• The Perfect Picnic

    As some parts of the world celebrate Picnic Month this July, we look at what makes the perfect picnic - and how your garden is the best possible spot for the kids to have a picnic tea.

    The long-term weather forecast is promising a warm, dry month for much of the UK, so with the weather seemingly set fair, what else do we need for a fabulous picnic?

    Picnic in the ATCO Garden

    Preparation and packing

    Choose your equipment carefully and make sure all the lids seal properly. Re-useable, lightweight plastic plates and cutlery (or try bamboo plates) are easier to pack and carry - and the same goes for wine ‘glasses’ and teacups. It also prevents accidents with glass. Just don’t forget your bottle opener!

    Store foods in Tupperware containers in a cool box, keeping food types separate - especially meats and pungent cheeses. On warm days, keep the food in the cool box until you need it - having it all laid out might look nice, but it won’t taste great and might risk poor food hygiene.

    Cut your quiches, pies and cakes beforehand, so they’re ready to serve. And when packing a selection of condiments such as dressings and sauces, keep them in the containers. Don’t add to your salads in advance - they’ll turn soggy.

    A picnic blanket and comfy cushions are essential, and maybe some picnic chairs, too. Finally, you’ll probably need sun cream and insect bite cream, just in case. Serviettes and hand wipes or anti-bacterial gel are also musts but are easy to forget in all the excitement.

    The picnic spread

    Quiches, pork pies, sausage rolls, scotch eggs and chicken drumsticks are all picnic favourites and hard to leave out. Offer boiled eggs, falafel Scotch eggs and veggie quiches for those who don’t eat meat and add a Mediterranean touch with stuffed vine leaves, hummus and olives.

    Choose a nice selection of sandwiches or rolls - tuna & sweetcorn, and salmon and cucumber will keep fishy people happy. Or slice up a baguette or two so people can add their own cold meats, cheeses and salad.

    For the salad, keep it simple - some sweet, juicy tomatoes, sliced cucumber, colourful peppers and fresh lettuce leaves should do the trick. Throw in a potato salad or pasta salad, and you’re away.

    The same ‘keep it simple’ message applies to dessert. Fresh strawberries and/or raspberries and cream can’t be beaten, and you can scrunch some bought meringue nests over the top. Chocolate brownies go down well with younger members of the party, and you can’t go too far wrong with a nice slice of lemon drizzle cake.

    All that’s left is to pack your tipples of choice, some soft drinks and plenty of water - and enjoy.

    The great thing about a having a picnic is that you don’t have to go any further than your own garden - if you have a nice lawn, of course! It’ll save all that packing. And if you want to keep the children occupied and happy, why not let them choose and create the menu?

  • Looking after your lawn during this soggy summer

    Looking after your soggy lawn

    Looking after your lawn during this soggy summer

    Is there anyone out there who’s been able to mow their lawn this month? Nope, we thought not!

    Where-ever you are in the UK, we’re guessing that your mower hasn’t had much of a run-out yet this summer. The constant downpours may even had left your lawn waterlogged.

    There are some important ‘dos and don’ts’ for lawn care during prolonged spells of wet weather - here are the main ones.

    • If your lawn is waterlogged - or even if it’s just very wet - avoid walking on it unnecessarily.  It will cause more damage.
    • Assist drainage by spiking your lawn with a garden fork. Where the ground is very saturated, the RHS advises creating deeper holes or slits, which can be filled with free-draining materials such as horticultural sand to help drainage.
    • The RHS, and indeed every lawn expert in the world ever, cautions against mowing wet grass. There are three very good reasons for this: it’s bad for the turf and soil, it’s not great for your mower, and you could end up injuring yourself. If the mower sinks down into sodden soil, you should definitely hold fire. If your blade isn’t as sharp as it once was, it will struggle with wet grass. And it is NOT safe to mow a wet lawn if you are using an extension lead with an electric mower.
    • If you really must go against all good advice, then there are some steps you can take. Firstly, remove as much of the surface water as possible - dragging a hose across the lawn is one good way of squeezing the moisture out of the grass. Secondly, raise the mowing height to reduce the strain on your mower.  For the same reason, empty the box often. And opt for a ‘slow-mow’ - this will reduce the load on the mower’s blade.
    • Your poor mower won’t be very happy, so afterwards, give it a quick hose-down and allow it to dry out.

