Friday 30 September 2011

Little Malvern Court.

The Malvern Hills
courtesy daderot via wikipedia
I don't want to give the impression that I spend all of my time gallivanting around historic homes, September was rather a bumper month. 
My visit to Little Malvern Court two weekends ago, was as a result of work I have done for the Fine and Decorative Art Society that I belong to. It is a National organisation, and I was Chairman of our local society for 5 years. I was then appointed to be what is known as the Young Arts Representative for the West Mercia Area. This is made up of 19 Societies in 4 English Counties and also includes South Wales. My position was to help and co-ordinate the different societies with art initiatives for the young people in their area. This could range from organising a school visit to a gallery or place of architectural importance, having an artist in residence at a school, organising art exhibitions, purchasing art equipment, and awarding art bursaries to individual students. I did this voluntary post for five years, and the visit to Malvern was a very lovely thank you from the current Area Team.
Driving along the road, and suddenly seeing the Malvern Hills, I can hear Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance March playing in my head. It is known that his musical inspiration came from walking along the ridges of the hills.
Little Malvern Court sits on the lower slopes of the hills, and has been the home of the Berington family, by descent, since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. It consists of two distinct parts, the remains of a 14th century Prior's Hall once attached to a 12th century Benedictine Priory and a Victorian Manor house by Charles Hansom, who primarily designed in the Gothic Revival style.
I was invited along with others who have been involved in helping the societies in different ways for lunch, followed by a visit to the  gardens, and Priory.
A champagne reception was held in the 14th century Prior's Great Hall followed by a lovely hot lunch with all of the trimmings.
The Old Hall has a rare and spectacular interior roof with wooden cusped wind-braces. The monks had a central pit fire in the hall, and the roof timbers are still visibly black from smoke drifting up and out through an opening in the roof. At one end of the hall is a huge painting by Paul Delaroche of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Stafford being taken to the scaffold in 1641. At the opposite end is a 15th century altarpiece from Antwerp, an exquisitely carved treasure; Something that normally would only be seen in a museum not a private house.
courtesy Dr M E Rouse
courtesy bruce johnson
courtesy Dr M E Rouse
The Victorian addition attached to the 14th C Prior's Hall.
The house and Priory which is now the local parish church

Tuesday 27 September 2011


I keeping hearing about people downsizing and getting rid of their stuff. I take my cue from an 80+ year old American neighbour of ours, Jack, who sadly died recently.  He used to invite me on little jollies, to meet up with a chap who found interesting objects and furniture in China. He imported it to a warehouse about 20 miles from where we live. Jack would invite me to drive down with him and we would delve into the tea-chests looking at the unusual things he had brought back to sell.  We would return home with the back of the car laden, mostly bought by Jack, and I would think, yes, he is still interested and has a zest for life - no downsizing for him.
Most people collect things, be it antiques, modern glass, cars, pictures, the list is endless. We start collecting at a very early age. Children collect treasures, little hoards of pebbles, shells, and stamps. Why do we do it? I realise that we make collections because they are of interest to us, may be they are aesthetically pleasing or we simply like or admire the object.
Is it a security blanket to have our things around us, or just some inherent thing in our psyche that urges us to collect? 
My latest collection is inspired by the great 17th century woodcarver Grinling Gibbons.  I have always admired his fantastic, majestic, swags of fruit, nuts, and flowers cascading with fish and birds.  Mostly he worked in lime wood, and Horace Walpole (Strawberry Hill) is said to have remarked that there is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers. Horace Walpole was known to have worn the wooden cravat carved by Grinling, and now on display at Chatsworth house.
courtesy The Gothic Imagination - University of Stirling
However, I really love his carved pea pods.  Carved pea pods are thought to be his signature or trademark. Legend says that if he left a pea pod open, showing the peas, then he had happily been reimbursed for his work, and if it was left closed, he had not been fully paid.
courtesy Camster2 via Wikipedia

When Hampton Court Palace had a fire in 1986 much of Grinling Gibbons work was destroyed.  This lime wood pea pod was made by one of the wood carvers employed to work on the restoration
Small collection of silver and ceramic pea pods
Apprentice piece done at the Royal School of Needlework in single thread silk. It was the Royal School of Needlework that embroidered the wedding dress for Kate (Duchess of Cambridge).

