Monday, 27 September 2010

Westward Ho!

As my young friend said she’d never been to the West of England we decided to visit Dorset and Somerset last week.

On the way to Wookey Hole where we were to stay for a couple of nights with my friends Michael and Sharran North we stopped off at Stonehenge

Pity we can’t get really close any more, but nevertheless it’s still a sight worth seeing. This ancient stone circle is a survival from a prehistoric culture and evolved between 3,000 BC and 1,000 BC and is aligned with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. Its exact purpose remains a mystery

After Stonehenge we travelled south to Stourhead

In the 1740’s Henry the Magnificent began designing Stourhead’s beautifully landscaped garden. It could almost be called a living work of art and it changed the way gardens in England were designed. The whole estate covers nearly 3,000 acres of chalk downland, ancient woodland, prehistoric hill-forts, and a Palladium mansion. The landscape is hilly and undulating, and as we walked over nearly half the estate my fitness level was tested at times. This crenelated gateway takes on a magnificent hue as autumn begins to colour the landscape.

So off to Wookey Hole. Mike North is one of the world’s leading exponents of olive oil and heads the international ‘Olive Trail’ company. (He also appeared on the popular TV series ‘Dragons Den’ last year.) At dinner in their sprawling bungalow that evening my young friend sampled many varieties and some delightful Balsamic vinegars. Sharran explained the technicalities of EBay to me and I used my iPad to register, so in the next week or so I hope to get started and sell a few of my unwanted treasures.

Next day we visited Wells and toured the Cathedral.

On display were twelve Altar Frontals, six for the Quire Altar and six in the Nave. Much admired, they were designed by Jane Lemon and Maurice Strike for the Millennium and were made by the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court. This is the Pentecost Frontal in the Nave.

Next stop – Cheddar Gorge and caves. There the limestone cliffs tower 450 feet above the 3-mile long gorge. The gorge is spectacular – ancient and somehow mysterious. We thought the area around the caves a bit tawdry and touristy, but did enjoy going down into the caves.

I wondered why the rustic West Country tones of the woman on my voice-guide sounded a little simplistic, until my young friend informed me that I’d been listening to the children’s version of the commentary! It didn’t really matter as I’m really a big kid at heart anyway.

From Cheddar we travelled on to Axbridge to visit King John’s Hunting Lodge. (He must have travelled around the country a lot as we found another of his lodges later in the week, and there are many more scattered around the Kingdom). It’s a 15th Century wood-framed jetted building. With permission I moved the (extremely heavy) sign outside the lodge so I could take a photograph of the building without it.

With creaking floorboards, very low ceilings, and rickety spiral staircases, we really enjoyed a step into the past. I guess someone got locked in sometime as I noticed this guy lying around in one of the rooms.

Back to Wookey Hole later in the afternoon we took Mike and Sharran out for dinner at a great little restaurant just a few steps away from their bungalow where I had the juiciest steak I can remember. White paper cloths covered every table, and a jar of coloured crayons in the centre encouraged us to draw portraits of each other on the cloth, which we all did - with varying degrees of success.

In the morning we drove ( I say we, but my young friend did all the driving) down to the coast to visit Swanage. I lost 50 pence because I didn’t win the competition as to which of us would see the sea first. Fish and chips and ice cream on the sea front was bracing. Then we walked along the length of the pier to look for the small brass plaque (amongst hundreds of others) we had placed there for Bob, my brother, who died 10 years ago. Bob loved Swanage and with his family spent many happy times there over the years. Borrowing a tin of Brasso and cloths from a little nearby shop Bob’s plaque was soon shining out amongst the others after a vigorous clean.

From Swanage to Corfe Castle, and for a short way beyond, runs the Swanage Railway. The first train ran there in 1875, which makes this year its 125th anniversary. We made the twelve-mile return trip on one of the several steam trains operating the route.

