The Chelsea Flower Show

The Chelsea Flower Show is always inspirational, whether you enjoy gardening or not. It is an explosion of colour and texture, and full of exciting shapes, grand designs and exquisite details.

I am a fan.

It is horribly, horrendously crowded though, I have to say, so I never get to see everything, but I hope you enjoy looking around with me. The large show gardens always look better viewed from within, rather than from the visitor’s perspective at the margins, so I started with the flower and plant displays in the pavilion. Chelsea Flower Show I’m absolutely terrible at arranging flowers, so I find the displays here fascinating. This is The St Pancras Renaissance Hotel’s beautiful ‘Afternoon Tea’ entry, which actually won the Best Hotel Floristry Exhibit.

Chelsea Flower Show

It happens to be the 150th anniversary of of Alice in Wonderland’s publication, which is the perfect excuse for a theme of books, tea parties, magic and a little sprinkling of madness. ‘The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ designed by Simon Lycett had visitors buzzing around it in delight, myself included. DSC_0665 (533x800)

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I loved the towers of living chairs, and the combination of books, tea-pots and flowers also reminded me of a certain wedding that happened not so long ago…

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Chelsea Flower Show

Toadstools made from books, and trees hung with pocket watches and tea cups lined the walls, but the rest of the flower displays were no less wonderful. From prehistoric tree ferns to graceful bonsai, a sea of gentle hostas to huge bouquets of flowers, the exhibitors really have put on an incredible show.

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show

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Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show

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I couldn’t forget the gardens though, so here are a few of my favourites:

Chelsea Flower Show

‘A Perfumer’s Garden in Grasse’ (above)

Grasse in the South of France is known as the perfume capital of the world, and this overgrown, L’Occitane-sponsored garden simultaneously represents the abandonment of its traditional perfume plantations and their recent rejuvenation.

Chelsea Flower Show

‘The Time In Between’

This garden was designed both to celebrate life and represent the emotions felt at the loss of someone close. Charlie Albone created it as a space to communicate with his late father about his life since his father passed, and it is both peaceful and thought-provoking.

Chelsea Flower Show

‘The Hidden Beauty of Kranji’

This tropical oasis represents planting common to Kranji in Singapore. The blend of foliage and orchids, a multi-level waterfall and a roof-garden style pavilion aims to convey the importance of modernization blending in with nature, without disturbing the ecosystem.

Chelsea Flower Show

‘The Retreat’

‘The Retreat’ was sponsored by financial advisors M&G, who also sponsor the whole Chelsea Flower Show, so as you can imagine they’ve pulled out all the stops. Hidden amongst the tumbling roses and peonies, Jo Thompson has created a two-storey, oak framed building inspired by Vita Sackville-West’s writing tower at Sissinghurst, and a natural swimming-pool.

It’s basically my perfect garden. My pictures do not at all do it justice though as it’s best enjoyed from the interior decking, so check out the official photos and video here.

Chelsea Flower Show

The Botanist have a pop-up bar on Sloane Square, so we dropped in for a cocktail on our way home. Yes everything apart from the drinks is made of plastic, but it’s wonderfully peaceful after the bustle of the real flower show down the road.

Has anybody else visited this year?

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Skye: The Perfect Spring Holiday

DSC_0074 (800x533) Tom and I visited the Isle of Skye last August, but everyone we met told us we’d visited at the wrong time. A whole week of blazing sunshine seemed to say otherwise to me, but apparently the best time of year to visit for both weather and wildlife is mid-April to mid-June.

So I thought I’d tell you about it now, when everyone is thinking about planning their next holiday.

In case you’ve not encountered it before, Skye is a large island located on the West coast of Scotland. It’s covered in mountains, waterfalls and whisky distilleries, and the waters are rich in dolphins, seals, whales and otters. What more could you want?! Reaching it isn’t the easiest, but that challenge puts off the lazier tourists who swarm over the rest of the UK, so it’s something to be grateful for. Isle of Skye map We had spent a couple of days in Edinburgh beforehand, so got the train to Inverness, then a connecting train to the Kyle of Lochalsh (the nearest village on the mainland to Skye), and finally a taxi across the sea-bridge to Portree; the largest town on the island (it’s not particularly large). Seven hours that took. Alternatives would be getting the sleeper train to Inverness or driving of course, but I like being able to observe the view. I’m rarely happier than when staring through a train window as the countryside rolls and billows past, getting lost in my imagination for a couple of hours.

Seven hours was pushing it a bit though.

We arrived at Viewfield House in the middle of the night, just as the storm clouds that had been following us broke. The house seemed deserted, but we were soon discovered and led into the dining room, where Tom had requested a meal for when we arrived, knowing we would be too tired to go out again. We were then ushered into the drawing room, and spent the evening exploring the extensive list of scotches in front of a crackling open fire.

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Viewfield House

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The Drawing Room

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The view from the front door

Set in twenty acres of woodland just outside Portree, it’s nevertheless only a ten minute walk into the town, where you’ll find plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops selling all the basics. We spent a couple of days here, walking the coastline and eagle spotting.

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The mountains you can see in the distance above are called the Cuillins.

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Cruise ships often anchor off Portree, and ship parties on shore for daytrips.

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Though convenient, we’d soon had our fill of Portree after a couple of days. We wanted better walking and fewer people, and were craving a bit of privacy after staying in hotels for so long, so we made our way South to Elgol. Public transport is limited on Skye so we had another taxi journey, this one taking nearly an hour.

Tom really is very, very good at finding accommodation though, and when we arrived at our thatched cottage I literally ran around in delight. There are four of these restored crofters’ cottages vaguely grouped together, but we were there for a whole week and hardly saw the people renting the other three. They’re managed by the owners who live just around the corner, so any problems and they’ll pop round to fix them personally. Heated stone floors and wifi bring a comforting modern touch, but they’re otherwise cosy with traditional details.

