SPRING IN STRATFORD

SPRING MET US IN…

Spring met us this year in Stratford on Avon.

We had been in Scotland where the weather for March was quite benign, being either sunny, windy and cold, or grey, overcast and milder. There were a few daffodils out, and in people’s gardens some snowdrops, hellebores and primroses, but it was still The Frozen North.

We drove back, stopping for lunch at Westmorland and for the night at Warwick. That was all fine, but of course a motorway and a service station do not offer much contemplation of Nature Live, although from our window in Warwick we could see a small area of grass planted with very young trees, each one containing a single crow’s next.

We declined the doubtful privilege of breakfast in our hotel and headed off, quite early, for a proper English breakfast in Stratford on Avon. It was really quite foggy, so we followed Sat Nav cautiously through the English countryside. We were due at Stow in the Wold for lunch with John’s sister and brother-in-law, so we were in no rush. We arrived safely, and eventually we found a restaurant with what we wanted, and settled down to a leisurely plate of sausage, bacon, eggs, etc.

When we emerged the mist was gone and the attractive town was bathed in sunshine. The hordes of marauding tourists had not yet descended in full force, so we got to observe the town under favourable conditions: very few people and bathed in sunshine. It has wide streets and many well preserved ancient buildings. The hawthorn in the hedges was a delicate green, with scatterings of tiny white blossom which I think is the blackthorn (or sloe.) Gardens were full of snowdrop, narcissus, hellebores, crocus. There was even one magnificent magnolia, almost fully out (probably the early pink Campbelli…) We walked along the river, where I remembered how I had walked on the other bank with three of my girlfriends not so many years ago. They were teasing me because I was wearing my ‘cockerel’ knitted jacket which boasted the head of a cockerel on its back. As I recall I defended my choice, for there was no way I was going to admit that I had purchased the garment without noticing the offending decoration. The memory was pleasant but overlain with sadness because of the four of us, only two still survive. I turned away from that reflection to admire the river and its banks lined with weeping willow, whose pale green fronds stirred lightly in the wind, like a lady’s long hair. An armada of swans (at least a hundred) had gathered together near the bridges and were gliding up and down waiting for tourists to arrive with bread.

I thought, We have survived the winter!

HERE LIES THE BODY…

When I was a child, my father banned the reading of books, as being a possible influence in opposition to his own ideas. (This was not the reason he gave of course.) (This edict was completely ineffective: I could always obtain books by one means or another; I had stashes where I hid them, and read them in secret places.) There were a few honourable exceptions to this ban of course. The Bible and theological tracts were permitted as were any subjects of interest to him. I therefore have a surprising knowledge of completely unlikely subjects; bee-keeping, for example; wood-working tools, and the various breeds of sheep and cattle in the British isles. This book had pictures and was much studied by me. Far from being useless information as I thought at the time, this knowledge has proved to be of satisfying value in delivering put downs to arrogant farming types who have assumed I am an ignorant townie (which of course I really am, except that I inexplicably can talk about sheep and cattle.)

So when Leicester was mentioned, I visualised a heavy set, large headed, long haired ram, and when I looked it up, this was indeed the case (breed now very rare). This variety of sheep was taken to Australia so its descendants are there.

And Leicester has been mentioned a lot recently, what with the bones of Richard III being discovered ‘in a car park’ and with Leicester Football Team winning the League against all odds. I wanted to see what kind of a town this was.

Scots without relatives or business in England generally have a lamentably poor understanding of the country. They know the M6 and M1, and the Channel ports, and they will have visited London, and in my case certainly, that was it. Now I’ve turned into an effete Southerner who doesn’t like ‘weather’ I do know the Southern half of the country quite well, but I’m decidedly vague about the mysterious regions North of Oxford, and I irritate friends as I am unable to distinguish between the

Midlands and the North.

