Wednesday, 29 April 2009

It's a Blue, Blue World Today

I’ve just come back from a truly magical walk in the bluebell woods at Greys Court in Henley. Sir Felix Brunner, who owned and lived in Greys Court until his death some years ago, loved to walk in these woods at bluebell time - at any time, in fact. Now that the National Trust has taken over Greys Court, its gardens and its woodland, anyone can follow what is called Sir Felix’s Gentle Path.’ The whole walk takes only about 25 minutes and beginning at the Maze you pass through several wooden five-barred gates named after Sir Felix and Lady Brunner’s children. So you’ll see Johnnie’s Gate, Dan’s Gate and Hugo’s Gate. At the end of the walk when you re-enter the grounds of the house you’ll pass The Gate of the Good Companions after crossing the Ha Ha by the Moon Gate

The path through the bluebell woods

The Wisterias have just come out – these are in my neighbour’s garden

And here is a little panoramic view of the Bluebell Woods this morning. Hope it works.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

River Life

The pair of swans who’ve made their nest at the bottom of our garden have now produced ten eggs. I’ve been trying to persuade the pen to lift up and show me her eggs for some time so I can make a little video, but she won’t cooperate. And as for the cob – he just hisses at me if I get too near the nest. Nevertheless I’ll keep on trying. When he shook himself the other day one of his little feathers wafted my way. I’ll post it here. Pretty, isn’t it?

The swan's feather

The weather’s been great lately – the best spring I can remember. At the beginning of the week I took my little dinghy out for a row down to Wharfe Lane in Henley, only stopping for an ice cream by Mill Meadows. And on Tuesday afternoon Sue and Tom came out for a trip on my big boat - Marsh Mundy - the first of the season. After about ten minutes the petrol fumes from the engine didn’t seem to disappear as expected. As the boat had only just been recommissioned I assumed that maybe the fumes were normal. But just in case I rang Ivan (the boatman) on my mobile phone to check. His reply went something like this “Get to the nearest riverbank as quickly as you can and get off the boat before it explodes!” Slightly chilling, don’t you think? As I’d just gone under Henley Bridge I rapidly steered the boat towards the Phyllis Court moorings. Ivan was with us within about ten minutes and checked the engine compartment thoroughly. All seemed OK and we were mightily relieved. “It must be exhaust fumes,” he said. So we went on our way upstream and moored on the sunny side of the river near Temple Island where Sue and Tom sipped champagne and I had a ginger beer and munched mango-flavoured crisps. Sue reckoned that as I still had old petrol in the boat – left over from last year – it may have been responsible for the excessive fumes. Being a gardener, she knew that old petrol in lawnmowers can cause a smell.

'Ratty' in Marsh Midget

Thursday was an active day. In the morning Vince and I played tennis at the Shiplake Tennis Club. It was our first game this year – we only played for about an hour with a score of 6/5 – in Vince’s favour. He said he needed the practice as he hopes to play a few games on the Mediterranean cruise he and Annie are going on this morning. Later in the afternoon I was invited to play snooker with the President of the PC Snooker Section at his house. We played for nearly three hours – it’s surprising how far you walk in three hours round a billiard table - with the result that I was slightly knackered in the evening.

Yesterday I received a letter from the President of the Hilliard Society of Miniaturists informing me that I’d won the prestigious ‘Bell Award’ for the best portrait in their annual exhibition. The subject of my portrait was Leslie Thomas – the author of ‘The Virgin Soldiers’. Leslie has written over 35 books since then, but that novel has a special significance for me because it was set in Singapore and based on his experiences as a National Serviceman there. I was also ‘a virgin soldier’ and spent over a year in Singapore during my National Service days. In the background of my miniature I’ve painted the names of all his books. I’ll be attending the Hilliard Exhibition in Wells next month so will pick up the award then.

