Monday, 21 May 2018

Should've Been in Italy, but...

Well, long time no post.  I'm sorry to have been out of touch. And my last post sounds like a different, wet world, doesn't it?  Thankfully that's not so any more, for this May has been amazingly hot,  bright and beautiful.

Actually, we should have been in Italy to meet up with family. I should have been telling you all about the Duomo, and icecreams, and stuff like that. But, T needed an operation, nothing very serious, and there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing about the timing.   So we didn't go. As it turned out, the weather in Turin was nasty and in England it was beautiful, so it turned out for the best that we stayed, and it was a chance to follow up on the project of exploring nature, wild places and nature reserves. (In the UK it's possible to find some fantastic places by checking out local wildlife trusts.)

We stayed for just over a week in Eastern Suffolk, and found a place called Darsham Marshes that we'd never seen before.  One of the highlights there for us was this tree in full blossom, all 30-odd feet  of it (10 metres). It's actually one fallen tree which remained alive and some of its branches transformed themselves into trees, so now it seems like a whole grove of flowering apples.  A picture doesn't do it justice, but what an experience standing in the midst of it surrounded by blossom with the birds singing their lungs out.

Not far away, near the drowned village of Dunwich, we took a footpath leading up onto low cliffs, to see what remains of Greyfriars Abbey.  

There is not a great deal, although enough to be interesting.  The abbey was sacked by King Henry VIII, who left the gatehouse you can see in the centre of the photo (someone stables horses inside the site), and the walls surrounding the site are still there, showing from the sheer size that it was a pretty important place.  There are also remains of the abbey itself within the walls, though much of the stone from these huge ruins was used by local people for building their own places, I believe - and very sensible of them too, as it turned out, since the sea would have got the abbey anyhow a couple of centuries later. ... look at this set of rather blurry old pictures.  

They show what happened to the local church, St. James, which stood right by Greyfriars.  Now, no trace of the church remains on the site. The sea also devoured the churchyard, except for just one grave which stands right by the cliff edge.    When Jacob Forster's grieving relatives buried him in 1796, they can't have imagined he'd have achieved this posthumous fame, can they? 

In fact, while we were awaiting this op, the weather forecast was good nearly every day, so it was the perfect distraction to go out.  One evening, sitting in a field at Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, by the river, I noticed great green and purple dragonflies flying all around.  It was clearly their mating season so I evilly violated their privacy by taking a few photos.   I don't pretend to understand exactly how it works, or how they stop their legs getting tangled up.  

A couple of days later, at Aston Rowant, Oxfordshire, these hillside woods were shaded by what I think was once a beech hedge. The hedge must have been abandoned at least a century ago as what there is now is a line of  bushy trees with long spreading branches. 

Also around this area - chalk hills called the Chilterns - we were surprised to find so many woods still full of bluebells.  I think the extremely cold early Spring held all the usual flowers back. 

By contrast, here are the trunks and branches of the tall confirous woodland near Marlston Hermitage in Berkshire. I thought they looked decorative enough to have been painted - as the backdrop of a play, perhaps.  I once saw a performance of Chekhov's "Wild Honey" which is set in a mysterious Northern forest, which could suit  these trees very well.  

Maidensgrove, nearby, has a fabulous common currently full of all kinds of wild flowers, including buttercups, and lots of wild may out on the trees.  My new blog header photo was taken there. And the village also has a  17th century pub called the Five Horseshoes, which has an idyllic location and does great food.

Back in London,  T had his operation on Saturday, so we both missed the Royal Wedding. To his great surprise (and pleasure) he felt well enough to come out for a walk across Regents Park today and as a result we saw more daisies in one place than either of us had ever seen in our lives.

And the baby ducks are growing well.

 On the other side of the park we went to a small but ingenious exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects about perspective and imaginary spaces.   He insisted on having his photo taken walking through one of the perspective installations, so he really is feeling better.....

Having been outside so much this month, I'm seriously behind with just about everything that happens at home, so I'd better start catching up now that the sun has gone in.  Everything from sorting out a malfunctioning credit card, to sorting out plants, and of course catching up on writing.  I have been looking at (though not commenting much) on blogs -   but I will, and I hope you've also been enjoying the month of May.

We are also considering trying to pop over to Northern Italy a bit later in the summer for a long weekend.  We'll see.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018


We haven't had the heavy snow that's affected some areas of Britain over Easter - our holiday was just wet.   And everything has stayed... damp.  The weather didn't stop the kids having an Easter egg hunt in the garden, but it was perishing as well as soggy, and their poor little hands were all red with cold. 

