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Weekly Photo Challenge – Vibrancy (2)



Well, Vibrancy again, and I think I’ve found the ultimate this time.

Poppies©Steve Moore

Between July and November 2014, at the Tower of London, a magnificent display of 888,246 ceramic poppies filled the Tower’s famous moat to mark the centenary of the First World War.  The number of poppies represented one for each British and Colonial death during the conflict.

Poppies and Moat, Tower of London, 2014©Steve Moore

Created by artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, the installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, attracted thousands, possibly millions, from all over the country and overseas, who queued for hours, often in the rain, to view the sea of scarlet progressively filling the Tower’s famous moat, between 17th July and 11th November 2014.  The poppies encircled the iconic landmark, creating a spectacular visual commemoration, and although thousands wound their way around the magnificent display, it was noticeable that most people were given to inward reflection rather than discussion.


©Steve Moore

All the poppies that made up the installation were sold afterwards, raising millions of pounds, money which was shared equally amongst six service charities.

Ceramic Poppies

©Steve Moore

I was moved, as was everyone else who attended this magnificent tribute to the fallen, and the poppies that streamed from one of the windows or arrow slits in the wall of the Tower, recalled to mind the words of William Blake from Songs of Innocence and Experience:

“And the hapless soldiers’ sigh, Runs like blood down palace walls.”

Poppies from arrowslits

©Steve Moore

These photographs were all taken by my friend, and London photographer, Steve Moore, who spent a couple of days there.  Steve gave me a CD of about 150 pictures – it was not easy choosing images to represent the Photo Challenge as my mind kept switching to the reason for the poppy display, but I hope you like them.  I wish I’d been there at night.  There is something about that night scene that  resonates deep within me.
Tower with Shower of Poppies

©Steve Moore


Night time at the Tower of London

©Steve Moore

Night time at the Tower of London (2)

©Steve Moore

Tower of London with stone Animals©Steve Moore

Photo Challenge – Vibrancy


road markings, Taiwan.jpg
Road Markings in Taipei – © Mari Nicholson

Trying to find just the right vibrancy is difficult if one decides to discard the “Fruit and Flower” file.  I nearly managed it but now one of the CDs on which there is an image or two I wanted to use has got stuck in the slot and I can’t remove it.  I’m losing patience so perhaps it’s best if I just pin a couple here and move off to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and come back later.

So, something different from flowers I hope, road markings on a road in Taipei looking down from a window in, I think, a Museum.  The Yellow really stood out as did the soft green of the trees backed by a darker green (not much dark green showing on my image, unfortunately).

Then it’s back to flowers again, I’m afraid, but the vibrancy of these exotic orange ones with their cushion of green leaves in a silver bowl struck me as I walked into a hotel in Khao Lak last year.  I’d like to take that flower arranger home with me.  Even thick-stemmed flowers always fall over when I try an arrangement like this.

Vibrancy of tropical floweers.jpg
Flower Arrangement in Khao Lak

© Mari Nicholson



London’s Hidden Gems (1)

Postman’s Park in London contains a simple but evocative Memorial to unsung heroes of the 19th and early 20th century, in the form of a collection of glazed Doulton plaques on a wall protected from the elements by a loggia.  Each of these plaques commemorates someone who, in tragic circumstances, died a hero, trying to save the lives of others.

What and where is Postman’s Park in the City of London?

First the name:  the park acquired the Postman’s Park name because during it’s heyday in the 19th century and before it became the site of the Memorial, it was popular as a lunchtime retreat with workers from the General Post Office in nearby Clerkenwell, long since demolished.

Situated between King Edward Street, Little Britain and Angel Street and just round the corner from St Paul’s Cathedral whose steps are normally crowded with tourists hugging backpacks and guitars and where the streets are full of bankers and financiers bursting with self-importance, it contains a gallery of tiled memorials to extraordinary people who were, nonetheless, just ordinary citizens.

St. Paul’s Cathedral – Mari Nicholson

The brainchild of the Victorian painter and philanthropist, G.F. Watts (1817-1904), a radical socialist who felt deeply about the dreadful conditions of the London poor, and who had twice refused a Baronetcy, it is now regarded as a Memorial to Watts who made no attempt to hide his dislike of the greed of the upper classes of the time.

About the Tiled Memorials

London Child Hero -
Plaque to one of the child heroes on the Memorial of Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, London –   Photo Mari Nicholson

A long, high wall covered with Royal Doulton ceramic plaques, decorated in burnt orange and blue, names, ages, occupations and means of death engraved on the tiles – this is a wall before which people have been known to stand with tears in their eyes.  Tragedy after tragedy told in a few simple phrases, bring to life drownings, raging fires, train disasters, and runaway horse accidents, in which these workers and children had saved someone’s life by giving their own.

