Thursday, 22 August 2013

The real Downton Abbey

Last week Henley held its very popular Literary Festival. We are lucky to have many splendid locations here to stage the many events in. From the beautiful Bix Manor to the iconic Kenton Theatre, the authors had a wide choice to talk about their latest books. On Wednesday I went to the fascinating talk given by the current Countess of Carnarvon who lives in Highclere Castle (the location of Downton Abbey). After the first episode of the TV series the Countess mentioned that the dinner table cutlery had been laid out incorrectly. So as a surprise, at the end of her talk, the owner of Bix Manor - dressed as a butler - walked up to the Countess, carrying a tray full of cutlery, and proceeded to lay a table under her watchful supervision. The little scene ended with her being offered a glass of champagne. Which was gracefully received. The Countess talked about her new book which relates the story of the beautiful American heiress who married the Earl of Porchester in 1920 and came to live in Highclere Castle.

One of the more interesting talks I saw at the Kenton Theatre was by Dame Stella Rimington, the director general of MI5 between 1992 and 1996. She spoke of the struggles she went through juggling her career and bringing up a family. She said she regretted missing out on 'sports day' and school plays because of dramas in the office. Dame Stella is now a thriller writer and I can well imagine what a host of material she can call upon for the detail in her plots.
Another interesting author I listened to was Barry Norman, one of Britain's most prominent film critics, who claims to have seen more than 12,000 movies. Controversially he claimed the industry made films for young people who have the attention span of 'fruit flies'! "Great films require great plots" he said, "but too many now fall into the trap of 'crash, bang, wallop effects". "You can't make a film on an idea, you need a great story, but sadly a lot of films today rely on special effects to give a short-lived burst of excitement".
At Christchurch on Saturday morning my young friend came with me to hear one of my favourite TV presenters, Lucy Worsley, talk about murder! She's a really good speaker, and with that wicked elfin-like smile easily captures the audience's interest. Her current TV series entitled ' A Very British Murder' was also the subject of her talk. Doctor Worsley is the chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces and has a real ability to make history fascinating. A wonderfully lucid speaker her book takes a look at our fascination with murder most foul. (I liked her new hairstyle too).
To end the day Val joined us on The Waterman cruiser for a one hour trip up and down the river whilst listening to poetry readings. This was the scene on the boat.

One of the excellent readers was former BBC newscaster Michael Buerk.

And here is a view looking down the cabin of a very attentive audience.

A really nice afternoon. As we left I turned to see or craft moored behind a whole variety of boats cheek by jowl at Hobbs boatyard.

Up early on Monday to catch the train to London and the Mall Galleries where I helped the committee to select the miniatures for the soon to be staged annual Royal Society of Miniature Painters exhibition. Apart from the Members and Associate Members work it was gratifying to see so many entries from non-members. As one of my tasks that day was to select the winner of the Mundy Sovereign Award for the best portrait, I was delighted to find that my favourite portrait came from a non-member. The quality of work submitted this year reached an all time high we all thought. As I had parked my car at Vince and Annie Hill's house near Shiplake station I called in to have a drink with them when I reached home in the evening. Good to see that Annie's a lot better after her recent spell in hospital.

This last week I've completed two pencil portrait drawings, but as they are to be Christmas presents I'd better not put them on my blog at this time.
All the preparations for my November Exhibition are nearly complete. I can't begin to work out how many hundreds of hours I've spent on this so I hope it's all worth it. My young friend has made a sizeable contribution too with her superior computer knowledge.

I think I've chosen a really good company to print and produce my catalogue as the proofs they supplied, when I drove over to Kidlington the other day, are superb.

Now I have an apology to make. In a recent blog - 'Glorious Boating Weather' - where I reproduced a poem about a husband's tale of 'Fifty shades of grey' I was told, incorrectly, that it was written by Pam Ayers. In fact it was by John Summers, who, very kindly pointed out my error. Sorry John. (It was really good though, and made me laugh out loud).

To end this week's blog I'll show you something I've never seen before (but should have). It's a formal tribute to our train station and I can't believe it's been invisible to me for so long. Maybe I need new glasses!

Canterbury Tales

The city of Canterbury was built by the Romans and became the capital of the Saxon kingdom of Kent. It was here during the late 6th century that St. Augustine and his missionaries brought Christianity back to England.

My young friend and I visited the Cathedral last Saturday. Gingerly we climbed up and down the many staircases dotted around the building, as she is still recovering from her badly sprained ankles, and I still have a little way to go before I'm back to full health. As we approached the south-west porch we joined a long queue to gain entry. (Quite a change to my last visit several years ago when you just walked in.)

