Friday, 30 May 2014

Disappointments and delights

You know, it's a mistake to recreate a cherished occasion in the past. Time does not stand still. Next time the place will be different, or, as I discovered today, just not there.

I am now two days into my three-week Welsh Tour. Yesterday I was at Moreton-in-Marsh, at the north end of the Cotswolds. Today it was Much Wenlock. M--- and I were in these parts in 1994, twenty years ago. I wanted to do several things that we had done in 1994. First, drive by the bed and breakfast place we stayed in - 'Chadstone' at Aston Munslow. I'd written this about it at the time:

Chadstone, Aston Munslow. Muriel and Robert White. 3 nights B&B with M---.

Muriel and Robert gave us a very warm welcome. They were really nice, Muriel in particular making great efforts to ensure we were comfortable. Robert had built their large and expensively fitted-out house. We had our own rooms, and our bathroom, though not ensuite, was only next door, and was most luxurious! We were both very comfortable, much liking all the nice personal touches. We went back again. The only problem was the cold weather, including a touch of sleet. Memorable Moment: Chinese horoscopes at the Wenlock Edge Inn: discovering that M--- (as a wood monkey) and myself (as a water dragon) were very compatible indeed!

Note the mention of the Wenlock Edge Inn: more on that shortly. We stayed at Chadstone three times, but eventually switched to a favourite hotel at Woolacombe in North Devon. I saw from a hotel guide that by 2001 Robert and Muriel had sold up and moved elsewhere. I wonder what became of them? Nowadays Chadstone is in yet other hands, under the style of 'Shropshire Hills Bed and Breakfast' and there are glowing reports on TripAdvisor. When I drove slowly past in Fiona it looked pretty good. There was no point in stopping, but I felt that if ever I abandoned caravanning I'd be happy to enjoy Robert's house again.

Thus far, the Shropshire Holiday with M--- had sort of been recovered. I drove on to Ludlow. Here things began to go West. With Fiona tethered, I entered the town centre. The big central feature there was the market hall at the Butter Cross, and nearby the famous De Grey's Café. I sorely fancied a high-class afternoon tea and cake! But I was disappointed. The Café was closed. Permanently. A chappie who looked as if he knew what's what joined me. I asked him when the place had shut down. Only three months previously. So after an absence of twenty years, I had missed the chance to enjoy a yummy silver service refreshment there by just three months. I couldn't believe it. The chappie said that there had been no obvious reason for the closure. Inside, the counters, tables and chairs were still in place, as if it had merely been shut up for a day or two. I wandered off, feeling oddly upset.

I remembered a delicatessen called the Ludlow Larder down a nearby side street. But that too had gone, though possibly replaced by a cheese shop. Disconsolate, I noticed a pottery shop with interesting-looking wares on display. I went in. The shop was owned by a Mr and Mrs Homer. Mr Homer was the expert potter. Mrs Homer looked after the shop customers. She told me more about De Grey's Café. Apparently none of the family who presently owned it were interested in the café trade, and had lately been running it at a loss. She didn't say so, but it sounded like a contrived insolvency. Rumour had it that the quaint old premises would be leased to a pizza chain - I immediately thought of Prezzo or Zizzi. We chatted about several topics. I asked various questions about the pottery, and bought an irresistible blue-and-gold bowl made by Martin Homer for £39, as much as I wanted to spend so early in my holiday. It was tiny but exquisite. The purchase lifted my mood, which rose further towards the heavens after an examination of the town Church, full of unusual monuments, a magnificent organ, and some works commemorating A E Housman the famous Shropshire Poet, who is buried in the churchyard.

Back to the caravan to change, and then out again to eat a Chinese Horoscope themed meal at the Wenlock Edge Inn. There it was. Odd that nobody else was in the car park. Then I realised that it was closed! Oh no. This place was sacred in my memory. A place of pilgrimage. Where M--- and I had drawn closer.

A woman came over to me from a nearby house. She thought I was a local councillor, from Much Wenlock perhaps, come to see for myself what was going on. For a planning application had been put in to develop both sides of the road, including the pub site, into a holiday complex. This on a ridge in an area of outstanding natural beauty. She and other local residents, who would be affected by having the complex on their doorstep, were anxious to get the three councils involved to refuse planning permission. I thought refusal was perfectly justified, given the impact all the building would have. (There was a plan on display)

But of course I was no councillor. I explained what I was actually doing there. How I'd hoped to have a meal and dwell on a past occasion that meant much to me. Now I was all dressed up and nowhere to go! Well, I had on a leather jacket, top and best jeggings! The lady was sympathetic and suggested one of the pubs in Much Wenlock. Very good advice. I went to The Talbot Inn after wandering about town and repeatedly encountering the same two couples. We all ended up in the same place. I can recommend the food at The Talbot Inn. I had lamb shank in a red wine jus, plus vegetables, and two large glasses of wine to wash it down with. Yum.

