Completing my father’s embroidery

When my parents moved to their Surrey nursing home several years ago, my mother had to clear out her sewing and knitting things to make space in their new smaller home.  She passed all these goodies on to me.

Among the many bags of wool, patterns, fabrics and threads etc was this tapestry that my father had stopped working on. Sadly towards the end of his life, he lost interest in so many things. I put it away, along with all the other things my mother had given me, and forgot it for a while.

Then, this summer, remembering what pleasure I had had stitching tapestries in previous years over the long light days (when I can see clearly!), I looked to see what I might stitch this year. This tapestry came to hand.  Sufficient time had passed since my father’s death in March 2015 for me to feel ready to pick it up again.

It was somewhat unusual for a very conventional man of his time (born in 1926) to do tapestry work, but his step-father was also a very talented stitcher, and perhaps that was what inspired my father.  Whatever, in retirement, my father did a lot of tapestry work, making pieces for many members of the family. I wish I could show you a picture of him stitching, but although I have combed the family albums for such a pic, alas, I cannot find one.  But I have found a pic of him knitting – KNITTING?!! I never knew he knitted! It’s a lovely happy pic of him with grand-daughter Bel.Before I could start work, it was important for me to look at his other work to pick up ideas and influences.  As you’ll see, he had such a distinctive way of working. I sent a call round the family – and these are a few of the pieces that turned up.

This tapestry cushion was made for my uncle and aunt’s wedding anniversary in 1980, and now belongs to their daughter, Polly. It’s very characteristic of his work in that he includes initials, dates – and lots of Latin, Greek and Japanese quotes (all languages he was very familiar with). He’s made a most distinctive feature of the Japanese character at the centre – very bold, and very effective.I don’t need to offer any translation, because Polly had the initiative to ask him for one –   Brilliant foresight, Polly! Another early piece (also of his own design) is this cushion which he made for me in 1982 to mark the occasion when I gave up smoking (and oh, boy, was I a dedicated smoker, so it was indeed a big occasion – and shared especially with my father as he too had given up smoking a long way back). You can see how very skilled he was in featuring words and characters. The Greek text at the centre – πᾶς γὰρ νοῦς αἱρεῖται τὸ βέλτιστον ἑαυτῷ  – is from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics: Everyone chooses the right path for themselves.  According to my father, the Japanese characters round the side mean: Good health. No smoking. This cushion is very dear to me.I don’t remember this Viking cushion below commemorating any particular event (sadly wonky – I have taken the pillow out to reveal the text and side patterning but it does not really show the cushion to its best). It’s interesting because it shows a change in his style of working.  At some point, he started to purchase pre-designed tapestries, but continued to make them his own with the quotes and initials that he added.  What prompted him to add, I wonder, La vie est trop, trop est pas assez (Life is too much, and yet not enough) and La Vie et un poème, un poème inachevé?  (Roughly meaning life is like an incomplete poem, not going as one would wish.)The other striking thing about this Viking tapestry is that he started to break tapestry rules here.  I cannot trace the original kit, but I am sure that the designers did not encourage stitchers to work those wheels in that casual manner. And look at the freehand patterning in the border just below the wheels! How very effective!One of his finest tapestries is this piece which he made for my mother to celebrate their ruby wedding anniversary on 25th October 1992 – alas, so difficult to photograph because it is behind glass.  On the back he has stuck a note (that’s so typical of my father) informing us that he bought the kit in Esztergom in Hungary in 1988. It’s a beautiful design, but how much lovelier it is for my father’s addition in Latin: Uxori JME Dilectissimae. (for my most delightful wife JME) He’s smuggled his initials (RHE) into the piece too …And this is a beautiful tapestry that he did for my cousin’s wedding in 1994. Again a pre-designed pattern to which he’s added their names and the date.He obviously liked ducks because two of his granddaughters got duck embroideries from him! This is the one he stitched for granddaughter Bel in 2000.  A fine duck embroidery. I couldn’t translate the Japanese character, but I am indebted to Robin for her very helpful comment below this blog that “The character in the lower left corner of the duck tapestry represents “snipe”, pronounced “shigi” (with a hard ‘g’). If you see that the character has both a left-hand and right-hand side, the right-hand side can also stand alone, representing “bird”, pronounced “tori”.” Such a pleasure to know my father’s purpose in adding this character – thank you, Robin, very much indeed!And my daughter Helen got this one which most conveniently lives with me so I was able to refer to it for patterns and designs for my project.Two more fine tapestry cushions live with my sister in Cumbria. This beautiful 1981 work is a wonderful mix of patterned motifs and borders set in a particularly lovely colourway – and with the usual sprinkle of quotations.  I couldn’t translate the Japanese character in the centre, but I have been informed by cousin Hermione that this character means truth or reality. As for the Greek, thanks to her sister, Katy, I now know that it is from the Corpus Hermeticum: God is without sin; it is we who are sinful. Not biblical (as I originally thought) but from the Gnostic tradition. (Perhaps a more fitting biblical quote might be: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy – can you see that tell-tale hole? )It’s a challenge to do justice to this next cushion because the writing sits on the rounded border.  Many thanks to Hermione, I know now that the Japanese characters refer to the seasons. Top left is spring, top right is summer, bottom left is autumn and bottom right is winter.   That fits so well with the Latin. It’s from a very famous Horace poem Diffugere nives (The snows have fled), and has a familiar melancholy tinge: Immortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum quae rapit hora diem. (Housman’s translation is most elegant: The swift hour and the brief prime of the year Say to the soul, Thou was not born for ay.) A particularly lovely cushion, I think – and Horace was a favourite poet of his.So it was with all these very distinctive tapestries in mind that I picked up my father’s work earlier this summer. My first task was to find some proverb or poetry to add to the piece. I searched through poetry books, collections of quotations, and then suddenly I saw it – why up there on my noticeboard! Almost top right.No need of the list – the lines from Lao-Tze were just perfect: What the caterpillar calls the end, The rest of the world calls a butterfly. It related to the picture, and there were just the right amount of words for me to fit them around the embroidered butterfly.Now for some elaborate calculations to work out exactly how to fit the words to the tapestry. I decided to use the same font as that used on his Viking cushion. So now for a bit of stitching …With the Lao-Tze text surrounding the butterfly completed, I was ready to think what more I might add to his embroidery. I knew that I wanted to add some words that explained how I was finishing what my father had started. This time there was less room for expansive text so I consulted an old book of embroidery designs that I had given my father for Christmas in 1979  (also part of my mother’s gifted treasure trove) …And came up with this: Started by RHE c 2000. Finished by KMD 2017.I thought that would fit in nicely in the space between the butterfly and the lower border.As well as this embroidery, my mother had given me all her old notes and designs. It was very moving to look through these – patterns and notes dating back to her teenage years. Here is a pattern she had copied from her childhood bedroom carpet.Along with careful drawings and colour plans, there are odd bits of schoolwork …But, most usefully for me, there were also her designs for when she was first starting to make embroideries for her new husband.  She had met my father in Tokyo in the early 1950s.  He was a young diplomat at the British Embassy, and she was looking after her brother’s child (her brother also worked at the British Embassy).Ah – a fine Japanese character! Just the sort of thing I could well incorporate into the butterfly tapestry!  But I had no idea what it meant … Luckily, my daughter’s friend, Yuki, was able to help and with a little Instagram communication she was able to tell me that it’s a Buddhist symbol meaning good fortune, happiness and in olden times was also associated with giving alms.  It was just perfect for my generous and very kind father.At this point I happened to put my developing embroidery on my Instagram feed, and among many interesting comments, I had one from a French friend: A quatre mains! she declared.  Why just so, thank you, Isabelle, because this piece is a sort of duet.  And it fits perfectly, balancing the Japanese characters on the top right so well.As the embroidery progressed, I was regularly consulting the other tapestry pieces I had to hand.  I’d copied the little motifs that my father had embroidered round the duck to fill in the gaps of my butterfly text (those little blue flowers amid the orange)  and then I came back to these small flowery motifs again for the finishing touches. I wanted something else in all that empty space – after all, my father was known to cram patterns in very effectively!The motifs at the bottom found their homes easily,But I struggled to work out where to put them at the top, eventually having to fiddle around with some paper cutouts.Through the lovely light summer months, there were happy days of stitching …Visiting Red Admiral butterflies … a sort of blessing on my project …Steadily, slowly all the background was filled in … (great train journey occupation) …And then I just had to stitch a small border pattern.Finally, there is was – completed!With a handsome red velvet backing.I made a special cotton inner cushion for it, and stuffed it with clean fleece – my father would definitely approve: he loved my fleece habit!And here it is – comfortably among our other tapestry cushions …It’s been a most happy summer stitching companion – I have so enjoyed working on this project. It’s brought back many very happy memories of my father and made me reflect on some of the ideas that were important to him – all those quotations! I think he’d pleased with what I did …

