Chocolate Yule Log in an Hour

Welcome back! I put out new blogs every Wednesday.

Continuing our Christmas crafting (or baking!) seeing as it ’tis the season, I give you: the lazygirl chocolate yule log.
I just made that up, but it works.

My boyfriend and I desperately wanted to bake something last Sunday evening, but only the little express stores were open and it was raining, so we dug about in the cupboards, hoping that we’d had ingredients for yule log. And we did! The only thing we were worried about missing was a bar of chocolate, and lo and behold, he found some vegan chocolate he’d bought to try ages ago, having never bothered to eat it. Happy days!

We decided to make chocolate buttercream rather than ganache, and it worked out lovely. We spliced two recipes together: one for sponge, and one for the buttercream.

This was so quick to make that you could definitely do this in an hour if you have all your ingredients ready. The only delay is the cooling, but with such a thin sponge, it took hardly any time at all (and you can of course shove it in the freezer for 10 minutes – trust me, it gets the job done)

You will need:

Icing

  • 100g chocolate
  • 200g butter, softened
  • 400g icing sugar (and more to dust)
  • 5 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 tbsp milk

Sponge

Combine your ingredients with a spatula and whip with an electric whisk if you have one, before transferring it into a 33cm x 23cm dish lined with grease proof paper. This will create an inch thick rectangle of sponge. Bake at 200C for 20 minutes.

(Mary Berry’s recipe states 8-10 mins, but it wasn’t nearly done for me and needed double the time)

No butter! This mostly-egg recipe ensures that the sponge is flexible enough to roll over and yet strong enough not to crumble apart. All very clever.

Once it’s cooked, let it cool for a few minutes. Turn the cake out onto another sheet of grease proof paper and peel off the backing. Next, score a line 2.5cm in, lengthways, along one long edge of the cake. Use this to fold it over on itself in a swiss-roll shape. Pull the grease proof paper over with the first roll and let it roll inside. This will help you unfurl it later when you want to add the filling.

Leave it to cool in this rolled shape.

Next, make your icing. Start with gently combining your softened butter with the icing sugar. Add in your cocoa powder. Melt the chocolate in your preferred manner (in a bowl within a pan of boiling water, or in the microwave at 20 sec intervals) and add this to the mix, folding it all in together. The mix will start feeling a bit stiff and claggy – use the milk to smooth it out and give it some moisture.

Once your cake is cooled, you can unfurl it and start smoothing liberal amounts of buttercream inside it, coating the lot, before rolling it back up again and pasting buttercream on top. You can use a fork to create streaks like bark, add holly, whatever you like – me? I was happy to dust it with icing sugar and eat the thing.

So there you have it! The world’s laziest yule log.

Quick, easy, and definitely yummy – we scoffed this while watching Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

You could make this Vegan by using egg replacer/oil, vegan chocolate, vegan milk, and vegan butter – though if you’re vegan, you’ll have all this down already and won’t need me to advise you.

I hope you enjoyed that tasty little treat! See you next time – I put new blogs up every Wednesday about crafts, hobbies, writing, health – my life, really.

How to Make a Christmas Wreath (easy)

Welcome back to my blog! I put up new posts every Wednesday.

As it’s officially CHRISTMAS SEASON WAHOOOOOO! I thought I’d talk about a lovely wreath-making workshop I went to. Me and some of the girls from work had a great time making these wreaths (and I’m pleased to say the prosecco was flowing) so I’d definitely recommend an evening like this if you have one going locally.

These were made at a local florist near work. We paid £40 each and the space, materials, tutor, and bubbly were all supplied – you just had to bring yourself!

So here we go – I’m about to clumsily pass on the wisdom.

I’m going to call these the wrap-and-go wreaths, because that’s literally how it’s done – you just wrap the thing and go.

I say these are “easy”, but they’re easy once you’ve got your materials and wreath ring ordered in, and once you’ve wired your decorations – these bits were done for us. I have wired leaves etc before for my autumn candle holder craft here, but I have to say I was grateful not to have to do it again, as it’s fiddly.

This method is only for the metal ring methods – if you’re using an oasis ring, that won’t work here because the wrapping technique would simply crush the oasis into dust.

Supplies

1 metal wreath ring
Damp moss/vines/twigs/fur (for the base)
Blue spruce/fir branches
Sprigs of holly
Bay leaf branches
Twine
Scissors
Small garden secateurs
Copper wire or florist’s wire

Decorations
Ribbons
Cinnamon sticks
Pine cones
Dried oranges

These were all purchased via the florist’s supplier, so I would imagine you’d need to order these in via either your local florist, garden center, or online. This is the hardest part, because I’ve never bought sprigs of blue fir and holly online – have you?!