So to set against the disappointments of De Grey's Café and the Wenlock Edge Inn I had a beautiful little bowl and a jolly good evening meal. Perhaps I came out ahead.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A neighbour's tragedy

Yesterday's happy event has been followed today by a sad thing. Tragedy is never far away.

No, nothing to do with my family. A neighbour, a nice man, has lost his wife suddenly. I was speaking with him this afternoon. He is in his late forties or early fifties I should think, and works shifts. So he has to get to bed early in order to rise early. A couple of nights ago he went to bed as usual, leaving his wife alone to come to bed later. She never did. She had a very bad asthma attack while he was sound asleep. When he awoke at the normal time he had the shock of finding her still downstairs. You can imagine how he feels.

I must say, he was showing character. Visibly upset, but coping. It couldn't have helped when my own eyes started to water a bit as he was telling me what had happened. I haven't forgotten how I felt when I learned that Dad had died alone late at night, on 25 May 2009. I didn't enquire, but his wife might have died on exactly the same date.

What does one say? The right words came, but inside I felt awkward and remiss because there was literally nothing useful I could do, not with my departure as early as possible tomorrow. I shall miss the funeral, too. (We stick together in my road: we always attend neighbours' funerals if we can)

As I said, he was upset, but not stricken. He was still going to work, on the basis that working normally was better than brooding at home. His colleagues were being sensitive and supportive. But he wondered how it would be once the immediate things that must be dealt with and arranged were done, and he was sitting at home alone. I suggested the obvious: one or two projects that required close attention to detail, and lots and lots of time. He smiled at that. Yes, he'd already thought of a sports car rebuild.

We left it there. I don't think he'll go under. There are several other neighbours who will cluster around and make sure he doesn't feel abandoned or bereft of positive empathy.

All this makes my village, or at least my part of it, sound like a really great place to live. I suppose it is. But wherever you are, the name of the game is helping each other in a crisis, and not ignoring distress when you hear of it. Nobody is immune from life's hard knocks, and if something bad happens I certainly feel that a warm and sincere response is called for, even if it's 'only' a neighbour.

Family, friend or neighbour: why should it matter which?

Teaser Wedding Report

The wedding yesterday was a great success, and I feel so happy for my nephew and his bride.

I think they must have had total control over the arrangements: I detected no awkward compromises. Of course, it had all been done on a budget, but the effect was subtly that of a more expensive occasion: certainly they achieved the happy and celebratory atmosphere one wants - something that money can't necessarily buy. I really don't know why it is considered essential by some for thousands of pounds to be spent on getting married. The main things surely are to mark the public commitment of two loving people to each other, a signal to the world that they are in it for the long haul; and to make it a day to recall with pleasure, when nothing goes wrong; when sweet words are said with total sincerity; and with all the closest people in one's life present as witnesses. In my opinion, this was such a day.

The guest list was small: twenty or so, just near family and the friends of the bride and groom, and including three babies and two very young and active little girls. Nobody seemed out of place, as if invited because they could not be left out, as opposed to being really wanted. Full marks to the officiating staff at Richmond Register Office: the wedding ceremony could not have been friendlier and less rushed. The pub staff at the Cabbage Patch at Twickenham were also welcoming, and extremely obliging; the food was excellent.

About the only 'guest' who didn't behave was the weather. I drove through heavy rain on the way up to Richmond, and it spat threateningly during the ceremony. The garden photo-shoot was largely done under umbrellas. It didn't matter.

I now have 166 wedding photos (that I took) to process. I'm taking them away on holiday, but I very much doubt whether I'll have the time to deal with them all before I get back, considering that I may be shooting an average of 100 pictures a day while away, and those will need priority treatment, just to stay on top of the processing task. Mind, you it's odds on that I'll see many rainy days in North Wales, and so something might be done with those wedding shots when I'm a fixture in the caravan, heating on, steaming cup of tea at hand, and a couple of unforeseen hours to do something productive with. We'll see. I have of course left a backup of those 166 shots on my PC at home.

