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Friday, 28 August 2015

Dorset, and Rather a Lot of Dogs

Life's going on fine here, Sometimes you need a fallow period. I've been busy with other things, and was pleased when an old friend from art school days offered us the chance to stay in her late mother's house near Dorchester, Dorset. I used to know her mum so it was lovely to go back and think about her from time to time as we climbed the rather steep hill to her house. (No - that's not her house above, it's the Hardy Monument, which commemorates Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy, to whom Nelson addressed his rather odd dying words of "Kiss me, Hardy,")

I know Dorset well but it's a while since I visited the Piddle Valley,(the river really is called the Piddle  And, as my friend Lee has noted, it reaches the sea at Poole!)  To me, the area no longer has the cut-off feel that I used to rather appreciate. In fact, some areas are now awash with brand new fake thatched cottages.  These look nicer than modern styles if you want to build new houses in picturesque old villages, but they become monotonous after a while. Their windows are bigger, their rooms are higher and they're obviously more comfortable and infinitely nicer to live in than the older variety.

Fake thatched cottages don't need to be dull. This one is I think a Victorian "estate house" built in a village designed in the early years of the last century.

We were staying near the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, which commemorates the six farm labourers who began the trade union movement in England. having passed it dozens of times, we finally decided to call in.

The Martyrs got into trouble in the 1830s after daring to mention that they couldn't live on wages cut by 40 percent, they were stitched up for crimes they hadn't committed and transported to Australia.  One of them, George Loveless, a most interesting man, wrote a short book telling of the appalling ill treatment which they (and other convicts) endured - it's very interesting.

Miraculously all the martyrs survived and came back, but then all except one emigrated to Canada, perhaps understandably. Not sure I'd have wanted to stay in England either.. Much of the exhibition consists of interesting banners. Here you see the martyrs gathering under the ancient sycamore tree that still stands in Tolpuddle.

Sadly there was some trouble at t'mill recently when the longtime warden of the museum was thrown out by the Trades Union Congress, which owns the cottages. Perhaps they had a point, but it wasn't the greatest of publicity for them.

We took the chance to go to a village fete and dog show; events which you rarely find in London. I could spend hours watching dog shows - so much human and canine life.

  This little boy's pet was, I think, partly blind, a lovely dog which he proudly paraded. 

This dog would have won my first prize if there had been a class for the dog with the best ears.

Noticed some more dogs in the back of a nifty electric vehicle belonging to a modern shepherd.  This little truck was jolting over the pastures above Abbotsbury, and the dogs seemed to be enjoying it, although since it was bright and sunny, I much preferred to be outdoors and on foot.   

The sheep toned so well with the parts of the landscape covered in dry thistles. 

And I noticed yet another dog off for a canoe ride at Wareham as we made our way to our inlaws at Wimborne, about half an hour away. 

 By coincidence, one of our daughters happened to be at Wimborne and we watched her and our son in law perform at Sting in the Tale, the town's annual festival of stories.  It was a wonderful peaceful evening in a natural performance space in a local park. The late sun lit them like a spotlight, and the audience reacted really well, thoroughly entering into the spirit of the music and words. 

On another day we looked at Blandford Fashion Museum,  It's found in a large house from the early 1730s, built not long after a gigantic fire had destroyed much of medieval Blandford.  Maintained by volunteers, the museum is really nice.  

   It evolved from a large private collection, and it aims to show how fashion reflects social history.  The captions were comprehensive and interestingly written,and my eye was caught by so many details. I noticed, for instance, these long ruched net gloves. They were worn in the 1950s but, though elegant, they look just a  bit creepy to me. 

I also learned some things I hadn't known before, such as that Victorian brides in mourning wore grey or lilac wedding dresses - and I also discovered  how a crinoline is constructed, and how easy it is to catch legs in them if you dare to walk with long, unladylike strides. Apparently there was also a significant risk of being blown off high places in strong winds, but the good news was that often the crinoline would act like a parachute and waft the lady safely to the ground.

I was glad we had a fair day to visit Durlston, on the Isle of Purbeck, high above the seaside town of Swanage. When I was a teenager I did a holiday job as a warden in Swanage Youth Hostel.  I was seriously lazy in those days and as the car laboured up the hill I felt rather ashamed to know that I would never have dragged myself up on foot to take a look around at the time I actually lived there. 

