Friday, 30 August 2013

A history lesson

As I mentioned a year ago, my school contemporary Norman Tanner S.J. said he'd come to Cheltenham to talk about ecology from the historical perspective. Since then, Vatican II: The Essential Texts has been published, a collaboration between Norman and Pope Benedict. So, renowned as my old friend is as a church historian, there should be a good turnout on Monday next, when he visits us. In fact he arrives on Sunday, to enable us to spend some time together: I hope to show him something of the Cotswolds: I always enjoy seeing round through the eyes of a visitor, especially at this golden time of year.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Mountains and molehills

As I've mentioned, I am enjoying dipping into Roger Deakin's Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. "All that one asks of one's friends," he writes, "is that they remain one step ahead. To have them lagging behind risks plunging into banality." But how difficult it is, to retain a perspective between the trivial and the important. I was reflecting on this in the train back to Cheltenham this afternoon. In conversation, you can, if you're not careful, get as heated about England peeing on the pitch as Syria raining incendiaries onto a school playground. It's easy to forget there are always choices we can make about what we discuss.

Planning a walk from Stroud, you have basically two choices: a steep pull uphill to see something of the Cotswolds and look out over the Severn Vale, and a flat, shady trudge parallel to fairly busy roads, but with (in one direction) one of Gloucestershire's ace pubs as your goal. It is still warm and dry, but the visibility this morning wasn't great. As the two others I was meeting shared my thought that food and drink were as important as exercise, we opted for the second alternative, walking from Stroud Station to beyond Nailsworth mainly on the old railway line.

It's part of Sustrans' National Cycle Network, but we were not badly buzzed by bikes: all those that did come past had kindly "belled" us in good time. And it's an interesting walk, giving you a behind the scenes look at the area's industrial past. There are some high class graffiti in one of the tunnels, and a couple of sculptural signposts caught the eye. The natural world is well documented by displays posted at intervals.

By the time we reached Nailsworth, we were ready for our lunch. The look of a menu we passed offered a temptation to halt there, but the prices put us off so on we pressed along the Avening Road to our planned destination, the Weighbridge Inn. The look on my friend's face when his 2in1 pie arrived sums up the general happiness not to have been deflected into William's Kitchen.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013


For over two decades, Glenfall House operated as the Gloucester Diocesan retreat centre. A month ago, it closed its doors. I am sad about this, having been closely involved with Glenfall from the '80s until a while after the retreat house opened.

I remember particularly the opening ceremonies on 27th June 1992, with a Eucharist presided over by Gloucester's short-lived Bishop Peter on the sunny terrace in front of the house, the gardens falling away towards fields below, full of ancient oak trees. Nuns of the Society of St Peter had been there before, and I have the memory of a frail Sister Mary Margaret, delighted to be back at her former convent home and sitting on a bench eating strawberries and cream. It's disconcerting that this comes back so clearly, at a time when I now find myself putting the red wine away in the fridge.

Before the nuns, Glenfall was the home of Mary Williams and her farmer son Anthony: they hosted the occasional Old Amplefordian gathering there, which I organised shortly after arriving in Gloucestershire in 1973. The early 19th Century villa had been radically altered a century later, with beer money. Arts and Crafts plasterwork (Peter Waals), woodwork (Sidney Barnsley) and metalwork (Norman Jewson) is to be seen both inside and out. The arch of a Cotswold stone garden grotto is echoed by Jewson's field gate, which I walked past today, at the Southern extremity of the surrounding estate.

Edgar, Patrick, Martin and I had met near Sainsbury's at 9:30 and set off parallel to Harp Hill on a misty but warm morning. I had the idea that it was possible to walk right up part of the eponymous glen (deep and steep), but we ended up just crossing it on a rickety bridge.

