Pleasantly Full Days

Life seems to have been particularly busy in the last ten days or so since my last trip to London.  There I got a dental check-up (my teeth are fine), visited the Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece Exhibition (fascinating and beautifully laid out) and took Middle and Eldest Son to dinner and The Lantern Society, my favourite Folk Club (what a treat to catch up with them both!)

At The Lantern Society

At The Lantern Society

Rodin's The Thinker And The Kiss

Rodin’s The Thinker And The Kiss – Two Items In An Intriguing British Museum Exhibition

The weather has been highly conducive to gardening.  We have had long periods of sun, but reasonable temperatures, and just enough rain.  As a result, many days have been dominated by clearing weeds, planting out seedlings, localised manual watering and working out how to keep the destructive birds, mammals, molluscs and insects at bay.  Almost everything that needs protection now has some form fencing, netting or other damage prevention measure in place.  I will now sit back, wait and watch the ways the animals will thwart me anyway.

In my last post, I compared the post-modernist house of Erno Goldfinger to a previous house of ours.  My last visit to London and overnight stay in the Barbican reminded me, too, that the post-modernist gardens there are now being echoed by Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) planting of our new walled garden.  Our final load of gravel and the water feature have now arrived and so our new garden just lacks maturity, but there are already some similarities with the Barbican gardens (although the scale there is massive compared to that of our ex-car parking area).  It has certainly been pleasant sitting in the new garden in the sun with a glass of wine after sweating over weeds, seedlings, bean poles and netting.

Our New Garden and The Barbican Gardens

Our New Garden And The Barbican Gardens; Ours Has Some Maturing To Do!

LSW and I have also been enjoying the annual Nailsworth Festival and, especially, two walks arranged under the auspices of the festival.  The first was a history walk in the vicinity of our house.  It added to our knowledge of the footpaths, industry and religious history of the area – particularly the historic presence of the Quakers and Baptists in what was once one of the largest non-conformist settlements in the country.

History Walk

An Attentive Audience On The Nailsworth History Walk

The second was a 12 mile walk billed as being a walk from Nailsworth to ‘the sea’. In fact, ‘the sea’ was the tidal estuary of the River Severn at a point where a number of sea going ships were beached to bolster the coastline alongside the canal along which we had walked. The so-called Purton Hulks, were an interesting climax to a full day of walking up and down the Cotswold escarpment and across the Severn valley in perfect walking weather. LSW and I certainly pushed up our daily step count averages that day!

Views During Our Walk Nailsworth To The Sea

Views During Our Walk Nailsworth To The Sea

Purton Hulks

Purton Hulks

We also had a good day out walking in New Quay and Aberaeron in West Wales. We were staying with friends who have a second home there in what seems to be a lively and familiar community of second-homers based in London, Birmingham and South Wales. The health benefits of all the recent walking were offset by rather too much tasty food and drink in New Quay. On the route back from Wales, these indulgences continued as we stopped off at a family party celebrating a brief visit of one of LSW’s first cousins (once removed) from Singapore; lovely!

Views Of New Quay, Wales And Nearby Cliffs

Views Of New Quay, Wales And Nearby Cliffs

The food, drink and merriment isn’t going to stop this week with more of the World Cup to watch and celebrate (I hope), and the marking of LSW’s birthday with dinner in London on the way to a weekend in Paris.

So: busy and full days, full weeks and, as I near 12 months of retirement, I will shortly look back on a full year.

Picasso And Goldfinger

As I write this, I am travelling up to London for the second time in a week; I still look forward to my regular ‘fix’ of London life.  Today, I’m using the excuse of the need to visit my long-term dentist for a check-up.  The previous visit was primarily to enable Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I to meet with Eldest Son’s (ES’s) new girlfriend for the first time.  She was lovely and we all had a splendid evening at one of our favourite restaurants: Morito in Hackney Road.

I also managed to squeeze in a rather drunken lunch and impromptu darts match with an old mate of mine from my Accenture days – getting on for a decade ago now.  Meanwhile, LSW saw an art exhibition and we followed up next day with a bit more culture.  First LSW and I saw the Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern and then we went to Hampstead to visit 2 Willow Road, a modernist house designed and previously owned by architect, Erno Goldfinger.

The Picasso exhibition was unusual in that it focused on just one year of his life.  That was 1932 during which he conducted a secret affair with a young woman who he painted almost daily.  It was interesting to hear how the affair came to light – including to his wife – only at a retrospective exhibition of his work which included several paintings of his mistress.  For someone so apparently confident in his ability, it was also fascinating to hear how he curated the 1932 retrospective in a way to try to reassert his continuing relevance following the success of his earlier work.

