Life less ordinary: eccentric activities
Crochet graffiti, risqué cake-making, guerilla gardening, gin-themed meals, singing sculptures … esoteric activities have never been so popular. Here's how to join in
On the basis that everyone likes cake, or at least that no one hates it, Miss Cakehead – the alter ego of London-based creative Emma Thomas (cakeheadlovesevil.wordpress.com) – is redefining the sweet experience. While she can't actually bake herself, her idiosyncratic ideas are taking the cake-makers she collaborates with to places they'd probably never thought they would go.
After devising last year's Eat Your Heart Out – the world's first over-18s cake shop – as well as a Morning-After dessert table at the Kerrang! Awards, complete with edible cigarette butts and spilt wine, and a gory Silent Hill cake installation referencing Alice Cooper's lyrics "I used to be such a sweet, sweet thing/Till they got hold of me", July saw Miss Cakehead organising Cakey Perry (cakeyperry.wordpress.com).
Set in Prangsta, a cult dress-up destination shop in Lewisham, London, and styled on the Katy Perry California Gurls video shot by Matthew Cullen, this three-day pop-up high tea was inspired (or rather clearly uninspired) by the ubiquitous and – to Miss Cakehead's mind – thoroughly boring "creative" high teas available in London. Her own version involved a whirlwind of chintzy crockery, paper doilies and red gingham plastic tablecloths, with gummy-bear wreaths, love heart-decorated sunglasses and more cake than you can imagine: cake pops from Molly Bakes (mollybakes.co.uk), painted gingerbread figures from Nevie-Pie Cakes (neviepiecakes.com), Hansel-and-Gretel-in-the-woods-style houses made of jelly babies and Liquorice Allsorts …
"Complete randomness" is the general appeal: "People ask me why we do this, but I don't want to think up a big, long reason. We just thought it would be fun," says Miss Cakehead, her eyes now set on things to come. For Halloween, she's making an Edible Autopsy, and after that, she's thinking about doing something with ice-cream and Star Wars … Keep checking her website for dates and times. And if this culinary craziness has you itching to try out new ideas in the kitchen, Nevie-Pie's Natasha, who acted as art director for Cakey Perry and is based in Hampshire, gives the odd class in painting on fondant or making things from gingerbread – a few are coming up in September and November; email email@example.com for details.
Yarnbombing, knit graffiti, guerrilla crocheting – needle crafts have exploded in ways entirely unforeseen by our grandmothers. The latter would no doubt approve, though, of twentysomethings knitting a tea cosy, even when it is big enough to keep a red phonebox warm – as made by London-based Knit the City (knitthecity.com) a short while ago.
To get involved, find a stitching group near you at Stitch 'n' Bitch (stitchnbitch.org). Lancashire-based collective Art Yarn (artyarn.org) is running free drop-in sessions for its ongoing Tree Cozy Project at the Jubilee Gardens, in Crewe, Cheshire (artyarn-jubileegardens.blogspot.com). Until June 2012, they will be making two venerable old trees their very own full-scale jumpers – you can either send a square in by post (instructions on the site) or attend a fibre-crafting workshop on site.
For a more luxurious knitting escapade, Bedruthan Steps Hotel (01637 860860, bedruthan.com, from £264 for a two-night knitting break) is running a Simple Knitting two-day course with Erika Knight. And for inspiration, don't miss experimental embroiderer Louise Gardiner (lougardiner.co.uk) at the Quarry Bank Mill gallery (nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-quarrybankmillandstyalestate, adult £11.50, child £5.75), in Wilmslow, Cheshire – her Losing the Thread exhibition is on until 12 September.
The Make Believe Cafe pops up as and when needed for community-based craft projects. You might spot it out and about around the country – most recently at the Womad festival in Wiltshire – or at shops and cafes in Lewes. The next event is a bonbon workshop at Wickle, Lewes, on 15 September (makebelievecafe.com, £15 including drinks, booking essential).
What lies beneath
Sub Brit (Subterranea Britannica) digs underground Britain: its 1,000-plus members – from archaeologists to tube drivers and vicars, predominantly male – have a shared fascination with what's beneath Britain's surface. Members document and explore anything from Brighton's sewers to tunnels beneath Coleshill House, Wiltshire, where second world war resistance fighters were trained. "It's the British way to poke about," says chairman Martin Dixon, "and by working with English Heritage and the National Trust, we help preserve our subterranean heritage."
• subbrit.org.uk for forthcoming events and places to visit around the UK
Charm School is organised by Dana Gornitzki, editor of Mien Magazine, a site dedicated to manners and etiquette from a bygone era. Under her watchful eye guests are encouraged to leave laptops at home and switch their phones to silent for a few days' old-fashioned relaxation. Dana welcomes guests to the West Lexham estate in Norfolk, where activities range from learning to bake soda bread in the outdoor kitchen, to perfecting the art of polite conversation.
