Quiet Corners

Sometimes you come across little gems that you never knew existed. London is particularly good for this where most corners can lead to something interesting. The Lovely Wife and I stumbled across one such recently when on a day out in London. The ‘main event’ of the day was a tour of the closed underground station at Aldwych, which closed in the 1990s and, as expected, proved a fascinating thing to be shown around and learn about its eventful history as both transport hub, war shelter and museum storage facility and now film location. But that only took a couple of hours, and these days the cost of trains into London somewhat suggest that finding multiple things to do is better value for money.

So, after a little looking about I came up with another tour, this time something quite different. We set off across London via Holborn Circus to find the little gem that is Charterhouse.

Although I had spent quite a lot of time in the area – including the hidden away joy that is the Old Mitre off Ely Place – I somehow had managed to miss the large set of medieval buildings just around the corner.

The place started as a memorial chapel over a thirteenth century plague pit, which is admittedly not the most auspicious of starts. Later it became a Carthusian monastery (an interesting order where the monks spent most of their time living as virtual hermits in separate cells around a large cloister), and then like many foundations at the dissolution became a Tudor manor house. Where Charterhouse diverges from many other sites is after this and due to one man, Thomas Sutton in the early seventeenth century. He was a very shrewd and very rich man and set about turning the existing buildings into an institution that would look after people at both ends of life – one half a school, and the other accommodation for the elderly and needy. When set up, the charity was one of the richest in the country and both parts were to prove a big success. The school became internationally famous and now has moved out to Surrey, but the other part of the charity remains and is still going strong. They have about 40 incumbents, known as ‘Brothers’ as a nod to the original use of the buildings. Historically, these were male only, but they have several lady ‘Brothers’ now, although the poor ladies are still heavily outnumbered.

You can have a guided tour of most of the extensive complex – other parts, where the Brothers live – are naturally private. We were lucky as in all there were only 5 of us on our tour, which always leaves more time for questions and a more intimate experience of a very nearly private tour for us. Maybe that was partly what made it so enjoyable, but some of the stories connected with the site and institution were fascinating and it is just a joy being able to walk around a mix of building styles with so much history, still performing much of their initial function and missed by most who pass by every day. It is not expensive, so if you are in the right part of London with a few hours to spare, you can do worse to find some peace and hidden history.

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Spring & Shows

Well, we seem to be heading into an (albeit today, a damp and windy) Spring. The signs are all around, with the Lesser celandine beginning to flower on the disused railway near to home. I have seen a number of birds flying around with suspicious cargo (otherwise known as nesting material). Our garden is a daily battleground for the Blackbirds (although the Robin we have seems to have taken the normal territorial posturing to ridiculous lengths with a pathological hatred – and violent repulsing – of pretty much anything that moves). The Gadwalls (a duck which until recently I was unaware was nicknamed ‘Coot muggers’ as, well, they mug Coots to steal food of them) and the Pochards are gathering to migrate, the Shovellers having already left. Finally, the garden pond has been a hotbed of amphibian sex over the last few days, the resulting gelatinous mass of spawn being the result for now.

It is quite a contrast from last year’s icy start to March, although you will not find me complaining as the were some hairy moments last year in all the traveling we had to do to spend as much time with my Dad as possible in his final days. We were very blessed to spend so much time traveling long distances in poor weather with relatively few major problems. Although I will miss a lot of things from last year, that at least will not be one of them.

Instead, this year has been relatively quiet, so we are now back into focusing on what we need to do to get life back on track, both in terms of personal health and in terms of getting our house back into some kind of shape after a year of neglect and incursions of stuff from the North. We’re getting there, slowly.

