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London Open House

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This weekend was London Open House and despite already suffering from back to school lurgy, I was determined to make the most of it and have a look at some places I would never normally have access to. Top of my list was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has a fantastic late Victorian interior, and was, unbelievably, almost demolished in the 1960s after falling into considerable disrepair. Thankfully sensible people stepped in and it has now been fully restored. We were allowed to see all the formal state rooms, including the impressive, glass ceilinged Durbar Court, part of the old India Office, which is a real monument to Victorian Imperial values and a truly breathtaking space, and the amazing Grand Staircase, with beautiful wall murals and ceiling paintings celebrating Britain’s virtues. It’s a real feast for the eyes, and there was also the added sense of excitement and interest in knowing I was walking in rooms where so many significant decisions and treaties have been made throughout history. I also really enjoyed reading the information panels on the realities of diplomatic life; I once had notions of being a foreign diplomat myself, but now I’ve read what it’s like to live in a hut in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rats and kept awake by mangoes falling on my head in the night, I think teaching was the right choice!

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After spending a good hour at the FCO, I walked a little further down Whitehall to see the Banqueting House, the last surviving wing of the once great Palace of Whitehall that largely burned down in the 17th century. It’s not particularly much to look at – it’s an early example of Palladian architecture and has some lovely ceiling paintings, but it’s not heavily decorated or filled with treasures. However, what makes it special is that it was the place from where Charles I walked to his execution, and as I have always had a bit of a soft spot for poor Charles, it was quite special to be in the place where he breathed his last. There was also lots of information on masques at court in the 16th and 17th centuries, which was very interesting, and the Banqueting Hall certainly does look like an amazing place for a party.

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I then walked up to Piccadilly, where I wanted to visit two of the scientific societies, the Linnaean Society and the Geological Society. Having of late become fascinated by the history of botanical and geological history in the nineteenth century, I wanted to see the places where the fascinating people I’ve been reading about read out their lectures and debated their theories and deposited their specimens, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Standing beneath the portraits of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in the meeting room of the Linnaean Society where these men’s papers on the theory of evolution were first read out was awe inspiring, as was seeing some of their belongings in the beautiful library upstairs. Even more thrilling was my visit to the Geological Society, where I got to see the famous specimen of Mary Anning’s icthyosaur, as well as the very first geological map of Britain made by the now unjustly forgotten William Smith. It was a wonderful experience to be in these halls of learning where many of the now common knowledge understandings we have about the world around us were first made public by the pioneering scientists of the nineteenth century. I can highly recommend a visit, and both of these societies do have quite frequent public lectures that are open to everyone.

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My last Open House port of call was to a location a mere twenty minute walk from my own front door, and that I didn’t even know was there until I saw it listed on the Open House website. Walking along a busy road lined with modern flats and houses, you suddenly come across a bridge with steps that takes you down to the Limehouse Cut canal, which runs through East London from the Lea river to the Thames. It is a straight canal that largely takes in an industrial landscape, but it’s lined with gaily painted narrowboats and willow trees, and is a lovely place for a sunny afternoon stroll. I’ve walked parts of it before, but I’ve never gone as far East as I did today, and to my surprise, as I turned a bend, I came across the Open House location I was heading for: House Mill, the world’s largest tidal mill, and a 17th century gem. Like the FCO, it was almost demolished in the 60s to make way for a car park, but thankfully it was saved and is now a wonderful community space with a gallery, cafe and rooms to rent for all manner of activities. I missed the tour, unfortunately, but I still had a lovely time walking around and feeling as if I had just gone back in time by 300 years. I love that even though I’ve lived in London for practically all of my life, I can still come across new places to surprise and delight me!

ps. Simon and I have just recorded our first podcast after our summer hiatus – you can listen to it here!

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Period Piece by Gwen Raverat

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I love childhood memoirs. As someone who often rhapsodies about the sun-soaked halcyon days of childhood summers, spent lying spreadeagled on the cool grass beneath the trees in my garden, dappled light spotting across my nut-brown limbs as I turned page after delicious page of Malory Towers books in a heavenly haze of seemingly endless days, I find it a wonderful leveller that all of us seem to remember only the golden moments of our youth. Childhood to me is inherently seasonal: waking up to my pink-suffused bedroom in spring as the sunlight shone through the cherry blossom trees outside; running barefoot around the garden in the summer, the smell of the barbecue lingering in the air; crunching through the piles of leaves on my way to school in the autumn, constantly on the lookout for fallen conkers to pickle in vinegar and thread onto a string; curling up on the sofa with hot chocolate on dark winter afternoons. I don’t remember the boredom, or the fear, or the anger, though I’m sure I must often have felt all of those things. As I get older, my childhood becomes ever more a jumble of delights, and I find that most memoirs (other than the misery type, of course) tend to present childhood in just such a way too. I hoped for this view of childhood when I picked up Period Piece in a second hand bookshop a few weeks ago, as I’ve long heard of it being wonderful. What I didn’t realise until I started reading is that Gwen Raverat was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and so the childhood she describes, moving between the large houses in Cambridge populated by a myriad of Darwin uncles and aunts and cousins, London homes of more well known aunts and uncles, and the Darwin family home in Downe, Kent, is made even more fascinating by its proximity to the intellectual great and good of the Victorian age. What makes it so successful, though, is not this touch of stardom, nor the vanished world of servants and horses and carriages she depicts, but Raverat’s incredible eye for detail, her wonderful sense of humour, and her ability to choose the moments of childhood joy and rebellion that we can all relate to, no matter when we were born.

