A Lazy Affair

I am currently reading The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift for the fifth (or is it the sixth?) time. It’s an exquisitely crafted book about her twenty years spent developing a National Trust garden in east Shropshire. The eloquent prose is woven with golden threads of horticulture, geography, geology, history, country lore, biography and acute, beautifully-described observations that make the book a rich tapestry of a read. It never fails to fascinate, move and inspire me. In a memorable passage, Katherine describes how long-term illness kept her out of the garden for many months; on her return, she was completely horrified to find that nature had taken over and gone completely off-plan. However, she soon realised in delight that all the bolting and seeding, rambling and scrambling, shifting and drifting had in fact created a garden of infinite magic and wonder, the plants setting up stunning partnerships of colour and form that could never have been contrived or designed.

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Our own Shropshire garden in 2015

I love this passage because this is how I garden all the time! It’s a personal thing but I have never felt the need for too much discipline and control in the garden; I’ve always been a curvy lines, wonky wigwams, daisies-in-the-lawn sort of gardener and I think there are three main reasons for that. The first is that a huge number of my favourite plants are very prone to flaunting themselves and self-seeding or running out of control: foxgloves, granny bonnets, lady’s mantle, calendula, borage, angelica, fennel, feverfew, lemon balm, forget-me-nots, mint, nasturtiums, verbena bonariensis, Welsh poppy, Californian poppy, shirley poppy . . . try keeping that bunch under control as they march their riotous pageant of colour and scent across the garden. How many times have we discovered new ‘borders’ in unexpected corners, as if planted by some unseen mischievous hand?

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Shropshire again. There was a vegetable patch in there somewhere . . .

Second, this laissez-faire approach appeals to my idle side: I love to be busy in the garden and actually relish the really hard graft, but if things want to take care of themselves and do their own thing, who am I to argue? Nature fills a vacuum so let it get busy and if the result is a semi-wilderness, so be it. Great for wildlife, great for us.

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. . . and here (2013) in our French garden, too.

Finally, I’ve always thought that bulbs and tubers that plump up, doubling and trebling, roots and rhizomes that run amok and seeds that scatter and self-set, sneaking into whatever places and spaces they can find simply want to be there. They’re happy and they’ll likely thrive, so let them be.

All this has been running through my mind this week as I’ve been trundling back and forth with my barrow, moving the compost heap slowly (very slowly – that hill is so steep!) to a new location. The Lazy Gardener Syndrome is alive and well here, it seems. Take for instance this sumptuous beauty with silken petals that shift from maroon to deepest plum to blackberry like light catching the swish of a taffeta ballgown.

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When I planted the bulbs in November, I chose to put them in glazed pots of Moroccan and malachite blue, thinking the combination would be pleasing to the eye. It is – but nothing like the stunning backdrop of acid yellow that appeared of its own accord. The fizz and bang of those colours together is like champagne bubbles up my nose,  bitter sherbert on my tongue. The yellow is a humble mizuna, self-set in a concrete crack. I left it for the insects. I’m so glad I did.

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Calendula (or pot marigold) is one of my all-time favourite plants. I love its cheerful disposition, it’s unpretentious down-to-earth attitude, it’s sharp herbal scent and tiny fingernail seeds. No need to plant, it was already here in little flashes of sunny light amidst the jungle of neglect. True to its name, it flowers all through the year but in April it is at its best, showing off in a hedonistic burst of sun-worshipping brilliance, carpeting the vegetable garden in huge swathes and exploding in pops and bangs in quiet corners. Last year, I planted a clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ to grow up the stock fencing around the vegetable patch. Poor thing, I have dragged it round several gardens in several countries but here at last it is settled. Roots down, head up, it seems to have found its spiritual home. It is about to flower for the first time in three years, the plump bauble buds on the cusp of bursting into a profusion of pink. Lovely . . . but how much more striking will it be with the self-sown calendula snuggled underneath?

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What hearty little troopers these marigolds are. Here in a clump beneath the glaucous thistle leaves of a globe artichoke, a heap of gold beneath an arching dragon’s wing; here in a shady forgotten spot beneath a Japanese quince, mingling with red deadnettle and sweet violets, a posy of weeds: I could not have planted a prettier patch if I’d tried. They can’t have it all their own way, though. I have lifted a few stray wanderers to plant in blue pots and make a splash of colour on the steps; they’re under control for now but I suspect those seeds will travel when the time is right.

