Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Waging War on Conifers

Don't get me wrong - I love conifers - but I am rapidly coming to the opinion that they belong in settings like this....


... NOT in gardens.

My garden has an abundance of conifers.

This is a photograph taken a couple of years ago of my front boundary. There is an overgrown beech hedge beyond that bordering the road.

I think it looks rather lovely. You would not know that my house was in the middle of town (albeit a small market town). However, in the time between taking this photograph and now, the conifers were not content to remain unchanged. They grew. And they grew. And they grew.

The problem with conifers is that they are very difficult to tame. You can cut them back a little and you can top them but there is no hard pruning solution - no cutting them back to a manageable size and watching lush new growth spring from bare branches. 

The conifers had become massively too big, They were encroaching further and further into the garden, killing the lawn and forcing underplanted shrubs to grow straggly and untidy in an attempt to reach daylight.

I hadn't really noticed how bad it had become until a chap working in the area called round offering his services. He gave us a price for the topping and trimming of the three large conifers and as he explained what it would involve, it forced me to have a really good look. I thanked him for his time but suggested that I needed to rethink the whole border.

I did have a look at the trees he had been working on locally and generally started paying attention to the trees in all the neighbouring gardens, particularly the conifers. Now maybe it's just me but a large conifer that has had the top taken off looks so wrong. The top is the wondrous part - the part that shines brightest with life. Removing it seems like a castration. I would rather have no conifer than castrated conifer.

My husband agreed and bought two new chains for his chainsaw in readiness.

We started by tackling the beech hedge. We did have to cut back a substantial amount of shrub and tree growth to gain access from the inside. From the roadside, the hedge is neatly managed to the point that I could reach with the hedge trimmers and a stepper. I generally ignored the top of the hedge as branches merged together in a dense leafy muddle.

Summer 2012

Approaching the hedge from the other side, it was plain to see that the top had not been trimmed for many years before we took ownership of it. Thick branches of beech tree reached skywards upwards of 20 feet above the hedge in places. They had to come down. I keep thinking that if the hedge survives the drastic pruning, it can put all that energy into growing where I want it to grow - into a thick, healthy, manageable boundary. 

With ropes and the chainsaw, we managed to take down most of the branches without incident. There are still a couple that we are going to have to approach from the road side so will need extra help to do it safely. The hedge looks so much better already and I can't wait to see how well it recovers once the leaves begin to grow.

The next job was to assess the conifers. There were the three massive ones that the chap had quoted for, one of which I adore and want to preserve. We also discovered two more in the jungle that I hadn't even realised were there.

Getting inside the jungle

As much as it pains me destroy a tree, we had to be brutal. Before long, the smallest of the three large conifers and one of the bonus ones we hadn't know existed, were felled. 

Taking out the beech branches and cutting down the trees was relatively quick. Clearing up the vast amount of green waste the process generated was not so quick. Two trips to the dump, making good use of two neighbours' green bins as well as our own and spending several hours incinerating  did  just about stop us being completely overwhelmed by the task. We have piles of wood for chopping into logs for the chimenea and bags neatly filled with more green waste ready for disposal. It is going to be a long job clearing up completely before the next round of cutting can begin.

We have made some good discoveries - most notably we uncovered a beautiful old ornamental cherry tree that will hopefully soon reward us with boughs of pink blossom. 

Turning our attention to the conifers elsewhere in the garden, we realised that potentially we have a lot more work to do. We have a big decision to make about three massive conifers that I see from my kitchen window.   I have always loved the wall of green that they present but again, as they have grown, they have begun to deprive me of two precious commodities - space and light. I think we have reached the tipping point where the loss of these commodities outweighs any benefits. The garden will be completely transformed if we decide to get rid of them - and of course, once they are gone, there is no going back.

We have plenty of work still to do before we have to make our final decision and to commit to it with  the whirr of a chainsaw blade. I am hoping for lots of lovely sunny spring days over Easter to get on with it all. Maybe when those huge coniferous giants block that lovely spring sunshine I will stop seeing them as my beautiful wall of green and view them instead as 'the enemy'. Let battle commence!

Monday, 24 March 2014

Having a Henry Hugglemonster Day

I must admit that my little boy, Dylan, is usually busy building things these days but he does still find some time for other toys.

Recently, we were sent a Henry Hugglemonster Roarsome Scooter from a new toy collection by Golden Bear.

The friendly little monster from the hit Disney show was instantly recognisable and Dylan's eyes lit up when he saw the scooter. Dylan loves anything with wheels.

