one year we had an impromptu christmas in our family’s mountain retreat in a remote village in a natural park in the pyrenees. it’s a simple stable conversion, carved out of the mountainside with slate floors and walls, and rustic wood post and beams.
with limited time and only few resources, we relished the challenge of creating a christmassy atmosphere to make it magical and memorable for the children. luckily the holm oak next to the house needed a prune, so we cut bundles of leafy twigs to decorate the table, lights, mantelpiece and front door, tied larger shoots to the wooden posts and twisted more up the stair banisters. rosehips on a bush in the valley were a lucky find, and a bowl of clementines brought a pop of colour to the table.
a tangle of bushy foliage entwined with fairy lights gives instantaneous atmosphere!
the children got creative with twigs and a glue gun, making intricate wooden snowflakes. we kept ours rustic but they could easily be sprayed, painted or dipped in eco-glitter and hung with red ribbon for a little more pizzazz.
our bark crackers and napkins were perfect for the setting and we improvised with shepherds’ socks woven with local wool for stockings.
wherever your christmas is this year, step outside, take a look around you and bring a little nature inside. best wishes for a creative christmas!
with a bit of imagination it’s very easy to set the scene for a medieval knights and maidens party at home. a perfect excuse for spring-born children to dress up and entertain in true castle style.
first and foremost it’s important to spark enthusiasm for the party and build excitement. we found a special typeface on the internet and printed our own invitations. the children helped us roll up each one, then seal and stamp them with wax.
we dangled ivy from the garden over the front door to set the scene as guests arrived, then wound more up the banisters in the hall and around the lights, and dotted surfaces and corners with baskets and pots of seasonal flowers bought from the market in the morning. we love a roll of brown paper in our house, and often use it as a canvas for painting on the floor. this time it was perfect for rolling out as a table cloth, which we then painted with trailing vines. we made our own bunting from old wall paper and gift wrap, and dug out our most rustic jugs and plates for the table.
we chose rustic whole foods, ‘pain de surprise’ and decorated our slightly wonky, but very delicious, homemade cake with edible glitter and a crown of flowers.
the children dressed up in our hedgehog costumes, which we love, as they are all natural cotton and linen, and made by a family business in germany using local raw materials. not a bit of nylon in sight.
a jester was helpful, especially for the shy children to laugh at his silly antics, then we got everyone out in the garden for some bow and arrow target shooting. meanwhile there were prizes for children who answered all our medieval quiz questions.
we made our own crackers with knight jokes, chocolate coins, marbles and dice, and all the children left with their very own boy and arrow.
high up in the hills of the catalan pyrenees, a narrow winding road leads to a remote factory on the banks of a stream. the location, close to a waterfall, is important as the factory is operated entirely by hydropower.
we stumbled upon it one summer some years ago, on a family trip exploring the mountains, and couldn’t resist following the signpost to see where the road took us.
founded in 1902 by the great-grandparents of the current owners, this wool factory is still fully operational. it’s a family business that has been passed from father to son, and in its heyday employed about twenty people. it uses an impressive array of original machinery dating from the eighteenth century, including the ‘devil’, a machine that separates wool, and a spectacular mule-jenny, a spinning mule invented by samuel crompton in in 1779, which was used extensively in the mills in britain’s industrial revolution.
production starts with piles of wool delivered in big hessian sacks by local shepherds. fresh off the sheep’s back, it’s smelly and needs combing out, cleaning and weighing before the yarn can be spun. the wool is separated into piles, the white and brown wool are entirely natural (brown is from what we call a ‘black’ sheep), and black and grey wool is achieved through dyeing. one floor of the factory is devoted entirely to spinning, and another to weaving.
the finished products are rustic and honest. thick socks for walking, and blankets which were traditionally made for shepherds who slung them over their shoulder and pulled them up over their heads to huddle in for warmth and shelter when night fell.
the lanolin in the wool makes the blankets naturally water resistant, and we love them for their authentic rustic look and feel. we used them as play rugs on the floor when our children were babies, we always carry one with us for picnics, there’s one in the back of the car for emergencies and we’ve used them for covering straw bales and benches at children’s parties.
truly artisan products made with genuine natural resources.
a pile of beautifully wrapped presents under the tree is all part of the magic of christmas. we keep ours simple, often using plain brown or red paper and string or ribbon in plain contrasting colours. rubber stamps for labels are a brilliant way of disguising handwriting from enquiring minds.
