Thursday, September 22, 2016

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

November update

Gales in the wake of Storm Barney are lashing the frighteningly lofty four-trunked eucalyptus tree that is the tutelary deity of Nutwood. No Howard's End style pig's teeth  in its trunk, but my little domain would be the poorer without it. I remember standing under it at a garden party years before I moved here; the son of the house told me that it had been cut down to the ground in 1986, but had sprouted four branches. It's braced at two points to prevent any one trunk crashing down. Cross fingers.

The long garage behind the beech hedge
The rose garden and a shaggy mock-orange veil my
 work hut from the garden house
has been rebuilt as a black-elmboard-clad annexe; a granny-pod one day perhaps, but for now rented to a cheerful and active young couple who spend a lot of time on outdoor adventures. The garden is as jungly as ever, but it's been a wonderful autumn for lasting - roses and nasturtiums and a very late flowering canna still making a brave show. But hard frosts forecast for the weekend, so the party's almost over. I'm spending early mornings on the Alyce project in my little garden study, then after taking Leo for a walk and having breakfast switching to the library to work on my latest project, a book about fictional homes which amount to characters - Howard's End, Mandelay, Wuthering Heights, Bleak House, Poynton, House of Seven Gables, and so on. The difficulty will be circumscribing the subject's boundaries, but at the moment I'm having fun researching. Off regularly now to the peace of the Taylorian Library's classic cube, to read books there. One's own home is so distracting.
I've just finished checking the proofs of Writing the Thames, which is set fair to becoming my best book ever. I know the world and his wife will come up with things I have left out, but I have certainly got a lot in. Here's my favourite picture, George Dunlop Leslie lounging against his punt pole with a group of artist and writer friends near Henley [copyright reserved, so please don't pinch it]:

The Bodleian Library, who are publishing it in March 2016 have been incredibly generous with pictures, and I'm looking forward to talking about the book at the next Oxford Literary Festival.
The third of my anthologies for the British Library comes out in February 2016; rather good to have two books being published the year I reach three score years and ten. I'm enjoyed senior status at the minute - not too many of the frailties to come, and a new confidence in the way I live my life.
So to a whistle stop summary of the year as preserved in photos -
 The first few months were devoted to racing for book deadlines and recover from a kidney stone; in May I took Ben and Meg to Osterley Park, where they dangled for the willows while Tilly was giving birth to Wilfred Timothy Eiliv, named for his Irish grandfather and Norwegian great-grandfather.

On a later visit to Oxford, Ben and Meg had a ride in a 1920s Trojan car owned by David Hambledon, who has a large fleet of Trojan vehicles, ranging from bubble cars and motor bikes to delivery vans, lorries and even a tractor. We met because David has an obsession not only with Trojans, but with establishing which Trojan it was that Arthur Ransome drove. Only two very murky and ancient photographs of AR's car remain, and even mega-enlarged, the number is not clear.

John Eade, author of the excellent Thames lore website, brought his own camping punt to Oxford for a week so that we could explore the city's waterways. We took turns to punt from Bablockhythe through Eynsham, King's, and locks and past Port Meadow [noting the hideous warts of the new student blocks that now ruin the famous vista of the city from  the north. We left the  the main river downstream of Osney lock, and ducked and wove along the very narrow stream that  behind the industrial estate, after a mile or so taking the left fork. This led us, bent treble at times, to The Fishes at North Hinksey, but as the river was low we couldn't continue past it and under the Botley Road beside The George [now Richer Sounds].  Nor could we follow another fork that must once have taken boats all the way to South Hinksey. But we did manage to turn left along the Bullstrake stream, go under the Botley road and down the left hand side of the new Waitrose, and fork left behind it to reach the Binsey Lane Bridge, where a low weir and a fallen willow blocked the river.  On the way back, we turned right, and had a long and lovely punt northwards through utterly peaceful waters, thick with water lilies over which brilliant blue and green dragon-flies hovered.

