Wednesday, 21 August 2013

In praise of tea shops

Many years ago I had a job that included traveling to America to fix computer system. On one of these trips I had been stuck in a hotel room for too long with deadlines to meet, and was going a little crazy.  So I lugged my laptop across the road to the shopping mall, ordered a cup of tea (no mean feat in the US) and sat working in the middle of all the shops. It was the first time I'd worked out how cheerful it could be to be around strangers.

Since then I've increasingly been a fan of tea shops.  Whether it's for getting out of the study to work, sitting with a book away from the home chores, or just relaxing with a drink and watching the world go by, it's difficult to beat a tea shop.  Sometimes a quick drink & break from the routine is all that's needed.  Other times a pot of tea, with hot water refills available, and a long slow afternoon chatting with friends will hit the spot.  

Mrs C is particularly bad at relaxing when there is work to be done around the house.  And, as you can imagine, with 4 kids around, there is always work to be done around the house.  So we are regularly to be found sharing a drink, and maybe a scone, at one of our local places.

As an adopted Yorkshireman I was brought up proper - drinking tea all the time.  However as I've aged and matured and ventured across the border to Manchester I've also acquired a taste for coffee. But establishments that serve such beverages will always be tea shops in my mind.

Here are some of my favourites

Sykes Cafe

This is my local - just 5 mins round the corner, run by my old friend Sharon, who bakes a lot of the cakes herself. It's pretty small but very friendly, great for a bit of a natter.

This has a great selection of different teas, some comfortable chairs, and big windows & high ceiling giving it a great open feeling.

Costa Coffee

I'm not usually a fan of big chains, but I will always associate Costa with drinks at the Trafford Centre with my friend Ann. You get a great view of people coming and going.  Now there's a local one opened in Stockport which serves until 8 in the evening, which makes it a good venue for a late tea with Mrs C, who is totally not a pub type person.

This was our honeymoon tea shop, right in the middle of the wonderful Peak District town of Castleton. It does the most wonderful cakes, though can get very busy with pesky tourists.

Mrs C says I should also add the following for honourable mention:
The Ash Tea Rooms - a cafe with it's own chocolate workshop next door!
The Little Underbank Tea Rooms - a new place which we've only visited once, but great service and impressive teapots
and most National Trust properties with overpriced but nifty cafes.

Having said all that, there are still some tea shop hurdles to overcome:

Sofa or chair - the sofa always sounds a good idea, comfy and relaxing, but not always the best when you are trying to balance the tea cup & slice of cake while read a book at the same time.

Background music or silence - I'm actually quite a fan of a little quiet background music, but Mrs C finds it very annoying. 

Do you have any favourite places near you?   Where do you stand on the contentious issues?  Leave a comment and share the tea shop love :)

Thursday, 1 August 2013

#Elevensestime, Social Networking and the Bookbinder.

I'm Susan, a bookbinder and I started sharing my morning coffee with the elevensestime crew back in 2009 with my original Twitter account SusanGreenBooks, and I'd like to share my journey in social networking so far.

At the time, I'd been bookbinding for a couple of years, selling online in a small way and was fairly new to Twitter. Without a studio open to the public, I relied on my online presence to build relationships with local and national news and consumer press, galleries, potential customers, fellow bookbinders and those working in associated art and craft practices.

When you're an independent designer-maker, there's really little distinction between your personal and professional lives. Elevensetime helped me find a band of happy folk who have supported me and my endeavours ever since,  whose families, work, projects and travels have become a familiar part of my life every single day. 

Social media is the biggest part of my online marketing strategy, and although I use Facebook, InstagramPinterest, LinkedIn and more recently Google+Twitter remains my primary platform, thanks to its immediacy and focus on individual personal connections, and I've got elevensestime to thank for switching me on to hashtag networking, a major part of building brand presence on Twitter.

In 2011 I was selected as one of Dragons' Den Deborah Meaden's top British businesses for quality Christmas gifts in her #BuyBritishHelpJobs Twitter campaign, and in 2012, I was one of the businesses featured in a Guardian newspaper article: How social media can benefit small businesses. Without elevensetime, where would I have been?

