Thursday, 16 February 2017


I like to hand-make cards and February is the time to do it in our family - four birthdays plus Valentine's Day.  I'm a bit out of ideas now but quite pleased to have created individual cards for everyone.

With Spring on the way I got the urge to do some de-cluttering. I don't think I'll ever be a minimalist, but somehow I've acquired a lot of stuff which I really don't need. Do I really need an Ancient Order of Foresters sash?  Specially when I don't even know what the Ancient Order of Foresters is....

And where does this rather large  jug come from?  It reminds me of the stuff we saw in Murano, and although I wouldn't exactly call it beautiful it's kind of interesting.  But what could I use it for?

Not keen on this glass lampshade but it is genuine 1930s, and might be worth a few pounds. I wouldn't sell it on eBay as it might break in the post but our local charity shops only sell fairly new stuff so I don't think they would recognise it as an antique. After surviving for 80 years I feel it would be a shame if it ended up chucked out in a charity shop bin. Any suggestions?

As for THIS... well, an early effort by one of our daughters to get her life under control, it seems...

I'll keep that, for sentimental reasons.  As for the rest, I'm fighting the temptation to repack it and put it back in the loft.

Still, yesterday I did use one of the items which has sat forgotten in the cupboard for ages. T and I got an unexpected bouquet of Scilly Islands jonquils from a friend.  There were so many flowers we didn't seem to have a vase to fit them, when I suddenly thought of my grandmother's glass jug. It has a very wide neck so they all fitted in.

They are beautiful and giving us a lot of pleasure.  Glad we didn't get rid of the jug, which I always liked anyway. 

I was still thinking about how to deal with all the other stuff when we went into central London yesterday, to run a few errands. We had a cup of tea on the fifth floor of John Lewis, overlooking the escalators, a spot I love. Somehow I can sit for hours and watch the escalators rumbling quietly away.

Yesterday, I thought how well those crowds of people in the store organise themselves without anyone to tell them how to do it! 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Maps and Birthday Cakes.

Have to share the twins' birthday cakes. As you can see, their interests are not the same these days,  so they NEED separate cakes!

Both are very fond of cake but being twins they are quite good at sharing, so the cakes were a success with their little friends too.

I thought I'd share with you a couple of the exhibits from the British Library's fascinating exhibition "Maps and the 20th Century - Drawing the Line".  It's on till 1 March and if you're in London I recommend it - it shows very many different aspects of maps and mapping in the 20th century. Some were quite surprising to me. 

For instance, after the war there was a great shortage of dress fabric, but there were many military "Escape and Evasion" maps left unused in the Army stores.  These  splendid maps had been printed on silk, in order to be (a) lightweight (b) more durable than paper and (c) less likely to rustle when secretly opened.   With the war over, there was no further use for them as maps, so someone had the bright idea of making clothes out of them.  

I've never seen a dress made out of a map before. I wondered why, then I realised that after the war, people most likely dyed them to make the dresses look more "normal." I can't say I really blame anyone for not fancying going round dressed in a map of a war zone.   

These days, though, if the map showed somewhere I liked, I'd be happy to wear it.  Maybe that sounds a bit weird to you?

Among my other favourite exhibits in the show were watercolour designs that were used to decorate the covers of Ordnance Survey leisure maps of 90 years ago. The one below is for the stretch of the Thames between Wallingford and Kew, which covers some really beautiful landscapes.  It is still fun looking at boats going through locks, but I have never seen anything as colourful in real life as this group with their parasols and - yes, boater hats.  I suppose that's how the hats got their name, come to think of it... 

Do you find maps interesting?

Monday, 6 February 2017

Georgians and Dahlias

I wonder if developing that soy allergy in Japan weakened my immune system. After getting flu after Christmas, I went down with norovirus at the end of January, which makes you feel fit for nothing but lying around. So I lay about re-reading some favourite books and put together photos for another post about Akita, Japan.  

But I felt much better on Saturday, and by yesterday, Sunday, I was fine, so I decided to go and see one of London's hidden interiors which I'd learned would be open  to the public for the first time in years, or possibly even ever. It's a large 18th century house in Fitzroy Square,  London, that is home to The Georgian Group.  

So I'll still post about Japan, but first let me tell you about visiting Fitzroy Square and the Georgian Group....

