Monday, October 31, 2011

A Pumpkin Carving Party

The number of trick or treaters in our group is dwindling but we cling to our tradition of an annual pumpkin carving party.  Aidan was the very picture of concentration.
His sister, Danielle, took a more relaxed approach but she has a few more years of experience behind her.
Anna is at the stage where getting your hands dirty doesn't seem like all that much fun.  Her brother, Luke, is at the stage where being entrusted with a sharp knife is just the coolest thing ever and was thrilled to simply jab at anything.
A bracing walk in the woods behind our hosts' home was just the thing to work up an appetite for dinner.  And the boys were beyond excited to find the skeleton of a fox still bearing its bushy tail...ugh.     
Getting back to the house, the kitchen was a hive of activity whilst everyone sorted out their plates of food, kids going one way while adults went the other.  I love days like this with my friends...and the pumpkin spice cupcakes I baked were a hit as well! 

 Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley by Kathy Page

'You'll have to be more careful in the sentiments you express, Christine,' says the tall slender woman standing beside her, 'if you don't wish to provoke a riot.  The working classes are not yet ready for the regulation of fertility, I'm afraid.'

It was the green Virago spine that first caught my eye at Skoob Books in Bloomsbury.  The cover art of a tired woman hanging the laundry she takes in for work isn't appealing but the writing most definitely is.

At sixteen, Clara Riley was raped by the son of her wealthy employers.  Her swelling belly is noticed and she's swiftly turned out by the lady of the house with a box of cast-off baby clothes.  Once belonging to her rapist no doubt.  Without means to care for a child, Clara's baby is abandoned on the steps of another wealthy family.  She can only hope his life will be better than hers.

This is Edwardian England but there are no tea parties or yards of muslin for dresses in Clara's life, only hunger, rough hands and hardly a moment of peace.  An offer of marriage from a Bible-quoting man from the working class is accepted but her small sense of security comes with a price.  While many women are happy to bear a child a year with barely enough to live on Clara is not.  Not that she is a woman aspiring to rise above her poor station in life, she simply wants to lead her life free from men's bidding.  And then she discovers she is pregnant.

Mrs Audley Jones supplies Clara with work and some of her cast-off clothing.  She is also actively involved in the suffragette movement and helping women put an end to their unwanted pregnancies.  All highly illegal.  While she is massively forward in her thinking, Mrs Audley Jones is married to the Admiral who is very much a traditionalist.  Thankfully for her, he is away for most of the year and ignorant to her causes. 

Every woman taking part in marches, hunger strikes and protests as a way of achieving liberty could be silenced by two signatures on a document.  An unsympathetic husband and a doctor willing to comply with his wishes was all that was required to lock up a woman in an asylum.  The Admiral is back home, rumours are swirling, the police are making inquiries and the Doctor has been to the house to check on Mrs Audley Jones.  She swiftly decides a course of action and makes plans.  Meanwhile, Clara is on the road to madness due to her lack of choice or say.

The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley is a riveting read and while the subject matter is frustrating the characters are not.  Kathy Page does an impressive job of depicting the Edwardian era and some of its bleakest moments for women.  This was an interesting and entertaining read so do pick it up if you come across it at a second-hand bookshop and don't let the grim cover put you off!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

As It Was by Helen Thomas

"My father introduced us and our eyes met--the boy's solemn grey eyes rather over-shadowed by drooping lids with long lashes.  He did not smile, but looked very steadily at me and I at him as he took my hand with a very hard and long grip.  I remember feeling pleasure in that first touch and thinking "I like him..."

Within a few minutes of meeting Simon at the National Gallery, he handed both Rachel and me a copy of As It Was by Helen Thomas, first published in 1926.  Mary was also included in our blogger meet-up and the four of us jumped into conversation so my book was tucked away.  I had never heard of Edward Thomas or his poetry but the reason to read this book, as I soon found out, is for Helen's stunningly beautiful and open account of her relationship with her future husband.

As a child Helen loved to watch her father smoke cigarettes and sip whisky while he reviewed books and wrote essays.  When he takes David under his wing to go over his writing it isn't long before the two teens are going for long walks in the meadow.  Helen felt she was his intellectual inferior but she loved to learn.  David was very shy but Helen was quick to express her feelings and was quite uninhibited.  Each was exactly what the other needed.  Especially so for Helen when the father she adored died after contracting tuberculosis and her mother turned against her.  I found it heartbreaking to read about the attention Helen's mother heaped onto male boarders while hurling insults at her daughter.  There were a few choice words spinning around in my head for that woman I can tell you.

