We didn’t visit Oxford (part 2)

From yesterday’s post: ‘Train day out’  dawned and, as planned, we drove to Evesham this morning, parked the car and walked onto the platform. “It’s a bit strange,” I said after a few minutes, “but there’s nothing at all that refers to Cross Country Trains. Everything says GWR.” Husband looked less concerned that I felt. So I said it again.  This time he looked around and frowned. He took out his phone and rang GWR. The outcome of his conversation was that we got back in the car and drove out of the station.   

We had checked the Cross Country Trains website . It showed that the 10.30am weekday London, Paddington train stops in Evesham and Oxford.  Nowhere on this page does it suggest that the train is not run by Cross Country Trains. Needless to say, our complimentary ticket were only valid on their trains so, not being prepared to purchase new tickets , we got back in the car and drove out of the station.  We were both feeling rather glum by now.  As my daughter’s text said – ‘What is it with you two and trains?’

We drove to the end of the road. Left towards home or right towards the town centre – what was it to be asked Husband. It’s probably fifteen years since I went to Evesham and on that occasion it was to shop. I found it a very uninspiring place and haven’t been back since. Nevertheless, having planned a day out, I said that we should turn right and make the best of it. The shops still didn’t look very exciting so we decided to concentrate on the area just outside the main shopping area. And didn’t we have a lovely time …

Once home to one of the largest abbeys in Europe, the market town of Evesham sits on the banks of the River Avon in Worcestershire and was the site of a major battle in the 13th century. Though most of the abbey was lost during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries,  there are many very old buildings to delight lovers of architecture. Here is a diagram of the original abbey site. Only the two churches, St Lawrence which dates from 1195 (and was built on the sight of the original building c AD 700), and All Saints, built a hundred years later, and the tower (dating from 1500s), remain. These can be seen on the left of the picture. Despite their close proximity, the two churches originally served separate parishes. The building at the front of the picture is no longer there.

There is little more uplifting a sight than to see the sun stream through a beautiful stained glass window. All Saints has several.

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The highlight of the entire site for me was found in the south chapel of the less ornate St Lawrence Church. Measuring around six feet by five, this stunning appliqued picture depicts three ghostly figures of monks walking towards the abbey entrance. Unfortunately there is nothing to explain its provenance, no explanation as to whom it should be attributed.

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A walk through the church grounds leads to Abbey Park and what a treat that turned out to be. We had no idea of its existence. The park is formed from the original abbey gardens and is set over several levels leading down to the River Avon.

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With enclosed children’s playgrounds, picnic areas and a memorial garden to the Great War (which you can see on the top left of the picture below), it is a lovely place to while away and hour or two.   The small pool in the picture is part of the Abbey’s original fish ponds where the monks farmed the perch, pike, bream and eels which formed a substantial part of their diet.

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Eventually coffee beckoned and we made our way back through the Abbey grounds and into a narrow walkway lined with very old buildings which, according to a plaque on the wall, date back centuries. The cafe proprietor told us that the cafe was 17th century but is ‘just a baby’ when compared to some of the other buildings near by.

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Inside the cafe was a nice surprise. I have a fascination for old dolls’ houses and there, in a case, was a wonderful example. Unfortunately I had to photograph it through glass so the pictures are not very clear.

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It was an unexpectedly interesting and enjoyable morning out, made even better by the fact that on our way home we called in at a nice pub for a late lunch.

Thing is – we STILL have two first class ‘go anywhere’ train tickets to be used by 4th September. Look out for part 3 of this post.

 

 

 

We didn’t visit Oxford today!(Part 1)

The story begins  with a visit to Harrogate one Sunday in September 2015 for the final part of my husband’s 70th birthday celebrations. We caught the local train into Birmingham where we boarded the express for Leeds, changing later to the local one to Harrogate where we enjoyed a delicious afternoon tea at the famous Bettys Tea Rooms.

 

The trouble began when we got back to Leeds for the journey home. Not being great rugby fans we hadn’t realised that it was the day of an important England game. There were hordes, truly HORDES, of people boarding but we felt that our reserved first-class seats would ensure a comfortable journey home. Not so! To use our seats we first had to clear them of discarded chips and half-eaten burgers and wipe the smeared tomato ketchup from the upholstery. Good job I always carry wipes. Having eventually sat down we waited for the ‘complimentary’ refreshments to arrive. They didn’t. In fact, throughout the entire journey we didn’t see a single Cross Country Trains employee. The extremely drunk rugby fans piled into the first class compartment and were very intimidating, barring our way to the toilets and shouting loud obscenities for the next two hours. They also made it difficult for us to alight when we arrived in Birmingham.

