Narcissus

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On a recent visit to Liverpool’s  Walker Art Gallery my eye was drawn to John William Waterhouse’s painting of Echo and Narcissus. The painting shows the mountain nymph, Echo, gazing longingly at Narcissus as he gazes even more longingly at his own reflection in the water. Echo’s love is unrequited by the object of her affections and, feeling rejected and invisible, she fades away until all that remains is her voice. Desperately thirsty, but unwilling to disturb his image on the water’s surface, Narcissus eventually dies from dehydration (though in another version of the myth he drowns). A clump of Narcissi, pale yellow heads leaning forward to peer into the water, springs up on the spot.

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Despite the recent return of early morning ground frost to some of our gardens, spring is established. Things are happening in my little patch.

One of the earliest blooms each year is the dwarf rhododendron which I have kept in the same pot since I rescued it from a skip about five years ago. I was told that it wouldn’t grow much bigger even if planted in the ground so I decided not to disturb it. It flowers only once, and only for a short time, but I look forward every March to that exquisite show that tells me spring has arrived in earnest.

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The early flowering clematis which I planted quite recently seems to have taken root. Although it looks so delicate and fragile right now I hope it will provide a stunning backdrop as it climbs the fence and heralds the arrival of spring at the end of March for many years to come.

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The little old spiraea which every summer I suspect has had its last day in the sun never ceases to amaze and delight me with its spring revival.

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Even those plants which won’t flower until June or July are showing new green shoots on last year’s woody stems.    The potted herbs are flourishing, quickly returning in colour and scent.

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At the beginning of December I planted some daffodil bulbs which I’d bought in the autumn and forgotten about . I thought it was probably too late but hope, as they say, springs eternal. Well, spring they did! Some of them, anyway.

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I’ve noticed that many of those swathes of early daffodils which graced roadside verges and parks have now faded, like the lovely Echo, leaving only lowered browning heads  or leaves which will also die back over the next month or so, though below the ground the bulbs will sleep until their time comes again. I’m happy that my late blooming golden narcissi, a few still unfurling, will still be around a while longer yet to make me smile when I look outside every morning. Like their mythical namesake they have every reason to stand proud and show their faces to the sun.

Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery

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For many of us, Sunday can too easily turn into the day before we go back to work rather than part of our well-deserved weekend. Thoughts can turn to preparing for the week ahead and the list of tasks that await us on Monday and the days that follow. Even if we like our jobs, we can do without the tendrils of toil creeping into our free time. Does this scenario sound familiar to you too? I decided that in 2019 I will reclaim Sundays – grab them back from the looming presence of the working week.

I use public transport which is significantly reduced on Sundays so travel can be difficult, wasteful of time and sometimes more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve set myself a few Sunday Rules to make sure I don’t end up wishing I’d stayed at home instead.

1. Sunday is about relaxation and indulgence rather than adventure

2. Easy one-stage journeys. No connections.

3. No early starts to cram in as much as I can.

Today I took the train to Liverpool to look at some art. The Walker Gallery is in the city’s cultural quarter, a very short walk from Lime Street station. I like to wander round and look at my favourite paintings, sometimes sitting for ages and noticing details which I hadn’t spotted before. Today I went to see a new exhibition.

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I love the art of Glasgow Style, in particular the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Having visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery a few months ago I was thrilled to  read that some of those exhibits and others on loan from some private collectors would be shown at the Walker. Admission to the exhibition was ( I thought) expensive at £10, but there were some exquisite items of furniture, ceramics and glassware which I hadn’t seen before. Permission for photography is still pending from two of the contributors, so unfortunately I can’t share any images here. It is hoped that the permissions will be granted before the exhibition ends in August. You can read about my visit to Kelvingrove Gallery here.

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Another important collection is attracting lots of visitors at the Walker: the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci. I have to confess at this point that I’m not enraptured by these sketches. I saw a similar exhibition in Manchester a decade ago on a much smaller scale, and although they are undoubtedly very detailed and impressive, I wonder if the excitement is perhaps due to the status of the artist rather than the works themselves. As I was on site I decided to take a look. It was difficult to take photographs due to reflections.