With David in her life Helen could endure anything.  They shared poetry readings in sunny fields, lazy picnic lunches, letters written every day and nosegays of wildflowers presented at every turn (cowslips feature prominently hence the painting shown above by Ewa Dalecki).  Their courtship is lovely and old-fashioned but eventually they become intimate.  It is fairly clear that it was Helen who initiated their sexual relationship and she writes very openly about their assignations  While professing not to care about convention (it's the late 1800s, after all) I did find it interesting that this aspect was kept secret from even their closest of confidants.  As was likely to happen, eventually Helen falls pregnant and is anguished by David's marriage proposal, seeing it as an impediment to their sense of free love.  But marry they do and the book ends with the birth of their son.

As It Was was written by Helen years after David was killed in France during World War I, as a way to deal with her loss.  When you read her vivid accounts of something as simple as a picnic from years long past you realize that these moments were burned into her memory and her heart.  You could swoon, I promise you!

Helen wrote another book World Without End which follows her marriage and the turmoil of David's/Edward's battle with depression.  It doesn't sound as though it will be nearly as breathtakingly beautiful but if it's anything like As It Was it will be sincere and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

Thank you, Simon, for introducing me to such a remarkable book.  It absolutely deserves its place on your "list of books you must read that you may not have heard about".

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

"The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child."


Henry James takes the reader through a maze of ambiguity with a story that will leave you none the wiser but better for trying to figure it out.  Also, be prepared to take some time settling in to his writing style of outrageously long sentences and more commas than you can shake a stick at.

The Turn of the Screw opens with friends gathered in front of a roaring fire and sharing ghost stories on Christmas Eve as was tradition during the Victorian era.  Douglas has received a manuscript from his sister's governess upon her death and during this gathering he shares her bizarre and frightening story.

The governess was hired to care for two children, Miles, who is ten and his sister, Flora, who is eight.  Their parents are dead and their uncle basically has no interest in their day to day existence.  Both children are extremely well behaved and attractive so at first glance the position of governess doesn't appear to be a particularly taxing one.  That is until we find out that Miles has been expelled from school for an unspeakable crime which no one will relay anything about.  And then there is the appearance of two figures, Peter Quint, a valet and Miss Jessel, the former governess.  They really shouldn't be showing up at the house as they are quite dead.

The fun bit of the story is trying to solve the riddle about whether or not the governess is absolutely stark raving mad, the children are evil or these three are being terrorized by ghosts.  My initial thought was that perhaps a sinister game was being played on the governess to drive her away.  After all, how many times does this plot present itself in fiction?  Quite regularly.  Further along in the story though, I began to feel the absolute horror and fear that Miles was desperately keen to hide.  So much so that he was making himself ill.

My theory, and there are a few out there, is that Miles could have witnessed something sexual between Quint and Miss Jessel and relayed the event to friends at school.  Given the nature of the story and the social mores of the time it would explain why no details were forthcoming from the school.  The ghosts were appearing to remind the children to keep quiet about what they knew.  Miles was being pressured by his governess to tell the truth and Quint was ever-present warning him not to.  Miss Jessel weeps with her head in her hands as though ashamed.  In the end, stress and fear kill Miles.

It is easy to see how analysing every sentence of this story could become an obsession for those desperate to reach a definitive conclusion.  I was tempted to turn back to the first page and start a spread sheet sorting out the episodes, conversations and comments myself.  A stack of books to read made me come to my senses but I'd really be interested in hearing from anyone who has their own theory about what James was getting at here. 
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is my contribution to the RIP VI challenge.  I was also hoping to read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill but a customer at the library seems keen not to give up our lone copy.  I'm tempted to park a rocking chair outside of his front window...and if you're familiar with the story you know how frightening that would be.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Withdrawn Whipple

I've just risked life and limb at the mailbox and for what?  Nothing!  The sun is shining, children are screaming in the school playground and I was looking forward to my copy of Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple arriving any minute. 

Looking forward to a parcel stamped "Royal Mail" from The Book Depository, I was about to unlock my mailbox when I heard snarling.  Instinctively turning to the sound I looked up into the foaming jaws of a canine boxer looking down on me from his post on top of a hot tub.  It's peering down at us from above the owners' fence.  Deacon and I made our escape and didn't look back to check if the dog had leapt the fence.

Safely inside the house I turned on the computer only to find out my pre-order of Greenbanks from The Book Depository has been cancelled.  My credit card has been refunded.  It all sounds so final.  I'm at the back of the line, out of the latest Whipple release loop!

Has anyone else experienced the same feeling of utter disappointment today due to an email sent by The Book Depository?  A support group might make me feel better.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme

"One day Fanny Kemble the actress 'bolted in' to see Carlyle.  Jane did not take to her: 'she is Green-room all over, and with a heart all tossed up into blank verse...The longer I live, the more I want naturalness in people.'  On this occassion the actress was dressed in a riding habit and flourishing a whip--'but no shadow of a horse,' said Jane drily, 'only a carriage, the whip, I suppose, being to whip the cushions with, for the purpose of keeping her hand in practice'."

