Sunday 28 September 2014

Thoroughly Modern Murray

"Discover the secrets of the universe" the painting says. But get too close and it dissolves into meaningless coloured splodges - try clicking on the image to enlarge it and you may see what I mean. To make matters worse the work is displayed in a students' bar. But just where is our voyage of discovery leading us today?

This is the entrance to Murray Edwards College, part of the University of Cambridge, which specialises in 'the education of outstanding young women from all backgrounds'. It was founded as recently as 1954 as New Hall. In Cambridge things can go on being called "new" for centuries but in 2008 New Hall changed its name to Murray Edwards College to honour both the founding president of New Hall, Dame Rosemary Murray, and Ros Edwards, who donated £30 million to the college.

If your image of a Cambridge college is of medieval courtyards, Gothic halls and imposing gatehouses then think again. The main buildings were designed by the same architects who were responsible for the Barbican in London. 

Some Cambridge colleges let you look around if you pay them for the privilege. Others direct you on a very strict route through their buildings. But here I just said "Is it OK if I go and look at some of the sculptures and paintings?" and was just waved through with a smile. There were no signs to tell me where to go and very few to tell me where I couldn't go.

I saw on their college blog that one of the students said that life at Murray Edwards was all about concrete, calm and cakes! I didn't spot the cakes but there is certainly an air of calmness about the place, which makes it attractive despite all that concrete. 

But I'd better look for some of those sculptures. Ah, here's one called Improvisation by Naomi Press. It's made from stainless steel and sits nicely in this environment.

In a corridor I discovered many paintings and other works. Such as Summer by Vanessa Jackson (above). Yes, all the artists are female. And (below) is Models Triptych: Madonna Cascade by Rose Garrard.

Look closely - the frame and the cascade are made up of casts of the Madonna. Even the damp running down the wall looks as though it's part of this strangely unsettling picture!

All this concrete and abstraction is softened and embellished with some lovely flower beds, sweet scents and birdsong, making for a very pleasant stroll.

And the glass, steel and concrete create fascinating patterns and reflections for the photographer.

Here we have everything - plenty of stark concrete, leaves and flowers and, sitting amongst it all, an interesting steel construction. It's creator, Annie Collard, calls it Festive Feeling. She says that the coils were inspired by the tension of an athlete about to spring from the starting blocks. I couldn't have resisted calling it "Spring Colours"!

And all presided over by the Dome, which is the focal point of the whole site and sits over the dining hall.

And there are always those floral displays!

Take care.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Signs And Displays

A number of bits and pieces I've picked up along my meandering way....

Sculpture at Minsmere

And if you meander around at Minsmere in Suffolk, in addition to seeing a large number of shore and wetland birds, you might find odd bits and pieces of plastic rubbish washed up along the beach. If artist, Liz McGowan, is on hand she might make you a nice piece of sculpture like this - if not then put it in the bin where it should have been in the first place!

Odd Twins

Or, if your meanderings lead you through rural Essex, you might stumble upon the village of Debden, which, as you can see, is twinned with Tang Ting in Nepal. There is a Nepalese restaurant in the village too which I suspect may be the origin of the link. Even so one wonders if the local Women's Institute goes on goodwill outings to the Himalayas. Perhaps not.

In Ancient Footsteps

Just a farm track like many to be found in the fens, but unusually this one has a name....

Akeman Street just happens to be the name of a Roman road and that is exactly what this little track is. Insignificant as it looks, it's following the precise line first laid out by Roman legions over 2000 years ago. A little further along a modern road coincides with the old Roman route though I'd bet that few of the drivers are aware of the ancient history beneath their wheels.

A Right-Royal Regalia

It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that it was decreed that all churches should display the royal coat of arms, since the monarch was the head of the Church of England. These arms changed many times over the centuries and in theory churches were supposed to keep up to date with all these variations. However keeping up to date has never been the churches strongest suit and, as we've seen in recent posts on this blog, some old ones survive if you keep your eyes open. 

Many were destroyed during Cromwell's time and then, when the monarchy was restored, there was a tendency to celebrate by creating a new crest. So few older than this time exist. But this one at Wisbech is one that has survived. From the details of the central shield we can tell that it dates from the time of James I, 1603 to 1625.

Pretty as a Picture

Outside that same church in Wisbech is this prize-winning garden. This summer the theme is the art of Vincent Van Gogh. I think the idea must have been to create a sunflower picture within the frame which had been constructed. But the sunflowers rather outgrew the project!

Take care.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Take Six

....or Take Five continued.


In one of the less salubrious parts of town I spotted this torn poster. It seems to have a sense of urgency though I've no idea what the original illustration(s) were advertising.


