A local walk

A recent visit to the GP about something unrelated (and which thankfully was nothing to worry about) revealed the alarming news that my blood pressure is higher than it should be. If I am not able to reduce it myself through ‘lifestyle changes’ I may be looking at medication in the future. This news has motivated me to make some positive changes to my now very sedentary lock-down, home-worker life, including becoming more active. It’s the old chicken and egg scenario: I started walking less as my arthritis pain worsened, which probably led to me becoming even more unfit and putting weight on, which undoubtedly has made the pain worse, and so on. Having now to sit at my desk all day, five days a week, has not helped matters. Although these are proper reasons and not just excuses, I am still set on taking action to improve my health in whatever way I can.

We are back to walking locally again, though for me that never changed during the few months’ interval between lock downs; I have only been out of town once in the past 10 months and have become something of a contented recluse. This morning, however, the bright sunshine and dry sky tempted me out into my locality for a bit of a brisk stroll. There are some great places to walk within the wider township, but I would need to get a bus there. On my own doorstep, options are very limited. Nevertheless, off I set in pursuit of fresh air and exercise and with camera at the ready.

Red Pond

I live in an area which was heavily mined when Coal was King in Wigan. Although the collieries are long gone they have left a legacy of flashes – lakes formed on sites of mining subsidence – and ponds. The Leigh branch of the Leeds & Liverpool canal cuts through the bodies of water and these days is extremely popular with walkers, cyclists and boaters. All of the small ponds have names, but I don’t know them, other than the Red Pond.

Three or four anglers were in situ, one with a very bored looking child who was distracting himself by rolling about in the mud whilst the female companion of another looked like she would rather be watching paint dry. I was much more interested in the wild fowl amongst the reed beds.

There were lots of people around, mostly walking dogs and mostly very friendly. I turned around to look for the speaker of “Long time, no see,” to find a man who daily used to travel into town on the same bus as me, also now a home-worker. I don’t know him, other than as a fellow former member of the 07:24 bus micro-community, but it was strangely uplifting to meet again somebody who seems part of a distant and strange past, and to be reminded that we will hopefully return to those banal but now welcome routines.

A lot of money has been spent on improving accessibility to this area in recent months, partly to mitigate the presence and associated noise, visual and environmental pollution from a pointless new dual-carriageway, nick-named locally the road to nowhere, because, being part of a much longer link road whose other parts have not yet been constructed, it really doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a relief to see that wildlife still seems to be thriving, post road construction.

Two men, one in a bizarre, possibly home-made, face covering which looked like it had been fashioned out of several plastic bottles, asked for directions to the canal tow path. I indicated the way that I was myself headed. By this time, the route was really quite busy and it was sometimes necessary to stand to one side to let people pass. It’s a pleasant walk, more so since the improvements, and I regretted that I hadn’t been walking here more often.

Arriving at the towpath, I decided that as a re-introductory amble I had gone far enough for today. I spent a few minutes watching the swans and having a short chat with another person I knew in the old life.

Lost in my own thoughts and camera lens, I was momentarily startled when a woman asked me if I put photos on “that website”. “What website is that?”, I replied, wondering if this humble domain had come to her attention. It had not, of course. It was something else entirely that I have never heard of.

I spotted a few people in the wood on the other side of the water where I had thought it was inaccessible. More to investigate on another walk.

And in the other direction lies the largest of the flashes and walks that I haven’t done for years.

As others have written, it is easy to forget the green spaces that are close at hand. I’m looking forward to renewing that connection.

Shamelessly retro

So here I am tapping out a few words. It feels as though this is a bit like one of those pieces that appear in the news during a quiet week when the politicians are all behaving themselves and celebrity scandal has gone off grid. But papers must still go to press and cameras must still roll at the appointed hours, and so are rallied all of those trivial and regional fall-back stories to plug air time gaps and spaces on pages. And so it ashamedly seems to be here.

