Surrounded by cats

Last month I had my birthday. As some of you will know, I'm really not keen on birthdays and try to keep mine as private and small scale as possible, heaving a small sigh of relief when it is over. However, this year, Joe decided to that we should go out and here we are at Birmingham train station; I passed through this place many times on the way to and from workshops  when it was undergoing renovation, and it was a major pain to navigate. But I have to admit it looks magnificent now.

We were destined for the recently opened 'Kitty Cafe', located on the edge of the shopping area, where Joe had booked us seats in advance. (Pre-booking is pretty essential). For those of you not familiar with the concept, it's a free-range cat cafe, with rescued cats and kittens bouncing about all over the place. Food covers are provided, to prevent potential snacking and there are lots of basic ground rules which make complete sense if you're a cat person (for instance don't hassle the cats, let them come to you).

The service is friendly and professional and there were more than enough staff. On top of food and drink costs, here is a £6 per person welfare charge, which goes towards the upkeep of the cats. The food is nice enough,  but to be honest we weren't really there for the food.

We had an hour's worth of cafe time and it whizzed by. It was hard to get decent photos, especially of the kittens, who zoomed about like little furry rockets. There is ample space for them to run about in and the entire space is catered for their every need.

This was a very special treat for me. If you've endured this blog for long enough, you may recall that once upon a time I had four cats, who all made the big move to Shropshire in 2012 with Andy and myself. Within a year of that move, I had not only lost Andy, but two of my cats as well (illness and old age). My darling ginger cat, Pumpkin, had to be put to sleep three years ago, due to a blood clot in his spine. He kept me company in the long, lonely months after Andy died, and losing him was beyond awful. Joe and I buried him under the pear tree, with many tears. And the oldest, meanest cat of them all, Samson, ended up more or less living with Jean-next-door, who loved him to bits; he lasted to be nearly 22 years old and is buried next door.  So that was that for cats, and since then I've not felt able to deal with the responsibility of pet care. But I have missed cat company. So much so that I had to blink back a few tears when we first entered the café.

All of the cats were perfectly happy in their environment and unfazed by so many people. There are walkways near the ceiling, hideaways and access to a private area if they want time out.   


Now that life seems steadier, we have recently thought about getting another cat, and were very taken with this little chap, who was the only visitor to our table who did not try to nab something, but instead sat quietly, unfazed and watching the world. 

However, life threw yet another curve ball at us last week, when Joe was taken ill at work, with breathing difficulties. He spent several days in hospital, being tested and monitored and is now thankfully cleared. It's been a horrible time for both of us, but he is hugely improved and almost back to his old self. Cats are off the agenda for the time being.


Capturing the unicorn

When I started needle felting eleven years ago, I thought I would be mostly re-creating the imaginary toys that I painted at the time. This didn't really happen, as I discovered that the wool took over and I created a whole new world of little things.

However, in one of my many 'dry patches' last year, and stuck for inspiration, I decided to make a 'real' version of this unicorn, painted last year (I think) which went off to a new home soon after it was finished. I had hoped to find suitable button wheels, but ended up needle felting them instead. 

'Eunice' was a kind of inbetweeny piece, but she did provide a gentle push towards new designs. I finally showed her on Instagram a couple of weeks ago, and she was snapped up by one of my kind followers. I popped a card in with her and noticed with a faint feeling of shock that it was from an old artwork dating to 2008, eleven years ago. My grasp on the passing of time has never been exactly firm, but I am going to make an effort to start painting again, before another decade drifts by.


The garden in June

As I write, we are coming to the end of what has been a solid week of rain. Thankfully the cottage is on a hill and we have escaped the flooding that has disrupted some parts of Shropshire. So as the garden is looking rather soggy and the summery flowers temporarily defeated, I am glad I took these photos when everything was happier and drier. 

A foxglove self seeded itself in an awkward corner and while my first instinct was to remove it, I spared it, to see how it would grow. I'm very glad I did, as it naturally shaped itself around the large lavender bush and has grown to be  roughly six feet tall.

Like the lavender, it is buffeted by westerly winds which push it into a curvaceous line and so they have combined to make a graceful composition that, had I planned it, could not have looked more beautiful. 

