Sunday, 31 May 2020

In and Out of Lockdown

 Do you even remember how long coronavirus has dominated our lives?    Life before seems a bit like a dream.  So anyway you have experienced it too and you will probably understand when I say that the past few months have been a bit weird for me, with both wonderful and upsetting moments.

The most wonderful parts were right at the beginning.  It was fantastic not to have traffic, incredible to hear the birdsong - no planes, no people, no cars, or almost none, even in the middle of London.  The silence let us hear the birds right from when they began to sing their spring songs. And the sky - such an amazing blue, with so little vehicle or aircraft pollution. 

We have spent as much time as possible in the garden or going out to walk or cycle, at a safe distance from others.   In the early part of lockdown I also did a lot of reading.  Not so much drawing or creative work, none of the projects I had planned. And I read non-fiction, nothing fictional.   These were my top books, which I find a bit strange, looking at them, as they're not usually my kind of books at all.  

The first is a gripping and well written book from the 1940s by Robert Kee, who later became a top television journalist. It tells of his internment and escape during the Second World War.   He was captured early on, and describes not only the everyday horror and fear of war, but also the strange atmosphere in the internment camp where he found himself.   Cooped up 24 hours a day, everyone seemed to manage fine, but enormous arguments would suddenly flare from nothing.  People kept busy, but rumours and fake news abounded, treasured glimmers of hope usually evaporated.  Promises were not fulfilled, hopes did not come to pass, and in the end the only thing to do was hunker down and wait for the chance to escape.

Kee risked his life to escape, and .... well, I won't give away what happened to him, but I was on the edge of my seat. I do recommend this wonderfully well written book, which is pretty easily available in paperback. 

I also read "Strange Harmony " by William G Sewell. I have an old edition published in 1946; not sure it ever was reprinted. Sewell was a Quaker who was interned with his family for 4 years on Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion of 1941. Ironically, the family were only spending an overnight in Hong Kong en route to China, but they ended up on the run with several other adults and a total of eighteen children. They ended up in an internment camp where conditions became steadily less bearable. I found the book descriptive, compassionate and thought provoking as Sewell and his family worked incredibly hard in savage conditions to hold on to their own values and their sense of right and wrong.   Their Christian faith helped them so much, although it's not a particularly religious book. 

For our daily exercise we have been exploring Hampstead Heath, about 800 acres of one of the most varied and interesting bits of land I know, geologically, botanically and historically.  We have watched the seasons slowly change, and it has been marvellous.  I can understand now why people become nature writers!  First, we saw the haze of delicate white blackthorn sprinkling all the browns and greens of the winter trees and evergreens, almost like snow. It's one of the first signs of Spring.

Next, clumps of snowdrops appeared on the wintry banks among dead leaves and new blades of grass. 

And those chilly evening skies reminded us that winter was still only just behind us...

And then the violets appearing...

and the jasmine flowers, and the very first new leaves....

  the deafening birdsong....and suddenly each tree seemed to be a different colour, with all the leaves opening at once. 

Bluebells and forget-me-nots could be seen glimmering beneath the trees...

There was so much apple blossom...

And here is a swan with her ten eggs  waiting to hatch. Nine of them did produce cygnets, and the swan sat patiently for about a week on the final, addled egg before she gave up.  All her cygnets did well. 

Then, the cow parsley and white hawthorn appeared. I love them because they give May its characteristic scent.  And still the birds were singing so loudly. 

And now, all of a sudden, Spring has ended and it is early summer.  I'm thrilled that for the first time ever, I've been out there noticing how steadily nature changes throughout the year.  What a wonderful experience it has been!  I intend to continue to watch closely as the year rolls on. 

But then, two weeks ago the strict lockdown ended. Its simple message: Stay at Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS, had worked, and at last the virus was on the wane.  Now, of course, people must return to work and normal life as soon as possible.   The slightly unreal fairytale feeling has evaporated, traffic has returned to the roads, the sky is a less vivid blue.  People are out and about more, and, worryingly, are not social distancing as they should. A new and deeply concerning element now overshadowing everything, and that is the erosion of trust in the government's ability to deal with the virus with minimum loss of life.       

