Last weekend I finally made a long-intended trip to Down House, which is nestled in the tiny Kent village of Downe. Charles Darwin and his wife Emma moved to the house shortly after their marriage, and it was the centre of Charles’ scientific as well as family life until his death. It’s been a museum dedicated to the memory of Charles Darwin since the 1920s, and now it’s managed by English Heritage. The downstairs of the house has been meticulously restored to show the rooms as the Darwins would have known them, including Darwin’s study, where he wrote On the Origin of Species, and the beautiful garden facing drawing room where the family spent most of their time, and that features an amazing grand piano that I was itching to play. Upstairs all of the rooms that once housed the family’s bedrooms and the children’s classroom have been converted into an exhibition space, where you can learn about Darwin’s scientific discoveries as well as the life of the family. I found it absolutely fascinating to see the actual specimens that he brought back on the Beagle, as well as his field notebooks filled with tiny copperplate handwriting, both of which provided Darwin with the inspiration for his ideas about evolution. Alongside these extraordinary relics of one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history are more personal and touching mementoes of family life, demonstrating how Darwin was just as much a father and husband as he was a scientist. Charles, Emma and their children adored living at Down, and it’s easy to see why. The house itself is light, airy and spacious; they clearly didn’t sign up to the Victorian decorating manuals that advocated rooms stuffed with hideous mahogany furniture and aspidistras. There are beautiful views over the gardens and surrounding countryside from every window, which is what attracted the Darwins to Down House in the first place; having space in which to walk and enjoy the natural world was enormously important to Darwin. The gardens were an essential part of his work too, as he was forever conducting experiments and observations in the grounds. The greenhouse functioned as a laboratory where he could study how plants were pollinated, and he spent years studying the habits of domestic species such as pigeons and earthworms, which his children delighted in helping him with. Suffering with ill-health for much of his adult life, Darwin rarely left Down House and it really did become his entire world; the great and good of the Victorian intelligentsia were frequent visitors, as were members of the local community, but the majority of Darwin’s time was spent with his wife and children, to whom he was devoted. The house was, by all accounts, a lively, fun and loving place, where the children were free to roam at will and everyone, down to the lowest servant, had an involvement in the scientific discoveries being made in Darwin’s study. I took a course on Nineteenth Century Culture at university, which sparked my interest in all things Victorian, and Darwin’s writings were a key element of my studies. I have therefore long been fascinated by him and the way in which his discoveries caused Victorians to change the way they viewed their world and their place within it, and it was such a joy to be able to experience the surroundings that inspired Darwin so deeply throughout his life. I love how quintessentially Victorian it is that such seismic ideas were germinated in this tranquil, unassuming rural backwater! If you too fancy walking in Darwin’s footsteps, it’s actually fairly easy to get to Down House from central London, as these days Downe village is part of the London Borough of Bromley and is in travel card zone 6, so you can use your Oyster card to get the train to Bromley South or Orpington, and then hop on a local bus up to the village. If you want to pack a little more into your day, the beautiful 13th century church of St Mary at Downe is well worth a stop, as the churchyard is filled with Darwin and Wedgwood family graves. Persephone Books fans might also be interested to know that Downe’s neighbouring village is Cudham, where poor Harriet Staunton, whose story is so hauntingly told in Elizabeth Jenkins’ novel Harriet, lived with her abusive husband. Plus, it’s a very short hop down to Westerham from Downe, where you will find Chartwell, home of Winston Churchill. There’s just so much to see in sunny Kent!
