our lime green painted loo. The latter idea is a very good way for me to incorporate a rich green colour in a house that needs to make its living being painted white almost all over! And I have also managed to make way for some muted greens in the tv room and garden shed as the shoots are very keen to use them for backdrops to simple and natural still lives. As soon as thereís a day with the faint burn of spring sunshine my thoughts turn to picnics. I like to head for that south facing spot on the tussocky slopes that frame our walks along the Somerset valley on visits to my father. Feta cheese, basil and cucumber is one of our favourite fillings in hunks of sourdough bread that come freshly baked via our local corner shop.
The kitchen needs an update. Not only is the paint peeling off the drawers, but one of the white cupboard doors refuses to shut, the sink blocks and the cooker is ailing and working at half speed. Then thereís the location element to think about. Iíve been told that I will get more kitchen shoots if I have an Ďintegrated Ď dishwasher (the dishwasher door is faced in a panel to match the other fitted door fronts). You see itís not very Ďlifestyleí in the advertising world to have kitchens with all the ordinary workaday things on show. I must say itís never bothered me that the dishwasher is on view, but then I have always rather resisted the concept of a fitted kitchen that might be fabulously organised and clean, but looks completely clinical and soulless.
Hereís the plan: I wonít be starting all over again, that isnít my thing, and neither do I have the funds. I am very fond of the existing white tiles, now rather worn wooden worktop and recycled white shelf. After all, these are the simple and textural details which make my kitchen feel personal and look individual. I need some new units, but where to get them? I canít face the flat pack experience of Ikea. After trawling the web for cheap kitchens I come up with a surprise - Magnet, which appears to have undergone a wonderful metamorphosis. ( Ten years ago, no, even two years ago, design sensitive souls would not have been seen dead with one of their mass market models. ) Thus I find myself at the local showroom, desiring a very pretty pale duck egg blue range (see the finished effect in my kitchen above and below) that is simple, classic and looks great. (Except for the chunky handles which you donít have to have because there are plenty of other shapes to choose from. ) ďHow much is your limit ? says the salesman hopefully, "some of our customers spend £30,000Ē. He seems a little downcast with my minimal budget for a modest kitchen run of about 3.5 metres, but is helpful , attentive, and comes up with a good price.
A couple of weeks later and the big day has come, a breather between shoots, blog posts, and garden tidying, for the ripping out of the old and the installing of the new. The most important thing is that I have lined up a builder type to fit it all. It would soon be like a scene from Danteís Inferno if my husband and I attempted to grapple with rejigging the plumbing, fitting a new sink into the old worktop and marshalling all the Magnet components into place. Bar three knobs which havenít arrived, and for which I have to dash out back to Magnet for replacements, all goes according to plan. Itís a tough job though, sorting out the stuff Iíve unloaded from the old cupboards which now lies in untidy greasy swathes across the kitchen floor. I wade through and dispose of half empty packets of flour, corks, old chopsticks and other kitchen junk that no one else in the family would think to edit. The cherry on the cake is filling up the new pale blue duck egg drawers to look neat and housewifely (how long will that last?), and cooking a big plate of roast vegetables for lunch in half the time that it took in the old oven.
NB: It`s noon, and a Country Living shoot is filling the house with summer colours and ideas. Thereís a handsome man in black cycling shorts dashing up the stairs with a handsome vase of summer petals and blooms from Scarlet and Violet and the bathroom papered in floral sprigs looks like a set from Lawrie Leesís Cider with Rosie. Even our Tulse Hill cat looks like a country cottage puss dozing in the sunlight on a pile of Cath Kidston towels. Eyeing the props, I have fallen for brilliant floral cushions from the Conran shop, pretty pleated paper lampshades by Elise Rie Larsen and painted metal stools with rough wooden tops from excellent online resource, The housedoctor.dk. NNB. I ate delicious flat bread, olives, and delicately fried squid at Morito, the latest offshoot of Spanish/North African influenced restaurant Moro in London`s Clerkenwell.
I am looking at pictures of the crumbling brick walls and rotten timbers of the early Georgian house (1726 to be precise) that we restored over 20 years ago in Spitalfields, East London. There it is, our old home on the Spitalfields Life blog - just as we bought it, in its decrepidness, in Fournier Street opposite the soaring, glorious and soot stained Christchurch by Hawksmoor. The whole place was derelict then a part of forgotten and run down London. The fruit and vegetable market though, hummed with life from midnight. I remember the tramps who gathered at the crypt for soup , the hawks flying around the church spire and the rotten but aromatic smells of coriander and old potatoes, that lay crushed outside on the street And thereís the house again, itís classic beauty tentatively re-emerging, with bare wood shutters and new simple wood panelling. I supposed we needed true grit, and passion to restore one of these beautiful old houses built for Huguenot silk merchants. I remember a collapsing back wall, countless skips to take away debris, errant builders I had to fish out of the pub, and the joy of finding Bohdan the brilliant carpenter who reconstructed the panelling, and Jim who made our shutters and simple wooden bed. There are pictures too, of our home after the last piles of dust and blow torched paint flakes have been swept away. Itís good to see these `after shots`, of the light bright panelled rooms that I painted in sludgy creams, whites and greens. And there am I, pictured outside the house as it is today. I look quite cheerful but inside I was feeling, well, rather homesick standing outside my old front door.