With that paragraph from The Carlyles at Home I was keen to discover more about the lady behind the tired eyes and simple dress.  Her husband may have been hugely popular amongst other eminent Victorians of the day such as Dickens and Darwin but there is no doubt about who steals the story in Thea Holme's book.  Jane's battle with illness, her dependancy upon opiates, being a clever woman in a man's world and oh, that wit.  I couldn't get enough of reading whatever it was she had to say!

Going about things completely backwards, I visited 24 Cheyne Row knowing nothing at all about Thomas and Jane.  Eyeing the details in the house I could have been viewing a potential home to purchase for all I knew about its former occupants.  The rooms were cosy and the stairs creaked in a charming way.  But when I started reading The Carlyles at Home I was thrilled to be able to visualize Thomas in his study, Jane in her bed, maid-of-all-work, Helen, staggering drunkenly around the kitchen and Nero curled up on the sofa.

When the Carlyles took possession of their home in 1834, Chelsea was hardly desirable.  The street was full of the sound of horse hooves and carriages, vendors peddling wares, cocks crowing, and spectators gathering to listen to organ grinders.  And the Thames, which was just a short stroll away, stank.  The rent was a bargain though and being Scottish, Thomas and Jane were willing to put up with such things for the value.  And this was a sentiment they repeated about themselves quite often.

This book works well as an introduction to this famous couple and their writings but also as a social history of the Victorian era.  I was fascinated by how Jane dealt with a long string of domestic help.  Some became a great comfort to her when she was bedridden with her terrible headaches and others were not to be trusted.  Jane's refusal to wear a corset went against the fashion of the day and she quite happily ran errands at times without a bonnet on her head.  Evidence of bedbugs was cause to send bed curtains to be boiled and for carpenters to disassemble bed frames.  Mealtimes and indigestion were frequent topics of conversation between man and wife.  To read the letter that Jane wrote to Thomas justifying the increase in her household spending is, well, I could have cheered for her.

The Carlyles at Home is my thirty-fifth Persephone title.  I bought it with no expectation other than as a reminder of a day out in Chelsea, hoping it would be somewhat of an extension of my tour around the house.  It has turned out to be so much more than that and I can honestly say that it is now firmly one of my favourite Persephone titles.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Treat

At the library we have a tradition that if it's your birthday, it's your treat.  That date has come and gone but everyone indulges so much during Thanksgiving that I've waited a bit to dole out more sugar.

I was up just after 5 am to warm up the oven and get out the mixing bowls.  My Primrose Bakery recipe book arrived yesterday and I chose the Chocolate and Banana Cupcakes to bake for my colleagues.  They are frosted with a chocolate buttercream icing and the whole package is really just too divinely rich.  The icing was used sparingly as I envisioned the staff dragging their heels once the sugar buzz had passed.  Hope everyone likes them!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Back to the Bakery

Oh what this girl won't do to recreate a little bit of London back at home in Burlington.  Yesterday afternoon I whipped up a batch of carrot cake cupcakes using the recipe from the Primrose Bakery.  Mine don't have a little marzipan carrot on top and I may not be sitting on the bench outside the shop in Covent Garden...but they're delicious!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Thanksgiving and Contrast

It's Thanksgiving in Canada, a time to enjoy family, sleeping in on a Monday morning, turkey dinner, and with our temperatures hovering around a freakishly warm 26C...getting outside!  As is tradition, R and I drove out to Balls Falls for their festival and every year I have to take a photo of the wreath on the church door.  It's a new one this year!
After immersing myself in the many delights of London and Canterbury through travel and blogging about it, it is well and truly apparent that I am now back on Canadian soil.
This cat has been spitting water courtesy of the local steam engine society at Balls Falls every year for ages!  The belts chug round and round while the engines putt-putt, blowing puffs of steam as a calliope plays in the background.
Admiring this saucy pumpkin fellow, his creator said I could take him home with me.  He looked pretty cute outside in the sunshine but sitting by my computer screen he's growing more sinister-looking by the hour.

The most touching part of this Thanksgiving weekend though happened in Canterbury.  Knowing that The Heiress was far from home and family her dorm mates got together and planned a proper feast as a surprise.  She had tears in her eyes at the sight of a poster in the lobby inviting students to write down what they were thankful for.  A card was passed around for everyone to sign and she showed us how full it was over Skype.  While the others did the cooking, The Heiress gathered leaves to decorate the room and twelve of her new friends sat down to dinner.  If I could I would give them all a big hug and say "Thank you!".