I relaunched as BOUND in time for Christmas 2012, complete with a new twitter account @boundbyhand and I'm happy that elevensestime continues to be a part of my professional and personal life.

So to say thank you to my Twitter followers, from elevensetime and elsewhere, I like to do regular giveaways of a Mini Journal. It's personal, and it's business, and really - there's no distinction. It's good to know you - thanks for being part of the journey.

Monday, 15 July 2013

A Book Launch with Elevensestime!

When Martin asked me to write a post for the Elevensestime blog to celebrate the launch of my third book, Song of the Storm, I had to sit back for a minute and think about how I came to be part of that wonderful group on twitter.
The truth is, I have no idea. 
It was so long ago, and it just happened the way everything happens on twitter: somehow, you meet the right people. 
Since I joined twitter in late 2008, this has happened to me—and you too, I bet—over and over again.

Here’s the best example: I met my publisher Buddhapuss Ink, on twitter!
That was some time in 2009. We talked about coffee and bagels, and about how her puppy kept her up at night, about the weather, and backyard gardening—in fact, we talked about nearly everything except writing or publishing.
It took me nearly a year to gather the courage to post one page of my manuscript (page 99) on my blog. I tweeted the link to my followers and almost immediately I got an email from Buddhapuss asking for the rest of the book. 
I’d just finished writing The Distant Shore, and I had no idea how to submit a novel to a publisher, or what shape it should be in, but I did I know that what I’d written needed to be edited, and heavily.
Six frantic weeks later I finally sent it to them and promptly got signed.

When I signed that first book deal I had no idea how my life would change.
Do you know how it is when you are at a certain point in life and you alter one thing just a tiny bit, and suddenly everything is different? Like, when you write for fun and to entertain yourself, and then someone shows up and says, “Hey, let me have a look!” and you let them, and wham—a whole new world! Yeah, like that.

Suddenly I was traveling, writing like crazy, taking my first steps as an author, signing books, and giving interviews. And through it all, there was twitter. 

Like a big, friendly family, my twitter friends walked that road with me, cheered me on and gave me mental hugs when things got a little rough, like that night last year, when I was traveling home from Salt Lake City to Germany and had to spend an entire day at JFK airport after an overnight flight. That’s the great thing about twitter: there’s always someone awake somewhere.

Anyway. tomorrow is launch day for Song of the Storm, and that’s why I’m writing this blog post. So let me tell you a little bit about it.

Song of the Storm is the third and final book in the Stone Trilogy. It continues the story of rock superstar Jon Stone and his wife Naomi. 
After all the adventures and trials they went through in the previous two books, they’ve finally settled into the house in Brooklyn that Naomi gave Jon as a wedding present. They’ve just completed a world tour with Jon’s band, are expecting a new baby, and are staging a Broadway musical that they’ve written together.
Even Jon’s restless manager Sal, has found someone to love. It seems as if they’ve all sailed into calm waters at long last. 

The only problem is one of timing, the year is 2001, and the preview of the show is scheduled for September. 

Reviewer Lucy Pireel says this about Song of the Storm
“The way this author very tastefully brought 9/11 into the plot is amazing and does justice to the people who suffered and still do from this vile and low attack on innocent New Yorkers as well as the people in the other planes and places.”

This novel is probably the one closest to my heart. I love New York City very much. I feel very much at home there, and even today, twelve years later, it still hurts to drive through Manhattan and not see the World Trade Center. Granted, the new tower looks great. But it’s not the same. And it will always remind us of what happened.

I have friends who were in New York on 9/11, and I wrote this book for them. It tells the stories that live on in their memories but does it through the words and thoughts of the novel’s characters. 

I very much hope you will read and like it.
Oh, and I’ll see you on twitter! 

This was the first stop on Mariam’s Blog Hop celebrating the launch of Song of the Storm. We’re hosting a giveaway for some great prizes—check out the info on our blog

Tomorrow Mariam will be visiting Angela Barton for an interview, you won’t want to miss it!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

My Wight Life

Here's a little bit about me!

