Thursday, 28 February 2013

"A three-year Odyssey"

This is how sculptor, Rory Young described his journey leading from the important commission for statues of seven martyrs for the niches on the nave altar screen at St Albans. Rory was talking to supporters of the Gloucestershire Historic Churches Trust this evening - a crammed Chedworth Village Hall. He called his lecture, "Mediaeval form and colour inspiring new work at St Albans Cathedral".

Goodness knows how many images we were treated to! Some slides incorporated two or more, so it must have been in the hundreds. They illustrated a voyage round mainland Europe (Amiens, Verona, Padua, Rome), but particularly England: other cathedrals of course (Westminster, Durham, Exeter, Coventry, York, Wells...); abbeys such as Westminster, Tewkesbury and Downside; great parish churches (St John the Baptist, Cirencester, St Mary, Warwick, Holy Trinity, Coventry), and lesser ones (South Newington, Notgrove, Leigh Delamere). Then there were the trips to the V&A and the Mercers' Hall. All served to illustrate a quest for hints of original colour, and the best sculptural representation of flowing garments and off-guard expression.

Perhaps Helen Whitbread over-egged it when she paid tribute to "a present Michelangelo in our midst," but we were certainly wowed.

Alas, we couldn't stay for supper in the pub, as bidden: it was 19-year-old Misa Yamahoi's last evening with us. One of a group of students from Japan, she arrived to stay with us on the 10th, the day before the Pope resigned. It seems strange that all the hoo-hah surrounding this event in our media should so completely pass by someone in our midst but from quite another world.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013


From the Plough in Prestbury, we walked today Northwards to Southam, past the vulgarity of the Ellenborough Hotel. Skirting Cleeve Hill, we then made for Bishop's Cleeve, clinging on gamely to its apostrophe notwithstanding the rash of illiterate housing developments spawned there in recent years. Having crossed the A435, we aimed towards Swindon Village: this photograph was taken looking back towards the Racecourse and the escarpment - a surprisingly tranquil scene when you think of Cheltenham's suburban tentacles reaching all around that area. It was a cold morning: the sun only broke through as we arrived home after lunch.

I'm still thinking about last night's Film Society offering, Monsieur Lazhar. Continuing the theme mentioned briefly in last Thursday's post, it portrayed an Algerian asylum seeker: his family having been murdered as they were about to join him in Canada, he bluffed his way into a teaching post left vacant by the suicide of his predecessor. Without any excess of sentiment, we watched his growing engagement with the young teenagers in his charge, his comforting them in their bereavement acting in turn as a comfort for himself. Brilliant.

Monday, 25 February 2013

England v. Wales

We drove to West Herefordshire today, and lunched well, the three of us doing full justice to a bottle of Chateau Chasse-Spleen 1986. The kitchen window gave a similar view to this, my photograph being taken from the garden. Grosmont, Monmouthshire, graces the hill opposite, across the border, which runs down the middle of the fast-flowing River Monnow.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Teaching Grandmother...

... to play Pudding Monsters: this was William's mission at breakfast time this morning.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Energy Bill

Friends of the Earth locally arranged a panel discussion on this important topic this afternoon. All four speakers, including the Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood, behaved themselves well, so as to make my task - as chairman - an easy one. FoE secured a display of photographs of "renewables", which cheered up the rather dour surroundings (St Andrew's Church, Montpellier) no end. Their pre-publicity worked well: nearly 100 turned out for it, not bad for a Saturday afternoon.

Thursday, 21 February 2013


Probably to brighten up a dull month, the papers are currently full of pictures showing the latest fashions: ridiculous clothes on ridiculously thin women. But it's not only women - it seems - that are dressed up these days. Dogs and horses too are adorned in ways that were surely never the norm a few decades ago. Is it really colder now? These were just two of many horses togged up in the fields to the North of Greenway Lane this afternoon. I walked along this, once the main highway between Cirencester and Gloucester, on my way back from another lunchtime visit to the Star Bistro at Ullenwood.

This evening, I watched at last the DVD of Of Gods and Men, kindly lent to us. What a superb film! Niall Keenan has an excellent article about its illustration of the virtue of fortitude on Thinking Faith.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

2000 trees?

