04 December 2011


I'll admit it. I'm a softie, and I love this advert!

25 November 2011

Eat. Sleep. Sing.

The month of November has dissolved in a haze of train journeys, cough syrup and rehearsals. For the second year running, the DEB and I are participating our village Music Hall, which is great fun, but also a massive undertaking. At this stage in the proceedings, I start to lose the will to live, and begin to question why I have forced myself through this grueling routine.

The major difference in this year’s experience is the fact that I am now more actively employed (yeah!) than I have been in the past, so my energies are occupied across a variety of fronts; and I have far less “recovery” time.

Music Hall is a great joy, I have rediscovered my love of musicals and singing. And, it’s all for a good cause, but my god, the time and commitment it takes! And, I think, the harder we work, the easier it appears to be, which is such a contradiction. On the surface it seems a doddle: two rehearsals a week starting in late September, with a few more sprinkled in as time goes on. But, it truly is an all-consuming endeavour. And, then, the cold kicks in. The Music Hall equivalent of ‘kennel cough’ starts at the end of October, and works its way around the dressing room for the next month.

Both the DEB and I have had thrice recycled version of the “Music Hall Cold” since the beginning of November, and we are still hacking and sneezing as we progress to the last two performances this weekend.

I amazed myself during opening weekend, last weekend. Blurry-eyed and feverish, I rose from my bed for the 8:00 PM call. Somehow, sufficiently doped with cold medicine, I made it through the opening song. Coming off stage, I looked and felt like death. But I pushed through. By the interval, I was spent. “You should go home.” Our director Wendy, advised. “No way!” I said. I’d worked too hard, to just walk away from it now - especially not my solo number, “Adelaide’s Lament” – which is the second act in the second part of the show. “Okay,” she said. “After Adelaide, go home.”

I struggled into my nurse’s uniform and blonde wig, went on stage and gave Adelaide all I had. And, of course, it felt fantastic. I’m sure I sounded like I had a cold, but thankfully, that fits the lyrics of the song. The minute I came off stage, I had a massive coughing fit that nearly caused to retch. All the girls gathered round to pat my back, hold my hand and my hair.

“You need to go home!” my chum Chris, ordered. “I’ll do your line in Les Miz, for you.” When she said those words, something in my performer’s brain snapped to attention. It’s a kind of killer instinct that I used to train my acting students to develop. “No, thank you, I’m going to do it.” I said.

And I did. Immediately after, however, I surreptitiously lost myself in our onstage Victorian crowd, slipped off stage, and ran to the loo to be sick. I came back, and in eased myself back into place to re-join my section of the chorus, without anyone even noticing. My students would be so proud!

It’s a great way to flex ones artistic muscles, but I must say, it does seem that we utterly miss the Autumn altogether. It’s September, and then suddenly, it’s Christmas, with a blur of eating, sleeping and singing in between.

I had actually forgotten that Thanksgiving was this week! My BADA students reminded me in class on Wednesday.  That’s how lost/tired/ill I’ve been! But, it has not been a time with some real high points, too.

Last Wednesday, I attended the service to celebrate 400 years of the King James Bible at Westminster Abbey. When I read the dress code details on the invitation, urging all ladies to wear hats, I had very high hopes indeed, and I was not at all disappointed! Her Majesty the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales were all in attendance!

The service was absolutely wonderful. A real Anglican/Episcopalian love fest! Both Archbishops present, with the Archbishop of York reading the Gospel, and the Address being delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. * SIGH *

We held a smaller, but equally extraordinary celebration the following Sunday here at St. Peter’s with a Choral Evensong using text from the 1611 Book of Common Prayer. Heavenly.

Two more nights of Music Hall, and then, I get my life back. Now that really is something to be thankful for.

28 September 2011

Something in the Eyre (More on Darling English Boys)

In a very early blog posting I posited the idea that the "meeting of minds" is one of the chief pleasures of being involved with a Darling English Boy. Nearly four years on, I still believe this to be true, and recently, I experienced another delightful example.
Last weekend, my DEB and I went to Warwick Arts Centre to see the new film version of Jane Eyre.

