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Leisure Outdoors

An October cycle ride from north Cambridge to Coton and back via the city centre

Over the years I have gone for several cycle rides with my friend Nancy. These have mainly been in the summer and early autumn, based on our enthusiasm to get out when the weather is good and when we are not too busy with other things. In theory we arrange to meet for a cycle ride three or four times each year but in fact it usually turns out to be a maximum of two, accompanied by comments such as ‘where has the summer gone’, ‘can we fit in a ride before the weather turns’ etc.

Luckily cycle rides were not affected by covid as they were definitely in the ‘allowed exercise’ category. I see from my ever increasing collection of undeleted emails that we cycled to the south of the city on 30th September 2020 but have found nothing earlier that year. In the summer of 2019 we cycled to villages north of the city, a conveniently close area as both of us live in north Cambridge. It was this area that we also cycled to in early August this year, the first of our two rides in 2021. The route was to Histon via the guided busway then to Girton through some lovely, locally managed woodland, a stop at Girton church where I bought some jam, and back via a track from the new development at Darwin Green to Histon Road.

Our most recent cycle ride, on 4th October, was to Coton, a village to the west of Cambridge. It has been joined to Cambridge for decades via the ‘Coton footpath’ that runs westwards to the village from the intersection of Adams Road and Wilberforce Road. When the M11 was constructed in the early 1980s it crossed the route of the footpath so a bridge was built. As continuing development took place in west Cambridge and more and more university departments moved out of the centre, the footpath became an increasingly useful link, so much so that part of it was widened with designated separate cycle and pedestrian paths.  

Our cycle route started at Nancy’s house. Our route is shown by hand written black arrows. We went north on Histon Road then joined the track that took us to Darwin Green. We crossed Huntingdon Road and took a cycle path through Eddington, another new development, this time mainly residential, on the original site of the University Farm between Huntingdon and Madingley Roads. After crossing the Madingley Road we cycled through the west Cambridge site to reach the Coton footpath.

Before setting off there is a fair amount of preparation from pumping tyres to checking the route. The photos below demonstrate this, Nancy’s map followed by a picture of her in the garden before putting on her helmet.

We set off at a reasonable pace negotiating various hazards including ongoing work on the new cycle path along Histon Road. Where the path was blocked by machinery it was the usual situation – dodge out into the stream of cars!! For ages I have found the principles behind separating cycles from mainstream traffic intriguing – at many traffic lights and all but one ‘Dutch’ roundabout in Cambridge, the cycle lanes stop altogether which makes me think cyclists need to take to the skies like Mary Poppins (or risk life and limb joining cars, buses and lorries as they whizz through intersections and round roundabouts).

Once we were on the track to Darwin Green, accessed via a short stretch of footpath, all was well – lovely clear skies, a light wind and views of ‘about to be developed’ farmland. The light wind sounds delightful but it was blowing towards us so, as always, it had a surprising effect on the effort needed to cycle. The story goes that whichever direction you are cycling, it is always against the wind – or at least that’s what it feels like. Another factor that should have no effect at all in Cambridgeshire is gradient. We have almost no hills so perfect for cycling, but even a gentle slope makes a difference.

When we reached Eddington we bowled through it with barely a glance I am ashamed to say because it is a fascinating new development. In fairness Nancy and I have been there many times before and have seen the lovely wild flower areas, the sustainable housing and the award winning community centre, Storeys Field Centre (https://www.taylormaxwell.co.uk/projects/storeys-field-community-centre-nursery). Eddington is well worth a visit, via its website (https://eddington-cambridge.co.uk/) if it is not possible to go there in real life.

From Eddington we crossed the Madingley Road and, at my suggestion, cycled through the West Cambridge site, rather than taking a rural path along the east side of the M11. We had cycled that footpath a few years ago and so a new route seemed a good idea.

The photo below is of the point where we turned south to access the Coton footpath.

We found ourselves cycling for a short distance through an area that is clearly next in line for new buildings, with access roads leading nowhere and some areas of rough ground. Our route led straight onto the footpath, which at that point is single track alongside autumn fields (some recently tilled and others showing signs of harvested crops). The sun was shining and suddenly we felt we were in an extremely rural area. But this was slightly offset by the throbbing of traffic on the M11 a short distance away.

To cross the motorway we cycled up a steep slope (in fact I chickened out and pushed my bike!). This next photo shows the slope up to the bridge – this side has not been resurfaced.

Then across the bridge and down the other side (freewheeling on a smooth track that is much improved since the last time I cycled there when the surface was potholed and quite dangerous).

It seemed a good idea to take a photo of us in front of a Coton sign, to prove that we had reached our destination. The first one we saw led to Coton Country Reserve, managed by Cambridge Past, Present and Future. The sign was fairly low compared with us when standing – you can see the top of the gate behind us – so we had to shrink down for the photo! Coton Country Park is definitely well worth visiting but on this occasion we decided against and went on to the church.

Although Coton has many attractions for the 21st century including a very good pub and an excellent garden centre, for me the area round the church is the biggest attraction. Here are the traditional features that you would have seen for centuries including a village pond, the village green with an old pump and the primary school.  We were able to go into the church itself which was a bonus, and were fascinated by it and its history from the 12th century.

