Tuesday 11 June 2024

Iron, Bluebells, and the Keymatic Washing Machine.

After months of  poring over legal contracts, dealing with bureaucrats, and various other little trials, I feel we're out of the woods for now and can get on with some normal life.  Which has included seeing the spring and early summer unfold in some real woods. It's been a real pleasure and I'm sure the bluebell season lasted longer than usual this year too.    

Mid April there were hundreds of thousands of bluebells in the ancient Abbey Wood in Southeast London.  No, make that millions, I'm sure the numbers must have reached that -  I've never seen so many!  They just went on and on.   The large and wonderful wood is hardly mentioned in most guides to London, and is actually a little known treasure even to Londoners, too.    It is in the far southeast of the city and I learned that William Morris used to walk through it to the station when he needed to catch a train to London from his home in nearby Bexleyheath (now in the care of the National Trust) 

 My pictures probably give an idea of the blueness of the flowers, but doesn't capture the effect of all the other, less obvious spring flowers that were also covering the ground. Areas of glimmering anemones, starry yellow celandines,  fragile stitchworts and deep purple violets made it look in parts like a huge embroidered carpet. 

In early May, we had a few days in the countryside, and on our first day took a modest footpath that led into a rather grand private estate.  After passing the immaculate tennis courts and vineyard, we found ourselves on a most beautiful grass-fringed stream winding through woodland and meadows .  What with the birdsong and butterflies and the sun shining through, it felt like the Garden of Eden, and there were still sheets of bluebells ! 

 We were in East Sussex, not far from London, but our location was so remote that Google couldn't direct us the house where we stayed.  When we found it, access was via a steep, winding, very narrow lane,  a bit terrifying at first, but worth it.  Below is the view from the window seat in our cottage., framing the view of an an old weatherboarded water mill where the owner of the land lives.  

This mill was, surprisingly, built in the 17th century to power a furnace.  The area where we stayed was near the Ashdown Forest, where for 100 years the local celebrities have been  Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin.  But the real people living in the area spent centuries smelting iron in tiny hamlets and farmsteads with names like "Hugget's Furnace" - many of the names still surviving on local maps today refer to ironworking. 

I found it very interesting, because I am a fan of the "Mantelmass Chronicles" by veteran writer Barbara Willard, which are set in Ashdown Forest too.   "Mantlemass" is a  multi -novel family saga about generations of an ironworking family from the 15th century onwards.  Here's the cover of my copy of "The Iron Lily" a pivotal book in the series, which tells how Lilias, orphaned in 1557 by the plague, is forced out of her home but eventually makes a good life as a master in a man's world.  

The books were published in the 1970s, which was just before the kind of books offered to young people started to change drastically.   Willard was born in 1909, so would have missed what we now call "YA"  fiction, which rarely aims to convey an authentic sense of living in England of the past, family continuity or being present in the natural world.  Those type of books are generally marketed for adults now. I am sure teens can find them if they want, and I hope some do.  

So re-reading "The Iron Lily" recently, I thought that some enterprising publisher might re-package these books for adults. I don't know if Netflix is into making family sagas, but these stories are too good to sit forgotten on a shelf.  I found a book review blog called Semicolon here, which has reviewed the series recently.  I wonder if you think they'd appeal to you? 

We have also been to Suffolk again since my last post, where I mentioned my friend's pond which is shaped like an eye.  (it looks crazy when you view it from above on Google).  On our more recent trip to Suffolk the sun came out occasionally so we managed to snatch this shot of the eye looking a bit less tearful.  It hadn't been quite so wet, and flooding had receded, so you can start to see the shape with the little island forming the iris in the middle and the spoil heap from the digging creating an "eyebrow". 

  Whenever it has seemed summery, we've tried to get out on our bikes. We went recently to  South Kensington to see the final days of the "Secret Life of the Home" at the Science Museum.   

It's an imaginatively displayed collection of vintage household objects, designed nearly 30 years ago by Tim Hunkin, whose offbeat interest in how machines work made his  Secret Life of Machines ITV series so watchable in the 1980s.  He brought the same quirkiness to the gallery, with entertaining films, recordings and ads to cast light upon things on display.   

My favourite objects included a fiendishly complicated 1950s burglar alarm involving a 78 rpm record automatically calling the local police station via a rotary dial phone in a voice considerably posher than King Charles' voice today.  But best of all for me was the Hoover "Keymatic" washing machine (below). 

I found the launch ad on Youtube, which explains that it is fully automatic, as though this is a great novelty.   Was it really the first fully automatic washing machine in Britain? I wonder.   

Anyway I like the Keymatic because it reminds me of the house my grandmother,  her two sisters and their friend shared in South West London. Almost nothing ever changed in that house, and I loved it.  My auntie told me the family had bought the very best when they moved in during the 1920s, so there was rarely any reason for getting anything new.  Made sense to me.   

