Low Tide

When a friend suggested an evening drive to the beach at Formby point, I gladly accepted. Accessed by way of a lonely road through woodland, the sand dunes at Formby would not ordinarily be somewhere I could visit by my usual means of public transport as night time loomed.

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We exchanged  greetings with dog walkers and joggers. An older couple helped a small child look for shells whilst sea birds trotted across the damp sand, investigating the shallow pools left behind by the outbound tide.

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Staying  close to the shore, we made a seat out of stone steps at the foot of the lifeboat station and looked out to sea.

Dusk was descending. The sky shifted through a muted palette of greys, mauve and smoky amber as the sun’s lamp was slowly dimmed.

The camera’s zoom lens revealed the hazy shapes of distant pedestrians, on four legs and two, traversing the expanse of the beach, out to the water’s edge and back again.

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Buoys bobbed in the shallow water, guiding to safe passage marine vessels bound for the port of Liverpool, or sailing into the night towards Dublin. Towering wind turbines stood still, imposing but strangely graceful.

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The silver ribbon of sea, its mirror-surface bouncing back the last of the light, marked the end of the road where the silhouette of a solitary vehicle was stopped at the water’s edge.

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Tulip Fields: An Impression

Dutch bulb fields have, since the time of ‘tulip mania’ in the 17th century, attracted painters from Europe and beyond, mesmerised by vistas of flowers, row after row, vibrant and tantalising, extending like floral carpets to meet the horizon.

One of my favourite examples is Tulips in Holland by French Impressionist, Claude Monet, painted in 1886.

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I am fascinated by the light and the vivid hues, and had pondered the reality and how it compared with Monet’s impressions as he set them to canvas in real time.

The Dutch tulip season is short, beginning in March and ending in May. A short visit to Holland’s southern bulb region last week presented the opportunity to feast my eyes on multitudes of magnificent blooms as Monet did on another spring day over 130 years ago.

The flat land and waterways reminded me of happy childhood holidays cruising on the Norfolk Broads with my family. They are early memories, set in time in a technicolour palette; our sensory perceptions of colour, smell, pain and sounds gradually fade as we grow older. I still remember the boldness of scarlet poppies against the parched East-Anglia fen land and vast sky. Of course, the two regions of England and Holland were once joined, back in the mists of time, so perhaps the connection is understandable.

The landscape changes from week to week as fields are harvested and return to barren soil, their glory days ended for another year.  Elsewhere, new flowers open to the sun as their moment arrives. 

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I ambled alongside one narrow canal which skirted several smaller fields. Views from the water’s edge offered a chance to see further and to form my solitary impressions.

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My impression is of a grand artistic collaboration between nature and nurture at its triumphant moment of fruition, and that I was lucky to be in the gallery to see it for myself.

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Keukenhof: A Dutch Floral Fiesta

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Two or three years ago my mum revealed that as a young woman she’d longed to visit Dutch tulip fields. She’s 77 now and although that long ago dream had never come true, she had still thought of it from time to time. Mum had never previously mentioned this ambition as she had thought it too difficult to realise. That’s not completely without foundation; tulips bloom for just a couple of months, mid-March to mid-May, so any visit would have to take place within a fairly tight window. Practically, I’m the only one of her children who could accompany mum on such an expedition, and I can only take holidays at certain times. This year the opportunity finally arose for us to visit the Netherlands during my Easter break.

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The Netherlands is famously the world’s largest exporter of flowers, and nowhere can the glory of Dutch flora be better experienced than at Keukenhof Gardens. Keukenhof is situated in Lisse in the bulb growing region of Holland to the south-west of Amsterdam. The 80 acre park was opened in 1950 as a site for growers from all over the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe to exhibit their hybrids and help the Dutch export industry. 

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The land had formerly been a medieval hunting ground, and was used in part to provide herbs, fruit and vegetables for the kitchen of the land-owning Countess of Heinaut’s castle, hence the name Keukenhof, or ‘kitchen garden’. After the Countess’ death, the land was possessed by several very wealthy owners. Constantly expanding since the current park’s establishment,  it has become one of the largest flower gardens in Europe and attracts millions of visitors from all over the world.

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Keukenhof opens its gates to visitors for only seven or eight weeks each year, so it can be very busy. It was wonderful to see so many awe-struck flower enthusiasts soaking up the April sun and the spectacular vistas. ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’, I discovered, sound the same in all of the many languages I heard as we wound our way around the botanical wonderland.

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Traditional woodland areas still displayed late flowering snowdrops and daffodils, some presented in very artistic arrangements.

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Carpets of tulips and hyacinths rolled out in glorious displays of colour and texture.

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Each year Keukenhof has a theme, and in 2019 it is Flower-Power; a ’60s retro celebration of peace and love. Various exhibitions and installations appeared throughout the park; I particulary enjoyed the inspirarational peace garden.

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Gorgeous seating area
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You can just about make out the pieces of rose quartz positioned on the rooftop to represent love.

Many lakes and water features grace the park. Some provide quieter places to sit – as far as is possible at a popular site on this scale.

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Stepping stone path across the Wilhelmina Lake
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One of several pools and fountains

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Keukenhof Gardens is roughly the size of 80 football (soccer) pitches, so a full day is needed if you want to see all of it. Of course, this necessitates stops for food and rest, all of which is catered for. There are two larger restaurant areas but these do become very busy at the obvious times. Other charming cafes offer delicious coffee and famous Dutch apple pie.

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Everywhere is accessible for prams and wheelchairs, and there are lots of places to sit and take a break whilst enjoying the carnival of flowers.

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This is just a flavour of my visit to Keukenhof; a small selection of the delights for the senses. I have returned with a selection of bulbs for my own garden which – fingers crossed – will be a reminder when they flower of a special kitchen garden that I was able to share with my mum and make a dream come true.

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I wish an enjoyable weekend to all, hopefully one that will include some beautiful flowers and sunshine.

is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The of the modern   is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The  of the modern 

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.