Inevitable season-changing post

Coombe Country Park

Things change more rapidly in their appearance now in one day than they did in two a fortnight ago, but this is seen mostly in the valleys and the greater woods which border the streams.

That’s from the Guardian‘s wonderful Country Diary, 100 years ago today. Link.

I was struck by this feeling over the weekend while visiting the Midlands. The weather hasn’t quite turned a corner yet, though it is cooling down a little. High pressure coming up from the south is acting like a warm duvet keeping ‘Full Autumn’ at bay.

Visiting the rather pretty Coombe Country park near Coventry, the changing leaves made their presence known more than ever, with the depth of their colour enriched by bright sunlight between showers.

In the days since, I’ve paid closer attention to the leaves on the trees around me – on the verdant Suburb, and in the various incarnations of Hampstead I pass through from time to time. And things are indeed changing day by day now. We’re given just a small window of time during which to see the rich, golden colours of autumn before crisp, monochrome winter nudges autumn aside.

Meanwhile, the squirrels have been busy shuttling back and forth along the top of the fence outside my office window for weeks now. Occasionally we’ll see one on the lawn calmly testing the turf for its nut-hiding qualities, only looking up when enough human eyeballs are on it. M and I have followed suit, putting ingredients in jars and making our own dray as comfortable and snug as it can be for the winter.

As I stood this morning waiting for the lights to change at a crossing, I noticed how the deep red leaves on a tree over the road were being gently blown off as I watched. The tree will soon be bare.

Things are indeed changing more in one day than they did in two a fortnight ago.

Central Square, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Shades of Autumn, Coombe Country Park


Earlier this year, I went to Gloucester for a couple of days’ research at the local archives.

For a while, I’d been amassing research, drawings, notes and trivia about the eccentric, obsessive architect/artist and collector Charles Wade. This all culminated with me wanting to put together a booklet about the first part of his life.

Today, Wade is best known for Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire, a 17th century house he bought shortly after serving in The Great War and proceeded to fix up and fill with antiques and objects that fascinated him. He spent thirty years doing this before leaving the property and its contents to the National Trust shortly before his death in 1956.

Before embarking on this life’s work, Wade had trained as an architect and worked on several buildings on Hampstead Garden Suburb in northwest London. It’s this period of his life and career that interest me most: his journey from childhood to the decision to found such a place as Snowshill.

So I took some time off to get the words down. Fortunately, and partly as I was writing in chronological order, it flowed smoothly. It turns out that if you do the slow, painstaking work of collecting quotes, dates, examples and context beforehand, one’s brain actually does a pretty good job of condensing it all into a readable format.

7665495-ecc678664f0e3d2287ea50ca90ae2af1I released my ‘new’ booklet in May this year. This blog has been mothballed over the summer but is slowly whirring into life again as the dark nights draw in and my typing fingers get itchy once more.

The booklet is available online as a neat little paperback (UK/US), or it’s available on Kindle (UK/US).

The response to the booklet so far has been really nice. Friends, family and well-wishers have congratulated me on it, and although it’s not a hefty tome, it has been rather satisfying getting it finished. It’s been an itch I’ve been meaning to scratch for some time now.

The concept that nothing is ever ‘finished’ haunts me wherever I turn, although with books they sort of have to be. Hitting ‘publish’ on an order of a box of printed books is a bit different to doing so on a blog post. But that doesn’t preclude revisions and expansions in future, and I’ve got a (mercifully short) list of things that I could potentially delve into.


A trip to Waddesdon


In my office, we have rather a hectic summer involving lots of admin, generating reports and invoices, and fielding a lot of calls and emails. And that’s when we don’t have an election for what is effectively our board of trustees – which this year, we did.

So it’s always nice that, around this time, we have an away day. A staff training day, if you will. It’s a pleasant excursion, usually to a stately home, or similar. This year we decided to visit Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. I was particularly excited by this, as a Bucks lad born and bred – especially as I’ve never been.

The sun shone on our visit, as you can see above, and I think we all had a really great day. A lovely lunch, an enjoyable catch-up on the train there and back (sorry to the colleagues I bored with my tales of an Amersham childhood).

The architecture of the house is just baffling. Obviously mostly inspired by French chateaux, it’s nestled on a hill, and ringed by woodland, so that the details of the roofline poke out a little as you get closer, before it finally reveals itself in all its affected glory once you break through the cedars.

And what glory: it doesn’t so much lie back inviting adoration as it sits up and practically begs for it, wagging its tail eagerly. This is definitely a house to wow and be seen. And for all its excessive jumble of architectural styles, it still looks remarkable and sharp and impressive, especially in bright sunshine.

Inside, it’s no less stunning – for better or worse. The collection of art, furniture, fittings and stuff is quite overwhelming. And, mostly, it’s interesting to see the kind of place this is, built as it was in the late 19th century. So it has a variety of architectural features spanning centuries, and it has some pretty significant mod cons, including the electric lighting that famously impressed Queen Victoria so much.

I didn’t get enough of a chance to explore the grounds as I’d have liked – I wanted to see some of their vegetable operation, for one – but I’m more than happy for an excuse to go back. I’ve not held a National Trust membership for a few years, but perhaps it’s nearly time to get one again.

