Monday, 31 October 2011

The Green Pilgrimage Network

Whilst tent-dwellers were Occupy-ing the space to the West of St Paul's Cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury was praying alongside Pope Benedict and other faith leaders in Assisi last week. And from tomorrow Assisi hosts another inter-faith gathering of importance, to launch the first global network aimed at "greening" pilgrimages. Mary Colwell writes about it in the current issue of The Tablet.

Some will ask, why the need for "greening"? Surely pilgrim walkers inherently proclaim a green gospel, rejoicing in nature as they go - this magnificent beech might easily have escaped my attention had I been car-borne along the little road from Upper Coberley to Hilcot on Friday. But then of course not all pilgrims are walkers or cyclists: many indeed jet to faraway destinations to give themselves the warm glow so many get from worshiping at a sacred place. Indeed, I have campaigned in the past for more virtual pilgrimages.

Mary's final sentence sets out a - for me, unfamiliar - quote from St Francis: "There is no use walking to somewhere to preach if your walking is not your preaching." And there was I thinking the expression "Walking the talk" was a recent invention!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

A deep, autumnal tone

The garden is full of it just now: here is Caroline's rhubarb, a different beast altogether from its Spring green hiding pink. Not that the wild West Wind has yet made much impression on the hornbeam and beech hedging. The beans too are still vaguely upright, with much fruit still hanging there, too coarse to slice, but the seeds ready for drying after time. I harvested the little nasturtium balls last week, a very easy crop to garner for sowing again next Summer. Its dark red flowers remain for the moment unfrosted. This mild weather has brought the lilac and weigela into flower even. Meanwhile my mother's two box bushes are home to dozens of spiders, their webs criss-crossing like the work of some crazy electrician, and all bejewelled by dew.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Christmas cake-making

Though we are still a month away from Stir-up Sunday, Caroline took advantage of some willing helpers to start making the cake for Christmas this afternoon. Our grandsons are with us for some of their half-term, and it was wet outside. So good for one to be addressed as "You silly banana!" by a three-year-old whom you love!

For the cake, some sweet sherry was called for: we have none, so the remains of an old bottle of Buckfast Tonic Wine, given me by someone from Buckfast when we once met at Stanbrook, went in instead. That gift must have been almost ten years ago: does Bucky ever go off? I think we shall probably live to tell the tale.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Happy birthday John Golding!

In recent years, the distinguished artist and art historian John Golding has been wont to celebrate his birthday at a lunch in these parts, for which purpose his good neighbour Sophie Bowness has driven him down from London. Today's line-up, gathered for the occasion, was an eclectic mix of former pupils, colleagues and friends: we all enjoyed a drive there through the Autumn sunshine, the trees being now fully on the turn; but alas upon arrival we were told that it was a case of Hamlet without the Prince. John is unwell. A toast was proposed to an absent friend.

In her empty passenger seat, Sophie brought with her a copy of the elegant and comprehensive book she has edited, "Barbara Hepworth: The Plasters", published by Lund Humphries in April to coincide with the opening of the new Hepworth Wakefield museum of which she is a trustee. I was surprised to read in it that, in spite of one of her last major works being Theme and Variations, a three-part bronze relief for the façade of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society Head Office, Hepworth never visited Cheltenham either to see its proposed location or after installation.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The Piano Tuner

Peter Newham has been tuning our piano ever since we acquired it - is that nearly 30 years ago? Before then even, I had encountered him when he and his wife first came to live here, wanting legal advice. "You are the first person in Cheltenham I met," he told me this morning. Like Somerset Maugham and W.H. Auden, he has one of those faces, which portrays character with no prospect of masking it. It's as if the sensitivity of his ear has transferred itself, Dorian Gray-like, to his visage.

Peter has strong views on planning. "Why can't our planners go and look at the Plaza Major in Salamanca before deciding on a glass and steel look for the new square in North Place?" To my enquiry, whether he's a member of our Civic Society, however, he replies, as I anticipated, "I'm not a joiner."

