Winter has arrived. It’s still mild for December, and this afternoon offered some intervals of sunshine betwixt the cloud and drizzle. I decided to get into my little garden to have a tidy up and plant the last few daffodil bulbs.
It may be too late for these, but fingers crossed. All will be revealed – or not – in early spring.
I wasn’t alone, as Paddy and Cleo decided they would join me.
Almost everything is dying back or lying dormant, falling in with the primal rhythms of nature. The last of the roses fade. The buds that remain will not open now.
Autumn was warm and long, and October brought us ladybirds in abundance. A few are still around.
The vivid colours of autumn leaves: russets, reds and golds are resplendent.
The garden is a peaceful place in winter as all slows down. It’s a time to meditate on what has been and what may come in the year ahead.
To some, the seasons are the same. Stoically, they observe the passing of time in silence. They’ve seen many comings and goings.
There is still plenty life and vibrancy in the garden. Delicate winter jasmine blooms as the temperatures drop.
Leaves on the path don’t spoil some folks’ journeys. Even at snail’s pace they’ll get there in the end.
All that glitters may not be gold but a touch of winter sparkle is always welcome.
The evergreens carry on regardless.
The hours of daylight are decreasing as we head towards the shortest day. Setting off to work as the sun rises and returning home in darkness, it can sometimes feel like winter days pass me by. The weekends still offer the chance to see the beauty to be found at this time of year, literally on my own doorstep.
We talk a lot about the weather here in the UK. We never cease to be amazed at what shouldn’t really surprise us at all, as our weather is nothing if not unpredictable. But this year, we have been spoiled. Last winter outstayed its welcome, the last snow falling at Easter, but summer – when it arrived – was long and glorious. An exceptionally mild and bright autumn followed, dry and unseasonably warm. A recent visit to London was on one such day.
Inspired by an episode of Gardener’s World which featured two Indian inspired gardens, I had planned to visit both locations. Like the weather, even best-laid plans don’t always turn out as expected.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north London is a very beautiful Hindu temple. At the time of its completion in 1995 it was the largest outside of India. Incredibly, the Bulgarian stone and Italian marble of which the temple is constructed were first shipped to India to be hand-carved and engraved by traditional craftsmen before being shipped to the temple site.
Photography inside the building is prohibited. Visitors must leave all personal belongings except purses, wallets and mobile phones inside their vehicles or inside the security cabin in front of the temple. Eagle-eyed security people watch for attempts at phone photography, which is fair enough. The interior is exquisite; the expanses of marble and the detail in the carved stone pillars brilliant. I happened upon three worshippers, friendly old men who spoke with great pride about their Mandir, telling us that it had been paid for by the community. Despite the beauty of the place and the welcome offered by these gentlemen, I found the watchfulness of the security presence rather oppressive. Nevertheless. it was certainly worth the visit and I got a few photographs of the outside once I had retrieved my belongings. No garden shots, sadly.
Back in central London, I decided to visit one of my favourite shops in the Soho area, and this seemed like a good time to stop for lunch. I thought I would probably grab a sandwich and find somewhere to sit outside rather than waste an hour of my day in a restaurant. Waiting to cross a side street, I was attracted by the sound of gentle drumming and chanting but couldn’t make out where it was coming from. Deciding to find out, I soon came across the familiar sight of orange-robed Hare Krishna devotees seated outside a small RadhaKrishna temple.
I was delighted to see that the temple incorporated a ‘karma free’ cafe offering simple vegetarian fayre. Forget the sandwich; the plan had changed.
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but a karma free lunch is another thing entirely. I ordered a plate of poppadoms with spicy dips and a small green salad accompanied by a glass of fresh apple juice, all for the amazing price of £3.50. Govinda’s was very crowded and I had to share a table with some other people, something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but it was all part of the experience. I ate quickly, as even more people were waiting to be seated.
A security man paced back and forth constantly, more than I thought was necessary or polite. On my way out, I asked him why his presence was called for in what seemed a nice place full of peaceful diners. His answer was ambiguous but he told me they often had “trouble”.
I decided to walk for a while as I had time and it was a lovely day. I wandered down Whitehall in the direction of Big Ben and the Thames.
The second garden I wanted to visit was a newly opened creation at the Aga Khan Centre which is not far from Kings Cross Station. Monty Don had been given a sneak preview during the summer but the Arabesque symmetry garden had only opened to the public in late September. I was so happy that the day had turned out sunny, as I suspected that an exotic garden would probably require a certain quality of light.