Picasso

One Of The Many Paintings Picasso Created in 1932 Showing His Secret Mistress

The visit to 2 Willow Road was also eye opening.  It’s an early reinforced concrete building built in 1939 by and for the architect who later became (in)famous for some of the tallest reinforced concrete residential tower blocks in London.  It was given to the National Trust after his death and has been largely untouched since then.  The art he collected – including pieces by Henry Moore, Bridget Riley, Max Ernst and Delaunay – is still on show and we got a real feeling for the way he lived and entertained.

Most interesting were the similarities between the features (such as the en suite sinks), inter-room connectivity (facilitated by removable and sliding doors) and huge windows in 2 Willow Road, and the nature of our previous family home built in Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire almost 20 years later.  Clearly, unbeknownst to us, the architect who designed our house and the one we used to develop it were familiar with Erno Goldfinger.  Like 2 Willow Road, I suspect, our previous house was rather ugly to look at, but lovely to live in.

2 Willow Road

2 Willow Road, Hampstead

Now we have moved on to an old farm house with a Georgian façade.  However, the extension LSW helped to design a few years ago offers plenty of space and light so we have retained some of the best aspects of our house in Minchinhampton.  The combination of old house and modern extension feels right and our garden – recently walled and extended to take over half of the previous car parking space – is more manageable than that we had before.  With the additional time I now have, and LSW’s increased interest in gardening (plus 4 hours of paid help most weeks), we are gradually getting control of the garden.  Once I finish the endless painting of the TV room I will have even more time to relax in it!

Part of the New Garden Area At Our House

Part of the New Garden Area At Our House

Trips, Royals and Trophies

Recently, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have tried to arrange at least one mid-week trip out from home each week.  This is, as LSW puts it, to mark that I am now retired and so have the flexibility to visit places during the week rather than during the more crowded weekends.  These have to fit around her continuing part time work commitments and, to a lesser extent, my trips to London but we have managed them with reasonable regularity.

Last week, we capitalised on the excellent weather and visited two gardens in the North Cotswolds.  Bourton House Gardens is relatively new having been laid out and planted around a beautiful 18th century manor house just 30 years ago.  The colourful flower beds, potted tulips, box bush topiary and knot garden were inspiring.  Best of all, for me, was a walk around an arboretum, with a simple pamphlet guide, that helped us decide which sorts of trees to plant in our own field alongside the few fruit trees we have already established.  Current favourites are Whitebeam and Poplar.

Bourton Hill Gardens

Bourton House Gardens

We then went to Snowshill Manor.  This turned out to be an interesting, coincidental adjunct to my pondering a couple of weeks ago about the accumulation of material goods and de-cluttering.  Prior to being given to the National Trust, the house and garden was owned by Charles Wade, a compulsive collector of items recording craft and workmanship.  He lived in a small cottage adjacent to the medieval manor house which he bought specifically to accommodate his large and varied collection of cabinets, artwork, costumes, musical instruments, tools and other artefacts.  The dusting challenge for his housekeeper and, now, the National Trust, must be huge!

Part Of Charles Wade’s Collection (Masks And Musical Instruments) at Snowshill Manor

Part of Charles Wade’s Collection (Masks And Musical Instruments Are Shown Here) At Snowshill Manor

The collection, and his compact personal accommodation, were interesting but even better were the gardens and the views from them.  In weather such as that we have enjoyed through much of May, England can look marvellous and it certainly was in the Cotswolds that day.

Snowshill Manor Gardens

Snowshill Manor Gardens

We rounded off the trip with a visit to Daylesford luxury farm shop which LSW loves.  The shops – even the grocery shelves and the food counters – look rather like art shows.  The prices are almost prohibitively geared to out-of-London trippers but the quality is high and several pieces inspired ideas for things that we might try to replicate in some way at home.  We stuck with those ideas rather than buy anything more than lunch in the sun.

LSW really enjoyed the Royal wedding last week.  Whilst not being particularly interested in the Royal Family myself, I can understand her positive sentiments about the wedding.  The bride and groom looked adoring and very happy.  Meghan’s mixed race heritage is a welcome extension to the Royal’s outlook, diversity and modernism.

LSW watched the wedding proceedings for hours and then watched the replays.  At one point she was watching a replay while I was watching a replay of Forest Green Rovers’ promotion playoff-winning performance at Wembley exactly a year ago.  We both had tears of joy in our eyes!

This season, Forest Green Rovers (FGR) barely avoided relegation from their newly elevated status in League 2 of the English Football League.  That was good enough for me.  The performance was burnished for me by my pride in winning the FGR Prediction League competition (for the second time in 10 years).  The competition trophy will have to be found a small space somewhere as other stuff is bundled off to car-boot sales, charity shops or the dump – but only for a year since I doubt I will be so lucky to win next season.