I need to get back to the present, and to dwell on the more immediate matter of baking some very seasonal rhubarb for pudding. I chop the pinkest of pink stems into small chunks and lay them in a dish with a good sprinkling of sugar, orange peel, and orange juice. I turn the oven to 150C and bake for about 25 minutes. This is delicious with crŤme fraiche, or cream, or vanilla ice-cream.
And then there are the tulips - a half price bargain because they are going over, but thatís the way I like them all, floppy flailing petals. They also brighten my reflective mood - which is as much from house moping as the effects of being late night taxi service at 1.30am - "mum I missed the last train". I must fly as cardboard packs of kitchen units are coming through the front door . All part of my budget revamp of the kitchen. Wish me luck. NB Before signing off, look at Ghost furnitureís great ideas for rescuing furniture and Wallace Sewellís ideas for more brilliant colour in shawls, scarves and other textiles.
Ha Ha! I am right on trend in my several-seasons-old canary yellow buttoned J Crew cardigan, as the March issue of Vogue proclaims Ďfashionís new love for colourí. Of course we all know itís not really new, as fashion is all about an ongoing passion with colour in some form or other. But there is something particularly resonant about the newness and vibrancy that Spring brings to everything. A sense, too, of optimism and possibilities - from the leggy amaryllis by my kitchen window (see above) about to unfurl in a whirl of striped pink and white petals, to the Spring pages of fashion mags washed in bright shades of tangerine, raspberry and quince. (I look forward to the first swim of the season at the lido and have my eye on a hyacinth blue retro spot halterneck swimsuit in the Boden catalogue that plopped through my letter box last week.) When I havenít seen my children for a while and we meet after a fortnight away or longer, thereís a sense of seeing them as new people, almost like getting to know them all over again. Thatís how I feel, in a way, when I hold the neatly bound sections of the new book, all ready to be sent off to the printers in China. Is it really three months since I turned in the final acknowledgements? I am excited, because I now see the book with a fresh eye. Itís not tiring to scan the spreads that I checked over and over during the editing process. I hope it doesnít sound puffed up to say itís looking good!
Feeling buoyant I am inspired to revisit a piece of half finished patchwork that has been lying in my large turquoise canvas remnants bag for the last year or so. Itís made up of blue and white pieces cut from various sources: pairs of worn out childrenís pyjamas and tattered jeans. Thereís also a bit of floral Liberty print from a dress that I cut up because I grew tired of its shape. (Although quite expensive, I also like the idea of pre cut Liberty patchwork squares sold by the bundle.) Foot on the accelerator I motor along on the rather battered Elna Lotus SP that my parents gave me for my 21st birthday. The process of pinning and stitching, trying to steer not only a straight path but also fingers away from the dagger effects of the speeding needle, are all good for freeing the mind of muddle. As good as digging the garden, or beating egg whites to frothy peaks. Once everything is sewn together I hem the edges of what is to become a kind of patchwork loose cover for the seat of the chesterfield. I say, loose, because the dog, and the cat, are very fond of this surface, and it would soon look very sad, very quickly if I couldnít whip it off to be washed and revived. NB Must catch the British photographer E.O. Hoppeís modernistic portraits (Vita Sackville West, John Masefield) at The National Portrait Gallery. NNB I made pheasant and pea (frozen petit pois are delicious) risotto last night, with the leftovers and home made stock from a brace of pheasants from the Farmerís market. Itís good not to have to be a hunting shooting fishing type in order to enjoy the mildly gamey flavour, and lean texture of these inexpensive birds.
This feels like spring. A brilliant sunlight filled day and a plate of Daisyís eau de nil and chalk white eggs fresh from her hens. I check outside and even the bare flower beds have little patches of brilliant green where the chives, and tulips are having a go at bursting forth. I know that the doom mongers say thereís plenty more foul wintry weather to come, but you canít ignore the fact that it stays light until teatime. And as it turns dusky velvet blue, the sky has the luminous feel associated with softer, warmer and longer days ahead.
I like to bring the spring feeling inside even if it hasnít quite got going outside. There are inexpensive bundles of daffodils, or pots of delicate grape hyacinths at Jayne Copperthwaiteís fragrant flower shop which she recently opened in Balham, south London. Itís my daughterís 17th birthday weekend and so thereís every excuse to come away laden with bunches of blue hyacinths and sweetly scented white narcissi.
I prefer my flowers to sit in containers that donít shout: simple glass vases, pint beer gasses even, or the white enamel bowls that I fill with bulbs and layer with moss.
I lay the table with a suitably spring green cotton cloth made out of a furnishing fabric remnant from my store cupboard on the landing. Later at the birthday dinner, there are candles, pink fizz and large slices of chocolate cake. (I feel very short amongst the beautiful gazelles in high heels.) NB: Before I push Publish, I must say how really cross I am that the Government wants to close hundreds of libraries (481 libraries, 422 buildings and 59 mobile libraries are under threat according to Public Libraries News). As an 8 year old, it was a first taste of independence, wheeling my bike back from Earlsfield library with an Everlasting Toffee strip and a bagful of books dangling from the handlebars. The shiny parquet floors and hushed atmosphere made the library seem all at once very grow up but somehow calm and comforting. Choosing books from packed shelves, rows and rows, was like being in a kind of sweet shop of words and ideas, and all the better because you could take them home for free. My current local library at West Norwood is a brilliant source of everything from thrillers, to the latest Booker Prize winner in a pristine dust jacket. There are mothers with young children getting their first taste of reading books, old people who come to read the newspapers, seek some companionship. Even the disruptive teenagers calm down in this airy, peaceful environment. And in common with other libraries around the county, it is also a lifeline for the one in five people who do not have the internet at home and need their local library to look for jobs. The libraries must stay open.
