Wednesday, 24 December 2014

2014 in Review: the first six months

So another year is almost over and it certainly has been a busy one for me.  Living and working in the spectacular Cotswold countryside, a classified area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a great treat and one of which I never tire.  It’s also nice to go off exploring other places so 2014 found me in other parts of the UK and  Ireland too.  One of the first places I visited, however, was only twenty miles down the road but light years apart in reality!

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typical Cotswold countryside

Like many people that live close to tourist attractions I don’t often visit the ones on my doorstep but last January found me walking the streets of Oxford.  I hadn’t come to explore the colleges but the covered market which dates back more than two hundred years.   The history of the market and the building is fascinating and is well worth making the time to visit – especially if you like a bargain.  To read more about it and to see other photos click here.

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One of the fathers of ecological writing died tragically young and in February I matched quotations from his work to images I had taken (to see them, click here).  My favourite was noticed by the Society that bears his name and reprinted in their journal.  I felt very honoured!

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Wild and rugged scenery is often best appreciated over cake and coffee and at Watersmeet in Exmoor National Park you can do just that.  Two rivers collide spectacularly besides the Victorian fishing lodge that is now owned by the National Trust and run as a café. March found me walking through beautiful scenery as well as indulging myself and the link to this remote but very accessible place is here.

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Dublin, the capital city of Ireland is a favourite place of mine and in April I visited the Casino Marino, one of the most impressive and perfect neo-classical buildings in Europe.  Everything about it was designed to deceive so although you only see one window on each side you actually have – well, click here to find out what plus all the other deceptions the Georgian architect managed to fit in.

Casino Marino
Planting trees is a long term project for they rarely mature during the life of the planter.  Of all the hundreds I have done in my professional life none has given me as much pleasure as this particular one.  I have waited for years for it to flower and in May it did so for the first time.  I felt quite emotional – it was a case of finding a handkerchief.  Take a look by clicking the link here.

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The Cotswolds are world renowned for their ‘chocolate box’ village scenes and Lower Slaughter must be one of the contenders.  Despite its name it is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit for it has everything from crystal clear trout streams to olde-world stone cottages to a mill complete with working water wheel. If you choose the right time to explore you can have the place to yourself.  To learn more click the June link here.

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

A Great Game?


A series of faded, sepia photographs have always been a mystery to me, just something else put into a cupboard and forgotten.  Handed down through the generations they recently came to light once more and looked at with renewed interest.  Who were these people and what connection might they have to my family? Two of the images were signed and with this name as my starting point the tale of their origin began to emerge.  The story that is unfolding only deepens the mystery for they were part of the ‘Great Game’, a term I hadn’t come across before.  Now, for me, it has two meanings: warmongering and my struggle to seek out the truth behind them.

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Rudyard Kipling brought the ‘Great Game’ into everyday circles by using it in his novel Kim, published in 1901, although the term had been in use for many years before that.  It described the cat and mouse rivalry between the British and Russian Empires that lasted throughout the nineteenth century.

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Britain, alarmed at Russia’s expansion southwards, feared that Afghanistan would be used as the gateway to an invasion of India.  To avoid this, troops were sent to install a puppet government in Kabul but within four years order was breaking down and the garrison was forced to retreat.  Caught in a series of ambushes, Afghan warriors slaughtered all but one of the 4500 troops and 12000 followers. By 1878 the British invaded again following the Afghani’s refusal to allow a diplomatic mission to visit. A treaty was signed and the army withdrew leaving a small staff in Kabul: in the autumn of the following year they were killed leading to full-scale war – the Second Anglo-Afghan War.  Travelling with the British army was a freelance photographer, John Burke, and it is his signature that appears on my photos.

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History, as we all know, has a habit of repeating itself and sadly the rivalry between Russia and the West over Afghanistan has continued.  Inspired by John Burke, the war photographer Simon Norfolk has carried out a new series of images.  Intriguingly, he lists all of Burke’s plate numbers – the two of mine that are numbered are left blank so perhaps this is the first time they have been seen; rather an amazing thought.

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All that is left now – and no mean feat – is to identify the places and the regiments and to find out where (and if) my family fit into all of this. I have been helped along the way by enthusiasts from a Facebook group.  One of them, Arnie Manifold, has an ancestor that fought there and it is his medals that are shown in the image below.  Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we discovered his face on one of these old photos?

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copyright   Second Afghan War Medals copyright Arnie Manifold

To view Simon Norfolk’s website and more information on John Burke, click here

 
To find out how a series of colourful postcards, brought back by my father from WWII, led to the discovery of a German fairy-tale castle, a love affair and an epic poem, click here.   


