The Story Behind My… Website (Part Two)

With a completely re-vamped website to match all the work I’d put in- along with starting to expand into writing this blog, and becoming more active on my Facebook page, it occurred to me that I really needed a more ‘complete’ look- something that I could carry forward into any future branding and marketing. I turned to then-13-year-old Curly- already not only showing artistic tendencies, but wanting a future in graphic design/ illustration of some sort. I told her the sort of idea I had in mind, left her with it for a couple of days- and she came up with my ‘dolly’ logo, which now features on everything from my invoices to my Instagram page ❤

After an initial small flurry of orders at Christmas the first year after CE testing, sales continued to be a lot slower than they had been before, and I longed for the days of hectic late night sewing just to fulfil my orders. Of course a lot of it was to do with the bad state of the economy along with Brexit and rising inflation, but it really began to feel like I’d put all that hard work and effort into my business for nothing. My days were spent researching into how to get my website seen easier on search engines, on examining my product descriptions and re-wording each one many times over in the hope that they would be loved once again. By now I had further upgraded my website to cover the number of items I was making and, still recovering from the expenses of the last few years, I was well and truly making a loss.

As a ‘last ditch’ attempt to make my brand work, I bought a further website address- exactly matching the name of my shop, Facebook page, Instagram and blog address, changed over to using that one as the main address and further updated the website. It worked to a degree, but sales- particularly over the following Christmases, were disappointing and almost non-existent :/

It never occurred to me until I was on the point of giving up, that maybe I was trying too hard… that conversely, by over-working my descriptions and keywords, I was actually confusing things. I was naïve in my thinking that I was making things better- I hadn’t realised how much time it takes for search engines to play ‘catch up’ with each new update, and that updating too soon could therefore be seen as ‘spam’. I hadn’t thought that maybe it was time to move my website to a new provider, one where I could start my design and descriptions afresh and just let my products speak for themselves- with just a bit of help from the website host company, of course!

And then one day out of the blue someone messaged me on my Facebook page- telling me that they could provide a better website package than I was obviously getting! Although I immediately dismissed the message as rude- as ‘spam’ and a waste of time, it set my mind thinking. I’d been with the same company for eleven years, they were no longer meeting my needs and I needed a change- although from a totally unsuitable company, maybe there was more to the message than it appeared…

Changing provider was a scary thought- everything I knew about running a website was tied up in my commitment to them, and I was happy (ish) with the online store I had created. Could I really change all that on the off-chance that it would be better for my business? But then I realised it was nothing- compared to re-locating a large family 240 miles across the country, or going through the upheaval of losing a house in a fire; building a new online shop with existing know-how would be simple! So I took the plunge and searched once again for website providers.

The choice this time was far broader, with providers and packages catering for all tastes and products- from small handmade businesses like mine, to far larger business set ups. Though it had never been a major problem as such, with the time difference between my US web hosts and my UK business having sometimes been a bit of an issue when any problems arose previously, this time I chose a UK based company- one that seemed particularly geared towards smaller business, with good reviews, a good ‘feel’ and a month’s free trial.

Again the set up was easy to use- basic templates to choose from and then personalise with your own colours and design, but also with many options that can be added to any page making the site completely unique to each individual business owner. The trial period allowed an entire website to be designed offline and all the options tried out without impacting sales at all- as I was able to continue using my existing website while playing around with the new one. If I’d wanted to I could even have run the two side by side as they even provided a temporary web address. If necessary (and it was) I could even continue planning and designing before committing, just by signing up and paying the first month’s fee.

I was so impressed with how much I could achieve with the design, how easy it was to add products, how quickly I got a response from someone when I queried anything… and the fact that everything could be played around with offline and wouldn’t be seen live until I chose to publish it (another niggle with the previous hosts) that I made the huge (for me!) decision to switch my site to them permanently. A few teething problems with switching the actual domains over to them, and by the end of May last year- three months later than planned thanks to COVID interrupting my mojo, I launched my brand new website 😀

Though a little sad to be saying goodbye to the company that had seen me launch my little business, I was so excited by my new shop that I couldn’t wait to see if it would change anything for me. I needn’t have worried as only a few days later my first order came through- the first for several months! This was followed swiftly by another… and I’m now back to averaging more than one order a week. Okay, fairly slow compared to how my business was at one time, and it probably sounds extremely slow to some people maybe, but for me it feels fantastic- especially given the length of time each order takes to make up!