Saturday, October 8, 2011

London - Day Nine

Do you ever find yourself wondering if one day, far off into the future, someone will be conducting a tour of your home?  It's so interesting to step back in time to catch a glimpse of how people lived and spent their leisure time.  And if such a house was visited by a steady stream of noteworthy guests such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning or George Eliot then so much the better.  Taking the tube to the South Kensington stop and then the 49 bus to the Thames bank, I was a short walk from Carlyle's House on Cheyne Row.  Passing terraced houses ranging from quaint to luxurious on narrow streets I arrived at Number 24 a few minutes before the doors opened to the public.  A very nice woman laughed with surprise to see someone so keen on the doorstep when she unlocked the door for business!

Pointing out aspects of the front room she pointed out the piano that Chopin had played when he came to visit and how many of the furnishings were the very ones shown in this painting.  Standing in what was the china closet just off of the dining room I imagined Mary, a servant, giving birth in there while Thomas was at home.  Each room had a guide to highlight items in the house such as the second-hand sofa that Jane bought and wrote excitedly to Thomas about.  She also wrote to friends requesting they bring her pictures to help with a collage she was making to cover a large folding screen that still stands in a lounge.  Mrs Carlyle exhibits a wonderful sense of humour in her letters which is rather surprising considering her ill health and how drawn she looks in portraits, poor thing.
The most interesting bit of architectural detail in the house is the pulley system that operates sliding doors on the ceiling in Thomas' study on the upper floor.  Flooding the room with extra light would have reduced eye strain during his long hours of reading and writing as well as the amount of money spent on candles.  The back garden is small but lovely and the kind gentleman who lives in the house as a National Trust tenant even picked a fig from the tree for me.  It was delicious!

I went about things a bit backwards as I knew next to nothing about the Carlyle's before visiting 24 Cheyne Row.  But having a feel for the rooms and hearing anecdotes from the lovely staff has really added to my reading pleasure of Thea Holme's delightful book The Carlyle's at Home published by Persephone Books. 
Leaving history behind in Chelsea I basked in the sunshine while enjoying a picnic in Berkley Square.  Fortifying myself enough to kick the tires on a few sporty Bugatti's and Bentley's in their showroom in Mayfair.  While not exactly a petrol head I do enjoy watching Top Gear!
And being a tourist I couldn't resist dropping my bags for a snap of these cabs parked outside of The Mayfair Hotel on Stratton Street.
Thinking it would be best if I made tracks for Bloomsbury if I wanted to have some notes left over to mail The Heiress, I decided to have dinner at a bookshop.  Simon and Claire had enjoyed the quiche on offer at the London Review Bookshop so I requested the same with a delicious quinoa salad.  I love how they have you grab a seat at a very large table and goodness only knows who may join you!

My last night in London was spent on the The Old Knightsbridge Village Pub Walk with Fiona as our guide.  Meeting approximately twenty others at the South Kensington tube station we set off along roads lined with expensive sports cars and once it got dark we craned our necks to peek inside some very distinct houses.    Fiona told us about a couple who lived on the route and how they used to host a dinner party every Friday evening.  Now she hadn't guided this particular tour for two years and was just filling in for a friend so she laughed as we passed the very house and they had company for dinner!  How lovely of them not to draw their curtains so we could admire their exquisite furniture.  Delighting in anecdotes, examining architecture and stopping at a couple of pubs, Fiona took us well over the two hour mark and I knew there was a kettle being boiled in my honour downstairs in the kitchen at The Morgan.  So I rode the tube back to Russell Square to pack my bags and have a cup of tea.
The next morning my bill was paid, my bags were safely installed in the manager's office and I had a couple of hours to kill before heading to the airport.  Skoob Books is situated at the back of the Brunswick Shopping Centre and well worth a visit.  Were it not for a tired body and the thought of hauling my heavy bags to the airport I could have scooped up an armful of novels but bought only one, The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley by Kathy Page.  Saying goodbye to Russell Square I found a seat on the tube and pulled my latest book from my bag and before I knew it we were at the end of the line at Heathrow. 

But I'll be back....

