Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Dogs Etc.

Are you settling down to autumn?  I'm reluctant to, as I love spring and summer, but there's no doubt it's really on its way, with its seed heads and the the falling leaves. The rosebay willowherbs (those pink flowers in the picture below) are just about over, but at least it's still warm enough to sit outside in the sun.  I haven't had much time for blogging lately but I've taken every chance to keep in touch with nature, and I've seen some strange things.  Like, the other day I was on Hampstead Heath (below) picking blackberries, when I kept hearing bangs.

I looked around and eventually saw this - a woman throwing balloons into the air.

Her very clever dog was chasing the balloons and heading them onwards

but every now and then he got too excited, took a snap at the balloon and - bang!

I spoke to her just as she was packing the balloons away, to her dog's disappointment.She explained that he gets so excited that she has to give him a break - so now, they were off for a nice, quiet walk!

I am not sure you can call stuffed animals "nature".  In fact, they're almost the opposite. I saw lots of them, though, when a historical society I belong to made a trip to Quex Park, in Kent. The house belonged to a Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, who was obsessed with hunting, and, like many dedicated hunters, was also very interested in the animals he shot. I never understand why someone who loves animals would want to spend their life shooting them, but there we are. And he did want to share his fascination with the folks back home. The specimens are beautifully stuffed and set against carefully researched and painted backgrounds and if you like that kind of thing they are really wonderful examples. More information on their website, here.

In his travels to exotic locations, the Major had really quite "Boys Own" type adventures and barely escaped alive at times from tribesmen - in whom he was also very interested.  (To be fair, he wasn't also trying to kill them, like the animals - but they certainly tried to kill him, on occasion.)

So the museum also contains all kinds of ethnographical curiosities, and altogether it is a very interesting period piece. The gallery shown below not only displays lots of antlers and dismayingly large numbers of elephant tusks, but there are also native spears arranged on the ceilings, and glass cases of objects reflecting a way of life which has almost entirely vanished - certainly for Westerners who travel abroad.

T6his particular room was used as a ward for convalescent soldiers during the First World War.  Imagine recovering in here!  Through the archway you can see a lion and its prey, although to be fair I imagine all the floor space in those days was given over to soldiers' beds.

Two of the Major's daughters shared his passion for faraway places. Both were highly intelligent women, and they devoted their lives to doing medical work among Africans. They also catalogued and recorded the way of life of their patients, (who were also their friends) so that now we know what they made and did and looked like.

There really is some splendid stuff to see - I particularly loved this bowl with six heads from Nigeria. 

In search of a bit of my own history I have been sorting out some old albums passed down in my family.  For a hundred and fifty years, one branch of the family worked to bring the wonders of the electric telegraph to far flung places ranging from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and their families followed along - only a minority of my grandparents and great-grandparents were born in Britain, and neither of my parents were.

Some of the albums are very interesting.  Here is HMS Renown - the original battleship, built in 1895, pre-dreadnought.  She was scrapped in 1914. My relatives were pretty bad at labelling things but I'd guess this was probably somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Here is a snap with the following title.  It looks like "Becalmed Boat in Mediterranean"....but I think that must be wrong...

because no way is this the Mediterranean, surely. Anyone got any ideas? The robe looks a bit Turkish to me.

And a more homely note, here is "Tinker on the Horse" was taken in a farm that was very likely at in Tolleshunt Major,  Essex, about 1920.

I'm still wondering what this picture represents. It dates from around 1910, and seems to show women from all nations.  But which nations? The one in the centre could be Marianne of France. I don't think she is Britannia because she doesn't have a Union Jack.

The girl in tartan must be Scotland. I see a pre-war Japanese flag and a lady who might be dressed in a kimono.  Perhaps an Afghan lady in the centre.  An Indian, and a Russian in that white hat, do you think?

As for the event itself, goodness knows what it can have been.

I also visited the area where my parents spent most of their retirement, in West Berkshire/East Wiltshire.  The weather, as you can see, didn't really cooperate but I enjoyed the trip, anyway.  The photo is taken from the steps of the antique arcade in the centre of Hungerford.

While I was in the arcade I bought someone else's family photos, an album dating from the early 1940s.  I don't usually buy other peoples' family photos, but this album, although damaged, wasn't that expensive, and it was so carefully laid out,  with photos that were worth seeing. The owner listed all the places where he had served with the Army. 