I don’t write for writing’s sake, and this is, after all, supposed to be a blog about me getting out and about; and as I have become something of a social recluse for the time being, there has been nothing new to write about. Somewhat surprisingly, though admittedly rather gratifyingly, I was told this week by somebody who I didn’t even know read this blog, that as he hadn’t seen any new posts recently, he had been reading all the older ones. He also asked about my profile picture, the philosophising French carrier bag. Well, there’s a story……

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Montparnasse is the second largest cemetery in Paris. It covers about 46 acres in the 14th arrondissement and is the final resting place of some of the city’s great and good, including artists, writers and thinkers. My friend and fellow traveller on that trip about six years ago is fascinated by necro-architecture and how, like abodes in life, graves can reveal the personalities of the dead.

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Some were nothing short of art installations, the exhibitors’ final works in a gallery where they would be both present, and not.

Did any have a hand in those creations; set their living eyes upon them and envisage future reactions? Or were these the designs of others who had loved and admired, expressing who, to them, the dead had been?

My favourite tribute

Interesting then the plainness of the tombs of some of Montparnasse’s best known occupants. Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, celebrated intellectuals of their time, are identified only by their names and the dates of their lives, though the imprints of admirers’ kisses show they are remembered and revered. So often, less is more; that’s one of my own philosophies, anyway.

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir

I like the photos that you find on headstones; a smile in a happy moment frozen in time. Who was behind the camera? What was the joke? Heartbeats immortalised.

Who can think of Serge Gainsbourg without a mental soundtrack? Younger readers, click and learn.

Considered to be quite racy at the time, with all the sighing and breathless utterances of desire and amore, Je t’aime is probably the song for which Serge is best remembered. It has become a tradition for adoring visitors to leave their metro tickets as a sign of how far they have travelled to pay their respects. I don’t think we left ours, but we may have spared a wistfulness sigh and hummed a few bars as we moved on.

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890 and raised in a New York Jewish immigrant community, Man Ray was one of the most celebrated artists of the Surrealist and Dada movements. I am not a fan of surrealist painting, but I like some of Man Ray’s photography. Much of it is provocative and some of it disturbing. Dada was as much a political movement as it was creative, and some powerful messages are expressed through Man Ray’s images. The simple message epitaph is equally open to interpretation.

The most celebrated work of Charles Baudelaire is Les Fleurs du Mal or The Flowers of Evil, an eclectic mix of sensory and sensual compositions which speak of appetites and desires and the exotic. I’m not keen on traditional poetry where contrived rhyme metre determines the words, but I do still have a battered old copy of The Flowers, from my youth, which I dip into on rare occasions.

How very fitting and amusing it was then that as we made our way to one of the exit gates we spotted an unusual plastic carrier bag near a composting receptacle full of decaying floral tributes. In a place of dead thinkers and dreamers it offered an inspirational philosophy for living.

And that’s the story.

A lesson in patience and seeds of change

So, here we are on the last day of September. The hours of daylight and darkness have passed their balancing point and we move slowly towards the dark and the cold. Figuratively speaking, we are, and will be, living through darker times than usual this year. But those long months of shorter, colder days offer hope of renewal and regeneration when the warmth returns.

There have been some frosty mornings of late. I have opened the back door to look at the slivers of dawn light and to observe my misty breath in the air. As the garden dies back and slowly goes to seed there is still a lot of colour to take pleasure in, and there is even new growth.

Back in early spring, unable to source any plants, I picked up a few packets of seeds from the supermarket, amongst them some blacked-eyed Susan. Unlike some of the other more vigorously sprouting seedlings, the Susans were very slow to emerge from their little plug pots and, when they eventually did, seemed to be stuck, no bigger than tiny cress stalks, for a long time. I almost gave up on them, planning more than once to throw them into the composting bin. With nothing to lose, I moved the little pots one late July day to a slightly sunnier spot. Their transformation into robust little plants was fast and furious, as if seizing the moment and making up for lost time. I planted them, still doubtful due to their relatively small size, into a bed. Happily, they took hold and went from strength to strength and their sultry shades of ochre and golden-brown keep the spirit of summer alive for a bit longer.

Calendula and nasturtiums are still flowering. Every time I think I have dead-headed for the last time I spot a tiny bud or two.

Roses also continue to bloom, hopefully for a few weeks yet.