My good friend and fellow blogger Darlene made a visit to the UK from Canada last week, and it was lovely to have the chance to catch up with her in London. We had dinner in a restaurant on Charing Cross Road, which obviously meant that it would be silly for us not to pop into the second hand bookshops that were literally right next door. I fully intended on not buying anything, because I will be moving shortly, and goodness knows I have enough books to shift already, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that I can never resist a Green Penguin paperback, especially one with a ridiculous title, and so for a few pennies, Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop found its way into my bag. As luck would have it, I had neglected to bring a book with me to read on the train (because I am still wading my way through Wolf Hall and it is too heavy to lug around) and so I started reading on my way home. I was instantly charmed by the period detail such as the terrible slang ‘it’s a bally nuisance, old boy’, the kleptomaniac vicar, the formidable matriarch fallen on hard times and the rather Madame Arcati-esque eccentric local crime solver, Mrs Bradley, and, though the plot was clearly going to be ridiculous, involving more unlikely coincidences than you could shake a stick at, I knew I was going to enjoy every minute. There really is nothing like a bit of harmless vintage crime fiction when you fancy an undemanding read.
In the absurdly named village of Wandles Parva, nestled in the rolling countryside of deepest Devonshire, Rupert Sethleigh, the village squire, mysteriously disappears. Staying with him is his shifty young cousin, Jim Redsey, who insists that Rupert has gone to America, but no one believes this for a second, especially not Mrs Bryce Harringay, Rupert and James’ overbearing aunt, who is also staying at the manor with her son Aubrey. When a headless dismembered body is found hanging in the local butcher’s shop window a couple of days later, the assumption has to be made that the body belongs to Rupert, but with a wide cast of characters with plenty of reasons to kill Rupert hanging around, finding a solution to his murder won’t be easy. Especially when a skull is found and then mysteriously disappears, young detectives Aubrey and the vicar’s pretty daughter Felicity turn detective and find all sorts of odd shenanigans going on in the woods, and Rupert Sethleigh’s lawyer reveals that he was just about to cut Jim Redsey out of his will. In between all of this sleuthing, there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy the odd tennis party and charming seaside excursion, transporting the reader wonderfully to a world with a gentler pace of life, where no one seems to actually have a job and the summer goes on forever. Just what you need when you’re drowning in exam marking!
I love the fact that these Green Penguins are so of their time, and provide a fascinating insight into the life of the leisured classes of their period. None of the ones I’ve read have been set anywhere other than leafy middle class enclaves, where everyone has a flower-filled drawing room with french windows opening onto the lawn, a library and a tennis court, and social life revolves around the vicarage, the tennis club and evening cocktail parties. Perky maids are the vessels of a mine of useful information, the vicar’s daughter is always lithe, beautiful and unappreciated, and everyone over a certain age is either eccentric or odious. In any other type of novel, these stereotypes would be unforgivable, but somehow, in crime fiction, they work. This is humanity drawn with broad brush strokes; the characters are recognisable and amusing but lack the individuality and complexity expected of a more literary novel, meaning that they become less realistic and so emotionally engaging. This allows for the necessary degree of detachment in the reader that is required when reading crime fiction; you can’t allow yourself to like people who might end up being murderers, after all! If you gave me one of the modern crime writers to read, I wouldn’t like it; I find them all very dark and depressing, because it’s too close to the often sad reality of the world we live in and therefore not escapist at all. However, give me a gentle caper around a village peopled with vicars and eccentric old ladies who are trying to find the murderer of a wicked cad who deserved everything he got, and I’d be delighted. If you ever find a Green Penguin, snap it up. And you might also want to check out the British Library collection of vintage crime novels that are being republished with lovely covers; they’re a bit hit and miss in my experience, but always entertaining nonetheless.
Over Easter, I went on a mini tour of Scandinavia, stopping off in Copenhagen, Gothenberg and Oslo. Copenhagen was my favourite of all the places we visited, because it’s so diverse while also being so compact. In minutes you can move from the traditional canal side district with its coloured houses and fishing boats to the bustling streets of the main shopping hub, before stopping by Denmark’s royal palace complex and then hopping across to the permanent outdoor fairground, Tivoli Gardens. It’s an intriguing mix of so many different styles of architecture, and I was reminded of Paris, Moscow and Italy at various points as we were walking around. What’s fantastic is that there is so much to see and do and yet it all feels so spacious, calm and unhurried. It’s an absolutely perfect place to spend a weekend.