Though the grounds seem to be well tended, the house itself looks sadly abandoned, with plasterwork in need of repair. Just beyond the drive's iron railings, a hawk was dismembering some creature larger than itself: a bird of prey, where once there had been birds of pray.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Scarey gardening

We were asked to lunch in Great Milton today. Not at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, but we made a detour through its vegetable garden on our way back from a post-prandial walk. And what a garden it is!

The website tells me it extends to two acres, and supplies 90 types of salad and vegetable. All organic. And surrounded by espalier apple and pear trees. The bronze scarecrow is apparently modelled on Raymond Blanc himself (and reminds me of the violinist sculpture presiding over the wild flower garden at Long Newnton, which was modelled on Edmund - wearing my hat).

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Fatball slim

In June, I republished in this blog the article I had written for The Tablet on an alternative approach to pilgrimage. Clearly the author of the Parish Practice article in last week's Tablet hadn't taken it to heart, because there he encouraged every parish to consider a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a means of spiritual enrichment. This spurred me into writing a Letter to the Editor:

In our diocese there are in excess of 150 parishes, and England and Wales is made up of 24 dioceses. If each were to galvanise 20 parishioners into making tracks for Israel - inevitably it would be by air - this would release more than 50,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. When Jesus offered to come to the Centurian's house, to minister to his paralysed servant, he was told this was unnecessary: "Just give the word and my servant will be cured." (Matthew 8) Is it really beyond us to learn how to acquire spiritual enrichment today at a lower carbon cost?

I was optimistic about publication, but on opening this week's number... disappointed. Not a sign of my Letter, even in the online Letters Extra. Instead, there's one urging Holy Land pilgrims to make a 20kms. detour from Jerusalem - to visit a village that hosts the country's only brewery, "open to visitors". Jesus wept.

Optimistically again, I hung a bird feeder outside our kitchen window, and filled it with fat balls a month or more ago. Nothing happened... till the other day, when I noticed the fat balls had shrunk quite a bit. And at lunchtime today, we discovered why. This tiny mouse had crawled inside the feeder.

It's the last Summer Bank Holiday weekend, and this evening the culmination of the last Ashes Test has been clashing with Acts 1 and 2 of the last of seven Wagner operas at the Proms: the cricket went out with a frustrating (but hardly mouse-like) whimper, Mark Elder's Parsifal with a satisfying bang.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

More photobooks

It's no doubt sad to admit it, but this retiree looks forward keenly to the courier's arrival with a package containing photobooks. Four of them were for the inaugural Transylvanian Book Festival: it starts on 5th September. Having repacked them for Romania, I trotted along to our post box, but the opening was too small. And so, to the post office, where I was asked, "What's in this then?". Well, we are after all in Cheltenham, home of GCHQ.

The other photobook that came this morning was my seventh volume of blogposts (cover as above). But I'm not too happy about the reproduction of many of the photographs. Hmmm, I'm reluctant to change publisher (from Blurb), but may just look into the alternatives.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that I had been photographing churches: that was on my Wednesday circular walk, which started at Nympsfield. Clockwise, we followed a path down and then up into Uley, climbed steeply from St Giles' Church to Uley Bury, and then back through the woods above Frocester. Six of us this week. A lovely day for it - no rain. No landscape photography as I'd forgotten to charge my camera battery.

Sławomir Mrożek died a week ago: his obituary is in today's paper. The RSC brought to the Aldwych his play Tango, "a modern-day Hamlet", as described by Michael Coveney. It followed the playwright's exposure in the same theatre with his double bill in Peter Daubeny's 1964 World Theatre Season. (I remember those long thin instruments with earpieces we were given in order to hear the translations.) The image of Michael Williams and Robert Eddison tangoing as the curtain fell still remains with me even after 47 years.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

80 and 100

Bobby Furber was my principal when I was articled as a solicitor in 1966. He may not have taught me much law, but he infected me with his enthusiasm for film and particularly music. "You must," he urged me, "buy Janet Baker's Saga records, Schumann and English Songs: only 12/6d each!" She was little known then, but even on my salary of £450 a year, I felt I could afford a gamble of that level: it paid off, and I still have the two 12" vinyls.