(The Red Admiral butterfly tapestry was designed by Elian McCready for Ehrman Sadly she passed away in 2010.)

Advertisements

A final garden fling

It’s a strange time of year, no doubt about it. So many signs of summer lingering and not really proper autumn …

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had days when the garden bench is still inviting …When it is good to sit and smile at the sun …Or find a quiet sunny spot for a bit of punch-card preparation …The cats are still in playful summer mode …There is still plenty of colour to be enjoyed …Still flashes of intense green …Lots of red fruits and red flowers …The rose is having a wonderful second flowering …And there are still butterflies about, enjoying the flowers …The sweet peas continue to amaze …! why only yesterday I picked a bunch as good as this!So I’m still deadheading like mad  …But the shadows are long …And I’m beginning to clear up and cut back …The compost heap is filling up. The compost on the right will be going out on the flower beds soon (when I’ve hardened my heart and uprooted that fine poppy).Our big beds show well the mix of the seasons: summer flowers jostle next to autumnal seedheads …There are days of weird and beautiful light …Sparkling sunny days …But we’re starting to get proper misty-moisty days as well …Which throws everything into a strange new perspective …Not that a bit of mist could dim the glorious oranges here …I love the fabulous new silhouettes the misty garden is throwing up …Spiders’ webs everywhere!But we’ve had the first of the autumnal gales blowing the pots around …Some days it’s better to be inside …Where we are putting on extra layers of cardigan …Time to put away the summer duvet cover …And get out the quilt …Or perhaps Stephen’s knitted blanket … ?Yes, I think Ilsa prefers the blanket!And over these last couple of weeks, the fields have changed from brown, brown, brown …To green again!Weird and wonderful …

The deserted village of Old Middleton

We were drawn to this walk by the Northumberland National Park Poems in the Air project. Earlier this summer, we’d listened to Simon Armitage recounting his Proposal Stone poem on the Simonside Hills – a quite magical experience, so we were keen to explore more of these walks.