So we set off to explore Leicester. It’s just off the M1 and it must be pretty near the centre of England. It has no truly significant geographical features. It stands on a very slight incline – well you could hardly call it a hill – and the River Soar runs through it, but it makes no great impact on the city. It’s surrounded by flat, green, well wooded country. It’s larger than I expected and it has the depressing, rather messy suburbs that many English towns have. We can see our hotel, but we would never have gained access to it through the muddle of streets without Sat Nav and even with Sat Nav we have more than one pass at it. It’s traffic has no logic to its flow and parking is very difficult. First impressions are not favourable.

The natives are friendly however. Although it received 10,000 Ugandan refugees in the days of Idi Amin, it still retains enough of its original population to have a ‘look’. The men are sturdy and personable, and the women have pretty, squarish faces and both have charm. Famous sons of Leicester (there are many) include the brothers Attenburgh and Gary Lineker.

In the morning we are agreeably surprised. Only 15 minutes flat walking and we arrive at the ancient part of town. You realise that this has always been a rich town – famous for wool, and for manufacturing wool products, and for leather work. Presumably it didn’t suffer heavy bombing because so many of its ancient buildings are intact. We visit the Cathedral first. In itself it is interesting, being square in shape with chapels at each corner. It still holds the statues in its niches. (The town stood for Cromwell, so possibly it’s church buildings were not dealt with harshly.) It is a successful blend of ancient and modern. The Bishop’s chair is an extraordinary tall throne with a gigantic back in the shape of a leather cross,in garish colours. (The person showing us round alleged that the current Bishop did not like it.) The tomb of the king was behind the altar and was a large slab of marble with a cross cut deeply into it, his title, King Richard III cut into it in gold letters and a small coat of arms in precious metals. It is all in appropriate and quiet good taste, and surprisingly moving.

Directly opposite the cathedral and no more than 5 minutes walk away is the attractive modern building which houses the Visitor Centre which explains how his body was found. Although we all know he was ‘found in a car park’, originally a monastery stood there and Richard who had set off from Leicester Castle to do battle, was returned to their care when dead. He was buried, and found, in a coffin. In time the avaricious and predatory Henry VIII ravished the monastery and stole their wealth and awarded their lands to some creature of his, who created a garden there. Naturally he would not want to draw attention to the former king for the Tudors were always uneasy about him, so he just planted a stick to mark the burial place and that was lost over the years. Within that museum, under the floor under glass, is the actual place from which they removed the body. Interestingly, when they were about to dig the site, a lady came who had the equivalent powers of a water diviner, and she indicated where they should dig, and there indeed they found the body.

There are plaster casts of his skeleton and skull. His skull is recognisably like the portraits of him. He was not a tall person, and although he did have a pronounced scoliosis of the spine it was in his lower back, and he had, carefully dressed, looked quite normal. The Visitor Centre invites you to consider whether he was in fact the murderer of the princes in the tower, but leaves you to draw your own conclusion. In my opinion a much more likely candidate was Henry Tudor (VII). Richard III had a strong claim on the throne in his own right, whereas Henry Tudor was from an illegitimate descendant of a king, and had no legal claim whatever (except, as with William the Conqueror, by right of conquest). Henry Tudor found himself with three other claimants, the two princes, and their sister Elizabeth, whom he married. We’ll never know; so you can take your pick.

It was surprising and moving to see how the crowds turned out to watch his cortege pass through the villages of Leicestershire on its way to the reburial. The guides to the cathedral said visitors to the city had increased 10 fold since Richard was reburied.

We had gone to see how they had won the football league (causing one of their most famous sons to be obliged to present Match of the Day clad only in his underpants) but looking at their town, I could understand how they had managed it. The Midlands and the North are different kinds of England. They can stand their ground. It cannot have been easy for Leicester to hold on to Richard’s body and to raise the money to so swiftly built such an appropriate and attractive Visitor Centre. They didn’t lose their nerve there, and they didn’t lose it at the football. They can grasp an opportunity when they see one.

I was wholly impressed by Leicester. We didn’t see the half of it and I would like to return one day.

That Leicester ram knows a green field when it sees one and it knows how to hold on to it.

