Thursday, December 27, 2012

'...the drift darkened the lower panes....'

'Indeed, egress seemed next to impossible; the drift darkened the lower panes of the casement, and, on looking out, one saw the sky and air vexed and dim, the wind and snow in angry conflict.  There was no fall now, but what had already descended was torn up from the earth, whirled round by brief shrieking gusts, and cast into a hundred fantastic forms.'

Villette - page 314

We had approximately 20 centimetres of snow grace our neighbourhood last night so I laughed when reading about the darkened lower panes in my book this morning.  Living on the corner of our street means extra sidewalk to shovel but the thought of burning off the calories from too much trifle got me through.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Christmas Illustration by Joseph Jacenko

Wishing all of you a wonderful holiday season full of friends, family and good cheer!  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Big Books, Short Books, Old Books and New

The sales figures for eReaders continue to rise but bookshops are overflowing with customers at the moment.  A sight which makes my heart sing!  Four employees were steadily ringing up sales at my local Indigo shop yesterday as the line-up was constantly added to.  My family likes to arrive at the threshold and then wave each other off as we head to the area we each like best.  Our latest trip was to pick up a stash of magazines for indulgent slothing about during the Christmas break.  You know the days - pajamas until noon and the coffee table is littered with clementine peels and Quality Street wrappers. 

A few new books have arrived on my shelves either through the mail, bookshop or found at a second-hand shop so let's see if you can be tempted...

Friends & Relations by Elizabeth Bowen - If you haven't discovered this magnificent author yet then you are missing out, I am telling you!  From the back...

During a soft summer in the 1920s, the Studdart sisters marry and set up house, one in London and one on a country estate.  However, things are not as they seem.  Using careful, elliptical prose interspersed with comic quips and populated by memorable characters, Elizabeth Bowen reveals how these seemingly placid lives are anchored in lies.'  And...'For admirers of the Bloomsbury circle and watchers of Downton Abbey, Friends and Relations offers an unforgettable comedy of manners tinged with romance and regret.'

Treasure Hunt by Molly Keane - I bought this one because Danielle from A Work in Progress piqued my interest about this author in one of her posts and secondly because while flipping through the pages I spotted the words 'tea tray'.  Call me shallow but there you have it - one ever so slight mention of the partaking of tea and I instantly become fond of a story.  First published in 1952 this Virago reissue has been languishing on the shelves at BMV Books in Toronto for ages, I've passed it over numerous times, so it was time to just give it a home.

'To the outrage of their elders and the servants, Phillip and Veronica decide to do the unspeakable and take in paying guests.  A battle of wills commences, with Consuelo and Hercules doing their utmost to thwart the new regime.  In the midst of it all is old and dotty Aunt Anna Rose, who insists that she has some rubies.  If only she could remember where she hid them...'

The Brickfield by L. P. Hartley - By the look of things John Murray Publishers is in the midst of reissuing several of Hartley's novels.  The timing couldn't be better for me as I absolutely loved The Hireling and The Go-Between earlier this year.  Head off to The Book Depository for details...

'A lonely boy living on his uncle's farm in the Lincolnshire Fens, Richard Mardick's solitary existence is interrupted by a chance meeting, and the idyllic love affair, with Lucy.  A disused brickfield is the scene of their clandestine meetings, and it is there that Richard finds her drowned in a muddy pool' 
A sequel called The Betrayal will be printed later in 2013 and the wait will be unbearable!

Upstairs & Downstairs by Sarah Warwick - This is one of those coffee table books you find on the clearance table at your local bookshop and makes for entertaining browsing.  Full of gorgeous photos and illustrations it covers every aspect of domestic life in country houses as well as articles on the suffragette movement, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, other Bloomsbury Group members...and P G Wodehouse! 

Last week I succumbed to a terrible virus making the rounds and was in bed for two days.  This book was on the pillow next to me for most of the time and was just the thing when I could muster the strength for something light. 

A copy of Loving, Living and Party Going by Henry Green is on its way from The Book Depository because Book Snob makes it so ridiculously hard to refuse.  Three titles for the price of one and I'm really looking forward to discovering this author.

So who is clearing space on their bookshelves in anticipation of bookish gifts from others or yourself? 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Book of Christmas by Jane Struthers

This charming little book was purchased from the V&A gift shop with mere minutes to spare before closing time.  Fear of a case of 'shopper's regret' forced me to be uncharacteristically decisive and forego the usual mental debate about the difference between 'want' and 'need'. 

At a quick glance I thought this book was a reissue by Jan Struther, the author of one of the cosiest books you will ever find, Mrs Miniver.  Turns out that it wasn't, and a couple of letters make a huge difference, but serendipity is a wonderful thing.  Quickly flipping through the pages I spied a piece about Sinterklaas, Belgium's version of Santa Claus.  It was during our train ride from Canterbury that one of The Heiress's friends educated me about the December 6 feast day and how naughty children in Belgium are threatened with being tied up in sacks.  Or perhaps it was just Sarah's family doing the threatening...but anyway, her story was extremely entertaining.

Filled with 280 pages of all sorts of tidbits about the traditions, superstitions, folklore and fact surrounding the Christmas season it makes for perfect light reading at this busy time of year.  Whether your advent season is about the Nativity, a Saint, a large man in a red suit or the winter solstice, there are loads of fun and interesting facts to educate and entertain.  You might want to give a recipe or two such as the Christmas Cake or Truffles or who knows, perhaps a Scottish Clootie dumpling is more to your liking?

There are also a few explanations as to why robins are so popular on Christmas cards.  One version is that the little bird was asked by Mary to fan the embers of a small fire in the manger.  'A spark jumped out of the fire and caught the bird on its chest, turning it red.'  Another interesting section is about games played during the festive season, one in the Regency era - in fact Jane Austen's niece, Fanny, described it in a letter...