We passed Binsey Church on our right, and if it hadn't been for a fallen willow, we could have punted under the A34 and reached Wytham, though the stream was rather fast after we reached the left fork that would take a canoe back to  the Botley Road, The George and The Fishes. We'd seen the start of this stream tumbling down a two foot weir on our way from Eynsham Lock to King's Lock. It is I believe the relic of a medieval cut that gave water-borne pilgrims a direct route to the famous Holy Well at Binsey Church, whether they were approaching from the north or the south. WE returned via Osney to Port Meadow, and John moored for the night beside The Perch.
Next day we  explored the Oxford Canal, lunching well at the Anchor in Aristotle Lane, but came back to find a sneak their had stolen John's camping stove. We went on as far as the Duke's Cut [scene of a murder in Colin Dexter's The Wench is Dead], then rejoined the Thames above King's lock, and returned via Godstow to Port Meadow. I liked this splendid quote from Herman Melville's The Temeraire, wittily inscribed on one of a series of exceptionally battered live-aboard hulks.
John explored the Cherwell on the third day of one of the sunniest weeks of the summer; Leo and I met him for lunch at the Victoria Arms to hear about his adventures without us. Many years ago, when I kept Dulcibella at St Catherine's College, my then husband Tom and I reached Islip in her.

In June, the makers of the new film of Swallows and Amazons invited myself and the other executors of the Arthur Ransome Literary Estate to watch filming at Coniston and on Derwentwater. Captain Flint's houseboat seemed a little small, especially with a huge film crew aboard, but her rakish and artistically fatigued appearance were just right for Captain Flint's floating writing retreat. The dinghies were perfect, and we were pleased to see that no life-jackets were worn on camera - although they were snappily pulled on over the heads of the feisty young cast as soon as they were off camera. The film should reach the big screen next summer. It'll be interesting to see how it compares with the charming, but now  dated, 1970s film made by Richard Pilbrow.

The author, son-in-law Joe, Sam, Olivia and Lenny
The great local discovery of the summer was Hitchcopse Pit, between Cothill and Frilford, once a shallow quarry, now a miniature paradise perfect for adventurous children's games, even if the little lake is too small for boats. It's now regular Leo-walking territory, and on a fine weekend when grandchildren are visiting we often take a picnic tea there. The sand is as fine as you find on a beach, and the cliffs full of enticing caves and rocks stacked like a giant's stair-case. The woods through which you reach it are full of bluebells in early summer. The nature reserve spreads out in all directions; further east there is another even smaller former quarry full of sand-martins nests and exposed levels of geological strata. I'm fascinated by geology, but find it hard to get my aged brain to retain which layer of what came when.

Readying the Zephyr
In July I went to stay with Gillian Crampton Smith and Phil Tabor in Venice again, this time to go to the Feast of the Redeemer, once scene of the legendary bridge of gondolas. As they have a traditional boat, we were allowed to moor in front of the ranks of spectators who lined the banks of the Guidecca. It was indeed spectacular, with fireworks fired it seemed straight at us rather than over us from the opposite bank for so long that I began to wonder if this was a little like what being in the trenches must have been like. Next day we realised the boat and our clothes were thickly covered with cinders...
But once is enough. Venice is far too hot in July, and there was no wind for sailing. though I tried my hand at stand up rowing. Still, much useful progress on the Thames book in my delightful air-conditioned little room in their apartment, with. as evening approached, heavenly cooking scents coming from the kitchen and the tinkle of ice entering a Campari soda!

It's been a good year for the garden. Luke and I maneuvred the long neglected stone sink that came with us from Chalfont Road in front of the Columbian Printing Press's old inking table, which I brought back from Brecon, where the press was once stored, and made this attractive display under the quince tree that is now thriving in front of the house. A bumper crop this year. Sunflowers were my other triumph [ it will be evident that I am a very amateur gardener indeed].

In August, I noticed that a rhino had been born at the Cotswold Wild Life Park - a surprise, apparently, and amazingly the second this year. Olivia and I went to see him frolicking about in a hilariously thuddy sort of way. He is the third baby to join the crash, which is apparently the rather appropriate collective noun for a herd of rhinos. Also adorable were a litter of otter kittens racing around their stream, bullying each other and snuggling together turn and turn about.

Another success was a visit to the Millett's Farm Falconry Centre, which boasts over 80 birds of prey, including eagles and owls, which are so tame that they are let loose to fly in daily demonstrations. You can also be photographed with one on your wrist.