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My favourite: The head of Leda, circa 1505

After Da Vinci I went into my favourite room which hosts an eclectic mix by British artists from 1800 to 1950. Here are a few I like best.

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Mother and Child, 1938:  Ceri Richards

This abstract cross between sculpture and painting depicts a gentle kiss between mother and child. I love the simplicity of this construction. A perfect image for Mothering Sunday.

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The Waterloo Dock, Liverpool, 1962: LS Lowry

In this painting the water of the river Mersey is white and difficult to distinguish from the snowy ground. It gives the impression of somewhere much colder, perhaps eastern-Europe of the time.

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The Liver Buildings, Liverpool, 1950: LS Lowry.

Like the Waterloo Dock painting, this looks like a wintry scene. The Liverpool waterfront fades into a soft backdrop to the bolder and disproportionately sized plethora of boats. This is one of my favourite Lowry paintings.

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The Fever Van, 1935. LS Lowry.

The ‘Fever Van’ of the title is  the ambulance which has come for a victim of diphtheria, scarlet fever or one of the other contagious and often fatal diseases prevalent in Salford at the time

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Mrs Mounter, 1916: Harold Gilman

Mrs Mounter was Gilman’s cleaning lady as well as his muse. I love the colour in this painting including the wallpaper panel in the background. I like the ordinariness  of Mrs Mounter’s expressive face.

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The Bathers, 1948: Bernard Meninsky

I’m not familiar with Russian born artist Meninksy’s work apart from this one glorious painting. I love the sheer abandonment with which these women head across the beach to the water’s edge.

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Interior at Paddington, 1950-51: Lucian Freud

The grandson of psychologist Sigmund Freud, Lucian Freud painted this for the Festival of Britain in 1951, a showcase for new British talent. The subject is Freud’s friend, Harry Diamond. He seems to be retreating into the alcove, unsettled by the quite sinister-looking plant. Very Freudian!

After feasting my eyes on works of art I treated my taste buds to a delicious hummus salad wrap and bottle of Dandelion & Burdock in the Walker cafeteria before strolling in the sunshine back to the station. Sunday Rules work for me. Have good week!

 

 

 

Exploring Castle Hill, Lancaster

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I spent yesterday afternoon in Lancaster, one of the most historic locations in the north of England. It’s a small city which has held onto its medieval character, and though it has the usual high street names within its town centre arcades, it has avoided the towering presences of high rises and industry. The only towers in Lancaster belong to the churches and the Castle.

Lancaster Castle sits on a hill overlooking the city, a key strategic position of power. Almost 2000 years ago, the Romans settled their first garrison in a perfect spot to keep an eye on the Scots and Picts to the north, and to have access to the river Lune and from there to the sea.

The current grade 1 listed building dates back a thousand years to the Normans, though the structure has been changed many times over the centuries. Until  2011 Lancaster Castle was still in use as a prison. The notice remains in place near to the ancient door, and barbed wire is still intact on the ramparts.

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English monarchs, entitled as Dukes of Lancaster, have owned the Castle since 1265.

The Castle offers fascinating guided tours; a chance to visit the damp dark cellars where the dingy cell walls display the centuries-old scrawlings of prisoners awaiting their fates. Amongst those imprisoned and later executed in turbulent and intolerant times were the Lancashire witches and 15 Catholic priests. Many ordinary Lancastrians were also tried at Lancaster. There were over 200 executions at the site known as hanging hill close to the Ashton Memorial at Williamson Park. You can read about my visit there if you click here  . A Castle tour wasn’t on yesterday’s agenda for me, but based on previous experiences I can recommend it.

Despite the blue sky and the bright sun it was windy and quite nippy on the hill so I was glad to head for the warmth of the Priory Church which is just behind the Castle. I admired the swaying congregations of spring flowers in the Church grounds.

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If I were a betting woman, I would have wagered that if there was just one day in the week when a church would be open, it would be Sunday. Not so. Incredibly, the doors to the splendid ancient building were bolted shut. I was disappointed not to see some of my favourite misericords, and to gain some temporary respite from the chill. I grumbled for a few minutes with another thwarted visitor before taking a turn around the grounds.