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Link here to the website

Conveniently, they’re also next door to Coruisk House, the only restaurant in Elgol. They have just six tables so you must book in advance, but the atmosphere is cosy and informal, and the food incredible. Seafood is purchased daily from the harbour nearby, and we sampled huge hand-dived scallops and bowls full of squat lobster tails.

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Coruisk House, seen from our front door

Elgol harbour drew us to it nearly every day, and we would trot down to the sea (a forty five minute walk) every morning to see what boat tours were going out. Some take you to the nearby islands of Rum, Eigg and Canna where there are cafes and castles to explore, some tear about searching for wildlife and attracting pods of dolphins, and some take you past rocks covered in sunbathing seals to Loch Coruisk, where you walk across solidified magma and can scramble around the loch in around two hours if you’re brave. The whole environment is absolutely stunning, and the boats are very accommodating – they can drop you off and pick you up pretty much any time you want as long as you’re ready and waiting when they have a landing scheduled.

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A waterfall we found on the way down to the harbour

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View across the bay from Elgol harbour. Loch Coruisk is hidden amongst the jagged hills ahead.

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Some of the many, many photos I took of seals as we drifted past them on our way to Loch Coruisk.

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The Misty Isle boat trips take you out to Loch Coruisk, diligent collie Finn keeping a close eye on those pesky seals for you. You need to book them from the kiosk just above the harbour, and they cost from £12.50-£28, depending on whether you want to stay half an hour or all day, or somewhere in between.

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Standing on a magma field. Black rock appears to have been poured like molasses from the surrounding peaks, the remnants of a distant eruption that created the crater now filled with water.

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Every time you turn a corner the terrain and light changes, completely altering the landscape. The recent hoof-prints of a stag marked the meandering path we followed around the loch, though we didn’t see him unfortunately. We did see a golden eagle silently riding the updrafts above us, soaring backwards and forwards in large sweeping arcs. We watched it for a while then pressed on, aware that we had requested two hours to walk the loch and the captain’s assistant had declared it would take more like three or four.

He was wrong, luckily!

We passed very few other walkers. A small party walking in the opposite direction who seemed alarmed to come upon us, and a father and son swimming in a sunny corner of the loch, but we otherwise had the place to ourselves. Most visitors sit on the rocks with their sandwiches, take a few pictures then get back on their boat and leave. There’s a fair bit of scrambling over rocks I suppose, and at one point the path disappears and you have to find your way through an actual bog, so in that respect the walk wouldn’t be possible if your mobility was limited or if the water level was higher (Tom had a small tantrum when he realised I’d led him into a bog that he was rapidly sinking into, but luckily I managed to find a route out hopping between tussocks of grass).

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A sea-plane landed on the loch as were wandering along its opposite side, and by the time we reached it the passengers we had observed pouring out and clambering across the beach and rocks behind had vanished. Possibly the group of perturbed walkers we had passed, worried that we were about to come upon and make off with their transport (there are no roads to Loch Coruisk, only a path from Elgol that necessitates crossing ‘The Bad Step’; a point where to continue you must reach around a rock and step down blindly. (Tom refused to risk life and limb, so we got the boat instead.)

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On another day we visited the island of Rum, which has a small cafe and post office, as well as shower facilities for campers. There’s also a 19th century-built castle and an otter hide, deer everywhere and abandoned crofts to explore.

DSC_1393 (800x533)The Isle of Rum

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The coastal path

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An abandoned croft overgrown with moss and ferns. It felt like being inside a Neolithic dwelling, like those re-discovered in 1850 at Skara Brae in the Orkney Isles.

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Tom in the otter hide. We didn’t get up early enough to see any otters unfortunately, but it was a very nice hide nonetheless. We did, however, see a lot of dolphins! They enjoy riding the bow wave created by the Bella Jane AquaXplore boats, large orange dinghies that tear across the bay and around nearby islands searching for wildlife. Again there’s a kiosk on the harbour where you can book boat trips, costing £16-£95 depending on how far you go.

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Almost close enough to touch, every time we went out on with the AquaXplore team a pod of dolphins would mob us, leaping out of the water beside the boat, swimming underneath us and surfing the bow wave we produced.

In spring there are whales to be seen, and also colonies of puffins (I would like a puffin). We had the most wonderful time possible though, even without puffin pleasures, and I can’t recommend Skye highly enough if you like the outdoors. You’ll need sturdy walking shoes and waterproof clothing, but if that sounds like your idea of a good time then prepare to be amazed.

You might also like:

Lake District   sitting round campfire   Wild Swimming 2 (200x133)

Best Books about the Countryside

This is by no means a definitive guide, rather a varied selection across all genres. Books to dip into when you’re missing the smell of damp loam and the sound of trickling streams. I’ve selected four favourites which draw me back, their images and anecdotes equally compelling but in very different ways. There are other greats that I haven’t mentioned, like Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, and John Lister-Kaye’s Song of the Rolling Earth, but I’ve focussed on books that you can dip in and out of – flashes of inspiration to illuminate your day, however you choose to spend it.

Wild Swimming – Daniel Start (£13.59, available here)

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This book is pure inspiration. How many of you swam in rivers or ponds when you were younger? Wriggled away from water-weed and slippery amphibians, squealing with pleasure, doggy-paddled around lilypads or back-stroked across plunge pools? Now, when was the last time you ventured in? If it wasn’t recently, then this book will entice you back to Britain’s wild waters. As the introduction points out, “being by and in water is more than just a pleasure, it is at the core of our human condition”.