What really amazes me is how I can be sitting here now, with a website that needs far less attention but which is far more successful. Where the other site needed constant filling with ‘keywords’, descriptions that included every word that someone might just look for in a search engine, the need for filling the online form in with ‘keyword rich’ descriptions that no customer would ever see and only search engines would read, lists of words and phrases typed in for the search engine section of each and every page or item or option… now my site is fuss free. The search engine section simply asks for a shortened product title and a sentence describing it- not pages and pages. And something about this set up obviously works far better!

Little Dolly Clothes Shop‘s website is now busy once again- and once again I have a steady stream of orders coming in. I know now to take things slow and steady, and not to over-react when slow times happen- re-working product descriptions again and again can confuse search engines, whereas sitting back and waiting for better times to come is the best way forward. Life for all of us has been very up and down in recent months- just like it has for my poor website right from the word go.

Having the right attitude, being willing, brave and having the faith to change things when necessary- as well as having a lot of patience, is needed to survive out in the ‘big bad’ world- something I’ve never been very good at, other than having the faith to believe in things working out when they feel like they should. As such, I’ll never really know just how I ever ended up running a business… but it certainly keeps me busy ❤

The Story Behind My… Website (Part One)

Websites always seemed so simple… before I had one of my own.

You want to buy your week’s groceries and have them delivered to the doorstep, without the effort of going out to the shop? Easy- log onto your preferred supermarket’s website, order your shopping and hey presto- all nicely delivered by a friendly driver.

Or you want to browse through them for a bit of info. What was that bird you just saw hopping about pulling worms up in the garden? You know- the medium sized one with black wings and a yellow beak? Pull up a search engine on the computer, type in the bird’s description, follow the link to a bird spotting website and read away- all about your friendly garden blackbird! 😉

Or you simply want to look for ideas for that dream kitchen, your ideal car, to search for your new house… these days the list of what you can find a website for is endless. It’s so easy to depend on websites just being ‘there’ and ready to use, that we just don’t think about the thought and work and planning that has to go into making them that way.

Back when I first had the idea of selling my doll’s clothes, I was only focused on one thing- to get myself a website that I could sell them through. I hadn’t really thought about the style, the colour palette I wanted, what my customers would or wouldn’t be looking for- I hadn’t even thought about needing a logo… nor even what I wanted my shop to be called! I didn’t know the first thing about finding a website address, setting up the shop or advertising and actually selling repeatedly.

Selling was actually the one bit I had had one tiny experience with- Mike had bought me a hosted website when we moved to Devon from London as I made cards for a hobby. Intending to try to make them to sell once we were settled, he set up the basic site but it never really took off. Little Blondie was only eighteen months old when we moved, setting up our new house took a lot longer than it should have, and running a household of eight people- all trying to adjust to their new lives in the country, meant that I simply didn’t have the time to dedicate to it like I wanted. Even as recently as fourteen years ago, the set up for an online store was more complicated than it is today- with far more knowledge of computers needed than I possessed at the time!

But one day something made me set up a page on there as ‘gifts’- the gifts in question being some doll’s clothes similar to ones I’d made for our girls. No advertising, some basic photos and a PayPal button… and an order that came in only a couple of weeks later- the only one to come out of that website. But it was the beginning of Little Dolly Clothes Shop– although of course, I didn’t realise that at the time! 😀

It was later that same summer, whilst sitting gazing out to sea on the first day of our first ever trip to what is now our ‘second home’, that I had a vision of selling my doll’s clothes more exclusively- after all, they’d actually sold whereas my cards hadn’t- probably being up against a handmade-cards-saturated market at that time hadn’t really helped!