Leaving Coton we retraced our route along the path towards Cambridge and over the M11. The next two photos show this. I took the first of the two precariously as I cycled along – luckily there was no other traffic and plenty of space to wobble along one-handedly with the phone in the other.

The photo below, from the motorway bridge, gives a deceptive idea of the traffic because of the spacing of vehicles. In fact, despite petrol supply problems, there was a continuous stream in all four lanes.

Our route took us due east along the Coton footpath and away from the village towards the city. We passed many other cyclists and as we approached the eastern end of the footpath there were more pedestrians. On the left side of the path we could see the modern buildings of the West Cambridge site, but when we reached the end, and set off down Adams Road we were in an area of huge older properties most of which are now split into flats.

We crossed Grange Road and cycled down Burrell’s Walk past the university library (photo below) on our right.

Then across Queens Road to Garrett Hostel Lane and up and over Garrett Hostel Bridge, which was full of undergraduates in their gowns taking photos. The picture below is to the north, showing Trinity Bridge beyond the punt.

We cycled down Trinity Lane – a lovely narrow old area of the city and pushed our bikes down Trinity Street (it is one-way, the other way) towards Round Church Street.

The next photo was taken outside Trinity College looking towards St John’s College.

From Round Church Street we crossed Jesus Green to Victoria Avenue, onto Midsummer Common and along the river with the college boathouses on the other (north-east) bank.

We finished by crossing the river via the footbridge that leads to Manhattan Drive, through the ‘de Freville estate’ to Chesterton Road, and on to Milton Road, arriving at my house for a late coffee.

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Leisure Outdoors

Mainly Yellow Flowers, on Shetland in July

We normally try to visit Shetland in the summer. The islands extend about 70 miles from north to south and lie either side of latitude 60 degrees north. Days are very long in summer and on the whole the weather is kind, although summer fog and misty drizzle are common.

In the past we have visited in May and June and have seen sheets of bluebells, followed by fuchsia and montbretia which thrive. In gardens hostas are huge and completely free from slug and snail attack. So there is plenty to enthuse about for us Cambridgeshire gardeners, used to fairly dry conditions and hungry pests. This year we visited in July and discovered that it is a superb month for wildflowers.

The quantity and variety was huge and yellow flowers were particularly impressive.

The photo below is a typical roadside view. As we drove from place to place this is what we saw either side of us. On this occasion we were walking down the road (in an east-north-east direction) towards Levenwick Beach. You can see the cluster of houses in the distance that were once the homes of a fishing community. On the right is the typical profile of many of the cliffs on the east side of Shetland’s South Mainland.

Here we have buttercup and monkey flower.

And this next photo is of monkey flower, in its preferred watery habitat. The actual flowers are substantial and on many occasions the plants were growing profusely along small steams and ditches. It was possible to use the abundant yellow flowers to track the water courses.

We visited a lovely exhibition, ‘Bigton and Birds’, in Bigton Hall. It included poetry, paintings, music and film, all created locally and organised by Bigton Collective (https://bigtoncollective.org/). We were delighted to have the opportunity to visit and enjoyed it so much that we went two days running. The exhibition was brilliantly curated, including vases of wild flowers. Here are two photos of one of them – more yellow monkey flower in the centre of the vase and buttercups trailing in the second picture.

The next four photos show:

Silverweed

Yellow flag (yellow iris)

Meadow buttercup

Meadow vetchling

If possible we visit parts of Shetland that we have not been to before – and this time we went to Fetlar. This is one of the three north isles and relatively small compared with Yell and Unst. To get there we have to use ferries – which meant careful timetable checks and advance bookings, made online from Cambridge before we set off on our trip.

Fetlar is known for its red necked phalaropes and also for being relatively green (The Garden of Shetland). We set out to see as much as we could of the island and in about 4 hours we managed a wonderful range of activities (short moorland walk, museum visit, RSPB reserve + picnic lunch, church, beach and a restoration project). The photo below shows bog asphodel with tormentil in the foreground which we saw on moorland in the north east of the island.

We saw a lot of tormentil. The next photo shows slender St John’s wort with tormentil nearer the top of the picture.

And below, more tormentil.

There were many other flowers in addition to the profusion of yellow ones. Here is an eye-catching angelica.

And below is a sheet of flowers at Norwick Beach on Unst – tufted vetch and purple clover.

Throughout Shetland we came across a profuse and highly scented light mauve flower, which we identified as dame’s violet. Here it is in the foreground of this photo taken in the garden of the Old Haa, Burravoe, on Yell.

Collecting these photos together brings back the wonderful profusion of flowers that we saw. Next summer maybe the focus will be on blue and purple given the tasters in the last three photos here.

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Home Leisure

Zooming OR how to be sociable and busy when going out isn’t convenient

This blog is the first of mine with no illustrations. After a year of using virtual meetings I doubt very much whether anyone needs to see screen-shots of how to schedule a zoom meeting or yet another screenful of participants’ faces in their individual rectangles.

I first heard of zoom in April 2020 when a friend told me that it was a possible way for her daughter to continue her music teaching. This was a total surprise to me for a variety of reasons. Firstly, how do you play music with other people online? And secondly what is zoom anyway? Is it another version of skype or what?

In no time at all we were all trying it out.