Miniature portrait of Leslie Thomas OBE

In the glorious sunshine of a perfect evening yesterday Jilly drove me the fifty miles or so to Basingstoke where we had booked to see Paul Daniels perform in the Central Studio at St Mary’s College. The venue was quite special – small, smart and intimate – even with extra chairs brought in because the show was a sell-out, the audience totalled only about a hundred and fifty people. Paul loves this sort of venue as he can really connect with his audience. Jilly’s two young grandchildren joined us for the show, as they lived close by. Of course Paul spotted us sitting near the front, so made funny comments about ‘the posh Henley visitors.’ He also gave me a plug and even announced my website address! Never misses s trick, does Paul. I’ve seen many of his magic shows – and watched him perform from as close as a couple of feet away, but still haven’t the faintest idea how he does his magic! Last night Debbie wheeled a large modern guillotine on to the stage and a ‘willing’ young man bravely put his neck on to the transparent Perspex semi-circle. Tightly fixing the other half in place – and inserting three carrots in strategically placed holes in the Perspex, Paul slotted a great big 2-foot hunk of metal into the top of the apparatus. Then whoosh! Down came the big blade slicing in half the three carrots surrounding the hapless young man’s head, but miraculously leaving his head on his shoulders. How was it done? I’ve no idea – it’s magic.

When I was a soldier in Singapore the Ghurkha Regiment was based on the island of Blackangmati (now renamed Sentosa). I visited the island often and met many of these wonderful people. Fearless in battle they have served loyally in the British Army for generations. Since World War I as many as 50,000 Ghurkhas have died fighting for Britain and 150,00 have suffered serious injury. They receive a much smaller pension than their comrades in other regiments and many are now living in poverty in Nepal. Just yesterday our Government announced that unless Ghurkhas who served in the British Army prior to 1997 fulfil certain requirements they will not be allowed to settle in this country. We allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, plus countless asylum seekers, many of whom are bogus, to live here. We even admit self-styled enemies of Britain to come here - and give them full benefits. But the Ghurkhas have to fulfil almost impossible criteria, which includes the ruling that they must have served for at least 20 years in the British Army (an impossible attainment as only officers can serve for that length of time – ordinary soldiers are only allowed to serve a for a maximum of 15 years). Another requirement is that they must have won one of the top four medals for gallantry - aand that includes the Victoria Cross. Mentioned in Despatches doesn’t count. How mean is this? Our MP’s are greedily pocketing exorbitant annual expenses on top of their salaries, yet they’d deny these brave and loyal soldiers the right to settle here in Britain. Even though the High Court has ruled that the Government's refusal to give Ghurkhas who retired before 1997 the right to live in Britain was discriminatory and illegal, the Government blatantly ignored the law. What a disgraceful betrayal.

I took this little video the other day from my boat. It shows one of our pair of swans having time off from the nest but I still can’t get either of them to show me the eggs.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Hollow Tree

Could I have become a secret agent?
I mentioned to one of my most faithful blog followers recently that I had written a few books on miniature painting and would like to give her a couple of copies. But as I’ve never met her, or heard her voice – we communicate by Skype chat or email – we keep our relationship enigmatic. Getting back to secret agents. I needed a place to ‘drop’ the books and suggested a hollow tree somewhere. As luck would have it I found one last week in the grounds of Greys Court in Henley. (And as it comprises over 200 acres don’t attempt to look). Having located a really magnificent hollow tree, I took my little parcel there on Wednesday carefully wrapped in camouflage plastic. But I had chosen the very day when scores of children were having an Easter Egg hunt! Not only that, the hollow I’d carefully located had been enlarged and would have revealed the parcel. So plan B came into action and luckily a few hundred yards further on I found a fallen tree trunk with just enough room in it to hide the parcel. It needed a few daffodils and other bits of greenery to cover the hollow. Anyway all was well and a few hours later my enigmatic friend retrieved it safely. The picture above was to have been the hiding place.

On the subject of intrigue, my very old friend Sandy who lives in Texas found me on Facebook the other day and asked why she hadn’t received a copy of my autobiography - especially as we were engaged at one time and she knows she features quite heavily in the book. So I sent her a copy yesterday, but as I imagine she has a jealous boyfriend I was asked to send it to one of her friend’s address with a fictitious name. My choice. So I addressed the parcel to Cecila McPhirtlesquirt. That should keep the postman guessing!