But once inside, the magnificence of the architecture was awesome.

I've always been intrigued by the Black Prince. No idea why. Canterbury is the burial place of Edward, the Black Prince - one of the most dynamic figures in England's long conflict with France during the 14th and 15th centuries, known as the Hundred Years War. I don't think he was called 'the Black Prince' because of the colour of armour he may have worn. Maybe it was because of the terror his bravery and ferocity inspired. We found his iron-railed tomb close to St.Thomas Becket's shrine on the Trinity Chapel's south side.

And here are just a few of the many photographs I took during our visit.

To round off our tour we headed for the garden. (I had been extolling the magnificence of the gardens - complete with semi-hidden priest's hole) but sadly found it was not open to the public any more - at least the part I remembered. This little corner was nice though.

I spent most of my holidays as a youth just after World War Two in Deal where my mother had a friend who owned a guest house called 'Sea Breeze' right on the sea front.

Driving there we couldn't find it but did locate my favourite place in Deal - The Ice Cream Parlour. To me as a boy this was a wonderland with its Art Deco facia. (still the same) It was where I tasted my very first 'Knickerbocker Glory' a real treat after the austerity of the war years. This figure dominating the entrance to the (now run-down) pier is a new addition.

We were visiting Kent for the weekend primarily to attend the blessing ceremony of my oldest friend, Maurice Bowra, who recently died in Bangkok. But due to unforeseen circumstances the blessing has been postponed till next year. However as we had already booked to stay in the Bridgewood Manor Hotel in Chatham we decided not to cancel the weekend away. Looking for somewhere to go on Sunday morning one of the guide books in the hotel advertised 'Dickens World' in nearby Chatham. Described as an exciting journey through Dickens lifetime 'when you step back in time into Dickensian England and are immersed in the streets, sounds and smells of the 19th century' It sounded fun, and somewhere we found out that actors dressed as Dickens characters would enliven our tour. The settings were pretty good.

But our guide, although knowledgeable about Victorian times (or having a good memory of her script) put on a irritating loud cockney accent. And there were no other actors. Most of the sets were well done and characters like this one were dotted around the scene.

At the end of the tour we were treated to a sharp lesson about Victorian schooldays. Our little group numbered about 25 and it was annoying to be lined up outside Dr. Dotheboys classroom while our very noisy 'cockney' made everyone hold out their hands and then turn them over to inspect nails! (We didn't participate.) But the last chore of the tour was to all sit down in a schoolroom (complete with desks with grooves for pencils and inkwells - I remember them well) and be shouted at. Grr!!!
So we escaped and drove the short way to the Royal Engineers Museum.

Of special interest to me as I was a 'Sapper' during my National Service days. And I think my young friend was interested too. There was a section on the Malayan Emergency (my war). As I'm a member of the Royal Engineers Association I was able to visit the Museum free of charge. The museum covers a host of the many activities of the Royal Engineers from bomb disposal, bridge building, combat engineering, to surveying, photography and siegecraft. The medals room was extra special and housed the many Victoria crosses won by Royal Engineers in past wars. The siege of Mafeking, Chinese Gordon and Lord Kitchener all featured.

The other day my old school friend Averil Tarbrooke popped over for a visit. She gave me a present. It was a framed enlarged black and white photograph of a 1950's scene of Broad Street in my home town - Wokinghan. Nothing out of the ordinary you may say but somehow she had recognised my father in the picture. He's riding his bike on the far right, complete with carpenter's apron and pipe, on his way to work. She must have an incredible memory.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Capybara

The other day we were all surprised to catch sight of a large animal roaming round our garden, and from time to time jumping into the river. We soon established that it was a capybara. Here he is standing next to my landing stage.

We eventually found out that he had escaped from Sir William and Lady McAlpine's estate at nearby Fawley Hill. His name is Jack and his partner is called Jill. I spoke to Lady McAlpine who told me he has escaped several times in the past. She didn't seem too worried and said as soon as the weather got a bit colder, or he wanted sex, he'd find his way back home. (Several miles I might add). Jack weighs about 100 kg and is about 3 feet long. A Capybara is the largest rodent in the world and originally comes from South America. They are very accomplished swimmers and can remain submerged for up to 5 minutes. Also they can sleep underwater with just their nose showing. Quite exciting for us at Marsh Mills. Luckily our apple tree is full of fruit right now - one of the capybara's favourite foods.

