Friday, 6 July 2018

Slowing ....

So I went to a foot specialist who says I have a damaged tendon plus ligament trouble. I must completely rest the ankle, not even go out to the corner shop, and the priority is to get the swelling down so I can start strengthening exercises. The good news, though, is that I can cycle if it doesn't hurt me to do so. ( My neighbour suggests a crane to get me from the front door to the bike without walking.)  Next up, I have a dentist appointment to fit  a crown on a molar. So you see it's all loads of fun here. 

As I can't go far, I've been photographing plants right outside the door. Taking time to look closely is always worth doing. These fairly ordinary fuschias reminded me of little dancers, bobbing about in the breeze.

 And here is a look at the most wonderful petunia flower, seen against the sun.  This plant survived the winter, which pleased me, because I haven't been able to find the variety ("Night Sky") this year. I think it looks as if it was designed by a  top dress designer, with a jewel at its centre.

I also discovered this plant, which self seeded in a forgotten pot.  It has a lovely pink-white flower and a spreading habit. I have no idea what it is called - does anyone know?  And, I wonder how large it will get.

I've also been reading.  So far the book I like best, and am recommending to everyone, is "Golden Hill" by  Francis Spufford.  Oddly, it didn't appeal to me when I first saw it in the bookshop about six weeks ago. It's about a young man who turns up in pre-Revolutionary New York with a draft for a huge amount of money. Why has he come, who is he, and what does it all signify? Ho hum. I just didn't want to know, so I left it on the shelf......

But then the following week I returned and it was still on the shelf, so I took a closer look, as I was intrigued by the cover showing a man leaping over rooftops. This time, I decided to buy, and ten minutes after starting it, I realised it was well worth my time.  I loved the way that ever more information about the man was revealed, putting what had gone before in perspective. I loved the detailed descriptions of life in pre-revolutionary New York, a period I'd never previously given a thought to. The use of language is wonderful;  not quite eighteenth century, but full of the characteristic quirkiness and liveliness of the period. Best of all I like how some mysteries remained till the very end. (And even then, I ended up wanting more..)

Spufford is a very distinguished writer of non-fiction, but this is his first novel. I've ordered one of his non-fiction books, even though I suspect I won't like it as much as the novel. (On the other hand, I thought I wouldn't like the novel. So who knows?)  

 Since I am being so inactive compared with usual, I'm restricting my food intake. I like fruit and veg best, so I'm mostly living on those plus low fat proteins like egg, chicken, etc, with no-oil  citrus dressing.  Before my ankle went wrong, I had such an amazing salad in The Watts Gallery cafe that it inspired me to develop my own versions. The secret seems to lie in combining many different raw foods, cut small.    

The leaves for the salad above were from the farmers market; noticeably better than the supermarket leaves and almost the same price.  I always soak and cook my own chick peas/garbanzos with salt, sugar and vinegar so they don't end up tasting like little balls of plaster, and toss in items with a bit of flavour, like tiny pickled capers, pomegranate seeds or even shreds of ginger root. 

And other bloggers continue to inspire and interest me.   I got a lovely surprise a few days ago. Joanne, over at one of my favourite blogs, Cup on the Bus, said she was going to send me two hand woven towels!   Joanne and her sister wove professionally for years, and if you click the link you'll read about a very unexpected note which her sister received from someone who'd bought one of their sweaters in a thrift store.

The towels arrived in a most enticing package, covered in US National Park stamps. Made me realise how much I'd like to visit some more American National Parks - what a good idea to publicise them in this way. 

And here are the towels themselves! I was very pleased with the colour. Our kitchen is white and orange, with touches of dull yellow and cerulean blue, so this pumpkin shade goes well.

I've also been looking at YouTube for workouts for folks with ankle injuries. I've been using this, from Caroline Jordan Fitness.  Her enthusiasm is so relentless that it makes me feel exhausted just listening to her, but it is a useful workout.  However, with any luck I'll be able to 
go out on my bike.  Sure, I won't be able to get off it and walk around, but I am looking forward to it all the same.  