At the same time there is always the usual work commitments and opportunities for fun. We have managed some interesting gigs and shows recently. The production of Shakespeare’s Richard II at the wonderful San Wanamaker Playhouse (a small, intimate inside space at the Globe theatre) was spellbinding, with added interest being a cast entirely made up of women of colour. But while that might seem like a gimmick, it was also wonderfully acted and informed by the heritage of some of the players in a way that can make a somewhat dry play come alive. At the opposite end of the scale in terms of venue was the Agatha Christie play ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ which was gloriously staged in a ‘courtroom setting’, actually a good use of the old council chamber for the Greater London Council in County Hall on the South bank in London. The play itself is nonsense, but it’s a lot of fun and the location really gives it some marvellous staging opportunities that it delivers on with aplomb.

The one thing we have seen recently that I am still not sure about was ‘The Band’, a musical based around the songs of Take That, about a group of girls who we first see in their teens and then are reunited 25 years later. The Lovely Wife and I saw it at the theatre at Milton Keynes, and it felt a little like a production that is still evolving; that said, it has a quite deliberate ‘British comedy’ feel along the lines of The Full Monty, Calendar Girls or Brassed Off, where there are plenty of laughs but a core sadness/sad event that cannot be ignored – but just has to be faced and managed. For me, it just about got away with it, but considering some slightly surreal elements of the staging I do feel it would make a better film. But catch it – unless you are an absolute hater of the Take That boys in which case give a wide, wide berth…

A Goodbye to Childhood

It has been a bit quiet here, as a large part of the last two weeks has been based around the practical and paperwork aspects of selling my childhood home.

It has been an odd exercise, both a move towards some kind of closure on this chapter, which is rather cathartic, but at the same time deeply upsetting. For me, the bungalow in Pelton, County Durham, was the home for my entire childhood and for my parents the home for most of their lives, and pretty much all their married life. That is a lot of family history wrapped up in some bricks and mortar (and a very 1970s orange carpet). It has been a long drawn out process as we tried (and continue to try, so be warned) to rehome anything of use whether through charity channels or passing onto friends, while gradually removing the rubbish that had accumulated over the years. I found that in terms of possessions in the house they could broadly be split into three groups. First there was the ‘must keeps’ the things which either had value and were well liked or just had a close connection to my parents for me. At the other end of the spectrum was the broken pieces of tatt and stained blankets that should have been disposed of long ago – again, where possible, to those who could use them. These were easy enough. Then there is the weird third category, the ‘not yet’ class. These included the last things to be packed up and tessellated into the (luckily spacious) back of our unremarkable, but in the end very useful, German work horse of a car. Quite a few ornaments just made it in before the door was locked for the last time and the keys posted back through the door. I’m looking at you, sleeping mole garden ornament – yes, and you pair of vases with large pine  cones in the top, a Heath Robinson ornamentation that was adorning the bungalow windowsill and now have made it two hundred and fifty miles to our own windowsill. This is a definite case of sentiment over sense and our home in St Albans is in quite as state as a result. I know also that of everything that has/is going into storage that when eventually it gets unpacked, in some future house, there will be plenty that will be treated with disbelief and the ‘why did I keep that?’ kind of reaction as they are fast tracked to the nearest charity shop.

But a lot of this is about emotion, and we should not hide it. I could not help be sad as we walked in and around the house, and up the path at the side to the pub we have come to be very fond of; or walking past the church I went to as a child, the current congregation of which have been very welcoming though everything, and thinking ‘am I ever coming back here again?’

In the case of the house, well, no. I have shed those tears and blessed it and handed it over to the new owners. Its part in my life has ended. The other thing, perhaps not. We are going back in June to see the book of remembrance at the crematorium and we’ll probably take the chance to drop in on a few old haunts for old times sake, and we may well go up once or twice a year as I still love the North East (and continuing developments at the wonderful Beamish North of England Open Air Museum – I urge people to go if you are ever nearby) will keep us interested, as will the remaining lovely family members that are still based there. But as far as 18 Heathmeads, Pelton is concerned it is a final goodbye, and a heartfelt thank you.