The Forest Green Rovers Prediction League Trophy

The Forest Green Rovers Football Club Prediction League Trophy (The Colin Gardner Shield)

Spring and Stuff

Spring has arrived late but with waves of sun and warmth that suggest it is trying to catch up on lost time.  Leaves and blossom have burst into life and colour and the landscape suddenly has that fresh feel of Spring.  The carpets of bluebells in the nearby woods are already usurped by the wild garlic and the paths and verges are lined with cow parsley 4 foot high.  Already, we seem to be marching into summer.

Wild Flowers OnThe Way to Town

Cow Parsley, Wild Garlic, Bluebells And Cowslips On The Walk Into Town

The recent improvement in the weather has encouraged me to resume vegetable gardening in between trips to London (a cheeky, impromptu visit primarily to see a favourite band, Kefaya) and Nottingham (to see my parents).  I have been planting seeds, digging the vegetable patch and putting up a bit of new fencing.  For the first time, I am retired from work during a Spring.  When I was working, I used to perform what I called ‘speed gardening’ at weekends.  This year I can devote time throughout the week to a more relaxed style of gardening.

From bitter experience I know that not all this reinvigorated effort will bear fruit in terms of usable crops.  Not everything germinates or thrives and squirrels, deer and badgers have taken more than their fair share in recent years.  However, now Spring is here, frustrations with the local wildlife, and memories of needless gluts of vegetables that the animals don’t like, are set aside and the vegetable patch is cultivated once more.  Once again, in a few months’ time, we will probably be scouring recipe books and the internet for meals requiring lots of beetroot or courgettes and having beans with every meal.

About three weeks ago, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) had one of her periodic purges of our possessions to populate a table at a village table-top sale.  I had my usual power of veto to prevent the discarding of things that might conceivably be useful to me, our sons or any of their as yet entirely unplanned children at some point in the future.  However, I kept my veto in my pocket and a car-load of stuff was priced up and went for sale.

Unfortunately, our village evidently has a lot of people who want to offload things but few who wanted to accumulate them.  By the end of the sale, due to LSW buying yet another designer tap, she came back out of pocket and only one item lighter.  Given the investment of time in pricing all this stuff up, LSW had another go at a local car-boot sale.  She had about £60 more success but it’s clear that much of what we are trying to sell is going to take the normal trip to the local charity shops.

We gather so many material goods over a lifetime.  Some have a now outdated function and some are purely decorative but are no longer in vogue or have a place.  A classic example was an Apilco tea set which we once used and loved but which has been in a cupboard untouched for years.  We tested whether any of the sons wanted it and got negative responses (‘its horrific’ said one).  They already have what crockery they need and, if they need more, will go online at Amazon, John Lewis or Ikea.  Handing stuff down over the generations doesn’t seem to work any longer.

Apilco Tea Set

Apilco Tea Set Awaiting A New Home

At our age, we simply don’t need many additional material goods.  Indeed, LSW is strong – and persuasive in the face of my greater, but softening, reticence – on reducing our footprint by clearing our old stuff out.  Thank goodness for the recycling work of charity shops but the dump is also a regular destination.

These thoughts were going through my mind as LSW and I visited the annual neighbourhood open studios events of the last couple of weeks.  Lots of creative and talented people were displaying their art and craft work in their homes and in local galleries; some was impressive.  In past years we have bought some of the items but, more recently, we have walked around the open studios rather aimlessly.  We just don’t need any more things to sit on shelves or to go on walls.

LSW has recently started a ceramics course.  My fear is that her work – worthy and perhaps even lovely as it may turn out to be – will be another avenue of stuff entering our home.  If so, then at least I will have a bargaining chip in negotiations around hanging onto some of my long-standing possessions for another year.  But my realisation that I have to declutter that stuff is growing – maybe I’ll go to the next car boot sale or even learn to try eBay…..

Kefaya At Archspace, Haggerston, London

Kefaya At Archspace, Haggerston, London; One Of My Favourite Bands

Not Too Old Yet

Following my last post here, I was admonished by both Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and Eldest Son (ES) for not mentioning an incident that occurred last time I was in London.

Following the gig I saw with ES and one of his best friends, we wanted to find a bar in Camden that would allow us to unwind a bit with some more drinks. We approached a lively bar but I was refused entry; ES and his friend were welcome but, evidently, I was not. Admittedly my memory from similar past occasions may be fuzzy but I can’t remember being denied entry to a bar or club before. I was astonished but all three of us found it very funny.