So imagine my surprise when one day in 1963 I skipped into the scullery to find a gleaming new Hoover Keymatic installed under the wooden draining rack.    Their 1930s washing machine had given up so they'd bought the very latest and best model available to carry on the good work. Easy to use, with an intriguing beaky appearance and attractive peacock blue top, it worked like a dream and really did end the trials of washday for them.   It immediately became a well-liked member of the household, and sloshed away reliably for the rest of their lives.  I can't look at it without thinking of them.  So I liked seeing that long-ago familiar shape in the gallery. 

All the exhibits will now be housed in the museum's huge new storage facility out in Wroughton, Wiltshire.  They promise public tours but I am sad to have closed the gallery at all.  Hunkin's approach was engaging and unique, and I so hope it won't be replaced by something too earnest. 

 Last weekend we went to see another new gallery at another museum,  So glad I live in a city with lots of free museums!     This is in East London, at Bethnal Green, and it is part of the Victoria and Albert museum of applied and decorative arts.  The building used to be known as the V&A Museum of Childhood and has now been extensively refurbished and re- branded to become the  Young V&A .... supposedly ... 


... well I guess they forgot to tell the person who did the mosaic sign on the front wall..... 

The old Museum of Childhood was another one I'd always liked. It was very Victorian and barely changed for decades, full of huge mahogany and glass cases containing all kinds of truly gorgeous toys and curious objects. It was one of our own kids' favourite outings, too.   But - you know what ? Despite all that, we were thrilled at the new museum.  It is now an even better place to take your kids!  

 It occupies a building from the 1850s with two tall, very large aisles flanking a long central space and roofed with arches of glass and iron.  It still has lots of splendid toys, but now they play their part in stimulating childrens' imaginations, and are carefully curated to help them consider design. It's also incredibly entertaining,  

I tried the gallery on the left hand side first. It  visitors with a series of questions which can be answered with reference to different toys and images.   "Where do you want to go?"  could include anywhere, but they give you some ideas:  evening in the desert,  a wintry haunted  house,  a mad planet where the stars are made out of soup - and  Hokusai's famous "Wave" print, which was my choice of where to go. Not being tossed around on that fierce sea, but skimming somehow above it, directly headed to Mount Fuji in Japan. 

This print is the first in Hokusai's set of "36 Views of Mount Fuji". But, incredibly, despite the title, I only recently noticed that Mount Fuji was right in the middle of the picture.   Hokusai had a sense of humour, and I think he knew most people would be too busy looking at the big wave to notice the famous mountain in the distance looking rather like a white-capped wave itself.  

"Who would you like to meet?" is the next question.  I decided I'd like to meet this interesting couple (below) dating from the Middle Ages.   They are wodewoses, mythical figures or spirits of nature, who were popular figures across Europe.    They seem to be bringing mythical figures out of the woods - and  I would like to meet those too.  As you see,  the wodewoses are covered with long shaggy hair, although Mrs. Woodwose has fashionable "ripped jeans" look about her knees, and her babies will not get a mouthful of fur when they feed.  They really are a fine pair. 

And how (in answer to the next question) would I choose to travel?  

 There's only one answer to this. The Pink Fantasy Flyer was in the old museum, and I loved it then and still do!    

I cannot detail it all, but can only recommend this collection, whatever your age may be.  

Currently the special exhibition is on Japanese folk tales and manga, aiming show how manga and the films of the Ghibli studios draw heavily on Japanese folk ideas and customs, particularly the Yokai who are wildly imaginative magic creatures.  Many of the Japanese objects in the show are made with astounding skill. I loved this tiny 19th century netsuke carving, which seems to be loosely based on on the traditional story of the "Wonderful Tea Kettle. " in which a magical animal lives in a tea kettle and terrifies the priest and everyone at the temple. (I don't think the original story includes this bare footed lady).  It's beautifully done -  and yet it is barely more than an inch long. 

There was also an equally skilled modern artwork in which a tree has been created out of a cardboard carrier bag. 

You must peep inside and see that small things matter, says the artist

After the show, we had a cup of tea at the Gallery Cafe in Old Ford Road nearby, a place we generally go to when we're in Bethnal Green.  We like the friendly unpretentious atmosphere, and there's a garden and outside seating too.  It belongs to a charitable organisation called St. Margarets which does lots of good works locally , so you can feel that your meal is in a good cause,  as well as being nice. 

And, after a grey and overcast day, the sun actually came out in the early evening for our cycle back home!  I keep thinking as we pedalled along that it would be nice to have a bit more sun, but on the other hand,   looking at the 40+ degree temperatures in southern Europe, I'll settle for grey drizzle any day. 


  1. Oh my, there is always something to marvel over on your blog posts! How I love museums in London, you are making me "homesick"! I adore bluebells. I have a photo of myself in amongst them at the side of my blog! (Please note, there was something within them that those in charge must have had to check on something, so I only stepped in THEIR footsteps, I do hope that was okay. Since it was the one and only time I was in a bluebell wood, surely it was! It was in East Sussex!) Also, I remember going through Ashdown Forest when my father in law would drive us from Eastbourne to Kenley to visit his mother and sister. I remember the little shop in the village there, I am sure it must still be there! (Pooh Corner-Hartfield). You finish this post telling us of a cup of tea with a garden and outside seating. Sigh, you are making me want to visit England right this second! x

  2. What a great tour of a museum I've never heard of! Too bad I'm too far away to visit, but thank you for the virtual experience.

