Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Green(ish) dragon party

My eldest son was about to turn six and really wanted a Dragon party. We've always done parties at the house, and it somehow seemed even more important to carry on that tradition as we continue the process of settling into our new home, it also gave us more control over our plastic use and sustainable choices. Okay a party is a bit of an extravagance, but we did a range of things to try to be as green as possible.

How to Train Your Dragon really captured my son's imagination. We went to see the film back in February 2019 and since then we have been reading Cressida Cowell's books, which are quite different from the film. The party needed to reflect that rather than simply focus on the film version of Toothless.

I have to say I have been really impressed with the books, the way they handle bullying and being different. There was a great moment when Hiccup suddenly discovers that rather than being rather useless at sword fighting, he's actually rather good - he was just using the wrong hand. Our son is left-handed and he was just going through a phase of wanting to be right handed like everyone else, this helped him to embrace his difference and feel more positive about it. There's also plenty of humour so the books are enjoyable for adults to read aloud, which is just as well as there are 12 of them and they have been our bedtime reading for rather a long time now.

The books also feature the Pirate training programme as well as the vikings and dragons, so we included that on the invitations, widening the scope for fancy dress as well as enabling us to reuse some decorations from a pirate party we'd held for our son's third birthday. For the invitations I drew a Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus from the books which we photocopied and stuck to folded card and we invited vikings, dragons and pirates to join us. Rather scarily our son had a huge list of invitees, which we limited rather meanly perhaps, but in the interests of our sanity, to 20.

When holding a party in the house I think it is important to have a few key activities. I admit I tend to go overboard with these sometimes, but I do love a bit of craft and something to get the kids running around - preferably outside, which as luck would have it was possible this year.

1. The cake

Why I ever got into the habit of making my son's cakes I'll never know as it's always a heap of work, but there is a great satisfaction in producing the finished product, plus I have much more control over the ingredients. A friend pointed me to a simple outline for a dinosaur/dragon cake made out of a standard round sponge cake cut up. Once I had the basic shape it was easier than you might think to turn it into a dragon, the fact that his skin could have textures a bonus as that hid lots of imperfections. This was loosely based on the Toothless character from he book (in which he is green and small rather than black as he is in the film).

I was able to use pretty much all organic ingredients, the flour and baking powder were both from the local refillery shop. Used local organic eggs and milk (in glass refillable bottles from a local farm) and pick and mix sweets in a paper bag to decorate.

2. Craft

We had two activities; sword decorating and also little viking longship packs which they decorated and assembled. The swords we made out of cardboard boxes and painted white. The longships were more of an extravagance; kits from Baker Ross, but they pretty much made the party. I decided against paints as we simply had too many kids coming, so we used pens and some sequins we already had for jewel decoration. Paints would have been better, but would have needed a bit more space and definitely would have caused more mess.

3. Dragon hunt

How to have a treasure hunt that didn't break the bank and was sustainable option? Initially I thought I'd draw/paint them on card, but I really wanted to do something so the kids could take a dragon away with them in their party bags.

I didn't want to buy new, so I hit the charity shops, Banardos proved to be particularly good. It's amazing how many almost new soft toys you can easily pick up, and the different animals fitted in well with the books where you have dragons like the Gatordragons (basically alligator dragons) and the Hogfly (described as a pig in dragon form). I simply used some felt to make wings for various animals and hey presto we had a multitude of species from Ping dragons to Ugly Pug dragons - where they looked vaguely like a dragon breed from the book we gave them that name, otherwise we simply made the names up.

I drew a map of the house and garden with red Xs where the dragons were hiding, and an identification chart with tick boxes for them fill in. We hid the dragons around the garden, encouraging the children to team up to find them all. After the hunt, while the kids were eating, we gathered them in ready for the party bags.

4. Party bags

I got some lovely personalised seed packs from Ways to Say Thankyou, so no plastic and hopefully more flowers for the bees. Found some twig pencils that were used for the dragon hunt, little cutout wooden dragons and Divine paper-wrapped chocolates. I stamped dragons on plain paper bags and popped a dragon from the hunt inside each bag as well - these went down a storm, although people did have their favourites.