A very strongly worded letter resulted in the train company providing two first class return tickets to anywhere we chose to go. We decided on York. You’re probably now thinking … but the post title mentions Oxford. Stay with me!

Because I was in my final year at uni and very busy we didn’t get around to booking our York trip until the following summer. We’d decided to stay overnight and planned visits to the Jorvik and Castle museums. The day before we were due to go I was admitted to hospital with pneumonia and was ill for several weeks. Part way through my recovery we found that the train tickets were valid for only another week. I wasn’t up to lots of walking around York so we decided on a day out in Oxford. We booked a nice restaurant for lunch and again caught the local train to Birmingham and duly took our seats in first class enjoying the complimentary coffee, shortbread and fruit cake. The train stopped to let passengers on in Coventry and we waited for the train to pull away. We waited, and we waited and we waited….for over TWO HOURS! The train in front of us had broken down.

This time no strongly worded letter was required. The guard brought us a claim form explaining that we would be entitled to a refund of our ticket price. However, since we hadn’t actually paid for the tickets as they were compensatory ones, the train company would only replace them with more complimentary first class tickets. We were fine with this and I pinned the replacements on the noticeboard in our office. Where I promptly forgot about them. Months passed and every now and then I’d catch sight of them and say, “we must use those train tickets”. A couple of weeks ago I checked the date on them and found that they have to be used by 4th September. Today (18th August) was designated ‘Train day out’ in the diary. After some consideration we decided to try Oxford again. We checked the Cross Country Trains company’s website, saw that a train ran from Evesham to Oxford and decided that instead of first catching the train to Birmingham that we would drive to Evesham (about 12 miles) and catch it directly to Oxford from there.

‘Train day out’  dawned and, as planned, we drove to Evesham this morning, parked the car and walked onto the platform. “It’s a bit strange,” I said after a few minutes, “but there’s nothing at all that refers to Cross Country Trains. Everything says GWR.” Husband looked less concerned that I felt. So I said it again. This time he looked around and frowned. He took out his phone and rang GWR. The outcome of his conversation was that we got back in the car and drove out of the station.  Part 2 to follow …

The Korean War – a little bit of family history

I came from a mother who nursed in the army

Korean War, Singapore

Raffles Hotel, The Officers’ Mess

Tweed perfume and evening dress

 

Some who know me will be aware that I am in the process of writing a novel, the meticulously researched backdrop for which is the The Korean War, which was the first armed conflict of the Cold War. An astonishing fact: the British Army lost more men in Korea than the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan combined and yet many people today have barely any knowledge of it – little wonder that it has been referred to as The Forgotten War.

My interest is personal – my parents met during this time when both were in the army. My mother was an officer in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps – QARANCs. Initially stationed in Kure, Japan she was later posted to Singapore. Her photograph albums document the period from 1952 to 1954 and contain many souvenirs in addition to her treasured photographs. I’d like to share a few of these. About half way through her albums photographs of my father start to appear (before they began courting). It looks as though she may have taken the photo of him below without his knowledge, don’t you think? Smitten before he knew!

All sorts of mementos were collected: the labels from drinks bottles, tram and bus tickets and menus.

My favourite is the menu from the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore where my parents dined on 31st December 1953.

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QARANCs were granted commissioned  officer status and the rank of Lieutenant. My mother is the one in the darker uniform

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Hours of work were long but there was still time to enjoy the sights and play tennis (or in the picture below, to umpire)!

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During my research I have read numerous books on army life during the Korean War, and was pleased to see in one, reference to The Belles & Beaus hockey match which took place on Boxing Day 1952 at the BCGH (hospital)  in Kure. My mother was one of the Belles but unfortunately the photograph which gives evidence to this is now badly faded. In later years she gave talks to women’s groups such as the WI about her time in the army. I remember looking through her albums and being interested in the pictures of kimono-clad Japanese women but it is one of my greatest regrets that I did not show more interest in her experiences. In my book I have used some of the tales my parents recounted but I have so many questions which will sadly never be answered.

The main source of entertainment for officers on the hospital site would have been the social events and formal dinners which took place in The Officers’ Mess. I recall snippets of information as, when very young,  I sometimes accompanied my mother to her talks. This picture, with her seated on the far left of the picture, shows a Christmas meal in 1952.

