Birthday Treats

Yes, books do please. It was my birthday last week and these are some of my presents. They are:
  1. Nigel Slater – The Kitchen Diaries
  2. Michael Palin – Diaries 1969-1979 The Python Years
  3. Kate Morton – The House at Riverton
  4. Chimamanda Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun
  5. Tom McCarthy – Remainder
  6. Jed Rubenfeld – The Interpretation of Murder
  7. Maeve Binchy – Whitethorn Woods

They make a mixed bunch, some I ‘ve read about on other blogs – nos.3, 5 & 6 which I thought would be good. Ever since Kimbofu admitted to reading Maeve Binchy I’ve wondered about Whitethorn Woods, hence this choice. Half a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize for Fiction this year and is described on Amazon as “compelling”, “disturbing”, “fantastic”, “brilliant” and incredible”.

Which brings me to the diaries of Nigel Slater and Michael Palin. (Diaries and auto/biographies seem to be currently featuring high up in my reading preferences.) Nigel Slater’s cookery programmes are very entertaining and his food always looks delicious. His book is autobiographical (I’d like to read his autobiography “Toast” sometime) as well as being a recipe book. The photos were taken in “real time”; Nigel writes “After I have cooked each meal and it has been photographed, we sit down and eat it while it is still hot. Then I wash up.” That’s what I like – it’s real stuff. I’ll certainly be trying out his recipes.

And now for something completely different – via Michael Palin, a great entertainer and long-time favourite. I started to read this book as soon as I opened it and it had me laughing straight away with his description of how he gave up smoking and started to write a diary to keep his “newly liberated fingers occupied”.

John Cleese decribes Michael as “the worst man in the world to take on a commando raid. You might as well take a large radiogram with the volume turned up. On and on, hour after hour, tiring the sun with talking and sending him down the sky, Michael chats, quips, fantasises, reminisces, commiserates, encourages, plans, discusses and elaborates. Then, some nights, when everyone else has gone to bed, he goes home and writes up a diary.”

Of course, the enjoyment of this for me is not just the details of how Monty Python came into being, but also this is about life in the 1970s – the index shows the broad range covered from literature, films, theatre, TV and radio programmes through to the electricity power-cuts and the three-day week, politics and politicians, cricket, football, and a Yeti expedition; and not forgetting information about family, friends and colleagues. This should keep me quiet for a while. On second thoughts it won’t – as I’ll be reading bits of it out loud so D can enjoy it – he’s an even bigger Python fan than I am and he’s also started to read this. No doubt I’ll be treated to his versions of the Argument and the Dead Parrot sketches etc, etc.

To round off my birthday D treated me to a sumptuous meal at Hartwell House. The House is beautiful, with both Jacobean and Georgian features. It has spacious rooms, with decorative ceilings and panelling, paintings and antique furniture. Its most famous resident was Louis XVIII, the exiled King of France who lived there from 1809 to 1814. Our meals were delicious, my pudding was outstanding – passionfruit souffle, with dark chocolate sauce and orange carpaccio and orange sorbet , undoubtedly the best pudding ever.

Bat Rescue

This is the usual view of a bat flying – in the dark, but I was surprised yesterday afternoon to see a little bat flying in the garden in bright sunshine. It swooped down over the back fence and flew to the flowering cherry tree in the middle of the lawn, where it flopped down to the ground at the base of the tree. Before I could get there Lucy, our cat, was there like lightning, most interested in the little bat. I called her off, but the bat seemed to be stuck at the bottom of the tree, with its wings spread out wide. We tried to move it gently away from the tree and it flapped its wings feebly and then folded them around its body and crawled slowly along the grass.

Unsure of the best thing to do, we decided to take it to St Tiggywinkles the local Wildlife Hospital. They identified it as a “teenage” Pipistrelle and thanked us for bringing it in. They thought that it would be ok. They will release back in our area as soon as they are sure. Bats are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits anybody catching them or disturbing their roost. However, it does allow for the handling of bats that are injured or obviously in difficulty, especially those clinging to walls away from a normal roost site, although they must be released as soon as they are fit.

July’s Books

I’ve given all the books I finished reading in July a five star rating and have thoroughly enjoyed all of them, for different reasons. I’ve already mentioned Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin and Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, both excellent books.

