Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Gherkin: A 21st Century Fairy Tale Tower

More pictures from London for today's Saturday Snapshot because I had such a good time on my day trip! Following on from last week's 'Paleys Upon Pilers', which echoed a Medieval city gate and Chaucer's 'dream' buildings, here are a couple of shots of the ultra-modern Gherkin, which seems to have become an architectural icon. We saw it on the skyline from further away, but it disappeared from view as we walked along nearby streets. Then, as we turned from Leadenhall Street into St Mary Axe, wham! There it was! It was so stunning, and so unexpected, it took my breath away, and I just stood and stared.

Oddly, for such a huge building (40 floors and 591 feet high) it seemed smaller than I expected, even though it’s big, big, big… When you’re close to it the scale is difficult to take in: perhaps it has to do with that strange disappearing act as you approach, or a shift in perspective. Then there’s the glass, and that fabulous curved shape, and the slightly distorted reflections of clouds and buildings, and the way it pushes sky-ward. Somehow it all seems to make the building appear less substantial, less bulky, less weighty than impressions given in photographs. And it rises from a surprisingly small patch of land, squeezed in between roads and other older, more historic buildings, as if it’s trying to escape the ground which confines it, like a rocket, or a helter skelter.
But let’s not forget that the site has its own history. The Baltic Exchange, built in the mid-18th Century to protect the interests of merchant shipping companies around the world, stood here in the heart of London’s financial district until it was wrecked by a Provisional IRA bomb in 1992. I gather that originally it was hoped to save part of the building, and incorporate it into something more convention, but the damage was too extensive. As a rule I’m not a fan of modern architecture, but I make some exceptions: Coventry Cathedral is one, and this is another. I love Norman Foster’s design, and all those giant glass triangles and diamonds remind me of the leaded lights in Medieval and Tudor buildings, but whether that's intentional or not I don't know. And, perhaps, in circumstances like this it’s better to create something new and completely different, that’s true to itself, rather than producing a pale imitation of what’s gone before.
I didn’t expect to like it, but I do. I think it’s like a 21st Century fairy tale tower (and I’ve always liked fairy tales and towers), with ever-changing pictures playing across its curved surface. And it’s much, much, much nicer in reality than I imagined – photographs, drawings, even TV or video images, don’t do The Gherkin (otherwise known as 30 St Mary Axe) any justice at all. It has to be seen to believed.

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mummy - click to follow the links to other participants).

Monday, 13 January 2014

Ice, Frost, and a Cold Saint!

Today is St Hilary’s Day, traditionally the coldest day of the year, but it seems warmer outside than it was yesterday, when there was a hard frost, and it all looked so beautiful I wrapped up well and went for a walk along the canal, which is one of my favourite places – it’s always so quiet, and whatever the weather is like there isalways plenty of wildlife to be seen, and plants to look at. Yesterday everything glittered and sparkled in the sunlight, which was bright but gave out very little warmth.
In recent weeks all the rain has turned the towpath into a quagmire, but yesterday morning it was so cold the mud had turned hard as rock, and all the puddles had changed to ice. I had a wonderful time looking at the ice patterns, which were all different. Some were made up of spiky lines, while others looked as if some strange alchemy had transformed the water to marble, and they looked quite, quite extraordinary – such a shame one can’t pick them up and carry them home to keep, but perhaps the ephemeral nature of these natural artworks is part of their charm. 
arts of the surface of the water in the canal were covered with a thin tracery of ice, like scraps of some fine, delicate, lacy fabric, laid out ready to be stitched together and made whole. And because the ice was so thin and fragmented, you could see reflections in the water below, as well as reflections in the ice itself, and everything looked slightly distorted. It didn’t seem to bother the ducks though, because there were still able to swim through the ice pieces, opening up pathways which closed again in their wake. When the ice is thicker and more solid they skate around the surface, slipping and sliding in comical fashion, but we haven’t reached that stage yet this year. 
There were buds and catkins on some of trees and hedges (which seems very early in the season to me), but others still bore scarlet berries and dead leaves on their branches. And I saw a lovely, glossy male blackbird, perched on a twig in the bold, cocky way they have, but just as I got near enough to take a picture, he flew off! And I could hear birds singing, but have no idea what they are. Actually, I have a CD of birdsong, and this year I want to spend time listening to it, and if I focus on the birds which are common in this area, I might eventually be able to recognise a few of them. I can but hope!
Oddest of all on my walk was an orange and black plastic ball, caught in the bank opposite the towpath, and reflected in the canal.   The ducks kept swimming backwards and forwards at that spot, and dabbling their beaks in the reflection. They didn't seem to be able to make any sense of it - perhaps they thought it was something good to eat! 
And, before anyone asks, I have no idea what the connection is between the weather and St Hilary. I can only assume it was part of the Medieval weather lore which helped farmers decide which tasks should be undertaken at various stages of the year. St Hilary (whose name comes from the Latin for happy and cheerful) was a pagan doctor in France in the 4th Century, but was converted and became Bishop of Poitiers. He was exiled for what we would now call doctrinal differences, I suppose. He opposed a group of heretics who were favoured by Emperor Constantius II. Eventually he returned to Poitiers, but during his exile he studied, and wrote books and hymns to support his beliefs, so his symbol is three books and a quill pen.
The lives of the Saints fascinate me, and I like to try and dream up suitable celebrations for them, so I think St Hilary calls for a spot of writing – and ice cream!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A Palace Upon Pillars...