Vince Hill was 75 on Thursday. Hard to believe – time just races along too quickly. Ten of us were invited to celebrate the occasion at the Baskerville Arms in Shiplake. A great evening, good food and great wine, and happy and stimulating company.

Vince and Annie at the Birthday Party

When I was a baby, while my mother was working as a pastry cook at the Galleon Tea Rooms in Wokingham, I was pushed around in my pram by a young friend of hers called Olive Berry. I remember her well. As I hadn’t seen her for about 60 years I enlisted the help of my friend Averil to see if she was still alive, and if she was, where was she now? Averil came up trumps with the happy result that on Thursday afternoon we, together with Pat, visited Olive in her care home in the little village of Finchampstead. At the age of 87 Olive has a razor sharp mind and a prodigious memory. She told me she had even seen me on a couple of TV Art shows I’d appeared in with Rolf Harris. We spent a very nostalgic hour with her, and then looked around the Norman church and churchyard in Finchampstead. (It’s where the Salvation Army Bramwell Booth sisters are buried).

The Churchyard at Finchampstead

For the past two weeks I’ve not been idle, as I’ve painted two miniatures. One is of Anthony Green – the Royal Academician. Here he is holding his palette. Anthony paints very large pictures – quite the opposite of mine. I did, however, paint a large one of him a number of years ago. He was wearing a watch on his wrist and it kept the correct time because I’d painted everything except the hands which were part of a real movement attached to the back of the painting thus allowing the watch hands to show through at the front.

Miniature of Anthony Green RA

Today is the anniversary of Susie’s death. She died on Easter Sunday 17 years ago (Can that be possible?). To commemorate her life I planted a Magnolia Stellata in our garden so it comes up each year around the anniversary. Today I put flowers on her grave in Hurst – African Violets. They aren’t frost hardy but the weather is so warm I thought I’d risk it as they looked so lovely. Later this evening I put flowers on brother Bob’s grave in Harpsden as the 20th of April is the date of his birthday.

Susie's Bush

Sir Clement Freud died on Friday. Grandson of Sigmund Freud, his dry wit demonstrated for many years on the BBC radio programme ‘Just a Minute’, always a amused me. Apparently he wanted to have the words “I told you I was ill” inscribed on his tombstone, but Spike Milligan beat him to it. So instead, as formerly he was very much involved with food, he came up with the words “Best before….” to be followed by the date of his death. Very droll!

Monday, 13 April 2009

Easter Happenings

Greys Court in Henley is a Tudor Manor with 14th Century fortifications. It opened its gardens to the public this week, so after picking up Gisel in Reigate and lunching at the Orangery in Phyllis Court, we spent a very pleasant time wandering around the gardens at Greys Court.
She was intrigued with the 16th Century Donkey Wheel there. In days gone by (and right up to1914) a fully grown donkey walked on a giant 19ft diameter wooden wheel (similar, but much larger of course, to those you sometimes see in hamster cages) which brought up water in a bucket on a rope from the 200ft well below. We wandered around the maze in the gardens, had tea outside, as the weather was perfect once again, and stopped to admire the wonderful full-size carving of the old gardener at the end of the fruit and vegetable garden.

Part of the Donkey Wheel

The White Magnolia Tree

The Good Gardener

Later in the day a car arrived to take Gisel to Heathrow Airport where she was catching a plane to take her back to Australia.

It was ‘Handing-in Day’ for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London last Monday. I submitted a large portrait of ‘Shining Bear’ – Rolf Harris’s didgeridoo player, and a miniature of Peter Sutherland.
Health and Safety regulations seemed to have reached the RA this year, as I had to join a long queue of disgruntled artists in a scruffy alleyway off the Burlington Gardens leading down to the bowels of the Academy. The young stewards seemed to have no idea of what to do as we were called forward one by one to progress a few yards to the next stage. After over half an hour of this, a few of us decided to buck the system and find our own way to the place where we knew the bar codes were being swiped and where we could unwrap our paintings. Emerging once more into the daylight and offering sympathetic glances to the long line of artists which by now had reached way back into Saville Row, I turned into Burlington Arcade stopping for a very efficient shoe shine there. A nice coffee and a read in Waterstones in Piccadilly and I was ready to look for a bus to take me to Paddington Station and home.

