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.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Happy Easter!

I hope you have, or had, a wonderful Easter! Here are some of the beautiful Easter birds, with their chocolate eggs, who temporarily inhabited the windows of the chocolate shop in Fuengirola, where we have been during Holy Week. 

 Fuengirola is a small town on the Costa del Sol, Spain, and we were there with one of our daughters, her family and her in-laws.   T and I flew into Malaga and so took the chance to spend three days there. I like the city very much.    

Holy Week, (Santa Semana,)  is very important in Andalucia, and we are all still a bit dazed by the huge and amazing processions of Jesus and Mary on their ornate silver and gold floats, lit by dozens of huge candles and carried mostly by men, some of them blindfolded, others in long robes, preceded by robed penitents in long pointed hats and always accompanied by a band.  

The masks and robes of the penitents can seem quite frightening, partly because the evil founders of the Ku Klux Klan have perverted them by adopting very similar robes.   The confraternities which run the processions are of course devoted to helping the sick, living holy lives, etc.  

 It's hard to convey just how extraordinary it is to have these processions going for hours through the workaday streets of the town.  Every afternoon evening and night in Holy Week is given up to it - it's very much a living religious tradition with all ages and both sexes participating. 

 The atmosphere of the processions is exciting, positive and family centred. 


All traffic is stopped and a large proportion of the local population takes to the streets, often till the early hours - and the shops and cafes stay open too, so the town feels fully alive.    

Many children and young people collect the wax from the penitents' long candles, and at the end of the day the penitents' robes are often bespattered with wax. 

The vast majority of people at the processions that we saw were local, and it was very much a social as well as a religious occasion.  I suspect it is a custom that has its roots in very long tradition. 

However narrow and maze-like the streets, the floats will get there, and the carrying of it is a highly skilled affair. This float arrived outside the tapas bar where we were having a snack at about 11 PM. 

Nothing is mechanised, the floats are carried by human effort for hours and hours, often until the early hours of the morning

.  It is clearly very tiring, and some of the bearers also do the work blindfold.  Here are some of the bearers taking a rest in Malaga.  

They were carrying a most spectacular float of the Virgin, and some of the candles were being renewed and relit by a very strong fellow carrying a long taper.  Can you see him on the left?

I haven't downloaded all the photos yet, and there is so much more to say, I suppose -  but I will post this now, as I wanted to wish you  a Happy Easter before the holiday ends. 

Friday, 12 April 2019

Regents Park, Ithaka ... and Noddy

I took the day off on Wednesday because the weather was SO BEAUTIFUL, with that brightness you only ever seem to see in Spring. We took one of our usual routes through Regents Park, which was carpeted with daisies and radiant with blossom, with trees sprouting tender new leaves.  Here they are,  showing up against the blue sky.... and in the background are the domed, stucco Nash buildings that line one of the roads beside the park.

The daisies don't show up as well in my photos as they do in real life, but I hope this picture suggests how white the carpet was...

This tree is, I think, some kind of a prunus, I wonder if it is a plum.

It was such different weather when we babysat the twins the next day.  It was so cold and wet that we couldn't take them out for a run around, so we put on our waterproofs and went for a walk to the local charity shops instead, and they each chose something.  Then we came home, had lunch and they played with the box of toys we keep for them. And finally, we watched some Noddy.

Do you know Noddy? He is one of the many creations of Enid Blyton, who was once the best known writer for the under-10s in Britain.   I loved her "Famous Five" books as a kid, my older daughter was obsessed with her "Malory Towers" boarding school series, and the younger daughter was a big fan of "Amelia Jane", the big naughty doll.  Blyton had an almost uncanny ability to write in exactly the way that children think, but her personal views were traditional 1940s and 1950s and these had become very unfashionable by the 1990s.  Now, though, most of her work has been updated,  and most of her books are now available minus the naughty gollies, stupid sinister foreigners, and frequent references to smacking. 

The twins totally "get" Noddy, because Noddy lives the dreams of five year olds.   He has his OWN CAR and he is able to drive it around because he is a real taxi driver! He has his OWN HOUSE in Toytown, which he lives in all by himself!  All his friends are toys! He has a kindly old friend called Big Ears who is always there to sort really hard things out for him, and there is a policeman to chase away the baddies, who consist mainly of some not terribly scary goblins called Gobbo and Sly, and some pesky monkeys.   Noddy isn't so clever that he makes anybody feel jealous. He can of course write his own name, because he is a big boy,  but he can't yet write a whole letter by himself.  In fact, he often gets things a bit wrong, but there are plenty of slightly older toys around to advise him, and they mostly get things more right than he does.  It is exactly at the twins' level and to be honest I quite enjoy escaping to Toytown myself sometimes.   