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Royal Lodgings, an Old Cat and a Bad Ankle

My last couple of weeks has been a mix of emotions.   We attended a funeral, which as well as being sad, was also uplifting.  The person who had passed away, too young, was very much into ecology and nature, and very fond of his native county, Rutland.  Rutland's the smallest county in England, and one of its sights is the church where the funeral service was held - Normanton Old Church (below). 

If the church looks as if it's half submerged; well, it is. It used to be the private chapel of the Earls of Ancaster, but in the 1970s, the Rutland Water reservoir was constructed, and the church was de-consecrated and slated for demolition.  After a public outcry it was adapted to stand in the water and is now a popular special occasion venue in the most beautiful and peaceful surroundings. 

Funerals are always a bit emotional so we decided not to rush back to London but spend the night halfway between Normanton and London.  Before the trip, I looked at the map, and, just off the A1, about halfway there, I discovered this place, which I had never heard of in my life. 

If it reminds you a bit of photos of Hampton Court Palace, that is hardly surprising. The site's now called Buckden Towers, but it was for centuries the palace of the Bishops of Lincoln (even though it is in Huntingdonshire.)  Above is the gatehouse, dating in part to 1480 - about 35 years before Hampton Court was built. 

There are all kinds of buildings on the site, which has a chequered history, but it is now owned and well looked after by a Roman Catholic organisation called The Claretians, which maintains four self catering apartments for those who wish to come on a retreat or have a peaceful and simple break from the world.  It is not a hotel - you have to make your own bed and look after yourself - but it was ideal for us. 

 We stayed in St. David's apartment. Look at the thickness of those walls.  

And this was the view along the battlements as you turned around from the door of the apartment.   

The site adjoins a most fascinating parish church,  and,  just out of the picture to the right is a knot garden created in honour of Katherine of Aragon, one of King Henry VIII's unfortunate wives. She was apparently imprisoned in Buckden Palace for a while.  (Other past visitors, by the way, include Henry III, Edward I, Richard III, King James and the Prince Regent, not to mention the diarist Samuel Pepys who must have been there on the King's business, I suppose.  I don't think I've stayed anywhere that has had so many royal folk staying before.)   

We took a stroll round the grounds. One of the most interesting buildings we saw is the chapel of St. Clare. It looks as if it could be very old, as the floor level was obviously much lower than it is now.  

The interior is simple and dark, lit only by jewel like colours from the modern glass. We spent a long time sitting there and the chunky art glass was fascinating to look at closely. 

The grounds are also full of surprises, but since we had not been invited to look around them, we just admired them from a distance, particularly noticing two huge old trees, an oak and a London plane, which date from the 17th century.  I believe there is more to see there and if we stay again we will ask if we can explore.

Then we meandered back to London via the National Trust's Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, which dates back to the Domesday Book and was left to the National Trust by Rudyard Kipling's daughter, who spent the royalties she had inherited on repairing and maintaining it. 

Sadly, we arrived too late to do anything but have a cup of tea and a browse in the bookstore, full of donated second hand books.    The tearoom, shop, plant sales and bookstore are inside the stables, which are shown below. Personally, I think you'd be forgiven for thinking that's the house, it is so grand. 

  When the hall shut at 5.30 we remained, lying on the grass outside in the sun.  Shortly after that, we were visited by what at first struck me as a very spooky cat.  It drifted up like a wraith, and sat near us, and proved to be very friendly. But I have never seen such a skinny animal, and there was something distinctly odd about its fur, as I think you'll agree.  I was concerned about it, to be honest - but then a member of staff came out of the gateway and called it in for supper, and off it hurried! 

So I asked her to tell me about the cat. She said he was a male cat who had adopted Wimpole Hall stables twenty years ago, when already full grown, so now they estimated his age at about 22.  They'd known the house he originally come from, and took him back three times, but he obviously preferred the stables,  so in the end he was allowed to stay. 

Turned out this venerable old gent had been taken to the vet just the previous week, because his fur had become very matted (which is why he didn't have much.)  After a shave, though, the vet checked him over and said he was in good shape, despite his appearance.    

I suppose some do become skinny as they get older, and certainly he is entitled to wander around rather than running. And perhaps keeping a whole lot of long fur neat and clean is a chore when you reach his age.... 