Many of the #Elevensestime crowd know me as @loves2crochetuk some know me as Sarah, to 3 very special little people I am mum. My eldest son is 15, my daughter is 13 (she'd tell you nearly 14 actually and say that there are only 5 days left 'til her birthday but I am holding on to the younger numbers as long as I can) and then there is our new addition who is just 5 months old! So as you can imagine our life is a hectic jumble of teething, exams, friendships, relationships, hair straighteners, football and tons of other stuff too!

I am currently a stay at home mum on maternity leave and seriously hoping to remain that for a while if I can. Unfortunately money might mean that's not realistic.

Things that I love or am proud of! :

  • Watching my babys' face light up when I pull a silly face or make a funny noise at him, watching the wonder in his eyes when he spots something new going on around him!
  • Watching my older 2 with him, seeing that (somehow) they have both turned out to be amazing loving children!
  • Seeing the oldest 2 doing so well at school after I home schooled them both for 8 years!
  • Seeing my partner play and chat with our baby everyday!
  • Spending time with family!
  • Overcoming depression.
  • I love the smell of freshly cut grass, petrol, freshly baked bread, good coffee, early morning, snow days - they do have a smell?!
  • I love every season, for different reasons.
  • Crochet - obviously!
  • Blogging  - not quite so obviously!
I could list things here for ages but I'll stop now before I send you to sleep! 

A Settled Life on The Isle of Wight

I have lived on the Isle of Wight since I was 14 so just over 20 years now, I  haven't always felt settled here but I'm in a good place in life now and happy to be wherever me and my family are. I wonder if moving away from the area I grew up in at 14 is what made me unsettled here in later life? Like everything I had grown up knowing was suddenly not there anymore and I (and my parents) had to start again in a completely different environment to what we had been used to? To be honest that's not something I have seriously thought of until now and I feel its not something I need to over-think either, I am here now and I am very happy so all is good :)
I have recently created a new twitter account @WightHour to help promote local businesses here and the popularity of #wighthour (Mondays 8-9pm) is growing week on week.
One of my items available @
Made on the Isle of Wight
Bullen Road, Ryde, IOW
PO33 1QE
And Online here

I Love to Crochet

My username on twitter is @loves2crochetuk - I had wanted to learn to crochet most of my life, my Nan was a crocheter but not the best teacher! My mum is an excellent knitter - something I can do but don't love. A few years ago I came across a few crochet hooks stashed away in the loft and finally had a go! I have tried many different crafts over the years, lace making, candle making, cross stitch, drawing, knitting but had never taken to any of them.  Crochet is different! I love to crochet. I enjoy making a variety of pieces generally quite modern and fresh looking items that would fit in with most styles. I always use 100% natural high quality yarns.

I blog from time to time (never as often as I intend to!) and it is something I intend to try! to improve on. I actually enjoy writing when I just let myself go a bit! If you have enjoyed this short post by me then I would love you to stop by my blog Loves2Crochet and say hello!

I have been a participant of #elevensestime on twitter for a good few years now, everyone there is so nice and friendly and it is nice to share my morning cuppa with you all :)
Sarah x

Monday, 3 June 2013

Festivals as a Way of Life

It happened a few years ago when I was living in Dublin: I fell in love with the Festival of World Cultures. The following year I was browsing their website and found the volunteer section. Why not give it a go, I thought, and signed up. A few months later Life is a Festival was born. Ever since my first experience as a festival volunteer I’ve been hooked. ‘Festival’ became a magical word for me, a sort of road sign to a place called Being Happy. My new passion was like a favourite piece of clothing, I took it with me everywhere I went. From a jazz festival in New Zealand, a Japanese street festival in Vancouver to a documentary festival in Donegal I worked at any event that intrigued me and absolutely loved it.

