Sunday, 8 October 2017

Follies and Cake

I've been inside quite a bit the last few weeks trying to complete a writing project, but every now and then I've forced myself out of the house, and it's been well worth it.   My favourite trip was just across London to the suburb of Acton. 

If you know London, you might find the idea of going to Acton a bit surprising.... and so did I, at first.   I was actually heading for a bookbinders to put new covers on this disintegrating 1870s volume of the "Illustrated London News"  

Then T noticed that very near the bindery, at Acton Town, was Gunnersbury Park.  

Gunnersbury has never been on my radar.  It consists of a pair of large mansions standing in grounds of about 200 acres right next to one of the main routes into London.  Although its surroundings are now heavily built up, it was once a country retreat for Princess Amelia, daughter of King George II. When suburbs began encroaching, its owner, one of the immensely rich de Rothschild family, sold the park and its two mansions for a very low price to the local council on condition it was used for the public. 

As is often the way with local councils, they didn't have the money or interest to look after it well. They let the houses and ancillary buildings deteriorate, although they kept up the park, which was famed for its cedar trees. Sadly, they also neglected the once-famous gardens and many other  features, like stables, orangery, numerous follies, lakes and a Japanese garden.  

 To cut a long story short, I discovered that a dedicated group has now secured a huge National Heritage Lottery Fund grant and are restoring one of the park's mansions, together with some of associated follies and charming garden buildings.  It will be used for all kinds of events, including a museum, public involvement, weddings and events and children's projects.  Work isn't finished, but some parts are already looking very good.  Here's one of the lakes, complete with temple from 1760.

A lovely children's centre is taking shape in some woodland.  (I'd have loved this boat, one of several bits of child sized imaginative play equipment.) 

This is the "big mansion" - looks to be coming along well. It'll house the museum and be used for weddings. They're also restoring some of the grand interior rooms. 

The newly restored early 19th century gothic gatehouse caught my eye.  When it's finished I can imagine a bride and groom posing there, surrounded by a rose garden.

But actually, although this is all very nice, I fell in love with the park itself, and particularly the unrestored follies, which are quite amazing. Basically follies are buildings with no purpose (or a different purpose from what they seem to have) and their main role is to just look interesting. 

So, for instance, there is quite a large folly that's intended to be part of a ruined castle gatehouse. Not a real gatehouse that got ruined, but a ruin right from the start.   (Question, how do you restore something that was built as a ruin?)

 If you look closely you can see the pretty carved lintel supports above the door. 

The "ruins" below are attached to the stables. It's hard to see in my photo, but the intention is to make the stable (complete with chimney) look as if it's built onto the roofless ruins of a Gothic church aisle. The big lump of stone in the foreground is part of an arch, and so is the clump of ivy to the right. 

Beyond this wall, the stables themselves are also ruined, although they were not intended to be.  In fact, this coat of arms shows how grand they were. At present they have temporary roof covering to stop the rain getting in.  They're beautiful buildings done in the classical style  - nothing was too good for the Rothschilds!

Here's another ruin. I wondered what this was - a folly of a ruined ticket office, perhaps? Nothing so glamorous. It is a ruined ladies washroom, obviously not used for thirty years or so. Despite that, it's beautifully situated amidst huge trees and a bit of what might once have been the Japanese garden.

Below is the front door of the Small Mansion, which as you can see is also not restored, although it is potentially a most attractive place with a lovely wrought iron terrace leading onto huge lawns and most of the facade to the south. In its present dilapidated state, it looks a bit creepy. The main entrance is on the north side, shaded by huge trees, and those lamps burned a weird flickering orange.   

Anyway to get back to the fake ruined castle.... these arcaded windows are a bit more of it. 

Behind that wall is actually a well tended community garden, growing flowers, fruit and

I picked this colourful miniature pepper up from where it had dropped. 

As well as plants, the garden contains some interesting projects that are obviously meant to display archaic ways of life. Possibly someone is running courses on, for instance building your own wattle and daub Ancient Briton hut, complete with pigsty? The roofing consists of boughs from some of the magnificent cedars that have been a feature of the park since the 18th century. 

Here's an ancient oven. I think the blue plastic sheet has been left on it by accident. It's beautifully made. 

And.... a World War 2 air raid shelter! 

Yes, it's strange indeed in the far corners of Gunnersbury Park. 

The parkland is really wonderful. You can walk for miles and at this time of year the colours are so varied, with flashes of intense colour. 

The planting is very interesting, with lots of different types of tree.  Here's a secret grove of silver birches....

This bench, carved with various leaves,  stands by a grove that includes many sweet chestnuts.

