Thursday, 22 December 2016

The shortest day ...

There’s something about the light in Bath. There's a great deal of it, and I wonder if it’s all to do with reflection. Pale gold stone, a river and a canal, much glass, big sky. I don’t have the answer but it’s a dazzling city in so many respects.

We took a break preparing for dinner for special friends and took a family walk from Henrietta Street, via the Holburne Museum, to Sydney Gardens, the canal and back via Bathampton.

Highlights? Cutely mad European folksy exhibition at the Holburne. Fab Christmas tree on the balcony. Kingfisher by the river. Blackbird eating scarlet apples. A majestic Husky called Thor with crystal eyes and a silver mane. Stoic ponies in an orchard. A glimpse into the new refurb at the terribly posh Cleveland House - its chandeliers all intact. The secret hideaway of Raby Mews. Medieval-style intricacy of plants around railings in Henrietta Park. Then a family pint at the Pulteney Arms. 

And now the nights will stop drawing in. More light! Astonishing.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The longest night ...

Today is the Winter Solstice. More accurately, it occurs for a fleeting moment at 10.44 here in England. This is when the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is at its lowest. It occurs when the North Pole is tilted furthest – 23.4 degrees – away from the Sun.

The shortest day and the longest night  ... For the ancients, this was the moment to assert the power of light over darkness and prepare for the harsh months ahead. Although eclipsed by Christian doctrine and contemporary commercialism, this calendrical moment is still crucial to many, harking back to our primitive instincts.

As a Celt, I’m always aware of the Solstice, although I’m not saying I’m going to start hacking down mistletoe with a golden sickle, as the Druids were wont to do – or so it’s said.

I’m happy to finish the decorations with fresh greenery, make an ice candle and pour the mulled wine. This year, I've also made a sparkly 'fairy ball' with green lights and a small glass globe.

It's also a great time to curl up and read ... A Walk in the Park is a ghostly winter’s tale to mark the occasion (now out on Amazon). When I wrote it, I scared myself to bits!

The moon. The stars. One malevolent entity. 
A supernatural romance of astronomical proportions for the Winter Solstice.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Gothic Bath

Just a few minutes’ walk from the bustle of cosmopolitan Bath lies a truly Gothic experience.  

The graveyard of St Mary’s, in Bathwick, has become an historical side note, through no fault of its own. The churchyard of St Mary’s was opened in 1809 when the original 12th century St Mary’s church was demolished to widen Bathwick Road. The mortuary chapel, now a ruin, was designed by John Pinch, as famous in his day as John Wood, but now forgotten. It was built in 1818, a year before Queen Victoria was born, and constructed out of the material salvaged from the demolition of the 12th-century parish church.

The chapel was used for baptisms and funerals but only for two years until the new parish church down the road was consecrated in 1820. By 1856, the churchyard was closed in favour of St Mary the Virgin Churchyard which opened in the same year at Smallcombe Vale.

The cemetery has a desolate feel, intrinsically Gothic. As I stood in the foggy dusk taking photographs, a bat appeared, completing mystic figures of eight between the yew trees. One can just about make it it out in the photograph below. Just the one bat, with raggedy wings. He didn't seem perturbed by my presence.
I am not that suggestible, but I swear something was moving in the shrubbery. A badger, possibly, for they do cause havoc in the grounds. At least I hope it was a badger, for one of the graves was partially excavated at one corner, and I can only hope that this is the perfectly logical explanation.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Solstice surprise

Many, many years ago, I used to be Features Editor on the Bath Chronicle.

A rollercoaster time it was, and, for the most part, a lot of fun, as we survived the storms of the 1980s and early 1990s, some literal, the rest figurative. I even wrote a book about it! Tomorrow's Anecdote is fiction but based on those turbulent days of Kinnock, Thatcher and Major.

Years passed. One of my former colleagues became editor after I left on maternity leave, and is now editor of the glamorous Bath Magazine. And to my surprise, I found myself writing features again.

Solace for the Solstice is a fun article about shunning plastic baubles this Christmas and releasing your inner Druid. I even took a few photos. You can find it here on pages 108-9.

Such fun. Thanks, Georgette. And I love the retro cover of this month's issue!

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Dazzling Bath

Just a simple walk from Henrietta Street over to the Royal Crescent on a frosty afternoon.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Back to Bath

This is the post I’ve been eager to write for months. 

It’s official. We’re moving back to Bath.

Rob has a new research/teaching post and starts this month, so we’ve found somewhere new to live (tba) and are working out the logistics.