When people ask, how do you know what to chose when youíre putting together a new room or buying a piece of furniture ? I say that going with my instinct of what feels and looks right is usually successful. This is all very well, but if I am fussing or thinking about something else I may not always be properly alert to some wonderful new prospect that is staring me in the face. This is exactly what happens when I am cruising around the Brixton branch of the British Heart Foundationís chain of second-hand furniture and electrical shops. There it is, a magnificent upright and elegant wing chair. A touch elderly-aunt-like in its plush velvet cover but this can soon be sorted out with an update in a simple blue and white ticking. And my goodness itís only 20 quid. I clock it as Ďbrilliant, should buy it, a great piece for the location houseí but the detail is all made foggier in the domestic thought jumble. I am oblivious to precious minutes being lost as I fiddle with the messages on my iPhone. Too late! An eagle eyed young mum with child and a buggy also knows its potential value and snaps it up before Iíve even had the chance to press back to Menu.
You win some, you lose some. Happily, I return to form when I spot a pair of pretty armchairs (see above and below) lined up on the pavement outside the junk shop in Streatham Hill. Like the lost wing chair, they have promise in spite of unappealing covers. A quick barter with the fag-in- hand, peroxide blonde attendant and the chairs are mine for under 40.00. Their new home is the blue room where I think I have made them look a little more dashing with linen shawls from Volga linens. I find the use of a throw is a very handy trick to cover up ugly prints or threadbare seats, and to protect a more precious fabric from muddy paws or childrenís feet.
Also related to a too fast, too multi-tasking existence (as seen with wing chair experience above) I read in the newspaper that the emphasis on knowledge in our culture, is taking us further away from using our hands. Too right. I think itís so important to feel the physicality and satisfaction of creating something oneself. My main proviso is that nothing should be too complicated. One of the best ways, for example, to update a simple dining chair, is to give it a lick of paint. (For those who are like my friend Marjorie and think that being handy is an anathema, look at Howe London to see some clever ways with old-fashioned Windsor chairs.) My favourite colours for sprucing old chairs are duck egg blues or plain whites. This is how you do it: Sand the chair with a medium grain sand paper, and then again with a fine one. Remove all loose bits of old varnish or flakes of old paint to leave a smooth surface. Apply one coat of wood-primer or undercoat as evenly as possible. Allow to dry. Apply one layer of eggshell paint. Allow to dry thoroughly before applying a second coat of paint.
I also love the idea of rescuing worn out linen and blankets with the needles and thread from my desktop sewing kit. Itís a wonderful and practical distraction from the screen to repair a favourite blue and white check blanket that has lost some of its blanket stitch edging. (You can see lots more simple sewing examples in my book Sew Easy). It feels productive, and calms me. Just as an afternoon digging in the garden does, or stirring the aromatic golden marmalade which is on the list for this weekend. Oh yes, one other good thing is that although the garden has been left looking like a rugby pitch on a wet Saturday afternoon, the leak is mended and I no longer live in fear of Thames Water spying on our pipes in the early hours.
I squelch around the soggy garden mentally choosing new planting ideas for spring. Smooth red rosehips and little purple figs, relics of last summer, on the tree in a frost-cracked pot are just about the only other colours in a palette of greens and earth browns. In the long, low illuminating rays of a sunny winter`s afternoon it is clear that the house is in need of a good scrub. My tools are thick gloves, bucket of hot water, mild detergent, a good wooden scrubbing brush and elbow grease. With the Radio 4 play for company itís not too long before the white floorboards look less dingy and the bare pine boards in the kitchen feel smoother, and cleaner underfoot.
I would not describe myself as house-proud - always fussing and tweaking the cushions in a Stepford Wives kind of way. But I do feel a certain self-consciousness on behalf of my home in its role as a location house - like the protective mother of a willowy model daughter at the mercy of fickle art directors. The other day, it was turned down because our beds were too ĎEuropeaní. I would be the wrong person for the job if I took this as a personal insult. All it means is that the space isnít right for that particular job. Getting the detail up to scratch is all-important. I overhear a comment about a clientís visit to a location, that was so shabby chic, the door handles were stuck on with sellotape. Feeling slightly like a child about to be caught in the act, I make a note to remedy our interior malfunctions. Preparation for photography means an enormous session with the washing machine. I love the dog and cat but not their muddy paws that decorate the white cotton sheets and covers as soon as Iíve made up fresh beds. So I am very strict and un-dog-and-cat-lover-like and banish them from the bedrooms until a shoot is over. All of the folding, ironing, and hot water and bucket work is not in vain, when the first client of the year announces that they would like to come and live here.
