Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Gloucs. and Herefs.

On Sunday morning, as a relief from babysitting, I was detailed to walk Rosie (our Springer spaniel – with not a lot of spring). So, I drove to the start of one of my favourite short walks, above and parallel with Coldwell Bottom towards Pinkham – as photographed – and up through Barber Wood. When we first came to live in Cheltenham, in October 1994, the Woodland Trust had just started to plant trees there: now it is beginning to look like a serious wood. It lies in the midst of some of the best limestone grassland, and I was able to admire the orchids (including a bee orchid – my first for a long while).

It will be interesting to compare and contrast the Cotswold countryside with that of Herefordshire, where we shall be spending the next two weeks – at a variety of locations: we had thought of going to France, but decided to stay nearer to home – for a variety of reasons! First, just to cover the remote possibility of someone wanting to buy our house, and to move in quickly, it will be good to be able to get home easily. Secondly, we need to walk the talk about reducing our carbon footprint; and thirdly, I have still to see the colour of my pension provider's money. More in a fortnight.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

33 and counting

21st June 1975 was also a Saturday. Thank goodness it was sunny, and drier than today has been, as Caroline and I - having married in the church of St James, Coln St Dennis - walked after the ceremony, up along the bank of the River Coln, to Fossebridge Post Office for lunch.

Now, here we are with our three grandchildren for the weekend: what could be better! But I do wonder what sort of a world it will be for them 33 years hence.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Out to tea

Caroline and I drove up to Foxcote yesterday afternoon, for tea with Marigold Bridgeman. We sat together in her sunny garden room, looking out onto a beautiful lawn and herbaceous borders, the Coln Valley stretching out below. Marigold admitted to being one of a diminishing breed who had never attended school, being taught at home by a governess. The first exam she sat was her School Certificate, which led on to a hospital secretarial job: she and her older sister Jeannine, who also worked there, were always ringing one another up. "Darling", they would call each other. So as "the Darlings" they were known.

I was surprised to learn that Marigold's mother and her three children had only come to the Cotswolds in 1943, when Marigold was still a teenager. Upon arrival at Upper Dowdeswell Manor, they were paid a visit and asked "Where are your horses?" "We don't have any." "Oh," said the neighbour, "what on earth will you do with yourselves!"

Marigold at length told her hospital boss, amid many tears, that she was leaving. "What next?", he asked. "I am buying a cow," she said, and so began a happy time building up a herd of pedigree Jerseys.

Everything of which Marigold spoke seemed bathed in affection; nothing in affectation. Despite not having had the best of health, she looked as serene as ever, more and more resembling the Queen, to whose sister she was such a good friend.

Thursday, 19 June 2008


In this dire housing market, Humberts will have been pleased to have sold five out of the seven properties included in their auction last evening, at the Queen's Hotel here in Cheltenham. Four weeks ago, I outlined the plans we had for when I retire and sell our house. Since then, one couple only has been round. Frustration is setting in! Particularly as we have worked hard on the garden, which is looking at its best. But yesterday the telephone rang: someone else wants to come round tomorrow. Great excitement!

Meanwhile, also yesterday, we had Barry the carpenter at work boxing in pipes in the basement; a new carpet laid on the kitchen staircase, and I went to buy two new loos from B&Q. Recalling the days when there was an ironmonger's shop on every High Street, it is quite a shock to go to B&Q: it must take up a site rather bigger than the average football pitch. Going in, I turned left, but eventually found myself at precisely the wrong end of the store. After telling me his life story, a cultured assistant pointed me to Aisle 23 in the far distance, saying Two loos? Long trek. Here's some Albi brickwork.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Garden news

Today it looks as if we may at last have a bit of the rain we need. The runner bean plants are flowering too early and are covered in black fly. Home Guard potatoes have only just come into flower: Tim Rose Price (400 foot higher up) says he is eating his. My lettuice plants have been eaten by the slugs, and seed has twice failed to germinate: the rocket gone to seed. We have had some radishes, none exactly a prize-winner. Rhubarb is good; gooseberries and raspberries are now on tap. Caroline is fighting with the pigeons over the currants.

The Philadelphus, the pineapple tree, sweet peas and Sweet Williams are all flowering; and the lavender and a rather wonderful dark blue iris. The white clematis looks better than usual in our far apple tree. A tobacco plant has seeded itself by the door of the bikeshed. The oriental poppies are nearly over. Of the roses, New Dawn, the big rambler on the stable and Buff Beauty are all past their best, but Félicité et Perpétue is just coming into full bloom, and Compassion is as good as ever. On 17th June last year, my Datura had ten blooms - see photograph: this year there is so far nothing showing.