Here’s a few snapshots.

A couple of days in Gloucester

img_20160129_200808My first impression of Gloucester,” writes H.V. Morton in his 1927 In Search of England, “was that of a city full of small, comely maidens between the fortunate ages of fifteen and twenty-five.” He goes on to explain that although not all of those maidens are pretty, the others do still have nice legs. Thank goodness for that, Henry.

Alas, my own first impression was somewhat different. Arriving into the city via the train station, I was met by a busy road, with a rather beaten up post-war town centre looming somewhere off in the distance. I made quick progress towards Gloucestershire Archives, the main focus of my visit.

I’ll probably write about my time at the Archives another day, but the two days I spent there, sifting through letters and other ephemera relating to the artist and architect Charles Paget Wade were useful and enlightening.

It’s funny visiting somewhere like Gloucester for the first time. I knew nothing about the city, and had no preconceptions whatsoever. But the times I wasn’t buried in paper were spent exploring a neat little place with plenty of gems, some more hidden than others. And it is a little place – a little city, certainly. Gloucester does indeed have its cathedral, and is thus a city.

I was happy to find a good number of pubs, many of which have roots easily spanning five hundred years or more. And peppered throughout are old churches and other medieval buildings. The layout of the streets even has this feeling too, along with charming names, like The Oxebode, Ladybellegate Street, and Black Dog Lane.

St Mary de Crypt Church from Cafe Renee
St Mary de Crypt Church from Cafe Renee

It was easy, therefore, to pace around, scarf stuffed tightly into my jacket from the bitter January wind, and pretend I was a man such as Morton, or indeed any visitor to the city from any point in the past few centuries. I followed my nose, looking down side streets and narrow passages that led to diverse places I would have no time to explore. But the more accessible highlights are all around to stumble on as you wend your way around.

Seeking shelter and ale, I first found myself in a Samuel Smith’s pub, Robert Raikes’ House, all wood panelling and portraits of royalty over the centuries. The pub had a sense of space one doesn’t often find – it is uncluttered, and is subdivided into several rooms. It was also empty when I visited – just the barman, myself, and one regular, propped up at the bar.

Robert Raikes' House
Robert Raikes’ House

Deciding that, with such a small amount of time to explore, a mini pub crawl was in order, I headed to Cafe Renee – thankfully more of a pub than a French bistro. Here, I found people, and a low-ceilinged establishment with a decent atmosphere and a well-stocked bar. A feature had been made of a well sunk into the middle of the room, and I heard mention of a cellar bar, only open on weekends, which is where the real action takes place.

I finally wound up at the New Inn. Morton stayed here in the 20s, and so did Lady Jane Grey, along with countless other tourists, pilgrims, heroes and villains in between. The building – buildings, really, all scattered medievally around an inner courtyard – maintains some of its character, but is now a little lifeless and run down, the hotel perhaps surviving on its storied past and the rather ancient appearance it has upon first approach. Nothing can take away from the New Inn’s presence as you come in off Northgate Street, feeling as though you’ve stepped through time in only a few short steps.

The New Inn
The New Inn

I came to the New Inn seeking shelter from the cold air and a filling dinner. I found this in the “Pilgrim’s Feast” on the restaurant’s adequate menu and, feeling somewhat pilgrim-like myself, I tucked into a frighteningly huge plateful of meat. I think there were cuts from three? Four animals? I lost count when I realised there were more than one from a single animal, even, and counted my blessings that it was all perfectly edible, and even the salad garnish was tasty.

Bloated from life-threatening amounts of meat and enough ale for one evening, I re-emerged onto Gloucester’s streets and headed for my own hotel, quietly wishing that I could ascend the steps at the New Inn and take lodgings overlooking the galleried courtyard rather than my own sterile Ibis. Next time, perhaps.

One thing that struck me, yet again, on my walk to bed, was how quiet and empty this so-called city seemed. And of those I did see, a surprising proportion looked a little less than friendly. I marched on, eyes to the floor, trying to shake thoughts of the conversation I had overheard in the Archives about the unfortunate juxtaposition of the needle drop-off point next to the library, or the sticker in the gents advertising support for sufferers of domestic abuse. On a rare look up, my eyes locked onto a lurid red poster from the local constabulary, announcing a knife amnesty to take place over the following fortnight.

I was quite pleased to find my bed for the night and to get out of the cold Gloucestershire wind.

The next morning, I made time to visit Gloucester’s crown jewel, the cathedral. But not before a delicious hotel breakfast – perhaps ill-advised, given how I still felt rather full from my meat feast the night before.

Opting for the bus on account of my heavy bag and the relentless winter wind, I was pleased to find that for £2, Stagecoach will whisk you to the city centre not just in warm comfort – faux leather seats, even – but with free wifi as well. Less excitingly, as is so often the case with city centre bus terminals, we passengers were subsequently disgorged into a rather grim little square flanked by supermarkets, off licences and a confusing ring road system.