Durlston is now a country park and Site of Special Scientific Interest.  This is the main building on the site  - Durlston Castle, consisting mostly of a restaurant and display area. The entire estate was created by a Victorian stonemason called George Burt, who had made a lot of money and wanted to give something back to his home town.  

The estate went through ups and downs and I learned that when I lived in Swanage I probably wouldn't have been able to visit it, because it might have been derelict. Phew - so that's OK! I mean, I was still terminally lazy but it didn't matter. :)  

Now, the castle has been really well modernised with the aid of a lottery grant and the estate has been restored and is managed as a huge wildlife site.  There are useful and ever-changing displays of information about all the plants, birds, animals and insects inside the Castle. 

Here are some photographs. I really was impressed. 

As befits a stonemason, George Burt left many carved slabs along the paths and created  a big globe of the world as it was in Victorian times. Many of the slabs contain snatches of appropriate poetry, which is rather nice as it helps you see how he saw the place himself.

 He clearly had a good understanding of human nature, too. Two slabs of stone stand near the globe. On each is is quaintly written PERSONS ANXIOUS TO WRITE THEIR NAMES WILL PLEASE DO SO ON THIS STONE.   And so they have. Here's a picture of one of the stones - and the globe and other inscriptions are free of graffiti.

It is is open all year, it's beautiful, you can walk along the coast for miles, and it has a nice restaurant. My friend says it is also a super place to go with dogs. For some reason, though, Durlston doesn't appear in most of the tourist information I picked up in the area. 

Oh,and one final picture, to prove you can see the Isle of Wight when you sit outside and have your tea. There it is in the distance,  although I don't think this little girl was interested! 

One evening we took a walk on National Trust land a little further up the coast, at Ringstead Bay.  The windswept trees below looked oddly like breaking wave and I wished I had seenthe whole scene on a stormy day.  

So we had a good trip to Dorset, and each day we were glad to come back to our friend's mum's cottage and admire the sunsets.   

PS. Just to say that Star Men (the film about astronomy) now has a UK distributor, so if you want to see it, write and ask your local cinema to offer it a screening.  It's also on at the Cambridge Film Festival on 3 and 4 September. 

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Which Way?

Sorry for the silence and I hope everyone's having a good summer!  I am in a very thoughtful mood at the moment and not feeling like writing,  but I'll be back soon.

The picture, by the way, was taken on the border of Italy and Slovenia, just outside Trieste.  I didn't have any idea where ANY of these destinations were, so of course it didn't matter which way I went!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Layers of Time and Dirty Dick's

Our daughter Vanessa called to see if we wanted to accompany her on a walk to research Spitalfields, in London.  The area is roughly around Liverpool St. mainline station and here is the view as you walk out of the station - a real mixture of old and new.

Vanessa is SO interesting to walk around with. She always spots the most unusual and interesting things. We'd had a stroll around this area about five years ago and were astounded to find it had changed a lot.

Although, well, some things haven't changed - Dirty Dick's pub for instance.  The pub is perfectly clean but Dirty Dick Bentley's story lives on. Two hundred years ago he was a rich young man, heir to a successful wine business, quite a dandy and engaged to be married.   He invited his friends over to meet his intended bride and laid on a splendid dinner, but she did not arrive, and instead, a messenger came with news of her sudden death.  Like Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham, Dirty Dick shut up the dining room, vowing to leave the food for the rats and mice. After this, he became reclusive and miserly.

The shop became ruinous and the upper parts were demolished in 1870, when the present pub was built.  Some of Dirty Dick's cobweb festooned vaults still remain beneath it though. And, if you are interested, the London Fortean Society  meet in the vaults each month to discuss strange happenings and ghostly phenomena. Does Dirty Dick haunt their meetings? Who knows .... but he is certainly immortalised in that old Irish song, "King of the Cannibal Islands" where the King's house was "like Dirty Dick's."

In fact, taking a longer perspective - half a century or so - Spitalfields does keep changing. Sometimes it's posh, sometimes it's slummy, and sometimes it's where everyone wants to be.  It just depends on fashion.  We have a slight family connection with it ourselves. A relative died not too long ago, at the age of nearly 104. She had been born and raised in Spitalfields during one of its slummy periods and she hated it so much she refused to talk about it for the rest of her life.  She was quite pleased to learn that the immigrants flocking there today are metropolitan trendies from all corners of the globe.   