Beside the fact that he actually waited to see the film, is the fact that he actually enjoyed the film! And, more importantly, after the film, he had an opinion about it!
We not only had an in-depth discussion about the film, but also about how Jane Eyre, as a novel/story, compares with the works of the other two Brontës: Wuthering Heights and Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
(A friend of mine said on email: "He actually knew that there's more than one Brontë?")
I nearly fell into the road! 
To be sure, my DEB is no slouch, he has a university degree; but, it's in science, not literature! 
He'd read and learned about the Brontës in school (the same school that Shakespeare attended, in fact!), and it has stayed with him. 
There is a great deal of hullabaloo about Education and standards in this country at the moment, with some real crises in basic English and maths. However, it seems to me they were getting it very right not so long ago, if the DEB's generation is anything to go by!

Bits and Pieces

Dated: 7 Sept 2011

I am sat, on a fast train hurtling headlong from Coventry to London Euston. I’m thrilled, and ever so slightly nervous.  This afternoon, I start my new post (also part-time) in the Shakespeare programme at the British American Drama Academy (BADA).
It’s been three very long years, but it seems that finally, my career is on the rise, and I am returning to the classroom, albeit on a less than full-time basis. The three-year hiatus has been good for me in so many ways. A time to write, and more importantly to reflect on what it is I actually want from/for my career.
When I walked away from my full-time, tenure-track faculty position at NYU, three years ago, my friends, family and loved ones, save precious few, called my sanity into question. I had made it, they advised, to the top of my game, I’d grasped the brass ring, joined the ranks of the privileged few – how on earth could I walk away from all that?
Truthfully? Quite easily. My life in NYC was a buffeting stream of extreme highs and gut-wrenching lows. The City that Never Sleeps leaves you drained and exhausted. The collective drive is relentless, and the sleepless nights all the more unbearable when you spend them alone. There is something about “being alone” in the mega-metropolis that is New York, that is a type of ‘aloneness’ like no other. Perhaps, because amid the constant din one can always hear the party you’ve not been invited to happening non-stop somewhere just around the corner.
So, there I was, “at the top of my game”, curled up on the settee in my bijou, shoe-box apartment, with Lucy (God bless her!), Lily, a large bottle of Shiraz, take-away pepperoni pizza and re-runs of “Coupling” on BBC America…
Of course, once I left the halls of academe, I reveled in my new-found wonderful English countryside life, but lost an essential sense of my own identity, as who I “am” has always been so intrinsically tied with what I “do”. As happy, joyous, free, loved and liberated as I have felt in my new life in England, I have simultaneously felt lost and rudderless, without real purpose and direction.
And what a refreshing adventure! For the first time in my life I was “defined” by my relationships as opposed to my achievements or ambitions. I have been forced to create and cobble together a new sort of ‘career’, more or less a “portfolio” of gigs, projects, and one-off assignments, etc. I have had to engage fearlessly in the not-so-fine art of shameless self-promotion and PR, and channeling my inner-American, and “putting myself out there”.
I have re-tooled my cv more times than I can count. I have applied for jobs that would have proved ludicrously poor matches for me – or them. But, we do that, don’t we? You feel desperate, and any job that is vaguely within the realm of possibility looks appealing: “Well, I could do that.” The subtext: if there’s nothing else going. And that is no way to live a life.
And then, there’s the Rejection. And, tons of it. I have been turned down by a myriad of secondary schools, libraries, community colleges and universities. I survived on “bits and pieces” that came my way (Thank heaven for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the RSC!). And, now, I’ve finally got hold of a bigger “bit and piece”. And the “Bits and Pieces” lifestyle suits me fine. As slapdash and haphazard as it has felt, I would not trade a moment of it now.
The only trouble now, what to wear?! A ritual purging two years ago saw me mindlessly throwing much of my professorial “work wear” into the charity bin!