On a extraordinarily perfect autumnal day last week we set out to walk to Old Middleton to find the deserted village, and hear another Simon Armitage poem.We parked the car near Middleton Farm, and walked up the track, past berry-laden trees and the curious cattle …This is a beautiful spot – but I wouldn’t care to live here.  Just look at these pylons dominating the farm (tucked away at its feet)!We are all too familiar with complaints about wind farms in Northumberland, but I’ve never heard anyone moan about the pylons, and when you meet them like this, you do wonder why ever not …But never mind the pylons and the current disputes raging about how we mark the landscape – we were here to find habitations that long pre-dated these arguments.  Stephen found them on his phone first …Just a little way on, and we saw the old enclosures …And got our first glimpse of these deserted buildings …It’s not unusual to find old barns and outhouses that have fallen into disrepair and been abandoned, but what is strange about this place, is the house nearby – hidden by the overgrown trees.We couldn’t resist looking inside … the overgrown trees making the pathway difficult …Look down amid the overgrown nettles at those muddy hoof prints – it’s clearly a home for the local sheep now …Where the nettles haven’t taken over completely …We peered in gingerly …Not sure what we’d find …The old range …And the water pipes connecting to nothing now …But once (presumably) they led to this bath …And the toilet …Look up, and there’s the water tank.  Ooh dear, it does look very dodgy ….As do other things …In fact, it’s probably best not to look up …In many places the plaster has come off, but the mid twentieth century fireplace is still there in what must have been the living room …And another older (and in my opinion prettier)  fireplace in the single bedroom …On sunny days like this, how fine it is to look out of this bedroom …What views from this cottage …And the sheep glimpsed outside …The old electricity meter, all rusted up now …It feels intrusive – especially when you come across objects like this odd shoe …So we left the cottage and walked back to explore the old barns …Overgrown with nettles and small trees …To peer through the little window at the sheep …And admire the quality of the quoins in the stone doorway …Before settling down to listen to Simon Armitage, the curious sheep warily coming to watch us … I can’t remember the poem, nor did we write it down (that would spoil it for others rather), but I can tell you that he spoke of abandonment and renaturing.

“We are tenants only …” Too right, Simon – applicable to so much that we think we control in our everyday lives.Villagers have fled their homes in this Northumbrian/Borderland area for many centuries.  The constant raiding in the sixteenth century (Scots and English marauders pillaging over their borders) took a huge toll on the ordinary farming families trying to eke a living out of this land.

But this cottage was clearly inhabited in the last century so we were curious to know more about Old Middleton.  Very little is written about it, but I did find this interesting little reference in Edward Baker’s “Walking the Cheviots”.

“Only the earthworks of this abandoned village are visible today. Originally it comprised of two rows of cottages north and south of a village green.  In 1580 Thomas Gray of Chillingham had eleven tenants living there.  Today only a ruined shepherd’s cottage marks the site.  These abandoned villages are often the result of farm mechanisation causing a drop in required manpower, resulting in rural depopulation.”

We looked around at this beautiful place – green fertile lands, trees, water – and wondered about the people who had to leave.Casually – as though dropped in a rush – somebody had left this curious cast-iron object on the ground near where we were sitting.We had no idea what it is, but it was clearly marked: R.A.Lister, Dursley, according to Wikipedia makers of agricultural equipment. Somehow the rejection of this object made even more poignant the ending of the agricultural enterprise that was Old Middleton.We left Old Middleton and walked on – our route highlighted in red on the map below.As we looked back at these deserted buildings, we could see strip farming marks highlighted in the fields, showing where in the middle ages this land would have been farmed under the open-field systemOur route took us along the hill slope, through a large field of very noisy cattle …Who – most disturbingly – were walking parallel to us, lowing furiously as though gathering for a meet …The track was extremely boggy in places …So we were glad when we escaped the noisy cattle and the marshy ground, and soon found ourselves on better terrrain … and heading down to the treeline …A brief glimpse of the beautiful Coldgate Water in the valley below …Our path took us past a little lake (map consultation taking place here) …No Swimming!And down down down ….To the Coldgate Water …The trouble was – it was much deeper than we had expected!Or had the map-reader brought us to the wrong crossing … hmmm. Either way, we had to cross, and what else to do, but strip off our sox and walking boots and paddle over barefoot ….It was very beautiful ….But very very cold! I guess it isn’t named the Coldgate Water for nothing …Ah, but the pleasure of sunning your wet feet when you’ve crossed the stream!Especially when Stephen realises he has some kitchen roll to dry our feet with. Softies aren’t we!The other side of the bank the path was tricky – muddy (trampled by the cattle) and seriously overgrown …So – imagine our pleasure when we came out into the plain of the Happy Valley!Much easier walking here … (even if the defaced waymarker was no help) …Through dappled woods …At times, it did appear that we were being watched … Or is that face in the tree just my imagination?Then we crossed back over the Coldgate Water – thank goodness a proper bridge here …Past the thoughtfully placed bench …And back to Middleton Farm and our little white car!It was a glorious walk, but I cannot help feeling sad that people had to leave their homes in a place called the Happy Valley.

