Our dining-room was in full use yesterday: at the afternoon meeting there, I was summoned in for tea from the garden, most unusually, and asked to blow out the candles on a round cake; and at supper in the evening, Mini brought in another cake for pudding (strawberry-topped). All very embarrassing.
Caroline, as a member of the Friends of our art gallery and museum, was able to book us onto their bus trip into Herefordshire yesterday. We wiggled our way to Kilpeck, so we could wonder again at the 12th Century sculpture on its gem of a church, before spending a happy hour or two in Roy Strong's nearby garden. You might say, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
But for all it's being over the top, the garden created over the past four decades at The Lasket is a staggering achievement, a carefully-constructed three-dimensional work of art. The wilderness of an orchard where cats are buried isn't typical - there is something surreal about it.
This particular cat was, Sir Roy told us, named, not for the poet, but for William Larkin, the Jacobean painter: from the time I was a guide at Charlecote Park, I remember his portrait on copper of one of the Lucys, hanging in the Great Hall, a rarity.
The excellent article by George Monbiot in yesterday's Guardian - "It's simple: we need to talk about growth" - reminded me of a sign I'd photographed recently. "We live," Monbiot concluded, "as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention... That's how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it."
I suppose we could at least joke about it. Like on the death of an airline passenger during a flight: cabin crew were carrying the body to the rear of the plane - a newspaper letter reports - when one of them looked up and said: "Did anyone else have the fish?"
Ravensburg, in Swabia (hardly a resort), was where I spotted this shop front, when walking through the deserted town centre on Easter Sunday morning.
It rained most of the morning for our walk Westward towards Chedworth from Fosse Cross. It was a fairly flat one, but though the highest point is barely more than 220 metres above sea level, the views into Wiltshire and Oxfordshire on a clear day would have been far-reaching. As it was, we had to make do with a study of nature closer to hand - crops and wild flowers: there weren't many animals to be seen.
As I write this, I am listening to Radio 3. While the music may (and does) change night by night, "Live in Concert" is the catchphrase we have to endure again and again, whichever the announcer - and not just once, but several times every evening. An insult to the intelligence, I call it.
A line from a Larkin poem is taken as the title for Northern Broadsides' Great War centenary tribute. The production reached us here in Cheltenham this evening, where the Everyman hosts it all week - well worth catching a performance, as it's excellent.
For the Tobacco Factory's Shakespeare a fortnight ago, there was acres of empty seats: tonight was different - down to the imaginative pricing, I guess (all tickets £10). We certainly had money's worth. The storyline was predictable - an idyllic pre-War world shattered by the arrival of War Office telegrams - but treated in a way that moved me far more than War Horse. The company's Director, Barrie Rutter led the cast of 12 multi-talented performers - actors, singers, dancers and musicians all.
Sitting up in the Balcony, with - I thought - nobody to annoy alongside or behind me, I took some photographs during the big scene just before the interval. "Not allowed!" I was quickly told by the usher. "Please delete." Oh dear! They were rather good ones. I have inserted instead a picture of a university friend: I heard from our companions at the play that he had died recently.
Even back in the early 'Sixties, Roger Taylor, a tall man, affected the image of someone older, with Meerschaum pipe, deer-stalker and silver-topped cane. I last saw him in September 2012 at our College reunion. He was living in a caravan: once, his home was Lowndes Square, Belgravia. Now, I gather, he is dead. "Never such innocence again."
I felt sickened this morning as I heard the election headlines: gains for the far right parties, in France and the UK especially. A vote for UKIP is a vote against Europe, ignoring the force for relative stability and peace that the EEC/EU's been for most of my lifetime. People who know me won't be surprised I voted Green: good to see that it helped Molly Scott Cato get elected in our neck of the woods! (This photograph I took in Ulm last month. The Germans hate Merkel, I was told, but still vote for her.)
Roses used to peak at the end of June, or am I imagining that? Anyway here we are a week away from the end of May, and with 19 different roses in flower. With my mac on over my dressing-gown, I went out into the rain and picked one of each this morning for Caroline's birthday. This afternoon and evening, it was celebrated with Leo and Mini, scones, cakes, a Jakobsweg slideshow and a pulsating Champions League final.