At the time I assumed it was because I was overly merry – ES would probably corroborate this – but later, as I considered how relatively little I had had to drink over the few hours of the gig, I wondered if the barrier to entry was on grounds of age. I didn’t ask at the time and so I will never know, but I would have increased the average age of the clientele significantly had I gone in. Given that we managed to get into the next bar I shan’t worry too much but, with yet another birthday coming up tomorrow, I wonder if I will experience this sort of ageist rebuttal again.

LSW and I had no such problem getting into another venue – The Forge – in Bristol last week. The Forge had cropped up one of LSW’s favourite blog sites as one that hosts craft workshops, yoga sessions and performance art including music. We went more to see the venue than the band (although listening to them on Spotify had allowed us to build optimism that we would enjoy them in advance).

The Forge, Bristol

Awaiting The Band At The Forge, Bristol

In practice, the headline act – Albert Jones – turned out to be excellent. The venue was also great although the audience was seemingly full of close friends who spent most of the time catching up with each other rather noisily instead of listening to the music – something I’m always irritated by more than I should be.

We conjoined the trip to The Forge with a scouting exercise around residential north and west Bristol. Cheltenham, Bath and Bristol are nearby cities and towns that LSW and I are considering as a place to live in at some point in the future. In part, a move to an urban area would reduce our reliance on a car while putting us in easier reach of entertainment and other facilities. It would respond to our probable decreasing personal mobility as we get older. Moving house is not something that we plan to do for several years – we are still upgrading the current one for goodness sake! – but it’s better to think and plan ahead.

Having walked several residential streets and looked at a number of estate agents’ windows, we concluded that Bristol is definitely an option. I would like the big, gritty, city feel but LSW would prefer Cheltenham due to its smaller size and more sophisticated feel. Visiting The Forge with its huge windows and elevated out-look, tempted LSW to imagine life in a top-floor loft apartment in a converted warehouse. I’m not sure how that will reconcile with the need to think about our future mobility. However, it’s fun to contemplate the possibilities and we are lucky to be able to do so.

Meanwhile, although it may be my birthday tomorrow (and I apparently increasingly run the risk of exclusion from some bars and clubs), LSW and I are still in good health. We can therefore focus on enjoying our current house, garden and rural community rather than worry too much about next steps yet.

Happy Week

The last week or so has seen warm temperatures at last.  Despite my fears, Forest Green Rovers have had sufficient success on the football field to ensure that a dreaded relegation will almost certainly be avoided.  I’ve been able to get started on preparing the vegetable patch and growing seedlings for the garden and managed to fit in another trip to London.  It’s been a good time.

IMG_6289

Lincoln Fields: Every Green Space In London Fully Occupied When The Sun Comes Out!

There has also been some nostalgia this week.  20 years ago, Boards of Canada, a band producing an evocative brand of psychedelic electronica, released their first studio album called Music Has The Right To Children.  I bought the CD soon afterwards and have spent the last 20 years buying their other albums and loving almost every minute of them.

It’s hard to pick a favourite band because there are so many music genres and different music suits different moods and circumstances.  But I believe that, at any time over the last 20 years (including today), I would have said Boards of Canada are my favourite band.  An example of their sound – with typically off-beat images evoking public service documentaries, childhood and nostalgia is here (Everything You Do Is Balloon).

Boards of Canada are two Scottish brothers who have only produced three more full albums since that first one that got me hooked.  To my knowledge, they have never played live.  They leave me grasping for more.  I therefore jumped at Eldest Son’s (ES’s)suggestion that we go to a jazz interpretation of the Music Has the Right to Children by Byron Wallen’s Gamelan Ensemble at Camden’s Jazz Club in London.  It was an excellent event – though inevitably a shadow of the real thing – and so popular that, I understand, a repeat performance is being scheduled.

Byron Wallen's Gamelan Ensemble Reinterpret Boards of Canada At The Jazz Club, Camden

Byron Wallen’s Gamelan Ensemble Reinterpret Boards of Canada At The Jazz Club, Camden

The gig was a good reason to visit London for a couple of days.  I not only spent time with ES – as usual staying in the Barbican flat he rents from us in a very convenient arrangement – but also managed to meet up with Middle Son (MS).  I also saw the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition at Somerset House, which was a huge and incredibly varied array of often remarkable photos, and then the superb, new Monet and Architecture exhibition at the National Gallery.

Sony World Photography Award Winner: Veselin Atanasov

Sony World Photography Award Winner: Veselin Atanasov

I really enjoyed the Monet exhibition which recalled the Impressionists in London exhibition I saw at Tate Britain last year.  Several of individual pictures were stunning, the information provided was just the right level for me (not too much and nothing highfalutin), and the gallery was busy but empty enough that I could see every piece up close.  There was a little personal nostalgia here too since the exhibition sponsor was my last employer before retirement.

