Gillian Monks

'Making Fairytales Come True'

Afternoon at Home

A typical late autumn day. Rain is rattling against the windows and the mountains are totally obscured by cloud. It is almost twilight, although only half past three in the afternoon and I have switched all the lights on in the kitchen and living room, including the little coloured fairy lights above my stove.

This picture of the top of my Aga says it all, really. Two different kinds of fungi drying at the back. A basket of rose hips also nearly ready for processing in the dispensary. A tray of hot fruit scones just out of the oven, ready to eat with clotted cream and home made raspberry jam for afternoon tea by the drawing room fire. Classic FM playing softly on the radio in the kitchen… clock ticking loudly… Labradors snoring sonorously.

Ah, the pleasures of being at home and able to snuggle up cosily in peace. My idea of heaven!

The End Of An Era

Gain perspective by climbing higher.

After much consideration, I have decided that this next cycle of Earthwalking weekends will be the last. My energies are now being called to work in other ways.

If you would like to join us on this last cycle of adventure, there are a couple of places still available. The first gathering is being held on the 26th – 27th October at Cae Non on the Llyn Peninsular and I am still offering this first weekend as a ‘taster session’ – no one needs to decide if they wish to commit to the rest of the cycle until they have actually experienced it.

If anyone would like to know more about Earthwalking, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me for more details – more general information can be found on the Earthwalking website: www.earthwalking.co.uk

It is eleven years since I first guided participants along this path and has been as much an amazing journey for me as it seems to have been for everyone else. But as the saying goes, onwards and upwards… here is to making this final cycle an absolute blast!

Add A Little Sweetness…

Luscious golden globes of infinite tangy sweetness!

Ah… back to more normal reality! Seeing both my books published and republished and celebrating that fact has been immensely exciting, but now it is time to turn my attention back to the more usual seasonal tasks for this time in October – and also some domestic activities which should have been seen to much earlier in the year!

For instance, the candying of peel. I usually complete this in the summer when we are enjoying lots of relaxed breakfasts with the doors and windows all thrown wide to the soft mountain breezes or sat in the sunshine in the garden. Then there are copious quantities of grapefruit  and orange peels left over. Rather than simply consigning them to the compost bin, it is far better to preserve them for use later in the autumn and winter.

This is really simple – even though it takes several days to complete. It is a process of boiling the peels in an increasingly sweetened sugar syrup and leaving them to marinade in it for days in between. (For anyone wishing to try this for themselves the recipe is included in ‘Merry Midwinter’.) I can really recommend it!

The crucial point comes at the end of the procedure when the peels are lifted out of their syrupy bath and left to drain on a wire cooling rack and then placed in the bottom oven of the Aga for several hours. The trick is to allow them to dry and set in a gentle heat for just the right amount of time so that they are dry and handleable but still soft and moist. The length of time to achieve this varies from batch to batch, depending on the size of fruit and exactly how hot my ‘cool oven’ is at the time, and no two batches of peel are ever the same.

I did actually candy a batch of grapefruit several weeks ago, but it was right in the middle of the time we were getting ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’ ready to go to print… and I forget them. Rather than the two or three hours in the coolest part of the oven, I only remembered them twenty-fours after first placing them there to dry out. When I ran to retrieve them, they were a deep brown in colour – otherwise known as burnt – and so rock hard they could have shod a horse! Sadly not one of my finest moments!!! But sometimes these things happen. You either laugh or cry and it is by far better to laugh about it.

I prefer to candy grapefruit peel – which produces lusciously thick sticky slices of decadence – and which adds real luxury and fresh, fruity zest to home made Christmas cakes and puddings. This year I have also candied orange peels too. they give very distinct flavours and both can be sliced and dipped in melted dark chocolate for the ultimate experience with freshly brewed coffee at the end of your Christmas dinner.

Why not try it for yourself? It is really easy to do. One of these days I might even try candying whole small fruits, like clementines, which were my mother’s favourite and which always used to arrive packed in wooden boxes from Fortnum and Mason. I can strongly recommend it. You end up with a far superior product full of gorgeous sweet tangyness rather than the drier, more tasteless bought version.