These are not the familiar horse-chestnuts or "conkers" - do they have conkers in other countries than Britain?  If you have the patience, you can gather the little sweet-chestnuts up and boil or roast them.  I love the look of them, so bright and new in their hedgehog-like jackets.  

Can you spot the fine cedar tree spreading on the right side of the picture below? The cedars will look wonderful in winter, when their evergreen shapes stand out against the frost. I plan to go back one frosty winter day.  It'll take ages for the binders to do the book, so maybe then.   

If you want to read a bit more about Gunnersbury park and gardens, take a look here. 

Finally, have some cake. Not the world's best photo and the cake's already been started, so it doesn't look as immaculate as "Bake Off" -  but I took the picture because I loved the cut-out paper decorations.  Don't you love the windmills and the animals?  Next time I bake a cake I will make my own decorations, too, and be as whimsical as I feel.  

We were attending a Macmillan Coffee Morning which took place outdoors last week. 
After helping organise the picnic for the Jo Cox Great Get Together last summer I've become a bit of a fan of events like this. K and I have just been invited to a get-together from the Jo Cox Foundation to about what to do next year. and I'm looking forward to it.   

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A Taste of West Cork

 One of my sons-in-law, who is Irish, suggested we join them on holiday in West Cork for a few days last week.  So we did, and found ourselves in a powerful and beautiful landscape. 

I visited West Cork once when I was a teenager, but had not wanted to return,  because it seemed to me then a sad place for all its loveliness, and somehow haunted by ghosts.    In the Great Irish famines of the 1840s, this was the area where more people died of starvation than anywhere else in Ireland.  

This time, though, it felt quite different. West Cork is now popular with the kind of tourists who appreciate art, music and good food. The  tourist development, (such as it is), is pleasant and low key, but there's money about, and luxuries in the shops. Best of all, the feeling of being abandoned at the end of the world has vanished. It is not that the victims have been forgotten; in fact, the heritage centre in the town of Skibbereen offers a deeply moving description of those terrible times, and brings into focus the people who lived through the nightmare.  Here's one corner of that exhibition, featuring a famous folk song first sung by the West Cork refugees in the 1840s.    

The museum had a recording of an old fellow singing the song, but here's Don Stiffe's version, which I like (below), and you may also know Sinead O'Connor's.  The words are never quite the same each time I've heard it; I think they're making it gradually less angry than the original.

So the prosperity and tourism have cheered West Cork up, but haven't blighted the landscape, which is still astoundingly beautiful.  The weather can easily change every few minutes, creating a kaleidoscopic succession of colour and lighting effects over intricate scenes of water, hills, cliffs, fields and flowers. 

 So here are a few pictures I took in the corner of West Cork that starts on the tiny Sherkin Island, about ten minutes from the village of Baltimore.  

 The type of rock you see everywhere is called Devonian Old Red Sandstone, although it doesn't look very red to me. It creates this craggy landscape, great for rock pools and crabbing, where I could have spent hours as a child.  

Sherkin Island's biggest white-sand beach, Trá Bán, is dotted with coloured stones and yellow shells, which glow out of the sand like little suns.  

Here's another view of Trá Bán over some rocks - the water is almost tropically blue.  The only footprints on the sand, apart from ours,  were made by birds.   

The path down to the beach is fringed with the red fuschia bushes which are very characteristic of the area. 

This wild coast was always at the mercy of pirates and smugglers.  Sherkin Island's abbey was burned in 1537 by bad men from Waterford, although, to be honest,  O'Driscoll clan who used to rule the place didn't seem all that much better, from what I could make out.

There are a couple of simple pubs on the island. In the older one, this fireplace with Victorian lady tiles is hidden away in a back room. I am sure someone was in love with those ladies to get them brought all the way over from England, even though they look slightly neglected here. 

The ferry sets out from the mainland - a ten minute run. Can you see a faint rainbow to the right?

By the time it arrives, the weather's already changed, the fog's dispersing and the ferry's lit by sun.

It is a ten minute ride back to Baltimore, whose most conspicuous feature is the Beacon, built around 1800 as part of an early warning system surrounding the Irish coast.  It's supposedly known as "Lot's Wife" because it looks like a pillar of salt, but everyone I met called it "The Beacon."  You reach it by climbing a very steep hillside or scrambling up via streams and goat paths.   

On our first visit, the sun came out, the sea was deep blue and the wild flowers glowed red and yellow. 

We returned late the following afternoon when everything seemed to be silver and gold.

Another day, we took a stroll round Loch Hyne.  It's something of a celebrity loch among geographers, for it's a tidal salt-water lake fed by a narrow channel from the sea - so narrow, indeed, that it takes just four hours for the tide to force its way in, but eight hours to go out.  The result is that it contains all kinds of unusual creatures.  The road is public but we met only three cars in a couple of hours, and in places, the wild fuschia bushes were three metres high.