The front herb patch continues to grow - with very little money, I am slowly filling it out, leaving enough space for everything to spread. Cheap herbs, such as the common and trailing thymes will, over a couple of years, grow rather too well. I hard prune the common thyme back twice a year, when the bee friendly flowers are finished, but this year I am going to be more ruthless or it will take over. 

At the front of the patch where the shallow growing plants are, there are three types of oregano, four thymes, golden marjoram, trailing rosemary, a French tarragon which struggles, and a few other things including a random tub of parsley used as a space filler.

Common violas, which cost one UK pound a pot, seem to go on forever if they are deadheaded and add subtle splashes of colour. At the back of the trough, the hyssop and blackcurrant sage have tripled in size already. There is a large bare patch for more low growing alpines at some point.

Next to the violas grows dwarf comfrey - it was grown from six stubby roots I picked up cheaply on eBay and has flourished rather too well. However, this is fine, as it was planted for the leaves which I'll be harvesting soon, as they provide an intense, nourishing fertiliser when soaked in water. And when it flowers, it is another bee attraction.

To temporarily fill up spare space, I have pots of pretty summer annuals in front of taller herbs. Since this picture was taken, the herbs have shot up and I am slightly regretting putting (what were) three tiny lemon balm plants. Now shot up and spreading, they are providing the thick cover at the back, which is what I had planned, but will need some taming soon.  

One of my favourite finds this year has been 'black' petunias - like many annuals, they hate the rain and are looking bedraggled now, but when they are warm and dry, they look like dark velvet.

I have frequently complained - bitterly - about the amount of rubble and stones which have plagued my digging efforts in the vegetable patch. However, I have found a very good use for some of the more natural shapes; large ones can hold back a vigorous plant from over growing a smaller neighbour and when placed next to a dainty alpine, adds a rather Japanese element (I like to think).

Finally, a rather blurry shot of the 'very tall foxglove' at night, from my Instagram feed. Now is coming to the end of it's glory and I will miss it when it is over. 


A jaunt to a hilltop

Spring is being unpredictable as usual, with bright sunshine one minute and showers the next. Recently we jaunted off with Jean and Brian-next-door, to attend a little outdoor archaeological lecture I had discovered was being held at Pulverbatch, a fairly nearby location. By the time we arrived, the sun was just breaking out. We were the first to arrive and feared we would be the only attendees, apart from the man with the clipboard, but soon the car park filled up and a little crowd of suitably weather proofed people were handing over their modest £3.00 attendance fee. 

We are in an area close to the Welsh border and our location was the site of the remains of a very small motte and bailey castle - I say castle, but it would have been a far cry from the big, well known tourist sites familiar to many, such as Chester and Warwick. What remained was literally a large, grassy mound, with an old hawthorn tree clinging to the side. 
I have to come clean and confess that my main interest was in escaping the cottage walls, as days out (necessitating a car) are few and far between. So I kept half an ear on the historical lecture while enjoying pastures new and fresh views. But I seem to remember that this was one of about thirty lookouts built in very close proximity and near to the border, by the Normans, shortly after the Conquest  in 1066. At the time, Wales really was another country and there were constant incursions and raids from the other side. Of course, the new Norman overlords didn't want anybody except themselves invading England, so numerous outposts like these were built, to repel and intimidate the Welsh tribes. 

Previously, the site had fallen into disrepair and nobody seems to know who actually owns it (speculation being that if someone does, they are keeping quiet to avoid the responsibility of the upkeep). But thanks to local volunteers, it has been cleared of overgrowth, a new car park area laid and recently Shropshire Archaeological Society concluded an non-invasive survey, using a drone which took 250 overhead photos and new scientific 3D methods which enabled them to build a better understanding of what lay beneath. Which is why we were here.

It was all very interesting; Joe especially enjoyed it, as did Jean and Brian-next-door, while I rested my cranky knees and sat on a strategically placed bench to take photos and drink in the spacious scenery outstretched before me. 

Later, many people, including Joe, climbed the mound to get even better views.

I remained below (the cranky knee thing) and pottered about the side paths, looking at tiny wildflowers and watching birds swoop overhead.