Oh, and if you have any left over, it is absolutely delicious baked into Hot Cross Buns for Easter. Candied peel made this way will easily keep in an airtight container for at least twelve months.

Be adventurous! Have a go – and make something which will really set your Christmas baking apart this year.

Celebrating With A Book Launch!

What a wonderfully amazing and joyous day! My first proper book launch to

officially birth my second book, ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’, out into the world. And we had a blast! Even before two o’clock struck, people were pouring through the door as I happily greeted so many friends… new and old. It was so good to have so many very dear people there with me.

And there was lots for them to do while we waited for stragglers – and there were one or two! I had assembled a collection of vintage family advent calendars dating back to the early 1950’s which we put out on display, (more about them another time), and we had both my books, ‘Merry Midwinter’ and ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’ for sale, as well as a branch full of my speciality fir cone gnomes which make cheekily cute decorations at any time of year.

There was also a table of refreshments: home made chocolate cake and ginger parkin coated in sweet white icing and studded with crystallised ginger; gluten and dairy-free orange cake and fruit flapjack with savoury snacks to nibble on as well. I had made mulled wine and a none-alcoholic fruit punch but as the cinnamon had a very strange gloopy reaction in the fruit punch and I had forgotten a pan in which to heat the mulled wine, that rather narrowed the choice down to tea and coffee for the more discerning… well, you can’t win them all!

All four candles were lit on the advent wreath which I had made for the occasion and I began by welcoming everyone and giving them an update on what has been happening to me in the world of publishing since the beginning of the year. For not only was this a celebration for the launch of my second book but also for Herbary Books who are responsible for publishing it! Jess and Dafydd were there with us and so I officially introduced their new business venture to the world as well.

I went on to talk about the ancient significance of Midwinter celebration and what advent and the advent wreath symbolises and how the advent calendar developed. I mentioned how I came to write ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’ and we went on to discuss what makes Christmas important to us and how we can bring that into our lives this winter festive season.

I was glad that I had booked the hall for longer than I originally intended. It allowed me to get round and talk to everyone… sign books… and eventually sit down with some of my nearest and dearest for a well-earned cup of tea before beginning to pack everything away.

Once home again, there were six of us for dinner… and a giddy, happy party we made of it. Later, as we settled back with cups of coffee, Jess opened a big tub of chocolates… ‘Celebrations’… what else?!

New Book Published Today!

A very happy moment!

Today is the day!!! The moment I have been waiting for… to hold my latest book in my hands, ready to present it to the wold! ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’ is an inspiring read which will – hopefully – propel you off into all manner of actions and adventures. Published by Herbary Books, ISBN 978-1-5272-4942-4 and available for £7.99 through bookshops and on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Alternative-Advent-Calendar-Secrets-Christmas/dp/1527249425   

Celebration!  Furthermore, for any of you who are in my area, I am holding a book launch on Sunday, 6th October at the Hirael Community Hall, Ambrose Street, Bangor, North Wales at 2.pm. There will be a short talk about my new book, copies will be for sale along with ‘Merry Midwinter’ and there will be home made treats to eat and drink. But the main thing is that I want to celebrate… and everyone is welcome!

Very happy reading – with my love!

Woodland Foraging

Out until twilight this evening in Beddgelert forest, gathering the abundance of the woodland for a workshop I am leading this coming Sunday afternoon. It is part of the ‘Vibrant Vegan’ retreat at Trigonos and I am busily assembling baskets and baskets of acorns, beech and alder masts, hazel nuts, heather, berries and foliage to provide the twenty-two participants with enough living potential to make autumnal door wreaths, broaches, table decorations and – lastly – cute little fir cone gnomes.

All good fun, and gives me a lovely excuse to be wandering the  woodland ways with my family and dogs as I source and gather the necessary wild materials. And yes, I am always respectful, and ask each bush, plant or area if it is willing to donate some of its produce to whatever I am making. I am also careful not to over-pick from any one tree or place so that no one can actually see I have been there and taken anything. One also had to bear in mind that many insects, animals and birds rely on our autumnal abundance for winter food. They are mostly territorial and we humans need to be careful not to completely denude one territorial patch and leave some wild creature without supplies.