Graham Sutherland has a vivid drawing of Datura blooms in the Arts Council Touring Exhibition, "Geometry of Fear", currently showing at the Cheltenham Art Gallery, which I saw yesterday: it features work created in the aftermath of World War II - from the exhibits, a time of hope, as much as fear, it seemed to me. The show is very worth a look - if you happen to be in Cheltenham, Rhyl, Plymouth, Ayr or Leamington Spa between now and next March!

Th Gallery also has an excellent Hogarth print exhibition - on till the end of next month.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Football matters

Last night's match between Austria and Germany was slow and not very pretty. Certainly not as exciting as Holland v France last week. We were supporting Austria, a country where I spent three very happy and formative months after leaving school. But though they had more speed and some youthful enthusiasm, they lacked all finishing power. And this was a match they needed to win to stay in the competition they are jointly hosting. Germany for their part were unconvincing, an unattractive bunch, not playing to their potential. Having said this, they will probably go on to win the Championship - but I hope not.

It makes it much easier to watch, with England out of the equation. And on such an unseasonably chilly night, we didn't mind sitting with supper on our knees, rather than being outside at the round table in the garden, which is where one would expect to find us on 16th June.

This alternative football photograph was taken when I was walking near St Agnes in Cornwall last July.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Designer oak

I hardly recognised David Wilkin's treehouse on our visit to The Pinetum last night. What started (when we were last there) as something rather modest has now blossomed into a two-storey confection, complete with woodstove. What a romantic idea! And all standing free of its host oak tree.

The Pinetum was the starting point for one of our family bike rides, to St Weonards. I seem to remember the first puncture occurred about ten minutes after we had set out down the woodland track - and the last (of several) some hours later.

Which reminds me that this is Bike Week: the Cheltenham Cycle Campaign were handing out leaflets in the High Street and showing off the smart yellow bikes you can hire if you belong to the University of Gloucestershire - and which may soon be available to all Cheltenham residents, as they are in Paris and elsewhere.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Onegin and much champagne

Sadly, this was one I took last year! On Thursday at Glyndebourne, it was a cold and rather damp evening for Eugene Onegin. But not on stage: what a production! And an unforgettable Letter Scene. Thanks to our most generous hosts, we cannot believe our good fortune in catching it.

Nonetheless. I reported last week 's Science Festival reflection that we have not yet had our Pearl Harbour moment when it comes to climate change: in the Guardian, also on Thursday, Mark Lynas writes: "If current [climate] policy continues to fail... then 50% to 80% of all species on earth could be driven to extinction... and much of the planet's surface left uninhabitable to humans."

So, what becomes of Glyndebourne? Are they fiddling whilst Rome burns? The usual magnificent programme book proclaims carbon-neutrality. In his Foreword, Executive Chairman Gus Christie mentions "our on-going aspirations to reduce our CO2 emissions". If an application to put a wind turbine on nearby Mill Plain is granted, it will reduce operational carbon emissions by around 70%, he writes - but 74% of Glyndebourne's carbon footprint is down to audience travel.

So, will we fix it by all piling into the train? What about the food miles, and all that champagne? "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Sir Toby Belch's rhetorical jibe becomes a real question when (as Lynas says) "no politically plausible scenario we could envisage will now keep the world below the danger threshold of two degrees."

Friday, 13 June 2008


Sir Joshua Reynolds' statue in the Royal Academy courtyard currently sports a floral sash, we noticed on Thursday (when going into the Summer Exhibition). It was a hard job, in getting a photograph, to avoid Sir Anthony Caro's huge "Promenade, 1996 - steel, painted grey/green": this to me was quite the most unattractive piece in the Exhibition, Tracey Emin's room notwithstanding.

Our friend Elise had rung on Tuesday to see if we might be able to help her out of a hole. Friends from Italy were at this late hour unable to come with them to Glyndebourne on Thursday. "And of course you will stay the night." (O the joys of retirement, I thought once more.) She then rang us again the following morning: "Could you by any chance be our flexible friends for the OAE concert tonight too?" And we knew from past experience that one doesn't pass up an opportunity to hear Andreas Scholl!

So it was that we returned home yesterday after two culture-packed days in the South-East...

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

"The cross and the wheel"

"The cross and the wheel" is the heading of an article in this week's edition of The Tablet reporting on the Dalai Lama's recent meeting with Catholics at Blackfriars, Oxford. Several observers noted," the article ran, his "cheerful demeanour" - conversations "punctuated with laughter, something that at first sight seemed odd given the suffering of the exiled Tibetan leader has endured."

One of the Dominican theologians present pointed out that laughter was part of the life of the Trinity, something which tied in with what I recalled Frank Regan had said at Woodchester last month. It corresponds with the cheerfulness of the Dalai Lama, springing from his life-long dedication to the practice of meditation.