Summer views

I am constantly drawn to the view here. It is like a drug, a fix, a yearning, a longing.  Wherever I’m at home, I find myself coming back to the windows and looking out.This summer – perhaps because of the less-than-perfect weather we’ve had? – I have been particularly fascinated by the interplays of light and shade on land and sea …The colour changes, sometimes in the sky …But also over the land …And of course  over the sea …Almost all of these photographs were taken from our bedroom window, looking south-east over the fields of north Northumberland to the North Sea.  You may be able to make out the gantreys of the main eastcoast railway line and beyond them the castles of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh in the very distance …. oh, and that’s our always-wonky washing line, keen to be part of the view too …Let me a bit more orderly, and look back through the months to the green fields of June.  Here’s a classic early June day and it’s all green and white and blue …Some days are cloudy, but they have a different sort of fascination …Nights too have colour shifts and amazing tones  ….This photograph was taken about the summer solstice, when the nights are long and light and full of promise.  9.30 in the evening – the one above of the moon taken at 10.42 pm.But then we’re in July – the summer galloping away;  a classic British summer day with the clouds scudding about …July 3rd I was up very early indeed for me – 5.35 am. It was worth it to see this beauty of a day starting – and oh, those long shadows on the green! Sunrise (to the far left of the picture) was almost exactly an hour earlier. A couple of days later (July 6th) illustrates so well the quick changes in this place …This photo was taken 3 minutes later than the one above, at 9.26 pm. I found this so extraordinary that I had to check it out – but it’s true, the camera and the very helpful EXIF data recorded with each image don’t lie.The next day (July 7th), at roughly the same time of the evening, the light from the setting sun is far more intense. It creeps through holes in the fence to highlight the odd old coping stone. My July 8th photograph captures an almost full moon a couple of minutes after sunset.  The colours are muted, but magical in their own way – especially that faint pink hovering over the horizon …You can see in this day time pic of July 11 that the field colours are still green, but I think they’re just edging to that acid-green that heralds the change to harvest gold …July 15th – and a run of fascinating evening photos, starting at 7.33 pm. It looks interesting in the sky, but not particularly dramatic …Followed by some sharper light at 9.04 pm …9.17 pm … it definitely dramatic! – and yes, that’s a rainbow creeping in on the right!9.32 pm … calming down a bit …Lastly – 10.18 pm …. things are beginning to settle down for the night …The next day – a sparkling day at 10.27 am …And something very unusual happening amid these intense evening colours at 8.02 pm.  There’s a rookery in the group of trees on the horizon – and something has set the crows off –  I wonder what on earth it is?The evening of the 17th of July – cloudless, but oh that gentle pink haze on the horizon …By complete contrast, July 22nd is misty and mysterious!July 24th is in many ways unremarkable – but it’s still misty (you can’t make out Holy Island) and look at those angry white waves crashing on the coast!We’re drawing on to the end of July with this picture of the 27th. It was actually taken at 9.26 in the morning, but is so dark that it could well be later in the day – until you look at those extraordinary light patches on the sea and on the horizon … Now we’re into August – and if you’re still with me, you’ve certainly got staying power!  I have to warn you that there are more pictures of August views than any of the other months put together.  Why?  Well, I think it has to do with the colour change.  The growing gold of the fields, and the interplay of the light on and around them is just irresistible …

This picture of August 2nd is my earliest picture of the day.  It was taken at 4.25 am. Sunrise followed in nearly an hour (at 5.17), but the light is already twitching over the sea …I was up a little later on August 5th.  You can see so clearly the way the sunlight is streaming in from the left of the picture. This was taken at 6.37 am (sunrise at 5.23, nearly an hour earlier).  And you can see what I mean about those golden fields, can’t you?This photo below – one of the most dramatic in the whole set, I think – was taken in late afternoon – 5.09 pm … it’s raining heavily over the sea …. and it looks as though the pot of gold at the foot of that rainbow is on the beach just below us …But by 8.50 pm, everything’s calmed down, and there is just this intense pink glow behind the farm on the horizon ….9.05 pm – and the pink has moved over the sea …9.21 pm …cloudy ….21.43 pm … a clear moonlit night …Angry skies on the night of August 6th – the first photo taken just before 9pm and the second a few minutes after …By contrast the evening of August 8th (at almost the same time of day) was magical.  Sunset is to the right of this picture, but here the sun’s rays are catching the light clouds in such soft pinky golden tones …August 9th was a special day here because it’s the day the combine harvester arrived to start work on the fields around us.We both get excited when this happens … vying with each other to get the better picture ….Clouding over a bit as the tractor arrives ….This is dawn on August 11th – 4.58 am.  Well, it’s actually pre-dawn (often the time for the best sunrises) at 5.34 am …Sunrises (this at 5.22 am) speak for themselves.  As the earth tilts on its journey from the summer solstice to the autumn equinox, sunrise appears at more and more southerly points of the horizon.  So this is a view we would never see in May or June – but it is full of promise for us as we progress into winter, because then the sunrise will appear clearly on our southern horizons.  Check it out here in my very first ever blogpost!August 20th is overcast and dramatic (but it’s 5.34 pm) and the combine harvester is in our field! It arrives in a great dust cloud of chaff and the greedy young house martens swirling around.  The bugs stirred up by this great monster provide the most fantastic feast for the birds.  They are about to set out on their migration travels and need to bank up their bodily food stores.So dark the tractor’s actually got its lights on!It’s a very exciting moment as the combine harvester powers past right in front of the house …As they come to the end of their work for the day, a golden cast falls over the field from the setting sun, but the lowering grey clouds are deeper and darker …The next day it’s an odd feeling to wake up to the partially shorn field … and in sympathy (as it were) there is this curious light over the sea …Unusually the harvester left the field unfinished for several days. However the balers moved in and dealt with the part of the field that had been cropped.  One bale, right outside our house, split. It remains – a strange marker under this misty sky …But the next day (the 23rd) they started ploughing the lower field – look how red that soil is! a whole new colour added to the palette …He’s back finishing off the ploughing the next day.  This is one of my favourite pictures of this summer – I both love the silhouette of the tractor against the sea, and the scudding blue/grey skies.  And I also love the astonishing gleam on that freshly-ploughed earth!Time to feature the clouds alone.  Everything else is low key – the light is elsewhere, but the clouds know this is their turn to shine …A slight variant of our view here because this photograph, taken earlyish in the morning (at 8.22 am) shows the flowers in our garden, standing proud with the sea behind.And that’s it folks. The last day of August, and the farmer and his men are sorting out the broken drains in the field before they plough (which, as I write on September 4th, they still haven’t done).   That’s a little strange, but not unpleasant as this lingering gold with that fast-changing sky is very beautiful indeed.If I were to meet that wish-granting Genie of the bottle, I would wish to be a painter …

