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!

Friday, 24 May 2019

The Tale of a Garden

This is a view of London from the East, with Canary Wharf to the left and the Shard just hidden by that tree to the right. (it was a bit of a hazy day, but take my word for it, this is what you are seeing below).   I was viewing this London skyline the other day from a fascinating place about twenty miles to the North-East of London.  

It is a rather pretty little village named Great Warley, and here is its "Big House" - Warley Place - in about 1900.  Dating from the reign of Queen Anne, it belonged to a rich lawyer called Frederick Willmott, who moved in with his wife and two daughters, Ellen and Rose, in 1875. 

By 1900 Ellen was in charge of the house. Her parents had died, her sister had married and gone to live in Worcestershire.   Ellen had a pretty comfortable life...this is the little pony-trap in which she bowled around the neighbouring lanes. 

I don't know if she was lonely in the big house, seen below from the back, but it had a most beautiful garden. In fact, under Ellen's care, Warley Place came to possess one of the most famous gardens in the country. 

Her sister and mother had both been keen gardeners, but it was Ellen who reputedly cultivated over 100,000 species of plants. Warley Place Garden featured many amazing and unusual trees, an Alpine hut, a flower meadow, herbaceous borders, an extensive rockery, scenic walks, a rose garden, a vinery and even an "alpine gorge" with gigantic boulders brought down from Yorkshire, with a filmy-fern cave included.  Ellen was so knowledgeable that many varieties were named after her, and financed   plant hunting expeditions in order to get the rarest and most exotic seeds and cuttings.

But today, this (below) is the only recognisable part of Warley Place that remains. It is the conservatory, which you see in the  third 1900 photo, rescued from collapse and stabilised into a picturesque ruin a few years ago.  

 So .... what happened?

The problem is that Ellen,  although a most wonderful gardener, had a somewhat strange personality. She seems to have been quarrelsome by nature, uninterested in other people and she had also been greatly indulged as a child and young woman. She had absolutely no idea of the value of money, did not know how to earn a living, and simply spent her enormous inheritance as if there was no tomorrow - including on the purchase of two other large houses and gardens abroad.  Eventually there was no money left.  As everything began to crumble about her, the old lady sat in the conservatory where it was warm, writing her letters and reading books.   

When she died in 1934, the house was put up for sale. By then, few people could afford the staff to run an old mansion which did not even have electricity.  As for the garden - and the troops of uniformed gardeners who had kept everything immaculate - that was even less affordable.  

So the house was sold to a developer, who planned one of the type of suburban housing estates that you see in this quaint old film.   Not bad houses, but highly monotonous when they stretch for miles and miles, as they do not too far from Warley.  At any rate, the local council refused to allow the estate to be built, and so Warley Place fell further into decay.  When the war arrived in 1939, that was the end of all notions of housebuilding, and Warley Place was haphazardly knocked down, or fell down, and the site was abandoned. 

By that point, Ellen's sister had managed to rescue many of the rarest specimens; many other plants were sold and the site was cleared of anything considered valuable. But the skeletons of many of the horticultural buildings remained, the cisterns to water the plants, tiled floors, the ruins of the heating system for the hothouses,  the remains of the hothouses themselves.  Below is part of the remains of a large group of ornamental hothouses designed so that visitors could walk around and enjoy the plants. 

Sad as this is, though, the 25-odd acres of Warley Place now form one of the most interesting and beautiful nature reserves I've ever visited.   Very few of Ellen's celebrated rarities remain, but volunteers from the Essex Wildlife Trust, which leases the garden, have put in countless hours of work to encourage the marvellous wild plants which colonise great areas of the estate. The volunteers have certainly not forgotten the past, but they choose instead to focus on how nature has taken it over to create a different kind of beauty.   

Here is the beautifully hand-pebbled rainwater channel, now forming an enchanted path through woods of flowering shrubs, trees and ferns.