When the thigh-high reflective waders are pulled out I know the ongoing water leak situation is not so rosy. Soon the front garden is looking like a floodlit crime scene from a Henning Menkell thriller as Carl the plumber digs down in search of an elusive and broken water pipe. Neighbours pass by and look pityingly at our muddy excavations. Several more holes and mounds of earth later, the verdict is a whole run of replacement tubing and great expense. At least larder supplies are stable as the older two have returned to university. And I am no longer burning my fortune away in gas after discovering that the house was unbearably hot not because of the wonderful capabilities of the new boiler, which of course are undeniable, but because the thermostat had been turned up to 75C in order to quick dry a load of washing over radiators before the return to penniless student life. In between everything domestic, I am back at my desk writing Christmas thank yous with beautiful black and white cards Ė photographs of long gone North Devon rural life by James Ravilious from the Beaford Archive. (I must also tell you about the inspiring pictures on show at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery.) With many more evenings, and afternoons, of electric light before the clocks change, I am thinking of trying out what must be the first, and only stylish looking low energy light bulb: the Plumen bulb uses 80% less energy and lasts 8 times longer than incandescent bulbs. Meanwhile, it is good to see spring is advancing with my indoor pots of sprouting amaryllis and hyacinth bulbs.
The snow comes and the last roses are topped with fairy queen ice bonnets. I embrace the way the snow, the hoar frost, the cold, slows everything down: idling in front of a blazing fire to thaw out, or the ridiculously slow driving speeds needed to avoid the neighbourís brand new Fiat are all rather welcome. I crunch around the garden in Wellingtons and think it timely to invest in a pair of the recycled cashmere gloves that I spied on the nydesign room site. The dog loves the new white world and takes up goal post positions saving the snow balls we chuck in the air. ďLook at that dog jumpingĒ squeals a boy in the park and I feel the sort of maternal pride normally reserved for my children when they were young and doing some sort of athletic trick. I think she deserves a Liberty print collar even if itís not quite the butch streetwise look that most dogs sport around here.
The extreme weather conditions have encouraged the squirrels to excel at survival tactics. They line up on the garden fence, tails juddering, twitching and eyes greedily fixed as I attempt to plant the bulbs that didnít get dug in before the blizzard. I am not taking chances and put down barricades of wire netting to stop their mining efforts.
The shoots are tramping in slush and so I rush round laying down covers hoping it doesnít seem too unfriendly. It is not a little disorientating to be watching TV on Monday in the sitting room painted in Duluxís aubergine vision for winter 2011, and then by Wednesday, itís spring again and all pale walls, tulips, and hyacinths for a magazine feature that includes a gorgeous arm chair upholstered in olive green from Laura Ashley. Another theme on all things British, includes very simple white jugs from Burleigh that are ideal for a Pure Style kitchen, and simple block printed fabrics from Tobias and the Angel.
This Christmas I am stocking up on Spanish fig and almond slices from Brindisa and more membrillo as book writing meant that I didnít get round to making it this autumn. For more Iberian pleasures such as simple woven Portuguese shopping baskets try Feitoria. For a present of simple everyday drinking glasses you canít beat the dumpy French Duralex ones from Labour and Wait. And any lover of English food history will have their head happily buried all over the festive period in a copy of Dorothy Hartleyís classic Food in England: A Complete Guide to the Food That Makes Us Who We are
I might think the moment for scented room candles could come and go forever if it werenít for Diptyque who make ones with authentic smells. My favourite is Oranger, and almost as aromatic as the real thing. The Christmas tree is going up tomorrow and with it woolly pom poms that are very satisfying to make with children because the effect is very quick to achieve. I also make rag balls with fabric strips from my remnants bag that are pinned to floral oasis. The look is simple and homespun.
Only a few piles of dog eared admin remain before we can escape to Olhao and the new room on top. On the way to the post office, mimosa and forsythia are fizzing with yellow. It seems a little wasteful to be leaving behind the first budding and greening signs of spring but the draw of sand between toes and sardines are tantalizing too. And after more technology malfunctions (I won`t even go there) parking ticket angst, missed train connections, and near hospitalisation involving clogs on a down escalator, I`m ready to walk there, let alone fly .
Just have to get in a session of dough making for pizza (artichoke hearts, green olives and parmesan, is my current favourite) and other homemade creations (see here my sister in law`s divine rye sourdough bread) to illustrate my new book. The four legged paparazzo is enjoying the cooking sessions too, hanging around the worktop for crumbs, and helping herself to the subject matter of a flapjack shot when no one`s looking. It`s all go putting together the pages, and the deadline is no tiny speck in the distance anymore. But that`s good, too, because it means the weeks are slipping away until the backpacker daughter returns.
When I`m back first stop will be gorgeous fabrics at the V&A exhibition, Quilts 1700-2010. Might even get round to a spot of quiltmaking with pretty seaweed prints from the museum`s collection of archive printed cotton. Check out more print ideas from Printand pattern.blogspot.com and Liberty prints at knockdown prices in the new range for American chain store Target .