For now, here are one or two teaser shots, mainly of me, so that you can judge whether I looked the part of a well-turned-out aunt.

No more now: I must get on with my holiday departure preparations!

Monday, 26 May 2014

A wedding tomorrow in London Town

In three nights' time I shall be enjoying a very tasty chorizo and vegetable casserole in Moreton-in-Marsh, at the north end of the Cotswolds, the first stop on my Welsh Tour. I know that, because I've just finished the preparation and popped it in the oven. It will emerge hot and steaming in ninety minutes from now. I will eat half tonight, but put the other half in the caravan freezer to defrost gradually during the journey on Thursday.

It's all go here at Melford Hall. Definitely no time for any last-minute social life - which is a pity, because I'm a very social person really, and I enjoy a bit of company when I feel relaxed enough to appreciate it. But life at the moment is a stern list of Things To Do, and loading up the caravan is only part of it. There is a complication. I am attending a wedding up in London tomorrow.

It's my nephew M---'s, my late brother's son, who is getting married to his long-standing girlfriend C---. This is the couple with the lovely little baby girl Matilda. The event takes place at Richmond Register Office at 1.00pm, so I'd best set off from home not later than 10.00am. Which in turn means that I must do as much as I can by way of pre-wedding personal enhancements tonight, such as washing my hair so that it settles down a bit (it's very fine, and will be a windblown blonde mess if I wash it tomorrow morning). After the ceremony, we adjourn to a pub in Twickenham called The Cabbage Patch for a proper lunch and an afternoon spent saying hello to lots of people one hasn't seen for ages. I hope to enjoy all of that. So far as I know, there's no danger of having to make a speech. I'm just another of M---'s aunts, albeit a little special in that I'm his father's sister. But I shan't stress that, when speaking to anyone. I simply want to mingle and chat, and raise my glass when a toast is proposed. Well, that's all something that I'm pretty damned good at.

And I have my outfit. It's a dress that I've worn to Glyndebourne. I took the advice of V---, the French lady I know, and have selected something that won't outdo the bride, but nevertheless looks special, a black-and-white striped number. In fact V--- suggested this very dress to me. With of course the black Prada bag (what else). Plus black flats (I don't wear heels, even for weddings). The whole ensemble should look a bit like this slightly fuzzy shot taken last year, at Glyndebourne:

I'm also taking a black wide-brimmed hat, in case the sun comes out. But we will be very lucky not to face a deluge, or at least persistent drizzle. Fingers crossed on that!

I was writing out the cheque I'm giving M--- and C--- as a Wedding Present this afternoon, and popping it inside an envelope embellished with a gold pen in my own fair hand, when I realised that I hadn't remembered to buy a Wedding Card. Whoops! Well, there was nothing to be done. It was too late. They will have to make do with a card I had in a drawer that certainly looks nice - a beautiful pink rose on a gold background, but blank inside. I don't suppose it will matter terribly. The present is the thing that counts.

The day after tomorrow (Wednesday) is devoted to refilling Fiona's tank, a little last-minute food shopping, and further loading of the caravan. There's three weeks' worth of clothes, shoes, toiletries, medical items and food still to go in. And a selection of personal items, such as books and videos. Plus laptop and TV. OK, practically all of my favourite stuff. But I say: given a big, powerful car and a caravan with sufficient storage for all of this, why not bring it along? Why not make the inside of the caravan as much like one's home as possible? After all, there's only me, Rosie and Fang. Nobody else to consider. And having one's favourite stuff along helps to fend off homesickness, if the holiday seems to get overlong. It's comforting. It's a rational excuse for not travelling particularly 'light'. I could never handle a backbacking holiday.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Look out if your surname is Dommett. We're coming.

Lately - since the end of April, in fact - there has been an unexpected development. My family name (the one on my birth certificate) is Dommett. There it is: Lucy Dommett. A lady of my generation whose birth surname before marriage was also Dommett, stumbled on my blog and got in touch by email. We have been bouncing emails off each other ever since, and now we are going to meet up while I am on holiday. I am so looking forward to it.

I love Melford as a surname, but at heart I am a diehard Dommett and proud of it. It's so West Country. This lady clearly feels much the same. So we are now engaged in filling in bits of the Family Tree. Her side of the family has connections with Breamore in Hampshire and Tetbury in Gloucestershire, but further back it was Payhembury in Devon, just a few miles away from Kentisbeare, the HQ of my Dad's side of the family. There's got to be a link, a person in her family who connects with a person in mine. We are surely long-lost (but very distant) cousins.

