Thursday, 21 March 2019

Ruskin, Mr Tayto and Waldorf Astor

So the violets are out - I don't know why they're considered to be shy, as the ones in London always seem bright and Suffragette-like.  I love to see them.  

I've had my head down trying to get all the Durrell material into shape, and still a few more interviews to go. I've run into a significant problem but I think I'm dealing with it, but at least it gives me something to think about rather than Brexit. (I'm trying not to comment too much on that, even though it's hard to ignore the whole pathetic mess.)

The pictures below show geological specimens belonging to the great Victorian artist John Ruskin.  We went to an exhibition about him at Two Temple Place,  (more about this interesting London house in a moment...)  Ruskin had the most extraordinary upbringing. As the only child of elderly parents, he was not allowed to attend school or have playmates, and even toys were in very short supply.  As I recall from reading his biography several years ago, he didn't mind too much, although his childhood sounded like a nightmare to me.  But, sitting with his elderly parents with nothing to do, seemingly encouraged him to develop his observational skills.  He found it so interesting and rewarding that he built his whole life around the visual arts. 

I admire Ruskin for his passion and commitment to beauty, nature and art.  He believed totally that these could benefit rich and poor alike, and worked tirelessly to spread this message as widely as he could. Looking around the exhibition I felt we could really do with another Ruskin these days to remind us to simply look at the inherent beauties to be found in nature.   

My favourite of the specimens here has to be the glittering multi coloured opal, the bottom one of the three. I've always been told it's unlucky. Have you ever heard this?  I hope it's not true. 

Two Temple Place is a magnificent house near the Inns of Court in London, built for Mr. William Waldorf Astor.  It's now owned by a foundation called the Bulldog Trust, which is devoted to promoting culture and philanthropy.  I have never heard of the Bulldog Trust, and their website is very scrappy, but they do a fine job of keeping up the house and always put on the most gorgeous exhibitions during the winter, which is when the house is open to the public. 

So this is what the house looks like from the outside. No garden, but note the golden weather vane.  By Astor or Waldorf standards, I suppose it is just a cottage, but how magnificent it seems to me!  I love the main staircase, with its leaded coloured glass ceiling... 

...and the long gallery, with a huge stained glass window at either end.  Rare woods are used all around the house in panelling, flooring and carving. Entering this room is like entering a stage set; my pictures can't quite convey the size and space and light.  

You could spend half an hour looking at a single door. If you were Ruskin, you probably would. In fact, everything in the house repays close examination and was built (and later restored, after wartime bomb damage) with no expense spared.  I should say you might not like the house if you are a minimalist at heart, but even so, you would probably appreciate it. 

Yesterday, we met old friends in another interesting building: the Garden Museum, near the very ancient Lambeth Palace.  The museum is shown below - it's in the deconsecrated church on the right.  It is a nice spot, and the gardens outside are full of spring flowers, but yesterday was so dim and rainy that I didn't take many photos.

The palace and church stand on the banks of the River Thames right within sight of our shambolic Parliament.  We and our good friends carefully avoided looking at it, or discussing what might be going on within.  

Instead, we looked at all the terrific objects in the museum, which tells the story of English gardening. I was particularly taken with this huge three dimensional artwork created from mirrors and dried flowers. T. took the photo, and it gives a better idea of what it is like than anything I took. 

If you look at the website you'll see that this museum runs some imaginative and interesting exhibitions. It's slightly off the beaten track, or always seems that way to me, but it really is worth a visit.   In the old churchyard is the super but very odd tomb of the Tradescants, the famous plant collecting family who rose to fame in the 17th century.  I have no idea why the tomb has a hydra on it, and nor, seemingly, has "Flickering Lamps" the blog I'm linking to above, which has a more detailed description of the tomb. 

AND.... my Irish passport finally arrived!  I'm delighted to have the Irish part of me acknowledged, and when I get a little bit clear, in May, I plan a "Becoming Irish" party. 

My friend Marjorie, in Chicago, bought me some St. Patrick's Day merchandise and mailed it over. Chicago's proud of its Irish heritage and I'm delighted at this selection of stuff.  So what to eat at this party?  Irish family members suggest bacon, sausages and potatoes, and ye-e-e-es, I suppose so.   Okay, Tayto potato crisps. Guinness.  But I'm not crazy on those things myself, so could anyone reading this suggest any more unusual Irish recipes?  We have had really terrific food in Belfast and West Cork not too long ago. I just can't remember what it was. ..