The Georgian Group is a fount of knowledge about life, times, arts and architecture of the 18th century and if you click here you can read a bit about its work in protecting the 18th century heritage of England and Wales.  Part of that work is to help keep neo-classical skills alive - plasterwork, leadwork, wood carving like this delicately carved little swag, for instance, made out of lime wood.

Now the GG has just had its 80th birthday, and has decided to reach out to the wider world and get more people involved in its work.      There certainly seemed to be a lot of people thronging in to see the place.  The visitor's entrance to the house is via the big echoing stone flagged basement, once the kitchen and servants' quarters, and when I wandered in, one of the first things I encountered was a room full of people hard at work making 18th century style crafts with shells, plaster-of-paris and mirrors, and trying their hand at printing wallpaper. 

It looked like fun.  So I accepted one of the thin polystyrene tiles they offered me, and drew a vaguely old-world design onto the tile with a pencil, making the lines as deep as I could.   Then, I inked the tile with gold lino paint and printed it several times....  and wow, suddenly I had some decorative paper myself! 

Not sure how authentic the design was, but I loved the smudgy look of the printing (which is just as well). Even if I don't manage to create wallpaper, I can see all kinds of possibilities for creating my own gift wrap, at least. 

As my paper dried, I climbed up from the basement to explore the main house. This contained many unusual and fascinating objects, old and new.  The front hall is full of statuary and plasterwork. Here's the view looking to the front door with its well proportioned fanlight.  

The exact proportions of architecture were very important in Georgian times, so the size and shape of the rooms are always very harmonious and comfortable.  The main office, with deep red walls and a huge bookcase down one wall, would have been a wonderful place to work. It sports a signed photo of Prince Charles, the Group's patron, on the wall. 

 Charles has worked very hard in conserving the country's traditional visual and natural heritage. It's fair to say that not everyone always agrees with everything he does, but over decades he has done so very many good and lasting things for the country and its people. So I nodded approvingly at his photo and gave him a thumbs up as I passed.  

My favourite room in the house was the main salon, a double interconnecting room which when the house was new, would have been opened up for balls and parties.  In this shot most of what you see is actually a reflection in a pier-mirror, a tall mirror which occupies the space between two windows and makes the space seem larger.   Placed before the mirror is a decorative shellwork obelisk, which also reflects itself back.  

And there was more shell work in the next room - this is a startling and unusual modern chandelier.

And, how about this, in the glass topped cabinet below?  This grotesque face is reminiscent of figures featuring in shell grottoes, a type of folly which was popular two hundred years ago.   Like the chandelier, it is modern, but once again, it seems very eighteenth century somehow  - a mixture of brash, elegant, refined and outrageous.

 I looked up and spotted this modern painting of Fonthill Abbey (right) had been hung over a doorway. The towering, Gothic style Fonthill Abbey was created by the profligate, clever art-collector, critic and politician William Beckford, who was just the type of excessive character the 18th century specialised in.

Beckford was astoundingly rich and decided he wanted to live in a Gothic cathedral so he got one built as quickly as possible, without bothering about whether it would stay up.  And basically, it didn't.  Fonthill Abbey's soaring tower, 90 metre high (300 feet), collapsed three times, and the rest of the house wasn't much better built.  Beckford for instance, wanted Christmas dinner cooked in the kitchens even though they were not ready. So the kitchens were flung together just enough to enable the staff to cook the meal, and then they, too, collapsed. Mad though this sounds, there was, in fact, a bit of a tendency in the eighteenth century to build beautiful houses almost as if they were stage sets, not really intended for living at all.

Anyway, all kinds of strange stories circulated about Beckford, and Fonthill of course was famous for its extravagant interiors, in gold, silver, crimson and blue.   (Talking of which, someone had created some wallpaper with the lino paints downstairs which might almost have been made for somewhere like Fonthill Abbey, don't you think?)

 Gradually most of the Abbey either fell down or was demolished, although a tiny fragment of the building still remains, and it does make you wonder what the rest must have been like. This website by Ric Norton gives some idea.....

Having fallen in love with No. 6, I suddenly began to see Fitzroy Square in a different light from how I had always seen it.  To be honest, this corner of London had always seemed somewhat dull to me, but, viewed out of the long windows of No 6's salon I suddenly perceived it as it was meant to be: elegant, well proportioned and restrained, a place to spend the gloomy London winters.  Imagine going to balls in those long-windowed rooms, glittering with the lights of thousands of candles.  Really all the scene needs is a phaeton or two bowling past. 

