I really appreciate the concern of those kind people who have asked if I am OK. I haven't written for ages, but I've been okay. The main reason for my silence was not getting to grips with the problem about Blogger followers. Remember last year you were supposed to migrate all your followers to some other system? I found some instructions on how to do it and migrated my followers onto a notebook file. After that I wasn't sure what to do with the file I'd created. I meant to check but life was busy and there was never time.
I have now forgotten whatever it was I was supposed to do, so I'm going to put another post on hoping it will still work well enough to at least reach the people who were reading it before, even if I don't get any new followers. But I'm not sure if that will happen.
Assuming you're still reading, though, I'm going to follow the example of fellow blogger Jeanie Croope and post a photo or two for every month or season of the last year.
So. starting in January 2021, here are pictures taken one frosty, sunny day when we decided to walk up to the heath. On the way we passed a cabman's shelter basking in the winter sun.
These shelters are usually humble little sheds by taxi ranks, serving tea, coffee, bacon sandwiches, etc. I'm not a cab-driver, but I bought a really excellent scone to nibble on our walk. Looking down, I couldn't help admiring the beautiful mosaic floor. Dated 1935, it wasn't the sort of floor you generally find in a shack. A nice bit of Cubism, and professionally done..
On further investigation I found that despite appearances, the shelter isn't just a shack. In fact, it was designed by Elisabeth Scott, the architect of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford on Avon. I found a photo of this famous theatre shortly after its completion in the 1930s - it's not really my cup of tea, I'm afraid. But the useful unpretentious cab shelter got my vote. It's just what you want to find on a walk.
In February we were still in lockdown, and London was eerily empty, a bit creepy, actually. It was, though, interesting to experience the feeling of a deserted London for what must be the first time in about 1,500 years. One dark and gloomy afternoon I went with a ramble with my daughter V. down some of the hidden side streets near Covent Garden. They are still proper working streets but during lockdown, some felt more like movie sets - the bow-windowed little shops, the big unlit gas-lamp, the empty passageway leading who knows where? (And I like the defiant slogan stencilled on the wall, too, saying EAT THE RICH.)
No signs of life, except for Hedwig looking out of the window. And I think even Hedwig was stuffed.
But it wasn't all dark. February is a birthday month in our family and the twins were really thrilled to be seven. They each designed, decorated and helped to mix their own cakes, and really enjoyed their party.
The party was attended by about 30 of their soft toys, since school was closed, and their real live friends were not allowed to come over. (I thought perhaps the toys were not quite as good as real guests, but they were puzzled at this idea. No, they said, the toys were really great! ) Afterwards they packed up bits of cake and went on a long walk around their human friends' houses delivering the cake packages at their front doors and waving at them through windows. Children adapt very quickly to the strangest circumstances.
Sometimes we met up with family or friends in central locations, always outdoors, and had some good walks. The staff in the few open shops we passed were always working alone, and had very little to do. I noticed how some of them would even leap forward hopefully as you passed the door, just in case you were going to come in and talk to them. They reminded me of tied-up dogs waiting outside shops for their owners to come back. One day I felt so sorry for a woman serving in a French patissier's that I went in and bought a charcoal baguette just to give her something to do.
Here's a photo, below. It tasted just like a normal French baguette but looked so striking that I planned to buy another couple if we ever had guests over again for a meal. How good it would look with a really colourful soup. (Sadly, when I returned a few months later, the shop had stopped selling charcoal baguettes so I never got to try that idea. )
... and early blossom trees bloomed in the parks. We'd had our first vaccinations by now, and lockdown was less strict. You could go into quite a few types of shops now, if you wanted.
So we ventured further afield, and it was really exciting. Going the 70 miles to Hungerford, in West Berkshire, seemed almost as much of a thrill as Thailand would have been the previous year! The picture below shows The Marsh, a nature reserve just outside Hungerford. I loved the effect of last year's bleached reeds against the vivid white display of blackthorn in the hedge. The blackthorn bush gets its name because the pure blossoms emerge long before the leaves, and look striking against the black thorny branches.
April began with bitterly cold weather, but one day T and I braved a biting Arctic wind to stroll around Blackfriars and Fleet Street, and we paused to admire the Black Friar pub, one of the nicest Art Nouveau buildings in London. Here are some of the carvings, mosaics and copper work on the outside. In the 1960s, unbelievably, this pub was about to be demolished but a public outcry, led by Sir John Betjeman, saved it for posterity.
Inside the pub is even more striking than the outside. Because of its eccentric layout, it's impossible to photograph the bar properly even when it's open, which it wasn't during our visit. (This photo, for your interest, gives a very fair idea of part of the main bar, but doesn't even offer a glimpse of the beautiful stained glass windows which show the lives of the monks who lived here hundreds of years ago.) The only way to really appreciate this pub is to come to London and have a drink there.
I first visited the Black Friar when I was barely old enough to go to pubs at all. I was tremendously impressed by the pub cat, a huge portly sociable creature, who sat at the bar with a saucer of beer. It joined in with everything and its party trick was to catch pennies and bask in the applause. A real Falstaff of a cat. I can find no mention of it online, which is a shame - it should be remembered.
