Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Knitting, Travelling and DIY: The Urban Cottage in 2014.

I've spotted lots of people doing a year in review on their blogs, going through their blog stats to see what has been most popular each month. Never one to miss an opportunity to look at the numbers I decided to join in, so here I give you 2014 at The Urban Cottage; a year of knitting, travelling and DIY.

January. The year got off to a rocky start as we confessed that our house had sprung a leak. We never did find the source of the problem, and it hasn't dripped since - waiting to surprise us on a wet and blustery day I've no doubt.

This year we've been writing about our favourite games, and in February it was our post about Go, the 60's travel game, that won the most visits.

In March the latest series of the Great British Sewing Bee finally gave me the courage to play with some tartan fabric I'd bought the year before resulting in an a-line skirt.

April was a sad month as we has to share the news that we lost Fizzy to un unknown illness.

Making our guest room a proper bedroom proved very popular in May - with the big reveal making the top spot for the month...

... while in June we continued our DIY stint with some extra wiring for our bedside tables.

July's blog peaks both came courtesy of some good friends with a tantalising extract from Chloe Banks book - The Art of Letting Go, and photos of her son in some of my knitting vying for top spot.

In August you all helped us get excited as we explained the details of our plans to flee the country for three months, 

and finally we were off with September's highlight being our Canadian travels from snowy rockies through to sunny Kelowna.

October was the month that saw us leave our WWOOFing hosts for five weeks of camping, only to have our tent break 10 days in! Our post explaining the change of circumstances and the run for the North Island and campervan hire was the winner on this occasion.

Of course no-one can resist the charms of the hobbits - and it seems you couldn't either, with our photos from our trip to hobbiton in November becoming one of the most popular posts this year.

Finally, December's post about my travel knitting - the Vernal Equinox Shawl - finished off the year nicely. 

And so it just leaves us to say a massive thank you all for your visits, comments and support over 2014 - it means a lot to know that our writing here is appreciated. Have a happy 2015!
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Friday, 19 December 2014

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Homespun Hat

When we got home a couple of weeks ago I had nothing on my needles and was on the hunt for a project. I had two criteria for a new knit - it had to be the compete antidote to thin and lacy, and it had to be simple enough to do while tired from travel. Actually tired doesn't really cover it - for some reason this final leg has really knocked me for six. Essentially this project had to cope with me falling asleep on the sofa halfway through a row without causing complete confusion!

The yarn was an easy choice. Last christmas Joe spun up some bulky yarn that I've had my eye on for a while. It looked about enough for a hat, and Jake's Cabled Beanie was the answer to the pattern. A simple hat with a few cables for interest; bonus points for wintery-ness.

Despite the general sleepiness it only took a few evenings to complete and proved as easy as it looked. The only question left is should I add a pompom?
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Friday, 12 December 2014

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Vernal Equinox Shawl

Its time to reveal the results of my Travel Knitting plan. My Vernal Equinox shawl has been finished, for the most part, for about a month now - but only this week did I get a chance to block it and boy does that make a difference!

I loved making this shawl - it was always interesting to work on, and just when you think you've memorised one of the pattern blocks a new one would come along to spice things up a bit. Only when tired at the end of a days WWOOFing did this fail to hit the "something to relax with" spot - and that just meant more time to read!

A large quantity of laceweight wool did prove to be the ideal travelling companion. The 300g we took with us made not only this shawl but Joe's loopy scarf, and a simple feather and fan cowl that occupied me once the shawl was done - and we brought some of the wool home again untouched.

I've not knitted with such thin wool before, or attempted lace on such a scale and I've thoroughly enjoyed the challenge - but it has left me with a craving for some knitting that's neither thin nor lacy. One chunky hat coming up...

p.s. I have no idea how best to wear this thing... any tips?
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Sunday, 7 December 2014

Life's a Game 12: Best of British

This year we're sharing with you our game of the month. These are all favourites from our collection, or ones we play with our friends.

December's game is Best of British.

Time for the final game in this years collection, and its a good'un. You may have noticed a lack of trivia games in these posts - time now to correct that. Over the years we've had many a fun evening playing Trivial Pursuit, Dingbats, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Bezzerwizzer, but the one in our current collection that we've played most is this one. Best of British.