You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek (peak) at top.  You must then lay a bullet (yes, a real bullet) at top and everybody cuts a slice of it (the pudding), and the person that is cutting it when it (the bullet) falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choke you: You must not use your hands in taking the Bullet out.'

I can't imagine that the housekeeper or laundress would find these hijinks much fun at all considering the clean up afterwards and frankly, a mouth full of flour wouldn't appeal to me either!

A superstition regarding mince pies certainly does though.  Apparently, if you refuse a mince pie over Christmas you will be declining good fortune.  Not worth risking is it?

For the literary fans there are quotes from Samuel Pepys' diary all the way to Adrian Mole, remember Pandora's necklace from Woolworths and the rash it gave her?.  And Grossmith's Mr Pooter...December 24 I am a poor man but I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card I received this morning.'  

A lovely book to buy for yourself or a friend.   

Monday, December 3, 2012

Anna Karenina at the Cinema

Since this adaptation seems to have a 'love it or hate it' air surrounding it I wanted to share my view.  I LOVED everything about it!  The way it was filmed with many scenes performed on stage at a theatre - intriguing, the cast - fabulous, the costumes - gorgeous.  Although I've learned since the V&A exhibit that designers really don't want you to notice the clothes, they are simply an extension of the character.  Well, I'm sorry but how can you possibly resist the urge to swan about in a long silk gown and now I also want a lace veil.  At least for five minutes.

The Heiress and I learned that some of the scenes were filmed at Ham House in Richmond when we were visiting there in October.  Also, one of Anna's (Keira Knightley) voluminous merlot-coloured gowns is on display at the wonderful Hollywood Costume exhibit at the V&A (see it if you can).  Naturally there was some elbowing going on in the dark whenever we spied anything recognizable.

This movie will deliver more than your money's worth in epic drama, I promise you, and you don't often leave the cinema feeling like that.  And see it on the big screen...oh, I want need to go again!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford

It was during a trip to London last February that my husband very kindly chose a copy of Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding for me from Hatchards.  There has been enough mention of that last name in our house over the past few years for him to know it was probably a safe bet.  It was tucked away on my shelves to enjoy during the next holiday season and what with decorations being pulled out and carols being played in the midst of November, I decided to get stuck in.

It turns out that Christmas Pudding really isn't all that Christmass-y and would be perfectly well-suited to read during any time of year.  The story centres around Amabelle Fortescu's short-term rental, Mulberrie Farm in the Cotswolds, and an extended group friends who drop by for one reason or another.  One couple, Sally and Walter, have recently become parents to a baby girl and in stereotypical upper-crust fashion, reserve the right to not become too attached lest it all go pear-shaped.  In contemplating the cost of engraving a sterling silver cup with the baby's name...
'I say, I do hope she lives all right, Sally.'
'So do I, you know.  After all the trouble I've had, one way and another, it would be extraordinarily souring if she didn't.  However, nanny and the charlady between them are battling for her life, as they say in the papers, like mad, so I expect she will.  The charlady knows all about it, too, she has lost six herself.'

Paul Fotheringay desperately wants to be recognized as a serious author but his latest book Crazy Caper has the masses in fits of laughter, not at all the response he was hoping for considering its tragic tone.  After some advice to try his hand at a biography he decides to research volumes of work by the Victorian poetess, Lady Maria Bobbin.  How convenient that the volumes now reside at Compton Bobbin, a country estate close to Mulberrie Farm, occupied by the formidable Lady Bobbin and her two young adult children, Roderick 'Bobby' and Philidelphia.

If you have never had any exposure to what life was like for the Mitford girls whilst growing up in their own country pile you might find the characters in this book completely mad.  But if you've read The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters there are many instances when you can easily imagine certain incidents may very well have happened....
"'...Where's Mabel, then?'
'She's just looking for still-borns in The Times,' said Christopher Robin.  'I'll fetch her - oh, here she comes through.'" 

Funny stuff indeed but I realized something part way through the book.  While I adore a farcical play or television show for the two hours it takes to feature on stage or screen I can't take it for days on end during the time it takes me to get through a book.  It's probably why I just could not get on with Benson's Mapp & Lucia either.  The baby talk in that book was simply too irksome and there was a form of secret language in Christmas Pudding that made me groan when it would pop up.  All the over the top twittering, hand-wringing and arm-flapping belied the cool or smoldering glances I have come to expect in my aristocratic reading adventures.  I wanted to smack the simpering Philadelphia for her waffling back and forth about which man to marry every other minute.  Why does a woman barely past the training bra stage have to marry anyone?! 

Christmas Pudding was Mitford's second book and written when she was only 28.  Supposedly she would laugh herself silly while writing it, masking real-life events and friends in her fictional tales.  I, on the other hand, felt like someone on the outside looking in and didn't quite feel in on the joke.  Given just the right mood combined with the time to read such a book in one or two sittings all would be fine but otherwise I'm afraid not.  But all is not lost because The Pursuit of Love written years later was definitely worth waiting for.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

An Almost End of Year Book Meme

Oh I do find these entertaining...

I began the day by A Very Great Profession

before breakfasting on Christmas Pudding

and admiring A View of the Harbour.

On my way to work I saw War Damage

and walked by Three Men in a Boat

to avoid The Shooting Party

but I made sure to stop at New Grub Street.

In the office, my boss said, Call the Midwife

and sent me to research The Hireling.

At lunch with My American

I noticed The Wedding Group

in The Heat of the Day

greatly enjoying Brightness.

Then on the journey home, I contemplated If Walls Could Talk

because I have Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

and am drawn to The British Character.