The section of road nearest the loch is heavily wooded - you see the water shining silver on the left.

All was peaceful as the clouds gathered, dropped rain for three minutes, then dispersed.    

Spotted this mischievous warning on a small jetty.  

We ended up wishing we'd spent more time in West Cork, so I hope we'll get back next year.

As it happened we arrived just too late for the annual food festival.  I took a look at the brochure and thought it looked fascinating - here's the link

And this is a plate of the salad I got at the Friday country market in Skibbereen, which takes place next to the Aldi car park. It has been there for years, I was told (much longer than Aldi) and is complete with the two ladies totting up all the purchases in longhand at a table in the corner. I wished I'd taken an extra bag on the plane to Ireland, to fit in all the beautiful produce I wanted to buy.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A Castle in London

Had a good afternoon on Friday.  We met up with an old friend of T's, and had lunch in the Diwana Bhel Poori near Euston station. It's been my favourite Indian lunch buffet since I was... well, about 18, and it wasn't new then.  Despite the curious decor, it has the best vegetarian buffet in London and it's always full at lunchtimes. 

Then we strolled on to the British Library, and continued our chat over coffee.  When our friend left to get home before the rush, we decided to go next door to take a peek inside the Midland Hotel. 

In case this information doesn't mean anything to you, the Midland Hotel at St. Pancras is the big Gothic building you can see in this Victorian picture.

The picture romanticises it - but not that much. It really is the kind of place you gasp at.  It's hardly surprising to me that its architect, the celebrated George Gilbert Scott, felt it was his masterpiece.

It was designed to be spectacular, with its gold leaf decorations, all the latest mod cons and no expense spared -  even though G.G. Scott felt the directors of the company ought to be spending far more on it than they eventually did. 

It was magnificent when it was complete, but it had only a few decades of glory.  It was hard to modernise it, and by the 1930s the management couldn't afford enough staff to carry all the chamberpots  (the Victorians hadn't thought of en-suites), stoke the coal fires which graced each bedroom, and so on.     It closed in 1935, outdated and ill-maintained, and was used after that as offices.  Eventually British Rail decided it was ugly and old fashioned, and fought to demolish it for years, keen to replace it with one of the Brutalist grey slab buildings they favoured at the time.

Luckily they failed, but restoring the Midland Hotel was a massive job.  I visited when it was empty and disused in about 1995, and couldn't think how anyone could even start. But, amazingly, it was done, in 2011 the renovated Midland reopened.   

I'd only caught glimpses of the interior since then, so on Friday I finally walked into that arched portico you can see on the left,  went down a spectacular looking corridor.... took a photo ...  and was approached by a member of staff asking if he could help.  I was sure he was going to freeze me out, but instead he asked, pleasantly, if we'd like to see around.   Of course, I said yes!

And what a stroke of luck. It was clear that he truly loved the building. Castles were his passion, he said, and this was as near as anyone could get to working in a castle in London.  He knew a lot about it - such as that the carpet on several storeys of that grand staircase (below) was woven all in one piece, and that all the door furniture had been individually designed. 

The walls of the hallway are painted with scarlet and gold fleur de lys, backed by a group of gigantic windows. Although you can't see it in my photo the staircase splits into two and goes up either side of the building.

Here's part of the towering vaulted ceiling, with courtly knights and armorial shields. It apparently represents the Virtues, although I couldn't quite see how.  

This beautifully painted niche  from "The Romance of the Rose" is large enough to shelter a large statue, but had been whitewashed over when the building became offices - what vandalism!  As you see it has been uncovered and restored. 

Below is the ceiling of the Ladies' Smoking Room, which daringly offered Victorian ladies the chance to relax together and have a puff after dinner, never thinking about the effect of their nicotine on the elaborate paintwork with its gold leaf.   These days, of course, there is no smoking. 

I took a snap out of the window, which shows the length of the building. 

Finally, we returned to the front hall, and our guide concluded with a little musical recital. This very up to date version of a reproducing piano stands in the hall.  Its keys seem to play by themselves, just like in the old pianolas - but instead of a paper roll whirring round, it is linked with a recording.  It looked eerie, playing all by itself, but I dare say there are plenty of ghosts haunting this place.   In fact, I expect that G.G. Scott is floating around somewhere, complaining that they haven't applied enough gold leaf this time around.  

We were very grateful to that charming member of staff, delighted by how proud he was of the building, and pleased to have this unexpected encounter with a stranger in the middle of the big city.  

If you want to read more about the history of the building, this is a good site. 


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