Monday, 30 July 2012

River Ramblings

You may remember I mentioned in a previous blog that we were rescued by a boat called ‘Spanish Lady’ and towed back to Marsh Lock after our boat overheated when the Olympic torch came to Henley a couple of weeks ago. Talk of coincidences. Yesterday afternoon – after spending an hour or so at the Town and Visitors Regatta (where we followed a race in the umpire’s launch) …

… we decided to take my dinghy out – this time to test the little electric engine. After a few mishaps - with the boat going round in circles (backwards) - I finally got the measure of it and we happily travelled halfway to Temple Island before turning back towards home. Just before Henley Bridge the boat went out of control again risking a clash with one of the many crews on the water. However, with my young friend skilfully using an oar as a paddle we managed to tie up near the slipway. In trying to figure out what was wrong with the engine a kindly voice from one of the moored boats asked if we needed any help. ‘Of all the boats - in all the river’ we had moored next to ‘Spanish Lady ‘ the very boat that had come to our rescue a fortnight before. I asked the owners – Peter and Anne Francis – if they just hung around the river on the lookout for boats in distress! Peter soon discovered the problem – the plastic housing surrounding the drive shaft had split. Offering us a tow back we declined, as it was such a nice sunny evening and I wanted to row the mile or so home. Not without incidence because, as we passed the crowds of people sitting out at the ‘Angel on the Bridge’ someone called out something (probably ‘Hello Ratty’) and I caught a crab and fell backwards onto the bottom of the boat. Ah, the joy of boating – every trip is different.

So what have I been doing lately? Painting very hard – putting in many long hours. I completed a second, and different, miniature of Kevin Giddings

and a miniature of the Mayor of Henley as well as beginning the rough colour layout for my proposed large painting of the Henley River Pageant when the Queen came to Henley. But in-between times I had planned to go to Sussex last weekend to have lunch with Kevin and Katie Giddings. So, together with my young friend, we set off for Polegate – near Eastbourne - on Friday evening. The first gloriously sunny weekend since May heralded Saturday morning so we drove to one of my favourite towns in England – Rye. Walking up a steep cobbled street we came across the famous Mermaid Inn.

We went inside for a drink but the bar didn’t open till midday. Had we had one we would have been sitting here by the ‘Giant’s Fireplace’.

Rye sits on a rocky outcrop and much of the mediaeval layout of the town remains unchanged. In 1336 it became one of the Cinque Ports. Once, almost surrounded by the sea, in the years following the Norman conquest of 1066 Rye grew in importance as a port and trading centre. Now the sea has receded. In 1573 Queen Elizabeth1st stayed in Rye for a few nights in what is now called the Old Custom House. Here it is today. Notice the crooked chimney.

The town is well-known for its smuggling activities and members of the infamous Hawkhurst gang met regularly and openly at the Mermaid Inn ‘carousing and smoking their pipes, with loaded pistols on the table before them, no magistrate daring to interfere with them’. Wandering through the town we came across the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. These photos show the two ‘Quarter Boys’. (The originals have been ‘retired’ and are on view inside the church, as is the old clock mechanism dating from about 1561.

Also inside the church, the pendulum, 18 feet in length, swings freely to and fro.

Another sight we wanted to see was the Ypres Tower. Not quite as old as Rye itself, it was built in 1249 by King Henry III.
After an ‘Eccles Cake’ lunch we drove about 10 miles north of Rye to visit the fairytale Bodiam Castle – complete with moat.  

One of Britain’s most iconic castles, Bodiam was built in 1385 as a fortress and comfortable home, the walls rising up out of the moat to create a view little changed in over 600 years. The interior was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell. My young friend climbed to the top of this ancient edifice, but her ancient companion rested in an alcove and watched the trug maker at work.

Looks like one of the original inhabitants of the castle still roams the battlements

We walked all the way round the castle – every view is stunning.