    The bottom line? Unless you really have to mow your wet lawn, don’t.  Wait until the conditions are dry.  It shouldn’t be too long now ... surely?!

  • June - a great month to be outdoors!

    June is officially Great Outdoors Month, when we’re encouraged to escape the indoors and enjoy the natural world around us.
    Whether it’s being active, having fun, or just relaxing, researchers tell us that being outdoors is a tonic for our physical and mental wellbeing.
    Here are 7 top outdoor ideas for you to try this June.
    1. Enjoy your garden. The No. 1 top tip. There are loads of things to do in your garden, to suit all moods. Feeling active? Then do some gardening or move your exercise regime outdoors. Looking for fun? Play with the kids or grandchildren. Feeling sociable? Dine alfresco with family and friends. Just want to chill? Grab a book and pour yourself a drink or a cuppa.

    2. Get your walking boots on. If you have a dog, then you’ll need no encouragement with this one! But for those less keen on walking, especially solo walking, then why not bring together a group of friends for regular walking ‘catch ups’. Or join a walking group.

    3. Head for the blue. The water does amazing things for our wellbeing. If you’re near a lake, a river, or the coast, lucky you. Go for a swim, try stand up paddle-boarding, or take in the scenery and bracing air with a waterside walk.

    4. Go exploring. Discover some of the nature reserves, woodlands and national parks in your area. Or seek out some iconic landmarks.

    5. Be creative. Find yourself a nice spot and try some landscape sketching. Or experiment with photography.

    6. Get on your bike. If possible, use off-road cycling trails that allow you to enjoy nature and scenery along the way.

    7. Go camping. A brilliant way to get right into the heart of the natural world. See if you can find somewhere with minimal light pollution, so you can watch the stars at night.

    Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this June offers us plenty of long, hot, sunny days so we can all appreciate the Great Outdoors. If not, there’s always July … 😊

  • The essential ingredients for a perfect BBQ

    The essential ingredients for a perfect BBQ

    The UK celebrates National BBQ Week on 27 May - 2 June, and we’re all keeping our fingers crossed that we get some fabulous barbecue weather to mark it in fitting style.

    food, people and family time concept - senior man cooking meat on barbecue grill at summer garden bbq party

    Brits love nothing more than to get the grill on when the sun comes out - but what makes a brilliant BBQ?

    We’ve brought together all the best tips from the nation’s top chefs and BBQ experts, to help you create a sizzling occasion for your family and friends to enjoy.

    Preps make all the difference

    A great BBQ doesn’t just happen by accident - it needs the right preparation and tools.

    To achieve all those authentic smoky flavours, a charcoal barbecue beats a gas one hands down. Better still, a barbecue with a lid helps to lock in the flavours and ensure an even temperature. When it comes to fuel, lump wood charcoal creates a natural taste, which is why so many chefs choose it.

    The other essential tools are a sturdy oven glove, a pair of tongs and a fish slice. Have separate tools for cooked and uncooked food, and for your meat/fish and veg, if you have vegetarian or vegan guests.

    We know you can’t wait to tuck in to all that lovely grub, but on this occasion, patience is a virtue. After lighting the coals, wait for the flames to die down and for the coals to turn grey before putting the food on the grill - usually 30 minutes or so.

    Not all the food will need a high heat, so place the coals on one half of the barbecue to allow some items to be cooked on the other half with no direct heat.

    Get the balance right

    A perfect BBQ will offer a nice mix of meat, fish, cooked veggies, salads, sides and some tasty marinades and sauces. Prep your salads and sides before you get the BBQ on so they’re good to go. Burgers, sausages and chicken drumsticks should keep the meat-eaters happy, while salmon, prawns and whole fish are great on the grill. Take the meat and fish out of the fridge about 20 minutes before cooking to avoid burning them on the outside.

    Vegetables are amazing griddled thinly or as chunks on a kebab, while you can’t go too far wrong with veggie burgers and halloumi. And don’t forget the buns - putting them briefly on the BBQ, cut-side down, adds extra flavour. Or warm some flatbreads on the grill. Just make sure you don’t over-cook any of this lovely food.

    Don’t bite off more than you can chew!

