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Thursday, 11 September 2014

Noro yarn trial (and a free pattern!)

Earlier this year, Black Sheep Wools asked me if I'd like to trial some new Noro yarn that they were bringing into stock for the autumn season.  I've often looked at Noro (and in particular the sock yarn, although that won't be a surprise!) and admired the vibrant colour combinations but until now, I've always been put off by the variations in the yarn thickness, despite this being a key characteristic of the yarn.  This would be an ideal opportunity for me to try it out so I jumped at the chance!

The yarn Black Sheep gave me wasn't sock yarn but instead was more of an aran weight.  and the trail ball was a bit like a lucky dip - there was very little information on the yarn band and no needle size suggestions at all.  It took me some time to gauge which needles to use, although what I did discover whilst making my swatch was that it knits up into a much softer fabric than I expected. In the end, I used the wraps per inch method and settled on 4.50mm needles which produced a nice firm fabric.  (You can see my swatch getting bigger as I changed needle sizes!)

I was surprised to find that despite the differences in the yarn thickness on the ball - in some places it was almost lace-weight and in others as thick as chunky - it didn't seem to make a great deal of difference when it was knitted up.  It has a slubby texture which is quite attractive, so this is not the yarn to use if you only like smooth knitted fabrics.  

I did enjoy being able to sit and knit in the afternoon with a legitimate purpose instead of sneaking in a few rows here and there between other jobs as I usually do - although I felt as though I should be looking over my shoulder every few minutes to make sure that I wasn't going to be caught out skiving!  I could quite get used to this!

I was told that I could make anything I liked with my ball of yarn, so I decided to try to use it all up.  Big daughter started sixth form college this week and is busy trying to define the style she wants to present now that she no longer has to wear school uniform.  This is what I did with the ball ...

and this is how she wore it ...

It's a cowl, a simple knit and purl version which took almost exactly one ball (I think I had about 5 inches of it left) and knits up quickly on a circular needle.  If you'd like to make one for yourself, the pattern is below, and is also available as a PDF.

Simple Twisted Cowl


1 ball of Noro Hanabatake
5.00 mm needles (optional – see note)
4.50 mm circular needle in 60cm length
Wool needle

Cast on 100 sts loosely with 4.50 mm circular needles.  (Note - if your casting on tends to be tight, use 5.0mm needles then transfer to 4.5mm circular needle for round 1)  Before joining into the round, twist the stitches once, place marker and join to create a circle.

Round 1-2      knit
Round 3-4      purl
Round 5-7      knit
Round 8-9      purl
Round 10-43 knit
Round 44-45 purl
Round 46-48 knit
Round 49-50 purl
Round 51-52 knit

Cast off loosely (use 5.00mm needles again if required) and sew in ends.

Finished size:             depth approx 15cm, circumference approx 60cm

The yarn is now available at Black Sheep in a choice of 8 colours and all the information on needles and tension is on the ball band, so there's no need to worry that you've got some complicated swatching to do!

Would I recommend this yarn?  Yes, I would.  I was very pleased the way it knitted up, it didn't split or break and despite the thickness changes the finished fabric felt very even.  I liked it, and big daughter seems very pleased with it too.  

The yarn was provided by Black Sheep Wools

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Great Winwick Bake Off

There was a flurry of baking activity in our kitchen this weekend.  It doesn't often happen quite so early on a Saturday morning, but this one was different.  Today was the day of The Great Winwick Bake Off.

It's a fundraising idea to raise money towards mending our church roof.  We're nearly there, only another £30,000 to go, so events like this are a great way of getting the community involved and pushing the total a little bit higher.

The way that Winwick's Bake Off works is quite different to the TV series.  No TV cameras, for a start, no spectators as the contestants race against the clock to complete miraculous culinary achievements, no Paul Hollywood or Mary Berry ... but it's all good fun and involves eating lots of cake.