Wild Swimming details nearly 400 magical locations where you can swim in the wild, from rivers to lakes with hidden waterfalls along the way. There are tarns at the top of mountains, and natural pools in woodland clearings. Accompanied by tantalising photos and anecdotes, they’re organised by geography, and there are maps and grid references to help you on your way. There’s also an amusingly high-percentage of photos featuring scantily-clad young women enjoying the waters… but I wouldn’t level that as a criticism!

Wild Swimming 1Extract:

Tarns – or Llyns as they’re known in Wales – are those magical lakes that appear as you’re sweating your way to the top of the mountain. Swimming in them provides total immersion in the landscape and the ultimate sense of the wild. 

My favourite is Llyn Eiddew Bach, part of a series of wild mountain lakes that is very dear to me. It’s in the heart of the northern Rhinogs, Snowdonia’s least-visited region, close to a 3,000-year-old roadway that once linked Ireland with Stonehenge. I spent some time living in the farm close by and I would always leave a bottom of bubbly stashed and chilling on the lake bottom, tied to a secret piece of string, in preparation for weekend picnics.

Death of a Naturalist – Seamus Heaney (£7.49, available here)

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There are many poets who write about the natural world, but very few really understand it as Seamus Heaney does. When I first encountered Heaney I didn’t know he had garnered international fame, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature amongst many other awards and accolades, I just recognised the world as I also saw it in his poems. He lifted me out of my GCSE English classroom and back into the countryside, which was exactly where I wanted to be.

There is a power and precision to Heaney’s poetry, and a clarity of vision that is not marred by agenda. Although many of his poems have an autobiographical element, evoking memories of his rural childhood in Ireland, somehow it is often not Heaney we see as we turn the pages but ourselves. I make all my students study his work, whatever age they are. For them it is an alien-world he evokes, as few seem to venture outside of London unless they do so at 36,000 feet, but with a little guidance Heaney helps me to show them what they’re missing out on.

Extract:

Death of a Naturalist

 All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles.  

River Cottage Handbook: Hedgerow – John Wright (£11.99, available here)

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The River Cottage brand began back in 1998, though Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall first appeared on our screens in 1995 with A Cook on the Wild Side. Since then he and his team have become synonymous with the promotion of ethical, sustainable food production, and especially with food you’ve found yourself in the wild.

A walk in the autumn countryside so often turns into an all-consuming foraging expedition, with buckets overflowing with blackberries, pockets bulging with chestnuts, and even a trug full of wild mushrooms if you’re lucky. When Hugh’s pal John Wright began writing the River Cottage Handbooks, however, he opened up all the seasons.

I have a number of these little guides, and flicking through them – especially the recipes section – always make me glance longingly at my gumboots. The tantalising pictures are quite enough, but John also includes witty explanations of how best to eat your plunder, whether berries, nuts, seeds, roots, leaves or even tree sap.

Blackberry Whisky

Extract:

Crab Apple

A fully burdened Crab Apple tree is a wonderful sight in autumn, but chiefly from a distance. The apples themselves are, as one Edward Long put it in the eighteenth century, “never admired for loveliness of aspect”. Small, misshapen, spotty and scabby, and full of pips, they do not inspire the cook. Nor are they remotely edible raw – they must be cooked. Yet when prepared properly they are a treasure. 

Of course, the recipe for which this tart apple is best known is Crab Apple jelly. The very high pectin content means that it will always set well, and other fruits can be added to make a variety of jellies. Cooked, strained and with sugar added, Crab Apples also make a sharp apple sauce – just use extra sugar if it takes the roof of your mouth off.

P. S. I cannot resist passing on this medicinal recipe from the early 1800s; it is for a concoction called Black Drop:

Take half a pound of opium sliced, three parts of good verjuice (from crabapples), one and a half ounces of nutmeg, and half an ounce of saffron. Boil them to a proper thickness; then add a quarter of a pound of sugar, and two spoonfuls of yeast. Set the whole in a warm place near the fire for six or eight weeks, then place it in the open air, until it become a syrup; lastly, decant, filter, bottle it up, adding a little sugar to each bottle

I am not sure what it was supposed to cure. Everything perhaps.

Country – Jasper Conran (£20, available here)

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Jasper Conran is best known as a fashion designer, but in 2010 he published a photographic essay about the English countryside. It is whimsical and rose-tinted, portraying an idealised vision of the country where people make bread and butter very slowly by hand, but it’s a fairytale you will want to be a part of. Every image is absolutely beautiful, and woven into a narrative of the seasons that proves our halcyon past is very much still alive.

Conran spent a year exploring the UK, getting to know its villages and capturing our rural pastimes as well as occupations. There are flower festivals, morris dancers, surfers, fell runners, bell ringers, artists and artisans, foxhunters and even an old-fashioned travelling circus. The seasons take centre stage as often as the people he meets though, and each building is treated with equal curiosity and reverence whether farmhouse or manor house.

Every time I dip into this book I find something new that makes me smile or takes my breath away. For lovers of the countryside, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Conran 3Extract:

‘Country’ is an idea – a texture, a flavour, a state of mind. Close your eyes, and imagine the English countryside. What do you see or hear, smell, feel or taste? It might be a sweep of beautiful landscape or the warmth of a roaring pub fire; perhaps a porch filled with dripping coats and muddy wellingtons, the scent of ripe apples and freshly baked bread, or the hum of bees in a sleepy kitchen garden.

I wanted to celebrate that idea; to attempt to capture in words and photographs some of the many threads that, woven together, make up some of the fabric of the English countryside. To record the people and events I found during a year of exploration. The fact that I am a designer who has worked all his life with fabric, form and colour does not make me an expert on rural affairs but, when it comes to appreciating part of the texture of the English countryside, I think it may have helped.