04 September 2011

Crafty little sew-and-sew

"Catching all passions in her craft..." - Shakespeare, "A Lover's Complaint"

Inspiration often comes from the most usual sources. For our joint birthdays this year, the DEB and I decided to take our adorable little camper van for a week-long getaway in Snowdonia (North Wales). In preparation for this trip, we visited a local caravan shop near Coughton Court, as we needed a bit of cabling to connect our awning to the railing on top of the camper van. The actual cabling unit he needed was unavailable, but the shop had the materials needed to create one, the two strips just needed to be stitched together.

Possessing the heart of a would-be-crafter, I stepped forward to save the day by offering to stitch the strips together -- by hand. Upon returning home, I was struck by the heft of the task that lie before me. I weighed the situation, and thought the better of it, it would take me ages to do by hand. The DEB suggested I contact one my WI chums, and make use of their sewing prowess - and a sewing machine. 

A great suggestion, but one that left me troubled. I could be a Sewing Goddess too, if I had the right kit! Then, it occurred to me, why don't I have the right kit? Why have I never ever bothered to acquire a sewing machine? I blame the US feminist movement of the late 1980s! There. I've said it. 

In those heady university days, at least where I found myself, one kept ones crafty "tendencies" -- we certainly wouldn't have dared to called them "ambitions" -- quietly to oneself. Even before that, I remember how, when I was I high school -- I attended a prestigious girl's prep school academy -- my friends who attended other schools used to joke that St. Mary's was just a "finishing school for future society spouses", and laughed at the way we "Belles" were "forced" to take regular classes on Home Economics and Home Management. However, our school took 'real life' issues as seriously as Latin or Physics. I wasn't thankful at the time, but I am very thankful today.

And now, whaddya know, the whole world is hooked on bake, make and re-make! Everyone's clambering to be crafty! Me, included. 

My quest to solve a problem and release my inner sewing diva had begun! After a bit of online research, I went along to the Leamington Spa Sewing Machines Shop, Royal Leamington Spa's own sewing centre. There, inside the lovely bubbly-gum pink storefront, I met Sue Smith, who graciously gave me an afternoon of her time introducing me to wonders of the modern sewing machine. I was petrified, as I panic at very the thought of measurements, measuring, numbers and the like, but Sue was very reassuring, reminding me that I can read. And, if you can read, you can sew!

Sue was staggered by my revelation that my most 'recent' quilting project took me all of five years to complete by hand. (!) "You will be amazed," she said, "at how liberated you will be with a machine." Technology. I felt like a cave dweller, knuckles firmly dragging the ground, being encouraged to come forth into the light...

And the light, at the end of the tunnel, was a JANOME 2200 XT. A very sexy piece of kit, 100% luscious girl gadget (with 22 stitch functions!), perfect for the nervous, sewing machine novice. I rushed home to play with my new toy and instantly fell in love!
By the time the DEB arrived home from work, the awning cable was done and ready to be tested! "Wow!" said the DEB. "Wow!" said the very happy me.

Of course, the awning cable was ridiculously easy to do -- even though it was fiddly and awkward material to work with -- and only took me the best part of 15-20 minutes. By hand, it would have taken me hours. I felt like Hermione Granger with her infinity bag of goodies, what could I not achieve with this machine? I ran up the stairs and tipped out the contents of my sewing basket -- my hoarded stash of beautiful fabrics -- mostly William Morris designs -- that I have collected over the years, with the intention of creating something 'one day'. Maybe now, I'd actually do something! And, of course, the non-existent "wedding quilt" still waiting, after two years, to see the light of day. Maybe now, that too would actually get done.

It's funny, I do know some real quilting purists would never ever use a machine, and see quilting by hand as the only true form of that art. Sorry, sisters, I gotta move on! 

Nerd that I am, I felt I needed to arm myself with some knowledge. So, while I was in Oxford recently -- had to go to an Open Day at Magdalen College to meet up with my new chums from BADA (British American Drama Academy, more on them soon!) -- I treated myself to a visit to my favourite Waterstone's bookshop in Oxford's High Street. 