Contestants for each of the sections - biscuits, scones, sponge cakes, fruit and nut cakes and wildcard - make their entries at home and then deliver them to the Winwick Leisure Centre where the Bake Off is to take place.  

This is going to be my entry ...

It's called Chocolate Chip Cookie Bar and it's one of our favourite traybake cakes at the moment.  It's moist and chewy, full of oats and chocolate chips - mmm!  The recipe comes from a book called The Traditional Aga Book of Bread and Cakes by Louise Walker.  I can't copy the recipe out for you as it's covered by copyright, but if you've got an Aga and you haven't got this book, it's definitely worth buying.  I met Louise Walker at an Aga cookery demonstration once, so every time I use the book I'm reminded of that day and what a nice lady she was.

Then it was off to the Leisure Centre with small daughter to hand the cake over to the organisers.  We weren't there first there - the entries had already started to arrive by the time we dodged the raindrops and dashed inside.

The Bake Off itself didn't start until 1pm.  You pay your money and choose a category to vote on, getting a selection of cakes from your chosen category and a voting form.  This is second year that the Bake Off has run and it was even more popular this year.  Small daughter had asked if we could go into town to spend some gift vouchers she had and we were later getting back than we had intended. By the time we had collected big daughter from home and arrived at the Leisure Centre, there wasn't much left!  You can see by the big spaces on the plates that the event had been well-attended, though!

Because we were so late, we didn't get chance to vote, but we did get platefuls of cake which went down very well!  We were just in time for the results, too.  

My cookie bar didn't win the wildcard category but a friend's daughter won the biscuits category with her rather scrummy raspberry and white chocolate cookies. She was very pleased with her winner's mug.

We got to take the rest of our cake home.  As I forgot to photograph it when it came out of the oven, I can only show you what's left of it.  By Saturday night there was even less of it.  Just crumbs, in fact.  But you can take my word for it that it was very nice!

Monday, 1 September 2014

Monthly musing - September 2014 - Far-flung family

We've been very lucky this summer in that we've been able to meet up with family that we've not really been able to spend much time with before.  That sounds a bit odd, so let me explain that our immediate family tree is quite small but the branches of the bigger tree are spread very wide.  Our summer holiday this year included a visit to Canada specifically to visit relatives that we might otherwise only contact by Christmas card or occasional email – quite a trip but definitely worth the effort.

Now, I know that just because someone is family doesn't mean that you’re going to get on with them, but that’s where we've been really lucky.  It occurred to me, whilst standing in my Canadian cousin’s kitchen on our first evening, chatting about everything and nothing as we prepared dinner together, that it was just like meeting up with an old friend – in this case, one that I hadn't seen for more years than I care to remember.  Out of the window I could see my husband and big daughter sitting at the garden table, laughing and joking with other members of the family who had made a special effort to come over to meet us for a family party whilst we were visiting.  My cousin’s three-year-old twins, who we were warned were terribly shy with newcomers, were both holding tightly to small daughter’s hands as they showed off their garden and were reluctant to let go even when it was time to eat.

Small daughter has always found it easy to make friends.  When my husband’s cousins from Wales came to visit last weekend, small daughter and her cousin had disappeared to play even before we had finished our greetings on the driveway.  Big daughter now joins in with the adult conversations, absorbing different viewpoints and cultural ideas as she develops her own view of the world.  It has been like discovering a whole new set of friends and it’s been lovely to think that these people are part of our family.

The connection makes me think of a spider’s web, stretching out across the globe.  Such a tiny thread that holds us all together, but strong enough to withstand the buffeting and turmoils of life.  I like it.  It reminds me that I’m never alone, that there’s always someone who “belongs” to me somewhere in the world, whether I’m in regular contact with them or not – and, perhaps, always a few extra places to visit on my holidays!