When we finally switched Noddy off yesterday, Boy Twin gave a big sigh and said to me, "You know, none of those people are alive today."   So true, and I had to smile to realise that he is still not entirely sure if the characters are actual people. He clearly suspects not; but then how old were  you before you realised cartoons weren't real? 

I mentioned the Greek island of Ithaka in my last post, and before I move on I 'd like to add a bit about a few days we spent there during our recent trip to Greece. It's half an hour or so from Kefalonia on a rather elderly ferry.  Not only is the ferry old, but it's not always dead on time. But I don't think you take this ferry if you want to be on time. So it suited us.

When we arrived at Vathy, the capital of Ithaka, at about 4 PM, it seemed asleep, with just a few boats bobbing in the harbour and hardly anyone to be seen.  My first impression was that it was like a film set.

 But by 6 PM the shops were in full swing after their afternoon break,  and I realised I had quite forgotten that many Greek shops close in the afternoon and re-open in the evening.

I quickly learned that much of Kefalonia, including Vathy, was devastated in a terrible earthquake in 1953. It was rebuilt in modern style during the following years, and is pretty enough with its bright colours, but occasionally you come across a fragment of an old house and you can see what it must have been like before.

Most of the island is hilly and wooded, and the hillsides are reflected in the water to give it a deep turquoise colour.

On our first day we hiked into the hills around the town, encountering masses of wild flowers and many mossy, gnarled olive trees - some of them were clearly hundreds of years old.

Every now and then you'd hear the sound of goat and sheep bells tinkling as a shepherd drove his flock past, and the asphodels were in full bloom. I like these flowers; they're tall and striking, but they play a slightly sinister role in Greek folklore - the Asphodel Meadows of the Underworld are where the "ordinary" dead live - those who are neither good nor bad during their lives.  I suppose they could end up with worse than living in a flower meadow, but I suppose there is something a little ghostly about asphodels. 

The next day, we didn't go for a long walk. The weather was a bit like you'd find in Scotland in March; that is, cold and windy.   We visited the two museums in the town; my favourite exhibit in the charming folklore museum was this travelling chest with the initials "S.P." studded on the top.

Then we looked round the small but interesting archaeological museum, where I was captivated by this ancient Greek woman's head.  You see there are holes for a diadem, and I believe that statues like this were also painted to look lifelike; but to me she looked lifelike anyhow. Or at least, I was aware of her calm gaze all the time I was in the room.


Then, since the rain had stopped, we took a drive on a steep narrow coastal road, and I mean narrow. It also had extreme hairpin bends, and I mean extreme. It was fenced most, but not all, the way to Anogi, the oldest and highest settlement on the island.

Now, many of the roads in Mauritius were no better than the roads on Ithaka, and, in Mauritius, like in Ithaka,  there were also animals wandering about unpredictably... but in Mauritius at least they drive on the left like in Britain!   In Greece, they drive on the right and T. kept saying, "Hm, can't quite tell where the right hand side of this car is, can you just look out of the window and let me know if I'm OK?"  So I did, but not with much enjoyment of the drive.

Anogi village dates from Byzantine times. It is 550 metres above sea level, and the height offered some security from the pirates who more or less ruled the island in those days.    It contains one general store and cafe, which is a spacious old fashioned emporium with a cast iron stove that also seems to be a meeting place for local people, with photos of families and a notice board on one wall.  I can't express how grateful we were to the wonderful owner who gave us huge hot mugs of tea as we staggered in, so cold that T's fingers had gone numb and I was shivering.

The cafe owner holds the keys to the neighbouring church, which dates from the 12th century, and she lent them to us.  It's a most magnificent place. Here is a Doom Painting, with sinners being swallowed up by a monster of Hell, while on the left, the good people ascend to Heaven.

I have brightened this picture up a bit because it was quite dim in this long, low, ancient place.

Then we headed down the road, and detoured along a track to see some of the menhirs, great stones which look intentional, but apparently occur naturally.   Here is  one of the biggest,  Herakles (Hercules ) who must be thirty feet high, on the left. What the photo does not show is that he is surrounded by lesser stones who appear to be listening to him.  The entire place was completely deserted except for a few birds and sheep.

Sorry for the murky light. It was very atmospheric but there was a strangely sinister air about the island that day. Even the wild flowers looked a bit strange....

And the view from the hillside looked very different from anything we had seen previously, with the dark hills glowering alongside a rough grey sea oddly rimmed with turquoise.

The next day, the clouds and rain had gone, and the skies were very bright and the sea was glittering brightly  at midday, as we wandered along a little beach where people were repairing and painting their boats, and squinting against the sun.

When the season starts, I'm told Ithaka will be quite different. Despite the weather, I'm glad we saw it in a way that was not "touristy."  

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