Frustratingly, both of us have limited time and resources to throw at a deep genealogical search. Proving a connection requires a certain expenditure to get access to old records, buy copies of documents, and to personally visit graveyards and other places.

In my own case, not a lot can be done until later this year. But I had some 1881 Devon Census stuff, not so far much examined, and (at no cost) I've been able to go through that methodically. The lady has also been making efforts on her side. I think it's likely that we shall establish something rather interesting in the next month or two. If nothing else, she has spurred me on to look at material that I'd possessed since the year 2000 or earlier, but had not got around to analysing. We will now unearth an awful lot of dead Dommetts!

The pity of it will be that most of these forebears must remain just names and dates, their real lives irrecoverable. There will be very few photographs. My side of the family, before Dad came along, were not at all photo-minded. I have no shots of his mother, only one of his father, and nothing before them. Had the family been well-to-do townspeople, there would have been the usual Victorian and Edwardian studio portraits. But on my side they were humble country folk who wouldn't have thought it worthwhile to have their picture taken, and probably never encountered a photographer anyway. Life was very slow and backward in rural Devon before the First World War. On the lady's side, the family were skilled artisans and country house servants, and some photos may exist. She mentioned the likelihood, for instance, of discovering some male Dommetts in group photographs of the Breamore village cricket or football teams. (This is very like how a photo of one of M---'s aunts turned up, showing her in a Sussex Stoolball team)

It's not just this serendipitous contact with a like-minded Dommett that has got me researching in earnest. I promised my parents that I would get on with it once retired. Nine years into the said retirement, and nothing much had been done. Now I can fulfil the undertaking I gave to them. And I will push on with it, even if the lady and I can't prove a link between her set of Dommetts and mine. I like to do a proper job; and I won't give up filling in gaps in the Dommett Family Tree until all the ordinary lines of enquiry have been explored. And if I can't find a photograph of the living person, then there is always a shot to be taken of their gravestone, or the cottage they occupied. A great excuse for pottering around the countryside.

And - who knows? - one or two of them might have done or become something really unusual and noteworthy. Beyond being a locally important farmer, I mean. I hope so. I'd hate to think that nobody did anything unconventional until I came along! That would be a bit sad.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Glasgow School of Art, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh

What an awful thing to happen - the fire at the Glasgow School of Art. This highly original building by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the renowned Art Nouveau designer, completed in 1909, was irreplaceable. It seems that the damage won't be as extensive as first feared, but the place will bear scars forthwith. I saw it in April 2010, when it looked like this:

Stone, glass, iron, and plenty of wood. On a very steep site, as you can see. There was an exhibition on, and the public could go inside, but they were not allowed to take photographs. I managed only a couple before an officious young person told me to stop. Let's hope that the School can be restored to its former glory. It really is a special place.

Rennie Mackintosh had a number of architectural commissions, but his career in that sphere never really took off. There is however sufficient of his work in and around Glasgow to justify an official Rennie Mackintosh 'trail'. M--- and I saw, for example, the Willow Tea Rooms, on the first floor over a jeweller's shop, and approached through it:

There are also some other buildings of his in central Glasgow, basically commercial structures, worth seeking out:

The Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery out in the western part of the city has a section devoted to his design work in general:

Rennie Mackintosh's embrace of Japanese taste is very evident. Whether it's furniture or jewellery, the thin, elongated style he developed has become instantly recognisable. But the Glasgow School of Art remains his main large-scale epitaph.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Penzance to Wick. Let's do it!

One of the best apps on my phone is the National Rail Enquiries app, the 'official' one for getting a display of trains to catch, and - if you so wish - to buy the ticket online (although I have so far preferred to visit the booking office, and do it personally, face-to-face).

I like this app because it takes the hard work out of planning a rail journey. An interesting rail journey is beginning to become a regular treat when I'm on holiday. Earlier this year, it was for instance the Barnstaple-to-Exeter line. While in Wales, I shall if funds permit ride on one or two of the narrow-gauge steam railways, but a stretch of 'ordinary' railway is surely to be considered as well. Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno? Bangor to Holyhead? Harlech to Pwllheli? Who knows. My camera will overheat and explode.

Back to the National Rail Enquiries app. The detail it provides is amazing: not just the time of the train, but which platform to catch it from; details of the route; where the train will stop, and when; details of the individual stations - very useful if you have a lot of luggage. About the only thing not to like is the price of a really long rail journey!

