There is an old country saying: “The blackest month of the year, is the month of Janiveer”. It’s true that although the days are getting a little longer, the mornings seem darker than ever. And some days the weather is so damp and dark and foggy that you could be forgiven for thinking the sun had not bothered to get up at all. On days like that, it takes a lot of effort for us humans to get up and out of the house!

But if you can find a way to motivate yourself to get outside in January, you will always be rewarded. Even on the bleakest, darkest, wettest day, if you keep your eyes open you will see signs of life and the promise of spring. Hazel trees already have catkins hanging from their branches in January; birds are out and about, trying to eat as much as they can to survive the winter months; owls can be heard in the evenings and dark mornings and you might see a fox or a badger on your way to school if you keep your eyes peeled. In some parts of the country you might see snowdrops or even daffodils poking their green shoots up out of the earth.

Why not make a nature notebook, as shown here in my 2020 almanac, Nature Month-by-Month.

Screenshot 2020-01-19 at 15.12.53

You can make it from scraps of recycled paper and make your own cover out of an old cereal packet or part of a cardboard box. Make it small enough so that you can slip it into your pocket, then you can take it out and about with you. Your winter walks will be more interesting now, as you’ll have a reason to get out and about – you can now note down all the wildlife and plant life that you see and notice how the world around you changes as January creeps towards February. Happy walking!

We are nearly at the end of the year. The days are getting shorter and the nights longer as midwinter creeps closer. It is easy to feel gloomy, but the good news is that from 21st December the days start to get longer! It is because of this promise of longer, lighter days that the longest night has traditionally been a time for celebration. The nights might be long this month, but they can be very beautiful if there are no clouds in the sky, as the moon is at its highest and clearest and the stars are at their brightest.

The dark can be depressing or scary, but just think: if there was no darkness, there would be no light! This is what all the festivals this month are about: finding light in the darkness.

You might think that Christmas is the oldest winter festival, but pagans have celebrated at midwinter for hundreds of years. 21st December is also known as the Winter Solstice or “Yule” which comes from a Norse word “houl” meaning “wheel” because of its place in the cycle of the seasons – or the “Wheel of the Year”.

Many of the pagan traditions of Yule have found their way into the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps you know the carol, The Holly and the Ivy – this has its roots in pagan traditions. Pagans also light candles and fires, decorate their homes with evergreen plants, feast, dance, and give gifts. All these things are now traditional at Christmas too. Pagans believe that hanging a sprig of holly near the door brings good luck and keeps away evil spirits. Mistletoe is also hung as decoration and as a blessing and symbol of new life.

Where I live in Cornwall there are lots of midwinter celebrations. In Penzance there is the Montol Festival (“montol” is an old Cornish word which means “the turning point of the year”). There is lots of dressing up, processions through the town, lanterns, singing, dancing, eating and drinking. At the end the “Mock” or yule log is marked with chalk and then burned. This log is a symbol of the light that we all yearn for in the darkness – it prevents the dark and the cold taking over.

Another good way to beat the chill is to do some winter baking! There’s nothing better on a cold, dark winter’s evening than to put on some cheery Christmas music and set to work baking some yummy warming treats. Why not have a go at making your own mince pies this year? There’s a recipe in my 2019 almanac:

Screenshot 2019-12-19 at 15.46.39

Whichever winter festival you celebrate this December, be it Solstice, Christmas or Hanukkah, I wish you a happy time and all the best for a prosperous and healthy New Year.

And look out for more treats and activities in next year’s almanac, which is available now!

NT_Almanac2020_Cover HR

 

November is a month of remembering. There’s Bonfire Night – “Remember, remember the 5th November: gunpowder, treason and plot!” There’s also All Souls’ Day when we remember loved ones who have died. Then there’s Remembrance Sunday when we think about all those who have served in the armed forces and fought and died for our freedom. This year 10th November is the day on which Muslims remember the Prophet’s birthday. And there’s Transgender Day of Remembrance today as well.

Screenshot 2019-11-20 at 19.42.24

November seems like a good month to spend focussing outwards like this. It is a dark and stormy month with short days and often lots of rain. It can be difficult to find anything to lift our spirits and the temptation is to hunker down and become inward-looking, giving in to feelings of gloom and doom. Stopping to remember what other people have done for us, however, can help us realise how much we have to give thanks for.

I find that I am thinking a lot about my mum and grandma this month. They are both no longer with us, but the things that they taught me are still important and I am starting to pass them on to my children now. One of the things they both loved to do at the end of November was to begin thinking ahead to Christmas, and they would spend the last weekend of this month making mincemeat and Christmas cake and Christmas pudding mix. Here is the recipe for mincemeat which they passed down to me and which I will be making over the next couple of weekends. You can find it in my almanac for children, Nature Month-by-Month, published by Nosy Crow and the National Trust.

