Friday, 26 September 2014

Catching Up

Sorry for being a bit quiet lately.  I've had some medical issues, a bit of a shock as I am not usually ill.   But now I hope I am on the mend and I'm looking forward to our forthcoming trip to Japan, which will also take in a glimpse of New Zealand and a stop in California.

I've never visited Japan and nor has T (the picture above was taken by F on his visit a couple of years ago).  The trip is built around my work about Lewis Carroll  and I will be seeing Tokyo and the Toyama region with some Japanese "Alice in Wonderland" friends - Alice is popular in Japan.  I will also be writing some travel articles and of course posting here! 

Thanks to the travel articles, JNTO has teamed me up with the company Japan Experience which has just sent my Japan Rail Pass - yay - my first hold-in-the-hand tangible evidence that the trip is for real.   The company has also fixed some interesting outings for me around Kanazawa and Kyoto.

And I'm really delighted at the prospect of meeting Yoko, Tomoko and Keiko in Nara.  They blog about this very beautiful area of Japan (click on their names to see their blogs) and it is completely because of them that I put Nara on my itinerary.

So, as well as planning the trip, re-reading Lewis Carroll notes, doing other work and hanging around in hospitals, these are some of the more fun things I've been doing while I haven't been blogging....

Went down to Henley to see how K's boat is getting along.  It has a permanent mooring in a beautiful stretch of  the Thames.  She treats it a bit like a holiday cottage, although the engine works fine. She's just had it craned out to be blacked at the bottom and repainted in traditional colours.

The next thing will be to paint  the traditional decorations of diamonds, roses and castles back on to the doors and sides. K's considering doing it herself, it doesn't look that hard.  (So speaks the person who can't even paint a number on a bit of wood to go on our front gate.....)

Went to a concert of Indian Music at Kings Place, which is a fairly new and completely inspiring music and cultural venue in Kings Cross.  The concert was over four hours long and to be honest I'd been wondering if I could sit and listen to Indian music for 4 hours because I don't know anything about it.  But the flautist Shashank Subramanyam was just astonishing and his accompanists so good that I didn't want it to end.    I took the picture when they'd finished as you weren't allowed to film during the performance.

Spent lots of time with the twins who are always such fun.  And we took Little A and S to Regents Park boating lake which is so entertaining, though expensive.

We also paid a visit to in-laws in Dorset.   Here's a photo of us trying to find a spot to picnic on the beach in the RSPB reserve at Arne Peninsula.  We'd forgotten to check the tide tables, and so actually it was high tide and the beach was covered in water! But we found a handy canoe tied up to a tree and had our picnic in that as the waves broke around the canoe.

Also spotted this threatening sign on a pretty little bridge nearby

I've been looking through other peoples' travel blogs, and found this one which interested me. It's about dealing with anxiety, particularly travel anxiety.  Actually, I have suffered quite badly from this too (although not as badly as Lauren, the blog's writer). It's OK now that I have wound down travel writing and really just do it as a hobby.  But when I was being well paid as a freelance for turning in the perfect product to someone else's specification, there was a lot of anxiety attached in taking off into the unknown.  Obviously it is nothing compared to the stress of being a brain surgeon or a judge (or indeed anything that actually matters).  And it was well worth it for the wonderful experiences.

Lauren thinks that too. Take a look at her blog, it's good.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Pargetting and the Supernatural

Haven't been much in London at all. We were visiting friends in Wessex last week (where I spotted this pretty blue butterfly, above) and we somehow got chatting about ghosts and the supernatural. I was very surprised at how many perfectly normal people reported ghosts and hauntings from their own experience.  We all agreed that the the "ghostly" manifestations seemed a bit inconsequential and really quite varied, although rather scary at the time.   

My feeling about ghosts etc. is that I don't believe in them,  even though I once worked for the vicar of this church (photographed 100 years ago or so - these days you can hardly see it for trees)

By the time I was there, they'd built a church hall where my daughter went to playschool every weekday morning.  We were hard-up at the time, I needed work and I was pleased to be getting a handy part time job in the vicarage right next door to playschool. But the vicar turned out to be a well known exorcist and my work was mainly dealing with deeply troubled people who thought they were possessed.    My experiences there were enough to convince me that I did not wish to meddle in this subject and I was not sorry that my daughter grew out of that playschool soon after and I didn't need to work there any more.    