The cosmos seeds I potted in April were the first and fastest to grow, feathery stems reaching for the sun. The baby plants were the first to go into the ground and they continued to shoot up and up, lanky and eager. But there were no flowers for the longest time. I gave up on the idea. I pulled up some of the plants which were blocking the light and putting other plants in the shade, stunting their development. I want my garden to be a food source for pollinating creatures; I couldn’t spare the space for anything that provided neither beauty nor nourishment. I left a few of the smaller specimens there, including a sad little thing in a small terracotta pot. To my surprise, they have produced a small number of flowers in white and vibrant pink, a joyful late summer gift, long after I gave up on them.

I adore the muted pink leaves of this honeysuckle plant which I had forgotten about. The pot, invaded by moss and in an inhospitable shady corner, was nearly recycled months ago. Moved into the sun to serve as a stand for a solar battery, the plant awoke again, returning to a long- forgotten splendour. I bought it on the same day as its cousin below, now well over two metres tall and one of my favourites, its pink and purple berries succulent and splendid. They were 50p each on the half- dead rejects shelf.

Nigella have grown in my little garden for about four years now. My first pack of seeds was shop-bought, but for the past three years I have gathered the brown seed heads in September and October, releasing the black seeds, each a potential new flower in the next summer. I move them around the garden, this year planting in perhaps too sunny a spot, shortening their season. Some seeds found their way, on the breeze, to a shady place beneath an over-hanging tree. They have done much better, new flowers still appearing. There is a lesson there.

One of my favourite shrubs is the heavily fragrant caryopteris, Heavenly Blue. It is a bee magnet from May to early September, but its season is nearly over.

Last year I added another caryopteris, White Surprise. It didn’t seem to thrive in its original spot so in early spring I moved it next to its relation, not knowing if it would take root. There was some growth but no flowers. I decided it would have to give up its prime position to a newcomer next spring, but it could stay put for the time being. Over the last few weeks I have not been disappointed. A profusion of lavender blue flowers have taken over, a nectar fest for the insects. I see it from my kitchen window and take great joy in watching the feasting. To think, I might have dug it up, not knowing it was a late summer bloomer!

Another new addition is the pink buddleia, bought from a pound shop. It has grown quite a lot and its big candy-floss display enchants me, though it doesn’t seem to attract the butterflies. I haven’t seen a single one sampling its supposed delights. I am still in two minds about its future prospects, but I won’t be rash. Perhaps the right butterflies haven’t spotted it yet.

When is a weed not a weed? This geranium Robert has the most wonderful aroma, like parsley. I leave it alone to do its thing.

In this mellow season of winding down, decay has its own beauty.

I have bought some spring bulbs to plant at the weekend. They will rest in the cold winter earth before energising and bursting forth to surprise and delight on a March morning. Hope springs eternal.

What a difference a year makes

Two months have passed since gradually and tentatively the tourist and leisure industries opened their doors again to the lock down weary, desperate to get back to some sort of semblance of normal life. Of course, normal is now very different to before. Things are not as easy as they were. It’s wonderful that many people can get back out again to visit their favourite countryside and coastal beauty spots, albeit not necessarily in the same carefree or spontaneous ways.

I have toyed with the idea more than once of jumping on a train and heading up to the Lakes or a favourite beach. I have even checked out timetables, but in the end the thought of sitting on a train for an hour or more in a face mask seems to defeat the object of travelling for pleasure. And what would I find at my destination? Would there be a place to eat without having to book in advance or stand in line for a table? And then there are the masks again. It all still feels slightly more trouble than it’s worth at the moment. Strangely, my wanderlust has not yet returned properly, though I sense its first stirrings, and I wonder if I will be a different sort of traveller in the future, perhaps more appreciative and selective. Until the time feels right to be back there in the flesh, here are some photos, as yet unpublished, of my last visit to Windermere, almost a year ago.

The Windermere ‘steamers’ and launches sail all year round between the three landing stages at Lakeside, Bowness and Waterhead Pier at Ambleside. They are all motor-powered these days and the oldest, Tern, is almost 130 years old. Teal and Swan are both in their eighties. Although I must have done it a hundred times, I still enjoy finding a comfy spot on board one of the Lakes boats and watching the views as they change throughout the seasons. You have to book in advance now and stay in your seat.

The first shades of autumn start to appear.

This visit fell on a warm and sunny day in early October, just as the year was turning. Around that time I always feel an urge to soak up every ray of sunlight and appreciate every warm breeze as if it might be the last of the year.