Settling down for the evening in A Far Cry from Kensington

I studied Between the Acts

by Manservant and Maidservant

before saying good-night to Millions Like Us.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sunday at Springridge Farm

After a very busy Spring, Summer and Fall, Springridge Farm closes for the Winter season as of Christmas Eve.  I wish it didn't though as it's the perfect destination if you need a change of scenery but don't have a whole day for frivolity as it's only a ten minute car journey away.  Once the groceries were all put away, The Heiress, my husband and I piled into the car and drove along one of the country roads out to the farm.  Lazy snowflakes fell in the morning but for the most part it was simply a plain old crisp day with grey skies.  Pulling into the driveway though was like entering a Winter wonderland with evergreen boughs decorating the rail fence and an open fire filled the air with woodsmoke.  Stepping into the warm shop we were welcomed with the delicious aromas of Christmas spice and baking.
The gift shop is one of the nicest places to do some Christmas shopping.  Forget circling mall parking lots looking for a spot you hope nobody else will beat you to and grouchy customers lumbering under the weight of winter coats and too many bags.  There are all sorts of gorgeous things to buy for the home, a best friend, to surprise your hostess with or best of all, to eat.  We chose some homemade fruitcake baked by a local resident, granola and I can't wait to try a bottle of the Mulled Winter Punch from Belvoir that we spied.  To add wine or not...hmmm, some experimentation is called for I think.

Poor Morris.  His head has been mounted at the farm for as long as I can remember.  When The Heiress was small she, along with the rest of the children from near and far, begged to be grasped under her arms and raised high enough to pat the once fuzzy muzzle.  It's rather smooth now thanks to all the stroking.

After a delicious soup and sandwich lunch, and a bag of three cinnamon swirls for later, we weaved our way past the displays and groups of children admiring some toys.  Just as we reached the door we noticed Santa was visiting and we tried our best to stifle belly laughs as a poor little boy sidestepped away from the man in red.  The look of terror and bewilderment on his face...well, you have to be a grown-up to see the humour don't you.  Anyway, it was a lovely outing and if we're lucky we can squeeze it all in again once more before Springridge closes for the season.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

War Damage by Elizabeth Wilson

Ah yes, the book souvenir from London.  Scanning the shelves, tables and displays at Hatchards for something to tempt me a very nice woman pointed me in the direction of just the sort of books I adore.  The trouble was that most of them already sat on my bookshelves at home.  A light bulb turned on and she led me towards a crime display and with a very happy, satisfied look on her face she told me that all sorts of people had popped in asking for a copy of War Damage over the past year or so.  Considering this book was first published in 2009 that indicates a 'word of mouth' read, just the sort to tempt me despite the fact I don't go in for crime novels.  Flipping through the pages the words 'Downshire Hill' caught my eye and remembering that I had wandered the very street just a day or two before my mind was made up.

Set just after World War II, Regine Milner hosts Sunday get-togethers at the charming home she shares with her husband, Neville.  With alabaster skin and red hair she attracts the attention of every man who crosses her path, gay or straight.  Her circle of friends consist of people from the arts, politics and the war office so confidentiality and loyalty go without saying.  When a dear friend, Freddie, is found dead on the Heath after one of the Milner's gatherings the police centre their investigation on those in attendance.  If a gay man is murdered in Soho the case is just another assignment but not when it happens in Hampstead.

There were small but clever details that I really appreciated by a contemporary author such as one of the detectives noting that a great deal of money had been found in the victim's wallet.  It was £5 which is lunch money by today's standards but not for the era written about and could so easily have been ignored in the writing.  The inception of the NHS also gets a mention when a friend of Regine's becomes pregnant during an affair with a married man and when a housekeeper is ill with flu.  Also in keeping with the times, Neville prefers his wife to be the 'salon hostess' sort while Regine hopes to become more than a French history translation clerk for the publishing company she works for.  The sentiments felt quite genuine so I'll forgive the odd moment when the description of clothing went slightly too far.  I know what the cut of a dress from that era looked like.

Here is a gratuitous quote but it was foggy as anything at my house a couple of days ago (at 5 am, before setting out to walk Deacon, thank you very much) just as I happened to read...

'As they walked along the pavement the slabs gradually disappeared.  The suffocating fog crept closer still.  She could see barely a foot ahead.  A white wall rolled towards them.  They were alone in this suffocating, silent world.  Sound, too, was deadened; no traffic, no footsteps.  She stretched her free arm sideways groping for a wall or something solid to hold on to, and when she found it edged her way along it.  Roxborough lit a match, but the feeble glow did nothing to disperse the miasma.'  ...Eeek!

Crime is a genre I just don't dabble in so there were times when a character was about to reveal something really, really crucial...and then they would pull back.  Aaarrrghhh...I wanted to scream 'Just spit it out, for goodness sake!' and let's face it, that's how it works and I was hooked so what was I to do but hang in there.  And too right...this story was entertaining and quite the good read so way to go Elizabeth Wilson, I will definitely be looking out for more of your work.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

'Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January.  Rain had closed in over London, and her taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road, past one cavernous porch after another, the driver going slowly and poking his head out into the wet, for the hotel was not known to him.'

From the beginning of the story we can surmise that Mrs Palfrey and her only daughter do not have a close relationship.  She chooses The Claremont as a place to relocate while staying with Elizabeth in Scotland.  It also quickly becomes apparent that this is the sort of hotel that begrudgingly caters to seniors before their final destination of the dreaded nursing home.  After her bags have been taken to her room by the porter, and by only page three, my heart was already breaking...
'The outlook - especially on this darkening afternoon - was daunting; but the backs of hotels, which are kept for indigent ladies, can't be expected to provide a view, she knew.  The best is kept for honeymooners, though God alone knew why they should require it.'
And right there, in a couple of sentences, is why I adore Elizabeth Taylor's exquisite gift for storytelling.  She has acutely and succinctly laid out how it feels to be an inconvenience and despite paying her way, Mrs Palfrey is to be thankful for any hospitality she receives as a guest of the hotel.  Yes, in part, this is a sad novel but not so much so that your first instinct is to shy away from it.  As the reader is introduced to the other elderly guests taking advantage of the low winter rates the story becomes a bit of a sitcom - in a good way.  I gradually warmed up to the irritating Mr Osmond with his inappropriate jokes and adversity to hand washing, Mrs Post does the library run but gets Elizabeth Bowen muddled up with Majorie Bowen.  Poor incontinent Mrs Arbuthnot is also terribly arthritic, Mrs Burton has mauve hair and spends far too much on whisky.  Wanting to find some sort of common ground with the ladies, Mrs Palfrey buys a bit of wool and a set of needles to join in with the after-dinner knitting circle. 