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I have started to plant small flower borders where I can, a few favourite perennials mixed with bulbs and annuals. Even here, any sense of design or control has already gone with the wind. I grew lavender from seed, raised peach carnations from cuttings . . . but the forget-me-nots currently stitching them together are nature’s idea. Why didn’t I think of that?

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Even pottering about the polytunnel, pricking out and planting on, I am not safe. Beneath the staging, between the lettuces and in every available nook and cranny there are nasturtium seedlings lifting their shields against the metallic blue prongs of Californian poppies. Can you imagine what a riot this will be if I let it continue? I need to make an effort, exert a bit of control here . . . but not today.

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Borage needs no encouragement. It drifts up and down the garden in fuzzy waves of cerulean stars, flowering all year round which makes me happy – and the local honey bee population even happier. Just look at it nestled with the bright flowers of komatsuna. Both self-set; honestly, you’d think they’d planned it.

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The flowers are thrumming with bees, their frantic activity shaking and bending the slender stems. Here they fill their pollen baskets: dandelion yellow from the komatsuna, grubby white from the borage. I stand and watch transfixed at the whole precise busyness of it, the bees exploring the tiny throats of the yellow blooms, the whiskery black centres of the blue. I love this affirmation of life, of connection, of dependence; like that colour combination, it’s a beautiful thing.

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Emptying the final barrowload of compost and forking through the new heap, my eyes drift to the broccoli. The plants are spent, the harvest over; time to clear the terrace for sweetcorn . . . and yet, all on their own they are creating a splash of colour as beautiful as anything else in the garden. More bees here, too; the corn can wait awhile. Let’s enjoy that soft buttery yellow against the dusty purple. Opposites on the colour wheel: a marriage made in heaven.

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On the subject of marriage, I have started to make petal confetti this week. I made some several years ago for Sarah and Gwyn’s wedding when advice and guidance seemed thin on the ground; it was rose petals all the way, a bit of a problem when I had no blooms in the garden. I did have cornflowers, though; a whole prairie of them which had encroached on the vegetable patch (of course). I followed the instructions to the letter, selecting, picking, tying, hanging, drying, crumbling. It worked. It was very pretty but on the day, gone in an instant. I fancy something more substantial this time.

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Luckily, things have moved on, ideas changed and developed. How happy to find thay anything goes. Daisies? No problem. Calendula? Mmm, might have a few of those. Music to my ears. What a pleasure, picking from the great abundance around me; what a joy to simply leave them spread out to dry. By July, I shall have such a heady mix to scatter over Sam and Adrienne on their special day!

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Sarah has always had an artistic and creative talent, an eye for colour and a love of country flowers. It was no surprise, them, when on the day of her wedding with Gwyn she chose to pick her own bouquet. Literally. She bought a bunch of sunflowers from her local Co-op but everything else was foraged from her garden – flower beds, vegetable patch, hedgerows, hidden corners and wild places. The result was stunning, a beautiful creation that captivated me all day (there was even a little robin’s pincushion hidden in there!). When I started to plan the design for a blanket – a gift for their fifth anniversary in September – this was my natural starting point.

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How I agonised over my plan, though! I spent days messing about with different motifs and colour combinations, those sunflowers dominating every idea I had  . . . until I realised that was the problem. Go back, look again. Yes, the sunflowers were totally striking but for me it was the supporting act that truly made the bouquet: the foliage in so many shades and shapes, the froth of meadowsweet and curve of honeysuckle, those deep, rich purples and delicate silvers. That is where the beauty lies, a beauty I could never capture in a few shades of yellow, a couple of greens. I chose eighteen different colours.

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What a happy moment, to make a start outside in the sunshine this week. I am working squares in blocks of solid colour, each with a sunburst flower motif ( a ‘sunflower’) in the centre. My plan then is to join them in a gentle colourwash, moving through the blanket as if up the bouquet: greens of foliage, yellows and purples of flowers, blues for that clear September sky and a sense of balance in the overall scheme of things. The finished design hovers at the periphery of my imagination, I really don’t know how it will turn out. No problem. I have learnt that blankets, like gardens, are best left to their own devices at times. Pick a pattern. Choose the colours. Now let them decide how they want to be.