I hope that when the girls are older, they will be able to keep up the contacts for themselves.  The web will always grow and change as the family changes, and I like to think that my girls will always know that there is someone in the world who “belongs” to them too.  Suddenly, the world is not such a big place.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Summer 2014 - New York

It's only a short hop from Ottawa to New York - 45 minutes on the plane if that.  The planes have been getting progressively smaller too, as we've travelled north from Orlando and this one's the smallest yet - but it means that it's easy to get a good view of the city that never sleeps as we fly into La Guardia airport.

We were expecting it to be considerably busier than Ottawa, and it was! As our taxi took us into the centre of the city, the traffic slowed down to crawling point.  All around us, the pavements (sidewalks!) were thronged with people. It was quite a culture shock.

We took a hop-on hop-off bus tour which also included a ferry trip to try to pack as much as we could into our three days and as we drove around the streets, it made me wonder what exactly it is about New York that draws so many people.  There's a magnetism about the place that attracts attention, both good and bad, and I found myself looking around to see if I could work out what it was.  

There are the iconic buildings, of course, which seemed familiar even though we'd never actually seen them before because of all the films and TV programmes which are set in New York.  Who wouldn't be tempted to live on a film set?

The Empire State Building ...

... the Chrysler Building ... I loved the way it gleamed in the blue sky ...

... Grand Central Terminal ...

I couldn't resist showing you this rather wonderful picture that big daughter took of the inside of the station ...

... and here's her favourite, the Flatiron Building.

These buildings are all so tall that you spend all your time craning your neck to look up, and they look as if they are leaning in on each other in the photos. It seems as if every street corner as another view of somewhere that you feel you've seen only yesterday.  

The tall skyscraper in this picture is the Freedom Tower, built at One World Trade Center.  It's a gesture of defiance, the tallest building in America. Perhaps that is what New York is -a city that refuses to be beaten - and people want to be part of that.  Close by are the memorials to the Twin Towers, huge pools of constantly moving water built on the footprints of the original towers.  It's a strangely peaceful place; surrounded by trees and with the sound of the water muting the traffic noise. Names are inscribed on panels around the memorial and we found ourselves drawn to touch them, as if in some way that gave us a connection to the people who were lost.  After all, we are all someone's son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister.

Another peaceful place in the midst of the bustle of the city is Central Park.  It covers 843 acres of Manhattan Island, so it's no wonder that you can forget that you're in the middle of a city when you are in the park.  Instead, we listened to birdsong, children laughing in the playgrounds, the soft hiss of bike tyres and the rhythmic tread of jogging feet.  Is that what New York is, the contrast between the bricks and the trees?

I expect you'll recognise this zoo entrance if you've ever seen the film Madagascar ...

And then down another path, there's the city again.  

It's not all skyscrapers in New York.  The Guggenheim Museum building fascinated me with it's curved walls although we didn't have time to do more than admire it from the outside.

Big daughter has wanted to visit New York for a long time and was looking forward to a bit of retail therapy.  We'd been warned that New York would be very expensive after the other places we had visited, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that wasn't the case.  On the advice of the tour guide, we moved away from Times Square and Broadway, and found restaurants that were just as good but much cheaper, plus we got to see a side of the city where souvenir shops made way for hardware stores and greengrocers' shops.

Small daughter loved the souvenir shops and wanted to stock up on gifts for her friends.  She insisted on buying a foam Statue of Liberty crown which she modelled with great delight, holding up an ice-cream for a torch and our rather crumpled map as her book.  She was very pleased with herself!  Big daughter had her sights set on a different store ...

Again, we were surprised to find that what she wanted to buy was mostly within her budget, and she left the store with several bags!  Big daughter has wanted to go to New York for a long time, and our visit didn't disappoint.  She spent most of our three days there with a huge beam on her face which was lovely to see instead of the rather worried look we've got used to over the exam period.