Sunday 25 September 2011

Islands around the UK

image courtesy wikipedia
Several years ago H and I decided to visit as many islands as we could around the UK. There are various debates regarding how many islands there are. Some say over 2000, but that includes large rocks jutting out of the sea, which I do not think count.  According to the Ordnance Survey they have identify 803 islands with a coastline. There are only 136 that are inhabited, some have no more than two people living on them. To date we have visited 20, and our aim is to visit at least one island a year. On the spur of the moment, last Friday, having hastily booked bed/breakfast, we set off for Devon. Our mission was to catch the morning ferry to Lundy Island on Saturday morning.
Friday was lovely and warm, and we had time to call in at Dunster to see the castle and medieval town.
Dunster Castle dominates the town. Dating from Norman times, it became a Royalist garrison during the Civil War.  The castle was the home of the Luttrell family for over 600 years.
Dunster Castle
The Dream Garden, belonging to the castle and looking towards medieval Dunster with the 15th C parish church.
The Old Nunnery - I have never seen a building quite like this before in the UK. It is covered in wooden shingles with two distinct overhangs. It was built in 1346 by Cleeve Abbey, however, it was never inhabited by nuns, but used to house guests visiting the abbey.
Dunster Yarn Market built in 1609 by George Luttrell, of Dunster Castle. This was a covered market for the sale of local broadcloth and homespuns.
Early the next morning we were down at the ferry terminal to be sure of getting a ticket, only to find ourselves confronted with over 150 bird twitchers. Apparently now, and for the next few days, winter migrating birds, flying south, cross Lundy in great numbers. We were, however, lucky and managed to get two tickets.
Leaving Ilfracombe on the 2 hour ferry crossing - Lundy is at the very edge of the Bristol Channel and the start of the Atlantic Ocean.
Lundy Island is a pretty wild place with a Tavern, Church, Shop and a few places to rent i.e. the lighthouse, fishermen's cottages and old farmsteads. It is a nature lovers paradise with an ecosystem unique to the island i.e wild Lundy Island cabbage which grows nowhere else in the world, and black, shaggy rabbits, that probably resulted from escaped domestic rabbits interbreeding with the wild ones.
No E11R on Lundy post boxes
The ferry awaiting our return.
 Back to Devon, but very tired 

as the sun goes down.

Thursday 22 September 2011

The Severn Bore

courtesy GRAHAMUK via wikipedia
The Severn Estuary leading into the Bristol Channel

Severn Bore which comes from the Scandinavian (bara) meaning wave, swell or billow
Far below the Cotswold hills lies the River Severn. The longest river in Great Britain and the greatest river in terms of water flow in England and Wales. At its mouth the Severn estuary has the second largest tidal range in the world exceeded only by the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.
The local Tourist Office keep timetables giving the best dates during the year to watch the bore. These are classified from 3* to 5* depending on the time of day or night, and whether there is a high tide around the spring or autumn equinox. In some respects the night time bores are best, especially if a full moon is expected.  There are far fewer people around, and no boats or surfers riding the waves. You can hear the progress of the bore as it surges its way along the river, through the meadows, throwing up cascades of spray where the river bends and turns. The two best bores for this year are due next week. These are evening ones and are classified as 4*. The rise in tide is predicted to be over 10 meters.
courtesy Rodhullandemu via wikipedia
Riding the waves

courtesy Tess via wikipedia

courtesy Jim Nicholls via wikipedia
courtesy Ruth Sharville via wikipedia
When I watch this curiosity of the natural world, I wonder what man from earlier milennia would have made of it. Imagine being a stranger, walking along the river bank on a quiet evening; perhaps coming back alone from hunting or fishing, and unexpectedly this rushing, ferocious, noisy wave after wave of water surges in like a great monster. Without explanation, the river that was many feet below the bank is suddenly flooding over the top. They would have had little understanding of the forces behind such an event, and it would possibly have fed into their folklore and superstitions.
courtesy wikipedia
15th century French medieval manuscript showing the seasons