There is seating under the plaques and the garden area of the park is a restful place with bright flower beds and a gently trickling fountain, interesting shrubs and flowering plants. Of special interest are the large banana tree, musa basjoo, which flowers in late summer, and the dove tree, davidia involucrata.  In fact, Postman’s Park is a perfect place for a lunchtime picnic.

In 1887, Watts wrote to The Times to suggest the creation of a park to commemorate ‘heroic men and women’ who had given their lives attempting to save others.  This, he said, would be a worthy way to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year.

His letter to The Times did not stimulate any interest, however, but in 1898, St Botolph’s Church at Aldersgate purchased land that had previously been owned by the City Parochial Foundation, and they approached him regarding the Memorial.   So, on the site of the former churchyard of St. Bolophs, there was erected a 50ft long open gallery along the wall of which he planned to place glazed Doulton tablets commemorating acts of bravery, each one detailing a heroic act.

One of Britain’s leading tile designers at that time, William de Morgan, agreed to work with Watts.  Their collaboration, first unveiled in 1900, is what you see on the early plaques when you visit Postman’s Park. 

About the Tiles and Plaques

London Hero = 60 yer old William Goodrum
Plaque to William Goodrum, a 60-year-old Hero, honoured on the Memorial wall in Postman’s Park – Photo Mari Nicholson

The plaques could easily be overlooked in the somewhat hidden corner of the park, but these beautiful hand-lettered tiles hand-painted at the Royal Doulton factory, when once you see them, live with you forever.  Each one tells the story of a boy or girl, man or woman, who died trying to save another at the expense of his own.   Told in a few poignant words, they nevertheless manage to paint a picture of a life unfulfilled that ended in tragedy.  Take, for instance,

  • the young Alice “daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer who by intrepid conduct saved 3 children from a burning house in Union Street Borough at the cost of her own young life”.   Or
  • William “drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed”.

The stories seem almost Dickensian until the very real tragedies these plaques represent hit home and one realises that this was real life, not fiction.  Life was harsh for those who didn’t own land or property of some sort in those days: violence and disease were everyday events.  Prostitution and child abuse were rife in late-Victorian London, and these children who died, many of them orphans or ‘indentured workers’, each and every one of them would have been working at some poorly paid job.

Reading the tiles one is struck by the occupations that don’t exist any more and the causes of death that remind one of nothing so much as a Victorian engraving – a runaway carriage of four with a child trampled beneath the horses, a boy in the Thames (probably a mudlark) attempting to swim to land with his friend in his arms.

Harry Sisley - London Child Hero
London’s Child Heroes, 10-year-old Harry Sisley, honoured here in a Doulton plaque on the Memorial in Postman’s Park, London – Photo Mari Nicholson

G.F. Watts and his Reasons for Erecting the Memorial

GF Watts wanted to use his art as a force for social change and his intention was to build a memorial that honoured ordinary people, people who would not have had a burial tomb at Highgate, Brompton or even St. Pancras & Islington Cemetery.

Watts had for many years collected newspaper reports of heroic actions and the plaques were based on these cuttings.

London Worker Hero
Royal Doulton Plaque for one of London’s Worker Heroes, showing the placement of the plaques side by side and on the row above.  ©  Mari Nicholson

It was planned to have one hundred and twenty tiles in place for the opening, but sadly, it was only possible to erect four.  By this time Watts was too ill to attend the unveiling and only nine more were added during his lifetime.  His wife Mary, took over the work and added what she could before her death.  Then, 78 years later, in 2009, the Diocese of London added a new tablet to commemorate one Leigh Pitt who rescued a nine-year-old boy from drowning in a canal.  The plaque reads:

  • Leigh Pitt, Reprographic operator, aged 30, saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself.  June 7, 2007.

Today you can see rows of blank spaces, although no doubt there were unsung heroes in the intervening years who were never commemorated.

This wall of tiled plaques to these forgotten Londoners is one of the city’s most moving Memorials and in 1972, along with other key elements in the park, it was Listed as a Grade ll site.

Postman’s Park in Recent Film

The BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning film Closer which stars Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen (based on the play of the same name by Patrick Marber) references Postman’s Park in that the character Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman) fabricates her identity based on Ayers’ tablet on the Memorial which the film character had read.

How to get there:

Tube –  Central St Paul’s

Buses:  4, 8, 25, 56, 141, 100, 172, 521, 242




The Violin Makers of Cremona

I went to Cremona last winter and two things from that trip I remember clearly: one was how cold it was, so cold that I had to buy a woollen hat from a street trader who charged me an outrageous €20 for a very inferior product:  the second, but most important, was my meeting with violin maker, Stefano Conia, a master luthier, an intense young man who makes violins with passion, violins that are bought and played by some of the world’s finest musicians.

