Friday, 29 November 2013

Our Handmade Christmas

*written in association with Hobbycraft

I saw a call-out recently for writers to do a piece about making things handmade for Christmas, unfortunately I couldn't apply, as it had to be literally everything handmade, so I thought I'd share some thoughts on what my family and I do to put our own handmade stamp on the festive season.

Festive Baking

For as long as I can remember we've had the delicious smells of baking wafting through the kitchen. Mum makes her own mincemeat from a tried and tested recipe, and makes a few jars too - mince pies never last very long in our house. Mum also makes our Christmas Cake, though has never yet let me loose on the decoration, telling me off when I offer up too many ideas. This year I may get lucky, and already have some Doctor Oetker Gold Shimmer Spray and some marzipan stashed away.

I tend to stay out of the kitchen nearer the time, too many people and a bit too much stress. I stick to
the washing up, laying the table, helping with the cold buffet, or making things like place cards, and table presents. If I get a chance I like to try out a festive baking recipe though, and had a go at making Gingerbread Cupcakes from the Best Craft and Cookery Special. Actually made a nice change to be doing a recipe with a few more processes in it, and they looked yummy on the page.

The recipe was quite easy to follow, although I may have been guilty of over whisking, and the recipe really needed pre-melted butter and less liquid. So I'm not sure if I got the texture right, and the mix produced a few random shaped cake tops. They were fun to make though, and tasted yummy.

The recipe was taken from 'Cupcakes' a book by Peggy Porschen.

Festive Crafting

Xmas is my absolute favourite time to craft - there's just so much variety of activities and craft products about, it's hard to resist going shopping, or hunting through my treasure trove of festive stash. My favourites are winter scenes featuring animals, and I love to matt and layer with cute or shimmery papers. This year I have some gorgeous festive card inserts from Hunkydory ( my favourite craft brand) to make cards with, and I've also been lucky to secure some cute festive postcard size toppers from Katy Sue Designs.


Some of my festive makes
 
I've not done much with those yet, but I have been shopping and fed my addiction for decorating things. I'm not an expert on techniques, but I also get a bit bored if you just take something out the packet, put it on something else, and then its done. So decorating is ideal for me. I think decopatch is great for something different and unusual (who says everything has to be traditional!) and I've also had fun making something from fimo, for the first time in years for my Christmas tree. It's so relaxing to sit and experiment with craft stuff, and as far as xmas stuff goes anyway, no disasters!

How will you put your own stamp on xmas? have you made any gifts this year? any top tips or recipes we should look out for. The Christmas countdown has begun, so don't be shy, come and share!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Chelmsford Christmas Lights Switch On - 24th November 2013


Although I started my Christmas shopping a while ago, I just don't feel properly festive until the Christmas lights are switched on in my home city. It's an annual event I always look forward too, and I've been to many - seeing penguins, reindeer's, ice sculptures, and music acts such as Lee Mead, Olly Murs, Kym Marsh (as she was then) and Jo from S Club. The town is full of festive cheer, there's always a nice community spirit, and queues of people round the hot chocolate and mulled wine stalls.

This year I popped into town for the 2013 event and I was more than ready to relax and have some fun. There were lovely lights strung between the market and shops, which created quite a stunning effect, a mobile farm created a live nativity scene, and children were busy getting their faces painted, or taking part in craft activities.

I snapped a few festive photo's then made my way up the high street to the Heart FM music stage for the afternoons main entertainment. I arrived to the sounds of a female singer and her live percussionist blasting out some dance tracks, which made a refreshing change, as previous year's events have been overloaded on Christmas songs. Before you label me the Grinch, I like Christmas songs, just not acts going on one after the other, singing the same tunes.

Also performing were 3 large community choirs, all with energetic choir masters, leading each choir through a wide range of old and new pop hits. Between The Big Sing, Funky Voices, and Rock Choir there was Madonna, a Take That Medley, and some amusing air guitar to 'I Believe In A Thing Called Love'. I think with 3 choirs having decent length sets, there was a different atmosphere around the stage, and not so much of a buzz/build-up towards the lights switch-on and fireworks, but you could fault their energy or vocals - though maybe their dance routines need a little practice.

Chelmsford's more recognisable faces this year were local act 'Next Of Kin', currently touring the
Copyright - Lauren John
country after escaping the X Factor bubble, and performing two acoustic sets at our switch on event. It felt a bit like they had something to prove after being knocked out, but as far as vocal range and ability as musicians goes, they don't need to worry. I'm not a big fan of 'More Than Words' or 'Too Much Heaven', both a bit dated as songs whatever you do to them, but their version of 'Higher Love' is definitely one to listen out for, and after several listens 'Can't Find Me' is starting to grow on me as well. I'd like to see what they do with a full kit instrument wise, and maybe 2 acoustics instead of one on a track as well. If you've got it, why not flaunt it!!

That's just me being picky though, and apart from the over dose of choral energy, and being in the wrong place to get the full effect of the fireworks (again!) it was another fun event, just feeling a bit of a festive anti climax now, so I better get working on Mum and Dad to get the Christmas tree down from the loft.