Now Dame Janet Baker, Happy 80th Birthday! I used to keep a record of singers and when/where/in what I had heard them. There can't be many in my book with more than the 33 entries I have for "Baker, Janet (m-s)". Over the period of more than a decade, she was a constant star in my progress to acquiring some sort of musical education, seen and heard mainly in London, but also in Birmingham, in Edinburgh, at Glyndebourne... and then (after her premature retirement) at the opening of the Elgar Birthplace Museum, where she made a pretty speech.

Another milestone: I have just added the 100th photograph of a Gloucestershire church to my website: still 400 or more to go though. The 99th was added yesterday, when I tracked down St John's, Pauntley. This must be one of the remotest churches in the county, but is well worth seeking out for its position. I was on my way to a GOGG garden visit: I had hoped Caroline would be able to come too, as the visit was to Schofields, near Newent. I had been there without her last year, and wanted to show her the amazing cacti, but she was ministering to our current Japanese student, Daisuke from Kanagawa.

"Looking, just looking, is all we have to do to see the essential truth," wrote the late lamented Roger Deakin: I am much enjoying reading his Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, lent to me by Chris Hoggett.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

"Why do we have to get richer?"

This was the question posed by Mark Tully in Sunday's Something Understood on Radio 4. (It's on - live - either very early or very late, but you can of course listen online till Sunday next.)

Something Understood is my "go to" programme each week, when I reach for the button of my bedside play again radio. Five eclectically-chosen pieces of music, four prose or verse snippets (Ronald Pickup is one of the readers this week), and a shortish informal interview: that's the pattern. Tully concentrates more upon the questions than the answers, often drawing on his long experience in India.

Gandhian economist, Devaki Jain, this week's interviewee, considered the value of craft work as a contribution to a nation's health and wealth. This question was in my mind also yesterday, as I inspected the modern designer furniture etc. at this year's Celebration of Craftsmanship & Design, held just down the road from us. Caroline and I biked along together, meeting up with friends. They, unlike us, were prospective buyers, so I tried to divide the prices by the number of hours I imagined the piece had taken to make. Ikea, it's not.

The exhibition is held in one of Cheltenham's finest buildings (in recent years, part of Cheltenham College). The catalogue attempts - not entirely accurately - to narrate the history of the building and its owners: I took a particular interest in that aspect, as the first major name on the list, the 3rd Baron Northwick has a walk-on part in my ancestor, Peter Davis' The diary of a Shropshire Farmer. They were near contemporaries, born in the same parish.

Photography wasn't allowed in the exhibition building: this impression is therefore the best I could manage - taken through one of the windows, where a trio of Judith Nicoll's driftwood wading birds were displayed. Godwits (though "Goodwits" for some reason in the catalogue).

We came away, stimulated, but in need of a cup of tea.

Monday, 19 August 2013

His and hers

His wife, her bower, his beans, her flowers, his mother's urns, her pond...

I've just finished reading Restoration by Rose Tremain. I see that in fact I read it before, 12 years ago - not that I remember much. My (re)reading was prompted by finding a copy at the house in which I stayed for a week last month, and borrowing it from there, thinking also that Caroline would want to read it: it's currently her book club book. I also thought it would be interesting to compare its writing with that of the sequel, which I enjoyed reading last year.

Two decades separate Merivel from Restoration, which now feels rather ponderous, though the recurring motif of hindsight in reverse remains a charming conceit. I love this passage, genuinely prophetic, written as it was in 1989. "I dreamed, last night, a most infamous dream. I was in a high chamber at Whitehall where a clutch of gallants and their women, together with the King and Queen, were assembled. Why are we all come here? I asked one I recognised as Sir Rupert Pinworth. Why... for the wedding. Naturally. At that moment, the crowd moved to make a pathway for the bride and groom... And then I saw their faces... And I saw that it was indeed... two women whom the priest had married... And Sir Rupert leaned over and whispered in my ear: You see what marriage is become. It is become anything we make it be. And I woke up very hot and troubled."