Cremona has been important in Italy’s cultural life since Roman times, located as it is on the banks of the Po River, a major junction for trade and commerce.  The narrow streets of the city are rich in history, the red brick medieval towers and the Renaissance buildings shading the many statues of its famous sons, Antonio Stradivari and Claudio Monteverdi.

Statue of Claudio Monteverdi, in Cremona
Statue of Claudio Monteverdi, in Cremona
Statue of Antonio Stradivari, in Cremona
Statue of Antonio Stradivari, in Cremona

Today the town has 147 luthiers who still make violins using the template of the great masters whose common bond was a tradition of classical techniques handed down from the middle of the 16th century.  It is this tradition that is still being practised by Stefano Conia and others like him.

In his workroom/studio, Stefano explained the finer points of violin making to me as I took in all aspects of the space around me, the overpowering aromas of resin, varnish, wax, woods and other smells to which I couldn’t put a name.  His studio, evocative with smells from the pots of glue, wax and resin, is hung with violin parts awaiting varnishing or waxing, and the workbench is littered with tools of every description.  Juniper Gum tickled the nostrils and had a mind-clearing effect when I inhaled it.  Wood shavings littered the floor and had their own peculiar smell, violins hung from the ceilings and part-completed fronts, backs, and frets of as yet uncompleted instruments, sat awaiting his attention.

Stefano demonstrates his method of violin making
Stefano demonstrates his method of violin making

Earlier I’d had an insight into the history of the violin and its unique acoustic characteristics at the Violin Museum, one dedicated to Cremona’s sovereign musical instrument.  In this impressive building, there is a stunning collection of stringed instruments (violins, cellos and a viola) made by the most renowned violin makers.  I was also privileged to hear a skilled young musician play Meditation by Massenet and a Paganini violin concerto, on an original Stradivari for a small audience in the auditorium of the museum.  I do not exaggerate when I say that the playing brought tears to my eyes and I know, beyond doubt, that my emotion stemmed from the lush, rich sounds that came from the Stradivari violin as the music penetrated the skin and found the pleasure centres of the brain.

The Museum boasts a collection of the most ancient instruments – including one dating back to 1556, made by Andrea Amati for Carlo IX of France, and the original “Cremonese” made by Stradivari in 1715.  Museum pieces they may be but they must be played every day to preserve their purity.  One elderly musician described a Stradivari to me as being like an old wine that gets better with age.

At his workshop, Stefano told me that creating an instrument with such depth of character relies on centuries of tradition being handed down from father to son.  In his own family, his uncle is also a violin maker and he has hopes that at least one of his two sons will follow in his footsteps although they are too young yet to even consider it.

Stefano in his workshop
Stefano in his workshop

Stefano is obsessed with wood because apart from the craftsmanship, it is the wood from which the instrument is made that gives the violin its unique sound. Over the course of our conversation, I learned that the wood for the front of the violin comes from the spruce trees found in the Dolomites, the Northern Italian Alps.  Stefano often goes himself to choose the tree to be cut as sometimes he feels the need to be totally hands-on, but usually, he is happy to leave it to the experts who know exactly what he is looking for. The wood for the back of the violin is Maple and has to be imported from the mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Balkans. The search for the perfect wood is an ongoing pursuit and although he owns valuable stocks of old wood, there will always be a need for more.

Awaiting assembly in Stefanos' studio.
Awaiting assembly in Stefanos’ studio.
Violin parts awaiting assembly in the workshop of Stefano Conia
Violin parts awaiting assembly in the workshop of Stefano Conia

A violin will take approximately two months to make from start to finish but with time in between for resting and drying the varnish, he reckons to make possibly 12 violins per year each of which will sell for approximately 12,000 Euros.

Stefano plays the violin himself as do all luthiers.  “How do you feel when you part with one of your violins, given that you have devoted so much time to making it the best you can,” I asked.   He smiled.  “Each violin is like my baby, but I have to let it go.”

As yet unvarnished, violin making in Cremona
As yet unvarnished, violin making in Cremona

There is some concern in the town that the East Asians are now making violins and may make inroads on the trade.  In China, violins and cellos are mass-produced for a fraction of the cost of those made in Cremona and nowadays, many of the craftsmen in the town are Asian.  In the town’s international Violin Making School, it is estimated that 80% of the students are foreigners, Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese predominating.  Most will return home but some will stay to continue the learning process and to open their own workshops.

The name Cremona is synonymous with the work of the great violin makers and it is said that there are few investments like a Cremonese violin and that a buyer can expect a 20%-30% return on the money invested.  That is why the luthiers of Cremona will survive despite the competition from the East.  As a Rolls Royce is to a car enthusiast, so a Cremona violin is to an instrumentalist.

Stefano’s sons, it is hoped, will follow him into the workshop in which their grandfather worked, producing exquisite violins for the world’s great musicians, the floor will still be covered in shavings and the ripe smells of gums and resins will still waft out through the doorway of the studio in Corso Garibaldi in Cremona.


