Friday, May 20, 2011

Things I like best in life

Freckled white foxgloves with bumble bees for preference

Sweet williams for their ruff of green spikes

Fennel for their cloudy bronze-green colour

latest book I'm reading

Its about John Piper born somewhere near the beginning of the 20th century, and a group of artists, Vanessa Bell is also another favourite.  Such carefree lives when money was'nt needed in the vast quantities as it is today.  I have lost a lot of books in my move, Vanessa Bell's biography by Frances Spalding must have gone off in the Oxfam van when they cleared the Bath house, and will cost me  about £30 to replace, Wm Morris had to be bought again, this time by Fiona Macarthy;  both Spalding and Macarthy are two of the best female biographers of this age ;)

Two short blogs, somewhere else, reminded me of Paul Nash paintings, who was also around at the time of John Piper, they both had a common theme in painting about prehistory (it needs a whole blog on the subject) and of course the much later movement of the Brotherhood of Ruralists..

This for ref; Brotherhood of the Ruralist;

Thinking about what brought all these old blogs back was the fact that the Holburne Museum in Bath has just opened its swish new  glass extension, it caused a great furore the design a couple of years ago, and in the news this morning was one of their 'treasures', it was a Peter Blake painting, collage I think... A Museum for Myself

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Today is sunday, I'm not too good, the cold air got to my lungs a couple of days ago, and now they ache just like they used to do when I was a child suffering from ashma. But of course it brought back memories of childhood, and today looking out on all the flowers I had planted in pots it made me remember the garden in Willenhall, a beautiful garden for us children.
I had a somewhat weird childhood, too complicated to explain, suffice it to say that I was brought up by my paternal grandfather, and 'experienced' three stepmothers.  But these things passed my half-brother and I by, and we were looked after by an Italian maid called Lousia at the house.
It was a double fronted bay window Victorian house, facing onto the street, with a large wall to the side hiding the lawn behind.  On the other side was a driveway, large gates blocked the yard behind.
The garden was formalised Victorian, three lawns and paths all the way around, about three-quarters of an acre.
It was looked after by a gardener, Jack I think his name was and his son helped sometimes, the garden was his domain, he loved and cherished it.  Great apple and pear trees lined the sides and across the garden, so that it was always rather cool on the pebbled paths.  We climbed those trees and sat in their branches, and when the fruit was ripe, Louisa would climb up to get the apples, they would be put in large golden wicker baskets below, and then would be stored down in the cellar on the shelves, their sweet smell through the winter permeating up to the corridor above.
Outside the backdoor of the house that led off from the scullery, was another small yard with steps down to the back lawn, to the side was a gaunt old monkey tree, leading off from the yard were the coal houses and outside loo, plus a greenhouse in which I kept my 'animals' fish, frogs and small mammals.
Coal houses are a thing of the past now, but the house had no central heating, a great black range in the kitchen needed fuel all the time, and though fires were hardly lit in the other rooms, one fire had to be kept going in one of the reception rooms for the family.  We must eventually have had gas installed  because there were gas fires in the bedrooms.
About three-quarters up the garden, there was the third lawn, not exactly a lawn, it framed a very long herbaceous border, a riot of colour in summer, tiger lilies, nemesis, delphinums, lupins and dahlias.  At the end was a long sand pit, on two sides surrounded by gladiolis and flag irises. This sandpit I would retire to on weekends, with my library books and some sweets and just read books from cover to cover, 
(a terrible habit I still have, not being able to put a book down) trickling the smooth silky sand through my toes..
This part of the garden also had a shrubbery, and behind the shrubbery, the last path by the high brick wall had small trees with lots of little apples, bright red, not sure what they were, quinces maybe.
A child's paradise, though we moved on by the time I was twelve, the house now has probably  ended  split up and the garden has half a dozen houses on it, I would'nt like to go back and check.  But that garden was very formative for me, and obviously developed a great love for flowers, wild creatures and strangely enough books set as it were in the industrial heartland of the Midlands.
Childhoods are strange things, our environment dictates the way we see the rest of the world, the humans, and yes I use such an abstract term, for all those people that drifted into and out of my life then.
Louisa went and married a Polish man, I was a bridesmaid at her wedding, all I can remember was the Catholic church she was married in, sugared sweets at the reception and the men dancing in that crouched manner, which I always thought of as Hungarian.  Once when I had a small collie puppy we left it with Louisa to look after whilst we went on holiday.  It was sick with distemper and must have had diarrhea quite badly.  Coming back to collect it, I learnt my first swear word as Louisa dramatically  exclaimed succinctly what it had done all over the place.  The puppy died of course and I broke my heart over its death, grandfather got me an enormous St.Bernard dog to console me, but she had to go back to the kennels after a few weeks, being a kennel dog she had the same trouble in the house! 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Springfield Lyons - Late Bronze Age causewayed enclosure