On the way back to Polegate we decided to see if my old friend Thelma Burton was in. She lives in a little cottage in Wadhurst. I’ve known Thelma for many years. We first met when she lived in Singapore and kept in touch over the years after she married Charlie Burton (the explorer who accompanied Sir Ranulph Fiennes on their 3-year Trans Globe Expedition when they circumnavigated the world). We arrived just in time for tea and all three of us had a nice old natter.

Later in the evening we planned to find a nice restaurant on the seafront in Eastbourne to have dinner but without success as all the big hotels there mostly served residents only or weren’t open for dinners. Nevertheless we walked along the pier.
This building on the end of the pier styles itself ‘Camera Obscura’ but I couldn’t find out if it really does house a camera obscura as a hig sign at the entrance  read ‘No Entry’.

So we left Eastbourne for dinner at our hotel with one last look at the reflections on the sea at sunset.

Next morning we paid a visit to Wakehurst Place. It’s an adjunct to Kew Gardens and is beautifully groomed. Here’s the main building.

We spent about an hour there in the sunshine, walking around, sitting on the occasional seat and admiring the many flowers.

We were due to meet Kevin Giddings and his wife Katie at about noon in Ashdown forest where they are currently converting their retirement home from an old cottage. Driving through very pretty countryside we finally crossed a (not too deep) ford, which seemed to be the entrance to their property. I would imagine that the height of the stream in the winter would give them their own mini-moat.  All very impressive. I especially liked the exposed old beams in the bedrooms. They planned for us to have lunch at Ashdown Hotel. What a beautiful place it was. Here I am with Kevin and his wife, Katie in the gardens of the hotel prior to our magnificent lunch.

I’d also taken the large painting of ‘The Royal Flueologist’ to show Kevin. Here he is with the watercolour – pity about the reflections.

After lunch we went into the chapel in the grounds of the hotel. Once occupied by nuns it houses scores of beautiful stained glass windows. They looked very modern to me. Here’s one of them. We tried to figure our which members of which pop groups they mostly resembled.

Before we made our way home we thought there might be time to visit Chartwell in Kent – Sir Winston Churchill’s beloved home. I am a great admirer of Churchill and have painted his portrait many times in various situations.  Unfortunately we arrived at Chartwell too late to visit his studio in the garden but nevertheless had a really interesting tour of the house.

Sir Winston Churchill lived at Chartwell from 1922 until his death in 1965. I’ve written too much in this blog so won’t goon much more. But I did enjoy going round the house. Especially interesting to me were the many portraits and other paintings dotted around every room. So that was the weekend – a bit tiring with so much walking, but we saw a lot and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

To end this blog, here’s a picture I took on Tuesday evening, looking out over Jane and Brian’s garden. We had been invited there to dinner and as it was so warm and tranquil we dined on the terrace overlooking the garden. A very English, and very nice, evening. Brian cooked lamb on the barbecue and Jane made her ‘special’ Pimms.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Olympic Torch

On Sunday afternoon Louisa drove Val, Max and me down to Portsmouth for a very special occasion. Neil, my eldest nephew, had been chosen to be one of the torch bearers for the Olympic Games. We arrived early and parked the car on the very road that Neil was expected to start his run from at 6.37 pm precisely. Following the crowd heading for the cauldron site we eventually met up with the rest of the family – over 20 of us.

After a while we walked back to the place where Neil would be handed the flame. I must say, much as I deplore  the over commercialisation of the Olympic Games, I was very impressed with the organisation on that day. Neil was deposited exactly 9 minutes before the allotted time for the handover, as planned, giving everyone lots of time to take photographs.

Neil was nominated to be a torchbearer for his many fund-raising activities. Principally he’s the leading light in an organisation called ‘Fishing for Forces’. Injured and maimed soldiers retuning from active service in such places as Afghanistan are taken by Neil for fly fishing weekends. These trips have proved highly popular with the forces. While we took photographs a young policeman ran up to him carrying a spare torch, complete with white cover, slung over his back and activated Neil’s torch. Here’s Neil with Val, his proud mother.

