Yesterday I had one of the most festive days of my life. So much so, that I wanted to come home and tell you all about it straight away! You see, I’d just spent the whole day with my husband at Blackthorpe Barn – already one of the most Christmassy places in Suffolk – and we’d joined in with a couple of festive workshops; Christmas wreath-making and a “Waste Not” kissing-ball class. I’d go so far as to say that it’s a ‘must-do’ day out if you’re based in East Anglia and if you read on, you’ll find out why… Let me take you through the day: Even on our journey to Blackthorpe Barn we had started to feel rather festive, driving past the fields of spruce trees grown by the Rougham Estate and singing along to festive tunes in the car. Blackthorpe Barn is just a stone’s throw from the A14 and is clearly signposted, so it’s no trouble at all to get there. We arrived with about 20 minutes to spare before the workshop began so we strolled amongst the Christmas trees, peeked into Santa’s grotto and ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the sparkly decorations in the barn. We were taken over to the class at 10am, and found a room full of smiling faces, all eager to learn. And our workshop instructor Trudi Edmunds gave us a very warm welcome. The class began with a fun activity: foraging for foliage. With woven Innipooh baskets and mini pull-along trailer in-tow, we all made our way out into the woodlands with our secateurs clasped in gloved hands. Strolling around the trees made for a relaxing start to the day, and allowed us to chat with our fellow coursemates. We harvested Nordmann Fir branches, sprigs of holly and ivy tendrils – only taking the quantity of foliage that would be needed for each wreath. There was no holding on to your own pieces; all the greenery was loaded onto the trailer to be shared and we took it in turns to tow our haul back to the classroom. Let me quickly tell you about the workshop barn itself. It’s been purpose-built for all the craft workshops that Blackthorpe Barns lays on at this time of year so it’s warm, there’s plenty of table space, it’s well-lit and is beautifully decorated for the holidays. And, as we later found out, there were handy hooks all around the walls of the craft barn so that we could hang our wreathes and work on them standing up. This really helped, as it made it easier to imagine how they would look when hanging on a door, so we could position our decorations accordingly. Anyway, back to the class: After settling down at the table with a cuppa and a biscuit – and Trudi’s home-baked gingerbread stars, yum! – the wreath-making commenced. We were shown how to cut the spruce to make the perfect fronds to cover our wicker ring. Trudi showed us that almost every part of the branch could be used in the wreath, leaving very little waste behind. Those difficult pieces that couldn’t be used were collected up, ready for the ‘Waste Not’ workshop in the afternoon. We tentatively began inserting our branches into the ring and, as we all got used to working with the foliage, we could work at our on speed – I was practically shoving those branches in by the time I’d finished! Even before we’d added any decorations, our fir, ivy and holly-covered wreathes were looking very full, bushy and rather impressive.The next step was to add a few items to adorn our wreathes, all of which were provided by Trudi, who showed us how to wire them into position using floristry techniques. Having never tried to do any flower arranging in the past, it was great to get my brain working and learn a new skill. I was recently reading about the benefits of learning something new, and it really does help the brain to build connections between neurons – I could practically feel my brain buzzing! As a professional decorative artist, Trudi not only showed us the techniques we needed, she also helped us to see how the decorations could be added to the wreath in different artistic ways. She handed out cinnamon sticks, dried orange and apple slices, blackberries, pinecones, holly berries, robins and ribbon, and encouraged us to imagine the wreath as a whole before we’d even inserted one decoration. And learning to tie a real bow was eye-opening – I’ve never made such a beautiful bow before! Even though we all had the same ‘ingredients’, no two wreathes were the same. Looking around the barn at all the wreathes hanging on the walls, we’d all added our own touch to the designs. I’d left out holly, as I was making my wreath for my mum so didn’t want her to be prickled by the leaves. My husband had passed his ivy tendrils on to me, so I could make a very rustic-looking design. People had added decorations in clusters, which looked very impressive, while I’d layered them between the fir branches with the little fruits peeking out.After 3 hours of extremely enjoyable foraging, cutting, making and decorating, we were finally done. Stepping back to admire our handiwork and to take some photos gave me an immense feeling of satisfaction. When I quizzed my husband to see if he’d been enjoying the class, he reacted in a way I’d never seen before. He said he was so relaxed and happy after just a couple of hours of making and wanted to do it all over again. Coming into the classroom, we’d both been feeling rather stressed out – we’re always so busy at this time of year and it’s easy to let the stress levels bubble over – so he couldn’t believe how very ‘zen’ he felt by the end of the session. I’ve read that taking a class and learning a new skill gives you that joyful feeling of achievement. That’s because your body rewards your efforts with a burst of dopamine, so it was no wonder that we were all feeling so cheery by the end of the morning and that I had the happiest husband around! But that wasn’t the end of our Christmassy fun… After treating ourselves to a hearty lunch in the on-site cafe, some of the group stayed on for the afternoon workshop, and we were joined by some extra class members. The afternoon workshop was one of the best ideas for a class that I’ve ever heard of: a ‘Waste Not’ workshop. All the small pieces of foliage left behind by the morning workshop were laid out on the table and we began the task of ‘tidying up’ by using all the fir and ivy in a kissing ball decoration.Hardly anything would go to waste, and only the thickest twigs went into Trudi’s basket. And even those pieces weren’t going to be binned; they would be used to decorate the fireplace and could add a lovely pine scent to a burning fire. Anything else would be composted, although I’m sure that we used up practically everything that afternoon.The workshop taught us some more floristry skills, including soaking oasis (I’d never used this material before) and tying ribbons to hang the kissing ball. The technique for preparing the foliage so that it could be inserted into the ball was very different to making the wreath, so that’s another skill under my belt! Decorating a 3D shape felt trickier than constructing the wreath so, again, the sense of satisfaction at the end was immense. We added sprigs of real mistletoe into the ball, and hung them up to admire our handiwork (and to spot any bare patches to fill in with extra fronds of spruce!)If you don’t have much time to spare, this hour-long class was more than enough to get you into a festive mood and meant we had a little extra time to browse the Christmas barn and have a glass of mulled wine before heading off home in the evening. You should have seen our smiling faces as we skipped towards our car with handmade wreathes in our arms and kissing balls held aloft.
My experience just goes to show that the workshops at Blackthorpe Barn – and there are so many to choose from – are a great way to get into the spirit of Christmas. If you were feeling at all stressed or a little bah-humbug, I defy you not to feel very festive and totally relaxed after these classes. Plus, you’ll learn all the skills (and have all the materials!) you need to create your own wreathes every year from now on – what a money-saving bonus! With traditional carols playing, fairy lights twinkling and the scent of nordmann fir filling the cosy craft barn, I’ve never felt more Christmassy and I loved every minute of my festive day out.The wreath-making and ‘Waste Not’ workshops (each time it’s a different project to use up the leftover foliage – such as a mini Christmas tree project or table decoration) are running throughout December on the 13th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd so book your place on a craft class at Blackthorpe Barn before they get completely filled up, and look forward to your fabulously festive workshop. Enjoy!Thanks to decorative artist Trudi Edmunds for teaching us in a way that was easy to understand, friendly and super-fun. Oh, and if you’re looking for unique handmade Christmas gifts, be sure to check out her baskets and bags at Innipooh.com.