Storrs Hall, the large residence at the side of the lake is now a hotel but was formerly owned by John Bolton, an Ulverston born merchant who made his fortune in slave trading, money from which was used to purchase the property. Bolton, a lavish host, moved in the same circles as William Wordsworth, who was a visitor to Storrs Hall on many occasions and enjoyed taking part in regattas on the lake.

Autumn tinted trees

At 10.5 miles, Windermere is the longest of the English lakes. It is probably also the best known and certainly the most popular with tourists. It isn’t my favourite lake, but it’s the one I visited most as a child with my family and holds a lot of happy memories. It is also the easiest to access by train.

Time seems harder to measure and events to pin point now than before; a slower pace and less happening seems to simultaneously lengthen and shorten the timeline. Was it really a year ago since I took these photos? Whilst I remember the day in great detail it seems, at the same time, so long ago. Here we are at the start of another autumn.

But I’m enjoying the sun while it lasts.

Bright and Beautiful

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Back in May when we baked and sweltered in days on end of glorious sunshine it was said -only partly in jest – that this was summer so enjoy it while it lasted. It feels now like that was true. I can count on one hand the number of days in July when it hasn’t rained here in north west England. Grey, miserable, wet and even cold are not adjectives that normally are associated with summer, and the season has been hugely disappointing so far.

On a more positive note, wonderful things have been happening in the garden. When I last posted on the subject a few weeks ago everything was pastel and purple, which was lovely, but I was eager to see some bolder colours bursting forth. Well, burst forth they have, and they have been the perfect antidote to the wet and dreary days of late. This afternoon has been sunny and warm for a change so I sat outside with a book and a brew and Tiggy the cat for company.

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Tig having a nap

In the spring when it became clear that garden centres would not be opening any time soon I decided to buy some seeds. Previous efforts at growing from scratch had, in the main, not been successful, but undeterred I bought a few packets from the supermarket and I set about sowing. My biggest success story has been calendula.

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These joyful yellow flowers have grown effortlessly and have been a surprise and a delight. I’ll definitely be growing them again next year

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Their sunny faces always make me smile. The bees love them, too.

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I sowed some seeds directly into the ground and planted others into plug cells, repotting a couple of times. There has been no difference in size or vitality. I even scattered a few randomly and they have grown just as well, including in the little herb bed where I’ve allowed some of the chives to flower for the insects to enjoy.

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Nasturtiums have been another triumph.

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I sowed all of the seeds directly into pots, some with host plants such as winter jasmine which won’t flower until November, and mainly into old compost. Nasturtiums were the first of my seeds to shoot, and they continue to thrive.

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Like the calendula, nasturtiums are so joyful and sunny and their brightness is such a tonic. I’ve learned that they grow even better when planted into the ground so I’ll try that next year.

For the last three summers I have grown Nigella and have collected the seeds each autumn. They have not let me down this year either. They grow anywhere and everywhere in my garden; some have even returned where they were planted last year, even though they are supposed to be annuals.

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My poor little purple scabiosa always starts off well but no matter where I move it to it always withers as surrounding plants overshadow it. I have a plan to move it again. I was given a white scabiosa which seems fearless, standing proud, keeping the cat mint at bay and pulling in the bees.

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67AC5C3B-FD21-41EC-869C-4DE98437C465In February I dug up some roses which were in the wrong spot. They were spreading onto the little path and plucking my clothes whenever I walked past. I transferred them to very large pots and crossed my fingers. After a slow start, all have taken to their new homes.

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This year has also been a time for making the most of what I already had. I divided a pot-bound and poorly-flowering fuchsia into three new plants, all of which are flourishing.

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I adore the smell of caryopteris Heavenly Blue, another favourite with the bees. Planted about four years ago it has spread beyond the bed, but I just leave it.

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The cat mint and banana mint are going strong and providing food for bees and butterflies.

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I had hoped for another Painted Lady invasion like last year, but I’ve had very few butterfly visitors this year, sadly. When they do drop in they prefer the verbena like this tortoise shell.

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The Met Office has promised some proper summer weather tomorrow and especially on Friday so I’ll be out in my unruly little garden enjoying the bright and the beautiful. Happy days!