I have no doubt that many of us (including me) have scary and unexplained experiences, but I prefer to keep an open mind about what these experiences actually mean.  It's so easy to sleep and dream very briefly, misinterpret sounds or sights, or become quite suggestible. Also, there are strange folk around who like to threaten and frighten others and are not above taking a lot of trouble to do it.  

And chatting with my Wessex friends,  I learned that a vicar I had met a few weeks ago has to keep clearing up "cursed" hub caps and unreeled VHS tape draped over hedges outside his vicarage - it's a form of attack by weird individuals who are into witchcraft, and worse.  At first it seemed ridiculous to think of some idiot cursing VHS tapes, of all things, and then spreading them around.  But I quickly realised that it is deeply threatening and upsetting to be on the receiving end of this weirdness.  I ended up feeling  sorry for this vicar, and surprised that apparently other vicars have to deal with similar deranged behaviour that is more appropriate to 1614 than 2014.

I'll leave the topic here, as I know it upsets some people - but it's on my mind so hope you don't mind me sharing.  When I got back to London, I went to see the choir of Kings College Cambridge singing sacred music at King's Place - what a contrast to the cursers!  The programme included the extraordinary "Spem in Alium" motet by Thomas Tallis.   This work has forty separate parts, so is very hard to sing and conduct.  When Queen Elizabeth I heard it, she's said to have given 40 pounds to Tallis - enough to buy him a country estate in those days.   When forty people are singing it just in front of you, it's so loud and intense that the air seem to jump about and the music completely fills your mind.  This YouTube video can't replicate that experience but it's a good performance.  

And now I'd better finish the post I was writing before I went to Wessex.  My post was about Essex. Essex and Wessex are on opposite sides of the country ("Essex" = East Saxons, "Wessex" - West Saxons, I'm told),  In many parts of the East of England, you'll see houses decorated with pargetting, a form of plasterwork. It can be in a plain little pattern

 free form 

or quite descriptive. The one below, in Saffron Walden (see last post) seems to be telling a story, but I don't know what it can be! 

Anyway as I cycled along a quiet lane we passed this sign on a rusty-roofed old shed 

Adjoining this old shed was a handsome house, decorated with some interesting modern pargetting describing medieval customs. I thought it was great. 

We have also seen pargetted homes in Northern France, but there the pargetting is often painted up in bright colours. 

I suppose the scenes in old pargetting are also to do with legends, supernatural things, traditions and spells, lingering on in our modern world.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Saffron Walden and Mazes.

I promised Jeanie of Marmelade Gypsy that I'd mention the maze in Saffron Walden, in Essex. I hadn't visited Saffron Walden for many years.  It is less sleepy than it was, but the picture above, showing a side street, still brings back to me the feeling I had as a child, when we lived for a while in an old cottage set in what was once a stables in the centre of a similar small, old town. I remember so well looking through an ancient timbered archway at small, old fashioned shops on the other side of the road.  (As a kid, I'd have definitely investigated the toyshop on the left.)

Saffron Walden's many old houses including these at the side of the main road.  As you see, the road has been built up over the years - resurfaced, I suppose - giving the impression that the cottages have sunk. Really, they are built on the level of the mud roads of 400 years ago. Surely, if the road is to be resurfaced much more, something will have to be done to stop it getting much higher. As you can see the cottages' front doors are already accessed by steps cut into the pavement! 

The handsome library is right in the centre of town. I was glad to see it's still a library, not a cafe bar or restaurant, which so often is the fate of old public buildings. It was a particularly lovely sky that day, with so many different types of clouds.

Many of the doorways are decorated or adorned with figures.  I'm wondering what this one is. A rather ugly cherub? A god? Or even a lion, with all that hair. 

This old window bows out crookedly.  I have an idea this kind of angular bow window has a special name, though I don't know what it is.  The glass in it is old and uneven, so if you are inside you'll get a slightly wavy view of the world.  