But there were so many things to learn. Do you need to pay? What does ‘turn on original sound’ mean? How do you avoid having one person (the one who made a noise, maybe you even) filling up your screen when you want to see all the people in the zoom call? Don’t all speak at once – raise a hand. Use chat, etc. etc.

Here are a few familiar scenarios: ‘you’re muted’, ‘we can’t see you’, ‘you’ve frozen’, ‘you’re sharing your screen’, ‘you’re still not sharing your screen’, ‘sorry, I was distracted and forgot to let you in’. In some groups faffing about with unfamiliar buttons can cause a big delay but I have been in other zoom calls that have run incredibly smoothly. It depends partly on the confidence and skill of the person running the meeting and also on their ability to manage (or even sweep aside) the problems that others are experiencing.

At the start I printed out an article from The Times that explained the basics of all the online meeting platforms. The zoom section told me about background view (messy kitchen with washing up in sight versus neat study lined with erudite books!), angle of the screen and distance from it etc. It also provided details on setting up a (free) account, then scheduling meetings. So in theory all was set for a successful first meeting. But two thirds of my life passed without using computers at all so getting zoom right first time was not instinctive. It is incredibly impressive how many over 65 year olds are now totally competent zoom users when previously many of them failed with simple operations such as accessing emails on their phone.

My two sisters were also learning to use zoom so it was possible to test it with them before something more time critical was scheduled. They also helped when I decided to change to zooming on my iPad after a long spell of only using my laptop. Most importantly, at an early stage they pointed out that they could barely hear me when I used my laptop (admittedly it is 8 years old now), so IT savvy son Jim immediately lent me a hand held mic. I now have a fully functioning system with a choice of (hand free) mics depending on whether it is just me (headphones) or Patrick joins me and we both participate.

That’s enough background….

So what do I use zoom for? First and foremost, I do not sit and listen to lectures and talks, although I could as there are plenty available. My two main uses of zoom have been to keep in contact with people who I’ve not been able to meet and to play and sing in music groups.

Over the months I have had zoom teas and coffees with friends. We log in and have cake/biscuits and tea/coffee. This is a good relaxing starting point for talking about whatever we like, from books, to families, to walks we have done and so on.

As for my family, zoom has been an excellent way to keep in touch whether with those living far away or locally (when lockdown and/or weather means we can’t meet, even in the garden). One of the highlights was a zoom session on Boxing Day afternoon with 27 members of the family, including 8 children who made intermittent appearances. Henry and his family in Canada were travelling in the car on the way for a day of winter outdoor activities so we could see them bowling along as we all talked. The rest of us in the UK were in our respective homes. We have never had so many of us ‘in one place’ at Christmas.

Now for music – this normally depends on having people in the same room so they can see and hear each other as they play or sing together. When we are all housebound, as we have been during the covid months, this cannot happen.  Over zoom it is possible to hear people, as long as it is one person at a time. So playing or singing together in the normal way is impossible. However it is possible to play duets as a friend and I discovered. One of us plays, unmuted and the other one mutes and plays their part at the same time which creates a feeling of playing in the normal way. The significant difference of course is that the unmuted player cannot hear the other part and has to lead fairly confidently so player two can follow. That is why swapping over works – each person has a chance to lead (unmuted) and to play as though it were the real thing (muted). It takes a bit of practice but after a while it works.

With more than 2 people playing or singing the arrangement has to be different. Basically there has to be a ‘backing track’ to play along with. Now we have had over a year of this all the ‘backing tracks’ are relatively sophisticated. For the madrigal group that I sing with the organiser has perfected her IT skills and has collected a large number of pieces many of which are backed by accompaniments that she has created herself. We mute and sing our own parts as the music plays. It is a golden opportunity to try other parts too. I am normally soprano (top line, often with the tune) but have taken this chance to sing an underneath part, generally alto.

The recorder group that I help to run started with some fairly unsophisticated short zoom sessions. They were short because, with three or more participants, a ‘meeting’ held by someone without a zoom licence is restricted to about 40 minutes. They were unsophisticated as the best ‘backing tracks’ that we had were from choral wiki so we were adapting madrigals etc for recorders to play. However things swiftly changed thanks to two members of the group who became skilled making backing tracks and producing properly written out music for recorder ensemble on their computers. To add to this one of the country’s leading recorder players decided to produce pieces for recorder ensemble on a weekly basis that she conducted and assembled by playing all the parts. There is now a stunning collection that has made playing the recorder via zoom a really enjoyable (albeit different) experience.

There are other groups that I have joined via zoom over the past year. Two of them (a book group and a discussion group on biographies) are part of U3AC, an organisation that quickly took to zoom with a very large number of most successful courses, events, talks etc. Although some people do not like meeting online, there has been a very high level of attendance for many activities such as lectures (which previously involved travelling to the venue then the nightmare of finding parking). If we have to be locked down then it is wonderful to have some way to see and meet the members of each group even though it is virtual not face to face. There have been several initiatives to replace real socialising such as an informal zoom session instead of going to the coffee shop with friends after the ‘biographies’ discussions.

I have also been involved in a weekly discussion group (7-10 members) that focussed on outdoors.  It was a collaborative arrangement where everyone contributed their thoughts and ideas. We all became skilled at screen sharing our presentations as well as photos and videos. A group this size meant that there was time for everyone to speak in the 90 minutes sessions whereas very large groups can be less interactive.