Garden History

I was in London for a very brief visit at the beginning of the week, planning to meet up with my Instagram friend, the artist Louise Cattrell. We have a shared love and interest in gardens, so when I read that there was a exhibition at the Garden Museum called Tradescant’s Orchard: A Celebration of Botanical Art, it sounded just perfect for us.

We’d both visited the Museum before in the days when it was the Museum of Garden History.  I can’t quite remember when I visited – perhaps in the 1980s? – but I have very strong memories of a small dark and damp church completely dominated by the noise of the traffic swirling round the neighbouring Lambeth Bridge junction.

The Garden Museum is right next door to Lambeth Palace, on the southern embankment of the river Thames.In a former life this was the Church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. There were all sorts of ups and downs from the foundation of a church here in the days before the Norman Conquest, but by the 1970s the building was damp and damaged, no longer with a viable congregation thanks to London population shifts, and on the table for redundancy, and possible demolition.

However, this little church had a particular distinction which drew visitors, and among them its saviour, Rosemary Nicholson: it housed some very distinguished graves. There was the fine tomb of Admiral William Bligh, now a feature of the Sackler Garden.And more pertinent to our story, there was the even finer Tradescant family tomb, also in the central Sackler Garden.The Tradescants were a remarkable family of gardeners, travellers and plant-hunters. John Tradescant the elder (c.1570 – 1683) came from humble Suffolk beginnings to be head gardener to Charles I – and on the way did some remarkable plant-hunting which took him to the Netherlands, Russia and Algeria.His son, also John Tradescant (1608-1662), travelled to North America for his plant-hunting.They grew the plants they brought back with them in the gardens of their Lambeth house (here shown it as it was in 1798, much later than when they were living there).This wonderful tomb (Grade II listed!) was commissioned by the wife of the younger John Tradescant after his death to show the wonders of their travels.  Now where, I wonder, did he see a multi-headed Hydra!!  Methinks, the younger Mr Tradescant may have come home and over-exaggerated his travels a wee bit! Nevermind, it is truly a wonderful tomb (though not the original – it’s a nineteenth century copy, presumably because the original was so worn and damaged).Rosemary Nicholson visited in the 1970s to see the Tradescant tomb and was shocked at the state of the church. This prompted her to set up the Tradescant Trust, dedicated to care for this little church.  As indeed it has very well – culminating with a major lottery-funded restoration which was only completed earlier this summer. Now the church that I remember as dark and dank is light and airy and inviting.That which is left of the old church (like the small piece of tracery, below right) sits so well in the new space.Stairs lead to an upper story where most of the museum collection is displayed.All sorts of treasures here – lawn mowers, garden tools, curiosities like this Ancient Order of Free Gardeners regalia …But my eye was caught particularly by the cat-scarer, lurking behind the glass plant-protectors. Why it’s not unlike our very effective little Eggy!Pictures too. This painting, In the greenhouse, c 1930, by David Thomas Rose, took me straight back to my grandparents’ greenhouse with the vine and the geraniums and dappled light.  In my mind’s eye, there were tomatoes too, and I was so strongly reminded of the smell and the watery warmth (those huge pipes!). And the pottering …I particularly liked the Finnis Scott Gallery which is located in a separate room at the far end of the gallery. This couple – Sir David Scott and his second wife, Valerie Finnis, (shown in the painting below by Derek Hill) were expert horticulturalists – and also picture collectors. And it is their pictures that feature in this gallery. (My sincere apologies to the artists because I have had to use a degree of digital manipulation to make the pictures taken only on an iPhone 5S look decent for the blog).Such a variety of pictures, capturing so effectively the rich interests that are to be found in gardens and gardening. Look at the lush greens in Patrick George’s 1993 painting, The Vegetable Garden.And this gem of a photograph, taken by Peter Fryer in the early 1990s, of a man with his geese in his Newcastle allotment. Such joyous love.Downstairs then for the exhibition we’d actually come to see: Tradescant’s Orchard: A Celebration of Botanical Art.Where the scope of the pictures upstairs in the Finnis Scott gallery was almost unlimited, this gallery hosted illustrations of a very particular artistic discipline.  The exhibition was inspired by this leather volume, The Tradescants’ Orchard, dating from the early seventeenth century, and on loan from the Bodleian Library.So there were remarkable pieces like this Pomegranate (Punica granatum) by Heidi Venamore. She grew this actual fruit in her Jordanian garden. How rich is the inside of the fruit!And the medlar (Mespilus germanica) by Dick Smit – in all stages of its life.The detail of the damaged leaf and the damaging insects reminded me so much of the Maria Sibylla Merian exhibition I saw in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Gallery a couple of months ago. This is her 1702 watercolour of a Cotton-Leaf Physicnut with Giant Sphinx Moth – similarly greedy creatures eating the plant.  And similar exquisite detailing.Of course at the Garden Museum there would have to be gardens! Let me show you the new plantings in the Sackler Garden designed by Dan Pearson. I don’t think my photos really do justice to them, but Louise and I thought them wonderful – interesting and varied in colour and height – and marrying well with the coppery buildings about.Lastly, the Sackler Garden has a moving modern memorial to its benefactor, Rosemary Nicholson, and her husband John.So – that was London.