I'm very glad that many of the old houses in Saffron Walden actually look old. This place, painted white, looks almost ghostly, but look at all the interesting details and the shapes of the windows and doors. It makes a most fascinating addition to the street.

Now I'm going to rant, so skip the next paragraph if you don't want to read it!  I really hate it when people buy old, old places like this and modernise the insides. I stayed at quite an expensive b&b recently which was an Elizabethan farmhouse, over 400 years old, whose interior had been entirely replaced with every darn cliche in the home improvement magazines. The walls of small old rooms had been torn down and "spaces opened up," like a furniture showroom.   Colours were all Farrow and Ball "period" pastels instead of the plain whites, blacks or dark colours you find in real old places. The floors were of smooth new flagstones, straight out of the builder depot. All the plastering of the walls was new and flawless. Staircases were modern.  This lovely old house had no doubt needed some work, but the new owners had stolen every fragment of its personality and I really wished they'd just bought a new one instead of destroying something irreplaceable, that would have had so much to tell us about the lives of those who'd lived in it for centuries and passed it down. Of course houses should be modernised and improved over the years, but if you're going to do so much work, why not just build from new?  

Oh well, rant over. And you certainly couldn't say that anyone had unsympathetically modernised the interior of the white house above. It was really quite dusty.  I peeped through the diamond windows and spotted this trendy little china couple (well, trendy for the late 18th century). The man wears one of those tall thin wobbly wigs that suggest he was a laughable dandy, and she is wearing a jaunty little indoor cap. I wonder what story the ornament is telling.  

The town has two mazes. One is in Bridge End, a large Victorian garden towards the north of the town. Once neglected, Bridge End has been carefully restored and is now run by the council as a public park.  What a great place to take the family for a picnic! The garden is charming, and full of wildlife - some of the beds were alive with butterflies in a way I have rarely seen before. I wonder if they'd sprayed the flowers with the butterfly equivalent of recreational drugs....

This door, to the humble kitchen garden, is very grand, don't you think?  Just beyond it is a maze with tall hedges. It's impossible to photograph - it just looks like a lot of hedges - so you'll have to take my word that it is there.

There's some puzzling statuary. This creature (lizard? demon? dragon? gargoyle from an old church?) guards one of the steps leading into the area with the maze.

But a little further on is a parterre, an arrangement of flowerbeds surrounded by small hedges, which I photographed from a viewing platform built among the trees. It's not exactly a maze, but it looks more like one in photographs than the real maze does!   The two sides of the parterre were originally symmetrical but old photos show that over time it has gradually changed, so now the two sides do not match.

And the real, old town maze is on the outskirts of town, on the other side of the common.  It doesn't have hedges, but the maze is cut in raised turf in an orderly labyrinthine pattern, and it is not fenced off in any way. The sign by the maze explains all about it.

If you ever go walking in the British countryside with an Ordnance Survey map (so much better than Google) and you come across something written in Gothic lettering entitled "mizmaze" then it will likely be one of these ancient mazes, either maintained or overgrown.  They were quite popular hundreds of years ago - Shakespeare refers to one in Titania's quarrel with Oberon in "Midsummer Night's Dream" in which everything goes topsy turvy, including in the village, where all the leisure activities are forgotten

"...The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud
and the quaint mazes in the wanton green
for lack of tread are indistinguishable...."

I have been told that instead of getting lost, you are supposed to walk the maze paths in order to consider your spiritual life, and organise your thoughts.  A good idea.

You can see a fairground truck at the far end. They were about to have a fair on the common, so I doubt there would have been much chance to walk quietly and organise one's thoughts in the next few days!

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Selby Abbey - Church of Curiosities

On our bike trip northwards, we stopped at a lot of churches and cathedrals, not really for religious reasons but because old churches in England really are the keepers of local history. Usually they are the oldest buildings in town, and most thank goodness are still open to the public. And although they do have their ups and downs over the centuries, local people usually care a lot about their church, abbey or cathedral.   Sometimes, in a town like Selby, Yorkshire, the church is such a treasure that I feel quite envious of the locals for having it on their doorstep.  

