From log to legs ~ a rural woodworking weekend

I kicked off my autumn with a rather enjoyable weekend of wooden stool-making in rural Cornwall with Turning Hare Woodcraft. It was two days of using hand tools and being mostly off-grid and focusing on pieces of wood and how to shape them into something useful and lovely. I was incredibly lucky to win my place in a competition so didn’t feel at all guilty about abandoning normal family life for a weekend and heading south to have creative fun.

Setting up on the decking under the eaves to avoid the drizzle

As someone who mostly spends their time on a laptop and online it was very satisfying to be using my dormant craft skills to make something very tangible. There were no written instructions, just gentle expert guidance from Bob and Steve, taking us through the processes verbally and with hands-on demonstration.

Halving the ash log in the “outdoor classroom”


Splitting the log with the froe

Saturday started with an intro from Bob & Steve on what we were going to attempt, and then it was all hands on deck splitting an ash log to make enough long sections that were to become the legs of our stool. We all went for three legged – me because I reasoned a three legged stool would be easier to make level – sat on a saw horse each and got cracking with the draw knives; big sharp blades that you pull towards you to shave off strips of the wood. It’s incredibly satisfying once you get into the rhythm of it, and I was amazed that I spent two days working with my indoor-hands but had no resulting blisters.

starting on the last leg


Checking the legs against each other

We learnt how to use axes, froes, draw knives, spoke shaves, planes and cabinet scrapers. The only non-hand tool we used was a battery powered drill because that was the only way to make holes in the slab of oak for the stool seat – the brace and bit just could not do it. Working with different types of wood makes you realise why some timber was used to build ships and big houses, and some was used to make furniture and small kitchen implements.

Getting ready to turn the tops of the legs to fit the holes in the seat

All four stools

After two days of creating piles of woodshavings I am now the proud owner of a stool with ash legs and a flat oak seat that can double as a side table; it fits a laptop or a cup of coffee or my feet or my backside. My stool looks like the hick country cousin of an Ercol table my mum had but I am proud of all its wonkiness and imperfections as I made it pretty much on my own – with small moments of hands-on help from the lovely Bob & Steve when I couldn’t get started with a tool properly.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I recommend a weekend of woodshaving and how it slows down thoughts as you focus on just what is in front of you; working in fresh air under cover from Cornish drizzle and being fed delicious lunches with proper cake.  If you need a break from working indoors or want to learn or rediscover crafting skills then check out Turning Hare’s courses for next year. It’s in a lovely setting with views over farmland and moor, there’s a shepherd’s hut if you want somewhere to sleep onsite, and a handy bijou compost toilet (which didn’t smell at all!).

The Shepherd’s Hut – woodburning stove and wonderful views

It was also great to meet like-minded people who enjoy spending a weekend discovering old ways of making furniture without nails or screws and learning about the history of bodgers and chairmakers in England. I am not sure I have the time to create my own set of dining furniture but there was some talk about a garden bench course next year…


Just a small pile of my shavings!

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Diving for sweets

Searching my laptop for files to delete I came across this home movie from #4’s birthday, dated 2008. Here’s one little glimpse of him as birthday boy on the day he became a teenager. He turns 21 in less than a month and is “not bothered” about celebrating. I’d like to celebrate him and his presence in our lives. And look at how cute they all were!

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(not) accepting mediocrity

I was trying to write a post about about acepting my own Mediocrity, about coming to the realisation that perhaps I am just not very good at the things I either think I am good at or want to be good at. Even as I wrote it I knew that these feelings usually blow over and I stop feeling like the most useless Parent/Artist/Writer/everything and I  get back out there and attempt to be Very Good at something. So I wrote a loooong post just before setting off to be Away-without-laptop for a long weekend and the interwebmachine would not let me publish it. My self-indulgent whining is lost to the ether, luckily. My slightly superstitious side thinks that someone is watching over me and not letting me slump.

“Come on Dr. F, you can do it!”


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scenting something

Yesterday a facebook friend was researching for some writing and asked us to share our three favourite smells and why they were our favourite smells. After some initial head-scratching I came up with more than three. I never know when to stop.

So, in order of my remembering here they are:

Fresh cut rhubarb – my favourite aunt would give us stems from the garden that we would dip in the sugar bowl and wince as we ate.

Another favourite smell which slightly beats the smell of the little leather shop that sold handmade bags and made to measure belts was the shop that sold animal feed – visiting to buy pet food that was stored in big open sacks. I think it was not a pet shop but that smell for some reason has me think of eyeing up small creatures – back in the day when you could buy puppies and kittens and keep a coatimundi in a cage in a shop.

