Sunday 18 February 2024

Good Days

I may not be able to get out on the long walks that I enjoy, but I can still totter down to my local community woodland to see the snowdrops - at least on my good days!

There's not much I can tell you about snowdrops that I haven't covered in previous years. Just enjoy!

I came across this old photograph the other day while looking for something else entirely...

This is the office and sales room of J H Cooper & Sons in Cambridge. All swept aside now in the name of progress, but for over a 100 years the place where the canny people of the town went to buy their furniture. Mention that you needed a bed or an armchair in conversation and someone would always say, "Well, if you ask me, you can't beat Coopers". That seemed to be the only advertising they had.

Armed with that advice you'd make your way to Newmarket Road. "Yes, sir, we can supply a two seat settee instead of the larger model". "Might I suggest a slightly darker shade, sir, you'll find it won't show any marks". "We can usually have it ready in about four weeks, but some of the men will be on holiday at this time of year, so shall we say six weeks?" It arrived in three weeks.

I'm sitting on one of Mr Cooper's armchairs right now!

In order to add "unbeatable value" to this blogpost we'll finish with a little music.

Back in the 1990s I spent my holidays as a walks leader, taking groups through some of the best scenery that England and Wales has to offer. One of the places I went most frequently was the Brecon Beacons National Park (now officially Bannau Brycheiniog) in S Wales. You only occasionally heard Welsh spoken in the town of Brecon, except on market days when all the farmers and their wives drove in from the hills. Here's a piece of descriptive acoustic guitar music, from the great John James, about this resilient group of people....

Reminds me of a sunny day when I stood on the slopes of Fan Nedd watching the sheep being gathered on the other side of the valley.

Take care.

Thursday 18 January 2024

A Year's Reading

Last year, for the first time ever, I kept a list of all my reading. It turns out that I read the nice round number of 52 books, which suggests that I read one a week, though I'm a much more irregular than that. In August I read 7, while in December I only managed one. 20 of the books were fictional, either novels or collections of short stories, while the rest were biography, memoirs and factual books. It's this latter group that I'm concentrating on here.

"The Man Who Climbs Trees" by James Aldred
If you ever find yourself needing to get an elderly man to the top of a very high tree then James Aldred is your man. If the gentleman happens to be Sir David Attenborough you'd better get him safely back down again too. Aldred makes a living by climbing trees, taking photos and working on wildlife films. This book will take you on adventures to Borneo, Congo, Peru, Australia, Gabon, Papua, Venezuela, Morocco and even little old England. It opens up the world of the forest canopy which is otherwise hidden from us, without us having to be stung by bees, chased by elephants or brave these vertiginous heights. If you want a slightly quieter read closer to home, I can also recommend his book "Goshawk Summer" where he attempts to film these enigmatic birds of prey during the Covid pandemic.

"Soundings - Journeying North In The Company Of Whales" by Doreen Cunningham
I nearly included this among the novels I read in 2023; it reads very like one, for she exhibits not only her breadth of knowledge but also depth of feeling. As a young single-mum living in a hostel she decides that she and her little boy, Max, with embark on a journey to see the Grey Whales which migrate along the west coast of N America. She does have some experience of whales and the peoples of the far north, but that's now all in the past as young dreams are overtaken by harsh realities. I can't recommend this book highly enough if you'd like to learn about whales, climate change, the changing lives of the indigenous peoples of the north while at the same time being gripped by this brave woman's quest.

"An Economic History Of The English Garden" by Roderick Floud
A rather dry sounding title for a fascinating book. Most of us, when wandering around England's great gardens will ask the same question "How many gardeners does it take to look after all this?" Floud goes on to ask many more: "How much did this all cost at modern day prices?", "How much money did Capability Brown actually make?" "Where did all the money for these gardens come from?", "What was the point of it all?" "Did this have any effect of the economy of the country?" "Just how much did it cost to produce a single pineapple when they first learned to grow them here?" - at modern day prices? £569 for one pineapple!

"Finding Hildasay" by Christian Lewis
Ex-paratrooper Chris Lewis finds himself slipping into the kind of depression and hopelessness which so often afflicts former servicemen once they leave the armed forces. On a whim he decides that he'll walk around the coastline of the UK - including all the islands. He sets off with little equipment, hardly any money and only the vaguest plan. He returns years later with a dog, a fiancĂ©e, and a child. Along the way he also raise £500,000 for an ex-servicemen's charity. 

"The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England" by Ian Mortimer
Ah, if only school history lessons had been like this! The "time traveller" bit is just a device to put you firmly in those distant days and describe what you might have encountered. It doesn't flinch from some of the more unsavoury sights and smells - a sort of "Horrible Histories" for grown-ups! It tells you about living conditions, food and drink, the laws of the land....everything in fact that those dreadful stories of kings and queens fail to mention

"A Wood Of One's Own" by Ruth Pavey
I always enjoy a quiet poke about in small woods, finding out what's there, figuring out the wood's history, and, often as not, finding unexpected peace and tranquility. Reading this unassuming little book is a similar experience. Ruth Pavey, a teacher in London, has a sudden desire to own some land in Somerset. Having found a suitable plot, she goes to the auction, gets outbid, and buys a piece of land that nobody else wants. How she goes about transforming this unpromising scrap of real estate into something useful to her forms the basis of this quiet little tale.