Screenshot 2019-11-20 at 19.43.13

If you are looking back and remembering someone special this month, my heart goes out to you. And if you are looking forward to Christmas, you’d better get baking!

 

 

 

This autumn term is very long . . . the summer seems a lifetime away and we’ve all – teachers, parents, carers and children – been working hard for weeks and weeks. So it’s a relief that the holidays are here again. I am looking out at blue skies and sunshine and hoping that this weather is going to last for a while!

But even if it doesn’t, there are lots of games and activities that you can do indoors. I had great fun coming up with ideas for Nature Month-by-Month – in the 2019 edition you’ll find lots of ideas for Hallowe’en games, for example. These can be played inside or outside. I loved writing about these because it took me back to when my children were small. I didn’t used to be very happy about them going Trick or Treating as we lived in the countryside and the houses were quite a long way apart from each other down very dark lanes! But I wanted them to have fun on Hallowe’en, so we would invite all their friends to come to our house and we would have a big party. Here are some of the games we would play:

Screenshot 2019-10-22 at 13.56.59

Recently I have been researching and thinking up new ideas for an updated version of Nature Month-by-Month for 2020, which has just come out in the shops.

NT_Almanac2020_Cover HR

I decided to write about pumpkin carving, as we always enjoyed doing this during half term, and it was a great activity to do on a rainy day or during one of the dark evenings after the clocks had gone back.

Screenshot 2019-10-22 at 14.03.46

You can make yummy things from the pumpkin flesh, so don’t throw it away! You can make delicious soup by frying up the pumpkin with onion and then adding stock, nutmeg, cream, salt and pepper. There are lots of good recipes online. You can also make scrummy pumpkin muffins like these:

Screenshot 2019-10-22 at 14.02.46

Whatever you do this holiday – whether you choose to go for blustery walks or whether you stay indoors and keep cosy – I hope you have a good rest and lots of fun!

As for me, seeing as it’s so sunny today, I think I’m going to take the dog and go for a walk through the crunchy autumn leaves this afternoon. Or maybe even go for a swim if the sea is calm enough . . .

nala by the sea

(Vlad says, “You could always curl up with a spooky Hallowe’en read if the weather outside is frightful ! Mwhahahahaaaaa!)

Vlad The World's Worst Vampire RGB

 

 

NT_2019NatureMonthByMonth_NatureAlmanac_CoverNeonWhat are you up to this half term? Hopefully you are outdoors, enjoying the crisp, cold, golden days, kicking up the leaves, riding your bike and enjoying what Nature has to offer.

When writing Nature Month-by-Month I found myself constantly going back to my own childhood for ideas. I lived in a small market town in Kent and all my close friends were within walking or cycling distance. In the holidays we would meet up on our bikes and only come home for meals. I also have lovely memories of time at my grandparents’ house where my grandmother taught me to cook and sew and how to make things. So it’s not hard to come up with my Top Ten things to do in Nature! Will you be doing any of these thing this half term?

IMG_3932

Swimming in the sea

When I was a child I lived an hour from the coast and there were plenty of beaches to choose from. Camber Sands was my favourite as most of the other beaches were pebbly. I learned to swim in the sea when I was four. We lived in Australia then, so the sea was pretty warm! My lessons were in a “pool” in the sea, surrounded by shark-proof nets! I have loved swimming in the sea ever since and particularly love it when the water is cold. I have even been known to plunge in on New Year’s Day in Cornwall. I love the way it makes me feel: alive and wild and free.

Playing in scrubland

My childhood home was in suburbia, so I wasn’t exactly running through fields and forests with my friends. However, Nature is never far away, even in the town. At the bottom of the cul-de-sac where I lived was a patch of scrubland – it was basically a building site and is now the smarter end of that little housing estate. Between the ages of eight and ten my friends and I would spend entire days playing in this area which was overgrown with brambles and nettles. We called it, rather grandly, The Woods and felt that we owned it. We built dens and played games of cops and robbers, cowboys – even aliens landed in those woods, I’m sure of it! Building dens is still a favourite activity of mine, although now my kids are teens I haven’t done it for a while.

Riding bikes with friends

The best thing about where I lived was that all my friends were within a five minute walk of my house. At weekends and in the holidays all I had to do was to run down the road or round the corner and knock on someone’s door and I’d have someone to play with. In the summer we would spend all day outside, mainly riding our bikes to and from The Woods. There were very few cars on the roads in those days so we had the streets to ourselves most of the time. We dared each other to ride “no hands” and sped down hills wearing our anoraks by the hood, pretending we were superheroes in capes. I am still friends with my superhero buddies!