Many of the rhododendrons Ellen Willmott cultivated survive, co-existing with the wild varieties.

Below is the scene inside the old, walled kitchen garden, in which all the vegetables for the mansion would have been grown.  The different sections of the gardens were marked by low box hedges, which have been restored, as have the high walls which surrounded the entire kitchen-garden.   Ellen was unusual in that she planted various exotic trees in the kitchen garden, including palms and magnolias, some of which survive.  

Here's a row of old Spanish chestnuts on a bed of moss. I saw moss gardens in Japan, but have rarely seen a moss lawn in Britain.  The oldest tree, second on the left, dates back four hundred years, and may have existed when the diarist John Evelyn owned the land.  

Below is what was a rockery on a grand scale.  Now it is colonised by poppies and an ocean of forget me nots.  There are literally acres, too, of ramsons, the greenish-white wild garlic you can see in the foreground.   I've eaten ramsons cooked and served as a vegetable in Germany, but Brits don't seem to have noticed that this wild plant is edible, despite the fact it makes the entire wood smell of garlic.  Although it is not a showy plant, it is quite something to see tens of thousands of them.... 

.... as you do on the boating lake which Ellen had built on a specially constructed hill, supported by steel girders overlooking a neighbouring lane.  Here, she used to take a favourite nephew boating; the lake boasted a bog garden right next to it, and steps down to the water that had been created from old milestones.


The bog garden and boating lake are now dry and are carpeted in ramsons and bamboo, a remarkable sight. I found it impossible to photograph them, because I just couldn't give an idea of the scale.

Warley Place is famed for its magnificent wild daffodil displays in early Spring,  and then for its bluebells.  It's past the bluebell season now, but many clumps of bluebells are still lingering, and make a fine show with red campion, alkanet and many, many other varieties of wild flower.

And when you leave, you take the narrow gravel lane which leads through a five barred gate to a sward of buttercup meadow, a most peaceful place.

It is a most wonderful nature reserve, but it would also have been a wonderful garden, and very few records of it exist.  So I couldn't help being exasperated by Ellen Willmott's improvidence and selfishness in not seeking to secure it for posterity. 

 But then, I think, if the house had survived, it would probably have been in private hands, hidden behind electric gates and with the gardens re-landscaped by some company offering all the latest fashionable and conventional plants.  Or perhaps it would have been a corporate headquarters with lots of parking and easy-care shrubs stretching as far as the eye could see. Or maybe it would have been in the council's hands, leased to an NHS chiropody clinic, with the gardens abandoned as a dark and impenetrable jungle. 

So on the whole I'm glad that it is here, free and open to all, cherished by its Essex Wildlife Trust volunteers, a haven for all kinds of plants, animals, bees and butterflies. We loved wandering around it and look forward to returning in different seasons of the year to see what Nature has to show us. 

The Wildlife Trusts are wonderful  - click the link here for more details of Warley and other natural places to visit in Essex. 

Friday, 10 May 2019

Gardens, Glasses, Royals, and a Curious House

On impulse we decided to visit Sir John Soane's house, in Lincoln's Inn, the legal quarter of London. Here's a link to the website but be warned it doesn't give you the slightest idea of what this place is like!  Nor do they allow photos (and they're really strict about it).  In fact, that might be just as well, because if ever a house needed to be experienced in real life, this is it.

 Soane was a famous 18th century architect, and the house contains his collection of artistic and antique items. He designed it himself, and lived there with his wife, so although many of the rooms are most unusual, several (though by no means all) are also comfortable to live in.  

Soane's most famous building was the Bank of England - but not the present one. In fact, there aren't many buildings left that were designed by him at all. But you can get an idea of the peculiar ideas people had about architecture in his day by looking at this picture, which shows his design for the Bank of England ... as a ruin. It was done by painter Joseph Gandy, and I think was probably meant to suggest Soane's designs were like that of Ancient Rome.