The familiar layout of my weekly Tablet newspaper has suddenly changed this week. I'm not sure I like it much. From a comparison with last week's issue, you can see how the Contents page has been transformed. I find it now a whole lot more fussy, with the pictures dominating the text.
Yesterday, four of us met up at the Daneway Inn for a walk up to Pinbury Park and back via Dorvel Wood. We saw a trip of goats (all black), a rag of colts (destined to be polo ponies, and waiting for the vet to geld them), and a bevy - there must have been a dozen or more - of roe deer, showing us a way into the woods. There the wild garlic reminded me of the bärlauch on so many menus in Germany and Switzerland last month. (My photograph shows the sign I followed when looking for a bed in Märstetten - and very comfortable it was too.)
The new service station on the North-bound M5 near Gloucester is "Hofladen" (farm shop) writ large: we stopped there for (very expensive) petrol en route home from supper with Edmund in Bristol last night. On the one hand, I can't conceive of any reason beneficial to the environment why more commercial outlets should be needed: on the other, if you are going to have motorway service stations, they might as well be on this (the Westmorland Tebay) model.
Today, I've been in amongst my not-so-wild garlic. (Only the weeds have gone wild, but they pull out readily after the rain.) And this evening, we went to Cineworld (along with half the rest of Cheltenham, it seemed) for the National Theatre's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This, with its dizzy-making camera angles and Pirandellian roots, hugely benefited from the big screen relay. Fabulous drama!
Sculptor Anne Boning is a new name to us: we met her this morning up at Farmcote, where she is exhibiting (alongside Sarah Loveday and Diana Green) as part of the Winchcombe Festival. Caroline bought one of her extremely tactile stone pieces.
I write this having just returned from seeing King Lear. Perhaps three major Shakespeare plays within the space of six days is one too many: anyway, this evening felt like a long one. As Michael Billington wrote in his review, "There are times when I feel that Lear is a play that has to be endured as much as enjoyed." No question, Simon Russell Beale invests the name part with all his very considerable skill, but his performance seemed from first to last relentless. "A very foolish, fond old man"? In this modern dress production's quest for character, the poetry seemed somehow to have gone missing.
Though it's a pity to bin the borage when still in flower, the garden does look a bit like a hayfield: we are gradually working towards restoring some order. Meanwhile, it's a pleasure to have Agnes and Ida here for a quietish weekend. One of the Sadler's Wells stories is on the go.
Four of us, having parked under the vast Sycamore tree at Cold Aston this morning, walked to Aston Farm and then up the South bank of the Windrush, from where I photographed this peaceful scene. Another idyllic Spring day!
It follows two evenings out with Shakespeare. As You Like It performed by the Tobacco Factory at Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre last night, and Henry IV Part 1 relayed from Stratford to our Cineworld on Wednesday. In his magnum opus, Harold Bloom writes, "Shakespeare's invention of the human, already triumphant through his creation of Falstaff, acquired a new dimension with Rosalind... the most admirable personage in the whole of Shakespeare,... the most remarkable and persuasive representation of a woman in all of Western literature." What a privilege to see two excellent productions of these masterpieces on consecutive days!
Yesterday, we did our Romanian reunion walk, postponed from February because of flooding. Where I stood to take this photograph (looking from Gloucestershire into Oxfordshire) would have been under water three months ago. Even now, it's boggy.
Eleven of us set out from Kingham Station up the West bank of the Evenlode to Oddington, before crossing to Adlestrop and on to Chastleton. After such a lunch as we were treated to, there was a generally glad acceptance of the offer of lifts back. A brilliant outing.
This time yesterday, we were looking forward to a quiet evening at home. It seemed a busy enough week ahead, and already the effects of a month away are wearing off. But who can resist an invitation to step into the shoes of someone who can't make use of their tickets for an Angela Hewitt recital? Her programme at Chipping Campden was hardly the usual one: it contained only one major work, but when a pianist's presence and virtuosity is so unusual, this becomes an irrelevance.
Late Haydn variations were followed by a sonata by one of his greatest fans, written only a couple of years later. For Caroline, the early Beethoven was the evening's highlight: I found the performance a little clunky. It has sent me back to Schnabel, who seems better at catching the sweep and lilt of this relatively inconsequential music.