But, a couple of days later, back in Northumberland, I looked again at our garden.  With the stories of the Tradescants travelling the globe to bring plants back to please their English patrons ringing in my ears, I looked again at the plants I grow.  And I was amazed.

Our garden sits on the Northumbrian coast, with the view stretching over golden grainfields to the North Sea and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.  It is windy, mostly sunny and very salty – but has the View.We inherited a field of a garden with no plants, no beds, and our planting decisions were entirely guided by the place.  Large plants in these little beds would restrict the view and struggle in severe windy conditions, so they are a no-no. Our little plant guide was to grow plants that merge into the lane and the wild field edges and the view beyond.

So I just love it when plants escape out of the garden, and seed and root themselves beyond.And I thought – in my naïveté – that we were growing plants that belonged in this landscape. But how wrong I was! That valerian in the picture was recorded in use by ancient Roman doctors, so it is believed to have been brought here by the Romans.

All along the little fence are crocosmia plants (what I used to call montbretia).  I’ve always loved this plant, particularly when found on old railway lines and other country tracks. I know it’s considered invasive, but I love those elegant fiery fronds so much that I’d forgive it anything.We grow both the common variety and scarlet Lucifer plants – roughly interspersed. To my mind it is just the perfect plant for this garden when the winter wheat is golden and heavy in the fields around. It sits so well just above our little garden fence, and even when the flowers have gone over, as it is dried and shrivelling up, it looks very fine.

Well, crocosmia hails from the grasslands of Southern and Eastern Africa.Mixed in with the crocosmia are poppies – mostly scarlet, but there are black, white, pink as well.  Now poppies are indeed native plants, hailing from the little field poppy so familiar from the pictures of the 1st World War. The poppies that we grow are extremely sophisticated carefully bred plants, but they remember their proper heritage and flourish in these country field borders.Just over the fence, there are a group of yellow hawkweed plants flowering on the field edge (far left of picture) – they are native plants.  But, alas, no native poppies accompanying them. I must remedy that next year.At the end of the small flower beds and standing tall against the fence are several golden-headed fennel plants.  They’ve been natives of our shores for a very long time.Against our little Northumbrian cottage wall, swaying in the breeze, there are hollyhocks, sunflowers (not yet in flower) and verbena bonariensis. The hollyhocks are natives of Asia and Europe, sunflowers are North American and the verbena bonariensis hails from Buenos Aires. Thank you Louise for the information about the verbena bonariensis – and, of course, the clue is in the name!  Further along the wall, there are all colours of dahlias. They are – most appropriately given their brilliant range of colours – originally from Mexico but were imported to Spain in 1789, only finally making a successful move to the UK in 1802.They must be comfortable with the cosmos plants we’re growing beside them because that also originated in Mexico. Aren’t these startling – though wonderful – colours against the very Northumbrian sandstone wall?And in pots at the foot of the taller dahlia plants, there are calendula plants.  They were introduced from the Mediterranean countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.In the conservatory there are scarlet geraniums (actually pelargoniums), originally from South Africa.What an incongruous mix, you might say, with the fields of wheat running beyond the garden down to the sea!  But the growing of wheat as an arable crop is believed to have originated in the Middle East.And, of course, there’s another plant I should definitely list when speaking of the Tradescants. Why – the tradescantia! John Tradescant the younger brought the type species back to England in 1629. Here, in a gloriously overgrown muddle, are our variegated and purple tradescantia! What a joyously rich mix of plants from so many parts of the world!

(Incidentally, the cafe at the Garden Museum was lovely. But disappointingly, the Wolfson Ark Gallery containing 30 objects that once belonged to John Tradescant wasn’t open to the public the day we visited.  We will have to return, Louise!)