Our old upright is in the dining-room, the walls of which are now covered with Tetbury Festival photographs: he has stories, of course, about many of the musicians featured in them. But also he is the first person to liken my Douro Valley railway shot to something out of an old movie, and wants to hear the story behind my Gersois tobacco pickers tableau. "The trouble with both my pianos [he has made two] and your photographs, Martin, is that, inexplicably, nobody wants to buy them."

I enquire after his tricky back: he illustrates his clean bill of health since his last visit here with tales of riding horses in Szechuan amongst Buddhist Tibetan nomads and Muslim Hui Chinese.

An hour with Peter does the soul good.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Dress 4 a birthday

Ida paid us a brief visit on her birthday (on Friday) - too brief for cakes and balloons. Celebrations were planned for when she reached London, I gather. She was wearing her usual heady mixture of clothing, chosen by herself. Pink is as ever the colour of choice. I thought my cap might add to the look, but it's here in the course of being rejected.

What would her great-grandmother (my mother) have said about her outfit, I wondered: she was modelling clothes for The Daily Telegraph when aged over 80. Will there be newspapers to model for if and when Ida is 80? I doubt it. Even now, the idea of reading news in paper format attracts only a minority. I am happy to be part of it, but none of my children buy a paper regularly, so far as I know.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Churn Valley

On Thursday morning, instead of my usual walk up the old track from Coberley towards Birdlip (shown in this photograph running from centre to bottom right), I found myself going round the edge of the big field to its North. This opens up a slightly different view. A long line of lime trees guards the field's road boundary, with Coberley village nestling in the trees beyond. Straggly Upper Coberley hides likewise in trees on the far side of the main Churn Valley. The two prehistoric tumps (just left of centre) look no older than the rusting farm machinery I passed in their lee. Beyond Coldwell Bottom, Bubb's Hill - in Elkstone Parish - presides on the right horizon. Behind me, hawthorn berries gleam in the sunshine, the Rosebay Willowherb - though no longer in flower - retains the attraction of its russet stems, and the Old Man's Beard shows promise for later on, when Autumn's colours have drained away. Unsurprisingly for October, I heard not a single bird.

Friday, 21 October 2011

National Apple Day

That excellent organisation Common Ground introduced National Apple Day two decades or so ago, in order to celebrate apple orchards, which add much to the distinctiveness of a place. We are lucky enough to have inherited three old (and two rather less old) apple trees of different varieties in our back garden: they give us and others much pleasure, providing us with blossom, shade, support for our climbing Iceberg roses and our hammock swings, not to mention fruit and so juice etc. etc.

Yesterday, I was up a ladder picking some of the Bramleys for storage, and in so doing dispossessing many earwigs.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Sounds Good

Independent record shops are, I guess, as rare these days as independent bookshops. We are lucky to have a good one, in Henrietta Street, just off Cheltenham's lower High Street. As with all such shops, you go there as much for the advice and a chat as anything else: it's a totally different experience from shopping via Amazon.

And yet Sounds Good does 20% of its business by mail order, some with people who have never been to the shop. "Was it full during the LitFest?" I asked. "No, but we had a busy morning last Saturday - with people coming to Cheltenham for the Races." That surprised me somewhat!

I have to admit I don't very often shop there, pleasant though the experience is. What with Radio 3 and Listen Again, I don't often buy music; and I have a couple of shelves full of rarely-played CDs. Yesterday, however, I was looking for (and found) a classical ballet DVD for our granddaughter Ida, whose 4th birthday it is tomorrow: she's smitten.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Dog duty

Caroline is in Majorca (only for the inside of this week, thank goodness!) and so I am on dog-walking duty. And in charge of chickens too - rather less arduous.

Today, I chose to drive to Crippets Lane and, from there, walk below Leckhampton Hill. The wind was less fierce than earlier in the week, and the bright sunshine made it a perfect Autumn's day. I came back, planted garlic in the vegetable garden, and prepared for the broad beans and onion sets (purchased yesterday at Dundry Nurseries) to go in tomorrow. There's a frost forecast for tonight, so I brought some of the geraniums into the lean-to conservatory. You can't hope to save them all unless you have a greenhouse heater (which we don't).