We have just returned from our friendly multiplex cinema, where we went to see Eugene Onegin beamed from the Royal Opera House. Since seeing Ileana Cotrubas in the Peter Hall production at Covent Garden (twice) and Elisabeth Söderström in the Glyndebourne Prom - all more than 40 years ago - this has been one of my favourite operas.

Last night's relay was one of the best such we have seen, I think. A thoroughly original interpretaion - dancers in the main parts as well as the singing actors - excellent singing, and the orchestra in tiptop form! My only cavil was with the unchanging set, which doesn't do at all for the key duel scene.

Though we lived barely four miles North of Withington for many years, I had never - before this misty morning - walked from that village to Foxcote. My photograph is of Upcote Farm, the first building you encounter after leaving Withington. The farmhouse faces South and is surrounded by a large stone barn and other outbuildings. A fountain was playing in the pond - altogether rather idyllic. Not such a peaceful place, however, later this year, when the seventh annual 2000trees festival takes place there.

Why "2000trees"? I wondered; but then we soon walked on into and through Vestey territory (Foxcote), in which trees have altogether possibly been planted by the thousand in recent years.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Downham Hill

As yesterday, the mist took time to clear, but by mid-morning the sun was coming out, and from then on it's been another lovely day. Perfect for a walk in the Dursley area, which I hadn't previously explored. Going South from the little Cam and Dursley Station, it's only a couple of miles to the top of Peaked Down. From there the view opens up towards Downham Hill, just West of Uley. The remains of a smallpox isolation clinic are still apparently visible on the summit: we didn't explore. The Old Spot pub in Dursley had run out of sausages.

Sunday, 17 February 2013


As last Saturday, we spent most of today down near Malmesbury, helping Edmund pack up his cottage at Lea. The removal van comes tomorrow morning. Unlike last week, it eventually turned out to be a bright day. After three fine days, it suddenly seems to be Spring and things are needing doing.

En route, we parked at Stockwell, to give Floss a walk. Just before getting back into the car, I had my first glimpse of the sun as a crisp golden disc in the cloud - as one usually sees a full moon on a clear night.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Three fields to my right

I photographed this scene on a misty morning in February 21 years ago, in black and white - the last time I walked that way. The path from Turkdean runs along the valley, before rising (here) to Rixon's Covert. Starting from Hampnett today, we were making for Naunton, and so, instead of proceeding towards Salperton, we forked right to Notgrove and thence under the old railway line to Aylworth. A beautifully still, sunny day, possibly the best so far this year for a walk!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Six of Hearts

A rather beuatiful Lisa Calnan card and a dish of six heart-shaped bread rolls awaited me at breakfast time. And the Guardian gave its front page header to Chaucer's Valentine, a clever new poem by Carol Ann Duffy!

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Shrove Tuesday

This is a segue from yesterday's blogpost about papal shriving.

This evening, before going to the Film Society (unusually, a British film Treacle Jr. - gritty and compassionate), Leo tossed me an excellent pancake. I resolved to photograph him tossing the next one, but Splat! It landed on the floor.

We have an addition to our household for a three-week stay, Mesa, a 19-year-old Japanese student. Interesting, trying to explain to her the origins of Shrove Tuesday...

Monday, 11 February 2013

Post Benedict XVI

We don't often think of a Pope on his knees, begging forgiveness. In this wooden relief, Peter is doing just that, of Jesus' mother, having betrayed him three times before the cock crew. The relief is one of three carved a few decades ago, as the retable of a side altar in the little chapelle Notre-Dame du Carrefour at Montredon, just North of the River Lot: I passed through when walking last May.

We must be careful what we wish for, but it's tempting to put together a "wanted" list when thinking about the coming conclave. Someone who is willing to ask forgiveness for too much past secrecy; for the Church's treatment of women; for toleration of injustice, and for a presumption of white superiority? An enabler of bishops within their own jurisdictions? A pricker of Vatican Curial bubbles? A putter-aside of fripperies and too much ceremonial? A servant of unity between Christians, and between the Abrahamic faiths? An innovator in the field of virtual communication between Catholics worldwide - convener, even, of a Twitter Synod? A leader who puts concern for the Created world at the heart of his ministry? One could go on, but you will no doubt be already saying "Get real!"