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On a bright day you can see the sea from the wall.
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Looking down from the Priory grounds beyond the Georgian houses and over the city, with the Cathedral spire and the Ashton Memorial in the distance.

I noticed a sign pointing to the remains of the Roman bath house and decided the follow the path alongside the burial ground.

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You can see the posts which would have supported the bath house floor, kept warm by under-floor heating. This is believed to be what remains of the the last of three Roman settlements in Lancaster.

From the ruins, I headed back up the east side of the hill and back to the Castle grounds to seek out my next destination.

 

 

On the way I passed the former premises of Gillow & Co, cabinet makers, founded in 1727 by Robert Gillow who had started out as an apprentice joiner. Some fine examples of Gillow workmanship were on display where I was headed next.

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Lancaster Judges’ Lodgings is the city’s oldest town house. It was originally home to Thomas Covell, Castle Keeper and notorious witch-hunter. From 1776 it was used as a residence for judges attending the assize courts at Lancaster three times each year as part of their circuit of the northern counties. It continued to provide accommodation for the judiciary until as recently as 1975. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was usual for two judges to be in residence along with their families and even their servants.

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The building is now a museum with the first two floors reconstructed authentically. Below, we see His Honour getting ready to leave for work at the Castle Court.

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Some of the furniture in this room was produced by Gillow & Co.

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This is a very small museum and there was a member of staff in almost every room available to answer questions if visitors were to approach them, though there was little in the way of information displays.

The building’s top floor houses the Museum of Childhood, rather incongruously, I thought. Not staffed, and very different in tone and content to the two lower floors, it felt as though there had been a left-over space that ought to be made use of. To my mind, it would have been ideal for exhibits relating to some of the cases that the judges would have tried, and for information about the assize courts system, trial and punishment throughout the ages.

Instead, there were several showcases of toys from the Victorian era up to the 1980s including some of the most sinister dolls imaginable. The lighting was poor throughout, so the photos are not the best.

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Humpty Dumpty – not like the jolly character in my Ladybird book

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The teddy looks desperate to be rescued.

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Some of this bizarre collection of curiosities and horrors on the judges’ top floor looks more like the stuff of childhood nightmares, but I’ll leave that judgement to you.

 

Bickershaw: a plant-potted history

At the weekend, inspired by the arrival of spring, I visited Bickershaw Hall Nurseries, a small garden centre just outside Wigan.  This friendly family-run business also sells seasonal plants, fruit and vegetables at the town market, so as I was passing by I decided to have a look around.

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Despite the record-breaking warmth of the past week, it is still February after all, and the big greenhouse looked almost bare apart from a few splashes of colour. This time next month it will be fragrant with herbs and bursting with botanical brightness.

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Whilst perusing  the perennials I chatted with the owner who told me her family had established the business nearly 50 years ago on land which had been bought much earlier following the demolition of Bickershaw Hall in the 1940s. Built in the 17th century, the Hall fell into disrepair, made uninhabitable by coal mining subsidence. The only remains are this house which had been servants’ quarters and the cattle shelter which you can see below, now both used by the Nurseries.

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Our conversation turned to another local history connection. In 1972, the land where Bickershaw Hall had once stood had gone to seed. Bizarrely, a consortium of Manchester business people and others from the music industry selected the site to host a massive music festival. One of the organisers was a certain Jeremy Beadle, and the headline band was The Grateful Dead. Other illustrious artists included The Kinks and Bryan Ferry, and the list went on… It was to be a spectacular event and the crowds arrived from all over the country.

Of course, by today’s standards the special effects look unsophisticated. A high-diver who descends gracelessly into a burning paddling-pool even seems comedic.

Unfortunately, severe rain made the event a washout, and the field looked like a scene from Glastonbury but without the associated coolness. The Grateful Dead were not feeling very grateful as this short clip shows.