What I'd have liked to have done better

- Made my son's Hiccup costume rather than bought one.
- Made the sausage rolls rather than bought.
- Set out more space for the craft.
- Used old fabric and corks for the boats instead of buying kits.
- We had planned to do a couple of games like pass the parcel but ran out of time to prepare for them.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Recycled curtains for the camper van

This project showed me how with a bit of creativity you can cut right down on your consumption and waste, while getting something new at the same time.

I had a lovely pair of bedroom curtains that had sadly got stained in the course of our house move last year, and didn’t fit any of our new rooms any case. Meanwhile our camper van had tired old curtains that cried out for a facelift. It was a perfect fit.

Using a seam ripper to unpick the seams on the stained curtains.

 As I took the old curtains down and double checked measurements and fitting to see if I could make any improvements ready to make the ‘new’ ones, my first thought was ‘I need some blackout lining and heading tape’ but that would delay me. Inspiration struck, so instead of getting into the car and going to get said supplies, I set to with some scissors and a seam ripper and removed the old tape and linings. Not only did it make the making-up a lot easier as I could use the old linings as a template, both the lining and heading tape were plastic-based so I saved money and landfill. Okay it took time to unpick the linings, but I even managed to do that while feeding my little one and it’s definitely the sort of task you can do while watching tv, plus I saved my time driving out to get the bits as well as saving my fuel, quite aside from the cost of the materials.

New curtains for free - I used blue fabric for the tie-backs in this part of the van. The bunting we were given five years ago when my son was born.

I used red for the tiebacks on the back window to tie in with the bunting.
I hope you agree the result is lovely (sorry I didn't do a 'before' pic but I'll just say Laura Ashley white, pink and yellow). The fabric used is actually called 'Swing' and is still available new from The Stripes Company.

The tie-backs were made with scraps of fabric I had in my sewing basket and the touches of red really help bring together the colour theme in the van. Didn’t cost a penny and meant I could feel happy that I’d reused rather than bought new, win win.

The new look gets the thumbs up - our seat cover doubles as a picnic mat.

Friday, 22 March 2019

More of the real thing

On my regular run round the fields near our house I saw two squirrels; one was real, and a red squirrel to boot. I stopped and took a moment's pleasure from a sight I wouldn't have seen when I was living back in England. The second squirrel caught my attention, and my thoughts for another reason. Instead of scampering away from me, it sat completely still, next to a badger and various other garden ornaments. It reminded me of the photograph below, of two plastic leaves I found washed up on a beach, next to the real thing. It reminded me of the artificial grass we saw in a few locations recently, and the weekend we spent shifting gravel and lifting plastic sheeting in the garden of our new (to us that is) house to reveal the life-lacking earth below. It resonated with my latest read; George Monbiot's 'Feral' and my general urge to 'de-plastic' and 'naturalise' our new house in order to make it feel more like home.

These plastic leaves found washed up on a beach sum up the problem of modern living for me, we need to change our habits.

There is no doubt that we humans love nature, but we have moved further and further away from it. All too often we surround ourselves with plastic imitations of the real thing: pictures on our walls; ornaments; decoration on pencil cases, bags, clothing... It's a disconnect that's bad for our own physical and mental health as well as for the health of our planet.

It is only very recently in man's evolution that we have shut ourselves away from nature, in boxes that shut out the natural elements and natural light. We evolved to be immersed in it, not distanced from it, our bodies are built to work in harmony with it, not to fight it  or eliminate it. It seems to me that we have progressively sought to shut nature down, order it, organise it, stamp our will upon it rather than try to harmonise ourselves with it. Perhaps that's why sailing is such a hugely therapeutic and positive activity for me. I feel more at one with nature, more in harmony, it feels like you are using nature's forces, but not forcing them or subduing them, not shutting them down, but embracing and exhilarating in them.

