Sylva Fae

Picture This

An exhibition of my childhood memories is hung haphazardly around my little cottage. As I wander from room to room I am reminded of different times and places, short sound-bites of giggles or the lap of water against the lake’s shore, the smell of cakes baking in our farmhouse kitchen or the feeling of revisiting my childhood haunts. My senses are awakened by revisiting the pictures of my youth.

Earliest memories of my mum always included a sketch pad and pencil; 2B or darker, HB just wouldn’t do! My lexicon of colours included Vandyke brown, Prussian blue and viridian green rather than the usual rainbow of seven, prompting raised eyebrows from primary teachers. I had watercolours and sable brushes in my art box instead of crayons and felt tips, and handmade paper hung out to dry on our washing rail. Perhaps it was a quirky childhood but it was mine and I loved it.

The sketch pad accompanied all outings and our nature walks and woodland adventures would often veer off to capture the ‘perfect light’ or pause for a twisty tree root or rusted fence. Mum could see the beauty in the unusual and just had to sketch it. Those rough sketches were hastily annotated with colours and textures ready to be transformed, later on, into a pen and ink or watercolour masterpiece.

Every picture has a story and here are a few of mine…


Over the Moors
My young mum would often bundle me in a purple Silver Cross buggy and bounce me over the hills and moors to get me to sleep. Several years later, my baby brother in the buggy, I would accompany her on rugged rambles, my little legs bounding over bracken and brambles. In late summer we would go wimberry picking and come home with baskets of wild fruit ready to be made into jams and pies. I seem to remember more were eaten than went in the baskets!

Snuggled up for bedtime stores.

Snuggled for bedtime stories
My earliest memories are of bedtime stories; first as an only child snuggled up with mum, then later as big sister hanging over the top bunk to see the pictures. It was a magical time, those last special moments before I dozed off to sleep would feed my dreams with faraway lands and mystical beings, with fantastic adventures and a sense that anything was possible.
Read to Your Children


Dressing Up
I split my time equally between rough and tumble tomboy and wanting to be a princess. Dressing up consisted of draping colourful fabrics and prancing about with a regal air. It was an age of make do and mend so mum had a box full of offcuts, remnants of summer dresses and school play costumes. With an artist for a mum I always had the most creative costumes and often won first prize in fancy dress competitions.


China Dolls
As a child I collected china dolls – some found them a little spooky with their glass eyes that glowed in the dark but I took comfort in having them watch over me at night.


Ruddy Rebecca
Rebecca was my special doll, a present from my mum and dad when I was a baby. She went everywhere with me driving my parents mad! The trouble with Rebecca was she would often sneak off and get left behind. Many a time my exasperated dad would have to turn the car round and drive back to retrieve the errant doll (of course it was never my fault!) Thus she became known as Ruddy Rebecca, usually said with some venom by my thankfully patient dad. Slightly bald and battered, she is now loved by my own little ones.


The Forbidden Gate
My best friend Alison had a huge garden and at the bottom, almost hidden by the shed, was a little gate. We were not allowed to go through it but just beyond was a thicket of the best blackberries and juiciest raspberries. We never did work out how our mums knew we’d sneaked through the forbidden gate but we were always caught.


Naworth Castle Lake
For a few years we had a house in the grounds of Naworth Castle up in Northumberland, close to Hadrian’s Wall. Hidden in the trees we discovered a lake where we spent the long summer days fishing for rainbow trout to cook on our campfire. Early in the morning the lake was shrouded in an eerie mist so thick, the water was hidden. As it cleared it revealed a tiny boat moored to the bank. Of course, the sketch pad came too and while we would build dens with dad, mum would blend into the undergrowth in her own artistic world and emerge hours later with a masterpiece. For all that she appeared engrossed in her work, she would always know when one of us misbehaved!


Beyond the castle was a secret path that lead to a little waterfall and this became one of our favourite walks. It was a rule that we would always bring back something useful or interesting from our walks; kindling for the fire, blackberries and hazel nuts or shiny stones and colourful leaves to decorate the mantelpiece. On one such ramble, we found a huge crop of wild mushrooms and eagerly filled our basket. As we wandered back past the castle we bumped into Lord Carlisle who was just off to collect mushrooms. Sheepishly we showed him our baskets then shared our spoils. Mushrooms for tea all round that night!


The Faraway Tree
A special branch that was just waiting to be painted. I always loved this picture and was sad when it was sold but by some quirk of fate it has made its way back to me. My girls have renamed this The Faraway Tree.