The little stations along the route are delightful. Here’s a shot I took from the train at Corfe Castle

Having booked a B&B in advance we eventually found the house at West Ower, near Corfe Castle. Thank goodness for satnavs, for without ours we’d still be travelling along miles of Dorset countryside looking for our destination. But eventually we found it – after a couple of hazardous backings, especially one caused by a aggressive 4 by 4 taxi driver. In the evening, after getting lost a couple of times, the lights of a welcome pub called the Castle beckoned us so we dined there. If there’s one thing I like about B&B’s in the countryside it’s the sumptuous breakfasts they provide. Ours, the following morning, was no exception and having feasted well we decided to visit the tank museum at Bovington in Dorset. Established on the suggestion of Rudyard Kipling in 1923 this museum holds the world’s finest collection of armoured vehicles. Vast in scope, there must be every type of tank and armoured vehicle ever made, and from every country in the world on display. One of the most interesting exhibits was a scale model of the tank invented by Leonardo da Vinci in 1482.

I found the whole museum really interesting as apart from tanks, both world wars, and other later ones were depicted in tableaux and much memorabila.

One of the attractions (for me anyway) was a heavy gun with a screen on the far end of the table showing a variety of combat situations. The object is to score hits on moving vehicles as they traverse the landscape. I didn’t score the maximum, but had a lot of fun.

After a couple of hours or so at the tank museum we drove down to Poole harbour and on to Sandbanks (reputed to have the most expensive properties in England) to visit my friend, and fellow miniaturist, Pauline Gyles. I lost another 50 pence on the way, as I was sure we’d approach Sandbanks by ferry, but we didn’t. (We would have if we’d come from the other direction.)  Pauline greeted us in her charming little cottage, and I was amused to see about 7 pairs of spectacles laid out on a table – it seems Pauline chooses whichever one she needs for whatever she is about to do at the time as they are all of different strengths.

Her cottage is one of a row of old coastguard cottages - just a hop, skip and jump away from the Sandbanks Motor Yacht Club. There we had a happy lunch looking out to sea, where hundreds of yachts were bobbing away at anchor in the harbour.

Later in the afternoon we drove up to the Royal Signals Museum which contains, amongst much else, an insight into the workings of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War Two. There’s an original German Enigma code machine on view as well as a suitcase spy radio from the SOE, together with lots more ‘tools of the trade’. Set up by Winston Churchill in July 1940 it was a tough anti-Nazi British fighting organisation, and was formed in deadly secrecy.

Placed controversially by Churchill under the Ministry of Economic Warfare, he regarded it as his ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Conduct’.

As the museum is housed right inside the Royal Signals Camp at Blandford in Dorset, we were subjected to quite a long wait at the guardroom while we were given identification tags and a large placard for the car. Being a working outfit, with elements of the SAS training there, the need for rigorous checking is understandable.
Next morning we left West Ower to pay a visit to Corfe Castle itself. Making good use of Greville, the dear departed second husband of Katie Boyle, who is, I am reliably informed, in charge of parking from his vantage point in heaven, we immediately found the one remaining space just outside the entrance to the castle grounds. (Greville really earns his keep as over many years, and on very many occasions, he’s performed miracles when I need a parking space!)

The ruinous state of Corfe Castle is not due to the ravages of time, but to Cromwell’s soldiers who were ordered to destroy it in 1646 after the Royalist garrison had surrendered following a lengthy siege. There was a Royal Castle at Corfe in William the Conquerer’s time, although most of what we can see today is due to later Kings: Henry I, who built the keep, John, who was responsible for the courtyard and most of the defences, and Henry III, who built both gatehouses.

