Tuesday, 10 September 2019

A Trip to Essex

 Well, I came off my bike and twisted my knee and skinned my elbow, so I am taking only gentle exercise and don't feel too guilty about sitting at the computer even when not writing the book. Actually, I am a bit shocked at how long it is since I last did a post. 

Last week (before I came off the bike) we decided to take a couple of days and see more of Essex. Essex doesn't sound that thrilling a destination if you live in London. Some of it has been swallowed up in London suburbia, and the rest of it is rather flat and agricultural, without all that many eye popping major tourist attractions.  Which doesn't of course mean there's nothing to see - far from it - but it does mean you don't feel too crowded out, and there's the big advantage that it's little more than an hour from where we live in London. 

I've written a few times about Essex, including  here about the lost garden and here about Tiptree jams. My great grandmother lived there (although we could never work out why, since she'd always planned to retire to Ireland) and my mother had lots of  childhood memories of the place, including travelling from Chelmsford station to granny in Tolleshunt Major in an old pony and trap, since there wasn't any public transport!  

We based ourselves in a bed and breakfast in Maldon, an old sailing town.   The house where we stayed is right on the quayside,  where traditional Thames barges are moored. The pink arrow marks the house, which, if you are interested, is called 32 The Hythe.

Our room had windows on three sides, two of them overlooking the water and the boats, and the other overlooking the church.  It was just about as perfect as a b& b could be, we thought.  Lots of little goodies and even hens (who lived in a palatial coop outside the kitchen door), to provide fresh eggs for breakfast.   And a telescope at the window to look over the estuary, which winds around for miles. 

The boats were so picturesque, especially in the early mornings... 

....and the evenings, when the local starlings would choose one particular boat for them all to roost on with a great chattering and cheeping. 
Maldon feels like a good place, it is well cared for and interesting without being pretentious. It celebrated its thousand year anniversary in 1991 and the town possesses a huge commemorative embroidery stitched by local people, which I spent ages looking at.  It's bold and vibrant, and it is on display inside a building which is also a unique late 17th century library donated by a local benefactor, Rev. Thomas Plume.  

The books in Plume's Library mostly date from before 1800 and the library is still very much alive, opening for four days a week, (I am sorry to say this is better than some local council libraries these days.)  A look at the catalogue shows he was a keen collector with wide tastes, but unfortunately I managed to visit just too late for the day's opening.  Next time, I will be sure to go earlier, and might find out a bit about the secret influences, wiles and ways of bad angels in Henry Lawrence's "Militia spiritualis, or, A treatise of angels: handling the nature, power, substance and existence of good [and] evill angels : wherein is likewise shewed what incredible power, secret influences, wiles and wayes, methods and moods the good and bad angels doe daily exercise in the hearts of men though they little mind it."

I loved the embroidery for its liveliness and graphic style in telling the story of the town from its early Saxon days right through to the  foxhunting protests of more modern times.

My eye was particularly caught by the building shown below.  I don't know what "Pant" means, but the building, with a Celtic cross on one side, was from longer ago than the soldiers in the 991 AD Battle of Maldon who are shown to the right.   In fact it is one of the oldest Christian buildings in the British Isles, dating from 654 AD, and it still stands near Maldon. 

Of course T. and I decided to go and see it, even though we suspected it wouldn't be quite as multi coloured as the beautiful embroidery suggests.  It's in a village called Bradwell,  and has had a chequered history. It was first built by St. Cedd, a Celtic saint from the holy island of Lindisfarne, 350 miles to the North.   Its name is St. Peter ad Murum, (Latin for St. Peter at the Wall) and it's build on - and from - the remains of a large Roman fort which stood on the site about 1,500 years ago, for this area had some importance in the Roman Empire. 

There is nothing visible left of the fort except for a few stones, and I am sure the fort was a godsend to the locals wanting to build cottages over the past millennium and a half.    The car park is over half a mile away and you need to walk along a country footpath to reach the chapel which is in an exposed position opposite the estuary.  

