Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Home of John Ruskin

Perhaps it was appropriate that we visited Brantwood on an relentlessly gloomy day. It began hopefully as we grew closer to the house. Across the lake we could see a rainbow lighting the village of Coniston. Rainbows generally come and then fade within moments but this one remained all day, hanging in the air as if posing for a painting.

Morning in Spring, with north-east Wind, at Vevey -John Ruskin
Ruskin didn't wait for still and sunny weather in which to paint:

It is not possible to find a landscape, which if painted precisely as it is, will not make an impressive picture. No one knows, till he has tried, what strange beauty and subtle composition is prepared to his hand by Nature.     John Ruskin - Modern Painters (1843-1860)

And the mantra of all who live in the Lake District:

'There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.'

In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.
John Ruskin - Modern Painters (1843-1860)

In every person who comes near you look for what is good and strong, honor that; try to imitate it, and your faults will drop off like dead leaves when their time comes.
John Ruskin

To learn more from or about John Ruskin:

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Walk From Grasmere to Rydal and another Utopian Idea

Dotted around Britain there are large country houses converted into Youth Hostels. According to Hostelling International:

The founder of the youth hostel movement was a German teacher, Richard Schirrmann. He was a believer in learning by direct observation and often took his classes on excursions and hiking trips. The hiking trips could last several days, and Schirrmann and his pupils would find accommodation in farm buildings.
On one of these excursions, on 26 August 1909, the group was caught in a thunderstorm. They finally found shelter in a school building in the Bröl Valley. The headmaster let them use a classroom and a farmer gave them some straw to sleep on and some milk for their evening meal. The storm raged the whole night. While the boys slept, Schirrmann lay awake. That was when he had an idea…

 Only an hour or so's drive North of Liverpool and we can stay in the midst of the 'fells' or mountains of the Lake District. Here are some of the grounds of our new home (for as long as we choose to stay).

But, as beautiful as the hostel and gardens are, the greater beauty calls us. We climb from the tamed lawns of Grasmere up a steep but carefully laid stone path into the blue-topped hills above. It is still early morning and long shadows show up the hills like actors on a stage.

The Herdwick sheep are not quite ready for visitors.

I watch nervously as some of our party head for what looks like the edges of solid ground

only to see that new platforms lie safely beyond.

We skim the top of the crags and look down towards Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's first home which was  ‘crammed edge full’ with his family and guests and then follow across a ridge to Rydal Mount where he spent his final years. Past Rydal Mount is a huge stately home called Rydal Hall on the grounds of which gushes a slender mill stream overlooked by a terrace cafe. We stop for a lunch of soup, paninis and cappucinos and then press on, downwards this time, to Rydal Water.
William Wordsworth helped to choose the site of chapel of St Mary in Rydal, where originally an orchard stood. 

There are caves mentioned on our map and we climb the other side of the valley to investigate. We didn't expect anything as dramatic as these. At first we thought we saw bats but then realised the 'Scooby-Doo' squeaks were those of swallows. This is 'Swallows and Amazons' country after all.

Rydal Cave where swallows swoop

Cosseted again by the homely shores of Grasmere, we visit the tiniest of shops (I am taking this photograph with my back against the farthest wall) for the gingerbread Wordsworth was said to have yearned for.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


 There are not many books where I look forward to their release date but I always check the shelves of Waterstones to see if any new translation of Tove Jansson's has been published. She is one of my favourite written-word companions and I miss her original and homely voice between books. In my virtual book world of teachers and she is one of the most important, alongside Ruskin and Proust.

 'Art in Nature' is a collection of short stories. originally titled 'Dollhouse' in Swedish. 'Art in Nature' proposes a simple idea. Why not pin a parcel to your wall instead of a painting? Then the mystery of the contents and your imagination can be the work of art.

 A caretaker of a summer exhibition stubbles across a middle-aged couple who are unwittingly trespassing in the grounds of his gallery, grilling sausages by the lake. They are quarrelling over a parcel. Inside is a silk-screen they have just bought but they cannot agree whether it is abstract or not, and if it is, what the subject might be. The caretaker having spent many hours contemplating the exhibition suddenly recalls some conceptual art - picture packages also displayed in the exhibition. He suggests that neither will be disappointed with their purchase if they hang it still fully wrapped onto their wall.