Afterwards, we drove back through the Stiperstones area, which I've not been able to visit since I came here with Andy, over seven years ago.

I did feel odd and sad, but as Joe said, we were making new memories. We didn't stay long - just enough to see some more views and stretch our legs. 

The Stiperstones themselves are across a scrubby moorland and can just be seen on the horizon here.

It did me the world of good to go out properly, but we were all a bit tired after a long afternoon outdoors and so we drove home, to our two adjoined cottages and a well earned cup tea.


Needle felted chicken workshop


Earlier this month I was once more at Loudwater Studios, near Ludlow, to hold a chicken making workshop. I enjoy coming here, as it's fairly nearby and feels like a safe, happy place. Despite only having three students, we had a very nice, chatty day (it's amazing what a variety of topics are covered).


As usual, I took enough wool to make several hundred chickens, in all kinds of colours (you never know if someone is going to feel inspired to make a purple hen) but my ladies decided to follow the designs of the ones I had brought along for inspiration.

I brought along pre-cut and threaded beaks, made from cocktail sticks, although this example has a woolly beak and the tiniest one on the wee chick.

It's nearly always the case that the creations made at a workshop will be larger than anything of mine that I bring along - this makes it easier for relative beginners to work with the wool, as small things can be tiresomely fiddly. Here is my little chicken in the background - and a very good larger version from the workshop in the foreground.


Most of the wool was merino, but I'd also brought rougher samples and nests were made. Welsh Black and Herdwick were used for quick and realistic results. Everyone said they enjoyed their day, which is for me the most important thing - as well as the reward of seeing the fabulous results.

In other news, I unearthed this trio of harlequin hares from my 'archives'. I made them in 2013, after finishing the work for my book 'Little Needle-Felt Animals' and they languished in my Etsy shop for a few years before I retired them. Happily, after showing them again on social media, they all sold as a set to the same home. Which goes to show, I think, that everything has it's time, sooner or later. 


The herb patch

When Andy and I first looked at the cottage in 2012, we partly picked it for the good sized garden (for the price) that came with it. I knew that I would want to remodel it, as it hadn't been at all well planted, but when I lost Andy, just three months after moving in, gardening was the last thing on my mind and for a couple of years I left it all to do its own thing, while I tried to recuperate and regain my own life. Which eventually, I did.

I always had this small patch of garden ear-marked for a herb patch, including bee friendly flowers.  It was a fairly picturesque huggle-muggle of things randomly planted by the previous owners, which looked pleasant enough in the summer, but not so much in the winter. And most of the plants were weeds or 'thugs' (as Jean-next-door calls them). I've always found pots to be a useful and quick screen; they look pretty and cottage-y, and you can shift them about to change the scene.

There was also the issue of the hideous washing pole set in the centre, in a  lump of concrete, which was a labour of Hercules to remove.


Not to mention the rampant pussy willow trees by the fence, which blocked the view and drained the patch. So they went too; I'm not a fan of cutting down trees, but I'm also not sentimental about removing things if necessary. Then the whole lot was cleared and deep dug, as there were years of embedded roots choking the soil.

We put a couple of small troughs in, which the birds enjoy. 

Over the last three years, I've gradually cleared it of everything, but with finances being so rocky and my mental collapse last year, it's remained static, apart from a couple of thyme plants which are thriving. I honestly didn't know, this time last year, if we'd even still be here in 2019. Happily, we've turned things around and for the first time since moving here six years ago, I've been able to look ahead and even buy some small herb plants.

I've had enough time to mentally plan how I want it to look, and to start with, I have put in some quick growing lemon balm to hide one of the old tree stumps (which annoyingly won't come out). The rest of the fence side of the bed will have hardy, bushy perennial herbs such as the curry plant, sage and rosemary cuttings, which will eventually grow to a good height and fight off the grass, nettles and weeds that are always trying to invade from the neighbouring field.  


It's very much a work in progress, as I'm planting slowly, carefully and within my means, but  I hope that at some point, this bed will be chock full of useful and insect friendly plants.


There has also been a lot of seed sowing - which means more garden clearance. It's the best therapy I know, and I am grateful for Spring arriving in good time.