Monday, 30 May 2011

Westward Ho!

On the way to the west for a short holiday I stopped at Montacute House in Somerset. Built by Sir Edward Phelips in 1598 it’s a huge building and currently houses an exhibition of Tudor portraits on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London. Here’s one of Queen Elizabeth 1st.

After a tour of the house I found this magnificent and gigantic hedge bordering the gardens.

I was told the interesting bulbous shape of the hedge was due to large amounts of snow falling there a number of years ago, which caused the indents. When the snow melted it looked so interesting that they now trim it as it is.
After an overnight stay in St Austell the next stop was a visit to the Eden Project in Cornwall. It’s only ten years old, is dedicated to conservation and regeneration, has grown the largest rainforest in ‘captivity’, and has built three enormous Biomes and a Core, all utilising sustainable construction techniques.

Here are just a few photographs I took on my tour of the project. So much to see. We spent about three hours walking around - I especially liked the time spent in the tropical Biome and took scores of photographs. How about this gigantic bee?

On to St Mawes, on a very windy, cold, and rainy day. At St Mawes Castle I made the mistake of trying to shield my friend with an umbrella, which instantly folded inside out and broke!

We found refuge in a small restaurant on the seafront where I’m looking out to sea and waiting for the wind to drop a little.

Later, still cold but less windy, we drove to St. Just-in-Roseland to visit my favourite church in England. Founded in 550 AD it lists all the bishops from 1265 right up to the present day. It's surrounded by a semi-tropical garden and is bordered on one side by the Carrick Roads. Here’s just one of the wooden plaques inside the church, and a peep through the trees to a quiet and tranquil scene in the churchyard.

Wending our way through the narrow Cornish roads we paid a tea-time visit to friends John and Beverley in their beautiful house tucked inside a rhododendron decked lane near Truro. As I had arranged to take my great niece Becky out to dinner that evening in Falmouth, where she is at University, we decided to take the King Harry Ferry across the river from the Roseland peninsula.

Just before we departed we had a quick look around Smuggler’s cottage on the river Fal at Tolverne. Dating from the 15th Century it was requisitioned during World War 11 and the road and beach built as an embarkation point for the D-Day landings.

While we waited for the ferry to make its way back to our side of the river I noticed this little boat tied up below us.

Up bright and early the next day we made the short journey from St. Austell to the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Twenty-one years ago these truly wonderful gardens were rediscovered after their demise and many years of total neglect from their heyday at the end of the nineteenth century. The devastating hurricane of 1990 should have consigned the Lost Gardens to a footnote in history. Instead the discovery of a tiny room buried under fallen masonry in one of the walled gardens was to unlock the secret of their demise. A motto, etched into the limestone walls in barely legible pencil still reads “Don’t come here to sleep or slumber” with the names of those who worked there signed under the date – August 1914. Now the obsession is to bring these once magnificent gardens back to life. And that is just what is happening. We wandered around the 200 acres of the estate for a couple of hours. Here are some of the views that caught my eye, starting with the head of a full-length reclining woodland figure called ‘The Mud Maid’.

Our little holiday continued with a look into the Shipwreck Museum in Charleston. It has the largest collection of shipwreck artefacts and treasures in the UK. Amongst its many treasures is a room devoted to memorabilia from the Titanic disaster in 1915. Here’s just one of the hoards of ‘treasure’ there.

I like trains – especially steam trains. So after a number of attempts to park at Bodmin Station, we finally made it and soon were ensconced in a 1950’s compartment on our way to Boscarne. Precisely on the second the Stationmaster waved his green flag and we were off on a 13 mile round trip, courtesy of the Bodmin and Wenford Railway Company.

Very good friends of mine live in a village called Bishopsteignton just north of Torquay in Devon, and that became the next port of call. We were to stay with Ian and Jane Stevens – old friends from my Singapore days - for a couple of days.