Nearly 80 years ago on June 13th, 1937, at the Ponchielli theatre in Cremona, a concert took place which is still spoken of with awe. The music of Corelli, Bach, Vivaldi and Boccherini was played using twenty-four Stradivarius, nine Guarneri and one Amati. I cannot imagine the effect on listeners but musicians to whom I’ve told the story have almost wept that they were not there.

The founder of the Ponchielli Theatre in Cremona
The founder of the Ponchielli Theatre in Cremona
Ponchielli Theatre, Cremona
Ponchielli Theatre, Cremona

Following that, Cremona launched a violin-making school in September 1938 but with the coming of the Second World War it was closed.  Not until the 1950s did it pick up momentum and begin to inspire the passion for making violins in the tradition of the original luthiers.  The handful of violin-makers with which they started has grown and now there are some 150 workshops where instruments are made and restored and where students practice their craft.  Most work is commissioned and the waiting list can be as long as one year.

Oh, and you want to buy a Stradivari?  You’ll have to find something in the region of €200,000, I was told.

To hear a Stradivarius being played, try the Palazzo Comunale at midday, or ask at the Violin Museum.

Information on Cremona and Milan:

Information on Cremona:

Daily life in Cremona is like any other Italian town or city
Daily life in Cremona is like any other Italian town or city


Night time in Cremona
Night time in Cremona
Just a short distance away  is Milan with its famous Cathedral
Just a short distance away is Milan with its famous Cathedral

New Year’s Eve 2015/2016

A poll among my friends this morning, leads me to think that I am the only one not to watch New Year’s Eve celebrations on TV last night.  It’s not that I’m anti-TV, and I’m certainly not anti-New Year’s Eve celebrations, but I’ve been disenchanted with the programmes brought to us at this rather special time for the last few years, by those who schedule the night’s viewing.


After last year’s parade of people famous for merely being famous, fatuous comments from said celebs, frantic commenting from comperes striving too hard to convey a frenzy of excitement, and “stars” swanning around swanky venues, I decided that enough was enough.  Even Jools Holland couldn’t do much to lift the gloom with his parade of guests, although at any other time I would have watched most of them with pleasure.



But I wanted something more for New Year’s Eve.  Was that too much to ask?  The fireworks last year were quite spectacular spoiled only by the voice-over, so this year I decided I’d give them a miss too.  I opted instead to join some friends and watch the local firework display from a balcony and when that got too cold, from behind glass.  And yes, they were good.  And, no, I didn’t miss the TV version.  And I did manage to catch up with a film I’d recorded some time ago which gave me two hours of very satisfactory drama.


Would it be too much for the cameras to roam outside London a bit more and spend a bit more time in Scotland. where the Hogmanay celebrations are usually worth watching?  What did they do in Wales – and not just in Cardiff?  What did they do in Dublin?  In Belfast?  In Liverpool?  Even on the Isle of Man.  And with so much accent on the EU nowadays, wouldn’t it have been nice to have a link-up with some European capitals?

Now all I’m left with is to make a few more resolutions.  Last year I said “I’m not watching that again, ever” and I did just that.  I can chalk up at least one resolution I’ve kept!





The Samaria Gorge, Crete

Samaria Gorge, Crete4
The Samaria Gorge, fast flowing icy water and stones, stones, stones

It was when I was sorting through some old photographs of former vacations to make room for the overflowing baskets of new images I’ve acquired from  this year’s trips, that I came across those of the Samaria Gorge in Crete, a place I hadn’t thought about in years.

It was 1990 when I was there last if my memory serves me right, and I can still recall the icy-cold waters which we had to wade through.  I remember I had to buy a pair of trainers because I didn’t have adequate footwear for the trek and you aren’t allowed to enter without full preparation for the walk.

Samaria Gorge, Crete3
Me, younger, fitter and wondering if I’ve bitten off more than i could chew, bearing in mind I hate having wet, cold feet.

I so enjoyed looking through my old photographs that I thought I’d write something about the Gorge and upload some of the photographs, taken on negative film on my trusty old Canon Camera.  I’ve had to scan  these in and because of their age the colour is not very good – a rather pinkish tinge seems to cloud them.

I know that the Samaria Gorge  hasn’t changed since I did the trek as I stayed at the Mistral Hotel in Malame in Crete last year and spoke with visitors who had done the walk.  They had to leave the hotel at 05.00 a.m to do this, came back exhausted but thrilled to have accomplished the walk (with boots, walking poles, mobiles, sat navs. etc.)  We didn’t have those sort of things when we did it as you can see from the above photograph.