There have been several one-off zoom sessions that I have joined over the year including a talk by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, a local quiz and a concert. It is a remarkably good way to keep in touch with what is going on and to enjoy a variety of activities that otherwise would be unavailable when venues of all types are closed.

Many people I know have done zoom exercise classes for pilates, yoga, dance etc. My exercise has taken the form of working in the garden and allotment, and when possible some walks – so nothing on zoom. Nor have I used zoom for teaching or playing games with friends online, useful/fun though that can be.

I am very keen for the benefits of zoom to continue after the constraints linked to this coronavirus pandemic have gone. When it is difficult to travel, whether long distances or just locally, zoom can be great. It is also a very good way to interact with people with no risk of any infection, whether a common cold or something more serious. And using zoom to keep in regular ‘visual’ contact with people is a definite improvement on phoning.

So what will happen in future?  Will zooming continue once it is permissible to resume face to face contact? I hope so.

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Leisure Outdoors

The Backs in Spring

In Cambridge there is a line of beautiful college buildings that have their main entrances (facing east) along streets in the centre of the city. At the back of these colleges (on their west sides) are gardens and open spaces that slope gently down to the river Cam. An area, accessible to the public, of grass and trees, criss-crossed with paths, lies to the west of the river separating it from Queens Road which is a north south route from Westminster College to Fen Causeway.

The view across the river Cam from Queens Road is fantastic with beautiful buildings, gardens, fields and meadows. The area is known as The Backs and there are gorgeous spring flowers which is why I visited it by bike a week or so ago.

First I had to get ready, starting with helmet and high vis jacket.

Then the bike, in the shed where I checked the tyres which were well pumped up this time.

The first leg of the journey could be in any town i.e. a residential 1930s street with the usual semi-detached houses and parked cars that you can see below.

However once I reached the river things changed. The photo below is downstream from the centre of Cambridge (north-west of the Backs), with a view towards Jesus Green, and houseboats, bikes propped against a tree and a gorgeous display of daffodils in the foreground.

I cycled on and reached the stream behind St John’s College.

My photographic technique is basic so I was pleased to notice the railings and bike wheel shadow, as I was putting my phone away.

And here are some of the wild flowers, anemones and primroses, growing there.

The next photo is the back of Trinity College with the Wren library through the trees on the left.

And below is a view with Kings College chapel on the skyline.

I cycled a little further on and turned east for a short distance along Garrett Hostel Lane where I took the next two photos, the second one giving a good view of the Wren library in the centre of the picture.

Here is the wrought iron gate into Clare College. Normally this college has a very open attitude to visitors and it is possible to walk through but a combination of current restrictions and construction work meant this was not possible. The flowers are always beautiful in the spring with sheets of crocuses to start with, then daffodils.

Turning through 180 degrees to face Queens Road I noticed the dramatic catkins on this tree. My guess is that it is alder.

The next photo (not brilliantly in focus…) is the famous tourist view of Kings College chapel with Clare College to the left.

Then I arrived at the back gate to Kings. As I was taking the photo I was surprised how many pass holders were going through despite the online arrangements for many of the students at present.  

Next stop was looking across to Darwin College from the back of Queens College.

Then a view from Silver Street Bridge with Queens College on both sides of the river (newer to the left/west, and old to the right/east) and the mathematical bridge visible in the centre.

I cycled home by a different route, through the centre of Cambridge and, as I rode up Silver Street there was St Botolph’s church catching the sun on its stone.

I took the last photo from the foot/cycle path along the side of Jesus Green where a stream (covered in duckweed!) flows past the back of Jesus College.

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Home Leisure

Books that I have read during 10 months of lockdown

I normally read quite a lot, mainly fiction, whether on kindle or hard copy. I am a member of a monthly book group which keeps me supplied with titles that I would not necessarily have chosen myself which is interesting. Otherwise I read favourite authors and books that come my way via recommendation. Friends quite often lend me books too. So I am never short of something to read. Also we have enough books in our house, collected over the years, to last me for the rest of my life!

Since the first 2020 lockdown I have continued reading and from mid-March 2020 to mid-January 2021 I read 57 books. Of these 9 were chosen by my U3AC book group, all fiction based in a real world context so no sci-fi or fantasy. 10 of the 57 books were non-fiction or mixed (for example Christmas anthologies) and 7 were children’s fiction.

When and where do I read?

It is a total luxury to read during the daytime. Sometimes I manage it especially in the autumn and winter as the days get shorter. It is also something I do on holiday but this year holidays have taken the form of three weekends away during the summer non-lockdown periods so not much reading time in total then.

Usually I read in bed before (or while!) going to sleep. Recently I have read first thing in the morning while drinking a cup of tea before getting up – a good way to start the day. The photo below includes a lovely picture of an albatross, taken by Will when he was in the Falklands. The bedside table is laden with books several of which I have yet to finish such as Clive James’s version of Dante, and Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 objects.

During the daytime the conservatory is a good place to read. There are comfortable chairs there, the place is full of plants so the air is often fragranced with hoya and scented-leaf geraniums, and most importantly, the light is good.

In winter the conservatory is too cold to sit still for any length of time so I retreat to the sitting room. The selfie below (a mirror image – one day I’ll learn how to stop that happening) shows a favourite spot on the sofa, adjoining the piano. Note the lockdown hair – hairdressing salons have been out of bounds off and on for months.