And then, all too soon, it was time to head back to the airport.  We saw so much in our short visit but there is still so much more to see.  Have I worked out what it is about New York?  Of course not, and that is also part of the magic.  It's the people, the buildings, the food, the contrasts, the noise and the bustle - all of those things together create a whole which would be diminished if any of them were removed.  It's impossible to define a city in one or two words when it has evolved over time and been shaped by people from many different countries to become the place it is today.  There's no harm in trying, though, and if that involves a return visit in the future, then so be it.  We won't be complaining.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Summer 2014 - Ottawa

It took longer than we would have imagined to get to Ottawa; a flight to Toronto and then a connecting flight to Ottawa.  It's a surprise that it's not easier to get there seeing as it's Canada's capital city, but for some reason most planes go in and out of Toronto instead.

My aunt and uncle were waiting for us when we landed in Ottawa.  Although they've travelled to the UK quite a few times over the last few years, it's been about thirteen years since we were in Canada ourselves (we were actually there on 9/11 which was quite a frightening experience, but that's a different story) and we were very excited at the thought that we would see for ourselves the houses and places that they have only been able to show us pictures of before.  

After finding our hotel and a good night's sleep, we started our week with a trip to a local park before heading off to meet up with the family.  One of the things that has always struck us about Canada is how big it seems - not just because it is a huge country with a very small population - but because the sky always seems so open.  It's not the same all over the country, but the part that we visit is very flat so the sky seems to go on forever as there are none of the tall buildings you find elsewhere to break up the horizon.  You can get an idea of what I mean if you look past the lighthouse and the fisherman, but a photo doesn't really give you that sense of open-ness in quite the same way. It's quite extraordinary.

Then it was time to catch up with the family.  It's strange to think that these people are connected to us, and yet we don't see them often and don't really know that much about their day-to-day lives at all other than the condensed versions of events that you exchange in emails and phone calls.  

Within minutes, however, it felt as if we'd seen them only yesterday.  Chatting to my cousin in the kitchen as we prepared dinner was like chatting to an old friend.  My husband was involved in an animated conversation with my uncle and other cousins which came to us through the kitchen window amidst burst of uproarious laughter.  My girls were immediately caught up with throwing toys for the dog in a game with their younger cousins (and later shucking corn which is the picture below) - and the three-year-old twins who we were warned were very shy with strangers gravitated towards small daughter and held on to her hands as if they never intended to let her go.  It was one of those moments when you feel your heart swell and you never want it to end.

The rest of the week was spent sight-seeing and "hanging out" with the family. In fact, we spent very little time in our hotel at all!  We ate breakfast there every morning before heading out; small daughter had a ritual of eating the same things in the same order, but in such a way that involved her going back to the buffet to collect it as many times as possible.  I think she just liked being able to go and help herself; she's always been an independent type of girl!  Big daughter loved the pancake machine which produced breakfast pancakes to order - she did suggest we might like one at home but I'm not convinced!  My husband smiled every morning at the coffee cup.  He said he imagined people dragging themselves out of bed and across the floor to get to the coffee station!

We visited the Governor's residence, we went to a water park, the National Gallery of Canada (lovely cafe - well worth a visit!); this is the ceiling - isn't it fabulous?

We saw the Parliament Buildings, which look so very similar to our own ...

... considering that it was supposed to be a quieter week than our Disney week, we never stopped!  We had our own personal tour guides in our family which was great as we got to see even more of them, and they got to look at their city from a visitor's perspective, which reminded them how much they liked the city they lived in.

And then my aunt said that she wanted to show me her local yarn store, Wool-Tyme, which it turns out, is the largest wool shop in Canada.  Local - ha!  It was a 40 minute drive!  It was one of those places that you could easily have missed from the outside, but inside - goodness me - there was more yarn than I think I've ever seen in one place and definitely worth the journey!  

Racks and racks of it of all colours and makes -a lot of it was English yarn which surprised me as I expected far more of it to be locally produced.  There were sample garments hanging from the ceiling, books and books of patterns, shelves of buttons and displays of needles, crochet hooks and any other accessory you could think of.