The place had a real atmosphere. Take a look at this stonework below. You can be sure that the local Anglo-Saxons, who lived in little wood and mud huts, wouldn't have had the technology to cut stones like this, let alone bring them all the way to this silty, sandy and largely stoneless landscape.   The Romans cut these, and they also made the red tiles which went on their roofs. 

The chapel has had a chequered history, having at various times fallen into disrepair - it was once even used as a barn, but it always retained the story of its holy past.  It would have made a very good barn, being high and long, but its most recent restoration has given it a modern altar containing three large stones from holy places, as you can probably see if you look closely. 

 There is no electricity, heating or toilets, and the chapel is left open all the time. Despite this, it is in good repair, clean and decked with flowers, and has weekly services, special services at Christmas and Easter, and open air services in summer, as well holding as an annual pilgrimage.  A local Christian community, Orthona (which was the Roman name for the fort) lives in a nearby wood and also uses the chapel, so perhaps they are the ones who guard and care for it. 

It's a really minimalist landscape, flat and big-skied, and T and I wandered along the dyke which protects the low lying land down the shore, admiring the sometimes strange effects of the shadows and light.

Maldon has a lot of old buildings but doesn't take itself too seriously. When we returned, we spotted an amusing plaque to a popular 18th century tradesman,  Edward Bright, whose name still survives in a street in the centre of town called Bright's Path.   Bright was known as the Fattest Man in England, and was quite a celebrity for it, which luckily he seems to have taken in a good spirit.  After his death, seven local men undertook to fit into his waistcoat for a wager.  In fact, the wager said "Seven Hundred Men" but the seven still won because each of them came from a place called the Dengie Hundred, which was the equivalent of the local county in which Maldon stands.  

I was also amused at the sign for one of the pubs down by the water. The Queen's Head's pub sign features a 1588 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, the unaltered version of which you can see below.

She doesn't look that friendly even in the portrait, but someone has gone to quite a bit of trouble to get a couple of those eyes you stick on teddy bears and carefully glue them to Queen Elizabeth's eyes, on the pub sign, giving her a glare which to me looks icy enough to terrify any courtier.

Maldon's not far from the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Hyde Hall, and we called in there on the way home.  Summer has started to fade,  and Autumn has not yet arrived, so it is not a good time for gardens but there was some interesting planting, often mixing flowers, seed heads and decorative grasses (oh, and by the way, please can someone remind me of the name of the large red flowered plant below? I just can't remember it!)

 I am a fan of grasses, so I liked this too

And this modern garden, designed to make you think of an overgrown topiary garden, intrigued me.  Of course it is not overgrown, and is very carefully tended. The only flowers were a clump of huge yellow kniphofia, which looked startling against the dark yew.  

More traditional were some beautiful gladioli, this one was such a pure perfect white

and this was an eye-shattering collection of new varieties of popular bedding plants, lent by their growers and breeders as a way of assessing public reaction. The display really was as bright as this, , including a almost fake looking  light-and-dark pink rose just right of the centre.

I think I was keener on several of the plants which looked as if they had been hand-made out of wool or other textiles.  A pumpkin-sized squash... 

 and giant-headed sunflowers, which were full of detail.

Back in London, we went out for a meal to a restaurant I was glad to discover. At last, a local restaurant that serves nice food and isn't too expensive! The food is Georgian, from the ex-Soviet Union, a place which one of our friends knew well. She assured us the region is renowned for its food.  On each table is a cute little model showing the dishes you can order in the restaurant. Walnuts are a popular ingredient, and it's all delicious (except for dumplings, which I can never learn to love.)  

I'd almost like to buy one of these little models and take it home. Which reminds me, it is time for me to make something if we are to eat tonight.   Well, I'm glad I got this post done at last!

Thursday, 25 July 2019


Not much of a theme to the last couple of weeks for me, just scraps of this and that.  If you are in Britain, I hope you enjoyed the hot weather - or at least weren't too uncomfortable in it.    We have a mobile air conditioning unit which can sit unused in the cupboard from one year's end to the next, but just occasionally, on a day like today, it's worth its weight in gold. I'll try and remember how much I appreciated it, next time I find myself moaning some chilly day about it cluttering up the cupboard under the stairs.  