Well, I was going to post up some photos from my trip to the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, but I’ve had a day trip to London this week, to visit my Younger Daughter, and one of the places we saw was this fantastic ‘Paleys Upon Pilers’, so I couldn’t resist showing it on Saturday Snapshot. This was created as part of the celebrations for the Olympics in 2012, and you can find it at Aldgate, where the oldest gate into the city once stood – it’s thought the original entrance dates all the way back to Roman times.
A Chaucerian fantasy: The 'Paleys Upon
Pilars' at Aldgate, London.
There were various buildings here over the centuries, and between 1374 and 1386 the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (who was working as a customs official at that time) lived in a room above the gate. The Parliament of Fowls and The House of Fame, two of his early works, were written there, and it is these poems that inspired the Paleys Upon Pilers’, or Palace upon Pillars as we would call it on the 21st Century. Both poems describe strange buildings raised high over the surrounding landscape, and when you read them it’s easy to imagine that Chaucer must have been influenced by his bird’s eye view of the city, and the noise, and the hustle and bustle around him. 
Up on the roof... Or through the roof to be precise!
The wooden structure is open to the elements.
His poetic architecture includes a temple of glass built on pillars, as well as a wooden house made like a cage or basket, with a thousand holes in the roof. This is full of the ‘whisperings and prattling’ that men and women still talk about more than 600 years later - war, peace, love, hate, work, travel, relationships, the weather, food, the government… I like the way today’s Palace upon Pillars echoes the imaginary buildings in the poems, and the real buildings, made of wood, that existed in Chaucer’s time, and for centuries before that. The wood forms beautiful patterns against the sky, and the pillars are decorated in red, blue and gold, using designs based on old illuminated manuscripts of Chaucer’s work (he was writing before the invention of the printing press). And there is, apparently, a carved wooden owl up in the eaves, but we missed this, because we didn’t know it was there, which is a shame, because my daughter loves owls.
One of the pillars, decorated in red blue
 and gold, which doesn't shine out in the
photo like it did in real life.
 It’s surrounded by people and traffic, just as the old gate would have been, with travellers bringing news and new ideas to the city. And the ideas contained in Chaucer’s poems engage us just us much today as they did then. Our modern society is obsessed with celebrity culture, and in The House of Fame reflects on the nature of fame, while in the The Parliament of Fowls birds choose their mates and discuss the meaning of love. 
An illuminated manuscript of
Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's
best-known work.
Apparently the structure, commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Chartered Accountants, and designed by the architectural firm Studio Weave, was intended to stand for three months, but it’s still there, and I hope it remains, as a tribute to the past and present.  
By the way, if you’ve not come across these particular works of Chaucer (I’ve read the Parliament of Fowls before, but The house of Fame was new to me) you can find modern English prose translations of both poems here and poetic versions (which I prefer) here.

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mummy - click to follow the links to other participants).
We thought this information plaque, set into the ground,
was easily overlooked - but the structure didn't seem to
be well advertised.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

