Here we are in France - Caroline for just two nights, me for 16. We are staying in Paris with our friend of long standing, Tatou. She has a flat not far that from the Bois de Vincennes, though her local park (where I took this picture) is hardly big enough to swing a cat in. She brings her grandchildren here when they come to visit. It already feels warmer, though there's rain in the air. Tomorrow is 1st May, so of course all the galleries will be closed, but there'll be plenty to keep us amused, not having spent time here for a long while.
What a dreadful day for a wedding! Hey ho, the wind and the rain. But it was a happy occasion, nonetheless, a huge family gathering focussed upon St Mary's, Shipton-under-Wychwood. Was the last time we went there, for the bride's baptism? Anyway, long live a traditional wedding! Fr. Power gave a punchy address ("Marrying someone, we break ourselves open..."), but with good jokes. There were echoes of Four weddings about the service too, which added to the spontaneity - and its heartfeltedness. Bach's C Major suite (the Prelude) was nonchalantly played - on the viola, and Harriet read quite beautifully from The Song of Solomon.
We were at the back of the North aisle, my young neighbour almost as tall as me: I might have known she was the daughter of the girl I'd partnered once on a date at the Hammersmith Palais: sadly, I didn't discover this till we were leaving. That was after only one dance - an eightsome held hands and we jigged along to Rock Island Line. It was that sort of evening.
Tomorrow, Caroline's most cosmopolitan student (so far) departs after a week's intensive teaching. Born in Vienna, she was brought up in Berlin, but has lived in Brazil, Japan and now (with her Japanese husband, a Buddhist monk) the South of France. There aren't many foreign visitors one can take to a Shakespeare play, unpacking it with them so comprehensively afterwards.
The rain has been pretty unceasing since she came; which is just as well as she says she hates hot weather. What a contrast there's been this year between March and April!
It was time to do some more serious walking, in preparation for my early May fortnight on the GR65 - only a week to go: help! Caroline was driving that way, so I cadged a lift to the Frogmill Inn.
Hoisting a full rucksack onto my back - the first time in two years - I set off up the Gloucestershire Way. The rain began just as I was leaving Foxcote, and - with little let-up - continued till I reached home: eight miles in all. So, it's off to the shops today to buy a waterproof jacket: though my cycling trousers did a great job down below, my mac is useless I discovered. When I bought it, it needed marking for some reason: as the only name tapes we had were Leo's. Caroline duly sewed one on, in the certainty that the mac would never be thought of as his: after all, he was barely more than half my height. That shows how old it is.
More nostalgia: my photograph was taken on the now largely tarmaced drive up from Hilcot to Needlehole. This place, when I was a teenager, I knew, having rattled up there in the back of the Usbornes' Land Rover, not from Hilcot but along a mile of rough track from Seven Springs. It was the most romantic situation you could imagine - high, remote, silent, without electricity. The lease was with Caspar John and family: "When they come down from London, for weekends or holidays, it is as though the Genie of Soho or Fulham Road had suddenly popped the cork." So wrote Annette Macarthur-Onslow, in her charming memoir of the early 'Sixties, "Round House". It ends sadly: "I would, if I could, have stopped time then in that climatic autumn of the third year... The desire to view the landscape from every crest... Now came a new pattern... And over all there strode the pylons, whose grasping shadows cast by steel fretwork, encased smaller checks within the chequerboard of fields. The pylons... erect but not proud, were strange in the habit of strangers who are conquerors rather than friends."
Now, Needlehole and Little Needlehole are all tarted up of course, security lights bristling, and completely overshadowed by those power lines.
My friend Christopher Page came up with this apothegm over lunch today. Something - a mantra - for me to take with me on my walk, next week. It's equivalent, he offered, to those seemingly tautologous words, "The just man justices," in Hopkins' beautiful sonnet, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame.
After lunch, I went shopping for some waterproof gaiters. The first packet I took down turned out to have only one inside it. "Take another," the cheerful assistant urged. I did, but when I got it home, I found it had three gaiters inside.