Then, last Monday, we had some time when passing Osterley, another National Trust estate, very near Heathrow Airport,but not bothered much by planes. There, we visited another stables teashop.  Those National Trust teashops are pretty good!  In Osterley they serve vegetables and fruits from their home farm, including some unusual old varieties. I wish I'd photographed my salad but it contained, among other things, beautiful and delicious red pea pods. 

This  (below) was a part of the stables not used for a cafe, but instead was where they kept the 18th century fire appliances. You might be able to make out one of the wheels.  I hope they have some more up to date firefighting equipment too!

If you want to see what it looks like and how it works, I believe this one in Colonial WIlliamsburg isn't that much different... 

I also hobbled around some of the interesting garden which has a variety of different and equally lovely areas.   Not sure what this building below was originally for, but presently it contains large specimen plants. 

They include these striking and very large fuschia blooms, which I loved!  They're called  Fuschia fulgens "Rubra Grandiflora" 

And I always love cedars, which are often to be found in the grounds of big old houses.  Osterley had some fine specimens. You can get an idea of their size by looking at the person in the picture below.  A little hard to spot, but... she is. 

Maybe you notice I said I "hobbled."  On Monday I had to face it that my ankle had swollen up and was painful and tender when I walked.  

 Last year, when the same thing happened  I went to a physio who said I had small tears in the ligament, or was it the muscle? Anyhow, I did some exercises she gave me and it got better.  But over the last two months I've been increasing my exercise routine, and perhaps has triggered it off again.  So as of yesterday, I've decided to stay inside for a few days, and follow my doctor's advice to keep it elevated, ice it, and use ibuprofen gel.  I can't say it's had much effect yet.  

So that's it, that's been what I've been up to. And anyone with advice on how to fix an ankle like mine, please advise, because even though I am taking it very easy,  it doesn't seem to be improving much, and I'm feeling a little anxious about it. 

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Skeleton in the Cupboard, Money Down the Drain

Never thought I'd see a REAL skeleton in the cupboard, but here he was, the other day.  We were exploring woodlands near Guildford, Surrey, and dropped in at the Watts Gallery Artists' Village.  

I think it's a real skeleton, or at least it was a real artist's studio.  The Watts Gallery has been hidden in the Surrey woods for as long as I can remember.  My memory is of a forgotten, charming little museum with a very nice cafe run by local ladies and owned a slightly decrepit gallery crammed with the Victorian paintings of G.F. Watts (1817-1904)

Watts' paintings were very popular in their day. Between you and me I was never a great fan, but I loved the gallery. So, some years ago, when I learned it had appointed a dynamic new director, I feared its atmosphere might be spoiled.  Mostly, though, the changes have been good. The place is still delightful but now the buildings have been repaired and updated, many have been reopened, and as well as Watts' pictures there's now a gallery of contemporary work with ever changing exhibitions and a really interesting programme of events and activities - way better than most galleries I know.  Oh, and the cafe and shop are also good.  Here is the website. so consider it for a visit if you are in reach of Guildford. 

  I'd actually intended a flying visit in order to see a large detailed map which one of my favourite illustrators, (and a friend), Peter Cross, had made in aid of a crowdfund to erect Watts' statue "Physical Energy" nearby.  Here is a photo of, well, some of  the statue, but it's big and not easy to photograph it all inside the sculpture studio.

I find Watts' sculpture more energetic and powerful than his paintings and I think this will look good on a hillside. In the background, you can spot a cast of another of his sculptures. This one depicts the poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson - the finished statue was installed outside Lincoln Cathedral in 1905. 

The volunteer in the studio told me that the map  is everyone's favourite thing, and it is very typical of Peter's quirky and original work.   It's based on the punning idea of Watts and Energy, and features a wholly imaginary transport network and many local landmarks including an image of Watts' house, Limnerslease.  (Also, nearby Loseley House, built around 1568, a grand Elizabethan pile. I haven't yet seen around the house,but must.)

And... the map also features Mary Watts' chapel just down the road from the gallery.

