Sunday, 22 October 2017

Roots and Dust

I've been researching my Irish roots lately.  They go back mainly to Dublin, Co. Cork and Co. Kilkenny, but also include other parts of Ireland.  It's been fascinating looking through my great-grandmother's scrap book in detail, searching for clues about what everyone was doing as they progressed through Tipperary, Waterford and so on. The book is huge and contains some lovely cards like this, in gold and green.  

Many of my ancestors are military, too, (and some are both Irish AND military.) In search of their service records, I visited the National Archives in Kew last week.  I'd never been there before and I liked it very much.  It's a huge building, and very pleasant and relaxed inside.

There were some curious artworks around the place. Here's part of a community art project called "Here Be Monsters." It's based on the Archive's historical map collection and comprises several lovely mosaic globes based on the archive's historic map collection. You'll see there are mermaids, fish and other objects which people once thought lived in unexplored parts of the world.  

They made a very good impression but on closer examination I was fairly baffled by some of them. I suppose this could be a sea slug of some kind?

The building's interior is decorated with stained glass and inlaid marble - and I wasn't quite sure what all of those decorations represented either. Any ideas?

So some mysterious art work - maybe I'll find out more information next time I go. The archive contains so much amazing stuff that I could easily spend another day there.

 My ancestors' involvement in various battles and wars abroad were a history lesson in themselves, and included several events I'd never heard of, such as the Fenian raids in Canada during the 1860s. Much of it was colonial service, and some of it very much at the  expense of the local people.  
 It is sad, but opportunities for most people were few, and those who joined the army probably preferred it to staying at home labouring in all weathers for a pittance or starving to death in the Irish famine. 

There's a nice cafe and small but excellent bookstore, mostly selling books that help you understand the past. I could have spent a fortune there but in the end, I narrowed it down to just one book - Raymond Postgate's "Verdict of Twelve,"  one of a series of reprinted vintage crime classics.  

The book goes easy on gory details (which suits me) and the unusual plot centres on the jury in a murder trial, and how the jury comes to its decision.   This by itself could be a bit dull, but Postgate has woven a baffling mystery into the jury's views and deliberations, and I literally had no idea what was going to happen until the very last page.   

It raised all sorts of questions about group psychology, and I thought it was so clever I wanted to buy another crime novel by Postgate. I found to my disappointment that he didn't stick with crime writing, and instead, went on to found The Good Food Guide, 

His son, Oliver Postgate went into television, though, and invented .... yes -  dear old Bagpuss.  Apologies to those of you who don't know it, but I always loved the introduction to this BBC children's programme. Today's TV seems a lot faster moving, though.  The programme would be half over before you've met all the characters each week, but perhaps children like that slowness and repetition. 

The weather's been weird. Have you been having odd weather? So many people have. I've just heard from someone in Hiroshima who's expecting a large and unseasonal typoon.  Here in the UK there was an amazing red sun and a weird orange twilight which descended while Hurricane Ophelia was devastating Ireland last week. The orange colour was apparently due to the winds having picked up a great deal of fine red sand.  

  Bizarre, isn't it? It felt a bit apocalyptic. 

Next day, I thought all would be back to normal, and went out for a walk on Hampstead Heath. But at about midday, a strange gloom descended once more. No orange tint this time, but don't you think this photo has a strange atmosphere? It isn't photoshopped.  

The time was about 1.30 PM, yet the ground was almost dark, and the rays spreading out from the sun did little to brighten the scene.  I guess sand was the culprit there, too. 

I've been breathing in fine dust from my next door neighbour's house repairs, too. Her workmen have been drilling out the mortar for 2 days and they don't seem to have the faintest idea of how to sheet the site off to stop gales of dust blowing all over us.  It creeps into the house even with the doors and windows closed so there's grit everywhere. 

I've raised it with the men and my neighbour, and they try to help, but nothing seems to work. I've had a cough for a few days, but perhaps I also picked up a bug. Anyway, feels like it's on the mend. I daresay my ancestors put up with much worse in the Crimean War!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Follies and Cake

I've been inside quite a bit the last few weeks trying to complete a writing project, but every now and then I've forced myself out of the house, and it's been well worth it.   My favourite trip was just across London to the suburb of Acton. 

If you know London, you might find the idea of going to Acton a bit surprising.... and so did I, at first.   I was actually heading for a bookbinders to put new covers on this disintegrating 1870s volume of the "Illustrated London News"  

Then T noticed that very near the bindery, at Acton Town, was Gunnersbury Park.  

Gunnersbury has never been on my radar.  It consists of a pair of large mansions standing in grounds of about 200 acres right next to one of the main routes into London.  Although its surroundings are now heavily built up, it was once a country retreat for Princess Amelia, daughter of King George II. When suburbs began encroaching, its owner, one of the immensely rich de Rothschild family, sold the park and its two mansions for a very low price to the local council on condition it was used for the public. 