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Monday, 24 November 2014

Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham

Cheltenham, on the western edge of the Cotswolds, is full of historic Georgian buildings which make it an interesting place to visit if you are readily bored by the now characterless towns that have had their hearts ripped out in the interest of modernisation.  Although it has all the major chain stores there are still very many smaller, independent shops which help to make the centre busy and vibrant.  There are, however, plenty of opportunities to escape the throng of shoppers by relaxing in its parks and green spaces which are close to hand and beautifully maintained.  With so many positive attributes, it is not surprising to find that there are also numerous cafes, bistros and restaurants – great news if, like me, you prefer your relaxation to revolve around food and drink.
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One street that incorporates all of the above elements is The Promenade, a wide tree-lined boulevard.  We made our way to the top end of it, walking past the splendid Town Hall with its fountains, to reach Brasserie Blanc where we had booked a table for a Saturday lunch.  Set in a delightful Georgian townhouse, it has very recently been completely refurbished and, judging by the number of diners there, has retained its loyal clientele.
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Any culinary venture that has Raymond Blanc’s name attached to it is bound to be a good choice and Brasserie Blanc didn’t disappoint whether in its understated interior design, the friendliness and efficiency of the staff and, most important of all, the quality of the food.
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The huge arched windows and high ceilings give a feeling of space and natural light, both of which prevent the L-shaped marble bar, which runs almost the full length of the building, being too dominant.  It is visually impressive and imparts a delightfully informal atmosphere to the dining area.
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Our Italian waitress, Chiara, who was both charming and efficient, guided us through an extensive menu.  For the starter my partner selected the cheese soufflé with a rich cheese sauce which came with the most wonderful, crispy outer crust.  I went for the salt beef salad, chosen to test the chef’s expertise for, having a Jewish grandmother, I consider myself to be rather an expert when it comes to salt beef.  It didn’t disappoint, the combination of flavours being both subtle and mouth-watering.
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For our mains, I chose the slow-braised Scottish venison casserole.  I was impressed when Chiara advised me that it was both quite gamey and rich which wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste but was just perfect for me.  My partner had scallops with poached, smoked bacon.  In the interest of research, I insisted upon tasting and it was beautifully soft and tender.  Puddings also didn’t disappoint.  My pears with salted caramel would be worth a special trip to Cheltenham just for those and my partner’s meringues were just as they should be, soft and chewy.
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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is one of twenty mostly situated in London or the south of England.  This does, for me, create rather a problem: do I return to Cheltenham or do I try some of the other locations?  One thing is certain, I will definitely be returning!
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Brasserie Blanc Cheltenham is located at The Promenade, Cheltenham GL50 1NN
All photographs of Brasserie Blanc are taken from their website.  More information including booking details can be found here



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Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Scottish Pineapple


The statement “I have been living in a Pineapple” may give cause for surprise but is, in fact, quite true for I have just returned from a brief trip to Scotland.  To stay in a building that puts a smile on your face whenever you catch a glimpse of it ought to be on everyone’s ‘to do’ list – if it is, The Pineapple is the place to go. 

Originally part of the Dunsmore Estate, it was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1974 and leased to the Landmark Trust who undertook its restoration.  Neglected for very many years, the Pineapple proved to be in remarkably good condition for every ‘leaf’ was designed to prevent water collecting within it and damaging the stonework.  The remainder of the property was very unstable and derelict.
When the two walled gardens were enclosed at Dunsmore in the mid 1700’s there was no ‘big house’ attached.  They were purely used for producing a supply of fruit, vegetables and flowers to be sent to the Earl of Dunmore’s home in Argyll. It was some years later (it is thought) that the Pineapple was added as a folly and summerhouse, probably after the Earl’s return from Virginia and the Bahamas where he was Governor.
Why a pineapple?  In the eighteenth century, pineapples were a rare luxury that had become associated with wealth and hospitality.  They began to appear on pillars, railings and weather vanes and, indoors on fabrics and wall coverings.  The building of The Pineapple was, perhaps, the grandest of all grand gestures. 
 Although the building is of such high quality in both its materials, cratsmanship and design it was barely recorded in contemporary writing and its designer remains unknown.  One possible reason for this is that it may have been just a little too ‘over the top’ even for flamboyant Georgian taste.  The doorway of the undercroft is a very accurate timber carving of Ionic pillars beyond which stone steps lead to the raised northern lawn.  From this lawn there is level access to the summerhouse.

Either side of the Pineapple are two small cottages, formerly gardener’s bothys.  These have been fully restored by the Landmark Trust to create holiday accomodation with living room and kitchen in one and bedrooms in the other.  The north garden and the Pineapple room are for the private use of guests, the south lawn and gardens are open to the public.