I also briefly referred to Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, which he based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote. This book won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. It is the story of Lyman Ward, a wheelchair bound retired historian who is writing his grandparents’ life history and also gradually reveals his own story. It’s a long book, but completely enthralling.

I now know much more about the early days of the opening up of America’s western frontier than I learnt from TV cowbow series and films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid etc. The story is of Oliver Ward’s struggles with various mining and engineering construction jobs, contrasted with Susan Ward’s efforts to support him against great difficulties. This is made more difficult when she compares her life with that of her New York society friend, Augusta.

There are long letters from Susan to her friends which I think are taken directly from Mary Foote’s own letters and these are such descriptive letters that I could imagine what life was really like at that time and place. My only criticism is that I felt the ending came too quickly and was too compacted. I wanted to know more about Susan and Oliver. It was as though Lyman became too disappointed with how their life turned out, or maybe it was because he was too engrossed in his own problems, his illness and difficulties in his personal life. Ted suggested I’d also like Crossing to Safety, so that’s also on my to be read list now.

I interrupted my reading of The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman and Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk to concentrate on reading JK Rowling’s final (?) book of the series – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I finished all three last week whilst staying at Twilles Barn.

What can I say about Harry Potter? A N Wilson says it so much better here than I can. I’ll only add that I was glad not to find one single Quidditch match and I thought the ending was well worth waiting for. I particularly liked the section near the end when Harry was talking to Dumbledore.

After the Rain the Sun

D and I drove to Woolhope, near Hereford last Sunday. The weather was fine, with blue sky and fluffy clouds, a welcome change after all the rain that had drenched England in the last few weeks. There had been floods in Gloucester, which was on our route to Woolhope, but when we got there the roads were clear. I was reminded of the poem I used to recite as a child, beginning ‘Glad that I live am I’ and the lines:

After the sun the rain
After the rain the sun
This is the way of life
Til the work be done

We arrived at Twilles Barn in bright sunshine and it looked beautiful, in an idyllic setting, next to apple orchards, overlooking the Herefordshire countryside.

The word ‘˜hope’™ in Woodhope, Fownhope and Sollers Hope, all villages in the locality, means a small, enclosed blind valley. The Barn just outside the village of Woolhope is surrounded by hills in just such a valley, lying at the end of a gravelled driveway, beyond a gate flanked by pillars topped with two stone carved creatures.


The garden is large, with lawns sloping down to the building, a timber framed brick barn conversion, with a modern conservatory on the side and a crazy paving patio bounded by a small brick wall. The patio was the perfect place to sit and read, sipping a glass of wine. The apple orchards to the side and front are also the home of numerous sheep, all noisily calling to each other as they forage among the grass, constantly trotting or ambling around the apple trees.

Birds flock to the bird feeder in the centre of the side lawn, with the greater spotted woodpecker having precedence over the other birds. One morning I walked into the conservatory and was surprised by the sight of a female pheasant preening on the patio wall with the male strutting proudly around the tree behind her.

The weather was perfect – all week it was hot and sunny, just like summers used to be. On Monday we went to Hereford, on the banks of the River Wye. It has been a cathedral city since about 700AD. We had lunch in the Cloister Cafe, in the Cathedral.

The Cathedral was built over the centuries, and contains examples of architecture dating from Norman times. There are massive Norman pillars dividing the 12th century nave from the 14th century north and south aisles. The stone and marble tomb of Thomas Cantilupe, who was the Bishop of Hereford and Chancellor of England, canonised in 1320 is one of the best preserved medieval shrines in England, according to the description in the Cathedral guide.

The most interesting part of the Cathedral for me is the medieval Mappa Mundi and the Cathedral’™s Chained Library. The Souvenir Guide states “the map can be dated to the late 1280s, certainly after 1283 when work began on the building of the castle of Caernarfon, which appears on the map.” I am fascinated by the thought that this map has survived all these centuries since then.

It is drawn on a single sheet of parchment, 5ft 2in high and 4ft 4in wide, depicting the world within a large circle, with Jerusalem at its centre, illustrated outside the circlewith scenes of Christ sat in judgement and pictures of Biblical events.
Later in the afternoon we went for short walk from the Barn down a little lane, with grass growing in the middle, to Alford’™s Mill. In the evening we went to the Butchers Arms just outside the village and had a very good meal. The pub dates from the 14th century and was originally a butcher’™s shop and beer house, until 1881, when it was licensed as a public house. It is a beautiful black and white timber framed building, with more modern extensions. It has low beamed ceilings and a small welcoming bar.