Our world is being transformed, not only by globalisation but also by urbanisation. For the first time in history, more people live in towns and cities than in the countryside. Across the globe we are forgetting our rural roots, but country life, its values and people have never had more to offer. This is not about some imagined past, but life as it is lived today, in all its wonderful complexity. I worry these treasures can be all too easily lost. In some countries, grey urban landscapes merge from one city to the next. I hope something similar does not happen here.

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Let me know your own favourites – what books get you excited about the countryside?

You might also like:

Cornwall beach   Lake District   NG tadpoles

Anemones in Pewter

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I love seeing flowers in vases that are not vases, and this little pewter jug is my latest favourite. It has a heavy, masculine quality that balances out the prettiness of the delicate anemones, and is an object to admire in its own right, without distracting attention from its contents as vases can often do. I bought an eclectic collection of pewter jugs and teapots back in April to display our wedding flowers in, but they’re in storage at the moment so I only have this one on display.

Incidentally, I just had to mention that I took the above photo in Manual Mode. That’s right, like a real photographer. Goodbye Auto, I now know how to actually use my camera. Well, I’m getting there anyway. I decided it was about time I learnt, so I booked myself in for a private lesson at Nikon headquarters. They do all sorts of courses, but I really just wanted to learn what all the buttons do, so their training specialist Mark took me through it. He was incredibly patient with me, and I learnt absolute bucketloads. I left feeling like my mind was going to implode though, and gained a newfound respect for my own students who put up with my high expectations every week.

Has anyone else decided to learn a new skill this year?

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Hampstead   The Imaginarium, York 6   Tom & Jade FINAL 0416 (533x800)

Handmade Cards and Gift Boxes

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When I was four we moved to Nauru, a small island in the Pacific halfway between Australia and Hawaii. There were a lot of benefits like massive land-crabs and no taxes to pay (that’s right, MASSIVE land-crabs), but also a few downsides like the extortionate cost of posting letters and cards to the other side of the world (and the desalination plant broke occasionally, so we’d have to fill up all the baths, sinks and other watertight receptacles to use until they fixed it and turned the water back on).

My mother’s family has a bit of a thing about sending cards, for birthdays in particular, so when she found out how much it would cost to post small bits of paper to the UK she decided I was just going to have to hand-make every card we sent from then-on to justify the airfare. Thanks for that mum.

Anyway, this did inspire a life-long obsession with making my own cards, so I thought I’d give you a how-to guide for one of the designs I created recently. It’s easy and quick, but definitely one of my favourites. I made sets of cards as Christmas gifts this year and decorated gift boxes to present them in, so I’ll also show you how I decorated the boxes at the end. They’d make great birthday/ Mother’s Day presents.

Cards Equipment

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Step 1 – stamping

Make sure your stamp is well inked, then press down hard on-top of a hard surface and give it a little wiggle to make sure all the ink is transferred. I usually stamp the top-left corner and the bottom right, but depending on your design you can stamp anywhere you like really.

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Step 2 – spray paint

Splatter the outside of your card with gold spray paint. Just as fun but not quite as easy as it sounds, you have to press really gently to make sure you get a pleasing dribble rather than a big gold splodge. If you do accidentally splodge, more is better than less in this case – just go for it and spray the whole thing.

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I always make a sort of spray-paint tent out of a plastic bag, as the paint spreads further than you’d expect. If you accidentally spray yourself it’ll last a few days. The floor? Forever. Have fun with that.

Step 3 – attach the feather

Cut the shaft of your feather down so it fits onto the front of your card, then put a 2cm line of glue along the card where the top of the shaft needs to be fixed. You have about two seconds before that glue dries and ruins everything, so stick your feather down straight away.

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Step 4 – ribbon

With small drops of hot glue, affix the ribbon. Twist and swirl it across the top and then down the left-hand side of the card. Thinner ribbon is best for this as it looks more elegant, say 7mm rather than the standard 14mm ribbon. You’ll find you get strands of glue all over the place, like strands of silk or spider’s web, but they’ll easily pull or rub off.

Leave a few mm of ribbon sticking out on either side, then trim this until it is flush with the card. Run a thin line of hot glue along the edge of each end, otherwise it will fray. Wipe off the excess (NOT with your finger – just use the side of the glue-gun) or wait until it has dried and simply cut it back down to size with scissors.

Finally, tie a small bow in a different coloured ribbon, glue-gun the ends so they don’t fray, then affix with a large dollop of glue where the swirled ribbon crosses the feather in the top left-hand corner of the card.

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That’s it! See, easy, and it looks pretty damn good if I do say so myself. You can use any colour of card like black or dark blue say, but the red contrasts beautifully with the green peacock feathers.

Gift Boxes Equipment

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Now that you’re getting into the swing of using that glue-gun, we can make a box to put your beautiful cards in. I spent hours and hours and hours searching online for the perfect boxes, and found these from Stockpak. I wanted burgundy as they were for Christmas presents, but any colour would be fine for a different occasion. They’re 1mm too short one way (the envelopes don’t quite fit), so to compensate for this I cut the cotton filler in half and doubled it up, raising one end of the cards.

Step 1 – spray paint

Splatter the box and lid with gold spray-paint, and allow to dry.

Step 2 – ribbon

Twist and swirl the ribbon across one of the diagonals. Avoid being too uniform in this, and leave room between each swirl for buttons.

Step 3 – buttons

The pocketwatch buttons need to have their ‘shanks’ cut off so they don’t stick out too far, so do this with the metal cutters. A good task for husbands, I discovered.

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Then using your new best-friend the glue-gun, attach the pearl buttons and one of the stopwatch buttons to either side of the ribbon.

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And that’s all there is to it. Hope you like them!

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handmade wedding invitation   The Imaginarium, York 6   Handmade gift card

Autumn Shopping

It doesn’t really feel like autumn in London yet but that doesn’t stop me pretending, and a change of season is the perfect excuse to go shopping.