This lovely image (16th Century glass, as I recall), I found at Sudeley yesterday: amongst other quirks, one of two angels, kneeling behind the crib, seems to be wearing a pork pie hat.
Wolf Hall is the book I have enjoyed reading most in the past six months. Though it's "only" a novel, it takes you by a new way right into the thick of early Tudor times. Three of Henry VIII's wives feature more or less prominently in Hilary Mantel's story of Thomas Cromwell's rise. So, when a last minute offer came for me to learn more this afternoon about the last of the six, Katherine Parr, who died (aged only 36) at Sudeley Castle, I went for it. And a very pleasant tea party it was.
Biographer Annette Kobak stressed that the early 16th Century wasn't her period, but nonetheless she brought this original KP to life. You pray to God, she reminded us, but row away from the rocks. The victim, not of a nest of vipers, but of "a threat of courtiers", KP sacrificed her literary life in order to massage Henry's ego: that, and changing the bedroom door locks, were what saved her from the block, we learnt.
An email from Mini today, enjoying Japan in the Springtime, with lots of photographs of blossom! So, to keep my end up I append this one of the tree in our own front garden.
With my assistant (our youngest grandchild), we finished the digging today. Team work involved my inserting the spade, and Laurie pulling it towards him, landing flat on his back every time. We discussed the difference between a square and a cube, and he informed me it was not horns on that slug, but eyes ("Silly Grandpa!").
Between the showers, I earthed up the early potatoes ("Annabelle"), and filled the empty chimney pot with some very smelly manure and one tentative dahlia. We have been lucky to avoid late frosts in recent years, but who knows, with the weather as it's been?
Happy 448th birthday, William Shakespeare! To celebrate it, there were madrigals - my photograph shows them being sung by Shakespeare's (decorated) bust at the foot of the RST main stairs, but elsewhere too.
Other Stratford merriment included sonnets on the chain ferry: we crossed over on it, having tickets for Twelfth Night in the main theatre this afternoon. As last week, with The Tempest, David Farr directed, and Jonathan Slinger, Emily Taaffe and Kirsty Bushell led a strong cast.
Row G in the Stalls suited me fine, with a gangway in front for me to stretch out my legs: it's worth the premium you pay to have this degree of comfort, the first time I've experienced it. At one point - from the plume of smoke Caroline pointed out to me, emerging from behind the stage - it looked as if the theatre was about to catch fire; so it's also handy being able to dash for the exit when necessary. (It wasn't.)
I enjoyed, but without going overboard, both performances and production. Just one belly laugh I counted, and the very act of keeping count is an indication of some reserve.
Could it be my favourite Shakespeare play? If so, it's because it was the very first I saw, when that I was and a little tiny boy. Well, an impressionable 12-year-old anyway, whose parents took him, in 1955, to Gielgud's production, also at Stratford: a lisping Olivier ("Thome are born great...") played Malvolio, and his then wife, Viola. In the interval, my mother and I walked to the East end of what was then the narrow riverside balcony, and watched Vivien Leigh standing at her dressing-room French window.
Fast forward nine years, and I saw the play again, this time at the Oxford Playhouse - in Michael Rudman's OUDS production, with Michael York as Orsino: the cast included Oliver Ford Davies, David Aukin (Malvolio) and Annabel Leventon (a well-upholstered Viola). Other memorable Malvolio/Viola couplings were Donald Sinden/Judi Dench (1969) and Nicol Williamson/Jane Lapotaire (1974). The list is incomplete, as are my records, alas.
But no previous Aguecheek, not Michael Denison, nor Michael Elwyn, nor David Warner, nor even my hero Ian Richardson, matches - to my mind - the splendid Bruce MacKinnon in the present production.
A couple of months ago, I walked for the first time along the East bank of the Severn: this morning, I walked a new (to me) stretch of the West bank - Southwards from Westbury to Newnham - dodging the showers.