It’ll be complicated but we’re so thrilled that it’ll be a pleasant challenge rather than a ghastly slog.

From the first afternoon we arrived many, many, many years ago on a bright June day before Rob’s first interview at the university, we both fell in love with the place. Despite tricky finances and a collapsing housing market, we bought a lovely little terraced house, got our first dog (the wonderful Amber), survived various professional crises and, most memorable of all, celebrated the birth of our daughter, Lauren.

Years went by ...

Work took us to Kenilworth, and beyond, but now ... we’re back. Back to Bath. 

It has a wonderful sound. And since we’ve been here, the weather has been simply superb. Day after day of dazzling autumn sunshine, just as we enjoyed all those years ago when we first arrived and would trundle down to the Viaduct, a great little pub near the aqueduct and sit outside in the gorgeous sunshine. Some things have changed, but in many others, time seems to have stood still.

I’m taking so many pictures, my camera batteries keep running out – and I have three!

Today, I’ve contented myself with some simple shots of the surrounding countryside. Much more to come. Much, much more.

Happy sighs.

Now, where was I with that last manuscript?

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Phantasy photo

Photo taken in a Welsh forest near Llanwyrtd Wells. Inspiration for a fantasy story or what?

The next day, the toadstools had completely vanished. And yes, I'm watching Stranger Things.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

I think I’ve found my niche

Whenever I visit a garden, I’m drawn to the quietest corner, imagining how to recreate a mini-oasis of calm and inspiration.

Recently, I had the luck to visit Wallington in Northumberland, and found the perfect niche.

A joyous combination of modest asplenium ferns, alchemilla and lobelia set in a Regency-era horse-shoe enclosure facing the sun.

Frosted greens and navy are definitely my favourite combination for tranquillity. Add a lichen-encrusted stone feature, a bench and sundry hostas in pots, and I’m in heaven.

A small, naturalesque waterfall gurgled discreetly, reminding me of a wry comment by Alan Titchmarsh, amused at a large garden fountain, commenting that ot sounded like a large equine relieving itself into a deep trough. Oh, dear. I still can’t walk past ostentatious water features without wondering where the nearest loo is.

I may never aspire to the view they have at Wallington, but when we move house, I now have my wish list.

PS I discovered that the gardener at Wallington used to work at Packwood House -- another of my favourite haunts.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Impressions of Edinburgh

Our daughter Lauren has just finished her taught Masters (MSc in Global Middle Ages) at Edinburgh.

Where did the time go? I think we all know more about whelks, wheelbarrows, pigs and bagpipes than is strictly healthy.

After a great five years, concluding with fabulous month in Edinburgh, it's time to celebrate ... and say a fond farewell to Grindlay Street. Great wee flat and a super view of the castle.

Well done, poppet! A major milestone.

PS I just took the photos using my phone but it's given things an Impressionist vibe.

Friday, 26 August 2016

How do you doodle?


I doodle. I have always been a doodler. Although I rail against fidgets, I am still an inveterate doodler.

People doodle differently. Flowers, swirls, squares.

I also doodle most extravagantly when stressed.

My daughter and I had an odd double doodle moment the other week. She was writing up a Masters dissertation and I was trying not to be anxious about the fact that she was ... writing up a Masters dissertation.

Creepy though this sounds, our doodles were almost identical. Squared off boxes and geometric shapes.

Lauren has been doing art history and had insightful comments about the psychology of it all. It made sense to us, and yes, we are re-watching Gilmore Girls.

Today I had a anxious online meeting, so I got out the writing pad, hoping to make notes. All I did was doodle. Stressfully.

No wonder people revert to colour books.

I attach a wee picture of my stress-doodles for the record. 

PS The cross-hatching is a new feature. What does that mean?

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Hacking the Fringe

I’ve spent many hours combing (ha!) the Edinburgh Fringe online brochure this year, in search of comedic inspiration.

It’s hard to conceive of more than 30,000 performances of more than 2,000 shows – and that’s not counting the Free Fringe and other diversions.
The show's only got three hours to go. I'll be fine.
But how do you take advantage of such a cultural banquet, without breaking the bank or going bonkers?

Accommodation costs are fierce, so I went back to our old favourite holiday mode, the house exchange. Initially, I was sceptical that any Edinburgh resident would willingly miss out, but I was wrong. Twice, in fact, for we have arranged two exchanges for a double Fringe binge this season. Not central, but hey? How hard can it be?

I was born in Edinburgh, although I’ve never lived there, so I thought I’d be pretty au fait with getting around.Things have changed – and are changing – and I’ve had to learn fast. It turned out that buying the tickets was the easy bit and I’m proud to say I managed not to double book anything, or book two shows with insufficient time to get from A to B.