The toy sparked off enthusiastically noisy renditions of the Henry Hugglemonster theme tune from Dylan and big sister Addy and once they discovered that pressing Henry's tummy made him speak six of the show's fun catchphrases, we really did start to Have a Henry Hugglemonster Day. They couldn't get enough of pressing the tummy and imitating the catchphrases - always a winner!

There was lots of fun to be had when they took Henry for a spin on his scooter outside.

The figure is detachable and Dylan might argue, kissable! It is quite difficult to balance Henry in a standing position without his scooter but apart from that minor niggle, it is sure to be a hit with fans of the Hugglemonsters.

This toy operates using 2xLR44 batteries (included) and is not suitable for children under 3years.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


My little Addy is definitely starting to develop her own sense of style. It isn't always easy on the eye but  she loves her outfits and has fun with them.

A new product I was sent to review, skribbies, was absolutely perfect for her.

Skribbies are fashionable High-Top trainers for children available in three colour combinations. I wanted the Neon Black but Addy was insistent that she'd be the one wearing them and she wanted Pink. Pink won!

She was absolutely thrilled with the trainers... and the pens and stickers included in the box. What she had yet to realise was that the pens and the stickers were for creating a unique, customised look for the trainers.  She didn't question the fact that she was allowed (encouraged) to draw on her shoes. She happily got on with it.

The upper is a lovely smooth, shiny material - perfect for drawing on. The box also contained a skribbie wrist band for wiping the shoes clean ready to be drawn on again. Addy loved the wristband and even wanted to wear it to bed! The surface wiped clean easily - so easily that I did accidentally erase a couple of designs whilst trying to help Addy get the shoes on.

Addy was definitely absorbed in the task of decorating her new High-Tops and was very proud of her finished product. More important to me as a parent was how well they functioned as footwear. We 'road' tested them in the garden and they certainly seemed to give her plenty of spring in her step.

Addy loved her trainers and I was very impressed with them. However, it does mean that I need to keep a close eye on her little brother to ensure that he doesn't start thinking it is OK to draw on all his shoes too!

Monday, 17 March 2014


Over the years, my children have accumulated a sizeable collection of Lego between them, including a fantastic Lego City Train Set I reviewed as part of the Toyologist programme I was involved in. The Lego was very well played with but inevitably, as adult pursuits occupied more time and attention, the collection remained mostly in a jumble of bricks in a large plastic crate in the corner of a room waiting for the moment that my two little ones discovered the treasures within.

As my youngest daughter, Addy, reached an age where she could appreciate Lego, she remained disappointingly disinterested. Her construction ambition was limited to making patterns with the different colours. It was a different story with my son, Dylan. At three and a half years old, he was already showing a keen interest in how things work and making things. He was also becoming increasingly fascinated with the Lego adverts on the TV - in particular Lego Chima and Lego City police. He could recite entire adverts word perfect.

When I saw two Lego City mini sets reduced to half price on Morrisons, I popped them in with my weekly grocery shop to see how he got on with them.

How did he get on with them? He absolutely LOVED them.

It was wonderful to see the big sisters getting involved to construct the little toys from the instructions provided and equally wonderful to see how he played with them - fixing and modifying as well as acting out scenarios.

It was time to dust off the collection.

Although fascinated by the huge crate of interesting components, it was all too much. Too disorganised, too overwhelming. Something needed to be done to restore some order to the chaos and the first step was to tip it all out onto a table.

I'm sure most people agree that the lapping of waves, a child's laughter and the glug, glug, glug of the first glass of wine being poured from a bottle are beautiful sounds. I would like to add another beautiful sound  - the sound that Lego bricks make when you rummage around in them looking for a particular piece. I have to admit though, the sound of that quantity of Lego being tipped from the crate onto the table was rather loud. Dylan covered his ears until it was all over.

Seeing the Lego all layed out before me was nostalgic. Star Wars and Harry Potter mini figures littered amongst pieces of alien space craft and Aquazone Discovery Lab brought  memories flooding back.

My eldest daughter was quite a bossy child with a strong sense of propriety. She would have never tolerated any carelessness or misuse of toys with her younger siblings. For that reason, I was not surprised to find all the instructions for the various Lego kits intact and suspected that there would be very little in the way of missing components. The task ahead of me was to sort the mass of Lego into the different sets.

I wasn't sure how far I'd get with it but once I started, it became strangely compulsive. I was late for school pickups, housework was neglected, dinner failed to be made. The lure of the Lego was powerful.