 

A walk on the Simonside hills

It’s a very damp overcast day as I write this,  so it’s hard to remember what glorious weather it was when we were out on the Simonside Hills last week. It brings most sharply to mind how lucky we are to have photographs to preserve our memories.

It’s a particular pleasure for me to do these walks (which I think is well-conveyed by our Simonside photos) because as a child I was never encouraged to embark on “proper” walks.  These were seen as my father’s preserve. Here he is on Dartmoor in the early 1970s, and, my goodness, did he equip himself thoroughly for his walk!!  I now have the binoculars which he was wearing round his neck in their fine leather case, and even without the leather case they are very heavy to walk with indeed.While my father marched over the moors, we children were left with my mother and grandmother for (usually) damp picnics under the rocks of Hound Tor.So I grew up believing I could never be a hill walker.  What a joy it has been to discover in Northumberland that this is not the case!

Our walk last Tuesday took us up the Simonside Hills. They are near Rothbury, about an hour’s drive away from where we live.  We started our walk at the Lordenshaws carpark, with a helpful noticeboard and the path stretching on and up into the hills.It was a day of brilliant sun, barely any breeze at the start – and hardly any other walkers either.  The flora was abundant and beautiful.But what struck me most forcefully right at the beginning of the walk and further as we walked along the summit of the Simonside ridge was how managed the path was. Just look at these carefully constructed stepping stones!I guess this shows how inexperienced I am with hill walking.  The Simonside Hills, not far from Rothbury and the more populated south of Northumberland, are heavily walked – and quite rightly so, because they are a magnificent walk.  But walkers (and this, of course, included us) wear away the paths they love to walk.  Where the path hasn’t been laid with slabs and steps, it was heavily eroded and very uncomfortable walking – the elements must bear some responsibility here!Further on the path was slabbed – much more comfortable walking.We laughed to see that some of these flagstones bore evidence of a former life – can you see the metal marks on this flagstone?  In some places there were metal protuberances still well-proud of the stone …. hmm, what happened to Health & Safety we wondered … ?  They did look a bit like re-used gravestones, and I half-expected that if you turned one over you would find names and dates.Touchingly, a flag stone remembers Dr Alan Reece. So many greats to attach to his name.  A fine place to be remembered.On the path went … With fine views already back to the carpark and our little white car …Past the empty bags that must have delivered the stone for the recent path repairs …(Later on we met this helpful sign explaining all.)Before long we’d reached the first marker, the Beacon Cairn.With magnificent views stretching down and around to the wind farms of the south …And back to Rothbury.The route stretched out from here pleasingly along the ridge … (you can see here most clearly how people have made new paths in the heathery peat to avoid walking on the uncomfortable old pebbly path) …And the start of the climb to Dove Crag …Glorious walking through the heather – not quite at its best yet but heavy with bees ….And whortleberry sustenance! (actually known as bilberries in this part of the world.  Whortleberry is its Devonian name).Stephen following me (quite a way behind!) at this point, so I’m feeling a bit smug …Bit off a show-off really …To Dove Crag and more sustenance ….And, oh the views!Accompanied by a glorious sense of well-being!Further on and further up (as the children exclaimed at the end of C.S.Lewis’s Last Battle) …At one point you are redirected onto a completely different path – you can see the old path veering away to the right behind the fencing, and the blue notice explaining that this is because of erosion control.A colour change as we passed through red grasses …With the odd curious conifer standing in striking contrast.  We met several of these conifers on our way – presumably seeded by the birds from the large conifer plantations at the foot of the Simonside ridge.On and up again to the highest point …The colours are amazing! #nofilterThen just a little way ahead to the final cairn – which seems curiously suburban garden to me … Isn’t this the effect rock-gardeners strive to create?And the path curves round to the final crag …Where people cannot resist leaving their marks …But we just climbed up to enjoy the view …What caught me unawares was this huge leonine stone monster of a crag – yes, that’s what I was standing on above!  Seems almost an imposition for such a fine beast.  Curiously nowhere have I read about this wonderful stone shape. One can imagine the stories of the Simonside beast loose and roaming the hills ….And with that our route took us back, retracing our steps … Well, not quite – there was a small diversion. Stephen had found the proposal stone …To our surprise no path led the way to the Proposal Stone over the heather – do so few people visit it now?  You have to break all the National Park rules and climb through the heather to get to it.We had a bit of banter because I too am a K …”So who was this J?” my Stephen demanded, and then …. magically we connected to the app and Simon Armitage’s poem about this place. The poem isn’t written down, so the only way to hear it is to climb the Simonside hills with a smart phone.  Disappointingly neither of us can remember much of the poem – just odd words and phrases stand out: the Taj Mahal of this empty space, the heather, the bilberries and the cotton grass – all as bridal accompaniments. Despite our failing memories, it was a rare and remarkable experience to hear the poem spoken in this place like that. Thank you so very much Mr Armitage and technicians of the Northumbrian National Park.

What a place for a proposal!  Did she say yes?  Nobody knows.  In fact, nobody knows who put the proposal either – or when.

(Although you can’t hear the poem, you can listen to Simon Armitage speak beautifully about this project here.)What a walk!