I have made a strong effort to avoid following the news, but we'd have to live in Outer Mongolia instead of Britain to be unaware of the gentleman below. He was the architect of the original strategy to stop the very expensive track and tracing which had originally been proposed to get the virus under control, but was abandoned.  Here we see him, glimpsed just a few seconds after he left a grilling by journalists the other day.  It's unusual to see a grin on his face. It lasted less than a second, his hand flew to his mouth, he composed himself, looked serious again, and strode on. 

He had just said something which made him the butt of jokes for several days, but he is a very bright man and had a reputation as a strategist and that "trickster's grin"  struck me.
Now with new rows and increasingly confused messages from the government, with doctors and scientists warning of more problems, I think these few paragraphs on Disorder and Confusion as Political Technique are interesting (at the bottom of the page).  I'm not into conspiracy theories but this is a technique used for discrediting opposition to governments, and the gent above, as I said, has been heavily involved in the government's approach to the virus.

   Anyway, that's all I am going to say, and if you prefer no politics, please feel free to skip reading the piece.   

Of course Nature does not care about any of that human stuff, and the weather continues warm and sunny, so we carry on being delighted and amazed by the beauty of the Heath. Now, the wild roses, guelder rose and honeysuckle make the air sweet, and the flag irises are blooming on the ponds.  

We'll keep ploughing on, and you do the same. Take care! 

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Strange Times

Oh my, it was a different world at Christmas.  How fast it's all changed.   I'm guessing I won't be able to tell anyone anything they don't already know.   But isn't is so very, very strange to think that even a month ago we were not giving serious thought to all of this?   

I thought I'd look through my photos and see what I'd been doing at the beginning of March.  And this is where I was: 

This is the village of Metfield in Suffolk, and I'd been attending a jumble sale.   You know, one of those village sales raising money for a good cause. We had been packed together in the village hall and I'd got a some interesting-looking books, a booklet of unused decorative craft papers, a brand new colander (to replace my old one which I'd melted by accident) and a brand new liquidiser to replace mine which is on its last legs. (T.'s qualified to check it out for electrical safety, which he's done, and he says it's fine). 

We came out with our trophies, which had cost a total of £3, and the sky was a wonderful blue, and the breeze was blowing some early daffodils about and it suddenly felt like Spring instead of winter.

As it had been both warm and wet, the road that led past the church was one big puddle.  We waded across it and went into that church which has an ancient clock, which dates back to the 17th century.  The clock face is on the bell-tower, but the mechanism is kept on the floor in the tower,  and its loud, steady "tick tock" can be heard all over the church. 

Looking at this little film now I think about all that has happened since the clock was made by Mr. Garrett in 1629.  I believe it will be ticking steadily away in Metfield Church long after everyone has forgotten about Coronavirus. 

Things became more serious, but a couple of weeks ago we were still able to go out into Essex to see the daffodils at Warley Place in Essex. I blogged about this unusual nature reserve ten months ago, and when I got home, I put a note in the diary to go in March 2020. And so we did, and it was all but deserted. What an incredible sight it was, with acres of daffodils. It was all so beautiful that we stayed for many hours, stopping to have a picnic and coffee.   

We decided to explore nature reserves and footpaths near to London after that.  And so, just twelve days ago, we were here (below), in a little-known spot of Hertfordshire countryside, above 3/4 hour drive from our home, watching a shallow wide clear river glittering through a green valley,  and an incredible blue sky above, with hills around and some little gothic cottages. Here's a view from the bottom of the hill.

And here are the cottages, next to the church.

The very next day, though, the government locked down. We were told to stay at home, and of course we have obeyed - there hasn't been any temptation for me to risk contagion, because I know how easily this virus spreads. There's a chart at the end of this post that shows how just one contact can make a whole lot of difference.   But we are allowed to walk or cycle near home, for purposes of exercise, and that's what we're doing. I just hope nobody closes the  open spaces near us.   The blackthorn is now fully out but there are still only a few leaves on the trees.  Thank goodness for wildness. 

It is tragic listening to the news and my thoughts are with those who will be affected, which include me and my own close family.   I don't think anyone can feel complacent.

But what can we do, except the things that are in our power? We cannot possibly alter a global problem, and so, just as with the climate emergency, we can only do - and keep doing - absolutely everything possible not to make things worse and buy time for healing to happen.   If we take care not to spread the virus, we are helping to save lives by postponing infections and spreading them thinner so the medical services can deal with the numbers better.  And, of course, so that scientists can develop vaccines and treatments and manufacturers can produce enough ventilators for those who may need them.