The number of invites received by a guest to attend an outing with family or friends is carefully examined and commented on by the other residents.  When Mrs Palfrey's daughter or grandson show no sign of turning up, her pride takes over and a tale formulates after an unfortunate turn of events.  Ludo is a handsome young writer, poor and barely scraping by, who comes to Mrs Palfrey's rescue in more ways than one and their resulting friendship...well, it's the stuff dreams are made of but by no means perfect.  It is also another example of wonderful characterization on the part of Taylor, so convincingly does she write both sides.

There is no way that I could ever choose just one Elizabeth Taylor to call my absolute favourite but this one did make me laugh...and cry.  A combination which rates quite highly when it comes to labelling something a really good read and this one surely is that.  I also really enjoyed the parallel experience of reading this story while staying in my own little hotel room in London, albeit in different circumstance.  Being the new face in the breakfast room but quickly settling in was certainly recognizable.  Although, thinking back to what the experience would have been like over forty years ago when Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was written did make me thankful that luggage now have wheels!

Thanks to Verity for writing the post that made me pull this book from my bookcase at the last minute before my trip to London, it was perfect.  And once again, thanks to Laura for being the one to go to for information about this year's read-along of Elizabeth Taylor's novels.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ham House in Surrey

The B&B we had been staying at was not able to accommodate us for our last night in London so The Heiress and I had to pack up and relocate elsewhere in Bloomsbury.  Too early to claim our room we had to leave our belongings in the hallway of reception and put all notion of them being anything other than safe, aside.  We were off to Surrey on our last full day in England and it wasn't long before the traffic and crowds of central London were all but forgotten.  Arriving at the Richmond station we then had to board a bus for a short ride through town, passing charming neighbourhoods and homes along the way.  My fantasy of buying a home in England with my imagined lottery winnings just got a tad more difficult, it's so lovely here!

The house has a completion date of 1610 inscribed on the front door (there has since been many renovations) and the entrance hall still has its original marble floor.  The photo above was taken from the second story railing.  The hall chairs were supplied at a cost of £1 in 1730, decorated with the coat of arms of the 4th Earl of Dysart.  Just imagine the people who have trod back and forth it over the decades...

The coronet and cipher in the Queen's Closet.  I was excited to find this detail on the floor after Lucy Worsley pointed it out in her documentary If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home.

Other, more domestic details, were every bit as interesting, such as buckets on hooks lining a discreet hallway.  Some of them, if not all, would be filled with sand so as to be at the ready in case of fire.  The dog in the portrait looks as though he does a very good job of keeping an eye on things, don't you think?

The Duchess would bathe in the lower level of the house.  A tub this size would have required a good many trips back and forth from the fireplace with loads and loads of buckets of hot water.  The wages for a housemaid in 1668 were £4 per annum.  I was a bit disappointed that the stunning collection of copper pots and pans in the kitchen have been removed to be more in keeping with the seventeenth-century period detail. 

After several hours spent exploring this handsome house, wandering the grounds, stuffing ourselves with Coronation Chicken sandwiches and lemonade in the cafe while Halloween-costumed children enjoyed romping about, it was time to move on.  Oh, if every day could be like this, I half expected to see Hyacinth Bucket stroll in with Richard.  As we waved good-bye and set off on the path back through the village I couldn't resist taking a picture of the above young lady, cooling down her horse after a good ride.  But they weren't my primary focus, it was the hilarious sight of the little dog absolutely covered in mud from the belly down.  No doubt trying to keep up through an afternoon of muck and mire on the trails.

I can't wait to come back for another visit to Richmond and Ham House!  For more information on the house, click here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Grand Day Out In Greenwich

Despite the forecast calling for rain The Heiress and I forged ahead with our plan to make this our day to discover Greenwich.  London was sleepy after a busy Saturday night, paper trails of hen-night banners dotted Embankment as we made our way to the pier.  The Thames Clipper pulled up at 9:30 am and we settled in to a window seat but the views took me from port to starboard several times along the journey which was just over half an hour.  I have no idea who the ladies are in the photo above but they kindly agreed to let me take a photo of their very well-behaved pups as we sailed along.  And venturing by boat to a place nestled so closely to the Thames is an absolute must, you can always go home by Docklands Light Railway.   

For some silly reason it has taken me five trips to London to make Greenwich part of my itinerary plans.  With its centuries-old nautical reputation and maritime history it wasn't quite for me, or so I thought.  The architecture is breathtaking and I gasped in awe once the doors opened at the stunningly beautiful, Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, another of Wren's masterpieces.  What I've read is true, particularly on this grey day, there is a hint of Hogwarts about the room with glowing candelabras decorating the tables. 

After basking in the glory of majestic structures and artwork The Heiress and I moved on to the Maritime Museum.  It was there that I caught sight of Horatio Nelson's portrait and wouldn't you agree there something about the glint in his eyes...he's handsome, no?

On a previous trip I had seen Nelson's crypt at St Paul's Cathedral but knew next to nothing about the man so the gaps were being filled in.  And what a fascinating story to unravel... 