You can of course use dried or artificial foliage if you wanted. Oh, and I’m told that decorations such as dried oranges and cinnamon can be bought at Poundland, of all places, as well as Amazon – so look around.

Method

We began with pre-mossed wreath frames, but you’ll need to make your base. Tie your twine to the frame in a simple knot and stuff the moss in the frame and wrap it as you go. If you click the wreath frame link above, the Hobbeycraft website actually shows you some pictures of this method. Pack the moss in thick so you have something spongey for everything else to rest against. Tie it off when you’re done.

Once you’ve created a solid frame to build on, you can begin building the body of your wreath.

Tie twine to the outside edge of your frame and knot it (as you did before). Next, gather together a bunch of your supplies – take a big sprig of fir, bay leaf branch, and holly branch, and hold them together in a bunch so they layer up. You’re going to manipulate these around the shape of the wreath frame in one go – not layer by layer, branch by branch. If they’re too long or need trimming, then use your secateurs to adjust them.

This was the best part, actually, because I was expecting to have to wire up each individual sprig and place it in the frame – nope, not the case. You are literally going to grab the foliage and wrap it together as one lot in a binding process.

Start binding your bunches

Place your bunch of bay, fir, and holly roughly where you want them to start (I went round clockwise) and then start wrapping the twine around it. I don’t mean in a blanket-stitch type method – we’re talking two wraps round per bunch here – don’t worry about it feeling loose because you can pull it tight at the end. Weave the twine between the leaves and secure it against the frame – remember you can tidy this up later. If you can hide the twine, great – if you can’t, then oh well, that’s part of the rustic design, right?

Once you’re done, pull it tight, and move on to the next bunch – you want to layer this under the previous one and go around in the same direction. Do this until you come full circle and you will have a basic wreath of fir, bay, and holly! Tie off your twine and tweak away at the leaves until you’re happy with how it all lays together.

You can use big bunches, thin bunches, whatever – it’s your wreath. The thicker the foliage, the bigger and more impressive the wreath.

If you want more holly on top or want to add any accents, you can do this by tying on more twine and going around the frame the opposite way (anti-clockwise) to keep it symmetrical, or until you are happy that you’ve filled any gaps.

Now you have a basic green wreath – you’re halfway there!

Now you can decorate with your cinnamon, pine cones, and dried oranges – which all smell amazing, by the way. You will need to wire these. Get yourself some copper wire or florist’s wire and twist it neatly around your decorations, leaving a long ‘tail’ of wire at the end. You can see the cinnamon is wired in mine – you can wrap the wire around in a loop like that, or you can wire just around the bottom. What’s important is the tail, because that’s your hook.

I chose to place mine in neat bunches of three and clustered them together (see pics), but you can do yours your own way. You can also use whatever decorations you prefer – we used natural accents, but you could have baubles and ribbons if you wanted.

Simply thread the tail of the wire through your foliage and out the other side of your frame. Turn the tail in on itself and tuck it back up and through the frame and foliage again. They should be hooked on securely but not so tightly that they have no wobble-room.

Your final touch is to add a bow – these can go at the top, bottom, side of your wreath – wherever! It’s yours!

I used a glittery hessian material and wrapped it in a bow around the bottom half of my wreath, leaving the tails to dangle.

And there you have it – you have created a wreath.

Are you as surprised as I am about how simple the process was? I mean you literally just tie on your twine, wrap it around the big layers of fir, bay, and holly, tie it off and bam – it’s all on there. Easy. No fiddly wiring of each individual sprig for hours on end! You just wrap and go.

The great thing about wreaths and their materials is that it’s very difficult to go wrong. Providing you wrap them around the frame in the same direction, the wild and full nature of wreath design lends itself beautifully to hiding any clumsiness or mistakes.

Voila!


Once you’ve learned this simple wrapping method, you can make all kinds of wreaths of all different sizes – get creative and see what you come up with!

I hope you enjoyed that. If you’d like to see more, please subscribe – I put out new content every Wednesday.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

My poems ‘Only The Cleaner’ and ‘In This Room’ to appear in NHS These Are The Hands with Michael Rosen

The NHS anthology named after this 60th anniversary poem by Michael Rosen will be available in March 2020

Well! It seems I have more good news on the poetry front!

TWO of my poems will be appearing in an NHS anthology by Fair Acre Press, called ‘These Are the Hands’, with a foreword by Michael Rosen (up top!). This will be published widely in book shops around the UK and online, and all proceeds will be going to NHS Charities Together.

The book will be published in 2020, and I have been invited to the snazzy book launch at The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in London. Eek!