As my young friend had joined the National Trust while we were visiting Stourhead, we looked for another interesting place as our final destination before we made our way home. We thought that Lacock sounded good. It’s quite near Bath and was only a couple of hours drive from Corfe Castle. When we arrived I was quite overwhelmed by this wonderful little town,

It remains today much as it looked in the eighteenth century, and we could easily imagine its crowded marketplace thronged with pedlars and sideshows, animals and poultry, all competing with the more sedate everyday shops and businesses. Having recently watched the TV series Cranford’ - filmed last year, we instantly recognised Lacock as the location. (The town was also used as the location for the filming of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in 1995). We had a nice lunch in the Red Lion, then walked across the street to the Fox Talbot Museum which is housed in a 16th century barn at the Abbey gates. Lacock is widely known as the home of photography as the Abbey was the home of William Henry Fox Talbot – the inventor of the negative-positive process. His earliest surviving negative – taken in 1835 – is of an oriel window in the South Gallery.

Next we walked through lovely, tranquil grounds, sparkling in the afternoon sunshine, to the Abbey itself. This is a view of the peaceful and mellow Chapter House.

The Abbey was built in the early 13th Century with stone from the quarry at Hazelbury, and with timber from the Royal Forest. (In 1248 King Henry III made a grant of four oaks from the forest of Chippenham, and fifteen from the Royal Forests. Later King Edward I made a grant of ten oaks from Melksham Forest.) So much to see at the Abbey. Here’s a picture I took inside the 16th Century brewery.

And finally, another part of the Abbey, which was used for the filming of some of the scenes in two of the Harry Potter films.

What a lovely afternoon we had at Lacock – it’s a place I’ll definitely return to, and probably spend more time there, as there’s so much more to see. A fast drive along the M4 Motorway, with a short pit-stop for tea with cousin Paul and Josephine at their farm at Great Shefford, and then we were home.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Camel Racing in Henley?

Yes, last Saturday the main attraction at the Henley Show was ‘Joseph and his Amazing Racing Camels’. There’s so much to see at the show – this year held at Greenlands Farm in Hambleden. I’d organised a reserved space for my car next to ring one where four of us took a picnic. As everyone contributed something (Val going overboard with all sorts of goodies, and my young friend making an assortment of delicious pies) we had, as usual, much too much – we could have fed the five thousand! My modest contribution was a few cans of Pimms, flavoured water and nibbles. Despite early rain the weather soon cleared, the sun came out and together with about another 20,000 people of all ages we had a great day.

As for the camel racing, all the animals were more colourful than they were speedy, and Joseph, in his wisdom, seems to have decided that his little 11 or 12 year old would make a good commentator. Well she wasn’t. Her squeaky, know-it-all, voice gabbling on over the races was particularly annoying. I made a little video of one of the races, which I’ll add to this blog, but to spare you the raucous sound of the little angel have substituted (at great expense) part of the theme from 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

Wandering around the various tents I came across a stand selling bow ties and fancy waistcoats. As I now have a bit of an enlarged tum due to last year’s operation (that’s my excuse – nothing to do with Crunchie bars or doughnuts) I needed a dress waistcoat that fitted perfectly, especially as I’ve been invited to a rather special day in a couple of week’s time, so I chose a rather nice black one decorated with silver stars and moons. It should arrive in time. The grand parade included veteran and vintage cars, ditto tractors, and of course, all manner of livestock.

I manage to lose my camera case (containing a spare battery and 4Gb memory stick) about once a week, Saturday was no exception, so, retracing our steps from the llama pens back to the camel wagon, we eventually found it. Some kind person had hung it over a fence.

The Henley Show is always a good place to buy Christmas presents. I bought half a dozen from one of the more creative stalls in the craft tent. A good day out was had by all.

Every Christmas morning, on the way to the family, I call in to Bird Place next to Henley Bridge, to have a drink with Peter and Diane Sutherland. For the past 30 years I’ve been greeted at the door by a strange figure. It’s Peter in disguise. From the Mad Hatter and Osama Bin Laden to Lord Nelson and a French Onion seller, he never ceases to surprise me. So the other week I decided to surprise him for a change. Utilising a website called Snapfish I made a 20 page hard-cover book illustrating most of his disguises. He was delighted with his present and promptly ordered 3 more copies to give to friends. (One of whom happened to be Tom Jones, who called into Bird Place the other day). Here’s a couple of pages from the book.