Friday, 8 February 2013

St Weonards

We were here this afternoon, for Marius Gray's burial. There can't be many graveyards with a more beautiful outlook. Whereas we had emerged from the service in Belmont Abbey in a snowstorm, the sun was shining as the crowd of us surrounded a newly-dug grave. The vicar, Elaine Goddard, paid our last corporate respects to "a firm believer in an age of increasing unbelief" (Fr. Simon McGurk's funeral words), and the family let their individual handfuls of earth drop into the tomb. Raw emotions in a raw wind. Then we poured into the church for tea and sympathy.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Arbury Lodge

Astley belongs to the family which owns neighbouring Arbury Park. (Landmark Trust have a 99-year lease.) The properties are divided by quite a busy thoroughfare - the roadkill, bottom left, bearing this out. I biked along there this morning, to admire the view of the Castle from across the lake, but also to see if there was a way in to Arbury Park: on the map, it looked as if it was worth exploring. I was disappointed - no room for doubt is left by either the notice on the gate or its electric operating mechanism.

This turned out to be the first of a number of "incidents" today. We were all going to the matinée of The Winter's Tale at Stratford: one of the party however pulled out ("dogged" - by misfortune). We parked in our usual place, convenient for the ferry across the River Avon: it wasn't running. The theatre programme says "no photography" - I always assumed this meant during the play. At the end, I took a photograph of the curtain calls: a steward came and demanded that I delete my image whilst she looked on. "It infringes the actors' copyright" apparently. Finally, driving back to Astley in the dark, I was baffled by the labyrinth of roads around Coventry, and took a wrong turn down a side street: blue lights flashed behind me. The fresh-faced officer edged near to smell my breath... but turned out to be there just in case I was lost - and guided me back in the right direction.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

A reading party

The best bit about staying in a Landmark is the opportunity it gives to sit and read, without distraction from telephone (mostly), computers and television. Long may the Trust's "No wifi" policy continue, though I fear it's under threat.

As may be gleaned from my photograph, the living area at Astley is upstairs, with floor length windows giving a view across to the parish church. Its origins are as old as the Castle's, but only part of the 14th Century Collegiate remains: it must have been huge! In the now vanished spire, a light was shown after dark, giving Astley - then surrounded by forest - the name of "the Lantern of Arden". We heard all this from one of the churchwardens, who met us inside the - extremely low - West door of St Mary's this morning and gave us the benefit of the knowledge gleaned during his sixty plus years as a parishioner. It transpires that visitors to the Castle included not only Lady Jane Grey, but (more significant, possibly, in the mind of our new friend) Sir Elton John.

An old friend came to lunch with us here: he serves as a priest in a parish within the Coventry conurbation, where he is busy organising a food bank. Walking up towards the transformed Castle, he exclaimed: "This must have cost a lot! What a waste of money!" It's a point of view: after all £2.7m was spent on the restoration. And didn't Rose Macaulay speak of this "perhaps overcastled earth"?

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Coventry Cathedral

My recollection of visiting Coventry Cathedral (not so long after it opened in 1962) is hazy. I certainly never explored the adjacent ruins of the old cathedral: to be taken there first - as we were, by our excellent guide this morning - made me realise (as we stood shivering in the icy wind) what a significant undertaking it was to build anew.

Though Basil Spence's conception is crammed full of fine artefacts, Coventry Cathedral today stands, not so much as an art repository as a symbol of reconciliation. Till July there is an excellent matching exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery across the way: "Caught in the crossfire: artistic responses to conflict, peace and reconciliation."

Monday, 4 February 2013


We have travelled to North-East Warwickshire today, to stay in one of the latest Landmark Trust properties to become available. Astley Castle was really more designed - in the 13th Century - as a fortified manor house: this part of the world is pretty flat, so the site has few natural advantages. The Trust provides parking behind the 18th Century Coach House, seen to the left of my photograph, and wheelbarrows for luggage to be pushed up the path - hardly an arduous task as it's certainly not an ear-popping ascent. The gates would hardly stop many armies in their tracks, though the moat is impressively deep.