The Craft section of this Waterstone's is amazing. I was spoilt for choice, but one title literally jumped off the shelf  at me: The Busy Girl's Guide to Sewing: Unlock your inner sewing goddess - projects, advice and inspiration for a creative lifestyle by Carrie Maclennan. Perfect. (I also treated myself to a tiny paperback of The Designs of William Morris *SIGH*)

Carrie Maclennan's book is a godsend! So inspiring. I read it from cover to cover while we were on holiday in Wales, and just couldn't put it down! Surprisingly, Carrie's a novice seamtress, though she's been in the craft industry for years. So her book is written from the refreshing perspective of a novice, who is learning as she goes along, as opposed to that of a smarty-pants know-it-all. 

As a result, the whole time we were in Wales I was chomping at the bit to get crafting! Thankfully, North Wales is treasure trove for crafters. While we were in Harlech, I discovered a fantastic little fabric shop called Cae Du Designs. I caught the owner, Dee, just as she was about to close for the day on sunny (yes, sunny!) afternoon after a long-day at the beach. We started chatting, and before we knew it were wading through all her gorgeous fabrics!

I was keen to find material for the languishing wedding quilt. And Dee did not disappoint! After a few hopefuls, Dee struck pure gold. She unearthed the most beautiful silk/cotton fabric called "Bay Trees", which was absolutely perfect in colours of cream, taupe, lavender and sage. *SIGH*

Before the the arrival of the sewing machine, I was dreading the prospect of facing (yet another) hand-sewing project. For me and hand-sewing, simplicity rules: keep it simple with just two different fabrics in a (boring) square block formation. 

Well, now that I am all "tooled up", I can be much more adventurous! I went mad and bought as much of the fabric Dee suggested as I could carry! (£18.00 per metre - naughty!) More than I will ever need, but, it was oh, so gorgeous, I will hoard it forever!

While is Wales I also starting building my basic sewing tool box, as recommended by Carrie Maclennan in her book. That's been fun, too. Ebay is an incredible and inexpensive source for wonderfully crafty things like embroidery scissors, tape measures, pins, fabric markers, etc & etc. Now, I just need to time and space to craft...

Isn't strange? Now that my professional life here in the UK is (finally, finally) starting to 'heat up'; I am discovering a completely engaging and all-consuming past time?


02 September 2011

Still a winner - Shakespeare and me

Okay, so I ended up with a dismal showing in the Village Show Fruit, Flower & Veg competition. :(
I did not even place, in a single category. Not one out of four! Oh, well, heigh-ho, there's always next year.

And, it appears that poor ol' Will Shakespeare is being given a bit of a bashing these days too, with the release of yet another (YAWN!) conspiracy theory that "Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare". I mean, really, why don't these people take up knitting or something! Find a hobby, get a life!

Thankfully, all else seems rosy in Shakespeareland, and my stock as a scholar of said Bard seems to finally (FINALLY, FINALLY!) be on the rise. As I type, I am dashing off to catch a train to London for one of three (!!) upcoming Shakespeare-centred job interviews.

More later, wish me luck!

28 August 2011

Just in case, there's always "The Rose Bowl"

If I don't win a place in today's Flower Competition, I'll take comfort in my recent win in the W.I. Corsage Competition at the coveted silver Rose Bowl, which will remain in my possession for the coming year!

Here's a picture from that competition...

The Rose Bowl and the winning Corsage!

p.s. Wished we lived in time wherein we had more excuses/reasons to wear corsages...*SIGH*