BETWEEN BATH AND BRISTOL

We spent 8 days in our caravan on a site (adults only) between Bath and Bristol. I wouldn’t have specified the ‘no children’ clause but it was quite peaceful and quiet. We had neighbours who arrived with their dog, a kind of elderly cross collie. I never observed the woman close up, but she had a very youthful style of dressing for a middle aged woman, with pretty dresses and with her hair worn long and with flowers in it. When they were on the site, she sat outside with the dog beside her. Every time anyone walked past, the dog barked, and if the passerby was a man, he did a long howl as part of his I-ain’t-nothing-but-a-hound-dog act, whereupon the fairy princess would reprimand him, and then embrace him. They could play this game for hours. I was mildly irritated when I discovered his name was ‘Woofy’. How is that helpful? I wondered if you could have a site that specified, No children, No dogs (No fairy princesses?) then I thought, No, that wouldn’t do. You never know where you might end up.

The roads in Somerset and Wiltshire are often very narrow, very hilly, and with high hedges. The standard of driving was poor and I was astonished at the rudeness of many drivers (failing to acknowledge a courtesy for example.) Something has happened in the country at large but I cannot quite put my finger on it yet. There was a faint air of sullenness and resentment.

We went one day to Burnham on Sea and Weston super Mare. The beaches are wonderful; the towns less so. We had a coffee on the promenade where an elderly blind woman sat by herself, praying (out loud.) I felt like saying, God will hear you even if you are silent; but forebore.

There was a lake beside us (Chew Valley Reservoir) and we often went there to watch the ducks, grebes, Canada geese and swans. We bought ourselves a good pair of binoculars (so much more useful than a ruby!)

We visited Wells another day. Only with our blue budge were we able to find anywhere to park. Wells is an attractive town but it was very busy. We had lunch in the sunshine in the terrace of a hotel.

We drove to Bristol and walked at the docks and waterfront. We debated going on to the SS Gt Britain but we had seen it before and it was drizzling.

Bath is always a delight, even infested with tourists. A notable feature of our trip was the absence of foreigners; but the Japanese and the Americans were out in force here. Bath really is a beautiful city with its crescents, its circles and its squares. However it was reaching a level of crowdedness that was bordering on unacceptable for me (but I would regard the ideal state of affairs as ourselves,at one end of a street and another family at the other!) We went round the Museum of Ffashion, which was interesting, but when you come to the modern exhibits, what is shown is so unlike anything one would ever see worn by any sensible person, it makes you wonder about the veracity of all the other exhibits. We had lunch in a pub called the Marlborough which was excellent. On another day we returned to Bath and visited The Baths. I have mixed feelings about this place. The real story here is how during the whole history of man inhabiting the earth, the Bath waters have flowed at a steady rate and temperature, and when you stand before them in the steam you realise we walk on a living planet whose complexities and miracles we barely understand. Beside this miraculous wonder, the Roman and Victorian buildings seem largely irrelevant. I make my genuflections 3 times as we pass through: once to the head of a god ‘experts’ speculate on his identity, but which in my opinion is clearly Neptune; once to the goddess Minerva, and once again to Neptune at the outpouring of the water. I dip my fingers in the water which is warm to hot (though there are signs telling you not to do so.) We had a late lunch at a Blanc Bistro where we had lamb, pink and tender; and a wonderful pudding of pistachio souffle and chocolate icecream which I shall attempt to replicate. We also had a look inside Bath Abbey which had an exhibition of needlework diptychs on the life of Christ which were quite stunning.

On another day we decided to have a quiet day at the conservation village of Lacock. However it was hosting a second world war re-enactment and was full of tanks, 2nd world war vehicles, men dressed up in uniform, men carrying machine guns under their arms (were they real guns, were they loaded? – I don’t know, but I didn’t think, given the times we live in, this was a good idea.) I saw one man, tall and good-looking but running to fat in his middle age, strutting his stuff in Nazi uniform, and informing a fellow enthusiast that although he was wearing Nazi uniform, he wouldn’t wear the swastika. I must admit the logic escaped me.

It was a pleasant holiday and I’d recommend the area.

