Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Leaves, Street Life and Ghosts

I've been involved in a couple of writing projects, but have been getting out and about in London too over the past week, including another cycle through Regent's Park.   We've had a really spectacular autumn display this year, with the beeches even redder than before

with various types of wildlife in evidence, particularly squirrels of course. I know they're pests but I do love to look at them flitting around so gracefully. I turned to find this one examining me closely.

A peaceful scene here, as a narrow boat chugged quietly along the Regent's Canal.

Today, I noticed that most of the leaves have fallen. I snapped these, twinkling gold against the blue sky.

so we are reaching the end and will have to hunker down for winter at last. 

I never tire of walking (or cycling) around London, there are always things to see, and often you come across something by chance. Five minutes later and I would have missed this scene. The lady in silver was quite goose-pimpled close up!  

Here she is a few minutes later trying to get warm. But who on earth is that behind her?

This gent was sitting happily by himself with a traffic cone which made a very good megaphone. He was singing old music hall songs and seemed most contented.  The sound's terrible but he's singing "Maybe it's Because I'm a Londoner"

Cycling back, the fountains in the park looked delightfully creepy.  This one reminded me of a veiled ghostly figure.  I like London parks at night, they seem to have quite a different character from how they are in the day. 

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Pride of Belfast City...

T and I have spent the last few days in Belfast. One of our daughters was giving a TEDx talk there, and of course the proud parents wanted to attend - what a wonderful experience! 

While we were there, we spent a couple of days roaming the city.  It was her first ever visit, but T had done some work at BBC Belfast during the Troubles, and I had spent some very formative teenage years living on the northern fringes of the city.  Neither of us had been back since.  

I am still coming to terms with how the old place has changed.  Have you ever had the experience of meeting with someone you haven't seen since you were 17?  Belfast seemed at first to be a bit like my old school friends, completely recognisable but immensely changed by the passage of the years. 

We stayed in a hotel which could have been in Shoreditch. It's reached through a passageway decorated with murals - there's the front courtyard, below.

It's fair to say that "hip" was not a word associated with the Belfast of my youth.  This time, though, we were in the Cathedral Quarter, the city's hippest area, and believe me, I've never seen such a place for street art.  In some areas, street art covered almost every metre of wall space.   The image below was one wall of a huge courtyard entirely covered in paintings, all of them representing events or aspects of Northern Ireland both now and in the past.  

It is approached by an alleyway, and the alley's roof is decorated with Yeats'  "An Irish Airman Forsees his Death" - you can hear it, and read an explanation of it, here.

When you get into the square you see that one side consists of a life sized row of terraced houses, one of which is shown below. To see a whole row is quite unsettling.

Each window in the terrace has a meaning.  I'd think the elephant, for instance, refers to a short movie directed by Danny Boyle about Northern Ireland refusing to "see the elephant" in its living room.   (in case you're not familiar with the expression, it means you refuse to acknowledge something even though it cannot be ignored).   

On the left you'll see a Catholic sitting room complete with a picture of the Pope, religious statuettes and a collecting box for missionary work. On the right is a gay couple with their cat staring out of the window. Above is an arm-wrestling match between the UVF and the IRA  over a coffin. The lady in curlers is holding a mug from Santa Ponsa, and this recalls an amusing story about 'Northern Ireland's best boss,' a hairdresser who made a rash promise to his staff... (read about it here). 

Above the houses is a black and white mural of Belfast folk before the recent troubles, and just visible on the left is a display of photos of real people who lived in this area sixty years ago.  

 Some of the imagery is pretty hard hitting, but there are also many moments of humour, and some well known Irish people appear.  Can you spot George Best and Van Morrison below?

Well, here they are.  Wonder who the fellow in the car is?


The Big Ben-like clock is the Albert Memorial Clock, a Belfast landmark. In the picture, the digital face shows 1690, the date of the Battle of the Boyne, cherished by Orangemen, and the hands show 1916, the date of the Easter Rising, which is dear to Republicans. 

I'm still puzzling about the tiny detail below, to be found at the feet of the Orangeman standing by the "bóthar druidte" sign. It is a tiny little jockey jumping a rat over a cigarette packet, which says, in Polish, "Smoking Kills."

Someone needs to provide little booklets to explain some of these murals, don't they? In fact, there is a company offering tours of the murals of Belfast,  but I don't know if it includes the likes of this square, which seems to belong to the nearby Duke of York pub.  And I'm sure the tours don't take in the mural below, decorating one of the industrial buildings that still characterise the city.  I think it's Belfast depicted in Native American style (or at least, I think the creature's head is the Albert Memorial Clock again, trailing clouds). 