Part of the same family of games as the Logo Game, Best of British is a nice gentle quiz all about the things that make this group of islands a fine place to live. You might get questions on anything from cream teas to Coronation Street, from breeds of cow to people called John, from castles to things that are pink. It's the huge range of questions that makes this one a game that can be enjoyed by a large range of people. 

Questions come in groups of four on a theme and the game comes with a randomly multicoloured board. Each question is coloured and if you answer correctly you jump to the next square of that colour. Sometimes this will be a frustrating one step but you can also make huge leaps forward with just a couple of correct answers.

If blue gets their next red question correct they'll move six squares, the red person on the other hand only gets to move one.

We'd definitely recommend this game, as I said, its a good'un.

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Friday, 5 December 2014

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

December in the Chicken Coop

We might have been away from home for months, but our three girls have been getting on with life very much as before. They seemed a little surprised to see us when we got back, but a few rattles on the crucial corn tin and they came over to check out what was going on as usual.

With nothing much growing at the moment they've got free reign on the vegetable patch as well as the rest of the garden, hopefully helping with a bit of fertilisation until we're ready to get the veggies growing again next year.

Its always hard to spend much time with the hens at this time of year as we're at work from dawn til dusk, and they're asleep from dusk til dawn - but popping out each morning to see how they're getting on has certainly been one of the nicer parts of getting back into our routine this week.
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Sunday, 30 November 2014

A Postcard from Bangkok

What a week! Bangkok was so different from everywhere we've been so far that for it took a little getting used to. The heat, at night in particular, was almost more than we could cope with. However, cope we did and as a city it was an interesting one to explore. Worth a mention certainly is the range of transport available, from the lovely air conditioned skytrain to the buses that are barely more than a pickup truck, from taxis that weave in and out of the traffic to express boats that run up and down the river and are often completely cramed with people; moving around the city is an adventure all on its own.

Amongst the hustle and bustle of the city are a plethora of temples and we took time to visit Wat Pho with its collection of courtyards and plentitude of golden Buddha statues. Everything is intricately and elaborately decorated, with gold leaf applied everywhere it can be. The highlight of Wat Pho is the giant Reclining Buddha which, at 15m high and 43m long, is definitely an eye opener! 

We also enjoyed a visit to Ancient Siam. This is a museum, for want of a better word - a large collection of Thai buildings with everything from palaces to traditional village homes. Some of these are the originals which have been transplanted from their locations, while others are recreations. The site is large and green and relatively quiet compared to the city centre. Your entry ticket includes bike hire and we had a great few hours pedalling around, exploring some of the buildings closely and admiring others from a distance. 

Our highlight from exploring the city though had to be the cut flower market.  Stall after stall covered in flowers all of which were incredibly cheap. For less than £1 you could get 50 roses or a large bunch of orchids. Orchids by the bunch was a new one for us and we just couldn't resist them! For an added bonus as we came out of the far side we discovered a wholesale vegetable market with huge bowls of chillis and ginger by the bag. Before we reached Thailand we were a little worried about the spiciness of the food, but it turned out to be absolutely fine. There were plenty of non spicy options all of which were incredibly tasty, they really knew how to get good flavour out of the fresh herbs and ingredients.

Finally to round off long hot days of exploring we went for a massage on a couple of occasions. While described as a foot massage we'd actually sit for an hour as they slowly work on our feet, up our legs, onto our arms and hands before finally working on our head, neck and shoulders. While we discovered a few tendons we weren't sure existed and questioned if we were flexible enough for some of the moves in general it was a very relaxing way to finish of the day.

And that was it. On Wednesday we spent 20 hours travelling to return once more to the UK; three months of travelling all done with, finished. Home at last.
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Friday, 28 November 2014

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Creativity for the Uncreative by Chloe

Until recently I shied away from being described as creative. As an author, I suppose it was a reasonable description, but even when my first novel was published I didn't feel as if the title suited me. Creative people wear smocks and multiple piercings, they practise mindfulness at sunrise and stay up half the night discussing philosophy. They don’t wear jeans and spill fruit juice down their t-shirts just before they have to go out and watch trashy documentaries when they’re tired.