    And finally - don’t spend so long at the grill that you forget to socialise with your guests. The key is to not over-stretch yourself and to not cook too much. Yes, offer a choice of fabulous food, but having a nice time with family and friends at your BBQ is the most important ingredient of all!

  • Keeping the ancient traditions of May Day alive!

    may day
    May the 1st … the day when for centuries, communities have enacted rituals to mark the arrival of warmer weather and fresh growth in the fields.

    In the UK, a lot of the old May Day traditions are pagan in origin and are linked to fertility – traditions such as dancing around the maypole, the crowning of a May Queen, and Morris dancing.

    While many of the customs are shared nationally, there are also some famous and, some might say, eccentric events, that are more localised in origin. Here are six of the best.

    Beltane Fire Festival, Edinburgh:

    On the last night of April and into the early hours of 1 May, thousands of people mark Beltane (Gaelic May Day) by heading to Calton Hill for a theatrical celebration involving fire displays, drumming and a pagan performance.

    Glastonbury Tor, Somerset:

    Pagans and druids gather at dawn to welcome in Beltane and the return of warmth and light. They re-enact several May Day customs and a procession carries a maypole – a young tree – to Bushy Combe, below the Tor, for maypole dances to take place.

    Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss, Cornwall:

    Padstow is turned into a riot of flowers and greenery for the day, as thousands converge to see the two “osses” dance around the streets, followed by their supporters. Various locals take it in turns to don the costumes of Old ‘Obby ‘Oss and Blue Ribbon ‘Obby ‘Oss.

    May Morning, Oxford:

    Huge crowds get up bright and early to hear Magdalen College choir sing from the top of the college tower at 6am. The bells then ring out for 20 minutes, signalling the start of Morris dancing and a procession through the city.

    Clun Green Man Festival, Shropshire

    The action takes place on Clun Bridge, where the Green Man defeats the Frost Queen to ensure there will be summer in the valley. To celebrate his victory, the Green Man then leads a colourful parade to the grounds of Clun Castle.

    Flora Day, Helston, Cornwall:

    Locals festoon the town with floral displays for the ancient Flora Day festival. Four dances take place in the streets, the first starting at 7am. The most famous is the midday dance – The Furry Dance, where participants are chosen by invitation only. Another ancient feature of the day is the Hal-an-Tow Mummers play.

    Let’s hope all those May Day rituals do the trick and we get a summer to remember!

  • 20 great Shakespeare quotes for the Bard's birthday

    April 23rd isn’t just St George’s Day, it’s William Shakespeare’s birthday, too. Or at least, we think it is. Historians have settled on the date because his baptism is recorded in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564 – and in those days, this usually happened on or around three days after the baby was born.
    Shakespeares birthday
    More than 450 years later, and many of our most commonly-used terms and phrases are attributed to Shakespeare, such as: All’s well that ends well (All’s Well that Ends Well); Be-all and the end-all (Macbeth); A blinking idiot (The Merchant of Venice); Neither here nor there (Othello); Cruel to be kind (Hamlet); It’s Greek to me (Julius Caesar); Too much of a good thing (As You Like It);  Neither rhyme nor reason (The Comedy of Errors); Wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello); Wild-goose chase (Romeo and Juliet); The world is my oyster (The Merry Wives of Windsor).

    And, of course, he is English Literature’s King of Quotes. Here are 20 of the best …

    1. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” (Hamlet)
    2. “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” (Hamlet)
    3. “To die, to sleep; To sleep, perchance to dream - ay, there's the rub.” (Hamlet)
    4. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (Hamlet)
    5. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.” (Hamlet)
    6. “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” (All’s Well That Ends Well)
    7. What’s in a name? A rose by any name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet)
    8. “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” (Romeo and Juliet)
    9. “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It)
    10. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest)
    11. “If music be the food of love, play on.” (Twelfth Night)
    12. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” (Twelfth Night)
    13. “Now is the winter of our discontent.” (Richard III)
    14. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (The Merchant of Venice)
    15. “When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurlyburly ‘s done, When the battle ‘s lost and won.” (Macbeth)
    16. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)
    17. “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” (King Lear)
    18. “Nothing will come of nothing.” (King Lear)
    19. “Beware the Ides of March.” (Julius Caesar)
    20. “The course of true love never did run smooth.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

    By coincidence, The Bard also died on 23 April, in 1616, when he was just 52 – but what a literary legacy he left us.  It seems all the world will forever be a stage for William Shakespeare!