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Dining out again

We were asked by friends in Chedworth to dine with them last evening, and - arriving at the cottage - to take note of a new acquisition: a grandfather clock. In itself, this might not seem to be so very remarkable, "But look at the face!" we were urged. And there was the inscription, "Giles Coates, Chedworth." Wonderful, isn't it, that in the 18th Century a village as seemingly small and insignificant as Chedworth should be the home to a still-celebrated watch and clockmaker!

Not that this Giles should be confused with his son of the same name, who met a watery end off the coast of Tasmania where he was sentenced to be deported for shooting the Stowell Park gamekeeper.

Altogether, I had a feast of a day, with an invitation to lunch from Leo: we ate Smörgåsbord at the Swedish restaurant just opposite my former office. And at the Emirates Aston Villa beat Arsenal 3-1!

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Dining out

We don't often go out to dinner, but Caroline was anxious to try out the acclaimed fish and chip restaurant (cum shop) on the other side of town. So, we booked a table for this evening and gave it a try. Not bad, was the verdict, if you don't expect haute cuisine. The chips weren't cooked enough for my taste, but they were certainly not too oily. My sea bass could have been anything, though again the batter didn't cloy in the mouth as it can do. There was a genuine no nonsense feel to the place, and a warm welcome

Funnily enough our friends the Greenwolds, whom we saw on Saturday, were telling us about their son Michael's new venture: the first fish and chip shop to be opened in Paris, The Sunken Chip.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

"A woman of substance"

Two of the leading characters of Barbara Taylor Bradford's novel are Edwin and the eponymous Emma, and yesterday was a perfect day for another Emma and Edwin's marriage - in the most idyllic of Cotswold settings, sheep joining in the chorus of approval for the speeches.

Attending such a magnificent celebration, you gained the impression that this Emma (whom we have known since the day she was born) had also become a woman of some substance. By which I am far from implying anything about her physique: no bride could have looked more gracefully slender. But Emma is now a formidable lady, having set up an operation in Dubai, and now married someone, himself clearly a man of substance. This we could tell, not just from the predominance of jeunesse dorée, nor from the words spoken by the Best Man (one of three), but also from the superlative food and wines on offer.

One of the readings in the marriage service was from Captain Corelli's Mandolin: "Love is... both an art [which you have to work at] and a fortunate accident".

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Running out of steam

You tend to forget the origins of phrases like this. William and I had a reminder this morning, while visiting Toddington Station and the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Railway. From the window of the old carriage that serves as a museum, I photographed a volunteer bending his back to shovel the coal into the firebox of this '28xx' class heavy freight locomotive, built in 1905. Rescued from the scrapyard, it has been lovingly restored over a period of 29 years. Besides eating up coal, it needs 3,500 gallons of water to fill its tank.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Toothless in Lido

It's a busy time in the garden. Spring onion seeds planted this afternoon; broad beans cut down, first crop raspberries cut out, lawn mowed, edges trimmed, manure collected, wallflowers planted out, and white sprouting (with mesh protection), plums harvested, croquet essayed. And another trip to Cheltenham's splendid open air Lido with the grandsons, whose rough and tumble left Laurie missing one of his front teeth: the first of his to go.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Friendship Circle

The Western section of Cheltenham's Sandford Park used to have a clump of mature trees as one of its loveliest features. They were felled two decades or more ago, replaced by an inanimate "Friendship Circle". This consists of three blobs in cast iron by the South African artist Neville Gabie, intended to commemorate Cheltenham's various twinning links.

Like the Sophie Ryder I posted about last week, this piece of public art came in for a barrage of criticism at first: I joined the chorus of disapproval. But seeing it today I realised it had come to earn its keep - certainly more so than the sculpture in the Eastern section of the park, The Weathered Man, about which I wrote last December.