After the interval, Bach's G minor English Suite was by contrast made to sound effortless, and then came Liszt's Dante Sonata, the most dramatic of antitheses. Somehow, Angela Hewitt had energy left for a rapt account of Strauss' Morgen, in Max Reger's transcription, and to sign autographs.
We drove home the quiet way, the last of the light prevailing against some inky clouds.
During my walking on the Jakobsweg, I read Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium. I found it inspirational. The joy of the gospel, it begins, fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.
It's a long document - more like a book actually: but don't let that put you off reading it. Because it's informally written and well-translated - and full of good stuff. One passage I particularly liked was this: An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters.
I was reminded of this when Mary Colwell came to Cheltenham last night, to speak at one of our regular, if infrequent, Christian Ecology Link meetings. Her title was "Surprised by Joy, Impatient for Change". We heard more about the first part than the second, but no matter. For one evening at least it was possible to be an environmentalist and not a killjoy.
What is joy? Mary began by asking, besides being one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Not the same as happiness! Do animals experience joy? Hard to say, but perhaps it's through nature alone that we can be truly surprised by joy. Sylvia Earle talks of discovering it when "dancing" deep in the oceans with an octopus: Mary herself, sitting on a Cornish beach, en-joyed a seal popping up amid the breaking waves. For her, it brought to mind the thought voiced by former slave, George Washington Carver: God speaks to us every hour about nature if we'll only tune in.
But John Muir was the figure who dominated the talk: even among the environment-minded, he is little spoken of. Born in Scotland in 1838, one of seven children of staunchly Presbyterian parents, he moved with the family to the United States, where they set up a frontier farm. Seeing the destruction brought to the wilderness by the advance Westwards, he became its advocate, his campaigns bearing fruit within the National Parks system.
Everywhere John Muir looked, he saw God, and joy in nature motivated him to wonder - and to act, in order to protect forests, rivers and birds. He died in 1914, the same year as Martha, the very last of the passenger pigeons whose fate he so much lamented.
For Muir as for us, joy isn't a passive emotion: it arouses a sense of injustice, and makes you want to do something: most people are on the world, Muir wrote: not in it... touching, but separate... I must get out into the mountains to learn the news. A prophetic voice.
In his "Surprised by Joy", C.S. Lewis says, Joy is never in our power, and pleasure often is; so if, in the face of adversity, we suffer a defeat, then we can never lose faith in humanity - just pick ourselves up for the next battle.
After walking 500 kms. in Germany and Switzerland last month, it should have been a doddle to do the five miles from The Tunnel House to Rodmarton and back this morning. Flat going, and no rucksack! But I feel as stiff as ever now. The emptiness of this path through the rape, leading to the little church at Tarlton, shows too that I was lagging behind the other three.
Tomorrow, we drive North to Caen, and thence home. This morning, six of us Old Amplefordians, with others of the party, were at mass at La Réole. Afterwards, we explored what was once the Benedictine priory on the banks of the Garonne. In the lantern roof above one of its monumental staircases a monk is pictured with a mitre at his feet - hands upstretched as if to say, "Oh I've dropped it." It is in fact Saint Abbon de Fleury, who died at La Réole a millennium ago, "in ecstasy".
To celebrate with Peter - my Best Man - his 70th birthday, 11 of us were given a tour of the poshest of the posh vineyards today - starting with Mouton Rothschild and ending in St Julien at Ducru-Beaucaillou. Here we all are, tasting at Château Latour, if you please. One of us thought we ought to offer to buy some. "I'm afraid it's not for sale here," we were politely told, "but if it was, it would be €800 a bottle."
We went shopping this morning to the vibrant metropolis that is Miélan. Its charm perhaps escaped me. But after living amongst a different sort of iconography throughout my walk, I was intrigued by a shopfront with the sign "J.C. BACK" above it.
Unaccustomed to two nights in the same bed, I am easy at the prospect of moving on tomorrow. But Caroline will miss it here, not least the sunsets. She would like to return before too long, a long drive to do on your own, and not so near either a station or an airport.