Sweetbriar Dreams

So where shall we go on our journey today?

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

... and so it begins!

I have my own little tradition in our house, the last weekend of November is the tree weekend!  Stop groaning, it has to be done.  The closer it is to the big day, the more stressful the jobs become, so this little tradition eases me in gently and helps me enjoy the month's preparations ahead.

I like to open up the boxes and bags full of last year's decorations and think back to what frame of mind I was in when I put them away in January ...

 obviously I wasn't in a good place!

 Oh yes, I remember now, full of painkillers and unable to stand... yes I remember that time well (post double bunion removal, arthritis removal and both toes broken and pinned in three places... oh yes, yes, I remember it only too well!!).

I love unwrapping the ornaments that have been with me since pre-children days...

Along with those ornaments that were my mild threat to my little darlings "this is special santa who is here to watch and make sure you have been good!".  This little santa had such amazing powers as soon as he was put on a shelf!

The main tree has to be decorated a certain way otherwise I am met with "Mum, it doesn't feel right!".  Dried oranges, apples and cinnamon sticks fill vessels and jars around the house, filling the house with a Christmas fragrance that gladdens the nostrils.

One year I changed the tree to a thinner version to be told when I took it down on New Year's Day, that they didn't like to say at the time, but Christmas was just not Christmas without the shorter fat one (they meant the normal tree!! Don't be rude!).  So the  tall thin tree has now been banished to the hall.  Another new tradition!

The next thing is the obligatory Christmas lists.  The food list, the present list, the Christmas card list, the social calendar list.  Yes, I'm a Virgo, in control, calm in a crisis, organised and methodical (well that's the theory).

The main items on the Christmas food list... Baileys, Ham, Turkey, Maple Syrup, Chipolatas, Sweet Chilli Sauce.  Why?  Turkey obviously (even though I prefer not to eat it) ready for the Nigella recipe (here), Maple Syrup for the Christmas parsnips, Chipolatas and Sweet Chilli Sauce for the sticky sausages I make for the Boxing Day buffet (usually half have disappeared before I've got to the table!  Seriously good and I've found an online recipe here for you) and ham for my boxing day ham.   Yes, my best friend on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is Nigella!!

 Without these elements and the smells that the recipes give the house, Christmas Eve 'doesn't feel or smell right' according to my darling Teens!  Oh, and the Baileys?  Well, Christmas morning as I prepare to stuff, flavour, and wrap acres of tin foil around my nemesis (the turkey), I take the occasional snifter of Baileys to get me through it.  The Baileys will be strategically placed in the kitchen with a crystal glass and will be the first thing I see when I come down bleary eyed at the crack of dawn.

A newer tradition, to save me my sanity on the big day, is the big breakfast!  Now that the Teens are grown up and not up with me at the crack of dawn, I cook a full English, complete with black pudding!! (don't knock it until you've tried it).  I make sure the aromas waft upstairs and before long I hear the stirring on the landing and down they come.  This new tradition keeps us full until 4 in the afternoon, when the turkey has finally finished its roasting, the potatoes are crisp, the Yorkshire puddings have raised, the parsnips have started to caramelize with the maple syrup, the Brussels sprouts have been mixed with crispy bacon and chestnuts, the carrots have taken on the dill they have been paired with,  the stuffing is just starting to harden on the outside but gooey in the middle, the pigs in blankets are beginning to snore, the bread sauce has been prepared (and mostly eaten already by Miss Teen), the beef is cooked to perfection and the cauliflower cheese is bubbling and taken on a satisfying tan.  Yes, my Christmas dinner is notorious as a girdle buster and no one in the family will have it any other way, but we skip lunch for this feast by candlelight and it allows me to cook in peace (and finish the Baileys!!).

The lead up to the big day is one that I do love getting on the conveyor belt for.  I love planning and the satisfaction of giving everyone a wonderful Christmas.  The Christmas Eve presents under the tree which are usually a new pair of pyjamas for everyone and slippers so that we can then have our baths and showers and slip into these with the last takeaway meal for the year and snuggle down in front of the TV until everyone goes to bed.  Then, my last look around the house while it is quiet and I have some time alone, taking out those last little surprise presents and putting them around the tree.  A little stocking of goodies for Tia (another new tradition)... times like these I am grateful for a deaf furry friend!  Some text messages to those who are dear to me wishing them a great day ahead and then off to bed making sure the alarm is set for 6am and the start of a hectic day for me but a relaxing one for everyone else.

And so, as no doubt all of you are, it's time for the business and planning to be put into effect!  I have no real trips planned until just before the big day when my birthday surprise to Miss Teen is to see a West End show in London with Miss B.  While they are in the theatre, I will be no doubt walking down to Trafalgar Square to see the Christmas tree and take in this beautiful city on its last office working day.  No doubt there will be much merriment and plenty of Christmas Jumpers and Santa's Hats!!

... and so it begins... time to start climbing that mountain!

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Autumn Splendor at Blenheim

... And now to part two of our visit to Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill.  The gardens that we had time to visit were in the last throws of Autumn, perfect for my last real chance to capture the beauty that I wait to see each year.  The bright vibrant colours are nothing better to inspire my soul.  Once again dear readers, a hot Darjeeling tea, a Bourbon and warm, fluffy slippers on... here's outside...

Exquisite sculptures peer out from the Palace, almost lost by the enormity of the columns.  The sheer scale of this place is breathtaking.