 There is no name on the album, and I was rather sad to think that there were no descendants who wanted to keep it, because he was a good photographer.  I liked the way that the camels and people in the foreground here seem to be making no effort to escape what I suppose is a sandstorm approaching in (according to the caption) Khartoum.  Looks mighty scary - have any of you ever been in a sandstorm? I wonder how quickly it would typically move.  Do you think this was about a minute away, or half an hour away?  

Here is an air raid over Alexandria, Egypt, with searchlights criss crossing the sky. Or could it be a time exposure of tracer bullets?  

 Alexandria is where my father grew up.  I didn't notice Dad in any of the photos though!

And here are a couple of our anonymous soldier's colleagues at El Alamein, in the Western Desert.

I don't think I would have liked living then at all, but looking at this album I do sense that this owner felt a certain wonder that he had gone to so many places and seen so many things. The final picture in the album shows troops marching in a VE Sunday parade through the streets of Melton Mowbray, photographed by Heawood, a local photographer.   I wonder if the soldier did anything interesting with the rest of his life, and whether he was glad to back home in Leicestershire.  

My cousin lives near Melton and drove down to see us in London last weekend. I don't know why it always seems like the ends of the earth to me to go to where they live from here. It's actually only about two hours in the car.  I was glad she came though as they've just got what must be the nicest dog in the world.  He's a bit of a crossbreed I think, mainly a Pom.  Such a good tempered, friendly and altogether delightful dog.   He loves having his tummy stroked. 

He seems to have a lot of cats in his life, which he is on the whole pretty good friends with.  But then he seems to be friends with everyone.  Definitely my No. 1 dog of the year!

We stayed in a friend's cottage in East Anglia, and I was impressed by a couple of cars I spotted in Raveningham, Norfolk. The one on the left is surely a hearse, but its front seats are upholstered in gold, so there is obviously a story attached.   Both were looking a little dusty, as if they hadn't been driven recently. I don't suppose their original owners ever thought they'd end up in the depths of the Engish countryside.

I plan to visit everyone's blogs over the next few days, I am sorry for my absence and lack of comments. I seem to have a lot of work to do at the moment.  It all seems to be to do with art, so I hope I'll have a lot to tell you about it in due course.   One thing is sure at the moment though - and that is that I certainly have a lot to learn!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Making the World A Better Place

I like supporting charities. Amidst the chorus of bad news from the media, it really cheers me up to think that people are spending their time trying to do good stuff, and I love reading each charity's newsletter to hear how they are making the world a better place.

Which is, indirectly, why I found myself at Twyford Farm (below), in deepest Sussex, last week. 

Years ago,  I wrote an article about English hedgerows and met a man called Robin Page.   Journalist, countryside writer and sometime politician, he is full of energy and quite a character, and he's based in a farm in Barton, Cambridgeshire. The farm is called Lark Rise, and it teems with the wild creatures, insects and flowers that you'd expect in an old fashioned corner of the English countryside.

In the  long-ago 1990s, when I visited Robin, the land around Lark Rise had was being farmed as agribusiness, with pretty well every hedge, tree and natural feature bulldozed in order to create enormous fields. These were managed and harvested in the most efficient and profitable way, as if the fields were a huge outdoor vegetable factory.  I found it distinctly "Twilight Zone" to leave Lark Rise and walk into those huge, flat, boring, businesslike Cambridgeshire fields.   Not a bird singing, not an animal stirring, not a bee buzzing... it really did not seem right.

It was such a contrast, in fact, that I joined the charity Robin had just founded. In it, he planned with characteristic energy, to show that commercial farming could coexist with conservation and wildlife.  It is called The Countryside Restoration Trust (click the link to see their video). Over the years since I joined, the CRT has acquired more land in Barton and acquired properties in another 10 areas of  Britain.  

Somehow I never went back to Lark Rise farm, nor did I meet Robin again, nor visit any of the CRT's other properties.  But last week, it was sunny and I was looking through their latest newsletter, when on impulse I decided to go and stay in the b&b run at Twyford Farm, some 35 miles south of London in Ashdown Forest. This farm, previously used for breeding Welsh Ponies, was gifted to the CRT in 2013.  It had become rather run down in some ways, and I'd been reading in the newsletter how the tenants, Bob and Liz, had been working like mad to get it into shape.

After a rather long trip to Sussex, caused by getting lost, despite the GPS (my fault), we finally reached Ashdown Forest.  About 1,200 acres in size, it was a nobleman's hunting forest in the 11th century, but by the 20th century it had become famous as the haunt of Winnie the Pooh. Author AA Milne lived here when he wrote "Winnie the Pooh" and the illustrator, E.H. Shepard, visited the area to sketch his illustrations.  There's a website about Pooh locations here.