Spring garden notes: Divide agapanthus: I have an extended family of agapanthus plants that came stashed in a suitcase from Spain and are now packed tightly in a pot like chocolate fish in a tin, which is how they like it. This year, though, division is necessary to keep the plants vigorous and I cut them down the middle with a fork and plant the new half in a fresh container. Feed shrubs and climbers: I started with the standard roses, and have now worked in more compost and bonemeal around the shrub and climbing roses, and gorgeous pale lilac wisteria at the front of the house. Sow seedlings half hardy under cover: Nicotiana and zinnia seeds saved from last year are germinating in a tray on the windowsill. Sow less than think as a pinch of seed goes a long way. Prepare trenches for beans and `chitted` potatoes and dig in muck or compost (on another sea salty note, I remember my grandmother lined her bean trenches with seaweed and newspaper to conserve moisture).
Bother! I`d hoped to get my post out before the end of February. I am diverted from my laptop to equip the eldest daughter with `wedding ring`, door wedge, extending washing line and all the other stuff for the gap year female traveller. It is like losing a limb when she walks through Terminal 5 departures, but I can get in the bathroom now. And in the way that life sometimes seems to synchronise itself, my new book contract is signed and the deadline is just about the date she returns. Publication is next spring, but I`ll give you some sneak previews along the way. Some design notes:I won`t ever tire of gingham, it`s a really inexpensive way to add a spot of spring colour to the home: a simple pull on chair cover ,say . My temple is MacCulloch & Wallis who sell online as well as from a shop crowded with young fashion students in central London. Look out, too for enamel alphabet letters and numbers from Hyperkit, more timeless simple design. RIP Lucienne Day one of our great designers, known for her painterly and simple Fifties` fabrics. I also have a passion for the stacking Polyprop chairs that her husband Robin Day designed, and can still be picked up from secondhand shops and markets.
There are walking babies, crawling babies, sicky babies and back-up babies modelling shoes in the house, and so I escape to the garden. It`s looking spare (an understatement) but crocuses like bright fruit drops are pushing through. I prune the roses with vigour giving the 4 standards the equivalent of a military short back and sides. But they will flower well and spread without looking wild and untidy. They have a good feed with shovels of rich earthy compost from the bottom of the bin. It`s so cold I can`t be bothered to dig it in, but it`s raining so the nutrients will wash down to where the roots need it . The room on top in Olhao is nearing completion after the builders have ducked and dived the thrashing winds and rains of the Algarve`s worst weather in 30 years. It`s a whole new vista up here. In the distance, a band of cobalt sea beneath a grey blue sky, tv aerials, flapping laundry, a silver winding mesh of homing pigeons, the fizzing pink of an almond tree. And all with the Olhao soundtrack of dogs barking, bells, and the strains of a fado song on next door`s radio. NB The dearth of photographic evidence is due to further gadget malfunction, this time, my newly acquired i-phone, a marvellous invention, when it works The blues and greens of the seaside are exhilarating but no less than the rolling hills and valleys on the drive to see my Dad in Somerset: a mossy palette as if from a Farrow and Ball paint chart. And then there is more heavenly natural colour at the Van Gogh exhibition, where my rushhour Friday stress melts before the artist`s drawings and paintings of French gardens and vegetable patches
What with all the backpacking details I almost leave the marmalade making too late, but am saved by the last boxful of Sevilles at the local greengrocer. Soon the kitchen is a bittersweet aromatic fug and the mind only focused on the job. No wonder DH Lawrence said "I got the blues thinking of the future so I left off and made some marmalade." I read though that 80% of marmalade eaters are over 45. Don`t you think we should champion the young to get boiling and stirring? It`s such a pity that marmalade has that fusty old major at the breakfast table image.
I pot the marmalade in recycled jars that I save and store under the sink. Holding one`s golden efforts in a simple glass jar topped with a cellophane lid and decorated with a homemade label is pure pleasure; so, too, is a slice of bread topped with marmalade and a spoonful of creme fraiche.
The snow woman is limbo dancing in the garden (her structure undermined in a temporary thaw) and the skiers have returned from the Brockwell Park slopes. Welcome to 2010 and the weird world of weather. For the last two weeks we Londoners, together with the rest of the country have been grappling with the biggest freeze-up for years. This one is maybe not as punishing as the winter of 1947 when people were using pneumatic drills to dig up frozen parsnips and 20 foot snowdrifts cut off thousands, but it is bad enough to inflict an itchy collection of chilblains upon my 15 year oldāńŲ?—?•s toes. The red and swollen effects have been hastened by her unenthusiasm for sensible (ie uncool) walking boots. I explain (the without judgement style of explaining) that Top Shop pumps are probably not the best option for negociating ankle height slush, grit and skating rink pavements.
Even if the footwear advice is not exactly welcomed at least the suggestion that everyone keeps warm with hot bowls of porridge at breakfast is met with approval; not only comforting but the ideal vehicle for large amounts of dark muscovado sugar or golden syrup. I make it with roughly one cup of oats to three cups of water. Bring the ingredients to the boil in a saucepan and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until creamy. Honey, butter, cream, creme fraiche or chopped dates are other delights to eat with porridge.
The hyacinth bulbs I potted some weeks ago are throwing delicious scent around the room, and this, combined with the wood smoke from the fire gives the house the feeling of a rural oasis........ I can almost hear the sheep bleating. Reading in bed at night, swathed in an array of colourful wraps and blankets to keep warm, I`m told I look like an eccentric aunt. How romantic. One of my favourites is a cotton cellular example that I dyed lilac to pep up its hospital look. I`d like to add one of Donna Wilson`s takes on traditional Scottish blankets to the pile. And if I was to introduce some colour to my bedding themes, then Dorma`s new duck egg blue cotton sheets would be perfect.