Mary was G.F. Watts' second wife, and she sounds as if she was a lovely lady who doted on her (much older but very dynamic) husband.

Mary was very interested in art and design and started a pottery to give employment to the local villagers. (In those days, more than a hundred years ago, Surrey was full of hard-up farming folk - unlike today, when many local residents are wealthy).  Her biggest project was a cemetery chapel just up the road, using ceramic tiles from the pottery and designed in her unique style which is something between Celtic and Victorian. 

You can see what the outside of the chapel looks like from Peter's drawing - tall, thin, cruciform and made of decorative red brick.  Inside, it's a mass of multi coloured glazed saints covering the walls and ceiling, and saints in the same teardrop shape as in Peter's picture. 

Apart from the interior of their home, Limnerslease, this is the only surviving major work of Mary Watts. 

On our way home, we dropped in at the nearby church at Elstead, where we met the churchwarden who was just locking up. Here's a photo of the interior of the church. We were immediately struck by the massive beams at the far end,  hewn from oaks of gigantic size hundreds of years ago. This bit of the church is directly underneath the tower. 

The churchwarden pointed out something we would never have found.  On the right corner, there is a very old doorway, halfway up the wall and built on one of the beams. 

It is so narrow and hard to reach (impossible without a ladder) that you can tell it is very old. Peeping behind the huge beam, you see the door gives access to the tower up huge steep stairs cut directly into the oak.  I've never seen anything like this before, and can imagine that climbing those steps in such a confined space must have been very hard.   I took the photo below craning my neck looking upwards and so the perspective is strange, but take it from me that those maintained the bells or went to the belfry for any other reason, would need to be very agile indeed! Why, I wonder, did people in the past make life so difficult for themselves?  

On the way home we bought some eggs at a roadside stall. I liked the way the eggs were displayed on straw and there were some interesting cuttings and photos to look at. The stall is unmanned and you fill up the second-hand egg boxes yourself.  I think the owner had a sense of humour because ...

....payment for the eggs was made by an honesty system which involved literally throwing money down the drain!

Friday, 1 June 2018

Fashioned from Nature

When I heard about the V&A Museum's exhibition, "Fashioned from Nature," I immediately wanted to go, and last week I did.  The show looks at how Western fashion has been involved with the natural world over the last four hundred years, and it takes in a huge variety of garments, from labourers' fustian smocks to  gowns decorated with beetles - as well as quite the most awful earrings I have ever seen in my life.

I won't try to tell you about everything, but it was good to see that many of the beautiful items on display were simply celebrating the beauties of nature.  The embroidery on this evening dress from 1810 shows swirling vegetation and tree ferns, and is thought to have been inspired by exotic St. Helena tree ferns that had just been given to Kew Gardens at the time.

And this 18th century fine French waistcoat is also a celebration of nature, with African plants and Colobus monkeys (shown at the bottom) which would have seemed very unfamiliar to Westerners.

At least the Colobus monkeys weren't being made into fur coats. Along with the admiration for nature there has always been a seeming determination to plunder it, as we know, and any show on this subject will inevitably include quite a bit about fur, skins, pelts and feathers.  I found it rather depressing to admire the wonderful breast plumage of the huge albatross, only to see, (as the vintage label at the bottom said ) that this specimen had been "dressed and prepared for use in Ladies' Muffs, etc."

I'll spare you a picture of those nastiest earrings I've ever seen - in fact, thinking about it, they are too nasty even to describe. So if you want to see them you must go to the exhibition and look at all the earrings and see if you can guess.   There was something distasteful too about common birds which were "altered" to make them look into more interesting, expensive and imposing hat ornaments, although I know that DIY taxidermy appeals to some people. 

So I will move on to embroidery with beetle wing cases, as shown in the dress below. This was a type of white muslin dress that was often made in India for fashionable Westerners. It is stitched with iridescent dark-green beetle-wing cases of the jewel-beetle Buprestidae.  This particular dress is relatively restrained: there's far more elaborate beetle embroidery on Pinterest.  I believe the beetles discard the wing cases naturally, but these days you can get equally iridescent effects with certain types of sequins, although to be fair they don't look as if they are crawling all over you.   