But we didn't go in search of Pooh. It was all we could do to find the farm.  Down a narrow lane we went, then up a track, and finally, there was the gate we were looking for...

It is not dilapidated any more. In the last couple of years has been repaired, redecorated and modernised just enough, but not too much. (This was a big plus for me. I like to be comfortable but hate it when old places have the authenticity taken out of them.).  There were several friendly, clean and obedient dogs who were very happy to make friends with us, sheep on the hillside, cows on the heath, lots of books on the shelves about nature and wildlife, even animal faces on the cushions...

As in many old farmhouses, there is a lot of space. Guests have their own dining and sitting room plus the use of an amazing south facing terrace...  but it must be confessed there isn't a great deal of head-room at times. As you can probably estimate from the doorway shown below, the folks who built the farm around the 16th century must have been little more than five foot tall.Still, you do get used to the door height pretty fast... a couple of bangs on the head each did it for us. 

We spent our time quite simply, mostly in chatting with Liz, Bob and a couple of other guests, and going for walks. We could roam anywhere on the farm, and the the exceptionally beautiful woodlands and heathland around was criss crossed with public footpaths and bridleways. 

Although something is known of the farm's history, there is still much to discover. About ten minutes walk from the farmhouse, we turned down a track and found ourselves by a large pond, surrounded by reeds, rushes, and both wild and what seemed to be naturalised garden flowers too. Beneath the trees, with the evening sun shining through the leaves, it was a lovely place to linger as the summer twilight fell.  

I noticed some interesting specimen trees had been planted around the pond,  making it seem even less like a regular farm pond and more like someone's private retreat. It was puzzling, because the land has been farmed for years, and farmers don't usually have too much time to hike out in order to sit  and contemplate such a scene. Perhaps I'll discover the story behind it some day.   

Twyford Farm has a small herd of cattle which it grazes in Ashdown Forest. Despite its name, the Forest contains quite a bit of open heathland, and cows have been grazed here for centuries.  One day we took a walk in an area called Chelwood Vachery.   Nearby monks used it for their cows in the 14th century, but now most of the area is overgrown with trees.  

The monks went long ago, but at the start of the 20th century, a wealthy MP called Sir Stuart Samuel built a grand, (some might even say overbearing) mansion in the Vachery. It seems he had a formal garden near the house, but a more naturalistic area further away, and by the 1920s the garden boasted a terraced area with a sequence of linked pools, complete with sluices, colourful rhododendrons, a folly bridge and a miniature version of the cliffs of the Cheddar Gorge winding down the hill - the latter was created using rocks brought all the way from Somerset.

But as you can see, these acres of garden were abandoned a long time ago and are now quite overgrown.  The area is being cared for by volunteers, but they don't attempt to bring it back to its former glory. Even in its overgrown state it is charming. It is certainly wildlife-friendly and is also a bit peculiar, really, since the water running through the valley is a chalybeate stream - so full of iron that it shines red as rust when the sun catches it directly. 

  Here is a photo of the folly bridge, which is far bigger than its role deserves, since it only spans this tiny river. Our footpath, however, winds through another arch in the bridge, towards stepping stones which cross the river again.   It was all very green and mysterious, with birdsong the only sound.

Can you imagine that bridge when it was new?  It seemed to me that in its heyday it could have been a great place to have 1920s fun

Just down the lane from Twyford is another interesting farm.   Plaw Hatch and its next-door-neighbour Tablehurst Farm are owned by a cooperative - a sort of crowdfunding farm ownership scheme.   Bob, with decades of experience looking after cattle, said that their cows are in pretty good shape, and the people there are businesslike as well as charming, friendly and welcoming.   If you want to find out more, please take a look at their extremely interesting website

We took a little stroll around the farm, and saw some of the cows waiting to be milked.  Like many farm animals in summer, they were troubled with flies, and were making full use of a brush fixed up for their use.   

 I didn't photograph a group of kids who were looking at the cows being milked in the little parlour, but at the sales desk, beneath a mural of a leaping cow, I was able to see through a glass window to the cheese-making next door,

 The farm buildings were old, and full of character...

We wondered what the peculiar little building was on the right, below.  It had a bell, so we thought it might be a schoolroom, but the near-circular chamber inside wasn't anything like a schoolroom - too small and such an unusual shape.   There was a Victorian date carved somewhere. Any ideas, anyone?