Raverat grew up in a huge house on the river in Cambridge, which still stands and is now part of Darwin College, with several siblings, a flighty American mother and a much older father, who was the son of Charles Darwin. Most of her father’s siblings, along with her father, were involved in university life in some way, and so much of the Darwin family were neighbours, and lived closely intertwined lives. Known for marrying late, the Darwin sons had their children at about the same time, which made a merry gang of cousins with whom young Gwen could rampage freely about the streets of Cambridge. She describes a city that seems an impossibility now; still largely rural, surrounded by fields and meadows filled with sheep and cows, streets lined with tumbledown cottages, large mills and granaries, and all of it connected by the river, which many people still used as the most convenient way of getting around rather than taking a horse and carriage into the congested centre, clogged with chattering crowds of gowned students. However, it was the descriptions of the minutiae of daily life that delighted me the most, from the specifics of just how many underclothes people used to wear to the etiquette of dinner parties, to what was eaten at lunchtime to how often people went shopping, this is an invaluable resource for understanding the everyday lifestyle and attitudes of the late nineteenth century middle class. What is so amazing about everything that Raverat describes is how alien it is, and yet still within living memory for someone alive in the middle of the twentieth century. To have grown up in a world where aunts regularly died in childbirth, where women did nothing but pay calls all day, where there was nothing to do in the evening but read or sew, where there was a different type of servant for every household task and unmarried women had to be chaperoned everywhere and yet live an adult life amongst cars and televisions and telephones and aeroplanes must have been utterly amazing.

With a wry and affectionate sense of humour, Raverat brings the eccentric members of her family and their circle fully alive. Her accounts of family picnics in the meadows, idyllic summers at Downe, listening to the plop of mulberries falling from the tree outside her bedroom window, endless hours of playing on the green-tinged river under the canopies of willow trees, sitting in fire-lit drawing rooms listening to the talk of bearded uncles and the rustling dresses of extravagantly attired aunts and watching the horse-drawn world pass by in front of her windows are totally charming and a truly fascinating and enlightening glimpse into a forgotten world. It reminded me very much of Dorothy Whipple’s frustratingly hard to get a hold of autobiography, as well as Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie; all beautifully written, magical tales of the wonders of childhood, which remains timeless in its delights and disappointments. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Scotland

 

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As part of my mission to explore more of the UK, this year I decided my summer holidays would not involve taking any planes. I might be kissing goodbye to any chance of a tan, but at least I would finally see the places (practically) on my own doorstep, that really I had no excuse not to have visited. So, an airbnb in Inverness booked (this wonderful place – so highly recommended), a car borrowed from my generous mother, and a friend recruited, off we went on our very long car odyssey from London to the Highlands. We stopped off at a lovely BnB in Ripon and in a hotel in Glasgow on the way, making the trip to Inverness over three days. I’d never been to Glasgow before and was excited to see the city, but, perhaps rather typically, it was pouring it down the entire evening, so we didn’t want to spend much time outside looking around. We did have a nice ramble around the amazing Victorian necropolis though – definitely a sight worth seeing! The drive up from Glasgow to the Highlands takes you through the Cairngorms, which is a breathtaking mountain range offering incredible vistas of heather-covered mountains, glittering lakes and green valleys at every turn of the road. Even though the drive was several hours long, we were so enchanted by the scenery that it went by in a flash, and soon we found ourselves driving along the edge of the River Ness and up to our cottage, which was perched atop a hill with magical views across a valley to the mountains beyond. Perfect!