Talking of Tayto crisps, the twins' school friend was saying how her family was going off to Legoland. Cue for two envious twin faces. Girl twin said bravely, "Well, we're going to Potato Land!"  Actually she meant Tayto Park, which their other grandparents have promised them at some stage. Apparently it has Ireland's only roller coaster, but that's just hearsay on my part, I wouldn't go on a roller coaster again after I wrenched my neck in Disney's Space Mountain.  After the worst theme park experience of my life in Legoland Windsor (click the link) I would not be envious of anyone going there, either; but I like the cheerful and unassuming Mr. Tayto and I have a feeling I'd like Tayto Park if I ever go.


The magnolias are out and on a sunny afternoon they make a good show. This is one of the magnolias at Kenwood House, in the middle of Hampstead Heath. It is one of my favourite spots and it always has a wonderful display of blossom in Spring. 

And what else? Well, we had the daughter of a Japanese friend to stay, and her high school friend - they had a spare day in London. They and their families gave us all kinds of cute gifts, of which the prettiest included these dinky little chocolates.  The cherry blossom is of course just in season but apparently it's the symbol of that particular brand of chocolates too.   Now, the chocolates are no more but I'll be keeping the box - Japanese packaging is always so beautiful.  

The leaves haven't quite come out on the trees and we've had some good sunsets. I do like this time of year. The photo below reminds me of certain children's book illustrations of the 1920s. I can imagine E.H. Shepherd (illustrator of Pooh Bear) being a bit inspired by this scene, somehow, can't you? 

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Trees, Memorials

We've been seeing so many beautiful and interesting trees in the last few days - and that is not something I usually say at this time of year when tree branches are usually bare, grey and rattling in a chilly wind.  But several days of summery temperatures showed February in a new light.    It was like a sudden slice of summer, except without the leaves.  (The alder tree above, on the canal near Rickmansworth, has no leaves yet, but is covered in golden catkins). 

We have taken every chance to get out around London, with the result that lots of rather important tasks have been neglected here in the Woolf household.   We mostly picked out places randomly on the Ordnance Survey maps. These great maps are full of incredible detail, and you can use them to plan a route to see all kinds of features that aren't much publicised.

T. has all the OS maps on his phone. My picture shows part of an older, paper map which is now out of date (personally I still like the paper maps.)  This fragment of the East Chiltern Hills paper map - in Buckinghamshire, north of London - shows Burnham Beeches nature reserve (the blue bird symbol) a car park (a blue P symbol) a long distance footpath (green blobs and dashes) and many other small public tracks (black or green dashes). 

There are very ancient landscape features - see the moat and the settlement?  The terrain is fairly flat, with a slightly steeper bit round Victoria Drive.  Some of the old names recall past features of the landscape ("Kilnwood" was likely used by charcoal burners), and narrow minor roads (less than 4 metres/12 feet wide) are yellow, larger minor roads are brown. You'll also see Dorneywood on the bottom left.  Dorneywood house is a grand grace-and-favour residence for Cabinet ministers.  It is known for its beautiful 1930s style gardens, which are open to the public in warmer months, so who knows -  you might even spot a top politician if you go. Although personally I have seen enough politicians lately to last me a good while.  

 Burnham Beeches has some very old, gnarled and characterful trees. 

Nearby Stoke Common nature reserve couldn't be more different. It consists of a curious swampy heathland with conifers and marsh plants, criss crossed by (fairly dry) paths.  It is an oddly fascinating landscape and is owned by the rich burghers of the City of London who are conscientiously restoring the habitat to encourage wildlife. We met some dogwalkers who were thrilled that previously absent birds like woodlarks and stonechats are now breeding there again.  

Another day we walked near the charming little town of Wendover, and in the woodland I spotted a few trees which had acquired hand knitted scarves.  I think these are to make a political point - the very unpopular new railway line, HS2, is going to crash through the area and spoil the view. I wouldn't mind a scarf like that, though. 

A little further from the scarf-clad trees Combe Wood opened into a sunny hillside with wide views over surrounding countryside.  The light was golden, although it was only about 2.30 PM,  and the air was so warm and benign that we were in teeshirts.

There were strange humps all over parts of the hillside. I bet they are anthills. I wonder how many ants there are hibernating under that turf!   I'm told they do a good job keeping down greenfly and are winter food for woodpeckers. 

 A bit further on we spotted a garden with what looked like clumps of  purple heather, though I didn't think heather has flowers in early Spring. But the bumblebees were working hard and there were several big yellow brimstone butterflies fluttering about. It was very strange to know it was February and yet the air was full of these summery sights and sounds. 

