A January Diary

January 2018

Realised that visitors to Slamseys Journal are still being wished a Happy Christmas. Resolved to remedy situation but nothing to write about. Decided to wait for exciting event.

Lino prints, screen prints, drypoint in The Barley Barn, Essex

Back to work in the New Year. Rather depressing to walk into the glitz and sparkle of Christmas decorations when it’s all over. Took several days to take down displays, count stock and pack away. Debated why some decorations remain unsold for two years and then sell out. Resolved not to buy more snow globes this year. Good to have the space cleared and back to normal.

printmaking tools, crayons, pencils in tins in Barley Barn, Essex

Moved printmaking equipment back into the Barley Barn. Spent much time with Ruth arranging it in Insta worthy display. Convinced ourselves that this is very important and in no way a means of avoiding office work. Ran out of time that day to do the accounts.

Have been detailed to choose light fittings for house. Looked online and discovered thousands. Visited local shop and found only six on display. Feel there must be some halfway place with reasonable, but not overwhelming choice. Wonder if we can get away with fewer lights. Pretended that I have unlimited time to choose and deferred decision. Ignored niggle in back of mind that I don’t have unlimited time.

Started to prepare for relocation of farm office. Jammed paper shredder trying to dispose of ancient paperwork. Discovered pile of vinyl LPs in cupboard and spent afternoon sorting office contents to musical accompaniment. Irritated by number of records with scratches and continued need to change record. Fate of turntable and record collection to be decided but relocation to new farm office not expected. Wonder if all records not mine should be returned to original owners. Ditto books. Decide not, thus affirming belief that writing your name on anything to ensure return is act of hope, not guarantee.

Ducks by the pond at Slamseys

Shut up all but one of the ducks for the night. Tried unsuccessfully to round up errant duck but she hid in thick blackthorn hedge. No sign of her next morning, so presume she has been taken by fox. Remaining ducks consequently refused to go into safety of their pen for following three nights. Luckily all survived and eventually hunger drove them in, only to find the guinea fowl had appropriated the duck house in their absence. Left them to sort it out. Next morning discovered ducks cosily ensconced in hens’ nesting boxes. Marked decline in egg laying since.

Dried seedhead display in The Barley Barn, Essex

Read Jane’s piece entitled “An idyllic life, or not”. Agreed with Jane and the comments left about what we choose to write about in blogs. Concluded that it’s probably better to push Happy Christmas from the first page of Slamseys Journal by writing about grey, less than idyllic January, rather than wait for something exciting to happen.

Happy Christmas!

Lino Print Christmas Card snowy scene


This morning we open the Christmas Barn for the last time this year. There’s only a handful of Christmas trees left, the decorations are looking very depleted and today our customers are collecting their Christmas turkeys.

Christmas tree outside barn at Slamseys

For the first time in years, we’re not opening on Christmas Eve and so tomorrow will have a day to relax and recharge before the excitement of Christmas. We’ll take a good walk around the farm and cut holly, ivy, mistletoe and greenery for the house. The boxes of baubles and glittering decorations will be brought out, stepladder found and the radio tuned to the carol service from Kings College, Cambridge as I decorate the house. Since the end of November, we’ve had a beautiful Norway spruce tree standing outside the Christmas Barn that I’ve been planning to bring in on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, Bill sold it yesterday. Such is life. One year he sold our Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and we only had a branch to decorate. At least we grow our own trees these days, so we can go into the plantation and cut a fresh one.

Wherever you are in the world, if you’re sweltering in a hot place, freezing in the snow or somewhere in between, I hope you have a Joyous and Peaceful Christmas.


A Country Style Christmas Wreath

A Country Style Christmas Wreath

At this time of year, it’s good to take time out from the frantic Christmas rush and clear your head. My favourites are to get out into the fresh air and to do something creative, so what better than taking a pair of secateurs and snipping some greenery to make a Christmas wreath. While I greatly admire the glory and perfection of a florist’s wreath, I’m more than happy with a simple, country style wreath using foraged plants. I don’t mind if it’s a little wonky and isn’t made with the season’s must have flowers, as it’s as much about the gathering and making as it is about the finished wreath.