 Thankfully from the back of our house we have a close up view of a large cherry tree which is right now in full bloom. 

So that's me. I'll be checking my favourite blogs and leaving some comments after so long away. Please stay safe everyone and try to help others to stay safe too.  Stay in your home, or your garden, don't go closer than two metres (six feet) to anyone who isn't in your own household. (Even the drainholes around here are warning us of that) 

 I haven't been in Blogland much over the last months and so I'm now going to visit my favourite blogs.  I hope very much that I will find all of you well, and that you'll remain so. 

How are you coping with the strange times we are in?

Thursday, 26 December 2019


Happy Christmas, belatedly.  I prepared some photos.... but life took over, and I was too busy to blog. 
But it's still the Christmas season till 6 January, so hopefully you're still in the mood to see some Christmassy cherubs...

and some Christmas trees....

These little trees, riding on tree ornaments shaped like landrovers (what will they think of next?) were part of the highly creative window displays at V.V. Rouleaux.  This charming ribbon and hat trimming shop is tucked away in a back street in London's Marylebone, and when I cycled past the other day I saw they'd decked the whole shopfront entirely with ribbons for the festive season. 

I also saw that Fortnum and Mason's has turned the whole shop into an  
advent calendar. It happens to have 24 convenient windows (there's another row which is not visible in the picture). I have an idea that they might do this every year but usually I'm too focused on their  famous Christmas window displays to notice. This year the Christmas windows were uncharacteristically dull, actually...
... so here is a Fortnum's window from times past. All the windows on the ground floor usually share a common theme,  and this window, from 2015,  was the Royal Coat of Arms, with the Lion and the Unicorn.  I hope they'll be back on form next year! 

And here are some of our Christmas lights, which I thought looked rather cosy, together with our faithful gas fires which date from the early 1950s and were in the house when we arrived.  I always loved the look of these fires; they have some sort of finish that glistens with "interference colours"  and are a nice old fashioned shape. Their brand name is "Gas Miser"  because although they are so powerful that you can feel as if you are in Borneo instead of London, they're also adjustable down to a barely visible flame that keeps the chill off the room for long periods and costs hardly anything. Ideal for old places with large high rooms and rather bad insulation, and everyone likes to gather round them too. They don't "go" with the original Victorian mantelpieces but you can't have everything!

Enjoy the rest of the Christmas Season, and Happy 2020!

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

One thing, then another.

London really is full of surprises.  I never fail to marvel at how often I go out to do one thing, and end up doing something else as well.  For instance, we went out last week with our friend Annette to see an art show about "London through the eyes of artists."  The show was at the Guildhall art gallery, in the heart of the oldest bit of London. The Guildhall was built between 1411 to 1999 in (as you'd guess) many different there's part of a 2,000 year old Roman amphitheatre in the basement.

The paintings  in the show spanned four hundred years or so, and the one below particularly appealed to me. It seems that around 1600 a legal clerk commissioned a theatrical scenery painter to show how Old St. Paul's Cathedral would look if it was restored. It was at the time very neglected - in fact, its spire had collapsed - and his set of pictures included "before" pictures and the hoped-for "after" pictures. Here's an "after" picture of the interior. Do you notice a dog being chased out of the church in the bottom right?

This exterior "after" picture shows how very different Old St. Pauls looked from the current one, even without the beautiful golden angels flying all around it.    

It is just as well perhaps that the repairs don't seem to have been done, since it would have been very expensive - because, sadly, Old St Pauls was burned down in the Great Fire of London of 1666.   

After viewing the show, we thought we'd look at some of the Guildhall's permanent art collection, so off we went went in search of it.  We quickly found ourselves before a large arched doorway, which led into a series of grand rooms, some of them very large. These were crowded with stalls selling all kinds of unexpected things.  After a while, we realised we'd stumbled upon a bazaar raising funds for the work of the Red Cross.  