What is so attractive about Astley? Its history - three English Queens are associated with it; and the fact that there's now a totally modern dwelling with plenty of room for eight people, built within the old walls. Brilliant in fact for a four-day stay!

Sunday, 3 February 2013


Ten years ago, Martin Smith celebrated his 60th birthday by conducting his beloved Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment in "Messiah" in Inigo Jones' Banqueting House, Whitehall. Last night, he did it again, this time in Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre, to mark his 70th birthday. And with the same tenor and bass soloists - all four in fact Cambridge alumni. (Where is the home-grown talent?!)

The banked seating last night gave the opportunity to witness the degree of close eye contact between for instance Nicholas Kraemer at the harpsichord, the first cellist and Maggie Faultless, the leader. While these performances may spoil one for "Messiah" when rendered by lesser players and singers, they certainly bring out new things. "Comfort ye...", the first words we heard, were sung by Mark Padmore with all the intensity required to remind us of Shaw saying that the text was a work of genius: "a meditation of our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief". Tim Mead wrenched the heart similarly with "A man of sorrows...", and then there was the angelic Katherine Watson (only 26, and a big star looming). Gerald Finley's "The trumpet shall sound" stole the show in the London performance, and did so again last evening. In the intervening decade, he has added Hans Sachs to his repertoire: I thought I detected even a bar or two from "Die Meistersinger" in his oh-so-free final section: brilliant!

Martin looked shattered at the end: I do hope he is not already feeling any pressure to do it all over again in 2023! But where he's concerned nothing would surprise me.

Saturday, 2 February 2013


Having become bogged down as I walked through Lott Meadow, I was happy to stay on the tarmac up as far as The Crippets on Wednesday: normally, I would pass through the Burley Fields deer park, but that could have been a quagmire. As it was, I saw that the deer park had been extended to the opposite side of the lane from these soggy sheep. (In one of the paddocks further down was a Jacob's, not polycerate but unicerate - a ewe-nicorn?)

My destination on this sunny morning was the Star Bistro, opened fairly recently at Ullenwood. It serves a very good lunch!

Friday, 1 February 2013


Some friends were gathered at the Landmark Trust's Shelwick Court, just outside Hereford, this week, and I was kindly invited to join them there yesterday. My route was roundabout, to put it mildly: up on the train to Worcester (across the very swollen Avon); SW to Hereford (across an equally swollen Severn, and arriving near to a no less swollen Wye); SW again to Newport; E to Bristol Parkway and then home. There had been a landslide near Gloucester, it seems. Anyway, I had good value, I suppose, for my £12.05 fare.

After lunch, we walked from the fine old house down towards the River Lugg, but got nowhere near: more flooding there of course. In the morning, we were in the Cathedral. Its loos have a separate entrance, across a garden: emerging from them, the wind blew my cap off. Up it sailed, onto the loo block's high flat roof. Ah well, I thought, it's not irreplaceable. But I left my address with one of the stewards in case it ever came down.

We went on with our visit, which was timed to coincide with a lunchtime Service. We were out of luck, as there was a funeral taking place in the Lady Chapel. Disappointed, we approached the elderly retired priest from Much Wenlock who had welcomed us when we first came in. "Could you," I asked, "kindly lead us in a short prayer? Our group consists of Pax Christi workers and supporters..." He took us to the tiny Stanbury's Chantry, where we sat for a few minutes. But prayer for peace was there none. It seemed he had never heard of Pax Christi, which gave me rather a jolt.

Just as we'd left the Cathedral, the same steward I'd seen earlier came running after me - cap in hand. My request, "St Thomas of Hereford, pray for us" had borne fruit.

Just as we reached the car park, I noticed The Hereford Cattle Society office, with a statue of a bull over the door. I was about to photograph it when one of the staff emerged. Do you by any chance have "Cotmore" inside? I asked. Yes, come and see him, was the kind response. And so I was able to photograph the painting I'd long heard about, featuring my great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Jeffries' prize-winning bull in all its glory. Cotmore was where he had lived, near Lyonshall, and there bred this beast, weighing in - aged 9 - at 35 cwt (over one and a half tonnes).