Tuesday 31 May 2016

Favourite Views

Continuing my series of "faves" from the past 5 years of "By Stargoose And Hanglands" here are some traditional and not-so-traditional landscape views. East Anglia, being fairly flat, has few spectacular and obvious viewpoints, but there are a few if you care to seek them out.

Very "English" scenery with green fields, hedges and gentle hills in the much-overlooked county of Hertfordshire, just north of London.

The Wash, a wide shallow sea inlet between Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Great for birdwatching, especially in winter.

Spring in the fenlands of Cambridgeshire - wide fields under even wider skies. The bright yellow line marking the horizon is a field of oil-seed rape or, as it's known elsewhere in the world, canola.

Winter on Grantchester Meadows, near to the village where I spent much of my life. Many come here during summer but few see this winter wonderland - that's just frost, not snow.

The wide horizons of the North Norfolk coast. I think this was near to the village of Stiffkey.

My present home is in the village of Meldreth, once a place of many orchards. There are still a few left and they look splendid in the springtime.

Dodging back up to Norfolk again, to Wells harbour. Wells is more corectly known as Wells-Next-The-Sea, which indeed it used to be. Changes in the coastline however now mean that it should be called Wells-A-Good-Half-A-Mile's-Walk-And-Even-Further-If-The-Tide's-Out-From-The-Sea.

The shady, mysterious course of the River Cam near to Byron's Pool, a little upstream from Grantchester Meadows, but perfectly in keeping with the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song Grantchester Meadows:
A river of green
is sliding unseen
beneath the trees
laughing as it passes
through the endless summer
making for the seas.

Real English countryside that John Constable would recognise, though this is Hertfordshire once again not his stomping-ground in Suffolk.

The road less travelled - a minor by-way near the little town of Sandy.

Take care.

Sunday 29 May 2016

Favourite Beasties

For various reasons I'll not be posting any new pictures for a few days so, with my 600th post coming up shortly, I thought I'd go back and look at some of my favourite photos from the past five years. I hope you'll enjoy seeing some of them too.

Take care.


Sunday 22 May 2016


For the last two weeks I've been working the night shift. Not very hard work, but tiring and inconvenient, for while I can just about invert my lifestyle it's not possible to put all your friends and family onto the same timetable. So they tend to phone me when I'm sleeping and expect me to visit them during daylight hours. Also bright, sunny weather doesn't understand that I'm supposed to be resting and keeps beckoning me outside.

But the endless night time hours do give me a chance to do some reading. I do most of my reading on a Kindle e-book these days which means that I can skip back to things I've read in the past with little difficulty. Here are a few favourites.....

Meadowland (The Private Life Of An English Field) by John Lewis Sempel

A field-study in the most literal sense of the phrase, following the fortunes of a meadow on the English-Welsh border. This could all become a bit tedious and claustrophobic but for two things:

Firstly John Lewis Sempel is a gifted writer, more of a writer than a farmer I might suggest. The prose reads with all the rhythm and beauty of poetry and the author's learning and knowledge take us off on all kinds of journeys into history, literature and the natural world.

Secondly the visitors to the meadow - foxes, red kites, rabbits and voles - are irresistible characters whose stories and struggles draw you into a very real drama.

If you thought that a meadow was just a field full of grass then this book is for you. For if any meadowland is to survive, and it's by no means certain that it will, we all have to learn their unique charm and value.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The uncommon reader of the title turns out to be none other than HRH The Queen herself. In Bennett's imaginative fantasy she's lured by a naughty corgi into the mobile library van which visits the Palace. She feels obliged to borrow a book and here her life changes.

You see there's never been time in the Queen's busy schedule for reading. In fact it's been positively discouraged; it wouldn't do for her to cultivate too many opinions after all. But she becomes an enthusiastic reader, much to the concern of her advisers. Instead of asking everyone "have you come far?" she starts enquiring about their reading habits, much to the embarrassment  and bafflement of her subjects.

The ensuing action raised many a smile and a few out loud chuckles - look out for a grumpy Prince Philip waving "viciously" to the crowds and a splendidly written caricature of the Prime Minister who, if not anyone in particular, could be any of 'em.