I've never been anywhere quite like it.

And then I spotted the sock yarn.  Big daughter, who had come with us, actually asked me if I was drooling.  This picture isn't even half of it, so yes, I think I probably was! 

The surprise again was that hardly any of it came from Canada and what they did have was very expensive and more suited to shawls than socks.  I found that a little disappointing -having come all this way I wasn't going to return empty-handed and some Canadian sock yarn would have been nice. However, I did manage to find another couple of balls to tempt me ...

One's a ball of Opal yarn which I can get at home but I've only seen that colour-way on the internet and big daughter particularly wanted a pair of socks for college knitted in the colour.  The other is Swedish yarn which I've never seen before and lastly a skein of hand-painted alpaca, merino and silk sock yarn which actually comes from Peru but as I'm a bit of a sucker for alpaca yarn, I wasn't going to leave it in the store!

All in all then, a wonderful week in Ottawa.  We were very sad to leave, but at least had the excitement of a few days in New York to look forward to.  The good news is that our visit has pulled our family closer together again; emails have already been flying backwards and forwards, we've spoken on the phone, Skype calls between the children are planned and there's even talk of a holiday together.  It was definitely worth the time it took us to get there.

Our holiday's nearly over - just a few days in New York to go.  Are you coming? 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Summer 2014 - Orlando

The first time we went to Orlando, when big daughter was six years old, my husband and I told ourselves that we were going for her and although we weren't really into Disney ourselves, we'd have a nice time because she would. What we hadn't allowed for was the Disney magic which is somehow in the air and wraps you up in childhood excitement so that whatever age you are, the six year old in you comes to the surface.  

Fast forward ten years and here we are again.  This time, we don't try to pretend that we're just here for the girls.  Small daughter is so excited that there's a danger she's going to bounce right through the back seat of our rental car.  She's been bouncing for the last few months, counting down weeks, days and hours until we finally got here.

We've got a week to see as much as we can before heading back to the airport for our next adventure - and small daughter has a very big list of things that she wants to see!  Top of the list and as you'd imagine - lots of Disney princesses.  Big daughter is almost too grown up for Disney princesses now, but she's hoping that Stitch will be around as he's her absolute favourite. We've got time to visit three Disney parks (Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and of course, the Magic Kingdom).  We also plan to visit Universal Studios and the Islands of Adventure and - thanks to Lesley who managed to get us tickets after we thought they'd sold out - Discovery Cove.  Big daughter suggested hopefully that we might be able to go there to swim with the dolphins there and amazingly, that's what we we're going to do.  

Orlando is perhaps much as you'd imagine it to be.  Wide roads, three or four lanes across, full of huge cars.  Diners and restaurants on every corner next to gifts shops selling souvenirs of varying qualities.  Enormous billboards advertising attractions that try to compete with Disney.  It's quite an assault on the senses.  And then there's the heat.  When we're there, it's approaching the hurricane season so the heat and humidity is at it's highest, and we saw some spectacular lightning displays - nature competing with anything you can buy a park pass for.  At the Disney parks, however, the show goes on ...

Whatever the weather, Mickey and his friends are at the heart of everything, even in the gardens! 

I have no intention of showing you endless family shots of small daughter over-awed in the presence of Disney royalty or the rest of us with permanent cheesy grins fixed to our faces as we pack more into our week than we ever thought possible.  What I do want to show you though, is what never failed to impress me, whatever park we were in, and that's the attention to detail.

What Harry Potter fan in the world wouldn't recognise these spires?

Or this train?

Or this alley where you can buy anything from robes to owls?

The girls even wanted to try Butterbeer, although the sickly-sweet concoctions available from The Three Broomsticks weren't quite what they were expecting!