Has anything special happened where you are for Christmas? who did you have turning on the lights, why not get festive and let us all know below. Until then 'Happy Christmas'.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Scottish Fine Soaps Christmas Collection

Some of the goodies I reviewed
I have a festive treat for you today blog readers, but first off, thank you all for coming along and reading/commenting on my blog since June, and for getting all festive along with me now. I've always been fascinated seeing old pictures of my town, and realising the how long some of the companies have been around. That's one thing that appealed to me with Scottish Fine Soaps, as they've been around since 1974 - imagine how many soaps they have made in that time. I'm also passionate about small business and independent retailers, so one of the things I wanted to do on the blog, was showcase that. So here I am, having just tried and tested the Scottish Fine Soaps Christmas collection. The attractively packaged gifts I had to test are-

Spiced Apple Soap In A Tin - £4.96

Spiced Apple Little Bear Soap - £4.75

Gingerbread Luxurious Essentials Drum - £9.95

The problem I have with xmas scented products is they are either way too over powering, or just seem a bit rubbery/synthetic. I was intrigued by this collection, partly because of the packaging, and partly because they offered something different to the highly spiced concoctions I normally see in the shops.

Before I even opened the spiced apple soap I was in love with the scent - it smells gorgeous and very well balanced for a festive soap. I have used the soap in a tin quite a few times since (the teddy bear looks too pretty to open), and it lathers up well, with the scent of spiced apple lingering for a while on my skin.

I'd definitely buy the spiced apple products again though I was a little disappointed with my gingerbread collection. I've tried out the soap, body butter, and hand and nail cream so far and at first had trouble detecting any scent of gingerbread at all. After a few uses I did pick up more of the gingerbread scent, but it is very subtle and I was expecting a bit more. I recently made some Christmas Gingerbread Cupcakes - with different spices, orange juice and other ingredients in, which made me think of the bath and body products I'd tried out. I think they need just a little something extra, but my skin has no complaints from using all the products so far. Just what I need now the weather has gone a bit pear-shaped!



Scottish Fine Soaps, didn't quite win on all counts, but they have converted me to the cause, and just in case any of my friends and family were hoping to get my spiced apple bear soap for Christmas - it's mine, all mine!

You can purchase the Scottish Fine Soaps Christmas Collection here, or keep updated on their products on Twitter.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Make Of The Month - Felt Christmas Stocking

Laurens Cards and Craft
I don't know about anyone else, but I am starting to feel the festive spirit now. Christmas shopping is well underway, and so is some crafting. Sorry I've not showcased any makes for a while, but I've not had time for much crafting. One thing I was determined to do though, was to make my little nephew (1 year old now!!) a little representation for the Christmas tree.

I decided pretty quickly to make him a little stocking, small enough to hang on the tree, but big enough that 'Santa' could fill with a few goodies on Christmas Eve. The challenge will probably be finding things to fill it, given my nephew is only one, but I had a lot of fun making it.

The design is a festive Spot the Dog. My sister still has a Spot which she was given as a baby, and as Joey also has a Spot soft toy and books, I thought this would be a fun image to put on the stocking.

Most of the stocking was done freehand. I drew freehand templates of the stocking shape, and the Santa hat. Then I found a Spot picture on the Internet which was the right size for the stocking, printed that out and used that as a template. For anyone who is not great at art, I'd say give something like this a go, the freehand bits were easy to do. I was a little worried about doing all the freehand details that made my yellow piece of felt 'become Spot', as it was important to me that it looked like what it was supposed to. In the end, having a picture printed out helped, and while some of the sewing detail was a bit fiddly, I'm very chuffed with the results.



All the elements of the stocking were hand sewn, so the next task was sewing spot on to the front of the stocking. The I prepared some strips of felt for the stocking tops, and as an impulse added zig zag detail with crystal metallic cross stitch thread, which I think adds a nice subtle effect. Once both sides of the stocking had their tops, all that was left was to sew the two parts together, add in a felt hook, and then photograph the end result to show all you lovely blog readers.

I always wanted to have a go at making a stocking, but wasn't keen on all the fiddly embroidery etc. that I've seen in various craft kits. Felt gave me the option to do something that is simple to put together, and I think will stand out nicely on the tree come Christmas. Now I've done one, I may just try and come up with some more felt designs ready for next Christmas.

Have any of you made Christmas stockings, or other festive makes. What do you like doing to add your stamp on Christmas. Let's compare notes and get into a crafty Christmas spirit.

Next Month - my experience making a fabric purse.

Monday, 11 November 2013

New Look Psychologies Magazine - Out Now!



When I launched my blog back in June, health and well-being was one of the subjects I aimed to include in my content hit list. I have skirted around the topic in various ways - such as talking about my Race For Life experience as I fundraised for Cancer Research - now I have been given the opportunity to delve headfirst into the topic once again - this time with a magazine review.