Not forgetting the many little children who eagerly wanted to ‘touch the torch’

At the end of Neil’s 300 metre run he handed the flame over to Bianca Kopp from Vienna. She was nominated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime after surviving a terror attack in Nigeria last August which killed 25 of her colleagues.

Evie, one of my great-nieces, (with ambitions to become an international travel photographer) took that photograph. Later we all walked to the site of the cauldron and waited for Neil to join us in the lounge of one of Portsmouth’s big hotels. This is a photograph I took of Evie while Neil sipped champagne given to him by the hotel manager,

Incidentally in the few months leading up to Neil’s torch run he managed to lose three stone!

Today Elizabeth Hodgkin - The Mayor of Henley - came to pose for me as I plan to paint a miniature portrait of her in all her Mayoral finery- probably complete with her tricorn hat. In the meantime on Saturday evening I finished this pencil drawing of a friend’s young granddaughter. He made me a mahogany rudder for my dinghy in exchange for it.

Saturday, 14 July 2012


The Olympic Torch arrived in Henley on Tuesday. We were planning to walk down the towpath to watch it but just as we were leaving my neighbour George Constantinidi invited us to join his boat party and see the event from the river. All went well till we reached the island opposite Hobbs Boatyard when we detected a problem with the impeller. It had stopped working, resulting in the boat drastically overheating. We made our way to the shore to moor next to the Thamesfield Care Home. Having convinced a warden that we really needed to moor until the problem could be solved, he reluctantly agreed. So we watched the torch being carried by Steve Redgrave as he rowed one-handed in an eight (with a full crew I might add) towards Henley Bridge.

The exciting part of the day, however, was being violently tossed around as the boats following the torch raced along on a very strong current at about 15 knots, causing a lot of turbulence. Henley hasn’t seen that sort of speed ever before. Pity we were so far away or we might have witnessed the streaker! Yes, a real live naked man ran along the torch route at Riverside closely followed by the official torch carrier. He was collared eventually by a pair of Henley policemen in true Keystone Cops style. (Watch the video on YouTube – it’s hilarious). When everything was over, friends of George – Peter and Anne - came to our rescue in their boat ‘Spanish Lady’ and towed us up to Marsh Lock.

A word of advice – don’t leave black pens in shirt pockets when you put them in the washing machine! I did on Tuesday and the result was 10 ruined shirts, an assortment of black spattered underwear and socks and a sorry looking pair of trousers! Nothing could be saved despite several attempts, so we drove in to Marks and Sparks in Reading to replenish the items. On the way there we happened to pass through the photographic department in the John Lewis store. So I bought a new camera.- 20 times optical zoom, 18 megapixels etc. etc. (It can even shoot videos in 3D.) And it’s really compact. You have to indulge yourself from time to time, don’t you?

The Henley Literary Festival will soon be here, so on Monday evening ‘Friends’ of the Festival were invited to Bix Manor, just outside Henley, to be given a preview of all the authors due to participate and to book tickets. On the way from the grassy car park we encountered a couple of furry beauties,

Hundreds of people were milling around in a snake-like queue. I joined it and eventually bought a dozen or so for authors like Michael Palin, Sandy Gall, Gyles Brandreth, etc. And, one of my favourite events – an hour-long trip down the river on the ‘Hibernia’ with Rula Lenska and others reading poetry. So many friends were there – I discovered that a neighbour of mine (Annie T) will be presenting a programme called ‘Country Wives’. Apparently she, and two other ladies, write the 70th most popular blog in the world (out of millions.) Should be fun. We ended the evening by having dinner with Robert and Dinah at the Strada restaurant in Henley.

When I attended the Hilliard Exhibition in Wells earlier this year I met Michael Eavis C.B.E who was opening the exhibition. He is the man who, for many years, has organised the Glastonbury Festival on the land he owns in Somerset. I persuaded him to pose for me and took a few snapshots. The result is this miniature which I completed yesterday.