I had heard only vaguely of Selby Abbey, but when we finally cycled up to have a look,  it was so interesting that I thought I'd share some of it with you.  Rather than copying out highlights of its history, I'll refer you to the website here to read more about the abbey and the Three Swans of St Germain.  In this post I just want to tell you about some of the curiosities that caught my eye. 

It seemed to be quite a lively place. There were lots of people around, some drinking tea, some arranging flowers, and they seemed to be preparing the place for some event

One lady was showing off her fancy dress cloak which she thought made her look like a monk.

 I liked the human interest in some of the memorials.  Can you imagine old John Archer, the gravedigger who patiently served the church by ringing bells and digging holes till he was 74, before setting down his spade and obediently answering the summons of Death himself?

And Frank the gravedigger,  half a century before John Archer, inspired someone to point out that "What Frank for Others Used to do,  Is now for Frank done by Another."

I hope you don't find it depressing to consider the lives of people who have died.   I don't - I like to think that they are remembered. But there is more to see than memorials. I was at first surprised to see a beautiful American quilt displayed as a gift to the Abbey from across the sea.

But then, I hadn't realised that George Washington's family were locals, and I have to say the family coat of arms looks as if it gave him some ideas of the flag for the new country.

The Abbey's foundation is very old, but it had a serious fire about a century ago and was largely rebuilt.  The craftsmen who did so put their own little personal touches in.  Here is a tiny statue of King |Edward VII, the reigning monarch at the time, which is hidden inside a column head carving - I'm pleased with myself that I managed to photograph it

Quaint carving on the outside of the capital head too, mostly of wild creatures.

A memorial window for Victoria's Diamond Jubilee proudly sports the latest steam train technology....

And one of the instruments from the abbey band has been preserved. It's a serpent, which was a mainstay of church  bands in the eighteenth century, when most churches didn't have organs.

I think the serpent sounds beautiful - like a sort of bass cornet - and it's rather a pity that it gone out of favour.With looks like that, it deserves to come back, don't you think?   It probably drowned out the singers and other instruments though   Here is what it sounds like.

And talking of music, Selby Abbey by the way is running an appeal for its famous organ which is now in need of renovation. If you're interested, here's the find out more about that.

There is something touching about the idea of a parishioner sitting down and creating a beautiful scale model of the abbey, but this one is of particular interest because it was made immediately before the big fire of 1906.

I hope you don't mind a few more memorials. Selby has some particularly good memorials to young men who died in the war - tributes that make them seem real to me. 

  I was unable to photograph the plaque to Flying Officer Cyril Joe Barton, VC, but here is the gist of it: 
On the night of 30 March 1944 Flying Officer Barton's aircraft was severely damaged by enemy fighters. Three of his crew parachuted out, but he continued flying single handed, completed his mission and continued home flying by starlight.He was hit by anti aircraft fire over the Channel. With all his engines out of action, he avoided the densely populated area around Sunderland and crash landed on Ryhope Colliery and his final words were asking about the safety of his crew, all of whom survived the experience. He was 22 years old, and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry

It was also good to find this very beautiful plaque to William Littlewood, who merely lived "a useful and unassuming life."     As Milton said, sometimes "they also serve who only stand and wait."

Well, you know me, I don't like to ramble on for too long and this post is already long enough. So here's one final image of Selby Abbey. It is part of the Norman structure, so it is getting on for a thousand  years old. The abbey once had a central tower which collapsed. The parishioners must have suspected something was going to happen when they saw the wonky shape that the right hand arch was developing, right under the tower.  

It's all right now, though. Perfectly safe, and they don't have a tower on top of it any more.

There is a lot more than this in Selby Abbey, which is halfway between Darlington and York, and I suggest that if you are in the area it is a good place to see.

By the way we had lunch in one of those traditional Yorkshire tea rooms where you get big plates of delicious home cooked food, breakfasts, teas and light lunches,  for reasonable prices all day. You can always spot them because they are always full of local ladies and families, they often have lace curtains and old fashioned chairs and tables,  and are usually tucked down side streets.  This is off St James Street, almost opposite the abbey grounds.  Not a panini in sight and the lunches were not in fact particularly light, unless you think steak and kidney pie is light..

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