Thursday, October 6, 2011

London - Day Eight

Taking the train from Paddington to Oxford in the morning was anything but relaxing.  It was packed with commuters and since I arrived only a few minutes before departure it was standing room only for the first forty minutes of my journey.  I know you'll be shocked to learn that I struck up a conversation with a lovely young lady who was on her way to a business meeting.  We made the best of a very crowded situation as we peeled off layers in the stifling carriage.  But oh the wonder upon arrival once I had walked a few streets away from the train station.  Every sigh, each ooh and aah, every wish for a lottery win whilst watching Inspector Lewis was before my very eyes in full colour and I was mesmerized!  If this were Narnia I would never leave the closet!
Perfectly content to simply let the lanes unfold as they may I gasped when I found myself staring at the iconic Radcliffe Camera.  If Simon or Verity see this then perhaps they can fill us in on whether or not it's still used as a reading room for undergrads since they call the Bodleian their workplace.  Lucky them!  Oh, and I sat here munching on Walnut Coffee Cake while sipping a cup of tea and wondered how my day could possibly be any more perfect.
And then I ended up on New College Lane which led me to "The Bridge of Sighs".  Sometimes it pays to be an ignorant tourist because the feeling of awe I felt when stumbling upon such historic buildings and structures was absolutely thrilling!  Nearby is a tight passage leading to the Turf Tavern featured in Inspector Morse.  Very quaint with a ceiling height not much higher than I stand.  Tall patrons beware!
Simon had drawn me a map to some bookshops which I mistakenly left behind when I switched bags for the day.  Not to worry though, I did find a few to browse in.  This Blackwell shop was wonderfully cosy and popular!  Full of customers shopping for books, meeting friends for coffee, having a bite...I don't know if it was just the fine weather or something in the air but everyone was delighting in their day.
Bicycles are everywhere in Oxford!  This is only a fraction of the number also parked at the train station, there were literally thousands of them.  I for one was pleased and couldn't imagine such pretty roads flooded with cars.

After grabbing a sandwich, some yogurt and a drink from Sainsbury's for a picnic lunch near a churchyard, I wondered what it must be like to call Oxford home.  And how do I go back to my little patch in Burlington with non-descript office buildings and box stores?  Sometimes there is no place like home but on such a gorgeous day in the middle of breathtaking surroundings I wished more than ever that I could just stay right where I was.  Of course R and Deacon would have to pack up and join me!

Making the train before the commuters took it by storm I desperately tried not to end up in a heap in the warm carriage.  The countryside was relaxing and my non-stop travels were starting to take their toll and I still had another stop to make!
Joking with the attendant at the bottom of the stairs that I was visiting to get some ideas for decorating my home, I explored the Wallace Collection.  Opulent furnishings and famous artwork astound at every turn.  Part museum, part art gallery this is the place to visit to see some of the most exquisite examples of craftsmanship in several art forms.  My favourite of the day was Frangonard's The Swing.  While not one of the features on most people's agenda when they mention a trip to London I would implore them to add a visit here.  It is stunning and I will be returning again and again.

My notes ended there so I must have had an early night of drinking tea, enjoying a scone and writing about my day.  My plan to finish Persuasion as part of Rachel's read-along was a failure as the appeal of London and all it has to offer proved too great and I'm too nosy.  With just one more day to bask in the glory of my London wishlist I was happy to hear of another sunny day for strolling Chelsea towards 24 Cheyne Row and the Carlyle's House.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

London - Day Seven

It's always a bonus to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to start your day only to find out it's 2 am.  Snuggling back down under the duvet until breakfast was served was almost like another night's sleep.  Today was the day I had been looking forward to since reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, it was Highgate Cemetery day and I had an appointment.  But first I had a couple of other stops to make!  Cutting through Russell Square I watched as a young man from Germany desperately tried to coax a squirrel into posing for a photo.  Offering him some of my cashews he was thrilled when his furry little model took the offering straight from his hand.  "Wait until my friends see this on Facebook, they won't believe it!"  Making me wonder whether squirrels exist in Germany?  Still smiling I walked down Guildford to Lamb's Conduit Street and did some window shopping while I waited for Persephone to open for business.  Meandering through stacks of grey I picked up a copy of The Carlyle's at Home by Thea Holme.  Tucked in a pink gift bag I held it close against the heavy mist in the air as I walked to the British Museum to see two of Mrs Delany's botanicals (pictured above).
Later on, exiting Archway tube station I found a charity shop that Rachel had told me about and paid 1 GBP for a Virago with short stories about wicked women.  A gift for Rachel and we'll say no more about it.  Climbing Highgate Hill and not wanting to go any further than required I asked an elderly gentleman alighting from a bus the way to the cemetery.  It just so happened he was heading over there so I joined him for a walk through Waterlow Park.  He told me about Baroness Burdett-Coutts, her riches and the scandal when she married a much younger man.  We were enjoying each other's company so much he asked if I'd like to see where he has lived since 1966 and I said "Why not?"  At the bottom of Swain's Lane and through an archway opened up the quaintest square with eight Victorian stone houses called Holly Village.  That's him making his way to his home at the back left (above).  He invited me in for coffee which I politely declined but I do regret not spending at least half an hour more listening to his stories.
While waiting for my tour to begin I snapped this exquisite angel statuary (above) through the gate on the East side of the cemetery.  And as you can see, the weather was fine when the weatherman promised rain.  You know, atmosphere and all that.
Our tour guide took us along the dirt path past Victorian mausoleums too numerous to count.  Even though the sun was shining I was glad of my warm sweater to keep the chill of the damp and dark entryways at bay.  At one point we were allowed to enter a large catacomb and gaze down the dank passages containing layer upon layer of sealed squares containing the deceased.  Our guide shouted "Is anyone still inside?" before locking the door tight.  Eeek!
Partway through the tour I asked if we would come across the grave of Thomas Sayers, a bare-knuckle fighter who died in 1865.  His dog, Lion, is immortalized in stone and was the chief mourner among 100,000 others.  Sayers was quite the celebrity in his day.  It wasn't long before the tour brought us past the very spot.
The guide then pointed out one of his favourites, a breathtakingly beautiful monument.  It was surprising that the abundant English ivy growing everywhere hadn't swallowed up this slumbering angel.  My mind was swimming with questions but time was running short.  The cemetery is extremely tranquil but there is a hub of activity going on behind the scenes with throngs of volunteers and groundskeepers tending to its many acres.  I wasn't at all surprised to learn that the grounds require an income of 1,000 GBP a day to maintain.  Highgate Cemetery is both eerie and beautiful and well worth your time and money so please pay it a visit!
And skipping right to my lovely dinner companions, Simon and Canadian Claire (as she's known in my house) kindly invited me to join them at Giraffe.  Rachel had to bow out due to her pursuit of a flat which she did end up getting so we were very pleased for her.  These two had spent the afternoon exploring the city and Simon did his best to deplete the second-hand book market even more than he already has.  He found some real gems though, see here.  Poor Claire was paying careful attention to her luggage allowance as she was on a long and lovely European tour with her Mum.  She is posting about their travels so do stop by her blog!