Xmas Party Wo Sang - 1952

My short poem above refers to Tweed perfume and evening dress. When ever my parents went out my mother smelt of Tweed – such an old fashioned perfume now but back then it seemed the height of sophistication along with her deep pink lipstick.   My father liked to her wear Tweed because it reminded him of when they first met. When I was about seven years old she took me to a dressmaker along with one of her beautiful evening dresses which were kept in a metal trunk. Covered in travel labels, this had been the trunk which had accompanied her in her army days. A silky pale green brocade  formed the underneath part of the dress in question and over the top was a deeper greenish-bronze organza. I cannot imagine that by then she had any cause to wear such a dress so each of the luxurious fabrics were made into a party dress for her little girl. Unfortunately I can find no photographs of me wearing either, and I have no idea what happened to the rest of her dresses.

I’m unsure if this was taken in Kure or Singapore but here is my mother wearing one of her lovely evening dresses. I don’t believe my waist was ever that tiny!

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I have hundreds of photographs similar to those below and I have donated a number of images to Japan’s Kure City Hall Historical Collection. I’m delighted to report that, following an appeal I made for background minutiae some time ago on the ‘Memories of Kure’ website, just last week I was contacted by a gentleman from Queensland, Australia who has very kindly and generously  transcribed many of his handwritten notes from the time and emailed them to me. I am both touched and thrilled to have received this first hand account and will, undoubtedly, incorporate some of his memories into my story.

Postscript:  I have just discovered that my gentleman from Queensland is in fact rather more well known that he’d have had me believe! Mr Ron Callander -author, playwright, poet and journalist has written many articles and television scripts, and has received several awards for his writing.  Furthermore, he has served as State Secretary of the Australian Radio Television and Screen Writers’ Guild and Committee Member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. How lucky am I that he saw my appeal for information!

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Fabian Perez

A totally self-indulgent post about something which brings me great pleasure (but which I shall sadly never own – lottery win notwithstanding!)

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Perhaps we all have a favourite artist, one on whose work we would spend our lottery win.  Despite my liking for light, airy rooms, I imagine a large dark oak pannelled study where I would fill the walls with the paintings of Fabian Perez. Included would be the one above: Marina with red light.

Perez - Saba on the balcony in a black dress

The inspiration for many of the paintings of Argentinean artist Fabian Perez come from his unconventional upbringing and his memories of his the brothels and nightclubs owned by his father. It is the powerful sensuality in Perez’s paintings that has captivated me. I love the contrast of sombre tones and rich reds that he uses (it is rare to see blues or greens in his work). Working mainly in acrylics, Perez claims that the darkness of colour is intended to give an impressions only. The atmospheric haziness of some of his subjects lends weight to the mood.

Perez Lettizia

Official artist to both the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics, Perez has achieved international acclaim for his work and, having been fortunate enough to have seen exhibitions of his paintings, I can understand the oft-made comparisons between his work and that of both Lautrec and modern Scottish painter, Jack Vettriano, despite the fact that these two quite significantly differ from each other  in style.

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I have also attended a couple of public discussions regarding the likeness to Vettriano. Some disagree vehemently whist others, quite reasonably, point out the similarities in individual pictures. For me, with a few exceptions, Vettriano’s work is flatter, more simple and contains little of the emotion that permeates the paintings of Perez. The artist himself has commented on the resemblance to some of Lautrec’s work, saying that he is flattered by such comparison and recognises a similarity in the slight humour in some of their paintings.

Whilst I admire the seductiveness of many of his paintings, my personal preference is for Perez’s series of Flamenco paintings where is able to bring the dancers alive with the energy and movement he manages to incorporate in his paintings. he is an extremely prolific painter with an obvious love of the female form. If you’ve enjoyed these, just Google ‘Perez paintings images’ to see dozens more.

Perez Gitania

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Blackwell Arts & Crafts House

 

Blackwell July 2017

We recently visited Blackwell, a Grade 1 listed building close to the shore of Lake Windermere and overlooking the Coniston Fells.  Designed by the architect Baillie Scott, it was built in 1900 as a holiday home for the wealthy Holt family. Imagine – a holiday home of these proportions! As if that wasn’t enough, the family also owned a 45 foot steam yacht.