My young friend and I decided to take Marsh Midget out for a little row last Saturday – despite the warnings at the lock of a very strong stream. Luckily, after an amazingly swift 100-yard row she suggested that before we go too far I ought to turn the boat around to see how strong the current really was. Boy, was it strong! At first I could only go backwards, then we stood still. But eventually, with a superhuman effort I managed to get us back to my mooring in one piece. When will the river slow down? I’m looking out of my window right now and it’s still racing along.

Vince and Annie Hill came over for dinner last Friday. A nice evening was had by all. My friend and I shared the cooking – she did the main part – I just did the starter and pudding.

On Saturday, after visiting Rolf – and almost getting a broken leg when a load of logs gave way when I was helping him with an 8 inch thick table he was making. ( My part was just labouring) my young friend and I paid a visit to the delightful village of Turville. Only about 3 miles from Henley, it was the venue for the film ‘Chitty, Chitty Bang, Bang’ and the setting for the TV series ‘The Vicar of Dibley’.

We tried to get close to the lovely windmill high above the village but couldn’t manage it. Here, however, is a photo of the windmill taken by my friend with her big zoom, from the village.

The Henley Bowling Club held its annual ‘Yardstick’ competition on Sunday. I was first on at 10 am – and promptly lost my match! Each ‘marker’ carries a triangular wooden stick measuring one yard. (We don’t use metres). Any woods bowled that end up more than a yard away from the jack are taken away. A fun game.

I’m now busily compiling scores of boat pictures so I can construct an interesting layout for the large painting I propose to make depicting the Queen’s visit to Henley.
P.S. This will be the third time I’ve completely written this blog – only to find it disappears when I try to publish it. Why do Google keep changing its format?

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Henley Regatta

I can’t believe it’s a year since the last Henley Regatta. Time just races along. Anyway last Thursday dawned hot and humid with the threat of thunderstorms. Dressing in our Regatta finery my young friend and I drove over to Wargrave to pick up Paul and Debbie at their riverside home.
After a week of congested traffic I was surprised that our route to Phyllis Court was almost completely clear. Strolling into the grounds from the car park this was the sight that greeted us as we looked over the little bridge. Very Henley.

Making our way to the verandah we were soon joined by the others in our little party – Julia and Graham, and Jane and Brian. Out went the order and very soon a foaming jug of the favourite Regatta  drink – Pimms – arrived. Good to see all the fashions – Phyllis Court becomes very elegant at this time of the year. Here’s Julia, Jane and Debbie, and me hiding behind Debbie’s hat.

After a sumptuous lunch in the dining room we made our way to our chairs lined up by the river’s edge giving us a great view of all the activity on the river.

There were crews going upstream to the start at Temple Island, and crews racing back down the course, followed by the sleek umpire launches. And mixed in with all the actual participants were great big passenger boats, canal barges, slipper launches, punts, motor-boats, and even a floating shoe!

And in this skiff is Tony May and his family, They are specially posing for me as I’m planning to paint a large picture of about 50 or so boats taking part in the recent London Jubilee River Pageant, and they were there.

I’ve been wanting to take Marsh Mundy out for a while now, but what with the bad weather, the dangerous height and speed of the river, and the various problems with the boat it hasn’t been possible. But finally on the last day of the Regatta – Saturday – Val, Felicity and my young friend joined me for the evening when we went to see the traditional fireworks display. We had a bit of trouble trying to tie up next to the booms in the middle of the river. You have to somehow get the ropes over and then under the booms as notices on the piles wouldn’t (for some reason) allow us to tie up to the uprights. But my young friend managed it by leaning over into the water from the bathing platform. Next time we have this problem we hopefully will come armed with a right-angled boat hook.
The fireworks this year were quite magnificent. Lady McAlpine organised the display,and to my mind it was the best ever.


I’ve just started a miniature of Michael Eavis CBE. Famous for his Glastonbury Festivals, I might try and include Rolf Harris performing at Galstonbury in the background unless it complicates it too much. Apart from that I was bowling in the handicap tournament on Friday (lost), and on Sunday morning went to the BBC Radio Bekshire Studios in Caversham to be interviewed (by Debbie) about my proposed paintings of the river pageants and the Queen’s visit to Henley.