A few days ago we had a visitor from the balcony.  This pigeon has been patrolling around for a while waiting for seeds to fall from the bird feeder, and took the chance to explore somewhere new - our dining room.  It was a little puzzled at the unfamiliar surroundings but soon settled on top of a book case, well out of reach.  It seemed to have a high boredom threshhold and after an hour or so of waiting for it to do something, I put some food outside, opened the door and left the room. When I returned a few minutes later it had decided to go out and eat the food.  There was a little bird poo to clear but not much.  I'm hoping it's not got the idea that flying inside our house ensures you get fed... so I'm keeping the door shut for a few days, just in case.  

During the hot spell I felt glad I'd made a mini (very mini) pond which I put in an isolated corner.  It's basically just an extra large plant trough sunk in the earth, with a few dead branches around it, a large rock and a few inches of pebbles inside, and a bit of water weed.  I'm assuming that creatures have been drinking from it - although how wild animals ever find water is a mystery to me.  It is also popular with small insects, and since there are swifts around, which feed on insects, I'm happy with that.  It's sited near a beehive, and maybe bees drink too. Who knows? I like to feel I'm doing my bit to keep the wheel of nature turning anyhow! 

I happened to spot a large old scrapbook in a junkshop. I like to buy scrapbooks if they are not expensive, and this one wasn't.  My criterion is whether I could sell it for more on eBay if I get fed up of it, and I am sure I could. I've really enjoyed looking through it. 

  This is my favourite page.  The fashions are from around 1910, and it looks such a delightful scene, doesn't it? I think probably somewhere on the Italian coast.  I've been reading "My Bolivian Aunt" by designer and photographer Cecil Beaton, in which he describes how his aunt had lots of glamorous women friends around this period, 1910, whose clothes made such a huge impression on him when he was small that they influenced his style forever after. 

The scrapbook has quite a lot of variety.  Whoever owned it was fond of brightly coloured die-cut scraps depicting comic characters, flowers and butterflies, dressed up animals, and people in foreign costumes - some of the nationalities being rather hard to guess in my opinion! 

I went for a movie with a friend to JW3, a Jewish cultural centre which runs all kinds of interesting events. We had a cup of coffee and I snapped this through the window - they've created a kids  "beach" with a paddling pool, sand, and a backdrop of Eliat, Israel. In winter they have an icerink in the space and it's fun to sit and watch everyone playing. I don't know why some of the people seem to have haloes round them, some polarization in the window glass maybe.   

And here are the kids having races at  our annual local garden party.  This party has been going as long as living memory. When we first came here old folk were talking about how it had been in the 1930s.  Every year it is basically the same, with variations depending on what people feel like doing. And that is, when you think of it, amazing, since the area has changed so much.  When we came, the area was very run down, full of bedsitters and squats, and the housing was collapsing, literally collapsing.  Now it is considered quite desirable, but people still keep to the same routine for this party.

By day, it's like a fete, with stalls, BBQ, tombola and organised races, and several tugs of war.  In the evenings people come out weather permitting with a bit of a picnic or wine, and an 89 year old neighbour and his excellent jazz band perform (unamplified thank goodness) until about 10 PM.    Everyone relaxes.  The weather was okay this year, but when it rains they sit under an awning.     I think the pictures below are of the egg and spoon race. 

One elderly neighbour who loves cats has been producing artfully designed cat cakes for many years. Each year they are a bit different. Here's this year's design.

 It feels good to keep up a tradition, there are not enough traditions around.   

I met an old school friend a couple of days ago. It was blistering hot but the Royal Academy was a reasonable temperature and we saw an exhibition of a French fin-de-siècle artist called Félix Vallotton.  Some of his work was photographically naturalistic, some was black and white prints and there were also a few surrealistic pictures, like this one.   The subtitle of the exhibition was "Painter of Disquiet" and that about summed him up for me. I felt somehow uncomfortable with his pictures, he was very talented but I wasn't sure what he was trying to convey. 