Always remember to be thoughtful, grateful and appreciative. Otherwise, a stroll in the sunshine to collect some bits and pieces to make a seasonal wreath is a really lovely past-time for this time of year. Take a walk out… and enjoy!

Stepping Into The Past

Dinas DinlleHill Fort

View walking up the hill to the iron age fort

Walls have been uncovered that were built by people over two thousand years ago, and which probably haven’t seen the light of day since the great storms of eight hundred years ago when all the sand blew in and forevermore totally obliterated parts of the coastline.

Yesterday, I went with my family to visit our local beach – the one nearest to us, only four or five miles along country lanes which normally takes us approximately twelve minutes to drive to in the car. Archaeologists have been excavating on top of the hill fort there this past couple of weeks. The public were then invited to go and see what they had discovered.

Gazebos and tents to house photos and maps and other significant information bucked and flapped in the aftermath of the gale which had assailed north west Wales the previous evening. The sun shone but the waves roared in thunderously as they crashed upon the beach relentlessly and the wind nearly blew us away, especially once we reached the exposed summit of the hill which the fort crowns. It was hard to stand still or upright and the furiously swirling air snatched our guide’s words away in a possessive tantrum, but what we saw and discovered there took my breath away far more thoroughly that the exigencies of the wind.

We were told about the Roman watch tower which was probably built from stones taken from the older hut circles and later, the farms which came and went – even a golf course which was laid out across the hill fort at the turn of the last century!

Hill Fort walls

One of the archaeological trenches showing a wall between six and eight feet thick – built to withstand the elements and humanity alike.

But it was the stones. Stones carried, held, placed by hands over two millennia ago… laid with infinite precision and care by ordinary people shaping their homes… people with vision of a new community… ordinary people going about their everyday business, with blisters and sore backs, with loved ones, with hopes and aspirations just like you and me. I felt the intervening years dissolve and I stood with them – those people of old – and looked on with them as their great round houses and animal folds took shape.

I walked with them towards the entrance to the enclosure which faces away from the sea and the wind and envisaged hunters returning home with their prey, farmers walking back up the track at the end of a long weary day from toiling in the fields… the laughter and chatter of children, the women’s voices and the smoke rising from the cooking fires. It was all there, just a blink away… and then was gone. But I was still left with a feeling of shared community… connection… experience.

Dinas Dinlle

Looking across the sea towards the mountains of Tre’r Ceiri

As I walked back across the summit of the hill and looked out across the bay to the mountains opposite, I saw the very same view that these ancestors of the place must have looked at every day of their lives and felt again that frisson of connection. I thank the archaeologists whose care and work enabled me to briefly walk beside these older folk once more. It gave me a sense of place and time and of fitness to carry on the task of preserving the planet and our life upon it – more precarious now than at any other time this past few thousand years.

With much to think about, we descended the steep slopes and sought sanctuary within one of the bright, warm cafes. I bet those older folk would have a loved a cup of hot tea or coffee!

Finished!

Book Illustrations

At last, all twenty-six illustrations for my new book, ‘The Alternative Advent Calendar’, are completed! I suppose that twenty-six full-page illustrations is quite a feat… but even more so when you are no artist!!! What a relief, not to mention an achievement.

Perhaps it was just as well that we had to postpone the volunteering weekend originally organised for tomorrow and Sunday (due to key volunteers suddenly being without transport and the threat of bad weather). It has meant that I have been given some time and space to sit down and finish the last three. Oh, the blessings of a stormy, wet morning and some solitude!

Next stop is the book itself!

Stepping Through The Archway

Earthwalking ArchwayHere is a picture of the Earthwalking Archway – symbolic commitment to entering the Earthwalking cycle. There are still a couple of places left on the next cycle – do any of you reading this feel that you could step through the willow into the space beyond?