I think there's a pop up coffee shop at the farm on some days of the week, and possibly also a bar (they do sell local beer).  The farm shop sells all kinds of biodynamic foods, raw milk, cheese, and what we thought was the the best yogurt we'd had, ever.  Sadly, I think it's only available at the farm, but if you should ever happen to see any, do give it a try.

You could spend many days exploring Ashdown Forest, but there are also quite a few stately homes, animal attractions and National Trust properties nearby. (With, of course, those ever welcome National Trust teashops.) 

My favourite local NT property is Sheffield Park and Garden, designed by the famous landscape designer Capability Brown.   Only the parkland and garden belong to the National Trust, but the "Strawberry Gothic" style Sheffield Park House still exists (it is now private apartments). You can glimpse part of it below, overlooking Capability's landscaping.  It is quite a pile. 

Turn the other way, and this is the view that the people in the house see.

 I particularly liked the red water lilies, but then I'm always a sucker for water lilies.  

This summer we haven't had all that many consecutive days of good weather.  I was grateful that we used what we had at Twyford Farm, but eventually the clouds gathered and the rain set in again.  I returned to London, feeling pleased at having seen some of the work the CRT does and reflecting that I 'd probably never have visited the area otherwise.  Because it really is awkward to reach from our home, you know, even though I actually read the map just fine on the way back...  

Monday, 15 August 2016


I don't know if it is just me but it hasn't seemed like summer till now. Not only weeks on end of drab greyness, but the general angst, recriminations and arguments around the referendum also made everything seem grey. But now the sun has come out, and the Olympics are here (or, rather, in Rio) and the atmosphere is lighter.  Our local housing co-op had its own Olympic Games and it was great for the kids that the adults turned out to organise them a relay, sprint and all the favourites like egg and spoon and sack race.

We decided to do a couple of the things we'd been waiting for summer to do. One of them is to revisit Abbey Wood. It's now an unremarkable suburb in SE London, but in years gone past it was a hub of power, the site of Lesnes Abbey, whose monks once owned everything for miles around.  They were closed down in the 16th century and the remains of their huge, grand abbey are being regenerated as part of a Heritage Lottery Scheme, A new turf roofed visitor centre is being built, as well as a new garden like the monks might (or frankly might not) have had.

It has cast iron gates representing grass (I think)  and rather odd sculptures which are supposed to represent beehives (I think). So not the easiest garden to interpret, so far. I've found a description of what it will ultimately be like (follow the link here),but the main thing is that it is an attractive place to be, which is what really matters in a garden.

The monks' fish pond, previously overgrown, has been opened up for wildlife studies with a boardwalk, and generally the site is getting more of the attention it deserves.

Just round the corner by those trees in the picture above, is a stupendous play area with a climbing wall, bike track, every imaginable sort of play equipment, an outdoor gym a parkour zone and goodness knows what else, and it was great to see lots of kids and families picknicking and playing.

The woodland that stretches out from the abbey is very ancient,  part of the great Wildwood which used to cover so much of the London area.  Over 900 species of invertebrates, and 300 species of plants have been recorded here, and it has a fossil bed, ponds and some heathland too, plus quite a few butterflies I didn't recognise.   Most of all it is a wonderful woodland to walk through and we stopped and chatted with quite a few people who come here every day, either to walk their dogs or to get a bit of peace and quiet. 

The heather is fully out in the heathland glades. If it had only been lavender, what with the hot sunny weather, I could almost have thought I was in Provence....

In a lonely glade, someone had carved my ideal chair from an old treetrunk.  And very welcome it was after a few miles.

There are several ponds. There's a heron in the background with a mother duck and her ducklings swimming.

and plenty of blackberries, particularly delicious ones.

Since the sunshine continued, we went a couple of days later to Wisley, in Surrey, the chief garden of the Royal Horticultural Society.  We try to go a few times a year to see the garden change with the seasons.  If you haven't been to WIsley, let me show you my house (in my dreams) Naturally there would be a team of Wisley horticulturalists standing by to look after the acres of grounds. 

And label all the plants.... like this one whose leaves look as if they are speckled by sunlight filtering in through the trees.   

Here was my favourite curiosity.  It hardly looks like a flower at all. 

At this time of year, the wild areas come into their own. This part of the garden features plants which grow wild in the British Isles.

So that's what I'm up to. Mostly, just enjoying hanging out in the summer and making the most of the sunshine. 
I hope you're enjoying your late summer too.

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