Monet and Architecture

Monet And Architecture: The Boulevard Des Capucines, Paris

Since returning to Gloucestershire, I have started longer spells of gardening than I managed before Spring truly sprang into life this week.  I have also resumed the interminable painting of the TV Room.  Both activities have provided moments of humour.

My vegetable patch is adjoined by a field of sheep that have been fed with hay recently because the pasture is so far behind its normal growth levels due to the poor weather.  When I appear in the vegetable patch they expect me to feed them and so rush over towards me.  One got so enthusiastic that he barged through the fence, jumped over the wall and started munching the weeds in our garden.  Fortunately, we managed to guide the sheep back to his field quickly enough to leave us amused by the experience rather than concerned.

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Sheep Intruding Into Our Garden

On the painting front, I have recently opened another pot.  As I was leaning over it to dip in my brush, my spectacles dropped off directly into the paint.  I felt pretty stupid as I fished the drenched, dark blue spectacles out and rinsed them off.  Luckily, the paint is water based so, as with the sheep, no harm was done.

Happy week!

Sunny London

Sunny London: Somerset House, Royal Courts of Justice, St Pauls And The 4th Plinth In Trafalgar Square

The Cost of Entertainment

So, still not much Spring in the air and the water-courses have been full.  But lambs are starting to pop out and Spring weather is apparently going to finally arrive next week.  Such a relief!

Full Water Courses and New Lambs

Full Local Water Courses and New Lambs

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I went to the Theatre Royal in Bath last week to see Mary Stuart starring Juliette Stephenson and Lia Williams.  The last time I went to the theatre was years ago when I saw War Horse in London.  I really can’t recall when, before that, I saw a play.  In retrospect, it’s surprising that I didn’t do more theatre-going while I was in London – one of the theatre capitals of the world.  I love cinema, which is perhaps the closest art form, and I love live music which provides similar intimacy.  So why not go to more theatre?

Part of the reason is that a large part of good acting is in facial expression.  My eyesight is just not good enough to be able to discern the subtlety of such expression from the distances I expect to find myself away from the stage and so I feel I will miss out.  That was true in Bath earlier this week but, in truth, the performance was very enjoyable anyway.

The other reason for not going to many shows in London was my perception of the expense of the ticket relative to my knowledge of the theatre and, therefore, my chances of enjoying the experience.  However, the costs of going to the theatre are lower outside of London and we knew the play LSW and I saw in Bath would be good because we’d seen the reviews and it had already had a successful run in London.  In any case, I have been thinking more about the relative cost of the entertainments I choose.

The tickets for Theatre Royal cost £33 each.  That is quite a lot of money in absolute terms and, given that the theatre has a capacity of 900 and was packed, that creates a decent revenue stream for the theatre.  But then we were seeing a couple of near-top actresses, and a cast of 20 or so, all directed and acting in front of a backdrop and lighting that all needs to be maintained and manned.  This production is a success but not all are and so maybe Mary Stuart has to cover losses on other plays.  Also, the play was a pretty compelling three hours long – so that’s around £11 per hour of (dramatic, absorbing and memorable) entertainment.

A week before, I had travelled up to London to see Forest Green Rovers (FGR) Football Club lose against our relegation rivals Barnet.  The ticket cost £23 which is above average for English Football League 2.  For that, over 90 minutes, I saw a poor game of football with a bad result for us.  I can’t say I enjoyed the experience and it cost of over £15 per hour.  Of course, had FGR played well and won, I would have been overjoyed and very pleased to have seen the game.  But FGR’s away form is such that I could have expected disappointment.

Small scale live music gigs are very good relative value.  Many I have attended in recent years have cost less than £10 and, with support bands, provide around two hours of entertainment at £5-8 per hour.  The latest band I saw was a (supposedly) up and coming band called Goat Girl.  For the cost of a CD (£11), I got in to see them live in the intimate surroundings of Rough Trade East record store in Shoreditch, London.  It was a lively hour, I liked much of the music and it was very good value (given I have the CD memento).

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Goat Girl at Rough Trade (With Goat Props!)

Of course, the quality of music venue (the comfy seats available at Theatre Royal Bath are not an option in the small venues I tend to go to!) and the quality of the music is variable.  Generally though, I will have listened to the band on Spotify or CD in advance and have enough knowledge to aim at events I enjoy.  The good value of live music has, for me, been pretty consistent over several years.

The other thing I did on my football and music trip to London was go to a couple of art galleries.  Both shows, at the Hayward Gallery and the Barbican, entertained me for about 90 minutes.  By far the most interesting was the excellent exhibition of Andreas Gursky photographs at the Hayward.  It provided a fascinating insight into the work of someone I had never heard of before at a rate of about £10 per hour.  Thinking back to other exhibitions I have seen recently, that rate of entertainment cost per hour seems about the norm for me.  I like free art shows but having to pay focuses my attention of what I am seeing.