Looking downstream at the point where the path from Westbury church meets the riverbank, I took this photograph of Newnham. When you get there, it has a bit of the look of a seaside town: standing on its high bluff overlooking the river, it must certainly seem as cool, when the wind is anywhere near the East. Some fine architecture indicates the importance of the town in times past, though who wants to live in a beautiful house if it fronts onto a busy road? Nor does it make much difference that the more or less continuous traffic on the A48 runs predominantly Southwards - into Wales: you only pay the Severn bridge toll going East-West, so this Gloucester-Chepstow detour avoids it.
Both SS Peter & Paul, Westbury and St Peter's Newnham have quite good Kempe glass - the latter's being the more interesting: a splendid Anna, and a Tabitha. But Newnham's 12th Century font is the real star of the show - that and the beautiful Peace Garden at the Eastern extremity of the churchyard. You enter as through the portal of a Shinto shrine, the injunction to bow your head being a little unnecessary for me.
The title of this event, held yesterday, took on another meaning as I surveyed the relative emptiness of our Town Hall's Pillar Room. One or two of us eco-diehards drifted around the stalls, but where were the punters? Is there really such general apathy about the need for carbon reduction - or even just plain money-saving - within our local community?
I found it a useful exhibition: it helped me get to grips with LED lighting for instance. But the question shouldn't just be, how can we secure the survival of the retro-fittest? Rather, how can we ensure that retro-fitting becomes the norm - most obviously, when an older property changes hands? For major retro-fits can only be carried out satisfactorily when a property is empty.
Energy Performance Certificates have been with us now for nearly five years, but mostly only lip-service is paid to them. They distinguish between current energy efficiency ratings, and potential. Could estate agents not somehow be incentivised, to seize upon that potential for energy (and cost) saving, as part of their sales pitch?
Rupert Aker works for the Soil Association: that charity is lucky to have on the staff someone who can record so vividly (and beautifully) the variety of landscapes within which its members operate. An illustrated book is available to purchase, as well as Rupert's pictures: some are Cheltenham scenes, but for the most part they are very attractive Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire landscapes, a few quite abstract. All in all, a credit to the Gallery.
Our dynamic New Zealander handyman, Arden, descended upon us early this morning, to dismantle a built-in cupboard. In the clearing out process, I came across some programmes dating back to the year I started living in London. I had a new love in my life then, opera, and the above evidences my first visit to see Verdi's Rigoletto. That was its 357th performance at the Royal Opera House, with Edward Downes at the helm of Zeffirelli's sumptuous production. American baritone, Cornell MacNeil sang the jester, with the lovely Reri Grist as his daughter. Though I can't give any critical analysis of that performance, the opera is one I have come to cherish through a number of subsequent listenings. I have a 1960 version on CD, with Bastianini, Scotto - and Alfredo Kraus: the only time I saw him was as the Duke at Covent Garden in February 1974: I remember standing at the back of the Stalls Circle for what was a sensational individual performance. Notwithstanding this warm memory, I have to rate as my top choice the 1956 Tullio Serafin recording, which I also have, with Gobbi, Callas and di Stefano.
Naturally, therefore, I was eager to catch the relay from the Opera House of its 497th performance tonight, sitting in the comfort of Cheltenham Cineworld. Nor I was I disappointed although, dynamically, John Eliot Gardiner's rendition nowhere approaches Serafin's, save possibly in the great quartet. This was - as ever for me - the highlight. David McVicar's production leaves little to the imagination. (Do we need full frontal male nudity? And how anyway do you carry out a rape without an erection?) Dimitri Platanias looks terrific in the name part, acts and sings superbly: his only disadvantage is being encumbered with a pair of distracting Lekis - and not being Tito Gobbi. Ekaterina Siurina's Gilda was likewise a great joy to hear; and Christine Rice's portrayal of the Act III mezzo role was as outstanding as we've come to expect from her.
"I have bedimm'd the noontide sun..." says Jonathan Slinger's Prospero, as we sit ensconced inside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre through a fine, bright Saturday afternoon watching The Tempest.
As we've found before in Stratford's revamped main house, some of those magic words were lost to us this time also: we were in the extreme left corner of the Circle (as you look at the stage) - this may have had something to do with it, or are we just getting older and deafer? Slinger's admirably wide-ranging voice seemed to drop almost to a whisper at times. He has little of John Wood's presence, but the virtual twinning of Prospero and Ariel - Father and Holy Spirit - was inspired.