I thought I’d share my recent purchases with you – hopefully they’ll help inspire a shopping trip of your own!

Perfume

Nothing is so evocative of time and place as scent. It transports you instantly, affecting your mood and emotions as you slide into another world for a moment. The glimmers of that world surround you like phantoms when you wear a perfume, flickering in and out of sight as you go about even the most ordinary of days.

Féminité du Bois

I always wear Féminité du Bois by Serge Lutens in autumn.  It’s warm and dark, full of slowly burning spices and brimming with cedar. A musky base brings a masculine edge to the sugary overtones of autumn fruits, and the violet glass bottle adds a dash of elegance to any table. The Candy Perfume Boy reminded me that it’s high time I replenished my stock, so I popped down to Liberty last week and here it is.

Féminité du Bois

Candles and Candle Holders

With autumn comes the reluctant shutting of windows, that in our little flat provide a doorway to the lush horse chestnut trees outside. In summer it’s like sitting in the canopy. Song birds often fly into the flat and sit, slightly confused on the backs of chairs, and bees happily harvest the flowers inside the flat as well as on the windowsill.

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Now that the windows are shut, however, some compensation comes in filling the flat with scented candles. I skipped across from Liberty to Diptyque, and picked up a Pomander candle (Liberty do of course sell Diptyque candles as well, but they don’t pop a handful of free perfume samples into your bag like Diptyque do).

I also found the most beautiful tealight holders last week in Eight Sq, Spitalfields. Designed in South Africa by Luna Del Mar, perfect sea urchin skeletons have been crafted in porcelain. Fragile and intriguing, when a tealight is placed inside and lit they exude a beautiful, honeyed glow that enhances their intricate design.

sea urchin candle holder

sea urchin candle holder

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Bird Feeders

This one is a little less conventional, but I miss having those songbirds popping in for tea, so I thought I’d encourage them to visit more often. I wanted to suspend a feeder on the side of each window, but the support had to be drilled into the brickwork and I didn’t think my landlord would appreciate that. Then I found these acrylic versions. They’re not as pretty as some feeders, but there’s a tray for seeds and supports on either side for balls of food – just what birds need to get them through the winter. I got the feeder online from here, then shelled sunflower seeds (less messy for the neighbours underneath us than seeds still in their shells) and balls of seeds and fat from the RSPB online shop.

window bird feeder

So far I’ve got two bluetits and a very angry robin visiting every day. One of the bluetits lands, looks around several times then grabs a sunflower seed and darts off to eat it under cover. The other bluetit likes to hang out a bit, nibbling on the balls of food and seeds before selecting a seed to take with him. The robin lands indignantly on top of the feeder a few times a day, glares at me and chirrups loudly. Sometimes he doesn’t even take any seeds, he just glowers at me. I’m sure he’ll warm to me eventually.

What are your favourite autumn purchases?

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Honeymoon Week in Venice

Venice is a little bit like Rye in East Sussex, in that it’s very beautiful and feels very old, but a Rye surrounded by a lagoon and packed full of Americans.

Technically Venice consists of a group of 118 small islands, separated by canals and linked by bridges. You don’t really get a sense of this though. The canals are always in use, water taxis and gondoliers gliding along them at all hours of the day and night, so they resemble aquatic roads rather than barriers to movement. The extensive network of bridges also means that you’re rarely stuck on one side of a canal when you’d rather be on the other, and the meandering path you’re often forced to take only adds to the charm of Venice.

The water taxis are outrageously expensive, but worth it if you have suitcases with you. Just be prepared to part with fifty euros for a ten minute journey if that’s how far you’re going. They are of course a lot of fun as well. We shouldn’t forget that!

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Tom had rented a concierged apartment for us, so we jumped into a water taxi outside the train station that took us right to the front door. It was not as atmospheric as Palazzo Guadagni, but it was quiet and private, and close to but not right in the crowded heart of Venice. Despite the crowds in the centre, as soon as you manage to escape them you’ll find yourself almost completely alone. Tom and I spent our first day wandering around San Polo, and hardly saw another soul.

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Most of Venice gives the distinctive impression that it is crumbling, in a completely beautiful way. Plaster has been eroded away by the elements, painted wooden shutters are peeling and flaking, and even some of the buildings are subsiding, as if desperate to sink beneath the waves to escape the modern world.

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From a distance it is merely picturesque. Elegant and in proportion. When you look closely though you realise how stunning  it really is. Architecturally sublime.

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Venice is particularly famous for its masks, as it perpetuates its own Renaissance tradition of an annual Carnival. There are shops selling them all over the place, and though a lot have similar stock I would suggest checking each one if you’re particularly keen on masks like me, as there are always slight variations in the designs of the proprietors; you’re bound to find something unique if you keep looking.

The most famous square, the Piazza San Marco, functions primarily as a tourist trap these days. Though it’s worth a look I wouldn’t stay too long. We sat and had a drink only to find other tourists photographing us, so we soon left. We avoided Basilica de San Marco and instead made our way to Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo. It is actually the principal Dominican church of Venice, and after the fifteenth century the funeral services of all Venice’s Doges (elected leaders) were held here. Twenty five doges are buried within the basilica, and there are a number of medieval and renaissance wall tombs set within the vast space. It also contains many beautiful funerary monuments and paintings, and a foot of St Catherine of Siena, the church’s chief relic. Despite this, it’s often overlooked. Luckily for us. Quiet and peaceful, we whiled away an afternoon searching for Catherine’s foot.

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There are restaurants and cafes all over Venice, hoping to lure in the weary and indiscriminate, but I would definitely suggest asking for recommendations rather than leaving where you eat to chance. I should also add that you absolutely must make dinner reservations in Italy. Not just because the best places are often booked up days in advance, but because it is part of the culture. Without a booking restaurants will inevitably try to seat you by the door, toilets or kitchen even if they have plenty of free tables.

