Monday, June 20, 2011

Second honeymoon part 2

Well, after the horror that was the RSC, we had a better day on Wednesday, exploring Alcester, a small market town dating from Roman times, about 10 miles from Stratford. This had a lovely centre, with loads of independent shops,lots of bunting still up from their royal wedding street party, and plenty of reasonably priced places to have a meal.

We then went a couple of miles out of Alcester, to Coughton Court, another National Trust property. It has been the home of the same family since the 15th century and was at the centre of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. The Throckmorten family who live there were prominent in Tudor times, then fell out of favour as they were Catholics - if you climb up to the tower in the house you can still see a priest hole where a Catholic priest would have been hidden if the Protestants had come hunting during the years of Catholic persecution. Later on, in the 18th and 19th century the family were prominent in Catholic emancipation, and one of them became the first Catholic MP. There are also two churches in the grounds, the original one that became Church of England at the Reformation, and a Catholic one, built in 1855, once it was possible to worship freely. If you climbed on up the tower past the priest hole you could also stand on the tower roof for views over the property!

Thursday was spent exploring first Baddesley Clinton, a National Trust property north of Warwick. This one dates from the 13th century and has a moat and even more priest holes than Coughton Court. Plus some beautifully laid out grounds and a (small) lake.

And second, Packwood House, only a couple of miles from Baddesley, and a completely bonkers historic house - basically a 16th century house extensively modified in the early 20th century to make it look more, erm, Tudor. The owner then gave it to the National Trust so that it would stay just like that. This one was fun as we were allowed to take photos (without flash) inside the house.

And the gardens here were incredibly. A set of massive yew trees, known as the "Sermon on the Mount", beautiful flowers and yet another lake to walk round. Unfortunately they'd had a power cut so we had to go back to Baddesley to have a cup of tea(!).

 We finished off Thursday with dinner with a friend over near Solihull.

Friday was our last day, and more of a pottering around kind of day. I spent most of the morning at Stratford knitting group - a nice friendly group that meets in a café near Shakespeare's birthplace. One of their members who I also "know" from Archers Listeners got in touch after hearing about our dreadful RSC experience and invited me along (good thing I took the laptop on holiday, and whinged about the RSC online!), but I would highly recommend looking in advance for local knitting groups if you're going on holiday somewhere - nice people to meet, yarn shop recommendations, local recommendations, the chance to pretend you're not really a tourist but are hanging out with the locals...

We then went over to Leamington Spa to have some lunch in the Royal Pump Rooms, then wandered over to find Web of Wool, which I'd visited on last year's holiday. One sad knitter had to stand outside a very shut shop - although obviously someone was expecting to be there that day as there was a pint of milk on the doorstep!

And after picking up a leaflet at Leamington tourist information, we decided to spend the afternoon at Ryton Organic Gardens, a short drive away. These were really cool, the headquarters of Garden Organic, whose catalogue I get, but I'd never thought of them having an actual place you could visit. They had some cool interactive displays, giant plastic vegetables to stand next to (!) and beautiful gardens to wander around. I liked playing with the compost bins...

And that was pretty much the end of the holiday. Except, I saw this in a shop window in Stratford:

And wondered who on earth would be making the most of their summer by... doing the ironing?!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help is a pretty amazing book. It's one of the few I've read recently that I literally haven't been able to put down. It's about three women in 1960s Mississippi - Skeeter, who is white and has just finished college, and Aibileen and Minny who are both black maids. Each has their own problems, Skeeter has a mother who is very keen to get her married off well as soon as possible, as well as some pretty unbearable "friends". Aibileen, who works for one of Skeeter's "friends", and Minny have the problem of being black in an incredibly unequal society. This is what gripped me and totally appalled me - this is only 50 years ago, after all. The white and black people, although they can now use the same buses, thanks to Rosa Parks, have separate schools, housing areas, libraries, even different toilets for the maids in the white person's house. How on earth anybody ever thought this made any sense at all is beyond me. What seems worse (?) than the visible racism of this though, is the patronising attitude of most of the white employers - that they know best, that things like separate toilets are a good thing (eh?), even though the black maids are trusted with the care of the white children.

The action is narrated in turn by the three characters, giving an insight into the different perspectives. Of course, I had the advantage of knowing what would happen in the end - and several times I longed to be able to whisper to the characters that 50 years later there would be a black President. What is also shocking, is the way that anyone who stands up against the inequalities risks their life. Several times in the story someone gets beaten up and their life changed forever, just because they dared to do something like go into a white shop when they're black. Skeeter begins a project to publish the stories of the black maids, and it is clear that even by talking to her like this, the maids are risking everything.

So, I recommend reading this. It's definitely not in the "To kill a  mocking bird" classics category but it is very very readable as well as shocking. This is the copy of the book I read:

Apparently the book was published in the US with a different image on the cover.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Second honeymoon part 1

For our first wedding anniversary we decided to return to Stratford-upon-Avon for another week's holiday. We went there on honeymoon, but only got 5 nights away due to difficulties getting time off work, so didn't get to half the places we intended to. We booked to stay in the same flat this year as we'd liked it so much.