Sometimes people ask why I would ‘work for free’. It wouldn’t even occur to me to see volunteering that way. In fact it’s a win win situation for everyone. Festivals get enthusiastic helpers while volunteers get to attend events and often get an exclusive behind the scenes look. At really good festivals (happy to give recommendations) you feel appreciated as a valuable member of the crew. You are a sort of goodwill ambassador for the event and it shows. It helps to have a bit of an altruistic streak and to enjoy meeting new people. Having said that, if you’re more of a shy type, there are usually plenty of alternative opportunities to get involved with a festival.

So you’ve never volunteered at a festival before and aren’t sure if it’s for you? The good news is: it can be done while working a fulltime job, with a family in tow, at any age, if you’re in a wheelchair, do not own a car or are just visiting a new place for a few days. Just follow these steps: 1. Find something that interests you or simply google for upcoming festivals in your area. 2. Do they have a volunteer section on the website? Good. No? Email them anyway and offer your help. It helps to mention that you are friendly, enjoy working with people, are flexible, reliable and punctual. This is what ALL festivals are more or less looking for. 3. You get accepted. Great. You don’t? Ask them to put you on the standby list. A word of warning: give it your all but don’t over commit. Sign up for a reasonable amount of hours that fit into your schedule. Being tired and stressed doesn’t make for a great experience and you do want to have some time to actually attend events. You can always add more shifts later. Let the volunteer coordinator know if you have any special skills or experience and whether there are any artists you’d particularly like to see, but be flexible if you don’t get the exact shifts you are hoping for.

Festivals have become such a lifestyle for me that I stopped doing regular sightseeing a few years ago. Whenever I visit a new country or city I search for community centres, independent bookshops, cultural events, meetup groups for writers, co-working spaces, indie music venues, and libraries and take it from there. What interests me about travelling is how other people live, think and create. Rather than following the well-trodden tourist path, it’s so much more exciting to meet the locals and learn about cutting edge projects, such as a novel writing marathon, a 24 hour film contest or a circus in a rainforest

Festivals are what you make them. They are neither mindless entertainment nor boring lectures, but a living, breathing organism made up of creative people, projects and audiences who are open to learn something new, be amazed and connect with like-minded souls. Some of my best friends are people I met at festivals around the world. It’s not always easy to stay positive when we are constantly bombarded with bad news. Festivals can be a great antidote. They are their own universe, an escape from daily life or, in my case, the start of a completely new way of life. One of my goals when I started writing Life is a Festival was to keep the time between festivals as short as humanly possible and to get others excited about festivals and volunteering in the community. Both are a work in progress and I’m immensely enjoying this beautiful journey I’m on.

What are your favourite festival moments? Let us know in the comments section below. If you have any questions about festival volunteering or festival trips around the world, just drop me a line. I also offer one to one twitter coaching for musicians, writers, artists and other creative people.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Camping in comfort

There are some people, like my son Matthew, who regard comfort while camping as entirely optional. Then others, such as my friend Ann, say camping in any form should be avoided at all cost by sane adults.

I’m somewhere in the middle.  Camping is a great way to give the kids a fairly cheap trip away, and it does me good to be in the fresh air and away from the work desk. But I’m not a great fan of shivering cold and hungry in a field.  “Holidaying under canvas” is really what I aspire to.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas that help me when we go away.

Tent Doormat
I take a doormat to put just inside the tent. Having this to stand on while changing footwear helps keep some of the grass and mud out of the main tent. I buy them for 80p from Ikea and if they look too grim at the end of a trip I throw them away.

Gas lamp 
I've got various lamps and lights and torches, but my favourite is the gas lamp.  They can be a bit pricey to buy but I've found they throw out a welcome amount of heat, as well as light.  This can be a great advantage in the evenings when it’s starting to get nippy.

An increasing number of campsites are offering an electrical supply for your tent, for a small daily surcharge.  I've been told that’s not “proper camping” but I have no pride when it comes to these things!  You need a special adapter  but with one of these to hand all sorts of wonderful things can now be plugged in – table lamps for reading in bed, a DVD player to keep the kids quiet, a CD player to share your music tastes with the rest of the campsite.  I stayed on one site that offered WiFi, for a noticeable cost, so you could take the laptop and do a bit of work while on holiday - that seemed to be going rather too far even for me!