But I think it’s time I re-claimed the word ‘creative’. My university degree – my first love – is science, and I always rejected being ‘creative’ as it seemed to be the opposite to ‘scientific’. What rubbish! Scientists are some of the most creative people out there. If you look at the way inventions were refined, mathematical equations defined and new theories opined, it is a world of rich, extraordinary thinking. Creativity is “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness”. There are no limits as to where you use that creativity.

I’m sure many of you are as creative as Joe and Jenny, Rulers of this Blog, are. I cannot claim to match them in terms of the width and depth of their creativity but I do dabble with knitting and sewing, I love baking and I make up lies for my day job. All these things are, of course, creative, and most of them I’m not much good at. But I've come to believe, that true creativity isn't in mastering these skills. True creativity is in learning new things. You might not be the first person to knit a sock or make a special cushion so you can sit on the stairs more comfortably (OK, you may be the first person to do that), but if it’s new for you then you are creating something in your life – inventing a new part of yourself.

In the last five years I've tried to teach myself all sorts of new things. I taught myself to knit, to touch-type, to write in Teeline shorthand and to use a sewing machine. I've made a Christmas tree out of baubles. Not all of those things would be considered creative by most people, but they have sparked my imagination and enriched my life. Creativity doesn't just mean crafts.

As I write this I have just taken possession of a DVD containing 48 lectures outlining the classics of British literature. This was something of an impulse purchase when I stumbled across the company The Great Courses. Have you heard of them? They provide over 500 courses – from meditation or calculus, to world history or the appreciation of art – given by leading university professors and experts. Is it creative? I don’t know, but it’s new, it’s making me use my brain (as a full-time mum of a young baby this is something I value!) and it’s widening my experience of the world.

I'm no longer scared of being called creative. Somewhere, deep down or on the surface, we are all creative. It’s part of being gloriously human. We just have to decide what we want to spend our time creating. If we never stop learning new stuff, we’ll never stop inventing new parts of ourselves. And isn't that an adventure?

What new things have you been learning recently?

Chloe is a long-standing friend and has appeared on this blog a few times in the last year . Chloe is a teller of tales - some short, some long, some prize-winning. She started writing by accident a few years ago and forgot to stop until it was too late. Her first novel, The Art of Letting Go, was published in July 2014. Chloe lives in Devon with her husband and son, where she makes puddings, avoids spiders and wages war on misused apostrophes. You can catch up with her on her website, or chat to her on Twitter.

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Sunday, 23 November 2014

A Postcard from Sydney

Much of this week has been spent travelling, or preparing to travel. We packed up all we could from our two months in New Zealand and on Tuesday we headed for Auckland and our homewards flights. The first of our two stops on this final leg was three nights in Sydney; not enough to do justice to this interesting city but we gave it a go with a whistlestop tour of the highlights.

We stopped by the harbour a few times as it was a central area in the city with ferry terminals, shops, bars and restaurants and was always buzzing with life. We enjoyed getting up close to the opera house, seeing the details of the materials and textures that it's made from. The harbour bridge was also ever present as we moved around the city and one of the first things we did was to walk its length, enjoying the panoramic views it offered.

Shortly after leaving the harbour we were into the botanic gardens, a wonderfully calm green area in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. Joe was intrigued by an orchid comprised of many smaller flowers in place of the more common larger ones - but it turns out Sydney Botanical Gardens is the only place with one! The water lilies were also just coming into blossom and rather pretty.

On our second day we hopped on the ferry and headed to the zoo hoping to see some of Australia's native animals. Kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and alligators all hit the spot as well as appreciating the usual elephants, giraffes and big cats. The reptile house had interesting collection of snakes and lizards, including an Inland Taipan - the most venemous snake in the world, and we loved watching the spinifex hopping mice in the nocturnal house; they ran at an incredible pace and were happily scarpering about their case.

And that was it. Friday we had another of those extra long days that come from getting up early for a flight and gaining a few hours as we changed timezones. We'll tell you all about Bangkok next Sunday in the final instalment of our travelling diaries.