A good start, but Edinburgh is pretty intense and, perversely, having fun can be quite stressful. However, after a few days, I’ve been acquiring a few Fringe hacks (ha! again):

  1. Get the Lothian Transport bus app so you don’t get caught out, especially on Sundays or late night.
  2. Fill your pockets with enough loose change to sink a battle ship.
  3. Try not to spend all this lovely change when you stop between shows for a quick gargle of mood-enhancing giggle juice. (Pay with notes.)
  4. If you’re of a certain age, stick to halves to avoid trekking to busy loos.
  5. Use the Edinburgh Fringe venue map, not Google, to locate the venue precisely. Assembly George Square Studies are NOT in the middle of George Square, thanks very much.
  6. Have a printed street map as well, just in case you get your phone stolen, or it packs up. Always handy, too, for when the bus gets diverted and drops you somewhere unexpected.
  7. Four seasons in one day? More like in one hour. I needed a hat, waterproof, thick jumper and various layers including both long- and short-sleeved T-shirts, for venues can get HOT.
  8. Bulky clothing also doubles as a cushion to raise you in your seat to help you see past the folks in front, such as girl who’s just put up her hair, or the six-foot-six guy with a man bun
  9. Talking of clothing, flip flops are just daft. Many streets are cobbled, OK?
  10. Be happy to accept lots of flyers for they make good fans. And leafleting is hard work.
  11. Go retro and pack your own lunch/supper/breakfast, according to schedule. It also helps to pass the time in a queue. Avoid boiled eggs, salmon and tuna. Just saying.
  12. While waiting for a show, don’t get stuck next to boring people who like to SPEAK LOUDLY TO SHOW HOW INTERESTING THEY ARE. Or the dull ones.

OMG. I've double booked. Footlights or Newsrevue?
Wait. I have it. The One-Man Star Wars Trilogy. Something about the hair ...

Sidebar. We were waiting in line to see Thrones! The Musical, a thought-provoking piece of contemporary opera exploring the subtle effects of trauma on the human psyche. Not. Anyway, there we were, munching on our ham and roasted red pepper hummus on multi-seed rolls like the experienced Fringers that we’ve become, when the woman next to us started to regale her friend with a story about how her nan was going to have her leg amputated. “Oh, poor nan,” said the friend. “Just as well the doctor’s an expert in prosthetics,” the woman continued.

Mercifully, their partners turned up and we waited for the conversation to change to a lighter topic, such as how the show was going to tackle the Red Wedding, when said woman drained her cider and uttered the following word I dreaded: “Anyway ...”

I left, taking my ham and hummus sandwich with me, until I got the all-clear. GOT is one thing, but this. Eurgh.

Well, I’ve actually run out of hacks. Enjoying the Edinburgh Fringe doesn’t actually have to be a military operation. Sorry to sound like your Mum, but just wrap up, don’t lose your phone and enjoy the show.

And when you get off the bus, say thanks to the bus drivers, for although they aren’t in the spotlight, they are true stars.

Images: Peter Cook in Beyond the Fringe, 1962; Violet Romer in a flapper dress, circa 1910-1915

Saturday, 6 August 2016

You’re never too [insert adjective here] to enjoy being silly

We all like to think we have a great sense of humour, but occasionally it can go missing. Somewhere between autumn and spring, I mislaid mine.

Maybe it was because of the soggy weather, but it happened. It can happen to anyone, of course, for serious reasons such as bereavement, loss, illness, shock. I won’t go on. Sometimes it’s just the ups and downs of normal life with a dash of Brexit. Mine seemed to have drained away through my boots.

In fact, it had been lying dormant, and had not totally disappeared, for on Thursday, I found it again. This was not by chance, for I had been hunting around for a while. A few weeks ago, I came up with a plan to be amused. Go and see some comedy. Well, the Fringe seemed, um, just the ticket.

I bought A LOT, of tickets, I mean. To all manner of madness, from satirical musicals to a one-man portrayal of Star Wars. On Thursday, we gathered up our bus fare, our loins, and a giant picnic and headed to the Pleasance at the heart of the Fringe.

As we clumped to our seats and the lights dimmed, I felt a familiar thrill of expectation. And off we went.

Who knew that Foley sound effects to a 1940s graphic novel drama could be so hysterical? Or that just three people could produce so many wonderful accents, speaking a dime to the dozen into a giant microphone. We knew it would be fantastic simply by the ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ hubbub they created in certain scenes. Mad scientists, Indian gurus, scary monsters from outer space, wolves, death rays, luscious snogging ... we heard it all. 