I thought today’s blog post could be all about how I got involved:

I happened to be scrolling Twitter – which is a platform I never used until recently – when I found a post from The Bigger Picture, talking about an exciting anthology by the same editors and press who brought us the #MeToo anthology with the Jess Philips MP foreword, called ‘These Are the Hands’.

Well, I bloody-well know that poem, I thought – that’s Michael Rosen!

And yes, there he was – one of the judges for this new anthology competition. Regardless of the outcome, I absolutely knew I wanted to enter something – anything – just to be a part of things.

As it happens, the anthology called for people who were either currently working or had worked for the NHS for contribute poems – thus making up the body of the book, with NHS employees all working together for one common goal – just as they do in real life – with the caterers and cleaners being as crucial as the nurses and the consultants.

In my final year of uni and for some time after, I did in fact work as a Domestic Assistant at Southend University hospital – it’s still one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done, and I loved it.

Let me tell you a bit about the poems

So during my lunch break at work, I got scribbling in my special notebook (the one with the butterflies) and came up with two very different poems.

One is a slightly-rhyming poem called ‘Only the Cleaner’, which focuses on the idle chit-chat and avoidance of the obvious when interacting with patients – the idea being that they could talk to me because, unlike anyone else, I wasn’t there to administer any scary treatment. I was just there to change the bins and chat and pretend they aren’t dying, which sometimes they were.

The other is a more serious piece called ‘In this Room’, which is about the time I cleaned The Butterfly Suite at Southend University hospital, which is a room where women go when they’re very sadly losing the baby. This poem takes you full-circle, describing how I tried to imagine the woman who had been in that room and what she was going through, only to be in her shoes 9 years later.

I can tell you, I was gobsmacked to find they wanted to use both – I’m surprised, but certainly not complaining!

Since my time working at the NHS, I have been a patient more times than I can count (seriously, I lost count of my hospital stays) and I have relied on them to save my life. I’ve also, sadly, relied on them to take care of another life I lost. These are difficult truths, but they are my truths, and I have the NHS and its wonderful staff to thank for the fact that I got through those times safely.

So that’s why I’m incredibly proud to be a part of this; not just because I’m a big fan of Michael Rosen (as a poet and as a person, honestly), but because I’m an enormous fan of the NHS. It needs to be protected at all costs. While surely one anthology can’t solve all its problems, this can go towards the solution in some small way – and besides, didn’t a certain young woman once say that ‘one book and one pen can change the world’?

I can’t wait to share the finished book with you all.

P.S If this teaches you nothing, let it teach you this: have a go at writing some poetry! I always thought I was hopeless at poetry but, in spite of that, I always enjoyed writing it – and that’s all that matters. Art should be for the enjoyment of art first and foremost and, you never know, you might get the bonus of seeing it out there one day!

If you enjoyed this blog post, please subscribe – I put up a new post every Wednesday.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

2017, artery lines in the ICU – I was the only conscious patient!

My Top 6 Retro Documentaries

Welcome (back!) to my blog. I put out new content every Wednesday.

Today I wanted to showcase some of my favourite documentaries and give you a little bit of information about them; the hope being that I’ll spread the joy of them to a new audience, even if it’s an audience of 1.

I’ve long been a fan of documentaries, any and all kinds – I love getting stuck into a good Storyville or Louis Theroux, Ben Fogle Lives in the Wild, feature documentaries on TV, crime or lifestyle documentaries on Netflix, the extensive bin over at BBC iplayer, whatever. Just gimme the information. I especially love documentaries which focus on the inner struggles of every day people; the micro instead of the macro. I’d take Queen Mimi over a documentary about the ice caps, for instance, because it’s person-centered. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t care about the ice-caps; it’s just my tastes are more internal or introspective.
I suppose one simple way of describing it is to simply admit that i’m nosey.


Netflix has been amazing in spreading the joy of the documentary over the last few years, and I’ve seen some amazing things on there myself.

However, today I’d rather highlight some of my favourite documentaries from deeper into the past, before reality TV was common place. Why? Because the past is fascinating. I find myself endlessly nostalgic about a time I never grew up in, and I can’t explain why. I get a special hankering for anything set in post-war London of the 60s and 70s, when times were rapidly changing.

I hope some of the following peek your interests and that you learn a little about me and my tastes along the way. I’ve even included a special bonus mention at the end – as it’s nearly Christmas! – so keep reading.

I’ve included links to all the films mentioned (either BBC or Youtube) in their titles.