It's obviously because of global warming, which is worrying, but I am doing my bit by supporting charities that help the environment - Plantlife, Buglife, R.S.P.B, Woodland Trust, National Trust, Countryside Restoration Trust, Suffolk Wildlife Trust. They all seem to agree roughly on what needs to be done, and they need all the support in the world to achieve it.   

A bit further west, in Hambleden, Bucks, snowdrops were out in the churchyard - sorry it's a blurred picture.  

You can see a bit of the old church on the right.   Inside I noticed that the verses on the imposing old tomb of Cope and Martha D'Oyley are very interesting. Here they are with their ten children - sorry, my photo does't show them all. The ones carrying skulls died before their parents.  

I do visit Hambleden occasionally and had seen the tomb before, but hadn't really noticed the  epitaphs. Reading them again, I thought they seem to be hinting at something. After some thought I decided that Cope and Martha might have been accused of some kind of unworthiness, which their family would naturally have wished to refute.  Read Cope's epitaph, and see if you agree  (I have put some of it in modern language below) ...

"Ask not me who's buried here (Don't ask who is buried here)
Go, ask the commons, ask the shire [ask people in the local area]
Go, ask the church, they'll tell you who,
As well as blubbered (tearful) eyes can do.
Go, ask the heralds, ask the poor
Your ears shall hear enough to ask no more.
Then, if thy eye bedews this sacred urn [if you weep tears over their ashes]
Each drop a pearl will turn
To adorn his tomb.  Or, if it you can not vent
You bring more marble to his monument." [if you cannot weep, then you are as hard as this marble monument].

There is another rhyme relating to Martha too, but my Biblical knowledge isn't quite good enough to interpret that.

We also cycled round London, where Spring was coming to the Inns of Court... 

 London Zoo is on one of our main cycling routes, and whenever I go that way I always look through the fence to see how the giraffes are doing. This time I saw they have a new way of feeding, from tall feeders hung on a rope.  I don't know what the baby giraffes do; perhaps they have special low feeders. 

On another day of sunshine, we met up with V, our older daughter, and wandered around, calling at the Crossbones graveyard which memorialises rejected, abandoned and rejected people. Although it sounds depressing,  it is an uplifting place. Many of us have a relative or friend who somehow took wrong turnings, or possibly took their own lives, and it is good to remember them and celebrate the many good things they did.  

 The entrance gates are hung with all kinds of little memorials and there are regular remembrance ceremonies.  It's entirely a community initiative. Transport for London, which owned the land,  was persuaded to let it become a garden by a bunch of volunteers, who now maintain and cherish it.   

The poet John Constable was the driving force behind  the scheme. He was very moved because this patch of land is the last resting place of many unnamed women (and their children) in medieval times who were licensed as prostitutes by the local bishop, but not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground.  

The thing about going out with V is that she seems to have become an expert on London's coffee shops, of which there must be thousands. The sign outside this one, in Lower Marsh, SE1, amused us.  The coffee was good, too. 

Saturday, 16 February 2019


 Usually I plan trips in advance but sometimes you just want to get away, and not think about it too much.  So off we went to Lisbon, in Portugal, with no planning except an Airbnb, and it was great! The weather was good and we basically just spent a lot of time wandering up and down. Literally up and down - it's a really hilly city!  This street below was typical. 

Or else the streets consisted of great big flights of steps. Our Airbnb was on top of a big hill and I'm sure it was good for us! 

There are a variety of trams in Lisbon, but the old ones are very small and so they're are perfect for the most twisty, turny and hilly streets where the larger trams or buses would get stuck.  If you're lucky enough to get a seat, you can watch life from close up outside the window. My eye was caught by this woman waiting for the tram to move away so she could cross the road.  She had such a presence, and I loved the colours behind her too.  What do you think?

If you've ever been to Portugal you'll know about the fantastic tiles to be found on so many of the houses. It sometimes seems as if you'll never see the same design twice. This old place caught my eye, combining a formal blue and white look (and 1920s decorative frieze at the top) with an abstract design at ground level. 

This 19th century tiled building still housed a tile shop

I like the monkey by the balcony

Lisbon is built around the wide estuary of the River Tagus. This is the view down Rua Augusta, one of the major streets of Lisbon. It was Saturday night and people were strolling around, watching street entertainers and going into the little cafes. And, at the end, beneath the arch, is Commerce Square, which fronts on to the Tagus waterfront.  The statue is of King Dom José I.  