The Dramatis Personae listing Sebastian as King Alonso's brother makes it feel wilful at first to cast a high-heeled, curvaceous Kirsty Bushell in the part. But this is all part and parcel of a brilliant production by David Farr: a highly poetic and mysterious play is given to us full of real theatre - indeed, this Tempest is one of the best RSC renderings we have caught in recent years.
Nothing attractive seeming to be on at Cineworld, I took out a DVD from the Library today - for the first time. The choice (huge) eventually fell on Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski's Dekalog - a series of ten hour-long films, each of which represents one of the Ten Commandments: they were made originally (1989) for TV. We watched VI and VII only, adultery and theft - strong stuff, but affecting. The little girl Ania looked just like Ida, making VII all the more poignant.
I spotted this sign at St Margaret's, in West Herefordshire, when we were on holiday there four Summers ago. The church stands on its own, next to a farm duck pond.
Caroline has sadly opted out of our proposed French walking next month, so I embarked on a little training on my own this morning. Having caught the bus down to Shurdington, I set off a bit creakily up the Greenway Lane, following its line to Ullenwood, and thence through Barber Wood and over, amidst lambs and ewes, to Cowley. It's my favourite time of year, the chestnuts just bursting into leaf. Clouds scudded across a fitfully blue sky until I emerged from lunching in the Green Dragon: then darkness fell, and after some warning claps of thunder the hail descended: the A435 became suddenly white. This I took to be a hint that I should catch the bus back the five miles to Cheltenham.
At breakfast, Edmund was studying the newspaper report of Saturday's dramatic events on the Thames. "I support Oxford," he explained to William, "because I went to Oxford: Mummy supports Cambridge as she went to Cambridge." "Why," responds William, swiftly, "would you want to marry someone you're racing against?"
Meeting certain very old friends at Easter and Christmas almost forms part of our religious ritual. Yesterday's visit to Winchcombe fulfilled that obligation: we reminisced about a particular three-day family cycle ride - to Evenlode (Day 1), on to Fairford, and back home up the Coln valley. Looking at the photographs afterwards - one appears above - I see it was precisely 20 years ago: Day 3 was election day, and the Cotswolds a sea of daffodils.
Perhaps five is a little young for your introduction to Premier League footie, but I think our eldest grandchild will remember his trip up the M5 nevertheless. William and I saw West Bromwich Albion win this afternoon - or at least saw the first of their three goals. (It's being well celebrated here, notwithstanding it was in fact a Blackburn own goal.) 45 minutes was enough - it was a longish walk back to the car, and good to avoid the crush at the end.
The Hawthorns clearly welcomes families in its spacious, modern East stand. There were plenty of helpful marshals, and no sign of any trouble or abuse - a happy outing! And we paid a visit to Tewkesbury Abbey's Easter tableau on the way.
We are now home again, having come with our bikes from Stamford's pretty station this afternoon. How we would have managed if any more cyclists had been travelling on our trains I have no idea: the space is ridiculously inadequate, I would have thought, especially at holiday times.
Last night, another kind B&B hostess gave us a lift to the local Woodnewton hostelry, where we ate as well as we had anywhere on this holiday: the food in Lincolnshire (and districts around) has made a very good impression generally, as has its hospitality. Having dried out overnight, again thanks to KB&BH, off we set on a windy, overcast morning to Stamford. This time we took the scenic route, via Nassington and Barnack: St John's Church in the latter was a-buzz with preparation for an Easter wedding, so we could admire its interior stone carvings as well as the Saxon tower.
Visiting Stamford was one of the main purposes of our holiday in these parts, and we were not disappointed. It's most unusual to find somewhere so little altered, especially right up against the A1. Caroline particularly enjoyed looking for scenes from the TV Middlemarch, which now, I see, will need to be viewed again.
140 miles biked (about): a very satisfying trip - and NO punctures!