The Family, 1974

1. The Family

This is my go-to when I want the comfort of family life and reality TV while I get my retro fix. ‘The Family’, AKA the Wilkins’, were an ordinary ‘working class’ family from Reading, who volunteered to be part of a fly-on-the-wall documentary in 1974 – the very first of its kind in the UK.

Margaret Wilkins (pictured far left) is a bossy-yet-fair matriarch who runs the green grocers downstairs while her chaotic family live in the flat above. They were a particularly interesting subject matter because they broke the mold in myriad ways. For instance, Margaret and her husband split briefly after marital problems and Margaret became pregnant by another man, the result of which was little Christopher. Her husband raised him as his own.

Then there’s Gary, married at just 16 with a little baby in the house, and elder daughter Marian who is living with her fiancé out of wedlock – not to mention youngest daughter Heather, 15, who has a black boyfriend. Between them they cover just about every taboo and, even in the 70s when times were changing, this program ruffled the feathers of many a hair-netted biddy.

As a piece of social commentary on cramped accommodations and the council housing system (Gary and his wife attempt to get re-housed) of 70s Britain, this has a lot to offer. But it’s also wholesome viewing of what were a funny, loving, and interesting bunch of people all under one roof. This show never fails to intrigue me and you’ll find its characters endlessly fascinating – especially when a row breaks out.
Expect chain-smoking, cramped teas around a Formica kitchen table, a wailing opening theme song, and a wall of twittering budgerigars.

The 7 Up series 1964 – present

2. The 7-Up Series

Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

Beginning in 1964, a documentary filmmaker captures the lives of children from a multitude of backgrounds and checks in with them every seven years for the entirety of their lives. This ground-breaking social experiment continues to be updated even today, and I can tell you I’m glued to the TV every time a new installment comes out. The theory behind this experiment, as the quote above suggests, is that by the time a child reaches the age of seven, you can accurately predict the person they will become when they grow up. Their ideals, personality, and place in society have been etched in stone by the age of seven.
Or at least, the filmmakers invite you to make your own mind up on that one.
You might be skeptical, but what has startled me is that, honestly, they were almost right about that.
Though these children started out endearingly optimistic little things, with age comes wisdom and, tragically, self-awareness: these kids with big dreams start learning where they belong in the world. Some of them reach those dreams. Some of them get half-way there. Some take other paths and find successes where they least expected. And some seemed doomed to a life of lonely wandering, asking themselves – what’s it all about?

I’m referring to a particular participant there: Neil. Neil is an adorable little boy who can’t decide if he wants to be an astronaut or a bus driver. By the time he’s 21, he’s dropped out of Durham university and is squatting in derelict houses and sheds by the time he’s 30. Eventually he finds his feet in politics and the church, however still preoccupied and frankly depressed as the meaning of life eludes him. I was happy to see in the latest episode that he had become a lay preacher, because I hope that has given purpose and meaning to his life and enriched him sufficiently that he finds happiness.

This is a fascinating social experiment, a piece of social commentary (much like The Family), and also a joy to watch these children grow up.

Comic Roots: Kenneth Williams 1983

3. Comic Roots: Kenneth Williams

Whether you’re already a fan of Kenneth Williams or not, you will be by the end of this short 30-minute reflection on this comic’s life. He begins at the flat where he lived with his mother (where he dropped plant-pots on the heads of passers-by) and takes us to his local pub, ‘The Boot’, the barbers, the green grocers, and his old school. He regales us with comedic tales of his first acting role in The Rose and the Ring, a school play, and recounts tails of some hilarious characters from his youth. My favourite is the tale of when the family had a row at his aunt’s funeral, when somebody brought a wreath in the style of ‘the gates of heaven ajar’, which apparently stepped on a lot of toes.

There’s nothing that this man couldn’t have you in stitches about, and there’s nothing his nasal flamboyance couldn’t make entertaining. Learn all about old London town and relive Kenneth’s youth as he takes you on a stroll down memory lane.

As a fan of Kenneth Williams, I loved this documentary – it’s short and sweet, but you’ll learn so much about him and about London from by-gone days. Even better, if you’re a fan: read his diaries, which he kept faithfully throughout his entire life.
See also: Going Places – again, Kenneth Williams (and even starts the same way, at his childhood flat), but filmed in 1975 and sadly about a fraction as interesting.