Fox achieved remarkable lift-off
September saw us all assembled at a wonderful shabby chic mini-mansion just south of Bristol for Daisy's 40th birthday bash. Its huge garden, trampoline and most of all swimming pool meant that there was non-stop action for young and old alike

At the end of September I decided to revisit Pier Cottage, on Mull, where I had stayed Ruari and Antonia McLean many times in the early 1990s. After Antonia died, and Ruari moved away, I stopped going, but last year's trip to Lewis had whetted my appetite for the Western Isles - so too had the move there of an Oxford friend  Browsing the holiday cottages, I came across the Library at CArsaig, and immediately recognised it for the one-time home of Ruari's superb collection of Victorian colour illustrations and fine printing of all kinds. They of course have all been sold, but the Library now boasts comfortable sofas and armchairs, a splendid central wood-burning stove and a spacious deck that juts out over rocks where you are more likely than not to see otters disporting themselves and, on the outer skerries, dozing seals.  First I visited Graeme on Luing (pop. c.170), one of the legendary Slate Islands just south of Oban, which were hacked into weird shapes to provide roofing slates for  the world for three centuries, exporting eight million a year in their heyday. Now they can boast the world stone skimming championships. Graeme and Sylvia live in Cullipool, and from the hill above it Leo and I could see the cliffs that soar above Carsaig. There was a fine ceilidh that night, with strenuous dancing and an outstanding fiddler, all to celebrate the medal worthily awarded to John Blackwell, who has raised thousands for charity over the last twelve years and shows no signs of stopping.
Staffa-style rock formations on the coast path east of Carsaig
And so back to Mull, a voyage down memory lane indeed. Ruer and Antonia's son David was staying in the Family End, and a pair of regular and devoted tenants had taken the main cottage for three weeks. I was glad to see that it still had its superb grape vine lining it sunporch; we all feasted on them. It was a week of much writing, talks by candlelight, long walks along the shore in both directions, a visit to the little visited south shore of Iona and another to Tobermory, where a rainbow blessed me as I sipped a single malt and enjoyed a cigarillo.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Reality Check

In May I went to Appleton woods with Meg, Ben
and their father Tom, and found this sea of bluebells
I'm not longer going to apologies for failure to add to this notepad during the year, but instead to accept the reality of this being, probably, an annual catch-up/look back. It's a measure of the laid-back feel of this Christmas that I started writing on Christmas Eve, but because of the able assistance and innovations of the Christmas Elves [aka Gillian and Phil, who have abandoned their usual interactive computer designing to fiddle with a chestnuts and pancetta dressing for the sprouts, and apple and prune stuffing for the Bird.  But what's been happening? My first literary anthology Pleasures of the Garden was published in March, and seems to be doing rather well. Next March sees the publication of Pleasures of the Table and the year after that Pleasures of Nature. It's great fun roaming through my ragbag attic of literary memory, as well as combing my own shelves and those of the London Library for inspiration.
I'm now working flat out on a book I've long wanted to write, a survey of books about the Thames of all kinds, some early chronicles and seekers after the picturesque to gritty modern day psychogeographers. The Thames has threaded its way through my life from childhood, when I crossed it at Richmond to get to school in Hampton, walked beside it to the ice-rink of a Saturday, shook to the Rolling Stones on Eel Pie Island and learnt to sail in a Merlin at Tamesis Sailing Club, to now, when I have a British Moth sailing dinghy and my camping punt Dulcibella to play with on the peaceful waters above Oxford. To be published by the Bodleian Library in 2016, Writing The Thames  will be similar in approach to my Writing Britain.

In April, I met up with Fran, Gillian and other friends and contemporaries for the 50th anniversary of our arrival at Newnham College, the turning point of my life. Strange occasion, struggles to recognise life-worn contemporaries, and full of startling flashbacks to our blithe Then, - we're so much wiser now.
Early in May, I had a little Lake Country spree - being filmed on locations around Coniston and actually on Peel Island for a Location Featurette on the DVD of the remastered 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons. 
In June, I enjoyed exploring George Herbert's country around Salisbury, after having been inspired by John Drury's wonderful Music at Midnight. Then I went to a conference about Helen Waddell. Both are writers who, like T H White, remain enduringly important to me.
I had a lovely intense week working at Gladstone's Library in June; took a day off walking in Anglesey and found this lovely gate: I also revisited Plas Y Newydd, enjoying the Rex Whistler wall paintings and memorabilia. It is a tragedy that he died so untimely in the Normandy landings.
Old age caught up with me in July, I developed a lurgy of the innards that sent me to hospital and knocked me out for six weeks; cancelled trip to Norway and Baltic cruise with brother Peter. All is now well thankfully.