Now for the books……

I keep a record of the books I have read with a comment/note to remind me what each was about. It’s very easy to forget the authors and titles of books I have read and also the subject matter, hence the list!

Book group

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Violins of Saint Jacques

Simon Mawer, The Glass Room (my choice and presentation to the group)

Simon Mawer, Prague Spring

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Love

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

Olga Tokareczuk, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead

Salley Vickers, Grandmothers

Children’s Fiction

Monica Edwards, Wish for a Pony and There’s No Mistaking Corker

Anne Stafford, Five Proud Riders

These three pony books were ones that I had as a child and the paperback copies are on the tatty side as you’d expect after 65 years!

And at Christmas, regular favourites:

Raymond Briggs, The Snowman, Father Christmas and Father Christmas on Holiday

Shirley Hughes, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas

Non-fiction

John Julius Norwich, An English Christmas

Rosemary Sutcliffe, The Iliad

Ed: Simon Rae, Faber Book of Christmas

Aida Edemariam, The Wife’s Tale

Bill Bryson, The Body – A Guide for Occupants (serious content but really good fun to read!)

F. Mistral, translated by George Wicken, Memoirs

Howard Goodall, Big Bangs (a fascinating read about five major developments in the history of music)

Jan Struther, Try Anything Twice

Mary Anne Ochota, Hidden Histories

Ann Baer, Medieval Woman

Fiction

Here are a few snippets of information about some of the fiction books I have read.

Location is very important to me so I really enjoyed:

Anne Cleeves, Dead Water and Thin Air – two detective stories set in Shetland

Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice

Salley Vickers, Miss Garnett’s Angel (also set in Venice)

Rory Clements, Corpus (a thriller set in Cambridge)

Fiona Valpy, The Skylark’s Secret (1940s and 70s Loch Ewe – the naval base for the Russian convoys)

Classics

Elizabeth Gaskell, North & South, Wives & Daughters. We have dvds of films/TV series of both of these books so I read them before watching the films.

George Eliot, Mill on the Floss. I first read this in an abridged version aged about 9. It is definitely an adults’ book – I have no idea why anyone thought it was suitable for children.

John Galsworthy, Forsyte Sage vols 1, 2 and 3. I bought my paperback copies after the TV series in 1967, with photos of Susan Hampshire and Eric Porter on two of the covers. We didn’t have a television and this was the start of my habit of buying the book of the series I had not seen on TV!

Tolkien, The Father Christmas Letters

Historical and/or political

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. I read the first two in the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy a few years ago and lockdown was a chance to read the third.

Victoria Hislop, Those who are loved (Civil war in Greece). I enjoy Victoria Hislop’s books partly because they are set in southern Europe in specific political periods.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings (USA, anti-slavery and feminism). I read this for my book group and was fascinated by the fictional representation of the abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké.  

Robert Harris, Pompeii; Archangel. These two historical thrillers are set in 79 AD and modern, 20th century Russia – quite a contrast.

Simon Mawer, Prague Spring and The Glass Room (Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the 1920s-50s) both pf which I read for the first time before my book group chose them. 

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (Islamic radicalisation based in London)

Books ‘floating’ in the sitting room to dip into

What to do Today? – an account of zoom based studio activities from April to August 2020. I was involved in one of the ‘studios’, My Outdoors.

Future – a Scottish Book Trust compendium of writings; it is a free book with an introduction by Val McDermid and the first entry is by Annie Sturgeon.

Birds in Norfolk – Andy Brown and James McCallum. This is a gorgeous book beautifully illustrated with James McCallum’s lovely paintings. The text is written by Andy Brown and provides a wealth of information.

Shetland Wool Week 2020 annual. This is a fascinating book all about wool in Shetland and includes a brilliant selection of knitting patterns. The model this year is our daughter-in-law, Jenny Sturgeon.

So this blog is a whistle-stop tour round some of my reading matter in lockdown. Being stuck at home for most of the time has not been that arduous for me because I enjoy doing things myself, like writing this blog, as well as reading.

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Leisure

‘The Glass Room’

A novel by Simon Mawer

I belong to a book group that meets once a month. We take turns to choose and present a book and my name came up soon after lockdown, for the May 2020 meeting. The book I chose was Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’ that I first read, and very much enjoyed, in 2019.

Normally we meet for a face to face presentation and discussion in a church hall, but since March 2020 everything has been online. To make things easier, presentations go out to the group via email about a week before the online meeting. Knowing this, as I re-read the book I made notes, not on paper but in the form of an email to myself. This formed the basis of my presentation much of which is included in this blog entry.

I chose the book because I had enjoyed reading it and because I am fascinated by the house, a real house, in Brno. The modern construction appeals to me combined with the sloping site, looking west across the city towards the Spilas fortress, with the entrance upstairs and open plan living area downstairs. Of course from the novel we don’t know the real details, just what Mawer has introduced. Where the idea for this house (the ‘Landauer house’ in the novel) came from, and who had the technological know-how to make it work, are questions that the book answers, but are they true in the context of the real house? Unlikely.

The real house is Villa Turgendhat in Brno, Czech Republic.