Just on the other side of Blackfriars Bridge is the London office of the Wells Fargo company. They keep this lovely coach on the ground floor. It's either real and beautifully beautifully restored, or else an expensive replica. Looking at it, I gave thanks that I never had to bump my way through the Wild West on something like that.
In May, lots was still shut, but we were able to stay for a week near Haslemere in Surrey. Although it is only about 45 miles from Piccadilly Circus, our cottage was as rural as you could wish for and you could walk right out of the gate into unspoiled National Trust countryside. These beautiful cows wandering up the lane are of an uncommon breed called Belted Galloways.
We did some hiking, revisiting another cottage where we'd once stayed when V was very young. In those days "Gnome Cottage" was owned by the Youth Hostels Association and was an extremely un-restored old place with a huge old log fire and no running water (except from the stream). We had a great time there all the same.
It is now modernised, so the experience of bygone living must have faded for whoever lives there now. I think it might be a ranger, since the area is now protected, and probably it is just as well if he doesn't have to draw his water from the rather muddy little stream and boil it!
In June we had a weekend away with daughter K and family, renting the only Airbnb we could get at a reasonable size and price not too far from London. The cost of holiday accommodation in England has skyrocketed so we took what we could get, which luckily turned out to be a nice house in the pleasant market town of Alton, Hampshire. It was within a stroll of this painted lady, who stands in a brick alcove in Alton's High Street.
If she looks familiar then yes, it is Jane Austen. She lived only a couple of miles from Alton in the village of Chawton. Her family home still survives, and you can visit it and find out lots about her. I'm sorry to say that none of us are big fans of Jane's writing, and we all felt more inclined to visit Chawton House, a mansion which belonged to her brother Edward. (For Austen fans, this was the original of the "Big House" which she mentions sometimes in her letters.)
Brother Edward had been, (extraordinarily), adopted into a posh family called the Knights, and obliged to take their surname as a condition of inheriting the house and estate. There were no direct Knight heirs, and I suppose Edward, who was distantly related, had seemed the most likely lad out of the family's distant cousins. Anyway, it worked out very well for everyone including Jane, for he looked after her and their mother very well with his newfound wealth.
The house itself fared less well than the Austens. By the mid twentieth century it became more than a little run down. Imagine your own home repairs if your house had been neglected for 75 years, and was also absolutely huge. Then imagine the problems if it is listed as of architectural interest so everything needs restoring in an authentic (and wildly expensive) traditional way.
Against all the odds, the present lord of the manor managed to rescue Chawton House and get it repaired. It is now partly a library of women's writing over the ages, and also a lovely place to tour. We enjoyed looking around it and were lucky enough to meet.....
....the present Lord's younger brother, Jeremy, who you see below. He was enjoying meeting visitors and taking them around his childhood home.
A kinder and more unpretentious person than Jeremy you couldn't wish to meet, and he was very nice to the twins who were desperate to play with the afternoon tea on the table in front of him (it was actually knitted out of wool). I found a book by his daughter in the bookstore, and she describes the extraordinary life the family lived in the house when it was literally crumbling about their ears.
Alton struck us as a very nice town. Its parish church is most impressive, and happens to stand on the site of an important Civil War battle. Girl Twin, who has religious leanings, wanted to hear what all the things inside the church were called. Boy Twin was more interested to spot the musket holes in the church's ancient oak front door.
We also enjoyed visiting Gilbert White's House nearby. A great early naturalist, White wrote a "Natural History of Selbourne" and part of his house's extensive gardens and grounds are laid out according to his own designs and using plants of his choice. A working replica of the "hide" he invented for observing wildlife proved to be irresistible for anyone under 10. It is constructed out of a huge beer barrel, it revolves in complete circles, and is thatched. The local birds and animals noticed nothing unusual about it, apparently, but the twins really loved revolving in it and it was hard to drag them away.
June was a nice month. Life began to feel a bit more normal still, and we had a memorable walk with our other daughter and husband around the Kent village of Trottiscliffe (pronounced "Trosley"). Our path took us by alpaca fields - the alpacas had clearly just been shorn.
There was an ancient prehistoric grave complex marked by huge stones, and a fairy tree. We occasionally come across these in out-of-the-way places. They are trees on which people focus their spiritual feelings, tying ribbons and prayers on it. The site is very peaceful, far from busy roads, reached only by footpath and with views over the surrounding countryside.
In July we took a short cycle trip to Wiltshire, just west of Marlborough. We stayed in a garden building which had been an artist's studio next to a rambling thatched cottage. The friendly owner had had a gypsy caravan in the orchard, beautifully painted up all over the inside by her friend (sadly I couldn't get a good picture) but on taking a close look we decided we preferred the garden building. I don't know how whole families ever lived in those horse drawn caravans because they are extremely tiny!