Intergalactic Nemesis: Twin Infinity - A Live Action Graphic Novel offers a blockbusting hour and a half’s entertainment.

Half an hour and a pint later, the Reduced Shakespeare Company dazzled with a bravura array of silly wigs, bowdlerised couplets and dreadful puns in The Long Lost Play (Abridged), with more than a passing nod to another dramatic genius, Walt Disney himself. God, I laughed at its bardic bathos – and yes, water pistols can recreate a tempest on stage.

Edinburgh is so full of watering holes that it was no problem to wander into a cocktail bar/diner to refresh our laughing gear, then off to this year’s Cambridge Footlights. Perhaps our arrival raised the average somewhat, but by this time, I didn’t care. I’d forgotten how much I love bonkers students revues. And these sketches were sublimely bonkers.

Four guys and girl in jeans and T-shirts (and one notable occasion, boxers and a swimming hat) did the classic array of madcap sketches, some great, some so bonkers that the ghost of Monty Python could be seen hovering in the rafters, having a snigger. As we regaled the ‘best bits’ to a tolerant mate the next day, I realised just how brilliant it was. Outrageous accents, ludicrous costumes, embarrassing moments and a bit of classic farce with some chocolate cake and a jug of water. What’s not to like?

My favourite sketches featured scenes where the ensemble became young children expounding on their view of the world. Charming, bitter-sweet humour that will delights audiences of all ages and temperament.

So, I am glad to report that after just one afternoon of silliness, my humour batteries are completely recharged.

You’ve gotta larf. No, you really have to.

PS I will never look at a conker the same way again.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Full circle

Some years ago, I was raiding a charity shop in Leamington Spa and came across a batch of classic murder mysteries. I forked out the princely sum of £20 for nearly 100 books. 

Several dozen were by Gladys Mitchell (below,right), a crime writer whose quirky style I came to appreciate.
Gladys Mitchell, right, and actress Fenella Woolgar as seen in Home Fires. An unsettling resemblance ...
Gladys was something of a free spirit. The murders were all rather dashing, almost lurid. The characters so non-stereotypical it was hard to guess whodunnit. The settings were all so different and unexpected …

Courtesy of Jason Half
The investigative journalist that lurks in all of us got the upper hand a few years ago. I decided to drag Gladys into the spotlight and do a biography. Why not? It couldn’t be that hard! 

I rummaged around, tracking down some former neighbours and such. It’s only when I found some rare ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets that I realised she might have been secretly gay. If true, it suddenly made sense of so many of her plots in which sexuality and sexual orientation was a turning point.
Courtesy of Jason Half
In due course, I felt the publisher and I didn’t see eye to eye on the issue and after some years, collected up such papers as I had and posted them off to a true devotee in the US where they might be appreciated. (The tribute site is a real gem, a must for fans of vintage murder mysteries.

Ms Mitchell faded from my life, apart from writing the occasional fan bloguntil recently. I’ve been blogging a little about a recent fascination with ancient stones. Jason himself reminded me that Gladys was inspired by such phenomenon and penned several titles on the theme.
The Whispering Knights, near the Rollright Stones
After some foraging, and a download or two that were more complicated than some of Gladys’ plots, I tracked down my prey: The Dancing Druids and Whispering Knights. The latter particularly caught my attention for we visited the Rollright Stones just last year. If this is your cup of tea, the Rollright Stones is a ancient site located on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border. The complex consists of three main elements, The Kings Men stone circle, the King Stone, and the Whispering Knights. (It also featured on the BBC drama, Father Brown, just a few months ago.)

During the search, I found several others written during her prolific career, revealing a lifelong interest in the subject, as noted in a 1980 article by Patricia Craig

For deliciously macabre scenes involving to ancient rituals and mystic stones, look out for The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop; Come Away, Death; plus a hard-to-come-by children’s book, The Seven Stones Mystery, written under the pseudonym of Pamela Stewart. (I’m sure Jason will know of more!)
 Well, that’s my summer holiday reading sorted.

PS. If anyone decides to make a drama/documentary about the irrepressible Gladys, go no further than the talented Fenella Woolgar, recently seen as Alison Scotlock in Home Fires. The resemblance is astonishing, almost spooky ... It’s almost as if the ghost of Gladys Mitchell has come back to haunt us ... Perhaps Fenella took the inspiration for her look from the jacket photo of Gladys, or are they related? The mind boggles.