IMG_0156Making mini gardens

My grandmother was the best person to spend time with when I was bored. There was never “nothing to do” at her house. My favourite activity was to make miniature gardens on a rainy day. My sister and I would run outside and collect as many wildflowers and nuts and twigs as we could before we got soaked, then we’d come in and lay our finds out on the kitchen table. Grandma would give us each a biscuit tin lid and some scoops of soil. She would then let us climb out on to the flat roof over her kitchen to collect gravel and moss. We would spend a happy afternoon “planting” our gardens. Sometimes she would give us a small mirror to use as a pond. We would tell each other stories about who lived in the gardens. I made these gardens with my own kids and have done this as a creative workshop with children in schools and libraries.

Making “potions”

Another thing my sister and I enjoyed doing at Grandma’s was making potions. We would be given a jam jar each which we filled with rose petals and lavender and rosemary – anything we could find outdoors which smelt good. Then we’d fill the jars with tap water and screw on the lids. The next day we’d open the lid and take a good sniff. We were convinced we’d made our own magic potion or priceless perfume! As with the mini gardens above, this is a fun thing to do on a rainy day.

Blackberry picking

Grandma and Mum were both excellent cooks. Every September we would go to the bottom of Grandma’s garden where there was a little lane lined with brambles which would be overflowing with plump juicy blackberries. We would happily spend a long time filling old ice cream tubs with the berries – and eating them as we went along, of course. We’d then take them back to make blackberry and apple crumble or pie or even jam. When I left home, Grandma would send me a jar of her blackberry and apple jam every year until she got too old to make it any more. It is very easy to make. I might include the recipe in my next book!

Kayaking

My Dad loved the river. He grew up near the Thames and learned to row when he was very young. He passed on his love to me and my sister and took us out on the Medway river in Kent. Later in life he learned how to canoe and kayak and he taught us too. We would go out with him on a Sunday morning and he’d point out kingfishers and water voles, ducks and moorhens and cormorants. I still love the river today, but although I do have two kayaks, I am more likely to be found swimming in the river than paddling on it!

Climbing trees

I have always loved getting up high and looking down on the world. As a child I was lucky enough to be able to climb apples trees which were not high enough to be dangerous, but were exciting to sit in, hiding in the leaves. You get a different view of the world, sitting in the branches of a tree. Things which seem worrying when you are on the ground suddenly become much smaller problems when seen from on high. It’s also a great place to read!

Pressing leaves

I have always loved autumn. The colours of the leaves cheer me up on even the greyest wettest day. It is raining as I write this, but I am looking out at a stunning copper beech tree which is turning from coppery green to russet, gold and bronze. As a child I would collect leaves which I found on a walk, then bring them home to press between sheets of newspaper which I would put inside a heavy book. I would leave them there for a few days – or longer if I was patient enough – then use them to make greetings cards or pictures. I used to enjoy doing this with my own children when they were small too. It made any blustery autumn walk instantly a lot more interesting.

Making leaf “castles”

This is another activity I loved to do on a dark autumn day when my parents were trying to get me and my sister to help in the garden. We would rake up piles of leaves and then jump into the middle of them to make a little hollow or “nest”. Then we’d sit down in the nest and push the leaves into “walls” around ourselves and pretend we were kings and queens in our leaf castles. I think we probably ended up making quite a mess, but it kept us quiet and meant we got lots of fresh air without getting bored while Mum and Dad worked!

[This blog originally appeared on this fab book blog –  https://librarygirlandbookboy.wordpress.com/]

NT_2019NatureMonthByMonth_NatureAlmanac_CoverNeon

It’s been a long time since I have written a post. That’s because it’s been a rollercoaster of a year. It started with a huge dip as my mum died at the end of January – never my favourite month, as it is, and it was made a lot worse by this sad news. It would have been very easy for me to curl up in a ball and close the door firmly on the outside world.

Since then there have been at least as many highs as lows, and as has happened so many times before in my life, it was writing which came to my rescue – and writing which has supplied many of the highs.

One of the biggest highs was when I was asked by the fantastic publisher Nosy Crow to write a book for the National Trust called Nature Month-by Month: a children’s almanac. This was the perfect project for me as I love activities such as going out for walks, going swimming in rivers, lakes and seas and going foraging for wild food that I can cook with. I was excited to get going on the book, but when Mum passed away I wondered how I was going to get the words written.