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Chestnuts galore in Italy

courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via wikipedia
We like to go to Italy in the autumn. It extends the summer for us, and reduces the winter season.  We stay high in the Tuscan hills in small towns and preferably family run hotels. Being in the hills you are virtually guaranteed lots of walking with lovely views and forest trails. Primarily our visits are to see the wonderful architecture and art, soak up the atmosphere and ambience, and enjoy the food.  
The Tuscan mountain top village of Gavinana
H loves wandering through the forests at that time of year when the chestnuts are thick on the ground. He is a great one for gathering things from the wild and sets about collecting chestnuts for us to bring back home. We usually return home with a small rucksack full of the brown shinny gems, which we turn into wonderful soup, and stuffing at Christmas time. You can make a dessert from chestnut puree, and they make a delicious combination with pork or sausage dishes.
On our last visit we discovered that you can buy a special shallow pan with holes in the bottom to cook chestnuts over hot coals, but knowing that I had something similar at home, we did not get one.  When we returned home we set up the BBQ, but for some reason the charcoal was playing up, or perhaps it was me. It looked as if it was going to rain, and I ended up bringing the nuts inside and putting them in the oven. After a short while there was suddenly an almighty explosion, followed quickly by another and another.  I shouted for H to come to my rescue, where upon he grabbed the tray and ran across the kitchen to exit through the patio doors. As he ran the nuts carried on exploding all over the kitchen, I later found them on top of the cupboards and shelves, under the furniture and all over the floor.  The glass window in the oven was completely obscured by exploded nuts, it was such a mess. Once outside, I could still hear and see them firing off for several minutes, showering the patio and garden. Yes, we had forgotten to make a slit in the skins - it took me about 8 hours to clear up the debris, and I vowed never again do I want to see a chestnut.
Why is it that whenever you buy a poke of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, you squeeze them, the insides pop out, warm, whole, and ready to eat.  Roast them yourself, and they will not crack open, and come out in little bits or with the husk still attached?