For instance, I got up details of the longest journey possible in Great Britain the other day - Penzance in Cornwall (not far from Land's End) to Wick in the far north of Scotland (and not far from John O'Groats). Naturally I've already been to both - by car. But one could do it again, by train, departing from Penzance and a day later arriving at Wick. The National Rail Enquiries app can tell you how, and what it will cost.

Here's Wick on a nippy April day in 2010, with winter not yet gone:

As you can see, while there I was lucky enough to witness the arrival (and departure) of a train! And believe me, 'lucky' is the right word. There are only four trains a day on weekdays. However, as you can see, the trains are comfortable and modern, and the terminus at Wick is no mere shack, even if it does inexplicably lack a Burger King, a Costa Coffee, and a Weatherspoons.

But away from the sophistication of Wick, out in the country, these short trains get entirely lost in the bleak, intimidating landscape. And for much of its far northern mileage, the line to Thurso and Wick connects little else but a series of desperately lonely and remote stations like Forsinard:

You might think this doesn't look too bad; but appearances deceive. This unstaffed station is in the middle of nowhere, and you'd be in serious trouble if you got off here by mistake on a dark winter's afternoon. If you were fit, and able to walk in the shrieking wind, there are a few habitations - including a hotel - not too far off. Depends on the depth of the snow, and whether you have the stamina and endurance. These habitations are open during the main shooting season - but outside of that, well, who can say? No man.

The platforms at Forsinard are low, hence the mounting-blocks. Low so that the sleet and snow don't build up too much and form a glacier. Don't bank on there being a stove or electric fire in that grey hut, like the emergency heater at isolated and desolate Dent station in the High Pennines, so much further south in Northern England. In fact I'd say that hut - even in April - probably contained the frozen, contorted skeletons of hapless stranded Hogmanay revellers, tragically clinging together in their last frostbitten oblivion. I didn't try the door to see. (Surely they were discovered later in the year, and given a quiet local burial once the tundra had softened. But, who knows?)

As for Penzance, jewel of the sunny Cornish Riviera, I expect you already know what the terminus station there looks like. In 2010 I saw it in November, when the evenings were starting to get a bit cold:

Already the dree, numbing chill of the Cornish evening had the place in its grip, turning the station into a gloomy cave of secrets, interrupted only by the late afternoon express from Paddington.

Back to my proposed journey: Penzance to Wick. Just the outward journey there, no return. To be taken three days ago (on Monday):

There you are. You catch the 14:00 train from Penzance, and arrive, after three changes, in Wick at 14:52 next day. Cost: £228.

Just out of interest, I fired up the app for the same journey if taken yesterday (Wednesday). It now cost £239. And tomorrow (Friday) it will cost £250. So the fare varies with the day of the week. Perhaps the Saturday service to Wick is really crowded, standing room only, and they are forced to up the price to quell demand. With Japanese-style attendants at Forsinard, pushing people inside so that the doors will shut.

Well, then. Here's a project for later in the year! What a post it would make: Twenty-Four Hours On A Train. Mysterious passengers. Russian spies. Hercule Poirot. Intrigue. Murder. The very stuff of romance. Ah, a champagne dinner in candlelight, as we smoothly glide through Wigan! Cards and cocktails as we race past Carlisle! The Forth Bridge! The sudden swirl of bagpipes from a massed band on the platform, as Perth approaches! Let's do it.

Mind you, those ticket prices seem steep.

Let me see...if I drove from Penzance to Wick in Fiona, that would be about 830 miles. At 33 mpg and £6.15 per gallon...why, the fuel cost would be only £155.

Of course, I'd have to stop overnight - two nights if I'm not insane. So let's add £50 for each night - £30 minimum for accommodation, and £20 for an evening meal. Or the same £50 if friends put me up, and I treat them and me to the cost of a decent meal. That's £100 more to add on. So the true cost if driving is actually £255, and the 'expensive' train is not only much faster, but a little bit cheaper! Plus the chance of encountering a secret agent, licensed to kill.

Of course, I'd have to eat on the train too, but I could get away with home-packed food and drink if I really had to. Chicken. Cold meat pie. Salad. Chablis.

And all because I have the National Rail Enquiries app on my phone! (Who needs games?)

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Wakehurst Place. Outraged of Mid-Sussex fumes.