Still, it was nice to see my friend and catch up.  And I think that's about all I have done, apart from working on the book, babysitting, and dealing with a few rather difficult incidents, actually.  And the weather is  set to cool down tomorrow,  which is good.  Someone is coming over that we haven't seen for 20 years, and I would rather like to cook her a meal without giving everyone heatstroke!  

Thursday, 11 July 2019

All the Bs.

As I started to write this post about the last week or two, I realised that a lot of the things I was writing about began with B

This is where stayed. It's a Bed-and-Breakfast called Seymours Court, a farm on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, not far from Bath. 

It looks very grand, and in some ways it is - it's thought to have been a hunting lodge for the family of the man who married Henry VIII's final wife, Catherine Parr, after Henry died.  It seems to have been let out as a farm when hunting lodges went out of fashion, and it has been a farmhouse for five centuries. Personally, I think there might be more to it than that - any old house known as a "Court" often really was one, where local disputes were settled.  But anyway, because it is a farm and not a stately home, it's fairly simple and old fashioned inside, and the present tenants have some very old furniture which was probably in the house for generations. 

The front door is magnificent, made of oak, and with a "lock" that is extremely effective. Here is the farmer's wife, Jane, showing it to me - it's a gigantic oak Bar which is pulled out at night. When this bar is extended fully, the door is as immovable as a stone!

 They only have one b&b room, which is the one on the top right. So that's where we were.  Very peaceful, very nice hosts and great breakfasts. 

I was doing a bit of work in Bath.  I've been there before  (though not for years) and didn't get much time to look around before I had to continue, but here are some pictures that T. took of the restored  Baths, which were built in Roman times.  Amazing collection of ponds and pools in the middle of the city, lots of Roman remains and later medieval additions.  And a rather cool tourist, I thought. 

It's strange that people still keep up the custom of throwing coins in water, which originated in the pagan idea of placating water spirits. The Roman Baths were certainly considered to be magical by those who used them, and among the exhibits on display are visitors' written-out prayers for help, or curses on thieves or crooks,

And here is the gilded head of Minerva, to whom the people used to pray.  It was found chucked in a pond and forgotten about but is very nicely displayed now. 

Bath Abbey was being renovated, so was noisy and full of builders, but I liked this reflection of windows and stone tracery....

And outside, the 16th century sculpture of angels climbing a ladder to heaven was apparently based on a dream of one of the  Bishops of Bath & Wells.  Or so they say....  I think it's a wonderful image to have on a church! 

We took the chance to have some walks - luckily the weather was really good, not too hot but sunny and bright.  I've been getting a bit obsessed with spotting Butterflies, so here are a couple I snapped although there really were clouds of them around, a marvellous sight. I'm not very knowledgable so forgive me if the names are wrong but I think this delicately coloured butterfly is a Painted Lady...

and the much brighter Comma, which is brilliant orange

And this is my favourite, although it's not a very good picture, or shall we call it an "action shot"?   I was photographing a Small White on a nettle when all of a sudden a Marbled White flew down and landed right on top of it. Butterfly confusion, and they both fluttered off in a hurry.

The area is very pretty round there, some of it is indeed what we used to call "chocolate-boxy" which I suppose relates to the days when boxes of chocolates and sweets often had pictures of country cottages on them.  I had to take a picture of this Blossom beneath a window.

and a Blue-eyed cat which was one of two very elegant cats patrolling around Iford Gardens, an Italianate garden deep in the countryside.

Here is Iford Manor, and you might just be able to spot Britannia on the Bridge

It's a medieval bridge so most odd to see what seems like an 18th century statue on it, her helmet on her head and her shield by her side, guarding the charming little river that flows by the house.

The garden was very well worth a visit and we spent hours there. It's not very large but there are all sorts of curious corners and some beautiful Blooms.  This poppy was deep red and looked as if it was scattered with silver.

And here are roses climbing up a pillar. 

We returned to London by the M4, stopping off at Hungerford, West Berks, and noticing a Boat that seemed to have a bit of a problem... 

And went for a walk on Hungerford Marsh, a nature reserve by St. Lawrence's church, listening to the Bells.  The ringers were practising the changes, and went on for about an hour. It sounded very nice but they must have been exhausted at the end of it, not to mention a bit deaf.  But to me it felt like an archetypal English country afternoon.   