The Wikipedia entry on the house gives plenty of details and includes photos. Its history is replicated one way or another in the novel so it is hardly surprising that the family who built it, the Turgendhats, took exception to much of what was written in the novel.

It is now a museum.

THE BOOK

The story starts with an introductory chapter set in the 1960s, then goes back to 1929 and ends in 1990.

Some of the characters:

Hana  ‘That woman’, married to Oscar a Jewish lawyer. She was a perpetual, close presence, worldly wise, modern, and a survivor, obsessed with relationships and jealous too. During the German occupation she met Stahl in a cafe (1941), chatted him up and was invited to be ‘surveyed’ at the Landauer house during which she made witty/provocative and even subversive comments. Later Hana was ‘the woman from the heritage committee’. Hana’s focus was on love, but she came over as a complicated mixture.

The family – father Viktor Landauer, mother Liesel, two children, Ottilie and Martin who were brought up speaking German and Czech (and later became through and through Americans). They were not religious, but Liesel came from a Catholic family (hence her church wedding and the christening of Ottilie). Viktor was Jewish by background so he moved ownership of his company, Landauer cars, into the hands of his father in law when Jews were threatened by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Lanik the chauffeur and general factotum, was devious. Once the family left, he was the caretaker still living in the house in the mid-1940s. He hoarded potentially valuable items such as food that formed the basis of a black-market business as the Soviet invasion occurred. By the late 50s/early 60s Lanik was Chairman of the district committee with responsibility to the party in the local district.

Viktor’s first meeting with Kata/Katalin Kalman, subsequently his mistress, was in Vienna, followed by visits to the flat where she lived with her daughter Marika. The coincidence of Kata being one of the small group of refugees that visited the Landauer House was not realistic nor was moving in as the nanny, but it is a story.

The house:

My main interest when I read the book was the house itself, the Glass Space, der Glausraum. It was known in the book as the Landauer house but also referred to as the Glass Dream, the Glass Tranquillity.

The windows of the open plan living area could be lowered down into the basement, ‘Viktor pressing the button to lower the windows’. But there was only one further mention of these amazing windows.

The house was described as a work of art, but traditional views were that it was ‘like an office, not like a home’ in contrast with older style towered and turreted houses, similar to the ones where the Landauers lived as the glass house was being built and in Switzerland.

There were interesting construction details – load bearing steel girders, ‘angle beams riveted back to back to make pillars with a cruciform cross-section’ like a factory; modern materials and heating from a boiler in the basement. Then there was the onyx wall ‘polished like glass’ – very expensive and with amazing light reflecting properties. This wall really exists and amazingly, given the actual history since 1938, is still intact.

Mawer also described interior fittings (tiles, white paint, ivory linoleum, fitted items) and furniture (specially designed chairs eg the Venice chair, the Landauer chair, the Liesel chair, and an extendable circular dining table). Apart from black and natural shantung curtains, woollen rugs and a sculpture of a female torso there was no decoration.

After the family left, the house was appropriated by the council, then transferred to the Third Reich to be a laboratory/biometric centre with 12 scientific staff investigating racial characteristics. It was visited, in the story, by Heydrich SS3 (who was assassinated in May 1942 – Wikipedia). The lab was closed down and machines taken to Auschwitz, then draughtsmen from Messerschmidt lived there for a year. Russians took over the house and after the war it became a gymnasium for children with physical disabilities providing recuperative physio.

The State committee for Architectural Heritage wanted to turn the house into a museum.

Place:

Mesto was the name Mawer gave to the city where the house was built, and where much of the action takes place.

There are some lovely descriptions of scenery, cities and journeys, as well as the weather (misty, raining and damp when visiting the site of the house; heat in Cuba; November fog and snow). 

The flight to Switzerland involved no check in, no hanging about before boarding, just an announcement ‘will be departing in 15 minutes’ and a walk across tarmac. Then there was the noise as the aircraft took off, shaking etc.

The family lived in a villa in Zurich then, after a week or so, in Geneva. To travel/escape to Cuba they left Switzerland by train through France to Spain.

After 20 years we meet the family again, in the US, near Falmouth, Mass. (Gardiner Road, Wood’s Hole which can be found on google maps!).   

Time:

Mawer gives very little detail on when events took place. However, much of the book is closely linked to real history and it is possible to pin down dates eg. Chamberlain’s 1938 speech. The family leave Mesto during the first half of 1939. The architect who designed the house visits them in Switzerland – it has to be late 1939 or 1940, inconsistent with a later reference to the fact that he apparently ‘fled to the United States in 1938’.

The only chapter with a date is ‘1990’, the last. This is when Marie Delmas, Marika, who was brought up by ‘sisters’ and lives in Paris, visited post-Soviet Czechoslovakia. Liesel tells us some dates when she is invited to Czechoslovakia and writes to Hana. The family became American citizens in 1948 and Viktor died 1958 in a boating accident.

Politics:

Politics underpin the whole book. The characters are caught in the ebb and flow of different powers during the first half of the 20th century, and beyond for those remaining in Czechoslovakia. Before the Second World War the women lived in a ‘protected world’ while the outside world ‘battled with recession and political unrest’. Oscar and Viktor talk about pogroms.