Hotel reception staff are happy to advise and make bookings for you, so make the most of this. The concierge at our apartment was incredibly helpful, even going so far as to mark out his favourite restaurants, cafes and gelateria on a map for us. Two particular favourites of ours were Osteria di Santa Marina and A Beccafico. The first of these served up an incredible seven course tasting menu, each dish a carefully crafted morsel that combined and balanced its ingredients perfectly. They also tailored the menu specifically to our tastes, replacing dishes we didn’t favour with ingredients that we did. It was just wonderful.

The food at A Beccafico was simpler fare but still excellent, and the service really stood out. We avoided revealing that we were on honeymoon to anyone, as we were wary of any sort of fuss spoiling things for us, but the staff here treated us so well we may as well have told them. They were friendly and attentive, offered to take photos of us together, and brought us a whole bottle of limoncello after our meal at no extra charge.

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Yes, it was a full bottle when it appeared before us. Yes we enjoyed it!

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Venice at Night

We visited a number of galleries and museums, all bursting with ancient marble, Byzantine gold and other treasures, but I had to share one in particular with you. We actually stumbled upon it one evening when wandering aimlessly through the backstreets, and vowed to return when it was open. Palazzo Mocenigo houses a museum dedicated to the history of Venetian fragrance. There are twenty room to wind your way through, all furnished with antiques, oil paintings and curiosities aimed at illustrating the different aspects of a Venetian nobleman’s life between the 17th and 18th centuries. Valuable ancient garments are displayed on mannequins, the fabrics, embroidery and lace embellishments testament to the the refined elegance Venice was famed for. Each room tells a different story, paintings and ornaments helping to construct the narrative, but what I had really been drawn to was the perfume.

Renaissance Venice turned scent into an artform, and there are five rooms in Palazzo Mocenigo entirely dedicated to it. Both informative and sensory, the history and reality of perfume are thoughtfully illustrated. One room evokes the alchemical laboratory of a 16th century perfumier, in another is a collection of perfume bottles dating form the Middle Ages to the present day, but in my favourite room there is a table covered with herbs and spices. The magical raw materials of perfume.

No photos are allowed, so these are taken from the website

No photos are allowed, so these are taken from the website

No photos are allowed, so these are taken from the website

I would like a room like this. Huge bowls full of frankincense and myrrh, sticks of cinnamon, lavender and star anise, gleaming black vanilla pods, and the more unusual musk from animal glands or ambergris (a solid, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour that is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales). There are also 16th century books on display (and in electronic translation) revealing the secrets of the art of perfume. Part cosmetic, part medicine, part magic.

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Finally though, it was time to leave.

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Our final water taxi, taking us to the airport (jumper Henry Lloyd, lace skirt Ralph Lauren)

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When we left Venice, our taxi driver got into several shouting matches with the other boats as we made our way through the congested canals. When we reached the open water he chucked an empty pizza box over his shoulder into the water, swore at the city, and proceeded to drive twice as fast as all the other water taxis trundling towards the airport. The horrified faces of drivers and their passengers swept by us in a flurry of spray, as we bounced, delighted, across the wakes of all the boats that had preceded us.

We came back to reality with a bump when we returned, forced to dive straight back into work that is only just starting to ease off enough for us to catch our breath, four months later. It wasn’t all work though. I’ve got a few stories to share with you about dolphins, lochs and mountains!

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Honeymoon Week in Florence

After a week in Cornwall with our friends, we popped back to London, then flew straight on to Florence!

I visited Florence once before, with my drama group when I was sixteen. I loved it then, and vowed to return; but I didn’t realise I would do it in quite such wonderful circumstances. Tom and I stayed at Palazzo Guadagni, a Renaissance palazzi that has been converted into a hotel. Formerly a grand private residence belonging to a wealthy 16th century family, it is not only completely charming but located in the Santo Spirito neighbourhood, which is much quieter than other tourist-filled areas and also renowned for it’s antique and artisan boutiques.

We listened to La Traviata a lot. I really could not have been happier.

Palazzo Guadagni

The loggia, now converted into a ‘rooftop garden’ (bar) that overlooks the city centre and Florentine hills beyond. I would like a loggia please.

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Reading on the loggia after breakfast

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Posing on the loggia at sunset

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The rooms were spacious, far more so than any of the 5* hotels we’ve stayed in, and we spent a fair amount of time admiring the view across crooked terracotta rooftops. My only complaint about Italy is that it’s very difficult to get champagne anywhere. You’re forced to drink prosecco, and I can’t stand the stuff. Sorry Italy. We managed to buy a bottle of champagne nearby though, and the hotel were good enough to bring us an ice bucket and champagne flutes (prosecco flutes?), so we could enjoy it on the ‘rooftop garden’ one evening.

Our room was at the top of the palazzo, and whilst there was a creaking lift Tom preferred taking the stairs. When the stairs are as pretty as these I could hardly complain though.

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It’s a long way down

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The elegant private-entrance to Palazzo Guadagni

We spent a lot of time simply exploring the streets of Florence, admiring the architecture and wandering into boutiques and galleries we came across. I do think this is the most relaxing way you can explore a city, and you get a far better sense of its soul than if you simply follow the other tourists. Occasionally we would stumble across the main thoroughfares, and recoil in horror at the madding crowd.

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The whole city seems to glow a warm, golden colour.  I couldn’t help but suspect that the warmth of Tuscany would pervade even when it rained.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

My absolute favourite boutique was Maurizio Salici. We came across it one evening on our way home, and it beckoned to me like a magical toyshop. “We can come back tomorrow!” Tom promised, dragging me away. The window display alone was enough to lure me in; its carefully crafted clutter of antiques, ornaments and books had me transfixed.