How to make a rustic Christmas wreath


If you’d like to make a country style foraged Christmas wreath, here’s what to do.


making Christmas wreath with fresh foliage


Cut a few willow whippy branches of willow and twist and twine them together to make a circle. Tie them with string if you think your circle might spring apart. Alternatively, buy a wire ring which has the advantage of being round and won’t fall to pieces.


The trimmings from your Christmas tree are excellent foliage for your wreath. I presume you trim and shape your Christmas tree? Snip a little off the back to make it fit close to the wall? Prune back any wayward branches? Haven’t you read our tips for decorating your Christmas tree? Some people worry about cutting anything off their tree, but I always do, just to give it a good shape. Also, the offcuts are very useful.

As well as your Christmas tree trimmings, cut some holly, ivy, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme or anything green about 20 – 30 centimetres long. The larger your base, the longer your stems will need to be.

Binding foliage for country style Christmas wreath

Using florists wire, bind the greenery to your base. Place a few stems on the base, wind the wire around to hold them firm and then lay the next stems on top to hide the wire and continue to wind the wire round the stems and base, working your way around the circle. When you get back to the beginning, gently lift the heads of the first stems, bind the final stems and then drop the first heads back down to cover the wire. Cut and secure the end of the wire.


Collect some pretty seed heads, berries (fake or real), fruit, feathers, baubles or anything else that takes your fancy and poke and weave them into the wreath by slipping them under the wire. If you can’t do this, wire them in separately or stick them on with a hot glue gun. This is the chance to cover any bits of wire that may be showing.


Choose how you want to hang your wreath. Are you decorating it with a ribbon? Will the ribbon hang at the top or the bottom? Decisions, decisions. Either wind the ribbon around and tie a bow or make a ribbon bow and attach it to the wreath with wire or glue. If your ribbon is at the bottom, make a hanging loop at the top with a piece of twine or ribbon.

Find a door, hang your wreath …

Christmas wreath from the hedgerow

… stand back and admire.

Simple triangle shaped Christmas wreath

Of course, you don’t have to make a circular wreath. Tie some sticks together in a triangle shape and decorate as little or as much as you like.

twiggy heart shaped wreath

Make a heart shaped wreath.

Giant Christmas wreath hanging from ceiling

Make a giant wreath and hang it from the ceiling. Using the same technique, but on a larger scale, this wreath is a metre across and dangles from above.

If you don’t have the time or the greenery, buy a plain fir wreath and personalise it with your own decorations.

Whichever you choose, have fun.

Advent Calendars

Do you hang up an Advent calendar at the beginning of December? Perhaps you make your own and lovingly fill it with tiny gifts or burn an Advent candle. Maybe you prefer to take part in the #FoodBankAdvent reverse advent calendar.

Advent calendars used to be so simple when they were just a bit of cardboard printed with a snowy scene dotted with tiny doors that were opened every day to reveal a picture. I can still remember the anticipation of opening the door each day and being unable to resist sneaking a peak, ahead of time, at the nativity scene behind the double doors of the twenty fourth. It was easy to open the doors without anyone noticing as we were only allowed to fold, not tear, the doors so that after Christmas the calendar could be put away and brought out the following December. Because that’s what you did in the days before our present throwaway society.


These days, Advent calendars seem to be less about marking the days until Christmas and more about conspicuous consumption. Toys, sweets and jewellery fill children’s Advent calendars while some adults need a luxury treat every day of December with Advent calendars containing gin, perfume, make-up and probably anything you can think of. One year, we tried a Drink Advent, the idea being to have a different drink each evening. Not all alcoholic, I hasten to add. It all started so well with hot chocolate, gin cocktails, lemonade and mulled wine. By the tenth, we were flagging and in the middle of December gave the whole thing up. If only I’d had the forethought to plan ahead and written a list.

Reverse Advent Calendar

Reverse Advent Calendar fpr #FoodBankAdvent

Last year, Ruth set up a Foodbank donation point in the Christmas shop and I was intrigued by a little boy and his mother who brought in two bulging carrier bags filled with food. They explained that they’d done a Reverse Advent Calendar, putting something into a bag for the Foodbank for each day.