A couple of happy days were spent there with side trips to the seaside village of Salcombe and Dawlish. One evening we joined David and Joyce at their cliffside house in Torquay before having a lovely meal in a nearby restaurant. This is the view looking out to sea from their balcony.

On Thursday, on our way to Wells in Somerset, we drove through tree-lined ever narrowing countryside to visit Fergus in his hideaway in the woods a few miles south of Honiton – but more about that in my next blog.

Soon after our arrival in Wells, Sharran, a friend who lives with her husband Mike North (of Dragons Den and Olive Trail fame) picked us up for a home-cooked meal at their home in nearby Wookey Hole. Local strawberries picked that day and Shepherd’s Pie – my favourite meal!

The Hilliard Society of Miniaturists is currently holding its annual exhibition in Wells Town Hall. There, the following morning, being a member of the committee, I was due to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Society. Also to go to the lunch where it was great to meet so many old friends from the miniature world.. I'd arranged to stay overnight at the Canon Grange guesthouse.

The exhibition has another week to run and I urge anyone who lives nearby to pay a visit. There are many exquisite examples of miniature art – including a number of beautifully painted Russian lacquer boxes. Wells is the smallest city in England, but boasts one of the largest cathedrals in the land. So with this view across the green from the guesthouse, I’ll say goodbye for a while as I make my way home.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

'Elf 'n' Safety Bigots

If there’s one thing that really riles me it’s injustice. So I was incensed to read about Lymington Pier Stationmaster Ian Faletto last week. This man who has devoted three decades of his life, giving a truly dedicated service, has been sacked for removing a shopping trolley dumped by vandals on the railway line. Not only has he lost his job but has been stripped of his pension and his mortgage protection, which could lose him his home.
Mr Faletto has, over the years, won 25 awards, including ‘Most Improved Station’ and ‘Best Kept Station’ four years in a row. He’s spent his own money on carpets, heaters and flowers as well as handing out sweets and jigsaw puzzles to passengers. So what possible justification have the pathetic little jobsworths given for this totally unreasonable and unjustified action? Yes, you’ve guessed it – ‘Health and Safety’! In their pathetic reasoning the bosses of South West Trains decreed that his prompt action in removing the trolley warranted his sacking after 27 years of dutiful service.
Apparently, when Mr Faletto arrived at 8.30am and spotted the trolley, he immediately contacted the signalman to request the power to be turned off while he jumped onto the line in protective shoes to remove it. A week later, while trawling through CCTV footage, a district manager concluded that the power had not been switched off. Ian Faletto was then suspended and summarily sacked following a disciplinary hearing.
Most people would have thought that preventing a probable very serious accident would have earned praise. But no, not in these days of blind adherence to ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety’ rules by little Hitlers.

What’s happening in this country? Another incident caught my eye the other day, where a respected deputy head teacher was sacked after a 20 year career, without a stain on her character, for helping to carry a boy of 6 into school after he refused to leave the playground. Debbie Ellis was accused of ‘physical and emotional abuse’ even though his mother made no complaint. What would have happened if the boy had been allowed to stay in the playground on his own and strayed onto the main road, or worse, had been abducted by a stranger? No, this was not even considered by the governors who sacked her for ‘gross misconduct’. Incomprehensible isn’t it?
My Granddad, pictured here brandishing his walking stick would have really stirred things up as he, like me, hated unfairness in all its forms.

So what has been happening in my semi-rural life this past week?  Although I don’t really think much of my face I’ve started on a self-portrait.  Most artists attempt this sort of thing some time in their careers (I was commissioned by the leading American collector of miniatures some years ago to paint a miniature self-portrait.  No-one saw it except the client, but as he died just a couple of months ago the portrait will now be displayed in the Cincinnati Museum of Art, I’m told.)

Here’s the start of the portrait – it’s in watercolour and will measure about 12 by 14 inches. I thought I’d start with the hands.