It took me a while to find Aga Khan, an odd looking building which incorporated ancient Moorish designs into its very modern facade.
In I went, and out I came again, just moments later. Needless to say, I had looked at the website before planning my visit, but clearly I had missed the part which told readers that visits could only be made on Thursday afternoons by prior online booking. They were already booked up for the next three months.
The sun might have been shining on me, but Fate was behind a cloud, or so it seemed. I still had a couple of hours before my train so I decided on a walk around the Kings Cross area. This proved to be a revelation and worthy compensation for my earlier disappointment.
Hundreds of people had come out to enjoy the warm autumn day, sitting along the towpath of the Regent’s canal or picnicking on the grass, or even perusing the floating book store where I picked up a battered anthology.
Things often have a way of working out not as expected, but better. One thing doesn’t work out but something else turns up instead; something which might not have been discovered if the plan had….. gone to plan. 🙂
My recent trip to Glasgow included a visit to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Amongst the exhibitions is one dedicated to Glasgow Style, a celebration of the vibrant and iconic decorative arts and architecture which have become synonymous with the city’s creative past.
At the end of the 19th century, the Glasgow School of Art had established itself as one of the leading academies of its kind in Europe. The school gained a reputation as a design leader with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose eye for design saw him become a legend of his craft, being instrumental at the forefront of the School‘s success. Glasgow Style was born.
This mural of the man himself, and incorporating his iconic rose design, adorns a wall in the city centre, one of many fabulous murals in Glasgow.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh trained as an architect but enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art to enhance his skills set. Like many great artists, Mackintosh’s achievements were not fully appreciated until after his death.
He was commissioned to design a series of tea rooms and given full creative freedom over the decor and furnishings, even cutlery. These tearooms became synonymous with Mackintosh to the extent that when one building was demolished, it was decided to painstakingly remove and preserve the interiors beforehand.
Below are some of the original furnishings and fittings, including tableware which can be seen in the display cabinet. Another original tea room has been reassembled at the new Victoria & Albert Museum in Dundee.
The Mackintosh design style was not only to be found in public spaces. Some other exquisite examples in private ownership are included in the exhibit.
It was during his time at the Glasgow School of Art that Mackintosh met his future wife, Margaret Macdonald and her sister, Frances, who married Mackintosh’s friend, James McNair. They were known as the four, all contributing to the Glasgow Style movement.
Margaret Macdonald collaborated closely with her husband on numerous projects and was a talented artist in her own right. In fact, her husband modestly acknowledged her genius as compared with his own simple “talent”.
The Gesso panel on the wall below is entitled The Wassail and was designed by Margaret Macdonald, and was displayed in the Ladies’ Luncheon room at one of Miss Cranston’s tea rooms.
One of my favourite pieces is this stunning Tiyptych, by another female artist, Marion Henderson Wilson. Designed in 1905, these three panels of beaten tin depict a series of Glasgow motifs including intertwined lines of natural growth and the iconic roses. The subject is described as a mediaeval woman, but she looks quite of the moment – the 1905 moment, that is.
The production of glassware first started up in Glasgow in the 1600s, but the industry grew from the 1850s and was thriving by 1900, supplying the domestic market and churches. The Glasgow rose often featured, as in this splendid panel found in a tenement flat on Florida Avenue.
Here are some more intricately painted panels which once would have looked stunning in a private house.
If you like Art Nouveau, these are just some examples of a superb collection at Kelvingrove.
The last time I went to Glasgow was on a very hot day in the summer of 1982. I was with my family and we had driven up for the day from the south of Scotland where we holidayed frequently at our caravan. I had spent some pocket money on an album by Visage, one of my favourite groups of the time, and it was so hot that the vinyl record melted in the boot of our car. It’s funny, the things we remember. I don’t recall anything else about that day or any other childhood visits, so yesterday’s long overdue return was like going for the first time…. and this time it definitely wasn’t hot.
One of the best ways to get a flavour of a city when time is short is by boarding a sightseeing bus. Although still quite mild for November, it was a bit nippy on the open top deck. We started our tour at George Square where Christmas decorations had already been installed .
The agreeable voice of suave TV historian Neil Oliver provided the recorded commentary as we wound our way around the city.
Glasgow has some fantastic murals. It would be worth spending a day looking at the city’s outstanding street art (I might well do that!). I love this depiction of the city’s founder, Saint Mungo, on High Street. Represented as a modern man, Mungo tenderly handles the bird that never flew which he is said to have restored to life after having been wrongly blamed for its death. The story of the wild robin tamed by Mungo’s master, Saint Serf, is part of the story of the city’s origins and is included in its motto:
‘Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam.’