Today we visited Springfield Lyons just up the road.  Set in the centre of business and retail centres this late Bronze Age enclosure has something of a wow factor close up.  From the road you can see the large banks (spoil heaps from the excavation) that surround an inner ditch broken by 6 causeways. So a 'causewayed enclosure' maybe, but it must not be forgotten that it was also used by early Saxons as a pagan cemetery and later as a settlement.
A description of this site must begin with its half wild aspect, today you approach through thickets of blackthorn and briar roses, the banks loom large covered with similar material.  The central rounded area is grass eaten down to the root, rabbits must run amok, if their pellets are anything to go by.  LS also glimpsed a fox, in excellent condition, his restaurant was well stocked!.  The ditches had some water in them and reeds testified to their marshyness, but of course in these drought months we are experiencing the ditches are drying out. 
It has been excavated in the past several times, and the ground is full of holes in which regenerating elm tries to take hold. The explanation given for the late Bronze Age occupation, (approximately 800 bc) is that it may have been a fortified stronghold for a local chief.  Excavation has shown that there is a large central hut facing the gateway with an elaborate porch, which would probably have been his home. There was also a working area and it was here that two moulds for making swords were found at the terminals of one of the causeways, of a type called Ewart Park, but no metal elsewhere.

There was also evidence of Iron Age recognition of the site, a 'broken' sword was found in the centre of the circular area in a pit and further to the west of the pit a horse skull was found with an iron bit and two studs.  Presumably a ritual burial of some kind.

The banks are in fact very large spoil heaps, the actual bank would have been inside the segmented ditches.  There would have been a wooden type 'verandah, all the way round the bank, giving a roofed walking/working area. Looking at the interim report on the excavation, and an artistic representation shows a very neat settlement set in an idyllic pastoral countryside.  There is also an early photograph of the fields before development took place and it descended into what we see today.  The area had been ploughed flat over the centuries before the excavation, so what we see now is the excavated ditches.

The pagan Saxon cremation cemetery had the usual range of intricately worked Saxon brooches also metalwork, including a funny rounded hat and of course beads, twelve strings were found, and it is though that the beads hung between pairs of the brooches; the brooches of course clasping the dress at the shoulder.  There were some 225 certain or possible burials, of which 103 were certain inhumation burials but the cremation pots had been buried very close to the surface, and the surface was to a degree ploughed out.
 Given its close proximity to houses, there is a lot of rubbish around, some dumped in the ditch, and the site looks distinctly uncared for.  Not sure of its scheduling as far as a monument goes, but it is in grave danger of being built over.
Just down the road, and starting from the Asda car park is a Neolithic cursus, excavated about 30 years ago, when this area of suburban houses was being built, it followed the line of the river before you reach the mill at the Fox and Raven pub.  Interesting in itself but not part of this blog.  Now whether this earlier monument had anything to do with the settlement at Springfield Lyons is a matter of conjecture. 

ref; The Bronze Age and Saxon Settlements at Springfield Lyons, Essex.  An Interim Report by David G.Buckley and John D. Hedges.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