My eldest daughter went out of her way to come round and help (much to the bemusement of her 'isn't this supposed to be for kids' boyfriend). We built, we reminisced, we laughed, we got ridiculously excited about finding elusive components that we needed.

On the subject of hunting down a particular piece, one thing I have become convinced of is that Lego pieces do not obey the normal laws of the physical world. You can search for a piece until you are sure that it must have long ago been a casualty of the vacuum cleaner, and then lo and behold, there it will be right in front of you. I would be willing to swear that it hadn't been there five minutes previously. They simply materialise... when your attention is elsewhere of course.

I did make several attempts to sort and categorise different pieces to make searching easier but when the little ones came home from school wanting to 'help', my systems would be quickly undone. Dylan would at least build things but Addy would just enjoy swirling the bricks about. Perhaps she shares my love of that very special sound or maybe it was malicious sabotage because she just couldn't understand our enthusiasm for all that was Lego.

The Lego mission was never going to be quick to complete but I wasn't expecting it to still be monopolising the conservatory (and my time) the best part of a week later.

I had to tear myself away from my obsession to go and collect my daughter, Taylor,  from University for the start of her long Easter break. Driving along the M6, I kept noticing the lorries, tankers, vans and cars and seeing them as Lego constructions. My mind would deconstruct them into the Lego components. It did make the journey less boring but I was beginning to think I needed to get this project finished and reconnect with my real life as quickly as possible. Luckily for me, Taylor has exactly the sort of logical brain and methodical way of working that would prove an invaluable asset to the task.

Between us, Taylor and I made sure that each of the different play sets was completed. Some were left out to be played with. All of the Harry Potter sets were put away until such a time that the little ones understand who Dobby is and why socks are important to him. I have just bought a new plastic storage box for the Star Wars Lego to be packed away until it can also be fully appreciated. There is a big plastic bucket full of bricks for Dylan to satisfy his freestyle building urges and I am delighted to report that Addy has found her own little Lego niche with pink blocks, windows, doors and flowers.

Something I have learned about Lego is that if you drop a model onto a tiled floor, it doesn't just break...it explodes. We have had a few disasters but the sheer joy of Lego is that you can gather up the pieces and build it again.

One more thing I have learned is that you can never have too much Lego. My little ones have birthdays coming up and I am planning which sets I can buy them to enhance their overall Lego experience...

(... and I cannot wait for the Lego movie to be out on DVD!)

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Circus of Horrors

I had an evening out at the theatre yesterday. My husband and I went to see London After Midnight from  The Circus of Horrors, a show inspired by the 1927 'lost' film of the same name from director Tod Browning of Freaks fame.

I loved being immersed in the atmosphere created by dramatic gothic costumes and make up, colourful hair, tattoos and piercings... and that was just the audience!

The story starts in London at the time of the plague through to the Great Fire and incorporates the odd grizzly murder. The story is really a thin framework upon which was hung a lavish spectacle of acrobatics, stunts and illusions with a distinctly macabre theme. There was a sprinkling of nudity and sexy writhing that kept my husband interested and grotesquely shocking moments that had me cringing with a mix of disgust, intrigue and pure delight in equal measures (memorably a dwarf attaching a vacuum cleaner nozzle  to his penis and dragging said vacuum cleaner around the stage with the power of suction)

My favourite characters were fantastically sinister doll like twins that did an aerial silk performance (the fabric was blood spattered of course). The strength, precision and beauty was breathtaking. I loved that our seats were close enough to the stage for me to notice that one of the performers had a tear in her tan tights. Close enough to see every twist and turn they made of the ribbons around their bodies before relying on that combination to bring them to a halt as they allowed themselves to unwind and fall. If I were to run away and join the circus (highly unlikely at my age!) I would want to train in this discipline. I can close my eyes and imagine myself swirling and twirling to the oohs and aahs of appreciative onlookers. The reality would no doubt be much less graceful and considerably more painful!

The whole show was set to the loud rock music of Dr Haze and his band. I have to admit that it gave me a bit of headache (possibly the downside of having seats close enough to the stage to see holes in hosiery) but I had a wonderful nostalgic moment when they performed a reworking of The Sweet's song Hellraiser.

Hellraiser was a hit in 1973. I would have been 9 years old. I remember buying the 7" single to go with my other favourite record by the same band Blockbuster. I carefully wrote my name on the sleeves. I was madly in love with Steve priest, the bass guitarist. Those singles were treasured possessions which I still own. And I can still sing along to all the words.... which I did! I am having a strong desire right now to search through my vinyl and power up the turntable.