Many will be familiar with the colourful  designs of William Morris. Along with social reformer John Ruskin he was a leading light in the influential Arts & Crafts movement which, as a backlash against the increasing effect of machines, advocated using local materials and traditional building methods with the aim of creating buildings that were harmonious with the surrounding landscape.  Baillie Scott  was hugely influenced by these two and it was he who was responsible not only for the design of the house but also the furniture, wall coverings and fabrics.

The Main Hall

Main hall

Unfortunately, whilst Blackwell retains many original features like leaf-shaped door handles, carved wooden panels and spectacular stained glass windows,  none of the original furniture or artefacts remains. The house, however, offers a few classic pieces from the period, some designed by Baillie Scott himself.

A beautifully carved frieze runs around the Main Hall

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Four window panels. Unfortunately the day was overcast but imagine the sun streaming through and the colourful reflections on the plain walls opposite.

Window panels

Typical period designs may be seen on chinaware, a rug and a chair back 
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This canvas stretches the entire length of the dining room wall (and the dining room would house the entire ground floor of my house!)Wall canvas

It was an enjoyable visit in terms of architectural interest but disappointing in that the rooms were very sparsely furnished and gave little idea of how they would have been presented at the time.   If this is a period you like, visit The National Trust’s Coleton Fishacre in Devon for a better representation.

Oh Biba, how I loved you

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It was late in 1974. My then boyfriend was to attend a course in London and wondered if I’d like to go along for the ride.  Since I had only ever been to London on a school trip I jumped at the chance to do a bit of sightseeing. Quite early in the day I found myself on Kensington High Street and came across the iconic Biba department store. That was it, I got no further. The spectacular blend of modern, Art Nouveau and Art Deco with a nod to Pre-Raphaelite and shades of the Moroccan souk for good measure, drew me in.  The Hollywood-style surroundings, the like of which I had only ever seen in films, were awesome, lavish, unique; I could go on …and on. It was love at first sight and there I stayed for the rest of the day.

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The brainchild of Polish born fashion designer Barbara Hulaniki, Biba had already been in existence for some years when the old Derry & Toms seven storey  department store on Kensington High Street became available and, in September 1973, Biba moved in.

‘No-one could fail to be stunned by the sheer scope of the enterprise’ reported the Evening Standard at the time. ‘You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped inside a dream machine.’

‘Like stepping in of the cold reality of the street into fairyland’ said The New Yorker.

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Reputed to attract hundreds of thousands of customers a week, the newly located store offered a bewildering choice of clothing, shoes, makeup, house ware, toys, and even groceries which were displayed on the likes of massive baked bean and sardine tins (the latter complete with enormous key), much of the food packaging sporting  the store’s logo. Biba was intended as more than a shop – it was sold as a lifestyle. The true Biba devotee even used its branded washing powder. As Alistair Best in Design Magazine said at the time. ‘shopping is almost a fringe activity’.

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Everything was larger than life from the over-sized hat stands used to display all manner of fripperies to the magnificently proportioned black and gold mirrored make up counters artfully displaying thousands of tiny pots and palettes. A giant record player, enormous Snoopy doghouse, huge toadstools in the cafe which also boasted a castle and moat, all added to the feeling of being part of a film set. The fantasy was even more evident as I ventured onto the fifth floor and peeped into the Rainbow Room. Reconstructed as a 1930s palm-court style restaurant, resplendent with mirrored walls, it had a lasting impact and remains steadfastly a style of decor for which I have great affection. Having discovered the sixth floor tea rooms and roof gardens  (rather less intimidating for an unaccompanied teenager) I remember sitting for a while with refreshment, but I have no idea what I chose. I think it was here that I discovered the delight of people watching, something I still enjoy greatly.

Back on the ground floor I could hardly wait to spend my hard-earned Saturday shop girl wages on those tiny pots of make up and perfumed oils in their distinctive Deco-style glass bottles. They lived on my dressing table long after the contents had been used.

biba perfume pots

I vowed there and then to return with enough money to buy some of the Biba fashions and, most importantly, a pair of the amazing suede boots. I went home and I began to save. I worked extra hours all through the school holidays and watched  my savings grow. Some time late in 1975 I returned to London, so full of excitement, you cannot imagine.  I was seventeen when I first encountered Biba, impressionable, headstrong and determined to develop a style distinct from that of many of my peers. I wanted that ‘Biba lifestyle’. The disappointment was crushing – Biba had closed.  It’s demise is well documented in the book The Biba Experience but in a nutshell, a combination of financial reasons and board disagreements sounded the death-knell and despite attempts to re-launch, it was over.