‘F’ for Fake by Orson Welles 1973

4. ‘F’ for Fake

Described as a ‘free flow’ documentary, this one can be odd to follow at times and yet always entertaining. I’m a big Orson Welles fan and loved following his career , from the Mercury Theatre to Citizen Kane to Lady from Shanghai to later-life gems like this one. I particularly love how a man born in 1915 could create something as racy and avant-garde as The Other Side of the Wind, which was recently released after crowd-funding (which I contributed to) and 30-odd years of argument over copyright. His experimental nature meant Orson was forever pulling something wild out the bag; sometimes, even, a little white rabbit.
This documentary surrounds the infamous fakers Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving; one an art forger and the other a forger of a Howard Hughes autobiography. The stories unravel between shots of Orson with his entourage, ordering plates of oysters and gorging on exotic foods – it’s like he’s dining on the experience with us. The mystery is built with scenes of Orson performing magic tricks and, towards the end, he even plays a little trick on you, the audience. Have a watch and see if you realise when. Features re-enactments from his long-term partner Oja Kodar.

I love this documentary as an Orson fan more than anything; I can (and often do) literally listen to the guy for hours. Check out Around the World with Orson Welles for some early documentaries of his – no joke, this guy wastes about 15 minutes talking about a cake in one of them, and it’s still interesting.

‘To the World’s End’ BBC 1985

5. To the World’s End

This is pure joy from 1985, and one I only discovered this week but simply could not leave from the list. We the audience follow the number 31 bus from Camden Town to The World’s End pub, Chelsea, and drop in on the characters who live along the way. You get a distinct feeling of the old world meeting a new modern era. We meet everyone from an elderly Irish woman who tells us how she threw her antibiotics down the toilet in favour of a bottle of whiskey, to a little girl who dresses like a business woman and is 7-going-on-50. This doc literally takes you on a fascinating journey from one end of London to another, and by the end of it you’ll feel like you’ve made a lot of new friends.

A House in Bayswater by Ken Russell 1960

6. A House in Bayswater

My absolute favourite. So real, yet so avant-garde – this early Ken Russell documentary explores each floor of a shared house, introducing us to the characters who live there and their dreams and aspirations. The idea was to celebrate the house and its inhabitants before the place was knocked down; however, do a little research and you will find that the house in Bayswater (now an abode for only the sickeningly-wealthy) is still standing. Ken Russell actually lived in this house at one point, but in this film he introduces us to the middle-classies on the top floors: a fashion photographer and an artist, comparing them with the working class couple living humbly downstairs, and the bizarre yet endearing landlady who gives tots of sherry in receipt of rent.
My favourite character (apart from the eccentric landlady who is just genius, and who actually appears in other Russel works) is definitely young knock-kneed Anne, pictured above, performing the little moth dance for her tutor (who incidentally was trained by the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, namesake of the dessert!)

Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas 1975

Bonus: Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas
And finally, not a documentary but included just for fun: a bit of Fanny Cradock. I seriously love watching the absolute messes she dishes up, marveling at how anybody thought her creations looked even mildly appetising – and this is in the days of hotdogs in aspic. The first episode is “Royal Mincemeat”, and my god doe she make mincemeat – and between two wobbly sheets of omelette, would you believe. Best of all are the bizarre outfits and the increasingly manic look in her eyes; Fanny is not a woman you’d want to cross. Ah, the 70s.
Enjoy this fine piece of retro cooking over your Tofurkey and, as the saying goes: “May all your Yorkshires turn out like Fanny’s!

I hope you enjoyed that little glimpse into my tastes in television – like everything else in my life, I prefer it retro.

The BBC archive is an absolute treasure-trove of London documentaries especially; if you’re an enthusiast of the best city in the world (IMO) then get stuck in.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

How to Make a Pine Cone Christmas Tree

& other stories.
Welcome (back) to my blog! I put out new posts every Wednesday.

I thought I would lighten the mood a little with some crafts this week. I’m one of those very impatient people who loves to do crafts but doesn’t much fancy anything too taxing or time-consuming; not unless it’s something I intend to take up as a hobby.

If you’re like me and like to have a quick fix when it comes to popular new crafts, then you’ll like this one: a Christmas tree made out of a pine cone.

But first

I told you I’d showcase my Mookychick poem to you, didn’t I?

Click here to read my poem, ‘Weight’, on the Mookychick website!


Well here it is! I’m very proud to see it on the front page. I hope you enjoy my poem and, if you click my author profile, that you enjoy my photo too. I could’ve just used a photo of my face, but I thought ‘Nah – let’s use the one with the squirrel’.

But back to pine cone Christmas trees!

You must have seen these going around Facebook and the like. I’m sure people have been making these for years and years, but crafts go in fads and currently this one seems quite popular.

Not only do they look extremely cute and adorable and Christmassy, but they looked pretty easy to do – so I gave it a go.

And, like most things that look easy, this was actually a little more fiddly and time-consuming than I bargained for. If you want to make an impressive, intricate, painstakingly painted and detailed piece of art then you’ll need a good magnifying glass, tweezers, and a lot of time to dedicate to the ~ finesse ~ that you’ll ultimately want to achieve.