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I have to confess in my last blanket project, I had to exercise a little more discipline. Well, just like the garden, sometimes it’s necessary, I suppose. I wanted to create a rainbow and really there’s no arguing with the colour order of that one, is there? Science had me pinned down for sure! This was another gift blanket, for a new baby expected in August. Traditionally, we dress and wrap babies in white or the very palest of pastels. With my head brimming from the rich research and curiosity in The Morville Hours, I suddenly needed to know why. Is it historic? Religious? Cultural symbolism? Superstition? Oh sit down, my overeager imagination – the answer, I found, is far more prosaic! Babies need a lot of linen and white textiles have always been easier to bleach and launder in hot water. It’s a practical thing, nothing more. I happen to love bright colours around babies, hence my choice to make a rainbow. It might not be practical but I hope the message is as loud as that ridiculous shade of orange: a new little life – how wonderful, how exciting, how precious. What a tremendous thing to celebrate. Let me shout it out in loud and vibrant colours!  🙂

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Sensing Spring

Communicate: share or exchange information, news, or ideas.

Commune: share one’s intimate thoughts or feelings with (someone), especially on a spiritual level.

One of the blessings of our lifestyle here is having proper time to communicate with others; I love to keep in touch with a wide circle of family and friends, to catch up with what they are doing, to share their stories and thoughts as well as exchange little snippets and tales of what we are up to ourselves. In a rush, it’s so easy just to touch on the superficial, but with time and effort it’s possible to go beyond the facts – the who or what or when – and engage at a deeper level of interest, of sharing, celebrating or commiserating. What a wonderful gift to give someone, our full, unhindered, focused attention, listening with a quiet mind and open heart. It’s a precious thing indeed.

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I suppose it is about moving from ‘communication’ to ‘communing’ and the same is true of time spent in nature. To explore the world like a young child is not childish but childlike; there is a world of difference. As adults in the hustle and bustle of modern society, our auditory and visual senses are bombarded and overloaded, day in, day out; how often do we allow ourselves to indulge all our senses playfully, without bias or preconception, opening our hearts and minds to new experiences and possibilities? How would a child respond to the jewelled flutter of a butterfly, the delicate fragility of a robin’s egg, the scratchy wingbeat of a crow, the secrets hidden in a tulip’s cavern, the arcing iridescence of a rainbow? When we give ourselves permission to stop and listen and feel and smell and taste as if everything were a brand new shiny experience, then even the simplest or most mundane thing can seem like a minor miracle.

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So, when spring came bounding up the steps and hammered breathlessly on the door this week – ‘Come out and play! See what I’ve found!’  – I didn’t need asking twice. Senses engaged, I let myself be led by the hand. Budburst started here some time ago; the warm-up act of hazel, willow and birch is already in full verdant splendour, fluffing and puffing up the woodlands with streaks of brilliance like the joyful sweep of a child’s paintbrush. Lime. Chartreuse. Pea.

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Now the nuttery adds its voice: oak and chestnut and walnut leaves unfurling like uncurling fingers, arms akimbo, in a seam of coppery gold that echoes the iron-rich rocks below.

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In between, pooled like silver moonlight, a confection of graceful cherries whisper and shiver in delicate white. I am reminded of Housman’s celebrated lines: loveliest of trees, the cherry now is hung with bloom along the bough. Shropshire poetry, Shropshire roots, a Shropshire lass. Some things run very deep.

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It’s not all about trees, of course. Beneath the emerging canopy is a burgeoning, bustling, stretching busyness led by fern and foxglove, followed by a jostling crowd of others, some brash and extravagant, others quiet and diminutive.

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What a feast for the eye, all this shape and shade and shimmer, but try seeing it differently for a change . . . Is it a shepherd’s crook? A seahorse? A question mark?

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In this world of waking and stretching, of rising sap and soft, silky leaf-lets, of the rich mineral smell of moss and bark and boulder, I need no more than the green. The lush, fresh, newness of it all is enough to feed my soul. So many shades and tints, how could I name them all? More poetry springs to mind, this time from W.H Davies: I also love a quiet place that’s green, away from all mankind.

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Ah, but I don’t get away with that one easily: just look at this frolicsome floral dance! Such a brazen parade of flirtatious fluttering and wiggling of petal and pollen, of saucy colour and come hither looks. Who could fail to fall under their seductive charms?