We all had a lovely time together on Sunday at the Earthwalking introductory day. Numbers gradually grew throughout the day and as the weather improved, by the middle of the afternoon we were able to move outside into the hot sunshine.

The morning began with lots of grey cloud, damp and cool, as we tramped around part of the land and I was able to point out the stream, (which provides our water), the willow bower where on hot days we sometimes retreat into the shade while we journey or hold discussions. We also walked around the ritual grove area where the embryonic circles of oak saplings are flourishing and past the willow labyrinth with its four interconnected spirals and on to the tiny island of apples… the water channel around it being mightily overgrown at present but bursting with wildlife.

We also took time to connect to the four elements, to spend time with and savour them. People sat besides the lively stream who’s waters were swollen by the recent rain and bowls were individually drawn from it, peaty brown and stirred from the depths of the Earth herself. Tiny fires were carefully built and lit upon the bank of the stream and time spent entering into the dancing flames and appreciating their warm… their cleansing and transformative abilities… their potentially destructive power. Hands were muddied from digging out the earth and cheeks were cooled by the presence of the gusty wind.

Coffee and mint tea (picked fresh from the herb beds) were brewed and home made flapjack passed around before we went on to discuss why it might be necessary to regularly cleanse oneself psychically/spiritually; some of the ways to go about it and the best times to do it.

By one o’clock we were all ready for lunch – thick farmhouse tomato soup, cobs of brown, crusty bread studded with crisp seeds, blocks of cheese and piles of fruit followed by pieces of moist lemon drizzle and sticky chocolate cakes. By this time we had been joined by our youngest visitor to Earthwalking ever – a very small little lady who only celebrates her first birthday at the end of this month. She was  absolutely charming and impeccably behaved and quite stole all our hearts!

The afternoon was spent looking at the Celtic Spirit Wheel which is in fact a

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A Golden Day!

Spent a wonderful day with my family at Cae Non yesterday! The weather was hot and sunny with blue skies and the land was awash with blossom. One of the main focuses of the day was the ritual mixing of our Lammas loaf – or in this particular instance, four flat loaves which were baked on a planc or griddle over an open wood fire. We all took turns to knead the dough and then left it to rise under a damp cloth in the

The land of Cae Non! Our land is actually visible in this picture, but you have to know where to look!

warm sunshine while we wandered off to climb a neighbouring hill.

In spiritual terms, hills can be seen as liminal places, between earth and the heavens. (Think of the tradition of climbing a hill to receive wisdom – Moses and the ten commandments or the Quaker, George Fox, who had certain revelations on Pendle Hill.) This time of year is the season of the grain harvest and in ancient agricultural terms, the time when the masculine energy of the ripening crops of grain sacrifice themselves to the scythe and sickle of the farmer so that humanity might feed and prosper through another long winter.

We climbed to a space which sits high between the sea and the narrow land of Pen Llyn, with the lofty, hazy mountains of Snowdonia in the far distance. Villages, fields, bays, beaches, hills and mountains were spread out around us like a huge and magical quilt. It felt wondrously freeing to literally rise above it all and get life into perspective. To look down and literally and metaphorically see everything mapped out below. We could also clearly see our own land of Cae Non, vigorously bushing out with young tree growth as it transforms from a boggy, weedy, neglected field into a shady, sunny, be-flowered adventure of magic and mystery.

 

How many thousands of generations of our ancestors have sat besides such a fire to cook and eat their meals?

The wonder about the natural world – and life in general – is that there is always something lovely to anticipate and look forward to. I hope that you are enjoying this powerfully invigorating and nurturing season and storing up all the sunshine and Vitamin D against the darker, colder days to come.

Later, once more restored to our own domain, our own miniature domain, my husband lit a fire outside and we began to cook and bake our evening meal. The sun sank lower in the sky. I have noticed that already the quality of sunlight has begun to change from the bright, clear, almost white light of midsummer to more mellow, golden tones which herald the approach of autumn.

For those of us who are lucky enough not to be experiencing deluges of rain and flooding, the beaches, mountains sides, woodlands and sunny gardens all await you – go out and make the most of Lammas-time… and have fun!

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