A Day of Reckoning

Yesterday, The DEB and I rushed home from a fantastic holiday in Snowdonia/North Wales, so that I could meet the submission deadline for the Village Show Flower, Fruit and Veg Competition.
When we arrived home, I held my breath as I opened the patio doors hoping that my roses had flourished.
Sadly, my favourite, cherished cream coloured, David Austin antique rose had a really rough season, and failed to blossom in time. I was crestfallen as I had placed all my hopes that this rose would be as prolific and beautiful this year, as it had been last year.
However, to my great surprise, my pink, David Austin antique rose -- the shrub that has been my greatest gardening challenge, the one that seemed always, always to struggle to survive, and quite frankly, very nearly got the chop last season (!) beamed proudly with a staggering array of beautiful blooms in shades of apricoty, soft pink. Amazing.
(There's a lesson in there, somewhere!)
I was quite literally spoilt for choice with enough blooms to enter into three separate Flower Competition categories:
a.) Single specimen in water b.) garden flower display in vase, and, c.) Three scented flowers, of any variety in water.
I'm most proud of my "garden flower display" which was a lovely (if I may say so myself) arrangement of lilac gladioli, surrounded by hot pink shrub roses (Rosa Complicata) -- another plant in the garden I'd nearly given up on! -- pink wildflowers, pink and red fuschisas, pink antique rose, lavender and sprigs of baby-blue forget-me-nots.
I'm a little worried now that I may have done myself a disservice by placing this arrangement in the "garden flowers in a vase" category and not the "Floral arrangement" category. Well, the competition will be stiff in either so, it probably doesn't matter which one I entered!
At the very least, I think I deserve a ribbon for my dedication. The DEB (bless him!) and I trudged across the village, through the allotments, in the rain, gingerly carrying the arrangements to the Scout Hut, where the competition is being held.
I think we've made a strong showing as a family with my three floral displays, and a display of herbs the DEB has been faithfully growing this summer. I entered a display of his sage, oregano, parsley, mint, rosemary and thyme on his behalf. (What a good little Wifey I am!)
So -- today is the day. The Show just opened at 11:00 AM, and the results are out.
You'd've thought I'd be there, beating down the door. But, alas, no. I'm feeling rather shy...
I'd prefer to sneak in when no one's around to see. Quite unlikely, I think.
Of course, I'd love to place, but really, I'm just proud that I found the courage to actually have a go this year. The phenomenon of the "Village Show" has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
I'm a real "Jilly Come Lately" to all of this, and there are some very keen gardeners who dedicate themselves to this competition every year.
There's a scene in ITV's wonderful, wonderful drama Downton Abbey -- which thankfully will be returning to our television screens this Autumn!!! And, not a moment too soon!! -- where Maggie Smith's formidable Duchess without question expects to win the annual village rose competition, as she has done every year for as long as anyone could recall! Thankfully, our Village Show is not as fierce as that!

Everything's coming up Roses

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – Romeo & Juliet

If procrastination were an art form, my level of genius would rival Mozart. These days, my preferred method of whiling away an hour or two is that most serious, most wonderful, and most British form of procrastination of them all: Gardening.

Of course, pride of place in any English garden belongs irrefutably to the Rose. And, at the moment it seems I do very little else beyond fretting about my roses. With good reason – I am aiming to win a ribbon in this year’s Village Show Flower competition. I was too timid to enter last year, fearing that a novice such as myself would stand no chance in the fray. More fool me, as the blooms in last season’s yield were profuse and of such lovely quality they earned even the praise of my chum and rose expert, Paul Smith, at Charlecote Park.

That lesson being learned, I ‘screwed my courage to the sticking place’, and was determined not to allow the floral opportunity to elude me twice. I tested the waters by entering an arrangement in this year’s W.I. Corsage Competition. The Corsage competition, though smaller in scale than the Village Show, is just as friendly and just as fierce. Perhaps, even a little more so as the coveted Barford W.I. Rose Bowl is at stake. The Rose Bowl remains in the possession of the winner for 12 months - a sterling reminder of the victor’s horticultural achievement. I yelped with glee when I was declared this year’s winner, feeling truly a champion amongst champions.

After such a remarkable success, I felt ready for an even bigger challenge: the Barford Village Show Flower, Fruit, and Vegetable Competition. I was ready, but what about the roses? To my utter dismay, the darling buds of May, June and July had all disappeared without a trace by early August. The prolific flourishes of last year, had given way to a meagre struggle for any colour at all.

I was beside myself, but not alone. Outside the Village Shop, I chanced upon my friend Kate, a stalwart of the annual Flower, Fruit and Veg competition. She and husband, Ian, were off to Scotland, she said. “But, you’ll miss the Village Show!” I gasped in disbelief. She looked forlorn, and replied sadly: “Nothing’s growing like it should.” I knew exactly how she felt. My own holiday plans (or lack of them) have been shaped and altered by many things, but I can honestly say, that roses have never been one of them. Until now.