The festival-goers, bless them, still seemed in good spirits despite their tents having sunk into the mire. This would have been an unprecedented occasion for them, and they would probably have just enjoyed being part of it.  I like the interview with a local shop keeper who describes the weird and wonderful foodstuffs he has stocked for the pleasure of the Bohemian showbiz types including yogurt, something he’d previously ‘heard of’ but ‘never seen’. Well it was only 1972! 🙂

My curiosity roused, I asked for directions to the festival site. A short walk led me to a path off the main road with woodland to the left.

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A couple of cars passed me from the direction I was heading, making me feel less wary about venturing alone  into what seemed quite a secluded place. I smiled to myself, picturing the hoards of party people ambling this way in the summer of ‘72.

The path opened out into a car park at what I could now see was a fishery: artificially created ponds stocked with fish for paid-up anglers to spend whole days trying to catch. One pond looked quite tranquil with nobody around.

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Whilst others took on a more sinister appearance. I hope that was a just scarecrow….

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I followed a path to the right in the direction of a familiar looking field, but not before passing the remains of a burnt tree stump, strangely decorated.

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Then there it was…. the venue!

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Try as I might, I wasn’t feeling that vibe. The festival spirit had been washed away in that July deluge.

Bickershaw Festival has achieved a quiet cult status; the 40th anniversary reunion held in 2012 (a much, much smaller affair) was even covered by the BBC. Needless to say, Bryan Ferry and the Kinks were unavailable on that occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

Cake and contemplation

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Today I went into Manchester to have lunch with a dear friend. Such is the pace of life and its many demands that we don’t get together as often as we would like. With both of us being off work this week it was an ideal opportunity for a catch up.

I arrived in the city with a couple of hours to spare so I decided to head to one my favourite food places, Earth Cafe at the Buddhist Centre. It’s run as a separate business nowadays but still serves a delicious and healthy vegan menu.

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It’s an informal cafe where the staff are always polite and accommodating if not exactly gregarious  – though that can vary from one visit to the next. For me, it’s just so refreshing to not to have to enquire about any ingredients, and everything is fresh and tasty.

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Manchester Buddhist Centre is within a repurposed former industrial building whose design legacy still remains, incorporated into the very different 21st century space.

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In near solitude I quietly enjoyed my food for thought: coffee and walnut cake….

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…..with only the laughing Buddha for company.

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I pondered the changing face of this city where industry had been replaced by commerce and hospitality, including the very spot where I sat. What would the Mancunian industrial giants of  a century ago make of all of this? Of how we can choose to live now. Of our choices about what we consume. About what we revere and how we find spiritual expression in the 21st century.

Manchester, one-time exporter of textiles to the world, now weaves philosophies from the east into the fabric of city life. No wonder the Buddha is laughing!

I still had nearly an hour until I was due to meet my friend so I decided to have a look around the Buddhist Centre ethical shop where there was a selection of statues, books and meditation accoutrements…

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….and a comfortable and peaceful place to sit and read…

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I chatted with one of the staff who told me that yesterday had been an important date: the anniversary of Buddha’s death. For the community, this commemoration had been the focus of a special meditation ceremony which took place at the main shrine. I was asked if I would like to take a look, and of course I happily accepted.

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The larger of the Centre’s two shrines is a peaceful and airy space painted in an uplifting shade of sunflower yellow. Its focal point is a beautiful and unusual representation of the Buddha, of somewhat European appearance, including blue eyes.

 

Placed around the shrine were some photographs of loved ones who had died within the last 12 months, along with floral tributes, trinkets and treasured possessions. I haven’t included any photographs close up for obvious reasons.

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A special reminder of a loved one

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A bowl of white flowers, still fresh and slightly fragrant, will remain in place until they fade and finally decay, at which point they will be removed; a reminder of the natural cycle of life and death.

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Left to look around on my own, I sat for a while enjoying the peace before bidding the dead farewell and returning to rejoin the living and life in all its colour.

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Out on the tiles

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Readers of some of my other posts may know that I am very fond of ceramics, in particular the high-glazed pottery tiles synonymous with the Victorian arts and crafts movement. I love the lustrous decadence of the rich intense colours from the period, and  the opulent crackle of the glaze.