homemade decorations add charm, and making them together with the family is a good way to occupy excited children on the run up to christmas. one of our favourites is baked dough. you can stamp into dough before it’s cooked – i have a special set of deep stamps for this, and it’s a fun activity to bake, roll, stamp and cut the dough with christmas-shape cookie cutters.
we always like to bring a bit of nature inside, and use branches, twigs and greenery to hang decorations on in the house. bright red holly berries are the best, but even if you can’t find these, a sprig of greenery tied on a simple brown paper parcel adds just the right amount of embellishment.
tricky shapes can be popped in a bag and tied with a ribbon. one year we found coffee sacks from colombia, and when christmas was over we used them for sack races!
stripy bags are a quick fix for small gifts – and brilliant for christmas stockings. you can pick a different colour for each child, pop the gift inside, fold and seal with a piece of stripy tape or a sticker.
and finally, a winning way to finish a present is to stick a little something on the outside. a tiny decoration for the tree, a gold chocolate coin or a stripy candy cane all adds to the thrill and excitement on the big day.
as a family we have always enjoyed travelling by train. at the beginning of the summer holidays we used to take an early morning train from london to paris, then a taxi across paris to leave our luggage at austerlitz station for the day. it was such a fun and relaxing way to travel, we packed board games and craft kits for the journey and felt like we were on holiday from the moment we left our front door. and as an added bonus it gave us a day to spend in paris before taking the night train on to barcelona.
i remember as a child seeing the 1963 film charade, starring audrey hepburn and cary grant. full of romance and suspense, it’s set in paris, and in it there’s a scene when audrey and cary are watching the vrai guignolet theatre. so one year we decided to go on a quest to the champs elysees to find it. we were in luck! we found it, exactly the way it was in the film, with the same faded red curtain and just as much charm.
we also discovered a traditional puppet show, known as a ‘guignol’, in the jardin du luxembourg, one of our favourite spots in paris. it was founded in 1933 and is now housed in a comfortable and modern theatre, with performances all the way through the year. the shows are designed for children aged 2-6 but are a delight for all ages, even adults. there’s also a marvellous old merry-go-round with ride-on wild animals, and an area with vintage toy sailing boats to rent. this is an old tradition which dates back to 1927 when a monsieur and madame paudeau rented handmade wooden boats with hand-stitched fabric sails to visiting children.
another perennial favourite is the natural history museum in paris. it's got an amazing zoological park and a gallery of evolution which is so well done - a state of the art renovated museum packed full of real life-size stuffed animals.
these are our happiest memories of paris. we like to think of it as our secret paris for families.
for more information see:
one of our favourite things to do on holiday is to paint pebbles. there’s something just so irresistible about beachcombing or wading in shallow river water for weathered stones and pebbles, filling pockets and buckets and then sorting them out later at home. fat ones, thin ones, smooth or rough ones, long ones and skinny ones, spotted or plain, red, grey, blue, green, orange or pale – they all have potential to be transformed with a few simple strokes of a paintbrush.
we decorate ours with words, faces, or just paint them with patterns. somehow we nearly always end up with fish – just add a shard of beach-worn glass or china for a tail and a fin, a few strokes with a brush and some paint and the humble stone is transformed into a fabulous fish. a coat of clear varnish seals them forever. we can never bear to give ours away, but they make wonderful presents. we keep a collection of our favourites stuck in an old wooden cigar box that belonged to my grandfather.
this is a fun holiday activity for all ages. it’s so important to nurture children’s creativity. as picasso said ‘every child is an artist. the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up’.
speaking of picasso... hedgehog recommends:
museu picasso in barcelona
picasso museum in paris
my daughter has always loved to carry baskets. even when she was tiny she would use baskets for her teddies and toys. being catalan, we’ve always had lots of baskets around the home so there are plenty to chose from. my mother was the same, she too could never resist a woven basket, that obsession passed on to me... weaving is an art form that’s been practiced all through civilisation. it’s in our heritage, it’s part of our culture, and something we instinctively appreciate.
in spain there’s a strong tradition of weaving baskets from palm. baskets are hand-woven using the traditional technique passed down from generation to generation. because each basket is handmade they are all slightly different and unique, and these variations add to their appeal. they are strong and hard-wearing, and completely natural and bio-degradable.