The tollbooth steeple clock stands at the junction of four main mediaeval streets. It is all that remains of the early 17th century civic building which it had once stood atop.
I didn’t visit the Purple Cat cafe, but thought it was a great name!
Glasgow Green is in the city’s east end. I really wanted to spend some time here exploring the beautiful People’s Palace but in the end we didn’t have time to go back; such a shame as it looked so lovely, but even more reason to visit again!
We journeyed on alongside the river Clyde, passing the Riverside Museum and Scottish Events Campus
From the riverside location our bus continued towards the west of the city. It was a bright and sunny day and the colours of autumn were glorious.
Alighting in salubrious Kelvingrove, we enjoyed a warming and very tasty lunch near the welcoming coal fire of The 78, a popular vegan bar restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere and an interesting and delicious menu.
Warmed and reinvigorated, we walked to our main destination, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, stopping at the bridge over the river Kelvin to admire the water below, the autumnal trees and the bronze-cast sculptures, including this 1926 depiction of Philosophy and Inspiration. I have a feeling that the skull’s eyes are a much more recent addition.
The grounds of Kelvingrove Gallery are lovely and are a perfect setting for the location of the many exquisite objects within.
Having come to the end of our mini tour of a marvellous city, off we went to enjoy some awesome Scottish art and art-deco designs which I’ll be sharing with you soon.
In 1150, an order of Benedictine monks established a Priory church at Birkenhead on the estuary of the river Mersey. They were the first Mersey ferry men, supervising travellers on their journeys across the river. The Benedictine community seems to have lived quietly on the site, though there are records of some of the monks having had colourful pasts, including one who had been convicted of murder but had travelled to Rome for absolution from the Pope before commencing a life of religious devotion at Birkenhead.
Over the next 200 years, the site was developed with the addition of a hostel and scriptorium. A small monastic community lived at Birkenhead until the Priory was dissolved in 1536, after which it was sold into private ownership.
The Priory is small and has a tiny but pretty garden which includes a couple of herb beds, sadly having lost their characteristic scents as winter looms. I imagine it’s peaceful sitting here in the warmer months.
By the 19th century, the chapter house had been left to become a ruin but is now back in use for religious services. The congregation must be small but what a lovely place to gather.
Above the chapter house is the scriptorium which is dedicated to HMS Conway, a navy teaching vessel which was founded in 1859 to improve the training of merchant navy officers. The original ship was replaced twice over the next hundred years but the new ships retained the name. At the time of my visit one of the Conway ‘old boys’ was on hand, talking to visitors about his time on board.
The ship was moored at Birkenhead near to the Priory before being moved to Anglesey during World War II when German bombers started targeting Liverpool, England’s second major port. She met her end in 1953 when returning to Birkenhead for a refit, and running aground.
Behind the church, the outer wall has been transformed and spotlights added. This must make a stunning sight by night,
The Priory undercroft is smaller than I had expected and slightly cluttered by the addition of some exhibits which I felt took something away from what could have been a very serene space. However, cleverly arranged lighting showed the exquisite arched ceilings.
From the undercroft a stair case leads up to the tower and to a spectacular view of Birkenhead and Liverpool but the day was declining and I had another place to visit, so I wasn’t tempted to climb the 100+ spiralling steps.
The links to the river have remained. Camell Laird ship building yard provides an interesting juxtaposition as a large yellow crane looks down on the Priory grounds.
William Laird set up the Birkenhead Iron Works in 1824, its prime purpose being the manufacture of boilers. His son, shipbuilder John Laird, joined him 4 years later and the company soon became pre-eminent in the manufacture of iron ships. John Laird & Sons joined with Sheffield firm, Cammell Johnson in 1900.
John Laird became Birkenhead’s first mayor and was responsible for bringing about great improvements in the town, including maintaining a police force. He also served as the town’s first MP from 1861 to 1874. He is buried in the graveyard next to his shipyard.
For me, this was the perfect time of year to walk among the fallen leaves and enjoy the battering of the coastal wind against ancient stones which have stood for nearly a millennium and may still be there for another.
A hundred years ago today, English war poet Wilfred Owen was killed in northern France, just one week before Armistice Day – 11th November 1918 – marked the end of World War One. I was first introduced to Wilfred Owen at school, and during the decades since then I have been moved and disturbed in equal measure by Owen’s graphic depictions of the realities of war through the eyes of one who lived it.