To be able to grow pineapples required specialist knowledge and skills as well as additional warmth.  Glasshouses flanked the south wall and were heated by the use of specially constructed hollow walls.  At the foot of these, fires were lit and flues within the wall drew the heat upwards, warming the brickwork.  The four decorative urns to either side of the Pineapple conceal chimneys and because of there similarity to those at Casino Marino in Dublin (to read about this extraordinary building click here), it has been suggested that the designer could be Sir William Chambers although there is no documented evidence to suggest this.   At intervals on the southern side of the walls I found sliding stones which could be removed presumably to control the temperature by allowing the heat to escape.



 






























 
In 1820 William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery in London, designed a house in the Tudor Gothick style.  Dunsmore Park’s glory was, however, short-lived for by 1911 the family had left although it remained occupied until 1964 after which it was abandoned.  It is now a ruin visible across the fields from the Pineapple.  Another ruin, now very unstable, and also visible from the Pineapple, is the Elphinstone Tower.  Of earlier origin, built about 1510, it became the family vault of the Dunmore family in 1836 with a church built alongsidea few years later.  This was demolished in the 1960’s.  Their fascinating stories will be subjects of this blog in due course.

With so much history and beautiful scenery close by – Loch Lomond is only a short drive away – the Pineapple makes a great and intriguing place to use as a base for exploring the area.  The grounds are open free to the public all year but the building is at its best during the hours when you are alone to enjoy its eccentricity and splendid isolation.

The Pineapple at night


Links: 
The Landmark Trust
The National Trust for Scotland




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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Gwen Raverat


I have published on my website this review commissioned by the Raverat Achive:

A retrospective exhibition of Gwen Ravarat hosted by Winds of Change Art Gallery, Winchcombe.

The grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, Gwen Raverat's engravings are both fascinating and intricate.  I was completely enthralled by them.

Click on the link here to read about them and to see images of some of her work.

The River Darent 1939


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Friday, 24 October 2014

The Story of Lorna Doone - just a myth?

 Lorna Doone is the tale of a young boy, John Ridd, whose father is killed by Scottish outlaws – the Doones.   Exiled to a remote part of Exmoor (which is in England’s West Country and now a National Park), they rob travellers and local farms.  Living amongst them is the pretty Lorna Doone, kidnapped by them as an infant.  John enters the forbidden Doone Valley by climbing a steep and difficult waterfall, the ‘waterslide’, and meets Lorna for the first time.  Some years later he rescues her and as they marry Lorna is shot through the window of Oare church by the wicked Carver Doone.  John pursues him and after a struggle Carver perishes in a bog.  Lorna recovers from her wounds and so the story has a happy ending.
Oare Church

But is it true?  The simple answer to the question is that the answer isn’t simple.  When Richard Dodderidge Blackmore wrote his historic novel in the late 1800’s he mixed fact with fiction and local legend with the names of local people.
Blackmore placed the Doone stronghold beside Badgworthy (pronounced ‘Badgery’) Water.  There is a deserted medieval village beside a tributary in Hoccombe Combe and it is very probable that this is the site for the ruins were still visible in Blackmore’s day.  However the Waterslide is not found there but in another side valley, Lank Combe. Nowhere as sheer as described it is, however, an impressive sight with its three smooth slabs of rock especially when the river is in spate.  I like to think that he also had in mind the waterslide at Watersmeet a few miles further downstream which would be much more of a challenging climb.
The waterslide at Watersmeet
 
Because the precise location of the Doone Valley is uncertain it is no longer described as such on maps, the Ordnance Survey now describing the area more accurately as Doone Country.  A rewarding walk can be taken along the whole length of Badgworthy Water starting from Brendon Common by parking the car at Brendon Two Gates.  Here there are wide views of both the open heather moorland and also the grass moor of the Royal Forest ‘improved’ in the nineteenth century.  Badgworthy Water changes in character along its length from fast running rapids to smoother, deeper pools.
Badgworthy Water

The above walk is rugged and long but a more gentle approach is from Malmsmead with its much photographed packhorse bridge and ford that also denotes the county border between Devon and Somerset.
Malmsmead where Badgworthy Water crosses the road
 
Further along the lane nestles the village of Oare and the church where Lorna and John wed.  Inside is a memorial to Blackmore, a smaller copy of the one in Exeter cathedral.  A memorial can also be seen to the Snow family who lived at Oare manor and also feature in Lorna Doone. It is recorded that as Blackmore didn’t write kindly of the Snows he was afterwards much disliked by them.  Other local characters also existed: Tom Faggus, the highwayman was – in real life – from nearby North Molton and Ridd is still a local surname. 
Oare village and church nestle in a deep combe
Is Lorna Doone a story based on truth?  That is for the reader to decide, perhaps after visiting Mother Meldrum’s cave in the Valley of Rocks, for both are mentioned in Blackmore’s book.
The Valley of Rocks



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