"Madhouse At The End Of The Earth" by Julian Sancton
Great achievements are sometimes said to be the result of standing on the shoulders of giants, however in some cases it would be truer to say that goals have been reached by standing on the shoulders of madmen, cranks and failures. Those who triumph are celebrated by history; those who fall short are forgotten. This is the story of Belgium's attempt at Antarctic exploration which foundered in frozen seas and the long, dark polar winter. Many of those involved left diaries of their disastrous misadventure and from these Julian Sancton has reconstructed their gripping tale. But among the madmen cranks and failures is a discredited dreamer who saw a possible way to succeed and also a highly-motivated young man who later drew on these ideas and became a household name.

"The Lost Rainforests Of Britain" Guy Shrubsole
They are not all in the tropics, you know. There are also temperate rainforests and Britain has some tiny fragments of them, scattered along our western shores. Guy Shrubsole sets out to visit as many as he can, which involves some difficult journeys, some negotiation and more than a little trespassing. Along the way he learns a great deal about these (almost) lost rainforests and conjectures just how much can be restored and how much is gone forever.

Some of you will have noticed that I haven't posted for a while and some may remember a long hiatus back in the second half 2022. I think it's time I explained what's going on. 

Back in August 2022 I started to get pains in my back and hip; having spent most of my life doing very physical work I didn't pay it much attention. Eventually, at the beginning of October, I was admitted to hospital, had all kinds of blood tests, scans and courses of medication, though it didn't take long till they told me  that I had prostate cancer, not only that but it had spread to other parts of my body and was incurable.

I had hormone treatment and, alongside regular medication, was put on a new drug that was being trialed. After a few days I felt good as new and Les and I were able to recommence taking regular walks. My brother has been a tower of strength throughout, taking me to my endless appointments and keeping a grumpy old man positive.

Just before Christmas my blood tests revealed that my cancer had found a way around the medications and was starting to have a party in my bones. Pain started soon after. There are still further courses of action - radiotherapy, chemotherapy and another new drug. I wait to see how this all goes.

If I find things to blog about I'll be back here pronto!

Take care.

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Edge Of The Fens

Just a brief interlude in this rainiest of Decembers allowed us a trip to the familiar landscape of Fen Drayton Lakes; except it wasn't quite as familiar as usual.

All the lovely rain has returned this little area on the very edge of the Fens to something like its pre-drainage glory. It's easy to understand how medieval outlaws and rebels could hold out in a watery maze like this and how those without detailed local knowledge could soon get hopelessly lost.

It's all rather a long way from the summery days of freedom and fun which the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) promises on the welcoming sign. Water levels can rise quickly here and they'd taken the precaution of closing the car park which can get cut off. That was no surprise as the RSPB tends to be very safety conscious these days - signs recently seen include advice that muddy paths might be slippery,

We parked in a safe place on the approach road and walked from there, making sure to be careful on the muddy path. 

All the expected birds were present, but none of those occasional rarities that add a little spice to the day's observations. It soon began to drizzle and the camera was cradled inside my jacket like a spoilt little dog!

Just a faint blush of sunlight lit the land (and water) as we got back to the car, but we'd already decided to head elsewhere.

Whenever you explore this dead-flat area your eye is inevitably drawn to the array of church towers and spires that punctuate the endless horizon. I'm sure the Fenmen of old must have oriented themselves in the watery waste by those same landmarks. It may even be that these dominant features were built to guide ships on their way - this is not so daft as it sounds for quite large vessels could at one time navigate the fenland waterways.

The church at Fenstanton is dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, and Peter's keys and Paul's sword are shown over the porch door.

The church dates from the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, much of the best building stone having been brought from Barnack by boat. We visited Barnack Hills and Holes, the site of the quarrying, back in June of this year. Many of the churches along the Fen Edge owe their grandeur to the availability of this excellent stone. But it's the chancel and in particular that huge East window that draws the eye.

It's worth pausing to admire the early 16th century pulpit and a Christmassy display of candles.

And here's the window itself. The "tracery" - that's the network of carved stone that holds the glass - is exceptional. It's unusual to see such a large window in a village church.

The stained glass dates from 1876 and is by Henry Hughes of the firm Ward and Hughes. It depicts scenes from the life of St Peter.

Also in the chancel stands a memorial to Lancelot "Capability" Brown who was Lord of the Manor here from 1768-1783. Brown was the father of English landscape gardening and designed the grounds of many grand stately homes. The inscription reads as follows:

Ye Sons of Elegance, who truly taste 
The Simple charms that genuine Art supplies, 
Come from the sylvan Scenes His Genius grac’d, 
And offer here your tributary Sigh’s. 

But know that more than Genius slumbers here; 
Virtues were his which Arts best powers transcend. 
Come, ye Superior train, who these revere 
And weep the Christian, Husband, Father, Friend.