Example Of Gursky's Work

Example of Andreas Gursky’s Photos: Paris, Montparnasse

Example of Gursky's Work

Further Example of Andreas Gursky’s Photos: Bahrain Racetrack

Another Kind Of Life

Exhibition: Another Kind of Life, Photography on the Margins (Here, A Nigerian Man With His Hyena by Peter Hugo)

I might consider further the relative value of other entertainments such as restaurants, cinema, watching catch-up TV, gardening and walking (which is certainly cheapest!)  Clearly cost per hour is not the only factor.  However, from the past week I conclude that:

  • Theatre (out of London at least) is better value than I previously thought – I really enjoyed it
  • Music events are high value entertainment provided I keep my knowledge of what I am going to see current
  • Art exhibitions are good entertainment value despite the high absolute cost of tickets; indeed, I suspect the fact there is a high cost drives me to concentrate more on what I am seeing and get more out of it
  • following Forest Green Rovers away from home is bad value unless we win (just twice in the last 9 months!).

Nonetheless, the pain of the football fan is to carry on ploughing the same furrow regardless of results so I’ll be handing over my cash at Cheltenham on Saturday and hoping for value for money and, rather desperately, three points for FGR.

Spring Or April Fool

One of the toughest things about coming back from South Africa has been readjusting to the English weather (‘you poor things’ I hear you cry!).  Long Suffering Wife (LSW) and I were lucky to miss the cold and snow of the ‘Beast from the East’ just as we left.  However, we returned in time for the mini version of that icy blast and, for the last week or so, have struggled to avoid the rain.

Stratford Park

Stratford Park, Stroud in Early Spring Snow

But today, April Fools Day, is sunny and bright!  Is Spring here at last or is this nature’s April Fool prank?

There are many signs of spring.  The sheep are back in the field opposite our house and their lambs will soon arrive, tree buds are becoming full and starting to open, the daffodils that survived the weight of the snow last month are out, and the birds are singing more enthusiastically.  As we move into April I am hoping that the rain will relent, there will be a sustained return to warmth and that this morning’s brightness is no false promise.

Since our return from South Africa, LSW and I have been planning our next trips abroad – to Paris and Porto in the summer – and getting back into familiar routines.  LSW is re-starting her part time garden guide job and resuming her slot in the village shop.  I have been walking, reading, catching up on the TV we missed while we were away, supporting Forest Green Rovers Football Club’s struggle to avoid relegation, and (seemingly interminably) painting the TV room woodwork a dark blue.  Both before and after our South Africa trip, I have been getting up a bit earlier and walking into Nailsworth before, rather than after, breakfast.  That has created space in the routine to do painting in the mornings as well as some afternoons.  Progress in the TV room has quickened a bit – though not enough for LSW’s liking – and one end is now done (provided no-one looks too closely).

TV Room Woodwork Painting

TV Room Woodwork Painting – About A Third Done And Proud Of It!

Both of us have also started digging in the garden and setting out seed trays but this has been rather tentative given the rain and sodden ground.  LSW is excited by a new walled garden she has had designed and built to replace part of our previous car park area.  Now she is in the process of inserting the first wave of plants.  I am trying to populate our small field with a greater variety of meadow flowers – another long term project I suspect.

The drift back into a routine has been punctuated by a few highlights.  On the evening of our return to England LSW and I attended a local event at which George Monbiot, a political and environmental activist, spoke about his latest ideas and book.  It was a very well structured and inspiring talk that was full of optimism in the face of what George, and many of us, see as clear political and social dangers.  The main message is that we need to defeat the neo-liberalism that dominates today with a new narrative that expounds the value of community, the household and what he calls ‘the commons’ which I understood to be assets owned and managed in common by communities.  A lot of this dovetails into thinking around the post-work society that may flow from robotics and other technical developments that eliminate jobs; this is a fascinating area.

Later in the week, LSW and I were both moved more than expected by the Italian, Oscar-winning film Call Me By My Name.  It is a gently-paced story of young (homosexual) love with some great acting, excellent music and a direct and important message about parenting.  The film was shown at our usually tedious cinema multiplex as part of a promising programme of one off showings of films beyond the normal diet of kids’ movies and action blockbusters; more please!

Then, just before Easter, we ventured out on a rainy trip to Wiltshire and Somerset to visit the Messums Gallery near Tisbury and the Hauser & Wirth outlet and gallery near Bruton.  The buildings were more interesting than most of the art but there were some startling pieces and we had a lovely lunch at Hauser & Wirth.  Certainly, it was better being out and about in the wet pre-Spring weather than staring at the rain from our back door.