Hollin Hey
When I was around ten we moved to Hollin Hey Farm, a rambling old farmhouse built in 1640. It sat up on a hill in splendid isolation, surrounded by fields that bordered onto the moors. There was always a fire burning in the grate, for warmth in winter and for atmosphere in summer. Summers would be spent chopping and seasoning logs ready for the cold winter ahead. I loved helping my dad with this and longed to use the axe but given my accident prone nature, I was assigned kindling collection duties!


Hollin Hey and Judith
Hollin Hey attracted a menagerie of animals that wandered freely and became part of our eclectic family. We had a guard pig who ruled the garden, a pair of billy goats who often absconded, a gaggle of geese, and a random selection of ducks, hens and rabbits. Our sheepdog, who was afraid of sheep, took great pleasure in rounding up the ducks herding them in and out of the pond. My favourite duck was Judith (pictured), she came to us with a broken leg and lived under the kitchen table. Judith ruled the roost, keeping the dogs in check with a swift peck. She was quite house trained and reasonably well behaved but had one annoying habit; Judith liked to undo the shoelaces of unsuspecting guests! She’d quack in ducky amusement as people got up stumbling over their laces. I’m sure that duck had a sense of humour.


Duck eggs
Our ducks and hens would range freely and happily but refused to lay in the huts my dad built for them. Instead they would find the most obscure places to hide out so egg collecting was more like a game of hide and seek. Sunday breakfast could either be several tiny pullet eggs or one giant goose egg; it was determined purely by what could be found. Our very first eggs were so special that mum painted them to preserve the memory.

Later on, I bred ducks in an incubator in my bedroom, often getting up at 4 and 5am to carefully pick the shell from newly hatched babies. Soon the duckling nursery filled up and the noise level increased considerably. As my brood grew I would walk them, quacking merrily in single file, down the hallway to the bathroom. Visitors nipping to the loo were often surprised to share the experience with a dozen ducklings splashing in the bath.


The Gatepost
Up on the moors, overlooking Hollin Hey far below, we found a pair of stone gateposts. Nothing else remained except the mystery of what had once been. It was here we released our pet crow back into the wild.

He came to us in a sorry state, his wing feathers broken and unable to fly. For a year he lived in a straw filled alcove in the old barn, we visited every day with food as he regained his strength and grew back his feathers. He repaid us with shiny gifts, silver paper and teaspoons, things he’d found while foraging through the straw. We named him Cfor (C for Crow – seemed funny at the time!) Cfor became very tame and loved having a tour of the farmyard sat on a shoulder and we soon learnt not to wear earrings. Gradually we hid his food further and further away forcing him to explore beyond his safe haven. Then one day, he flew to greet us and we realised it was time to let go of our wild pet. It was with a mixture of pride and deep sadness we took him up to the gateposts and watched him soar up into the sky. For the first month he flew a circuit of the farm each morning, greeting us with a joyful caw, then off he’d fly to the moors to be wild and free.

And now I have a new collection of pictures that tell the story of my little ones’ childhood and one day I will pass them on so they may relive the happy memories and know what a talented Nana they have.

Original artwork by Christine Southworth @bearprintstudio


7 thoughts on “Picture This

  1. AvatarChristine

    Jan,that is so beautiful you made me cry,only with hindsight can you see what you are creating,then it’s to late to correct and change,so precious is the time you spend with your children for every day you are making their memories.thankyou daughter,love Mum

    1. Sylva FaeSylva Fae Post author

      Thanks Little Mummy! I hope you realise I picked the more ‘normal’ stories – I think we had quite an unusual childhood. I omitted tales of amorous pigs and wheelie bins and hens nesting in your pot pourri. I left out our late night escapade returning Nigel Havers, the violent cockerel, to the park… I could go on… I dread to think what our girls will say about their childhood with a Mad Mother and Naughty Nana!

  2. AvatarNeil Giles

    What beautiful pictures and childhood stories. Thanks so much for sharing …. magical mum, a family tradition you’re now passing on. The trees salute you, forest lady.
    Signed: Banquozghost

    1. Sylva FaeSylva Fae Post author

      Thank you for your lovely comment, the trees are waving back at you! Magical yes but also slightly crazy – my childhood, not my mum! She is a talented artist and I’m pleased my girls have inherited her flair.
      Signed: Forest lady

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