Or, you could be like me and just chuck something together, see what works, and have fun with it.

You can make these absolutely any way you want and with whatever decorations you want – that’s the cool part. You can make several of these and no two should look the same. You could make mini pine cone trees for all occasions!

Tools I used

Superglue
Hot glue gun
1 x fabulous pine cone (try to find a tree shape – mine was a bit narrow)
Florist wire
Oasis
Crepe paper
Red meshy fabric stuff
Li’l baubles (I snipped them off a length of Christmas tree beads)
An angel for the top (a Christmas tree decoration cut in half)
Scissors

Method

First I washed any residue off my pine cone and dried it thoroughly. You might want to do this a day or two before you start crafting, because I think this has an effect on how well the glue sticks to it.

(If you are painting your pine cone, do this first before putting it on the base for obvious reasons!)

Next I got started on my base. I cut a small thick square of oasis and wrapped this with red crepe paper. I glued it down with superglue (this will stick more to you than anything else – beware!) in a parcel-fashion. After that I wrapped around my red mesh, which looked to me like a nice rustic touch to give it a bit of warmth, and glued that down too.

Now you have a base, you need to wire your cone. I used florist’s wire, but I would recommend a thicker piece of wire (maybe jewelry wire or copper wire), because mine bent and was too soft. I wired my cone by weaving or wrapping it around the spines at the base and forming four hooks of bent wire. I used these to stab into the base and keep the cone sturdy. The flexibility of the wire came in handy here because it allows you to make adjustments.

In the future, I would likely buy some mini plant pots to make a sturdier bed for the oasis, but this method works just fine.

You may find it hard to get the wire through your crepe paper or fabric, so think about that when you choose your materials. I personally just stabbed and prayed.
I wrapped some crepe paper around the base to hide the join, and hey-presto.

Now you have a cute base with your pine cone on top! It’s time to decorate.

I first began the dull and arduous process of superglueing each tiny bead onto each spine of my pine cone. Not only did I have to hold it firmly in place for ages, but the things were sticking to my fingers more than anything else.

I switched to my hot glue gun and oh baby, all that changed! The cooling of the glue once applied happens so quickly that you can start dotting on your beads here, there, and everywhere, and they’ll be set in 10 seconds. I very much recommend using a glue gun for speed and ease of use.

I turned my cone upside down to apply these, but ideally you would probably balance them on the tip of each spine. I could not be bothered with this – I’m all about the instant fun with these projects.

At this point you will realise how stringy the glue from a glue-gun can be, and it’ll look like you have cobwebs all over your tree. Never fear, for these come off easily – and if you were making a Halloween pine cone tree, these stringy bits could actually look really awesome.

Lastly, I cut a decorative angel in half and glued them to the top.

There we have it! A very simplistic pine cone Christmas tree. I think even the simplest designs look very sweet indeed and would make a great crafting project with your kids – just be very careful with the glue gun, because these get very hot.

With lots of time, effort, and imagination, you could make some incredible looking decorations out of pine cone Christmas trees.

I hope you enjoyed that.

If you’d like to see more of my crafting attempts or book recommendations or musings on health-related topics, then please subscribe. I put out new content every Wednesday.

Best wishes,
Ashleigh

What Happens When You Have an Abnormal Smear Result

Welcome (or welcome back!) to my blog. I put up new posts every Wednesday.

Something happened recently which shook me up a little bit, and I thought it would be helpful if I passed on some of my own learning from the experience. You never know who you might be helping by sharing your thoughts, so here goes.

No sooner than I had shared on Facebook about the importance of attending your smear tests did I find my result in the mail.

It was a scary, abnormal result.

Even though I somehow *knew* I would get a bad result this time, it still hurt to have it confirmed right there in front of me, in black and white.

My letter – which repeatedly assured me this was not a diagnosis of cancer – told me I had borderline low-grade dyskaryosis (abnormal changes in the cells of my cervix) and the HPV virus, which can often contribute to these cells lingering.

You can learn more about the cell-grading system here, and about HPV here.

These cells may or may not be pre-cancerous, and over time – if left untreated – may grow into cancer cells over a roughly 10 year period.

Low-grade cells with HPV, however, can usually go away on their own.

The letter said an appointment for a Colposcopy, which is a more in-depth look at the cervix, would be forthcoming.

How I reacted

I’m ashamed to say that I instantly felt terror erupting through my body and I went off and cried about it. The fact is that while I know how I would reassure somebody else with the same letter (and even though I knew low-grade/borderline meant the lowest risk cell changes), I still could not reassure myself.