And so we came to this property below.  In its heyday, the early 18th century, it was the home of Anna Maria Garthwaite, one of the pre-eminent textile designers of her period, who arrived in then-smart Spitalfields from Lincolnshire.  A hundred years later, her house was probably still fairly respectable, but a hundred years after that, a whole family might have lived in just one room of it in the most wretched conditions.  

Now, Spitalfields is so super-cool that this house has been preserved lovingly in its original state for use in films, media events and videos.

Another house nearby, 19 Princelet Street, belongs to a community trust. Also an ex-slum, it is just too fragile to open regularly to the public. It's quite like New York's brilliant Tenement Museum but is much less organised, and it also has had a Jewish synagogue in its basement, built over what was once the house's garden.    I attended one of 19 Princelet Street's rare open days a few years ago and found it particularly atmospheric, just because it hasn't yet been made completely safe for everyday visitor opening (although the trust is fund raising, and individuals can walk around safely).  When the immigrants arrived, and  tramped up the stairs carrying their bundles, they probably did worry that they'd fall through the floor.....

Well, our relative certainly did.

I could write a book about our walk around this area, but I'll just give you a few of the highlights. Below is the charnel house of St. Mary Magdalene, excavated very recently when Bishops Square was built above it.   The strange figure shown is NOT real, and human remains have been removed. This bone house was attached to the 13th century priory and hospital of St. Mary, and now you can view it through a glass floor near where city workers sit and eat their lunchtime sandwiches.

Before Spitalfields became cool, it was very drab, and frankly a bit scary, with lots of the huge old buildings converted into dingy, old fashioned offices and really squalid little flats and shops, and parts were almost deserted at night.  I remember once driving through in the car and noticing that it had so many beautiful old buildings and would be a great opportunity if we were into colonising neglected bits of London.   But apart from the fact we weren't, it would have made me very depressed to move there at that time.  It really was awful. 

However, its narrow, crumbling streets had for centuries offered a place of safety, friendly faces and familiar language for immigrants fleeing from persecution or famine.  In those days, most immigrants were from the Bangladeshi-Sylheti communities, and for a while, Brick Lane, the centre of the area, became the place to go for top class Indian food.   Down a side alley we found the remains of a beautiful wooden mural, now damaged and covered in graffiti. If you look carefully you can see the cultures of Britain and the Indian subcontinent mixed together.  

This is the red bus you can just see at the far end of the mural in the picture above. 

Here's one of the remnants of Banglatown, as it was called - a big, and definitely not beautiful, cash and carry store. 

Just to the left, you can see some street art on the wall. A better view is below. Street art is big in the area now, and I could have spent half the day photographing it.  You can't call it graffiti - a lot of time and work has gone into these strange images. 

Even the local pub has got in on the act, with a man made of beer bottle tops on the wall.

The area's dominated by Christ Church Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.  I'm not the only person to get a bit spooked by Hawksmoor's churches. There is always something a bit strange about the exteriors to me, off balance and weird (this facade is VERY narrow). And Peter Ackroyd wrote a very good and disturbing novel set in the area around this very church. 

On a sunny summer day it didn't look too creepy, though.. 

And inside, it is graceful and attractive. I noticed it had many memorial plaques to missionaries to the local Jews, who were one of the groups of immigrants who settled here.  I didn't approve, although I know times were different then  and they thought they were doing the right thing.  And I certainly didn't realise you could be a missionary without leaving your own home.

In one of the streest we found a metal street map showing "Historic Spitalfields." The background to the street map was created from mirrors.  It made the point that we, people on the streets,  are part of the ever changing scene of this bit of London.  

And then we went back to Dirty Dick's and caught a bus home. I've never seen a gay double decker bus before, so that was yet another new thing about Spitalfields, I guess!

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Star Men .. and Sheffield

I'm back from Sheffield, where we went for just one day to see Nick's film.  And, well!  In my mind Sheffield had been a place of blackened stone and brick, with a certain gloomy period atmosphere. But when I got out of the station - wow!  Where were the tatty car park and derelict old buildings I remembered? Instead, a reflective wall of water, glimmering with colours, sweeping in a great curve up the hill.

dwindling to a quarter of the size at the other end - an ingenious optical illusion.