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There is so much that I can’t capture in photographs, so many moments where an image is not enough and words seem hopelessly inadequate: the melodious cadence of blackbird; the harmonious warbling of robin and blackcap; the shouting echo of songthrush; the twitter and curse of tit and wren; the chiffchaff and cuckoo calling their own names. How do I share the velvety buzz of the busy bumbles, the sulphuric flash of yellow butterflies, the dash and zip of sun-warmed lizards, the furry flit and whirr of a dusky bat? The shifting shapes of feathery clouds, the play of sunlight across the valley, the electric crackle of a retreating storm, the deep, ancient, fecund smell of the earth after rain?

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No matter: it’s about being in the moment, feeling, experiencing, living. Memories and records can wait. Stories can be shaped and shared later. This is communication at its very best. Thank you, spring – what a lovely chat we’ve had! What a wonderful time we’ve shared!

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Art and soul

I am happy to admit that I am a terrible artist. As a child, I was in awe of those television programmes where Tony Hart, armed with tins of paint and fat emulsion brushes, created a masterpiece on the wall in a few deft strokes. I desperately wanted to be that talented but after three years of high school reports which predictably stated, ‘She usually tries’ it came as a relief to myself and the art department staff when I could finally, blessedly drop the subject for good. That said, I love painting: even wide expanses of fresh plasterboard needing coat after coat of emulsion don’t faze me (good job since we’ve had plenty here over the last few months) but I am never so happy as when I can indulge my passion for colour and a little creativity. This week, then, has been a time of great painty pleasure.

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My first project was to make a name sign which eventually can be fixed to the house wall (ah yes, there’s another big painting job in the pipeline), using a lovely slab of slate that Roger had rescued from a tumbledown wall in our field. I wanted to make something that would reflect the feel of our home and our love of the outdoors; something simple, bright, colourful and fun where the name was legible but not dominating. The whole point of sharing this is that it shows you don’t need one jot of artistic skill in order to be artistic; purists may think my approach is cheating, but I prefer to see it as innovative! So, armed with a fortifying mug of tea, I went forth to create.

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My calligraphy skills being no better than my art ones, I did the obvious thing: found a font in our word-processing program, blew up the size then traced it carefully from the screen. Having no intention of painting anything freehand, I then got busy with an ancient stencil; a lot of messing with a simple box of children’s acrylic colours and far too much fun later, a sign emerged. A couple of coats of exterior varnish and it was all ready for business. Something from nothing once again!

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We reached  a great milestone this week in finally being able to move into the room upstairs. One of the knock-on effects is that all the spare bedroom furniture could be moved out of the kitchen/living area and everything rearranged a little. I decided it was time to brighten up some bits of old furniture, starting with a very basic pine shelf unit and a nesting table for what is now officially the guest bedroom. I set up a painting studio outside and, since I was using a universal primer, I threw in an old metal milk churn for good measure.

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While that all dried, I set about revamping another nesting table indoors. We have a large black halogen lamp which is brilliant to knit, crochet, sew and read under at night but it is such an ugly thing; I can’t do anything to pretty it up but I thought I could at least create a colourful table for it to sit on. My other motive for this little project was to try out chalk paints before committing to use them on our old linen chest of drawers which has been desperate for a new paint job for several years (decades, actually). Chalk paints really are the ‘in’ thing and I have to admit I’m not a lover of fads; I have quite happily and successfully painted furniture for many years with leftover bits of gloss paint and yes – truly – even emulsion. However, I’ve been really impressed and inspired by some beautiful pieces of furniture Adrienne has created with chalk paints so I decided to give them a go. Before starting, I did a fair bit of online research, read plenty of advice and then chose to ignore most of it. I didn’t opt for the designer brand that everyone raves about but instead bought a Spanish variety which was a lot kinder on my pocket and offered a good palette of luscious colours to choose from. I didn’t buy a special brush for the paint, just used an old one; neither did I invest in a special wax brush or even special wax as Roger informed me he had a tin of brushing wax in his Man Shed (honestly, that place is an emporium!).

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So how did it go? Well, the paint was a dream to use (I love the fact you don’t have to prime) and went such a long way; so far, in fact, that I changed my plan for the bedroom table and decided to chalk paint that, too, rather than use the eggshell satin I had lined up for it. The colour is absolutely gorgeous; it’s called ‘Mediterranean Blue’ and is a deep, dreamy cobalt, just beautiful.