Even after several years of camping I've still not settled on a bed I feel comfortable in.  I've tried various different airbeds and roll mats. This year I have bought a camp bed which has little legs to lift you off the ground, so I’ll see if that’s any better.  I don’t really like sleeping bags, as they feel one step away from mummification, so I've got an extra wide sleeping bag, and then I take a duvet as well for the warmth and the comfort.

I am still no expert.  I’d like to have some way to recharge the mobile phones, maybe from an AA battery powered charger.  I know you can get solar powered phone chargers, but the good ones seem awfully expensive. Matt has a wind up phone charger so I should give that a go. He says it takes a good amount of winding to get a trickle of a charge into the phone. Sounds like that is something best left to a younger fitter generation than me.

I also have no clue how to pack a wet tent!

If you've thought about camping but have never finally make the leap maybe some of these ideas might encourage you to give it a go.  And if you have any camping tips do share them in the comments.  Or just tell us what's your favourite Premier Inn :p

I'm a regular on twitter - follow me on @cyteen02 and join in the chat with #elevensestime

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

In Search of the Ultimate Loaf!

Over the past ten years or so, bread has become big business in the UK. A good thing too, for much of what   masqueraded as our daily staple since WWII had increasingly become a poor imitation of the real thing. With a texture not unlike a kitchen sponge and a whole array of chemicals to aid rising and preservation, the heavily processed sliced white loaf is a culinary abomination with minimal nutritional value. Oh, and it tastes of nothing, either, save for the generous quantities of sugar and salt which are added to mask the blandness.

The excessive use of raising agents is the principal reason for the lack of flavour in mass-produced bread. For what these do is to rob the loaves of a key ingredient: time. Whereas an industrial dough is designed to rise as quickly as possible, its home-made counterpart, using a small amount of yeast and left to prove for several hours, will gradually develop complex, appetising flavours thanks to natural processes of fermentation.

Nowhere is fermentation in bread more evident than in sourdough cultures, which use the natural yeasts in the air around us to leaven the dough. As the name implies, sourdough bread can be quite acidic, often with a distinct tang that marks it out from yeast-risen breads. Also, the leavening action of these natural yeasts, in the form of a starter culture, is slower than that of baker's yeasts, which means that plenty of fermentation and thus flavour development takes place before the dough has risen to the required volume.

As sourdough cultures are notoriously capricious, baking a successful loaf of sourdough bread is the Holy Grail of the home baker. Sourdough, moreover, has become so fashionable that the top chefs and restaurants are at it, too, and many are keen to share their tips and recipes. A quick perusal of my kitchen shelves reveals entries on sourdough in cookbooks by Moro, St John, Jamie Oliver, and Locatelli, amongst others. These boast a variety of procedures for creating a sourdough culture, one involving grape juice, and another rhubarb and yoghurt. Some are quite lengthy and intricate, which may be disconcerting to the aspiring sourdough baker.

I have been baking bread off and on for around fifteen years now, and have made many attempts to develop an active and durable sourdough starter. A few times it didn't work at all; on other occasions I managed to bake a handful of decent loaves before the starter seemed to just run out of life. I found the Jamie Oliver technique the simplest and most reliable of the four listed above; he uses rye flour to capture the natural yeasts outside and it only takes five days before you can bake your first loaf. A couple of my very early efforts, which were made with a substantial proportion of rye, were a revelation - quite the tastiest bread I'd eaten. And yet, what had started out with a bang quickly fizzled out with a whimper; no sooner had I taken my eye off the starter than it sulked at me like a petulant teenager, obstinately refusing all I asked of it. I went back to using yeast.

When, therefore, I was given by a relative a small quantity of her sourdough starter, I received it with a mixture of gratitude, excitement, trepidation and resignation. I was under pressure to make sure that this present was not just for Christmas; the responsibility felt like having very small children all over again. Fortunately I had in the meantime acquired the excellent River Cottage handbook on bread, by Daniel Stevens, which I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, even more experienced bakers. His section on sourdough is particularly enlightening and I'm sure is the main reason why, four months later, my starter is alive and well in the back kitchen.