I quickly realised, however, that getting out and looking up is the best way to deal with feeling sad. The days on which I needed to go outside to get ideas for the book were the days I found my sadness easiest to bear. There is nothing like getting absorbed in watching a heron standing on the riverbank, patiently looking for fish, or running alongside the canal, feeling the fresh air on your face, or standing under a huge beech tree in the park, listening to birdsong – all these things take you out of your thoughts and make you feel connected to something bigger and better than your own worries. I also realised that even in January there are signs of new life: flowers such as snowdrops and even some daffodils come out early in the year and you can already spot the tiny shoots of other plants appearing in the ground. Trees may not yet have any leaves, but there are soft yellow hazel catkins to see, and some evergreens have brightly coloured berries. It is not all doom and gloom out there in the winter.

There is a lot of talk about the healing power of nature. People with anxiety and depression are encouraged to get outside more and to try and take regular exercise in the fresh air. It is also a well-known fact that getting involved in a creative project such as baking or drawing or doing some craft can help to make you feel happier.

The other thing that has made me happier this year is the arrival of my new puppy, Nala! Her cuddles, her enthusiasm for life and the fact that I have to walk her, rain or shine, have all added up to one massive new high on the rollercoaster of 2018.

IMG_2981

Last night I had a party to celebrate the publication of Nature Month-by-Month. I decided to have it The Glove Factory in Holt in Wiltshire near where I live because this is a place that has given me a lot of inspiration and has helped me on the days when I have felt sad. I have spent a lot of time at The Glove Factory over the past year as there is a beautiful lake there where I go swimming all year round. There is also a lovely cafe where I can get a hot chocolate to warm up after a chilly winter swim! The people there are super friendly and have been very supportive of this new book. We had a fantastic evening, making miniature gardens and drinking tea. Here are some of the gardens that were made:

The almanac will be published on 4th October. I hope that you might take a look at it in your local bookshop and that it might inspire you to get out and go wild in 2019! And remember, if ever you are feeling sad, get out and look up – it’s better than staying in and feeling down.

PAD-StoryOfMovie-Novel-9780008254469-C.inddThis summer I was offered a wonderful opportunity: to write the novelisation of the second Paddington film. As Paddington and his creator, Michael Bond, are both close to my heart, it was very exciting to be involved in such a project.

The schedule was the tightest I have ever had to work to: the script was sent to me at the end of June and I had to deliver a first rough draft in a fortnight. Of course, I didn’t have to make up a plot as the scriptwriters, Paul King and Simon Farnaby, had already done that. And I didn’t have to think too hard about how to flesh out the characters as I already knew the Browns, Mrs Bird and Paddington from years of reading their adventures and watching them on TV.

The hardest part about the novelisation was the structure. When you watch the film (which I highly recommend you do), you are hardly aware that there are three plot-lines running concurrently. The camera hops seamlessly between the Browns’ home in Windsor Gardens and Paddington’s plight elsewhere (no plot spoilers) to the shenanigans of the baddie (played brilliantly by Hugh Grant) in yet another location. The action whizzes along and you are caught up in the flow of the adventure. We know immediately where we are because of visual clues, so the dialogue does not need to tell us “now we are at Number 32 Windsor Gardens” or “now we are in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop on the Portobello Road”.

A novel works in a very different way, however. Unless the writer is going to fall into the trap of using “and then and then and then”, different tricks need to be used to show how fast the action is moving from one scene to another. An adaption of a film script can otherwise so easily become heavily reliant on “telling” rather than “showing” what is happening. So I couldn’t merely copy and paste chunks of stage direction to fill in the gaps between the dialogue.

The biggest challenge was in writing action scenes that had no dialogue at all. In one scene Paddington gets into a tangle at the barber’s. As a visual gag it is hilarious and full of tension and jeopardy. Writing it with no images to fall back on was a very tricky experience! That scene went through many, many drafts before we were all happy with it. At one point, in despair that we would never be able to visualise what was happening from reading the script, my editor and I asked to watch a rough-cut of the film. It was an odd experience seeing the film at this unfinished stage. The CGI and green-screen scenes had not been finished: Paddington was a brown blob on the screen and the actors were often jumping out of trailers rather than out of moving trains, for example. But it helped to be able to see how quickly Paddington could get himself tied in knots and made rewriting the scene a little easier.

Another challenge in writing the novelisation was how many last minute changes were being made to the film. Whole chunks of the script were being cut or moved around in the editing suite to make sure that the film flowed perfectly. This meant that I was then tasked with cutting and rewriting chunks of the book, too.

The hard work on everyone’s part was very much worth it in the end. I went to see the finished movie at the premiere at the Southbank in London a few weeks ago. The film is fast-paced, funny, heart-warming and tear-jerking in equal measure. And my behind-the-scenes experience made me appreciate all the more just how much work had gone into making it the gorgeous film that it is.

If you are looking for a pre-Christmas treat for all the family, do go and see Paddington 2! I guarantee you’ll leave the cinema feeling lighter and happier as a result.