This year marks the centenary of the end of the Great War and has engendered much media attention, including the story about the unveiling of a statue of Wilfred Owen in his home town of Oswestry in Shropshire. I was surprised to read that the poet spent a significant part of his life in the town of Birkenhead where his father had worked on the rail network, mainly at the now demolished Woodside Station near to the docks.
The Wilfred Owen Story in Birkenhead is run by a charity and celebrates Owen’s connections to the town and his war poetry. The weekend of the 100th anniversary of his death seemed like an ideal time to take a look in combination with visits to two other local places of interest. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The Wilfred Owen Story is only open on three weekdays for just a few hours, with no exception being made this weekend despite the historic occasion.
After exploring other parts of Birkenhead, I returned to Hamilton Square en route to my final destination. Even though it was just 3 o’clock, it was a grey afternoon and the sun hadn’t broken through the cloud cover all day. The elegant Georgian Square was all but deserted and I enjoyed the colours of autumn in solitude as I walked the pathways by the cenotaph.
A chance encounter led to another war time story and a tale of treasure salvaged from a distant sea bed. As I trained my lens on the cenotaph, the only other person in the Square paused so as not to walk into my shot. I thanked him, and this led to an interesting conversation.
Keith ‘Scouse’ Cooper told me the story of a world record breaking salvage operation which took place in 1981 in the Barents Sea 240 km off the coast of Russia and Norway.
Over 400 bars of gold bullion were retrieved from the wreck of HMS Edinburgh which was scuttled by her crew on 2nd May 1942 to avoid capture, three days after being hit by torpedo fire by German U-boats. The gold – worth about 1.5 million pounds (about 65 million in today’s money) had been loaded just days earlier in Mumansk, Russian part-payment for supplies and military equipment, and was on its way to Britain.
After nearly 40 years on the sea bed, the bulk of the gold was finally brought up from the designated war grave more than 800 metres down. Keith was one of the divers involved in the international salvage operation. I asked Keith if he’d got rich from his share of the proceeds; he told me the money was long gone.
Back home, I found this film online, which follows the Salvage of The Century operation as it unfolds and the gold is hauled up by ‘Scouse’ Cooper and the other divers.
Scouse’s story linked perfectly to my next port of call which was a few minutes’ walk away next to the Mersey Ferry terminal at Woodside landing stage. Before going in, I spent a few minutes looking across the river Mersey to Liverpool waterside which looked quite lovely as dusk started to descend.
The U-Boat Story is an unusual museum and is well worth a visit. It offers an opportunity to see what life was like on board the actual German submarine, U- 534, the last U-Boat to leave Germany, which was brought to Birkenhead in 1993.
It is still a mystery as to why U-534 and the two other type 22 submarines which accompanied her defied the German command to surrender on the morning of 5th May 1945 when World War II was declared over. Instead, her crew fired torpedoes at the British coastal command bombers which had spotted the German subs off the coast of Denmark. After some exchange of fire, a depth charge sank U-534. Almost all of her crew escaped and were rescued.
In the 1980s, suspicions arose that this last U-Boat to leave Germany might have been carrying Nazi treasures to be hidden in Norway and reclaimed after the war. She was eventually raised from the bed of the North Sea but no treasures were discovered. She was cut into the five sections, making it possible for visitors to see her interior.
It’s impressive to see how the submarine survived four decades on the sea bed, and the interesting and informative audio visual recordings make it easier for those of us who are not mechanically-minded to make sense of what we are viewing.
Inside, the exhibition centre has an interesting display which includes U534’s time line and houses additional artefacts which were recovered.
A display of everyday items including wine, board games, shaving equipment and personal nick-nacks remind visitors of the ordinary human lives combatants lived before and during the conflict, and that those lost were not just militia, but men.
Anthem for Doomed Youth -Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, – The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
Today is National Black Cats Day in the UK. The event is a Cats Protection initiative which was started in 2011 to promote the gorgeousness of black cats, and raise awareness of how they often lose out to their more colourful relations in finding homes and being loved. I think it’s marvellous that our ebony felines have a day dedicated to them, not least because three of my own five kitties are black and beautiful.
Paddy, Pearl and Jasper had their 7th birthday in August but I still think of them as my kittens. Their mother, Cleopatra, had moved herself into my home just a few weeks before they were born, with no small amount of encouragement from my son who had taken a shine to her and had (unknown to me) been providing treats and petting whenever she turned up in our garden. Cleo had been a neighbour’s cat but the kind-hearted lady had a lot of animals and not enough space or resources, and I guess that this precocious and savvy little tabby had been at the bottom of the pecking order.