I have read Psychologies Magazine a few times in the past - so I am coming at this review with a little general knowledge, although I don't have too much to compare their new look magazine to. I remember a feature from a well known face on 'not being ashamed to be a pop fan' that I related to, and a general sense of inspiring content.

On the letters page the editor claims to be bringing readers  "new sections, new look, and new experts." This is where I was a bit disappointed, as I was expecting something obviously different, but the December 2013 issue still has the same glossy front cover etc, and for me anyway I don't think new experts really count towards a re-launch - perhaps that's my writers brain being used to magazines changing contributors regularly.

A slightly disappointing re-jig on first impressions, but I have noticed a shift towards more photo led features, which in terms of topics like travel and beauty is always a winner for me. What I enjoyed was the features I didn't expect - Julia Roberts for example clearly has a film to promote, but I wasn't expecting her to appear in Psychologies doing it, and I also enjoyed the history of glamour piece - something different from the normal look books or product suggestions. With a good number of activities enhancing well-being, I was happy to see baking recipes including (I want to make a cake now!) although the baking section did look a bit lonely on it's own, so I hope there are more activities mentioned in forth-coming issues.

I think my absolute favourite piece was the wintery travel suggestions. There's something very festive and revitalising in their ideas, all of which I've never thought of before. Other high points include the relevant advertising, an international flavour to the contributors, and the Cold Comforts feature on how to deal with pesky winter bugs. A good quiz is always a fun way to pass the time as well.

Bad points - If you can call them bad - I'd say some features were a little too short, like linking the make your own light feature to Diwali, and as a photography fan, I would have liked to see more photo competition entries on the letters page. I wouldn't buy a magazine like this for features on sexuality or casual sex either. They are not topics that interest me, and I think it's just a high end way of dealing with subjects common in lifestyle magazines.

So Psychologies has changed, in some ways for the better, in other ways perhaps not so much. The tone was a little over formal in places, and felt a bit too much like classroom psycho analysis. I think you can be intelligent and interesting but fun as well. I missed a little of the fun, but they have re-launched with relevance.

It will be interesting to see what they have planned for forthcoming editions. If you are curious about the December 2013 edition, or want to find out more about the magazine, check it out here.

*This magazine was sent for review purposes, but all opinions are my own.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Matt Cardle - Porcelain Album Review

Porcelain Album Signing - HMV Chelmsford Oct 2013
Christmas is coming, but the goose isn't quite fat. It is however time to sit and think about what you'd all like Santa to bring you for Christmas, and as in my house this normally means some kind of musical entertainment, I thought it would be a good opportunity to bring some music posts to These City Days.

Matt Cardle released his third studio album, titled Porcelain on October the 28th, and it has presented rather more of a review challenge than anticipated. Normally I find it quite easy to earmark what I believe to be potential singles, and what are 'album tracks', but just when I thought the lyrics were a little too 'bubblegum' on one track, or another took too long to get going, along comes an instrumental, a strong hook in a chorus, or smooth change of mood or tone to keep me interested. I am well used to delving into the different elements of the song for a review, but here I think it's about looking at the whole package - so while 'Hit My Heart' for example, may not have the same lyrical edge and originality as his Seven Summers tracks, the song as a whole is very infectious party tune.

There are hints of post X Factor preen and polish in the production of 'Porcelain', but that's no bad thing, I think the album needed that to show off the slick, soulful, rock grooves to good effect. The instrumentation is balanced and blends well throughout all the tracks, and I love the live feel to it. I can sit back, relax, and pick out a beautiful piano melody, or catchy bass line without it being distorted by effects.

So what will I remember from 'Porcelain' in the coming months? Zoe my Aussie pal and I both agree that 'When You Were My Girl' is an instant, stuck in your head, kind of hit. Matt looks very comfortable performing his socks off in the video, and the groove is insanely danceable. It sounds even better on CD than it did on Youtube. Definitely a track I hope to hear live one day.

Another highlight is 'This Trouble Is Ours', a combination of British folk and soaring pop ballad that belongs on a soundtrack to an animated film. The vocal tones are pitched just right, and almost bought a lump to my throat. I wasn't as keen on the slower numbers in Matt's previous albums, but he has won me over this time.

Listen out for an edgy R&B vibe on 'Mouth To Mouth', delicate sentiments on final track 'Porcelain', and a slight nod to Matt Cardle's early metal band days in 'In Chains'. This track is one of those that's took a while to get going, but illustrates how Matt has benefited from learning to use his voice in the right way. He is pushing his vocal limits, but he is comfortable doing it, which makes this album very easy to listen to.

There have been some beautiful songs on previous albums 'The Fire', and 'Letters', and I wouldn't take anything away from those, but what this album has is an anthemic quality which will give it staying power in the years to come. I think Matt Cardle was always heading in a soulful rock direction, and it's nice to see he has arrived.

'Porcelain' is on-sale now via HMV, I-Tunes, and Amazon. Visit www.mattcardlemusic.com for more information, and details of the 'Porcelain' 2014 tour. If the album will be making it's way under your Christmas tree, or you have any other music wish-lists do let me know.

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