The new country, Czechoslovakia formed in 1918, contained a mixture of people, Czech and German in particular leading to tensions. Kata, from Hungary, was trapped in Slovakia and ran away with no papers to Vienna, which she was forced to leave when the Nazis invaded, so she became a refugee in Mesto. In the book there was an awareness, by some of the characters, of what was going on but irritating naivety by others about the reality of potential disaster.

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Leisure Outdoors

Autumn Fun

Summer extends into October and the garden gets a second flush of flowers.

The new grass seed germinates.

Rain helps.

The clocks change – lovely light mornings, and ‘cosy down indoors’ evenings

The gazebo has a battering in wind and rain so on a dry day, down it comes to sprawl in the conservatory as it totally dries out. The garden takes a good deep breath and the light levels indoors rise without the huge green barrage balloon sitting just outside. Plans for more hard standing, new pots etc – exciting winter projects.

From the end of September chrysanths have been flowering on the allotment and during October more and more come into flower there. Patrick’s chrysanths in the garden start to flower – beautiful large blooms in the most splendid colours. So we have plenty to pick. They last for at least two weeks indoors – brilliant.

Here are other activities – piles of books, ready for the next book group and borrowed from friends, a cabinet full of music, games on the left and a rug to keep warm on the right.

And the next picture shows a visor and masks, bottom right – typical of pandemic times.

Halloween

Pumpkins, real and emoji; will there be trickers and treaters? Probably not and anyway we don’t want to encourage them this year (helping yourself to a sweet or two out of a large tin might be a good way to spread germs….). Highlights – a glittery spider’s web card from 2 great nephews, lovely pumpkin soup for lunch, and the ugliest jack o’ lantern ever.

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Leisure Outdoors

Allotment Life

Having an allotment is a lovely way to get away from normal busy home-based activities. Of course it includes a lot of physical work. Even pickling fruit and harvesting vegetables involves bending and stretching, while digging and weeding (often both together) are more strenuous. So we have regarded the allotment as a way to tick the government’s exercise box during ‘covid summer’! However it isn’t all hard slog and the photos below are meant to highlight some of the more pleasant and less muddy aspects.

Allotment holders are often on their plot for a bit of peace and quiet, so long conversations are not always the norm. However over the years we have talked quite a lot to the people with allotments near us. We also talk with friends who have allotments in other parts of Cambridge, sharing ideas, comparing notes about water supply, how things are growing etc.

A friend with two allotments on a different site from ours gave us wildflower seeds that he had bought in Germany. We set aside a fairly unproductive patch as it would be ideal for wild flowers (relatively infertile with no grass to compete with the flowers). Here they are in mid-June. I am writing this in September and there is a second flowering for some of the species.

Below are typical summer crops. The potatoes are mainly pink fir apples, with a few charlottes that escaped the first digging. Weather during peak potato growing time was far from ideal – dry and warm to start with, a late frost, very high temperatures later in the summer and hardly any rain – so we were pleased with what we found. We grew several varieties of French bean and for the first time we have had a successful tomato crop (ie no blight). Behind our shed is a cultivated blackberry that has produced fruit for weeks. We grow mainly autumn raspberries and they have done quite well although they were set back when temperatures topped 30C. However the crop has carried on and there are promising signs for more fruit as we move through September into October. Sweet corn and parsley have been feeble – not enough rain is my guess.

The next picture is of one part of the site where we have successfully grown bronze fennel, more ornamental than anything else. We also had a small patch for peas (under the netting – now cleared and replaced by a sowing of chard) and successional sowings of beans that were still producing in September. In the foreground are new patty pan plants. The first plants are on a different part of the allotment and never properly got going. It seemed a good plan to try a second planting – but maybe shorter days and lower temperatures will conspire against us. The plants are much bigger, a month on from when the photo was taken in August, with plenty of growth and we have already harvested some.

I recently weeded the brassicas. As you can see below, it meant opening up the tight mesh that we use to cover the plants to stop white fly, cabbage whites etc attacking the plants. The mesh provides a micro climate which combines with the pest protection to make a good growing environment for not only the crops but also weeds and self-set potatoes (a few of them in the punnet). The Italian kale is one of three brassicas under this mesh. The others are purple sprouting broccoli and cabbages. These three should be ready to harvest in late autumn, winter and early spring. We have parsnips and leeks for autumn/winter harvest, and rampant self-seeded spinach and chard.

There are leisure and social aspects of the allotment which add to its attraction. One of them is that when we are there for an afternoon we always take a flask of tea and some cake. Pretty much the first thing we do is put the chairs out! When Will stayed in August we had our usual nice relaxing cup of tea as you can see below.

A finally there is quite a lot of sharing. Patrick makes a comfrey oil balm to rub on aching joints and limbs. Comfrey was called knit-bone and it has miraculous properties we find. P has used it before going to bed when his knees are playing up. The pain disappears very quickly so he can relax and go to sleep. Our allotment neighbour (Italian) has knee troubles and Patrick gave him some of his home made comfrey oil. As a thank you the photo below shows what was in our shed next time we were on the site!

It was a really good chianti which we much enjoyed!

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Leisure Outdoors

The Gazebo

We bought two gazebos about 10 years ago and they have had intermittent use. Quite quickly one of them went to my sister Caroline as there was no way we needed two, although initially that might have been possible.  Ours was used at a street party in 2012, and friends have borrowed it for various occasions. Essentially it is too big to be conveniently put up and taken down and it uses up a large space.