Once we got back home after five lovely days away, I sat down at the computer wondering where to begin. I didn’t really have a clue- I just knew the outcome that I wanted to achieve, and that it had to be done as cheaply as possible if I was actually going to make any money from selling my dolly clothes. I don’t really remember what I typed in to find it, but somewhere along the way I was directed to a website company that advertised themselves as being easy to use- with free website hosting up to a certain level of selling, readymade templates that could be customised and with the ability to take payments already set up. Upgrades to further levels were also available for various fees.

So I signed up. It’s not like me to do something so out of my comfort zone, and I don’t really know what made me actually take the plunge- other than the fact that it felt right and, by putting my faith into this being the right thing to be doing… everything fell easily into place. Coming up with a name for my shop was surprisingly easy considering I had given it little thought- I was selling doll’s clothes, it was a shop and a small business. Little Dolly Clothes Shop seemed to fit the description perfectly.

As for a logo… well, in the early days I simply had a play around with the shop name on word art to make it a bit fancy, and decorated the word with some colourful ‘bubbles’! It served the purpose, even if it didn’t really fit the shop! With pink as a basic colour palette for the website- a bit stereotypical perhaps and not very original being mainly aimed at girls, but I just happen to love it in all its forms- and a basic web address that described my business (not essential, I just wanted one of my own!) bought through the site’s recommended registrar and my new ecommerce store was good to go. 😀

The early days were very simple- I made half a dozen different outfits, took some basic photos using my daughters’ dolls as models, popped a basic description on and hoped for the best. The orders came in straight away, at the rate of a couple per week- faster than I could have hoped for or imagined, and it rather overwhelmed me! I was enjoying the experience so much I expanded my range with other ideas I had- nappies and bedding being the first. Each new item was carefully measured against my models, with patterns carefully drawn out and mock ups made to check the fit. Each time I added something new, it sold easily proving it was the right thing to do. I very soon outgrew the permitted fifteen items with options, and signed up to the first level pay-monthly store.

It wasn’t all plain sailing from there though- at the end of December 2012 we lost our house to a fire, and it nearly finished my little fledging business. The fire having been in the loft, water damage was the main issue- so the bags of fabric, bought and stored with such care in our hallway were in the centre of the house and therefore mostly needed replacing, along with all my carefully drawn out patterns and paperwork. Stupidly, business insurance hadn’t been top of my priorities back then and replacing the fabrics was a slow and costly business, never mind the fact that I had no base to work from for six months while we were living in a caravan, so had to suspend my little business until we were settled several months later into our (now long term) temporary home. 😦

Getting the business back up and running was again surprisingly easy, most likely helped by the fact that it occurred during August and September- the run up to the busy Christmas period. Two weeks before Christmas I even hit my highest ever (to date) number of orders waiting to be processed, and somehow even managed to get most of them (all the pre-Christmas delivery ones) out in time! 😀

Having learnt from that lesson, and with enough money set aside to pay for it, my next big hurdle came just over a year later when I looked into insurance… finding a craft insurer for online selling was the easy part- but when I came to sign the end of the form and I had to confirm that my makes conformed to all required legal standards… that’s when I panicked- as I had no idea! Form laid aside, I turned to the good old internet for a quick search and found that even as a very small time maker I needed to certify my doll’s clothes for toy safety… which I’m a bit ashamed to admit I’d never even heard of.

‘A quick search’ became many hours of internet browsing, which turned into many weeks of research… which in turn became many months of finding online help, contacting trading standards, replacing easily sourced and cheap fabrics with more expensive branded ones, putting each of my items through the rigorous CE testing process… there were many times when I wondered if it was really worth all the bother. (You can read more starting HERE about my CE journey in the series of blog posts I wrote at the time 🙂 ) With a now higher price band to cover the extra costs, my orders slowed down for a while too- but each time a new one came in I still felt the thrill of excitement that showed me that maybe I was actually still doing the right thing! ❤

What is ‘Normal’ These Days Anyway?