Tucked in the corner in a booth we laughed at the reaction of some of our friends and family to meeting others known only through the internet.  I can honestly say that it was a thoroughly wonderful experience for me and enhanced my time in London immensely.  Simon had a long train ride back to Oxford and at least twenty pounds of books to drag behind him so we said our good-byes and went our separate ways.  Thanks for the lovely evening, both of you!

Monday, October 3, 2011

London - Day Six

Rachel made me laugh at our blogger meet-up when she mentioned how many times people, probably tourists, ask for tube directions to reach a landmark she could point to down the street.  Simon and I seem to be equally directionally challenged and agreed we could still manage a wrong turn regardless.  So, determined to stay above ground for a walk to Covent Garden I set out after breakfast.  Asking my longtime blog friend, Kristina, if she knew of any places I could seek out she mentioned Miller Harris.  How could she know that I've been researching scents since last winter?  Wearing samples of jasmine vert, coeur de fleur, geranium bourbon and la pluie over the next few days provided blissful floral waves on hot, crowded tube rides.  On my last day in London I nipped back for a large vessel of the la pluie!
And while not on my itinerary, I laughed as I made my way down this street and discovered Pineapple Dance Studio!  You can barely walk for more than 10 minutes in London without discovering something historical, famous, culturally significant or highlighted in some magazine.  Anyway, my actual destination was the Cath Kidston shop around the corner and opening time was fast approaching.  Time to dash!
Thanks to Jane Campion and her beautiful film Bright Star I knew a visit to Keats House in Hampstead would be a priority during this visit.  Exiting the Hampstead station I nipped across the road to browse the Oxfam bookshop before making my way down the High Street to Downshire Hill and finally Keats Grove.  Now in my mind, I imagined that just down the street (above photo) a vast expanse of hillside would appear and Keats House would be along a winding path.  Urban development since I don't know how long ago meant this landmark now exists amongst the other beautiful residences just down the street and on the right.
Walking through the gates and around back I paid the 5 GBP admittance and made my way through the sparsely decorated rooms.  No photography was allowed.  During the time Keats was in residence with Charles Brown the house was semi-detached but made to look as a single dwelling.  The rooms were generous with fabulously large windows on the lower level and I couldn't help but imagine the hours Keats stood there, gazing out at the Heath.  A floor clock belonging to Charles Brown still chimes beautifully clear in one of the lounges.  In a display case of belongings the engagement ring John gave to Fanny featured on the top shelf.  Eerily, a copy of Keats' death mask stands in the corner of his bedroom.  This is a house to contemplate in, to imagine its former residents going about their business while you desperately wish you could recite Ode to a Nightingale by heart.  Don't hesitate to visit the house, preferably on a gloomy day, it just suits the mood.
It was time to search for a cafe where I could grab a bite and within a two minute walk around the corner was just the place.  I ordered the Croque Monsieur and gasped when I saw how much cheese flowed around the plate.  Oh mon dieu!  I managed to get through it without requiring the Heimlich manoeuvre and after finishing my pot of loose leaf tea I once again set off through the streets of Hampstead.  And wished for a lottery win so I could choose any number of properties that caught my eye.
My next journey took me to the Strand where I would finally meet up with Claire!  After her long day at work she greeted me outside her office and without missing a beat we joined the throngs of people on the sidewalk.  She thought the Sherlock Holmes pub would be fun for me but unfortunately it was closed due to construction so it was on to The Clarence on Whitehall instead.  Claire was such good company and even more lovely than I had imagined.  Being quite clever and very informed I hoped she wouldn't find me too boring but we chatted about all sorts of things from pets to books, relationships, kitchen appliances and how she came to be in London after growing up in Scotland.  The pub was cosily packed with customers, so packed that the gentleman with his family at the table next to ours commented on how wonderful our Rekorderlig strawberry-lime cider smelled.  Munching on nibbles while we chatted the time went by all too fast.  Claire still had a train journey ahead of her so after a couple of hours we made our way to Charing Cross station but what's this...a Waterstones in the way?  Claire and I browsed for a bit and I took advantage of their 3 for 2 offer and a stunningly beautiful behind the scenes book of Downton AbbeyMoon Tiger by Penelope Lively came recommended by my friend so I especially look forward to reading it.  And then we parted ways.  I want to sit cross-legged on the floor during a lazy Sunday and chat with my new-found friends and not watch the clock!