I’d always been a bit sceptical about the food donations as it seems an inefficient way to collect, with all the running around to donation points and sorting out food, some of which may be inappropriate or unsafe (such as cans of soup that are nearly fifty years old); giving money seemed more useful as it could be used to buy the right things, in bulk. But having spoken to that little boy, I realised how inclusive it is to donate food. He’d helped choose what to donate and had obviously discussed with his mother why they were doing it. Talking with others who came in to donate, we agreed that picking out food (and other basic essentials), particularly when we’re doing our own Christmas food shopping, makes us think about other people’s situations in a way that dropping a few coins into a collection tin could never do.

Our local Foodbank is one of over 400 foodbanks giving emergency food and support to people in crisis across the UK in the network run by The Trussell Trust and we have a donation point in the Christmas Shop. If you want to make a donation to your local foodbank, they probably have a list of things that they need each month and a special Christmas list. The Braintree area Foodbank’s  Christmas list includes tins of meat, Christmas cakes, biscuit selections, tubs of sweets, mince pies and bottles of squash as well as toiletries such as toilet rolls, shampoo, shower gel, wet wipes, toothbrushes and toothpaste, which should be donated by the beginning of December.

How many days until Christmas festive dog

We’ll each add our twenty-four things to the big collection box by the end of this week and then, because we need a little excitement in our lives, we’ll count down to Christmas using this little fellow. And possibly hang up an Advent calendar too.


When should you buy a Christmas tree?

When should you buy a Christmas tree?

When should you buy your fresh Christmas tree? That rather depends where you’re buying it.

Is November too early to buy a Christmas tree?

Some garden centres are urging you to rush out this weekend (25th November) to buy your tree from them; their trees are already in store and they argue that it’s better to buy one this weekend and keep it at home rather than buy one in December that’s been drying out in the garden centre for weeks. If you follow their advice, make sure you have somewhere cool and safe to store your tree.

Wait until December to buy your Christmas tree

We back the British Christmas Tree Growers Association whose advice is to wait until  December to get a fresher tree. Many large-scale growers cut and despatch the trees for their biggest wholesale customers first and then cut for smaller wholesale orders and their own shops. Small scale growers, like us, continue to cut throughout December and at some Christmas tree farms you can even go into the field and select a tree that will be cut down while you wait.

Buying a Christmas tree from your local Christmas tree farm
Knowledgeable staff at Slamseys will help you find the best tree for your home.

If you want a standard five to six feet high tree, hang on until 9th or 10th December, particularly if you plan to take it inside straight away. If you’re buying from a Christmas tree farm, you may be able to get a fresher tree by leaving it even later. We cut trees to replenish our stock throughout December, so you might get a very fresh tree if you turn up the Saturday before Christmas.

Read our Six Tips for Choosing a Wonderful Christmas Tree

How to look after your Christmas Tree

No matter when or where you buy your Christmas tree, you should cut a slice from the bottom of the tree (so it can take up water), remove the netting and stand the tree outside in a bucket of water overnight before you take it inside. Once inside, the tree should be put into a stand that holds water and kept regularly watered to stop it drying out.

how to keep your Christmas tree looking wonderful

However, not everybody has a saw or a safe place to stand a Christmas tree outside and our customers regularly tell us that when they get the tree home, everyone is so excited that they take it inside straight away, don’t take off the bottom of the trunk and quite often forget to water it. You’re pushing your luck to do that with a tree bought in November if you’re expecting it to look good on Christmas Day but you’ll get away with it if you buy your tree in mid-December.

When is the best time to take the Christmas tree inside?

The longer you can leave your Christmas tree outside in the cold, standing in a bucket of water, the better it will look on Christmas Day. A Christmas tree that has been kept in a hot room since the end of November will look tired and jaded on Christmas Day, whereas one that is taken in on Christmas Eve will look fresh and glossy. Most people settle for a compromise and take their tree inside in the middle of December.

And then the fun of decorating begins …

Christmas decorations trend 2017  The best day to buy your Christmas Tree | Advice from a Christmas Tree grower

Christmas Decorating Trends 2017

How to Decorate your Christmas Tree

Is it too early to mention Christmas?

Is it too early to mention Christmas?