Once recovered, as well as working on the Thames book, I had a great summer on it: punting more often than sailing, lunching moored on the boom by the Henley finish line in a punt made by John Eade (creator of Where Thames Sweet Waters Glide)), who knows far more about the river than I ever will.
Gardening was also productive, especially for potatoes: having just enjoyed the film Despicable Me, I was delighted to unearth this vegetable minion. The grandchildren aid and abet.
In September, Henry Eliot, who organised the Malory Caper a year or so ago and is now making a living as a literary walker, organised a Lake Poets weekend. We stayed at Greta Hall, once the home of Robert Southey and S T Coleridge, now an excellent B&B. Everyone took on a literary character, then we tramped hills and dales quoting relevant poems. We all took turns to cosy into these huge wooden hands; they can be found on the western shore of Derwentwater, just north of Manesty.

In October, Fran and Meredith and I took the Waverley steamer to Southend; it was a wonderful way of seeing the estuary, the part of the Thames I know least well. Waverley  is lovingly maintained by volunteers, and have been restored to her original grandeur, with tea-, dining- and drinking-saloons, gleaming mahogany benches and lloyd loom chairs. Most spectacular of all is her engine, a jungle of huge steel pistons, brass dials and copper wires. She leaves from Tower Pier and returns at night: the bridge opens for her, which is especially fine at night, when the bridge looks hung with diamonds.

In November, I went to stay in Venice with Gillian and Phil; they met me at the station with wellies as there was an 'acqua alta', as exceptionally high tides are called. Halfway through my visit we went to Ravenna, as I love the mosaics at Torcello, and was keen to see the  famous much earlier ones at Ravenna. I hadn't realised how strategically important it once was, hence the splendour of its churches. The mosaics have been amazingly preserved/ restored, surely a mark of how much they have been loved. Next year, I'm going in June, so I can go out on the lagoon in Granseola, their newly acquired vintage boat.

Later that month, proud granny watched seven-year-old Olivia being the inn-keeper's daughter in the English National Ballet's Oxford production of Coppelia; she was chosen because she is a star of her theatre club. She bustled about in a very composed manner, and even came on all alone dancing in a whirl with another small boy. Curtain calls were made very diverting by her bouncing up and down in delight.
Finally, we held our annual family get together at brother John's house this year; Peter couldn't be there as he has just remarried and is in Cape Town. But ten of our children and an ever-increasing third generation were there. No picture as yet, but here's the 2013 one, which was held at my house, to be going on with.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year Resolution . . .

. . . Is not to leave so long between posts. So, spurred on by a kindly prod from Mary Addison [whose fascinating embroidery blog is much recommended],  here is a rapid catch up of what has been a wonderful year in lots of small ways. First of course, the new comer: Betsy Billings born 28 March, and now trying valiantly to walk as well as her big brother Lenny - seen right waiting to walk on as Father Christmas. After the long cold spring came one of the best summers for a long time - happily co-inciding with a wonderful new harbour for two-thirds of my Thames fleet - Wizard, a Mirror dinghy acquired with grandchildren in mind, and the good punt Dulcibella were conveniently ensconced at the end of Brian and Jean Carroll's garden, which runs down to the Thames just above Bablockhythe. Tilly, Tom and Meg made the most of her, while Dulcibella repaid her pretty mooring under a weeping willow by taking guests to the Carroll's daughter's post-wedding lunch for short cruises up the Thames.