On Monday afternoon I had an appointment with the Oncologist in Reading. Happily he was very pleased with my progress and much to my amusement told me he had decided against chemotherapy, partly because I am a ‘Gentleman of a certain Vintage’ but also because chemotherapy would affect my hands to such a degree that I would no longer be able to paint with the delicacy and detail I currently employ – which would mean no more miniature portrait painting! So hopefully the next CT scan, scheduled in about 3 months time, will give a positive all-clear.

Although my computer contains about 160GB of hard disk space, my C: drive was fast running out with only 500MB remaining. My young friend suggested I buy a new internal 300 or 500GB hard drive and clone everything on my computer to it. “Couldn’t be done” said the expert at PC World. But my young friend is stubborn and never gives up until the problem is solved! So we bought a new 320GB disk online and, when it arrived the sight of her sitting on the floor with all the innards of my computer exposed to my simple unscientific gaze reminded me of a couple of incidents that Dave Champion, my Appliance Engineer friend, related some time ago.

He was called out by an American woman (an obvious DIY enthusiast) who said both her washing machine and dishwasher were not working and could he fix them. When Dave arrived she took him to her kitchen where, to his horror, she’d dismantled both machines and all the bits were mixed up with each other on the floor! (I’m not sure whether he managed to fix either machine.) Another time a man asked him whether he could claim a new washing machine as he’d forcibly opened his when it failed to open. When Dave arrived he laughed out loud as the man had tried a most unorthodox way of forcing the lid off his top-loading washing machine. He’d opened it up with a heavy-duty tin opener!

But back to my computer. After many hours of all sorts of strange things happening on the screen, from scanning to partitioning and many other incomprehensible sets of words and numbers, with the use of a natty CD called ‘Clonezilla’ I now have 320GB of extra space available.

On Saturday I visited Basildon Park.  Situated between Pangbourne and Streatley, this very impressive Georgian mansion was rescued from ruin by Lord and Lady Iliffe in the mid-50’s when they restored the elegant interior and scoured the country salvaging 18th Century architectural fixtures and fittings.  One of the rooms is entirely filled with seashells in all manner of decoration.

(I once went to a 1940’s wartime party at Basildon Park where we all dressed in period clothes and uniforms.  The New Glenn Miller Band played wartime songs and I made a 2-hour tape, complete with sirens and renditions of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘Run Rabbit Run’ etc.).  Here are views of the dining room and one of the beautifully painted ceilings.

Recently recreated is an authentic 1950’s kitchen, complete with all the paraphernalia of the time.

The bowling season opened last week so on Monday evening I played my first game of the year. I’m convinced my woods have gained weight since I last used them – but maybe it’s because I haven’t quite regained my full strength.

Yesterday we paid a late visit to Newington Nurseries just the other side of Warborough.  They are specialist orchid growers and have won many awards including gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. Entering the scented and humid enclosure reminded me of the Botanic Gardens in Singapore.  I’m quite fascinated by the incredible design of these flowers – especially when you really look into them. Maybe I’ll make a small Trompe l’Oeil painting of some of the more intricate blooms when I get the time.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Sinking of Marsh Midget

Trevor, the boat builder, having made a lovely job of repairing ‘Marsh Midget’ over the winter, asked if he could row it back to my landing stage from the boatyard half-a-mile up the river, so I delivered the oars and rowlocks and drove back to wait by my mooring for him to arrive. Not a drop of water in the boat – it was immaculate – as he arrived and I tied up the stern rope. But, as I asked Trevor to hand me an oar so I could pull the boat in, for some reason he moved to the point of the dinghy. Then, as if in slow motion, he rolled over and fell into the river taking the boat with him! It then quickly sank to the bottom! With water up to his chest and his feet stuck in 12 inches of mud Trevor managed to stagger to the point where I could help him clamber on to the landing stage. And as he salvaged his mobile phone, keys, spectacles and cigarettes from his pockets Marsh Mundy reappeared with just an inch showing above the waterline. Although soaking wet and a bit grimy from the debris surrounding the boat, Trevor was determined to save the situation by lying on the landing stage and bailing out the dinghy with a bucket.