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Nostalgia, rediscovered

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Today, I had arranged to visit an elderly member of my family who lives in one of the more rural parts of town so I decided to combine the visit with a short walk in her locality, an area I know well – or thought I did.

Early lock- down restrictions led to a lot of people exploring their local areas and finding walks and green spaces that had hitherto been unknown to them, or which would previously have been eschewed in favour of more exciting destinations. Unfortunately, options close to my own home are very few so I haven’t been out and about for quite some time. Travelling still has its complications and limitations, especially for users of public transport. Before the pandemic, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to set off on today’s walk, but an unexpected feeling of nostalgia and a desire to be near to water enticed me quite literally down memory lane.

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My walk started at Hey Brook where it runs under the main road at the boundary of the villages of Abram and Bickershaw. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries this was coal mining country, an area of heavy industry, but the pits are long gone, leaving behind what I remember as a wasteland where once had stood giant winding gear, mountains of coal and railway tracks. The sign for a caravan site points not in the direction of a place for holiday-making, but to a notorious travellers’ camp. The road is the start of a short nature trail to Low Hall Park, about a mile and a half away, and not my destination today.

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Not many people head that way because of the travelling community’s very aggressive dogs, which roam freely around the site and onto the public footpath. A couple of terrifying childhood encounters on that path, including an incident where a cousin’s clothes were torn by one really vicious hound, left me frightened of dogs for many years. Needless to say, it’s not the fault of the animals, and I love dogs now.

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Somewhere along the path is a memorial plaque which marks approximately the place where on 30th April 1945 an entire train – locomotive engine and 13 wagons – disappeared into the New Zealand shaft of Low Hall Colliery. Without warning, a huge chasm opened up where the shaft had been filled in in 1932. The body of the driver, 67 year old Ludovic Berry, was never recovered and remains 150 ft below ground with his beloved  train, Dolly, which he had driven for 35 years. I would have liked to seek out the plaque but I confess I’m not courageous enough to risk another encounter with a travelling dog.

Back across the road and through the kissing gate I was on another path which I hadn’t been along for 35 years or more. Behind me, a section of Hey Brook emerged as a trickle beneath the bridge where a large amount of litter had accumulated, and then twisted to the south on its course towards Pennington Flash in nearby Leigh.

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My surroundings, lush and green, a plantation of young oak and beech trees and wild vegetation, were nothing like the barren landscape I had walked over with friends and cousins in the 1970s and early ’80s. Known as the ‘rucks’, a local word for the site of a demolished colliery, it stretched out for miles, still littered with bits of mining detritus and the masonry of smashed-up outbuildings. We used to walk that way to get to a small flash – another word from the lexicon of coal mining – a lake created where water had filled an area of mining subsidence. That’s where I was headed.

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I hoped I would still be able to find my way there and that the path had not been rerouted.

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The transformation from industrial desert to botanical haven was truly wonderful.

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Pollinators’ paradise

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Tracks led off in other directions but I had the main path to myself, and it felt a little surreal to be in a place both familiar and unfamiliar.

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I felt like I could have been in an art- house film; no sound except bird song and the camera lens focused on flora and fauna.

There were no trees when I was last here, but now there is a woodland in the making.

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The path ended in another place that I knew, yet didn’t know. Last time I was here it was open and bare, but instinctively I knew the way.

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Polly’s Pond to me, or Kingsdown Flash to give it its proper name, came into view. I remember a friend’s grandma telling me that when she was young it used to be known as Auntie Polly’s. Nobody knew why, or who the mysterious ancient aunt was.

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The sky was mostly grey but emerging patches of blue were reflected in the water. Families of ducks swam in formation, approaching fishermen and walkers, clearly used to being offered food.

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Back in the day, kids used to launch dinghies and kayaks onto the pond. Staying at the water’s shallow edge, I remember wading in up to my knees and examining tadpoles and frog spawn and trying to avoid leeches, not always with success. Algae on the surface was known as Nanny Green Teeth, the malicious old water spirit who would suck children under if they got out of their depth and gave her the chance. Today, this seems to be the domain of anglers –  and their very patient dogs.

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I took a stroll on the gravel path. Trees screened the flash from view for the most part, and many openings were occupied by fishermen. Not all though.