It’s been a very long eighteen months. Eighteen months that take us back to the last time it’s really possible to remember life being ‘normal’. Having been Christmas, it’s easier to look back at that time and picture how things were then than during the following two months, while our lives plodded on at their usual pace, mainly uninterrupted by the outside world.
January and February can often seem to drag anyway- in that post-Christmas, pre-spring time when the days are at their darkest, the nights their longest, and the weather the coldest. March usually brings with it the first real lasting signs of spring, when the days are longer and brighter, the weather a little warmer… but last year, of course, it also brought the ‘closure’ of the world. :/

When I think back to that time, to those first few weeks of this crazy life we’re now living through, even I remember feeling angry at the world to begin with. I remember the confusion and emotional roller coaster as we were all suddenly thrown headlong into lockdown- now sadly referred to as ‘the first’. I remember the feeling that the world was ending, for the first two weeks everyone was just counting down the days until they got the virus- as we were all certain we would. After all, we’d all been mixing normally with family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances… and even strangers until that point.

I remember the strange feeling that came from nowhere overnight, that suddenly no one outside of the front door was to be trusted. Letters that were taken happily from the postman’s hands one day suddenly had to be quarantined, with hands thoroughly washed after they’d been touched the next… even the supermarket delivery was supposed to be washed and sanitised after being left on the doorstep. And of course, we all know the feeling of heartbreak at the thought that even any of our family members that we didn’t live with were no longer to be ‘trusted’, nor our friends. 😦

Of course, the longer this has gone on, the more used to all of this we’ve become. Some things are a little more relaxed now that everyone knows how to handle each situation. The shopping is no longer expected to be sanitised as the delivery driver wears a mask, and possibly gloves, and every item has been handled as minimally as possible along the way. The postman will now wait a short distance from the door until the post has been collected from the doorstep to say hello, instead of making a run for it down the drive just in case the door is opened while they’re still within shouting distance.

All of these things have now become our normal way of life, and I often wonder how long it will take, or even IF we will ever get back to the point of the postman or delivery driver waiting on the doorstep and holding onto our post, parcel or shopping until we take it from their hands. Will it ever get back to the point where our hands don’t feel ‘dirty’ just because we touched the corner of a newly delivered envelope, and we have to throw it down just to get to the sink to thoroughly scrub our hands?

When life is back to normal and restrictions allow, how long will it take before we step easily into our friends’ and families’ lounges and make ourselves at home, without the little nagging voice at the back of our heads reminding us not to sit too closely, asking when we last washed our hands, or subconsciously counting round to see how many people are in the room?

School too has become a different experience from what it was. One way systems, already in place to some degree in any large secondary school, now guide pupils around entire buildings. Communal spaces are no longer communal- corridors have become part of the one way system and assembly halls and dining rooms are now used by only one class or year group at a time.

Little Blondie’s beloved school, the school of choice for Curly nine years ago, was chosen by them for the inclusive ‘family’ feel of the place. Year groups mixed at lunch and break times with little of the usual ‘us and them’ age snobbery. Younger years learnt from the older ones through year group mixing opportunities, and student leadership roles- carefully thought out and put into practice over many years. A large variety of lunchtime clubs was available and popular, and most spanned several age groups.

Sadly many of the best things about the school are on hold for the time being; many of the opportunities for older pupils to ‘give back’ to the school by helping with the younger students are no longer allowed, with breaks and lunches carefully separated out into different areas of the building and grounds. And out of all the sports clubs, only a few have recently started back up in line with May’s restriction changes- sadly choirs, orchestras and many other clubs are still banned.

But again, it’s becoming ‘life’. How many of the girls will loyally return to the choirs or more ‘fun’ sports clubs once they’re allowed to? Once part of their weekly routine, now that they’re used to hanging around with all their friends every lunch time they’re bound to feel like they’re missing out on all the ‘gossip’ if they so much as miss one day a week. It’ll sadly take time for the dedicated teachers to build these groups up again- yes, they have a brand new intake of girls due in September, all eager to get started on their secondary schooling and these could form the basis of new groups… but it was having an established group of older girls in any given club that was the big attraction for our girls and, I’m sure many others too.