So here I sit, in a box that has too little of the natural world in its interior as well as its immediate surroundings, a garden that needs re-populating with life; rooms that need natural fabrics and materials... and I understand a bit better why that has been so important in my life, why I love camping, running in the rain, immersing myself in the sea, the forest, the mountains, the skies. And why I'm ready to do all I can to preserve it for future generations, and inspire my boys to understand how vital it is for our happiness and wellbeing as well as the small matter of our survival.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Baby steps

I'm a great believer in taking a bit by bit approach to things. Yes our planet may be in crisis, and I don't say that lightly, but life has taught me that is you try to do too much too quickly you will often fail. It's a bit like a crash diet, you can cut everything out and lose weight very fast, or take a more considered approach and let yourself have little bits of 'bad', lose weight a bit more slowly, but lose it in a maintainable way, a way that becomes a permanent change in lifestyle rather than a 'crash and burn' approach.

I think this is particularly important as my nature generally errs towards the 'I want to get everything done yesterday' mentality, so I need to slow myself down, and remind myself that baby steps will get you to your destination, and sometimes you can get there in much better shape, or spot important details along the way that help you to do things a better way.

So, yes we need to move towards a greener, more sustainable way of living, yes we need to clean up our planet and make sure we give our children a future, and yes we are running out of time and need to act NOW. But we can make big changes relatively quickly by taking baby steps, sharing the ideas we come across that work well in our lives and focusing on the positive of every little move make in cutting our consumption and moving towards sustainability.

A good example for me is reusable nappies; many people are put off by the thought of the work involved. But you could substitute just one disposable a day as a start and when that's working, try two... baby steps. Another is meat consumption - there are very few of us who would succeed in going vegan immediately, but if everyone ate less meat it would make a huge difference. So more realistic for most of us is to try reducing our meat consumption by one meal a month, then two, then maybe try a meat-free meal a week.

This is the thinking behind the series of features I am writing for right now... Take one step, then think what your next step might be. By taking baby steps each day, week, month then by the end of the year you will be greener.

Small steps will get us there, so don't be put off by the enormity of the task and take heart in every bit you do.

Just a few of our baby steps...

  1. Reusable nappies and wipes (currently 99% of the time)
  2. Homemade soup
  3. Loose leaf tea
  4. Homemade bread
  5. Soap substituted for hand and face wash, shampoo and shaving
  6. Food as much organic and local as possible
  7. Organic beef and lamb direct from local farm
  8. Organic milk direct from our local dairy using reusable glass bottles
  9. Fruit and veg as much as we can bought loose without using plastic bags
  10. Toilet roll and tissues bought in bulk without plastic wrapping
  11. Clothing - minimising purchases and trying to buy natural fibres
  12. Reusable water bottles, coffee cups and cutlery for out and about

A quote from Jane Goodall's film 'Mother Earth' sums it up really well I feel:‘I’m not alone in saying we have a window of time, a window to start changing the direction, but it depends on changing attitudes and if we could just get a critical mass of us who start to think about the consequences of the little choices we make each day, what we buy, what we wear, what we eat...’

The point is to keep chipping away at your plastic use, at your consumption and move gradually towards sustainable habits - every little counts, just as every biscuit you don't eat will help your weight loss.

Please don't be put off by the enormity of the task, together we CAN make a difference.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Super useful soup

Soup. It's a delicious and healthy lunch and great to have in the fridge. BUT if you buy it you have all the extra packaging involved - especially with those gourmet type soups which mostly come in a Tetra Pak or a big plastic tub. Even if you recycle them, that's a huge amount of extra resource used to produce and then recycle that packaging. Make you own and you can eliminate that completely.

Souper useful

Soup has so many uses - especially in a family environment. If you're weaning it's perfect for the smallest person in your family, whether you're going the spoon puree route, or baby-led when it's ideal for your little ones to dip bread in. Quite aside from a quick lunch or tea, it can be easily used as a pasta sauce or a gravy or sauce to pep up a simple meal with lots of hidden veg.

Now time is always the biggest issue that has us reaching for a bought product, but I think I've found the perfect solution with soup. First I make it alongside a main meal. Usually on a Sunday afternoon or evening. It's much more efficient and easier to simply chop up a few more vegetables while making a main meal, I leave it to cook while we have our dinner, then add any suitable leftovers.

Make sure you've got some good containers in which to store your soup, and if you do a big batch on Sunday it will feed the family for the week. You can always freeze some too for pasta sauces etc.