One of my favourite places to go to is Wakehurst Place. It belongs to the National Trust, just like Sheffield Park and Nymans, and till now has been one of three quite local, photogenic places where I can pop in on a whim for a scenic stroll in well-planted surroundings, and have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, use a posh loo, and very possibly buy a birthday card or two. And like the other two in this local trio, I have been paying nothing to get in, being a National Trust Life Member. Having such membership lets me take a companion in for free too. Over the years - since the 1990s in fact - it's been a place I've often visited with someone else.

But the apple-cart has now been upset.

The Trust has for decades leased Wakehurst Place to Kew. It has become Kew's Presence in Sussex. It hosts the Milennium Seed Bank, consisting of laboratories where scientific work on plants from all around the world is conducted, with a vault containing the seeds that could regenerate plant life on the planet again. That's all inside a building built for the purpose that the public can enter. And Kew's regional-themed plantings are magnificent, all over the extensive grounds that are filled with stone outcrops, lush valleys, streams, lakes, tall trees, and shrubs of all kinds. Bird life too. There is a modern and attractive café and shop complex, and the old mansion and stables have been turned into exhibition and education rooms, with a decent restaurant.

The visitor sees 'Kew' everywhere. Its works, its staff, its logo. Nowadays the 'National Trust' presence seems to be tucked-away, rather overwhelmed.

And yet Kew remains the Trust's tenant. That should allow the Trust to say 'no' to anything that might adversely affect the interests of its membership. But recently there has been a change, and it will stop me visiting the place except on rare occasions.

This short article appeared in the Summer edition of the Trust's Magazine, or more accurately the Surrey and Sussex supplement that gave news, and drew attention to forthcoming events:

To keep the work of Kew at Wakehurst afloat, car parking charges have been introduced for all - except people who are what you might call 'Kew members'. National Trust members who are not also 'Kew members' must now pay to park. This includes Life Members, people like me, who can normally park for nothing as a long-standing and prized perk of buying life membership (which is very expensive). I feel miffed at this.

It wouldn't be quite so bad if the car parking price structure were reasonable. I suppose I could bear £1 per visit, if it had to be. But no. Look at what it says on the new noticeboards:

You go through the barriers now installed - here they are - no escape, no way round once you get too close:

And then you have a quarter of an hour to get out again if you wish to avoid payment. There is very little you can do in such a short time. Go to the loo? That's about it. It's not enough time for a cup of tea and cake (so no sales income there for Kew). It's not enough time to browse through the lovely cards and gifts and plant books, and queue to pay. (So again, no sales)

Why didn't they allow free parking for half and hour? Even then, that wouldn't be enough time to get beyond the entrance area. And if one paid the minimum fee, £2, that would buy only one hour, barely enough time to reach the mansion, and quite insufficient for any kind of pleasant amble around the grounds. Clearly they want to enforce a minimum spend of £5. But you get only two hours for that. A serious visit will sting you for £10.

Ten pounds for (conceivably) 121 minutes? Are they mad? That's a Central London tariff. Perhaps literally so: what you would pay at Kew Gardens itself. But inappropriate for somewhere in the sticks.

All right, it might be assumed that the average National Trust member has a jolly good income, loadsamoney, and can easily afford to pay. Indeed, I can. But I won't pay when there are alternatives nearby (Nymans, for one). I'll be sorry to abandon Wakehurst, but I'm annoyed by this, and damned if I'm going to shell out £10 for a couple of hours. My compliance is being taken for granted. Well, they can think again.

And if the revenue raised is for keeping a National Scientific Facility going, why isn't the government chipping in a bit more?

I wonder how many will feel exactly the same? Will hoards of people feel shocked, and hurriedly do a U-turn in front of those barriers (as I did), and go somewhere else? Wakehurst is one of the Trust's (or should I say Kew's) most-visited properties. That might now change, making these charges self-defeating.

You might ask me: Lucy, why haven't you written a stiff letter to the Trust? Two reasons: I'm not naturally a writer of complaint letters; and I don't believe that it would be taken seriously. But I can show my disgust by not playing this little game. They won't now be making some money from me every few weeks, because I'll go elsewhere for my afternoon tea, shop browsing, and occasional proper cooked lunch.

And having read this, you might feel inclined to boycott Wakehurst as well, until they see sense; although I'm not actually urging anyone to. It's a lovely place to visit. But they've now priced it beyond casual use.