Of course, work has changed as well- Mike went from working in an office an hour away from home, to working in Games Boy’s old room, all of fifteen paces away from our bedroom door… Along with thousands of office workers around the country, his working life took on an altogether different pace as meetings became online calls, coffee breaks simply meant nipping down to the kitchen to pop the kettle on (or calling down for one of the girls or me to do it for him), dinner as well as lunch can be eaten at the computer if needed, and the line between work/ home life became ever more blurry. I imagine he’s not the only one who has struggled with it being all too easy to work for ‘just another hour or so’ when there’s something needing finishing at the end of the day. Much easier to actually end the working day when there’s the threat of being locked in an office building for the night if you don’t! 😉

He’s just beginning to get back out into the world of face to face meetings now- but the extra effort involved has meant that so far they’re very few and far between! When a whole working hour is lost for travelling at either end of a two hour meeting, it’s easy to see how online meetings could stay as a permanent option- especially on days where most are working from home, which is also likely to be another long lasting by-product from all the Lockdowns!

Work for me though hasn’t changed. When all the physical ‘non-essential’ shops out there were forced to close for months on end with smaller shops’ only chance at survival being to try to adapt as best they could- by opening up stores online or (when later allowed to), by setting up click and collect systems, those of us already online had the advantage for once. Little Dolly Clothes Shop may only be a very small little business, a tiny part of the retail sector, but it is one of many. People already used to spending a good deal of their time online- whether working, socialising or shopping, quickly adapted to online shopping being the ONLY way to shop, not just the quickest, easiest, ‘laziest’ way! When lockdowns stopped families from meeting up, there was a huge increase in friends and families buying gifts online to send to one another ‘just because’- to show they cared.

As doll’s clothes appeal to a rather small and specialist market I didn’t expect to see much of an increase in volume of sales as a direct result; however I did make several sales and certainly didn’t suffer like so many other small businesses out there, as I didn’t need to change anything to be able to continue trading. Other than obviously increasing my work area and hand cleaning, the only real change I made was to mark the back of my parcels with the date and time that I handled them last- meaning that if customers wished to quarantine their dolly clothes for the suggested 72 hours of items in shops etc., they could. Something else that is likely to remain as ‘normal’ for some time to come!

The time is fast approaching when hopefully things are expected to return to near normal, for a while at least- no one is making promises about the coming winter. But as restrictions are eased almost completely, it isn’t even just a question of whether or not as individuals we feel comfortable, or ready to go back to how things were, but how right it feels to do so. It took a while, but we’ve all fallen too easily into the ‘new’ way of doing things, and the past is just that- the past. We will get there, slowly- and quite likely with many adaptations and tightening and easing of restrictions still to come along the way.

But however much we think we will adapt easily back into life as it was before, however much we want our lives back, and however much we can’t wait… ‘Normal’ just no longer feels normal ❤

A Year Like No Other

Tuesday 23rd March was the one year anniversary of the day our country went into the first full Lockdown of this pandemic. The day on which ‘life’ as we knew it ceased to exist and a new way of living took over… just for a few weeks, we all hoped and thought back then. More than a whole year of lockdowns and worldwide restrictions later however, and the ‘new’ way has now become the ‘normal’ way. :/

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives… our NHS, and healthcare services throughout the world have been under pressure like never before… even if they haven’t contracted the virus, usually fit people have struggled with mental health and well-being… and the country’s floundering economy has suffered a further blow after barely beginning to recover from the recent Recession and Brexit.

For us all, life has been forever changed. Many of those whose lives have been directly touched by the virus still struggle with the after effects of such an intense illness, or will forever mourn loved ones lost… whilst the rest of us will be affected in other ways for years to come.

Even for those of us fortunate to have so far avoided the virus’ direct effects it’s become all too easy to focus on the negative points that have come out of the past year, to dwell on all the ‘bad’ things that have happened… on the family and friends we’ve missed meeting up with, or the milestone and annual events that didn’t happen. But it hasn’t all been bad. Amongst all the ever changing rules and restrictions on our lives I think it’s become even more important than ever to look back and remember the many good things that have come out of the last year- whether nationally, within our communities and families, or more personally.

