Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Symonds Yat

During our stay We spent the weekend in a most delightful part of the world - Symonds Yat in the Forest of Dean. We climbed to the cliff top, which is now a scheduled ancient monument. 

About 2,500 years ago the summit provided a good vantage point for its Iron Age inhabitants who built a fort there. Peregrine falcons build their nests in the cliffs, but we didn't see any on this trip. There's a rustic log cabin quite near the summit. We stayed in the Royal Lodge Hotel, perched high above the winding river Wye.

And the view from the hotel - looking over the Wye.

On our way westwards we called in to Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds. Right in the centre of the village is a model village, faithfully depicting the actual village as it is now - including keeping up-to-date with shop fronts as they change their names. It was opened in May 1937 to celebrate the coronation of King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth.

This is the church, and as we walked around the model village a peal of bells and a singing choir echoed and tinkled over the scene. And in one of the miniature tableaux I spied this artist's untidy studio. Mind you, mine's not much better at times.

Nearby Symonds Yat is a lovely little butterfly farm. Nice to be inside and to experience the warmth and humidity of the tropics. Some of the inhabitants seem to be quite tame, as from time to time they settled on us. Here are just a few of them.

We've been to Hampton Court Palace in London but we discovered another Hampton Court - this time a castle. It was built in the fifteenth century on the banks of the river Lugg in rural Herefordshire. When Henry IV's cousin, Margaret Fitzalan, daughter of the Earl of Arundel, married Sir Rowland Lenthall the King gave the estate to the young couple. Lenthall was a favourite  of the King having fought for Henry at the battle of Agincourt in 1415.

The gardens are quite spectacular but unfortunately it was raining when we got there so we couldn't really appreciate them. This old tree has a door, complete with brass knocker and letter box built into its trunk. 

But once we went inside we were in for a treat - if a little bizarre. The Arkwright family owned the castle till 1912 but by then it was falling into disrepair and they had no money left to stave off the decay of time. But rescue came in 1994 when Americans Robert and Judith van Kampen purchased the estate and set about restoring the historic gardens and house interiors. We were lucky to be only two of four given a guided tour of the castle. Preparations were underway for a few days of Halloween celebrations so cobwebs and spooky things were everywhere. This deceased guest stared at us out of the gloom as he sat at the enormous Hogwarts-style dining room table. 

It appeared that the van Kampens had furnished the rooms in what they considered to be an authentic English Castle, so suits of armour, swords, animal heads and medieval artefacts were everywhere. Here is one of the rooms. 

And a corridor suitably armoured. 

There's even a stuffed lion on one of the walls.

All in all a truly fascinating tour. But sad to say Robert van Kampen died in Florida just prior to moving in to the castle, having spent several years furnishing it and totally reviving the 1,000 acres of gardens. 
During our stay at Symonds Yat we took a 40 minute river trip along the Wye on one of the Kingfisher cruisers and again only one other couple was aboard.
We left South Wales on Sunday morning for home, calling in at Chedworth Roman Villa, one of the grandest country houses of fourth century Roman Britain. The villa was discovered in 1864 when a gamekeeper, out ferreting for rabbits, found small stone cubes - loose tesserae - from one of the buried mosaics. The site was swiftly dug to reveal extensive walls, bath houses and fine mosaics from one of the most significant Roman Villas in Britain. Chedworth Roman Villa was at its greatest in the fourth century, as a large and luxurious country house, with many domestic comforts such as underfloor heating and two bath houses. Here are some of the mosaics we saw. 

What a nice weekend we had. As we reached Bampton we paid a visit to our friend Joanne who has one of the most 'homely' homes I know. It was converted from an old cowshed! You'd never know it though. Earl Grey tea and home-made  cakes were enjoyed by all.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Bedding the Banana

The frosts will soon be here. So before they do my young friend decided to tuck up her banana plant carefully for the coming winter. Very sadly she took her secaters and chopped off the leaves - even though they looked perfectly healthy - and then decapitated the fat stem. 

She then encircled the plant with bamboo stakes about six inches away from the centre and enclosed it with a strong wire cage. This was then filled with fresh barley straw pushed down firmly to keep the banana stem nice and warm till next spring. Finally the edifice was covered with bubble wrap to stop the rain getting in and tied with a piece of raffia.

On Wednesday I went to London to attend the Royal Society of Miniature Painters annual show. My first task was to choose the portrait I consider to be the most accomplished in order to give my prize - The Mundy Portrait Award. I've been giving this prize for over 30 years now. My friend Judy Fraser is responsible for the beautiful calligraphy which I enclose in a gold painted frame together with a real sovereign. This year I awarded it to Michael Coe - one of the best miniature portrait painters in England today. The gallery is located on the Mall. 