Messums Wiltshire Gallery

Messums Wiltshire Gallery: Light Installation, Art Space and ‘Nomad Patterns’ by Livia Marin

Spring: no more delay please. Let today be a turning point and hurry up and arrive properly!

The Little Karoo

The final leg of our tour of the South African Cape was a drive along the coastal Garden Route and across the Little Karoo, a 300-kilometre-long valley formed by two parallel mountain ranges, the Swartberg to the north, and the Langeberg and Outeniqua ranges to the south. From the Schotia game reserve we drove to Plettenberg Bay and stayed for a couple of nights. We then drove inland via Oudtshoorn, Calitzdorp, Swellendam, Bonnievale and, finally, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch in the winelands.

The scenery throughout the trip was sensational. Plettenberg Bay and nearby Knysna were touristy and Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) food poisoning, and my dodgy knee, prevented us from getting far off the beaten track. But the views of the gorges down to the sea along the coast road to Plettenberg Bay were dramatic, we saw dolphins in the bay, and the beach we overlooked from our hotel was clean, impressive and almost empty.

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Overlooking Plettenberg Bay

As we headed west via another gorgeous beach at Sedgefield and then inland, we stopped off at George to visit a ceramics shop called Wonki Ware. This is a brand that LSW has admired for a long time. Visiting the small factory, and seeing the hand crafting of the wonkiness of the pots, plates and cups, made a lovely connection to the Wonki Ware products we have acquired over the years. Inevitably, we came away with a couple more items.

The Wonky Ware Factory And Shop

The Wonki Ware Factory And Shop in George

Oudtshoorn is in the heart of ostrich farming country so we saw plenty of those. The highlight of the local area, though, was the Cango caves complex. We restricted ourselves to the standard tour rather than the longer ‘adventure tour’ which sounded scarily physically demanding. Nonetheless, we were astounded by the caves. The vast cave structure and its stalagmites, stalactites, pillars and limestone flow-forms, plus the bats, were wonderfully presented by a guide who clearly loved them all.

Cango Caves

The Cango Caves (Sorry About The Lack Of Indication Of Scale – They Were Huge)

From the caves we took an indirect route west through the Groenfontein Valley to Calitzdorp, Ladismith and Barrydale. Much of the route was on decent dirt tracks. The slow pace they enforced was ideal for taking in the wonderful mountain and desert landscape. The mountains had such a grand scale and variety. Some were bare rock, while some were covered with fragrant Fynbos vegetation and others, nearer the winelands, with grass. Some were grey and others were orange or red. Some were rounded but most were craggy and imposing. This drive, and the similar one using even more obscure dirt tracks the following day between Swellendam and Franschhoek, was a holiday highpoint.

We stopped in the middle of nowhere at Ronnie’s Sex Shop for (just) some chips.  (His mates apparently added the middle word, it stuck, the bar became adorned with old fashioned bras and tough looking bikers and the shop has become a tourist attraction).

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Ronnies Sex Shop In The Middle Of Nowhere

Our boutique accommodation in Swellendam was secluded and encapsulated the Dutch heritage that dominates much of the style of the up-market architecture. Our rooms in Swellendam provided LSW’s ‘ooh here’s a bath’ moment (akin to that she had had in Trentham during our Australia trip) and, since Swellendam was not under drought constraints, she loved using it. As usual the food was excellent. However, LSW’s continuing stomach issues prevented her from partaking and, in a rather poor attempt to show solidarity, I ate in our room not the restaurant. I’m not sure that the resultant aromas in our room helped her much.

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Our Swellendam Hotel: Old Dutch Architecture At De Kloof

It was only on our last day, on our route to the airport that LSW was able to have a full lunch. This was at one of the innumerable wineries (Chef’s Warehouse at Maison) in and around Franschhoek. Lunch was really special and memorable – not only for the quality and value of the service, food and wine (and the inevitable mountain backdrop) but also since it marked LSW’s long awaited recovery. I’m no wine connoisseur but the wine tasted terrific and we ended up buying a souvenir crate of it which will arrive at our house in a couple of weeks as a reminder of a wonderful holiday and final lunch.

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Chef’s Warehouse At Maison (Lovely)

The drought is a big challenge in the west of the Cape. We saw a lot of empty reservoirs as we approached Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.

Certainly  the part of South Africa we visited was marvellous and the weather was perfect throughout – very different from the cold and snow we just missed back in the UK as we left and the snow again this weekend. The physical geography is awesome – both the coast, especially south of Cape Town, and the mountains – but easy to get to. The wildlife – the bird song, the vegetation as well as the well-advertised game animals – was delightful; where else does one see road signs warning drivers to not feed the baboons, to look out for crossing tortoises or to avoid penguins in the roadway? The Dutch and French influence on architecture and the excellent food and wine (at 50% the cost of London) was a pleasure too.