Fr. Charles will be pleased about Arsenal's extra time win in France!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The book is launched!

"The Diary of a Shropshire Farmer: A Young Yeoman’s Life and Travels 1835-37" was officially launched today: I billed the invitation, Cheltenham Festival of Literature, Salon des Refusés, because my suggestion to Director Sarah Smyth that the book be featured in this year's Festival fell upon deaf ears. (Notwithstanding, he adds bitterly, it chimed with two of the Festival's themes, Legacy and Locally Sourced.)

Ah well! It didn't stop us having a great all-day party at home, with some 50 people dropping in, and more than 40 copies of the book signed and sold. It undoubtedly helped that we were able to handle the original texts, brought over for the occasion by cousin Bruce from New Brunswick, and also to see the original oil painting of the Peter Davis-bred Bull ("that bovine BMW" as cousin Susannah terms it).

Though family history retains its attractions even after all the hard work has been completed, its real dividend is the variety of living characters it throws up. Or, as Tolstoy wrote, The leaves of a tree delight us more than the roots.

Friday, 14 October 2011

"The Great Food Debate"

We were kindly invited to this Cheltenham Literature Festival event by its sponsors, the SKGR Project; so it ill behoves me to speak ill of it. However, I'm bound to say I found the short hour all rather disappointing. Too many hares were set up and left unchased.

Jonathon Porritt was in the chair, the others on the stage being journalist/food writer Felicity Lawrence and Colin Tudge, promoter of the Campaign for Real Farming, originally a biologist. My frustration stemmed from the lack of any proper debate upon the platform; and from Jonathon's failure to pin the others down in answer to some quite sensible questions, including a couple from pupils of Cheltenham Ladies' College: it didn't help that in his usual way he took three questions at a time. So, we heard no argument as to how prices would remain stable following a transition to a more extensive (and organic) agriculture; and little response to a question about the effect of climate change on food supplies.

Afterwards, I overheard Jonathon saying that he had to put a zip on his mouth; but - I wanted to ask - for heaven's sake, why?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Fr. Charles, an Arsenal fan

On Tuesday evening, the parish said goodbye to its assistant priest, Fr. Tom Smith, who is off to a parish of his own - Warminster. Helping out here in Cheltenham for six weeks, we have a priest from Northern Uganda, Fr. Charles Ohuro. I went round to see him yesterday afternoon.

What a contrast for him, between Cheltenham and his home town on the banks of the Nile, a big game reserve only a stone's throw away and hurricane lamps providing the only light after dark. Fr. Charles is chaplain in a secondary school, founded by Italian missionaries. Priests have no stipends, but subsist on gifts in kind. They walk or bicycle round their parishes: he hopes to go back with a motor cycle, to reduce the time spent in travelling round the village primary schools which feed into his own school.

Whereas vocations in this country are insufficient to compensate for the priests who reach retirement age, in Fr. Charles' diocese, there are over 30 seminarians. With five children constituting a small family, parents are willing if not eager to offer one of their sons for God's service.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Job done

The oldest building in Cheltenham, St Mary's, is hosting a Festival of the Book in parallel to the LitFest. An exhibition in the South Aisle chapel commemorates the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, from which readings are being made from lecterns in the nave, day by day by teams from 16 of Cheltenham's many churches. Yesterday morning, it was my turn (with three others) to tackle the Book of Job.

I've always found it rather forbidding, but read aloud Job makes much better sense, and aren't there some wonderful phrases! "God forbid!" "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away." "The sparks fly upward." "The skin of my teeth." "The root of the matter." "Gird up now thy loins..."

It was with some reluctance that I went along after breakfast, but from the moment that my bicycle and I were ushered into the church by smiling stewards, I became glad I had made the effort.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Just like the old days

Richard Cohen and Shelagh Hancox were chatting in Montpellier Gardens as I walked by this lunchtime. It was good to catch up with Richard again. In the years when he directed our Festival of Literature, it was indisputedly true to its name: Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg - they all featured in Cheltenham one glorious year under his aegis. And Shelagh's husband Alan Hancox (a seminal former Director) would then still hold court in his book-lined Prom basement treasure trove, and at home in Gratton Road till a late hour.