SCOTLAND, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW I T

On our journey to Scotland a few weeks ago, we stopped for the night as we usually do at the Westmorland Hotel at Tebay services. We were having a pre-prandial drink in the bar when a tour group of Americans began to congregate. A woman called Patricia began to talk to me. “I’m so pleased we’re in Scotland,” she told me, “I’ve always wanted to see it.” I told her she wasn’t there yet, and she looked extremely confused and referred to a higher authority (her husband ) as if I didn’t know what I was talking about. He came from Idaho so he only knew about wheat and had no idea. “We’re having a lecture on how to build stone walls.” she volunteered. “I think it must be a hobby.” I left her to it.

After our horrendous experience in Skye coping with the influx of mostly American tourists from a gigantic cruise ship, I thought I could design a tour of Scotland that would appeal to most of them.

Cross the Border and visit Floors Castle (Downton Abbey). Proceed to Edinburgh by way of Rosslyn Chapel (the Da Vinci Code)and visit Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street and Holyrood Palace to see where Rizio was murdered in Mary Queen of Scots room. Through Stirling visiting the Wallace Monument (Braveheart). Drive through Glencoe, (Skyfall) hearing the tale of how the Campbells broke the laws of hospitality and murdered their hosts. Over the sea to Skye, visiting Dunvegan Castle and Flora Macdonald’s cottage (it’s amazing how many cottages she lived in), then back across the new bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh, popping down to see what we heard one visitor refer to as Elaine Donan’s castle (Eilean Donan) (iconic Scottish castle though in fact it is a fake, built in the 1930s). Over to Loch Ness (Nessie). I read that Loch Ness ‘contains more water than all the other lakes in the British Isles put together’ and wondered who had measured that and how. Finally across to Deeside to see Balmoral.

It is Scotland, Jim, but not as we know it.

RODEL JOGS

I have previously written of my visit with my mother over 40 years ago to the hotel at Rodel at the foot of the Lewis/ Harris archipelago on the Western Isles.

John and I revisited it on our travels earlier this summer. Once again it initially presented a rather unwelcoming appearance, with no doors that looked as if they opened. We pushed one and entered the space which I immediately recognised as having been the men-only drinking den into which my mother and I had inadvertently stumbled all those years ago but which was now a modern and attractive restaurant. The hotel owner/manager was a charming and attractive man whose family had owned the hotel for three generations. The locals called him ‘Dolly’ but I knew that this was simply their nickname for ‘Donald’.

I told him how my mother and I had visited over 40 years ago and described my fascination with the strange Indian furnished room. He looked rather vague and said so far they had only renovated half the hotel and I got a distinct impression that somewhere behind the boarded up windows of the un-restored section of the hotel the Indian furnished sitting room probably still mouldered.

Anyway our room on the second floor (they had telephoned to enquire if I would manage this) was entirely suitable and comfortable but I was not feeling well that day and so I lay on the bed and John went out to get me some medicine. As it turned out he had to drive to Tarbert, so he was gone for quite some time.

When John returned, I took the medicine and felt a bit better so we decided to descend to the dining room and eat our meal. On the first floor we were waylaid by a harpy who emerged from the dark recesses of her quarters and stood, fully blocking our path. She was ugly, elderly and bossy. Were we in the room above? she demanded. John who does not object to being questioned quite as quickly as I do, assented. Well, she declared, there was very little noise insulation between floors, and their afternoon rest had been dreadfully disturbed by the incredible noise we had made, and would we please ensure that we placed our feet more quietly on the floor. We were quite astonished both by her remarks and by their tone.

“Madam,” John now spoke (always an ominous beginning), “I fear you are mistaken. My wife has been unwell and lying on her bed unable to move, and I have been to Harris to get some medicine for her. Whatever noise you allegedly heard was certainly not made by us. Kindly stand aside, you are blocking the way.”

The woman appeared astounded to be so addressed, but she moved. Apart from giving her a disdainful glance, I never acknowledged her at all.

Dolly welcomed us warmly to the dining room. John told him that a guest had waylaid us and complained at length about the poor noise insulation in the hotel, and had requested that we place our feet more quietly on the floor! We were at a loss to understand this as we had been resting; besides we found our room charming and comfortable and the noise insulation entirely acceptable. We later saw the harpy have a long and vehement conversation with Dolly but she cut no ice with him.