Sowing Good Seeds

There are times when life seems to be getting rather busy, although not necessarily in a bad way. Recently the Lovely Wife and I are suffering what in football parlance is fixture crash, as lots of entirely separate things, booked over the period of many months or indeed not planned at all, move towards reach other in a way that makes you think, ‘can we actually fit this in?’ and ‘even if that is the case, will we be standing at the end of it?’

When we were in our twenties, a couple of big music gigs in quick success in quick succession were probably not an issue – first due to energy that you have at the time and possibly because frankly we would not have been able to afford it. Now, the latter is less of a problem but the former energy well has ebbed somewhat (although we are now enjoying the joy of being able to stay over in hotels for some events which is hugely energizing when you know you do not have to rely on the dodgy last train home if the band is particularly enthusiastic to threaten its curfew time – usually some of the best parts of a gig.

Despite these two gigs being hugely in contrast with one another, the reason for mentioning this is that in both there were moments that made me feel a little better with the universe, albeit briefly. And this was in the way that music can be a force for positive messages/protest message again what maybe we see around us at the current moment that makes us feel, at best, uncomfortable.

First – positive. The Lovely Wife was probably in the day the bigger fan of 80s duo Tears for Fears. I came to them a little later. The gig we went to this week was delayed from last May due to health reasons in the band (hence the unplanned proximity to another gig, more of later). The gig was seated (although bless him, the first thing Kurt Smith did when coming on was to exhort people to get out of their seats) and what followed was a rather intense set of hits that was hugely enjoyable to the 40+ (at least) year old crowd.  Intense, may be a very personal experience as somehow I had managed to get seats four rows from the front and it felt at times that we were being examined by the band to see whether we knew all the words.

It has never been my favourite song of theirs but on the night ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’ made probably the biggest impression – at least when sung pretty much in your face. The anthemic commend to be better to one another struck a real chord with me; a song very much needed again today where what is being sown by many is anything but love.

Fast forward to Sunday night and a very different band and audience. The band was Bastille, the audience mostly under 30 (and predominantly female, which was great to see the band as while we were at the back this time generally we were as tall if not taller than most of the rest of the crowd, a rare treat for standing gigs). Most of the band’s input, delivered in high energy and to uproarious chorus singalongs was more about love, loss and despair – but front man Dan Smith got his political comment in as well at one point aimed firmly at the rise of the extreme (and less extreme perhaps, but just as insidious) Right wing politics and sung out against intolerance. And again, I felt it was right. These days most biting commentary comes from comedians, but they are preaching often to converted liberal (small l) audience. Music though can punch through that and have a wider appeal and perhaps reach those that otherwise may never listen to the voice of tolerance. The mainstream music industry seems to have gotten out of the habit of sticking their necks out and expressing a potentially controversial, possibly unpopular opinion. I’d like to see that change, personally.

Landmark-ing

Recently, the Lovely Wife and I had the pleasure of a long weekend staying in the Banqueting House on the National Trust’s Gibside Estate in the North East. The building was saved from dereliction and vandalism by the Landmark Trust, an organisation that I very much respect and support. They own or have long leases on properties up and down the country ranging from the extremely compact (i.e. cosy even for a couple) to some larger castles and houses that sleep 20 or more.

There are a number of reasons we like staying in what are often quite odd and unusual holiday cottages. One of these is that some of them are, indeed, quite odd. For example, The Pigsty, which as its name suggests was built as a house for some pigs, up on the hillside above Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. But this is a pigsty built to look like a Greek temple, a rather grand edifice for our porcine friends. Many of the Landmarks are like this; buildings never meant for people to stay in, but now converted to this use – sometimes very cleverly – in order to give them a reason to survive.

The philosophy is pretty simple – they take on places that are interesting or important or just quirky, but that would otherwise be lost. The Banqueting House was one such building, saved at the last minute and carefully restored. A lot of the buildings they own are like this – formal garden buildings, lodge houses, canal lock operators cottages and so on. Sometimes it is a fragment of a much large building such as a castle or monastic building where somehow a part has survived when the rest of the property has been demolished. But what unites most of them is this (for me, really satisfying feeling) of staying in a ‘survivor’, a little bit of heritage that is still in existence despite the odds.