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We did indeed return the next day, and I wandered around blissfully. My eye was caught by a trinket from the 1700s, when pieces of coral were attached to wooden lion’s feet (the lion being Florence’s heraldic symbol thanks to the Medici family), and gifted to newlyweds as good-luck charms. Maurizio Salici doesn’t usually allow photography, but as I, er, bought it, they suggested I might like to take just one photo of it in the shop before it was wrapped up. So I did, of course!

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The shopping in Florence in general is delightful though, and I was guided by Louise Fili’s little book ‘The Civilised Shopper’s Guide to Florence’. She took me to artisan chocolate shops like Dolceforte, seventeenth century perfume shops like Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Di Santa Maria Novella, and Scriptorium, which sells everything for the lover of handmade books and calligraphy.

The Civilised Shopper's Guide to Florence

There are too many wonderful things to see and do in Florence for me to tell you about everything, but I must show you the Boboli Gardens. The wealthy and powerful figures of the Italian Renaissance competed to illustrate their status through increasingly spectacular gardens, and a few of these still exist today. Monty Don’s BBC series on Italian gardens is an excellent introduction, and he is invited into many gardens as exclusive today as they were in the Renaissance, but the Boboli Gardens are actually open to the public.

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Your tour-guide Tom will show you around

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Neptune and heron

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Tom and I spent a very enjoyable half hour hunting the lizards that have made their home in the walled garden, to the horror of all the other tourists there

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For seven euros you can spend as long as you want exploring these beautiful gardens. They’re well maintained, and different areas lead you cleverly onwards to discover a multitude of grottos, statues and temples. They cover 111 acres in total, and overlook the Pitti Palace, the main seat of the Medici grand dukes of Tuscany in Florence.

Oh, and there’s a nice cafe as well. Which is very important, I’m sure you’d agree. Here’s a picture of Tom looking at the menu in front of some lemons.

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I really do love Florence, and it was a perfect continuation of our honeymoon. Tom’s organisation skills were not limited to one Italian city, however. The wonders of Venice beckon…

I’ll show you around in my next blog post!

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Honeymoon Week in Cornwall

It’s so rare to get all of our closest friends together, and we love them all so much, that we took them on honeymoon with us.

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I know that isn’t quite traditional, but we’re sort of used to doing things our own way. (My stag party was evidence of this, as most brides-to-be don’t take their fiancé along on their hen-do, so you shouldn’t be surprised!) We decided to stay in Cornwall for the first week of our honeymoon rather than rushing straight off. A few of us rented a cottage together in Flushing from Martin at Creekside Cottages, and everyone else made sure to stay nearby.

I forgot to take any photos of the cottage but it was lovely, and perfectly located; just around the corner from the Flushing ferry and opposite the village shop. Most importantly though, it had its own decking that led directly onto the sea. It was our own fault really that we were invaded by Northern pirates.

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I really don’t think these two are taking the invasion seriously enough, to be honest

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Though they soon summoned the troops

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Rob quickly defected, and joined us on land

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Having no other means of defending ourselves, we were forced to deploy scraps of bread into the air to lure in a mob of seagulls. Mick was not happy about this.

We had dinner at a different restaurant each night, from the Pandora in Mylor to the Cornish Range in Mousehole, and there were around twenty people sitting down together each time. It was just the start we wanted to married life. We both have a number of different friendship groups, whether from school, university or work, so seeing them all meeting and getting on was fantastic.

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We went on a few cliff-top walks and enjoyed the spectacular views, as well as getting a bit of climbing in. This is just around the corner from Mousehole; St Michael’s Mount in the background

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Yes, I’m climbing a cliff in a tweed mini skirt. No, it was not easy.

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We also enjoyed the Maritime Museum in Falmouth. It’s very child-friendly, so we had a great time

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We also spent a lot of time on ferries and water taxis, which are a fantastic way of getting around Cornwall. The ferries have fixed routes and times, but the water taxis will collect you any time, and drop you off anywhere there’s a jetty.

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Here we are, all enjoying a water taxi together

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It sort of looks like everyone had different expectations of that particular day out. Expectations that were NOT being met.

The best day was definitely the beach day. We got a water taxi across to St Mawes, stocked up on picnic items and champagne, then walked across the headland. When we arrived at the top of the cliff, we found that the path down to our favourite secluded beach had, er, fallen into the sea. Some enterprising locals had tied a rope to the bushes though, so we abseiled down. Being the only people stupid enough to do so on that particular day, we had the entire beach to ourselves. Heaven.

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We drank champagne and sunbathed on the rocks

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I got a bit more climbing-in-a-skirt practice in

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We went swimming in the sea (freezing, but exhilarating!), then polished off our picnic in the sunshine. Once the champagne had run out and the sun was beginning to set, we made our way back across the headland. Lush spring hedgerows lined the dusty lane, and verdant rolling fields stretched to either side. A water taxi collected us, and dropped us off at our cottage.

Getting to spend the first week of our honeymoon with our friends was an experience we’ll always treasure. The memories will stay with us for our whole lives, though of course we plan on repeating the event as frequently as possible! That wasn’t quite the end of it though. Did I mention that my Tom is pretty wonderful? Once or twice maybe. Well, he’d organised another week’s honeymoon for us, but we needed our passports for this one. More details in my next post!

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My Cornwall Wedding: The Wedding Breakfast, Cocktail Hour and Swing Dancing

Heading inside Scorrier after the formal photos felt like the second phase of the day was beginning, so it seemed right to tell you about it in a second blog post.
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I couldn’t have been more pleased with the table decorations. Georgia Westwood and her sister Jessie Thomson, our wedding planner, made them look absolutely beautiful. I hired a lot of vintage glass bottles, but I also sourced a selection of pewter and ceramic jugs and teapots from the antique shops in Rye, and Tom and I also bought hundreds of secondhand books from Falmouth.