I`m the first to bang on about the false economy of buying cheap gadgets. But when my iron was lost on one of the shoots a few months ago, as a stop gap I nipped down to the electrical shop and bought the cheapest one I could find. In short, a mistake highlighted when I swished, rather than sweated, through the creases with the new Phillips model that has replaced the bad buy. With the windows steamy, a cup of Earl Grey, and the afternoon play going in the background, I soon got through the stack of pre-washed tea towels to be made up into linen tablecloths, orders for which are flying out of my online shop.
Pedalling past marzipan scented broom and blazing white magnolias in Battersea Park each morning put my head in the right place, for 4 days hard study at the botannical painting course I attended last week. The freesia is not my first choice to put in water on the table (maybe because the modern hybrids are too uniform in shape) but I began to appreciate its structure and complexity as our teacher Elaine Searle calmly guided the group of aspiring plant painters to observe, sketch, and watercolour the specimens. The final painting now stuck up on my noticeboard, is far from brilliant but I`m pleased with my efforts. What`s best is that I`ve been given the tools to be more confident at painting herbs from the garden, the best escape from a dismal tasks like appealing against parking tickets. NB I must return the magnifying glass,needed for the course, and on loan from the local newsagent whose heavenly home cooked lunch time curries waft comfortingly around his shop. I`m so enthused by my nascent painterly skills I shall go out and buy my own lens even if it does make you look slightly odd peering intently at a lone tomato.
The sprouting seed nursery in the office is getting under my feet as the fledging plants make their break towards the light. I have transplanted the zinnias into peat pots, which can go straight into the ground later on, as I they don`t do well with too much handling of the roots. I have a passion for the riotous pinks and purples of this frilly late summer flower, which looks so colourful in the border and as decoration. The basil is brimming nicely and that will be next in line to pot on. I might even put the sweet peas outside next week, covering them with a bit of fleece to be on the safe side. CH Middleton an old school BBC garden expert from the thirties whose book An Outline of a Small Garden, I picked up for 3.00 from a junk shop suggests that the best way to get fine big flowers , is put them at least six inches apart in a deeply-dug and well manured soil, and give each one a good long cane or stick to support it; then as they grow, nip out all the the little side shoots as soon as they appear, leaving the one stem to each plant. In this way you will get very tall plants and extra fine flowers. I am also really hoping that the sprouting leaves of night scented stock will be successful. You hardly notice it during the day, but on a summer evening it entices you outside with its powerful scent. I shall grow it in pots near the garden table so we can enjoy its scent on one of those calm balmy nights which are possible in this country if the isobars on the weather map are wide enough apart. Out digging in more manure, and weeding last weekend, I noticed a garden regular, the blackbird with an albino patch, having a feast on unfortunate worms revealed by the earthworks. And sometime later the cat struck lucky with a mouse that she laid separated from its head at the bottom of the stairs...... to greet me first thing Monday morning. (Wild)life is tough on the flowerbeds in suburbia.
Thinking about the most delicious things I`ve eaten in the last 48 hours, the lemon cake was good, after our trip to Tate Modern to see Roni Horn`s exhibition, but not as good as the fork biscuits, made by my friend, Fiona .The recipe involves little more than flour, butter, sugar, lemon zest, and a fork for making ridged patterns on each round biscuit shape. I think they`ll be good for tea on Easter Sunday, and less sickly than all the chocolate that will be scattered about. I like to decorate eggs, and am excited with the acrylic colours I found in Green & Stone , one of the most fabulous art shops in London. See how easy it is to do on my Youtube Make and Do series.
It`s a week before the big day and there`s masses to do. I`m metaphorically chasing my tail. What a production it is: travel plans, the lemon and sage stuffing my dad likes, last minute shopping, and so on. But I treasure my Blue Peter moments, making a festive herb wreath , and painting simple designs for cards. Even though it requires time and effort, it`s a kind of Crafty stand off with all that is crass and commercial about christmas.
These are some of my favourite elements for a simple christmas: a blazing log fire; an aromatic Norwegian spruce tree, homemade heart or star shaped biscuits; white tissue, brown paper, and garden twine for wrapping presents; homemade cards with potato cuts or watercolours; as many flickering candles as I have holders for, plus jam jars for tea lights; bowls of hyacinths, amaryllis or white narcissi, natural scent and colour which lasts for ages; mounds of clementines,orbs of orange that taste as good as they look; and ice cold Spanish cava (Sainsbury`s vintage is on special offer) to kick start christmas morning.
Typing in six layers, including a substantial wool coat, isn`t a peach as sudden movements are restricted (leaping to stop the dog swiping my chocolate biscuit, for example ) but it`s good to feel so wrapped up and cossetted. I suppose I`m being frightfully eco and saving on heating bills by being my own living radiator. But we have to go a lot further in this hot-bath-and-shower-addicted household to make a decent dent in costs. I swoon with motherly pride at the 17 seventeen year old`s top notes, soaring upwards from the shower, but accompanied by fifteen minutes of steaming and pelting water sounds makes it a pricey performance. I`m wondering where to find an automatic shower time-out like the ones in the gym, where just as you start to feel properly soaked, it cuts out. Curmudgeonly? I hope it`s not some sort of lingering vibe from the grumpy old man persona that comedian Jack Dee plays in Lead Balloon, the series filmed in our house last summer.