Some of the best examples can be found beneath our feet gracing the ticket halls and the platforms of subterranean train stations or even the humble relics of gentlemen’s public conveniences. I have been known to visit places ( not men’s toilets!)  just for the tiles, whilst on other occasions I have made unexpected discoveries, sometimes in unlikely places. Here are three of my favourites in the city of Manchester.

1. The Principal Hotel ( formerly the Palace Hotel). This grade 2 listed building on The corner of Whitworth Street and Oxford Street was built between 1891 and 1895 by the architect Alfred Waterhouse for the Refuge Assurance Company, a very successful insurance business. The outside of the building is nothing extraordinary….

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…but the inside is glorious!

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I love the glamour and the sense of the exotic conjured by the pillars and foliage. The design is of glazed brick and Burmantofts faience, a decorative style of architectural terracotta and glazed pottery which used warm cream, buff, rich orange and rusty tones. The Burmantofts company emerged in Leeds in the late 1850s with Waterhouse being one of their patrons.

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An overseas-based friend and I meet in Manchester once a year when she visits family in the city. Our venue of choice is almost always the Palace where for a couple of hours we can escape the Manchester rain and the hustle and bustle of the world outside and marvel at the sparkling chandeliers’ reflections on the glossy surfaces of the walls around us as we indulge in afternoon tea.

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2. Peveril of the Peak. This iconic Manchester public house has stood near the Bridgewater Hall since the 1820s and is named after the novel of the same title written by Sir Walter Scott (better known as the author of Ivanhoe) in 1823, but set in the 17th century.

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Peveril is brilliant. It’s actually nothing special inside, but wonderfully incongruous in its modern and muted surroundings this Victorian pottery pub is also grade II listed. Some of the outer tiles were added in the 1920s but have remained unaltered since – happily for those of us who like its style.

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3. J&J Shaw Ltd. This is my favourite doorway in Manchester.

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J & J Shaw established the furniture warehouse in 1924. This place is a hidden gem, tucked away close to Oxford Road train station.  I love the colours and the detail and can never resist tracing the shapes of the smooth leaves and fruits when I pass by. Its gorgeous art-deco entrance hints at the possibility of stylish furnishings that customers might have perused once they had stepped through the pottery portal. How exciting! They don’t make doors like they used to, do they?

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Spring is in the Air

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We are on the cusp of seasons. Spring is tantalising us, slowly but surely shedding her outer layers and revealing flashes of warm light and emerging greenery. In my little patch the daffodil bulbs, which I thought I’d left too late when I planted them in December, are pushing through towards the sun. Today has been a cold day but I felt the occasional warm ray on my face, enough to power up the solar garden lamps which are gracing the dusk for a little longer each day. It is still light when I arrive home from work which is bliss! The new energy is almost tangible.

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February 1st was the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc: for Pagans the first day of the ‘quickening’ – the turning of the year, and later adopted by Christianity and renamed as St Bridget’s day. It is a fire festival and marks the advance towards light and warmth….. even though in these parts we had seen snow just a few days earlier.

Although there’s still a way to go before we can put away our winter coats and scarves, it is heartening to see the early signs of renewal and enjoy the lengthening days. It’s a special time.

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I am often guilty of forgetting about the many lovely places close to my home in favour of more interesting locations further afield. At this time of year when the grand houses of the National Trust have not yet opened their stately doors to the public, and when the countryside has not yet come into bloom, there is still much beauty to be found locally.

Scotsman’s Flash is one of many ‘flashes’ in the Wigan area, lakes formed as a result of mining subsidence on the sites of former coal mine workings. Scotsman’s is the largest and is a designated area of scientific interest due to the presence of rare plants and migrating birds such as Reed and Sedge Warbler. It is popular with canoeists, and people like my friend who sometimes walks her dogs there at the weekends.

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Our stroll took us along a stretch of the Leigh branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

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A new road – a busy dual-carriageway – which will ‘fly over’ the canal and the edge of the Flash is in the early stages of construction after decades in the planning stage. The next few months may be the last chance to enjoy views like these. It remains to be seen what the impact on the wildlife will be, so all the more reason to enjoy days like this one whilst I still can.

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