I didn't see anything about the Bank of England in Soane's house, and the theme of the house is really his collections of historical and architectural items. There are about 40,000 objects, none arranged chronologically, and hardly any labelled, and the volunteers running the house wisely keep it that way. The layout is strikingly original.  Soane aimed to play with light and devised many ways to make the rooms in the house relate to each other, aiming to use natural light creatively. Vaulted or domed ceilings let in light, daylight filters in from variously shaped skylights and windows, not to mention the occasional sculptural hole in the floor (railed off).  There are innumerable archways and doorways leading into a maze of small corridors, mostly open down one side.  I found a photo  of a curious little room, not more than four feet wide, about 12 feet tall and about 16 feet long, at a guess. Perhaps Mrs. Soane sat there to do her sewing.  Or perhaps she didn't - perhaps it has no purpose at all.  It has a striking stained glass window and pieces of white sculpture on shelves.

For me the house's most memorable object is a gigantic (genuine) Egyptian sarcophagus, and when it arrived, Soane was said to have held a celebration party which lasted three days. But many people will have a different favourite object among the architectural models, busts, fragments, ancient stained glass, furniture that he designed himself or the many paintings and drawings which he also collected. 

The strangest room might be a picture gallery where you can get within inches of the oil paintings, largely Hogarth but with Canalettos, Watteaus and many others too. And just as you have looked at these,  you will find the gallery can be literally opened up to reveal a whole new batch of oil paintings on the walls - one of the attendants opens it up every hour or so.  

Or perhaps the strangest room, on second thoughts, is a Hermit's Grotto, in the basement, with table and comfortable chairs and an astonishing but tiny decorative plaster ceiling, naturally lit with magnificent stained glass.  If you want to know more, the best thing is to visit if you can, but if not, then my friend Jeanie Croope visited the house on her trip to London last year and did a lovely post, here, She even managed to find some photos. 

Other than this, I've been working hard on Durrell, so very little to report, except that we've had the twins over, and I have been going out into the communal garden whenever it is sunny, which hasn't been that often.  May is such a beautiful month that I like it whatever the weather - though better in the sunshine. 

Below is a shot in what used to be the Victorian gardeners' compound at the edge of the garden, with one of the neighbours starting to rebuild a very peculiar wall indeed. I have 
been wondering about that wall for a while. 

I haven't been reading the papers, so the royal birth almost passed me by, but I did like this informal picture when I saw it. It shows the Royal Family in laid back mode, looking very much like real people, and citizens of the world as well as of Britain.  I know a lot of people object to the Royals, but I am one of those who thinks they generally do a pretty good job.  Although their lives might seem wealthy and glamorous, I wouldn't like to be trapped in a very public social role from my earliest infancy.  Maybe that's just me, I don't know. 

And I've broken my favourite pair of glasses, and am thinking of getting another one. I am not sure this pair will fit the bill, but there's something about them that I like. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Lady Daphne, and feeling like the Queen.

Easter weekend was so beautiful and Easter Monday was also lovely, but a strange mix of sunshine and an almost autumnal mist.  We were down at St. Katharine's Dock that day, because our older daughter knows a lady called Sam Howe who co-owns a Thames Barge, and Sam offered T and me a chance to join them on a trip down the Thames.

Which was wonderful, but even more thrilling, Tower Bridge opened specially for us to go through, which I'd never dreamed of happening for any boat that I was on!    In fact, I've hardly ever seen it opening at all.

But then something even more extraordinary happened.  We were alongside the Tower of London on the other side of the bridge, waiting before returning to the dock, when Sam said, "Oh, the Tower of London's going to have a 62 gun salute in a few minutes."  

I'd heard of a 21-gun salute, but not of a 62-gun. (In case you're interested, it's made up of 21 guns for the Queen's birthday, 20 guns because the Tower is a Royal Palace, and 21 guns because the Tower lies in the City area.)    

And the salute was due to start at 1 PM... which was when we would be going through the bridge!