Meanwhile, I`m making up the beds with all the blankets I can lay my hands on including the special no-dog-and-cat-allowed velvet ribbon- edged one. This reminds me that adding a trim to something like a plain tea towel or cushion cover is a simple way to customise a Christmas present. And on this subject, my head is spinning. You`d think that being a stylist and professional shopper, I would be resistant to the frisson of panic induced by the beguiling and glossy gift lists in the magazines. Well, I`m not. I am pleased though with my more humble DIY Christmas hamper idea: small wooden crates, which clementines come in, lined with tissue and filled with goodies like homemade membrillo; a bar of Green and Black`s chocolate; a packet of frilly white parrot tulip bulbs; or a good read, perhaps Francois Sagan`s classic coming of age Bonjour,Tristesse, for one of the teenagers, or Zoe Heller`s, The Believers. I shan`t forget some gorgeous Christmas delicious scents too, like the intoxicating sweetness of a pot of paperwhite narcissi, or for complete indulgence, a tuberose candle from Diptyque.
AROMATIC ORANGES Oranges remind me of Christmas in Andalucia: the bulging nets of `navelinas` (they`re the ones without pips) sold at the roadside on the way out of Seville, and the sweet heady blossomed air floating in the half-opened car window as we swept by neat sunlit orange groves. I learned that a tree can fruit and flower at the same time, and that an unwaxed orange is so much more appealing than the artificially shined and waxed ones in Tesco. I also learned how to carefully slice the peel off with a perfectly sharp little knife, cut the orange into wafer thin discs, and chill in the fridge with a little lemon juice, a tablespoon or two of cointreau and a few fresh mint leaves. At Christmas lunch and the meals to come we continue to enjoy the clean fresh taste of sliced oranges, against the stodge factor of the pudding and mince pies.
Hard times make houses into homes. I`m hoping we`ll see less of city banker style: perfectly good houses extended and interior designed to death and then sold on to make big fat profits. Bring on the recession. Houses are reverting from assets to homes: they have skips outside because owners are staying put instead of making a fast buck and moving on. As money gets tighter we should automatically start asking ourselves "Do I need this, or do I just want it?" It`s thus for you to decide whether to invest in the new combined hardback edition of Pure Style Home & Garden. Ok, I`m on dodgy ground here, and certainly wouldn`t be so conceited as to think that it is a necessity, but if you don`t have the earlier Pure Style and Pure Style Outside titles, this has hundreds of thrifty and simple home ideas which help save money without forsaking looks and style. Let me know what you think. Home work
photo/vanessa courtier It`s important to hide the custard creams if you`re a easily distracted home worker like me. Go for some healthy oatcakes, which can be thrown together with out difficulty: Add 270g medium oatmeal, one quarter teaspoon baking soda, and a pinch of salt to a bowl. Make a well and pour in 2 dessert spoonfuls of melted butter and 164 ml water. Mix to a stiff paste with a wooden spoon. Knead with the hands and roll out thinly as possible. Cut into circles or triangles and bake in the oven at 200C 400f for 20 to thirty minutes. Makes about 20. Paris Hilton has paparazzi. So do I: the dog and the cat, who sit or lie with their eyes boring into my back willing me to their food bowls. The dog follows me upstairs, downstairs, to the washing machine, to the bin, back to my desk and so on. When I hit a dead end on the thoughts front I get out into the garden to plant or dig. (Psychologists say that continuous small achievement is the key to happiness). The dog and the cat come too. This morning I planted white wallflowers, hoping they will smell as scented as the mixed colours I usually choose. The dog hung around my spade hoping for a stone to be thrown. The cat watched, eerily balanced on the fence. The rose bushes are thinning with few blooms, like a frail and fragrant aunt. I wonder if enough heat can be squeezed out of the sun to ripen the rest of the tomatoes. I do know a good recipe for green tomato jam.
The park glittered in the still clearness during my early morning dog walk; the light as intense as the sweet liquorice smell from the dried fennel sprig I picked and crushed in my hand. The autumn fall of leaves this year is a breathtaking chemical wonder of nature, suspending belief that summer is over. So much colour. So many variations on yellow, burnt orange and brown. This visual tonic is more energising than herbal Floradix, the liquid plant food for humans, that my friend Bea swears by when she needs perking up.