When I row down the river in the evenings in my little dinghy ‘Marsh Midget’ I often stop to talk to friends who are either on their boats or just sitting in their gardens. One of my favourite people was Alastair – a jolly Australian who kept his boat ‘Australian’s Possum’ moored beside Mill Meadows all summer. Sadly he died eighteen months ago. So I was pleased to see he’s been commemorated by a photo and carving on one of the many wooden seats that are dotted along the towpath there.

G'Day Possum

A comment on my blog recently suggested (with tongue firmly in cheek I suspect) that all the lunches and dinners I may mention are always in wonderful surroundings, and are all marvellous and delicious. Perhaps it’s because I only talk about the nice times. There are many exceptions. On Saturday, for example, a couple of friends were visiting and I had booked lunch at the Bull in Wargrave – a neighbouring village. When we arrived imagine our surprise to see a notice outside the pub reading “Kitchen Closed”. It seemed the chef had been mugged the night before in Reading and was in hospital! So we walked across the road to another pub – The Greyhound where I had just about the worst meal I can remember. We were the only people there and our lunch took nearly an hour and a half to arrive. Burnt up scampi, tasteless peas and soggy chips. What a treat! Not!

Contrast that with Good Friday. Annie and John Coury had invited about twelve friends to a very lavish affair at their house by the river in Wargrave. Annie’s table decorations at Easter are amazing – little chicks and coloured eggs pop up everywhere, and silver trees dangled with tiny mirrors and a myriad of Easter goodies. She’s a great cook and her fish pie was heavenly. A very happy occasion – I knew everyone there. Sitting next to me was Pip Williamson. He has been a vet all his life, and for the past couple of years since his retirement has been commissioned to be present in a professional capacity on TV programmes when animals and birds are being used. All to do with ensuring no cruelty takes place, or that the creatures are not subjected to stress. But I was amused when he told me that recently he was on set for nearly 6 hours while they filmed a commercial using three butterflies!

My big boat is nicely cleaned now. Or at least the outside is. I spent about 5 hours scrubbing it last Sunday, so apart from sprucing up the cabin, it’s ready to take out. My licence certificate arrived the other day so I’ll be able to go through locks as soon as the weather warms up.

Yesterday was a family day. At about eleven in the morning Neil and his family arrived from Waterlooville. As Becky is now eighteen it’s time to paint her eighteenth miniature – I paint one every year – so I had my big camera set up to take a few dozen photographs. We’ll then choose the best one for me to work from.
All four sets of nephews and nieces came to Henley yesterday and at about 12.30 we tootled off to The White Hart at Binfield Heath. We go there every Easter Sunday. This year it had changed hands and is now run by a Dutch couple. As there were 19 of us we had booked the conservatory at the pub where we all managed to just fit in. Somehow we seemed to be bigger this year, but I suppose all the children had grown somewhat. Interesting menu. I had smoked duck with whole cooked pear and fresh vegetables. We only had a main course as we all went back to Val’s house for pudding. She had made over a dozen different ones. Then came the Easter egg hunt and ‘the money game’ in the garden. When I lived abroad and came home on leave each year I collected all my coins and lined my nephews and niece up then threw the money all over the garden so they could run and find the coins. Now they are all grown up and have children of their own I do the same thing each Easter Sunday. This year I’d saved a couple of hundred 2, 5, 10 and 20 pence coins. I have nine great nieces and nephews ranging from two to eighteen.. I took a little video of it yesterday. Hope it comes out.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Devon, Glorious Devon

Old Totnes
Joanna, my old friend who lives in Vienna, decided to celebrate her birthday this year at Totnes in Devon. I was invited to her party, so booked a comfortable seat on First Great Western last Thursday. What a beautiful day that was. Half an hour out of Reading a tiny little canal meandered along next to the railway line. Barely 10 feet wide and dotted with miniscule hand-operated locks, the occasional canal boat moored along its banks it was a picture of perfect peace and tranquillity. Joanna had booked us into The Royal Seven Stars Hotel – a delightful 17th Century Coaching Inn which retains much of its original ambiance I imagine.