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I retraced my steps along the green path, encountering a group of beautiful horses along the way, they and their riders more than happy to pose for the camera.

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This short and very humble walk gave me immense enjoyment, not only because it was an opportunity to be out in nature again, but because it was a lovely example of environmental improvement and enrichment at a time when so much green space is being lost to development. Here, the trend is very much reversed. I have rediscovered a place from my past as a new place that will be part of my future.

The Colour Purple

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This week, the wind and rain have lashed the garden, whipping the tender shrubberies and blowing a sheet off the line and into a neighbour’s tree. I had to take down the wind chimes for a couple of days until the gusts settled. Even I, lover of tubular tinkling that I am, was driven to distraction by the cacophony that sounded more like an ice-cream van in melt-down than soothing music for the soul. Today it is warm, muggy even, and although a storm has been forecast for this evening, it’s lovely so far.

The little garden has taken quite a bashing too, but the flowers and shrubs are none the worse for some much-needed rain. I have decided to abandon the various plans I had for my tiny plot this year; it’s been hard enough to get compost, let alone the shrubs and the landscaping materials I had hoped for. The fences, thirsty for a coat of wood preserver, will have to wait a bit longer. The prospect of queueing outside B&Q for an hour does not appeal.

Strangely, I find that I don’t really mind. Some of my plants seem slow in getting going this year, but I am enjoying what there is so far, and the wildlife is enjoying it too. It’s not always a bad thing to be forced to slow down and enjoy right now rather than think about what’s next.

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Most of my planting has been deliberately chosen to encourage bees and butterflies, and purple is definitely one of their preferred colours. I yearn for those bolder, brighter colours to come through but whilst the roses, geraniums and fuchsias are still just on the edge of revealing themselves, there is a lot of pretty purple in full bloom.

Scabiosa

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Lavender

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Thyme in flower

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Verbena Bonariensis, a butterfly magnet

One of the most popular plants with the bees is Walker’s Low, cat mint. Like all mint it takes hold and spreads, offering the pollinators a fragrant feast. Oddly, there were no bees around when I took these photos.

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It’s not just popular with bees either.

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A carpet of cat mint under a honeysuckle canopy offers a cool and peaceful shade from the hot sun.

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The heady scent of salvia is intoxicating.

We all love being in our garden.

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The Tower of London

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Today is the  484th anniversary of the death of Queen Anne Boleyn, the ill- fated second wife of  King Henry VIII.   I don’t think either needs any further introduction. I should point out that this is not a date which I usually mark, or would even have been aware of had it not been for my current reading material. I have finally reached the end of The Mirror & The Light, the third and final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s retelling of the story of the fall from grace and eventual execution for treason of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Lord Privy Seal and Henry Tudor’s general right-hand-man until he fell out of favour. Cromwell was the common man, a blacksmith’s son, who had risen, under Henry’s patronage, to become the most powerful man in the kingdom bar the king himself. Indeed, that was the problem. The most popular reason proffered for Cromwell’s grisly demise was his role in forging Henry’s disastrous union with Anne of Cleves that ended in annulment after 6 months. Whilst that was undoubtedly an important factor, whispering in the King’s ear were those English nobles of ancient lineage, consumed by envy and contempt towards the lowly nobody who had risen to greatness and who they wanted out of the way.

This isn’t a history blog, nor do I do book reviews, but reaching the final (875th) page on the date of Anne Boleyn’s beheading felt quite poignant and inspired me to have a look at my photos of the single occasion on which I visited the Tower of London, on another sunny day about six years ago.

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Tower Bridge beyond the keep.

In 1070, William the Conquerer decided to show the recently vanquished Londoners a symbol of his power by erecting a fortress on a hill above the city, complete with a tower that would loom menacingly, casting a shadow of fear. Just in case anybody got any ideas. Over the next few centuries, the Tower was expanded and fortified through a concentric design of defensive wall within defensive wall. Within, medieval kings built their regal abodes and locked away their riches and armoury. The Crown Jewels of Queen Elizabeth II are stored there and can be viewed, though not photographed, by visitors. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing them but decided that since I was there I would take a look. I was struck by how blingy these national treasures appeared, almost too shiny and glittery to be real, as if they had come out of a dressing-up box.