Even in the most cared-for gardens the voracious snail gets to work under cover of darkness. I rather like the patterns he's created here - but then it's not my garden!


When two ages clash....St Andrew's Church stands reflected in an office building. Like an ancient disciplinarian regarding the doings of the modern age! 


Wild flowers sometimes flourish in the most unexpected circumstances - like in this pile of builders' rubble - but none the less colourful for all that.


Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen - Amy Winehouse

Take care.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Take Five

Much as I like planning day-trips to locations where I know that I'm going to find historically interesting and photogenic subjects, it's even better when I unexpectedly stumble on an odd visual surprise. So here are just five examples.....


I always have half an eye open for post boxes which, incidentally, can all be dated by their royal ciphers. So this George V box dates from 1910 to 1936. But what really attracted me were the brightly painted walls which set it off to such great effect. Everything, even the wheelie-bin in the passage, seem to be conspiring to make a picture from mundane objects.


In amongst the grandeur of historic buildings lurked this single flower which made me stop and take a photo. I love the curving stem as well as the light shining through the petals.


Sitting on the windowsill of an old mill building was this arrangement of old glass bottles. I don't even think some are particularly old but I liked the colour and texture.


This is glass too and similar colours to the old bottles, but there the comparison ends. It's a rather striking spiral staircase in one of Cambridge University's more modern structures.


And not far away from the previous picture is this scene leading out into one of the college gardens. If you have a retentive visual memory you may remember those pillars; I photographed them from a different angle but didn't notice the door through to the garden till I revisited. Maybe the door was shut first time. 

Take care.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Footnotes And Discoveries

From time to time, having shown you something of (I hope) interest, I get another take on the subject. So here are a few such:
(the links - the phrases which are printed in green - will take you back to the original posts if you click on them)


A long time ago I showed you a picture of a busy Cambridge street and explained that there was a tunnel leading under the road so that the students of Emmanuel College could move from one part of the college to another without having their lofty cogitations interrupted, and perhaps even terminated, by an encounter with a double-decker bus. The other day I investigated and found that, though the tunnel itself is rather unattractive, the steps leading down to it make a nice picture. You might notice that to the left of the steps there is a ramp so that even bikes can be pushed along underground.

And speaking of bikes.....

This used to be the scene at Cambridge railway station! Even more surreal than some of my "interpretations" of the cycles of that city. But now all is order and efficiency - a multi-storey park for bikes...


From the modern and functional to the ancient and flamboyant....(I'm really excited about this one!)......

A few posts ago we were at St Andrew's Church in Chesterton. I went there to look at the medieval wall paintings...I also found the plaque to the memory of Anna Maria Vassa, the daughter of a slave....and, while poking about, I spotted and photographed the royal coat of arms seen above.

It was hidden away in the gloom at the foot of the bell-tower but I photographed it anyway as I liked its exuberance and ornamentation. Yesterday I edited the photo on the computer. Now when I say "edited" I actually mean I pushed it to the absolute limit to see how much detail I could uncover by increasing the contrast and colour of a rather dingy image.

And there it was - at the top are the letters J2 and R which indicates that it was created during the reign of King James II, which dates it very precisely to between 1685 and 1688, the period of his brief time on the throne. This means that it's not only extremely old but also as rare as hen's teeth since very few coats of arms would have been commissioned during such a short period and of course even fewer would have survived.

The royal crest has undergone many subtle changes over the centuries. if you look at the central roundel you will see that the top-left and bottom right quadrants show the triple fleur-de-lys of France; this is because England maintained that it had a claim to the French throne during this period. At the bottom there's the English rose and the Scottish thistle celebrating the recent union of the two countries.


And finally......I said that I feared for the safety of the two model sheep which had appeared outside some Cambridge offices. They are just the kind of thing which appeals to the playful and imaginative side of the great minds which we have here at Cambridge University. The other Saturday morning I saw that the inevitable had been attempted; drunken sheep-rustlers had been at work. They hadn't quite succeeded in liberating the poor animal but they'll be back...they'll be back....

Take care.

Friday 12 September 2014

Red Mount Chapel

Some of you may remember the odd-looking structure shown on the right. It's called Red Mount Chapel or more properly "The Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount". It stands in a park in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, and dates from 1485.

It was built to serve pilgrims making their way to the famous shrine at Walsingham. It was sited just outside the town walls so that those arriving late, after the town gates were locked, might find shelter for the night. At the top of the little tower is a chapel so that prayers could be offered before the next leg of the journey.