This is because I have had an enormous lot of grief concerning my health in the last 2 years – some of which I’m willing to talk about, and some I’m not ready to. I plan to blog about these subjects in the future in the hope that somebody else can benefit from my experience. When you’ve already had an enormous amount of medical intervention, countless hospital stays, operations, and appointments resulting in nothing but bad news, you massively appreciate your freedom when you have it. You realise more than most just how much you have to lose.
I associated this letter about minor cell changes with those enormous fears, so naturally came the tears and the worry.

How I dealt with it

Firstly, I shared my disappointment and upset with those closest to me – I told my mum (who I blubbed to), my dad and brother, my boyfriend (who immediately became head researcher at Ashleigh Condon Towers and set about reassuring me), and my co-workers. A problem shared = less of a burden on you.

Secondly, I called the appointments line – my appointment was 26 November, which was over a month away at the time – and asked to go on their cancellations list.
This made me feel like I was being proactive and facing the problem head-on. There was no way I was going to wait a month, worrying myself sick, if I could help it.

By the following Monday, I received a call to say that an appointment had been cancelled, and could I come in at 2 O’clock? Yes, I could – and I brought my mum with me.

What happened at the appointment

I attended the Nightingale Women’s Clinic at Southend University Hospital.

I’ve been here a few times before for various reasons, and I’ve always felt well looked after. This time, I really needed that – and they did not disappoint.

Two extremely loving, down-to-earth, calming, reassuring, intelligent and professional female nurses explained what was going to happen and that they would gently take me through every step of the process as it occurred.

One of them said she’d even had the exact came procedure – and had the exact same low-grade cell changes and HPV virus – and I felt instantly more at ease.

I was asked to strip my bottom-half of any clothing (obviously) and sit in a wonky chair with my legs up in the stirrups. This is always great fun.

Next went in the speculum – again, always a hoot.

Then a camera on a robotic arm was placed in front of my opening – not inside it, or anywhere close to it actually – just between my legs.

The nurse offered to show me the wonders of my insides, but I declined – I’m usually fascinated by this stuff, but for some reason I just didn’t want to see my cervix. At this point, I was still too afraid of seeing something scary, such as a cancerous mass, however unlikely it was. In the end, I did end up seeing it anyway – it looked like a big pink blob with lots of pixels over it, as if someone was shopping it in Microsoft Paint (I’ll explain).

The nurse doing the procedure used a long instrument to swab my cervix, because I’d had a bit of blood spotting (typical) that day, and it was obscuring the view. I’ve described this feeling as someone tickling your guts with a feather – it’s very weird and slightly uncomfortable, but not painful.

After that, she explained that she was going to douse my cervix with a solution which would highlight areas of my cervix in red and green pixels on the monitor. She said this would sting slightly and have a vinegary smell. As well as her well-trained eyes, the camera would be looking for any abnormalities – double protection there.

The solution did indeed smell like vinegar and felt a bit strange, but no worse than a smear test or swab – we’re talking a quick splash here. Then we waited a moment while it developed (your cervix is essentially a Polaroid at this point).

As the solution got to work, it did indeed pick up pixels in red and green – and there were just a couple that were white. These were the cells with borderline changes.

The nurse told me she was very happy with that, and that they were agreeing with the result of the smear. These looked like low-grade, borderline cells which would hopefully go away on their own. I was so relieved.

However, she told me they usually still liked to take a biopsy just in case.

Gulp.

Of course, I agreed to it – but if I hadn’t been too uncomfortable before, I certainly was now. The nurse produced a long, scary Victorian-looking instrument with a clipper on the end – however, she didn’t look bothered and so I tried not to let it bother me either. I held the second nurse’s hand while she chatted to me about what I was going to have for lunch (key distraction techniques at play here!) and assured me I was going to be absolutely fine.

And I was.

The nurse with the instrument took the tiniest biopsy in about 0.2 seconds and I barely even felt its presence there, let alone any pain. It was no worse than your standard smear test and it didn’t hurt a bit. I promise you, if that wasn’t the case, I would be honest about it here – there was zero pain.

They told me I’d get my results in about 3 weeks, but they expected it to be a clear result. I left feeling warm, reassured, well looked-after, and confident that I had received amazing care.

Did you know that not all hospitals offer these in-depth checks on low-grade borderline changes to the cervix? I now feel very lucky indeed. I’ve been given the gold standard of treatment.

Before leaving, I promised them I would tell my family and friends about the experience and assure them that a Colposcopy and a cervical biopsy are nothing to be afraid of.

The key thing I took away was that these are preventative measures. If you keep up to date with your smears and take your health checks and examinations seriously, then you should never ever find yourself suddenly diagnosed with cervical cancer.