Outdoor pursuits include swimming, croquet, berry-picking and feather quill-making (courtesy of the local geese), to equip you for letter-writing lessons. Gentle exercises in the treehouse each morning offer an antidote to the daily commute, and stress expert the Juggling Goddess will be on hand to teach you how to combat the worries of day-to-day life, so you can take some of the serenity home with you.
The converted piggery features cosy beds and mismatching vintage furniture, which adds to the rustic charm of the retreat. Future dates will be advertised on the Mien Magazine website, and Dana will also be bringing the Charm School to London this September (two-day course, £200 plus accommodation). Visit mienmagazine.com for further details.
Gin is having a bit of a moment, and has surpassed vodka as the bevvy du jour, especially at vintage-themed evenings and drinking holes. To learn how to appreciate the varying flavours of mother's ruin, the Feathers hotel (01993 812291, feathers.co.uk) at Woodstock, near Oxford, has introduced a Gin Experience (£185pp a night), boasting a tasting menu that features gin in every dish.
Alternatively, an escape to pretty Cowmire Hall (01539 568200, cowmire.co.uk), near Windermere in the Lake District, could be your dream holiday. Stay at The Bothy, a converted farmhouse in the hall's grounds, from £250 a week, pour yourself a double damson gin, brewed right there in the building's cellar, and enjoy total tranquillity in this phoneless country home. On the menu you'll find gin from the nearby Lyth and Winster valleys, made from local fruit, and the house's bible, A Taste of Damsons, gives tips on how to incorporate the ruby tipple into cocktail recipes. There's also a boathouse on Windermere to wash away the hangover.
Twentysomething Amanda Luisa (07954 252287, icanmakeshoes.com) is on a mission to spread the joy of shoemaking. Everything you do on her courses can be recreated at home, because she doesn't use any heavy machinery, so visits to the Topshop Shoe Lounge could become a thing of the past. Make a pair of summer sandals from scratch (£80), learn all you need to know about shoe design (£75), or take an intensive three-day course (£500). For the cautious crafter, the one-day up-cycling course (£50) will give you the confidence to recover, reheel, resole and wear your favourite old pair of shoes. Courses run most weekends in Stoke Newington, London.
Love is in the air at Petworth House (01798 343929, visitpetworth.com) in West Sussex, as it celebrates the dying art of the love letter. Visitors can hear readings of famous letters, and stock up on sumptuous notepaper and scented inks. There will also be a masterclass in how to perk up your prose. The course takes place on 27 and 28 August and costs £11.50 a day.
Tea-drinking is a British institution, and if you're a bit of a connoisseur (rather than a graduate of the PG-Tips-and-six-sugars school), the picturesque Wan Ling Tea House (07960 471243, wanlingteahouse.com) in Blandford Forum, Dorset should be your next port of call. Share a cuppa with the tea ladies and learn the secrets of creating the nation's best brew at the house's tea ceremony workshops. Or host a hip Mad Hatter's tea party, serving Wan Ling's special selection of premium Chinese and Indian teas on traditional Gong Fu trays and in Yi Xing teapots. Throughout the summer, the Tea House becomes a mobile shop – see the website for details.
Yes, this movement is alive and blooming … Recent achievements include a fabulous field of marigolds, poppies, cornflowers and sunflowers over what would otherwise have been a dreary roundabout in Chiswick, west London, and mass sunflower-seed sowing all over the capital in May. There's also a lavender harvest planned for 20 August at 3pm – check for updates at guerrillagardening.org. There's also a "#mint revolution" on Friday 19 August in Manchester and Friday 26 August in Liverpool. "I'm creating pop-up mint gardens," says organiser Richard Reynolds. "People can come and help out, and then take free mint seeds that they can plant at home." The gardens will feature planters made out of recycled wheelbarrows and barrels, and events are supported by Havana Club rum – seed packets contain the recipe for a mojito, so you can whip up a cocktail with your homegrown mint.
Bristol-based installation artist Luke Jerram launched London's 30th Lift festival last month with his hot-air balloon Sky Orchestra. Now his new project, Aeolus (lukejerram.com/aeolus), has just opened to the public in Lyme Park, Cheshire. This acoustic pavilion made up of myriad stainless steel tubes – like a giant Aeolian harp – has been designed to resonate and sing with the shifting patterns of the wind. After 21 August, the installation will go on tour, visiting MediaCityUK in Salford Quays and the Eden Project in Cornwall.
Artist collective Liminal's Organ of Corti (organofcorti.co.uk) is another listening wonder set to tour Britain in the coming months. Winner of last year's PRS for Music Foundation's New Music award, the piece stands four metres high and its transparent acrylic pipes filter the incoming ambient sounds of wherever it's installed into a beautiful, subtle hum. It will be in the Cotswold Water Park until 17 August, before moving to the banks of the river Severn for Worcester Music Festival.
Early 2012 will see Flow, a floating version of a water organ (flowmill.org), installed on the river Tyne. It's a collaboration between the Owl Project, a Manchester artists' group, and musician and producer Ed Carter – check the website for updates, events and the grand launch date.
Dale Berning, with additional entries by Katie Antoniou, Jennifer Cox and Beatrix Zwart