Last Sunday was a very special day. Henley’s Kenton Theatre still needs to raise a further £70,000 to purchase outright the freehold of the premises so at 10.30 in the morning about 120 of us nattily attired guests met in glorious sunshine at the Leander Club for coffee and biscuits. There we were entertained by The Reedy Four - a quartet of jazz musicians - while we waited for our transport up to Temple Island for a lavish £100 a head lunch.

Soon, five of the Regatta’s umpire launches approached us in a ‘V’ formation from under Henley Bridge to take us the mile or so up the river to the island.

Temple Island was designed in the 18th century by the architect James Wyatt and constructed in 1771. Originally used as a fishing lodge, a statue of a nymph is visible within.

We were greeted upon arrival by a bevy of beautiful girls and a large moustachioed Italian gent. Champagne, Pimms, and other assorted drinks were handed round while we chatted on the island lawn. I knew nearly half the guests and was delighted to meet Hilary Kay again (she’s the antiques expert who appears regularly on The Antiques Road show on BBC television).

Drifting around the island was a punt containing four parasol-toting singers called ‘Opera Anywhere’ who serenaded us while they lazily glided around the island in the glorious September sunshine. All very romantic. The wind was a bit blowy so the wind noise in the little video I’ve added at the end of this blog competes from time to time with the opera singer.

After an hour or so we all found our places in the marquee at the other end of the island. I was at a table with people I’d never met before, some of whom were Australians. And as each table had to take part in a singing competition later in the afternoon the more forceful ‘Sheilas’ insisted we sing ‘Waltzing Matilda’. I had to write down all the words on a menu to avoid making mistakes and ruin our chances of winning the case of wine. To counterbalance the Oz contingent at the other side of the table the Earl of Macclesfield kept pretty quiet.

Several really hilarious cabaret acts were performed on the stage as well as a fruity excerpt from ‘The Importance of being Ernest’ and Wendy Bowsher, the energetic Theatre Managing Director, was given a well-deserved present of a week’s holiday in Cornwall. Then it came to the auction. I had offered to paint a miniature for the highest bidder as one of the main auction prizes. Other prizes were champagne balloon trips, a chalet holiday in France, a golf day at Badgemore for 100 people, a day at Ascot Races and a private cruise for up to 80 guests on the New Orleans paddle steamer. My miniature reached £1,650 and was won by Barry Wood, the husband of Jeni Wood – the mayor of Henley. He wants me to paint his 4-year-old granddaughter.
We didn’t win the singing competition, thank goodness, but then we were competing with the next table, one of whose guests was Bruce Dickinson - the lead singer with ‘Iron Maiden’.

What a great day. So much fun – and talent. Even some of the waiters revealed themselves later in the afternoon to be accomplished opera singers. At about 5pm the Umpire launches were lined up ready to take us back home, and as I clambered aboard I discovered I’d lost my camera case – again! Happily it was found some time later. I think I’ll have to attach it to me by a long elastic band.

It doesn’t sound as if I’ve done much work this week. In fact I’ve spent about 9 hours every day on my ‘Carousel’ painting and have just passed the 300 hours mark. It should be finished in a couple of days.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Clumsy Clot

This is my first attempt to write my blog on the iPad. Hopefully it will work, then I'll know I can successfully use it for writing blogs when I go to the Far East later this year.

My carousel painting has now taken over 250 hours - I can't stop working on it. The other day I had a good idea - why not attach (and if possible, unobtrusively) somewhere behind or below the frame, a sensor and speaker which will play 20 seconds or so of fairground - or carousel - music as you approach the painting. The device as just arrived so I'll have a bit of an experiment over the weekend if there's time.