On the day of my visit, troupes of colourful Morris dancers jingled and jangled their bells for the audience. Mock medieval tents stood on the lawn where soldiers appeared to be going through some kind of training activity.

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In medieval times, prisoners accused of treason would usually be brought into the Tower by boat, sailing along the Thames and  through the notorious Traitors’ Gate. It must have been terrifying, knowing that almost certainly they would not leave again and that all manner of horrors might await within. It felt quite disturbing to me to look beyond the grille and imagine passing through.

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Although a prison for over 500 years, not all of those incarcerated were kept in dingy dungeon cells. Lavish apartments were comfortable abodes for the weeks, months or years that some English nobles awaited the monarch’s decision as to their fate. Some did get out alive. The ones we know most about are those that didn’t.

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On Tower Green stands a glass memorial which marks the site of the execution block where so many heads rolled. On it is inscribed:

‘Gentle visitor pause awhile: where you stand death cut away the light of many days: here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life: may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage: under there restless skies.’

The memorial is dedicated to all who were sent to their deaths by order of the state, though some names are better known.

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Queen Anne Boleyn; Margaret Pole

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Queen Catherine Howard; Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for nine days

The light and clarity of the glass and the gentle touch of a cushion in place of the block seemed quite fitting in such a sad and gruesome spot where the blood of many was shed, sometimes for reasons of political expediency.

Queues were very long on that hot day, so I decided to avoid entering the more crowded exhibitions which included a display of royal armour from across the centuries. Instead, I joined a guided tour of the Royal Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula, the final resting place of those executed for treason including, amongst many, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More and the two beheaded queens. Our guide was one of the beefeaters or Yeoman Warders. Again, photography was prohibited.

Until the 19th century, the Tower had its own zoo; a royal menagerie of exotic creatures; novelty gifts from courtiers or ambassadors, or procured at the Regent’s request. Happily, the real animals are long gone and are replaced by some impressive metal sculptures.

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Get your fake bling here!

There are still some famous animal residents at the Tower of London; creatures of legend, the ravens. There are seven in total, all looked after by the yeoman raven master; pampered, in fact. The legend goes that the ravens protect the Tower, and if they ever leave the Tower and the kingdom will fall.

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I watched a programme about the ravens a couple of years ago and found it intriguing. They really are very spoilt. As they are, like so many before them, prevented from leaving (in this case through the clipping of a wing feather), it seems only right that there is a pay off. I wonder if they would leave if they could. Perhaps we should be hoping not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

West Kirby, still hoping

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The early May Bank Holiday weekend is upon us, usually a time for weekends away, day trips into the countryside, or at the very least visits to garden centres followed by afternoons of planting shrubs and flowers or painting fences. That was before. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air above England that Sunday may bring an announcement that restrictions may be eased and a gradual and tentative return to the old ways begin. But for now, it’s still staying in, the new usual for most of us.

Yesterday, whilst waiting for somebody to reply to a message on Microsoft Teams where I mainly work now, I found myself browsing a list I had typed some time last year entitled Places to go in 2020. I had to laugh at myself: the wettest February on record followed by a deadly virus that’s kept us inside throughout the driest, warmest April and will likely curtail recreational freedom for some months to come. If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that when it comes down to it, our human planning and organising and solid certainty is actually very fragile and no match at all for the forces of nature. Anyway, back to the joy of life and sunshine and celebrating that I am alive, well, employed and have everything I need except my hairdresser.

On this extensive list of possible places to go this year is West Kirby, a small town at the tip of the Wirral Peninsula and just eight miles from Liverpool. I have been a couple of times previously but have particular reasons wanting to go again, and the time would have to be right.

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The north Wirral peninsula has some quite lovely coastal towns and villages which look out to open sea or over the river Dee towards north Wales. Kirby as a place name is, not surprisingly, of Viking origin and means the village with a church. The Vikings arrived in AD902 having been driven out of Ireland. There isn’t much in the way of archaeology, though a hogback stone is preserved in the parish church and other examples of Viking artefacts have been discovered elsewhere on the peninsula. The history surrounding the Wirral Vikings is something I hope to explore further.  Modern day residents include Conservative MP and one-time-would-be party leader Esther McVey, who I’m not interested in .