Since ancient times, roses have enthralled poets and writers (there are at least seventy references to roses in Shakespeare’s works), as well as artists, monarchs, apothecaries, lovers, and, of course, gardeners. The queen of flowers and national emblem of England, roses are as temperamental as they are beautiful. When they are ‘happy’, all is right in the world, and they offer an abundance of flower and fragrance; when they are ‘discontented’ there seems no remedy, and their bare, yellowy, spiky and skeletal appearance seems a harbinger of impending doom. Without a doubt there are few joys more sublime than that of being the possessor and cultivator of a healthy, ‘happy’ rose.

Noting of the hazards of the invasive Wickwar rose (Rosa ‘Wickwar’), Sir Roy Strong once admonished gardeners to “Beware the Rose that will Engulf your Garden”, I think he may have gone one better, and offered would-be green-thumbers more apt advice: “Beware the Rose that will Engulf your Life”!

06 August 2011

Post-Script to 'Now Panic and Freak Out'

As requested, here's a bit more info about HF Holidays. 
The official stuff: Voted Best Large Tour Operator - The Guardian Travel Awards 2010.
My two cents/pence: "If I didn't work for them, would I choose to travel with them?" - Yes! In fact, I'm hoping to save up my pennies for a surprise trip for the DEB next year! 
I haven't started working with them yet, but so far, HF Holidays seem like a really super company, and I will say they strive to give guests truly remarkable experiences. That is undeniably of utmost importance.
At our training and assessment sessions it was all about 'service, service, service', and making sure everyone on the holiday is happy, comfortable and enjoying their time.
They are also very much about creating a positive environment for 'solo travelers', so that traveling alone doesn't mean 'being alone'. I think that's really, really important. And, very inspired in this day and age.
The holidays are centred on activities, tons of activities, anything you can think of really! Walking, singing, painting, cooking, yoga, tai chi, arts and crafts of every form, music - performing and appreciation, and of course, literary festivals and theatre visits! 
Really, you name it, HF Holidays offer it, and if they don't offer it already, they are open to suggestions, if there's enough interest.
What HF Holidays isn't is an 18-30 binge fest in Marjorca! Nothing wrong with that, by the way, for those who are after that sort of thing, of course! Just wanted to be clear about it.
HF Holidays - better altogether
But, saying that, for a certain type of girl, it could be just the ticket, ... and yes, as one reader shared, I have heard the joke/rumour that the 'HF' in HF Holidays stands for "Husband Finding"...  

p.p.s. If you do decide to book a holiday with them, please be sure and mention my reference #3076! 

Website: HF Holiday - better altogether

05 August 2011

No Panic and Freak Out

My British Red Cross First Aid Certificate has just arrived in the post! I am so very proud! I just hope I never, ever have to make use of the skills and techniques I learned...
I was required to take a day-long course "Emergency First Aid at Work" before I begin my appointment as a Leader with the holiday/tour company HF Holidays.
HF Holidays is a leading holiday company specializing in activities holidays in the UK and abroad. I will be leading on their Shakespeare and other literary tours. It’s a very, very part-time post (read=not a great deal of money), but it’s a super opportunity, with a great organisation, and keeps those teaching muscles toned!
I dreaded the First Aid requirement, as I am utterly squeamish! It’s the thought of puke, more than blood, that makes me anxious. But, our wonderful instructor, Rhiannon, reassured us that if, and when, the time came, our training and sense of duty would kick in! 
And, thankfully, of the critical earlier steps in the First Aid process is: “Shout for Help”  -- I’ve got that covered!