Although he owned the manor Brown only lived here for a very short time, but it's thought that he intended to retire here, however he died suddenly before that could happen. His son, also Lancelot Brown, did inherit the manor and is also buried in the churchyard.

Lancelot, the son's, wife Frances is not recorded on the large memorial but has a separate, much prettier, memorial in the corner of the chancel.

Another plaque records that Henry Howland lies buried in the churchyard. He was the father of John Howland, one of those who sailed on The Mayflower. There's also a sketch of the Howland House in New Plymouth, Massachusetts. Many claim to be descended from John Howland including Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon and the two George Bushes. The Pilgrim John Howland Society paid for the plaque and one of the church bells. Maybe someone should point out to them that this building is a symbol of the very intolerance which forced Howland out of the country.

There's also a modern wall-hanging by Ian Thompson, apparently the coloured silks change hue as the light changes. He also designed a very striking modern stained glass window, which I can't show you because the good people of Fenstanton have decided to stand a large and rather scruffy Christmas tree right in front of it.

If you want to celebrate Christmas you could always look at the beautiful scene depicted by Clayton and Bell in one of the windows. Lets have a look outside.....

In the churchyard there's the base of an old preaching cross. It's difficult to date these, but it almost certainly pre-dates the church building.

There are a number of old tombs and gravestones which seem to have acquired an odd pinkish patina, presumably some kind of lichen.

On the north side of the church I found this attractive old door. But what I was looking for was this....

No one seems to be quite sure where "Capability" was buried. But did they once?

Snooping around online I found this peculiar story....

The author of the piece claimed to have met the last person alive to have seen Capability Brown. Michael Behagg, a well-respected member of the community, recounted that many years ago the church needed a new heating system. The only place to site the oil tank was on the grave of Capability Brown and Bridget, his wife. The remains were therefore respectfully disinterred and buried nearby, but the site of the burial was unrecorded. Mr Behagg was the last to see the remains before they were covered up.


Take care.

Tuesday 12 December 2023

By The Big Water

Real life and English weather can sometimes conspire to reduce the amount of time I spend out and about, but occasionally you have to "make a break" from confinement. So my brother Les and I headed for Grafham Water, a man-made reservoir which is about 40 minutes' drive from mine.

The door of the Park Ranger's vehicle gave a clue as to what the countryside is like after a wet and gloomy month. But we were going to head along the concrete dam which gives easy walking and good views across the water.

The skies soon clouded over, but down to the south-east it was clear, allowing the low-angled winter sunshine to reach in beneath the grey blanket and bring a warm glow to the December scenery.

I paused to take a photo of the pier leading out to the Valve Tower, mainly because I always intend to but also because today the lighting on the distant shore gave a nice symmetry to the scene. As Les pointed out, in all the many times we've passed this way we've never seen anyone doing any work here; maybe it's all operated remotely nowadays.

The usual winter birds were all present: Tufted Duck, Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Goldeneye, a few Shovelers and Wigeon and a single Pochard; Great Crested and Little Grebes, Cormorants, Grey Herons, Coots and Mute Swans; some Canada Geese and, though we didn't see any, I'm sure some Greylag Geese were there somewhere. The only wader we saw was a Common Sandpiper.

We followed the path along the southern shore for a while.

Eventually we arrived at our favourite, slightly rickety, bench where we had our customary banana and hot chocolate while scanning for birds. Then we had to retrace our footsteps back to the car park.

Back at "the quiet corner", which is often a place to see many ducks, there was a working party clearing some of the reeds. Very necessary, but also rather noisy, work.

Like London buses, I don't take any pictures of the Valve Tower for years, then two come along, one after the other! The dam that we have to walk stretches right along, from right to left at the back of the photo. See that farmhouse just to the left of the tower......?

Nearly back to the visitor centre now, where there was a tempting sign.....

In mid-December? No, of course we didn't!


3 Lads Singing

The singing group, The Young 'Uns, got their name when as teenagers they found they could get served (under age) in one of their local pubs, which turned out to be home to a folk music club. They were made welcome and, liking the atmosphere, they became regular visitors, eventually daring to stand up and sing themselves. Although they can sing an old song with conviction they began to write their own songs which, in traditional style, were based on real events, often stories which they'd seen on the news or read in the papers.

3 Dads Walking

Andy, Tim and Mike got to know each other when each was hit by the tragic suicides of their daughters. They decided to go on a long walk across the country to raise awareness of the issues, campaign for suicide-prevention education in schools, to talk to each other about their grief and encourage other men similarly affected to seek out help.

Here's what happened when all six men met up....

You can find out more about 3 Dads Walking here: 3 Dads Walking

If you enjoyed the singing and songwriting of the Young 'Uns you can find numerous clips of them on YouTube.

Take care.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Calendar Time

Those of you who've been following this blog for a while will be familiar with my yearly collection of photos - one from each month - that usually sees the light of day each December. If I'm a little early this year it's because I have a slight cold at present and it's horrible outside. So grab a cup of tea and a mince pie and drift through the year with me. Starting in....













November and December's pictures date from 2022, otherwise all shots were taken this year. 

Take care.