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The green hills of Wales across the estuary

The original West Kirby Marine Lake was built in 1899 but the current lake, larger and deeper then the old, dates back to 1985 and is very popular with all sorts of water sports enthusiasts. It’s a very short walk from the train station to the lake and from there to the Victorian promenade and beach.

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About two miles off shore is Hilbre Island, uninhabited except by wildlife. An observatory offers opportunities to see some rare and endangered birds as the island (actually a very small archipelago) is a stop-off point for some species which migrate twice-yearly along the west coast of Britain. Grey seals also live on the island but tend to stay in the water when people are around. The island can be reached on foot at low tide, hence the timing of the visit having to be carefully planned.

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Zooming in on Hilbre

I haven’t been to the island but that was one of my hopes for 2020. Reading through my wish list prompted me to look through these and other photos from a previous visit, partly to enjoy the only beach scenes I might get to see for quite a while, but also as a reminder that in the natural world the cycles of life carry on, unaffected by Corona; flourishing and renewing through less human contact. Birds still fly; seals still swim.Tides still come and go at their appointed times and following their courses, pulled by the moon, as they have since forever. How humbling and reassuring it is that they too are beyond our planning and organising and will still be rushing in, and out again, waiting for no man, once we are free to get out there again.

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Posting from home: a cat from Montmartre

Here in the UK we are into week 5 of lock down. People are responding to the situation in different ways. Some are coping well and are adjusting to a slower and simpler temporary life; others are struggling with confinement and  uncertainty about when things will change. I’m naturally a homebody and enjoy my own company, so thankfully I’m doing OK; though I am starting to lose track of what day it is and doubt I am alone in that. Sadly, there are no rural amblings to be had close to my home so I can’t show you any verdant spring scenes. I’m sure I’ll be itching to get out when restrictions are lifted, but as that could be some time off I thought I’d write a little retro travel post without having to leave the house.

Though not intentionally or philosophically a minimalist, I appear to own less stuff than most people I know and I tend only to have things that I actually use or am really fond of. In the second category is Montmarte Cat who sits on a shelf in the kitchen. I bought this ceramic feline about five years ago from my favourite part of Paris.

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Montmartre is well known as the artists’ quarter of the French capital, a bustling and lively place with lots of winding cobbled streets, cafes, artists and little studios. Montmartre is actually the name of the hill but it incorporates the district which has grown up around it.

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Walking around admiring street artists’ work is to be taken much more seriously than here in England. Stand too long in admiration and it’s assumed you have entered into an unspoken commercial contract to purchase the watercolour you have been ogling for the last seven minutes, or to pose for the portrait painter whom you have naively made eye contact with. Once those bristles hit that canvas there’s only one honourable outcome unless you want to make your escape, chastened and shamed, as the offended artist shouts insults after you. Just keep moving unless you want to buy, and enjoy the wonderful energy of the village.

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Moulin Rouge is a just a short walk away but I haven’t been tempted. One of my two favourite views of the city can be savoured from the Basilica of Sacre Coeur which sits atop Montmartre (the other favourite view, perhaps unsurprisingly, being from the top of the Eiffel Tower).

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Each time I have visited has been a warm and bright day, perfect for buying a freshly made baguette and walking up the steps of Sacre Coeur to sit and enjoy the sprawling metropolis below.

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Of course, there are the usual hawkers and pick-pockets and opportunists who can spot tourists a mile off; it’s a slice of life. There are also souvenir shops selling tat to those of us who can’t resist – my personal weakness is fridge magnets. Bill Bryson once admitted to the same (tat, not especially fridge magnets) so there’s no shame in it. Excellent coffee or a green fairy will soon have you feeling more sophisticated again.

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On my last visit five years ago I came across this gorgeous little ceramics studio.

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The items on display outside were, understandably, glued in place but I was still impressed that they remained intact. I knew I was going to buy something…

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Not the handrail, though it was exquisitely painted.

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Inside the tiny gallery there was a collection of cats in white and a rich olive green, singular and paired, reclining, sleeping, stretching, serious or smiling. One looked very pleased with himself, contented and lazy as cats should be, and as he has been since, on my kitchen shelf.

Keep smiling too! Planes will once again fly, ships will sail and adventures are awaiting.