New potatoes with mint. I just like food. My mum was a good cook. She also made bread and I think I miss the smell of it more than the swallowing of it. I sometimes chew a piece of fresh baked white loaf and resist swallowing, knowing I will regret it later.

Oh yes the smell of the seaside! M&S had a Sea room scent a few years back that was almost perfect in the way it made you think of clean seaweed! They also had one (called Linen?) that did almost smell like another favourite – Cotton nappies that have been hung out in the sunshine. Well, pretty much anything that has been hung out on a washing line to dry and brings in the smell of the outdoors.

And in response to someone’s post about sniffing a book with its promise of a new story, I remembered how much I loved the scent of a fresh puffin paperback too.

Today I sniffed my way around the garden centre, with flowers and leaves evoking people and their gardens, before choosing three small thyme plants to put alongside our two-yard-long path to the front door. I will take them out of their pots and embed them in the gravel, where they may be too low for us to scent when we crush them underfoot but I’ll know they smell and so will the bees.


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The little things

Did I forget to post this? I wrote it as last year ended and I thought of the time I had been privileged to spend New Year’s Eve in your company, in a room full of people and laughter and music and hospitality. So I had written this and it may be somewhere on here, on featherhouse, but I have no energy to look for it. And it is worth repeating:

I remember you through the little things. When I put coffee grounds in a cafetiére I remember all those times in your kitchen when I made drinks for us and I always made the coffee strong enough for me and heated half a mug of cow milk for you in the microwave to add yours to. And sometimes you made me some concoction or other with turmeric grated into hot milk with a squeeze of vague sweetness and I drank it, willing you to get better as you drank yours.

And when I knit and drop a stitch I remember those last times of knitting and unpicking and then you holding the ball of wool while I raced to finish the Boy’s jumper for you so that nothing was left unfinished but everything is always unfinished. I made him try it on at the funeral and we found one hole but that made it perfect, a sign that you had been there. Every ball of wool reminds me as it unravels.


When I run – not every step but at least once per run I think of how you encouraged me and gave me your old gear, an acknowledgement that you no longer needed it. We never ran together – we thought that your cough would go and one day soon you would be able to join us on the towpath out of the city. You did in September when we ran in remembrance, with photos of you adorning the bushes and telling us where to turn round. Not the same. And now another place where I find you in the little things.

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falling featherhouse

I’ve had to take it down,  featherhouse. It started to detach itself from some of the windows so I peeled most of it off. Not everywhere but mostly. Still fascinated by the feeling it gave of being inside an ice cube; the way  those tracing paper windows diffused the light. I sat inside the house and stared at the windows and the paper white feather outlines.

I still haven’t taken down all the paper on all the windows. I think I will miss it, that iced-in feeling. But it is spring, officially, and time to clean the spray mount from the glass.

I am tempted to echo my temporary featherhouse on some of the lower panes in each bay window by putting up fake-etch plastic film, with or without feathers. This is instead of rehanging the cotton muslin that did as net curtains before Window Wanderland.

I’m not very good with window decor – our living room curtains are lined dustsheets, another example of my inability to choose a definite pattern, or colour.

Curtain & feathers

As I took the first of the featherhouse down I enjoyed layering up half a dozen sheets of the tracing paper and using the window as a lightbox. I am thinking about framing all the layers together when I take them down so I can look through and imagine the Russian swan goddesses as they made it snow:

“let feathers fall like snow on the earth below”

featherhouse layers

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World Book Day

March 3rd, World Book Day, and all across the UK fraught parents are pulling costumes out of hats so their little ones can go to school dressed as a Character. My great-nephews are Captain Hook, Peter Pan & Shere Khan today. I hope they have read the books as well as watching the Disney films. ‘Luckily’ all my children are way past primary school age and I no longer have to scrabble through the dressing up box cursing last minute mind changes about who is the current favourite, or having discussions about whether comic book superheros count on World Book Day. I can’t even remember what my children went dressed as over the years, but I do remember encountering the head teacher in the playground wearing an elephant mask and with a colourful blanket draped over her shoulders; she was Elmer the elephant for the day. Inspired.

Then this morning I saw saw a tweet from Paul Mason about being blown away by Frank Herbert’s Dune at the age of thirteen.

I still remember reading this and loving it, to the extent of reading all the series but always preferring the first one. (Hated the film when it came out). I even used the Bene Gesserit litany against fear as a vague sort of mantra when I was in labour, but that’s another story.