At the museum you can see the uniform he was wearing when fatally wounded in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).  The epaulet on his left shoulder blown apart showing the bullet's site of entry.  Nelson's body 'was immersed in a cask of brandy ,  with camphor and myrrh, and lashed to Victory's mainmast' for the return to Gilbraltar before finally heading to London for burial.  More reading about Greenwich and Horatio Nelson will have to be done!
The Queen's House, decorated outside with carved jack o'lanterns, was closed for an event to entertain children dressed in their Halloween costumes.  We spied some of the most adorable witches and vampires you could ever chance upon, wandering the grounds.  But we did take the opportunity to cheer on some participants of a marathon to raise money for breast cancer research while techno music blared from massive speakers.

The area around the High Street was filled with couples, friends and families enjoying the day and only a few sprinkles of rain fell at all.  The market stalls were full of gorgeous crafts, the Starbucks had a ship's wheel dangling above the doorway.  My favourite shop was Lush Designs and this pillow with its whimsical print Cottages & Castles stopped me dead in my tracks, actually everything in the shop is really nice.  There is no room in my luggage for it so I had to enjoy it and then walk away until another time.

After a fortifying lunch at the Coach & Horses pub, cosy courtesy of its roaring fire, The Heiress and I trekked up the steep hill to the Royal Observatory.  The view over Greenwich is more than worth a little bit of huffing and puffing so don't leave it out!  After milling about for a little while we headed back to the station that would take us home, so glad that we didn't let a weather forecast scare us away from one of the best days of our trip.

Back in Central London we couldn't wait to sit ourselves down at the Byron Burger, Haymarket, for a sumptuous feast minus utensils and then The Heiress went one way to meet up with friends in Earl's Court while I played tourist in Piccadilly Circus.  There was a certain Kate and Wills wedding day teacup I needed to add to my commemorative collection.  Go on, laugh...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

18 Stafford Terrace

Saturday began as a sunny day with a nip in the air.  It was also the first time that I cursed London's tube system.  With the Circle line closed, disruptions on the District line and the lift out of order at Gloucester Road, it was a good thing I heeded the advice given on the Transport for London website to allow forty minutes to get to my destination.  Rachel, Mary and I had a date to meet at Linley Sambourne's house just off of Kensington High Street for a tour at 11:15 am.  Having grabbed a cup of tea from a cafe around the corner I spied Mary making her way towards the house.  With smiles and a hug we fell straight into a chat about the Hollywood Costume exhibit at the V&A that we had each been to the evening before.  After a bit of a wait we were ushered as part of a group into a room for a short film about Sambourne and his family, Rachel snuck in just as things were getting started - tube disruption delays had claimed another customer.

I love visiting houses and this one, says the website, ' recognized as one of the best surviving examples of a late Victorian middle-class home in the UK.'  This rich and cosy house, absolutely dripping with decoration over almost every square inch looks to be the quintessential Victorian abode of my imagination and so lived in that its owners may have simply stepped out to take the air.  Chairs and footstools surround occasional tables, plates line rails near the wallpapered ceiling and one room even had four clocks.  Pen and ink drawings, many by Sambourne himself, lined the walls end to end and three rows high - the group laughed when told that the expensive William Morris wallpaper wasn't wasted behind any of the prints.  My favourite feature was the gorgeous stained glass windows that adorn the south windows, catching the sun.  While Sambourne was busy spending the money he earned as an artist and illustrator for Punch magazine, his wife Marion was busy keeping exact accounts of the household budget and reigning in expenditures.  I can only imagine that husband and wife would have been shocked speechless to learn that their £2,000 investment from 1875 is now worth over £6,000,000.

After the tour it was time for refreshments so Mary suggested The Muffin Man.  Warm and cosy, Mary and I filled up on teacakes and cake while Rachel sensibly had a hearty bowl of yummy-looking carrot soup.  How many cups of tea did we go through, I wonder?  This was my second get-together with Mary and Rachel so we talked about everyday things as though we got together all the time.  Don't I wish!  The lovely and very busy Rachel had a train to catch (only the Eurostar) bound for Paris with her friend, Naomi.  So it was up to Mary and me to close out the afternoon.  We strolled our way through Kensington Gardens and Portobello Road, stopping to look at any bookshops we passed by, even the famous Notting Hill Bookshop from the movie with Hugh Grant.  Chatting as we spied the wares on offer at what must have been a hundred stalls a moment of dread rose within me.  All that tea meant a loo break was needed and soon!  Mary pointed me in the direction of a nearby cafe and so dire was the need I neither realized, or cared, that I had whipped into the gents by mistake...oh well.  So my tiara slips every now and then, whatever.

Thanks so much for a wonderful afternoon, Rachel and're lovely!

   Mosaic tiling in front of a townhouse on Gower Street, Bloomsbury

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Highgate, Hampstead and Hollywood Costumes

After a lovely breakfast of scrambled eggs, mushrooms, tomato, toast and tea The Heiress and I set out for Highgate Cemetery, the East side.  Smaller than the west side you don't need to book a tour, just plunk down your three GBP with a staff member in the little hut by the gate, get your map and explore.  The skies were grey and we needed our umbrellas off and on but you couldn't ask for better cemetery weather (if that doesn't sound too morbid).  The photo above shows George Eliot's (1819 - 1880) grave, not far from the most unbelievably large bust of Karl Marx you could ever imagine.  I am sorry but it is hideous and scared me half to death. 

Once we had explored all of the pathways throughout the cemetery we walked down Swain's Lane so I could show The Heiress Holly Village.  Debating whether or not to knock on the door of a lovely elderly man who invited me for coffee last year when we met in Waterlow Park, a voice called out from a window near the arched entry.  When I asked about the man in the far left cottage I was told he was dying, oh dear.  If only that poor man knew how many times someone halfway around the world had thought of him over the past year.  The man from the window saw the look of sadness that spread across my face and said 'It happens to all of us' in a straightforward manner that felt far too blasé and there was nothing left to do but walk away.  Poor man.