These papier mache bunnies, in the shop in St. Martins-in-the-Fields' Crypt, (which I think I've mentioned before) were more my style, even though they were made of papier mache so you couldn't even eat them. You only have to look at them to see they come from a hot, bright, flowery place.

Naturally we bought out the collection of chick and bunny egg-cups for Easter breakfast.....

and had a relaxed Easter - inside. 

We've been feeling the lack of exercise, though.  First, being stuck inside for weeks because we were both ill with this bug earlier in the year, and now because the weather has been so uncongenial that it hasn't seemed like an attractive prospect to be out all day.

Yesterday, though, we took the tube up to Kingsbury, which is on the Jubilee underground line. We'd never been to this suburb, and wanted to see what kind of a place it was, and perhaps explore the small country park nearby if the rain held off for an hour or two. 

It turned out to be a pleasant multi ethnic area with a a good selection of curry houses, Indian sweetshops and truly mega food-supermarkets selling food from all over the world. 

The country park was accessed from a suburban street, and just as well we bought waterproof hiking boots.  The ground was like a bog - no, this is not a stream, below. 

Walking was a matter of stepping from tuft to tuft of grass and avoiding as much water as possible.

Yet it was worth going. The area was obviously once farmland, and consists of woods and small fields divided by thick thorn hedges and hedgerow trees.  The hedges didn't look at all interesting at first, being entirely leafless, but if you went close up and looked inside them, they were wonderful. 

 Everything is very late this year,  but the different coloured buds, mosses and lichens and the mass of twigs created a wondrous effect like a great intricate embroidery.

or what looked almost like pieces of jewellery.

Some parts of the hedgerow were like an ocean of life, with each part ready to go. 

On the way back to the tube, the suburban gardens, by contrast, were neatly tended and stocked with garden plants in bright colours.  My eye was taken by this dinosaur scene - the dinosaurs are arranged in an artfully created little valley of rock and vegetation.  I like to think of someone having fun creating it. 

We have a small field in East Anglia which we generally let out for grazing, but the farmer emailed yesterday suggesting it might be a while before he brought his cows along this spring, and sent a photo by way of explanation.   I've never seen the land flood before, but it really looks as if it could support a few ducks at the moment, doesn't it?

Stay dry!

Monday, 26 March 2018

Stoke on Trent

Oh heck, if I don't get this posted it'll be April.   And I hope the weather will be better then!  Since I last posted we have had more snow, which was quite pretty, and we also stayed in a particularly beautiful part of Staffordshire - Consall Forge,  not far from Stoke on Trent.  

At Consall the woods were beautiful in a wintry way but there was very little sign of Spring. I was struck by the almost fluorescent green of the moss on the trees. 

The purpose of the visit to the Stoke area was a reunion. I'm not usually one for reunions, but I liked this one. They'd been an entertaining bunch even when you saw them day after day, and although some have sadly passed away, it was fun for us survivors to meet again, hear the funny stories and see what had become of everyone. 

But isn't it strange what people end up doing?  I still remember my surprise in my late twenties when I met up with a couple of friends from art school. Ten years ago, one of them had been a brooding passionate genius wedded to his sculpture. Ten years later he was a schoolteacher and said that the most exciting thing in his life was the weekly trip to Sainsbury's!  But another friend, who'd never seemed interested in very much, had become rich, and was working as a jeweller, creating amazing portrait rings for wealthy people.   Have you ever had any surprises at reunions?  

 Anyway, back to Stoke. Here's a locally made plaque by Johnson Tiles showing the city's history and created by children under an artist's direction.  See the bottle kilns on the left? 

It's in the railway station, where we arrived after a remarkably cheap though slow train ride from London - just £8.  You might have seen the recent Guardian documentary series of short films on Stoke and if you view them or read this you may get an idea of the place.  Like so many ex industrial towns, Stoke has an interesting history and some great buildings and good people.   When I lived there, heavy industry had made it spectacularly hideous, but it was still a true working landscape with a very strong identity. 

Now, nearly all that's gone. I don't think anyone denies that the city needs something big to replace the the pottery, coalmining and steel industries that used to be at its heart. Walking out of the handsome station, I was glad to see the North Stafford Hotel still stood opposite. It was built in the beautiful neo-Elizabethan/Jacobean style which characterised the local railway company in Victorian days.  Doesn't it look like a mansion?

The hotel's still there and on the card you can see a statue at the bottom left which is also still there today.  It shows Josiah Wedgwood, who set Stoke on course to be the centre of pottery making for two centuries.  