Maybe my change of mind was influenced by the grandsons discovering that one of the trio was hollow. "We are baby crabs in our mother's shell," said Laurie.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Bisley way

Four of us met at Bisley this morning, when it was cool enough to need a jersey for once. We started out of the village in the Througham direction, then walking in an anti-clockwise circle back to the Bear for lunch. It's not a part of the Cotswolds I know well: I liked the landscape - golden barley, Jacob sheep (formidably horned), farmhouses gentrified (Sydenhams) or in the process of gentrification (Derryards), hay baled high in pastel-coloured plastic cubes, ten or so acres of assorted vegetable growing at The Firs and paths through beech woods This tree fungus caught the eye.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Forgotten leaves from the family album

Probably on business, my grandfather evidently visited Germany at some time in the 'Thirties: looking through some pages of an old album passed down to me, I have come across this amongst other images of a parade: arms raised by spectators in the Nazi salute: in another swastikas are flying.

Not many photographs from this side of the family have survived the 80 or so years since they were taken: the spectacle must have seemed significant to both my grandfather and my father, for these to have been preserved.

In the same album are a very few holiday photographs - each of my grandparents taken on board ship: the Queen Mary was launched in 1936, so my grandfather would have been in his 50s at the time. A natty dresser, but unable to conceal his middle age spread.

Monday, 5 August 2013

"freeranger: sixth sense?"

Another book has recently arrived in the post from, the title as above. It's volume 6 of the set comprising my blog posts - those between 1st June and 31st December 2012. The cover photograph dates from a bike ride I did in July last year - to Tewkesbury: it was a beautiful day, one of the rare ones of a wet Summer, compared to 2013.

After a long spell of generally fine weather, we are getting some welcome rain today - welcome, that is, not just for the garden, but also to save our bacon in the 3rd Ashes Test at Old Trafford.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Freecycle London

The Freecycle Network - of which we have long been local members - must be a bit dechuffed by the highjacking of the name "Freecycle" by Prudential for their Ride London, which took place today. I went up for it, pedalling along with a university friend who lives in Kensington and 50,000 others. Michael and I wondered whether, when we first met, more than 50 years ago, we could ever have envisaged ourselves in 2013, cycling sedately together in the slow lane between Hyde Park and the Tower through a car-free London.

Not that we were the oldest taking part, by any manner of means. Yet one of the highspots was seeing the extremely young enjoying the freedom of the streets, along with a rich assortment of eccentricity - for instance this slightly boxed terrier with owner.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Lapping it up

As Ogden Nash wrote, "The entrance requirements for grampahood are comparatively mild. You only have to live until your child has a child." Well worth the wait, I say!

It was 16 years ago that Sophie Ryder's Minotaur and the Hare was purchased for permanent display in a prominent position in Cheltenham's Promenade. There were the predictable howls of protest, but now I guess they would be easily drowned out by a chorus of approval - if it was to be mooted that the sculpture be removed. The chorus would be led by grandparents deprived of a most beautiful climbing frame.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Guiting again

Mini said last evening, before our customary date attending the Guiting Festival, "Being here always reminds me that the end of Summer is approaching." Well, as if to contradict her, today it's been hotter than ever - and even now, late in the evening, it's still 21 degrees C.

However, yesterday - though it wasn't cold - the sun resolutely refused to sign for our pre-concert picnic, which was a pity, but it in no way diminished the pleasure of the performance by the Carducci Quartet. Here were Emma Denton, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, Matthew Denton and Michelle Fleming after a memorable performance of Mendelssohn's last quartet - ending a recital which deserved (but sadly didn't get) a full house. ("There's just too much music!" as a friend said.)

The three string quartets (Haydn and Ravel before the interval) took less time to play through than one Act of the Ring Cycle, which no doubt explains my surprise that it all seemed to be over so quickly.