Now, what does a lilac sky at night mean?
Now, what does a lilac sky at night mean?
Nora and I went for a little walk along the Thames Path from Chiswick to Barnes today. It could have been somewhere quite rural at first but it got more urban as we went along. So we just turned around and went back again. London’s full of these quiet little spots. You just have to go a little off the beaten track and explore.
Having a puppy around means that taking photographs has become rather difficult, even when Nora is off the lead when we’re out. Many of my pictures now look something like this:
Almost inevitably, in the logistical nightmare that is leaving the house with a puppy — patting myself down for the whistle, treats, poo bags, gloves and, oh crikey, noticing I’m still wearing slippers — I usually forget to take the big camera and end up taking photos with my agéd phone. Combined with the wintry low light, this is a recipe for disaster. And, as my point-and-shoot has gone to Brazil and I’m not up to playing with the Leica-like, even though it is small, I just have to make the best of it.
There’s also not much variation to blog about as I spend most days walking, tiptoeing around or talking about the dog, but this is slowly getting better. But today, after a trip to Taunton and a walk up the road in Broomfield on the way home…
I returned to my pre-puppy self and did a spot of impromptu hedge trimming, spurred on by the beautiful, freezing weather. I say ‘spot’ but the hedge is very, very long and my electric trimmer runs out very, very quickly, meaning that a lot had to be done with the manual clippers, so clearing up will have to wait until tomorrow. But it’s wonderful feeling to have done something practical again. It’s been an awfully long time of me fitting around Nora, rather than the other way around. And Nora loved it too, bounding around safely inside the gate, while I was on the outside of the hedge, and clearing up (ahem) my clippings when I was doing the inside.
I’m not even going to look at what’s happened to the flowerbeds.
Nothing I could write at the moment would make much sense. There’s a lot going on in my head as I prepare for my last three days at work. I’ve been there for 27 years and it’s going to be quite a wrench. It is a good thing but still A Thing To Get Through.
So here are some soothing pictures, taken last weekend, when I got up at 5.30 on a beautiful morning and went straight out into the garden to look at the world with my camera in an effort to stop my stupid brain whirring on and on.
It will be alright.
I have no idea why I’m writing about my laundry practices but putting out the washing in the garden this morning, I was struck by how often I’ve photographed laundry that’s been hung out to dry. From the harbourside of a Scottish coastal village…
To one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Venice.
Here in Burano, one of the islands in the Venetian lagoon, the washing just seems to add to the local, well, colour. There’s something about it which is both charming and revealing, hinting at the domestic life of the people behind the shutters and curtains. Which is, after all, something that most people are innately curious about.
In some places, the hanging out of laundry is prohibited because it spoils the view. Perhaps it also reminds those who make such rules of the places from whence they came that they hoped they’d put behind them? I’m glad I don’t live in that kind of place, although of course I can see that there are instances where it might not be appropriate for washing to be festooned all over the street.
And since I’m on the subject perhaps I should clarify that chez Cottage, the underwear and socks, the ‘smalls’, stay modestly inside the house, whatever the weather.
The weather was fine today– in the sense of ok, but actually, no, it was fine. Dry most of the day so that I had time to cut the hedge, although I’m not quite finished. Everything in the garden seems to be out at once and the water butt’s empty so I can tell it hasn’t rained properly for a while. Not that the house seems any less damp. But that’s fine too.
When I was sweeping up the hedge cuttings, I suddenly felt like someone was watching me and turned to find the field over the lane full, not only of cattle but also sheep. The buttercups won’t last long now that they’re back and I’ll be able to hear them ruminating in the night. Funny things. They are so curious. Sometimes they come and stand in a row along the hedge and watch what I’m doing.
I listened to Desert Island Discs today in the car and decided that I liked the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, very much. One of his choices of music was a song sung by Anne-Sofie von Otter, which reminded me of a curious album by Elvis Costello and her. As luck would have it, I found in the kitchen on cassette and have spent most of the day listening to it on repeat. I had to remind myself how a cassette player worked but it was just what I was in the mood for.
It’s been a bit quiet on the blog of late because I’ve been busy doing this:
That’s me on the far left. A bit different to the kind of riding I’m used to.
I travelled to Egypt with a group of people all loosely connected to the Girl’s old school. We flew in to Sharm el-Sheik on a Thomson’s plane full of package holidaymakers but were whisked away into the desert to camp out under the stars as soon as we arrived.
Foreign Office advice is currently to avoid all but essential travel to the Sinai region. But the travel company that organised the trip and works closely with local people and the Bedouin, with whom we travelled in the desert, advised that there were no raised tensions despite news reports of kidnappings. Indeed, only today there was another report of a couple being kidnapped just up the Aqaba coast from where we spent our final night last week.
We were accompanied a British guide, as well as an Egyptian, who had worked together and travelled with the school group many times, so we benefited from both their great camaraderie and their experience. In this large group with a high degree of local Bedouin involvement, there was certainly never a moment when I didn’t feel entirely safe in their hands.