I say `day-lee-a ` you say `dah-lee-uh`. Whatever the emphasis, dahlias are another last blast of gorgeous autumn colour before the dankness begins. This native Mexican flower imported two hundred years ago has always been a mainstay of the allotment garden, to pick for the table along with the cabbages and beans. I remember grandpa, fag in mouth, carefully tying his prize purple spiky blooms to stakes with green hairy string. In high-up garden circles though, the frilly dahlia was long considered rather vulgar. I`m glad the style bibles and garden columns have made them acceptable again in and outside the vegetable patch, and there are a wonderful array of varieties for any border or pot. On of my favourites is `Noreen` a flirty rich pink pompom shape. keeping warm
Got to think about keeping out all those beastly draughts this winter, as I don`t want a repeat of the heating bill we ran up last year, especially when energy costs are supposed to rise another whopping 40 percent. Something thick and sensible, but nonetheless good looking, like a curtain lined with a blanket,is going to be a good way to deal with the gale that blows in under the front and side doors. There is a very basic pattern for one, using some tough pink corduroy in my book Sew Easy. It`s based on the same lines as the old insulating curtains we found in the house when we first moved here. chocolate and chestnut cake I know I`ve posted this recipe before, but it is too, too delicious, and, because chestnuts are gluten-free, might inspire anyone who has an intolerance and is missing gooey cakes. I admit to being partisan but you must try the peeled organic chestnuts my husband produces at his little factory in Andalucia, South Western Spain Base:400g peeled chestnuts, 125g caster sugar, 125g chocolate (min 70% cocoa solids), 100g butter Icing: 15g butter, 125g chocolate, as above, 15ml fresh orange juice, 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind Process peeled chestnuts and sugar until smooth. Melt chocolate and butter in a large saucepan. Add chestnut/sugar paste and mix until smooth. Turn into a greased cake tin. Icing: melt the chocolate with butter, orange juice, rind, and stir until smooth. Spread over the mixture and chill in the fridge overnight.
Last week we waved teenage son off to university with the usual unwanted advice on how not to run up debts. I`m relieved he didn`t spy the card a friend sent me with Oscar Wilde`s quote `Anyone who lives within their means, suffers from a serious lack of imagination". Good for Oscar, but I think its more glamorous being an Einstein of resourcefulness in these credit crunch times.
Let`s take comfort for example. You absolutely don`t have to have the latest piece of designer luxury , but what really is important, is how your cushions are stuffed. With feathers of course. This was one of the first lessons from the white haired tartar of interior decoration I once shared a hallway with. The mere mention of of foam chips would send her into an apoplexy. Decent feather cushion pads don`t cost a fortune and make all the difference between a chair that envelopes you and one that is plain uncomfortable.
Even if I had fifty something million smacker to spend I`m not sure whether a Damien Hirst diamond skull would be my first choice; a couple of Picassos, maybe, but then why can`t art be something that is unpretentious and as simple as leaves pressed in a frame? It`s important to have the confidence in furnishing your home with things that please you not what is fashionable or investment material.
Foodie heaven on a budget? I suggest a few quinces, the golden apples of mythology, made into quince paste or `membrillo` as it is known in Spain. Eat sweet but tart (I add lemon) slivers with a strong cheese like manchego. Not your usual supermarket stock, quinces require sleuth in tracking down. Now is the season. I have often loaded a suitcase with an arm load picked from the finca in Andalucia, where quince trees qrow prolifically. There are surprising number of English country gardens that possess the quince, so ask around. And they`re the kind of garden produce that turn up at a local farmers` market.
QUINCE PASTE: Cut up 3 kilos of quinces: peel, pips, core and all. Put in a deep heavy-based pan, cover with water and simmer until soft. Puree mixture with a handblender. Weigh, and add an equal amount of sugar, plus the juice of 2 lemons. Simmer, and stir constantly, until a rich red colour. Line shallow trays with greaseproof paper and spread the hot paste about 4cm deep. Leave to dry and harden in a cool place. Cut into slivers and serve with hard cheese, and a little glass of something sweet like moscatel wine.
I rise to the challenge of coming up with homespun, simple ,and cheap ideas. It`s needs must, but somehow more rewarding than pointing like a Carl Sarkozy/Bruni and saying I`ll have that, that, and..... that, regardless of price. Maybe if the boot was on the other foot, and I was able to waft around the Conran shop picking out anything I fancied I might think differently. But for now, I`m happy to go the inventive route to keep my home looking and feeling good.
The really important part of being thrifty and creative, and one important rule that I impress upon clients, is to make the most of what you`ve got, rather than always feeling that NEW, NEW, NEW, is the way to decorate. Take my rather worn and shabby chesterfield, that looks far from chic . I have debated it`s removal many times but it too comfortable , and I figure that it`s worth buying eight metres of good linen for a loose cover and facelift. Similarly, you can do wondrous things with muslin, like making an underskirt for a dressing table, which not only hides clutter but makes an ordinary piece of furniture look more quirky and individual.
Simple detail is another way of showing your creative spin around the home, and it can make an enormous difference for little time and effort. See how this scalloped edging in contrasting plain linen on a basic check blind looks pretty and homely. The film crew vacates this weekend (I hope the cat`s not become precious, Go Cat won`t be good enough, since her filming debut) and we`re allowed back home. Being away for a month has given me time to reassess. I`ve decided that because no one really `sits` in the sitting part of our knock-through kitchen and living space, I will remove the armchairs and bring in the large kitchen table. We will then have a much larger and more relaxed eating area, rather than being too close to the cooking action and piles of washing up. In turn the big armchairs will go up to the 19 year old`s lair at the top of the house. The kitchen itself, will be freed up for the business of cooking without interruption. A good opportunity then to throw together some tasty goats cheese and red onion tarts. I have developed rather a pasion for them since I was put down for making half a dozen for our annual street get together. It was good to enjoy some neighbourly bonding and eat great food, partying on the grass around a long table with flickering candles, until the early hours. Suburbia can, indeed, be blissful.
Tags: thrifty decoration