we have baskets in all sorts of shapes and sizes dotted round the house - in the kitchen, for storage and laundry, for sorting clothes and shoes – and we never leave home without one. we have big ones for everyday shopping, going to the market and days out at the beach, medium ones for foraging trips, nipping out to the post office or to pick up a pint of milk, little ones for our children and mini ones for their teddies and dolls. we have shoulder baskets with longer leather straps, which can be used on a bicycle, and baskets with colourful handles so everyone in the family can choose their favourite.
this summer hedgehog has travelled further and we’ve introduced some vibrant coloured woven baskets from asia. made from recycled plastic strapping, they are very resilient and strong. we keep one in our car for muddy or sandy shoes and hose it down to clean it, and because they’re a more structured shape, they’re great for carrying drinks and glasses to picnics.
whatever shape, size or colour, baskets are essential summer kit for the family. there are plenty in our shop to choose from... don’t leave home without yours!
the cowboy party we had for our son’s 6th birthday was so much fun. there is plenty of iconic wild west symbolism that can bring atmosphere and set the scene for a legendary party for heroes, outlaws, gunslingers, sheriffs, bandits and brave pioneers.
i designed invitations with a wild west font that i found online, printed them on brown paper, rolled and tied each one up with a rope. guests love a good invitation, it gets excitement building ahead and encourages dressing up, which always brings a good vibe to a party.
we used straw bales for seating and chose a colour palette of red, blue and brown. we decked the garden with handmade bunting coordinated with check blankets and gingham napkins. enamelware is a really good investment for children’s parties, it can be used time and time again and doesn't break. our enamel pots, jugs, mugs and plates looked great on the table alongside cactuses planted in small buckets.
it helps having a creative husband. he painted signs on old wooden wine cases and made a hoopla from kindling. i remembered party games from my childhood including apple bobbing and pin the tail on the donkey, and we turned the trampoline into a ‘jail’. live music from some folk jazz musicians we stumbled across in a market the week before helped settle the children when they arrived – by the end they were dancing merrily to country and western riffs!
we raided local charity shops for old plaid shirts which we cut up and used for bandannas, handkerchiefs and party bags. each one was individually labelled with the children’s names, using rubber stamps.
we had lots of fun designing themed party food, from mini hot dogs, to grilled corn-on-the-cob and sausages with little bowls of ketchup and american style mustard. finally I bought every child the coolest cowboy hat to take home when they left. these were dotted these round the room as decoration during the party.
I hope this inspires you to get creative at home.
even though st george probably never set foot in this country, he represents the admirable qualities of bravery and chivalry, and was made patron saint of england in the middle ages. the legend that he heroically slayed a dragon to rescue a princess, suggesting good overcoming evil, has made him a much loved popular icon.
st george is also patron saint of catalonia, and celebrated by the portuguese, romanians, maltese, georgians and the people of moscow. his emblem is a red cross on a white background, which is the england flag and part of the union jack. in england it is customary on st george’s day is to wear a single red rose in the lapel.
barcelona celebrates sant jordi on 23rd april with a festival of roses, books and lovers. it’s a combination of culture and romanticism, when sweethearts exchange gifts, and book and flower stalls spring up all around the city. 'a rose is for love and a book is forever'. street artists and musicians perform in public squares and ‘sardana’, the national dance of catalonia, is performed throughout the day.
it’s a perfect excuse for children to dress up in knight’s tunics, don a helmet and role play with swords and shields. as a symbol of my catalan heritage, wherever we are on st george’s day we love to visit to book shop and remember to give each other a red rose.
this week is national gardening week which was launched by the royal horticultural society six years ago and has grown into a nationwide celebration involving thousands of people, gardens, charities and cultural and heritage organisations.
all round the country there are events and activities to encourage new gardeners to get growing, and lots of ideas to get children involved and appreciate the natural world. even reluctant gardeners can be persuaded to help on a spring day when the sun is shining. it’s perfect timing over the Easter holidays to inspire children to create a haven for birds, bugs, butterflies, worms, toads and hedgehogs - and to get planting!
in london we only have a very small garden, but we always make sure there’s a space for the children to tend a patch. radishes are rewarding as they are very fast to grow, and nasturtium are brilliant as they produce an abundance of brightly coloured edible flowers. cress can be grown inside on a bed of cotton wool – all you need is a sunny windowsill, a packet of inexpensive seeds and a little pot or bowl, or even an old egg box will do. growing cress is fun as it only takes about seven days to germinate, it’s good to eat and you don’t even need a garden.