We stayed with old friends and visited some local pubs.  My favourite has always been the Black Lion at Consall (and that's our friends' dog). I remember visiting the Black Lion when it had no road access - you could only reach it by canal or footpath. Something about the owner of the road not allowing access, I think.  But it kept going and now the adjacent railway has returned to life and runs steam trains, so you can reach it by steam train too.

While we were drinking our Pig Squeal or Hogfather (for goodness sake) in the bar... 

...I picked up a children's book which happened to be lying on a table. It was called "Dash Makes a Splash" and it was by a local author.   I instantly fell in love with the happy, colourful pictures. 

Dash is a little puppy who has a simple adventure. He gets lost, is taken in by a couple of canal boat restorers at Consall, and restores a lonely natterjack toad to the bosom of its family before returning to Consall in time for Christmas.

The story is just the kind of tale that little kids can understand and sympathise with, and that is not as easy to find these days as it once was. I liked it so much that I went to visit the lady who did the book, and bought a copy from her. It is also available on Amazon, but visiting was more fun!  I learned she learned to paint plates in her family pottery business, can't you just imagine those flowers above, garlanding the edge of a plate? 

Although Stoke still has many problems, it's a lot cleaner and brighter than it was all those years ago. I was startled to learn that Etruria Hall (once the home of the Wedgwoods) is now part of the Stoke on Trent Moat House Hotel.   I still remember how amazed I was when I first saw Etruria Hall, presiding over a completely industrial landscape at Shelton Iron and Steel Works, a little bit later than the picture below admittedly but a spectacular panorama scene of industrial devastation, the like of which I had never seen in all my young life! It was actually such a busy scene that I was quite fascinated by it, though, and wish I'd photographed it myself. 

And here is another view of Etruria Hall as it was years ago, at about 0.58 on the "Staffordshire Men" song below.

I'm not going to presume what people of Stoke are like now, or what they want for their city, but I'm hoping to return to have a better look around later in the year. Times are changing and I'd like to think Stoke will soon start to get the break it deserves.  

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Including Music.

Everyone's Facebook pages (including mine) have pictures of snow today.  We didn't have any last year, and I do love to see it coming down, although I am not so keen on it lying in the streets for weeks on end.   

T and I haven't been out and about as much as usual, (although I've had some nice walks) because T. has managed to wrench his back. He's on the mend but he is being careful not to overdo things.   Actually I've enjoyed my own forays into the cold but colourful outdoors. A week or so ago I spotted these three fellas sitting on a dead tree, cawing in turn. 

Are they crows or ravens? I'm not enough of a birdwatcher to know - in fact, I think I did pretty well to spot them at all!   But I hope they are ravens, because I love the "Three Ravens" folksong, written down by (appropriately enough) Thomas Ravenscroft as long ago as 1611. This performance specially appeals to me, but the band, "Black Country Three" was active in the 1960s so I don't suppose I'll find any more of their singing.    

For birthdays and Christmas it's sometimes nice to have an outing - to a movie, a meal, a play, musical or opera or - well, anything really!    For Christmas I got tickets for  "Iolanthe" at the ENO.  It has only recently opened so we finally went and saw it the other day. I love Gilbert and Sullivan, although I know it's not for everyone. Gilbert's barbed wit of the 1880s often seems eerily topical even today, and Sullivan's music is so much fun. It's ironic really because apparently the poor man always yearned to be remembered as a serious religious composer, and not the entertaining guy who gave us this...

There have been four birthdays this month, two of them the twins -  I was pleased that my gift of a Spiderman umbrella went down well, as you see.  The party was fun but many of the guests were just as keen to play with the twins' toys.  That's one of the things I loved best at parties when I was little too - did you? 

I had a lovely surprise too. It arrived in the mail from Jeanie at  "The Marmelade Gypsy."  one of my favourite blogs. I was a prizewinner on her Blog Anniversary giveaway, and so a week or so a beautifully packaged item arrived in the post. 

Inside was a beautiful painting taken from a photo I posted from Miyajima island last year! 
It is nicely mounted in brown, and now I am on the lookout for a suitable frame.   Thank you so much Jeanie, it's lovely to have something so pretty and personal!  To me it makes the scene seem really magical in a way that a photo never could. 

The bulbs I planted last autumn have been coming up.  More crocuses - and my favourite variety, "Tricolour".  This was taken 3 days ago when the sun was shining and the bees were out, but I'm afraid the snow might have done for them now.  

I haven't been much at the computer - we've had workmen in and everything's very dusty so the best thing has been to sit in a nearby cafe and read a bit more than usual. I've just finished Edna O'Brien's "The Little Red Chairs" - a powerful, original and remarkable book, which I found extremely difficult to read at times.  It tells of what happens when an erudite and intriguing war criminal escapes to rural Ireland, and the village beauty, who longs for a baby, falls in love with him. 