After initially seeming offended that Cleo was spending so much time at my home, her former owner suddenly decided the cat had chosen us, so we should have her. Looking back, I think she’d twigged that some fur babies were on the way – not that I’m complaining.
Not being a seasoned cat midwife, it took a few weeks for it to become obvious to me that Cleo was pregnant – actually, about 3 weeks before the birth. I was very apprehensive about the arrival of the kittens, caring for them and later finding them good homes. I had no intention of keeping them, as my life was busy and I felt my house was too small for so many cats.
It seemed fortunate that many family members, friends, acquaintances, friends of friends and work colleagues past and present were keen to become parents to the expected fur babies. I would not have let them go to anybody I didn’t know personally, and the question was, who would I have to disappoint? People had seen photos of the beautiful Cleo on Facebook or had met her in person and couldn’t wait to see her look-alike kittens.
August 1st is Lammas Day and, quite aptly, Cleo was delivered of a healthy harvest of 4 babies: three boys and one girl. Only one little boy was a tabby like her. The other three kittens were black. Mother and babies were doing well in the ‘nursery’ and I quickly became a cat baby bore. Very fortuitously, it was the summer holidays and I still had a few weeks off work in which to keep an eye on them. I didn’t bestow names on my charges, as they were not going to be mine to keep.
People were cooing and complimenting the photos, especially admiring the little male tabby. It was obvious that everybody liked him best and wanted to take him home when the time came. A few people even said they would take one of the others as well – as a companion – if they could have him. I was a bit sad about the lesser interest in the black kittens, but alarm bells hadn’t started to ring.
Just eight days after the birth, two of the babies developed Cat Flu. It came on very suddenly, overnight. Both were rushed to the vet for treatment; one survived and one did not. We lost the little tabby.
After that, I noticed a clear wane in interest in the other three cuties from previously very eager prospective adopters.
People still admired the photos, but almost all of those firm offers of homes became ‘maybes’: changes in circumstances; possible trips to Australia; previously undetected allergies; clauses in tenancy agreements which forbade pets; concerns about traffic…. One person was quite honest and said that she just had a “penchant” for tabbies and another now thought she was too old to take on kittens which might outlive her, but then offered to take Cleo, their tabby mother, less than a year old herself.
By the time they were 8 or 9 weeks old, there were no suitable homes in place for my three kittens. I could have re-homed them had I been less fussy, but as the weeks passed I had started to feel very protective of them and had become very selective: I turned down a nice lady who lived on the 12th floor of a tower block (who I know would have spoilt a fur baby rotten) for fear of it escaping and falling over the balcony; I said no to someone who lived alone, worked long hours, and only wanted the very sociable and playful female kitten, even though she was quite attached to one of her brothers ( they don’t get along at all now!).
Cats Protection, who I’d contacted for advice, had even offered to collect them at 12 weeks. The lady had explained that, very sadly, many people just weren’t interested in black cats, even kittens. It took them longer on average to find homes for ebony beauties who came into their care, as people preferred more colourful patterned cats. I read up on this and found that the same applied at all re-homing centres. In the USA, some shelters even euthanised black cats virtually as soon as they arrived, as they knew from experience that nobody would choose them.
Incredibly in the 21st century, my extensive reading informed me that occult connotations still lingered, along with superstitions associating black cats with bad luck, further adding to the ‘bad press’. Another unbelievable (but true) and probably the most feeble reason to me is that (in the age of social media), black cats are apparently not photogenic enough.
I became deeply offended on behalf of my kittens that they were deemed less desirable because of their colour. It’s true to say that my former good opinion of some people has never quite recovered since that time when I became aware of shallowness which I would never have suspected. That being said, my disappointment has been tempered by the realisation that I wouldn’t have the cats now had others been less fickle back then.
I made a decision: we named all three kittens and decided they would be staying with us, forever. There are quarrels and personality clashes, as each cat is very individual, but they are all a daily source of delight and entertainment; all affectionate and loving, at least to me, if not always to each other.
I have counted my blessings so many times, thankful that offers of homes which might not have turned out well did not in the end come through.
I hope that Black Cat Day helps raise the profile of dark beauties and helps people to see them for what they are: beautiful and magical. If you or somebody you know is considering welcoming a cat into your life and want to be on trend, according to Cats Protection: ‘Black is the new black.’ One thing’s for sure – you won’t be disappointed in your choice.