They will have found any problems well in advance, way before they could develop into something nasty – and they can deal with them. A brief check online will show you that removal of pre-cancerous cells usually results in a 100% cure of them – as in the cells are gone and, therefore, the risk of any cancer is gone. If cells return, they can remove them again.

Before leaving, I asked the nurses if – theoretically – someone already had cancer on their cervix, and they went for a routine smear test, would that test show up cervical cancer?

They said yes, it should.

This means that if you get a “scary letter” about abnormal cells, then remember: that is all they are. Abnormal cells, not a death sentence and definitely not cancer. You absolutely have control of this and you can ensure your health stays tip-top by attending the recommended appointment and having any treatment if necessary.

Whatever happens, you have got this, you’ve taken control of it, and you will be looked after by the professionals.

Aftercare

The advice for me was to not have sex for a day or so and to use condoms if you do. If you needed cell removal treatment, then obviously your cervix needs to heal, so follow the advice they give you.

I was told to expect a bit of tail-end period-style blood (which I have had) and maybe some gentle cramping (which I’ve not had).

Ultimately, what I do have is a feeling of control and relief that I could face this head on, and that I didn’t get any nasty surprises. I am beyond grateful to the staff for making an uncomfortable procedure so bearable – and honestly, it wasn’t even that bad at all.

If you need to attend a Colposcopy and if you need to have a biopsy, you have absolutely got this. Don’t run away from your smear tests or your follow-ups – you can do it. You will feel like a boss afterwards, I promise.

So there you have it. All’s well that ends well. I hope you found that useful and, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me.

If you enjoyed my content, please subscribe – I put up a new post every Wednesday! I write about creative pursuits and life in general.

My Poem, ‘Weight’, to appear at MookyChick.co.uk

I have some exciting news!

My poem, ‘Weight’, was reviewed by poetry editor Julliet van der Molen over at Mookychick, my favourite online magazine. She really liked it and has kindly decided to feature me on their website among people who are much, much more accomplished than me. I’ve been a fan for years and I’m proud to be a part of their poetry collection.

‘Weight’ will go live on 11 November 2019.

Mookychick have come along in leaps and bounds over the years, and now have a solidly arty-fem-witch identity carved for themselves and all their contributors. Certainly, their poetry and fiction segments have been must-reads for me for a while now; they upped their game and have showcased many awesome artists and writers. I’ve come to rely on them when I need to read something niche and magical.

If you haven’t heard of Mookychick before, then have a read of the following description taken from the website itself and tell me you don’t love it:

Mookychick is a passion project done for the love, not the money. And that passion has kept us strong since Mookychick’s inception in 2005. This alternative feminist site and community has been far, far more than the sum of its parts – thanks to over 600 contributors who have made it what it is today.

Our patron saints are Kate Bush, Frida Kahlo, Marie Laveau, Ada Lovelace, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gina Torres, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeanne d’Arc, Marie Curie, Leonora Carrington, Doctor Who and St. Hildegard of Bingen. Mookychick is like water – babbling, tranquil, charged, unquiet, delicate, ferocious, restorative and deep. Its spirit is both flowers and owls. We are a watering hole where all come to drink, with a focus on meaningful empowerment and sex, body and mind positivity in every aspect of alternative culture.

So yes, I’m very proud and I can’t wait to share that poem with you all.

As it happens, I’ve only just started dipping my toes into the world of poetry, so this is a big deal for me to have a poem recognised like this. It is especially cool for me because having regularly read the poems on Mookychick, I can see how varied and talented the artists are; many of them have been published far and wide and have enviable careers in the arts.

Do you read or write poetry? Let me know – I’d love some good recommendations.

As it happens, I do have some favourite poems. It won’t surprise you at all from my gothic tastes to know that I am a fan of Sylvia Plath. My brother bought me a copy of The Bell Jar for Christmas one year, and I bought a collection of her poems sometime later. I defy anyone to not think Sylvia was a young, melancholy genius, who I (frankly) think was held back by her envious man, fellow poet Ted Hughes. Actually, everybody thinks that – watch any adaptation of her life or read any article and you will ascertain as much.

I recall that we studied one of her poems, ‘Mirror‘, in school. It’s one I’ve always remembered and found quite haunting, so I’d like to share it with you now.

Mirror
by Sylvia Plath

I hope you enjoyed that and that it gave you some things to ~ ponder ~ on.

Really, I’m very much looking forward to sharing my poem with you all.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, then please subscribe to my blog – I put up new posts every Wednesday.

Until next time!

Best wishes,
Ashleigh