There is a sharp easterly wind this morning though the sun is shining.  Walking around our area, exploring the little lanes that lead off from suburbia, the wild plants start to blend with the cultivated varieties.  Red Valerian is the plant of the moment alongside dog roses that fill every hedge bank, the cow parsley lines the lanes making a funnel of whiteness, and of course elderflower is beginning to blossom, elderflower champagne to be made hopefully if I can find the recipe.
Yesterday I found a small allotment site, part of a field. Today I went to photograph the bridge (art decor) that straddles the water meadows and takes the heavy traffic over the river.
Yesterday whilst out shopping in Chelmsford, we began to notice the 'art deco' buildings that decorate the town.  I wondered if they were in actual fact facades over Victorian houses, but there is a lot about, could be the 'Marconi Factory influence' in the town.
To be honest I do not like the style, even as a child the Odean and Gaumont cinemas decked out in gaunt pointy decoration made my soul shudder with the bleakness and barren stark whiteness, and 'ship' type rounded bits on buildings always looked ugly.  We have Poirot to thank for introducing us to the art form of that 1920-1930s period, elegant yes but also soulless.

dog rose

wigwams and lupins

clear water reflecting the lily plants beneath, photoshopped slightly to lighten water!

the viaduct bridge

Resting and watering place for the horses
 Why dog-rose? according to Grigson, it goes back to Gerard's Herbal, to distinguish wild from garden roses.  By way of the medieval Latin 'Rosa Canina', it goes back to Pliny's 'cynorrodon', with the root of which a dog-bitten soldier of the Praetorian Guard cured himself of hydrophobia......

Monday, May 9, 2011


Its been a quiet week, not much to write about.  The birds in the garden have young fledglings which need protection from the cats around here; the blackbird anxious tutting as a youngster lands on the ground can often be heard, starlings and sparrows fly food away for their young; and a bold young magpie, no tail as yet comes down to eat the soaked bread I put out two or three times a day.
We had visitors over the weekend, one of my partner's oldest friends, a saki merchant from Haiwai, and still in touch with Gary Snyder, one of my heroes, so that has probably shut me up! My mind roving over the plains of America and his poetry,  but reading Roger Deakin's 'Wildwood', which I am at the moment, would send any mind wandering over the vast marvellous natural world we live in.  He had made a visit to Kazakhstan to the apple forests, where the original wild apple came into being.  Russia is a vast country, with smaller satellites in it, and when reading about it you realise how beautiful it must be in some places.
I had read the book about Chernobyl, an oral history of the disaster; some of it is terrible to think about but what also came out was the beautiful landscape and the self-sufficiency of the people who lived there.  The old who went back to their houses to live out the rest of their lives in the place they loved best.  The wild life that thrived and increased, living in the abandoned houses and villages. Nature always succeeds where man does'nt.
So what of these apple/fruit forests,  and also walnut forests, of course they are disappearing because of human expansion.  In the walnut forests people leave their valley homes taking  all their livestock up to the mountain forest, and camp out in old dacha's maybe, or tents, taking with them their beautiful quilts, cushions and the household utilities to live out in the open for a couple of months. 
Roger Deakin great favourite was green walnuts soaked in honey which he had for breakfast, along with yoghurt, bread, chai and fruit.  It seems people ate well, though we would see their lives as poverty-stricken, but who on earth wants what we have in our western culture, noise, bustle, a great rushing around to 'economically' improve our wealth all the time, so ok we have some advantages in good health care but what have we lost along the way?
The original wild apple was called malus sieversii,and must have travelled by that old trackway called the 'silk road'. We have in England a great diversity of apples, but unfortunately we don't eat them, so they also wither away into extinction, and we dine on tasteless African apples instead, grown for the supermarkets

Two photos that caught the eye this week; the chair is an elegant 'nursing' chair I bought to celebrate my son's birth, the hat is Chinese, made out of paper, it provides shade for when we drink morning coffee outside.  The heart a xmas present from my daughter, bought at Tom's gallery in Whitby.
The second photo is part of a screen, a pleasing triptych, of mother hen, proud cock, and a rose, underneath all are scattered little yellow chicks..