Samaria Gorge, Crete7
At times the cliffs on either side seem to bear down on you. Don’t rest beneath them, there is sometimes a rock fall

Samaria Gorge is situated in the National Park of Samaria, in the White Mountains in West Crete and is considered one of the main attractions of that lovely island.  It is 16 Kilometres long but the walk from the exit of the National Park to Agia Roumeli adds another 3 km. to that.  Even so, it is not the longest in Europe as it sometimes claimed: that honour belongs to the “gorges du Verdon” in Southern France which is a little over 20 km in length.

The Samaria Gorge starts at an altitude of 1230 metres and takes you down to the shore orf the Libyan Sea in Agia Roumeli, and the walk will take between 5 -7 hours to complete.  The terrain is rough and difficult to negotiate at times due to the water rushing over stones which can cause you to stumble, so you need to have a certain degree of fitness and walking experience.  I doubt if I could do it now, but in 1990 (it may even have been the eighties) I was younger, fitter, and up for anything!

Samaria Gorge, Crete5
A few are hesitant about going on. This is the start of the trek.

Best way to arrive is by public buses (KTEL) from Chania to Omalos every morning when the gorge is open. Once you have walked through the gorge and are in Agia Roumeli there is a ferry boat to take you to Hora Sfakion for the return connecting bus to Chania.

Normally, the Gorge opens at the beginning of May and closes at the end of October, but if the weather is at all inclement, this can all change.  The gorge will also close on rainy days when there is a danger of rock falls.   Make enquiries before heading off to Crete if the Gorge is one of your main reasons for visiting the island.

Samaria Gorge, Crete
Negotiating the terrain in Samaria Gorge isn’t easy. It may be shallow but it is slippery

The park opens at daylight and closes at dusk but I would suggest starting at dawn if possible, as the first tourist buses arrive about 7.30 or 8.00 o’clock and it can get a bit crowded then.  You can start later, at say, 11.30 or noon when there are fewer people, but you will need to spend the night in Agia Roumeli because the last boat out will have left by the time you get there.  Spring is the best time to walk the Samaria Gorge, avoid the summer at all costs when the heat is intense.

This is not a walk to do with children who could easily fall and injure themselves, although children accustomed to walking, say from the age of nine or so, should manage it.  Bear in mind though, that once embarked on the walk there is no quick exit anywhere along the way.  There are wardens in radio contact with each other along the way, who will help you in case of trouble or injury and the presence of well-maintained springs mean that you do not have to carry much water but there are no huts in which to rest.  The walk is long but not especially difficult for the experienced walker – the word here being experienced.  Every day some people manage to get into trouble, but they are usually those who have never attempted a long walk, or a walk over such rough terrain.

Samaria Gorge, Crete2
Nearly half way along now

When I say rough terrain, I mean stony terrain.  You will encounter stones in all shapes and sizes, from uneven stones at the start to pebbles in the river bed (tiring on the soles of the feet).   You often have to cross the river bed by stepping on large stones which have been placed at strategic intervals and which require some sure-footedness.

The village of Samaria is situated roughly at the halfway point and most people take a rest here.  You may care to take a quick walk around the village where you will probably catch glimpses of the  kri-kris, the Cretan wild goats, but avoid approaching them if they are with their young.

Samaria Gorge, Crete6
And lastly, a Cretan wild goat with her day-old kid. She was a Diva and refused to pose, deliberately turning her back on me.

And lastly, you can visit the gorge on an organised coach trip and the coach will usually pick you up at your hotel in the early morning.  You don’t walk in a group, once there you can set your own pace but you have the advantage of knowing there are other people entering the Gorge at the same time.  It can be a lonely walk if there are not many there on the day you choose to do the trek.

Essentials for the trip

You won’t need much water but you will need a water bottle which you can refill on the way.

The last part of the walk has very little shade so sun cream and a brimmed hat are essentials.

Sturdy shoes.  Something that won’t cause you to slip on the stones.

There are no shops, no cafes and no restaurants  inside the National Park so you must carry your own food if you are likely to be hungry.

It can be cold at dawn at 1230 metres so wear something warm .

Waterproof plaster in case of blisters.  You never know and help is a long way away!


Winchester, Ancient Capital of Wessex

Winchester Cathedral

It seems a shame that King Alfred, the man who defeated the Danes and united the English, has gone down in popular history merely as the man who burnt the cakes.  But the city he made his capital does the man proud and it is impossible to stroll through the ancient streets of Winchester and not be aware of how “the Great” came to be added to Alfred’s name.

An unspoilt city and England’s ancient capital (the Court was mobile during the Anglo-Saxon period but the city was considered the capital of Wessex and England at the time), the cobblestones, buildings and monuments of Winchester, just an hour from London, ring with history.  If you like big bangs and all things military, it is also home to a host of museums dedicated to all things warlike.  Surrounded by water meadows and rolling downland, it offers the best of city life – modern shopping, quirky open air events, and great entertainment and it can be covered in a day (although a couple of days will show more of what is on offer and allow trips into the surrounding villages).