Lisbon has become far more affluent since we last visited, years ago, and this area has changed I think, since I seem to remember a lot of little old shops selling dried codfish around here. There is about the right mix of quirky and traditional now. 


Just off Rua Augusta is the famous Elevador Santa Justa,  built over 100 years ago by a pupil of Eiffel.  It is a practical bit of public transport, offering a quick and easy route from ground level up to the Largo do Carmo district at the top of the hill. I didn't want to goto Largo do Carmo, but considered going up to the top in the evening ... but something distracted me.

And here's what it looks like in the daytime - a striking sight, over a hundred years old and still in daily use. 

We spent a lot of time around by the waterfront at the bottom of Rua Augusta.  The waterfront faces directly south at this point, and at most times of the day you'll find people ambling around, or sitting with their friends, watching the sea, looking at other people or having a coffee or a beer in the square.   

Each part of the day had its own character. Below is a photo of the same location as above, but this time in the evening, when the tide was in, little boats were scudding to and fro and the sun was sinking behind us.

At the weekends, the square and waterfront had their share of entertainers, but one person who was on the shore the whole time was a pleasant, benign old man who pottered about creating a curious stone sculpture garden. Actually, he simply balanced rocks from the shore one on top of the other. He had painted some of them with faces or colours to create a quaint little family of characters. These were quietly compelling in their surreal way. Some seemed to represent people, male and female; some were animals, mostly quite lovable; and some were fantastic monsters. We noticed that every time we came back, he'd changed something about the group - since the rocks were only balanced I suppose it was not hard to change them about. In the end they began to seem almost alive, you never quite knew how you were going to find them.   Here they are in the bright morning sun with the tide out, all of them seeming fairly cheerful.  See the little white figure sitting on a large bollard at the far right?

 By the evening, the sea was beating against the shore, and she - or he - was marooned.  To me this pile of stones began to look like a contemplative Indian figure, sitting cross legged and detaching itself from the foaming water surrounding it.  

We also went to some of the important sites and museums, although again in a relaxed way.  I did want to see the wonderful early 16th century fortified tower at Belem, a western suburb of Lisbon.  It is the area from which the Portuguese explorers set out in the 16th century; a golden age in Portugal.     
The tram ride to from central Lisbon to Belem is mundane - a mish-mash of commercial areas, a scruffy railway and an absolutely sensational overhead bridge - but when you reach it, it has the most spectacular monastery.  In fact, the monastery is so good that it really deserves a post to itself, as I don't feel I can do it justice here.  Dating from 1502, it also houses the archaeological museum of Lisbon.  The best way to get an idea of how it looks is to take a look at some of the photos here on Tripadvisor

The fortified tower is built in similar style to the monastery, but because it is smaller (even though it's four storeys high) it does have a particularly fantastical air, specially when the tide is in and the water swirls about.   We walked from the monastery- about half a mile - and crossed the dismal railway into a park which surrounds the tower.   Although it was early February, the grass was green and lush and studded with little flowers.  We walked down to the shore.

There are too many spiral stairs to count in the tower and the authorities have installed a rather hokey-pokey traffic lights system so that not too many people are trying to go up and down at the same time. Nobody mentioned the system when we went in, and it was a bit broken anyway, so there was much confusion, but in the end we did manage to get right up to the top and back again. It's beautifully restored and it's a fine experience to be standing within in the fortifications (below) with the water swirling all around outside.  It must be so exciting to be there when it is storming wildly.  

But it was all calm and blue.  The tower is reached by a drawbridge, with a windlass, and its interior is well restored and full of cannon, all strategically placed to set off a bombardment against enemy approach.  I can't imagine how noisy and smoky it must have been when the cannon were in use down there. 

Despite its ethereal appearance, the tower also has a fairly nasty dungeon, although they have done their best not to make it too scary.  I was so glad to have seen it at last.  To me the architecture reflects both the strength and the civilised culture of Portugal in those confident days. 

We had a coffee in a jetty cafe a little further up the shore, sitting on the deck with a good strong coffee and a pastel de nata (those delectable Portuguese custard pies) while the sun blazed down and winter felt a long way away.

I'll finish with a view of the balcony of our Airbnb, which overhung a steep drop, and had a side view of the castle on top of the hill on the left.  And, also I've put in a little video I took of some fado musicians who we came across playing in a little park overlooking the city.  I thought the singer was terrific but have no idea who they were. Fado is still very much alive in Lisbon, and there is actually a fado museum, which we didn't visit.  Ah, well, another time - I am glad that mostly we just wandered around and relaxed. 

Blog Archive