And here are some more murals reflected in the windows of the Mourne Seafood Bar in Bank Square, which had the most delicious looking fresh fish I have seen outside Japan.    

But murals aren't the only things to look at in Belfast.  Its big white City Hall has a remarkable collection of modern stained glass windows representing different aspects of Northern Ireland's history.    The one below is their take on the great famine.   See the ship taking the starving wretches to a new life in America?  

And I was dazzled by the variety of stained glass techniques in the window commemorating 100 years of  Belfast life, with linen and aircraft making, agriculture, and scientific and artistic achievements. I particularly like how the rays of light from the atom are engraved into the glass and then coloured to catch the light.

I was pleased to see that the window also contains the "Salmon of Knowledge," next to the atom rays.  (I've always liked the idea of a Salmon of Knowledge.) It refers to Fintan mac Bóchra, from Irish mythology, a seer who survived in the guise of a salmon for some years and passed on his wisdom when he changed back into a human once more.  

It is very well worth taking the free tour of the City Hall.  It is a good example of Edwardian architecture, with no expense spared (and it also has a great museum and coffee shop). Certainly, I saw enough splendid old buildings to remind me how my teenage years in Belfast gave me a lifelong love of 100-year-old architecture.    

The City Hall tour's lots of fun, not stuffy at all, by the way. Here's a grandad being encouraged to model the Mayor's robes, and he got a round of applause afterwards. 

There are more visual delights - here are mosaics in Belfast cathedral...

And isn't this drinking fountain great? It's from 1874, in remembrance of Daniel Joseph Jaffe, politician and philanthropist, and it is painted up in dazzling yellow.  

Did you ever see such a magnificent old brass front door?  Someone must polish it every day or two.

I can't say goodbye to Belfast's public art without sharing this picture of the DeLorean from one of my favourite movies, "Back to the Future."   DeLorean's in Belfast had already closed by the time the movie came out, but it lives on in a terrific mural of Belfast in Dali surrealist style. 

One afternoon we managed to visit the Ulster Museum, where top priority for me was the tapestry of the "Game of Thrones."  This popular series was filmed partly in Northern Ireland, and the tapestry is a kind of take-off of the Bayeux Tapestry, with each section telling a part of the story. I understand that after every episode, another section of the tapestry is added on to what already exists.  

I'm not a "Game of Thrones" fan but this tapestry was a wonder, even if you don't know anything about the series.  

 We heard a good deal of street music around the city, which I don't remember in the Belfast I knew before.    My favourite performer was this charming man, below,  who was very proud of his fiddle-cum-vintage gramophone, which had exactly the right squeaky sound for the Central European folk music he was playing with vigour. 

You'll wonder if we got the chance to see any of Belfast's official tourist attractions, not least the well known Titanic Belfast, which occupies an eye catching building in what used to be a drab industrial landscape.   The answer is no, we saw nothing except the City Hall - but maybe next time.... And meanwhile I am very glad we took the trouble to walk around the streets and see all the sights available for free.  

At the end of my stay, I felt that the old Belfast was still very much alive inside its new skin.  Despite much redevelopment, it is still one of the great Victorian cities, and it is still full of friendly people who like a chat and are extremely attached to, and proud of the place.  Just as before, though, I was also aware of strongly held religious and political sensitivities, so I was instinctively figuring out what kind of person was listening before I gave my own views.  A strong moralistic streak still ran through some of the atttitudes I encountered - which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing, although I might draw the line at actually shooting drug dealers.  

I'm still trying to put this new artistic, outward-looking Belfast together with the place I knew, and  yes, I'm aware I was mainly in the centre of the city.  Still, the more I think about it the more I start to believe that, like all great cities, Belfast is constantly reinventing itself. It is obviously full of talented and hardworking people, and if it can withstand the challenge that the coming couple of years could bring to its hard-won peace, there's no limit to what it could achieve.   

One last thing. Just like when I lived in Belfast, I returned to England with Northern Irish money in my purse, and nobody in London would accept it, even though it is legal tender.  Grr!

Tuesday, 31 October 2017


 Spotted in the street this time last year in Japan. Didn't get to share it before so hope you enjoy it now.  I'm sure they did!

Have a fun Halloween!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Roots and Dust

I've been researching my Irish roots lately.  They go back mainly to Dublin, Co. Cork and Co. Kilkenny, but also include other parts of Ireland.  It's been fascinating looking through my great-grandmother's scrap book in detail, searching for clues about what everyone was doing as they progressed through Tipperary, Waterford and so on. The book is huge and contains some lovely cards like this, in gold and green.  