As is often the way with local councils, they didn't have the money or interest to look after it well. They let the houses and ancillary buildings deteriorate, although they kept up the park, which was famed for its cedar trees. Sadly, they also neglected the once-famous gardens and many other  features, like stables, orangery, numerous follies, lakes and a Japanese garden.  

 To cut a long story short, I discovered that a dedicated group has now secured a huge National Heritage Lottery Fund grant and are restoring one of the park's mansions, together with some of associated follies and charming garden buildings.  It will be used for all kinds of events, including a museum, public involvement, weddings and events and children's projects.  Work isn't finished, but some parts are already looking very good.  Here's one of the lakes, complete with temple from 1760.

A lovely children's centre is taking shape in some woodland.  (I'd have loved this boat, one of several bits of child sized imaginative play equipment.) 

This is the "big mansion" - looks to be coming along well. It'll house the museum and be used for weddings. They're also restoring some of the grand interior rooms. 

The newly restored early 19th century gothic gatehouse caught my eye.  When it's finished I can imagine a bride and groom posing there, surrounded by a rose garden.

But actually, although this is all very nice, I fell in love with the park itself, and particularly the unrestored follies, which are quite amazing. Basically follies are buildings with no purpose (or a different purpose from what they seem to have) and their main role is to just look interesting. 

So, for instance, there is quite a large folly that's intended to be part of a ruined castle gatehouse. Not a real gatehouse that got ruined, but a ruin right from the start.   (Question, how do you restore something that was built as a ruin?)

 If you look closely you can see the pretty carved lintel supports above the door. 

The "ruins" below are attached to the stables. It's hard to see in my photo, but the intention is to make the stable (complete with chimney) look as if it's built onto the roofless ruins of a Gothic church aisle. The big lump of stone in the foreground is part of an arch, and so is the clump of ivy to the right. 

Beyond this wall, the stables themselves are also ruined, although they were not intended to be.  In fact, this coat of arms shows how grand they were. At present they have temporary roof covering to stop the rain getting in.  They're beautiful buildings done in the classical style  - nothing was too good for the Rothschilds!

Here's another ruin. I wondered what this was - a folly of a ruined ticket office, perhaps? Nothing so glamorous. It is a ruined ladies washroom, obviously not used for thirty years or so. Despite that, it's beautifully situated amidst huge trees and a bit of what might once have been the Japanese garden.

Below is the front door of the Small Mansion, which as you can see is also not restored, although it is potentially a most attractive place with a lovely wrought iron terrace leading onto huge lawns and most of the facade to the south. In its present dilapidated state, it looks a bit creepy. The main entrance is on the north side, shaded by huge trees, and those lamps burned a weird flickering orange.   

Anyway to get back to the fake ruined castle.... these arcaded windows are a bit more of it. 

Behind that wall is actually a well tended community garden, growing flowers, fruit and

I picked this colourful miniature pepper up from where it had dropped. 

As well as plants, the garden contains some interesting projects that are obviously meant to display archaic ways of life. Possibly someone is running courses on, for instance building your own wattle and daub Ancient Briton hut, complete with pigsty? The roofing consists of boughs from some of the magnificent cedars that have been a feature of the park since the 18th century. 

Here's an ancient oven. I think the blue plastic sheet has been left on it by accident. It's beautifully made. 

And.... a World War 2 air raid shelter! 

Yes, it's strange indeed in the far corners of Gunnersbury Park. 

The parkland is really wonderful. You can walk for miles and at this time of year the colours are so varied, with flashes of intense colour. 

The planting is very interesting, with lots of different types of tree.  Here's a secret grove of silver birches....

This bench, carved with various leaves,  stands by a grove that includes many sweet chestnuts.

These are not the familiar horse-chestnuts or "conkers" - do they have conkers in other countries than Britain?  If you have the patience, you can gather the little sweet-chestnuts up and boil or roast them.  I love the look of them, so bright and new in their hedgehog-like jackets.  

Can you spot the fine cedar tree spreading on the right side of the picture below? The cedars will look wonderful in winter, when their evergreen shapes stand out against the frost. I plan to go back one frosty winter day.  It'll take ages for the binders to do the book, so maybe then.   

If you want to read a bit more about Gunnersbury park and gardens, take a look here. 

Finally, have some cake. Not the world's best photo and the cake's already been started, so it doesn't look as immaculate as "Bake Off" -  but I took the picture because I loved the cut-out paper decorations.  Don't you love the windmills and the animals?  Next time I bake a cake I will make my own decorations, too, and be as whimsical as I feel.  