The Entrance to the Royal Seven Stars Hotel

Totnes lies above the river Dart and is one of Devon’s true gems. Full of colour and character, it’s the second oldest borough in England and boasts a Norman castle and an ancient church. Climbing up the picturesque hill we had a look around St. Mary’s Church. Fragments of the Norman period remain and the present church was rebuilt in the 15th century. It contains an elaborate massive carved stone screen, made in 1459.

Stained Glass Window in St. Mary's Church

Monument to Christopher Blackhall and his four wives

In the evening we joined a few of Joanna’s friends at an old inn reached by negotiating miles and miles of twisting and turning narrow county roads. Luckily we were driven there by natives of Devon. My steak was truly succulent. I’d asked for a really juicy and well-done fillet steak (normally chefs seem to sneer at requests for well-done meat), but this was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. The pub stayed open well past closing time while we celebrated as everyone seemed to know everyone, and we had a great time. (But I wouldn’t recommend the ancient mediaeval outside gents loos.)

The following morning Joanna and I spent a few magical hours wandering around the magnificent gardens of Dartington Hall. Not a cloud in the sky, no breeze, just a perfect spring day. Built in 1368 this Baronial Hall was built for the Earl of Huntingdon – half brother to Richard II. In 1925 it was bought by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst who spent a decade of reconstruction in making it the glorious place it is today. The blossoms on the magnolia trees were at their very best, and the enormous grassy steps some twenty feet wide and kept in perfect condition, surrounds the arena that would once have been the site of jousting.

Magnolias in the Sunshine

In the Courtyard

Joanna in Dartington Hall Gardens
Tracey’s young son, Jamie, picked me up at Reading station later in the afternoon and after sorting out my mail and making all the bookings for Henley Regatta at Phyllis Court in the summer ( they have to be done way in advance if you want to get the best seats in the restaurant and on the deckchairs) I handed them in and met Jilly for a game of snooker there. Two hours later we tootled up to Wargrave where Paul and Debbie had invited us to supper. Delicious meal and cosy atmosphere – a lovely evening. (I spent part of the evening with my hands over my ears as, having missed the much heralded explosive episode of ‘Eastenders’, I didn’t want to know what had happened before I caught up with my recording of it.)

Yesterday morning Gill Dodds, the Mayor of Henley, was in the main square of Henley where she’d inaugurated a fund raising event in the shape of ‘A Mile of Pennies’. People came from all over and soon Falaise Square was a hive of activity. I took a bag full and saw Paul and Debbie there. Paul was doing his usual great job of enticing the crowd. We trotted along to the Cafe Rouge and had a late breakfast then headed back to the money mountain. Vince and Annie Hill were there by then.

Martin, Vince, Paul, Richard, Debbie, and Annie

On Wednesday I was part of a team at the annual Phyllis Court Quiz Night. Held in the ballroom there were 12 tables of 10 people each. After a nice supper, the very talented chairman for the evening, together with his half dozen acolytes, started the proceedings. He’s an ace with the computer and had spent months preparing the 100 or so questions that were projected onto two large screens. The last time I went to the quiz evening out table managed to come last and were awarded wooden spoons. (I still have mine and use it for whisking up scrambled eggs). But this year, lo and behold, we won! As we were competing with Probus members and the Tennis Section, plus other intellectuals, we gave ourselves a little pat on the back and walked away with our prizes – a free dinner at the Club.

I’ve just planted about thirty double begonias on my back balcony, and as the day is still glorious I think I’ll spend the next few hours cleaning my big boat.