And so that was my Sunday.   But, since I have got the dahlia photos sorted out, I'd really love to zip across to the other side of the world and mention the wonderful dahlia garden in Akita, Japan, which I was lucky enough to catch in full bloom last October.  

This garden, set in a sweeping valley, stretches almost as far as you can see to wooded hillsides, and the dahlias come in such a variety of colours, sizes and shapes, as you can see below. 

The variety below had a twisty, ornate quality, and if I plant any dahlias this year, I'm going to plant some of these. 

The yellow ones at the bottom hardly seemed like dahlias at all but make a striking display in a border.

This to me seemed to have a perfect colour and shape

 And the centre of this deep red dahlia glowed brightly, like enamelled gold.

However, my eye was also caught by this stall which an elderly man had pitched just outside the dahlia garden entrance. 

He was selling fungi that he had collected himself from the mountains.  Most of the fungi were very large, and looked almost as if someone had made them out of finely textured and dyed leather. 

I had seen small "maitake" mushrooms like this before - in fact, I think they grow wild in England - but these were in a different class - they were bigger than cauliflowers.  My Japanese friend told me they are called "dancing mushrooms,"   - 舞茸  in Japanese - because they look like dancers in flowing robes. And as you can see there were other types of fungi and fungi products on the stall.

The old man had obviously spent hours preparing them for sale, and as far as I could tell, they seemed to have health benefits, including boosting your  immune system......  hmmm, if only I had known that, I'd have bought some of the extract. Then, I'd probably have been the picture of health all winter.  And I would probably have got many more posts written by now!   

Friday, 20 January 2017

Havens of Peace and Hope.

I try not to write too much that's negative here. So I haven't felt like describing how I've been unwillingly dragged into a frustrating and bizarre legal case that reminds me somehow of the trial scene in "Alice in Wonderland."

Can't say any more about it, but really it's nothing compared with the general madness that seems to be swirling around all of us in the world at the moment.   So instead of tearing my hair out (which I confess I often feel like doing) I'm concentrating on how lucky I am in the big scheme of things, and I've been supporting charities like UnitedRescues and War Child, 
which help the millions who have it very rough indeed.

And I've shaken off the flu, so I've been taking the chance to look around lots of old London churches lately - all of them havens of peace and hope. I'm not particularly religious, but I appreciate sitting within these old walls where for centuries people have taken refuge from the sad stupidity and evil conflicts of the world, said goodbye to hate and frustration and lifted their minds to higher things.    

The picture above shows the inside of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, overlooking Trafalgar Square.  This very famous church is only the latest building on this ancient church site, and it dates from the elegant 1720s. When I dropped in, the organist happened to be practising, which added an inspiring soundtrack to that glittering interior.  St Martin's also does a lot of work with homeless people and runs all kinds of events and concerts, and has a very good cafe in its crypt, all in the cause of raising money for its work. 

A few days later, I went into St Leonard's Shoreditch.  Although it's about the same age as St Martins, it's a frankly shabby old church, but it is full of interesting local curiosities and I found it had a laid back, comfortable atmosphere, like going into some rather messy friend's cosy house.  The cat below certainly felt at home there, even though, like T.S. Eliot's Rum Tum Tugger, it was "always on the wrong side of every door."   I let him in, I let him out, I let him in again... and then.... 

One of the first things visitors see in St Leonard's is a large sign high up on the wall in the porch, recording how the church ringers did a complete peal of "Treble Bob Royal" in nine hours and five minutes. 

I've never quite got my head around change ringing but I gather it's about sounding lots of bells in slightly different sequences, according to mathematical rules. If I listen hard to church-bells ringing I do notice the sound seems to change over time. Perhaps you can detect this by listening to this part of Oxford Treble Bob Royal (and no, the video is not nine hours long.....).  

St Leonards Shoreditch features in the old English nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons."  Most people know this song, but if you don't, then my favourite version is this 1930s one, which was on a CD compilation that we used to sing along with in the car with S and Young A.  Like so many old English rhymes, the tune is so jolly that you don't always notice the slightly sinister words!  