And I do mean "grand" rooms. The statues decorating the walls were larger than life sized, if you notice.    It was not at first immediately obvious that many of the stalls were run by livery companies, but they were. Livery companies are a bit like medieval trade unions,  but now they play a mainly networking and ceremonial role in City life. Many are incredibly wealthy after centuries of endowment and land purchase, and they play an important part in maintaining many of the beautiful old churches and chapels in the City.  (They also do other charitable work. For example, the Dyers Company supports S and Little A's junior school, which is in an area once traditionally associated with leatherwork and dyeing. ) 

The Blacksmiths were selling splendid ironwork of all types, the Masons had stone carvings which I guess you could buy and build into your house -  I'm sure they were open to commissions too. Here are a couple of stallholders in Red Cross aprons and guild regalia. The Gardeners had a wonderful display of extremely reasonably priced and beautiful plants lining a long Gothic corridor. 

The Launderers Company were in what looked some kind of a vestry. One of them told me that some of their members supplied them with vast quantities of hotel quality duvet covers and towels so they could sell them at knock down prices and raise money at the bazaar. 

This gentleman below was MC-ing and his voice would appear out of nowhere over several of the vast rooms. T. reckons the collar and cuffs must have been made by the Lacemakers' Company, except that I don't think there is one, since lace was generally made at home by women.  

Annette bought some books and a gourmet Christmas pudding and we went down a long stone staircase decorated entirely with fir boughs and coloured lights, and ended up in one of the Crypts. These are often amazingly decorated for functions (see this site but in the past were sometimes used to confine people that the authorities didn't like.   On the occasion of our visit, the crypt housed a pop up cafe called the Clink (an old name for a jail, based on the noise the jailers made when they walked around with their bunches of keys). One of the stalls there was giving away free glasses of excellent wine, so we ended up pretty happy. 

So eventually we peeled ourselves away from the crypt and went off to have a late lunch - it was nearly 2 PM - and noticed that the lights were on in St. Lawrence Jewry church, which stands nearby. So in we went and found we were at the end of a wonderful free organ concert. Several city churches have free organ concerts weekly. St. Lawrence is  every Tuesday at 1 PM.   So we decided to come back and hear one of the organ concerts the following Tuesday. 

And that's what we did  yesterday.  This is a picture of the main organ - in fact, it has two cases, the big one in the main church, and a smaller one in a side chapel, and they can be played either together or separately. I'd love to hear them both played together.  

And since it is connected with the Guildhall, and those livery companies, there's a stand for the ceremonial mace of the Lord Mayor of  London.  The aldermen sit behind him (or her) in those pews. 

At the concert I heard for the first time some work by the composer Max Reger - a Chorale Fantasia. I was very impressed. If you want to hear it, Youtube has a good performance, although I have to say that however well performed it is, it's not really as good as hearing it on a real organ. 

After the concert yesterday, we noticed the main door of the Guildhall was open. There was no particular event on, so we thought we'd drop in to see what it looked like without all the stalls, or the cafe, or anything.   I'm not sure we were really supposed to be there, but it was a very interesting little walk, and this time we managed to take some photos of the stained glass windows in the crypt which showed the arms of some of the livery companies.  This, below,  for the Spectacle Makers, was my favourite. Each of the windows is full of imagery, but I particularly liked the butterfly with the "eyes" on its wings, and all the pairs of old fashioned spectacles.

Here, the Air Pilots and Navigators are one of the more modern companies. 

And I did like the Farriers - so many different types of horses to be seen. 

I'd have liked the chance to buy a book with pictures of all the windows, and explanations, but there wasn't one in the little shop by the gallery. 

 A few days ago we also took the chance to go to an exhibition called "Hidden London" - it's about the abandoned and disused tube stations of London.  To get to Covent Garden, where the museum is, we cycled through Regents Park and were waylaid there, too. The weeping willows are often the last trees to shed their leaves and they did make a wonderful sight.  

The Hidden London exhibition is due to close in January, and is worth catching if you can. It's exceptionally lively and theatrical for a small exhibition and you feel almost as if you really are going underground into a warren of abandoned or re-purposed stations. Old tube stations have been used for more things than I ever knew, from wartime headquarters to hydroponic salad factories!  

One of the exhibits in the show was the London tube map with ONLY the disused stations marked.   

The show was put on to launch the museum's own tours of disused stations in real life, which sound very good, and something I'd like to try before too long. I have to say I am a bit of a sucker for old railway stations. 

Now that December has started, I really have to get moving on my Christmas preparations. Somehow they always catch me by surprise. Have you started your preparations yet?

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