Like all the best humour it's brief and concise; I read it all in one delightful sitting.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is a soaring, impassioned novel about civilians and soldiers during the Second World War. The cast of characters is varied and eccentric - a blind French girl, her locksmith father, a reclusive and brilliant uncle, a young German orphan boy who has a gift for working with radios, a schoolboy giant who later turns up as a Nazi soldier....You can see from the start that the blind girl and the German orphan are going to meet up at some stage and the wait for this to happen brings a kind of odd suspense to the story.

The brilliance of the writing is maintained over the 500+ pages and transports you to another time and place which is both magical and frightening. This is achieved despite the story occupying an uncomfortable place - part history, part fiction, part fantasy, part parable. It didn't ought to work but you soon become so involved in the story and care so much about the characters that you become part of this strange but terrifyingly real world.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Young woman trains a Goshawk - end of story.
No, not at all. 

Goshawks are notoriously difficult to train being highly strung, unpredictable, timid, dangerous, grumpy and exasperatingly rebellious. In short they are real characters so it's hardly surprising that Mabel the goshawk rather steals the show from the author who is herself trying to come to terms with the recent death of her father.

T H White, the author of The Once And Future King, also features prominently. White also attempted to train a goshawk and recounted the story in his book Goshawk. The struggles of this sensitive but damaged man forms another thread to the story.

The book reads like a psychological thriller as the battle of wills between bird and human plays itself out.

The Green Road Into The Trees (A Walk Through England) by Hugh Thompson

Another prize winning book I see. This one apparently relegated Robert Macfarlane's majestic The Old Ways to the also rans in the Wainwright Prize. And, like one of Macfarlane's "ways", it concerns walking through modern England on its oldest track, the Icknield Way. If you read this blog regularly you'll know that I often venture along parts of it myself.

As a walking companion Hugh Thompson is opinionated, but also learned and, most importantly, funny. I'd like to bump into him on my travels.

The Dalai Lama's Cat by David Michie

And finally a book of immense charm and lightly-imparted wisdom. A bedraggled kitten becomes the pet of the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and observes the life of the great man, his household and his visitors.

HHC (His Holiness's Cat,of course) also ventures out into the wider world, especially the local cafe, where he enjoys lots of free hand-outs as well as observing the comings and goings of the clientele. Throughout these adventures the cat gains useful knowledge on how to live a fulfilling life. As you might expect it's a fairly short book - after all cats are not the most industrious creatures.

If, like me, you shy away from self-help books and were put off all religion by Religious Instruction classes at school, then this may be the puuuurrrrrfect book for you!

Take care.

Sunday 15 May 2016

A Box Of Paints

Flower abstraction.

As I rode out one foggy foggy morning.

Steam engine man.

Standing stones.

The patience of trees.

The doors of deception.

The light within.

Take care.

Sunday 8 May 2016

A History Of Idealism And Irresponsibility 1909-1972

A handful of snaps of Grantchester meadows, a place central to my teenage years, as my friends and I fished, picnicked, boated, partied and dreamed our way through the summers of those years.

We were by no means the first people to think of doing this. The young people of the village must always have had the river and its meadowlands as their playground. But also the footpath which runs through them has long been a favourite and obvious excursion for all the many young men (mostly men until recently) who come to study at the university. The majority of the great minds that were formed at Cambridge must have taken a break from their dusty books to wander here.

But not many have tried to live here, though every year a few optimistic and idealistic souls pitch their tents down by the river. They don't stay for long; the first July downpour usually sends them scuttling home.

In 1909 however some very flamboyant Bohemian characters took up residence on the meadows. They were the family and friends of the artist Augustus John.

John had long had an interest in Romany or Gypsy life and so it was only a matter of time before he bought himself a traditional horse-drawn caravan. When he was asked to paint the portrait of Jane Ellen Harrison, the Cambridge classicist, he drew his wild entourage on to the meadows where he set up camp.

John's personal life was, to say the least, rather complex and he is rumoured to have fathered 100 children in his life, though I've no idea how they came by this figure. When he came to Grantchester he was accompanied by two "wives" and a large number of children, all boys apparently. The whole family were suntanned and dressed, when they were not undressed as they frequently were, in colourful, ragged clothes. They made quite an impression in the locality; "We cause a great deal of astonishment in this well-bred town", noted John.