It was only as we were almost finished our (delicious) meal that I remembered that owing to my indisposition, my drugs had not worked, and in an effort to bring them in and recover my mobility, I had held on to the foot of the bed and jumped with 2 feet together for 20 times, and I had done this at intervals of 5 minutes. 5 or 6 times.

Rodel is a place where odd things happen.

ISLAND HOP

In the last few weeks, we’ve undertaken a tour of the Western Isles in celebration of our upcoming 40th wedding anniversary. We went to Skye on our honeymoon 40 years ago and after one day, fled from the man-eating midgies, and we’ve never been back since.

We were on the road for five weeks. It was interesting and enjoyable. When we arrived in Oban to commence our tour, it was engulfed in a ‘happening’. I hate happenings, but was slightly mollified as a pipe band was playing’ Raglan Road’. I never did establish what exactly the happening was.

Our first island was Coll (of the inner Hebrides) which was very lovely. We had a charming room with a magnificent view in the delightful Coll Hotel, where the food was superb. The island was beautiful with magnificent flora and fauna. The macher (flower filled meadow) was unusually rich this year, they told us. We saw swallows, herons, heard the cuckoo, seabirds, and we actually both saw that elusive rasping bird, the corncrake, with one chick. I would return to this island for the simple pleasure of it – its only downside is that its beaches, which are apparently lovely, are largely inaccessible.

It’s neighbour, Tiree, is flat and featureless with neither trees nor rocks nor sand-dunes and therefore its glorious white sand beaches are largely useless because there is no shelter. (An Atlantic wind blows most days.)

Barra was an attractive island with particularly beautiful stones and our room had a view of Kishmul Castle, which is a tiny island in a salt water bay which has a spring of fresh water. (Here’s red wine and feast for heroes, and harping too…) You can fly to Barra but the plane lands on the beach so you have to go when the tide is out. (Nothing would induce me to attempt this…)

Then on to the Uists, South and North and with Benbecula sandwiched in between. These islands are linked by causeways. There were some lovely fresh water lochans with shining rocks and white waterlilies. (‘Like the white lily floating on the peathag’s dark waters…’ ) We came out from having a coffee in a small hotel and standing right beside us on a promontory was a magnificent stag with his 12 pointed antlers silhouetted against the sky. He was standing so still that I thought he was a statue (like a Spanish bull) but his eye was very bright, and with a toss of his antlers he bounded away and disappeared into the landscape. We had decided to visit Benbecula when visiting a museum in New Zealand where a shipload of people from the islands had (eventually) settled. We were singing the words to the tunes they were playing, and we signed their book and spoke to them, and realised the ladies running the museum called the island BenbecULa. We were not going to be so impolite as to correct their pronunciation, but in our reply to them we pronounced the place name after the Scottish fashion, with equal emphasis throughout the syllables. As we left, we could hear the ladies practising their newly learned island name. John said to me, Maybe we’d better go there, and check that we’re right. Well, we were.

And so to Lewis and Harris. Whereas the south of this island archipelago is aggressively catholic, icons of Mary every few miles, the North is uncompromisingly protestant. Everything – I mean EVERYTHING – is shut on Sundays. Shops are shut, golf course is closed, no public transport, public monuments are locked. I don’t know how they get away with it. This island was aggressive in its history with rebellions and political action. It could not truly be said to be welcoming to tourists. Yet if I stated my credentials – my grandfather built a house in the village of Sandwick – we were welcomed with open arms as one of their own; but I won’t do it. The owner of an eccentric shop where we bought Harris tweed some two years ago remembered me and asked after my cousin.

We travelled across Skye which unfortunately had a monstrous cruise ship skulking in the bay outside Portree. This vessel held almost 2000 people who were vomited out onto the island and utterly over ran it so that everywhere was infested with mannerless voyagers.

We sailed back to Mallaig and that ended the island part of our holiday. I enjoyed it. Not a midgie to be seen. If you’re thinking of going on an adventure there, off you go. But book early, and don’t plan on spending Sunday in Stornoway!