That got me thinking about what books I read as a child and a young adult, books which showed me alternative world views, introduced different ideas about how to behave as a girl, led me off into fantasies of what I could possibly be when I grew up. So here’s a quick list of which books I loved or blew me away:

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – because Mary Lennox was the first grumpy heroine/protagonist I came across who was redeemable, so I thought there might be hope for me yet. nb having found an image of the cover of my copy, I think it is a Shirley Hughes illustration, which reminded me of all the Noel Streatfield stories I read which also had grumpy girls who had moods and were also illustrated by Hughes. And it was a Puffin Book  – I bought quite a few of these with my 1/6 pocket money, spent hours in the local bookshop deciding which book to buy and often read the book standing there and then had to choose another one.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken – where Bonnie led her cousin away from cruel and heartless fake relatives and was much feistier and independent and determined than I ever was, and I fell in love with Joan Aiken’s characters and read not only the whole of the interconnected series with Dido Twite et al  but also Aiken’s collections of fairytales – A Necklace of Raindrops. I still love the fairytale illustrations by Jan Pienkowski, and thinking about it, the illustrations were always a treasure to find in the children’s books – comparing them to my own imaginings.

Swallows & Amazons by Arthur Ransome – was full of girls, more than 50-50! Like most people I wanted to be as Ruth-less as Nancy Blackett but knew in my wimpy heart I was more a Peggy (especially as her real name was the same as mine) or maybe a Titty, whose inner thoughts feature large in the first book. Then bookish city-dweller Dorothea came along and I knew I could easily be her. My first Ransome was Pigeon Post, which I picked up from a new pile of books at school, fascinated by the cover drawings, and my mother was delighted when she saw it as it had been a childhood favourite of hers, and I liked that connection.

Also have to give an honourable mention to pretty much anything by Hester Burton or K.M.Peyton whose books  I devoured in my early teens and learnt about everything from French Revolution to Quakerism to teenage pregnancy to building wood and canvas aeroplanes, where the girls had minds of their own and were sometimes good at horse-riding – still on my list of things to do when I stop being scared of horses biting me.

Then as a young adult there were three books that shifted my world view.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter  – which I read as a young mother at the age of 17/18 and in the same way that as a small child I indentified with the grumpy Mary Lennox, reading Angela Carter’s fairy tales made me feel less insane and alone in any Dark Thoughts I might have.

The Paradise Papers (later renamed When God Was A Woman) by Merlin Stone, which finally blew away the cobwebs of Church of England Sunday School and all the things I had been taught through childhood, when I had read both Old & New Testaments and had never realised that Three is a magic number in lots of belief systems, not just the Christian Trinity.

The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – lent to me by the same person who lent me the Merlin Stone book, this was a real paradigm shifter in that it imagines a world without rape, and really makes you think about what life would be like for women on Earth if we weren’t raised with that ever-present threat to keep us in order.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell – I am going through books in chronological order and I was about 21, pregnant with #3 and quite indignant about The State of The World (it was 1982) when I was given this by a friend who had been to university. It should be on the reading list in secondary schools. I once camped on a cemetery in Rice Lane, Liverpool, and went and found Tressell’s grave. His real name was something else and it only just occurred to me to wonder if he used that name as an ex-decorator!

So those are a few of the books I read as a youngster, and I’ve read a lot of books since then. I was even in a book club, briefly, but couldn’t be bothered with reading books that seemed to be miserable for the sake of being dramatic, though I did enjoy making everyone else read Wise Children by Angela Carter, which I recommend as a birthday present for fifteen year old nieces to encourage them to behave badly.

More recently, the only standout book that I can think of that really made me think differently is Small Island by Andrea Levy. Could be because I avoid reading books that make me think these days! But it is an awesome book that challenges ideas about immigration, race, prejudices, who knows what else, and should be read by everyone in the UK if not beyond.

Small Island was given out free in Bristol as part of a literary festival or somesuch and was a great read.

I’ve no doubt I will think of more over the next few days, but these are the standouts for me today on World Book Day.





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featherhouse revisited

I signed up for Window Wanderland. Not Winter, not Wonder ~ Window Wanderland. It’s a popular event for dark winter evenings in different parts of Bristol, when people decorate their windows so that other people can wander along the local streets and admire the display, like an arts trail but without anyone coming inside, and with participants of all ages exhibiting. There have been a few now, and this weekend it is the turn of Ashton, Bedminster, Southville. So I signed up.

