The spirit of Christmas is alive and well in this cosy cottage
The perfect Christmas is a pipe dream for many but printmaker and illustrator Gillian Tyler and her husband, Darrell, have it down to a fine art. They both love this time of year and put heart and soul into making it as happy as possible for their family and friends. It helps that Darrell is a great cook who enjoys making Christmas dinner for a houseful and is reputed to make “the world’s best Yorkshire puddings”.
Gillian, an artist and printmaker, is in her element when using her flair for design and talent for making things. The result is absolutely stunning. It’s Christmas at its best and as it should be: traditional, cosy and rich with nature’s bounty, handmade decorations and memories of Christmas’s past. “I have always loved Christmastime. I seem to spend all year thinking about it. There’s Christmas Day, our son’s birthday is on Boxing Day and our wedding anniversary is on the 27th,” says Gillian, who is renowned for her beautiful book illustrations and who has worked with several leading children’s authors, including Michael Rosen and Allan Ahlberg. She also specialises in wood engravings and printmaking, which showcase her passion for nature and wildlife. Her hare print is a best-seller, as is her latest featuring a fox and her “Peewits O’er Cranberry Cross”, which includes lapwings and draws attention to their dwindling numbers.
Art is a big part of her festive decor and she changes many of the pictures in the house for Christmassy scenes that include a framed poster of Alfred Bestall’s illustrations of Rupert Bear at Christmas. “You can’t beat his illustrations. I found the poster in a charity shop. It’s from the 1970s when the Daily Express gave them away free with the paper one year,” says Gillian.
While most of the decorating and shopping happen at the beginning of December, some preparations begin much earlier. Gillian begins work on designing and painting her annual set of Christmas cards, which she sells via her Etsy shop, long before the winter sets in. Darrell makes his own pickled onions in late summer and lines up in jars in the pantry ready for Yuletide feasts. In early Autumn, he and Gillian steep the blackcurrants in vodka and the sloes in gin ready for raising a glass at Christmas.
All the produce above is from their garden, which they have transformed since buying their cottage seven years ago. It’s now a mix of lawn with fruit and veg beds and a brood of happy hens. A large “overgrown wilderness” has been transformed into a meadow that attracts birds, bees and butterflies.
The property is in Midhopestones, near Sheffield, and they bought it after a long search. “We wanted a cottage big enough for us and our three sons and with room for a studio for me but we couldn’t find anything that was right,” says Gillian. “We’d looked at 32 houses and rejected them when a friend told me that the owner of this place was planning to sell. I looked round and it was gorgeous. I felt really emotional about it. It was over our budget but we decided to push ourselves to the limit.” adds Darrell, who didn’t bother with a survey. It is solid with some of the walls one-and-a-half feet deep and it’s stood for well over 200 years with no smell of damp so we reckoned it was okay.”
Sitting next to the River Don, the late 18th century home was originally one of Britain’s first potteries before being turned into a dwelling.. Since buying it, Gillian and Darren have installed a wood-burning stove in the sitting room and invested in an electric Esse stove from Nortons of Sheffield. “It had a stove that ran on propane gas so we switched to it for something more economical and eco-friendly and we love it,” says Darrell.
The cottage is full of character and charm with a host of period features that lend themselves to trimming up. Festive garlands with pine cones, clove studded oranges and decorations are hung from the beams. The tree is from local grower Flouch and is trimmed with a variety of decorations, both old and new.
“We’ve both got decorations from our own childhood but we always buy a couple of new ones each year. They are always either glass or something a bit special and different,” says Darrell.
There are plenty of handmade ones too, including the fairies that Gillian makes from pegs. Other baubles and decorations, including tiny wassail cups, are used to fill glass jars and teamed with fairy lights to add some twinkle. Nativities are also a key feature - there are three, and there’s always an Advent candle. A board of vintage Christmas cards sits above the piano. It is covered with cards embroidered by Gillian’s late mum, who was also very creative, and a collection bought by Darrell.
“He buys me a vintage Christmas card each year. That’s one of our traditions,” says Gillian. Others include a walk with other villagers on Christmas Eve ending in roast beef sandwiches and mulled wine. Then it’s on with new pyjamas and family time round the fire. On Christmas Day there are stockings for the three boys, Saul, 23, Keelan, 22, and Isaac, 16, and present opened followed by a quick trip to the pub and back for Christmas dinner at 2pm.
Guests will be greeted by a homemade wreath on the door and by the family dogs, Hector, a cockerpoo, and Betty, a rescue dog from Romania. Hector will be in his Santa suit and Betty will be barking loudly but not loud enough to drown out the Christmas carols. “That’s another tradition,” says Gillian. “It has to be carols during Christmas dinner and we always play some Kate Rusby’s Christmas songs too.”
*For details of Gillian’s printmaking, cards and illustrations for sale visit www.gilliantyler.co.uk