MILES BETTER

I’m someone who doesn’t belong to any place. Oh, of course I’m Scots – heart, soul and spirit; but that’s our country. There is no town or city that, when I go there, is obliged to take me in.

I think this is because I left the town where I was born too soon ( and have spent in the 60 years since then about half an hour in it, spread over 2 or 3 visits). Then we moved a lot, so in terms of home town, I feel like the cat ‘that walks by himself, and every place is the same to me.’

Nominally there are probably 6 cities in Scotland, but the four smaller ones don’t really count. Inverness – I’ve never liked it, and a Macdonald ancestor once razed it to the ground because the king had chosen to imprison him in it, and I don’t care; Aberdeen, a grey fastness full of alien oil men and located in a frozen region of permafrost and perpetual haar’ (fog) and top of my list of places to which I hope never to return; Dundee, jute mills (used to be anyway) and the River Tay which swallowed up trains and attracted bad poetry. Of course these places have their attractions like anywhere else, but they never appealed to me. Perth is lovely but I think it is actually a town, and it’s just Scots who refer to it as ‘the fair city’. That leaves however the two lovely cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, between whom there is no love lost. (I did not realise until recently that Glasgow’s catchy slogan, ‘Miles Better’ had the unspoken corollary, ‘Than Edinburgh.’) I am not a citizen of either city, but I once went to work near Glasgow having come from Edinburgh, and when I was introduced, a woman fixed me with her gimlet stare and said, ‘From Edinburgh, are ye? Fur coat and nae knickers.’ Fortunately she left there shortly after my arrival!

Edinburgh is beautiful, with its mediaeval and Georgian architecture, it’s one sided Princes Street, and its air of genteel superiority (it, after all, is ‘The Capital.’) I went there for the first time one Spring when I was about 17. The cherry blossom was out in the gardens in the Georgian Squares and I promptly fell in love with it, and it has remained firmly on my list of Ten Most Beautiful Cities in the World ever since, though I have subsequently visited many other contenders.

I’ve just spent ten days in Scotland, and though I have never been and could never become a daughter of the city of Glasgow, I’m very fond of it and feel very comfortable in it. It has a reputation for drunken violence which it’s quite comfortable about, but if you’re savvy and streetwise it can also be a place of great warmth, kindness and generosity. It is handsome, with its Victorian tenements and its merchant palaces and modern areas of development. There are many trees and parks and the great River Clyde glides smoothly through it all. Glaswegians are witty and stylish. They have a subversive humour (hence the Duke of Wellington, whose statue is permitted to remain unmolested, but always with a traffic cone on his head. Sometimes officials of the city come and remove the cone, but it is invariably back on his head by morning, and it is rumoured that sometimes in dead of night it’s the police themselves, or the fire brigade, or even passing city buses who organise the return of his head gear. Of course there are never any witnesses to this event.) On the whole, its people are good-looking. They take no prisoners and they consider themselves the equal of any man, but there’s a rock solid foundation of proper values that is wonderfully comforting.

We visited Glasgow Cathedral, to which I had never before been. I did not care for it ; it was dark, forbidding ad cavernous, and it felt in fact like one of those intimidating Catholic churches deep into Spain. Reading its story we realised that it was (for various differing reasons ) a survival from pre Reformation days, hence its lack of Protestant ‘plainness.’ We descended to its crypt and then visited a nearby ‘museum of religious artefacts ‘ (Was this interesting? What do you think?) However it had a welcoming coffee shop. It also had a fabulous view of Glasgow’s necropolis, whose monuments dominate the skyline.

We climbed up towards it. Towering overall was a statue of a man in robes, dominating the entire scene. I thought, oh dear, surely that’s not an English king, one of the despised Georges? So we climbed right up to see who it was who had been according first ranking. Imagine my relief when we saw that it was a statue of John Knox. And even though he wrote about the ‘monstrous regiment of women’ he’s one of our own, and I was glad to see him.

This city doesn’t disappoint. Let Glasgow flourish!