Best moustache-twirling

Booking Through Thursday

Well, after last week’s record-breaking number of responses (92 last time I checked – an all-time BTT record), I was tempted to use this week’s question to ask what you all thought about Harry Potter 7 – but since a decent proportion of you weren”t going to be reading it at all, that seemed unfair. So instead . . .

Who’s the worst fictional villain you can think of? As in, the one you hate the most, find the most evil, are happiest to see defeated? Not the cardboard, two-dimensional variety, but the most deliciously-written, most entertaining, best villain? Not necessarily the most ‘evil,’ so much as the best-conceived on the part of the author – oh, you know what I mean!

This is a difficult one to answer – there are so many candidates. A currently topical one is Voldemort. Then there are Dracula (Bram Stoker), Mr Hyde (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Richard the Third (Shakespeare), Sauron (Lord of the Rings), Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) and Jack Torrance (The Shining).

Of these I think the most evil, the one I’d be happiest to see defeated it would have to be Hannibal Lecter, with Jack Torrance running a close second – or even a dead heat. I haven’t actually read Silence of the Lambs, but Anthony Hopkins was at his most chilling as Hannibal. I have read The Shining and found Jack to be a scary, evil character but that was nothing to Jack Nicholson’s performance in the film – even though I knew the story it really shocked me.

The most deliciously-written, most entertaining, best villain is probably Richard the Third – I think this is because of the RSC performance I saw at Stratford with Henry Goodman as Richard. He was the most believable hunchback and brought Shakespeare’s words to life.

Not necessarily the most ‘evil, so much as the best-conceived on the part of the author is again Richard the Third. Richard is a fascinating character and opinion is divided on whether he did really kill his nephews. Two books on this subject are The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a novel in which Grant, a policeman in hospital exercises his mind in reviewing the evidence; and The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir in which she studied the contemporary accounts as well as modern works and eventually concluded that Richard did murder the two princes.

Lancashire Landscape

Last weekend we went to stay with friends in Helmshore, Lancashire, just north of where we all grew up together in Cheshire. It was a long time since we’d got together, so there was a lot to catch up on. Lancashire is not just large industrial cities but also has some beautiful countryside, as these photos show.

The weather was fine last Saturday afternoon when we took Silka for a walk around Calf Hey Reservoir, one of several reservoirs near Helmshore, in the West Pennine Moors.

Moorland is now Open Access Land thanks to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, meaning you can walk anywhere, but we stuck to the footpaths.

From here we could see Ogden Reservoir on the right of Calf Hey.
Calf Hey Reservoir was constructed in 1854, flooding what was previously farmland. The remains of several buildings, dating from the 17th century are still there next to the reservoir. There were originally a number of cottages and a substantial house. By the 18th and 19th centuries the cottages were used for handloom weaving, which were gradually superseded by the powerlooms of Calf Hey Mill. The Bury and Radcliffe Waterworks Company, who owned the land, terminated the leases on the cottages and farms to prevent contamiantion of the water supply and the Mill closed. With no employment this led to the abandment of the village and farms between 1890 and 1920.

Sunday morning was also fine and sunny and we did a circular walk from our friends’ house, walking alongside a stream for most of the way, then through the little village of Irwell Vale and back home.

The white blobs on the trees in the middle of the photo below are actually herons (we forgot to take the zoom lens).

It rained in the afternoon when we visited Clitheroe and Waddow Hall, where my friend and I had first camped with the Girl Guides when we were 11.

It hadn’t changed much!

This is the weir at Waddow, still looking just as I remembered it.

On the way back we drove past Pendle Hill shrouded in mist, which reminded me of Robert Neill’s Mist Over Pendle, a story of witchcraft in the 17th century. I found my copy when I came back home. “If a hill could have an indwelling Spirit, then surely this had one – and it might not be the friendliest of Spirits.There was some brooding quality about this hill, as though it were sentient and knew more than it chose to tell. … This hill seemed different from other hills, as though it possessed something – or even, perhaps, as though something possessed it.”

In the mist and rain last Sunday I could imagine how the hill drew people’s imagination. The weather was too bad to take a photo, but this is from Wikipedia, showing the hill on a fine day.