Altogether a Beautiful trip. 

Thursday, 20 June 2019

In The Rain

I'm identifying with this dog, sitting there and thinking, wow... I used to like writing my blog almost every day, now weeks seem to go by!  Is my life really getting that uneventful?  Oh, and it's raining.... 

The weather has been pretty bad so I've mainly been sitting indoors writing the Durrell stuff, babysitting, and that kind of thing. So it was great to go out the other day with T's cousin and her husband, who live in Bromley, a suburb in Southeast London, to visit a most fascinating house near where they live. It is the family home of the illustrator Charles Keeping. and his artist wife Renate. Both of them are now dead, but once you have seen their work it is hard to forget it

Their daughter Vicky lives in the house, with her brothers and their children nearby - they were a very close family. She is a trained artist too, so the interior is full of quirky and interesting objects - many of them small art works, family photos or strange souvenirs from travels in faraway places.  I took photos but it was difficult to convey the atmosphere, which was bright and spacious, colourful, welcoming, arty and rather glitzy too, with sparkly cushions and golden braid here and there.  And what a nice lady Vicky was - she even gave us tea and chocolate biscuits!

Charles was a printmaker, a master of black-and-white. And, although he was by all accounts a very happy and well loved family man, he also did some very sinister, ghostly pieces. As his daughter said when we were at the house, he must have bottled up all his bad feelings to release them in his work!

He was also one of the best horse painters I have ever encountered.  Here is one of the unpublished lithographs in the hallway. He came from a poor background, and as a small child had been fascinated by the huge dray horses stabled next door. His biggest treat was to be picked up and put on one of the horses. He never forgot the feel and the smell of them.  and remained obsessed by working horses all his life.  This large print shows one of the stables that used to exist in London, where the horses had to go to their first and second floor quarters up a ramp.   He captures so well the atmosphere of the London he grew up in, (and which I also partly remember), with its soot stained brick and faded advertisements painted on the walls. 

His wife came from a posh German Jewish background, and her art work is mainly stitched or else delicate watercolours. She did several major projects, including one on temptation: these cakes are all created from fabric.

Her piece de resistance is an entire room of incidents in her life, created in needlework, and based on styles of newspaper ephemera.  I found it almost more interesting than Charles' work, really. Although she did not have the same commercial success as he did, she was a true artist.  She has now passed away but there are some films of her here on the website if you are interested. 

And on Saturday we went out for a rainy walk on Hampstead Heath; it was very peaceful and beautiful.  Here is a little video.  The quiet music in the background came from what I think was a homeless man sitting on a bench not far away, with his dog. I thought it was wonderful. 

On another rainy day we cycled into London thinking the rain would stop later  (it didn't). We saw an exhibition in always-interesting Wellcome Collection, called "Smoke and Mirrors."  It is about the science behind magic. I always think people who put on exhibitions about magic have a bit of a problem since they're not supposed to give any secrets away, but here they managed very well by having psychologists explaining about misdirection, about building the audience's assumptions, and directing them to think in certain ways. (Which is a subject more than relevant in these political times, I think!)   Some tricks rely on physiological characteristics of the human brain - for instance, that there is usually a 1/10th of a second lag while our brains process what our eyes report. 

I must confess I was a sucker for most of the tricks they talked about, some of which were so obvious that I can't believe I didn't spot them.  There were numerous little films by real magicians doing versions of these tricks.   I once spent a few months doing articles about top professional magicians, and ended up having great respect for their skill.  But there is no doubt about it, they were all rather unusual people, many of them quite obsessed with their wish to baffle and amaze, and willing to practice many hours a day to perfect extremely difficult routines.       
I definitely fell for this charming man pictured below, an early 20th Century magician called William Marriott, who wrote a piece for "Pearson's Magazine" debunking the type of frauds used by spiritualist mediums. Here he is posing with some of his little fraudulent friends. 

and here he is with some not-so-disembodied hands!  The photo on the left shows how it would have appeared in the seance. 

So, even in the rain it is possible to have fun, but I do hope we get some weeks of summer soon!

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