We saw barely any other visitors and had Mount Sinai (the third peak from the right above) to ourselves for the arduous two-hour climb, which was amazing, as people are usually jostling for space at the summit.
It’s a pretty hard ascent on a warm day – about one and a half hours of steep walking and climbing stone stairs. Luckily there were some places open to stop at for refreshment and shade. But there were also several that were closed or temporarily abandoned.
We had reached the holy mountain – a site revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, who all believe that this is where God gave Moses the ten commandments – after five days sleeping in the open desert, riding camels across rocky plateaux, running down sand dunes as high as mountains, and eating around camp fires by the light of candles and head torches.
And, while this was all huge fun, the fact that our experience of the ‘wilderness’ ended in an overnight stay at St Katherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai put some major philosophical and religious traditions into context.
The trip was organised by Wind Sand and Stars, which based in Bath. They work closely with an Sinai-based travel company who, in turn, work with local Bedouin tribespeople to provide support, camels and catering (and a fair few souvenir trinkets made by their womenfolk along the way).
Apart from providing a great holiday, one of the main purposes of these treks is to bring some much needed funds to the Bedouin people – desert nomads who live extremely simply in a very harsh environment. Egypt has been hard hit by the drop in tourism since the Arab Spring, and the Sinai has been particularly badly affected as it geographically and culturally remote from the rest of the country. We were told that St Katherine’s Monastery used to have 3,000 visitors daily but is now down to around 300. A shopkeeper in Nuweiba, a rather forlorn beach resort where we spent our last night, begged me to tell my friends to come to his store, filled with goods coated in a thin layer of dust, because business – dependent entirely on tourism – was so bad.
To get so far out of my comfort zone in many different ways was a wonderful and life affirming experience, and at the same time sobering and thought provoking. It made me feel lucky in so many ways. I hope to hang on to this feeling for as long as I can.
Low, low clouds, in a masquerade of mist, sit squatly up on the hill,
amidst trees furred with moss and lichen.
Branches bowed and cracked in the snow’s wake litter the soft footbed of mulching leaves.
Transplanted beasts, shaggy pelts damply waved, turn quizzically towards passers-by.
And the great king of trees, rooted here for centuries, waits patiently
to be gently taken for a ride.
From the silhouettes of Italian trees to the spectacular giants of Lydeard Hill in Somerset, they are under threat and I am worrying about them; capturing their beauty while I can.
My impressions of a place that I’ve visited so much in the past but not for thirty years? Still amazing and beautiful, still slightly tawdry and timeless. Still exhaustingly winding and surprising. Subtly changed too, though. Chinese and Indian faces in restaurants and shops where once there were only Italian. Boatloads of Japanese tourists snapping shots on bridges so you can barely get past. Russians appearing at the airport and on vaporetti but invisible elsewhere. The waters of the lagoon lapping higher than they used to and duckboards stacked everywhere ready for the floods that rise not only over canalsides but also out of the storm drains beneath the streets.
But Venice never was entirely Italy. It always sold tourist tat and expensive, slightly sub-standard, leather goods. So we also went to Padua for a day so that I could show the Girl the busy, lively pace of normal Italian life.
Now I’m home in the snow, left with a headful of Italian words and phrases as I spontaneously remember and regurgitate the language dormant for so long. I’ve so much enjoyed speaking it again in the last few days. Family holidays, first kisses, old friends, student trips – all has come back and been joined by this sojourn with my own child. It is all about time.
Postscript: There are a million photographs of Venice out there. We didn’t need any more, but who could resist adding to that number? Certainly not I, even when that meant buying a Panasonic DMC-FS45 point-and-shoot at the airport when I found I’d left my camera bag in the car. The assistant at Dixon’s had to double check that the £65 price that came up when she scanned the bar code at the till was correct – maybe there’s a newer model coming out – so it didn’t break the bank, particularly since I was already in ‘holiday mode’. Of course, it was a shame not to have my cameras, particularly because I had really wanted to play with my newish Lumix LX-5 compact and have my trusty DSLR to hand as it’s the only camera I can really use properly. But I loved the grainy quality of the pictures this tiny new zoom-lensed thing could take in very low light with its Leica-specified (but not made) lens. I hate using flash. It also takes icily sharp shots but I’ll leave that kind of thing to professionals to demonstrate.
This isn’t about the camera, this is about how I saw Venice.
I said I’d do a separate post about the cafe we went to while we were in Oxford in my last post.
Despite it’s traditional English exterior, the Grand Cafe struck me as fundamentally un-English, although it was serving creams teas and the like. There was something about the unhurried nature of the service (one poor waitress – they were terribly understaffed on the day we were there), the elegance of the surroundings, the lack of muzak and the hence conducive atmosphere, and the slightly dishevelled nature of it all, that called to mind Viennese cafes in which you can while away the afternoon, without being harried for your next order, or chased away by crowds of pushy shoppers with packaged sandwiches. From seven o’clock, they do inexpensive cocktails. Go there, if you can.