So: to my own efforts. What follows is not a detailed recipe or procedure for making sourdough loaves - this can be found elsewhere. Instead I will focus on tips and hints which I've found particularly useful along the way.

The first piece of advice - and a good reason why you should not always be too rigid about recipe timings - is perhaps the most important of all: do not begin the bread-making process until your starter is ready. What is ready? Well, it is hard to define precisely, but if the culture is bubbling and frothing away with a pungent yet not unpleasant smell, then it's probably time. The difficulty here is that you can also leave it for too long. When the natural yeasts have gobbled up all the sugars in the flour, the starter will, like someone after a gargantuan meal, become rather inactive. It will need feeding again to return it to an vigorous state.

At this point I should perhaps take a step backwards and make a note about feeding your starter. A key tip I have picked up only recently is the routine of discarding half the starter and refreshing it with a similar amount of flour and water. Initially I was reluctant to follow this procedure, having been brought up never to waste food, but it really does make all the difference. And if you're baking frequently, you will use the discarded portion for your next loaf. I would also advocate freezing one or two pots of the starter, just in case your main culture does decide to give up the ghost. While we're on the subject, most writers recommend you discard and feed your starter on a daily basis. I have found mine to be so greedy that it actually prefers a twice-daily feed. But you get through a hell of a lot of flour.

When you're confident that your starter is in the right mood, it's time to try a loaf! Since I bought the River Cottage book I have been first making a 'sponge' overnight, which is where you mix your starter with all of the water but only half the flour. By the following morning, this batter should be frothing contentedly and hungry for the rest of the flour and salt. Daniel Stevens advises keeping your dough on the sticky side, and I've found a food mixer very handy for this. But I've also baked without one; you just have to be prepared to get mucky. He also advocates a number of risings, after each of which you gently knock back the dough and reshape it into a round. For the final proving, which can take several hours, I line a tall-sided bowl with a floured cloth, to give the loaf some shape. At baking time, the cloth is carefully lifted from the bowl and the dough transferred to your baking sheet/tin.

Another excellent tip is to ensure the oven is as hot as possible before your loaf goes in to bake. I am currently using a large stainless steel roasting tin for my bread, as it retains the heat and seals the bottom of the loaf, preventing it from sticking. I also make slashes in the dough before putting it in the oven (these should start opening up immediately) and spray the top with water from a plant mister. The fierce heat of the oven should give your dough a final chance to rise (and quite rapidly, too), while the water on the top temporarily inhibits the formation of the crust, thereby extending he rising time in your oven. You should leave the oven at its highest temperature for ten minutes, after which it can be turned down depending on how brown your loaf already looks.

One final piece of advice: do not cut open your loaf until it has fully cooled, which may mean leaving it until the following day. We are easily seduced by the aromas of baking bread, and the temptation to devour a chunk while it is still warm may seem irresistible, but until the crumb has properly settled inside you will just end up with a squashy, albeit delicious mass.

The differences between a regular loaf and a sourdough one should be immediately apparent. Quite apart from the distinctive 'sour' smell and taste, the crumb ought to be much looser with larger holes, while the overall texture of the bread should be springier and less crumbly. Sourdough also lasts longer than other breads, but it is unlikely you'll ever let it get stale.

So how am I getting on? Below you will see two pictures of my most recent attempt at sourdough bread. In the first you can see how the slashes on top of the dough opened up (although not completely), allowing for  more rising. The second shows a cross-section of the bread. The crumb is denser than I am aiming for - some earlier loaves have been more successful in this respect. All in all it's not a bad result, and far better than my previous forays into sourdough bread. But I shall continue to strive for the ultimate loaf and let you all know if and when I get there!

What are your sourdough experiences?

Jamie Bulloch, 30 April 2013 Follow @LoveVirtually on Twitter