When I last visited in early March of this year it was beneath dull and overcast skies, not ideal for photography. The door was firmly locked and I'd been told that it was used as a store for all kinds of rubbish. 

On my way back from Wisbech recently - not a very direct route I'll admit but it's what you have to do if you rely, as I do, on public transport - I thought I'd see if I could get a better picture as I had nearly an hour to wait for the train.                                                                                                                                 

Not only did it look a lot better in the sunshine but, wonder of wonders, it was open to the public. It's actually now open from 1:00 till 4:00 on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from mid-May to mid-September. There was no admission charge though there was a jar for donations. 

The Chapel was built by one Robert Curraunt for the then Benedictine prior of Lynn, William Spynke. When the monasteries were dissolved during the 1530s the ownership of the building passed to the town council and it was subject to the indecision and neglect that one might expect from such a body at that time.

It was first of all partly dismantled, then used as a water-tower. Later it became a stable, an observatory and lastly a store-room. 

On the ground floor is what was once the chapel, then you ascend by some rather uneven brick stairs, curving around inside the thickness of the walls, to what is known as the Priest's Room.

This is believed to be where the vestments and other valuables were stored. A further set of stairs leads up to the crowning glory of the structure, the stone chapel built in 1506 in the shape of a cross.

The stained glass is a modern addition, designed by Colin Shewring, in the 1980s. It depicts a lily which is the symbol of the Virgin Mary.

"Aha!" thinks I looking upwards, "it's got a little fan vault, a miniature of the roof of King's College Chapel". But what I didn't know was that it was probably built by John Wastell, the man responsible for the King's ceiling as well as the Retrochoir at Peterborough.

Then it was time to descend another staircase - yes, it really does have one leading up and one leading down! - to the outside world, the twenty-first century and the 16.30 train.

Take care.

Thursday 11 September 2014

The End Of The Line

A couple of old posters advertising farm sales. Much as Fenland has prospered agriculturally since these lands were first drained, there have also been many casualties along the way. The social historian can tell much about farming practices from such material - the size of farms, the rate at which they were going out of business, the spread of mechanisation and so on. There are some interesting differences between these two, one from 1904 and the other from 1940. 

One thing that won't surprise anyone who can remember some of the untidy farms of yesteryear will be the "15 TONS SCRAP METAL" advertised in the second sale!

Take care.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Peckover House And Garden

Standing on Wisbech's North Brink, overlooking the River Nene, stands Peckover House. It exhibits all the features of a Georgian town house - symmetry, clean lines and elegant proportions. It was given to the National Trust together with its garden by the Peckover family in 1943. Shall we look at the garden first?

The garden is a glorious mix of the formal and informal, winding paths, hidden gazebos and, this summer, some interesting small sculptures. Let the garden speak for itself....

Now it's time to go inside the house, though I actually took rather more garden photos than I've shown you here; they may well surface on "By Stargoose And Hanglands" some time during the depths of winter.

The house was actually built in 1722, before there were any Peckovers in Wisbech. Jonathan Peckover came to the town in 1777 with the aim of establishing a small grocery business. He soon acquired a reputation for honesty and reliability which led to other businesses trusting him to take care of their takings. He became a sort of unofficial banker in a town that, at that time, lacked banks.

He soon realised that banking could become a profitable venture and set up a more business-like enterprise. During the 1790s he bought Peckover House from which he also operated his bank. The building was known as Bank House for many years.

Like many successful businessmen of that era, the Peckovers were Quakers. Their religious beliefs disqualified them from many other professions. The Quakers had no paid clergy, so religion offered no avenue for their skills. The military was not open to them as they were pacifists. Since they disagreed with the Church of England many professions such as Law and Medicine were also no go areas. That left business. And their reputation for fairness and honesty meant that many succeeded in that field.

Subsequent generations of the family supported many institutions in Wisbech including the Museum and the Working Men's Institute. Their philanthropy also extended to the campaign to abolish slavery, pacifism and the provision of educational facilities in the town.

In the 1890s the family sold off their banking interests but continued living in the house till 1943 when Alexandrina Peckover, the last descendant of Jonathan Peckover, gave the property to the National Trust. Unfortunately much of the best furniture was sold or given away and the Trust has had to re-furnish the rooms in the style of the day.

"Below stairs" though, most of the kitchen equipment was thought of as of little value so it remained in place. I was impressed with the fine kitchen range, which must have been, excuse the pun, top of the range in its day. Many of the surfaces were enamelled which must have made it easier to clean, though the many controls and dampers must have taken time to master.

And finally the Butler's pantry with its leaded sink. And so farewell to Peckover House and to Wisbech. For the time being at least.

Take care.