Catching a bus to Hampstead so that The Heiress could experience Keats House I was keeping watch for 8 Downshire Hill along the way, the former home of writer Elizabeth Jenkins.  The trees were thick along the front wall of this house that Jenkins' father bought for her in 1939 but I did my best to capture a shot of something, anything.  The house numbers don't always make sense the window panes do seem to match the photo on the cover of her memoir.  The View from Downshire Hill seems to be as scarce as hen's teeth but one of these days I hope to stumble across a copy or perhaps give our inter-library loan service a try.

Now if you're ever in Hampstead and feeling a bit peckish you MUST stop at a little cafe around the corner from Keats' Grove called Polly's.  It's where I had a yummy Croque Monsieur last year and this year the most delicious bowl of spinach and chick pea soup ever!  Just the thing after a long morning of walking outside in the crisp air.  The gentleman at the counter was as friendly as before, in fact, everyone was very nice.  Next visit I must leave room for a slice of the Victoria Sponge...

The Heiress and I parted ways after we ate - she off to Camden Market and I to John Sandoe Books.  The stacks of books everywhere in that shop are legendary but it was waaay too much for me.  A woman had somehow managed to get her large dog in to the shop, the poor thing looked about as uncomfortable to turn around as I did so I left to do some damage at Cath Kidston across the road instead.  Charing Cross Road was my next stop and then on to Persephone Books before they closed for the evening.  Weighed down by books but with a smile on my face I burst through the hotel door, flopped for a few moments, and then we were off again to the V&A for their late night.  What a party that is!

Envisioning hallways dotted with the odd person seeking entertainment rather than sit in on a Friday evening I could not have been more wrong.  Techno music blared from speakers while people drank wine, danced and ran about from friend to friend in their Halloween costumes.  It was fabulous!  At the last minute we decided to buy tickets to see the Hollywood Costume exhibit and we were so glad that we did.  The exhibit rooms were darkened and soft lights shone on the clothes and costumes from such iconic films as Cleopatra, Gone With the Wind, The Seven Year Itch, Ben Hur, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett's version AND Bette Davis's), Star Wars, Out of Africa, The Black Swan, The Blues Brothers, Dracula, Harry Potter, Saturday Night Fever and Mildred Pierce - the Joan Crawford picture and much, much more.  Right at the end was a glass case with Dorothy's ruby red slippers inside, full of little red sequins - not a ruby in sight - but still!  If this exhibit ever comes to a gallery near you - run to buy a ticket, you won't be sorry!

Tomorrow is Linley Sambourne's house with a couple of my favourite blog friends...

Monday, November 5, 2012

Suffragettes and the Strand

Waking up in Canterbury to the rattle of linen carts being unloaded directly beneath our window was as good as any alarm clock.  With practiced precision The Heiress and I moved quickly from bed to breakfast and were soon on board the hi-speed train taking us to St Pancras, London.  The fields were still lying below a haze of fog and mist so there wasn't much of a horizon to watch quite along the way.  Coincidentally, one of The Heiress's friends and her beau were travelling on the same train, really helping my daughter feel a bit less sad about leaving Canterbury behind.

Arriving at last in Bloomsbury, we quickly unpacked and made way for the Museum of London.  A fascinating treasure trove full of artifacts from the time of the Romans, Londinium and present day.  I am determined to come back here yet again as it was my second visit and my travels partners never seem to want to stay as long as I do.  The Heiress was anxious to visit The Women's Library and see their exhibit 'The Long March to Equality'.  It was the section featuring the suffragette movement that we were riveted to and has certainly spurned me on to learn more about Millicent Garret Fawcett, Katie Sliddon, Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison.  Seeing their letters in person about the abuse and harassment they endured in an unrelenting pursuit for equality has touched me more than any documentary or chapter in a book.  See this exhibit if you possibly can.

Moving on next to the Strand The Heiress wanted to visit the Twinnings tea shop.  It's quite a narrow shop and was absolutely bustling with customers.  After choosing a few teas to sample back at home we made our way to the back of the shop where they house a small museum.

You really get a sense of just how precious tea was when it first arrived in England by the small tins it was kept in - or the very ornate canisters to display its importance or the owner's wealth.  We drank many cups of take-out tea to stay warm during our long days spent walking outdoors and were thankful the price has come down drastically! 

After sampling some tea poured by a lovely young sales lady we decided it was time for something to fortify ourselves before moving on to The Courtauld Institute of Art.  Ye Olde Cock Tavern has been on this site since 1887 and was a favourite drinking spot of Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens and Dr Johnson...who could resist?  We had the most delicious steak and ale pie, mashed potatoes smothered in rich gravy and three kinds of fresh veg all glistening in butter.  Just the thing after being outside and on the move since early in the morning.

The sight of Somerset House lit up for the evening made The Heiress gasp.  It is quite a spectacular view when you don't have anything like it at home.  They are preparing the skating rink for the winter season and a lovelier evening spent outside in the cold, fresh air I can't imagine.  The Courtauld Gallery's late night meant we could squeeze in one more event before calling it a day and it was everything we could have hoped for.  If we had appeared dressed as a Roundhead or Cavalier for the Lely talk we could have got in for free but sadly there was no puffy shirt tucked away in my suitcase.

What I don't know about art could fill a massive library but I do enjoy stumbling upon works of art I have seen in books or highlighted in documentaries and I do so love to learn.  Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergere is one such piece that made my eyes light up when I first spied it.  So did Vincent Van Gogh's Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, not as pretty as the Manet but definitely an iconic piece.  The Courtauld Gallery very much reminded me of The Wallace Collection in that they are manageable and intimate while being world-class in content.  Take a look at their website for a short clip featuring some of the collection, it's breathtaking and I will definitely be visiting again during my next trip. 