  • 7 great ways to make the most of No Housework Day

    No Housework Day

    7 great ways to make the most of No Housework Day

    Sunday 7 April is ‘No Housework Day’ – so ditch the duster and vacuum cleaner and do something nice instead. Here are a few ideas …

    Enjoy your garden:
    Get in touch with nature by spending some quality time in your garden. Add some spring colour with a trip to your local garden centre. Then, sit back and admire it.

    Go for a walk:
    Head for the coast or countryside for a healthy walk. Take in the views and the fresh air – and if you have a dog to take along too, then so much the better.

    A leisurely lunch:
    Meet up with family and friends over a long, lazy lunch at your favourite place. Don’t worry about over indulging – it’s allowed today, and you can always walk it off afterwards.

    Read a book or magazine:
    Put your feet up and enjoy a good book with a cuppa or glass of wine. Or flick through some magazines for inspiration on home & garden improvements.

    Watch a film
    Take in a new movie at the cinema or, if you’re feeling nostalgic, dig out some of your old favourites to watch in the comfort of your own home. Just don’t forget the popcorn!

    Retail therapy
    Spring is a great time to do a bit of window shopping, with plenty of new season things to see in fashion and home & garden. There no harm in looking, is there?

    Fire up the BBQ:
    If the weather’s nice, invite your friends over for a barbecue. But skip the clearing-up bit today – it can wait.
    Whatever you decide to do on No Housework Day, enjoy it! 😊

  • All roads (and bridleways) lead to Cheltenham!

    And they’re off! Jump racing’s showpiece event, the Cheltenham Festival, takes place over four days from 12-15 March, culminating, of course, in the Blue Riband race, the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup Steeple Chase – regarded as the pinnacle of jump racing.
    Cheltenham Festival 2019
    We’ve compiled 15 amazing facts and figures about this historic sporting event.

    1. 1. Racing in Cheltenham was first recorded in 1815, when it was a flat race meeting held on Nottingham Hill.

    2. 2. By 1819, racing had moved to Cleeve Hill, which overlooks the current racecourse at Prestbury Park in the Cotswold Hills. Highlight of the 3-day meeting in August 1819 was the first ever Cheltenham Gold Cup.

    3. 3. That first Cheltenham Gold Cup was a three-mile flat race for three-year-olds – the winning horse was called Spectre.

    4. 4. The event attracted the ire of a prominent local clergyman, Rev Francis Close, who denounced racing as “evil” and was behind a disruption of the meeting in 1829 and an arson attack on the facilities in 1830!

    5. 5. Steeplechasing gradually replaced flat racing at Cheltenham and the Festival evolved out of the National Hunt Festival. The first Cheltenham Festival was staged at Prestbury Park in 1911.

    6. 6. In 1924, the Cheltenham Gold Cup as we know it today was run for the first time. It was won by a five-year-old called Red Splash.

    7. 7. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is competed by horses aged five years and over.

    8. 8. The Gold Cup race is just over 3.2 miles long – but it’s not the longest at the Festival. The historic National Hunt Challenge Cup Chase, the final race on the opening day, is over a 4-mile course.

    9. 9. Only seven horses have won the Gold Cup more than once, including the legendary Arkle (1964, 65, 66), Best Mate (2002,03, 04), L’Escargot (1970, 71) and Kauto Star – the only horse ever to regain the Gold Cup, winning in 2007 and 2009.

    10. 10. The fastest winning time is 6 minutes 29.7 seconds, set in 2011 by Long Run, ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen.

    11. 11. All three courses at Cheltenham are used during the Festival.

    12. 12. Over 200,000 people are expected to attend over the four days this year, with 65,000 or more packing the venue on Cheltenham Gold Cup day.

    13. 13. Prizemoney for the week totals around £5 million, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner taking home more than £350,000.

    14. 14. During the Festival, 200 tonnes of divot mix will be used to repair the course, together with 100 sacks of grass seed.

    15. 15. At the end of the Festival, there are around four million hoofprints on the racecourse (who counts them?!).