Fulling Mill Cottage and River Arle

To get a panoramic view of the streets and buildings laid out according to the original Saxon plan, a good starting point is St. Giles’ Hill (a great spot for a picnic), from where you can  pick out Hamo Thorneycroft’s famous statue of King Alfred.  Then follow in the King’s footsteps from the walls erected to keep out the Danes to what is the largest medieval cathedral in the world.   Famous for its treasures, from the sumptuously illustrated 12th century Bible to medieval paintings and a 16-metre stained-glass window 66% of which dates from medieval times, Winchester Cathedral is that much-overused word, awesome.

One of the Anthony Gormley Statues in the Crypt of Winchester Cathedral
One of the Gormley statues in the Crypt of Winchester Cathedral
The Crypt, Winchester Cathedral

The newest acquisition is Sound ll, the Antony Gormley sculpture now permanently installed in the cathedral’s crypt where it looks particularly striking when the crypt floods which it frequently does.  Even if you don’t make a habit of visiting cathedrals, do make an exception to view this magnificent Gormley work.

The Cloisters, Winchester Cathedral

Fans of The Da Vinci Code will be interested to know that the cathedral’s North transept doubles as the Vatican in the film of the book, but those of a more classical bent will head for the tomb of Jane Austen which can be found in the  nave where there is also a stained glass window to her memory.

Jane Austen Plaque in Winchester Cathedral

The novelist died in Winchester on 18 July 1817 and is buried in the cathedral.  While in this part of the cathedral, take note of the black font which depicts St. Nicholas of Smyrna giving an old man three bags of gold for his three daughters, said to be the forerunner of the pawnbrokers sign of three golden balls.

Continuing in the footsteps of King Alfred you could then head up the High Street to the Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester castle, and which for 700 years has housed the legendary Round Table.   Old it certainly is, and round, but it hangs on a wall where with its red, black and white colouring it resembles an enormous dartboard.  According to myth, the original was created by the wizard Merlin, but carbon dating in 1976 proved that this particular table was not made in the Arthurian 6th century but in the 13th, and this use of HyperPhysics sadly put paid to the legend.

The Round Table

The Round Table, High up on the Wall

Just outside the south door of the Great Hall, is Eleanor’s Garden, a re-creation of a medieval herbarium with turf seats and a camomile lawn, named after Eleanor, wife of Henry III, and Eleanor, wife of Edward I.  All the plants you see would have been grown in the 13th century, when floral symbols had priority over design.  The rose, lily, iris and strawberry plants represent aspects of religion while the greens – the grass, ivy, bay and holly represent faithfulness.

The oldest continuously running school in the country, 14th century Winchester College which became a model for Eton and for King’s College, Cambridge is nearby.  You can join a guided tour for an intriguing glimpse into the medieval heart of the college, the 14th century Gothic chapel with its early example of a wooden vaulted roof, the cloisters (where graffiti carved into the stones during the 16th and 17th centuries is still visible) and the original scholars’ dining-room.  As a complete contrast, you could later check out medieval Westgate, a fortified gateway which served as a debtors’ prison for 150 years and where prisoners graffiti is also still intact, albeit rather different from that of the scholars! 

The West Gate, Winchester

One expects to find ghosts in most ancient cities and Winchester is no exception.   The most famous haunted Inn is The Eclipse in The Square, where the spectre of Alicia Lisle haunts the corridors.  Seventy-one years old when she was found guilty of harbouring rebel cavaliers and sentenced to death by Hanging Judge Jeffreys, she spent her last night here in 1685 listening to the scaffold being erected for her hanging.

Old Prison Gate
Old Prison Gate

At the Theatre Royal in Jewry Street, a wandering apparition haunts the dress-circle and gallery looking for her long lost lover while in the 18th century High Street offices formerly occupied by the county newspaper, the rattling chains of a woman dressed in grey has been known to rattle the staff on more than one occasion.

Streams and waterways punctuate the streets of the city giving it a homely atmosphere – especially when you see someone hauling a fine trout out of the river – and the Bikeabout Scheme means that you can tour around for most of the day for the small registration fee of £10.   Reflective jackets and helmets are also available.

Half-timbered hous in Winchester
Half-timbered hous in Winchester

You don’t need to cycle of course: there is a good transport system from Winchester to the picturesque villages of the Itchen and Meon Valleys,  handsome Georgian colour-washed Alresford (pronounced Allsford) for instance, home of the famous Watercress Steam Railway where you can make a childhood dream come true by riding on the footplate.   Later, stroll down the town’s elegant streets with their antique shops, and discreet fashion boutiques or along the riverside where the thatched timber-framed Fulling Mill straddles the River Arle.  Alresford is the home of watercress farming in the UK, so expect to sample gourmet dishes made of the green stuff – watercress pudding, watercress quiche and even watercress scones with afternoon tea – in smart bistros, tea rooms and old-fashioned pubs like the Wykeham Arms with its award-winning menu.