Tomorrow is Highgate and Hampstead...

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Dover Castle

As far as medieval castles go Dover Castle is one the best examples there is.  The keep was designed by King Henry II's architect 'Maurice the Engineer' and sits high atop the iconic White Cliffs of Dover.  With walls 21 feet thick it's no wonder that the castle has stood the tests of war and time to be carefully restored to 1184.  Actually, we learned that a train of thought is that Hitler had his eye on the castle for his own use so enemy bombers were warned off.  Step inside...

There were elementary school-age children running around the entire castle, the little cherubs, and keeping their minders on their toes but I was able to get this shot of the kitchen while they were busy in another area.  Notice the thick walls.  The castle itself is beyond rustic, as you can imagine, without much in the way of adornment and halls leading in every direction like a rabbit warren.  The floors were quite bumpy, the stairs quite steep and we could only imagine how cold it would be have been without a fire raging in every room.

The underground tunnels were what initially attracted me to the castle.  These tunnels have been in use since the Napoleonic Wars and expanded during World War II.  Entering from the road we walked down what felt like a 45 degree slope until we were deep underground and I can't imagine spending more than a few hours in this environment, much less days, weeks or months.  In the photo above we were passing through the kitchen area, the corrugated steel is original to the Second World War and you can see writing by servicemen and women in some places.  During our almost hour long tour film clips were played along the walls featuring film clips from the war and speeches from various political figures of the day.  And just in case the atmosphere wasn't spooky enough - supposedly there's a ghost that wanders around the place.

There are rooms leading off of the long tunnels filled with communications equipment.  We learned about repeating stations that were needed to send messages on to distant locations as the signals weren't strong enough to go from A to B without being repeated at intervals across England.  We also passed through a tunnel lined on both sides by bunk beds without any of the comforts of home and nowhere to store belongings, giving the impression it was simply for the exhausted to grab some shut-eye.  Another set of tunnels take you to an underground hospital where we heard a tape being played of some gruesome surgery while a bombing raid affects the power system.  If you're looking for a romantic version of wartime this isn't the place.

I wanted to see the cliffs from the beach area and not just from on top so The Heiress and I walked down the steep pathway towards the town.  My 14x zoom came in handy but if you click on the photo you can better see the tunnels coming out on to the cliff face.  Oh, and you've never seen larger seagulls than the ones patrolling the area around here and they're bossy!

After a fascinating, not to mention full, day of exploring the castle, the grounds, both tunnel systems and the town, we caught the train back to Canterbury.  Arriving back five minutes before the last boat tour of the River Stour The Heiress and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to be entertained by one of their warm and friendly guides.  We sailed past historic buildings and ducked under bridges that were hundreds of years old and I could well understand why so many people have mentioned how beautiful Canterbury is.  Its residents should also be very proud of how incredibly clean the river is - no litter floating by or on the banks.  Perhaps the ducking stool hanging like a beacon in plain view from the High Street serves as a warning as to what happens to those who break the rules.  The Heiress chose one of the loveliest places to spend a year of study and I felt sorry for her having to leave.

After dinner it was time to pack up, we had to catch the 10:25 am train from Canterbury West station out to London.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Canterbury Chronicles

A heavy mist hung in the air all over Canterbury the day I arrived.  Dense fog in London had delayed planes the day before.  A good book by a roaring fire would have been the perfect thing to do but since The Heiress and I would be moving on to London in less than forty-eight hours we made our way to the Cathedral.  Stunning doesn't begin to describe the architecture and atmosphere and if you have a healthy respect for history the fact that saints and soldiers have trod these floors doesn't escape you.  The candle marks the location where the shrine to St. Thomas of Canterbury stood from 1220 - 1538 AD when it was destroyed by orders from King Henry VIII.
The tomb and effigy of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales (1330 - 1376).  A lion wearing a crown is his pillow and a dog rests at his feet.
Cultural criminology is a term created by one of the professors The Heiress worked closely with during her MA program.  Since learning more about the subject, street art has become a topic of great interest to her.  Engravings on the walls of cathedrals and castles display the same need to mark territory or express thoughts that are created on buildings and bridges today.  We saw loads of etchings dating from the 1700s while visiting Dover Castle the next day - initials, hearts and celtic knots were in abundance, dotted along walls where steps provided a comfortable place to sit for awhile.  Wasn't there wood to stack or rabbits to skin?
Strolling the grounds of the cathedral I saw trees that would take at least eight people joining hands to embrace.  And I was thrilled to finally see not one but two tiny English robins in the flesh, ours here in Canada are huge.  Despite this being my fifth trip to England I still find myself walking around in a state of wonder about so many things. 

In a thick fog, surrounded by blackest night, The Heiress took me on a bus ride to visit a lovely friend who let her stay in her flat once she had taken leave of her dorm room.  "We have to walk in the dark for a little bit but we'll be okay" she said.  So dark was it that I couldn't see the path under my feet, we were surrounded by bushes and goodness knows what else lurking in the mist.  It felt as though Halloween had come early and I didn't like it one bit!  "I don't care if we've paid for return tickets, I am NOT going back the way we just came" I said.  "Dad is going hear about this, isn't he?" said The Heiress.  The past thirteen months of absence had already melted away and it was mother and daughter business as usual.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Fodder for Daydreams

Yesterday I woke up from a dream about walking on cobbles surrounded by churches.  It was 3:40 am and there was no going back to sleep for me.  But it was awfully nice to just lie there and mull over my trip to England instead of hopping out of bed to shower and change in time to make breakfast at the B & Bs we stayed at.