We were in Copenhagen for two days, and we packed plenty into our schedule to ensure we got to see the best the city had on offer. Our home whilst in the city was a houseboat on the canal at Christianshavn, which is quite a trendy neighbourhood with lots of nice cafes that is a short walk into the city centre. We loved staying on the houseboat, because obviously having your own boat has to be the ultimate dream, and we had great fun pretending to drive it (our host very wisely didn’t leave us the keys to the engine!) and revelled in our smugness when we sat on the deck at night with our wine and our specially selected playlist of boat themed songs, imagining ourselves the envy of passers-by without such adventurous accommodation! If you too want to enjoy being Captain of your own ship for a few days, there are plenty available to rent on airbnb.
One of the best spontaneous activities we enjoyed was to climb up the incredible spiral tower of the Baroque Vor Frelsers Kirke, which towers over Christianshavn and offers spectacular views of the city, if you’re brave enough to make the climb! On our descent, we popped into Christiania, which is very close by, and is the former ‘free state’ of Copenhagen, peopled by those looking to live an eco friendly, alternative lifestyle; it’s amazing to see how the people who live there have constructed homes and businesses out of recycled materials, and you’ll certainly see some characters as you walk through! I loved having dinner in Kongens Nytorv, the pretty stretch of the canal where the houses all look like they’ve been standing since the 17th century and are painted in lovely bright colours; it really is quintessential Scandinavia. It’s a must-do to explore Tivoli Gardens, which is the open air fairground by the station, filled with rides and shops and restaurants, as well as peacocks and beautiful flowers. I wasn’t brave enough to go on the biggest ride, the screams from which you can hear on the other side of the city, but if you’ve got a stronger stomach for heights than me, then it would be a fantastic experience, I’m sure! The main Art Gallery in Copenhagen is a real pleasure to visit, with some absolutely beautiful works by lesser known Scandinavian artists that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing, as well as the more famous ones, such as Hammershoi. I also really enjoyed wandering through the Stroget, the pedestrian streets where the main shops and cafes are, and going over to the fort area, where you’ll find the Little Mermaid statue sitting in the water. We had a wonderful dinner on our last night at Almanak, a luxurious waterside restaurant run by two chefs from Copenhagen’s famous Michelin-starred Noma, but without the ridiculous prices, followed by a lovely late night stroll along the harbour, where the innovatively designed glass opera house perches and there are trampolines built into the decking to help you burn off all the delicious food Denmark has on offer! I really did love every minute; Copenhagen was the perfect starting point for our Scandinavian adventure!
I think the Easter holiday might be my favourite. It’s short enough for every day to be savoured, but long enough to also feel like a proper rest. I might have a pile of work to do and the impending doom of exams lurking around the corner (sending my babies into that exam hall is just as stressful for me as it is for them!) but it’s finally Spring, my house and garden are full of beautiful daffodils, there are so many exciting cultural things going on in London at the moment and I am full of plans and prospects for the months ahead. Always, at this time of year, I feel like a corner has been turned, the winter and its gloom has been cast off, and I am left re-energised and renewed. So, what have I been up to during these halcyon days of Easter holidays?
1. I’ve been to Scandinavia! And it was wonderful. I will tell you more about it in subsequent posts, but if you want enormous blue skies, beautiful scenery, historic architecture, amazing pastries and the freshest, purest air you’ll ever breathe, then go to Scandinavia. Everything is also ridiculously clean, and wonderfully efficient. It was heaven.
2. I’m about a decade behind the rest of the world, as always, and am finally reading Wolf Hall! I’m loving every minute; I’m absolutely absorbed, and completely in awe of how brilliant Hilary Mantel is. I must say that I did cheat and watch the beautifully shot, acted and scripted TV series first (which is now on DVD if you missed it), every episode of which is pure pleasure from start to finish, and this is helping considerably with my ability to keep track of who everyone is and why they are important. I haven’t felt so entranced by a story in a very long time; the characters are haunting me even in my sleep.
