Breathing space

Pink lemonade in a glass jug wiht a vase of pink flowers

Dear Sam,


Yes, it certainly has been very hot here, too, so I was grateful for your tip for reviving tired bees .  I needed to put it into action when I found an exhausted bumble bee in our kitchen; I gave it some of the sugar solution on a teaspoon and after a few minutes it was wonderful to see it buzz off with a new lease of life.

Spending time with nature offers “precious breathing space” from modern life – Sir David Attenborough

The plus side of the hot weather is that we have more butterflies in the garden than I’ve seen for a long time.  I’m planning on following some more good advice from Sir David Attenborough by taking part in the UK’s Big Butterfly Count .  As he says, what could be better for us than spending some time connecting with nature.  And it can be done from a comfortable chair with an ice-cold drink…

Red admiral butterfly on lilac plant
Some good news – numbers of Red Admiral butterflies spotted during the 2017 count were up 75% on the 2016 result

Speaking of relaxing, it’s time for our annual break here at Staircase 9 17. Enjoy the summer and some family time – see you here again in September.

Much love,


Looking back, moving forward

Dear Sam,


Well, what a tonic it was to spend time with good friends! Oxford was looking glorious, with the college gardens and parks at their most colourful, and I loved seeing the profusion of roses everywhere. As well as reminiscing about our student days, it was wonderful to look ahead and make some plans for our blog here at Staircase 9 17, too.  It was lucky that we came across the Turl Street Kitchen when we arrived, as it was the perfect place to start our discussions, with its combination of great food and coffee and its mission to support the local community.

The blog’s Home page has a new look

I’m glad we’ve made a few changes to the format of the blog and, as this year progresses, I’m looking forward to exploring our theme of wellbeing and ways of helping ourselves by helping others. Next month, we’ll start our new Friday Food for Thought series, where we’ll post an inspiring snippet to ponder. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with some wise words from Dr Johnson, once, of course, a student at Pembroke himself,

“Life has no pleasure higher or nobler than that of friendship.”

Well said!

Much love,




Spring planting!

Dear Claire,


I hope you had a wonderful trip to Florence – full of good food and wine and sunshine!

I’m happy to say the sun is out here now, and spring has finally sprung. It’s lovely to be able to get outside, walk in the park and breathe in the fresh air – the perfect thing to add a little happiness to the day.

It’s the season for planting, too. I’m not much of a gardener myself, but I know that people who love to garden often say that their garden is their happy place. Little did I realize, until I came across this article recently, that there’s evidence for the garden really being a place that increases happiness, because certain microbes in the soil have an anti-depressant effect!

Since my last post, I had a great experience working with a group of families from J’s school on a service project for a local urban farm run by Journey’s End Refugee Services. The farm provides a place for refugees to learn about agriculture and the business of farming, and grow produce to sell or to bring home for their families. I think there were thirty of us, adults and children. Between us we cleaned up debris, built three large raised beds for vegetables, put together a wheelbarrow, and sanded and painted picnic tables. All in three hours one crisp Saturday morning. We got fresh air and exercise, got creative and had fun, and met parents and children we hadn’t necessarily met before. There’s no doubt we all left as happier people that day – and hopefully we’d done a little to help some of our refugee neighbors as well.


Nothing like planting to work up an appetite – so I’m happy to report that tomorrow marks the opening of our local farmer’s market. Fresh flowers and produce, home baked bread, locally brewed coffee – or beer! – and music and friends on a Saturday morning. Happy spring!

Much love,
Sam xx

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Dalai Lama

Dear Sam,

I’m certainly looking forward to Spring, too. Although it hasn’t been anywhere near as cold here in Wales as it has your part of the US, we’ve had plenty of dark, miserable days. It was fascinating to read about all the different things that daffodils can symbolise; I hadn’t heard of the Welsh legend that being the quickest to spot one in flower brings a year of gold, but it certainly cheers me up when I see the first ones blooming. As you can imagine, we go all out for planting them in Wales and I agree with Wordsworth  that en-masse they are quite a sight, although he put it rather better than that!

I wanted to talk to you today about something else that can bring light into a gloomy day – someone being kind.  I think it’s great timing that Random Acts of Kindness Week is in February, starting on Sunday 11th, to be exact.  The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has lots of great ideas for things to do, including some ways to be kind to oneself, which is also important in the depths of winter.

One of the nicest things I think someone can do for another is to cook something, so I thought I’d share a really quick and easy recipe for some gingerbread biscuits (cookies).  These are also foolproof and popular if you have to contribute to a bake sale or cake stall.

Gingerbread Biscuits



125g unsalted butter

100g caster sugar

3 tablespoons golden syrup

1 medium egg, beaten

300g plain flour

5 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda


4oz or 1 stick unsalted butter

1/2 cup caster (superfine) sugar 

3 tablespoons golden syrup

1 medium egg, beaten

2 1/4 cups plain flour 

5 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon baking soda


Preheat the oven to 180 C/350 F/Gas mark 4.

Grease a baking tray or line with baking paper.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon until they are fluffy and light in colour.  Beat in the egg and the syrup. Mix together thoroughly.