 On the hillside beyond, the windows of once notorious, now partly renovated Park Hill Estate glittered with jewel like colours.

Now Sheffield Hallam University buildings surround the station.  Not all of them are very beautiful but - they have tried.  We climbed the hill into town, following a mysterious mosaic channel which I suppose was meant to be filled with water - wonder why it wasn't?

it had a very fine plughole 

The place was hung with film festival banners, and we passed an outdoor screening of interesting vintage documentaries. Incidentally, that wasn't the only building I saw with a face painted on the side. Quite surreal. Wonder who he is. Some vintage Sheffield celebrity? Do you know?

And on the wall of a large ugly block a poem welcoming visitors to Sheffield by the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. Great poem.  Click the link to read the text. 

I don't know what the rest of Sheffield is like,and secretly I would like to think that there is still a bit of grand, gloomy Victoriana somewhere, but I like a city that presents an artistic face to the world. There is a vibrancy, affluence and liveliness now that there certainly wasn't before.

So I'll come back and have a better look around, but, as I said yesterday, we were going to see a film featuring a relative,  Nick Woolf.  Nick is a retired astronomer, and fifty years ago, he took a road trip across the American southwest with some English friends, a couple of tents, a Union Jack and a wonderful old car.  That is him lurking on the left.

In those days, war-exhausted, impoverished Britain offered a great education but not much in the way of opportunities, and several of the young English astronomers on the road trip went on to have careers abroad, although a couple did become Cambridge professors. The others stayed in America, where the study of space was starting to take off in a big way.

In the documentatary Star Men, the survivors retraced their road-trip footsteps in a way both touching and quixotic, tackling alarming desert hikes and reflecting on how their work in  trying to unravel secrets of the infinite universe has shaped their views on the inner and outer life, what you know and what you'll never know.

I found the film a complete eye opener.  I'd really come to support Nick, but actually I have never been particularly excited by astronomy, so I'd probably never have seen this film if it hadn't been for him. Which would have been  my great loss, because I was absolutely gripped.  

Not only the stunning visual images -  in particular a time lapse sequence of countless stars whirling about remote Rainbow Bridge in wildest Utah  - go here for a mere still photograph  and then imagine it in motion.    I also loved the curious synchronised time-lapse swooping ballet as the elegant dishes of the Very Large Array at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory turned to invisible signals.  [credit]  Much of the film was set in an otherworldly desert landscape on the edge of human life. 

Most of all, the film's artistry helped me to see just what is so fascinating and compelling about the study of the stars. I feel I now have some understanding of why we do need to study them, consider them. To put ourselves in perspective, perhaps, to aspire to impossible tasks, to unravel enormous mysteries. 

All these thoughtful and intelligent men were full of ideas and curiosity, not least on the subject of death and endings, which, at their age, preoccupies them more and more. Even though they see themselves as mere specks in infinity, and even though they all have brains at least the size of Jupiter, I was interested to see that they hold very different views on religion.  

There was a discussion at the end of the film, Nick,(the tall one in the middle)  two of the other professors and the director, Alison Rose, went up before the audience for a  Q and A session.  Someone asked Nick what he thought of his portrayal in the film. "Well - it looks like me. It sounds like me," he said.  "And,actually - it is me."   What a tribute to Rose, I thought.   

I left the screening on a high, I appreciated the chance to see a documentary made with artistry,  passion, curiosity and respect for its subject.   No dumbing down, no flattery,and, if there were any pressures from politicians and bean-counters, Rose managed to keep them out of the film.  

Star Men will do various festivals and then come out on DVD.  I think its makers, Inigo Productions, are planning to offer it to the BBC.  The BBC is still the best place to try and show good work, so I hope it finds a home there.  And I have put in my diary to attend the Sheffield DocFest next year. Maybe I'll have the chance to see more of Sheffield then! 

Come to think of it, I would love to revisit the American southwest. I did quite a bit of work there in years gone by, and I miss those amazing landscapes. I envy those of you who can get out into them sometimes, to feel the desert wind and see the huge horizons.  

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