For us as a family, the first Lockdown began much as it did for everyone else around the country, and probably the world over- normally used to spending at least some time apart every day, the entire household was suddenly expected to spend every moment of every day under the same roof. No going out to work, no going in to school or college, no end of year school exams, no church on Sundays, no shopping trips, no holidays, no… anything.

As a family who generally get on very well with each other, our immediate worry was- can we do this? What if our usually happy framework crumbles under the sudden pressures of the unusual situation, when there’s no school/ work routines to keep us rooted? What if we don’t normally have issues simply because we usually spend the main part of everyday doing our own thing in our own space? 😕

Curly was emotional and disappointed- seven years of studying in her dream school ended abruptly with barely any warning, with no A’ Level exams to sit at the end and no ‘last day’ celebrations.
Apple was emotional and upset- for the previous six months or so she’d only been living part time at home, spending weekends with her boyfriend who lives on the other side of the moors- suddenly they were forced to stay apart and she was stuck with us at home, and she worried that their relationship might not last as a result.
Little Blondie on the face of it took it all in her stride- she must have been confused though, however much she seemed to cope with suddenly having to do all her schooling online, and only see her friends ‘virtually’ in class Zoom sessions.
And after having only recently left home, Knitting Pixie and Games Boy were left to their own devices and ‘stranded’ more than I ever would have imagined they would be- with no potential visits to or from us to help them find their newly independent feet in the world.

Mike went from going out to work each day- dressed smartly and with an hour’s commute each way, to working fifteen paces across the landing in Games Boy’s old room, and with no strict dress code to adhere to (though I have to point out, he did actually at least get dressed each day before his working day began!)
And I just carried on the same as always- except that suddenly I was sharing my work space (the dining table) with Little Blondie and her school work which restricted my cutting out and sewing time, and I suddenly had a houseful of people to work the housework and washing around…

But we soon all got into new routines- of a kind…

With the weather as glorious as it was during April and May, and unable to visit the caravan or beach, we spent many hours together out in the garden. With exams cancelled, Curly had nothing to study for so could normally be found spread out and lost in a book. Little Blondie took what schoolwork she could outside with her, and even I found how easy it is to take a laptop into the garden to work on- provided of course that the screen is angled away from the sun! Mike and Apple also came out from time to time and it was nice just to spend some rare quality time relaxing together after ‘work’. ❤

Until then, to me our garden had only ever been a playground for the children to spend hours playing in, and somewhere to hang the washing to dry on a nice day- time out there doing ‘nothing’ was a rarity for me, and felt like time wasted.
Those long, lazy days of lockdown however taught me how to appreciate the outdoors of our house simply for the sake of enjoying it. Working, chatting or reading there was something very special about the time we spent out there last summer- an experience we’ll never have again. I’ve since found a love for spending time out there, whatever the weather- and since February I’ve spent most Saturdays out there, weeding and tidying up the many years of neglect, and untangling the plants and shrubs that have grown wild and unappreciated until now.

As soon as last summer’s restrictions lifted enough to allow it, Apple took off to be re-united with her boyfriend and, excess travel still being discouraged, made the decision to ‘semi’ move in to his flat with him and his mum. By telling herself that the move wasn’t permanent, she took the pressure off the situation- which actually allowed her to settle easier and quicker into what has now become her new life. 🙂

Knitting Pixie, having just set up home by herself and met her new boyfriend only a couple of months before the virus struck, has also seen major changes in her life over this past year. With lockdown imminent she made the uncharacteristically impulsive decision to move her boyfriend in- under normal circumstances something I may have worried about, however I was saved from this by the simple relief of knowing that she wasn’t going to be stuck on her own and lonely. Now, one year on, she and her boyfriend are engaged and their first baby is due later in the year! 🙂

And with Zoom calls and virtual meet ups becoming a normal way of life, we’ve had more interaction and communication with the wider family from around the country (the world even, if you include our son in Canada!) over the last year than we usually do, which has been nice. I’ll never feel properly comfortable with the Zoom calls (a smallish drink beforehand works wonders for relaxing into it!), but in addition to our somewhat irregular chats and calls the monthly family Zoom call and quiz has been beneficial all round.