Sift the ground ginger, bicarbonate/baking soda and flour into the bowl. Mix into a smooth dough, adding  little more flour if very sticky.  Wrap in cling film/plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 1cm/ 1/2inch and cut out with a pastry cutter. (It’s fun to theme the cutter to the person or occasion. I have one in the shape of Jane Austen’s silhouette, which is great for book clubs or well-read friends!)

Transfer the biscuits to the baking tray, with some space in between as they will spread in the oven.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until they are golden brown in colour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly on the tray before transferring to a cooling rack. 

If required, you can decorate the biscuits with fondant or writing icing. Present them in an airtight box or bag to keep them fresh.

gingerbread for bake sale

 Inspired by your sunny daffodils, I looked into the meanings of flowers and discovered that, in Japan, cherry blossom symbolises kindness. No other excuse needed to top this post with a picture that I hope will help brighten your day.

Much love,


Ideas to change the world

Dear Claire.

I’m glad you had a happy trip to Italy, and thanks so much for the link to Librivox. What a nice volunteer opportunity. I think it’s a fantastic goal to make all public domain literature free and accessible to everyone.

It’s interesting that you should ask what’s on my Fall reading or listening list, because I’ve made a promise to myself to listen to more TED talks. And TED is also committed to universal accessibility.

I love TED’s mission: To spread ideas. That is, ideas worth spreading. TED’s core belief is that ‘ideas have the power to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world’ 😊

There are now over 2500 talks on, from experts in creativity, education, science, technology and design. And they are all available for free.

I thought you might like this little sampling, covering everything from using paper towels more efficiently, to how money can buy happiness (depending on how you spend it), to completely rethinking the nature of stress and the importance of connecting with others:

TED’s How-To Guide to Everyday Life

Here’s to us sharing more ideas with each other!

Much love,

“Fresh air impoverishes the doctor”

Dear Sam,

How is your Charity Miles fitness regime going? Well done in signing up for it – I think anything which offers an incentive to exercise can only be a good thing and if you can help others at the same time, even better!

Locally, there’s something along the same lines called The Good Gym, where people go running together and combine the exercise with helping their community by gardening or perhaps visiting an older person who lives alone. It’s a win-win for all involved and I think it’s really inspiring to see such a clever but simple idea in action.

Although, as you know, I’m not much of a runner myself, I’ve been enjoying getting outside into the sunshine lately. Have you heard the Danish proverb, “Fresh air impoverishes the doctor”?  It struck a chord with me as I certainly find that going for a walk is a simple remedy if I’m feeling tired or uninspired or, indeed, a bit overwhelmed by the day’s news. Even a short walk in the park where I can focus on the trees or birdsong can help me reconnect with the present and put worries or problems into perspective. It’s also free and you can enjoy a coffee or an ice-cream at the same time – perfect!

Much love,




The companionship of books.

Dear Sam,

How is your decluttering coming along?  I think splitting what can be a daunting task into daily efforts is an ideal approach.  I’m sure your house will look spick and span by Easter Sunday and the charity shop will be grateful, too.

Books are one of the things I often buy from, and donate to, charity shops.  It’s not news to you that I love reading, of course, since we met studying English. These days, as I make my way through my to-be-read pile, I try to pass my old books along and make room for something new. Over here we have great specialist Oxfam bookshops which are always good for a browse. Do you have similar shops in the U.S?

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately as I’ve just done a fascinating course. It was called Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing. It was one of the myriad subjects offered to study online at no cost through  I’m really interested in the way that reading can help us at challenging times and I learned that the concept of bibliotherapy goes back centuries: the entrance to the sacred library of Pharaoh Rameses II bore the beautiful inscription, ‘Healing-place of the soul.’  I also recently heard about some research which found that reading for just six minutes can reduce stress by 68%, more than taking a break with a cup of tea, apparently. Reading with a cup in hand must be extra-relaxing!

So, when we give someone the gift of a book – perhaps this weekend instead of, or alongside, an Easter Egg – it seems that we’re doing more good than we realise.

Much love and Happy Easter,


Spread a little happiness…

Dear Sam,

Well done to J and his schoolmates for raising so much during the Souper Bowl  – what a fantastic idea. I certainly think there’s potential for a similar event during the Six Nations next year  – Six Donations perhaps?

Did you know that today is International Day of Happiness as well as the first day of Spring? Both reasons to be cheerful and to spread a little joy, don’t you think?

The UN launched IDOH in 2013, based on an idea from Bhutan, where they value Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product; it recognises that ‘progress’ should help to increase human wellbeing rather than being just about economics.

I think that’s a really interesting idea.  Dr Johnson said, “Kindness is generally reciprocal” and, as usual, I agree with him! We can all do small things to make a difference and it’s not just other people who feel the benefit when we do. It could be something as simple as letting someone into a queue before you (is that a very British example?), picking up some litter or taking something good to eat into work to share with colleagues. Or, you could visit someone who’s ill or lonely or even organise an event to help others like Souper Bowl.

That’s why I’ve chosen a picture of some balloons for today’s post. When Piglet was pondering what would be a suitable gift for Eeyore’s birthday, Winnie the Pooh wisely said that “No one can be uncheered with a balloon” – a reminder to contribute, and enjoy, the little things in life.

Much love,


P.S.  Two songs for today: Happy by Pharell Williams (of course) and a personal choice, Bring Me Sunshine by the inimitable Morecombe and Wise (dancing optional).