Homemade soup ingredients

You can make soup with pretty much anything, just depends what you have in abundance. Keep an eye out for reduced veg in your local shop of supermarket and let that flavour your soup and use up any leftovers. Last December I made a very tasty 'Christmas dinner' soup which gave us an easy hearty meal on Boxing Day with a bunch of the leftovers from Christmas Day.

A squash will make a good soup and can be combined with other ingredients to make different soups to your taste. The great thing about a squash is it will keep for a good while so it's easy to ensure you generally have one in your food cupboard.

You can make soup without onions, but they are a pretty good staple to add flavour, whatever variety of soup you're making. Leeks can do a similar job, garlic, tomato puree and herbs are other great ways to add flavour as is celery. Pea soup is a really easy option -  frozen peas, onions and stock alone will give you a tasty meal.

Leftover gravy, small portions of pretty much any meal, any veg nearing the end of its life, broccoli stalks etc are great and have the added bonus of reducing your food waste.

This yummy soup was made with onion, squash, broccoli, carrot, celery and a bit of left over mashed potato. It kept us going for a week. I didn't have any chicken stock this week so I used a Kallo stock cube.

Every time we have a roast chicken I simmer the bones to make stock and pop it in the fridge ready for soup (or risotto) production. If I don't have any of my own stock, I opt for Kallo's organic low salt stock cubes (there's a lot of salt in regular stock cubes). A dash of wine, Worcestershire sauce or anything you fancy really - experiment with your own combinations, and try to take a note of what works so you can re-create a particularly successful combination. Happy souping!

Saturday, 31 December 2016

10 steps to a greener 2017

Sometimes the whole thought of the poor planet, what we have done and continue to do to it, seems overwhelming. If you look at the ever-expanding human population, destruction of the environment and the way we are running out of natural resources, it can seem as though we are on an inevitable path to self-destruction.

All rather depressing... so often we bury our heads in the sand and simply get on with life. However that's rather like being overweight and deciding to ignore it.

Why should being greener be your new Year's resolution? 


Just like a diet, small steps, over time, can add up to big results. Axing everything 'naughty but nice' from your diet overnight can cause dramatic short term results, but often is unsustainable and can lead to your weight yo-yoing, rather than stabilising at a more healthy level for the long term. It's also easy to think 'I've had one chocolate biscuit, so I might as well have more' when every little bit you don't eat will help.

With the environment it's exactly the same. You may think 'but I'm just one person, what difference will I make?' The answer is, potentially a huge difference.

To take a positive view, technology may one day give us some solutions to repair the damage we have already done, preserve our wonderful planet and ensure a long term future for generations to come. Every little bit we do to slow or stop the destruction will, in the worst case, delay disaster - and let's face it if the worst were to happen we'd certainly value that extra hour, day, month or year. Not only that, the more you opt for environmentally friendly alternatives, the more you encourage their availability and accessibility for others, not to mention inspiring more people to follow your lead. Every bit we all do to reduce waste and harm to our environment is helping us all.

And so this is a plea. When you make your New Year's Resolutions, make one of them to be a little bit greener, to think about your buying choices, your day to day actions and your life and try to do a little bit more to make your own impact on our wonderful home a little less harmful.

10 top tips for greener living

Here are a few handy ideas to reduce your impact on the environment. As my son loves to chant, 'reduce, reuse recycle' - this is a general good thought to have at the back of your mind, but there are some specific areas you can target and small life changes (some of them will also improve your life and your health as well).

Make considering the environment part of your everyday life. Try to take a moment to think about every item you buy or use. Do you really need it? Will it last? What is it made of, will it be easy to dispose of at the end of its life, is it re-usable, or recyclable?

1. Reduce your use of plastic bottles. Choose tap water over bottled water in restaurants, carry a reusable water bottle with you, and ensure that any bottles you do use go to be recycled. For more ideas to cut your plastic use, see these handy tips.

2. Switch to a Mooncup or similar sanitary product alternative. A Mooncup is a simple silicone rubber cup that collects your menstrual flow and is simply emptied into the toilet. No chemicals, no dryness, no irritation. This will save you money as well as a lot of hassle. Once you are used to using one, will make the time of the month much more pleasant as well - they are great for swimming, sports and even overnight. Imagine how much landfill, not to mention money, you would save if you never bought or threw away a tampon or sanitary towel ever again.