Sunday 18 September 2011

Beware Bacteria

E. Coli Bacteria 
 via Wikipedia 
I used to smile at the yogurt adverts talking about good and bad bacteria!!!
Bacterium is generally regarded as one of the first forms of life on our planet, and it is likely that they will be the last.
Over three years ago H became ill.  Suddenly, one evening he said that he was off to bed, it was only 8 pm.  When I went upstairs to see him I discovered that he was roasting hot, and in the morning all of the bed linen was drenched from his fever. Now H does not do illness, so off he went to do his duty at our local Citizens Advice Bureau, where if the truth be known he should not have gone, and he became worse.  Instead of climbing up the long steep hill back to our home, as per normal, someone kindly bought him home in a car.
The following morning I made an appointment with our doctor.  She arranged for blood tests, could find nothing wrong with his heart, blood pressure etc, and said she wanted him to have an x-ray to check whether he had pneumonia.  The x-rays came back clear, but still the fever continued.  He had slight twinges in his back and in the end it seemed to be put down to back trouble. There was obviously something wrong, but what? He continued to get weaker and weaker, but the medics seemed to think that when the sunshine arrived, and if we were to take a holiday, things would improve.  To cut a long story short, the pain in his back became really bad, and losing so many essential minerals from his body every night, as a result of the fever, he became very weak, and started to look many years older than he was.  A different doctor came to the house, and gave him strong pain killers, and said he could send him into hospital, but followed it up by saying, hospitals are not nice places to be, advising that he would be much more comfortable in our home.  That night H could stand it no longer. He was exhausted through lack of sleep for so many weeks, and weary.  He came downstairs with his bag packed, and said take me to hospital.  Once there, the duty doctor could also find nothing wrong as per the other doctors. He said he would admit him, as he was obviously ill, but stated that there were 14 patients waiting ahead of him, indicating that we should probably go home.  H stood his ground (albeit from a wheel chair) and said he was not going anywhere, and was staying where he was until the cause was found.
The following day he was put in an MRI scan, and they discovered that he had an infection in his spine.  We were so relieved and thought good, some antibiotic and all will be well.  How wrong and innocent could we be.  After 10 days in hospital he did not seem to be making any progress, and my anxiety levels for him started to increase.  Days later his legs gave way and turned to jelly, he became doubly incontinent, and just lay flat on his back.  It took the hospital 4 days before taking any action, and finally he was sent to a hospital specialising in neurosurgery. He was taken in an ambulance with the blue light flashing to a hospital 30 miles away.  I felt so helpless, I had thought he just had an infection, and that it would clear up with the right treatment.  It was at this stage that I finally managed to get hold of someone and ask exactly what was going on.  I was totally shocked and horrified to discover that the E. Coli bacteria had somehow got into his blood stream, where it had travelled in his blood and lodged in his vertebrae. It was rotting the bones, and turning them soggy!!!  I just could not believe it, and was so cross that we had been kept in the dark.
A wonderful surgeon operated on him.  Before doing so, he told us that there were 14 Neurosurgeons in the hospital, but they had all refused to operate on him.   He told us that he was the only person in the southwest region who was able to do the surgery.   He removed two soggy vertebrae and managed to scrape and save the third one, which had become infected, whilst he was in the previous hospital.  He put a titanium cage around his spinal cord by the following means. A jack, which is still in situ, was inserted to hold the vertebrae apart; the neighbouring vertebrae were then held in place with rods and spikes. He could offer no guarantee as to the outcome, but we were just so grateful that he was around – he went on holiday the following week.
H was in hospital for 6 weeks, and was ill for about 6 weeks before that.  He came home from hospital extremely weak, and using a walking frame.  Fortunately the nerve damage which caused his jelly legs and incontinence all repaired themselves, and because of all the hard work and determination H put into his recovery, he is now once again walking the hills and mountains and doing everything he did before. We do realise that he had a very narrow escape and is extremely lucky to still be an able person, and not wheel chair bound.
The technology in H's back showing the titanium cage and jack
This shows how the two rods and spikes held the cage firmly in place when the jack was operated.
P.S This apparently can happen to anyone, young or old.  We do, incidentally, have more bacteria in our bodies than we have cells. It is rare, but thank goodness for technology in the form of the MRI and CAT scanners and his wonderful Surgeon.

Thursday 15 September 2011

A House and a Garden in Oxfordshire

I belong to a Fine and Decorative Art Society and today we had two private visits.  In the morning a lovely home, and in the afternoon a beautiful garden.
Broughton Castle has for over six centuries been the home of the Fiennes family and is still lived in by their descendants Lord and Lady Saye and Sele. Sir Ranulph Fiennes the explorer is their second cousin, and Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, the actors, are their third cousins. The original moated manor house was built in 1300, it stands on an island surrounded by a 3 acre moat.

It is impossible to show everything, but I loved this hand-painted Chinese wallpaper in The King's bedroom dated c.1800.  Every panel is unique showing different birds, flowers, and urns.
The Ladies' Garden

After lunch at Broughton Castle we proceeded to Broughton Grange. The skeleton of the garden was Victorian, but new life has been brought to its interior by Tom Stuart-Smith, a Chelsea Gold Medal winner.
A short addendum................................
You know the story, you have read the book, and seen the film, however, the new Jane Eyre film (No.16) is compelling viewing. I am a little biased, most of it was filmed in my home county of Derbyshire. Mr. Rochester's house is Haddon Hall, which I know so well. North Lees Hall on Stanage Edge is the home of Jane's wicked aunt. The brooding Derbyshire Moors must have been filmed in late winter/early spring; go there in the summer and it is a riot of purple heather, blue skies and views for miles. Finally the only place not filmed in Derbyshire was Mr. Brocklehurst's school, Lowood, and that was filmed at Broughton Castle.  On the film it looks very dark and bleak, which as you can see it is not.  The lady who took us around today told me that the film crew blackened all of the windows to make it so.
Jane Eyre