3. I just finished reading a very interesting biography of an art dealer, Lord Duveen, who I had never heard of before Daunt Books sent me a copy of the beautifully produced reprint they have recently published. I love reading about larger-than-life characters who blaze their way through life by being utterly shameless, charming everybody and breaking all the rules, and Duveen seems to have been exactly that sort of person and then some. This biography is rather sanitised and turns a blind eye to the clearly illegal and also immoral practices Duveen was warrant to indulge himself in, but as an insight into the life of a fascinating individual and of the machinations that go on behind the scenes of the arts world, this really is worth a read. I raced through it on my plane journeys to and from Scandinavia, and it’s made me interested to read more about how art is valued, promoted and sold; Breakfast at Sotheby’s sounds like the perfect follow-up read.
4. I’ve been to see the Ladybird by Design exhibition at the stunning De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. Bexhill is a south coast seaside town, near to Eastbourne, that has sadly seen better days, though it has a fantastic fish and chip shop in Minnie Bertha’s, a nice array of vintage shops scattered throughout the back streets, some very interesting, if crumbling, Indian inspired Victorian architecture and a largely empty and expansive beach that is bordered with pretty beach huts. The jewel in the town however has to be the De La Warr Pavilion, which is an outstanding example of Art Deco and a real surprise to find in a place that appears to be so distinctly unfashionable. It is now used for exhibitions and also houses a very nice cafe and shop. The Ladybird exhibition, which is free, though not on for much longer, is absolutely wonderful and such a fun trip down memory lane for those of us who grew up learning to read with Ladybird books. There are numerous original illustrations on display as well as some fascinating information about the development of the brand and its enormous influence on the way in which children came to be taught to read in post-war Britain. If you can make it down for the day, do go – it’s well worth it.
5. I’ve been listening to some folk inspired music to get me in the spirit of Spring. I read about this band while in Norway, whose rising popularity has obviously passed me by, as I am the least fashionable person ever! They’re fantastic and their latest album Stay Gold is perfect easy listening for a sunny afternoon.
6. I’ve got a new job! Next academic year, I’ll be working in a brand new international school right in the middle of London, which means that I’ll be packing my bags and moving back to the Big Smoke this summer – I can’t wait! I’ll miss my students enormously and will be a sobbing mess when I have to say goodbye at the end of term, but I’m so ready to move on to a new challenge and to have the bright lights of London at my fingertips again.
I hope you’re enjoying the advent of Spring as much as me!
A couple of weeks ago, I went on a day trip with some of my students to the battlefields of WWI, in and around Ypres. Having read and taught plenty of WWI fiction in my time, I was intrigued to see the contemporary reality of the world of mud and gore depicted by those who experienced the horrors of trench warfare. Would there still be marks of the conflict on the landscape? Would I be able to recognise any of the places I had read about? Would I feel moved by what I saw, able to imagine the scenes of conflict that had once scarred this now peaceful corner of the Belgian countryside?
The journey to Ypres was in itself a time of reflection. As we drove to Dover to catch the ferry, our guide explained that we were following in the exact footsteps of the soldiers, who would have come to the port at Dover to catch their boats to France. Our approach to Dover was met with delighted gasps from the students, who all pressed themselves up against the windows at their first glimpse of the sea; for us, the prospect of a boat trip across the Channel was a joy, a treat, something to be celebrated. For the soldiers, the sea was a divide between the peace of England and the horror of war: a gaping chasm between a heretofore perfectly ordinary life and an almost certain death. As we clambered up the stairs from the car deck to the top floors of the ferry, the students rushing off to spend their Euros in the shop and race around the deck while us teachers retreated to a quiet corner to get our injection of caffeine and a precious moment of peace, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have felt like to get on board a ship and know you were facing a hell from which you might never return. When we docked at Calais and started driving through the flat, monotonous countryside on our way to the Belgian border, again, I wondered what it must have felt like to be driving along these roads in the back of trucks, hearing the sound of guns growing louder and louder, watching this foreign landscape pass by, and wondering whether you would ever find yourself returning to the home you knew and loved. How extraordinary that one hundred years on, this place, that was once a churning pit of mud and blood and rubble is now fields punctuated with clusters of suburban homes, peacefully sitting atop land that was a graveyard for so many hundreds of thousands of men. It doesn’t seem right, but then, at the same time, it seems so utterly fitting. After all, this was what they were fighting for; freedom, peace, prosperity. The right for life to go on.