There is also a kind of society of Landmark supporters and ticking them off is a bit of a thing (we’re on 28 different ones to date, all of them unique and memorable for some reason or another). There are a number of Landmark ‘tropes’. First, they are a technology free zone – no TV, no internet access – by deliberate design and choice. They clearly have, at some point, obtained a massive job lot of blue willow patterned style crockery as the supply is always the same – you know what you are getting. The massive box of local attraction leaflets and guide books is added to by anyone who stays… And the log books are a joy to behold, not just ‘we had a nice weekend here’ but veritable essays often accompanied by sketches (or sometimes even rather impressive watercolours).

Sometimes just getting to the place can be difficult – one, Robin Hood’s Hut in Somerset, another former Garden building for an Estate now gone, involves driving down farm tracks and through gates, across a field and through a wood – but that is half the charm. Although getting stuck in the snow last year while travelling to the Warren House above Kimbolton (a combined ‘eyecatcher’ for Kimbolton Castle and once home to the man that protected the warren, a valuable medieval asset) was a little scary – but mediated by the presence of helpful local dog walkers and being only a few 100 yards short of our destination.

Finally, as they are often quite remote, the chances of seeing wildlife is high. One stay in a riverside cottage in the North Cornish hamlet of Coombe not only had bats using the porch next to the kitchen as a hunting roost but allowed a long lingering look at a Water rail in the river – a rarely seen, beautiful bird. And at Gibside, on the morning we left, before the National Trust Estate was open to the public we were treated to the Roe Deer enjoying the mutual peace before melting again into the woods as the visitors started to arrive.

http://www.landmarktrust,org.uk

Slightly Discombobulated

It has been a funny few weeks since New Year, but interesting as well. We have been necessarily a bit distracted by trying to sell my Dad’s house – we finally seem to be getting somewhere it feels, and while I am sad to sell the home in which I grew up in, the alternative is that it sits cold and empty (letting is not really an option) far too far away for me to keep an eye on. So, I would much rather let it become someone else’s home and be warm and full of laughter once more. Aside from the paperwork and stress of that – which the Lovely Wife is an essential aid for me as my head starts to swim when confronted by forms and lists of terms and conditions as the part of my mind that is detail focused throws it hands metaphorically in the air and complains to my dominant big picture brain ‘I don’t get this! Why can’t it be simple?’

I have the same problem with anything to do with tax, but let’s not go there.

Unusually my trips to Brussels for work have started very early (normally they do not get to kick in until February). On the plus side this means getting to travel on nice quiet trains. On the negative, this year in particular it means constant references by continental friends on Brexit, usually with a puzzled expression of ‘what on earth is going on’, my response, usually to be an inappropriate ‘Gallic’ shrug correctly noting that I stopped really trying to predict/work out what was going back in June 2016. I just think that I am prepared to admit it while most of our politicians seem set to posture around spouting nonsense, whichever approach they might propose/pretend they are proposing for their own attempted personal game. Frankly, I’m sick of it, but when people complain about X or Y course will cause some kind of social upheaval… Well, Ladies and Gents, I personally think that that train has already left the station. We are going to have trouble whatever happens now, so we had better get used to it and try to manage it down to at least peaceful protest. Maybe we have gone a bit soft and forget how bad this can get or the power of the mob. I am old enough to remember when the country was beset by riots and it was not that long ago. I am hoping that society has changed enough to avoid that happening now and that we can keep talking without someone throwing petrol bombs, but I am uncomfortably aware of tension increasing. We reap what we sow. And we have been sowing something rotten for some years, now. We may be able to calm things down – indeed we must try, where we can – but I do dread what might be coming.