Arriving back at the B&B, Joseph met me part way on the stairs to let me know the kettle had been boiling for ages.  Yes, I am that predictable.  And so another night was passed while I sipped tea, wrote in my journal, listened to random English television programs and thought about how very lucky I am.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

London - Day Five

Waking up to yet another fine weather day it was off to Waterloo station to catch the train to Alton.  Rolling hillside, villages, ramblers and even deer held my attention at the window so my copy of Persuasion was soon packed into my bag.  Pulling into the station I took a quick snap of these cheery green gates so I could remember the vintagey sort of feeling that reminded me of Winifred Holtby's South Riding.  An American couple in the train station heard me ask about the walk to Chawton and kindly offered me a lift in their cab...yes please!
Pulling up in front of the pub across the street the couple made straight for the Austen home but I just had to stand still for a few moments and take it all in.  It's one thing to see the house on the internet but to stand there and hear birds call, feel the breeze blow and hear the sound of hinges opening and closing...I've just whipped back there now thinking about it!
A feeling of reverence comes over you when you step across the threshold and only a whisper will do.  The floors creak so you walk through the rooms slowly and softly but there is definitely a feeling of cheeriness about the place.  Large windows flood the rooms with sunshine, I suppose as the rooms are sparsely decorated they feel more airy than they might have in Jane's day.  Artifacts and letters are on display throughout the house as well as costumes from various "Jane" films but it's the little desk by the front window that was the main attraction for me.
This cosy bedroom was Jane's and overlooks the back of the property where the bake house still stands.  I smiled to myself when I read the note about the commode next to the fireplace.  The upper shelf has a semi-circle cut-out to accommodate the occupant's head while in to speak.  I've never come across that before in a historical house.  At Carlyle's House I also asked about the shallow depth of the fireplaces.  Since they depended on the fire for heat it couldn't be allowed to just rise into the chimney and you wouldn't venture too far from it in cold weather so you would be close by if a spark flew out too far.

Lingering over letters to friends and family, Jane's beautiful topaz crucifix, snippets of hair to memorialize the dead and needlework, my mood shifted.  Despite the sun streaming through a window, brightly enough to bring an orange tree to fruit, I felt sad that medical knowledge lagged behind Jane's illness and she died too soon.  And selfishly for me, before more of her writing could be published.  The thinking now is that she had lymphoma, something which could still have brought about her end in these modern times I suppose.  Needing some air I picked a road and made my way down it.  There are no thatched cottages in Burlington, I've only ever seen them on television, in magazines or whilst whizzing past on a train in England.  Standing in front of the quaintest cottage you could imagine, with flower pots in full glory while tendrils of greenery grew over the stone wall I realized for the second time in two days I had misplaced my umbrella and a very un-Austenesque swear word was uttered from my lips.  Time for lunch!