Looking down into the garden from our loft conversion this is what we normally see – lots of lovely trees, an expanse of lawn and flower beds and a paved area with benches etc adjoining the conservatory.

This summer, 2020, we decided that the gazebo counted as ‘garden’ and could be useful for outdoor visitors so we put it up on the paved area. It will deflect gentle rain but is far from weather proof if conditions are stormy.

So the photo below shows the new view from the loft conversion – a huge green tent – and even from the garden it looks fairly large and obvious.

Once inside, however, it creates a totally different feeling. It is difficult to explain but perhaps one friend’s description ‘the sultan’s tent’ is best – the netting and curtain effect is pleasant and frames views of the garden which is attractive to see.

We use it for relaxed cups of tea, reading, and also to meet friends. Not only has it made entertaining possible – ‘why not pop in for a cup of tea in the gazebo?’ – but it has also allowed some live music. Instead of playing flute duets over zoom (it works, but not perfectly) we can now play 7 feet apart ‘outdoors’, ie in the gazebo. It has made recorder quartets feasible. One memorable recorder playing session included rumbling thunder and during another a robin joined in as an additional top part. Even the ‘maximum of six with social distancing’ has been possible – a long table with three couples sitting in pods with a breeze blowing through has been sociable and fun.

The down side is what happens in wild weather. This photo below shows the effect of 40mph winds. The gazebo lifted with each puff and in no time it had moved across the garden. You can see the chairs and table still in position and the gazebo 8 feet from where it started straddling flower beds and lawn! It was exciting when it happened – we could just see it setting off from the kitchen where we were having lunch – like a light footed giant delicately hopping along. The very long pink rope (inherited from Patrick’s father – such a lovely colour!) was handy to tie it down temporarily.

As further winds were forecast we partially demolished the gazebo – just the top frame standing on half legs stood back on the paving waiting for the weather to calm down. Then back it went into full position but this time with some very firm ropes tied to nearby substantial shrubs. Below you can see two sets of ropes – the standard guy rope and the substantial pink one. 

There was so much of the lovely pink that we could tie it through the frame inside and string fairy lights through it. 

As the days have become shorter this has been totally gorgeous – eating outside on a mild evening under sparkly lights. The photo below of Patrick, me and cousin Elin, was taken by son Jim when he visited. We all love the gazebo – a massive plus side to the Covid months.

It will stay in place for as long as possible and next year will come out earlier, whatever the virus situation. Over the winter I will be planning the layout and planting so we no longer have flower beds under the canvas – a plethora of pots maybe?

Categories
Leisure Outdoors

Devils Dyke and Chalk Loving Butterflies

On August the 21st we went to Reach, a village east of Cambridge, with Will, our Shetland son who was visiting.

It is a very interesting place, on the ‘fen edge’ with a derelict quay on the north west side of the village at the head of Reach Lode, once an important transport route to the rivers Cam and Ouse and out to the North Sea via the Wash.  On the opposite side of the village is the north western end of Devils Dyke, an 11 km Anglo Saxon earth rampart and ditch aligned north-west to south-east. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Dyke,_Cambridgeshire

Over the years we have visited Devils Dyke on many occasions and it has spectacular flora and fauna, particularly linked to its chalk soils. The google satellite view below shows the section of the dyke nearest to Reach. It forms a cross shape (lower half of the view in the centre) where the dyke was cut through by the Cambridge to Mildenhall railway. This line went through Burwell, the village on the east side of the satellite view.

We walked along the dyke until we arrived at the railway cutting. The photo below was taken looking along the line of the old railway towards Burwell (we could just see the church spire) and the position of Devils Dyke is approximately at the telegraph pole. The point of our visit was to find butterflies and their food plants (not to study transport routes from the past!) and the photo below is typical of Will and Patrick both looking out for anything interesting.

This cutting is sheltered and has a rich flora including many food plants for butterflies such as chalkhill blues. The next two pictures show Will photographing some of them. He is patient and experienced in wildlife photography. His pictures come out well as he knows how to get good close-ups. My efforts are pathetic by comparison along the lines of ‘that was where the butterfly was but it flew away’, ‘you can just about see it but I wasn’t really close enough’ etc!

And here they are checking the pictures.

The photos below are some of those that Will took:

Pair of chalk hill blues

And below a male chalkhill blue

This photo is a male brown argus

Our return took us past this signpost – it indicates that the designated footpath is ‘Earthworks Way’ not surprisingly given that most of it is along Devil’s Dyke, a dramatic earthwork.

Once we were on our way back to Reach we noticed plenty of interesting plants and this profusion of sloes (blackthorn). Normally we pick sloes in order to make sloe gin – but it’s too early in August. Ideally they should be frosted, but that’s not always possible unless there are early frosts in November. By January/February when there are more reliable frosts the berries have gone past their best.

The ditch on the south west side of Devil’s Dyke is very deep. This photo below shows the shallower ‘ditch’ on the north east side of the dyke. It was a rich area of plants, butterflies and ants – we saw at least two anthills.

This very pleasant outing achieved what we had set out to do, to see chalk flora and fauna, particularly butterflies. It ended with a drink in the Red Lion in Swaffham Prior, on our way back to Cambridge!