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I could bore you with a blow-by-blow account of all the things we did, but I’m going to let the photos speak for themselves. If you’re interested in following in our footsteps, we went to Cawdor Castle, Culloden, Eilean Donan, Glenfinnan Viaduct (famous for being where the Hogwarts Express steams over in the opening to the Harry Potter films), Dunrobin Castle, Brodie Castle and Glamis Castle, as well as Loch Ness and general Highland countryside. We had a marvellous time and utterly fell in love with the wild, unspoilt beauty of the Scottish landscape. When you are standing amidst the heather, seeing your reflection ripple in a loch by your feet as the sun chases over the craggy slopes that soar above you, you really do feel the weight of the immensity of time, and your own insignificance, which I always find strangely comforting. This is how Scotland has always been, and will always be, long into the future; what I saw is what someone a thousand years ago would also have seen, and that sense of connection over unfathomable breaches of time is something that can’t help but be a balm for the soul.

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News of the World by Paulette Jiles

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When my wonderful friend Ellen, who took me under her wing many moons ago during my time living in New York, recommends a book to me, I never hesitate to read it. She introduced me to Marilynne Robinson, which is a gift I’ll forever be grateful for, as well as countless other authors and novels I’ve loved. Even if initially I’m not sure, I know she won’t be wrong, and so when she recommended News of the World a couple of months ago, I headed straight to Foyles and picked up a copy.  I was storing it up until a time when I could immerse myself in it, and last week I had a long train journey that proved to be the perfect opportunity. A slight volume, it holds a story that transported me utterly to the lawless, dust-baked valleys of post civil war Texas, where black-clad men toting pistols haunt the lonely tracks between rawly constructed pioneer towns and communities live in fear of raids from Native American tribes. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an old man, who, having lost his wife and properties in San Antonio, is now living a rootless, itinerant existence that brings him a kind of happiness. He travels around Northern Texas, moving between its rough-and-ready towns to entertain locals with live readings from the newspapers, which earns him enough money to stay fed and clothed. After a life spent fighting for his country and working hard to support his family in his printing business, he is enjoying the sense of having no responsibilities, and only himself to please. However, when he bumps into an old friend who offers him 50 dollars to take a young girl who has been kidnapped by the Kiowa, a Native American tribe, back to her family several hundred miles away in San Antonio, he reluctantly accepts out of a sense of obligation. Little does he know that this encounter will go on to transform his life.

Johanna Leonberger was kidnapped by the Kiowa after a raid on her family’s homestead four years earlier. Her parents and sister were brutally murdered, and she was taken as a prize, being brought up as a member of the tribe by a new mother. Now ten, she only speaks the language of the Kiowa, and is a wild thing, terrified by the civilised world she has been brought back to. Unable to communicate and longing to be back with the only family she remembers, she initially resists Captain Kidd’s kindness and repeatedly tries to run away. Kidd, with a dangerous road to travel along lonely, lawless territory, soon wishes he’d never agreed to taking the child. Danger is lurking everywhere, and they are set upon frequently throughout their trip, with their lives often at risk. Johanna proves to be a fearless little fighter, with plenty of pluckiness and skill picked up from the Kiowa. Captain Kidd, calm and resourceful, and fiercely protective of Johanna, finds a new lease of life in this constant state of battle. Gradually the two grow to love one another as they find a way to communicate across the divide of years and experience, and both will arrive in San Antonio very different people, with a bond that will prove impossible to break.

This is a truly beautiful story that slowly, tenderly and insightfully unravels the stories of Captain Kidd and Johanna to reveal two damaged and lonely people who yet have a deep, innate capacity for love. The rendering of Texas at this unstable time in American history is so vivid and colourful, and I could almost smell the horses and gunpowder as images of streets filled with clapboard saloons and boarding houses, and orange, cactus-studded valleys came alive in my head. There is plenty of action and excitement, but at its heart this is a story of people, and how wonderfully courageous, loving and adventurous we can be if we allow ourselves to live ungoverned by fear. It’s beautifully, sensitively written, and I loved every moment. I can’t wait to read more of Jiles’ work, and even if you think the subject matter or setting isn’t your sort of thing, I really encourage you to give News of the World a try. You won’t regret it!

Cornwall

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My recent addiction to the BBC TV series Poldark made me desperate to go to Cornwall and see the beautiful scenery that forms the background to the characters’ lives for myself. For those of you who don’t know, Poldark is set in the late 18th century, in the tin-mining community of south west Cornwall. This area is now a World Heritage site, thanks to the historical significance of the remaining mine workings, which are scattered along the cliff edges. Into the early 20th century, they provided a livelihood for many locals, and have shaped the landscape, with most of the towns and villages in the region built by tin miners for themselves and their families. When my best friend and I discovered that we could go and visit the mines where they filmed Poldark, we were sold on our summer holiday destination; booking ourselves a lovely airbnb in the old mining town of St Just, we packed up and headed down for a blissful week of exploring. We’d both been to Cornwall frequently as children, but never as adults, and we couldn’t wait to rediscover the dramatic cliffs, sandy beaches and rolling countryside we remembered so fondly.