Many of my ancestors are military, too, (and some are both Irish AND military.) In search of their service records, I visited the National Archives in Kew last week.  I'd never been there before and I liked it very much.  It's a huge building, and very pleasant and relaxed inside.

There were some curious artworks around the place. Here's part of a community art project called "Here Be Monsters." It's based on the Archive's historical map collection and comprises several lovely mosaic globes based on the archive's historic map collection. You'll see there are mermaids, fish and other objects which people once thought lived in unexplored parts of the world.  

They made a very good impression but on closer examination I was fairly baffled by some of them. I suppose this could be a sea slug of some kind?

The building's interior is decorated with stained glass and inlaid marble - and I wasn't quite sure what all of those decorations represented either. Any ideas?

So some mysterious art work - maybe I'll find out more information next time I go. The archive contains so much amazing stuff that I could easily spend another day there.

 My ancestors' involvement in various battles and wars abroad were a history lesson in themselves, and included several events I'd never heard of, such as the Fenian raids in Canada during the 1860s. Much of it was colonial service, and some of it very much at the  expense of the local people.  
 It is sad, but opportunities for most people were few, and those who joined the army probably preferred it to staying at home labouring in all weathers for a pittance or starving to death in the Irish famine. 

There's a nice cafe and small but excellent bookstore, mostly selling books that help you understand the past. I could have spent a fortune there but in the end, I narrowed it down to just one book - Raymond Postgate's "Verdict of Twelve,"  one of a series of reprinted vintage crime classics.  

The book goes easy on gory details (which suits me) and the unusual plot centres on the jury in a murder trial, and how the jury comes to its decision.   This by itself could be a bit dull, but Postgate has woven a baffling mystery into the jury's views and deliberations, and I literally had no idea what was going to happen until the very last page.   

It raised all sorts of questions about group psychology, and I thought it was so clever I wanted to buy another crime novel by Postgate. I found to my disappointment that he didn't stick with crime writing, and instead, went on to found The Good Food Guide, 

His son, Oliver Postgate went into television, though, and invented .... yes -  dear old Bagpuss.  Apologies to those of you who don't know it, but I always loved the introduction to this BBC children's programme. Today's TV seems a lot faster moving, though.  The programme would be half over before you've met all the characters each week, but perhaps children like that slowness and repetition. 

The weather's been weird. Have you been having odd weather? So many people have. I've just heard from someone in Hiroshima who's expecting a large and unseasonal typoon.  Here in the UK there was an amazing red sun and a weird orange twilight which descended while Hurricane Ophelia was devastating Ireland last week. The orange colour was apparently due to the winds having picked up a great deal of fine red sand.  

  Bizarre, isn't it? It felt a bit apocalyptic. 

Next day, I thought all would be back to normal, and went out for a walk on Hampstead Heath. But at about midday, a strange gloom descended once more. No orange tint this time, but don't you think this photo has a strange atmosphere? It isn't photoshopped.  

The time was about 1.30 PM, yet the ground was almost dark, and the rays spreading out from the sun did little to brighten the scene.  I guess sand was the culprit there, too. 

I've been breathing in fine dust from my next door neighbour's house repairs, too. Her workmen have been drilling out the mortar for 2 days and they don't seem to have the faintest idea of how to sheet the site off to stop gales of dust blowing all over us.  It creeps into the house even with the doors and windows closed so there's grit everywhere. 

I've raised it with the men and my neighbour, and they try to help, but nothing seems to work. I've had a cough for a few days, but perhaps I also picked up a bug. Anyway, feels like it's on the mend. I daresay my ancestors put up with much worse in the Crimean War!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Follies and Cake

I've been inside quite a bit the last few weeks trying to complete a writing project, but every now and then I've forced myself out of the house, and it's been well worth it.   My favourite trip was just across London to the suburb of Acton. 

If you know London, you might find the idea of going to Acton a bit surprising.... and so did I, at first.   I was actually heading for a bookbinders to put new covers on this disintegrating 1870s volume of the "Illustrated London News"  

Then T noticed that very near the bindery, at Acton Town, was Gunnersbury Park.  

Gunnersbury has never been on my radar.  It consists of a pair of large mansions standing in grounds of about 200 acres right next to one of the main routes into London.  Although its surroundings are now heavily built up, it was once a country retreat for Princess Amelia, daughter of King George II. When suburbs began encroaching, its owner, one of the immensely rich de Rothschild family, sold the park and its two mansions for a very low price to the local council on condition it was used for the public. 

As is often the way with local councils, they didn't have the money or interest to look after it well. They let the houses and ancillary buildings deteriorate, although they kept up the park, which was famed for its cedar trees. Sadly, they also neglected the once-famous gardens and many other  features, like stables, orangery, numerous follies, lakes and a Japanese garden.  