I was glad to be back amongst the side-streets and alleyways though, passing ancient architecture and cute little shops, and reflected that when the sun is out, and the streets are thronged with not just tourists but the less seedy of the city’s population, Gloucester must be a truly charming place to visit. I made a mental note of this fact at about the same time I was considering how surprisingly tucked away the cathedral is.

Other cathedral cities I’ve visited – such as York, or quake-damaged Christchurch – have evolved, or been built, so that the vast church is front and centre, with all roads leading to its great edifice. Not so with Gloucester – or at least not any more. I expected, after first glimpsing its tower from the train, to be able to stumble blindly towards it from any direction along the city streets. But in reality I had to follow signs most of the way until suddenly, on the other side of a car park, it appeared, soaring majestically skywards.

Gloucester Cathedral
Gloucester Cathedral

It is a staggering sight. The clean, pale walls appear to surge up from the surrounding earth, and its mass seems immense. I was so happy to have time to discover what lay inside, and the interior just blew me away. I found myself merely nibbling at the visual feast that lay all around me – the stupidly high ceilings, intricate detailing of tombs, and just the sheer scale of it all. Around the sides, and the cloisters, I rejoiced in the incredible craftsmanship of the fan vaults. The corridors stretched on so far into the distance and, flanked by stained glass and flagstone floor, felt like another world.

Gloucester Cathedral
Gloucester Cathedral

The cathedral was fairly quiet – I was glad to see it at a time when there were few other visitors around. Hearing my heals clicking down those stone hallways was rather magical. But there was still a gentle hum of activity in the main body of the church, with various visitor services staff doing the rounds, and florists busy at work dressing this alcove or that. I passed a tall, finely dressed man of the cloth and thought briefly how marvellous it must feel to call this priceless gem his office.

After a few more hours at the Archives, I had just a bit more time to explore Gloucester. And so what else would I expect to find this far inland but a historic dockyard? And what a lovely area it is. Again, the sky was glowering and the wind howling, but the sight of the warehouses and wharves surrounding the site, a mixture of old and new, was reminiscent almost of Liverpool or Salford. A really unexpected treat. I sheltered at Tucci’s cafe, scoffing a jacket potato and latte as shoppers scuttled on past the rain-speckled window.

Gloucester's historic docks
Gloucester’s historic docks

And so my time at Gloucester came to a close. I’d achieved some of what I hoped to at the Archives, knee-deep in correspondence with Charles Paget Wade. And I’d just scratched the surface a very interesting little city. I’m sure I’ll be back – perhaps when the weather’s a bit nicer.

Gloucester railway station
Gloucester railway station

Bambi (1942) / Pinocchio (1940)

“Man is in the forest…”

Over the festive period, M and I watched Bambi and Pinocchio. Have you ever seen those films? Jesus, they’re brutal.

Forgive me if this is common knowledge to all sentient beings other than me, but I was not expecting such darkness on a cosy winter’s morning.

I’d picked up Bambi as it went hand-in-hand with another gift for M of cute Bambi-brand pyjamas. There’s Bambi, all cute with a butterfly on his nose. But God, nothing had prepared me for the onslaught of terror and crushingly dark imagery that Bambi contains. I think I’d remembered that Bambi had a weirdly dark twist, but I didn’t actually know the nature of it until the other day.

And Pinocchio! That cute fairy tale about a wooden boy coming to life? Who remembered the bit where he’s carted off to a grotesque funfair full of naughty boys smoking cigars and shooting pool before being turned into donkeys? I had no idea Spirited Away had taken such inspiration from this film. Admittedly, I found the images of little boys smoking hilarious, but also completely at odds with what I’d expected from these classic, early Disney films.

We were both so shaken from these viewings – the gunshots from Bambi still ring in my ears – that we watched Silver Linings Playbook to cheer ourselves up afterwards.

Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight (IMDb / Mubi) was a bit of a surprise. It shouldn’t have been – I came into it knowing I’ve enjoyed every Paul Thomas Anderson film I’ve seen.

It all started with the majestic There Will Be Blood – one of my favourites, and one which I’m so glad I saw on the big screen with its widescreen panoramas and all-encompassing sound production.

And then every year or so I’d happen to put another P.T. Anderson flick on – maybe it was a weird Netflix suggestion, or Matthew Culnane wouldn’t shut up about Boogie Nights, or I was mourning the death of the singular Philip Seymour Hoffman.

What I’m trying to say is that Hard Eight shouldn’t have been a surprise, but boy was it. I loved it.

I suppose knowing it was a wunderkind director’s début picture could have given me reason to doubt it would be any good, but it needn’t have. There are very few elements of this film that even suggest that this is an early production, let alone a début. There are just too many great locations, solid performances, and glorious tracking shots that Anderson has since become famous for. On top of that, the music choices feel vital, and considered – not thrown together at the last minute due to budget constraints.

There’s some uninspired dialogue here and there, but not enough to take away from the likes of Philip Baker Hall absolutely smashing it out of the park with his performance. On which note, John C. Reilly is perhaps the film’s biggest surprise – he’s brilliant. But then, that’s another thing P.T. Anderson has a weird knack for: extracting great performances from surprising casting choices.

My voyage into Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography continues, and the standard remains high.

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