The situation is much like many a town or city centre. It's ruinously expensive to park. So you don't come, whatever the attractions. As simple as that. A fine way to keep town centres alive and well. Or Wakehurst Place. Or an increasing number of important and worthwhile destinations.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Mobile phone dangers

In the news today: a fresh study of whether children's use of mobile phones can harm their brain development - see

The general danger from mobile phones - microwave energy zapping through persons standing too close to phone masts, or chatty people unwisely spending hours with the device pressed to their ear - has been seriously debated without conclusion for a long time, certainly over ten years. The risk for adults is presently said to be small and nothing much to worry about. That sounds very much like the industry persuading the government that there is no problem, and the government finding it impossible to press the issue - abetted by a public that does not want to hear that their favourite gadget will frazzle their brains, and lead to dementia. Besides, a mobile phone is so much part of most people's daily life nowadays. To ban these very useful items would be like the government ordering all private car owners off the roads - a catastrophic decision to make, politically undoable without a mass citizen rebellion.

There are those, of course, who for one reason or another (and it may just be clear-sighted sanity) have never really joined the 'phone club'. But most of the population have joined, and with alacrity, all over the world. And, surely, a billion or two ordinary people can't be wrong about anything, can they? I mean, if most people believe something is right, and desirable, how can that be ignored? (I hope my irony is not too obvious)

Even so, it is absolutely proper to regard soft and delicate children's brains as a different kettle of fish compared to the hard and fossilised brains that many adults have. So this new study is definitely a Good Thing. I wonder what the researchers will find, when they start talking to the children?

'It's good to talk' but it does seem to me, from daily observation, that voice calling (with the phone clamped to the ear, and dangerously close to the grey matter) has been in decline for some time.

It's still very popular, of course, with those of the older generation who grew up with the traditional fixed or cordless telephone in the house. But modern phone design favours interaction using the screen, with the device held well away from the head. Which for kids is a better scenario: aching thumbs and tired eyes are not good, but surely better than brain damage.

Voice calling has certainly been in decline among adults in my circle. It's regarded as something you resort to, if you need an immediate answer on some issue. Done on the understanding that the caller is disregarding the other person's right to peace and quiet, their possible inability to deal with a disembodied voice twittering from a small gadget, and without allowing the thinking-time needed for a worthwhile response.

Voice calling is utilitarian and not cool. It's for business people and grannies. In my circle we expect to be contacted by text or email; or if on Facebook, by a message there. And not normally by a voice call. Contact has polarised into carefully-composed electronic messages on one hand, to be replied to when genuinely convenient; and face-to-face conversation on the other, regarded as authentic and spontaneous and truly meaningful - the big payback for the effort of meeting up: the Real Deal. Neither poles fry the old cerebellum.

I'm not saying there is no problem, though. There has been an astonishing increase in background microwave traffic since the 1950s, to feed such things as radio, TV, radar, GPS, kitchen ovens, and of course mobile phones. Plus noise pollution from sundry low-frequency sources - traffic rumble, high-altitude aircraft, politicians' statements. Sometimes I wonder whether my 'tinnitus' is actually my hearing some of this stuff. Probably nonsense. But who is going to reassure me?

Monday, 19 May 2014


On 3 April last, while on holiday in Dorset, I visited Dorchester. On the way in from the west I parked Fiona in Poundbury, and had a look around.

Poundbury is an architectural experiment, an urban development associated with the Prince of Wales. It's been under construction since 1993 on his land - originally the open fields of Poundbury Farm. So at least 'Poundbury' is a real name, and not something invented to sound all rural and Thomas-Hardy. Prince Charles has well-known views on what constitutes 'good' architecture. To my mind these can be summarised by words such as:

# human
# vernacular
# proportion
# variety
# medium density
# pleasant for pedestrians

But not words such as

# shocking
# exciting
# metropolitan
# concrete
# sprawling
# geared primarily for the car

There is of course a lot of concrete! But there is even more brick, and stone, and a host of features that though eclectic - some would even say that Poundbury is bricolage at its worst and most contrived - do, to my own mind, come together to create something well worth a visit. Poundbury is not like other new towns. It has old-fashioned wynds and squares and perspectives. It's like a traditional country town, and yet like no English town that ever was before. It's an urban ideal come to life, for you can live there and enjoy the ambience. Poundbury is about this:

And not this:


And not this:

And they are still building it. By 2025 it should be rivalling the size of Dorchester itself. I think it's very appealing, excellent for the house or flat dweller who is comfortably-off and likes surroundings of a certain sort. I like it better than I used to. In a post titled Jolly happenings in Shaftesbury on 21 June 2012, I said this of the Poundbury style of building:

On the eastern approach [of Shaftesbury], off the A30, a rash of Poundbury-style town houses has recently appeared. Poundbury is the semi-posh western suburb of Dorchester, the county town - developed with the express approval of Prince Charles the Architect - that has allowed only 'houses of character' to be erected, some of them faintly bizarre, a contrived, idealised urban vision that seems a bit out of place so far from the Metropolis. I'm not mocking Poundbury, nor this imitation at Shaftesbury. The houses are individually all different, they do have character of a sort, and are built to high standards. And all are naturally very green and eco-friendly. They just seem an odd sight, and really have nothing in common with the genuinely old buildings in the town proper [referring to Shaftesbury, but you can say 'Dorchester' if you like]. This said, if I ever wanted to live in Shaftesbury, I would have to consider a town house like this. Which means that I would probably instead live a mile or two out of town, in a nice bungalow with a view of sorts. Lucy Melford of Melbury Abbas, perhaps. Sounds good.

I've changed my mind. Thatched cottages deep in the countryside are now out. I need to be near shops and hospitals and stations and good restaurants and handy places of culture. If ever I become a townie, Poundbury will do fine - except for two things: there are no bungalows in Poundbury, and nowhere to park a caravan. But then, I wouldn't consider becoming a townie unless I'd given up caravan ownership! I don't want a place with stairs in it, though.

So I had parked Fiona, and was starting in the newer part. I was last in Poundbury in September 2004 - almost ten years ago - when M--- and I came in to attend a property auction at Brownsword Hall in the older part, as reported in my post on 22 April 2013 titled Property auctions. I thought that in more recent years the developers had been building to an even better standard. Here's some views that exemplify what the newer parts of Poundbury look like:

An incredible mix of 'traditional' building styles, drawing on a range of Traditional British vernacular styles. Some of it is Italianate, reminding one of builds like Clough Williams-Ellis's Portmeirion in North Wales (which I intend to see for myself soon) - only in a Dorset setting, with ancient earthworks like Maiden Castle on the near horizon; and not set on a wooded bluff next to the wide-open sands of a river estuary. In Poundbury the person on foot is continually treated to fresh and enticing glimpses of rooftops, chimneys, doorways, archways, passages, porticos, and sundry street furniture. Nowhere is there uniformity.

As you can see, street parking is allowed, and there is plenty of it. Note the yellow-gravelled walkways: no slipping here when it's frosty! There are no obstacles for the pedestrian. Indeed, the attractive streets and alleyways encourage walking.

The older parts, closer in to Dorchester itself, are now weathering and mellowing, and gaining a certain patina, although I stress that none of this building work is older than twenty-one years. The way that 'age' has been built into the very fabric of each house and office and shop is fascinating. It's also nice to see maturing front gardens and other planting.

I noticed that the impression of age was being enhanced by special renderings that have leached coloured oxide streaks and other blotches. Clever, and not too contrived:

These touches extended to gutters. The ironwork may have been modern, but the stonework looked nineteenth-century:

Could it in fact have been original? As Thomas Hardy himself might have seen it? But no, this had been farmland not so long ago. And this black-painted Victorian postbox wasn't there before 1993, nor the 'old brick barn' behind it:

You know it's all an illusion; but my goodness, it looks so very much like a planned town built a hundred years ago, and simply maintained in an immaculate state ever since. There's no litter, no graffiti, no dog poo, no noisy children. No flash cars, no tatty vans, no stray cats and dogs. I have to say that I met only adults, and they were clearly educated and affluent. The sort you meet in Waitrose! (Even though for their 'Village Stores' residents have to make do with a Budgens like any other - except for its colonnaded exterior) And yet this is a real place to live in, and not a film set.

The heart of 'old' Poundbury was approaching.

The somewhat French-looking building on substantial arched columns is the previously-mentioned Brownsword Hall. It's supposed to resemble the Market Hall at Tetbury, in Gloucestershire. Tetbury is of course just down the road from Prince Charles's country home at Highgrove. I do not know how much input the Prince has had in the creation of Poundbury, but I am happy to agree that his principles for reasonable, civilised, human and visually-pleasing architecture have been realised here. I also see how certain academics and those inclined to restrain the Prince and his influence might pick up plenty of ammunition on a stroll around the place.

In the end though, the test is whether the residents like it, value it, and are passionate about its defence. Well, provided the interiors of their houses and flats are warm and well-designed, with fittings that work, why shouldn't they like Poundbury? And drink to the Prince's good health - with a toast wishing confusion to his opponents - in the Village Pub?

It's called the Poet Laureate, by the way. Say no more, squire!