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When it came to the waxing bit, I knew I could well be using completely the wrong stuff and I did have a minor panic when the (yellow) wax immediately took the colour down a few shades. I was also slightly concerned about how many articles I’d read about this part being very hard work. Well, it’s all relative, I suppose: to me, shifting several tonnes of gravel by hand is hard work. So is giving birth. Brushing a few coats of wax on and buffing it off again just seemed like a very pleasant wet afternoon’s activity, especially as the yellow effect disappeared with the wax and a lovely, lustrous shine surfaced. Job done.

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So now that I know what I’m doing, I’m all set to tackle the linen chest with some more of that lovely blue paint coupled with ivory. By the way, I won’t be distressing any of these chalk painted bits and pieces. I know we all have different opinions – which is to be celebrated – but as a country mouse born and bred,  I have never understood the fashion for filling rural homes with so-called shabby chic. In fact, it’s very much because the linen chest has been steadily distressing itself over many years that I feel the need to paint it again. Recognise that old stencil, by the way? Definitely time for a new look!

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I gave the shelf unit a couple of coats of eggshell ‘Eau de Nil’ to match our interior doors and it looks right at home tucked into the guest bedroom.

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Anyway, back to that milk churn. When we moved here, we found we had been left a house and several outbuildings full of furniture and miscellaneous items; most of it was broken down rubbish which the friendly chaps from the town hall kindly came and took away – it took them two trips in a very large van. Boy, did we have rubbish! The two milk churns, however, were something I wanted to hang on to as I had a cunning plan for them. I love the fact that they represent a little bit of the property’s history and I wanted them outside where they could be seen and enjoyed as big planters. Well, of course – if in doubt, add flowers! I could have left them as they were but something inside was whispering bright colours so I opted for ‘Summer Sky’ which seems somehow appropriate (or at least, it will be once the current run of crazy storms here has worn itself out). I think this will be the perfect eye-catching foil for flowers of any colour; just look at how scrumptious those beautiful deep magenta tulips look against that bright, bright blue.

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However, a nod to the colour wheel says orange and nasturtiums were the first to come to mind. I love nasturtiums and particularly the way they flourish here in the wild, hurling themselves down banks and verges in a brazen tumble of flaming glory in May and again in September. Last year they self-set amongst the sweet corn and climbing beans and as that patch is now under a poytunnel, little seedlings are popping up like mushrooms in the warmth.

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I’ve lifted three of them and transplanted them into a pot just the right size for nestling into the top of the churn in the hope of a bright and sunny waterfall against the blue; once they have finished it will be easy enough to replace them, maybe with a riot of geraniums. Whatever happens, the milk churn should bring a splash of summer colour and a smile or two to our less-than-pretty courtyard. Now for the second one. Blue again? Mmm, still thinking about that one.

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My final paint project and if nothing else, this one proves at least that I haven’t been on a complete bluefest all week! Here is another piece of ‘inherited’ furniture and let me say straight away that it’s dire. It’s wonky: last year I used it as a painting step and wobbled off it more times than I can remember. At some point in its history the seat has completely split in two and has been ‘mended’ supremely badly with a bizarre arrangement of staples. It is riddled with woodworm. In short, it’s a piece of junk which would best serve as morning sticks . . . so why have I rescued it from that fate and painted it?

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Well, the answer lies at the end of our woodland track, a ten minute walk from the house and one of my absolutely favourite places. We have a long term plan to make a two- person seat here; in fact, we even have the base from an old single futon put aside just for that purpose. The problem is, it’s a long way down the priority list and in the meantime, I really wanted somewhere I could perch and while away a little time, so the wonky stool seemed just perfect. I’ve used the paint we have for a garden seat in the orchard; it’s called ‘Olive’ and definitely veers towards the grey side of green which is fine as I didn’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb. A couple of coats and off I went up the lane with my stool tucked under my arm.

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One of the things I love about the woodland spot is that it’s like entering another world; turning into a different valley, the gentle murmurings of village life disappear and all that is left is the sound of a mountain stream tumbling to join the river, a cacophony of birdsong and the soft susurration of the wind through the trees. When the sun shines, the glade is flooded with soft light but I enjoy it in the rain, too, Why not? Armed with my trusty brolly, it’s the Asturian way. This is my ‘sitting place’, somewhere I can think and ponder, daydream and plan, mull and meditate; it’s a place that makes me open my eyes and mind to the small wonders around me; it’s a place that feeds my soul and makes my heart sing. It’s my little haven of mindfulness.

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It’s a place where I can just BE . . . but now I can do that in (wobbly) comfort. How wonderful is that? 🙂

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