But, let's just capture the incredible Autumn splendour that surrounded Blenheim on this day (sorry, it was one of those dull grey sky days which my camera doesn't like!).  The gardens are another masterpiece of Capability Brown who it is said, saved an area of woodland here where the trees date back to the 12th century and probably the oldest in Europe!   I have put a link here to the Capability Brown website that gives some beautiful shots of the masterpiece he created (his real name was Lancelot Brown but was nicknamed Capability after he would say to clients that their land had capability for improvement)

The trees around us were desperately holding on to their copper leaves and at their feet a beautiful rusty carpet, just a bit too soggy for the obligatory crunchy walk.

Their bony limbs now peering through and ready for their winter slumber.

Amongst us the sheep, grazing before turning in for the evening.

This is what I love about Autumn. The dark mistiness, mixed in with a palette of warm, cosy rusty colours.

The sun was setting so our time was limited in the gardens, but come with me and we'll look at the front of the Palace with the lights just starting to flicker like the streets of a Victorian town.

Maybe we should have walked on the other side of the building earlier to see the other elements, but instead we had walked down the driveway (the white tents are the Christmas Fair - VERY crowded!)

To the top and a view seen from the centre section of the Palace, the Column of Victory which was built in 1727 and has John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough in Roman costume in celebration of the victory of the Battle of Blenheim.

What impressed me about this monument was the script at its base (you can read it here if you haven't got a long book to read!).  It felt as though I was reading a legal document that was for all to see and to show that this land and the Palace were not going to be taking by anyone!  There were little corrections that looked like a stonemason had tippexed over them and tapped over a thin piece of stone stuck over the error.  I can quite understand that they didn't want to just say, "oh no, my mistake, get me another three tonnes of stone"... and start again!

They'd be banging their heads against the surrounding trees like this one!

And so, back to the house and time to go home.

Maybe if we hadn't stood in a queue for the Untold Story tour in the Palace we would have had more time to visit the remaining areas of the garden.  But, it wasn't to be.

At least I got to see a small portion of another Capability Brown masterpiece and the last remaining warm and rustic colours of Autumn.

Ok, so my own personal opinion is that I wouldn't visit the inside of the Palace again, but instead I would like to explore the gardens in more depth during late autumn on another year and visit Churchill's grave.  

Have a great weekend everyone, I hope you didn't get crushed or mashed during the Black Friday sales!

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

At Home with Winston Churchill

Last year we had the fortune to visit Chatsworth House at Christmas.  This was an absolute delight to see the decorations around the house with the theme of Wind in the Willows (my posts are here and here).  This year, Blenheim Palace was going to be our start to the lead up to Christmas.  The birthplace of Winston Churchill and the wealthy Dukes of Marlborough (the only dukedom that allows for female inheritance due to an Act of Parliament back in 1703 as there were no male heirs to the title).

Blenheim Palace which started to be builtin 1705 and is now a World Heritage Site

This visit will be in two parts (like my Chatsworth posts), focussing on the inside today and then another post taking you outside at the weekend.  So, are you sitting comfortably?  Is the fire lit, Earl Grey tea to hand and a custard cream?  Here we go...  Let's enter the hall with some modern art looping above us.

Art at Blenheim Palace - Sweetbriar Dreams

In the rooms that were on display, modern art took pride of place with various forms of textiles.  The link is here if you want to view some of Michelangelo Pistoletto's work.  I do love textiles, but unlike the artwork at Chatsworth House last year, this did not carry on the Christmas theme.

Yes, that's enough of the art, let's look at some decorations!

Staying for lunch anyone?

One of the rules in my house for when decorating a tree is NOT to have the lights outside of the decorations!  I had to stop myself from sorting this one out!!

There was a beautiful library to marvel at, however the modern art took over almost completely with mirrors and people cut outs which really spoilt the effect.  Looking up as I do, I was able to focus away from the hall of mirrors.

Looking down over the staged dining table in the hall showed just how enormous this Palace is.

... and then looking up!  SCAFFOLDING!  I do love scaffolding, and this was amazing with the Christmas decorations to prettify the steel poles.

But let's now look at the man himself.  Sir Winston Churchill.

The Greatest Briton who needs no words really as his life is well recorded, however you can read about his Orders, Decorations and Medals here.

In the Churchill Exhibition you can see his Dispatch Box which he used in 1919.  To think that he held that handle and the documents that were held inside! 

And, this is a little macabre, Churchill's curls from when he was five years old!

A few more pictures to finish off?... One of the many amazing ceilings of this Palace...

An exquisite cradle which was meant to be a replica of one that Napolean Bonapart commissioned for his heir, was ordered by the 9th Duke of Marlborough's wife, Consuelo Vandabilt.  

Now, for me, the feet of the cradle reminded me of the 'dolphin' lamps at the side of the Thames ...

As myself and Mumsy do, we like to compare the houses that we have previously seen.  Still nothing has come close to the sheer scale of Burghley House in Stamford and the natural welcome of the house, but Blenheim certainly has the austerity and brazenness of wealth thrown at every corner.  Everything was on a magnificent scale, but a little cold if I'm honest.  Chatsworth felt warm with its beautiful decorations and personal touches.  Highclere felt like a large family home and well loved.  Burghley House again felt like a well loved building oozing history.  Blenheim was here to sell.  I heard one guide say that the house has to open each year otherwise it goes back to the Crown.  I think this sentence explained a lot to me.

There was a tour of upstairs, but to be honest, my camera didn't even whisper to come out.  The Untold Story tour took you through time controlled doors and into small exhibition rooms where you could only enter the next room when the time had elapsed.  The creepy mannequins telling the story of the house in small cramped surroundings and timed conditions were not something I would want to experience again.  I'm not claustrophobic but I felt thoroughly trapped and uncomfortable! 

So, happily it was time to go outside!  See you at the weekend!!

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