We travelled down on the Saturday and found a lovely independent bookshop in Thame on the way, called the Book House. It has two puffins sat outside its front door, one called the Fat Puffin, one called Muffin! I would love to live near a shop like this - it had a great range of books, including an enormous children's section and a little garden you could sit in too. I bought a copy of the Morville Hours by Katherine Swift too, a book I've been meaning to read for ages.

On Sunday I went to church at Holy Trinity, Stratford, where Shakespeare is buried. It was fun going somewhere different to my usual church - at this one they sang the hymns twice as fast as at home!

Then we went to The Lunt Roman fort, just outside Coventry.  c. 2000 years ago this was the frontier of the Roman empire (slightly hard to imagine now, with the traffic noise from the A46!). But it's a fun sight, lacking all the usual tourist amenities (no overpriced tourist tat on sale, no extortionate admission fee but there are loos and a few picnic benches). Bits of a mock Roman fort have been built on some parts of the archaeological dig, so you can climb on the ramparts and pretend to be a Roman legionary, and go in the gyrus (a horse training ring, this is the only known example in Britain).

And on to Coombe Abbey country park, once the site of a monastery until the Reformation in the 16th century, then a country house, with grounds designed by Capability Brown in the 18th century, the park now belongs to Coventry City Council, although the house itself has been sold off and turned into a hotel. And it's really lovely. Although the part around the car parks and visitor centre are quite crowded, it's easy to get away from those into peaceful woodland. You can walk part way round the lake, and visit a bird hide (parts of the site are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and there are lots of herons nesting). There are formal gardens and a deer park to explore (but we only saw some sheep). There is also the pleasant and reasonably priced herons café on site, where we had lunch, and later a cup of tea.

On Monday, we did some shopping in Stratford town centre, then went for a walk along the River Avon, up one way, crossed over, then walked back along the other bank, stopped to watch some barges go through a lock on the way. One barge was called "Cheeky Monkey" and had monkeys in the window...

Tuesday we headed over to visit Charlecote Park, a National Trust property not far from Stratford. It dates from the 12th century, although most of it is mock Tudor (actually 19th century) in appearance. The rooms are huge and there is a restaurant in what was the Orangery, as well as a garden centre (at which I may have indulged).

We then drove on into Warwick, where we had a cup of tea conveniently close to Warwick Wools and I bought some Sirdar Simply Recycled DK to make one of the patterns from the summer Interweave Knits. We also visited Warwick Books, where I picked up an Alan Titchmarsh gardening book. We also had a look in Warwick Museum - which was rather good. Small and free, but well thought out with displays aimed at all age groups. If you're in the area it's well worth a look. I took a picture of a plesiosaur, which died out about 65 million years ago, as it reminded me of reading Remarkable Creatures for reading group last month.

Then it was back to the holiday flat ready for an outing to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see the Merchant of Venice. Unfortunately the OH had done his back in that morning so I ended up having to go on my own. And WHAT a disappointment. Bad signage meant I couldn't find the entrance I was supposed to use, then I was sold a programme for a different play (despite showing the seller my ticket), by the time I'd sorted that out and found the entrance the play had started and they'd given my seat(s) to someone else and I got shoved behind a pillar! Then it turned out to be the biggest load of complete rubbish I think I've ever seen at the theatre - involving an Elvis impersonator, Batman, Robin and a blue teddy bear cavorting round the stage. I left during the interval...

To be continued....

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Garden at the beginning of June

The garden's beginning to look like it's finally coming together now we're in June. Things are shooting up (although not as much as if we'd actually had some rain!). I've also filled most of the raised bed in the picture with a perennial plant collection (72 plants!!) from JParkers, although mostly they're too small to be seen yet. Hopefully they will spread out (if we get some rain) and fill in the gaps. If we get some rain.

I'm really pleased with this miniature rose. It was a housewarming present when I bought my house in Newark five years ago and has been living with Mum for the last few years. It came to Staines at Christmas, and I've since potted it on and given it a big prune, and it's completely covered in flowers now!

Some of the salad leaves have bolted and gone to seed due to the lack of rain, but these are the latest sowings coming along (I plant another couple of rows every fortnight), with some autumn fruiting raspberries in the background.

And my sweet peas started flowering yesterday, just in time for garden-at-the-beginning-of-the-month. I'm really impressed with them as I love sweet peas, but had never grown them myself. These are the Old Fashioned mix Sweet Pea from the Organic Gardening Catalogue. They smell glorious.

I'm really impressed with this hydrangea too. A year ago it was a semi-dead mess of bits of stick, clinging onto life underneath a particularly rank diseased buddleia. But removing the buddleia, a massive prune, lots of soil enrichment and some Sequestrene and it's looking a lot better. I think the leaves look pretty like that, although I suspect the yellow veining affect may be due to iron deficiency and it could do with more Sequestrene?

Our neighbour gave us some self-seeded hellebores from his plants. Haven't decided where to plant those yet, but it's nice to have something that will have some colour earlier in the year. I'm quite tempted to get a Dicentra plant for the same reason, and I think their little heart shaped flowers are cool.

And I am very very very pleased with this:

It's a fuchsia I grew myself from a cutting. Clever or what?!