After the performance we shared a bag of chips (no ketchup!) before driving home to relieve the babysitters from duty.

I am so grateful that my husband indulges my passion for the macabre. I can't imagine that going to see a show like this would be high on his wish list. However, as much as I enjoyed indulging his passion by going to see Brighton and Hove Albion playing at home, I think he did take a certain amount of pleasure from it (if only on account of the scantily clad females).

Me (with stupid expression) meeting the wonderfully camp vampire from Circus of Horrors (that's me on the left!)

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Pop Chef

As soon as my children saw this product I had been sent to review, they were desperate to try it out.

The product is called Pop Chef from Character and is basically a set of six different shaped food cutters with an added fun factor. The fun part is that the cutters connect to an air bulb via a stem which means that once the cutter has been pressed into the food, the shapes can be 'popped' out using a blast of air.

Every time my children asked the question Can we do the Pop Chef today? - I would put them off saying that we didn't have the right sort of food to do it with. Eventually (as the deadline for the review loomed ever closer), I decided to just go with what I had in the larder rather than buy specific ingredients to use.

We started with bread (we always have bread in the larder!) Dylan chose the heart shape cutter which we connected to the bulb. The cutter pushed easily into the sliced bread and sure enough, made quite a pop as we pressed the bulb to expel our little morsel. The texture of the bread meant that the result wasn't a very well defined heart but when we used the same technique with a slice of cheese, we achieved perfect results. Dylan enjoyed assembling tiny heart shaped cheese sandwiches and eating them!

Next we tried cutting shapes out of potato. This worked well but there's always someone who sees the potential for mischief and turns your Pop Chef into a spud gun!

The children loved having little fried  potato circles for their tea, although the shapes did distort slightly in the process of parboiling.

The Pop Chef comes with a supply of wooden skewers along with ideas about how to transform a selection of fruits into works of art. I will definitely have a go with the children when our fruit bowl contains more promising ingredients than a few 'seen better days' apples.

I am really looking forward to our next home made pizza night. I think the Pop Chef will be fantastic for encouraging the children to be more adventurous with different toppings rather than just piling on the grated cheese. Who could resist flower shaped yellow, green and red peppers?

The kit does include a dislodging tool for those deeply disappointing moments when instead of a POP! you get a whistle and the food stays put inside the cutter.

Pop Chef from Character

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Pancake to Plank

I find it hard to get excited about pancake day - I am not particularly keen on pancakes and I don't particularly enjoy making them. However, my little Addy had enough enthusiasm to compensate for my lack of it.

Pancake duty usually falls upon my husband. He makes a terrible mess but the kids love it. Unfortunately, he was working late last night leaving me holding the frying pan.

My first attempt was an unappetising, crumpled ball of stodge but I surprised myself by getting into the swing of it. I perfected my wrist action for the tossing and was soon producing thin, golden specimens to be proud of. They looked so good, I even ate a few myself.

Addy was thrilled by it all, consuming far more than I thought possible for a little slip of a nearly six year old. I turned a blind eye to the quantity of sugar she was spooning on with the lemon juice!

So with pancakes done, it was time to think about the tradition of Giving Something Up for Lent. Last year, instead of giving something up for Lent, I made the decision to add something new, something positive. I chose a running target, committing to Run Forty Miles for Lent. It worked really well for me. It was a powerful motivator and I exceeded my target.

This year, sticking with the same model, I have chosen a target that should help to build my core strength and get me back a little more comfortably into my favourite skinny jeans (which is the One Small Change I am allocating to March). It isn't going to be easy. I am going to Plank forty minutes for Lent.

For anyone unfamiliar with what it means to plank, I am referring to an exercise whereby you are basically in a press up position but resting on your forearms. You then hold that position (making sure that you are not sticking your bum up too high) for a minute - a torturous minute. By the end of those painfully long sixty seconds, you will feel the muscle exertion in your whole body. Now that has to be doing you some good!

I have attempted to Plank before, most regularly when I was taking a weekly pilates class. It usually ended in me collapsing in a heap at about 45 seconds.

I am anticipating that my Forty minutes for Lent will be completed in 40 x 1 minute planks - one per day. I am hopeful that they will get easier as my body grows accustomed to the effort required. I am even more hopeful that I will start to see the benefits in terms of a flatter stomach. The skinny jeans are ready and waiting!

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