He would certainly have enjoyed the photograph and headline - above - which appeared in our local paper, the Gloucestershire Echo, at the time of the visit: Cheltenham's MP, Martin Horwood, might have been amused at his star billing too.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

O to be in Herefordshire

We drove through Herefordshire yesterday morning, almost to the Welsh border near Presteigne. Then we returned a different way, with the evening sun over the Marcle Ridge. What a beautiful county it is! From the moment I near the end of the M50, coming down into the Wye Valley, my heart lifts.

Leaving the motorway, we took country lanes towards Weston-under-Penyard to visit Mr. and Mrs. Hughes's garden at Kingstone Cottages, which I had found in the Yellow Book. Though it didn't look very exciting from its entrance, we were rapidly captivated. Not least by the stunning vista Westwards towards Ross Church, with Garway Hill in the distance. The garden itself represents thirty years' labour of love. I took this photograph from the grotto, created by Michael Hughes. A narrow path leads down to the entrance: you think it leads nowhere. Eventually there's a tiny room, its walls lined with bottles and shells. Sitting on a stool, the window gives you a frog's eye view over a pond. An entirely secret place.

Monet's Garden at Giverny is the nearest thing I've seen to Kingstone; but we had this one all to ourselves. The National Collection of old pinks and carnations resides in a parterre - important, but really the least magical part of the garden for me.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Sustainable world?

Besides the sessions on photography and population, mentioned in preceding posts, we attended a number of other Cheltenham Science Festival events - and my back has yet to recover from those agonizing chairs. By the time Stephen Pinker and Anthony Grayling embarked on a discussion of what language reveals about ourselves, I had had enough. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in June, there were better things to be doing than sitting in a tent in the dark with the air conditioning whirring.

My concentration had begun to stray earlier yesterday during a survey of the technological fixes available to counter the effect of climate change. (The distinguished panel of three wise men was unanimous in giving this approach the thumbs down.)

However, two talks by the recently-appointed and the recently-retired Chief Scientific Advisors to the Government, David King and John Beddington, impressed hugely in their rather different ways. David King side-stepped the nuclear issue, on which he is famously bullish: John Beddington, speaking with tempered optimism in spite of recent food price rises, advocated smart interventions on the supply side (in the words of Jonathon Porritt's summing up). "You are a conucopian!" "Well, I'm certainly not a Utopian," John Beddington responded.

At another point during the Festival, Jonathon observed that we still need our “Pearl Harbour” moment on climate change. After the Japanese attack on the US base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, in December 1941, President Roosevelt talked about there now being “only one reality, namely winning this war.” The result? Within nine months, 80% of the US’s industrial capacity was being used for weapons manufacture.

Just as impressive as any of these events was a fringe talk given by botanist Ghillean Prance at the University of Gloucestershire. He urged his predominantly Christian audience - the meeting was convened by the Rector of Cheltenham, Andrew Dow - to wake up to the environment. Christians tended to see their duty as converting others and involving themselves in social issues, but not caring for God's creation. The speaker's unaffected modesty and his patient and direct handling of a wide variety of questions impressed everyone. What a pity space could not be found for a lecture as good as this in the main Science Festival programme!

Saturday, 7 June 2008

"The world must be peopled!" said Benedick

It's a while since I heard Jonathon Porritt give a lecture of his own (as opposed to interviewing someone): I had forgotten what a devastating speaker he is when he's on top of his subject, as he was last night speaking on the theme "Too many people" at the Cheltenham Science Festival. He held a very large audience in the palm of his hand.

The message he brought was extremely simple: "Save the world! Have fewer children." The Italians had got the idea, he said: their population growth rate was the lowest in the world, indicating that "for them it seems that using a condom is a better guide to life than Papal infallibility." Benedick - yes; but Benedict - no.

Indeed, for a Catholic this was not a comfortable hour's entertainment. Jonathon was asked how the UN could be made more effective: "It has to act by consensus," he pointed out. "The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was paralysed by the Vatican - a UN member - intervening to oppose artificial family planning." The loudest applause of the evening was for Jonathon condemning the Catholic Church's adherence to the teaching of Humanae Vitae as "immoral".

And yet. "Aren't you depressed at the lack of signs of progress?" asked a questioner. No, came Jonathon's response, because of all the spritual resources that remain untapped. (Here was evidence for Gordon Lynch's analysis, that I mentioned on Thursday.)

A final question was lobbed in. Jonathon had been praising the Chinese for having prevented 400m people from being born through their one-child policy. "Did the end justify the means in China?" a woman asked - the only woman to get a look in. A long pause. "On balance, no," came the eventual reply.