    Everyone will be keeping their fingers crossed that the 2019 Festival passes with no harm to horse or rider. Last year, six horses died at the Festival, with a seventh having to be put down later as a result of injuries. Let’s hope this year’s event is remembered for all the right reasons.

  • Celebrating the 'old stuff'

    Celebrating the ‘old stuff’

    Old Atco 30
    You know all that old stuff you’ve kept stored away for donkey’s years because you just can’t let go of it? Or the bits and bobs you’ve collected and ‘put away for safekeeping’ but which have been gathering dust ever since?

    Well, you’re not alone in hanging on to old stuff. It seems we all do. In fact, there’s even a special day for it, when people across the world celebrate the joy of holding onto something because it still means something to them or, just as likely, they’ve never got around to throwing it out.

    So, to celebrate Old Stuff Day on 2 March, we’ve done a bit of research to find out what’s tucked away in our garden sheds. According to insurers’ surveys, most sheds contain some pretty expensive items – the average contents are around £2,000. Mostly, the contents are made up of things like still-in-use lawnmowers, gardening equipment and garden furniture.

    But the surveys also threw up some ‘old stuff’ gems. Here are our favourite five.

    Train sets: Well, you wouldn’t want to throw away a train set either, would you? Train sets are among the toys that 15% of people keep in their garden sheds.

    Family heirlooms. Yep, those things passed down through the family also end up in the shed. No longer wanted in the house, but kept for sentiment and memories, they’re found in 13% of garden sheds.

    Classic cars: If train sets are difficult to say goodbye to, then the same goes for old cars. Among those found under dust sheets in a garden shed was - wait for it - an original E-Type Jag!

    Sports gear: Almost a quarter of us store sports equipment in our sheds. And, just as likely among the shiny new bikes are rusty old ones that haven’t got close to Lycra in years and sets of golf clubs that have long since seen a fairway.

    Steam engine: And finally, our favourite ‘old stuff in a garden shed story’ - a £60,000 steam engine. We’d all be pretty chuff, chuff, chuffed to have one of those in our shed!

    There are plenty of other disused and discarded things in our sheds too, like half empty (and dried out) paint pots and ancient gardening tools. Even historic newspaper editions. Whatever ‘old stuff’ you’ve got lurking in your shed, don’t forget to celebrate them in style on 2 March!

  • Valentine's Day - it's sheer poetry!

    valentines day
    Valentine’s Day – it’s sheer poetry!

    It’s that time of year when lovebirds everywhere exchange cards and gifts and enjoy a romantic candlelit dinner for two.

    But why do we celebrate Valentine’s Day each year? What’s so romantic about 14 February? And who is Saint Valentine, anyway? Let’s tackle that tricky last question first.

    It seems there were lots of sainted Valentines in Rome in the 3rd century. Some were said to perform secret weddings that went against the wishes of the authorities – and most of them met a sticky end.

    Others were martyred simply because they administered to persecuted Christians. Legend has it that one of these priests was martyred on 14 February 269 and became known as Saint Valentine, giving rise to the Feast of St Valentine in the Christian calendar.

    That’s one explanation of St Valentine. Here’s another …

    In some folk traditions in Europe, St Valentine’s Day is when people celebrate the start of the new growing season in the fields and vineyards. In these cultures, Saint Valentine is the saint that of Spring and good health.

    So much for the origins then, but where does the romance come into it?

    Historians believe that we have the 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer to thank for first connecting St Valentine’s Day with romantic love. His poem, Parlement of Foules (Parliament of Fowls), describes the gathering of birds on “seynt valentynes day” to choose their mates for the year.

    The poem is a humorous and philosophical exploration of love. In the end the birds can’t decide on their mates and put the decision off until the next year.

    More than 200 years later, in Hamlet, Shakespeare also makes a romantic connection, in Ophelia’s song:

    “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

    All in the morning betime,

    And I a maid at your window,

    To be your Valentine.”

    So, whatever the true origins of Valentine’s Day, these two giants of English literature probably did more than anyone to popularise it among the wider population as a day for romance. Good for them.

    Wishing a very happy Valentine’s Day to all of you lovebirds – and to those who are taking a leaf out of Chaucer’s birds!

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