A Trip to HMS Victory

HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship, which led the British fleet
to Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905.
Way back in the autumn (it seems such a long time ago now), the Man of the House and I spent a long weekend down on the south coast. The weather was dire (it still is) but nevertheless we had a wonderful time, and spent a day in Portsmouth, where we looked round Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, which was absolutely fascinating. I took the camera with me, but stupidly forgot to charge the battery before we went. However, before it died on me I did manage to get a few pictures of Victory, which I’m putting up for this week’s Saturday Snapshot, as well as  some of Henry VIII’s ship, the Mary Rose (I’ll try to remember to post piccies of that next week). 
Sightlines: Once upon a time this gun (or is it a cannon?) would
have been used in war, and you would have seen a battle
raging outside, but all we saw was rain! 
HMS Victory is, apparently, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, completed in 1765, but not commissioned until 1778, and the facts and figures about its history and construction are amazing. She (I should call Victory she, not it – ships are always female, don’t ask me why!)  has 26 miles of rigging, and 6,510 square yards of sail and was designed to carry 100 guns.
Man and ropes! The Man of the House up on one of the decks.
 All I knew about her was that Admiral Horatio Nelson died on board after he was shot during the Battle of Trafalgar, when the British beat the French, so I looked it up and found that 27 British ships defeated a combined force of 33 French and Spanish ships, off the south west coast of Spain, near Cape Trafalgar. For some reason I thought Trafalgar was in Belgium, but I think I may have confused it with Waterloo!  
I have no idea of the technical terminology - I just wanted to
get  a shot looking up at one of the masts!
Actually, it came as something of a shock to see just how small the Victory was. It must have been so cramped for the 820 men on board, very dark and uncomfortable, and pretty dangerous as well, since this was a warship, and they had no guarantee they would ever make it back home, for they ran the risk of being killed in action, or dying from wounds or disease. Some were ‘pressed’ into action, but many more had chosen to join because life in His Majesty’s Navy was better than life ashore – at least they had an income, and regular meals (however awful the food may have been).
Dishes and containers for the men were all made of wood,
and you can see the hammocks strung up behind the table.
And I’d thought of the men as all being sailors – wrong again, because there was a hierarchy. At the top of the ranks were the officers, and the non-commissioned officers who included specialists like the ship’s master, the bosun, the surgeon, the gunner, the carpenter, the purser (who was 67, which must have been pretty old in those days) and the cook, as well as midshipmen. Then there were petty officers, able seamen, ordinary seaman, landsmen who had never been to sea before, and 40 boys – one just 12 years old. In addition to that there were four Royal Marine officers and 149 marines, who were a sea-based unit of soldiers.
A close-up view of a hammock... not at all what I imagined.
It’s the details about the men who lived and worked on board that I found most interesting. There’s masses of information about them as you walk around, and the most charming serving naval officers act as guides, to answer questions and explain what went on 200 years ago. The narrow hammocks, made from strong material, with proper sides were another surprise – they in no way resembled the flat, swinging, knotted string bedding of my imagination. But they must have been difficult to get into, and they were not very big. I think they are about 16 inches wide, so those Georgian sailors must have been jolly fit, and jolly thin! 
The galley: I reckon this is smaller than my kitchen!
And I never dreamed the galley would be so small! It was dwarfed by the huge iron cooking range - however did anyone ever manage to cater for almost 1,000 men in that confined space? And what about the chickens and pigs kept on board to provide some fresh food!
The cooking range - would you like to cook on that? At sea?
In rough weather? What with this, and lanterns, and candles,
and all gunpowder on board I'm amazed there was never a
fire or explosion!
Even more astonishing are the Admiral’s quarters, which are positively luxurious compared to the space where the ordinary crew members slept and ate.  Nelson’s bed, or ‘cot’ as it was called, looks bigger and more comfortable than the hammocks used by the crew, and was hung with drapery embroidered by Lady Emma Hamilton (a replica is on display). And his dining room wouldn’t have looked out of place in an elegant stately home of the period, with fashionable furniture, delicate china and fragile glassware – I dread to think what the breakage rate must have been like in rough weather! 
Part of the Admiral's Quarters.
However, life for the men was much less grand: they had to make do with mugs and platters made from wood, which had the advantage of being cheap, and unbreakable. Breakfast was normally cold oatmeal porridge, and there was often some kind of stew, made with salt meat, in the middle of the day, while the evening meal was more likely to be ship’s biscuits and cheese.
Men had chests to store their possessions - the scarlet jacket
is part of a marine's uniform.
Fresh water went off quickly so, according to the guide book, the daily rations usually included eight pints of beer. That’s a gallon of beer a day – just imagine that sloshing around inside you all the time! When you stop and think that there were 820 men on board, all drinking a gallon of beer a day for the duration of a voyage, you can see it adds up to an awful lot of alcohol, which was all stored in barrels down in the hold. Gunpowder, food and water was also kept down, along with vast quantities of iron shot, and baskets of shingle, which could be moved around to ‘trim’ the ship and improve sailing performance. 
One, two, three... BANG!!! Re-enacting firing a gun.
The ship had to be kept clean, and the decks were scoured with ‘holystones’, which were blocks of sandstone, cut to the size and shape of a Bible. But we didn’t see any provision for washing facilities for the men. Perhaps they didn’t bother, because fresh water was in such short supply, or perhaps they hauled a bucket of sea water on board and doused themselves in that. And don’t even think about toilets. All they had was a bench, right up by the bow or the head of the ship… and there were  holes in the bench, open to the sea down below! Isn't that horrible? 
Leg irons, known as bilboes, were a form of
punishment. Sailors were also lashed with the
cat o'nine tails for things like theft or insolence.
As an unexpected bonus, our visit coincided with Trafalgar Day Celebrations (the battle took place on October 21, 1905 ), so we were lucky enough to see a re-enactment showing how a canon was fired - but without actually firing it for real, which was a bit peculiar, but there would certainly been an outcry if they used live ammunition! 