'Maybe you should just imagine what's inside, and then imagine different things...You just need to make the wrapping a little prettier, use more string, you know, fishing line or shoemaker's thread...It's the mystery that's important, somehow very important.'

 Part of the mystery must be that someone else has done the wrapping I feel. Here I have left three items still in their wrappers. Perhaps I will be brave enough to resist opening wrapped art if it comes my way and hang it as it is on our walls.

Friday, 24 August 2012

White Bean and Roasted Garlic Soup

This is such an easy soup that truly is more than the sum of its parts. It has the sort of flavour I had only experienced before in Paris. Read for yourself how simple it is and then taste how richly caramel and deeply complex the flavours are. No one will guess how effortless your preparation was!

White Bean and Roasted Garlic Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
1 litre of your best stock
2 cans of cooked cannellini beans (about 800g in total)
1 teaspoon dried sage
2 large heads of garlic

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C
2. Remove any excess papery skin from the garlic and place on a baking tray to roast for 30 minutes.
3. Meanwhile sauté the onions in the olive oil for five minutes.
4. Add the salt and fennel seeds and sauté for a further minute.
5. Add the stock, beans, and sage and simmer for five minutes.
6. When the garlic is cool enough to touch, gently squeeze out the soft white contents into your soup. Discard the skins.
7. Blend as smoothly as you wish or leave it as it is. I prefer silky smooth.

Monday, 20 August 2012

A Shape-Shifting Place

A walk to a beach through pinewoods - the untroubled home of red squirrel,

Across the inconstant sand-dunes - like trying to walk during an anxious dream,

Jumping the waves and then taking off into the sea-coloured skies.

The huge fish skeleton washed ashore is not quite as she seems.

So long since I last saw you,

I glimpse your shimmering peaks and troughs from under an umbrella.

Back through the dampened forest,

One last look.
It is wonderful to read a book so vivid and beautiful that you feel you have actually left the armchair and then reappeared only once the final sentence is read. Then you look around yourself and wonder what is next. 'Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach' by the poet Jean Sprackland was just such a book for me. After four years too far from the emptiness of a coastline, hemmed in by London suburb after suburb, this book took me far away and walked with me hand-in-hand along the Sefton Coast. I was a beachcomber again, finding curious alien creatures washed ashore; ship-wrecks hundreds of years old that rise up from their sandy graves only to disappear for another hundred years and five thousand year old footprints of humans and their ancient forest-dwelling prey - glimpsed for the very first time and then covered again for eternity by the shifting black pre-historic muds.

Today a train, not a book, took us to the very same coastline and I walked through the pages with sandy feet.

Thursday, 16 August 2012


Our little sun-filled garden
When we bought our house the garden was dwarfed by a tall, spindly sycamore tree. At the very top was a snug, young family with chicks. We couldn't begin our time here by evicting the previous occupants and so we waited for the young ones to fledge before removing the tree. Now we have a sun-filled garden and can see through our windows.

 Although the tree had been gone for a couple of months, when we moved in, worryingly, there were almost no weeds growing. I mean, if a dandelion wont grow then what hope do we have. On closer inspection we saw the tidy soil was covered in a thick layer of sawdust from the woodcutting, and under that, years of unwanted stuff - including shoes, jewellery, and many, many broken silver-glass Christmas baubles. Once we had cleared this layer we attempted to dig planting holes only to find that just beneath the soil is a complex labyrinth of tree roots. With stubborn determination we found some soil and squeezed in a rose, veronica, clematis, rosemary, chives, parsley, foxgloves and ten tiny little lavender plants (each a different species). 

 Last weekend we visited these tranquil gardens and almost completely changed what we want the garden to look like. The gardens are set against the backdrop of the River Mersey which changes colour and mood as quickly as a turning kaleidoscope. It was a very still warm day and the pools had become such a haven for dragonflies and damselflies. At one point we saw at least twenty darting across the Japanese pond. I took many many photos, trying to capture one couple of the larger dragonflies. One was red and the other blue. From our point of view they looked exactly like miniature helicopters, although with some advanced manoeuvres we are not yet capable of! 


Cornflowers and the River Mersey

A dragonfly in flight


Teasels and a hoverfly

Lythrum salicaria (Purple loosestrife)


Poppies and cornflowers

Corn Chamomile, Corn flowers and bees!