Still. Some things can make me happy as we continue to bumble towards some sort of divisive end game. A kingfisher in a suburban park – shared with a couple of complete strangers that also spotted a streak of iridescent blue and orange against the gaunt trees (we all agreed it never gets old). A cold, sunny winter day, perfect for a long walk in the country with the Lovely Wife and a chance to discuss the important things. Warm, welcoming pubs with good beer who we can walk into and the people behind the bar do not just smile but are already moving towards the predictable choice of drinks. Examples of good and, very occasionally hilariously bad, parenting behaviours around town. Spending hours discussing the movie you have just seen and finding as much enjoyment in that as in the work itself (‘The Old Man with the Gun’, and ‘Three Identical Strangers’ being two recent cases).

 

And then maybe there is hope itself. I hope that things may turn out as well as is possible at this point and maybe lessons are/will be learned that will make positive changes over the next years.

 

Either that or we’re digging a moat to put the crocodiles in.

Roadshow Revelations – Part Two

Volunteering at an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ day involves a lot of standing around. It is long hard slog for everyone, including people who have brought items to be valued, and it is quite amazing how well behaved and cheerful everyone is considering this.

As a volunteer, mostly what you are about is trying to make sure that people end up where they need to be to get their items valued and in good order. The first thing I learned was, whatever your actual station on the day, knowing where everything else is on the site is crucial as people constantly ask you ‘where are ceramics?’ at which point you smile and point to the banner that is emblazoned ‘Ceramics’ in large friendly letters and invite them to take their place at the back of the (very long) queue. I was stationed at one end of a queue – in my case, for books, maps and manuscripts – and another volunteer was at the other end of the queue to keep people in some sort of order. Additionally, we are there to keep an eye on our expert and ensure he did not faint from dehydration and/or not having any kind of lunch break. Otherwise you just chat to people and try and make them forget just how long they have been waiting (and my queue was probably one of the shortest and fastest moving, more on that later).

If you are coming to one of these things I have some advice to impart.

First, get there early. The queue to get into the site was huge long before the event opened and only tails off very late in the day so best to get there from the off. Accept you will be queuing for hours – you will, I guarantee it – and dress/supply yourself appropriately. Be very thoughtful about what you bring. Try not to bring too many items, as it is a bit like turning up at a book signing cradling every book the author has ever contributed to – yes, they’ll sign them, but possibly through gritted teeth. In particular, try not to bring lots of different items. As you will be waiting in some cases several hours to be seen on the more popular stations (especially ceramics – twice as long as any other queue) your chance of getting your pictures, jewellery and first edition Harry Potter being seen as well as your art deco vase is pretty unlikely so avoid disappoint and chose what you really want to know about and get in that queue straight away.

The surprisingly valuable item is often what people focus on, but in fact the programmes are constructed to have a mix of stories, and in terms of getting on the TV you are more likely to get on because you have something with a lot of human interest behind it, especially if it relates to the site or local area where the product is being filmed. The experts are not just looking for value, but something that is interesting (ideally, as well).

I found it interesting listening to my expert talk about it – and how disappointing it can often be, as they are genuinely, professionally, hoping to turn up something exciting. In the case of books for example, a lot of what they get are old family Bibles (of no interest generally to anyone outside the family), Beatrix Potter (which are a bit like valuing used cars, knowing what edition it is, and its condition, defines quickly the market value). People turn up with boxes of books that they have brought along because they are ‘old’ – which is not really a help. If it is not a First Edition, then it is not going to be worth much. Often, the most interesting things appear too late to be included – for my expert, it was after 5pm when someone turned up with a letter from JRR Tolkien, which sketched out some details of the (yet to be published) Lord of the Rings. But it was too late for them to film. Still, it did mean that my expert left with a smile on his face at something he could get excited about. And generally, despite the heat, waiting and usually crushing when the valuation is well below what you might have hoped or dreamed, most people disappointment left smiling.

Do go to one if you can, take something quirky – and plenty of sandwiches to get you through the waiting. Or even better, be a volunteer and get to wear a natty sash and boater for the day (sadly, you had to give those back).