  3. A wave of bluebells! That sounds like a lovely place to stay and recharge your battery.
    Interesting museums..reminds me of the National History Museum of Wales..St Ffagans...so many think it's the Natural History museum!! But there it is interesting seeing the houses furnished to a specific date.

    You can see so much in Hokusai's Wave..but remember it is read from right to left !!

  4. Hi Jenny, nice to find a new post from you. Thanks for sharing what you have been up to and it seems that aside from the bureaucratic things, there have been some nice outings. That exhibit, "Secret Life of the Home" at the Science Museum is one that I would have gone to see and the add for the Hoover Keymatic was fun. I have never seen or heard of this machine here in the US. And, I would also enjoy seeing The old Museum of Childhood especially as it retained all those mahogany and glass cases. Toys are fun no matter what your age.

  5. It's great to see you blogging again. You've obviously been busy.

    I appreciate your sharing the bluebells and all the museums. The place you stayed in the country actually looks more like a painting than a real place, it's so beautiful.

  6. Did I miss something? Legal woes?
    As always, thank you for taking us along on a little journey we can enjoy from our own home.

  7. Ah, Abbey Wood and Bexley Heath - a blast from the past for me! With my first husband, I visited friends in Bexley over Christmas one year, and on Boxing Day, we walked in Abbey Wood under a sapphire blue sky in brilliant sunshine.
    So far, whenever I have come to England, I have been too early or too late for the bluebells. To see Fountains Abbey surrounded by bluebells is something I have been dreaming of for years. One day I'll make it!
    Also many years ago, I visited the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, and really loved it. The new one sounds great, too.

  8. Lovely photos of the bluebells, Jenny. I can imagine how nice it is to walk among this beauty and admire the spring flowers. I also like museums that preserve old household items. They remind me of a calm life, a feeling of safety that occurs in childhood. Thanks for the story!

  9. There's so much here I can't even remember everything I thought of to say--lol! Loved it all!
    Still cannot believe that barefoot lady carving is only an inch in size!
    That tree!
    The washing machine! And the commercial! Those old "housewife" commercials are cringeworthy, for sure. I remember watching all kinds of them as a kid.
    The Wave--I just used it as inspiration for an ICAD painting! So I definitely knew Mt Fuji was there.
    Wonderful post! *hugs from Fargo*

  10. So nice to see this post from you, which I enjoyed from beginning to end.
    Those bluebells look glorious.
    You are fortunate to live near some wonderful museums.

    Enjoy the rest of June.
    The weather has been a little mixed, but I'm not complaining.
    As you wrote some areas are experiencing very, very hot temperatures.

    My good wishes.

    All the best Jan

  11. I finally found a way to answer this! Bluebells are wodnerful, we have three! A nice place to smelt iron. I remeber Hunkins programmes, always good and interesting. Museums are always good, that one was placed there for the sake of the poor, few rich folks today would do this.

  12. I don't remember the V&A Museum of Childhood because my sons were wee toddlers back in the years when I lived in London. But now that it has been much refurbished and re-branded, I must start reading about the new museum's goals and contents.
    The 1850s long central space is roofed with arches of glass and iron, and looks perfect for young families.

  13. I'm late visiting. Well, not quite true. I came right after this went up and read through quickly but didn't have time to savor or comment so now I'm finally back. I am in awe of the bluebell woods. What a site -- I can't even imagine how moving it would be to see this. Such a big gasp! I love the view of the eye pond. It really does look like that -- and the sky and colors in the photo were certainly on show for you. I remember our writing on the museum, but how fun it had to be to see the washing machine! Such memories. That looks like such a fun and

  14. Oops, I hit publish instead of the space bar (I have no idea how that happened. Cursor must have moved!) So this a continuation of my earlier comment. Yes, the museum -- that looks really good and I hope wherever they set things again, they get the crowd they deserve. It looks like a beautful spot now. I loved seeing the photos of the wave and that arch and seeing the netsuke reminded me of the wonderful book, "The Hare with Amber Eyes." I just love it when you post!

  15. As always, a very interesting post, Jenny. The bluebells are stunning...beauty to lighten up any day, no matter what the weather brings.

    It's a bit chilly down this way at present...being our winter, of course.

    Take care. :)

  16. Hokusai's compositions are amazing.

  17. Thanks for another fascinating tour of museums and beauty spots. I only know of Abbey Wood because I often went through it on the train, but I never visited the wood itself. I'm sure my mother was very pleased at the arrival of automatic washing machines, after years of laborious hand washing. I would also have picked the "wave" print. Like you, I never noticed Mount Fuji because the huge wave is much more noticeable.

  18. ...thanks Jenny for taking me along on the journey. The bluebells are fabulous and so is the Pink Fantasy Flyer. Pink isn't my color and there's no way that I would fit!

  19. Your post is a blissful combination of beauty (bluebells and other flowers) with the history/art/ science of museums and galleries. The photos displayed, add a lot to the understanding of the above.


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