I have no idea whether this structure was here in Jane's day but it's the view she would have had from the window where her table stands.  Cassandra's Tea Room is next door but was closed as it was Monday so to the pub it was.  Thinking of it as stories to bring back to my pub-loving husband I did my bit for research and asked the very hospitable landlady for something ladylike in the hops department.  Sitting at a window seat so I could gaze at Jane's house, I basked in the cosy interior, the friendly guests and the sign asking customers to remove their muddy boots so the countryside doesn't come inside!
Always keen to try something on the menu I haven't tried before I ordered a Coronation Chicken sandwich.  It's not something that has ever appeared on a menu at home so I was curious.  It was delicious!  Having no idea what the thin, curly crispy bits were on the side of my plate I asked the young server when he next passed my way.  They are deep-fried peeled parsnip and he said he found them quite more-ish.  I generally feel that way about cake over parsnips but they weren't bad at all!

Thinking I would take the bus back to the train station I crossed the road to check the schedule at the stop.  The next bus was in two hours!  Clearly we are no longer in London and I am ignorant in the ways of village life.  So I stopped back into the pub and asked the lovely landlady if she could please ring me a cab.  And sure enough, the same driver turned up to collect me that had dropped us off.  And to top it all off he even pinched my cheek when he dropped me at the station before making his way to do the school run.

Back on the train to London, thoughts of my village idyll were shattered all too soon by a young man from Bangladesh desperately searching for a sponsor as his visa was about to expire.  He had loads of questions about Canada and why I was in England.  When I told him my daughter was attending university he simply asked about the ages of my boys.  Thankfully his stop was soon approaching so I could get back to Persuasion and thoughts of Jane writing it at her little table.

Thinking I would take in a London Walk later that evening I exited the Westminster tube station.  A soft-spoken woman was filling in for the usual guide so I decided to pass and headed to Green Park instead.  A night time stroll past The Ritz, press my face against the gorgeous window displays at Fortnum & Mason, spend an hour at Waterstones before heading home from Piccadilly Circus for a cup of tea and my day was complete.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

London - Day Four

Well here we are.  Simon, Rachel and me (kneeling on the floor) with Mary snapping the photo.  But let's start at the beginning.

The day could not have been more beautiful with the sun shining amidst a bright blue sky as I stood in Trafalgar Square.  The Olympic clock was on display counting down the hours until the opening ceremony and my eye was on the time until I was to finally meet some of my dearest blog friends!  Rachel arrived first and it was hugs all around, then Mary appeared and I already felt right at home as we found ourselves a table in the gallery's cafe.  Tucked in a corner it wasn't long before Simon joined us and we had the most wonderful afternoon of book chat, banter about this and that, browsing Charing Cross Road, a tour highlighting Virginia Woolf's life and two bouts of indulging in cake!

Winding our way through a few bookshops, navigating creaky stairs to their cellars where the best deals can be found, Rachel, Simon and Mary pulled books for me they thought I would like.  Pictured above is my treasure including a first edition copy of Diary of a Provincial Lady and a very thoughtful gift from Simon, a beautiful journal that will come in very handy, gift wrapped no less!  This man's domestic skills impress me no end.  He also brought Rachel and I copies of As It Was by Helen Thomas which I've already browsed and look forward to reading very much.  The copy of Ex Libris is from my next meet-up with Simon but more about that later. 
Mary, with her finger on the pulse of all sorts of things happening in London, told us about a tour being presented as part of Open House weekend.  So we hopped on a bus to Fitzrovia where we came upon a large group listening to the fellow pictured above.  The poor man's voice was giving out on him despite several of us offering him lozenges and chewing gum, a loud speaker would have come in awfully handy.  And then something bizarre happened.  What we thought was a New Orleans-style funeral cortege with full band approaching Tavistock Square from down the street was actually the culmination of this art project.
Deciding to move along from the crowd we wandered around Bloomsbury, said hello to a closed Persephone shop and then Mary made another wise suggestion to seek out more tea and cake.  Much to my glee we ended up at another destination on my London wish list, Bea's of Bloomsbury!

There wasn't a spare table to be had so with treats in hand we plunked ourselves down on some steps nearby to enjoy our tea.   In fact, Simon pointed out we were just down the street from where Vera Brittain lived with Winifred Holtby (it never ends!).  After more cosy conversation we ended up going our separate ways.  It may sound silly but from that moment London felt a little less like somewhere I like to soak up culture and more like a home away from home.  Rachel really is the package with her clever mind, hilarious wit and brazen attitude (don't even ask), Mary is a woman I would love to share more cups of tea with.  Being closer in age to me there is all sorts of things to talk about such as our shared indifference towards cells phones that a younger generation would gasp at.  And then there is Simon who is the reason I have a bookcase full of twentieth-century English literature in my living room.  He is incredibly warm, probably the sweetest man next to my husband and loves to laugh as much as I do!  It was a very special day that I will never forget. 

All of this and watching the premier of the second series of Downton Abbey whilst tucked up in a fluffy white duvet with tea tray close at hand no less.  Tomorrow...Chawton and Coronation Chicken!