Anyway, to get back to animals.... St. Stephens, Kensington, has a dog, but not as far as I know a cat. The dog didn't tell me its name, but it's a charmer, very gentle and very friendly as you can see from the wagging tail.  The church is a brightly coloured example of High Victoriana, and T and I spent ages looking around.....

and in fact found a corner devoted to T.S. Eliot... who turned out to have been a churchwarden here.

My most recent little pilgrimage was to London's financial district, the City.  First I dropped in at St Margaret Pattens in Eastcheap, where the kindly blessing below is offered to the stressed city workers whose warren-like offices tower all around.   

The church is supported by two livery guilds -  the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers and the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers.   Pattens are overshoes which were used for walking in the muddy, dung-littered streets of old, but now the guild has moved into making orthopaedic and medical footwear.  

I got chatting to the vicar there, who said that in the olden days, foundling children of the parish were always given the surname "Patten" when they were christened in the church.  So if that is your name, you might be able to guess where at least one of your ancestors came from.  

King Charles I's coat of arms hangs on the wall, and every year, the vicar said, there's a Choral Eucharist to commemorate the death, in 1649, of the "King and Martyr."  (This year, the service is on 26 January at 1 PM.)  As it happens, King Charles was beheaded, but I don't think it's anything to do with "Oranges and Lemons"   

And almost opposite St. Margaret Pattens, here are the doors of St. Mary-at-Hill, which stands in one of the ancient lanes which still survive in the City. It dates from the 12th century but was mostly rebuilt after being burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Then it got through the Blitz unscathed - only to have another serious fire in the 1980s. Luckily, it survived again.

After visiting these two churches, I returned home across London Bridge and saw a striking sunset, a great bank of purple and red clouds rising into a pale blue sky.  I realised how much I love living in London, because it always seems to offer something that matches my mood.    

Sunday, 1 January 2017

2016 in pictures.

Happy New Year!  I was wondering what to write for the last post of 2016 and then before I knew it it was 2017, so this will be the first post of 2017 now.   I always like reading Jeanie's "Marmelade Gypsy" blog and I thought I'd follow her example of posting a photo from each month to show how the year progressed. Thing is, it's been very hard to just select ONE picture from each month, and I am tempted to put in lots - but that would be cheating.

So, let's start with the January photo. It's the view out of the window of the cottage we stay at in Suffolk. It used to belong to a good friend who sadly died a few years ago, but it is still in her family and they don't mind our using it when they are away.  We have grown really fond of the Suffolk Coastal area and always jump at the chance to go, whatever the time of year.  Here was the view that greeted me one morning, at dawn, with the frost and the mist.  Although it was cold outside, that pink sky gradually turned blue and the day became sparkling and wintry bright.

February we went to Iceland - and Florida.  I'd like to show pictures of both places, but since I've only got one I'll choose this one of Young A in the Viking Museum in Reykjanesbær, Iceland.  The museum's like the Tardis, apparently modestly proportioned on the outside but mysteriously expanding as you get further inside. We managed to spend a whole morning there and there was still more to see, but unfortunately we had a plane to catch.

It is a great bit of modern architecture too, so imagine standing inside that great expanse of glass feeling nice and warm and watching the cold sea hurling itself at the rocks directly outside in the savage wind. (I always like doing stuff like that.)  The ghostly figures in the foreground are seated in a full sized Viking ship called the "Icelander" which was built by a shipbuilder called Gunnar Marel Eggertsson, who then sailed to New York in it before bringing it back to Iceland. Best of all, the staff were so pleasant and helpful. It seemed to matter to them personally that we enjoyed the place.

There is so much to see in Spain in March, especially if you like religious processions.  Much of our time in Andalucia was spent with family and friends -  but the abiding memory for me was the sight of hundreds, if not thousands of penitents in their curious outfits filling the streets and marching for hours in the Holy Week parades.  This drapers down a Malaga side street sells everything you need to make a good Penitent outfit.

And yay, April brought the swallows* back - a sign that spring was definitely here.

For the first time in my life I saw a complete half circle double rainbow late one evening in early May.   My phone doesn't have much of a camera, but even so I was glad I could take a photo of it

June has to be about roses.  I grew these ones on the balcony in a pot, then planted the whole bush out in the garden where it has taken very well. 