There are a few worthwhile events even in this year's juggernaut bookfest: I had just been to an interesting talk by Susie Harries on Nicklaus Pevsner, "Englishness, of course". How on earth did he manage to produce his 46-volume Buildings of England series, on top of teaching at Cambridge and Birkbeck? One of the answers was by not stopping for lunch: we learnt that he would set off early on a Monday morning from London with a week's worth of sandwiches.

Pevsner was fond of those familiar words of Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” And Susie Harries' lecture made you understand why.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Cooking two Nights

Having bemoaned the likely lack of culinary trade for Cheltenham town centre eateries during this year's Literary Festival, I have to report that excellent fare is available in the tented Feastfest Food Hall in Montpellier Gardens. Rosemary and Eva Nightingale were this lunchtime deservedly doing a roaring trade, and what I ate from their stall was quite delicious! (This is not a foodoir, so I will spare you the details: anyway the menu changes by the day.)

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Nice music, shame about the sales

Five wonderful concerts have been given in Tetbury church during this year's festival. Music by Schubert (Paul Lewis), Bach (Jonathan Cohen's Arcangelo consort) and Victoria (The Sixteen). And hotchpots on Saturday from the Elias String Quartet (in the morning) and Steven Isserlis with Dénes Várjon (in the evening). For me, perhaps the highlight was the quartet's performance of Haydn Opus 64, No. 6, but any such choice is invidious. The standard was uniformly exceptional: it was a great privilege to hear so many fine musicians in such lovely surroundings. And what a great programme book!

By contrast, my exhibition was a flop. People came, yes: indeed it was a highly sociable weekend. However, sales at the Gallery were few, and certainly mine were far from enabling me to meet my framing and mounting costs. As I have always said, people in England just don't seem to buy photographs for display; or is it just mine? Certainly, the punters this weekend were mostly of that age when they might be thought to have already lined their walls, which is why so often over these past four days one heard the excuse, "But I don't have room for any more!"

Saturday, 8 October 2011


The National Arboretum may not be quite at its golden best, but it still made a pleasant diversion this afternoon, between Tetbury Festival concerts. The main drag was heavy with people, but there's plenty of scope for escaping the crowd, and getting a little lost on one or other of the lesser used tracks. There are after all 17 miles of them. The sun peeped through for some of the time, and the drizzle only started just as we drove away out of the car park.

Earlier, I had been taken out to lunch at The Close, the first visit to that hotel since we stayed on our wedding night. Not wanting to offend my hosts, I can't nevertheless say I'd go again just for the food.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Cheltenham Festival of Literature

The Festival - it starts today - has taken a giant leap forward: not only Imperial Gardens, but Montpellier Gardens too has this year become a tented city for the duration. Indeed, the construction process began weeks ago, causing noise and traffic sufficient to upset everyone within a wide radius no doubt. Pity those who have hired the Gardens Gallery during those weeks! Indeed, the Gallery isn't even marked on the Festival map!

My lack of sympathy for the scale of this hyper-festival has been made plain in previous years: expansion into Montpellier runs parallel with withdrawal from the Everyman Theatre and the Parabola Arts Centre. What will hostelries and shops near those two sites make of the non-passing trade? This morning, I toured the campuses on my bike: the only people I saw around were yellow-coated security guards and minions from sponsors such as The Times and Sky. Coming away, I saw an elderly gentleman emerge from a car and fiddle with his pipe: Tony Benn it was, taller than I expected. (Though he didn't refuse to have his photograph taken, he seemed a little taken aback with the speed at which I produced my camera.)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Steve Jobs iRP

I have never had an Apple, but Thomas swears by them, and Jobs was by all acocounts a great innovator. Beyond this, however, he was clearly a brave man, struggling to continue work even when seriously ill. This side of him seems to me to have been unjustly neglected, or perhaps I don't read the right newspapers (or - more likely - blogs/tweets).