If you think this sounds like a pleasing (though slightly challenging) read, you'd be wrong.   The relationship is glamorous and exciting in its way, and yet eventually we realise that the real story is  about different sorts of exile, and that some people are exiles from the human race.   

If I still wrote book reviews professionally, I'd have found it hard to produce an article about something as unusual and disturbing as "The Little Red Chairs."  Although it's so well written that I couldn't put it down, I began to feel in an odd way as if I was having to read it at gunpoint, unable to stop.  Alarming. Honestly.

If you'd like a proper review of it, click here and read what Julie Myerson wrote in "The Guardian."   

There's been quite a bit of music in this post, and so I should say that for the first time in all my years travelling on the London Underground, I saw a man busking with a didgeridoo.  It was a wonderful thing which appeared to be made out of a tree trunk.

I'd never thought I'd like didgeridoo music until I went to a concert by the virtuoso William Barton, and then I saw what this instrument can do. I was pleased to find a recording of him on Youtube so see if you agree with me that he is something special. 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Heath, Ghosts, Grafffiti and a Mysterious Ad.

I need to start posting more than once a month :) but anyway glad to say that the bug has finally left and I'm back to normal energy levels. And Spring is on the way. This and the coming 2 months are my favourite time of year, and I'm so delighted to have crocuses and a few early daffodils showing.  Here are some crocuses lit by the sun.


I'm trying hard to get fitter again, having sat around like a slug for 6 weeks. Our older daughter is a tai chi fan and has made a short video for us of a daily routine. It keeps some flexibility but more importantly is a daily focus on how my body is moving, and reminds me to exercise it more. 

T has also been ill with the same bug and he's only just getting better, but we've taken some walks on Hampstead Heath. This is still wintry but, as ever, there is always something to see, even if only shadows and reflections.  

                            In the sunshine, the lakes shone, and bare tree branches glittered.  

One morning our walk took us across the viaduct quite early in the day. (The viaduct is a whole story by itself but let me just say it was built about 1890 and stands alone in the woods.) The low sun cast the carvings into bold relief.  I had never noticed them before, and liked the variety of the carvings. This one I thought very elegant. 

I also wondered who worked so hard and for so long to carve "STONED HERE ON DAY"?  What they were trying to say isn't quite clear ....but perhaps that's to be expected.

Some of this stone graffiti had the air of primitive carvings. What do you think this might be?

About ten minutes walk from the viaduct is Kenwood House,  the Heath's big mansion.  If you click the link you might recognise it from many movies, most recently, I think, Belle.  I am a big fan of English Heritage which keeps the house and its treasures open all year, free of charge, complete with its interesting art collection, grand interiors and other treasures.  I liked this gilded lion lurking on the side of an 18th century table

And this detail from an early JMW Turner painting shows what his work was like when he was not being quite so abstract. I love it, and it makes me wish I could have known the seaside when these old boats were a common sight.  

A days ago T and I got the tube to a Southwark pub and attended to an amusing and interesting talk at the Southeast London Folklore Society by the artist and ghost-hunter Sarah Sparkes. She was talking about the magical library and extraordinary life of Harry Price, ghosthunter. Here's a photo I took of one of her slides projected on the screen. I think Harry looks quite the lad.  

  The library is held at Senate House, of University of Central London, which dates only from the 1930s but is said to be riddled with ghosts, including several haunted elevators.   Not sure I would take that too seriously. 

Sarah also touched on Borley Rectory, Essex, a large old house which Harry Price once owned. It was for many years famous as the Most Haunted House in England.  In fact, my parents had a book about when I was a kid and I have to say that even at the age of 8, I was not convinced by Borley Rectory! But Harry Price's life story is a great, sometimes laugh-out-loud tale of a humble-born magician and born entertainer, who was determined to be remembered one way or another. 

I also did a clear-out, and found this little book dating from 1852. I'm not that interested in Paris's Principal Monuments (which at that time, of course, did not include the Eiffel Tower) but the book was only 50p at a car boot sale, and although small, the engravings are beautiful when looked at through a magnifying glass.  But what is this building on the cover? Does anyone recognise it? 

T felt recovered enough at the weekend to take a walk with me over to Highgate, where we spotted this interesting advert stuck on a community notice board. It really ought to be the beginning of a novel or a movie, don't you think?  How do you think it will pan out?

By the way, since this is a real person's real advert (even though they are advertising on a public message board) I've blocked out some of the phone number.

So that's been me - and I wish you a very good week! 

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