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We really couldn’t have managed without our wedding planner Jessie. Her advice and planning expertise meant that the day ran incredibly smoothly, and actually felt like one long party rather than having gaps where guests are standing around waiting for something to happen. She suggested and then liaised with suppliers, made sure I hadn’t forgotten any of the thousands of details and decisions that are involved in a wedding, and kept an eye on our budget for us. I’d definitely advise engaging a wedding planner, even if they just advise and supervise as we requested rather than doing everything for you.

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As Tom and I met when we were both studying Renaissance Literature at university, we used EEBO to find the title pages of an appropriate selection of Renaissance plays. We had A Pleasant Comedy, All Fools, An Almond for a Parrot, The Shoemakers Holiday, The Island Princess, The Alchemist, and of course A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the top table. We downloaded these, and I printed them on ‘parchment’ coloured card for the table names.

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I also used Microsoft Paint to edit them (serious computer skilz, I know) for the table plan above, so that each included the names of our guests in lieu of a cast-list. I used a sheet of wrapping paper for the table plan’s background that I found in the British Library’s gift shop, depicting Early Modern London, which I thought was an appropriate reference to our lives in London.

Tom & Jade FINAL 0732 (800x533)Given our love of old books, Tom and I spent the months before the wedding trawling through charity shops across the country for wedding favours, and gave each guest a different book to remember the day by. I had a stamp made reading ‘Jade & Tom, Cornwall 2014’, and stamped the first page of each. I also made all the placenames and menus, again using parchment-coloured card and left over pearls and wrapping paper from the invitations.

The Wedding Breakfast itself was perfect. The caterers we chose were Beetham Food, and Jamie was nothing but helpful and accommodating throughout. We were allowed three main course options for our guests to choose from, and the cheese buffet we’d requested for later in the evening was presented as a stunning cheese cake. Everyone commented on how incredible the food was, and how friendly and professional all the waiting staff. Menu below:

Main Course

 

Whole Sirloin of Beef, Medium Rare, cut thickly and served with a Béarnaise Sauce

Or

Seafood Bouillabaisse with Saffron & Aioli

(Crevettes, Crab, Lobster, Hake, Mussels & Clams)

Or

Roasted Vegetable Stack with Pan Fried Haloumi & Red Pepper Coulis (v)

 

Trio of Dessert

 

Pavlova with Summer Berries & Clotted Cream

Rich Chocolate Mousse with Raspberry Coulis

Zesty Lemon Cheesecake

 

Evening Food

 

Cornish Cheese Wedding Cake

Served on slates with Chutneys, Fruits, Celery & Crackers

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Although I admit I was more interested in the cheese than the actual wedding cake, I must mention Faye from The Natural Cake Company. She uses only natural ingredients, something that means a lot to me, and her cakes are both delicious and edible works of art.

Tom & Jade FINAL 0800 (800x533) After the wedding breakfast, we had a little surprise lined up for our guests. An old school friend of mine happens to be a successful mixologist, so as a wedding gift he very kindly agreed to invent three cocktails tailored to our wedding, and serve these at a cocktail hour after the wedding breakfast. I only have ONE photo of them unfortunately, which is a shame because they were stunning as well as being delicious! The May Day Tea was served in vintage cups and saucers, and was my particular favourite, though the Spring Collins was the overall winner in terms of flavour. I have since tried to recreate it, and failed utterly. Stan is evidently a miracle worker.

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Stan and another old school friend, Liam, setting up cocktails next to the gramophone

Cocktail Hour Menu

May Day Tea

Elderflowers, raspberries, grapefruit, rose petals, vodka, apple liqueur, limoncello, cloudy apple juice, lemon juice and Everingham honey (served hot)

Fragola Granita

Champagne and wild strawberry liqueur

Spring Collins

Gin, fresh basil, radishes, gin, lemon juice and cherry syrup

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Spring Collins on the left, and Stella holding a (non-alcoholic, I’m sure!) May Day Tea

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My beautiful girlfriends, resolutely pretending not to have had any cocktails at all. Ahem. I changed into a navy-blue lace Diane Von Furstenberg dress for the evening, and of course the pearls I usually wear.

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The cocktail hour certainly put everyone in the right mood for the next part of the day. The dancing.

Tom and I were not exactly looking forward to this. We wanted a song that reflected the party atmosphere of the evening, so chose Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing for our first dance. Regardless of the fact that it’s very difficult to dance to, as it’s very fast. Not that this was a problem though, as we engaged Jerome Anderson to teach us how to dance in two weeks. He happens to be Lindsay Rodham‘s partner, the lady who altered my wedding dress, so we were in very safe hands. He teaches in a wonderfully holistic way, making the most of our strengths and minimising our flaws. We just about managed to pull it off!

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My dancing shoes were bought online from Chelsea Crew, who specialise in vintage-inspired styles

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We did the first minute and a half on our own, then my bridesmaids and Australian relatives joined in. Sam and The Swing Empire, our live Jazz band, were fantastic. I had been more worried about the first dance than anything else on our wedding day, and suddenly realised the day before that maybe our guests wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about dancing to Jazz as us, but the dancefloor filled up for the rest of the evening. It made such a difference having a live band. We would never, ever have had a DJ or just an ipod playlist, as there’s something incredibly exciting about dancing to live music. It’s an obvious way to save money, but we wouldn’t have done without it.

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I think that was my favourite part of the day actually, the dancing. The fact that everybody joined in, and had such a good time, was absolutely magical. Tom and I have had so many wonderful times together, but our wedding day was definitely the best day so far.

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