Isn't this the crux of the issue? Do wrong means ever justify good ends? We have since last year a beautiful granddaughter, born after very much soul-searching: how impoverished would our family life be without her! Not to speak of that child's mother, our only daughter - the fourth of our children, born after Caroline's doctor had warned her to have no more.

Burne-Jones' image of the Christ-child in Birmingham's St Philip's Cathedral misleadingly shows a white baby. Had the "necessary" funding for family planning - advocated by Jonathon - been available within the third world community into which Jesus was born, my question is: "Would he have been?"

Thursday, 5 June 2008

"Food for the soul"

Professor Gordon Lynch, of Birkbeck College, in his recent book, The New Spirituality: An introduction to progressive belief in the Twenty-First Century characterises “the new spirituality” as featuring the need for:
• A credible religion for a modern age;
• Religion which is truly liberating and beneficial for women;
• Connection between religion and scientific knowledge; and
• A spirituality that can respond to the impending ecological crisis.

Makes a change from recent writings about fundamentalism and the 'religious right'!

In an article with the above title in The Tablet of 26th April - I have been doing some catching up: oh! the joys of retirement! - the Abbot of Worth talks about our having to learn how to explain our faith in cultural terms that modern spiritual seekers - and there are very many of these who never attend any church - can understand. “This,” he says, “is dialogue and evangelisation, in which the Christian both learns and teaches at the same time… What the whole Church offers to spiritual seekers is beauty and peace. With great credibility we can offer the beauty of our worship and the peace that comes from living justly.”

The photograph? I took it in Minerve, in the Languedoc on 31st December 2000: "La Colombe de lumière" - Jean-Luc Severac's monument, carved in 1982, to the 140 Cathars, burnt at the stake there on 22nd July 1210 upon the orders of Simon de Montfort.


This is about two men setting a good pace for someone recently retired. Joe Cornish, the landscape photographer, attracted a large audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival last evening. He travels arduously in search of the perfect picture - a lesson to me that not much comes without a lot of effort. Richard Zhao is less well-known: my dear daughter treated me (as her birthday present) to one of his full body therapeutic Cai-Qiao massages. Little did I know this involved having my head pulled off my shoulders; and then lying prostrate whilst Dr. Richard jumped up and down on my lower back. All of course in the interests of mens sana in corpore sano.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Lost in translation

Opera in English - save when that's the composer's language - perturbs me. The more so now that surtitles have become commonplace. Caroline and I were at the London Coliseum on Monday. Some magnificent orchestral playing - and singing, from principals in demand to sing their roles the world over. Was it "The Knight of the Rose" we saw? No. According to the programme, and as common sense dictates, it was Der Rosenkavalier. So why make someone as distinguished as a Sarah Connolly or a John Tomlinson learn their roles in English, rather than letting them and the rest of the cast sing in the original German? Is it really so as to make opera more accessible? We were very kindly given tickets, but with prices as they are, I really doubt whether the language factor is what brings a wider range of the public in. (Does the film industry dub foreign films? No, it surtitles them.) Is it so as to draw a line between ENO and Covent Garden? Why not just allow them to compete on musical and dramatic excellence? It can't surely be anything to do with the name "English National Opera"! Do Welsh National sing in Welsh? The late Alan Blyth's essay in the ENO programme book itself squishes any argument for performing Der Rosenkavalier in English: Hofmannsthal sets "standards of... literary excellence never before achieved... The text was written in an imaginary parlance... something inevitably lost in translation."

On the way to the Coliseum, we popped in to the recently reopened St Martin-in-the-Fields. Those short-listed for the commission for a new East window were asked to "animate the light" by a work which harmonised with the clear glass of the other church windows. I hope my photograph illustrates how nothing seems to have been lost by Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary in translating this brief.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Power dressed

In recent years, there has been a move towards villages choosing a day in the Summer when private gardens are open (and teas available in the Village Hall). Guiting Power Open Gardens took place yesterday, and Caroline and I went along. Mrs. Watson, the baker, who used to bring her bread round in the van when I first moved to the Cotswolds in 1974, was serving out tea, proud to be 88. The gardens were full of colour; the rain held off, and it wasn't too hot - a perfect day for it in fact. We didn't visit all of the the thirteen gardens, because we had walked to Guiting from Tally Ho through the boggy but beautiful wetland nature reserve.

A sinister film used Guiting as its location a couple of decades ago: it left a bad taste in my mouth after I saw it on television. In spite of this, the village remains about my favourite in the Cotswolds, especially when dressed up and on display as yesterday. We plan to return for the Music Festival at the end of next month: Natalie Clein is playing.