3. Buy secondhand. So much is readily available secondhand these days, thanks to the internet. Every time you buy a secondhand toy or book of item of clothing you are saving all the energy and materials involved in its manufacture. Our son's bike is a brilliant example; we bought an Isla bike from eBay. Well made the brand holds its value, our purchase looked like new and we will sell it on for pretty much the same figure we bought it for. Far better than buying a cheap bike new.

4. Avoid giving 'throw-away' gifts, especially anything plastic. If you don't know what to buy someone, buy something edible, or a subscription or donation to a charity related to one of their interests. For example, you could adopt an animal through the WWF.

5. Buy more organic, seasonal local food. Bear in mind where your food comes from. Look at the country of origin and choose items grown closer to home and which are in season. Plan your meals more carefully to reduce food waste, and compost food waste (many councils now offer this service). Eating less meat is also a good way to move to a lifestyle that has a lower impact on the environment, as well as helping with heathier eating.

6. Choose clothes carefully. Some fabrics can be a lot kinder on the environment than others. Not just in the processes involved in their manufacture, but also in what happens to them at the end of their life. Something that is pure cotton will biodegrade naturally, while a plastic-based fabric will end up in landfill. Buying more natural fabrics is a positive move, even better go for organic ones that avoid chemicals - better for you as well. Consider buying fewer, higher quality items. Read more about various fabrics and their environmental issues here.

7. Look at your household energy use. Not only can you try to reduce your energy usage, you can take steps to make your energy use greener. Simple steps include turning lights out, avoiding leaving electrical items on standby, turning the heating down, or moving to using a 'warm zone' in your house. You can switch to a 'green' energy supplier - this helps to send a message to the market that you would choose to get your energy from renewables, not only can you feel better about he energy you do use you are helping to grow the demand for greener energy.

8. Encourage breastfeeding. You knew I'd say that, right? For some it doesn't work out, and that's partly about a lack of support. If you're not in a position to feed yourself, you can help by supporting and normalising breastfeeding to help enable others to do it. Think how much energy is saved. No artificial alternatives that need to be manufactured, no sterilising or cleaning, no plastic bottles or teats, not to mention less medication. Read more about supporting breastfeeding and why we should all care about it and can all play a role in helping to promote it here.

Camping in the New Forest involved a short drive, but provided a wonderful escape. You can see our son's bike in the picture - purchased from eBay we will be able to sell it for pretty much the same price we bought it for.

9. Minimise your travel. Even if you cut one flight from your plans for next year you will make a difference. Try holidaying a bit closer to home, try using public transport. With our toddler, public transport is an adventure - taking the bus is enjoyable both for him, and the elderly who use it more regularly and take joy (well most of them do) in interacting with a lively toddler.

10. Switch to environmentally friendly cleaning products. Whether you switch all your products, or just some of them, this is a simply and positive move. As well as ingredients that are less harmful to the environment, these products are less harmful to you. Try a soap nut ball for washing, and try wearing your clothes a little longer before washing them.

There you have it, 10 ideas to get you started. There are plenty more. Most of all remember, every little helps, just like saying no to dessert, or that extra chocolate biscuit! This is for our children's futures and the generations that are to follow them. Let's do everything we can to protect and preserve our wonderful world.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Children's books: seeing with new eyes

One of the most amazing things about children is that they help you to see things with fresh eyes. I have always loved books and after having my son I couldn’t wait to read to him. Before he could crawl I was reading aloud to him.

Okay in the early days it was the sound of my voice and the rhythm of the words that he enjoyed, not to mention giving the pages a quick chew or pulling the flaps off Where’s Spot, Dear Zoo and Rabbit’s Nap.

The classic books of my childhood 

My own childhood book memories go back to the age of three. Mouse Needs a House and Flippy the Frog, the former I learnt by heart, convincing myself that I could read before I was four. I have a vivid memory of my mother reading the opening few pages of Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was five, which shows it's never too soon to share a good book. I remember battles at school to read the books I wanted, rather than those I was supposed to read. I remember being transfixed as my aunt read my cousin and I The Magic Faraway Tree, having to leave the room when The Castle of Adventure got too scary and wishing I was the girl in Ballet Shoes.