We also enjoyed some walks around the local village, Lockeridge, which is a good place for "sarsen stones". These are the kind of stones used to build nearby Stonehenge and Avebury, but not as large as the obviously very special ones at the temples. They are lying about all over the place, and can also be found on nearby Fyfield Down which we cycled over one day on the way to the henge in Avebury.
We were also intrigued by the pub sign in Lockeridge called "Who'd A Thought It" I'd like to know story that the sign refers to - does anyone know? We weren't going into pubs at the time so couldn't have a pint there and ask the landlord.
In August, we drove up to Yorkshire to see an old friend of mine, plus a very old friend of Tony's, and my niece, all of whom live in different bits of this large county. There's such a lot to see in Yorkshire that it is hard to choose what to mention. I think I was most impressed by Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which I had not been sure I would even like. It is mostly outdoors in the parkland of Bretton Hall, an 18th century house which is now in public use, Its rolling acres and landscaped vistas offer space and context for a variety of huge sculptures, so many of them very compelling.
There were many fantastic Henry Moores and some dazzling sculptures from Portugal. Below is a view of "Valkyrie Marina Rinaldi" from a big temporary exhibition by the very interesting artist Joana Vasconcelos, (click here if you'd like to know more her and her work.)
These are four of 12 animal heads, each on a trunk which is a little larger than the average adult. To the Chinese people these animal sculptures are apparently a symbol of Chinese oppression by the West. They are replicas of a set of heads created in 1750 by Europeans at the court of Emperor Quianlong and the originals were looted long ago.
I was struck by how weird it was to see each head the same size, no matter how big the animal. That smooth, timid rabbit head could never consume enough to maintain a body the size of the bear next to it. It's born to be prey. The mouse is even more helpless looking. The bear, by contrast, would be a fierce carnivore no matter what its size - it's impossible to imagine it peacefully nibbling grass. And the Chinese Dragon, a fantasy creature, is most impressive of all, being a creature of imagination.
When September arrived, we headed up to Suffolk to see our field, see our friends and see what was new. We manage to visit two or three times a year and I am always happy to see those big skies and open fields of East Anglia, which were then looking very golden.
One of the things I like about the area are its interesting churches. So many of them are full of curious and beautiful old woodwork, needlework or other crafts. Here are some baffling old pew ends at Earl Stoneham's parish church. What on earth do you think they could mean? I honestly have no idea. This character, (a man who looks to me as if he's modelled on a real person) seems to be in chain mail, or some kind of hood. But why is he carrying two heads? Or perhaps he has three heads growing out of different parts of his body? So many ancient churches contain such things which obviously had significance. Often, the grotesqueries were intended to warn congregation against particular sins or ideas. Can you imagine coming to church and meeting these characters every Sunday?
Earl Stoneham church also has a magnificent wooden roof which must have taken years to make.
It is carved with beautiful angels looking down at the congregation, and at those other quaintly carved reminders of sin and the difficulties of life. And no doubt the congregation looked up at the angels above and felt reassured.
Over the months, in London, we were getting out too, particularly on our short cycle rides up and down hills to local areas of interest. Once we met a Pearly Royal Family.
In early October we climbed up to a prehistoric fort on West Woodhay Down, part of the ancient fortified Wessex landscape. Lots of grassland, sheep, small fields, clumps of woodland, hardly any people, and, I am sure, a lot of archaeology hidden in the chalky soil.
It was very clear and bright at first, but as the day moved on, decorative clouds of all types gathered in the sky and then floated away again. I couldn't take my eyes off them.
Around this time of year there was a tremendous shortage of petrol and a shortage of goods in the shops, basically because there aren't enough truck drivers. There was quite a bit of panic buying, and huge queues at most filling stations, if they had any petrol at all.
We passed a pub which jokingly suggested it was time to panic buy some beer :)
The November weather wasn't too bad. We took the chance, finally, to attend the Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the V & A, "Curiouser and Curiouser". It had some ingenious interactive and multi media exhibits, including the mad Tea Party which uses animation projection to create a whirl of changing colour and pattern on the Hare and Hatter's tea table. The little fellow you can see standing there in his mask was amazed and intrigued.
In November, Christmas things began appearing in the shops. I was very impressed with this window at the local SHELTER charity shop. My photo isn't very good but it was all glittery and white and eye catching, and it took me a while to realise it was actually selling secondhand goods. Apparently one of their volunteers has an interest in display, and ever since then I have been checking out their windows, which are often really interesting. They get good stuff donated, too.
Then, it was December, and all of a sudden Christmas was upon us. It was a slightly difficult Christmas, not least because of total lack of guidance from the government about what we were allowed to do. Still, we managed to see everyone and have some fun.
And when Christmas was over, I started clearing out a load of junk, a sort of early Spring cleaning, and received a lovely bunch of flowers from one of my daughters. I was so pleased. Even though it was jsut past Christmas, it was a reminder of the look and the scents of Spring.
And here we are in January again. On the whole, it was a nice year, except for the very end, and I hope yours also had some good moments. Please have a good 2022, and I hope that we will soon see the pandemic fade into something more manageable.