All the flowers and plants are native and as such are a haven for the local wildlife and in turn a haven for the local people. Such sympathetic planting is so refreshing and good for the soul! Come spring I know what we will be sowing.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Explorer's Daughter

 'my parents had spent our first few months in Greenland wondering why my hair never seemed to grow, until finally they discovered that the Eskimos had been cutting off and keeping my curls as protective amulets.'

 A couple of years ago we were staying with friends who live just about as far North as you can go whilst remaining on the British Mainland. Beyond their small village is a long stretch of empty coast dotted with rocks and lighthouses and then seemingly endless sea and sky. Cosily cosseted from the noisy winds that commonly batter the little settlement, seated by the log fire that provides water and heating for the whole house, my friend pressed a dated-looking book into my hands. It was called 'The Snow People' and written by Marie Herbert, the wife of Arctic explorer Wally Herbert over thirty years ago.

 Ostensibly it is an anthropological study, although not in an academic sense, of the Inughuit people of a small island, called coincidentally Herbert Island, in North Greenland. But in reality it is a far more fascinating story of a mother suddenly finding herself and her ten-month-old baby daughter in a completely alien culture to her own and living in the harshest environment imaginable. Wally's adventures travelling across dangerous and unexplored stretches of Arctic Ice seem straightforward when you read the challenges Marie faces. Their family home for two years is a simple hut measuring in total 14 feet by 11 feet usually intended only for visiting hunters. Kari remembers:

'The walls were dark blue and stained with old blood and grime, the windows were cracked, there was no toilet and an all-pervading smell of seal and walrus and general squalor hung in the air. 'We had to paint it immediately,' Dad told me laughing, 'to seal in the smell.''

None of the Eskimos speak English and so in order to communicate with her new community Kari's mother must first learn Danish and then use the Danish books to learn Greenlandic. The community, of necessity, is close-knit both physically and emotionally. Visitors walk in without warning and the village children are a constant presence, curious and enjoying the interesting supplies of English chocolate. Marie must learn to take care of herself and her young baby without being a burden to the community using traditional methods of survival.

  Their closest neighbours, Avatak and Maria have seven children and a well-worn path between the houses becomes testament to the familial warmth between the families. Kari calls their children her brothers and sisters and Avatak 'Ataata' - which is Greenlandic for 'Dad'. One of the saddest scenes in the book is when Marie, Wally and Kari must go home to England. Maria's outlook on life is so clearly broadened by her friendship with Marie; it is hard to witness the world suddenly become so small and claustrophobic for her again.

 Thirty years later Kari revisited her Arctic family and wrote 'The Explorer's Daughter' about her experiences, and best of all it is a story as engaging as her mother's.

 Kari speaks only Greenlandic on her return from her Arctic home to England at the age of two. Thirty years later she speaks pretty much only English. Alongside the joyful reunions of those who recognise little Kari as the charming little child they had adopted as their own, are many sad revelations as we see the consequences on the Inughuit people of the cultural invasion of the rest of the world. Alcoholism and global warming, which were already making an impact in the 1970s have had a devastating affect. Few families hadn't experienced a least one suicide amongst their younger generation and many of the local traditional hunting grounds are now unreachable due to melted ice.  Shockingly we hear that Maria shot and killed her husband Avatak not long after the Herberts' return to England.

 Kari returns to Herbert Island, which has now been abandoned by the population for the larger settlement of Qaanaaq (Thule). Her hut is almost unrecognisable as her one-time home, save for the shelves lovingly put in by her father:

 'the house was littered with belongings: furs, jackets, boots and provisions. In the main room a tin ashtray was filled with nicotine-yellow butts and rings of coffee stained the plastic tablecloths.'

 The hut has returned to being a temporary shelter for visiting hunters. But her adoptive grandfather's hut is just as he left it:

'Aata's faded armchair sat in the corner with his imprint still on the worn cushions. Naduk squeezed past me a plumped herself down in it happily chewing on a thumbnail. I took a sharp intake of breath in surprise, and realized that she had never known her grandfather. Naduk smiled, oblivious to my thoughts.'

The most important part - the photographs!

Kari's identity is so complex. She is neither English girl nor Inughuit, she never quite feels at home in Greenland and yet so many of the community consider her one of their long-lost children. She is able to see her community through the fresh eyes of an outsider yet know each member as personally as a family member might. The moment I closed the pages of 'The Snow People' and 'The Explorer's Daughter' I missed the people of Thule.