Will we ever be content to say "Apps - we have enough! Job(s) done"?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Tetbury Music Festival

Last year’s festival at Tetbury took place during a freeranger downtime:this is the back story. I was asked by its Directors to take photographs during the 2010 festival that could be exhibited this year in the little gallery (once a pub) along the road from the church, used for festival exhibitions in recent years. This turned out to be something of a challenge: clearly the visual artist-in-residence was deemed in some significant eyes as of very secondary importance. I was put in my place more than once, and that place was not such a comfortable one to find oneself in.

However, a body of work emerged, and tonight it’s being hung in the gallery – a dozen or so framed photographs and more than twice as many mounted. I wonder how many will be sold during the next four days? Oh, and there’s another photobook too, which I have published via the reliable Blurb once more: the above shows the front cover.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

"Earthquakes in London"

The joint National Theatre/Headlong production of Mike Bartlett’s 2010 South Bank success is now on tour: we drove to Malvern this evening to catch it, suckers for anything to do with climate change. Rupert Goold’s energetic direction does wonders for what is ultimately not a very profound play. But it is rich entertainment, and may I suppose end up by preaching to others than the converted. At the interval, I found myself thinking of the dysfunctional family and its hangers on in terms of Chekhov somewhat speeded up. The ending however disappoints, resolving itself into sci fi fantasy. A guess at what might be the truth, Cormac McCarthy-like, would of course be far too painful for the punters. Bumping into friends there, we somehow sought to avoid any discussion of the substance of the play.

Monday, 3 October 2011


Today we turned our back on the West Country in order to drive home. What a glorious week of Indian Summer it’s been! We have spent these last three nights in the great comfort of Caroline’s cousin’s old house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean: their informal garden - tables and chairs covered with lichen - spills out onto fields full of sheep and Red Devon cattle, grazing right to the cliff top near Willapark. John, a naturalist to his fingertips, set a light trap on Saturday night which caught moths galore in the freak conditions. Old Fr. Storey is still the priest at St Paul’s Tintagel – as he was when I first came to Welltown with Caroline in 1976.

Addendum: We canvassed with John the possibility of having decided - as part of our carbon awareness - not to travel all the way down to Cornwall for Jeremy Faull's funeral. He responded later, by email:

Brooding about the challenges of remote understanding, I came across this stanza from Philip Larkin and his Going, Going poem of 1972:

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes.
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

A different sort of distance, but it left me wondering, could we really have experienced St. Breock and its carved benches without being there?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Green memories

We had long planned to be in Cornwall this weekend in order to visit Jeremy and Odile Faull, close friends of all our family over many years. Instead, the journey on Friday was for Jeremy’s funeral. More than 300 friends and wellwishers packed into St Breock’s Church for the service: Jeremy’s parish church, St Clement’s, Withiel (“Quite a large church,” according to Pevsner) wouldn’t have been big enough. It was a wonderful thanksgiving for the richest of lives. Local farmers and dignitaries rubbed shoulders with Parisian businessmen and all manner of Greens, golfing partners, artists, craftsmen, writers and bibliophiles.

This evening, we walked with Odile from her house in the valley up through the fields to the graveyard on the hillside. There, in the corner nearest home, Jeremy’s grave lies covered with flowers, with bean sticks on the village allotments as a backdrop. He will be smiling!

Saturday, 1 October 2011


Seven years ago, this village was devastated by flooding: you wouldn’t know it from seeing it now, particularly on an October afternoon with the thermometer showing record temperatures. The National Trust shop and coffee house – I ordered latte and was served cappuccino – also has an exhibition area, with a harrowing video sequence showing. The events that 16th August unfold grimly, cars and caravans swept over the main road bridge and out to sea, as if our grandchildren were playing with my old Dinky toys. It seems a miracle that no lives were lost.

Today Boscastle was en fête, exhibitions in all its public (and some private) buildings, and a vast food tent with cookery demonstrations by would-be celebrity chefs. We walked down into the village from the direction of Willapark coastguard station, the harbour entrance unfolding before us like a sequence from Pirates of the Caribbean. After lunch, sitting by the river (today, hardly more than a babbling brook), we struggled up the steep High Street to see Carole Vincent’s garden, with its curiously antiseptic concrete sculptures.