Last Sunday morning my young friend tripped over a doormat and before she knew what had happened her feet splayed out and she sprained both ankles - badly. Poor girl. She can't drive yet and move around without pain so our roles have been a little reversed - she's been looking after me during my recovery from operations. Now I'm doing a little to look after her. We've spent some time this last week adding to her new house. She's bought a copy of the latest Readers Digest do-it-yourself manual and has already put up curtain rails and coat hooks etc. but the planned house-warming party has had to be postponed due to her injuries.

It's all happening around here at the moment. The Gas Company are digging holes the whole way along our road to lay yellow plastic pipes to replace the existing metal ones, so apart from the current disruption, from next week the road will be completely closed for nearly 3 weeks and unfortunately the diversion to get home will be about 14 miles. And for the past month the insistent noise of the cam shedders from across the river has been driving us mad. (Cam shedding is the hammering of big steel flat poles into the river bank to halt erosion). With so many other road works going on in Henley right now I think the best thing to do is to close the town for a few months and do all the work in one go!

As far as painting is concerned my main task this week has been to repaint the portrait of the Royal Swan Marker to give him a really happy face. I just wish the quality of smooth watercolour paper and board had not deteriorated lately. In the past I could have achieved as fine a line as sharp as I can when painting on vellum, but no more. If anyone out there knows of a really smooth watercolour paper (that will take a wash as well as ultimate pin-sharp detail) I'd be very grateful to know the name.

We went for a short cruise down the river on Saturday afternoon and opposite Temple Island saw the preparations underway for this weekend's Rewind Festival. Here are some of the wigwams already erected and I assume the pink tents are for ladies.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Good News

When my young friend came to pick me up last Thursday for our visit to the oncologist in Reading she remarked how grey and haggard I looked! Not surprising as I fully expected to be undergoing either chemotherapy or radiotherapy. It was impossible to tell from the oncologist's face what the verdict was going to be. He had the results from the surgeon and Royal Brompton hospital in London. Very rarely does the oncologist recommend a repeat thoracotomy and lobectomy - certainly not for someone of my age. But he did, and the operation was extremely successful and all the medical tests were positive. I was surprised, however, when he told me that a piece of my lung measuring about 6 by 6 by 4 inches had been removed, But his final words were the most encouraging. "You have recovered remarkably well and I recommend you need no more treatment." Yippee! We drove home happily, and the first thing I did when we got there was to start booking a Far East holiday.

Yesterday evening my niece, Louisa, and Guy, invited us over to their home in Marlow together with Val for a barbecue. Now that was a delicious meal. And as I don't like garlic (everyone else does) all the food was garlic-free. I especially loved the minted lamb burgers. Little Kate looked very pretty in her new dress.

And here she is in pensive mood.

Many moons ago I served a five-year apprenticeship as a lithographic artist at Huntley and Palmers in Reading where I designed biscuit tins and tea caddies. Last year a man called Robert Opie contacted me and invited me to visit his wonderful Museum of Brands in London. In this fantastic world, packaging, promotion, graphic design are all gathered in one place to showcase hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of packages of every description. Robert wanted me to talk about biscuit tins but as soon as I saw the products on display I was soon transported into the past. A truly comprehensive DVD video arrived on my doorstep over the weekend where I discovered my contribution featured not biscuit tins but rambling on about the oval cigarettes in the pink packets that we youths occasionally smoked when we could afford them. The brand was "Passing Cloud". Have a look at their website - - well worth it and the DVD is amazing.

I'm currently working on a watercolour of David Barber, the Queen's Swanmarker. This one will feature David sitting at the stern of his skiff under a very large flag showing a crown to represent the Queen - as his crew speeds him along the river. I'll publish it here when it's finished (and when - if - he approves it).

My young friend is now ensconced in her new house. Most of the weekend was spent helping her with unpacking and do-it-yourself jobs. I'm not very good at this sort of thing but at least I had a go at topiary when I trimmed a couple of box hedges and mowed her lawn.

Saturday heralded Henley's Town and Visitors Regatta. I really like this event as it truly is our own local regatta. As I'm a subscriber we were able to have a drink - Pimms of course - in the Presidents tent - where we met a number of friends.

Later we had a trip on one of the umpire launches.

The fours we were following were not brilliant oarsmen. Here are the two crews with the church in the background.

And this is the crew that 'caught a crab' just before the finish line. This photograph was taken a few minutes before the incident.

Sonning is a beautiful riverside village. My favourite restaurant - The French Horn - nestles right next to the Thames.

We didn't eat there on Sunday afternoon. Instead had a little walk along the towpath, starting by Sonning Bridge.

This old metal sign was hidden amongst the branches by the path.

And further on a couple of views of the greenery surrounding the mill as we finished our walk.

Now to get back to booking that holiday.