Late June, early July and quite a while after that was, for me, about the Brexit vote, and I attended the march in early July. I respect the views of those who genuinely believe Britain is better out of the EU, but I was shocked at the lies, self-centredness and responsibility-dodging of so many politicians - on both sides - and, looking back at my post, this was a major concern of many of the other marchers too, in spite of the generally good natured atmosphere.   

Anyway, there is no denying that this bloke thoroughly entered into the generally cheerful spirit of the march.

In August, we revisited the Kentish Town City Farm in NW London for the first time in years. The tots were thrilled at the chance to pick real apples and pears off low growing trees, delighted at seeing all the farm animals up close, and they ran around the rather messy and free environment in glee.  The farm is based on otherwise unusable land alongside a railway, and gives city children the chance to get close to nature, care for animals and learn to ride.   There are a number of city farms in London but Kentish Town was, I think, the very first. 

T and I had many walks and cycle rides over this summer, and one of the most interesting for me was to the Church of St Swithuns, in Wickham, Berkshire.   Many old churches have angels attached to the roofs - but elephants? Seems that the Rev. William Nicholson, one of the church's Victorian rectors, began restoring the church in 1845 and had commissioned some angels to decorate the hammerbeam roof in the conventional way.  But then he visited the Paris Exhibition of 1855 and was enchanted by a set of 4 papier mache elephants he saw there. Nothing else would do after that, and so after buying those, he commissioned another four, set them up - and they're there to this day. 

October and some of November we went to Japan.  We had so many adventures there but one thing that remains in my mind is the little shrine of Kansagu Ukiki on Lake Tazawa, in Akita Prefecture.  This tiny, peaceful shrine is set on the shores of the famous crater lake, considered to be one of the most beautiful in Japan, and all around  the shrine's pebbly base,  thousands of little fish gather. The shrine sells packs of fish food,  and when you venture down onto the shingle and throw it into the water, a seething mass of fish suddenly erupts.  What a bizarre experience! I rediscovered my childhood love of feeding the ducks -  except that there were so many more fish than there had ever been ducks!  And then I could hardly tear myself away...   

Returning to London in November we took several long walks exploring parts of the city we hadn't visited in a while.  One Sunday afternoon we found ourselves at Columbia Road Flower Market,  in Bethnal Green.  This is the top retail flower market in the country. It is crowded, bustling, and loads of fun, and the market holders still yell out their wares in the way that most stallholders have stopped doing these days.  And, you get flowers at Columbia Road that you don't see anywhere else.

We arrived as darkness was falling and the market was about to close for the day. All the small local shops were brightly illuminated, the stalls even more so, and there was a very festive air even though Christmas was still a month away.  As we arrived the stallholders began selling off the last bunches at half price, so we got two bunches of magnificent white freesias and a bunch of extraordinary red and black tulips with heads as large as peonies.   They would have been eye catching in the Spring but I've never seen anything like them in November.  Even though they were much cheaper than the half-dead bunches of sad flowers sold by our local Waitrose, they lasted twice as long, getting more amazing every day as they opened out bigger and bigger. 

And so to December. We took S and Young A to the panto ("Sleeping Beauty") at Hackney Empire.  It was a great panto, with plenty of audience participation, and I was flabbergasted, as usual, by the sheer amount of talent there is on the stage in this country.  Not only can these folks act but they can do so many other things too, quite perfectly  - sing, mime and dance, set up a rapport with the audience, make them laugh and carry them along.  This is a serious question  - why don't they all have Oscars?  

The Empire is an old music hall, and, as you'd expect, it is heavy on the gilt and plush. It still has the old board at the side of the stage from its music-hall days, on which the management would put the act's number, so you'd know what you were watching, (can you spot the number 4 on the bottom left?) and in the foyer it has photos of some of the stars of yore who have appeared there - Marie Lloyd included.   I loved the lighting, lurid reds and blues in the auditorium, mirrorballs and all sprinkled with stars.   Very Christmassy.

And so that was 2016.  Let us all hope that 2017 is a good year, and I do wish you the very best.

(*thanks to John E and Joanne N for tactfully pointing out it's not a swift. Well, ornithology isn't really one of my skills. I'm usually delighted to manage to spot a bird at all, one of the reason I always admire bird photographers.) 

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