A few interesting facts I learned while on the course…

6 million days of work are lost in Britain each year due to injury
229 workers were killed at work in the UK in 2007-2008
8 people per day die on British roads
4% of the UK population suffers from Diabetes
Every 6 minutes someone dies of a heart attack in the UK
150,000 people suffer from a stroke in the UK each year
200,000 lives are claimed each year in the UK by heart and circulatory disease
4 people per day die of asthma in the UK
5 million people suffer from asthma in the UK

I must add that a few of my responses during the training were distinctly “American”. When Rhiannon asked if there were any questions, I posed the following: “What happens if you offer someone First Aid, and then months later they try to sue you for hurting them, or for something you didn’t get quite right?”
My question was met with a healthy dose of disbelief and amazement from my fellow trainees (“Who would do that?”); and Rhiannon reassured me by stating that there are rules in place in the UK that protect First Aiders and their attempts to help, since ultimately, we are there trying save someone’s life.

03 August 2011

Patchwork passions

“Anything that’s mended is but patch’d.” – Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Recently, I finished a patchwork quilt I have been hand-sewing for years. It has been so long, I honestly cannot recall when I first started the project. 2005? 2003? Goodness knows! One thing’s certain - I did not quilt while living in NYC. There are, of course, quilters and knitters in Manhattan; I lived around the corner from a noted “knitting café”. However, NYC failed to inspire the right ‘mood’. I need peace and quiet to spur me on. 
Jane Austen is the literary patron saint of quilters.  In 1811, she wrote to her sister: "My dear Cassandra, have you remembered to collect pieces for the Patchwork? -- We are now at a standstill." Fortunately, the quilt mentioned was completed, and is now on display at Chawton House, Hampshire. As a fellow needlewoman, I am just as impressed by this creation, as I am by Austen’s literary ones. Jane’s quilt is a complex, diamond-shaped maze of 64 different fabrics. Completed all by hand, without electricity! 
By comparison, my efforts seem modest indeed: a simple, two fabric, block patchwork. 
Nonetheless, like Austen, I found myself at a standstill. With my D.E.B.’s rellies coming to be our first houseguests, I was desperate for my quilt to be finished in time for their visit. Thankfully, Warwickshire is a craft-lover’s haven, and help was close at hand. Local artisan, Joanna Smith-Ryland came to my rescue, saved my quilt from disaster, and shared with me the story of her passion for patchwork: 

How did you come to your art?

JSR: As a child, I was fortunate enough to have a nanny who was a brilliantly creative seamstress. I was always amazed at how she would take bits of fabric and turn them into something that people loved. At boarding school, I found a wonderful tradition of creative sewing in the Art Department. I loved the embroidery techniques we were taught. At 12, I was introduced to Patchwork - herein lay my academic down fall! I became obsessed with creating Patchwork designs on graph paper, carefully cutting each little shape out, tacking the fabric onto the shape and sewing the pieces together. Slowly, this wonderful rainbow of colours and textures would evolve into a new piece of fabric, cushions and quilts appeared at an alarming rate as my schoolwork regressed at an equally alarming rate!
What inspires you?
JSR: My inspiration has always been the beauty of the world around me, so my first three collections reflect nature. “The Garden Collection” is designed in soft pastel colours embroidered with flowers and butterflies, while “The Jewel Collection” has strong, rich colours and semi-precious stones. “The Big Cat Collection” uses silk and soft fur - Tigers and leopards abound!!  
What is the greatest challenge in your art?
JSR: My challenge is to let people share my passion by making Patchwork that will become a family treasure and passed on to future generations. Whether it's a cushion, quilt, or tablecloth each piece is bespoke and made in my own workshop - a treasure for you to keep and enjoy.

Passionate about Patchwork, Joanna Smith-Ryland

27 July 2011

Seaside adventure

I was commissioned to write a feature on the Whitstable Oyster Festival for Caravan magazine. I was delighted to get the assignment! I grabbed the DEB, my beach hat and my wellies, we jumped into our little Mercedes camper van, and away we went...!!

“The world is mine oyster!” – Shakespeare

There are few pleasures in life better than a lazy, Sunday lunch of fresh seafood and chilled wine at a table by the sea. A pleasure made all the more divine as a capstone to a pleasantly epicurean weekend at the Whitstable Oyster Festival.