Later, I returned from my flat where I’d been to get a dustpan so Trevor could get the last few drops of filthy water out, and found Trevor had disappeared! Then I heard a voice call out from beneath the landing stage. He’d fallen in again! Apparently the handle of the bucket had come apart causing him to overbalance. This time he was in deeper water, but after a Herculean effort he worked his way towards the bathing platform of my big boat where he climbed the ladder and emerged once again covered with river debris and with mud up to his knees.

All the time this was going on a pair of coots, who had decided this year to make their nest under my landing stage – rather than on the bathing platform as they did last year – remained relatively calm under the circumstances, apart from making a few tentative pecks at Trevor’s trousers. The female coot even remained sitting on her eggs the whole time.

On Friday afternoon, after watching the spectacular Royal Wedding for most of the day on television, with the day still bathed in warm sunshine, I decided it would be a good time to visit Greys Court. It was, as most people were probably still engrossed in local wedding celebrations. After a tour around the house I posed beside the oil painting I’d made several years ago of the owners of Greys Court - Sir Felix and Lady Brunner.

When Lady Brunner commissioned me to paint this double portrait, Sir Felix was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Which meant that the only reference I had of him for the painting was a small sepia passport style photograph. He was too ill to even see me, let alone pose for a picture. Together with a friend I posed Lady Brunner and did a rough colour sketch showing the layout I proposed, but realised I couldn’t do the finished painting well enough without a sight of Sir Felix himself. Fortuitously, a few weeks later Lady Brunner phoned to say that Sir Felix was well enough to meet me, but couldn’t be photographed. He was also frightened of strangers, so would I, she asked, pretend to be the gardener, the new butler, or the man from the National Trust! Knowing nothing about butlering, and only a little about gardening I chose the latter profession and was able to spend the fifteen or so minutes studying Sir Felix’s face and hands -enough to be able to eventually complete the final portrait.

The gardens of Greys Court are fabulous at this time of year – especially the wisterias.

Although I’m mainly working on a trio of important miniatures for the New York Historical Society right now, I did manage to finish this miniature the other day. It’s of an old mechanic and I hope to exhibit it at the MASF show in Florida next January.

Having got the last of the water out of  my cruiser - ‘Marsh Mundy’ – apart from a small recurring leak in the storage compartment, my young friend and I took it out for a spin up to Wargrave and Shiplake on Saturday afternoon. The weather was perfect. We stopped for a while at Paul and Debbie’s house where Paul showed us his new white rabbits.

There are two of them, they have lovely blue eyes and will soon be amazing the Edinburgh Festival audience by popping out of – or disappearing from – Paul’s top hat. Currently they are housed in a splendid three-storey rabbit hutch.

Taking advantage of this prolonged spell of glorious weather, on Bank Holiday Monday I decided on a picnic by the creek – just past Temple Island and about a mile above Henley Bridge. But I hadn’t reckoned on the strong wind that day. With white horses rearing up all over the river I found it impossible to moor there as the boat was rapidly blown backwards. Nevertheless I eventually managed to moor on the other side of the river with the help of a kind chap on the towpath.

Maybe I’m destined to perambulate backwards on the river this year. I say this because, after fixing my electric motor to the back of the dinghy I attempted a short trip, but couldn’t manage to get out of the Mill Pool. The boat just wouldn’t do what I wanted it to and only seemed to go backwards!. Finally, exasperated, I tied it up and tried to find out what was wrong. The answer was that the engine had moved around the shaft and was stuck at a 45 degree angle. No wonder it was all over the place.

Talking of feeling foolish, yesterday I went to Toad Hall Garden Centre to buy a few plants and earthenware pots. Spying a really nice stone edifice with little animals carved around the base, I lifted the very heavy top part, which was only about two inches deep, and asked the owner of the garden centre, who just happened to be nearby, what type of plants would grow best in such a shallow pot. “That’s a bird bath, Sir,” he said with a wry smile, probably thinking to himself ‘silly old sod!’