We were attending a Macmillan Coffee Morning which took place outdoors last week. 
After helping organise the picnic for the Jo Cox Great Get Together last summer I've become a bit of a fan of events like this. K and I have just been invited to a get-together from the Jo Cox Foundation to about what to do next year. and I'm looking forward to it.   

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A Taste of West Cork

 One of my sons-in-law, who is Irish, suggested we join them on holiday in West Cork for a few days last week.  So we did, and found ourselves in a powerful and beautiful landscape. 

I visited West Cork once when I was a teenager, but had not wanted to return,  because it seemed to me then a sad place for all its loveliness, and somehow haunted by ghosts.    In the Great Irish famines of the 1840s, this was the area where more people died of starvation than anywhere else in Ireland.  

This time, though, it felt quite different. West Cork is now popular with the kind of tourists who appreciate art, music and good food. The  tourist development, (such as it is), is pleasant and low key, but there's money about, and luxuries in the shops. Best of all, the feeling of being abandoned at the end of the world has vanished. It is not that the victims have been forgotten; in fact, the heritage centre in the town of Skibbereen offers a deeply moving description of those terrible times, and brings into focus the people who lived through the nightmare.  Here's one corner of that exhibition, featuring a famous folk song first sung by the West Cork refugees in the 1840s.    

The museum had a recording of an old fellow singing the song, but here's Don Stiffe's version, which I like (below), and you may also know Sinead O'Connor's.  The words are never quite the same each time I've heard it; I think they're making it gradually less angry than the original.

So the prosperity and tourism have cheered West Cork up, but haven't blighted the landscape, which is still astoundingly beautiful.  The weather can easily change every few minutes, creating a kaleidoscopic succession of colour and lighting effects over intricate scenes of water, hills, cliffs, fields and flowers. 

 So here are a few pictures I took in the corner of West Cork that starts on the tiny Sherkin Island, about ten minutes from the village of Baltimore.  

 The type of rock you see everywhere is called Devonian Old Red Sandstone, although it doesn't look very red to me. It creates this craggy landscape, great for rock pools and crabbing, where I could have spent hours as a child.  

Sherkin Island's biggest white-sand beach, Trá Bán, is dotted with coloured stones and yellow shells, which glow out of the sand like little suns.  

Here's another view of Trá Bán over some rocks - the water is almost tropically blue.  The only footprints on the sand, apart from ours,  were made by birds.   

The path down to the beach is fringed with the red fuschia bushes which are very characteristic of the area. 

This wild coast was always at the mercy of pirates and smugglers.  Sherkin Island's abbey was burned in 1537 by bad men from Waterford, although, to be honest,  O'Driscoll clan who used to rule the place didn't seem all that much better, from what I could make out.

There are a couple of simple pubs on the island. In the older one, this fireplace with Victorian lady tiles is hidden away in a back room. I am sure someone was in love with those ladies to get them brought all the way over from England, even though they look slightly neglected here. 

The ferry sets out from the mainland - a ten minute run. Can you see a faint rainbow to the right?

By the time it arrives, the weather's already changed, the fog's dispersing and the ferry's lit by sun.

It is a ten minute ride back to Baltimore, whose most conspicuous feature is the Beacon, built around 1800 as part of an early warning system surrounding the Irish coast.  It's supposedly known as "Lot's Wife" because it looks like a pillar of salt, but everyone I met called it "The Beacon."  You reach it by climbing a very steep hillside or scrambling up via streams and goat paths.   

On our first visit, the sun came out, the sea was deep blue and the wild flowers glowed red and yellow. 

We returned late the following afternoon when everything seemed to be silver and gold.

Another day, we took a stroll round Loch Hyne.  It's something of a celebrity loch among geographers, for it's a tidal salt-water lake fed by a narrow channel from the sea - so narrow, indeed, that it takes just four hours for the tide to force its way in, but eight hours to go out.  The result is that it contains all kinds of unusual creatures.  The road is public but we met only three cars in a couple of hours, and in places, the wild fuschia bushes were three metres high.

The section of road nearest the loch is heavily wooded - you see the water shining silver on the left.

All was peaceful as the clouds gathered, dropped rain for three minutes, then dispersed.    

Spotted this mischievous warning on a small jetty.  

We ended up wishing we'd spent more time in West Cork, so I hope we'll get back next year.

As it happened we arrived just too late for the annual food festival.  I took a look at the brochure and thought it looked fascinating - here's the link

And this is a plate of the salad I got at the Friday country market in Skibbereen, which takes place next to the Aldi car park. It has been there for years, I was told (much longer than Aldi) and is complete with the two ladies totting up all the purchases in longhand at a table in the corner. I wished I'd taken an extra bag on the plane to Ireland, to fit in all the beautiful produce I wanted to buy.

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