Work wise… a year that has seen shops, pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, gyms, theatres etc. shut for many months at a time and struggling to survive, has actually been something of a blessing in disguise for a little business like mine- already fully set up online and with orders sent out through the post anyway, though there have been times when I’ve felt at once both incredibly lucky and incredibly guilty!

When the pandemic struck and Lockdown was announced, I had been on the point of changing my website over to a new hosting company- I’d been increasingly unhappy with how it was performing on Google and the other search engines and, having changed nothing major on there in recent months I’d come to the conclusion that changing to a new company may be the solution needed. For that first couple of months though all I felt was despair- what was the point now of trying something new when the whole world felt like it was falling apart, never mind the fact that I just felt so emotionally exhausted I simply couldn’t be bothered to make the effort anymore…

Then one sunny day I suddenly felt more motivated- there had been a lot of talk in the press about shops transferring their businesses online and how it was helping some of them to survive. I thought- if shops used to face to face contact can survive this, then I’m quite sure a little online business like Little Dolly Clothes Shop can! I finished making my half-worked new website, went live with it- and received the first order for several weeks only a couple of days later. 😀

My little business has since gone from strength to strength- whether it was entirely down to the new website, or people’s new buying habits and wanting to send treats to little people in their families during the pandemic, or a mixture of both, I don’t know. But I do know that since changing over, I have had the best sales over the last twelve months that I’ve had for several years! And have a much easier website to work with, and an admin host support team who are always ready to help!

The Lockdown anniversary became a National Day of Remembrance- with a one minute silence and services of prayer and reflection around the country, as was the right thing to do. I hope we never forget to reflect on this bizarre time- one day in years to come, when this is all finally over and normal ‘normal’ life returns, I hope we still pause to remember, much like we do each November to commemorate the lives lost to war. And remember to never take ‘normal’ for granted ever again. ❤

Some Kind of ‘Normal’

Way back in February last year, when life was different and we all had plans for a ‘normal’ kind of year, I had a blog post half written about how our lives were changing as the older children began to leave home- it was slow going though and I was somehow lacking motivation… In the post-Christmas, pre-spring lull that happens every year I was struggling to get back into ‘working’ mode, but had every intention of doing everything I could, starting with this blog, to build Little Dolly Clothes Shop into the business I want it to be. The year before had been a strange one (we thought) – one which not only saw us sadly having to say our final goodbyes to my Mum, but one which towards Christmas saw both Knitting Pixie and Games Boy leaving home and becoming independent within weeks of each other; and Apple beginning to only stay at home during the week as she too began to spread her wings and spend her weekends with her boyfriend.

So in a way New Year 2020 had properly signalled a new start- the time for us to get used to being a smaller family unit for the majority of the time. It hadn’t got to the point of being any less chaotic in reality, as although the immediate demands of family life became less; as we were just beginning to find out, fitting in visits from older children and keeping in touch with them is in a way MORE demanding than when they’re all living at home as they want more than just the odd five minutes with you here and there!

We were therefore only just beginning to find OUR new normal, when of course another completely different ‘new normal’ took over… :/

March 2020 – and the world suddenly stopped… or so it seemed, though in reality I think it just started turning the other way- everything carried on as it did before, but differently. It’s felt at times a bit like we went to sleep and woke up in a parallel universe… although it already feels like now is ‘normal’ and before was a distant time gone by… like when you recall memories from childhood, or learn about what it was like living during the war or in Victorian times…

For a few months life went on, with each day much like the next and no real difference between ‘weekdays’ and ‘weekend days’. It felt as though we were living in some sort of suspended animation, where everyone was just waiting for the go ahead to begin living as normal again. Of course, we all knew it would take a while, that things wouldn’t just suddenly go back to the way they’d always been- but I think deep down we were all secretly hoping it would happen that way. That one day we’d wake up, as if from a dream- the world would be healed and we’d be told ‘it’s all over’…