Main shopping area in Alresford

If there are children in the party, then don’t miss Marwell Zoo.   Home to over 200 species of animals and birds, from meerkats to sand cats, and some of the world’s rarest big cats including the Amur leopard and the snow leopard.  There are volunteer guides around the park to help visitors and to explain and illustrate the efforts the zoo is making to rehabilitate endangered animals back in their habitat.

And after all that history and ancient stones, Winchester can still surprise you with its pedestrian-friendly streets, colourful markets and exquisite boutiques nestling beside large-scale stores.  The High Street – once the Roman’s east-west route through the city – is home to stylish shops with Regency and Elizabethan bow-fronted windows, while The Square offers quaint pubs and restaurants after your exertions, and everywhere you’ll find bronze and stone carvings, many by famous sculptors.    It lies just one hour by train from London, 40 minutes from Portsmouth Ferry Terminal, and 15 minutes from Southampton Airport.


Very Old Barn, NB date of erection in grey bricks at bottom of building.

Winchester’s a winner, and whether you taste runs to real ale or English wines, pub grub or gourmet dining, Goth outfits to designer chic, you’ll find it all here amidst the quiet stones that hold history’s secrets.

Interior Winchester Cathedral

Interior, Winchester Cathedral


Tribute to Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint died of a heart attack on November 10th last. Aged 77, he was one of the great Jazz and Rock and Roll legends that influenced many of today’s household names, including Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas and Ernie K-Doe. He collaborated with Paul McCartney, LaBelle, Robert Parker and Elvis Costello over the years and he was also a talent scout, record producer, studio owner, singer and arranger. He left New Orleans for New York in the wake of Katerina and it was when he returned to New Orleans that his career as a performer really took off.

Toussant_Obama_Medal_2013 (1)
Toussaint receives Medal for Services to the Arts from President Obama Photo by P. Souza


Piano-player/Bandleader Jon Cleary, born in the UK but long-time resident in New Orleans and considered a native of the city, has long been a fan of Toussaint and in 2012 he recorded Occapella, a mix of popular and less familiar pieces penned by the legendary songwriter.


Jon was one of the musicians asked to play at the Tribute Concert held in the Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans on November 20th, just prior to the internment.

The casket was placed at the front of the stage and friends, fans and fellow stars joined together to mourn the legend, then stayed to cheer his legacy. This legacy was celebrated by an all-star lineup of singers and musicians who took to the stage to perform his songs in genres that covered his work in pop, R&b, gospel and even funk. The recently re-opened theatre rocked.

For the finale, all the musicians, along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, piled onstage and blew the roof off with a frantic rendition of I’ll Fly Away with Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
After Oh Didn’t he Ramble the pall bearers carried the coffin out of the theatre to the hearse, followed by the family and everyone who’d been on stage, as the band played  Just a Closer Walk with Thee in slow tempo.

Allen Toussaint Photo by Derek Bridges

Outside, crowds had been waiting since the small hours to pay their respects. They waited almost silently as the slow march continued and as the coffin was placed in the long stretch limo hearse. Then they erupted, singing and dancing, twirling their umbrellas, and in general, giving one of New Orleans’ favourite sons, a joyful send-off. The family hadn’t intended for the traditional Second Lining, but they gave in to the crowd’s wishes and the place went wild.

New Orleans will continue, as it always has, but it will never be quite the same.

Chiang Rai and Thailand’s Hill Tribes

Chiang Rai Merit Making
Chiang Rai Merit Making

Located on a plain beneath the outermost edge of the Himalayan range is Chiang Rai, capital of the province of the same name and until recently one of Thailand’s best kept secrets.

Without the slick presentation of big sister Chiang Mai, 180 Kl. to the south, Chiang Rai is a pleasing town with much less traffic, wide, clean streets and few skyscrapers. Here in the heart of the slow-paced province, the market-place and temple are the hub of the community, as they have been for centuries.

This is the part of Thailand that to date has attracted few long term visitors yet it is arguably Thailand’s most undervalued region. A province of mountains and rivers, you’ll find yourself everywhere either on a river or in the hills or mountains that form one continuous rippling green chain across the northern border with Laos and Myanmar.  It offers the most accessible base from which to venture into these countries and it is within easy reach of the Golden Triangle, that magnificent and tranquil setting where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet on the Mekong river, and where the S.E. Asian drug trade was spawned in the poppy fields of the area.

Golden Triangle

The essence of Chiang Rai is its untouched environment and breathtaking scenery, understated and soft hued, like a Chinese brush painting. Towering mountains and craggy limestone peaks loom out of the soft, opalescent, morning mists, elephants haul teak on river banks, and families drift up and down the rivers on their bamboo rafts which are transport, house and working stations.