The show has examples of all kinds of unexpected natural fibres which have been used in fashion.  Forget about wool, linen and water-wasting cotton; I was more interested in more unexpected fabrics like glass and pineapple fibre.  Pineapple cloth is now made on a small scale as a leather substitute under the brand name Pinatex, but there was a much more elegant and time consuming use of  this tough substance in a wedding gown of 1820, in which pineapple fibres and silk were woven together. You might be able to see that the warp and weft of the silk was removed in part of the pattern, and only the see-through pineapple fibre remained.

(Or you might not be able to see that. I am sorry about the low resolution of the photos. I forgot both my camera and my phone,  and T kindly lent me his phone. But its camera doesn't appreciate low light levels. )

Another thing that caught my eye was this riding coat, not for its materials but for its shape.  I think it's for a young woman or even a girl, since is cut with space for wide skirts, but apart from that, it doesn't appear to be made for a human being at all. It is very tiny, and flat chested, with a waist that cannot be more than eighteen inches, and massive shoulders that must measure twice that. It is tightly buttoned and form-fitting so I suspect the unfortunate wearer would have been laced into a very weird shaped corset and stuffed inside before they climbed onto their pony and galloped off (side-saddle, of course.)    

Environmental issues and exhibits are a significant part of the show.  In the 21st century the major concern is the wasteful use of natural resources. There is so much throwaway fashion, and some of it, like cotton denim, takes incredible amounts of water to produce, so it is good to see that some major fashion companies are waking up to the idea of sustainability.  Here is a link to H&M's "Conscious" range (click the little square beneath the description of each garment to read exactly how it is sustainable). At present, though, the idea of eco-fashion still seems like a bit of a fad, so it would good to see it become more mainstream.  

All so different from the second world war, isn't it?  Then, just getting materials at all, of any kind, was a problem.  If you were a skilled craftsperson, though, you could create beautiful garments from used parachute silk, like this, fashioned by a clever London dressmaker in the 1940s. This might have been one of my favourite pieces in the show. 

Of course fashion comes up with all kinds of extraordinary ideas, and recent ones are just as impractical and probably just as uncomfortable to wear as that riding jacket. The shoes below are from the "Bird Witched" collection of Japanese designer Masaya Kushino.  I found them very hard to photograph, so I've manipulated the image so you can get an idea of how they looked.

In real life, the shoes were black and grey, with black plumage feathers at the back, and sculpted metal bird claws which are the part you actually walk on.  Since they stand several inches off the ground, anyone using them would need a wonderful sense of balance! 


Jean-Paul Gaultier, as ever, contributed one of the most amazing garments. This dress, from his "Russia Collection" is called "Cat Woman," but in fact it depicts a leopard.  It is not made from real leopard skin but is created with many thousands of beads, and the label said that it took over 1,000 hours to make. You will see that the "leopard" face forms the entire bodice of the dress, and to me it looked as if it was holding the model in a close embrace.

A bit creepy, as so much of this fashion is - but for me that's one of the things that makes it so fascinating. 

After seeing the show, we emerged, blinking, to soak up some rays in the Madjeski Garden, in the museum's central courtyard.  In the beginning, I suspect this garden with its calm lawns and shallow pool was originally intended as an oasis of serenity.  Well, it's anything but that, now, and all the better for it.  The museum seems to have decided that it should be a child friendly zone and added water jets to add to the fun, which I'm sure weren't there originally.   There's now even an  an icecream stand in the sunniest corner, where you can sit and watch the kids play and notice everything that is going on in the square.

On the way home, we stopped off by the Paddington Canal to see what was new.  More children, more water jets.   This little person below spent a while figuring how to catch water from the jets shooting upwards all around her. She was very persistent, and in the end she realised that her mug had to be right way up, catching the water as it fell.  It may seem obvious to us, but I thought that was a real feat of reasoning for a little tot. 

I know that the weather in some countries is pretty bad right now, so I hope you're getting some pleasant summer days where you are.  And, if you want to go to the "Fashioned From Nature" exhibition - which doesn't finish until next January - I do recommend it, and the details are here. 

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.

Blog Archive