All through the night, we heard the rain drilling down against our windows, and so it has continued. Our most kind hosts took pity upon us, making light of throwing our bikes into their people carrier and driving us to Burghley this morning. So instead of 45 miles' exploration of some grand houses and village churches to the West of the A1, we contented ourselves with a good look at Burghley House and its amazing collections.
Not that I have anything particular against the National Trust, I can't help thinking that a house like Burghley benefits from being held within a family framework: certainly, a visit makes an exceptionally pleasant day out, and it would have been even better if the weather had allowed us to see the gardens. We spoke to many different people working there as we went round and without exception they seemed to confirm the same thing: it's a very tight and happy ship.
There was still a dozen or so miles to do at the end of the day, to reach our final B&B at Woodnewton - an enforced route along an awful lot of A roads. Our hostess looked justifiably horrified as we appeared, dripping on her doorstep.
The weather has changed. After weeks of dry if not sunny days, today was showery, and this evening it rather looks as if it might never stop. It was always going to be a long ride from our B&B at Kingthorpe - excellent - to this next one at Stenwith, near Belvoir. Intermittent rain made the nearly 50 miles worse, especially when National Route 15 petered out in the middle of Grantham, without any indication as to how to reach its resumption along the Canal running West.
Till then, it was a pleasant ride through the Lincolnshire countryside: I found it more fun being on roads than on the cycle tracks of yesterday, notwithstanding Sustrans' attempts to make them interesting with sculptures dotted along the way. Stopping for coffee in Navenby, we were lucky to bump into the curate, who let us into a church normally kept locked. St Vincent's, Caythorpe was happily open anyway. Syston village was a delightful discovery, now tucked a safe if short distance out of the path of the A607 - from where it was only a quick hop into Belton. No time to do more than glance back at the outside of William Winde's masterpiece, however, as we sped on through the park and down to the back gate, trusting it would not be necessary to lift our bikes over the wall. (It wasn't.)
Crossing the Trent on Sustrans' National Route 647, along the old railway track, we approached Lincoln without hassle. Only in the immediate town centre does it get at all hairy; and then there's the hill up to the Castle and Cathedral. Happily, we were able to leave the bikes in a friend's back yard, which freed us to explore the historic parts without worry.
We benefitted from two tip-offs. First, the magnificent Wren Library: it would have been easy to miss the stairs up to this when exploring Lincoln's astonishing Cathedral; and secondly the Usher Gallery. This two-site complex was well worth the trouble of a visit, and not just for the excellent view of the Cathedral above from the more modern building.
The Radev Collection was showing: it had been kept together by picture framer, Mattei Radev, a peasant refugee from Bulgaria. Via an extraordinary transformation he became part of the post-War male salon of Eddy Sackville-West and Eardley Knollys. Radev inherited more than 100 sculptures and paintings by 65 artists, a marvellously eclectic assemblage of mainly 20th Century works, only on show to the public since October last.
On the Cathedral front, being used to Gloucester, we found the architectural contrast remarkable. (Caroline prefers Gloucester!) Our welcome in Lincoln today was warm, helpful and well-organised, both at the main entrance and in the Library. The guide in the latter was at pains to stress the glory of God as the motivating factor. God is surely the original elephant in the room - he barely got a mention from our Cathedral floor guide.
Today, we took our bikes off the train at Chesterfield and cycled some 35 miles East, to Normanton-on-Trent. The weather was perfect, and - apart from the steep push up into Bolsover (this is the view of the Castle on our way) - it wasn't too hilly. I knew we would enjoy pedalling through the Dukeries (we passed near Welbeck Abbey, and right by Thoresby): what I hadn't bargained for was the magnificence of Smith of Warwick's Sutton Scarsdale Hall. Open today for the first time this year, we came across it by accident: the lane down through housing looked unpromising, but suddenly there rears up this immense early 18th Century ruin. Looking at the vestiges of Italian stucco fireplaces, you can still feel the throb of a grand household. I particularly loved the unearthly outlook from its terrace - directly over the M1 and across to Bolsover. That's a place to explore further some time when we are not already exhausted (lack of biking practice), and don't have miles further to go before our 6pm ETA.