 To cut a long story short, I discovered that a dedicated group has now secured a huge National Heritage Lottery Fund grant and are restoring one of the park's mansions, together with some of associated follies and charming garden buildings.  It will be used for all kinds of events, including a museum, public involvement, weddings and events and children's projects.  Work isn't finished, but some parts are already looking very good.  Here's one of the lakes, complete with temple from 1760.

A lovely children's centre is taking shape in some woodland.  (I'd have loved this boat, one of several bits of child sized imaginative play equipment.) 

This is the "big mansion" - looks to be coming along well. It'll house the museum and be used for weddings. They're also restoring some of the grand interior rooms. 

The newly restored early 19th century gothic gatehouse caught my eye.  When it's finished I can imagine a bride and groom posing there, surrounded by a rose garden.

But actually, although this is all very nice, I fell in love with the park itself, and particularly the unrestored follies, which are quite amazing. Basically follies are buildings with no purpose (or a different purpose from what they seem to have) and their main role is to just look interesting. 

So, for instance, there is quite a large folly that's intended to be part of a ruined castle gatehouse. Not a real gatehouse that got ruined, but a ruin right from the start.   (Question, how do you restore something that was built as a ruin?)

 If you look closely you can see the pretty carved lintel supports above the door. 

The "ruins" below are attached to the stables. It's hard to see in my photo, but the intention is to make the stable (complete with chimney) look as if it's built onto the roofless ruins of a Gothic church aisle. The big lump of stone in the foreground is part of an arch, and so is the clump of ivy to the right. 

Beyond this wall, the stables themselves are also ruined, although they were not intended to be.  In fact, this coat of arms shows how grand they were. At present they have temporary roof covering to stop the rain getting in.  They're beautiful buildings done in the classical style  - nothing was too good for the Rothschilds!

Here's another ruin. I wondered what this was - a folly of a ruined ticket office, perhaps? Nothing so glamorous. It is a ruined ladies washroom, obviously not used for thirty years or so. Despite that, it's beautifully situated amidst huge trees and a bit of what might once have been the Japanese garden.

Below is the front door of the Small Mansion, which as you can see is also not restored, although it is potentially a most attractive place with a lovely wrought iron terrace leading onto huge lawns and most of the facade to the south. In its present dilapidated state, it looks a bit creepy. The main entrance is on the north side, shaded by huge trees, and those lamps burned a weird flickering orange.   

Anyway to get back to the fake ruined castle.... these arcaded windows are a bit more of it. 

Behind that wall is actually a well tended community garden, growing flowers, fruit and

I picked this colourful miniature pepper up from where it had dropped. 

As well as plants, the garden contains some interesting projects that are obviously meant to display archaic ways of life. Possibly someone is running courses on, for instance building your own wattle and daub Ancient Briton hut, complete with pigsty? The roofing consists of boughs from some of the magnificent cedars that have been a feature of the park since the 18th century. 

Here's an ancient oven. I think the blue plastic sheet has been left on it by accident. It's beautifully made. 

And.... a World War 2 air raid shelter! 

Yes, it's strange indeed in the far corners of Gunnersbury Park. 

The parkland is really wonderful. You can walk for miles and at this time of year the colours are so varied, with flashes of intense colour. 

The planting is very interesting, with lots of different types of tree.  Here's a secret grove of silver birches....

This bench, carved with various leaves,  stands by a grove that includes many sweet chestnuts.

These are not the familiar horse-chestnuts or "conkers" - do they have conkers in other countries than Britain?  If you have the patience, you can gather the little sweet-chestnuts up and boil or roast them.  I love the look of them, so bright and new in their hedgehog-like jackets.  

Can you spot the fine cedar tree spreading on the right side of the picture below? The cedars will look wonderful in winter, when their evergreen shapes stand out against the frost. I plan to go back one frosty winter day.  It'll take ages for the binders to do the book, so maybe then.   

If you want to read a bit more about Gunnersbury park and gardens, take a look here. 

Finally, have some cake. Not the world's best photo and the cake's already been started, so it doesn't look as immaculate as "Bake Off" -  but I took the picture because I loved the cut-out paper decorations.  Don't you love the windmills and the animals?  Next time I bake a cake I will make my own decorations, too, and be as whimsical as I feel.  

We were attending a Macmillan Coffee Morning which took place outdoors last week. 
After helping organise the picnic for the Jo Cox Great Get Together last summer I've become a bit of a fan of events like this. K and I have just been invited to a get-together from the Jo Cox Foundation to about what to do next year. and I'm looking forward to it.   

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