 

The drought is a big challenge in the west of the Cape. We saw a lot of empty reservoirs as we approached Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.

Drought in West Cape

Evidence OF The West Cape Drought – An Empty Reservoir

Clearly too, security is an underlying issue. During the day almost everyone was smiling and friendly but we were constantly warned not to walk out at night and never to leave anything in our car. Inequality and the racial divide are also obvious. All the towns – except Franschhoek a Huguenot heritage town which seemed uniformly wealthy, stylish and classy – had precarious shanties as well as the gated estates and the contrasts were stark. Almost all the restaurants had clientele that were 95% white and staff that were 95% non-white. By the end of the holiday we were starting to feel a little uncomfortable with that and the way some clientele seemed to treat those who served them.

It will be interesting to see if things have changed by the time our plans to visit South Africa again in a few years’ time come to fruition. Meanwhile, I’m glad to be able to process the wonderful memories of our trip without the pressure of any work and to start thinking about our next excursion.

Small Reserve, Big Game

After a trip around the largely excellent South Africa National Gallery, a wonderful lunch at Constantia Glen (a wine estate just outside Cape Town), and a welcome rest for my gammy knee before packing, we set off on the next leg of our southern South African trip. This was a short hop east by plane to Port Elizabeth to visit a game reserve north of that industrial city.

The trip was made more stressful than planned by a more than three hour delay to the one hour flight – thereby putting our game reserve tour in jeopardy – and an awareness that Long Suffering Wife (LSW) was indeed suffering from a steadily worsening bout of food poisoning.

We made it to the game reserve in time. However, as the tour was about to set off, LSW realised that the prospect of jiggling about in the back of a jeep for several hours with no access to secure conveniences (there were lions about!) would not be compatible with her worsening condition. As she was ushered off to our overnight accommodation for rest and recuperation, I went off with four others and our guide to see the wildlife.

I’ve not been to a zoo since our sons were small and have never been to a wildlife park before, so I was unsure what to expect. I was very pleasantly surprised.

The reserve – the Schotia Private Game Reserve – was relatively small but there was enough cross-country bumping around in a big jeep to make it feel as though we were on a wild adventure and that there was a risk we might not see the important wildlife. In fact, the afternoon, night and then morning tour – which fortunately LSW was well enough to make – delivered a close up view of all of the animals I expected to see, and more. Communication between the guides was effective in getting us to the right places at the right times but the tour didn’t feel formulaic.

We saw lions, monkeys, wildebeest, a porcupine, giraffes, elephants, hippos, water buffalo, wart hogs, zebra, rhinoceros, a wide variety of antelope, eagles and other native birds, huge termite hills and massive dung beetles. All could all be seen at surprisingly close range although my inexperience with binoculars and the limitations of the iPhone camera was a poor comparison to my fellow travellers’ cameras. The termite I was encourage to eat tasted of basil – there’s a first (and probably last) time for everything I guess.

Schotia's Lions

Schotia Private Game Reserve’s Lions – Replete And Slow Moving After Apparently Catching A Zebra The Previous Day

Schotia's Rhinoceroses

Schotia’s Rather Grumpy Rhinoceroses

The half-hearted charge of a grumpy rhino on one of the other vehicles underlined the truly wild state of the animals. So too did the distended stomachs of the lions who had apparently killed a zebra on our first day and had hidden in bushes to eat it. They were too fat and lazy to move much when we got to them on the night trip and then the following morning.

 

The braai (South African barbeque) dinner in a traditional style reed-roofed building with open fires and a bottomless bar was generous and I didn’t hold back given I was eating for two in LSW’s absence. Over dinner, our guide shared some of his interesting history as an Afrikaner soldier and dispossessed farmer and his route to becoming a game reserve guide. His views on religion, abortion, and one or two other topics didn’t square with mine but it was fascinating to hear his personal story and his mix of hope and concern for his country. The interlude was also an opportunity to get ideas from my well-travelled fellow jeep occupants (from Germany and Canada) for future overseas trips.

The 20 hours at Schotia was an excellent introduction to what I might have experienced on a larger reserve where more time would have been required and the animals, while greater in number, might have been further away. Maybe we will try the much larger scale of Kruger or Hluhluwe Umfolofi next time (with a better camera) but I doubt we will get better value for money than we did at Schotia.

 

Various Items From The Most Interesting Part Of The South Africa National Gallery Exhibitions In Cape Town – Old And New Textiles And Beadwork

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One Of Several Works By El Anatsui Exhibited In The South Africa National Gallery And Made From Bottle Caps And Seals Sown Together Into Drapes