As an aside I have to say that while my new Panasonic LX-5 is slightly driving me mad with not having a viewfinder – I just can’t really adjust to having a slightly second-hand view of things, compared to a DSLR – I totally love its ability to take pictures in low light. I’m only pointing and shooting at the moment in order to get used to its capabilities. It also helps that I love grainy pictures, I suppose.
Inspired by today’s crisp wintry weather, I made a little detour on the way to buying a Christmas tree through Barford Park, two miles away. It’s only small, as grand houses go, but very pretty and retains a few good old features.
The lane from Four Forks goes straight through the grounds and past the house, and I would have loved to have gone for a proper walk along the public footpath. But as it was, I just briefly wandered up and down the road and tried out the new camera a bit.
Around the back of the house, among other farm buildings, I spotted an outbuilding sitting in the traditional manner on straddle stones.
These were used historically to prevent vermin getting into grain stores and barns. You can see how the horizontally lying stones would make it difficult enough for them to give up and go elsewhere.
I rather wish Spring Cottage and its outbuildings were on straddle stones – the cats and I have dealt with four dead mice today, about which I have very mixed feelings. I don’t want to kill them unnecessarily but, when they come in from the cold, they chew up the lagging around the pipes in the loft to make nests, which once led to a burst pipe.
Just down the lane, there’s a lovely old gate that must have survived a century or more.
And the trees are just magnificent, silhouetted against the bright blue sky.
The front of the house has views over the park across a ha-ha to keep the animals out of the gardens, and the back of the house is surrounded by an extremely well fortified wall, which I can only hope hides a marvellous kitchen garden.
I’ve never felt envious of those who live in such places until today. Perhaps it’s something to do with its relatively smallish scale or perhaps it was just that it was such a lovely day at long last.
On the photographic front, I’m not that keen on the camera yet. Without a viewfinder, I’m finding I have to take so many more pictures just to get a few that are acceptable. However, I hope I’ll get better at this with more practice.
This picture shows in spectacular clarity the way that our cities and countryside can look from space. London is the very light area on the right, Bristol the largest light area on the coast to its left, with South Wales hanging over the inflowing Bristol Channel like a repeated strings of fairy lights. Almost immediately below the droopiest bit of Wales there on the other side of the water are the Quantock Hills, and Spring Cottage is about 12 miles inland from the coast. The very dark area to the left of the belt of lights going south, which is basically the M5 corridor, is Exmoor at the top and Dartmoor further south.
As you can probably tell, I could look at this for hours. This picture was taken by the NASA Suomi-NPP satellite on 27th March this year. You can find the image, along with many others, online.
It all started when my friend at work said he wanted to sell his Leica D-Lux. Oh good, I thought. I’ll have a play with it and buy it at a good price. He brought it in and I had 10 minutes to try it out during our lunch break, which was enough for him to realise that he didn’t want to part with it at all.
But by this time, I’d decided that I did want a little camera, so that I didn’t have to always lug around my DSLR, much as I love it. I’ve met two people with the Leica this year who raved about it but I didn’t feel like spending £600 on what I knew would just be a point-and-shoot, whatever its superior capabilities.
Plus, to be honest, I’ve never been able to really get my head around how cameras work. Like map-reading, it’s something I feel, I know I should be able to do but I just can’t. But I’ve got quite a good eye and I love taking pictures. In fact, I can’t really see anything that I find interesting without wanting to photograph it.
So, when I came across a shop selling an earlier model of the Panasonic version of the Leica D-Lux, the LX-5, I got it. Being a model that has been replaced by a newer version, it was a third of the price and, while it’s not quite as cool-looking as the Leica, which is more streamlined, it’s basically the same camera minus a couple of minor features of the later model, which I can live without. With both cameras the body and the build is by Panasonic and the lens is Leica.
Now I’m not sure I can cope with having to hold the damn thing out at arms’ length to take pictures granny fashion – I hate not having a viewfinder – it does take marvellously sharp images because of its Leica lens, particularly in low light. I’m definitely going to have fun with this.
What’s better than good friends, good weather and good exercise?
The views up at Will’s Neck, the Quantocks’ highest point (about 15 minutes’ drive from Spring Cottage) were fabulous at the weekend. As clear as clear can be. When it’s like this, you can see Exmoor to the south and the Bristol Channel and the Welsh coast to the north.
Apparently Will’s Neck is a Marilyn or a type of ‘relative hill’. I find this hilarious.
I don’t know why more people don’t come up here, although I’m glad that they don’t. Even on such a lovely day we only passed about ten people all morning.
It isn’t always like this at an altitude of 1,261 ft (384 m) – for reference, Spring Cottage itself is at 210 m (I talked a lot of rubbish about this to my friend at the weekend and got my Imperial and metric measurements completely confused). It’s often shrouded in low cloud and drizzle up here, and it can be very windy, like the last time I was up here, when it was possible to believe that you were completely lost. And not everyone was having good weather either, as we could see in the distance below.
I took these pictures with my phone, which is rather unpredictable. I’ve kind of given up taking my DSLR out with me these days, particularly when I go to places I’ve been before. Perhaps it’s time for a smaller camera?