It does seem premature to mention Christmas at the beginning of November but Christmas celebrations seem to get earlier every year. Fifteen years ago, our best-selling day for Christmas trees was a mid-December Saturday but that’s moved forward to the first weekend of December. Similarly, our commercial customers now want their trees delivered in the third week of November, which seems incredibly early. The world of Christmas decorations is even worse. This morning, an invitation popped through the door to visit the showrooms of one of our suppliers at the beginning of December. To view the Christmas 2018 range of decorations. Yes, 2018. Before we’ve even had Christmas 2017.

Father Christmas and caravan decoration

Our Christmas decorations shop opens on Friday, so over the past couple of weeks, The Barley Barn has been transformed from spartan printmaking classroom to a sparkling Christmassy barn. Consequently, I’m quite glittered out. We ordered our stock back in January, so as we’ve worked our way through the pallet loads of cardboard boxes, we’ve sometimes been surprised by the contents. Usually, it’s a good surprise, though occasionally we wonder what possessed us to order such vast quantities of a product. Mainly we wonder why we’re so attracted to snow globes.

engraved metal Christmas baubles
My favourite Christmas 2017 decorating trend is the modern take on metallic. The popularity of the traditional Christmas mix of red, green and yellow gold has declined over the years, overtaken by cool whites and bright silvers with a splash of red, perhaps influenced by hygge and Scandi style interiors. But this year, metallic colours are back with a vengeance.

copper Christmas baubles with dark blue baubles

Rose gold, copper, pewter and bronze are bigger than ever this year, perhaps fuelled by the fact they’re popping up in interiors everywhere. Did you see Nigella’s copper coloured mixer on her latest TV show? Apparently, John Lewis sold out of copper Kitchen Aid mixers online within ten minutes of the show finishing.

Christmas 2017 metallic decorations are textured and glittery, ranging from dull to super shiny. I love them mixed with deep blues and greys. This may be because we’ve been picking sloes to make sloe gin and the dusky blue of the sloes have been imprinted on my mind. It’s certainly a welcome relief from the minimalistic white of past trends.

Hand-picked sloes for Slamseys Sloe Gin

Have you even started to think about your Christmas decorations? What influences your colour scheme?

These Autumn Days

These Autumn Days

winter wheat crop emerging in field Essex UK

The brown fields of early October are slowly changing colour. Walk the fields with a farmer and you’ll watch them search the field for the first signs of germination, scrabbling around with their hands to see if there’s still a seed there and if it’s starting to shoot.  Soon there’s a slight green tinge to the field as the first green shoots appear and then the rows of tiny wheat plants become clear as you look across the field. This is next year’s harvest.

sloes growing on blackthorn bush
We’re sloe picking. It’s been a fantastic year for plums of every description and the sloes, forerunners of our modern plums, are no exception. The sloes are picked from the blackthorn hedges on the farm and used for making sloe gin, which seems appropriate as the first record of our farm appears in the Domesday Book, where it’s listed as Slamondesheia, which is thought to originate from the Old English meaning enclosure of the sloe tree hill. We still have plenty of sloe bearing blackthorn on the farm and every new hedge that’s planted here includes a good proportion of blackthorn to keep Slamseys Gin well supplied.

sloes on blackthorn hedge showing sharp thorns
Look at the thorns that we reach across to pick the sloes. They’re vicious and always seem to be right in front of the juiciest looking sloes. Sometimes we prune the blackthorn and pick the sloes from the cuttings. It’s certainly easier for Beth to take a pile of blackthorn branches back to the garden and pick off the sloes while one of her boys sleeps in the pram beside her and the other plays in the sandpit. The two year old is adept at raspberry picking but I think it will be a few years before he can pick sloes.

Rustic measuring stick leaning on Christmas tree

A high tech measuring stick in the Christmas trees. Orders for large trees are coming in from local churches, businesses and parish councils so the trees are chosen, measured and marked ready for cutting down next month. We sold our first Christmas tree of the year in the middle of September and will cut down several this month; all for photo shoots rather than super-excited house decorating. Well, that’s what they told us.

Notley Yoga at Slamseys
The sign outside the Yoga Studio in the yard. In the build up to December, it might be an idea if we all took heed of the advice and stepped inside the door. Instead, we hurry past averting our eyes from the bodies within.

circle using sloes, hips, haws, ivy flowers and leaves
There’s also been a little faffing around with berries and leaves. A calming and meditative pastime. Or a useless waste of time. Depending on your point of view.