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Friday, 21 November 2014

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Kitchen Gadget 11. Non-stick Sheets

A long time ago, back when this Kitchen Gadgets series was in its infancy, we talked about pizza. We mentioned in passing that we use non-stick sheets to stop our pizza sticking to its baking tray. It might have been a fleeting reference but the truth is that we have a growing collection of these sheets and we love them. We use them nigh on constantly.

You might then ask why it has taken us so long to give them a post of their own. The truth is that we use them in so many small little ways that it's been hard to think of a recipe to give you that highlights just how useful they are.

You see we baked biscuits on them and popped one in our roasting tin for sweet buns. We've used them for breadsticks and for collecting fresh pasta. The more I looked them more I saw them lurking in the background of bake after bake, blog post after blog post, they are the unsung heroes in our kitchen.

So, here's just one more recipe that we use a non-stick sheet for: Stollen.

This is Joe's modified version of Delia's stollen recipe. We use our bread machine to make the dough and then plait the stollen and marzipan into three strands as this disperses the marzipan throughout the stollen - not just in the middle. Unorthodox, but tasty!

7g Dried Yeast
350g Strong White Bread Flour
50g Caster Sugar
1/4tsp Salt
110g Butter
1 Egg
150ml Milk
Zest of 1/2 Lemon

200g Dried Fruit and Nuts, approximately (use what you have around):
 - 100g Sultanas
 - 25g Glace Cherries
 - 25g Mixed Peel
 - 25g Apricots
 - 25g Flaked Almonds

200g Marzipan

1. Put all the ingredients, minus the fruit/nuts and the marzipan, in a bread machine on a dough cycle. Once finished mix in the fruit/nuts.

2. Split the dough into three equal pieces and then roll these into three sausages of equal length and thicknesses.

3. Flatten the sausages and tweak if needed to make them the same.

4. Roll out lengths of marzipan approximately a fingers width in diameter and lay them along your dough stopping 5cm short of each end.

5. Wrap each length of dough around the marzipan to re-form them into sausages.

6. Plait the three strands taking care not to stretch the dough as you do so (it will want to stretch!). Once you've finished plaiting tuck the ends of the plait under and transfer to baking sheet lined with a non-stick sheet.

Ours turned out to be a little long for the tray...
7. Leave to rise again (until doubled in size if you can be that patient).

8. Bake at 170C fan for around 30mins or until the top is golden and the bread sounds cooked (hollow when tapped - normal bread making rules apply).

9. Transfer the stollen on its non-stick sheet to a wire rack and allow to cool.

10. Once cool turn over and the sheet should just peel away.

11. Enjoy with a cup of tea!

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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Wineries and (more) Waterfalls

So, it finally comes to an end. This has been our last week in New Zealand and I both can't believe that two months has gone so fast and feel like it's been an age since we last saw friends and family in the UK. We started this week with a trip to Lake Waikaremoana; a stunningly large lake set high up in the mountains. We took a long afternoon to climb to the top of one of the peaks surrounding the mountain which was a nicely wooded walk, though often more of a scramble than a walk.

After leaving the lakeside we then continued our tour of the coastline to spend several days in the Hawkes Bay area. The weather has been generally warm and sunny adding to the Mediterranean feel of this famous wine growing area, fields of vines stretching out in all directions. Not wanting to break with any traditions we've enjoyed visiting a couple of the wineries and working through the tasting menus offered!

We've added several more to our waterfall collection this week too, with two particularly tall specimens at Lake Waikeremoana, a walk to visit another couple as we drove around Hawkes Bay and a extra surprise waterfall seen from a parking area as we paused to stretch legs on our way inland at the end of the week.

The two main towns in Hawkes Bay, Hastings and Napier, offer much in the way of interesting architecture. The region was mostly flattened during an earthquake in 1931 and then completely rebuilt in the Art Deco style most of which has been preserved. We've wandered the shops, stopped for coffee and enjoyed dinner courtesy of the Hastings Night Market. 

We've finished the week driving back inland to visit Cambridge and our friends at Earthstead, reminding ourselves of the wonderfully hilly landscape that we saw at the start of the trip and preparing ourselves for the next stage of our journey; the homeward leg. 
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