I can be a bit clumsy at times! No more so than last Friday. It was a beautifully balmy evening so I decided to take my young friend to Phyllis Court by boat. All was ready - until I tried to turn the key. It was a bit stiff so I gave it a hard twist. The result? It broke in two - and completely flush with the control panel. My very powerful sea-magnet wouldn't shift it. I was just starting to dial Ivan, the boatman (not that he could have done anything just then) when my companion found a rusty old pair of tweezers, and no doubt having had previous practice with eyebrows, plucked the key free! So having located a spare set of keys, off we went for a nice dinner in the Orangery and later a tranquil ride home in the dark.
Saturday dawned, and after an hour or so visiting Rolf Harris where he showed me his latest paintings - three 5 ft square allegorical oils. What a prolific artist he is. Later in the morning I went to Phyllis Court where a Regatta for the Disabled was being held. All sorts of things were going on. Here's a Royal Barge - normally used when a member of the Royal family visits Henley.

Punch and Judy, dragon boat racing,face-painting, boat trips - there was something for everyone. This is the prow of a dragon boat - and if I can I'll add a little video of one of the races.

Later in the afternoon my young friend joined me for a trip upstream on the motorboat. She's a fast learner and soon got the hang of throwing the ropes at the lock. A mile or so further on we moored at Vince and Annie Hill's house. Elaine Delmar - the wonderful jazz and blues singer was there. Here's a miniature I painted of Elaine a couple of years ago.

After a drink or two we resumed our trip up river. I thought I'd show my friend a magical backwater near Shiplake lock. It's where the weir pool is caressed by beds of floating water-lilies. But I made a mistake! We soon found ourselves in a very shallow backwater. As soon as we entered it I knew we were in the wrong place - mainly because the propellor hit bottom, rocking the boat all over the place. I managed to part raise the propellor, and after a ten-point reverse turn, bashed our way back to the main river. By this time the temperature gauge had soared to a dangerous height. But we eventually arrived home safely.

At this time every year the village of Greys holds it's fĂȘte on the lawns of Greys Court. I was hoping to test my strength and stamina on the rowing machine but, drat it, it wasn't there this year. (much to the relief of Val and my young friend who probably thought I'd have a heart attack, as I always go for broke on these machines). Here's the band.

There also was a demonstration by a couple of rustic-dressed men of their birds of prey.

I won a coconut but left it there as I couldn't be bothered to carry it around all afternoon.

Now that the bowling season is over for the year it's back to snooker. Jilly and I had a practice game last Wednesday, and we both entered the 'Colours' competition the following evening. I started off in great style with real chance of winning the tournament, but soon got snookered by Fred the oldest member. Fred's a real P.G.Woodhouse character. He warned me if I potted the pink ball he'd beat me - and sure enough he did just that. This is a photograph of the snooker table at the club, with Romeo - our newest member - playing.

I've been wondering why Paul Daniels has been a bit cagey lately. He and Debbie have been so busy this year. Now the secret is out - he'll be appearing the number one rated BBC Saturday evening show - 'Strictly Come Dancing'. We'll know tomorrow evening when the show opens who his partner will be. Hope it's Ola (she was Cris Hollins partner last year - and they won) as she and Paul would be great together. She's about his height too! As for Debbie, tune in next Tuesday evening (14 th) at 8pm as she'll be appearing in 'Celebrity Come Dine With Me'.

The new series of 'Mad Men' started last Wednesday evening on BBC 4. Stylish and glamorous it's all about advertising in the '60s. That was my era in advertising too when I was working for an International US ad agency. It perfectly portrays that time - it's completely realistic and even mentioned my own agency - Kenyon and Eckhardt - this week. So nostalgic for me from the trauma of losing, and gaining clients, takeovers and ambitions, and clients who didn't really understand how to market their products. I was transported back to my thrusting executive and creative days on the international scene and totally absorbed. An era of my life totally different to my secluded life as an artist these days.

One last thing. I read in the paper the other day another little bit about a rail journey. It seems a couple, Emma Clark and David Winter-Bates were travelling home to Southampton, but decided to get off the train earlier to visit friends at Eastleigh. Only to be told that they weren't allowed to vary their journey and had to pay an extra £57 each! They'll be charging us extra if we leave the theatre early next!

That's enough for today. Now let's see whether I have success with the iPad.