The Whitstable Oyster Festival has a remarkable history dating back to Norman times, when hard-working fishermen held an annual ceremony of thanksgiving for their survival and  harvest. Today, the people of Whitstable symbolically recreate the  ‘Landing of the Oysters’ - the Whitstable Sea Scouts bring oysters ashore for a formal blessing before being presented to the Lord Mayor. The oysters are then distributed to inns and restaurants throughout the town as part of the vibrant Oyster Parade.
The Festival’s positively effervescent atmosphere permeated every corner of this tiny, historic town. And, there was something to appeal to every taste and age. There were tons of activities for families and children; oysters galore (of course!); plus an amazing quayside ‘epicentre’ offering a wide variety of delicacies (with and without seafood), from piping hot paella, and Portuguese sausages, to local hog roasts and Kentish cheese. There was also an array of entertaining and informative cookery demonstrations in the main marquee. Truly, a food-lover’s paradise!
However, oenophiles and ale enthusiasts needn’t have felt left out as there were booths and tastings dedicated to a range of local and international beverages: local ciders, regional wines, as well as master-class tastings of Taittingers champagne – the perfect oyster accompaniment. To the sheer delight of my husband, The Whitstable Brewery ran its own Beer Festival in tandem with the Oyster Festival. Two delights on one beachfront! With a selection of over 30 real ales and beers – and featuring several homegrown brews – The Whitstable Beer Festival was a real hit. These beers were best enjoyed in the sea-salted breeze, with fresh rock oysters, served alfresco on the beach outside the Brewery Bar.  

Leaving the driving to public transport, we camped at Bragg’s Lane Farm Caravan and Camping Site outside Herne, about 4 miles from Whitstable. Derek and Doreen Newman’s small, secluded site is a well-kept secret, and perfect for a quiet get-away. Each night, we staggered back to the campsite under a canopy of stars, and could hear the sound of sea birds calling in the distance, reminding us how close we were to the sea. Finding tranquility such as this, on the first weekend of the schools’ holidays, is nothing short of a miracle!

All credit to Derek and Doreen for their superb management of the site. Toilets and showers were always very clean. There’s only one shower cubical per toilet unit, but as this isn’t a huge site there weren’t massive queues, though sometimes there was a bit of a wait in the mornings. There’s plenty of hot water for showers and the washing up station. Local transport is plentiful and reliable, so venturing off to the seaside is a doddle.

We ended our Whitstable adventure at the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company restaurant, purveyors of the Whitstable Native oysters. Appropriately, we dined on fresh rock oysters and grilled local dabs to start, followed by local sea bass, stuffed and grilled with garlic and rosemary, served with new potatoes, and two fresh salads (green leaves with fine beans; tomato, basil and red onion). Looking out over the sun-drenched sea, sipping chilled rosé and Whitstable Pale Ale on one of summer’s hottest days, we felt replete and slightly decadent - nothing could be finer!

Pictorial Essay - 
Whitstable Oyster Festival, 2011

Fresh seafood galore!

Paella on the quayside

Young Festival revelers enjoying the sights and sounds

Landing of the Oysters

The Oystermen

Best seat in the house to view the proceedings on the beach

Oyster Parade in full flow

Oyster Procession through the town

Sea Scouts bearing the oysters 

Colorful Whitstable shop

Colorful Whitstable characters

A picture postcard view

Darling Boy in the brisk sea breeze

Stunning view



Bragg's Lane Farm, Bragg's Lane, Herne Bay
CT6 7NP PRICE: £14.50

Why Stay Here: An idyllically peaceful little site, down a secluded lane outside (about a mile) the village of Herne, with four pubs serving local ales. Lovely rural woodland walks, delightful seaside towns (Herne Bay Whitstable) and the cathedral city of Canterbury all close at hand.

Getting Around: Site in easy accessed from the A29. Excellent regular bus service runs past the site on the main road - the “Triangle” runs between Canterbury, Herne/Herne Bay and Whitstable at regular intervals throughout the day and late evening.

Suitable For: With just 20 touring pitches set on 1 acre, surrounded by fields, this site is perfect for couples and adults looking for a quiet get-away or a tranquil retreat. Great for walkers, ramblers and anyone who enjoys being near the seaside and historic sites.