Well, a 62 gun salute is one thing, going under Tower Bridge is another, but combine them and you do get a little bit of a feeling of the "Royal Family Experience."  I asked T. to take a film of the whole thing, and he very kindly did.

The bridge starts to open after the seventh shot - that's a minute in - and the little film ends with a look at the distant cannon, still shooting out puffs of smoke. If you listen hard, you can hear the "Fire!" commands too.

 Opening Tower Bridge isn't the work of a moment.  First, they have to warn the traffic that it will be opening. Then they have to check that it is clear and no dimwit has decided to stay on the bridge  just for the ride, and then, finally, the Victorian machinery goes into action.

So this was wonderful, and even better for being totally unexpected.    Anyway, the boat is called the "Lady Daphne."   Sam and her partner Andy both have good jobs but they decided they wanted a project in life, preferably one with boats.   Here is Andy in the foreground.

And below is Sam at the left, while the skipper gives us a safety briefing down below. And in the foreground of this picture is....

...Marzi, the ship's dog, who is rather like the ship's cat in that she has an uncanny ability to choose the most comfortable spot available...

The old Thames sailing barges are flat bottomed, brown-sailed wooden boats, originally used to carry cargoes of stone or grain around the shallow waters of South-East England. Now, they're quite an endangered species, but Andy remembers seeing plenty of them as a child, as does my own mum, who used to spend her childhood holidays in Essex with her granny, and told me how nice it was to sit by the estuary and watch them going slowly to and fro.

Most, including the "Lady Daphne" were built without engines, but  she, and I think most other passenger sailing boats have them now - I suppose if you have to keep to a strict schedule, it may be best not to rely on the wind, although they did hoist one of the topsails.   

 Most Thames barges have been scuttled, while many others have been converted into homes or trendy corporate spaces, and very few have passenger licenses.  Sam and Andy say they want Lady Daphne to "stay alive" - and I knew what they mean, for when she is going quietly along, you feel the wind and hear her creaking.  They also wanted to offer other people the experience of both travelling on and also, in some cases, learning to sail and skipper these very unusual boats. 

Here is a photo of Lady Daphne in St. Katharine's dock. I gave it a sepia tint and it's surprising how much it looks like those pictures you see of old London - although the foggy towers of Canary Wharf in the background give the game away if you look too closely...

It's not pushing the truth to say that this has been a labour of love for Sam and Andy. When they purchased the 85-ton "Lady Daphne," she was not in a good state. Built in 1923, she'd had her ups and downs, and much of her starboard side had to be rebuilt - by hand. They had it done at Ham Wharf, Oare Creek, in the old Kent port of Faversham, which is one of the last strongholds of traditional boatbuilders, and they brought her up to the tough standards required for a passenger licence.

It is always terrific going down the river and seeing famous landmarks from an unexpected angle. Because rivers were the main thoroughfares for centuries, many of the older buildings near rivers are better seen from the river than from land.  Here's the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, built around 1700, and now one of the major buildings in the UNESCO World Heritage site "Maritime Greenwich." (Read more about that here).

 One of "Lady Daphne"'s main claims to fame is that she once sailed herself all the way from the Lizard, in Cornwall, to Tresco, in the Scilly islands. Her captain fell overboard and the crew abandoned ship, but on she went, under sail, alone but for the captain's pet canary, till she beached herself in two feet of water quite safely.    I guess she must have been rigged to follow that course, and was lucky the wind didn't change; but still, there are plenty of rocks around there.   So she's obviously a bit of a survivor, and I hope she continues as a working boat for many years to come. 

If you're interested in having a ride, the schedule is here.  Oh, and the price includes a cup of tea or coffee, and a bun.

I'll end with a picture of reflections I took in Burnham Beeches a few months ago. I was looking at it closely today and thought  it was hard to make out where everything was. In the end, I got the trick of seeing it, and thought I'd ask if you can make sense of it too.

Blog Archive