I also remember the magic of opening a John Menzies or WHSmith paper bag containing a holiday book. How a book token was the best prize I could win. How school fetes meant a chance to buy more. I read my way through school, the popular, the classics, from thriller to historic romance. I read everything by Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfield, Malcolm Saville, Roald Dahl, Mollie Hunter, Nina Bawden, Arthur Ransome, Paul Zindel, Judy Blume. I hoovered Jean Plaidy, Tolkien and Austen. I devoured Dickens, Hardy and Tolstoy.

My extensive reading grew my mind, widened my understanding of the world and honed my English skills. My reading got me through my exams, gave me my career and still gives me an escape today.

Now I’m enjoying a whole new world of books. Although many will talk about the demise of print, there’s one area where it is certainly thriving and that’s children’s books.

Surrounded by books, aged nine months. The children's picture book market is healthier than ever with a wealth of great books - pictured here Cyril the Snowboarding Squirrel, Slinky Malinki, Giraffes Can't Dance and What the Ladybird Heard.

My favourite children's picture books (for 1-3 year-olds) 

These are the books I have loved reading aloud most, not just the ones my son has enjoyed but the ones I have taken delight in too. I haven’t included the classics like Pooh, Paddington, Dr Zeuss, Thomas the Tank Engine (the original books, not the simplified modern ones, which lack the lovely rhythmic writing), the Mr Men books and Beatrix Potter. Those all deserve their place on any child’s bookshelf, and I’ve loved re-discovering them with my son. This is a list of some of the new books I've discovered, the books that weren’t there to inspire me when I was a child. 

Oi Frog 
Kes Gray 
This really made me giggle on the first read. Apparently frogs can only sit on logs, cats sit on mats, hares sit on chairs, mules sit on stools and gophers sit on sofas. The frog isn't impressed, then he makes the mistake of asking what dogs sit on!

Stick Man 
Julia Donaldson 
You can't go wrong with Julia Donaldson. I could have included a load more on this list, especially The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Tiddler. This is the story of stick man who lives in the family tree with his stick lady love and stick children three. He ends up far from home and goes on lots of adventures before he finds his way back in time for Christmas.

Jack and the Flum Flum Tree 
Julia Donaldson 
This my absolute favourite Julia Donaldoson, 'Don't get you knickers in a twist says Jack, let's have a look in the patchwork sack'. Brilliantly written and such fun as Jack goes on a voyage to the island of blowyernose to get a flum flum fruit to cure his granny of the moozles.

You Can’t take an Elephant on the Bus 
Patricia Cleveland-Peck 
As the title suggests, plenty of outlandish ideas about where animals could go - or rather where they couldn't go.

Giraffes Can’t Dance 
Giles Andreae 
I love this story about a giraffe called Gerald who eventually finds he can dance, but he just needs different music. Great illustrations and fun to read aloud.

The Day the Crayons Quit 
Drew Daywalt 
Very amusing concept, Duncan finds letters from his crayons; some are overworked, others not happy about the jobs they have to do, while yellow and orange have fallen out over which one is the colour of the sun. There's a great follow-up book too, The Day the Crayons Came Home.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt 
Michael Rosen 
As well as being great fun to read aloud, this is a book you'll find yourself repeating lines from on muddy walks. Its repetitive refrain and poetic rhythm are a big hit from early on.

Aliens Love Underpants 
Claire Freedman
A very silly book about aliens stealing underpants. Great around potty training time, especially when you are planting the seed of wearing pants.

Hairy Maclary From Donaldson’s Dairy 
Lynley Dodd 
Bottomly Potts all covered in spots, Hercules Morse as big as a horse and Schnitzel von Krumm with a very low tum and just a few of the characters you'll meet. There are a number of books in the series which feature lovely rhythmic writing and stories to make you smile.

The Journey Home From Grandpa's 
Jemima Lumley 
Barefoot Books publish some beautifully illustrated stories, most come with an accompanying CD so you can learn to sing them too. This one involves of tractors, diggers, trains and cranes. Other favourites in the series include Driving My Tractor, Up in a Balloon and My Granny Went to Market.

There are oodles more. For more great children's picture books, see my list of top children's boating books.