Sadly of course, that never did happen. Summer dawned and with it came new hope as rules around the world were relaxed gradually. We were finally able to return to the caravan by mid-July and in August we spent nearly three weeks there. We watched first hand as things continued to improve- from the first few nights where any kind of ‘live entertainment’ was strictly off limits, to a few days later where the first entertainers of the year were finally allowed to perform once again on the stage- quietly and with restraint (with no audience participation/ singing along/ dancing/ loud volume). For them though it was a milestone, a real turning point and the hope of better times to come. For the entertainment industry, along with hospitality and holiday parks among many others, it was the start of the return to normal that we’d all been waiting for, and everyone was hoping it would last.

On Curly’s 18th birthday during that stay we were able to celebrate all together at the caravan- though there was still a cautionary limit in numbers gathering, for us just to see Mike’s mum and dad, our two older girls and their boyfriends was enough, and at the time still legal ❤ The girls and their young men joined us for the evening- eight of us around one table in the clubhouse felt very crowded when we’d just all got used to living in such reduced numbers!

By the end of the holiday though, things were already taking a downward turn- so soon after it seemed that life was getting back on track. The number at a table was reduced to six (lucky for Curly that her birthday fell exactly when it did!), all the staff were expected to wear masks, and although the newly reintroduced entertainment was still allowed, the sparkle seemed to be fading from the evenings again already…

Back once again in our ‘real’ world and away from our second home, children were returning to schools for the first time since before Easter. Curly was excitedly preparing to begin her journey in Art College- she’s only studying an hour away from home, so the fact that she would only be in the actual college one day a week with everything else online for the foreseeable future, whilst disappointing, wasn’t too much of an issue.
Little Blondie was delighted to find that her school’s much anticipated new uniform- met school-wide with such enthusiasm in the dim and distant world of 2019, was still going ahead, and she was proudly wearing it as she finally headed back off to school at the beginning of September.

Such hope, such anticipation of a gradual return to normality now that they were finally back through those doors. I had been okay with her learning at home- where we knew she was safe and happy and working hard. But for her, September was important- a chance to catch up with friends long since only seen on a screen or spoken to through text or messages. But it was soon apparent to those girls that life was now anything BUT normal… no mixing with other year groups, or tutor groups… designated entrances and exit gates… and toilets… lunch delivered to form rooms… the wearing of masks on the bus up until through the school gates- which quickly changed to everywhere throughout the school unless seated in a classroom… 😦

The first ‘bubble’ within school to be sent home due to a positive COVID case came only days into the term… followed by at least one such instance a week- Little Blondie’s bubble themselves had two weeks learning at home in November, and another couple of odd days off while track and trace was carried out. It became a way of life- half expecting each day to hear that she wasn’t needed in school…

Meanwhile the world was shutting down around us once again- firstly with restrictions on how many people you could meet, then where, then even stricter depending on where in the country you happened to be living. We were lucky where we live here in Devon- our rules tightened more gradually… our pubs and restaurants were able to continue trading for just a week or two longer… but it was all just a matter of time.

We felt a big sense of relief when Little Blondie finally broke up for the Christmas holidays- due back in school two weeks later. By only that evening the physical return to school had already been extended by a week… by the New Year by another week… on 4th January, the day the spring school term officially started (remotely, from home) the country went back into full lockdown with schools due back… who knows when.

I’m happy to have my little table buddy back- her school is extremely well organised with their home learning provision, and she sits happily working away all day on her computer at the table opposite me, while I work on mine- and she still seems to be making good progress in all her subjects. Mike is still happily (or not, depending on how well his day is going!) working upstairs in Games Boy’s old room; and Curly has the living room to herself, and spends her days spread out over the entire area with her artwork and her Zoom calls and lectures…

It’s not how I ever imagined our lives would be when our new normal began all those months ago after the next three oldest of our children all left home within months of each other.
It’s not been easy and, probably like the majority of other people there have been days when I’ve struggled- but imagined or not, this IS our ‘new normal’… and along with the rest of the world we just need run with it, and wait to see where life takes us next 🙂