After an overnight flight, a one hour tube ride to St Pancras and a one hour train ride out to Canterbury, I emerged on to the station platform expecting a melodramatic reunion with my daughter.  She was coming down the stairs as I made my way through the tunnel so we missed each other but in no time at all we were all sorted and had a cuddle for the first time in thirteen months.  What followed was nine days of adventure as The Heiress gave me a guided tour of Canterbury, we visited Dover Castle and its underground tunnels from World War II, and then moved on to the hustle and bustle of London.  Over the next few posts I'll be sharing a handful of photos (which I haven't even looked at properly myself yet) and stories of the things we did and to hopefully inspire someone out there to add a place or two to their holiday or weekend plans.

Most of my nearest and dearest who stop by here love nothing more than a bit of book porn.  Considering the nature of my trip was to help The Heiress cart back her belongings I had to keep the British Airways luggage allowance in mind while browsing.  It was torture as the bookshops are packed with so many irresistible books - really large books, perfect for drooling over on rainy days.  THE find was a first edition copy of Late and Soon by E. M. Delafield which I found in the 'G' section of the basement at Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road.  It pays to carefully look at every single book since people are notorious for shoving things back in any space that's handy.  The other lovely finds were from second-hand bookshops, Oxfam, Waterstones and in the case of The Book of Christmas from the V&A gift shop.  Alighting from the Russell Square tube stop one day I realized that a determined stride would have me squeezing through the door at Persephone Books before closing time at six.  Danielle from A Work in Progress kindly sent me her spare copy of A Little Dinner Before the Play by Agnes Jekyll and it was waiting for me when I got home.  Surely I will never be a fan of aspic but reading about historical menus is something I never get tired of.  In the chapter 'For the Too Fat' Agnes recommends...
'If that insidious enemy, soup, be held indispensable at dinner, at least avoid the vegetable purees and bisque's made with cream, butter, root vegetables and rich fish, also the savoury potage in which milk and flour figure, and try clear Consomme a l'Estragon, with its delicate and clean flavour.

My husband doesn't particularly like soup and that really annoys me but thinking of it as an 'insidious enemy' is hilarious.  Calories are not something to concern myself with considering all of the walking I have done recently and as the photo attests, there is jam to enjoy!  Be back soon with more trip details....

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Full English, If You Please...

Oh the planning that has been going on behind the scenes lately.  The emails back and forth, the research, the reading of's all so exciting!  Tomorrow I set sail, so to speak, for England's green and pleasant land where I will be meeting up with The Heiress after tearfully parting ways just over one year ago.  We have plans to tour castles and cathedrals, museums and galleries, stroll cobbles and lane ways, and if we darken the doorway of the odd tea room along the way then we couldn't be happier.  Cross the threshold of a bookshop or seven, you bet.  Which reminds me of a do you browse a newly discovered bookshop?  I start at the letter 'A' and look at until I reach the last title in 'Z', this usually means that my long-suffering husband has time to search out a pub, order and consume a pint and browse some shops before returning to find me at 'N'. 

Our cardigan girl, Verity, has resurfaced on one of her blogs to announce that she will be hosting a chat on November 15 of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.  I will be signing into a few hotels over the next several days and absolutely can not wait to find out what Mrs Palfrey was paying for her room sometime before 1971 when the book was first published.  Poor thing didn't rip up half of London the way I plan to though.

And in other bookish news, I have ordered a copy of Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen from The Book Depository.  You can still catch the pre-order price over the next couple of weeks and if you need any inspiration click here for Book Snob's review.  If her stunningly alluring writing style doesn't make you simply die with longing for a good read then nothing will.  There's more!  Not one hour ago, I discovered The Brickfield by L. P. Hartley is about to be reissued by John Murray Publishers and I just adore the cover art.  It will be followed by the sequel My Fellow Devils next June so lots of time to get in on things.  If you haven't yet discovered this author's wonderful writing then may I suggest The Hireling, which I enjoyed just a teensy bit more than The Go-Between, but both were fantastic. 

So there you have it, I haven't been hiding under a rock but simply preoccupied and goodness knows my pea brain can only handle so many things at once.  So England...plug in the kettle because I am on my way!

Monday, October 8, 2012

An Autumnal Tradition

Thanksgiving is my favourite weekend of the year and a pilgrimage to the Balls Falls conservation area is a must.  Every year I have to take a photo of this wreath on the door of the historic church.  And eat fresh apple fritters cooked in boiling cauldrons of oil by local teens.  The overbearing presence and ridiculous nature of health and safety gone mad hasn't yet reached this neck of the woods.

Patience is required to get a shot without streams of visitors parading through your photo.  You wouldn't know it but people were being shuttled in from the parking area in a nearby field by the busload.  The combined aromas of roasting nuts, woodsmoke and popcorn was absolutely divine.  I munched on a freshly roasted yam with a small ladle of melted butter drizzled on top while my husband waited in line for his fresh-cut fries and hotdog smothered in onions to be ready.  Just in case you think me a tad righteous in my healthy eating way, I whipped out my plastic fork and dug into R's steaming entree the minute mine was finished.  You know you would too!

The grist mill has been undergoing some renovations but looks as cosy as ever nestled beside the stream.
The birds of prey from the Mountsberg Raptor Centre always look unimpressed with all of the attention.  One charming mother could be heard telling her little horror-stricken daughter that this Bald Eagle eats guinea pigs.  This fellow most likely would but there was something a tad eerie about the delight Mum took in saying so.  Makes me wonder what a bedtime story at the poor little mite's house is like?
Umm...this is a rather large thingamuhjig.  It looks like some sort of early tractor...all I know is that lots of elderly gentlemen really liked looking at it.  Next to it was our favourite group of steam engine enthusiasts with their machines puffing and sputtering away and last but not least another 'must see for some silly reason' item.  The spitting cat and his tub of bubbles!  Disregard the poor thing's neighbour.
Another marker has come and gone from our yearly calendar.  A cup of hot apple cider for the road and we were on our way home.  Happy Thanksgiving!