The attention to detail is everywhere; the Princesses were ready to answer questions from even the most fanatical of children (I thought we'd watched Frozen more times than anybody else but clearly not!).  The queueing areas for the rides immerse you in the worlds of Toy Story, 
Despicable Me, The Mummy and any number of other rides.  It's not just about the five minutes you are hurtled about at sickening speeds or blast aliens with laser guns, it's about the entire time you set foot into the ride area - which is just as well in case of the new Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios which had a five hour wait time even at 8.30am.  And no, we didn't queue up to wait!

However, it's easy to forget that there's more to Orlando than the Disney and Universal parks.  This is Astra, the beautiful dolphin who chose to come and meet us.

Yes - chose - which was very important to us.  We had a few misgivings over the idea of meeting dolphins that lived in captivity and greeted visitors every day, but the trainers we spoke to allayed our concerns.  All of the dolphins at Discovery Cove have either been born there or have come from another park; none of them have been brought in from the wild. These dolphins live on average ten years longer than wild dolphins because they don't have to face the hazards of predators, lack of food or tuna fishermen.  They always have a choice of whether to come and greet visitors or not, and if they don't want to, nobody is going to make a 300lb (21 stone) dolphin change it's mind.  They certainly didn't seem mistreated in any way or as if they were having a terrible life, and we felt very blessed to have had the opportunity to get up close.

We also felt very lucky every morning to wake up to this.

Our accommodation was on the shore of a large lake with a lovely sandy beach.  Small daughter was rather concerned to see the notices warning visitors not to feed the alligators, but we didn't see any.  

It was calm and peaceful and seemed a million miles away from from the theme parks, diners and malls which were actually not very far away at all. The diners reminded us very much of Little Chef restaurants which are always a stopping-place for a breakfast treat on our days out to Wales.  My husband enjoyed his mugs of coffee which seemed to be endlessly re-filled, although he had to be careful he didn't drink too much or he left the diner walking like a Thunderbirds puppet!

A week passes all too quickly when you're having fun, and it was soon time to pack up our suitcases and head off to the airport for our internal flight to Canada.  And just in case you're wondering, big daughter did meet Stitch ...


Pack your cases and come with us as we fly to Ottawa, Canada's capital city!

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Summer 2014 - a tale of three cities!

Well, strictly speaking it's two cities and a Magic Kingdom, but that doesn't quite have the same ring to it!

We've been such a lucky family this summer - our summer holiday was three holidays all rolled into one.  It's a trip that we've been planning for and saving up to take for a few years as we needed to time it between big daughter's GCSEs and A levels, and also at a time when small daughter was at age when she would appreciate it most.

Can you guess where we've been?

I don't think this place needs many clues ...!

This one's a bit trickier - it might look familiar but look again ...

What about this one?  It's not the usual view of this city but it's one of our favourites ...

Did you get it?  Well done, I'm impressed! 

It was a pretty big trip - Disneyland in Orlando, Ottawa in Canada and New York.  The photos are Cinderella's castle (of course!), the Parliament buildings in Ottawa which are based on the same design as our Parliament buildings in London, and a view from Central Park, a wonderfully lush green space in the heart of a bustling city.

We took big daughter to Disneyland when she was small and had always promised that we would take small daughter too.  Instead of staying in Orlando for our full two week holiday, though, we decided to take an internal flight to Canada to see our relatives before coming home via New York - a place that has been on big daughter's travel wish list for quite some time.

We planned our travels with the help of our very own personal travel agent, a lovely lady called Lesley Howard.  Normally, I would have organised all of the bookings myself, but as it was such a big, special holiday, we decided to get a bit of help.  Lesley co-ordinated international and internal flights, hotel rooms and car hire across two countries (often at a discount too!) and even managed to get us tickets to visit a very special place ... but more about that later. 

Three very different places and three very different experiences, and we loved them all.  We crossed oceans, rivers and borders, showed our passports more times than we can remember, marvelled at skyscrapers and gasped at Disney magic.  I hope you won't mind if I share some of our highlights with you.  

First up, Disneyland.  Come with us as we visit the world of Mickey Mouse ...