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It’s a long drive to Cornwall from London: much longer than I had remembered, but we were fortunate to have a beautiful sunny day for our journey, and made two lovely stop-offs at National Trust properties in Dorset and Devon on our way, Montacute House and Castle Drogo, which are both fantastic places that deserve posts of their own. We arrived in St Ives in the early evening; this fishing harbour is one of the most popular destinations in Cornwall thanks to its history as an artists’ community, and it’s easy to see why when you arrive. The light there is incredible, and the sea wraps around the town’s sort of H shape formation, giving it two broad, sandy beaches and grassy cliffs to climb for fantastic, far-reaching views. We were too late to visit the St Ives branch of the Tate, but we were definitely right on time for a fish and chip supper on the beach, and we tucked in while watching the sun start to go down on the horizon. It was a perfect start to our holiday, and we thought we couldn’t do any better until we started driving to our cottage, and began spotting the ruins of mines on our way. When we walked into the cottage and looked at the view from the window, we were in heaven; not only could we see the sea, but directly in front of us was the chimney of a mine. We couldn’t have picked a better location!

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Our first day saw us heading straight to explore the mines at Botallack, which is where Poldark was filmed and is now owned by the National Trust. There is a very interesting display in the visitor’s centre to get you acquainted with the history and suggested walking routes, and then you’re free to wander around the cliffs at your leisure. A word of warning – it is wise to have sensible shoes. My friend and I didn’t, and it was a bit tricky negotiating the paths which can be steep and rocky in places, so if you’re planning on going, bear that in mind! We were enchanted by the old mine buildings hugging the cliffs, with the sea pounding so fiercely against the rocks below, and the sheer number of them in such close proximity revealed how busy and thriving this area must once have been. The cliffs would have been swarming with workers and the air filled with the clanging of tools; hard to imagine now when all we could hear were waves and seagulls! The walk along the cliff top to see all of the mine ruins offers truly spectacular views and is worth doing even if you’ve no interest in the history of the area. We loved every minute, and could hardly bear to tear ourselves away. However, we had an itinerary to stick to, and so on we drove to Porthcurno, a beautiful cove just around the coast, which is famous not only for its beauty, but also for the Minack Theatre, which is carved into the cliffs above. The sun was blazing when we arrived, and so we lay on the beach and sunbathed for a while before hiking up the cliff path to the theatre in order to see the beautiful views. It is one of the loveliest places I have ever been to, and I highly recommend it; we were utterly entranced! Later that evening, however, we got a lesson on how unpredictable the Cornish weather can be after checking the news; while we were sunbathing, just a few miles around the coast it was pouring with so much rain that a village experienced a flash flood and its roads got washed away. We couldn’t believe our luck, especially as we had planned on going that way but decided against it as we wanted tea and cake instead!

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Our second day was a little cloudy and cool, and threatened rain, so we decided to opt for an indoor activity. We drove into the middle of Cornwall to visit Lanhydrock, a National Trust property with some fantastic Victorian interiors. Nestled in beautiful gardens and amongst gorgeous countryside, it was a brilliant place to visit and we loved exploring the cosy, welcoming rooms and finding out about the tragic history of the last owners, who saw their prominent heir killed during WWI, another son made so traumatised by what he saw at the Front that he killed himself afterwards, and their daughters remaining unmarried thanks to losing much of their generation in the trenches. We had planned on making it a short visit, but actually spent all day there, as there was so much to see and do, as well as the opportunity for eating plenty of cake!

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Our final day in Cornwall saw us visiting St Michael’s Mount, which is a tiny tidal island joined to the pretty town of Marazion by a causeway that becomes impassable at high tide. Perched atop its rocky tip is a castle, still lived in by the St Aubyn family, who have owned the island since the 17th century. The castle isn’t massively exciting inside, largely because much of it is inhabited by the family and so not on show, but what is worth visiting are the incredible terraced gardens that contain an amazing array of exotic plants, as well as the castle roof, which offers stunning panoramic views. We had a brilliant time wandering around before the weather suddenly changed and the rain came down. The tide being in, we had to take a tiny boat back to the mainland, and then, amidst lowering clouds, we drove out to Gunwalloe beach, which features in Poldark and offers magnificently dramatic views across the cliffs. It was very windy, so we didn’t stay long, and managed to make it back to the cottage before the rain set in. Later that evening, before the sun went down and while it looked dry, we went out for a walk to Cape Cornwall, which is a lovely piece of cliffside by our cottage. The views were amazing, but the heavens opened, and we were drowned rats by the time we made it back to the cottage – the only thing to do was warm up with lots of tea and some Poldark on the laptop! We had such a fantastic time, despite the weather not always being on our side. Cornwall offers so much beauty and history, and yet we only had time to explore a tiny patch – I know I’ll be back again soon to see more!

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