The world's most prestigious prize for miniature painting is the RMS Gold Bowl. It's awarded each year  and is made of solid gold, worth about £40,000. Even the silver-gilt replica - which the winner gets to keep - is valued at over £1,000. (Mine sits proudly in my trophy cabinet)

The exhibition was due to be opened at 3pm by Paul Martin - the TV antique expert - but for some reason or other he failed to turn up. 

We haven't given a dinner party for some time but last Friday my young friend and I combined our culinary talents. She made the main dish and I made the first course and dessert. We had invited two Kniights of the Realm and their Ladies, so wanted to make the evening a bit special. It all went very well, albeit a bit of a worry when whisking up the meringue to cover the stuffed pears with. 

On Sunday afternoon the sun shone and the wind behaved itself so we decided to make what will probably be our last trip on the river this year on the dinghy. First things first - 

Making sure the Pimms was on board we made our way towards Henley Bridge. My young friend was captain and in charge of the electric motor and steering, while I lazed around at the front of the boat.  Passing by the Angel on the Bridge

...we carried on up river to the boathouse reach in sight of St Mary's church

And here I am with a view of my flat in the background. 

A nice little trip followed by a visit to Sue's garden and a lovely dinner at Val's. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Time Flies!

Where are the weeks going! Edward de Bono gave an explanation for why time passes more quickly as you get older. For example, when I was seven years old, if I asked my mother for an ice cream and she said I could have one in an hour, the equivalent time for me today (being older by just over ten times seven) would be just over ten hours. Therefore time really does accelerate as the years go by. That's one of my reasons for doing things in advance. For example I've spent all day today addressing 300 Christmas cards and printing out 100 Christmas tags. I painted the card 3 months ago and had them printed last week. So all I have to do now is to buy the stamps and write the messages. But that can wait till the first week of December. 

On the painting front I finally finished my painting called 'The Boatman'. It took over 250 hours. At one stage I thought It might be ruined as I struggled with the stippling on the background sky, but eventually decided to paint that part in gouache. The face and jacket however was painted in a stipple technique in watercolours with a size zero sable brush. It's now being framed in special museum quality glass so there will be no reflections. 

Here's a close up of Alan's face. The eyes follow you as you walk past the painting. Eerie for some. 

Henley held its annual Literary Festival last week. With over 150 events I'm told it was a great success. I only managed to see about nine of them, starting on Monday afternoon with an hour long trip down the river on the Hibernia. While we cruised along, four speakers, headed by Mike Hurst, read poetry and other inspired writings from the Great War - it being the 100 year anniversary. About thirty readings from such authors as Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were read out, plus extracts from 'Oh what a lovely war' and 'The Wipers Times'. I enjoyed Mike Read talking about his autobiography 'Seize the Day', and would have enjoyed the talk by John Burningham - the illustrator of the book 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' more had the illustrations been projected onto the screen behind him. Simon Williams also read extracts from the book - specially reprinted to mark its 50 year anniversary. The best event I went to was to hear 'The greatest living adventurer' - Sir Ranulph Fiennes talk about his life, career and new book 'Agincourt'. Three of his ancestors fought in that battle for Henry V - as well as at least one for the French! He told us how, after the battle, Henry V entertained his senior commanders to dinner, waited on by captured French knights, and how the French would cut off the first and second fingers of every captured archer, and then raise those two fingers as a gesture of defiance. 

Have a look at this table setting. 

It's laid for the Dowager Countess of Grantham. And here's the table all ready for dinner at Downton Abbey. 

But we aren't wandering round the set of the television series. We are at Basildon Park, together with  my young friends parents, and spent a leisurely Sunday afternoon in this 18th century mansion. 

In fact many episodes from Downton Abbey were filmed at Basildon Park, but currently the mansion and its parkland is the setting for the latest 'Pride and Prejudice' film.

However I'm not sure how close the film makers will be adhering to the original story as we were told the title will be 'Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies'. Can't imagine what Jane Austen will make of it from her vantage point in heaven. We wandered around the beautifully restored mansion admiring the rich furnishings and elegant rooms evoking the atmosphere of a glamorous bygone age. 

The other day, Shiplake College, near Henley, staged the opening of its brand new arts building. Called 'The John Turner Building' it mounted a secret postcard art exhibition, and I was asked to contribute. I gave them a number of small prints of my paintings and a limited edition of 'River Reflections'

My young friend's new lawn mower blew up the other day. Well, not quite, but it went bang and black smoke came out of it. As it was only a few weeks old I took it back to Toad Hall where they gave her a replacement. I don't think the bang was as loud as her new 'Blo-Vac' machine - used for blowing and sucking up the autumn leaves off the lawn. She felt it was so loud that she's bought a pair of ear defenders. And last week she went with her parents to Toad Hall to collect the wintering cherry tree she'd ordered. However it was so big - even for her father's shooting brake - that he had to leave the ladies at Toad Hall while he squeezed it into the car and took it back to the  garden. He did remember to go back for them later. It is now grandly gracing a corner of my young friend!s garden.