Inside featherhouse

We have a lot of windows on our corner house – two double bays and one window in between gives us a total of 25 windows at the front of the house, then another half a dozen at the side. That’s a lot of glass-cleaning, but it did give me time to think about what was going to replace the grime, in the end and after talking with Harriet I stuck to a simple theme and just turned the front of the house into a giant featherhouse. The original featherhouse first appeared at a Ship of Fools exhibition in around 1998/99 and I am still very attached to it.

original featherhouse

featherhouse sits in an upstairs window in my room, slightly dusty these days and probably makes no sense to anyone but me. This weekend I turned it round to present the house shape end to passers-by who stop to look. Now above it for Winter Wonderland there are ghostly feathers of tracing paper. All the bay windows are covered in tracing paper to mimic the etched effect on featherhouse, but instead of cut-outs like the swan feathers on the original, I used thin white paper and hand cut lots of feathers. I was struck by how non-featherlike the outlines of real feathers can be, as I copied those from featherhouse and translated them into paper.

outside featherhouse

I think it works, but will add some more upstairs tomorrow.


Inside, during daylight hours, it feels as if we are snowed in, or inside a house made of ice. The light it creates is strangely wintry.


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Red Flyer

A few decades ago, as a very young and single mother, I would occasionally  have panics about how to keep my three young children safe in an emergency; who I would carry, what I would carry. That was even before I read Yael Dayan’s Death Had Two Sons or watched Sophie’s Choice  It took me ages to get rid of the pushchair, just in case I needed something to carry children and household goods to flee a burning city. When the children no longer needed pushchairs I bought them a Red Flyer Wagon, and now I wonder whether it was for them or for me. I maybe watched too many war films as a child showed footage of people carrying their lives on prams as they walked forever.

Living in England, in the 20th Century, those were just bad dreams that I never had to live. Today on the television I watch thousands of people living that nightmare, landing on islands soaked to the skin, then travelling for weeks as this weather turns ever more wintry, stuck with no shelter at borders unable to travel to safety, while our government helpfully bombs all their neighbours who could not afford to escape. This photo from Humans of the Refuge struck me today, with that memory of how scared I felt to be responsible for my children, even in a place not at war, with just about enough money to feed and clothe them, if only that. I look at the expressions on the faces of the parents as they try to keep their children safe on such awful, awful journies, and me stomach turns over with thankfulness that my nightmare has not come true. But this morning I lay in my warm dry bed, wondering whether I knew where all our important documents are, and phone chargers, and emergency blankets, and medication and first aid kit, and waterproofs, and walking boots. And what about our photographs, our family histories in albums and boxes that we would not be able to take with us. And I must stop this mental inventory of the contents of our house, and whether to discuss an emergency plan. In the event of anything we rendezvous at the house, or the nearest standing building…

When we are children we believe that we will no longer be powerless once we reach eighteen, once we attain adulthood. Today I sit in my dry, warm, house in England, about to cook food, feeling powerless.

I still have the red flyer wagon in the garage, just in case.



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Daydreaming again

The other day I read some press releases via twitter about this Writers Lab for women, funded by the divine Meryl Streep, with such excitement; thinking, I’m well over 40, I can abandon the family in September 2015, I can write scripts (just need someone to show me when to stop and how to edit…) then came to my senses and accepted that I do not have a properly edited and polished draft of any of the film-length scripts I have ever scribbled… but I could spend some time on an existing one now and send it in, and ooh! wouldn’t that be wonderful…

Then I read the small print and deflated almost as quickly as I had got excited, when I realised that not only would the competition for a place be intense, you also have to be a US citizen to be eligible to apply. For just a moment I wondered how to go about becoming a US citizen even though I live in the UK, as it would be worth it just to be able to meet and listen to that list of mentors for the workshops:

Caroline Kaplan (Time Out of Mind, Personal Velocity), Kirsten Smith (Legally Blonde, Ten Things I Hate About You), Jessica Bendinger (Bring It On, Aquamarine), Mary Jane Skalski (Win Win, The Station Agent), Gina Prince-Bythewood (Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights), Lydia Dean-Pilcher (The Lunchbox, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) will be serving as mentors, pending scheduling. Mentors advise in one-on-one meetings with additional events to inspire artists to hone their creative vision.

Am now day-dreaming about what it would be like to attend such a thing, and have bought a pencil-sharpener. Honing my creative vision after I’ve cleaned the kitchen.


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