Cultivation in Mountains

Most western visitors come here to visit the hill tribes, among which the Lisu, Akha, Karen and Yao who live in settlements of thatched huts in the mountains, are the best known. Home to thirteen different hill tribes who migrated from various parts of South China and North and Central Burma, there is a wealth of ethnic cultures in this small area.

It is a vexing question as to whether the visitor to the hill tribes is an agent of destruction or preservation. Exposure to outside influences has certainly altered the lives of the hill-tribes and many now expect payment for being photographed, an action that is viewed by some as a step towards the destruction of their culture. An alternative view is that the money earned gives the hill tribes an enhanced view of their culture and the interest shown in this aspect of their life helps to preserve this.

Akha Hill Tribe family

The province wants to show off its many delights and is seriously out to attract visitors. Most of its attractions are cultural and natural, so they are looking for a more ecologically aware kind of tourist, one who will appreciate the natural beauty of the area and its shy but friendly people. Indeed, the people are one of the greatest assets of the area with a gentle innocence and a uniquely northern curiosity about the visitor.

Elephant Bathing
Elephant Bathing

From Chiang Rai one can take a boat ride up the river to the village of Rammit, home to the Karen tribe. Because of the dense jungle that stretches for miles the elephant is the only animal capable of working here, and the Karen have become excellent elephant trainers and handlers. The journey takes about 40 minutes and a good time to arrive is midday when the elephants have finished morning work and turn the river into their playground and bathtub.

In these hills also, you’ll find Doi Mae Salong, where the descendants of the soldiers of the 93rd Division of the Kuomintang now live, combatants who made the long journey from China after the civil war. It is a long winding road with wooden one-story shop houses on either side selling food, sweets (bite carefully into the most appealing looking, some are positively foul) and Chinese medicines. Snakes bottled in Brandy, spiders in oil, scorpions in wine are all popular buys with the locals but most of the Chinese descendants tend tea and coffee plantations, orchards and vegetable. gardens.

Merit Making on the Streets of Chiang Rai
Dawn, and a young girl makes Merit in Chiang Rai

With little effort, you can imagine you’ve wandered back into an older age. Layer upon layer of mountain ridges drift in and out among the clouds from your vantage point in the village which is set on a slight incline in the mountain side. Rich green farmland runs down into narrow valleys and mountain people laden with heavy loads can be seen trekking up and down the paths. There is little noise apart from the sighing of the wind in the bamboos and the soft boom from the bronze bell in the temple.

In recent memory, the opium poppy was the  only cash crop grown in the high mountains at over 1000 metres where the temperature was very suitable for its cultivation but strenuous efforts by the Thai government and various NGOs have weaned the hill tribes from their reliance on this and nowadays crops like soya and sago have taken their place. This alteration to a way of life unchanged for centuries has placed pressures on the different cultures and is causing change.  Apart from the poppy, there are no more forests to which they can move, no more trees to chop down and burn, and no patches of plants and herbs for medicine and food.

Street sceme Mae Sai (Border with Myanmar)
Street scene Mae Sai (Border with Myanmar)

M0st accept a settled existence and tourism is playing an increasingly important role in ensuring this for their eventual survival. Inevitably, tribes will diminish or vanish, but they have adapted before and can adapt again. Anything that can raise them from the grinding poverty of their daily lives can be construed as destructive only by the most perverse of eco-tourists.

There are many small hotels and inexpensive guesthouses in the hills, especially in the border area of Mae Sai, but don’t expect western food. Horses and mules can be rented for distant journeys and local people serve as guides. The hill tribes ignore borders, cheerfully crossing and re-crossing the border between Thailand and Myanmar and, some say, occasionally venturing back home to China.

So when thinking of the cool mountains of Thailand, think Chiang Rai rather than Chiang Mai, a town which is, in most people’s minds, merely a northern version of Bangkok.

A Misunderstanding at Nether Fondle.

I love Jan Toms stories of Nether Fondle (reminds me of a village that would appear in Beyond Our Ken). This is her latest. Read this, and if you enjoy it, catch the others on her WordPress site.


. Misunderstanding at Nether Fondle

Tales from a Village Somewhere in England

High Street Nether Fondle A village scene at Nether Fondle

The best thing about being out of work was having time to daydream about better jobs. Top of Bruce Daylounger’s list was being a personal trainer in a girls’ school but so far nothing had turned up.
Then, to his amazement, his reluctant application to the Nether Fondle Weekly was successful and he was appointed junior sports reporter. The down side was that he hated exercise. Watching others heaving and sweating was only marginally worse than doing it himself but before he had a chance to speculate further, the editor, a hard-bitten ex-Fleet Street hack called Jerry Bruise crushed any aspirations.
‘This paper’s crap. Don’t get no ideas of writing nothing worth reading. You gotta be prepared to cover baby shows, dog shows, craft shows, vicars’ tea parties. Most exciting thing happens…

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