 This year, I had a lazy time on the water, no great ambitions, just poling between Northmoor Lock and the Ferry Inn, where a nicely chilled half-pint of cider became a regular tradition, then mooring in a remote backwater for a swim and relaxed research with books to gather material for my forthcoming (April 2014) literary anthology Pleasures of the Garden. The trip to Lewis in April inspired me with an interest in geology, and I did an excellent weeklong afternoon course on Wiltshire's geology at Marlborough Summer School. Great opportunity to visit old haunts and old friends, and the course was an excellent mixture of theory and excursions, on which Leo could come too. I stopped to gaze at Clements Meadow, our home for ten years, and luckily was noticed by the lady of the house - when she heard we'd lived there, she invited me to look round - it is now immeasurably grand with indoor swimming pool and gym; the larder a loo, the butler's pantry a chintz banquette. And on the market, as it happened, for fifteen times what we sold it for. Still, no regrets.
Clements Meadow and its new owner
Funny seeing the 'Adam' pine fireplace we found in Kirkcudbright and painstakingly stripped and put in still ensconced, and sad that the dining-room panelling has all been taken out. But it needed much wealthier owners than we were, and it was great to see it so well looked after. I rather miss the printing presses - we had a Victoria treadle platen and a Columbian, complete with eagle rising and falling. Too big for our first Oxford house, this lived for many years in the barn of friends' cottage on the slopes of the Brecon Beacons, but was sold in the early 1990s. Pity: I now have room for it again, and it is tempting to take up letterpress printing once more. I still have a wooden block alphabet and lots of picture blocks, including some very rare ones by Robert Gibbings for his never published Erehwon.
But I digress, as one does when revisiting old haunts. There was quite a bit of that this year, including Brecon and (left) Claed-waen-hir [sp?] in June, and Cornwall and (right) Surfside in November. The view to Godrevy lighthouse was as miraculous as ever. I was disappointed of moonsets, but  loved the introduction of sand-yachts to the never-ending beach. Gwithian and Hayle Bay excellent on geological rock formations too, and more rockface work was offered by taking part in the scouring of the Uffington White Horse - which was so much fun that I am determined to make it an annual excursion. Another ancient monument was visited in July, when Henry Eliot, the enterprising re-enactor of the journey of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims form Southwark to Canterbury, appealed to me to get involved in a similar tour of sites mentioned in Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur.
We spent the night in Amesbury, where Guinevere is reputedly buried in the Abbey, then had a privileged early morning visit to Stonehenge, where Merlin and Meligraunce told their tales. On then to Camelot in the shape of Cadbury Castle, where more Knights of the Table Round
held forth to an admiring audience of us and a large but fortunately docile herd of Holstein heifers. Then on to Glastonbury, and moving accounts of the apparent death but hopeful resurrection of Rex Quondam Futurusque.
The warm and tranquil summer meant much rewarding gardening - bumper crops of red and blackcurrants, Borlotti beans, firapple potatoes and tomatoes. I discovered answer to glut of tomatoes: halve and spread in large roasting pan with drizzle of olive oil, and sprinklings of salt and sugar [essential] and leave to rot in bottom of Aga/slow oven for at least four hours. Sumptuous result to flavour most things, or just eat. There was also a magnificent quince harvest, resulting in much delicious quince jelly - easily the easiest way of coping with these concrete hard fruits. Cover with water and boil whole until soft enough to cut up, then let cook more slowly; strain through jelly bag ( a pillowcase will do) and add rather less than half as much weight of sugar.
In early September I treated myself to a week with Gillian Crampton Smith and Phil Tabor in Venice.
Lovely weather enabled us to eat both breakfast and supper on their twin roof terraces.
We also had a great day out to Vicenza, admiring Palladio's many villas, most of all the Villa Valmarano al Nani - the Villa of the Dwarfs. Apparently it was entirely staffed by dwarfs to prevent its young owner from realising that she was unusually limited in stature. Photographs showed that it was badly bombed in the war; now it is marvellously restored.
I'm not a Henley person but I did enjoy picnicking in John Eade's elegant punt tied up to the centre river boom right at the finish line.

It was also very good to rejoin Medley Sailing Club, undoubtedly the most congenial riverside sailing club imaginable, ghastly as the panda-faced Stalag Luft Seven buildings erected by the University at Castle Mill are. Roll on their being shortened, clad in timber, covered with vigorous creepers or, preferably, obliterated. But Gipsy, British Moth 852, is very happy to be back home,
September brought some lovely pictures from new young scholars - Fox on the left, Meg on the right: long may their enthusiasm last. Since then I've been immured in the garden fastness of my well-insulated workhut [much warmer than the house itself, especially when the sun floods in through its many windows, working on Alyce: Book of the Duchess. First draft is now being read by various daughters. I know it isn't good enough yet, but perhaps one day it will be. As to more realistic books, an advance copy of Pleasures of the Garden (to be published in April 2014) has just arrived, generously illustrated, and looking very handsome and substantial. It was great fun to comb great gardening writers to create a collection of horticultural gems, and it is wonderful to be able to make the most of the British Library's magnificent picture resources. The British Library have now commissioned a new literary anthology provisionally titled Pleasures of the Table – and Pleasures of Parenting may be on the horizon.