Biba, in it’s glorious final form, was so short lived and I feel privileged to have experienced it, to have been there at the right time. The brand name was eventually bought by House of Frazer in 2009 and is still trading though Ms.  Hulaniki criticises it for not reflecting the original style of Biba.

Quotes and background information taken from The Biba Experience Alwyn Turner

 

 

 

 

The icing on the cake

Lindeth Howe

Whilst in the Lakes recently we found ourselves near to Lindeth Howe, a country house once owned by Beatrix Potter.  Here follows a piece I wrote following a previous visit and which won me a place as a finalist in the Birmingham Press Association’s Midlands Media Awards in 2015.

The Icing on the Cake

Sitting in the shade of a majestic magnolia, I enjoy the luxury of unseasonably warm April sunshine. A small brown rabbit pokes his head out from behind a lavender bush and hops forward, followed soon after by two even smaller ones. Perhaps not impressed by finding us invading their territory, they dart back behind the bush only to reconsider and reappear sporadically to entertain us for the remainder of the afternoon.

Lindeth Howe Country House is steeped in grandeur and history. Built in 1879 the Queen Anne style house with its wide white painted frontage and black timbered gables stands in 28 acres of abundant woodland.  It was here that a young visitor, Beatrix Potter, drew the  illustrations that she later used for my favourite of her books, Pigling Bland, and so completely did she fall in love with the  house that, in adulthood, she bought it for her mother.

A glimpse between trees of every hue shows the still snow-capped peaks of Claife Heights towering above the western shore of Lake Windermere. The lake shimmers today, silver and ribbon-like in the sunlight, just as Wordsworth must have seen it when he likened it to a ‘vast river, stretching in the sun’. The pretty informality of the garden, where fragrant roses, lavender and buddlia , proving irresistible to butterflies and bees,  invites exploration but I stretch lazily and decide to save this treat until later.

The air is almost still; the faintest of breeze barely cools the sun on my face and I concentrate on the surrounding stillness in hopeful anticipation that I might hear the Crier of Claife. Legend has it that this medieval monk rescued fallen women and was spurned when he fell in love with one of them. He lost his mind and his heart-rending cries may still be heard from time to time. Today is not one of those times for there is no sound but the harmonious song of a pair of tiny goldfinch and that of a lone blackbird taking a rest by the lily pond. Leaning back, I rest my head and close my eyes, and I can’t help feeling more than a little pleased that there are no other guests with whom we must share this idyll.

Our tea is served: sparkling white china cups and saucers with matching tea and coffee pots and a plate of the daintiest sandwiches; the freshest bread, light as air, with fillings so generous that they threaten to spill out – smoked salmon topped by wafer thin slices of cucumber, beef with creamy horseradish, honeyed ham, spread with wholegrain mustard and, reminiscent of the Sunday afternoon teatime of my childhood, chopped egg with a sprinkling of cress.

“Don’t eat too many,” warns my husband. “Leave room for the cakes”.

The waiter laughs. “There’s always room for cake,” he says as he turns back toward the house.  I suspect he senses my penchant for the sweet things in life! A few moments pass and he returns with a three tiered cake stand and accompanying tiny forks with pretty ceramic handles.

The cakes; oh my goodness – the cakes!  More cakes than any sane person could wish to eat but I’ll give it my best! Where to begin? Tiny fresh strawberries topple from one plate to another as I select a scone, take a spoonful of thick clotted cream from one of the miniature ramekins and another from the one filled to the brim with strawberry jam. Jam first or cream? I can never remember. I opt for jam, certain that either way, the taste will be sublime. I’m not disappointed. An exquisitely pretty éclair drizzled with white chocolate calls out to me. This is no six inch finger of dry supermarket choux topped with a machine squirted smear of artificial chocolate. This éclair is the lightest confection imaginable; an inch and a half of melt-in-the-mouth heaven oozing with silky smooth passion fruit cream.  A small glazed pastry case filled with intensely sharp lemon curd; a miniscule square of rich pecan nougatine and a perfectly executed pear and ginger trifle, liberally laced with something that tastes suspiciously like brandy and served in a delicately etched shot glass; an explosion of flavours –  all decadently divine.

Again, I lean back against the cushions – replete, quiescent. The sun has momentarily disappeared behind a cloud and I am able to watch the birds circling overhead and then I see it – a Red Kite.   It lands inches from our table and stays for a moment before soaring, once again, high in to the sky, and for all the deliciousness of our afternoon tea, this truly is the icing on the cake.