chick fleeing father's bad temper

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fairstead Church, Terling

the entrance looking out to more yellow

that crop is as tall as me

Hens doing what they do best in an orchard scratching around

I have written about Fairstead church before, tucked away along a small country lane, this church, like so many is slowly dying over time.  The graveyard was neglected, with patches of cowslips already turning to seed.  We had come for a picnic lunch behind the church, and small bumble bees flew in and out of the masonry of the church, maybe they were masonry bees.
After lunch we took the public footpath at the side of the church, heading down into an oil rape seed field.  This crop is everywhere, the countryside a blanket yellow with trailing woods and lanes breaking up the colour.  It is dry, very dry, we haven't had rain for weeks, the ground in the fields have that parched cracked appearance, the land and crops are desperate for water.  It has brought on the wild flowers, but they are soon over.
We met a man on the path, he will, when the crop is off, look for traces of the Roman villa that must be around here somewhere.  The church has roman tile in its fabric of brick and flint.  It must obviously be an age old settlement here, there is a large farm next to the church, which would probably be the manor for round here, the villa could even be underneath it.


mock up blacksmith shop


A miscellany of all the other photos I took on the Open Day at Sandford Mill.  Chelmsford is of course the home of the Marconi works, the first discovery of the radio signal, and then all the technology that has led to our televisions, aeroplanes etc today.  The town is very proud of him, but to wander around valves, transistors and crystal sets is not very interesting.  In the large steel barn were two very large waggons, built around the end of the nineteenth century.  There great iron wheels would have played havoc with the ground.  The one thing you notice is how much energy must have been needed to pull the wagon, and how many people, and horses of course, would have been needed to run the farm.
The other thing I noted was the blacksmith mock-up, today the farrier comes to the horse, but I remember riding down to the blacksmith for my pony to be shod, the strange smell as the shoe was burnt on to the foot (it did'nt hurt) and the blacksmith with his apron on, holding the leg of a horse between his legs trying to control a temperamental beast.

This is a rather elegant wagon

Old tv and radiogram

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Susan is not a person but a boat.  I suspect she was built at the beginning of the 20th century, a large,  wide bellied uncompromising boat, ugly even, but built for the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation river.  A river that I've fallen in love with, mostly for its sleepy, curving round the fields in the  countryside making a slow journey down to the estuary we had visited last week.   This river is an extraordinary peaceful place, dark sluggish waters meandering by, swirling small different currents chasing each other - floating lily pads, ducks and waterbirds.

Back end of the boat

front end

But the river's character lies in the fact that it was a navigational water road taking goods to and fro from the coast up to Chelmsford.  A work horse in more senses than one for it serviced the corn mills along its bank. As ponds, leats and bridges were built, each thing became beautiful in its own right as nature softened and claimed the sharp edges of the built environment.  We 'industrialise' our countryside, though it may looks beautiful and wild, every inch is laid down in service for us humans -  forests, woods, fields and rivers.

The boat resides at Sandford Mill, now an offshoot of Chelmsford Museum, 30 acres approximately (now derelict)  belonging to  an industrial time of the early 1950's, it now houses part of the Marconi collection, and that delight of all museums a miscellaneous bundle of Victoriana, bikes, waggons, blacksmith tools and much more kept hidden in a old steel barn.

Susan would have brought  wood up from the coast into the centre of the town to the old warehouses that once stood along its banks.  In a later semi-retired life, the boat would have been filled with rows of chairs, and the upstanding citizens of Chelmsford would be drawn up the river by a barge horse as in the photograph at the top of this blog, perhaps to picnic somewhere, or to meet and have an annual ceremony at one of the bridges.

She was restored a couple of years ago, had her bottom scraped of worms and gribbles.  This fascinated me at the time when I read it, did'nt quite believe it but Deakin in his book Wildwood also talks of this phenomena and to quote him from the chapter on Driftwood...

"much of the sediment in the estuaries of great rivers is actually the remains of wood.  Deconstructed by gribbles and shipworms, it is a major source of food for marine animals and plants.  Tuna and other fish regularly congregate round floating driftwood and logwood at go on "there are several theories to explain this. There may be the way cattle use rubbing posts, to remove external parasites.  But it is likely that a food web grows up with small fish following the driftwood"

The boat wasn't the centre of the 'Open Day' yesterday, it lay in the water slightly forlorn and neglected before the great rush of the weir as the river tumbled down round the buildings, a small island of green, with a sleeping swan on the nest nestled close to the bank, another swan patrolled the calmer pool.

The female swan curled up asleep on the nest