Yeavering Bell

I have long wanted to walk more in the Cheviots, but one way and another it always seems to get put on hold.  Which is silly, because the Cheviot Hills are only some 30 minutes or so away from us.

Last week, an opportunity for such a walk presented itself – and we headed off  to Yeavering Bell.  It wasn’t that nice a day – and the photos weren’t that brilliant because the day was so overcast, so I’ve dithered about writing a blog or not.

But I’ve decided finally to write the blog after all, if only as a record of the wonderful sensation of being at the top of Yeavering Bell.  Bear with the photos, please. I hope an account of the magnificent Bell will compensate.

We set off with this nicely-produced leaflet from the Northumberland National Park in hand.  The pictures are nice, but the map – and the text – is a bit fanciful, and gave us some grief.We parked at the foot of Yeavering Bell, and set out past the few cottages there to find the track this leaflet recommended.You can climb straight up the very steep face of Yeavering Bell as this walker in front of us had chosen to do …But we had decided to follow the map inside our leaflet, and that instructed us to ignore the steep permissive path straight up the hill and take the slower and more gentle approach round the side where we would join St Cuthbert’s Way.So we set off up the gentle track – very pleasant walking …… a gurgling brook in the dip beside us …But very soon we began to hit problems because we needed to find St Cuthbert’s Way for our turn to the left – and we just weren’t sure which turn that was!!We had several opportunities to turn off the track, but there were no way markers.  So we continued.  Eventually, we arrived at this confusing sign ….. looks like we could go any which way …. but none of them were St Cuthbert’s Way! We puzzled, and puzzled …. and then happened to walk round this very tiresome waymarker, and lo and behold ….… the direction to the Hillfort Trail was also the St Cuthbert’s Way by another name!  Relieved to have made sense of our route, we set off more confidently.And luckily, after our initial problems, our route was well-marked.Leading up and up … the path getting markedly steeper …But good waymarkers now.  We were clearly on track …Worryingly Yeavering Bell was still looming up very much on the left of our path with an increasingly deep gorge of bracken (and a stream…..?) opening up between us.At this point we stopped for a break. No pictures, I’m afraid, because this is where I had what can only be called a paddy. I had realised – actually we had both realised, but Stephen had accepted it in a phlegmatic fashion – that, having already climbed quite a steep incline, we were now going to have to go right down into the valleyand then start the climb proper to Yeavering Bell. Aagh!!

Stephen – in command of the situation as ever – found the next waymarker …And I had to laugh …And I laughed and I laughed and I laughed …And I laughed hysterically!As I worked out the route going down … and down … and watched Stephen disappear into that forest of bracken …Eventually we came out at the small stream at the bottom of this valley …Then it was only onwards and upwards to the top!Our spirits (well, mine especially) soared as we passed another waymarker …A harsh reminder placed by a fellow walker perhaps …?But the sheep had left more friendly marks – a bit of fleece and softly-worn wood where they had scratched their backsides …We were beginning to approach the summit … the sheep warily watching us …Through the gates of the Yeavering Bell hillfort …It is perhaps easier to take in the massive scale of this Iron Age hillfort (constructed about 500BC) and its remaining defences, if you look back on the stone wall surrounding the summit and the gate through which we had just passed.  This wall – once over three metres thick and two-and-a-half metres high – still surrounds the iron age hillfort which was at one time peopled with over 130 stone hut circles.  The imagined illustration inside our leaflet (image on right below) gives an idea of what life was like in the fort. The aerial shot on the left  shows the wall as it is now.So many questions about this hill fort and the people who lived there. Despite excavations of the site we still know very little. But what we do know is that it is jaw-droppingly extraordinarily amazing there.

Back to our climb. We were nearly at the top.Wow! did it feel good to finally get there! Top of the world is the only thing to say here!It wasn’t Sunday and we weren’t on Bredon Hill but otherwise Housman had it just about right:

Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.

Because you are looking down on all that patchwork of little coloured fields stretching on and on as far as the eye can see … serenaded by birdsong …That’s Scotland glimpsed on the northern side …And there are more of the Cheviot Hills looming darkly behind us …Craning our necks just a little bit further to the east, we can see our car ( a tiny white blob) far far down at the bottom of the hill …More importantly we can see – right in the very centre of this photograph above – the honey-coloured field of Ad Gefrin from where Yeavering Bell acquired its name. It is Old Welsh and means the Hill of the Goats.In the 7th century there was a township in this very field, and it would have been busy, busy, busy. Just as – in a still earlier age – the Iron Age hillfort on the top of Yeavering Bell would have been a populated and active village.  It is truly the hugest stretch of the imagination to think of these wild empty places like this, but the Ad Gefrin trust have put up useful information boards and have a website to help tell the story.  Perhaps most effectively of all, they tried to show by mowing shapes on this field the size of the buildings that were once here.Back to July 2017, and we were struggling to find the steep path down the face of Yeavering Bell.Eventually Stephen found the track, and we headed down to the stone wall enclosure.The path going down wasn’t easy – rutted …and very steep …But on the way down we saw the wild goats after whom the hill is named! Not a brilliant photograph as they beat a hasty retreat when they saw us, but we were thrilled to see them.  They are completely wild, have been here for centuries and are hefted to their life on this hill.Time to say goodbye to these remarkable places, but I don’t think it’ll be long before we’ll be walking here again.