While at Grantchester the great portrait artist was visited by Lady Ottiline Morrell who, dressed in all her silk and finery, must have made a picturesque addition to the ragged gypsy encampment. Lady Ottiline may well have been the inspiration for D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley. When he was not working on the Jane Harrison portrait, Augustus entertained himself by drinking and starting fights in the pubs of Cambridge. His devoted womenfolk had a lot to put up with. 

The new neighbours soon attracted the attention of the young poet, Rupert Brooke, who lived in Grantchester. Brooke was also immersing himself a back-to-nature lifestyle, swimming naked in the river, eating fruit and living simply while attempting to support himself by his writing alone.

                         Augustus John                                            his "chief love" Dorelia McNeil
   Noel Olivier                           Rupert Brooke                     Brynhild Olivier 
Brooke's circle of friends included the four Olivier sisters (cousins of Sir Laurence), the young Virginia Woolf, Ka Cox, Gwen Darwin (granddaughter of Charles Darwin) and her future husband the French painter Jacques Raverat. He was also an acquaintance of the economist John Maynard Keynes and philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. Russell says he was determined not to like Brooke though he actually found him very likeable.

Within a few short years their idyllic dreams were shattered with the outbreak of the Great War. Brooke died a tragic death before even getting to the battle, but his story was nonetheless converted into a heroic legend. 

John, on the other hand, survived the war - as did his superb beard! He was recruited as a war artist and, despite army regulations, was allowed to keep his whiskers. The only British army officers to have beards during the whole of the war were Augustus John - and His Royal Highness King George V.

Take care.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

The Call Of Distant Bells

Maybe, just maybe, I thought, if I my steps lead me through some patches of woodland, then perhaps I might find a bluebell or two.

Well, yes, I did. I wondered, I wandered and I was filled with wonder. It's said to be only the fairy-folk who can hear the tinkle of these tiny bells which call them to their conventions in the ancient woods; but every year many of us big, clumsy people also blunder into the woods to enjoy the bluebells.

And they are ancient woods too; any wood containing a goodly quantity of the flowers is reckoned to date from at least 1600. 

Bluebells occur throughout Western Europe but most of the really good shows of the flower are in Britain (though I might be a bit biased in my opinion!). Our bluebell woods, though, are under threat from the advances of the modern world - time for the fairy-folk to sit up and take notice then. They are protected by law and you mustn't pick them and certainly you mustn't dig them up.

In fact they are protected by lore as well as law, since it was long believed that bad luck would befall those who picked the little blooms. Modern science has shown that trampling the ground, even before the plants have appeared above ground is even more harmful than picking them. So if you venture out to see the bluebells it is important that you really do follow the rules and stick to the footpaths.

Now those of you who follow my ramblings closely might be thinking that I have a pet pheasant to accompany me on my walks. But this is a different one from the one I photographed recently in Cambridge. Or at least I think it is.

Other flowers are available to be photographed too. The selection above, cowslip, wood anemone and primrose, were all found in a meadow, though from the wide variety of woodland flowers that were present it may well have been wooded in the fairly recent past.

There were bluebells in this coniferous plantation too, which almost certainly indicates that there was an old broad-leafed woodland here before the conifers were planted.

There are a handful of other names for the bluebell though the name is so obviously desciptive that it seems almost perverse to call them anything else. Somewhere I've read that they were sometimes called Dead Man's Bells, which related to the story that the fairies would strike a man dead if he dug up the bulbs. There may be some truth in that, for the bulbs contain several toxins. Most of our ancestors were too practical to worry their heads about such superstitions and dug them up regardless, for an excellent glue could be made from the bulbs, just the job apparently for sticking feathers on to arrows.

I may well have been following a forgotten road through part of Newton Wood; the bank above had another running parallel to it about the right distance away.

I've been so busy looking at these little flowers that I almost forgot that I'd seen something marked on my map that I'd intended to investigate.....

And there it is - covered in bluebells, naturally enough - a prehistoric burial mound, dating back maybe 3,000 years and probably to a time before this land was wooded. Or perhaps that's just a fairy story......

Take care.