When we reached our first stop, at Hooge, we had already seen several Commonwealth cemeteries, their uniform gravestones a constant reminder of what once took place here. Many are very small, and take up part of people’s gardens or fields; others are enormous, and the scale of the loss, represented by the thousands of headstones that disappear into the horizon, is truly brought home. However, I was not prepared for what I found at Hooge. There is a large crater here, made by a bomb laid underground, and not only can you go down into the tunnels made by the bombers, but you can also walk in a stretch of trench that still remains in its original condition, duckboards and all. I am tall; 5″10, to be precise, and the walls of the trench barely made it up to my elbow. I would have had to spend all my time stooping in order to stay protected, and even on a dry day, like when we visited, the ground was still a series of sloppy, muddy puddles that the wooden boards sunk into. It was incredibly eerie to be in a trench, and I couldn’t bear to think of what had taken place where I was standing. After just a few minutes, I felt claustrophobic; what must it have been like to spend days in there? It gave us all considerable pause for thought, and showed us a reality that literature cannot hope to convey, no matter how brilliant and descriptive the prose.
After this rather surreal experience of literally walking in the soldiers’ shoes, we went on to visit Tyne Cot cemetery, a huge Commonwealth cemetery where around 20,000 men are buried. We conducted a wreath laying ceremony here, which we all found very moving, before wandering amidst the graves. So many are for unknown men, and so many were younger than me when they died; it was really quite overwhelming to stand there and see these graves, stern and erect as soldiers, stretching on, row after row – the loss is just so difficult to comprehend until you see it like this, with each of those headstones representing a person. When you think that each of these enormous cemeteries dotted around the Ypres region just represents a fraction of those who died in the war as a whole, it really does take your breath away. I found myself feeling quite tearful as I watched the sun start to set in the distance, and thought of these men lying here for so many years, many never visited and some possibly no longer remembered, each dying far from home having faced a death I can’t even bear to think about. Worse than this, however, was the German cemetery just down the road. Understandably, the Belgians did not particularly want to give up much land to the Germans in order for them to bury their dead, and so, in a small patch of a Belgian field there is a pit where 25,000 German soldiers have all been thrown in together, their names inscribed in tiny letters on a series of plinths. The difference in the treatment of the dead says it all about what it means to win or lose a war, and the bleakness of the German cemetery made us all feel very uncomfortable as we considered how the German mothers, fathers, wives, children and so on must have felt to know that their loved ones, who had faced just the same horror as the Commonwealth soldiers, had been treated in this way. Our King asked our soldiers to fight: their Kaiser asked them to fight. They didn’t start the war, and they were just children, too. Surely they deserved more dignity in death than this?
Our return journey home took us through the rebuilt streets of Ypres, which looks just like an authentic medieval town, despite having largely been reconstructed from scratch after the war. We drove through the Menin Gate, a memorial to the soldiers whose bodies were never found, that was built at the Eastern edge of Ypres, over the road on which all allied soldiers would have had to travel to get to the front. It is still closed every night for the sounding of the Last Post, and if we hadn’t have had a ferry to catch, I would have loved to have stayed to hear it. As we drove back to Calais in the darkening twilight, I was surprised by how moved I had been by the whole day. I had thought the war had been forgotten here, and that all traces of it would be gone. I’m glad that it is still possible to come and understand the colossal scale of the atrocities man committed unto others here, and I think it’s so important especially for young people to see this and reflect on what it means to incite violence and hate. I only wish we would learn from the past, though; it never ceases to make me sad that, as my history teacher always used to love telling us, history teaches us that history teaches us nothing.