There were ropes and wheels and stuff
all over the place - you had to watch
your feet and not trip over!
We saw the spot where Nelson died, and a barrel like the one in which his body was ‘pickled’ to preserve it for burial when they finally got back home. I’d heard this tale before and always thought it was a myth, but apparently it really is true. They stuck the body in a barrel of brandy, and I think they added other stuff to help with the preservation – a bit like making brandied peaches! Thankfully, the barrel on display is a reproduction, and is about as tall as me, so it must be around five feet, which may not be all that big for a person, but is pretty large for a barrel. And that seems like a good place to finish!
Nelson, painted by Lemuel Francis Abbott.
*(Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda, at West Metro Mummy - click to follow the links to other participants).

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Best Foot Forward for 2014...

Gateway to the past - or door to the future? This ruined arch
is thought to be part of the old Friary that once stood in Lichfield.
‘Tis the First of January, the month named after the Roman God Janus, who had two heads (back to back) and was therefore able to look backwards and forwards at the same time, to the past and the future. He was the Guardian of Gates and Doors, Custodian of the Universe, and the God of Beginnings. Presumably that’s why our New Year has become a time for reflecting on the year that’s gone, and considering what lies ahead over the next 12 months – and it offers the chance for us to make amends for past mistakes, and create ourselves anew as better, happier people.
It doesn't take long to walk down to Tamworth Castle,
but it always looks glorious.
And that, of course, is what all those New Year’s Resolutions are about, as I noted at the start of January last year (actually, I've lifted the opening paragraph here from that piece, but never mind - inspiration is a little lacking this morning). At that stage my aim was to try and get fitter by eating more sensibly, with no snacking between meals, and no junk food, and to walk for at least 20 minutes every day. I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, slimmed down from size 16 to 10, and felt much better.
These boots are made for walking!

Having bought proper walking boots (with pink laces!!!) I explored the local area on foot, noted the passing of the seasons, researched some local history, and learned a lot about plants and wildlife, as well as clambering up hills and cliffs on holidays - which was a real achievement. And I halved the time it takes me to walk from my house to the local railway station, which I thought was real achievement (walking into town still takes me ages, because I go through the Castle Grounds, and keep stopping to look at the river, the ducks, swans and geese, the flowers, the trees, the Castle...).
I was thrilled to spot this heron on an
early morning walk.

I started recording the things I saw on my walks with a little 'point and shoot' camera, and enjoyed it so much I've progressed to a bigger, better, more complicated one (I'm still learning how to use it). I've had tremendous fun with this, and in 2014 I'm hoping to be a bit more organised - I'd like to take some pictures of my favourite places to show how they change during the year.
I saw a group of burnet moths on knapweed flowers
at a local nature reserve, and sat in the sunshine
watching them - my photo brings back memories
of a lovely walk.

But I haven't been very good over the last couple of months, and I've been very slothful and very greedy over Christmas so, once again, here I am on the First of January resolving to eat sensibly and take more exercise. Hopefully, it won't take me that long to get back into shape, and in a few weeks I'll be feeling happier and more energetic!
Birthday boots... I wore my
walking boots with a favourite dress
on a Birthday Treat to Oxford,
but it's not a  look I'd recommend,
even though they're so comfy!

First though, I need to clean my boots, and spray them with some more waterproof stuff. I must admit, they a lot scruffier now than they do in this photo, which is the one I took when I first had them, and I loved them so much I nearly didn't wear them, for fear of spoiling of them!!! I'm aware that pink laces may be regarded as frivolous for a woman who wants to be taken seriously, but they make me smile every time I look down at my feet. And the boots are so comfortable I love them just as much now as I did a year ago, and I've worn them everywhere - even when wearing posh frocks! I tell you people, until you have worn footwear designed to for walking, you have no idea how uncomfortable fashion flatties and spindly heels actually are.
Bust of the Roman God Janus, from the Vatican
Museum. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)